Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Bill Richey’s De-Spooking Clinic at Free Spirit Farms, Freehold, N.J.
After a slow trip down the NJ Turnpike with the horse trailer, my friend and I arrived at Free Spirit Farms in Freehold early Friday evening, receiving a warm welcome from owners Ken and Rosanne Vaccaro. Ken even backed the rig down the driveway, giving us the premier parking spot, next to their extremely large and lovely covered riding ring.
Parked, our truck was surrounded by horse pens, each occupant looking curiously over the fence. Across the narrow driveway our nearest neighbor, a huge white long horn steer, stared. He was probably mooing something friendly, but Joanna and I both expected the noisy bovine to unhinge our horses before we even got them off the trailer. It did not happen. Although we walked past his pen, over and over, all weekend long, the horses never glanced at the giant cow with the wide-spread, fantastically curving black and white horns.
Saturday morning, after assuring ourselves that my gelding, Olly, and Joanna’s mare, Rita, were calm and safe in their private open air corrals, we went to the barn for coffee, bagels and to meet our Bomb Proof instructor Bill Richey. Bill is a slow talking, smiling, southern ex-cop with years of mounted police experience, training horses for Mardi gras crowd control, search and rescue, parades, and just plain old keeping horses and riders safe. He has that twinkle in his eye that lets you know he will make fun of you when you whine, and laugh at you if you fall off. On the other hand if you try like hell he will do everything he can to help you and your horse go through fire, literally.
Bill gave a presentation which included the most basic of drill team commands, and then we saddled our horses and went to the ring. I have to admit, I am fussy about Olly. And Olly is fussy about his personal space when it comes to other horses, probably because I have kept him at a very small barn and ride with a very few people. So here we stand in a line with 15 strange horses. And every rider is sizing up the others.
We start our drill team work, and the jockeying for position begins. There are some stable, quiet animals, and because they are organized from the get-go they tend to be towards the front of the line. Everyone wants to be with one of them. I keep calculating my place in the drill team line, “How can I get near that horse, and what do I have to do to stay away from that other one?” Heaven forbid someone infringe on Olly’s personal space or misbehave in our vicinity. Yes, Olly was not pleased, but I did earn an approving “That’s the way to do it,” when I got after him for bucking along the rail when someone’s horse spun too close.
The next 90 minutes was spent weaving around the ring in drill formation. Columns of one, columns of two, columns of three, we wind around and twist back on ourselves linking and unlinking our columns. Soon, despite my best intentions, I have been next to every darn horse in the ring, and some of them have definitely infringed. By the time we’re done I realize my idea of Olly’s personal space has shrunk from yards to feet and if someone bangs into us, we won’t die, we just go on. It’s time for lunch, and I’m already impressed.
Fortified we begin with simple obstacles. Bill has a theory that proves correct. When presented with a new obstacle your horse may hate it, most horses may hate it, but there is a very good chance it won’t bother one animal. That horse becomes the leader for that exercise. The horse that is competent over the new obstacle goes first; a small group of horses follow him. One or two get past, they go past again, this time with less reaction. Soon there are 4 leader horses, then 8, and everyone tucks in behind one of them. Bill did say that every horse would complete every obstacle before the end of the clinic. He was right. Foam finger doorways, fringy overhangs, teeter-totters, all sorts of tarps and mats, tires strewn on the path, and (Olly’s least favorite) a big sandbox full of empty plastic bottles. At one point I was so busy going through foam doorways I did not notice someone added flashing police lights by the teeter-totter until I was face to face with them. My horse and I instantly dismissed the lights and concentrated on marching over the wet, tippy wooden bridge. Though I’d ridden for hours on Saturday I was sorry when we finished. Olly did not mind stopping. Brushed and rain-sheeted he went happily to his corral.
Sunday we worked with more extreme conditions, smoke, flares, fire, sirens and emergency vehicles. Smoke bombs, I hate smoke bombs. They whistle before they go off. When you hear that whistle you know a bang is coming, so does your horse.
We did our drill team work, and then our drill team became an emergency vehicle extraction unit. We pretended we were mounted police and needed to escort an ambulance out of a crowd. Eight horses, column of two, we approached our stranded emergency vehicle, ignoring the lights and sirens and yelling at our imaginary crowd. “Move it fella. Get away from the vehicle. Back up, Buster.” We surrounded the vehicle, and swung around head in, tail brushing back our crowd. The lead horses form a wedge in front of the vehicle, nose to nose and tails to fenders they side step up the ring with the emergency vehicle driving inside their wedge, sirens and lights going. The six other riders surround the sides and protect the rear, moving toward safety. Did Olly side-step up a ring in front of a shrieking ambulance which drove so close I felt hot air from the radiator on my leg? Yes. Do I believe it myself one day later? I hope someone took a picture and puts it on the internet.
The day was over and we gathered for the final time at the end of the ring to listen to Bill. My Olly stood in a group of horses so tight we could have comfortably exchanged handshakes, and fell asleep on his feet with me still on his back. I know this because when the horse next to us sneezed he woke up, blinking. So much for Olly’s personal space.
About an hour before this Bill came up to me and said, “He gave you a few rough moments. But that son of a bitch is a good horse.” That is probably as close as I’ll ever get to feeling like I’ve won the Kentucky Derby.
April 27, 2010