When we left off last week, I’d just experienced two weeks of sleep away camp at The Ranch. I had a good time, everyone seemed welcoming, so I was happy.
Away from The Ranch, I decided to take more serious riding lessons. I’d been having fun at the foxhunting barn, but for various reasons I wanted to leave, the main one being I wasn’t learning enough. I found a new barn that later ended up being the permanent barn of my teenager years. But this time around, it was temporary.
When I rode there, the instructor did push me. I was learning, but I felt like it was just too hard. My instructor was a “rough around the edges” type that regularly made her students cry. There were definitely a few moments (then and also later when I came back) when my eyes would water. I began to dread my lessons because of how exhausted they left me. I wanted it to be easier. I remember back when I rode western at The Ranch. It was so easy, I wanted to go back to it being easy.
It started out with just a weekend camp, similar to the week camp, but scheduled during the school year. After experiencing some quiet “time off” style riding, I decided to start taking regular lessons there. To make it seem even nicer, Mildred said the lessons were two hours instead of my usual one hour, and I was thrilled. That was a lot of riding time!
When I showed up for my first lesson, nice and early to tack up, I discovered that my two hour lesson was really a half hour for tacking up, an hour for riding, and a half hour for untacking. It was bewildering to me, as I didn’t need hand-holding to groom and tack up a horse, and it was the first of many instances where they acted like I was a child that needed constant supervision. Supervision usually involved completing grooming, and then having to find the instructor to ask if it was okay to put the saddle on. Then if it was okay to put the bridle on. Then if it was okay to go down to the ring. If you did these things without asking, you would be scolded. Everyone (as frequently many kids would be scheduled together for a “group” lesson, even though we were not on the same level) had to move as a mass, so no one was allowed to move to the next step until everyone had completed the previous step. All in the name of safety.
Unfortunately for Mildred, her camp counselors had to return to their homes to attend school, so she was forced to teach most of the lessons. Lessons consisted of walking, and jogging around the ring. Never coming off the rail. That was literally it, there was nothing creative or challenging. At first, it was relaxing, like I was on vacation. My muscles were still sore from my last extreme lesson, so I didn’t mind some time recovering. But it only took a few repetitions of this lesson format before I began to get annoyed. I asked to canter, and Mildred told me I wasn’t ready. How could I not possibly be ready? I’d been taking lessons for years at that point at the foxhunting barn. But I wasn’t that assertive yet, so I just continued my mediocre lessons. She did not instruct me on anything I would need to do to possess the skills to canter. I did not receive instruction to do anything other than “walk”, “jog,” and “don’t let him cut in”. Eventually, they taught me how to neck rein, but this was much further on in the year. There was nothing that would prepare me to canter, and nothing that advanced my riding at all. I was regressing in my abilities. I wasn’t an expert before, but by not practicing 2-point, or posting, or asking the horse for engagement, or doing anything challenging, my muscles grew very weak, and frankly, I became a terrible, lazy rider.
I wanted to jump. The Ranch was primarily western, but Mildred claimed she could teach people to jump. So I asked to jump. I was told Sonny doesn’t jump. Apparently when I was assigned Sonny during camp, I was assigned him for life. No other horse would ever be suitable for me ever, even if I wanted to learn something Sonny couldn’t provide.
I started there at the start of show season, and they ran in-house shows. I had never shown before, so I was very excited about this. At the first show, I did fairly well, and my parents and I were so excited about it, we joined the show organizations for point tracking for the entire year. Mildred ran both show organizations. She also owned the horse I was competing on for year end awards. These things did not seem at all like issues at first – not until I realized how awful this place was. Then I didn’t want to leave until I got my year end awards.
However, I couldn’t even practice anything that came up in these shows in my lessons. There was no practice sessions for the tight turns in the speed classes, the patterns, or even posting the trot (Sonny was super weak one direction, and it showed when I did the English pleasure classes). There was no explanation of what was expected in the any of the classes – I read Horse Illustrated and figured it out on my own, or begged competitors to tell me moments before the class. It was expected that walking/jogging around the rail during lessons was somehow sufficient to prepare students for anything they would possibly encounter. Showmanship was especially tough, as Sonny wasn’t into trotting in hand. I wasn’t allowed to work with him in hand on my own time, and no one else was interested in doing so, so showmanship was always a low ribbon.
I could only trot during speed classes, which defeats the point in my opinion. I couldn’t turn well because I wasn’t able to practice doing the turns during lessons. I never had a chance of even getting a ribbon in these classes when going at a trot, so I’m not sure why they were encouraged other than to increase my show bill. I continued to do them because every moment of riding was precious to me.
Late in the year, we hauled out to an offsite show for only barrel racing. I still wasn’t allowed to do anything but trot, but it was the first time I wasn’t being watched like I was seconds away from doing something nefarious. The camp counselors were really into winning their class (and sucking up to the facility owner imo), so they were way too busy to monitor me. They left me to tack up, (had to ask about mounting), and then I trotted around in the warm-up area with no supervision. I still did terrible in the class, but it was eye opening how excited this tiny amount of freedom made me feel. But to remind me of their bizarre priorities, on the way home, Mildred’s friend drank beers while driving a completely loaded horse trailer (6), with two other girls and me in the cab. Apparently safety is only important as long as it doesn’t involve them being cautious.
