WELLSVILLE — Hope, a 10-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter, knows what it’s like to suffer abuse at the hands of people.
Before Tracy MacCarthy of North Ogden bought her two weeks ago, Hope’s owners “hung on her face” and also broke some of her teeth, MacCarthy said.
Now, Hope is learning to trust people again, and that’s why MacCarthy brought her out to the Hunsaker Arena over the weekend to see a veteran horse competitor and instructor.
“She really wants to please and learn,” MacCarthy said. “But she just doesn’t know what’s expected of her, and so she gets afraid.”
Hope and MacCarthy were part of a small group of riders and horses that showed up for a two-day workshop with Vaughn Knudsen, a Nevada horseman who has competed professionally and teaches people all over the United States about them.
In an interview, Knudsen said his aim during the workshops in Wellsville was to teach people how to form a connection with their horse.
“For a horse to become willing, compatible, make a connection with you all comes from free agency and giving them a choice … of which direction to go,” he said.
In order to do that, Knudsen said riders must apply a basic formula of action — one that involves a stimulus, a response and a reward.
A stimulus can range from the rider’s upper body movements to the use of tools like a riding crop. But Knudsen said stimuli “doesn’t have to be irritating.”
If a horse does not agree with the rider, Knudsen said, they can keep applying the stimulus until the animal agrees.
“Keep applying the stimulus until the horse chooses — see, there’s that free agency — to get the correct response,” he said.
The “reward” for the horse once it does what the rider wants is to release the stimulus.
“The horse wants to feel safe … they want that more than anything else in this world,” Knudsen said. “If there’s no stimulus, they feel safe.”
Providing a stimulus is not counter-intuitive to building a good relationship with a horse, he added.
“When you dance, one has to lead, one has to follow,” Knudsen said. “Neither one is more important than the other.”
Knudsen said it’s important for people to realize horses don’t think like they do.
“The reason is, one’s a prey, one’s a predator,” he said. “What we’ve got to do is get a person to think the way a horse does.”
Wendy Kunz, a member of the Cache County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse who participated in the workshop with Knudsen, echoed his comments.
“One of our big things is … We have to be able to understand a horse for our horse to understand us,” she said.
MacCarthy is one of those people who is working to understand her horse.
For the first few days, she did did not go riding with Hope becayse of the horse’s abusive past. Instead, she spent time talking with and petting her, “letting her know that she was safe.”
“She got to the point where she started to respond to my name, she listened for my truck,” MacCarthy said. “I know she’s starting to trust me.”
Lately, the two have begun trail riding.
“She doesn’t quite know what I’m asking of her yet, but she’s learning very fast,” MacCarthy said.
Workshops like the ones Knudsen put on are helpful, MacCarthy said.
“I know over the next two days, she’s going to get even better and better,” MacCarthy said. “Just to have Vaughn work with her just like that for the time that he did was absolutely amazing.”
When riders gain a trusting, understanding relationship with their horse, “magic” occurs, according to Kunz.
“It’s a ballet between a person and their horse,” she said. “When they’re connected, it’s probably one of the most beautiful things.”