The Other Side of the Arena


My two younger sisters and I were deeply fortunate to grow up attending weekly horseback riding lessons until we moved to a farm when I was in middle school.  On the outskirts of Minooka IL, we rebuilt the hundred-year-old barn and fenced in some acreage on the property to accommodate ponies and horses.  I rode the nearby cornfields and continued to show at small, local shows until I left for my first year of college to study Equestrian Science in Missouri.  It was the perfect childhood.

Driving us to and from lessons twice a week or more, cheering us on from horse show bleachers and writing check after check at feed stores, working two and sometimes three jobs to support our horse-crazy passion, and tirelessly supporting us in a way she’d only dreamed of when she was a girl was Mom.

Mom always made an effort to find vacation spots where we could trail ride as a family, and her infrequent moments horseback were certainly memorable (I have an especially potent memory from Bear Basin Ranch, where we got special permission from the resident cowboy who smelled faintly of whiskey to go on a snowy winter ride.  After catching her horse straight out of the field and riding a few miles away from the herd, her horse promptly spun around and ran full boar back toward his herdmates.  Mom kept her balance and her cool until Cowboy caught up with her and grabbed the reins!), but these riding forays were short-lived.  Mom’s tenure as a horseperson was more vicarious than direct.

Mom just turned sixty last month (and I thirty, last December), and I felt that this was a meaningful transition time for the both of us.  With age and distance away from my horse-crazy youth, I could see that though Mom worked so hard to afford us the life she’d have loved as a kid, she never really allowed herself the chance to gain the horse experience she provided us.  So for her recent trip to Washington, Nathan and I decided we’d give her the experience as a 60th birthday present!

We headed to Orcas Island, a lovely ferry ride away from our home in the Skagit Valley, and made our way out to Kate Wood’s beautiful farm and residence.  Kate has four gorgeous mustangs she’s gentled and enlists to help her teach natural horsemanship skills and work at-liberty to individuals and groups.  I thought that this would be just the right kind of experience for Mom, a new way of looking at and connecting with horses that she might not have ever seen before.  She’d been on the sidelines for many, many years as my sisters and I took formal riding lessons and competed in shows, but this was her turn in the arena.

When we arrived on the property, it was the morning after a torrential storm, and I felt a relieved calmness in the air. Kate’s three bay mustangs were laying together in the arena, sleeping peacefully.  The sun, as if on cue, began to creep over the top of the forest surrounding Kate’s farm and we were greeted by a sweet grin under a ballcap.  Kate introduced herself and she took Mom right into the arena, where they began circling around with a wheel barrel and pitchfork, cleaning up and chatting casually.  She explained that because humans are predators and horses are prey animals, our first interactions with the horses can help set the stage for a successful partnership.

“Walking around cleaning up the arena, we’re playing the part of the lion that just finished a big meal.  We become less of a threat to the horses.”  As Kate spoke with Mom and they circled the arena slowly, feigning disinterest, the horses became more and more curious, approached them, following them around, almost in their way, asking for their attention.  I knew that this was the right match for the kind of experience I wanted to offer Mom!

Maj-at-Liberty-1The lesson progressed and Mom chose to work at liberty with the horse she was most drawn to, Ranger.  Kate’s coaching was observant, subtle and understated.  She allowed time and space for Mom to figure some things out, to feel how it felt when a cue was not effective, and feel when it was right.  What I appreciated the most was that she created a safe space where it was okay to make a “mistake” — and then truly learn in a more deep and lasting way.

Lesson-7What amazed me most was my Mom.  She fumbled and looked a little timid at first, and I recognized a trait in her that I struggle with: she was afraid to do something wrong.  But then, after just a few demonstrations and cues from the observant Kate, Mom really started to get it.  Midway through the lesson, Mom looked like she had been doing liberty work for years.

She was truly a natural.

Maja_Face2And then it hit me: of course she was a natural.  We Tierney girls had to have inherited our horse gifts from somewhere.  Growing up, I’ve had many trainers and riding instructors call me a “natural,” and looking at my mom I could so clearly see what they saw in me.  Kate echoed this observation in a few comments to me on the sidelines as we watched Mom guide Ranger in gentle leadership around the arena, asking him to halt, having him circle her at a walk and trot, back, turn, lower his head, step up and off a stump.  They were such a lovely team, and looked like they’d been working together for far longer than a brief lesson on a November afternoon.

For me, sitting on the sidelines, snapping pictures and witnessing my Mom really come into her own, becoming more present, commanding yet at the same time gentle, and effectively connecting with a gorgeous halterless mustang was one of the most special experiences of my life.



Maj-Kate-Ranger.pngNone would have been possible without the miraculous Kate Wood and her amazing herd of mustangs.  I couldn’t have asked for a better match for my Mom.  We’re already planning for her next trip back out to Washington … maybe we’ll do one of her group leadership sessions with the whole family!


1 Comment

Filed under Inspirations

One response to “The Other Side of the Arena

  1. Lexi

    This made me tear up. So awesome.

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