A Leap Of Faith And The Mustang Who Landed It

May 21, 2019 - 2:11 PM

It’s 2016, and I’m knee deep in political coverage. I wake up at 2 a.m., am in the newsroom by 3 a.m., heavily caffeinated by 5 a.m., and rushing to the control room by 7 a.m. I live in New York, the city that never sleeps, and I wonder how long I can keep it up.

On paper I should be happy. Twenty-three in a network news job, mixing with all the movers and shakers. I know a promising future awaits, if only I could convince myself to want it.

Everyone around me is positioning themselves for a post-election promotion. Some want better hours, time in the field, or editorial control.

Me? I want to quit my job, move across the country and ride horses. But hey! Who doesn’t?

The difference is that I have a real job offer to do just that. A new dressage facility in Northern California is looking for a manager. I took the interview as an excuse to see wine country, but they liked me. They want me. And I can’t possibly accept.

This isn’t something that someone like me really does. I am a Division 1 volleyball player, turned network news rising star. I am a top of the class, type-A achiever. Sure, I’m horse-crazy, but aren’t I supposed to grow out of that? This is a daydream, a sweet idea. What I really should do is hunker down, climb the ladder, and become an executive by age 30, right? It’d be much more on-brand. A sensible storyline for my rock star résumé.

But sometimes the head can’t convince what the heart knows. I make the leap, give my notice, and off I go.

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Following the 2016 election, Meghan Laffin left the broadcast world for a barn management job. Photos Courtesy Of Meghan Laffin

A Lesson

I arrived at my new job excited and empowered. I’d really done it! Here I was at this gorgeous facility, an achiever turned adventurer. I had it all figured out.

And then I took my first dressage lesson.

Breaking news: I did not have it all figured out. In fact, I wondered if I knew anything at all.

The farm’s owner and head trainer, Wynne Fassari, was demanding and persistent. “You’re falling to the left! Bend your elbows! Where’s your outside rein? No! You’re falling left again! Stop collapsing your waist! That’s it! That’s better! No. No. No. Now you’re too rigid. Inside leg, more inside leg. Stop collapsing your waist! Inside rein. That was too much. Chin up. Good girl. Keep it. Keep it. Outside rein! A little more leg. Stop squeezing! Let go!”

Then came the longe lessons. Weeks of them. No stirrups, arms stretched out, hips struggling to find a rhythm. I experienced soreness in places I didn’t think muscles existed.

It took months before I had any sort of breakthrough. I was riding a 19-year-old schoolmaster named Quinci. He knew all the tricks through Intermediaire II, but he kept them under lock and key—available exclusively to the perfect combination of soft hands and positioning. I was beginning to scratch the surface when disaster struck.

Cellulitis in his left hind erupted quickly into a septic hock. He was rushed into a long surgery with all the odds against him. We swore that if he just pulled through we’d let him live his days as a happy, lazy, pasture pony. He must’ve heard our offer. He survived and transitioned beautifully into retirement.

A Rescue

I could tell that Wynne felt bad for me. Quinci’s injury was no one’s fault, and we were both just happy to have him home. But she had promised me lessons as a perk to my job. With Quinci out of commission, I didn’t really have anything to ride. Or so we thought.

Living out in the pasture were two geldings that Wynne had rescued from a feedlot in Colorado. They arrived around the same time I did, probably equally amazed by their good fortune. Both had been at risk of slaughter.

One was an 8-year-old Quarter Horse named Jeremiah. A medicine hat pinto with blue eyes and a sweet, subdued disposition. The perfect trail horse.

The other was a mustang pony named Jasper, who was completely feral. He’d been the victim of a Mexican rodeo tradition that involves roping and tripping horses. At the wise old age of 4, he’d been chased and tripped enough to know better. He wasn’t trusting us humans again, and why should he? The skin on his legs was raw and bloody, stripped clean by the burning tug of a lasso.

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After the mistreatment he’d suffered Jasper wasn’t too keen on human contact.

Any quick movement and he’d bolt. Eyes wide, back lifted, prancing around the field. It was like a stealth mission just to catch him. Carrot in one hand, lead rope in the other.

And if the halter took stealth, the bridle took a barricade.

He was so defensive of his ears. They’d clearly been grabbed, pulled and yanked. We’d get the bit in his mouth, point him at a wall, and prepare to run. As soon as the crownpiece grazed over his ears, we were off.

