Guest post by Jocelyn Grey – How an Ontario rider met the horse of her dreams on an Alberta trail riding trip, brought him home – and discovered he had other ideas…
In September of 2008, a group of middle aged ladies, myself included, decided to do a six-day trail ride out of Banff with Warner Guiding and Outfitting. We were a group of six from Ontario. Nancy, Tammy, Jen and I are from Kingston. Marcia is from Victoria Harbour and Nicki is from Manitoulin Island. The four of us from Kingston have been regular trail riders, with Nancy and Tammy the most experienced. Marcia went from zero experience to canter in one summer just to be able to go on the ride, and Nicki is an experienced rider who competes in jumper classes. All of us have horses at home except Marcia.
On Day One of our Banff ride, we were transported from the Outfitter’s store by van to the nearby stables. We were handed our horses and told their names. My horse’s name was Anvil and I immediately renamed him M.C. Hammer. I don’t really know why, but I did, and the name stuck. Our guides thought it was comical, but before long they too were calling him by his new name.
Suffice it to say, most of us were out of our league on this ride – although we had wonderful scenery, and great camaraderie with the six other people on our ride (making it a total of 12), along with wonderful guides, cooks and packers.
I, for one, was not fit for the experiences I was about to have. I was quite terrified at times of the steep and rugged terrain, but quickly came to trust my horse with his careful movements and ability to make the right decisions, to get us safely to our destination. Every morning I looked forward to seeing him. The guides always had the horses tacked up and ready to go before we went out to the stable. MC would always turn his head as though he were looking for me, and in a group of 14 horses he would be the only one that came over to me when I went to the gate. His eyes were bright and the expression on his face was so kind and gentle. It was an instant love affair that was growing deeper by the day. Whenever we stopped for a rest and I dismounted, he would nuzzle into my arm, and I felt that we were developing a special bond.
As the trip was coming to an end and I knew we were going to be parting company, I was completely falling apart emotionally. During the last day, heading back to Banff, I was in tears the whole time. We stopped at lunchtime, which was just two hours away from the stables, and the point at which I would have to face handing him back. Instead of leaving him tied to the ropes with the horses, I quickly had a bite to eat and then went back and untied him so I could spend as much time with him as possible. I took him to a patch of grass and stayed with him while he munched away for the remaining time. As hard as I tried I could not stop crying over this horse. When I had to hand him over to the ranch hand, I blurted out, “Do you ever sell your trail horses?” The man looked stunned and didn’t answer. My friend Nancy was behind me saying “No Jocelyn, don’t do it. You’ll be sorry. He won’t be the same horse if you take him home.”
Needless to say, I left Banff very sad and continued to grieve over the loss of this horse that I had just spent six days with in the Rocky Mountains. I felt that MC had kept me from harm’s way every day of the trip and was one of the most endearing horses I had ever encountered.
Upon my return to Ontario I continued to pine, but mostly in silence. I cherished the pictures I had and slowly began to resign myself to the fact that it wasn’t feasible to bring him home. Then, one day, the same person who had told me not to do it emailed me the website of the trailer company who had transported her Kentucky Natural Gaited Horse up from the U.S. a few years before.
I decided to email Mr. Warner himself and ask him if he would consider selling me this horse. I stated that I was still not sure that I could buy him, but if I could, would he be willing to sell him? It was a painstaking five days before I heard from him, but when I saw the email I became very excited. Mr. Warner said something like this: “I guess if you fell in love with the horse you were riding, then it must mean you had a really good trip. We don’t usually sell our good horses, because it takes a while to get them to where they are safe for our guests. If you want to buy him the price is $3,000, but you probably don’t want to pay that much, as it will be that much again to trailer him from Banff to Ontario.”
After discussing it with my husband and daughter I decided I was going to accept the offer, and we sent Mr. Warner a certified cheque. Three days later I phoned to confirm that he had received it and, as I was talking to the girl at Warner’s, it suddenly struck me that I had no idea what breed he was. I shamefully admitted that the timing was a bit odd to be asking, but queried, “What breed is Anvil?” The girl on the other end replied, “He’s a Tennessee Walker! Didn’t you notice when you were trotting him?” I couldn’t believe my ears! For the past decade I have been looking at gaited horses and wishing I could have one, but found them too expensive. Now, not only had I bought a horse I’d fallen in love with, but a gaited horse as well!
