Chicago teacher learns at the foot of a mare


Thoroughbred mare Miss Spygon, who is renamed Ngugi, after a Kenyan writer, offers Chicago writing teacher Stefanie Rittner the lessons of a lifetime.

To speak the language of her horse. To listen, really listen; this was the higher-minded goal of Stefanie Rittner who entered into horse ownership five years ago.

“When I got her, I was finishing up my master’s in writing, and was studying a Kenyan writer, Ngugi, who didn’t like to translate his work into English … and the symbolism, for me, was that I had to learn her language,” says the 8th grade writing teacher from Chicago. “I had to respect her sense of identity.”

Last spring, in what you might call her mare’s classroom, Rittner received one of her most memorable lessons. As she struggled to fight her fear and allow Miss Spygon to rock back and move out into a smooth canter, she reflexively clamped her knees, tightened up, and yanked on the reins.

Wrong idea. Confused by Rittner’s mixed messages—not knowing if she should move forward or should stop, the tall, strong animal reared into the air, and flipped.

Miss Spygon
New name: Ngugi
Sire: Sultry Song
Dam: Spycial
Foal date: March 10, 2004
Down they came in a flurry of flying hooves, landing in a heap. Fortunately, both she and her horse escaped without injury. But the lesson was not lost.

“I was finally learning how to canter with her, and it was a step I just could not get. She’s so sensitive, and I could not get into the rhythm, and I couldn’t learn to let go of her face,” she says. “It was a huge contradiction to her, so she started tossing her head and spinning and finally she reared up.

“When it was over, she stood there looking at me as if she was saying, ‘Hey teacher, I’m confused.’ ”

The next day she climbed back in the saddle with a new approach.

“We walked,” she says. “I remember thinking that if all we ever do is walk around, then that’s what I’ll do,” she says. “It was a scary (accident) and I remember asking myself many times what I was doing here,” with “here” being the top of an opinionated Thoroughbred, a challenging place for a weekly lesson rider.

Enjoying that blissful moment after a good ride

Enjoying that blissful moment after a good ride

Rittner grew up around horses and as a child, had spent time taking riding lessons on her sister’s horse. And when she finished her master’s program and was well into her teaching career, she began once again taking weekly riding lessons at an Illinois stable.

After purchasing Miss Spygon in August 2011, and doggedly pursuing a sport that did not come easy for her, Rittner finally learned to canter, and is now doing so well that her coach has encouraged her to try small schooling shows this summer.

“I don’t have the traditional type of success story. I mean, who takes two years to canter their horse? But it’s okay that we are only now getting to the shows,” she says. “I’ve learned to listen to my horse … and she has taught me patience.”

15 responses to “Chicago teacher learns at the foot of a mare”

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  2. Stefanie Rittner

    Thank you, everyone, for your kind comments. Being a teacher, it seems to come naturally to want to set goals and place them into some sort of time table. It seems as though I am constantly fighting against some inner voice saying, “You should be ____. It’s been __ months!” It’s really frustrating to listen to that persistent voice in my head. Thanks for the reminder to just toss that time table away. It is true. Every ride I should be thankful that I am able to do what I do with Ngugi, even if it’s just a little flat work. The jumping is our latest challenge, and I really should stop fretting about it and just let it be. We will do what we can do, as long as we have each other.

    If anyone would like to follow our story further, I did start blogging about it 2 years ago… I have some good videos of us that’s kind of fun to compare.


  3. Susan Crane-Sundell

    Stephanie: You are so not alone. I finally got to the point where I didn’t look like a sack of shaky flour when cantering my horse and my teacher was pleased and so was I. A few lessons later she asked me to do it without stirrups and I gave it a try. The second time around the ring, I lost my grip a little, got panicked, relaxed my legs to lengthen them and adjust and I came off at a hurtling pace and cracked my hip bone against a solid concrete wall. Did I learn something? Absolutely. I got back up after six weeks of fracture recovery and did the whole thing over again, going in the opposite direction!

    If there’s a moral to the story, it might be, who cares how long it takes you to canter? You have done a noble thing, you have adopted an OTTB who you obviously care very much for and she loves you. Enjoy the beauty of the relationship. You don’t have to be Charlotte DuJardin to enjoy the time that you spend together.

    Just have fun and better to stay safe and take it slowly, than scare yourself and get hurt.Love the process and feel your way into the right path for you.

    I love your story. Enjoy every minute you spend with Ngugi!

  4. edna

    great story! I too can relate to all the above. I have a wonderful mare and have always been in a hurry since I’m an older adult who returned to riding after being away for years. We’re actually in a great place now, on many levels, and she’s 12 or 13 and has enough time in her life and mine to go where we want to go.

  5. Bree

    Working on year #4. Injury, re-training issues, pain issues on my mare’s part, sore feet and an abscess that took her entire frog off, extreme sensitivity, balance issues, one barn closing, moving to a new barn, weather, messed up arena, work issues for me, nerves & sometimes downright fear…you name it, we’ve had to get through it.

    Walking around the farm on a loose rein, the moment she understands just how much power she can put into her trot & still come over her back, the relaxed sigh, the awesome leg yield at the trot, the crunch of a carrot after an awesome ride…much more important. The canter will come at the right time.

  6. Wendy

    All things in their time. Set your own pace and enjoy your horse. I have a friend who owned her horse for SEVEN years before she cantered with him! It’s not that uncommon, especially for people who learn to ride when they’re adults.

  7. Anna

    *raises hand
    after getting dumped a few years ago and fracturing my hip in a couple of places, I still don’t canter my OTTB. We walk. Sometimes we trot. I’m not very good at the trot, so we work on that.

    Wise are those who learn to hear what their horse has to say!

  8. Kristi

    This story shows a rider having an epiphany that many thoroughbred owners never reach. There is no need to rush a horse into faster gaits. Usually I recommend the first months of retraining be walking only so the horse learns to be calm and that running is no longer the expectation day after day. Nice job learning to listen to your horse and communicate effectively.

  9. Patty Hamilton

    Stephanie, just love your horse. You don’t have to be a perfect rider. You can ride perfectly one day and maybe the next day not so perfect. Just enjoy each day with your beautiful mare.

  10. Debbie

    I had my quarter horse for 5 years, bought an trained him as a four year old and never once cantered him. Other people rode him and they did, not me.

  11. Deidra Darsa

    It’s taken us 4 years to get it together and now the weather is hampering more improvement. You are not alone.

  12. Michellle

    Right with you there. Just enjoy and don’t let peer pressure get to you.

  13. Colmel

    Congratulations! What a pretty mare! Isn’t it remarkable the things that we learn when we stop and listen through love to what our animal friends are telling us? The older I get, the more I realize that timetables just don’t matter.

  14. Margaret

    I’m working on year number 3 with my former race horse Salty Celebration (now Gordo). Your story is an inspiration.

  15. Carolyn

    Hi Stefanie:
    I loved reading your story. Who takes two years to learn to canter? *hand up in this corner* I bet we’re not alone. 🙂

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