Over dinner on our first night at White Stallion Ranch, co-owner Russell True comes around and asks who will be going on the slow ride the next morning. They like all new arrivals to go on this first slow ride so they can assess your proficiency level.
We duly sign up for the first slow ride and also for lessons at 1.00. I guess Mark Bedor's promise that White Stallion Ranch will match you with the perfect horse only if you're not an absolute beginner.
If you are a greenhorn your horse needs to train you. On our ride the next morning, my horse stops to tear at creosote bushes, Jennifer's nips at the horse in front and Richard's drags his heels.
But it's wonderful to ride through the desert at 9.00am when it's still relatively cool. This first jaunt lasts about 90 minutes. When we get back our rooms are all clean and made up. Lunch is BLTs and lemonade, then off for our lesson with Virginia. The three of us are together and there's a bit of a wait because she takes us one at a time.
I have been assigned Bailey, a 21 year old bay with a white star on his forehead. He's a trooper but often sighs deeply. He knows I am a dudette. Jennifer gets an ornery sorrel called Mesquite. They have a love hate relationship: Mesquite loves to nibble horses who invade his personal space and Jennifer hates it when he does that. But she decides to stick it out and not request a new horse. Richard has a lovely gelding called Greycloud who has an almost Zenlike calm. "He's a sweetie!" I say. "He's a slug," remarks Jennifer dryly. Whichever way you want to interpret it, Richard and Greycloud look great together.
Following our lesson is an optional outdoor seminar with head wrangler Carol and the prettiest Palomino I've ever seen, a two year old gelding. Carol demonstrates Frank Bell's method of gentle training with its seven steps: 1. bonding, 2. take & give, 3. intimacy, 4. the dance begins, 5. desensitizing, 6. ballet on the ground & 7. ballet in the saddle. She demonstrates all except the last one. It is fascinating to see a real expert bond with a horse. She doesn't just blow in the Palomino's nose, she rubs his eyes, ears and even gums! I'm not sure I'm ready to rub Bailey's gums.
At 4.00pm on Mondays is something called "team penning". The three of us sit on bleachers and watch how it's done. The best team of four includes a ten-year-old boy named Tom from England who's been coming here to White Stallion Ranch for four years. He puts us all to shame.
Over the next few days it's a variation on the same format: Russell comes round charmingly while we're at dinner and puts us down for rides and/or lessons. (It's amazing the way he and all the other wranglers know the names of all the guests. When the White Stallion is full this is about 85 people!) There are other excursions that don't involve riding, like nature walks, hikes and hay rides, but the main point of coming here is to ride.
I'm still not sure how much I like riding; especially after a very slow ride up into the desert on Tuesday afternoon, for wine and cheese. After our second lesson, my bottom bones hurt and the balls of my feet are hot from "keeping my heels down". Most of the others love it, but to me it feels very tedious. (I preferred a nature walk Richard and I did that morning.) But I'll wait till lesson 3 and my first "fast ride" before I decide whether horse riding is something I could learn to love...
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