On November 3rd, 2008 M.C. Hammer backed off the trailer and was greeted in an unusually special way. The other three girls from Kingston showed up the day he arrived to welcome him. Friends, family, the owner of the stable and owner’s stable manager were there with great excitement to see the horse that had caused me to go to such lengths to buy him and bring him to Ontario. My husband had celebratory drinks for everyone to toast the new horse’s arrival, and hot coffee to warm us while standing in a very cold barn from noon, when he arrived, until 9:00 p.m. when we tucked him in for the night.
It cost me $1,700 dollars to get him to his new home. He’s still the same horse I met out west, perhaps with a little more spunk. His eyes are just as bright and he still comes as soon as he sees me at the gate, even though the other horses in his paddock usually don’t pay any attention to my arrival.
We had several trail rides soon after M.C. Hammer arrived that autumn, and over the next few years we continued to ride together. During our rides I would get comments from my friends who said things like, “You two were meant to be together” or “He is a great horse for you” and “What a great horse he is.” I could only grin from ear to ear and agree that, yes, he is a great horse and we were indeed meant to be together.
As the years wore on, I came into a more spiritual relationship with horses, plus learned more about how riding affects a horse’s back, and MC no longer wanted to be ridden either. He made this very clear by bucking me off – hard – three times before I finally got the message.
The first buck off involved poor judgement on my part. We were just beginning our ride and I had mounted, but the saddle was loose and started to slip. So I grabbed the horn of the western saddle and yanked it to straighten it. This was something I had been taught to do while taking riding lessons in an indoor arena prior to going out West and meeting up with MC. Not a good idea. It must have hurt him because he immediately went into bucking bronco mode. He was bucking so violently that I decided to try and get off him but that was another bad move. I took my feet out of the stirrups and as his back end came up it catapulted me into the air. I landed on my head and the impact broke my helmet. It took me seven months to recuperate from the concussion, compressed discs in my neck, whip lash, bruised shoulder, bruised hip and I re-broke my tailbone.
During my recovery, I attended a book signing with Helen Russell (who was trained by Linda Kohanov). When I talked to her about the buck-off, she said MC was trying to get me to realize that I shouldn’t be riding, and that I needed to do the EAL (Equine Assisted Learning) work, that I had been trained in. I asked why he had to go to such extremes to give me that message, and she said, “Because otherwise you wouldn’t have listened.” I had a lot of resistance and fear about working in the EAL field. I kept thinking that all the riding and riding trips were a way to not move forward with that work. I couldn’t make up my mind if I really wanted to do it, or not. There were blocks and I wasn’t sure I could overcome them.
After I healed my broken body, I got back on MC. I had two friends that came over to my place to help me get on – just to sit on him and maybe be lead around a little. I was completely terrified but determined to ride him again. Every time I was going to go riding I would go through huge anxiety and sometimes I would cancel at the last minute. I went an entire year riding him with no incidents until it happened again.
The second buck came out of nowhere; again at the mount. I had trailered him over to a friend’s and we were going to go riding from there. They had a mounting block you had to climb up onto like a platform. I gently sat down on his back, into the saddle, and he took a step or two and then started bucking. I stayed on trying to get him stopped but he kept right on bucking and we were heading for a fully loaded hay wagon. I had enough time to think about how I was going to lunge for the wagon at the last minute, as I was sure he was going to slam right into the wagon. Just at the last minute though, he made a fast left and I came off. I stayed on about 8 seconds that time and injured my ribs.
The final buck was on a trail ride with three other people. By now my husband was taking my riding friends aside and making them promise they would hold MC while I got on. This was about 6 months after the second bucking episode, with plenty of peaceful rides in between. It was not like he was a regular bucker at all. Most of the time he seemed to really enjoy the trips. He especially enjoyed it if it was like an obstacle course through the bush. He was a model horse most of the time.
We were on a trail in May and it was a stinking hot day. We had been riding for probably 15 minutes when we came to a road with a bridge that if you crossed over it, you could go down to a river bank. So we crossed and rode the horses down the bank and they had a drink. Then we continued on until we got to the closest village. There we stopped under some trees alongside a service road. We dismounted and pulled out the lunches we had brought. I stayed with MC and he was interested in my sandwich. He seemed perfectly calm and relaxed.
