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Lessons From My Lesson Horses- Chapter 1

Updated on September 16, 2018
Ellison Hartley profile image

Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.


Marley as we call him is a 16.2 ish hand gelding of unknown breeding. See for yourself from the pictures, he is interestingly built, tall like a thoroughbred, heavy like a draft horse, and has medium size feet like a quarter horse.

He tolerates everything, even valentines stickers!
He tolerates everything, even valentines stickers! | Source

How We Got Him

I have lost track of how many years that we have had him now, I tend to do that since time flies. I found him on a craigslist ad. It was a very long drive to southern Virginia, but the woman had a "whole field of horses" for sale, so I like the idea of seeing more than one in one place. I figured it would be worth the drive.

When we arrived at the place, we realized she wasn't kidding when she said a whole field of horses, that is exactly what it was. A giant field with a wire fence filled with a variety of different looking horses and one donkey. I was irritated at the time because she knew we were looking for a lesson horse and these horses all looked half wild with knots and burrs in their manes. Some of them obviously were a bit behind on their feet being trimmed.

At the time I had a broken collarbone from a fall off a horse, so my friend was with me to test ride whatever horses we thought might be prospects. The husband and wife who met us there said that they would have their son get on the ones we liked and see if they were broke. What part of lesson horse or safe for kids had they not understood? We were rolling our eyes as they rattled feed buckets to get the horses to come close to the fence.

Honestly, they were all so nappy looking I wasn't impressed at all. If we hadn't driven so darn far I would have just said no thanks. The husband could tell we weren't impressed. I guess I wasn't hiding it well.

He told his son to throw the saddle on the "big red gelding" as he smoked a cigarette and leaned on the fence. We found out shortly that the reason they called him "big red gelding" was that none of these horses had any names. Some he claimed had registration papers, he just didn't remember the names, but this one didn't have a name.

His son went in, put the bridle on the horse first and then put the saddle on. He didn't brush him or anything just threw the big western saddle on and cinched it up. I guess we should have been nervous as he climbed up there considering they couldn't remember if he was broke to ride, but I think we were just in shock at the whole situation, so didn't think to fear for the kid's life.

Turns out that the "big red gelding" was broke to ride. In fact, he rode quietly as a church mouse around in this herd of horses that was thrashing around at the feed buckets on the fence like sharks in a feeding frenzy. He obviously was one of the lower horses in the pecking order, because of all the bites and scratches on him. You could tell he had his eye on the other horses and was nervous, but didn't put a foot wrong. I honestly don't remember if my friend got on and tried him out or not. I feel like she probably didn't since it was not at all a safe place for anyone to be riding.

I asked a lot of questions, trying to get the owners to recall anything about him, his age, where he came from or what they had done with him? This guy looked like he belonged in a Marlboro cigarette commercial, he obviously didn't know anything about the "big red gelding" or he couldn't remember. He ended up with a story about trail riding him a few times a couple years ago.

Snow Marley!
Snow Marley! | Source

My 6th Sense

I have the 6th sense. Not the one in the movie, I don't see dead people, but I get feelings about horses. A strong feeling of yes or no whether I like them or not. It happens pretty quickly upon me seeing them and has not ever failed me.

It has been known to frustrate the heck out of some people who have horse shopped with me, and seen horses that were perfectly acceptable, but my 6th sense wasn't feeling it. Just like Gibbs on NCIS has the gut feeling that doesn't fail him about solving crimes. I have gut feelings about horses. I have for as long as I remember and that is a big part of what I go by when looking for horses.

In theory, this "big red gelding" who had been living out in the field doing who knows what for who knows how long was not a great lesson horse prospect. I don't go by theory though. My 6th sense was telling me that he was a good one. A lot of it was in his eyes, he has a very kind expression to his eyes. I was impressed by the fact he kept it together so well in that field full of chaos, and I just kept looking at him and my 6th sense just kept saying yes. Despite the fact, he didn't look like much at the time and we didn't know much about him.

Marlboro Red

We brought the "big red gelding" home and needed to think of a name for him, a lesson horse has to have a name! He needed a name change. I have a theory on horses names that I also go by almost as strictly as my sixth sense. If the horse came from a good situation, it keeps its name no matter how awful it may be. Horses from bad situations, weird or sketchy situations get renamed.

This one was definitely getting a new name. Red was just too boring for me. We couldn's stop laughing about the guy with the cigarette saying how he was going throw his kid up there and see if he was broke. Someone said the man looked like he belonged in the old Marlboro cigarette commercials. We pondered it for a while. My cousin used to call Marlboro cigarettes cowboy killers, I didn't want to name him cowboy, or red or killer. That just left us with Marlboro, which is cool, but too long and we didn't want to name a kids lesson horse after a cigarette. Someone suggested Marley, and it stuck.

