It is a small not particularly spectacular wooden plaque with a black metal front etched in gold.
“Presented to Robyn Redpath.
For completion of Heart-Centered Horsemanship’s Practical Apprenticeship Program
Among all the photos of horses, inspirational sayings, and certificates on my office wall, this is the one that still evokes both a swelling sense of pride yet also a cascade of mixed emotions even now, so many years later.
Everyone knows that little girl who is horse crazy. She reads every library book about horses, draws ponies endlessly, and prances around her backyard neighing and tossing her head being the showjumper in her mind. I was that little girl. I “rode” my horse (a fallen tree) down the back of our home in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney Australia, for endless hours practicing my jumping position and envisioning gold medals.
The log was the only horse I ever owned for years. We were pretty poor and a horse wasn’t in our budget. I had to scrounge the occasional ride from friends or watch enviously from the sidelines as they went to Pony Club or left to go on trail rides.
Life happened, I grew up and moved to America, found a career, and got busy with marriage and then a second when the first didn’t work out. Finally, at the age of 32, I bought the first horse I went to look at. Soon I had five of them. Like a castaway who has finally been rescued and devours every meal as if she may never eat again I desperately consumed every opportunity to learn and indulge my passion.
I have never been a talented or brave rider. The lack of opportunity to learn properly as a child probably had a lot to do with that, although highly athletic or daring feats were never my choice in any activity. But when I noticed the six-month horse training apprenticeship being run near where I lived in Montana, it became something that taunted and teased me, something I wrestled with through the dark hours of the night for weeks.
It was crazy, really. My husband was dealing with depression so deep that at times he was suicidal. He refused to get help. Part of my life was consumed with trying to keep him alive. And a large part of my life was consumed with trying to keep myself alive. Crohn’s Disease, an autoimmune condition that mimics living with a permanent stomach flu periodically made my life hell. Agonising pain, chronic diarrhoea, crippling fatigue, and the possibility of hospitalisation at any time were the norm for me. I had almost died from it several years before and had been through two surgeries so that was always in the back of my mind, and still is.
To participate in the course, I would be travelling and riding through all of the above, as well as sleep deprivation which was accentuated by my shift-work as a 911 Dispatcher. Could I survive six months of eight-hour lessons every Saturday together with a four-hour drive each way, hauling my horse back and forth, and hours and hours of “homework” each week ready for the next Saturday?
And anyway, who was I to think I could become a horse trainer? I had only owned horses for a short time. I wasn’t seasoned, wasn’t talented, and certainly wasn’t brave in the saddle.
I signed up. Like I said, it was crazy.
And it turned out to be one of the hardest things and one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I don’t know which the hardest part was, the actual apprenticeship or doing it while battling my health. It was just plain nuts.
Ron and Kathy Valentine, the course instructors, were incredibly gracious and, because I was travelling the furthest, let me come down Friday evenings and stay in their spare bedroom and put my horse in a corral. It was a good thing that the guest quarters were on the opposite side of the house to them because between my nerves, the Crohn’s, and the stress in my life at the time, I spent little of the long nights in bed and most of the time in the toilet having massive diarrhoea. I’m glad I didn’t disturb them; in fact, they didn’t even know. I hate pity and I rarely told people about my private life back then.
The bad thing was that I was a wreck by the start of class the next morning, but the good thing was that by that time there was nothing left to “eliminate”, if you get my drift.
The Valentines were certified trainers in the John Lyons method. These days there are clinicians and trainers by the hundreds across the U.S., but at that time there were very few who had hung their shingle out in a big way to teach their specific methods to a broader audience. Lyons was one of the first. I had admired him for several years, especially when I saw him in action in Kentucky the year before, and I loved his gentle and logical methods of training horses.
The apprenticeship programme went for six months, from spring to autumn, and was designed to teach you how to take a horse from completely unbroken to a good all-around horse who was ready to specialise in a discipline. Your mount didn’t need to actually be unbroken, but you had to go through all of the steps as if it was. The horse I chose to take was Faith, a stout buckskin Mustang who I had bought as a completely wild and untouched two-year-old and done most of the work on myself, following the Lyons training methods from books and videos. She was pretty scared of other people, but she trusted me most of the time and I guess I hadn’t done too bad a job with her to that point.
On the first day of the course, after the usual introductions and greetings, Ron and Kathy demonstrated round-penning techniques with one of their horses. Inside turns, outside turns, getting the horse to face you, they were masters of this, although I did think I had a pretty good handle on it from working with Faith. Then they said they wanted us to do 1000 outside turns (where the horse is moving around the pen and changes direction by turning outwards towards the fence) and 1000 inside turns (horse changes directions facing you in the middle, which is more difficult for them) by next Saturday. A thousand each! That’s 2000 altogether. Without tiring our horse or overdoing it mentally. Week one and once again I was wondering at my sanity.
But home I went and out into the round pen every chance I had, between shifts and stomach cramps and running back inside to the toilet. I practiced my inside and outside turns until Faith would change directions calmly and precisely at the mere hint of a signal from me. I got 1000 of each done and my horse didn’t hate me yet. Round-penning horses, especially with these many repetitions, is more controversial these days but it was the hot thing back in 2002 and I thought I was a pretty cool round-penner. I must have done ok because next Saturday morning, once again with no sleep, in a lot of pain, and with a completely empty digestive system, I demonstrated my technique and the Valentines ticked that item off their list of things I had to do to get through the course. Week one done!
The next couple of weeks were a little less intense, although it pretty much consumed my life and meant training and riding in any weather and no matter how I felt. But I was determined, and it gave me respite from the constant worry about my husband and my health and the stresses of my job. As someone whose life was spent looking after everyone else, it felt empowering to be doing something just for me. I have a lot of talents and many things come very easily to me, but this was something I wasn’t naturally gifted at, and mastering something I actually had to work at was hugely rewarding.
