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Women & Horses by Mary D. Midkiff - horseback riding fitness techniques for women

Women & Horses, knowledge for the female equestrian; female equestrian fitness training and riding tips

Questions of the Month


Dear Mary, Hi. I've just been through your website and thoroughly enjoyed the content, because it relates to experiences Iíve had with horses in my time of riding/groundwork. If its OK with you I'd like to tell you about it.

It started out when I was in my senior years at high school when my best friend took me to her Nan's Arabian stud to ride for the first time (well, ride without being led). I rode a sweet old flea-bitten grey straight Egyptian mare named Raider. After that, I looked high and low to get casual work at Arabian studs, as I was hooked! I knew nothing about horses at that stage, but somehow, riding came naturally to me. A year later I got School Based Work Experience with an Arabian stud an hour and a half from where I was living at the time, where I had learnt a lot, but it was a conventional "whips and kicks" style I was learning. In that time, I got to handle a Stallion for the first time (Ralvon Shamark- Ralvon Mark x Mill Hill Sharmal). 3 different horses ridden later, After my work experience, I went on to ride a 3/4 Egyptian, 1/4 Crabbet Arabian (also a grey) 5 y.o. mare named Evita. She was just amazing for a green mare, she was always tolerant of my heavy hands until one afternoon in November 2001. My confidence had turned to cockiness, and Evita was suffering because of it, so she had thrown me off because of my arrogance towards her feelings. It left me with a fractured pelvis, and I was so angry at myself for 2 1/2 years because I had realized my mistake, and promised myself to never ride another horse until I changed my ways. I had ridden a Chestnut Anglo Gelding belonging to my neighbors in that time, who (the horse) had really looked after me on every ride we went on. It was also the first time I ever rode bit less, which I liked, as the horse was far more comfortable. There was one instance where we had ridden for 2 hours straight, and my neighbors didn't bring their own water, so they took mine. It was 35 degrees Celsius, and I almost fainted in the saddle because of the heat. So I dismounted and walked up the road, with Tequila (the horse) in hand, while my neighbors had cantered up the road to the RDA (Riding for the Disabled) centre to fetch more water. I had allowed tequila enough lead to nibble at grass as we walked, but he was far more concerned over me! He walked right at my shoulder, and if I slowed down, he would gently nuzzle me along from behind. I will never forget him for that.

That was when I first heard of Monty Roberts and Natural Horsemanship. So, I read up on it, and started to study the horse's behavior, to gain a better understanding of these magnificent beings. So, when I moved to Gympie, QLD Australia, I got back in touch with the people I did my school based work experience through, and got to do more groundwork, which was when I met the most amazing fillies (I called them the 3 Stooges, they were funny to watch) I have ever seen. They were Agape (pronounced ar-gar-pey) King's Lee-Elle (Bay, Ralvon Shamark x Sabtah Abijah), Agape Graciella (Bay, she was and still is my all time favorite), and Agape Evesra (Flaxen mane Chestnut, Such a sweetheart). They taught me the Equine body language, which I then and still do use when communicating with horses. It has all been a good experience for me in the end; I am a far kinder and more responsible rider.

Last horse I rode was this absolutely personality plus Anglo-Quarter horse cross bay gelding (standing at 17hh plus) named Spinifex. He was great. He was all lively when we went to catch him, but settled down as soon as he saw me approaching him to mount. It's been a slow process getting back to my old confidence level, but I am confident (but not cocky) handling horses from the ground, I have started to try to decipher horse vocalizations (thoroughbreds are good for that) and I have a job interview for a racing stable tomorrow, which is the start of a new chapter in my life as a horsewoman. I have also learnt to see horses as friends instead of servants.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, as it's the first time Iíve ever spoken about it in this much detail.



Dear Stacy: The chestnut gelding you refer to sounds very familiar to me. I have met horses like him before. Not sure what has caused his anger, but that's what it is; pure anger inside. He could have been locked up for a long time, he could have been beaten, he could have been over faced in his training and pushed over the edge emotionally, he could be highly claustrophobic, he could have been deeply scared, he could be in pain. Unless someone stops to find out, any one or all of the above could cause a horse to decide not to play anymore with humans, and as you said, hold resentment toward them.

