DARBY - When Carol Hansen came to Darby horse trainer Larry Townsend for help with her horseback riding, they both knew that the problem wasn’t a lack of basic riding skills.
The problem was fear.
“I’d never seen anybody as afraid in my life,” he said. Hansen had been clotheslined by a low limb when she failed to control her mule after it startled and took off. She escaped serious injury, thanks in part to her helmet, but before that incident she’d had one major injury, and years’ worth of accumulated frights that added up to a powerful aversion to doing something that she’d once loved.
“I was scared to death to ride, and not having fun,” she recalled. That fear was countered, however, by her determination not to lose access to the backcountry that she and her husband, Jim, had been exploring on horseback for years.
The Hansens ride gaited mules, a cross between a mammoth jack and a Tennessee Walker mare. “They are the kindest, gentlest mules,” Townsend allows, but they’re also smart, and they can’t be bullied. Hansen had developed some bad riding habits, and had transmitted that to her mount.
“The mule thought she was doing it right, but they neither one had the tools,” Townsend diagnosed.
Over a period of months, Townsend coaxed Hansen and her mount into reconnecting as a team, and riding confidently in country that she once would have found too challenging.
Hansen is eager to tell people about Townsend’s remarkable talent for helping riders who’ve been injured or traumatized, to get back into the saddle. “This guy does magic,” she said.
Townsend, 69, broke his first horse at age 6, and has trained world champion horses and riders, specializing in speed events such as Cowboy Mounted Shooting, barrel racing, and team sorting and penning. Nevertheless, he heaped praise on Hansen.
“I deem Carol one of my greatest accomplishments,” he said, returning the compliment.
Riding, he explained, is a team event. “You’re working with a living, thinking being,” he said, and riders need to be consistent.
While Hansen and her mount, Stella, needed to work as a team, so did Hansen and Townsend, and neither was entirely sure at the start if they would be good partners.
“I couldn’t imagine someone of that caliber wanting to work with a novice,” she said. Townsend, who had known the Hansens casually for years, took her on with the understanding that if it wasn’t working for either of them, they could call off the arrangement at any time.
“Let’s get you back to the places you want to ride,” he told her at their first interview, and compatibility was never an issue again.
“Everyone knows fear,” Townsend said, explaining that “you’ve just got to give them the tools not to be afraid.”
Townsend isn’t a believer in any particular training “method,” either for horse or rider. He approaches each case individually, deciding sometimes through trial and error, how best to get the desired result.
In Hansen’s case, he took a two-pronged approach, separately working with both Hansen and her mule.
Though Townsend’s horses compete in specialty events, he trains them for all-around work, whether it’s sorting cows, timed events, or trail work. “They all know what a pack saddle is,” he said. “It’s not just an hour a day training session in a sandbox.
“The hardest thing I do is to train horses for the mountains. They have to see more things – moose, bear, birds flushing,” he asserted.
In the mule he found a willing animal that wanted to please, no matter how much he asked of her. “The ‘I-don’t-want-to’ button just disappeared,” he grinned.
In Hansen, however, he found a student who was “lost.”
“She didn’t have all the information she needed,” he said, and Hansen concurs.
“When I didn’t handle it [the runaway] I locked up, I was befuddled, and I lost my confidence,” she admitted.
Townsend coaxed her along, at first in the arena, then out in a pasture, always on gentle horses that wouldn’t challenge her, teaching her to be consistent with her hands, her weight, her eyes, and how to tell the horse to put their feet where you want them.
His goal was to build up her confidence, in spite of her own reservations about her progress. “The only way a rider who’s afraid gets better is through confidence,” Townsend knew, so he never put pressure on Hansen, and kept the lessons light-hearted.
“She has a good chair, she sets well on a horse,” he observed, giving her a good foundation. “Pretty soon, she realized ‘I do ride well,’” he said, and that she had “the tools to control this jackass.”
She began to want more from her lessons, and a turning point came when she took her mule up Coyote Coulee, approaching a spot that she knew to be troublesome. “The mule spooked, and Carol just picked her up, moved her sideways, and put her where she wanted her. That’s when she realized, ‘I’ve got the tools.’”
Having trained champion riders, Townsend still regards Hansen’s return to the saddle as his greatest accomplishment. “The part that was so much fun about Carol, that was absolutely a blast, is that she never told me why she was doing things wrong. She never wanted to explain, she just changed it.
“I put every ounce of me into every lesson, and I don’t want to waste time or money,” he said. Some students want to tell him why they’re doing something wrong, or try to tell him why they’re right; Townsend doesn’t have much time for that.
With Hansen, student and teacher were as well-matched a team as Hansen and Stella have become.
Rider and mount proved themselves last summer, leading on the trail and successfully negotiating several days in Yellowstone’s backcountry.
“It’s fun when it all kicks in, it’s so rewarding when you put your leg ‘here’ and the mule is responsive,” Hansen said, and she now has the confidence and the tools to maintain control and ride through anything she’s likely to encounter.
For his part, Townsend said the difference was Hansen’s willingness to listen, and to make changes – but he might’ve meant to include Stella in that assessment.