The routine was tedious. Thirty minutes to catch him. Pause for treats. One hour to brush him. Pause for treats. Approach him slowly with a saddle. Pause for treats.

By the time we got to the round pen, I’d worked straight through my lunch break, and he’d hit his carrot quota for the month. This was not advisable for his waistline, but it was exactly what we needed to win him over.

A Realization

Positive reinforcement gave Jasper a game to play where winning was actually possible. Because let me be clear, there is no winning in horse tripping. No dignity in shoving a pony into a chute, spooking him, chasing him down, and pulling his feet out from underneath him. Jasper had no chance. No opportunity to be a good boy. Which as it turns out, was all he really wanted.

Jasper learned my voice commands first on the longe, and then in the long lines. I’d carefully enunciate, “Can-ter!” and off he’d go. Chewing the bit proudly as I cooed, “Good boyyyy.”  The time had finally come to leave the round pen.

Long lines in hand, I trailed just beside Jasper’s left flank as we made our way to the outdoor arena. His eyes began to widen. I tried to reassure him with my voice, “What a grown-up boy you are, Jasper! Here we go. Almost there. Walk on.” I stared closely at his face, willing him to relax.

And then I tripped.

I didn’t faceplant. Not at first. I just fumbled awkwardly and loudly enough to make Jasper’s fears come true. A loud scary human was chasing him again. He bolted. And for a few seconds, I waterskied. Then I let go, and then I faceplanted, obviously.

Anyone with a young horse knows that the training progression is slow. It’s a staggering step forward, a shimmy to the side, two steps back, a faceplant, and then a leap. So in that moment, I got up, took another 30 minutes to catch my pony, and prayed for a leap.

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Working with Jasper meant a lot of time spent on the ground earning his trust before Meghan Laffin ever put a foot in the stirrup.

Astride

The first time I rode Jasper, it was comical. I am 6 feet tall and 75 percent leg. He is a stout 14.2 hands and all neck. Whatever apprehension I had about backing a horse for the first time vanished. My feet were nearly dragging in the dirt.

Even still we took every precaution and proceeded slowly. Lots of treats. Lots of pats. Lots of wondering if bolting was going to be Jasper’s thing forever. But he didn’t bat an eye. He didn’t bolt; he didn’t buck. Within a week we were doing walk-trot transitions. Then some canter.

His confidence grew quickly, and so did his gaits. This chunky little pony suddenly had suspension. When he finally loosened his poll and came on the bit, Wynne and I cheered so loudly you would’ve thought he’d done his first Grand Prix.

We got a saddle from Dresch that managed to fit both his short back and my long legs, and we were ready to enter our first show.

An Honor

The ups and downs never stopped. We got to our first show. Did a lovely first level test. Halted, saluted, and realized Jasper still had his boots on. Disqualified.  At the next show we had a woman in a sunhat come check his bit. But to Jasper, that sunhat was a cowboy hat. Flashback to rodeo tripping days, and we enjoyed a nice little bolt to the other end of the arena. But we kept going. Kept giving carrots. Kept reassuring. Kept learning together.

And today there is nothing, not a single accolade on that rock star résumé of mine that has made me as proud as this pony.

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Aboard her unlikely partner Jasper, Meghan Laffin has earned all of the scores for her USDF bronze medal.

As a 6-year-old, Jasper scored over 74 percent in first level. In 2018 he earned a slew of ribbons, high percentage awards, trophies, and even National Dressage Pony Cup honors.

The judges can’t help but smile when we salute at X. Everyone asks, “What is he?” and “Where did you find him?” We share his story and walk away with a new friend and additional member to the super pony fan club.

And just when I’m sure we’ve peaked, we grow. Me, a tall girl from New York. Him, a little pony from a feedlot. In early 2019 we debuted at third level. That’s right guys! Flying changes!

Competing solely on Jasper, I earned every single score for my USDF bronze medal, and we did it in a year.

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Jasper has transformed into a winning dressage horse.

But perhaps more importantly, I can now cuddle and kiss the soft spot behind his ear. In the pasture, he runs to me. His eyes are soft and trusting, and anyone is safe on his back.

I pray that my journey with Jasper can continue forever. We still have a lot to learn, but it will come. It will take treats, and it will take patience. It won’t be rushed; it won’t be forced, and it won’t always come with fistfuls of blue ribbons. But it will be a better life. Both for me, and for the mustang who landed my leap of faith.

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