Do you remember the book and movie "The Horse Whisperer"? The horse was scared so badly and injured so deeply in everyway that he decided against ever being with humans again. It took a long time and the right person to bring the horse back to manageability again.

I assume when he is in his stall is when he is displaying this snake-like lunging and bared teeth kind of behavior? Does he go out to pasture everyday? Is he angry and dangerous there too? Does he get worked or exercised at all and if so what is his routine? What does he get fed and how often?

Who owns the horse? What breed and age is he? Is he dangerous to them also or just to strangers? Is there anyone that he is quiet for? Will you be grooming him, preparing him for riding and mucking his stall everyday?

I need to know a lot more to give you the right way to approach this horse and how to gain his trust. I look forward to hearing from you. Again, with your permission I would like to publish your letter and my responses on my website.



Dear Mary, I've seen the Horse Whisperer a few times.

He is a 4-5 y.o. (I haven't been close enough to get a good look at his brand) Thoroughbred racehorse, and worked once a day on the track in the morning, this morning was just a trot in the "bullring" (even then not many jockeys are game enough to ride him). He doesn't go out to pasture, being a race stable in town. He is fed the regular Australian racehorse diet (i'm not sure of what American racehorses would be fed)- plenty of grains & chaff (I peeked in the buckets and saw oats, corn, longish grain, and countless other grains), I am unsure of how many times a day he is fed the grain (at the other race stable I worked at the horses had a nicely balanced diet of grain, chaff and hay, and they loved seeing me walking towards them with it!) mixture.

The difference between him and the horses at the last stable I worked at is that the horses at the last stable were walked around the block and allowed to roll around in the sand roll every afternoon unless they were racing, which led to a stable of slightly sandy rugs, but some very satisfied horses, as well as being allowed to have a small graze. I do see a few trainers lead their horses out one by one to graze of an afternoon. So even if they were fed up on grains, they were still fairly calm and easy to handle.

I'm not sure who actually owns him, the guy I work for is only a trainer, and as far as i've seen, the owner's don't come to visit him very often (If I owned a racehorse, and had him/her at a stable, i'd visit him/her every day before starting my day at work, then come back of an afternoon to spend some quality time with him/her). My gut feeling is they don't like him much.

He is aggressive towards everyone, and he actually tried to kick out at me this morning (he was tied, and I was 8 ft behind him luckily) with both rear feet. as soon as you enter his box he pins his ears back and bares his teeth. He gave me a warning buck & kick when I stood at the gate, to psyche me out. No one can enter his box alone. Even with the trainer and jockey saddling him up for work, I never turned my back to him once until he left the box. The box is roughly 10 ft by 20 ft, (you could have two of me lying down across the width, and i'm only 5 ft 4.) or probably even bigger. All I know is that it's big enough to tie him up , have three people in there, and have alot of room left to move. As far as i've seen no one can quieten him down. And, I will be only mucking out for him at the moment, I voiced my concerns over my safety with this horse, and the trainer saw my point. My friend's stallion (back to Shamark) was similar, only he was too lazy to kick, and I could handle him because I have known him since he was a 3 y.o.

(he's now rising 7), and he only does it to bluff. But this gelding means business. The rest i'm fine with, they're just simply amazing. They have a harmless 'mouthing' on my jacket and pants, and stand in the way of where i'm mucking out!

No amount of working with Arabians in a natural horsemanship way has prepared me for a case such as this. I at least want him to trust me enough to muck out his stall without him kicking out. I really want to try and help him, because it upsets me to see him like this. For the first time, I was actually scared of a horse this morning. But if I could just get him not to pin his ears back when I enter his stall, it would be a start.

I really appreciate any help you can give me, because if I can actually get through to him, and develop a mutual trust, it just may prevent a life threatening situation.

And yes, you may put my letters + your responses on your site.