I never once saw Mildred ride outside of her own shows. She had her own personal pony, but it was never ridden or even groomed except in preparation of shows (she obviously never groomed her own pony either, we prepped it for her). I will forever have the image burned into my mind of her sitting cross-legged on her pony, cigarette ash falling into its mane. She was usually one of two only entries into her division, Gaited, and therefore had a good chance of being champion every single time.
I was at The Ranch most weekends. Students were encouraged to spend the night before shows, and there were two a month. The counselors would come back for some weekends, and eventually I had worked my way in enough that they were calling me a “Junior Counselor”, so I could hang out there on weekends, too, and provide free labor. At one point, a counselor and I were tasked with giving a man a lesson on his personal horse. We basically lounged in chairs while he just trotted around the ring. The other counselor told me they just like to let people ride around with minimal instruction, and just enjoy themselves! I was dumbfounded. What are these people paying for? If he wanted to just ride his horse with no instruction, he could literally do that whenever he wanted.
Throughout the course of a year, I continued walk/trot lessons and observed others around me. The majority of kids were also only walk/trot. The only people who were allowed to do more were the camp counselors, on their borrowed boarder horses, and a select few horse owners. Cantering seemed to be something to be revered, and could not be undertaken lightly. It was almost shocking if someone was cantering their horse, and there was an occasion of a unwatched boarder cantering, and Mildred rushing out, screeching at her, demanding to know what she was doing. That was one of probably only three times when I saw someone actually riding their horse without Mildred or her instructor’s watchful eyes on them. It happened so rarely, that when we did see it, we all began to discuss in shocked tones why they were out there riding.
Mildred was extremely safety conscious. As in, overbearing. Riding your horse anywhere other than the ring was forbidden, no meandering through the property, or taking a gallop in an empty field. You were not allowed to be on that horse one second past your allotted lesson time. There was no cooling out afterward, although with how slow the lessons were, it probably wasn’t needed anyway. Going into the barn was like entering a forbidden space. If she or the instructors caught you in there for any reason (since obviously you wouldn’t be in there to get a horse), you would get screeched at. Everything required permission. Ask before you mount. Ask before you clean tack. Ask before you turn out. Ask before you leave to go home. She was a control freak.
Eventually, nearing the end of my time there, she finally decided I could canter. We made a big circle (first time I rode a circle there!), and I asked for the canter. I asked by bringing my outside foot behind the girth, and squeezing my legs. Sonny kept trotting, and Mildred called me incompetent. She has a hissy fit right in the ring, telling me I was not ready to canter, and this proved it. Then she saw I was putting my leg back behind the girth. She had another hissy fit, demanding to know why I would do something so stupid. The aids for canter were obviously inside foot rotating to hit with the heel. I did that, and the horse cantered. But only a few circles and then it was back to the trot.
I was getting more and more annoyed at this place. Luckily I made a friend there who was also super annoyed at this place, so I knew I wasn’t just going crazy. She’d been riding there for years, forced upon her by her mother, and she was getting irritated by the insignificant progress she was making with her giant gray beast of a quarter horse.
We ended up hanging out, and I began riding her houses at her house. It was incredible to finally be have freedom, and the trust of that you will do the right thing with the horse without anyone breathing down your neck.
Towards the end of my involvement there, I think Mildred could sense I was pulling away and tried a tactic she’d used successfully with many other clients. She started encouraging me to buy a horse. Not just any horse, though, she found a perfect one for me. She had found a yearling paint.
After a moment of thinking, aw, cute, my next thought was, wait, I can’t ride a yearling? And I wanted to ride English and jump, is that what this is for? It was super bizarre to consider that the woman who thought I was not capable of cantering thought I had enough experience to have a yearling.
My mom, who has always been supportive and active with my riding, was Mildred’s target. She sent my mom pictures and tried to convince her of the perfectness of it, but my mom said the yearling looked like a cow and was a no go. Also, both my mom and I agreed that was not the right match.
By this time, we knew Mildred’s scheme. I’d been talking about it with my new friend, and she told me the stories. She did it to my friend, and she did it to the kids in her 4-H group. She convinces the kids to get young horses, giving herself several years of board money, and then the horses need Mildred to train them so there’s board+training fees, then the kids need lessons to be able to ride the green horse, so there’s board+training+lessons.
We weren’t falling for that. The horse buying bug had sprung into our minds though, and just a few weeks after was she trying to get us to buy the paint yearling, we did buy a horse. We bought Clay.
I want to note that upon reflection of these events, it seems super obvious that something isn’t right, but when this happened, I was just a kid, who was a novice to horses. Which is basically the main issue I have with this place – taking advantage of novices who don’t know better.
Next week, the thrilling conclusion to my time at The Ranch! Featuring, the main reason I was involved/irritated!