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.
New name: Ngugi
Sire: Sultry Song
Foal date: March 10, 2004Down 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.
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.”