By Jennifer Klitzke
“Horse crazy!” my mom exclaimed.
Smiling, my mom stood on the back porch of her 1966 suburban Seattle backyard watching me, her three-year-old daughter riding through the dessert sunset. I’m bumping up and down on a spring-loaded plastic pony and pretending to be Jane West, a famous cowgirl. Mom mutters, “I don’t know where she gets it from maybe she’ll outgrow it.”
Forty-eight years later, I’m still “horse crazy.” Only I’ve upgraded from the low-maintenance variety to ones that eat and eliminate 50-pounds of waste each day.
With the exception of one week each summer at Girl Scout camp, I was horseless until someone said to me, “Jennifer, you’ll always be saying ‘someday I’ll get a horse’ unless you do it now.” At 22, I saved my money until I had $1,000 to buy my first horse, Seasons, a five-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred mare.
One of the boarders at Jacqueri Oaks Stables asked me if I was going to take lessons. At that time I thought lessons were for people who didn’t own horses and provided them with a way to ride. Little did I know the importance of learning how to effectively communicate with horses in ways they understood.
That summer I stopped by the annual Brightonwood Dressage Show, in Maple Plain, Minnesota just in time to watch Kathy Theissen waltz with her horse Bullwinkle. The pair performed a musical freestyle in perfect rhythm. As if effortless, Bullwinkle skipped along the arena, changing canter leads with each stride. Then he powerfully soared along the diagonal in an extended trot, seeming not to touch the ground—all the while, Kathy smiled in pure delight while sitting that bumpy trot so elegantly. The teamwork, beauty and connection deeply inspired me.
From that moment on I was set out to study this form of riding called “dressage,” a French term for “training of the horse and rider.” This humane and natural training method produces balance, rhythm, relaxation, suppleness, connection and forwardness in the horse and teaches rider effective use of aids and riding position.
In 1988, I sold Seasons to a young girl who was just beginning her riding career. Later I fell in love with a five-year-old Thoroughbred/Trakehner named SeilTanzer. His loose, scopey movement had hang time, and his personality gelled well with mine. Indeed, this was the dance partner I searched for. Seili and I showed successfully through second level dressage.
The next few years it was like driving 65 mph through a Minnesota Spring riddled with potholes. My husband of 17 years left our marriage three days before Christmas. Then I lost my home, my good-paying job and Seili turned lame at age 13. Thankfully God gave me courage and strength to get through these dark and bumpy years.
And thankfully, the story didn’t end there. Several years later I remarried to a wonderful husband, Dan, and we moved from the city to a hobby farm and Seili recovered from his lameness.
By 2007, my grandma body felt like a rusty car with bad shocks when it came to riding Seili’s sitting trot. I liked the thought of a non-bouncy gaited horse. Yet I wondered if the dressage training methods I had learned on trotting horses would apply to the gaited horse or would I have to start over and learn a different style of riding? These thoughts ran through my mind as I searched for a new horse.
That Valentine’s Day, my husband surprised me with a black, just turning three-year-old Tennessee walking horse mare named Makana (Hawaiian for “gift”). She had 20 rides on her. In addition to her smooth gaits, I fell in love with her friendly personality, trainability, and striking beauty.
I couldn’t help but giggle in pure joy riding her: how can a horse travel so fast and be so smooth? Not only that, but all of my dressage training has translated beautifully in working with Makana in establishing balance, rhythm, relaxation, suppleness, connection and forwardness. There are differences in the gaits and the head nod from that of trotting horses, but the dressage training methods, rider position and rider’s use of aids still apply.
Have I outgrown horses? Certainly not, I am more horse crazy today than ever. And now with my Tennessee walking horse, and a horse-happy husband, I am enjoying a smooth finish to a bumpy beginning.