Riding on the Ranch with Bella

My parents never bought me a pony when I was growing up.  In fact, I didn’t really learn how to ride until I was 20 years old.  Even now, I’ve never competed in any kind of equestrian show.  When I was old enough to branch out into the world on my own, I found the Colorado Mountain Ranch in the foothills of Boulder, where I proved that I could work hard, learn fast, and literally get back on the horse when I fell. I also proved that I could pass the knowledge of natural horsemanship on to others. I’ve now been with the Ranch for 10 years, where I instruct weekly riding sessions with young, advanced riders, while simultaneously helping to train new horses for the kids’ program.

Ranch Life with DogsMost of the boys and girls who come to the Ranch have taken riding lessons in enclosed arenas their whole lives, but have never ridden in an open range sans fences, where environmental factors immensely impact your ability to keep the attention of your horse.  Others have limited to no riding experience. On each ride, we spend about two hours exploring hundreds of acres of territory on Colorado’s beautiful Front Range.  My young riders learn confidence, sensitivity, discipline, and awareness of other beings. They learn to become in tune with weather systems, terrain that could potentially endanger their horse, how to walk, trot, canter, and move over obstacles in the field.  I could go on and on about how working with children and horses have changed my life, but that is a whole other blog story.

You are probably here because you are interested in dogs!  Bella began joining me on rides about two years ago.  I didn’t know how she would react to me riding or the horses themselves, but for the most part, it all came to her quite naturally. It was me who needed some training.

What follows is a list of FAQs I frequently get about having Bella on the Ranch with me. We have about 50 horses on the Ranch, and on any given ride I might have as many as 30 people on horseback in my care, most of whom are inexperienced riders.  This leads to challenges when I have Bella with me. Dividing my attention between my own horse and my own safety, the safety of the other horses and riders around me, instruction, and Bella, can be challenging and mentally exhausting at times.  Initially, I even left Bella at home a few times because the stress of all of these factors together became too much. It has taken a couple of years, but we are finally pretty dialed in when it comes to working at the Ranch together.

Q:  Does Bella spook the horses?

Ranch Life with DogsA:  Not really.  The horses at the Ranch are pretty thoroughly used to dogs.  Rarely, Bella does surprise them when she leaps out of tall grass behind a group of riders or causes our flightier horses to startle when she leaps for a treat I toss to her. However, we teach people that learning how to sit and deal with a spook is all part of riding in the open range.  If it’s not Bella that spooks them, it’s bound to be a flapping tarp, a grouse, building materials in the grass, or even a bobcat or deer. We all learn how to adapt together and deal with unexpected stressors, just like in real life outside of the Ranch.

Q:  Are you worried about her getting kicked?

A:  Again, the horses are used to dogs and are very tolerant of Bella, even when she walks around their legs.  I’d be more worried about her getting between two horses that don’t get along and getting hurt by accident.  Out of our 50 horses, there is one I’ve seen slowly raise his back hoof to Bella, so I pay extra attention when he is a horse out on my ride. Anytime you are around horses, being kicked is a real danger, but as you get to know the horses and get to read their body language, your chances of injury are greatly reduced.  It is the same for Bella.  She is very aware of the horses’ body language and definitely knows what an angry horse face looks like:  bared teeth, pinned ears. When she sees those signals from a horse, she quickly gets out of the way.  The first time I cantered on a horse with Bella, she ran after us barking.  It’s taken some time, but she’s gotten a lot better with that issue.  That’s a big safety concern that I needed to address right away, for both Bella and I.  I’m not going to pretend there are no risks at the Ranch, but for the most part, Bella seems equipped to avoid them.  We do have pet insurance for her just in case.

Q:  Are there any other health concerns you have for her there?

A:  In addition to regular heartworm medication, we annually treat Bella for tapeworm, something that was recommended to us for dogs who are regularly around livestock. Bella oftentimes gets little cuts and scrapes on her paws and nose from digging in piles of old metal while searching for rodents, and actually took a few layers of her front paw pads off doing so this summer. That took about two weeks to heal.  Keeping her hydrated in the dry heat is something I pay close attention to since there aren’t a lot of natural water sources around.  Finally, the first time we had a group of farriers up and I had Bella with me, she filled up on hoof trimmings and then threw them up for DAYS.  It was actually a little frightening.  Now I keep her tied up and away from the action when the farriers are around.

Q:  Does she have a particular job at the Ranch?

A:  Not really.  Although, sometimes I camp around the corrals during my four-day-a-week volunteer periods. I do need Bella when I camp by myself to warn me of predators and odd human prowlers (we have encountered both of these) . For the most part, Bella comes to the Ranch as my companion, a rare privilege not usually offered to staff.

Q:  What did you do to train her to ride with you?

Ranch Life with DogsI focused on the simple command, “Bella, come!”  I have to be loud so she can hear me over longer distances and over the wind.  It’s really important that I can gain her attention and that she comes immediately, because when she chases after animals or wanders off, I can’t leave my clients to go get her back.  Horses tended to follow each other, so if I head in one direction, I better be ready for most of my crew to follow me. It’s not really an option to have everyone wait while I go get Bella back. This summer, we made a couple of big changes. We started using a remote collar that beeps, so that even if Bella goes out of sight a hundred yards away, I can still get her attention by pushing a button that causes her collar to beep.  When she hears the beep, she knows that I’ll give her a treat when she comes.  I keep a small ziplock of freeze-dried treats in the small mesh pocket in my front saddle bags, and quickly have access so that I can toss her a treat the second she comes to me. This system not only helped get Bella back when I couldn’t get a visual on her, but vastly decreased her response time. Now, the beep and one command gets a virtually immediate response from her, even with tempting small rodent distractions around.

Q:  How does she do with the kids?

Great!  Bella loves kids and all of the attention they give her.  By the end of the week, nearly all 200 kids who come through for the day program know Bella’s name.

Q:  How does she do with the other dogs?

Bella has known the other Ranch dogs for some time now. The are slightly protective of the Ranch but have never caused any issues with Bella. It’s fun when all four dogs come out on rides together!

Q:  What types of gear does she need at the Ranch?

Bella doesn’t need a lot of gear at the Ranch, usually her Stunt Puppy collar, remote collar, a bowl, and some treats suffice. However, we are out in the elements, so we keep a stash of extra items in the barn.

  • Remote Collar: Gives an auditory beep when farther away, lets her know I need her to come find me even if she can’t see or hear me.
  • Treats:  Small Batch freeze dried meat treats
  • Ruffwear Swamp Cooler: Not rugged enough for constant use on the Ranch, and gets very dirty in this environment, but on blazing hot days is imperative, even if just for between rides.
  • Ruffwear Water Bladder: I carry this in my saddlebags for Bella, since there are almost no natural water sources on our rides.

Ranch Life with DogsNow that we are heading into fall, the campers leave but Pat and I continue riding for several more months.  We ride out nearly every weekend to check on horses that spend their fall a few miles up the road in our 300-acre fall pasture. It’s so special to us that Bella is able to join, and we never take it for granted.  Although there is some risk when we take her into this environment, we know that she loves coming along and wouldn’t want to deny her of these opportunities for fear of injury.  By having a few basic gear essentials for her and always having an eye out for her wellbeing, we know that the happiness she gains from being with us on horseback rides far outweighs the risks.