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Hay Burners
Dan Wegmueller

The best part of my job is that I get to pair each rider with the perfect horse.

I have my mother to thank for this. She rode her beloved horse Tootsie all over the farm. Tootsie was a retired therapy horse that my mom picked up for 500 bucks — a paltry sum of money for a well-trained, rideable horse. Whereas my dad dismissed horses as “hay burners” and a waste of valuable pasture, my mom would spend many happy hours each week with her beloved Tootsie. Oftentimes, the horse would grow weary of my mom’s quiet pampering. I watched from across the farm as Tootsie would stomp her feet, toss her head, and otherwise act begrudgingly about having to work, when she would much prefer grazing lazily on pasture all day.

I would tolerate this belligerent behavior for only so long. My mom’s niceness and saintly patience actually enabled Tootsie’s demeanor, and eventually I would drop what I was doing and walk purposefully in her direction. “Uh oh”, as my mom would say — “Now you’ve done it!” Completely fearless of this horse’s attitude, I would pick up her feet, tighten the cinch, and go for a ride. For me, Tootsie delivered every gait when asked, with the extra burden of carrying my additional 120 pounds of bodyweight over my mom’s. By comparison, anything my mom asked of her should have been a piece of cake! As a result, Tootsie acted perfectly for at least two or three days afterwards. And then, it was time for yet another attitude adjustment.

Horses are extremely aware animals. Biologically, horses are prey animals, with eyes on the sides of their head, and naturally prone to flight when threatened. Thus, everything about the way horses look at the world is designed to determine whether or not they are in danger.

Humans, by contrast, are predatory beings with eyes on the front of our head. When we approach a horse, it is the equivalent of a predator approaching its prey. Everything about the way the horse perceives the human is designed to determine whether or not the horse is in danger. Thus, horses read our body language. They look at our posture. They can read facial expressions. They can hear a human heartbeat. Horses can understand verbal commands and possess a superior level of navigational intelligence.

Taking the relationship one step further, horses are uniquely spiritual animals with a collective consciousness that transcends the passage of time. Meaning, when a human walks around the corner to introduce themself to a horse, that horse already knows more about the human than the human knows about themself. This intuitive awareness makes the horse extremely effective at therapy work and offers a level of introspection that is deeply personalized to the individual.

Would you like to hear an example?

One of our regular horseback riders is a preteen from the city of Madison. Her dream is to one day care for a horse of her own, and in the meantime, soaks up as much knowledge and experience as she can while visiting our farm. One of our older but still capable horses has taken her under his wing, even building her up to trotting and cantering on command. He patiently picks up his feet for her and lowers his head so she can slip on the bridle.

She describes how this horse has visited her in her dreams. How she looks up to see him standing outside her window. In her dream she walks outside, climbs onto his back, holds out her arms, and he gallops away, carrying her with him bareback. In this dream she is neither frightened, nor intimidated. Rather, the experience empowers her.

Of course, the individualized experiences can be humorous as well: On one trail ride, I hosted a group of friends that brought a young rider that, for lack of a more diplomatic way to say it, was exceptionally bratty. Nothing was good enough for her. Nothing was quite right. I paired her with the sweetest old horse we had; a spry old mare that I thought, at least up until this day, possessed unlimited patience.

On the trail, the girl constantly interrupted and disrupted our ride. Nothing was interesting enough to engage her. The horse was too old. The saddle too big. There were too many bugs. It was too hot. The arena in the city was better. Those horses were fancier. Being on a farm was dumb.

About halfway through our trail ride, without warning the mare turned around and marched all the way back to the farm. The little rider protested and screamed. She tugged on the reins and kicked at the stirrups, but there was not a thing she could do to turn the old horse around. That mare marched all the way back to the farm and parked herself at the hitching post, refusing to move until the screaming rider dismounted. The horse’s actions were neither dangerous, nor malicious — she never kicked, bucked, or tried to bite. It looked identical to a parent marching their tantrum-throwing child out of a grocery store, and the rest of us could not help but laugh.

One of my instructors followed her back to make sure everyone was safe, but I will tell you this: I could hear that rider’s bratty screams from a quarter-mile away, and I have never more proud of a horse than I was that old mare on that day.

Tootsie would have been proud.

— Dan Wegmueller is the owner of Wegmueller Farms and his column appears regularly in the Times. His website is