Harmony with Horses: Equestrian Driver’s Ed

By Mary Brigham

The author and Scattergun at the Tanque Verde Ranch in Arizona
The author and Scattergun at the Tanque Verde Ranch in Arizona

“Joining Up” with a Horse

I am alone in a round pen, intentionally scaring a horse that could kill me.

I wave a wand that has a plastic bag tied to the end of it. This strange, snapping object scares the horse, making him trot nervously around the edges of the pen.

Tom Chambers, a ‘Horse Listener’ is standing outside the pen, coaching me.

“Keep your eye on his rear flank,” he says. “Don’t look him in the eye. That tells him that you want him to go away. Okay, he’s getting tired. He’s licking his lips, That’s ‘baby talk’ for a horse. He wants you to take care of him and make the scary bag go away. When you want him to stop running, just say ‘Stop!’ in your brain.”

Yeah, right. The horse is a mind-reader?

“Stop,” I think, and the horse does. Wow.

“Okay,” Tom says softly, “Put the bag down, step away from it, turn sideways to the horse and hold out your hand. Keep looking straight ahead.”

“He’s thinking about it,” Tom says. Suddenly, I feel the horse’s velvety muzzle in my hand. An inexplicable warmth spreads through me. My horse has decided to ‘join up’ with me. I turn and praise the horse, petting his ‘bonding spot’. No longer needing protection from him, I am now his protector.

Joining Up

“Start walking away,” Tom instructs. I turn, and the horse follows me. With no bridle or lead on, it’s entirely his choice. This is amazing!

Understanding Flight Animals

I am at Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, in a week-long program called “Harmony with Horses.”

I like horses, but I’m also scared of them. They’re so huge! They have Big Teeth and they can kick. I want to get over my fears, but I need help.

Saddling Scattergun
Saddling Scattergun

Tom Chambers, a cowboy who also writes songs and poetry, has spent his life working with horses. Long ago, he figured out just from watching them that horses have their own non-verbal language. He says that by learning that language, we can better communicate with them.

“Horses have only one thing on their minds,” Tom says. “How can I keep on eating without getting eaten?”

They run in packs for safety. One horse becomes the dominant leader. That way, when a mountain lion tries to sneak up on the herd, they know which horse to turn to for safety. In ‘joining up,” we become the dominant horse.

Equestrian Driver’s Ed

The next morning, our assignment is to go into the dusty, poop-strewn corral and ‘catch’ our horse, then put the lead on him. There are cows (some with horns!) in there too.

I can see myself chasing my noble steed for hours. Heart pounding, I walk up alongside him and massage his secret spot, talking softly to him. But when I say, “Let’s go, bud, it’s time to play,” he walks away from me. Uh, oh. It could be a long morning.

82-year-old Zosima tries riding horses. "Faster than the water buffalo I rode in the Phillipines in my youth!" she said.
82-year-old Zosima tries riding horses. “Faster than the water buffalo I rode in the Phillipines in my youth!” she said.

Scattergun walks calmly to the gate and waits for me. Wow! It’s working! I fumble a bit but get the lead on, and take him to a hitching post where we learn to tie a ‘hitching post’ knot.

Currying is next. Dust flies off Scattergun’s back. In short order we learn the secrets to ‘mucking out’ each horse hoof and how to walk around a horse so it won’t kick us.

By this point I realize that ‘joining up’ works both ways…I am constantly patting my horse, inhaling his warm, comforting smell, and shooing flies away from his eyes.

As Tom continues his talk, my huge dapple gray companion is leaning gently against me, dozing quietly. Who knew having a 1200-pound horse leaning on you could feel so good?

Blanket, saddle, and cinching follow. Scattergun is great while in ‘park’. Now I just have to learn how to ‘drive’ him.

The author and Zosima work on team penning.
The author and Zosima work on team penning.

A row of orange cones march soldier-straight across the huge arena. We have to weave our horses between the cones. My horse makes huge arcs.

“You’re over-steering!”Tom laughs. It IS driver’s ed!

Tom describes his ‘Harmony with Horses’ program as “A lotta eatin’ interspersed with moments of terror.” He isn’t kidding, because next, he forbids me to touch the saddle horn, and then I have to trot with my feet out of the stirrups! It’s a terrifying moment, all right, but soon I find my center of balance, as Tom intended.

Team Penning

On the third day, a group of cows is brought into the corral. Each cow has a tag with a number on it. We work in teams of three, to ‘cut’ a certain number of cows out of the group and get them into a pen on the other side of the corral. This isn’t as easy as you might think, because cows, like middle-school girls, want to stay in their own tight little group.

“I find that people learn to ride much better when they have something to do,” Tom explains.

Git along, little doggies!
Git along, little doggies!

The horses like team penning. “They feel higher in the herd when they can lord it over the cows,” Tom says. After he tells us which ones to cut, we’re off. We sail right into the menacing thicket of horns, find the right cows, and steer them  across the arena. The team with the fastest penning time wins.

A Lotta Eatin’

We love our horses, but it is a relief to finally dismount and head for the dining room. Dude ranches have always fed their guests well, but this is over the top. Hot and cold buffets beckon (yes, you can even have carved round of roast beef for lunch!), along with numerous salads and at least thirty desserts.

Dinner is even better. Each night, the chef offers five different entrees, such as roasted bison strip loin in a merlot reduction; Chilean sea bass en croute, and prime rib. A couple nights each week, a BBQ is held in the nearby Cottonwood Grove, complete with a campfire and cowboy singing.

Steak with a blackberry-tequila sauce, yum!
Steak with a blackberry-tequila sauce, yum!

Fortunately, the Sonora spa at Tanque Verde provides relief from unaccustomed time in the saddle. One afternoon I found myself in the capable hands of therapist Mark Gruskin, who uses Shiatasu, Thai, Chinese and Swedish techniques in the ‘End of the Trail’ massage. He soothes my muscles and gets my bones back in place after all the trotting.

“Women of the West” is the “Harmony” program for women only. In addition to the regular program, women of the west get Dom Perignon, chocolates, and an included spa treatment.

This has to be the ultimate chick trip. I met three women who did Women of the West several years back and bonded so closely they now come to the ranch each year… and one of them lives in England.

After a week of warm sunshine, great food, and the gentle tutelage of Tom and Scattergun, I feel much more comfortable around horses.

I loved team penning so much that Tom nicknamed me “Rawhide”. At the BBQ on the last night, he sang the traditional round-up song, with an addition:

Now, I realize that most people don’t go on cattle drives every day, so Mary, this song is dedicated to you!

Roll ‘em, roll ‘em, roll ‘em, my buns are chafed and swollen, but still I keep on rollin’, Rawhide!

I thought my skin was tougher, but now I sit and suffer. I guess that’s why they call it Rawhide!”

I can’t wait to go back.

Harmony with Horses programs are offered once a month (except in April) in 2009. For more information, see:

Tanque Verde Ranch

Harmony with Horses Program 2009

The “Women of the West” is the Harmony with Horses program for women only, with chocolates and massages part of the package.

Mary Brigham and Scattergun

Mary Brigham enjoys scaring herself, whether it is teaching in Belize, sea kayaking among the ‘bergie bits and growlers’ of Alaska, or hiking Northern New Mexico. Her photos and adventures have appeared in Healing Lifestyles & Spas, the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Caribbean Travel & Life and many other publications.


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