The great thing was that I wasn’t the only one being stretched way out of my comfort zone. A couple of the students were already accomplished horsemen but most of them were like me, women who were fulfilling their passion by learning to train their own horses. Everyone was challenged. One dropped out, the work and the difficulty too much for her. I completely understood. And nobody at the apprenticeship knew of my private life. This was my escape; I didn’t want to talk about the other part of my life.
Then came another crunch week. By this time, we were riding our horses and the Valentines showed us another technique called “giving to the bit”. This is where you put a little pressure on the rein one rein at a time and wait until your horse stops pulling against it and relaxes a little thus putting some slack in the rein. It teaches horses not to pull on the bit, and to be soft and responsive to any signal from the rein. Our homework task? 3000 gives on EACH rein. That’s 6000! In a week. That’s hours in the saddle. Between running to the potty and getting about five hours of sleep each day. It was going to be a long week.
Of course, the 6000 “gives” is based on an honour system because they weren’t there actually watching and checking, but they did advise us that they would know by our horses’ responses (or lack of response) if we had done the required number or not.
Faith did get a little sick of me that week, but I did them, all 6000 of them, and the following Saturday (you guessed it, exhausted and empty) Faith and I walked around their arena showing how soft and responsive she was, and we passed another task on their list. I was pretty proud that week because you really could tell those who hadn’t put all the work in and my little Mustang was one of the best there.
It got really hard after that. The tasks got more and more demanding and, as we graduated to trot work and then canter exercises, my lack of confidence surfaced. To be honest, at times I rode terrified and, looking back now wonder how I did it and why I did it. I think the fact that it was my haven of sanity in an increasingly mad existence pushed me along, for a while anyway. But eventually even my sanity came into question.
At one point I got really sick. I couldn’t keep anything in, my gut was so inflamed that it hurt constantly, and there was the chance I would have to go into hospital for a while. Instead of that I was put onto Prednisone, which is a medical steroid. Some people can take it ok, but I had been on the drug several times before and the side effects seemed to worsen each time. Some of those are physical and some are mental and emotional. I had never had any kind of mental illness before, but the drugs made me have mood swings, from mania to depression. That’s not ideal when you are also supposed to be looking after a depressed husband and handling a sometimes life-or-death-decision job. The swings became more and more pronounced and, while it did help the Crohn’s, it made the rest of my life pretty much hell after a while.
Everything came to a head at possibly the worst time in the course. It was getting towards the end, probably in about the fifth month of the apprenticeship, and I was riding for hours each day trying to master difficult concepts. One day things weren’t going well at all and I was at my wits end, feeling useless and like a complete failure. I stopped my mare and burst into tears and then a voice told me to go get my gun and just end it all. I went from crying to shaking in terror in an instant. It shocked me to my core. I had never been suicidal, never heard voices, and had always been one to fight. Recognising that it was the medication talking, I vowed on the spot that I would get off the Prednisone as fast as I could and avoid it at any cost in the future. I haven’t taken it since, except for very short periods and at very low doses; that experience scared me so badly.
And still I didn’t quit, although I did back off some on the intensity after that. I worried a little less about getting things perfect, took a little more time to rest and enjoy my beautiful Mustang, and thought more about why I was putting myself through all this agony. And I still had no good answer to that.
Was it because I’d had the dream of becoming an accomplished horsewoman for so long? I’m sure that was a good part of it, but the cost was so high at the time. There are many other people I know who pay higher personal prices to reach their dreams but really, can you compare yourself with them? Everyone’s battle is their own. So I don’t think that was the whole story for me.
Was it because I was so determined not to let this crappy (pardon the pun) disease beat me? That was probably part of it too, although there have been times since the apprenticeship that have been far easier but when I did give up, for a while anyway. So that’s also not the entire picture.
Maybe it was that the course was my crazy kind of sanity; something just for me when the rest of life seemed to be going totally against me. It grounded me and distracted me from hell, although it also often contributed to the hell as well.
Whatever it was I will never, for the rest of my days, forget the feeling when I walked Faith out of the Valentine’s arena for the last time. I was privately crying (because nobody gets to see me cry and I felt like an idiot for being so emotional anyway) and completely overwhelmed by…I didn’t know what. I had finished. I had made it. I wasn’t the best horseman in the group, but I certainly wasn’t the worst either, but I didn’t care. I had done it.
That night, as we had an awards ceremony at a local restaurant and the trainers handed me my plaque, the emotion was there again. I think I got it then, why this struck such a deep chord in me. This was one of the most difficult challenges I had ever set myself. It wasn’t some random curve-ball that life had thrown at me. I dealt with those because I just had to. It wasn’t even one of the crises I handled in my job; hostage situations, child drownings, shooting.
This was something I had chosen to do, and I had seen it through against crazy odds. This was my choice and I had done it. Even now I’m not sure why that made such a difference, but it did. I’d done something completely and utterly for me, because I wanted it and for no other reason. This was one-hundred per-cent mine to own and to celebrate.
That plaque has moved with me across the world. My depressed husband is still alive, but the marriage didn’t work. I burned out on 911 and decided to return home to Australia. Faith is living out her life in a huge paddock in Montana as a companion to another horse. I still have horses, am still nervous to canter, and I still fight Crohn’s every day, some days more bravely than others. Fourteen years later that apprenticeship is still one of the defining moments of my life.
On a bad day, I look at the award on my wall and remember that I can make it through. On a good day I look at it and remember that I can not only just make it through, I can do pretty cool things. On a great day I look and remember how empowering it is to do something for myself, for no other reason than it is my dream, no matter how crazy. Crazy is sometimes a good thing.
In fact, it can be a bloody great thing!