Submitted by Jessie Dowling

I spent most of November 2022 with Martin Black at Shoofly in Bruneau, Idaho, working on my horsemanship skills in preparation for the Mongol Derby,  the longest and toughest horse race in the world. The Mongol Derby is the Mt. Everest of horseback riding. It’s a 1,000 kilometer multi-horse race across the steppes of Mongolia, loosely recreating Ghengis Khan’s 13th century postal route. For 8 to 10 days in August 2023, I’ll be riding thirty different Mongolian horses about twenty-five miles each.  I’ll be staying with herding families along the way. Riders are limited to carrying only about 11 lbs of gear and  the use of a handheld GPS to navigate to the next horse station out on the Mongolian steppe; self-navigating around bogs, over mountains, crossing rivers, arid dunes, forests and wide-open steppe.

I live in Midcoast Maine and have a small herd of sheep and goats. I make cheese and run a small meat and dairy wholesale distribution business but my first true love was and always will be horses. I have three horses, two of which are small draft crosses that I’ve raised from 6 months old and trained myself. They’re 11.5 now and I just bought a 10 year old Arabian in August to help with my Mongol Derby training.

After being accepted as a competitor in the 2023 Mongol Derby, I immediately began asking folks where I should go to train. A friend suggested I ask Kim Stone about riding with Martin Black and I immediately signed up for four of Martin Black’s Fall Sessions in Idaho. Idaho’s landscape is similar to Mongolia in that there are wide open spaces that stretch for miles without fences. It was my first time riding without a set trail; first time riding western; first time riding thoroughbred crosses; and first time riding very tall horses. One of my biggest goals was to gain confidence riding green unfamiliar horses and hopefully learning how to confidently ride some spicy horses, bucks and all!

I opted for the more rustic of the accommodation options and had the privilege to stay in the dugout which made me feel like I was getting the real Idaho pioneer experience. It’s cave-like with stone walls and no windows except for the skylight. It was equipped with a small wood stove, a huge bed with a comfy bed roll, a rocking chair, and decorated with old rodeo flyers. The dugout is definitely not an accommodation for the faint of heart as I found a baby snake inside one day. I also came home with some impressive welts on my legs that took over a month to heal, compliments from some unidentified insect.  I’d stay there again on my next visit without hesitation. I stayed warm and dry in the dugout even though it was about thirteen degrees Fahrenheit outside when I would get up in the morning. I would go for a run to warm up and then make breakfast in the outdoor kitchen. Martin’s apprentice, the cowboy in training, would always get a campfire started in the morning and after breakfast we’d start every day chatting about what we’d learned, and make a plan for the day with Martin.

On my first day I was assigned a gorgeous four year old dapple grey thoroughbred quarter horse cross named Trinto.  I was bucked off within three minutes into my first ride.Did I mention I know nothing about western style riding? Clearly I was annoying Trinto with my attempts to pull back on both reins. I now know that is never a good idea, especially with horses who have been raised without someone constantly pulling back on their mouths. While the cowboy in training was gawking at my poor riding which quickly landed me on the ground, his horse Champion unexpectedly took off handing him a similar fate falling off as a result of a broken hackamore. So we both had to fetch our horses and get back on. Everything went a lot smoother after that. We went over Martin’s eight exercises which have completely changed my understanding of how to disengage the hind and how to move the front end.

Southwestern Idaho’s landscape is stunning to say the least with it’s high desert,  canyons and goliath rock formations in all directions. During my first session there were two other women riding with me; one from Montana who brought her own horse, and another who came for two sessions all the way from Belgium. On  the first day we rode southwest to Jack’s Canyon. At the bottom of the canyon we could see several dead antelope. It was not clear why they fell, but we were determined to avoid following their lead. On the way back to the ranch, Martin taught me how to get Trinto to do an extended walk. He also showed us how to keep the horses from getting sore backs on the long rides by taking a break to loosen and lift their saddles for a few minutes.

