Tiva has been working hard this summer, if not to fit into a bikini, then for something infinitely better: a saddle. There had been talk of Tiva meeting a saddle from the beginning. Even in those earliest days when she was a wild creature, pinning her ears and cowering in fear, we held a vision of her in tack, small in the back of our minds, but no less clear for it.

Over the last year and a half, Tiva has been preparing to wear a saddle. We have spent countless hours with the flag, with the tarp, with the rope — touching, patting, petting. In this horsemanship, we are always trying to ask the question of not what the horse can do, but what she can’t, and work on those spots that present themselves. Over the months, Tiva’s ‘can’t’ spots have become more difficult to locate (this doesn’t mean they’re not in there, but rather they’re less obvious). She still has a changing eyes issue, and has a much harder time turning loose to her left eye (she’d rather keep you on her right), but knowing where she began and seeing her now, it’s difficult to even believe she’s the same horse.

So after a particularly good session with the tarp one evening, one that included flapping and draping and crunching and really most other verbs you can imagine being done at the intersection of a lightweight, crinkly object and a horse, we made the decision to saddle her. There are always variables to these scenarios, and plenty of unknowns that we can’t account for, but Tiva felt about as prepared as possible. After nearly a year of working together, hours and hours of work, it was time.

We took it quite slow, checking things out and then re-checking them out. We threw the saddle on, something she had since become accustomed to, and walked her around with it on her back, bringing the cinches down and snugging them up, touching her with the stirrups and other saddle parts to gauge her reaction. Throughout it all, she remained calm.

Then, the moment of truth came, and we cinched her up. She stood quite still for the entire process, and when she did get mildly bothered, we able to find comfort in a pet on the neck or face. Once the cinch was up and tight, it was time for the moment of truth. While yes, Tiva did not pull any shenanigans while being saddled, or during those initial moments after when we walked her around a few steps on the line to make any last-minute adjustments before letting her loose, Tiva had already had some practice standing with a saddle and walking with a saddle from all our prep work. It was the moving out that concerned us, as it is very difficult, I’d say even impossible, to safely replicate the feeling of a saddle and all of its parts squeezing and moving and rattling at a gait faster than the walk. So as we undid the halter and stepped carefully away from Tiva in the round pen, we crossed our fingers that all the work we had done to get her to this moment would be enough to get her through it.

Sending her loose at the walk was fine, and when we bumped her up to the trot, she was ok there as well. But when she hit the lope, as often happens, she grew bothered at the strange object on her back, and gave a good half-circle of bucking before settling back down. She was having a difficult time moving up and down smoothly through the gaits, clearly feeling a bit stuck, so that first day we worked on helping her find peace with the saddle and an ease of movement. Aside from that first round of bucking, she was clearly bothered by the stirrup in her off eye, and gave a few kicks at it as she went around. But we helped her line out by catching her attention before she became too engrossed with what was happening in her off eye, and by the end of the session, she was moving out with a lot more freedom and a lot less anxiety towards all of the saddle’s moving parts. After a little more work, we pulled the saddle off, told her how very, very proud we were, and put her away.

The next day, she was just as easy to saddle as the day before. She was also smoother moving up into a lope, and while she still showed signs of being bothered by those pesky stirrups, she did not feel inclined to buck.

Since that day, she has been regularly been wearing a saddle, something that will soon become second nature. We have been working on pushing her a bit further each time: purposefully moving the stirrups to get her used to it, using the flag and the tarp with the addition of the saddle, sending her out loose and having her change eyes on the rope, mostly all things she has done before, but now with an added element. And Tiva, smart and quick to learn, is doing great. It may still be a little while before she is ready to carry a rider, but with the work we are doing, when that day comes, hopefully she will be just as prepared as she was to wear her first saddle!