By Stacy Sullivan
In many ways, I am your typical Adult Amateur dressage rider on a budget. I’m not Ms. Champion, but I’m competent, sort of savvy, have come to THAT age, and I buy my horses as babies so I can afford one as nice as possible to train my way with, of course, the help of my trainers. At the moment, I own two Zweibrucker geldings from Rivervale Farm in South Dakota. Besides my family, they are the joy of my life.
The thing that makes my story just a little different is that I live in Montana on a bison ranch. Our bison are only domesticated in the sense that our entire property is fenced really high and really (electrically) well.
A day in my dressage training is often just a little different than that of my friends. I’ll give an example: One day this early spring, I was riding my older gelding, RF Latten, outside, which is the Montana way of saying “not in the arena.” When I ride outside, I have to be careful that the bison are bedded down somewhere far from the gate where I enter our pastures. On this particular day, I saw the bison resting quietly, cooperating nicely with me so I could have a little hack. Latten and I headed up the hill, not a care in the world on a beautiful Montana spring day. I don’t know what made me turn around and look – perhaps it was Latten’s ear flicking or a tensing in his back, but as I turned around, I saw the entire herd of over 100 bison galloping (or, rather, bounding and hopping) towards me. Needless to say, I did not have time to think. It was just, “C’mon, Latten, let’s GO!” Off we galloped up the hill, all the buffalo in full pursuit.
Now, I might add that Latten is not a fearless creature. My daughter nicknamed him Princess Latten due to his tendency to be a bit like The Princess and the Pea. “Too much, Mom, not enough, Mom, that itches, Mom, not today, Mom…” etc., etc. His MO when frightened is a BIG buck, where he becomes a headless, neckless, stiff-as-a-board, bawling pony (although he is every bit of 16 hands). As I was galloping up over hill and trotting down over dale, all I could think of was, gee, I might die today. What do they say about dying with your boots on again?
As I came down one hill, all of a sudden, I noticed the herd had split – now I had half the herd behind me and the OTHER half, clever little buffies, were coming toward me, all still at a full bound. There I was, sitting on Princess Latten, yelling, “YAAH, YAAH,” waving my arms at the oncoming buffalo. Did I tell you we have some pretty big bulls? Yes, well, we do. They don’t like horses. I was quite surprised with My Highness Latten, as he was so brave, stopping, turning, going forward, coming back, and I don’t even have any idea if my core was engaged or not. I guess my high-pitched YAAH’ing is pretty scary to anyone, as finally the bison all went running away from me rather than behind or towards me, so Latten and I hightailed it up the back hill, galloped to our neighbors’ gate (dang, those barbed wire gates are a pain when you’re in a big hurry) and got safely inside our neighbors’ property.
I jumped off Latten and hugged the daylights out of him. Princess Latten literally saved the day and saved my life. I guess all those half halts and forward and back transitions really DO work!
Most of my riding days really aren’t like that, and it took a couple months before I’d ride out with the buffalo again, hauling to my trailheads instead, but I felt that was the true test of dressage. No fancy half passes or passage (okay, maybe a little passage when he was really scared, but I don’t think he was on the bit), but I was so proud of my horse. Dressage simply means training; right? I am now starting the search for another horse, as Latten may be retiring soon due to an injury. He or she will have big horseshoes to fill.