Keep in mind, never before had he given me any trouble after the first mount. We finished lunch and decided it was time to go, so my friend Irene held him and she also had her own horse’s reins in her other hand. It had always worked before. Not this time. As soon as I got on him he started bucking wildly and the reins broke in Irene’s hand. I was on long enough for him to have turned toward the highway and then another violent buck and I was off. I hit my head (again) and this time I was stunned. I could hear people yelling but I couldn’t move yet. I finally managed to sit up and one of the ladies was at my side.
My friend Irene was running after MC yelling at him to stop as he headed towards the nearby highway. She told me afterwards that he actually listened to her and stopped and then she brought him back. The other two women took off to go back to where the trailers had been left and meet up with my husband – who had pulled the trailer with MC and Irene’s horse Mysty in it – and was waiting for us to return. He drove the trailer to where Irene and I waited, to pick us and the horses up, so I wouldn’t have to ride back. I remember standing there with Irene and looking around. I couldn’t remember where we were and I said it out loud. That is when I finally realized I couldn’t do this anymore. I have had a few concussions in my time and since the first buck off it hasn’t taken much to cause me to concuss, with the least little bump or whiplash movement.
I think MC was more than done with trail riding, or any riding. He is such a gentleman in so many ways that I wonder if he was just trying to tolerate the riding for me. Every time we made it back from a ride I was so relieved. It was like playing Russian Roulette because there was no obvious rhyme or reason with 6 months to a year between bucks. No one could answer what was going on.
I had a chiropractic vet look at him and she didn’t see anything significant enough to merit the bucking. I changed every piece of equipment and he would be fine for months. I went to a bitless bridle. I changed the saddle to a stock saddle that seemed to be the answer for both us. I changed the saddle pad. I gave him bodywork and put liniment on him before and after riding. He had showers when we came back.
The life of a working trail horse
Then there was the Stormy May documentary called The Path of the Horse. Watching it I discovered that horses’ backs become numb within 15 – 20 minutes of being ridden. I thought about how much MC would have been ridden out West at the outfitters. I knew that often when one of their horses was returned to the stables, it could be returned right back out for another riding trip or day trip. His back was no doubt pretty ruined whether a chiropractic vet could find anything significant on examination, or not. It is interesting to me that my Banff trip with MC ended in May and that is the same month, three years later, that I stopped riding him.
After I stopped riding MC, I went out one more time to Warner Outfitters in Banff and rode a horse called Ryan. Although we rode on basically the same trails as the previous trip, I wasn’t afraid this time. I got off and walked a lot on the trip because I was in a lot of pain in the saddle and also because Ryan had a shoe loose on the second last day and I did not think he was stable enough to walk with me on his back. I assumed the guides would make sure his shoe was secure for the return trip to the ranch the next day, so I didn’t check it myself.
Part way home and too far from the cabin we had just left, I realized he had lost the shoe off the same right front hoof. With the terrain being very rough and gravelly, it was often very painful for Ryan to walk – especially with me on his back. The guide said he was fine but I knew he wasn’t. There was one point while riding him, where we were going down a steep rocky mountain side and his shoulder went down because his foot hurt and I almost went over his head. So even though the guide said he was fine to be ridden, I only rode on softer surfaces and the rest of the time, I walked and he followed.
At the beginning of the trip Ryan was shut down and I couldn’t seem to reach him. I wondered if I even should bring him out of it, seeing as he was going to be staying and would be ridden by so many different people who would have no idea or concept of this beautiful horse being a sentient being. On the last day of the ride on our way back to the ranch and whilst I was walking down a rocky cliff with him in tow, he gently nudged me and thanked me. I almost cried. My heart was broken for him and warmed by his appreciation at the same time.
The guide was not a man of many words. He was a real cowboy and he had been doing his job for years. When he saw how I was with this horse, I think his heart opened a little. We arrived back at the ranch and he took the horse’s reins and said, “I’ll put him in a paddock where he won’t be taken right back out Jocelyn.” I was so grateful. I said goodbye to this lovely horse and thanked him for carrying me along treacherous cliffs, and down steep inclines, and keeping me safe the whole time.
You can ride or you can fly
Every year, I am usually invited to visit for one night when my former riding group do their annual riding and camping trip in June. Most times, someone will offer to let me get on their horse for their afternoon or early evening ride. I always decline. On one of the visits I went out on the trails with them, however, I didn’t ride a horse. I walked alongside the horses and riders.
