When I wrote this column for the Illinois Horse Network in 2011 (under the heading, Sometimes God Uses Horses), I borrowed Jane Savoie’s book title, because that’s exactly how I felt after finishing my first ACTHA ride. That ride meant a lot to me because of what happened to Lady, my headstrong Tennessee walker mare.
ACTHA stands for the American Competitive Trail Horse Association. Their Competitive Trail Challenges involved six-mile rides with six obstacles, each one rated by a judge. Specific obstacles were not revealed until the pre-ride meeting, but the ACTHA website listed the possibilities. I looked them over and decided that Lady needed to learn to drag something in case that was on the agenda.
Training a new skill
Whenever you teach a horse something new, it’s best to break it down into small steps. I started out by simply walking beside her, dragging a rope. Then I fastened a hunk of wood to the rope, then a few other things, and later I walked beside her while dragging a noisy empty muck bucket. After she was accepting various things following her on the ground, I started dragging things from the saddle. I was amazed at how quickly she learned this new skill!
It was a beautiful Saturday at Triangle H Farm, cool and windy, with highs in the low 70’s. I took two horses. My friend Dawn rode Rocky, my Spotted Saddle Horse, and I rode Lady. Riders went out in groups accompanied by safety riders, riding about a mile between each obstacle, over fields and through woods.
And yes, in tune with a fall theme, one of the ride obstacles was dragging a SCARECROW.
The drag obstacle I didn’t expect
The dragging obstacle was third on the schedule. We were asked to approach a scarecrow lying on the ground, tied to a rope with the other end coiled on top of the first barrel. Lady looked without backing off. I took the rope from the barrel and asked Lady to go forward, from the first barrel to the second. And then I realized I had to pull the scarecrow closer to gather up the rope end to leave it coiled on top of the second barrel.
Lady stood still as the scarecrow crept closer. With great relief, I completed the obstacle in 35 seconds with a one-minute time limit. The judge gave both Lady and I a perfect 10.
In any competition, know the rules
A later obstacle involved a large blue tarp held down with a dozen big orange pumpkins.
Lady has no problem with tarps, but the edges were being blown by the wind and the center was billowing up around the pumpkins. Lady looked down and cautiously stepped onto the edge of the tarp. She walked carefully around the pumpkins as the tarp billowed up around her ankles. I was very proud.
I expected another 10 points, but the judge gave each of us an 8. What did we do wrong, I wondered? The judge’s comment read, “two hands with curb bit.” Was I supposed to ride with one hand? I had always ridden with two hands in gaited horse shows, with the same long-shanked bit. Lady did good, but my ignorance of the rules was the problem.
Winning a prize isn’t everything
Lady’s total score was 50 out of 60 and mine was 51. I think we always hope to win when we compete, even though we don’t let on—right? But even if Lady and I didn’t win any prizes, by the end of the day I was so proud of her I didn’t care.
I was used to her headstrong side, her quick reactions and the problems of loading and unloading from a trailer. But that Saturday, she seemed to think first about everything she was asked to do, and she stayed calm and willing.
A day of transformation
After the ride, I decided to try riding Lady through the noodles. Anyone who has attended Triangle H events is familiar with the tall frame dangling a row of colorful plastic tubes. The wind that day was blowing them to one side at a 45-degree angle.
I let Lady look as we walked around at a safe distance, and then turned in toward them. She slowly walked to where she could touch them with her nose. I was ready for her to jump back, but she stood there just touching and looking. I asked her to walk on through, and she did. I was amazed.
Arriving back at the barn, I unloaded Lady first. She had always rushed back out in spite of my efforts. But I had been working on something at home before this event, asking her to back up one step at a time on the ground and also from the saddle. I unfastened the rump bar and asked her to back up one step. As she did, I put my hand on her rump and said whoa and she stopped.
After a moment, I pulled slightly on her tail and asked her to back one step. And again, she did! I put my hand on her rump again, saying whoa. She stopped. This was the first time she had not rushed back out. It was hard to believe this was my same Lady.
Training can make the difference
The whole day had been amazing—the scarecrow, the blowing tarp, the noodles and the unloading. I was reminded of something Clinton Anderson said about teaching a horse to use the thinking side of the brain instead of the reactive side. Had my pre-ride training done that? She seemed to have more confidence in herself and in my leadership. At the end of the day, scores didn’t matter; I was over-the-moon happy in spite of losing a few points.
Whatever the discipline, there must be criteria by which participants are judged. We learn to go by the rules in order to win. I may think I am doing good, but Someone greater than me established the principles of His Kingdom. To give everyone equal opportunity, He welcomes anyone with simple childlike faith, and He rewards those who seek Him.
Ephesians 2:8 declares, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” No matter who we are, He offers a new beginning as a member of His family. Whoever believes, may come in.