The next day we rode north to the Shoofly Oolite, which are whimsically shaped rock formations light tan in color that look like animals and. humanoid stone sculptures and faces.The formations are from the Jurassic era when the entire region was at the bottom of a giant lake. On the way back from Oolite, it was, by far, my favorite ride of my entire stay. I rode behind Martin through a brush filled, dried up stream bed,  Martin set a fast exhilarating pace. We darted around bushes and  sharp turns. I felt like I was in the coolest video game but it was way cooler because it was real life!

One day Martin took us to his tack shop in Bruneau. It’s like the cowboy cavern of wonders with all things needed to be a true cowboy. There were  ropes, hackamores, mecates, and even a an entire room of ornate antique bits. It was there I bought some of Martin’s books, thereafter spending the evenings either by the campfire or reading about horsemanship. A couple evenings I hung out with other students and watched old Tom Dorrance videos. I really enjoyed reading Cow Horse Confidence.  Even though I don’t work with cows at all, I found it extremely helpful reading in addition to what I was learning during the day.  My most challenging day was  in-between sessions when Martin let students ride solo. The day started out fine and I took Cobra up to the arena for an hour or so to practice the eight exercises. In the afternoon, I wanted to take Trinto out for a solo ride and I couldn’t get the bridle on him. For three long hours I tried practicing what Martin had taught me, getting his head down and making him feel comfortable but I just couldn’t seem to get my timing right. I eventually ended up admitting defeat and putting him back for the day. The next day Martin gave me another tutorial and I was able to successfully bridle Trinto for the rest of my time there. Another challenge I had while I was a Shoofly was catching Trinto in the morning when he was out with the herd. Several times it took me almost an hour to catch him. By the end of my stay I could catch Trinto without too much difficulty. Martin says that to catch a horse you have to find the balance point and this is where that saying of “Feel, Timing, and Balance” really comes into play.  I’d be lying if I told you I’ve mastered this but I think I have a lifetime ahead of me to work on understanding these concepts.

One of the highlights of my time with Martin was having the opportunity to put the first few rides on Martin’s mules, Poncho and Lefty. During that particular session another participating student, who is a professional mule trainer, was there so it only seemed fitting to focus on mules for a few days. This was my first time ever riding a mule and I got to put the first ride on Poncho and the second ride on Lefty. We started with Poncho and Lefty in the round pen. I was on Poncho and Martin’s apprentice was on Lefty. Martin was  horseback and moved us around the pen and we practiced steering and a few minutes later we left the round pen and headed for the large field on the way up the canyon. I was immediately terrified because of my english conditioning to grab and pull on the reins, but after several corrections from Martin, something finally clicked in my head. I finally grasped hold of how to steer in an effective way that has completely changed my riding style and my confidence.

On the second mule day I got to ride Lefty and I was ahead of Martin and the other rider on Poncho heading up the canyon.  Lefty was doing such a great job steering and I was feeling more comfortable, but as I looked back Poncho was bolting and the apprentice took a hard fall. Poncho disappeared back the way we came looking for his herd and I was so glad that Lefty didn’t seem to notice that his friend had disappeared and like a pro I rode Lefty behind Martin and his horse back to the stable. Poor Randolph, the apprentice, had to walk back on foot and had a very sore shoulder afterwards. Shoofly’s nearest town is Bruneau. Idaho. It’s a real cowboy town and as an eastcoaster, I’d never seen real cowboys before and I honestly didn’t even realize that cowboy culture was so alive and kicking in the present day. The only bar in town is called the Cowboy Pastime and it is complete with a large wooden bar, elk antler chandelier, pool table, and photographs of cowboys of the past, many of whom are Martin’s relatives

I had the extreme fortune of being in town for two giant events for the little town of Bruneau. The first was “Cowboy Christmas” where the entire town from the Cowboy Pastime all the way to the elementary school is taken over by little tents. They sold all sorts of cool antique cowboy paraphernalia from reatas to haute couture for the modern cowgirl; from cheesey rodeo themed sweatshirts and mugs to food trucks with pulled pork, tacos, and margaritas. I even found a local Idaho cheesemaker at one of the booths! The second event was a huge wedding next to the Cowboy Pastime. It spilled over into the bar where I got to meet a lot of the local cowboys and hear so many thrilling cowboy stories late into the night until Martin drove us home close to 1am. For a small town, Bruneau gets very lively!