Thank you in advance,



Dear Mary,

I did my first day of my trial week at the stable, and it's well worth it, as I have already started bonding with a young grey mare. She slowed my work down a bit as I just wanted to get the mucking out over and done with, and even though she was tied up, she wanted to stay close to me! I'm yet to know her name, but I guess it'll come as I get to know her. I can see it as being a rewarding friendship. I've pretty much been accepted by all of the horses at the stable but one. He's this big chestnut gelding, and he has a problem with everyone. The stall had already been mucked out for me before I got there, so I don't have to get in the stall with him. He holds a deep down resentment towards people, which is unusual for that stable, because all of the other horses are very content with their lives, and absolutely all of them are treated very well. So whether he was treated badly by a previous owner/trainer is the main thing.

I want to try to get through to him, like I can get through to the others, but he just blocks himself off. I have seen other horses who are clearly treated badly behave this way before. If I get a bit of spare time Iíll try to "talk" (you get what I mean) with him from the other side of the gate if he doesn't try to rip my head off.

So if you have any ideas on how I can approach him without being intimidating (try as I might, there must be more to it than what Iíve tried in the past), let me know!

Regards, Stacy


Dear Stacy: Thanks for your letters, your concerns about this Thoroughbred racehorse and your follow up.

From what you have described, this horse is very damaged. His nervous system has been so overwhelmed he has become dangerous and vicious (He is living in a severe defensive mode); he's become neurotic, frustrated, very angry and has lost trust in people. He is a rescue case or he will seriously hurt someone or himself very soon. He has no sense of his body or his feet and his emotions are over reactive to any type of human contact. At this point no one can hold the horse responsible for anything that he does. Humans will be in harm's way when they are in his space. Since you are not his owner or trainer there is little you can do but suggest a change for him. You certainly can go talk to him and tell him you understand what has happened to him. You could also put some calming aromatherapy oil on a rag and leave it near his stall until one day he might let you rub some oil on his muzzle. Or you could smear some oil on his stall door or on the top of his webbing. I would put some oil on your hands as well and hold your hands out to him to smell. Only touch him if he invites it. Otherwise back off once he has a whiff of you.

You are welcome to share this response with anyone you like and I would be glad to talk with his owner or trainer if they are open to helping the horse recover.

Unfortunately, many of these racehorses are in a make it or break it situation. If they don't earn their keep by winning races, they are sold or claimed to run in cheaper and cheaper races until no one wants them. They are either given away, sold to the meat market or sold very cheap to an unsuspecting person looking for a nice riding horse. If they are lucky, sometimes an honest trainer will come to the track for unwanted racehorses and give them a useful life as a riding horse.

In rare instances these individuals, like the one you are describing, are beyond help because their issues have been ignored or passed along to others so many times. Their wiring (nervous system) is simply fried. However, many of these horses can be rescued, rehabilitated and become very useful performance athletes. I hope this horse is given a chance.

First of all the horse needs to be removed from his current environment. He may be claustrophobic about being in a stall all the time, he probably is in pain from tightness and tension throughout his body, his jaws may be sore from grinding his teeth, he probably needs digestive help and may have ulcers from stress, his diet isn't working for him, and he obviously does not like or trust the people around him. He's lost touch with anything that makes him comfortable, content or happy.

The ideal situation for him would be on a farm where he can have daily turnout, a controlled feeding program, body work and a lot of time to let down and trust again. This may take a year to get him to the place where people can work with him in a trusting and safe way. It takes loads of patience, understanding and time for them to heal and recover.

Thoroughbreds and Arabians are the most sensitive breeds and have a fragile nervous system. They love to work and move but they need special cooperative programs to meet the pressures of racing and high level performance. If they are handled and treated properly and given a chance to perform without pain, they can be the greatest athletes and the best partners a horse person could hope for. On the other hand, if they are boxed up, overfed with loads of protein, under utilized, and injured (this does not just mean lameness, it means muscle lesions, strained or sprained ligaments and tendons, spinal misalignment, ribs out of alignment, bruised poll, sore feet and more), they will cease to cooperate.

I truly hope this horse is given a chance to survive and thrive in life. Keep me informed. Sincerely, Mary

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