Queen Bee

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When my horse turned five I knew her training was complete and that she was physically mature and ready to begin working as a trail horse.  But I did not realise how much she would learn on her own about her future career.

Many of us have great memories of taking a trail ride in a park, bridle trail, or other beautiful setting. It is a way of connecting with the awesomeness of nature and the power of a horse.  A guide often accompanies groups of riders on rides like these, interprets the trail, and shows them the way.  Sometimes horses have to be encouraged to keep up, stop eating, or not wander off.  This is the guide’s job.  The guide makes up for the deficits in skill of a novice trail rider and helps them have a fun and safe ride.  In a worst case, the guide may even have to stop a runaway or render first aid.

I started working as a trail guide in 1985 and have guided all types of rides.  Sometimes groups I guide consist entirely of first-time equestrians.  Because of my experience, I’ve learned to appreciate people who are quick learners and active participants.  Other people feel alienated on horseback and just don’t get it — these rides are a lot like herding cattle.

Whatever type of ride it is, a guide’s performance depends on his or her expertise and also on a willing and able trail-guide horse.  One must have a good saddle horse but the horse’s preparation should go beyond basic training.  It is optimal if the horse’s skills include backing up, side stepping, and turning on the forehand and turning on the haunches.  And it’s even better if the horse can be mounted on both the left and right sides. This will enable the guide to manoeuvre in and around a group of horses and mount and dismount in a tight spot. A good trail horse should not be herd bound and should be able to join and leave a group at will.  But what’s more, a horse needs to have a sense about their job and what they are expected to do.

Experience is the best teacher and over time a trail horse will pick up the tricks of the trade.  Trail guide horses also develop a dominant personality.  When we make a horse a guide horse, we place them in charge of a small herd and make them their leader.  They usually adapt to their new dominant role and readily take on “alpha-horse” characteristics.  What is an “alpha horse?”  Simply stated, an alpha horse is the horse that makes all the other horses move their feet.  The alpha horse can be male or female and is the one who gets to eat and drink first and generally boss everyone else around.  In the wild, alphas also protect their band from danger and lead them to water or pasturage.

I used to have an appaloosa mare named Katie when I rode for the Bar-S.  It helped that she was already the alpha mare to begin with.  But she learned her trail guiding job with earnest.  Katie was quick to spot a horse and rider who had wandered away from a trail group and would champ at the bit and prance until I would go and shepherd them back.  One time out of curiosity I decided to find out how well she could do it on her own.  As I was taking out a group of a dozen riders one day, one of the horses split off from the group and started for home.  Katie and I spotted him at once, so I dropped the reins and let her go.  She took off at a run and quickly cut off the horse from the outside stopping him and forcing him to return to the group.  She did this manoeuvre more efficiently than I could have; the only difference was she travelled a lot faster than I would have and she allowed for no margin of safety.

Another time I was riding Katie I had to stop a rental horse rider who was running his horse alongside the Los Angeles River.  Running horses was not allowed due to the rocky trail, which was hazardous to horse and rider.  Katie was as fast as she was smart and we easily outran the horse and cut him off.  I let Katie do all the talking.  When she was worked up in cases like this, she would bare her teeth and shake her head at the errant horse.  I let her do it as close to the rider as I could.  The guy was scared to death of her, “OK I’ll stop” he said, “Just keep your horse away from me!”  Katie was truly the “Queen Bee” of the herd.

My mustang, India, has learned her job too.  She intuitively knows when I want to drive or block another horse and jumps out to get them.  She is energised when called to action and after executing a quick manoeuver she always gets excited.  She walks a little faster and gets a little “prancy” as if she is so pleased that she can’t contain herself. 

She demonstrates protective instincts as well.  The leader of a group of horses in the wild looks out for the other horses and makes sure nobody gets left behind.  When I ride “lead” I have to stop occasionally to let slowpoke horses catch up.  And when I stop, she will turn her head and watch the other horses approach.  When close enough she will volunteer to walk on.  I have also noticed that whenever I ride “drag” (at the very end of a trail group) India will stop before we return to the ranch and take a long thoughtful look down the trail behind us.  The only explanation I have for this is that instinct is telling her to check and see that all the horses are present and are safely returning home.

One day on the trail we were riding drag (at the very end of a trail group) and we were obliged to keep encouraging a little chestnut gelding to keep up.  Over and over again throughout the ride we’d trot up on him and I’d swing my rope to get him to git-up.  Pushing him along in this way was tedious for me and India and I was glad when the ride was over.  It was a busy day at the ranch and unfortunately I pulled another ride with that same pokey horse in it.  Again we headed down the trail with the slowpoke gelding straggling behind.  If I was a little weary of this my horse was even more so, and she showed it.  The first time he dropped back from the group India charged at him from behind and bit him on his rear.  The horse, thus chastened, leaped back to the group of horses.  The rider was startled by the sudden burst of speed and asked me, “What just happened?”  “Oh, it was nothing,” I replied, “Your horse just got stung by the “Queen Bee.”

Dr. Ken Marlborough is also known as The Horse Professor. He has taught English and Western riding in Iowa and California since 1995. He also wrote and illustrated the book,Trail Riding. He began his career in the equine industry as a Trail Guide in 1985 and has worked in this capacity since that time. He trains horses using an approach that emphasises learning in the horse while earning their trust and respect. Ken, sometimes called “Doc” by his students, earned his Ph.D. in Education at the University of Iowa, focusing on “learning by doing.” One of the areas he researched was college internships in the equine industry. He earned an A.A.S. degree in Horse Science at Kirkwood College, specialising in colt starting, and received teaching credentials in Equine Science, Education and Psychology, while in Iowa. Ken writes as a columnist for heartofahorse.com; a charity that focuses on maintaining and stimulating the unwavering well-being of horses in America.