Marley is trusted with even the littlest of passengers.
Marley is trusted with even the littlest of passengers. | Source

Lesson # 1

The first lesson that I learned from Marley is that a horse doesn't have to have a ton of formal training or experience to be a lesson horse. Obviously, he was totally broke and safe to ride when we bought him. That was about it. If he had been used for trail riding, he must have just followed the horse in front of him. He was confused about steering in the arena but picked it up quickly. He didn't get why he needed to use both canter leads but also learned that quickly. My more advanced riders rode him in the beginning and they learned a lot by helping him figure out his new jobs. It was safe, and the horse and the kids learned. Lesson #1 is that a lesson horse doesn't have to be a perfect horse. Marley was not what I went out looking for. He was totally safe though, from the very beginning and now he is awesome. He is good for cantering and jumping lessons as well as quiet enough to poke around with beginners.

Lesson # 2

This isn't really just from Marley, but he definitely helped me to confirm it. Sometimes the bigger horses are the gentler ones. Marley is like a kitten. Many parents are intimidated when they find out we are going to put there some child on this big huge horse. They figure out quickly that he is trustworthy.

That's Marley on the right. He lives in the mares field, he does much  better turned out with them than the geldings. He gets all the girls to himself.
That's Marley on the right. He lives in the mares field, he does much better turned out with them than the geldings. He gets all the girls to himself. | Source

Lesson # 3

This one has to do with tying. I asked if Marley tied when we bought him. My best guess is that they didn't know so they just told me he did. We realized quickly that he did not, well he would tie in the stall alright, but didn't get the whole crosstie thing.

I started with just one cross tie on him, and he would be perfectly calm, but then when he moved and felt that pressure from even only one crosstie, he would tense up, despite my efforts to relax him, he would end up flying backward.

I ended up using the leadline to get him used to the pressure on his head. Just applying a little pressure either down or I would hook the leadline on the side of the halter like a cross tie. I started with a tiny bit of pressure, he would tense but not explode.

I practiced pressure from the bottom and from side to side, gradually increasing the pressure. Once he was calm with pressure both on the side and down I tried one cross tie, and just held the lead rope in the other hand so I could help reposition him quickly if he started to move to a place that he would feel too much pressure and get scared.

Gradually, over a period of months, Marley learned how to cross tie. He is reliable on cross ties for grooming and tacking up. He can even step back a little too far and realize he needs to move forward without panicking. Which is a huge improvement!

He will not stand on crossties for the farrier, which is odd because you can pick his feet normally just fine. Something about the farrier scares him and he will break off the crossties if the farrier tries to do his feet while he is tied. It is an odd thing though because as soon as someone stands and holds the leadline, he is a perfect angel for the farrier.

Lesson # 4

He didn't teach me this personally but teaches my students and people around the barn. Horses don't like you to stick your hands in their faces suddenly. Seems like common sense, but I can't tell you how many people reach over the stall door quickly and touch at Marley's face, and he hit's the back of the stall. I tell them time and time again, don't reach for any horses face suddenly or quickly, but kids and even adults do it anyway. I guess they just get excited and don't think. Marley does not tolerate it though, and when he ends up at the back of the stall where they can't reach him, they are disappointed and learn quickly why I said they shouldn't do that!

Marley on the right again in this photo. Doing what he does best,teaching kids to ride!
Marley on the right again in this photo. Doing what he does best,teaching kids to ride! | Source

Lesson # 5

This is a big one for my students...Marley is a big horse. He teaches you to ride with both your legs and your hands. You can't control a big giant horse with just your reins.

If you don't steer him properly, with your hands and legs, he will feel like he is all over the place. He teaches you to ride the whole horse, not just his face. That brings me to lesson #6

Lesson # 6

Marley will tell on you if your hands are pulling on his mouth too much. He is a saint and he will tolerate it, but he will look like a giraffe with his huge neck and big head up in the air.

As soon as the student lowers their hands he lowers his head and neck, he has even been known to go into a frame by accident with students who aren't even asking him to. Horses never lie. Even if it is subtle, Marley tells me if a rider is too rough with their hands, and he will reward them with a lightbulb moment when they get their hands down low and soft again.

So handsome with his head down!
So handsome with his head down! | Source

Lesson # 7

Marley teaches his riders that they have to tell him which canter lead to take. He prefers his left lead going both ways. He will pick up the right lead easily and obediently if asked, but if just kicked to go faster with no guidance he picks up the left lead every time. He makes the riders do it right. That is an important skill for a lesson horse to have. If he did everything perfect all the time, they would never learn to really ride.

Marley and one of his adoring fans!
Marley and one of his adoring fans! | Source

Lesson # 8

He teaches the riders to look where they are going and use their outside leg to hold his body, and to look where they are going. If they don't Marley conveniently knows right where the barn door and gate is. He will take you there, not quickly or dangerously. Just slowly take you so you remember that you have to direct him all the time. He does not have an autopilot or a cruise control setting.

Moral Of The Story Is...

Every single one of my horses I have learned from and I continue to learn from. While interacting with them, and even while teaching lessons on them. They help me perfect my craft as a trainer, I have learned more from the horses themselves than anything else.

Marley is just one of many of the horses I have learned from. I look forward to sharing more about the others in the future. It's all part of my horsemanship journey.

He is even a blue ribbon winner in our on farm shows for many riders.
He is even a blue ribbon winner in our on farm shows for many riders. | Source

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