One of the most popular activities that Martin has his students do is the hot heels. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a plastic bull with hind legs that bounce as Martin pulls it with an ATV. It’s used primarily to practice roping and you can rope either the horns or the back legs. But it’s also really useful for practicing your riding skills. It’s kind of like reverse jumping, as in you are stopping suddenly as if the horse just refused a jump. As with bucking horses, stopping fast requires the same technique. Sit back deep in the saddle and push,(don’t pull) on the saddle horn if you have to. Trinto liked to buck when we started going fast behind the hot heels and I really had to get my own fear out of the way before I could relax and ride better fast stops. It really started to sink in from this experience that horses don’t normally buck for no reason and the real skill is figuring out what’s causing the horse to buck. In my case  I was getting tense and sending him mixed signals. Over and over again I am learning that if I can just get myself out of the way, the rest is simple.

Now that I’ve been back riding on my own for a few months, I feel  that the biggest takeaway from the fall sessions was that I learned to listen better to my horse. Martin says the horse is the best teacher. In the past, I’ve always micromanaged the horse’s face in fear that the horse might take off if I wasn’t constantly pulling back on the reins. But because Martin convinced me to“not pick up the phone unless I had something to say” I now ride with way less contact than before and my race-brain Arabian doesn’t run off with me. In fact, I think he’s calmer and easier to communicate with now that I am no longer constantly messing with his head. It was such a simple thing to change, but it’s made a world of a difference in my communication with my horses. The other takeaway was realizing that although I’ve been working on getting the pressure and relief amounts adjusted, sometimes if the relief isn’t working, there may just not be enough pressure. Some days I would take Trinto out for solo rides, especially on the off days in-between sessions and we would explore the canyon and the directions around Shoofly Ranch. I practiced cantering in the sand draw,  about a mile long stretch of good sandy footing which is a great place for speed work. Martin said  that’s where his uncle used to start training his race horses.

One of the things I appreciated the most from the fall sessions was the personalized nature of the clinics. Martin really lets the students choose what they want to learn. This is how we ended up working on navigation when there’s no clear trail and descending and ascending steep inclines. The backing-up-a-hill exercise to get the hind end underneath was crucial to these activities. On the last day Martin took me for a ride heading west to the next canyon over. We practiced choosing the best routes over the desert terrain which was often following the existing cow trails. He showed me how to use landmarks as reference points for navigation like mountains, rocks, fences, canyons, and old rusted forgotten metal things. A helpful tip for orientation is that lichen and moss always grow on the north-side of rocks.

At our last morning campfire chat we talked a lot about the preparation for the Mongol Derby. This led to some hilarious stories of a rodeo event that Martin participated in consisting of racing down a steep canyon. This was one of several rodeo stories that ended up with Martin taking a ride in an ambulance.Martin  had some great tips on the fundraising portion of my preparation for the derby (All Mongol Derby competitors have to fundraise as part of their participation in the race). Martin put me in touch with Meggan Hill McQueeny who runs a nonprofit called BraveHearts, a therapeutic horseback riding center in Illinois. The center offers equine-assisted services and therapies for both children and adults, in both recreational and medical services. Martin actually does a horsemanship clinic there every year. After speaking with Meggan on the phone about BraveHearts, it became instantly clear that this was the organization I needed to fundraise for  part of my journey to the Mongol Derby. What really caught my attention about BraveHearts was their Veterans Program which is the largest veteran equine-assisted services program in the nation. BraveHearts runs a program called Trail to Zero,in which they ride through cities including New York City, bringing awareness to the staggering suicide rate amongst veterans. The programs available at BraveHearts show how the healing power of the horse can be a factor in aiding mental health issues and that is why I have chosen this organization to fundraise for. As part of my training and fundraising, I’ll be visiting
BraveHearts during the Martin Black clinic there this April!

Here’s a link to find out more and to donate to this amazing organization:
You can learn more about me and my journey to the Mongol Derby here