Unwrappable Gifts between Horses and Humans

Giving of the most meaningful kind comes in unwrappable packages of time, attention, listening, and guidance. We humans often substitute these gifts with rings and things. But the gifts you can’t box, I’ve learned, are the most valuable and the most empowering. They build on themselves. They are boomerangs of energy, looping back to the giver. They are ripples of good will.

This is a story of gifts and gift-giving.

Peppermint Patty was meant to be a grandchild’s pony. She was meant to stand passively as kids banged their legs against her flanks and yanked on her mouth. Like many poor ponies profiled by size alone, she was meant to tolerate that innocent kind of cruelty. When she bolted with one grandchild and sent another into the fence rails, the grandmother was hell-bent on teaching Peppermint Patty some lessons.

I learned of this unfortunate arrangement while working one day at the barn where the pony lived through her unfortunate days.

At the time, I had a little Shetland pony that I’d inherited from a neighbor when the neighbor went into a nursing home. I got to thinking: while thankfully too small to ride, the Shetland still could be that lovable, lead-around pony that the family desired. With a swap, Peppermint could get out of her doomed-to-fail predicament.

And so it was arranged. The stout, black and white mare came to my farm, joining two horses from similarly unlucky backgrounds.

We had a rough start. I came off Pep twice in the first two rides, showing the same kind of imprudence she’d experienced for years: She’s just a pony. I’ll just jump on.

No ground work.

No preparation.

No connection.

No saddle.

The change of barn and handler (For starters, I could catch her in the field while the former owner had had to lure her with grain into a stall.) made her life better. But the bigger fix wouldn’t be so simple.

I studied her. A fireball in a little package. A smart, sassy equine whose athleticism and intelligence h

Steve Peters
Photo by Beau Gaughran

ad been squelched at every turn. An animal whose distaste for humans ran deep, stewing below a perky surface. Amazingly, she still wanted to connect; I could see guarded willingness and curiosity behind her antics.

With a bruised ego and bruised back, I took a new approach She’d get out as a ponied pony. We went for miles in Maine’s backwoods. We went on road trips. We hiked. She got lots of new experiences, on a lead line with my big PMU mare. She got to sweat, run, swim, roll, and hang out.

It was progress and I felt I’d helped her. But I lacked the skills and confidence to do more.

Then came another gift.

I’d met Steve Peters a few months prior. He visited us in Maine, bringing his saddle, his horsemanship, and his interest in helping. He taught me to embrace Pep’s need to move. He taught me to direct her instead of trying to stop her.

In practice, this looked like many, many big circles of trotting and loping. It was fast rides in fields and on the beach. I learned to sit deep and stay off the reins.

Internally, it was just as exciting. I was facing fears, tamping them down, facing more fears, and replacing them with new skills and confidence.

Over many months, thanks to Steve’s guidance, we experienced positive change. The pony no longer bolted at the smallest miscue. We moved from snaffle bit to bosal. I became a lighter, smarter, more confident rider (a benefit that paid dividends with other horses, too).

Pep now stepped to the gate when she saw me setting out tack. Over six years, we’ve ridden thousands of miles in Maine, Iowa, Utah, and Colorado. She’s a Go-To girl.

This summer, I noticed another development. When I bring her out of the pasture and start saddling her, Pep enters a brief, intense period of relaxation. Her eyes nearly close and her lower lip goes flappy. She lowers her head and cocks a back leg. I like to think she knows she is safe and that good times are ahead.

How do you bundle confidence? How do you bow tie that buoyant feeling of being okay with oneself and with each other?

Witnessing her change over the years has been a tremendous gift, a boomerang that has looped back to warm my heart. In a similar fashion, Steve’s gift of knowledge and support has reverberated well beyond that simple riding lesson years ago.

So as I mull over shopping lists and stocking stuffers, I’m taking a moment to consider and appreciate gifts we can’t fit under the tree.

Happy Trails and Happy Holidays


Posted in Reflections.


  1. Great article Maddy! This is where good horsemanship is at, allowing the horses to become more confident in what we are willing offer. I too feel blessed in knowing more from the counter part to Steve’s teaching (in EBH) with Martin Black. It has been great that the two connected in TX and then again in Florida to help so many. The lessons have become invaluable in my ability to learn and feel where each horse needs to be.

  2. Beautiful, Maddy. Just beautiful. The woman can write.
    You are one of the gifts to my life, just as you were to Pep.
    Happy belated b-day – thought about you all day yesterday, just failed to connect in time.
    As ever, MJC

  3. I really enjoy all of your writings,Maddy…but this one ,in particular,really hit home.I have a young mare who has been very well trained by a wonderful young cowboy here in Maine.He is now helping me learn to ride her with confidence….she is very forward….a trait young cowboys love….50-something pleasure riders…not so much!!The one line in your blog that is ringing in my ears….”direct her instead of trying to stop her”….those words were just said to me during my lesson a few days ago! The speed intimidates me and I tend to grab the reins instead of change direction of circle her…..I am trying so hard to do better!!! Thanks for the inspiration!!

    • Thanks, Gail! Good luck with your journey. I’m so glad you’ve found a savvy trainer and also happy that the mare found you. Happy trails and enjoy stretching your comfort zone!

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