Local Horse Riders Share Their Uplifting Experiences

Three local riders share how horses have touched their lives.

Our attachment to animals is undeniable. The comfort we get from playing catch with a young puppy or snuggling up with a purring kitten are moments we cherish, but there is something different about a horse—so large, so powerful, yet so calm. A well-trained horse is a steady partner, a rock you can depend on. If you talk with a horse owner, as we recently did, you’ll quickly understand what their relationship with their horse means to them.   A Childhood Love From a young age, Shelly Lafleur knew she would be around horses. Admittedly, she describes herself as “horse crazy” and thinks of her horse as part of her family. Her love affair began as a little girl when she would visit her godparents, who had horses. She has fond memories of feeding the animals hay through the fence posts. With that, the seed was planted. Lafleur knew even then if she put her mind to it, she could have a horse to call her own. By working hard at the local golf course, she was able to save up to buy her first horse when she was just 14. Now, Lafleur is 56 years old and riding her seventh horse, a purebred Arabian named Cody. Stabled at Ox Yolk Stables in Maple Plain, if Lafleur is not working, she’s spending time with her horse and dogs. With Cody, Lafleur still takes riding lessons once a week. Her focus lately has been practicing dressage, a style of competition riding that requires the horse and the rider to be in unison (you may have seen it during the London Summer Olympics). For Lafleur and Cody, dressage and the corresponding competitions further equestrian skill and enjoyment of riding. When the horse and the rider are in harmony, the rider can shift her weight slightly and the horse responds in turn, deepening the relationship between horse and rider.     One Decorated Rider Four years ago, Hannah Nelson started riding on “lesson horses” and soon found a connection with Dandy, a male quarter horse. Nelson began taking lessons on Dandy about once a week as she was learning about the world of horse riding, but she soon fell in love. Her family later bought Dandy as Nelson continued to progress and further her equestrian skills. Early in her lessons, she began competing in two different styles of riding, Western and English pleasure. Similar to dressage, these types of competitions require the horse and rider to communicate through subtle movements of the rider and through aids like reins. Nelson’s practice regimen is intense; she practices at an indoor arena in the winter and on groomed trails and an outdoor arena in the warmer months. But you won't find Nelson complaining. This is clearly a labor of love for her. Nelson loves the sport, partly because she is very talented. At last year’s State Fair, she took home 18 ribbons in the quarter horse pleasure show. However, the important part for her is the relationship with the horse. When she visits Dandy, Nelson doesn’t jump into the saddle and start riding; there is real work in owning a horse. She tends to his needs—brushing him, removing stones from his hooves and cleaning his stall—before taking him out for a ride. For Nelson, her time with Dandy has given her more than respect and love for horses; it has changed who she is. Dandy has helped transform her through those awkward teenage years into a confident and caring person with aspirations to be her own stable owner, and she already has good start. At RideSport Stables in Hamel, Nelson participated in horse camps and is now the lead counselor teaching other kids everything she knows (and loves) about the horse experience. She also spends time training horses. Nelson has immersed herself in the equestrian community and enjoys spending time with other riders as much as she enjoys her time riding and caring for Dandy.   A Healing Horse For others, a horse can mean something else entirely. Lyle, a beautiful male Appaloosa, has been a source of comfort and healing for the Patnode family.  Long before meeting Lyle, Sarah Patnode remembers spending time with her uncle’s quarter horse Fancy. When she would visit, she’d love connecting with the horse for hours on end. But growing up meant fewer and fewer trips to her aunt and uncle’s house, and less time with Fancy. However, the connection she shared with Fancy was never forgotten—a kind of pure interaction that made her feel whole and happy. Last year, Patnode and her husband were overjoyed when they learned they would become first-time parents of a baby girl, so Patnode was devastated when she lost the baby in a miscarriage. She knew she needed help getting through this difficult time. One day, on a recommendation from her brother, she watched a documentary called Buck about a horse whisperer. The feelings from childhood came rushing back, and she knew had to see what it would be like to ride again. When Patnode first met Lyle, he was shy and cautious. Patnode was hesitant to ride him because he was much bigger than Fancy—1,150 pounds, compared with 750 pounds; in fact, he was bigger than any horse she had ridden. However, they quickly bonded and she has been taking lessons with Lyle for just over a year now. Lyle has helped Patnode revive her childhood love of riding horses, but he has also done much more. He has been a source of joy, a source of reflection, and has helped her break barriers in her recovery. The experience has been a true revelation for Patnode. “I didn't realize how therapeutic horses can be” she says. As she continues her lessons, Patnode often thinks about how she has responded to the relationship she has with the horse, and how something so simple can be such a positive influence, day in and day out.& Several stables near Plymouth offer opportunities for people to engage with horses. In addition to offering boarding services horses, they frequently have horses available for lessons. If you are interested, the stable owners will make sure it is a safe environment for you as well as the horse. Before riding, it’s important to get to know the horse and for the horse to get to know you. You will work with the trainer to do the full tack up: groom, put on the saddle pad and saddle, and the rest of the equipment before you ride the horse. This is all part of the riding experience and an important step to ensure you have an enjoyable experience. Several stables in the area offer other riding experiences, including weeklong horse camps and birthday parties. Most recommend that the youngest riders are no younger than 6 or 7 years old, and should wait until 11 or 12 before going out on a trail ride or beginning more serious lessons.   Pegasus Riding School, Medina, 763.478.6472; pegasus-riding-school.comRideSport Stables, Hamel, 612.747.0621; ridesportstables.com Ox Yoke Stable, Maple Plain, 952.955.1611; oxyokestables.com Jacqurei Oaks Stables, Maple Plain, 763-478-6472; jostables.com