Learning From a Well-Trained Horse

 In these exercises the student is asked to vizualize a situation and then write what might happen next. I include a sample from one of my novels that speaks to the same situation. For reluctant writers, it’s possible to read my sample first and ask the student to continue the adventure or to come up with an alternative outcome. In any case, the point is to get imagination juices flowing and to jump start storytelling skills even if they’re verbal rather than written.

 The scene:

Imagine if someone lets you ride a very fast cow pony that won’t respond to your signals to turn or stop. What would you do if you couldn’t jump off? After the ride would you go again? What would you do differently?

 Here’s what Nick found out about the retired cow pony, Trace, in Saving For Trace

 Nick located the stall marked TRACE and appraised the sleepy roan. His bucket head hung low, eyes almost closed in a half doze, tail swishing at flies. Retired cowpony, eh? If he was retired, he hadn’t retired any too soon. Trace was not an imposing example of prime horseflesh.

Still, Nick had a job to do. So he brushed, bridled and saddled the horse. Leading him out to the pasture, Nick noticed a dramatic change in the gelding. Trace held his head high, ears forward, nostrils arched. He was high stepping, parade prancing. What a transformation.

Nick swung into the saddle. But before he was properly seated, Trace bolted across the field at a full gallop. Nick snapped the reins back. Nothing. He searched for the stirrups with his toes, yanked again, then again. “Whoa!, Whoa!” he shouted. Nothing. He was straddling a run-away rocket that could veer at any second and leave him floating in space.

Nick talked to himself. “Stay with him. Keep a balanced seat. He won’t hurt himself. You just have to be ready for anything—like that single strand electric fence coming up fast. As soon as he sees it—”

Trace planted all four feet in a hard check, then cut to the left. Nick stayed with him as the cowpony whipped through a gate and swung behind the barn through a nightmare of plows, combines and tractors. He never slackened his pace as he dodged and juked like a superstar running back until he stopped at the back fence, breathing hard, in the end zone.

Nick jumped down, grabbed Trace by the bridle and walked him back through the barnyard obstacle course. Nick’s legs were still trembling when he reached the main corral where he discovered Corky leaning on the gate, smiling broadly.

“I was in the way of telling you that you should make him walk for a good ten minutes before you let him run. But I forgot.” She chuckled.

“I could have got hurt,” Nick spit out.

“No, luv, I knew you could stay on him,” she assured, arm across his shoulder, almost hugging him. “I would never put you in the way of getting hurt. Your mother would never forgive me—lucky woman that she is to have a lad like you.”

Nick tensed, surprised and slightly embarrassed.

Corky withdrew her arm and began again. “You did a good job of sticking with him. The secret to riding Trace is to let him know you’re in charge—ten minutes of making him walk when he wants to run. That’s the ticket. And then you let him teach you a few things.” She laughed. “Maybe you learned that you can’t judge a horse in his stall.”

Nick stared at the woman. Was she putting him on? Should he try again?

She raised her bushy red eyebrows and nodded. “Someone needs to ride him, poor beast. The owner never comes around. Just sends his check every three months.”

Nick walked over to Trace and rubbed his nose. Remembering Mack’s advice when he had first mounted Prince, Nick lowered his voice so it sounded forceful and soothing at the same time. He hoped his voice didn’t shake the way his legs were shaking. “All right, big boy. Let’s try this again from the beginning.” He didn’t want to rush or act nervous. He turned the stirrup toward himself, hiked his boot into place and rotated until he hung over the saddle. Then he sat down hard. At Trace’s first move, Nick popped the reins.


Trace stopped. Started again. Snap.

“Whoa. We don’t go till I say so.”

After three or four tries, the cowpony walked. Not a trot. A walk. It took close to fifteen minutes before Trace knew Nick was the one calling the signals.

After establishing control, Nick’s fun began. He discovered that Trace responded to weight shifts: if he sat forward quickly, the horse would go;  if he leaned back, he would slow down. Amazing.

Nick accidentally bumped Trace’s shoulder with his right foot. The horse turned right. Nick touched him with his left foot. Left turn. Right foot. Right turn. Nick felt like he was playing a computer game for the first time, exploring the controls, discovering what they were programmed to do.

What else does he know that I have yet to find out? Nick wondered. He carefully eased the roan into a gallop. Under control this time, Nick kept the reins high on his neck. Pulled right. Trace leaned into a right turn without losing a step. He tried left. Same results. Passing Corky on the rail, Nick raised a thumb in the air, calling out, “He’s awesome!”

The horsewoman nodded in confirmation, then shouted, “Rein him low, why don’t you? Try that.”

So Nick lined him up at a diagonal across the field and lurched forward. Trace was in a full gallop. Right now. What a horse. Nick lowered the reins to the front of the saddle horn and drew them to the right. Trace planted all four feet in a bulldozer check and came out digging in a gallop. Nick was slammed back into the saddle –like driving a sports car through a fast, steep curve.

“Yes!” Nick shouted. “C’mon, baby, let’s see you hang a left.” Same thing. What moves. Cut. Turn in a flash. Stop. Accelerate. Beautiful. Nick began to wonder who was in charge of whom.

“Would you ever bring in those horses from the back pasture?” Corky asked.

His eyes followed her fingers pointing to six horses grazing over in the next field. Nick and Trace set out at a rolling canter. Nice smooth gait. As they approached, the horses scattered. Before Nick had a chance to tell him where to go, Trace chased two of the fastest horses. “Yeah,” Nick said, “that’s right. That’s just what I was about to suggest.”

While Nick was still figuring the best cut-off angle, Trace faked right, went left and had them cornered. “Look,” Nick said to Trace, surrendering control, “why don’t you take care of this? I’ll just concentrate on staying in the saddle.” The rest of the ride was a clinic in quarter horse moves: fake, cut, burst of speed, stop, check, turn. Nick was humbled.