I am not that, fit but the energy the horses shared with me was palpable and I felt like my feet were flying. During the outing, I received the message from them that they really liked that I was walking with them and not riding on them. They thanked me for that. When we were back on the last leg of the outing and the horses were coming, one-by-one, out of the bush, and onto the road, I started to run beside one of the horses. My friend Pat was riding her horse Tucker and that’s who I ran with. She sat the ride and let him have his head and Tucker and I ran together in sync with each other. He could have gone faster or slower but he paced himself to stay with me. It was the most exhilarating experience I had ever had. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t feel winded or that my muscles weren’t screaming at me to stop. I was being carried in his energy field. It was unbelievable.
Another reason I no longer ride is because, prior to MC, I went for years owning but not riding horses and I loved just being with them. Back then I didn’t need to ride to enjoy them and love them, and I don’t need to now. Riding definitely can be enjoyable, but as far as I know it isn’t something the horse would ask for if he could talk. I think there are times they will allow us on their backs, but they are not thrilled with it.
If it is true – and I believe it is – that their backs start to become numb after only 15 minutes of being ridden, then we should be bowing down to these magnificent beings and thanking them for their sacrifice when they haven’t resisted and have endured the pain and discomfort. It just seems to me that being with them in the herd, walking with them when they graze, sitting around sleepily by the water trough when the sun is warm, sitting on the ground listening to them eat, taking deep breaths and smelling their scent, looking with them at whatever has alerted them in the bush, or afar, exchanging breath and meditating with them… is so magical and so much more rewarding.
Allowing them to make their own decisions is so freeing for them and for me. Communicating with them in their language is magical. Having them want to be with me every time they see me is such a compliment. Lying down with them is an honor. Why would I want to get on their backs and make them uncomfortable, when I can run and walk alongside, or behind them, or lead the way? It’s heaven here.
Out of respect for the horse, regardless of whether they were completely bomb proof or not, I would now decline riding. I think I probably demonstrated that by walking more than riding, my last trip out West. It wasn’t easy for me to walk that much, although it wasn’t easy for me to ride a lot either. But it really felt great to walk with Ryan and I had no idea I would do that before I left for the trip.
I had also gone ahead and gotten my FEEL certification. FEEL stands for Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning which is the handle given to the work by a couple that had studied under Linda Kohanov – in fact they took the partnership course with Helen Russell and her husband Ken. However, I didn’t know until day one of the FEEL course that I would not be allowed to work with more than two clients at a time, unless I had another FEEL facilitator assisting me. If I had known that, I would never have taken the course. It was a 6-month expensive and intensive course. After graduation, I wasn’t able to find a FEEL facilitator that would come to my place to assist in workshops.
In the end, I did conduct some workshops with an assistant who was not FEEL trained, but was trained in EAL. Good enough for me. I have since met a local FEEL graduate, but my life has changed again to the point that I am definitely not interested in working in FEEL (at least I say that now). I am more interested in engaging with people who are strictly interested in enhancing their lives with meditation (with horses), healing energy (with horses) and just generally wanting to come and enjoy the horses’ company in a retreat type of atmosphere.
MC is indeed a healing horse and he has been an equine-assisted learning horse with me. He does not want me to be with my other two horses – only him. When friends come to visit the horses, he often blocks the people from standing close to me. The fact that we no longer ride certainly does not diminish the beauty or enjoyment of our time together.
When my friend Nancy said, “No Jocelyn, don’t do it. You’ll be sorry. He won’t be the same horse if you take him home.” She was both right and wrong. MC was indeed finished being a trail horse, but I have not been sorry I brought him home for one moment. He has been superb at his job of helping others figure out things about their personal life lessons. He and my other two horses have provided me with unlimited emotional support. They have helped me through some difficult times and have literally surrounded me to demonstrate their love and connection to me. I am blessed and I am so honored to have them with me to enjoy our time together on a daily basis.
I thank the Universe every day for bringing these special three to me and I thank them for supporting me every day.
Jocelyn Grey runs Horse Centered Reflection in Kingston, Ontario. She is a Certified Facilitator in Equine Assisted Learning and also a Certified Equine Assisted Personal Development Coach. She has 3rd degree Therapeutic Touch and 3rd degree Reiki certifications as well. She works mostly with animals, along with a sprinkling of human clients.