It was Saturday at 4:30 in the afternoon and my family visit was almost over. I had one more day until I packed my bags and caught a flight home. In the morning it drizzled but by afternoon the clouds parted and the sun shown down upon the rich green landscape. We drove out to meet Michelle Ruff along a twisting road which led through evergreen forests dotted with pastureland in the foothills of Hazen Valley in Washington State. We arrived, meet Michelle Ruff and walked into the cozy ranch office.
“My goal in teaching children to ride is to make the experience pleasurable. If Hunter becomes afraid or feels uncomfortable with the horse and wants to get off then I stop the lesson. I have learned that going slow and explaining the horse to the child is the best way to give a riding lesson. Years ago, the first child I taught was a little girl. I just put the girl on the horse and I lead her around. I noticed after about 10 minutes that she was holding her breath. So I stopped and asked her if she was ok. – The little girl let out her breath and said, ‘I feel ok now but I thought I was going to puke!’ Her mother who was watching asked, ‘Do you mean you felt like you were going to throw-up.’ ‘No!! I thought I was going to really PUKE!’ – After that experience I realized children need a slower approach to horseback riding. I make sure that the child isn’t scared and is having a good time, otherwise their first lesson with the horse isn’t going to be enjoyable,” said Michelle.
“It makes sense that you explain what he should expect during the lesson,” replied Jessica. “We want him to have a good experience.”
“I have a lot of fun working with children. A group of pre-teen girls help out with the stable work and we go on trail rides together,” said Michelle. “Horses are a good self-esteem builder as well as aiding in the development of a child’s work ethic.”
“I noticed on-line you also have a horse therapy program,” I said. “Back home I volunteered for a program that helps mentally challenged individuals, which I found personally rewarding.”
“Yes, it’s called Summit Equine Assisted Therapy. We have therapy programs that include at risk youth, autism, marriage and family, PTSD, and grief management,” said Michelle. “It’s amazing to see how horses can help people.”
Michelle lifted a helmet from a closet, turned to Hunter and said, “Horses are big animals and we need to make sure that we are safe when we are around them.”
“I know it’s good to be safe,” replied Hunter as Michelle helped him try on the riding helmet to make sure it fit.
We walked through a small stable and entered another barn where a palomino Quarter horse was patiently waiting. Michelle picked up a halter and lead rope. She showed Hunter how to put the halter on the horse.
“This is Gary,” said Michelle affectionately patting the horse’s neck.
Gary was a very gentle horse. He stood quietly as Michelle put on the halter, led him out of his stall and hooked the crossties. The palomino stood patiently while she retrieved a couple of brushes from a tack box. She handed Hunter a brush and they began to work on the horse.
“We always brush the horse before we ride,” she said instructing Hunter on its use.
“When we work with horses Hunter, we have to be careful and not jump around. They are bigger than us and can accidently hurt us if we aren’t careful,” said Michelle running her hand along the horses back.
The horse was ready to saddle. Michelle explained how to put the blanket on, lifted the saddle onto Gary’s back, and explained the importance of the cinch in holding the saddle on the horse. Michelle retrieved a bridle from a nearby hook and showed Hunter the bit. She gently pulled the horse’s lips up exposing Gary’s big, long teeth and gums.
“The bit fits in the space behind the horse’s teeth and rests against the tongue. It’s very important to remember not to pull too hard or jerk on the bit because you can hurt the horse,” explained Michelle.
Hunter and Michelle walked the horse into a large enclosed round-pen, just the right size for a young person’s first ride. They walked the horse around the enclosure.
“Before we get on the horse we want the horse to ‘blow out’ so we walk the horse until he is relaxed and expels air from his lungs. Then we check the saddle and tighten up the cinch before we get on,” explained Michelle.
Michelle brought the horse to a stop, checked the cinch, tightened it and led Gary to the mounting block. Hunter stepped up on the block, put his foot in the stirrup and swung on. Michelle showed Hunter how to hold the reins in his left hand and let his right hand rest on his thigh; then off he went on Gary. Michelle walked beside the horse talking with Hunter and helping him guide the gelding; after that it was time for Hunter to try riding on his own. Next, Michelle explained how to make Gary walk in a figure eight which helped Hunter practice turning the horse.
“Would you like to trot Gary?” asked Michelle looking up at Hunter.
“Ok,” said Hunter sitting up straight not sure what to expect.
“Give Gary a kick and say trot,” replied Michelle stepping away from the horse.
Gary trotted a few steps with Michelle jogging alongside, and then the horse went back to a walk. Michelle made sure Hunter wasn’t scared, and after that they trotted again. Michelle worked with Hunter and the horse until she was confident that he felt at ease on Gary. It was time to go outside for a short ride. Michelle walked next to the palomino as Hunter rode down a long dirt road leading to the front gate. Dad, Mom baby Dylan and I followed. Near the front gate, in the wide parking area in front of the ranch office Hunter stopped the horse.
Matt was holding baby Dylan when Michelle turned to him and asked, “Would you like the baby to have a short ride?”
Matt thought for a moment and replied, “Sure.”
Michelle handed the horse’s reins to Jessica while she hurried to the ranch office to retrieve a small riding helmet. Jessica, Matt and Michelle fitted the helmet onto baby Dylan’s head. Michelle instructed Hunter to scoot over the saddle’s cantle to give room for his brother to sit on the horse with him. The palomino was surrounded by adults as he slowly walked in a circle. Dylan’s parents each placed a reassuring hand on the baby and walked close to the horse. The baby smiled and gurgled and held tight to the horn.
“When people ask me how long I’ve been riding I’m not sure what to say since my first ride was as a baby,” said Michelle bringing the horse to a halt.
“That’s the same for me. My older cousins had horses and whenever we visited they put me up on their horse and rode around a little bit,” I replied watching baby Dylan lifted from the horse by his father.
It was time to put Gary back in his stall. Hunter rode the horse up the sloping hill to the barn. In the barn, Michelle hitched the horse to crossties and off came the saddle. Michelle and Hunter brushed the gentle palomino, and then lead him back to his stall.
Michelle turned to Hunter and asked, “Would you like to feed the horses?”
Hunter smiled and said, “Ok.”
He picked up an armful of hay, walked to Gary’s stall, and placed the hay in front of the horse, after that, he feed a grey pony and another horse. The job was done and it was time to leave behind the horses, barn and round-pen. The sun was shining and the birds singing as we walked back down the hill towards the ranch office to return the helmet. The office was cool and pleasant when we stepped through the door. The black helmet was returned to the cabinet and Hunter’s first ride came to an end. Matt and Hunter stepped outside to feed grass to the horses in a nearby pasture.
Michelle, Jessica and I chatted for a while and then Michelle asked, “Do you think Hunter would like to volunteer to brush the horses?”
“I think he would love to,” said Jessica smiling.
“Give me a call and we’ll set up a time,” said Michelle. Her voice was as warm and friendly as the day had been.
We walked to our vehicle, hugged and thanked Michelle and started the car engine. Michelle opened the gate for us, and we waved good-bye as the car pulled out of the Ruff Ranch driveway. Hunter’s first ride was a delightful and heartwarming experience for us. Will he become a horseman? Only time will tell.
For more information about Russ Ranch take a look at Ruff Ranch Stables