The Princess and the Bison

The Bison

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. 

Stacy Sullivan and Latten

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. 

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