Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Red Cloud and Ronnie

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On the last full day of our family vacation my daughter was interested in going horse back riding. We got a recommendation from the concierge where we were staying and off we went. My wife had taken my daughter down the Alpine Slide the day before while I stayed with Grandma so it was my turn to have an experience with my seven year old.

I may have been on a horse once before in my life, but somehow it seems very vague and distant and my only conclusion is that it must have been a memory that I have suppressed. I wonder what happened on that ride that I have no memory of it. So I have to say it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that we lined up on the porch of the horse ranch and the wrangler who was going to lead our expedition started asking each of us in our group of 11, who were going to ride, about our riding experience. When they asked my daughter, I jumped in and said that it was to be her first time on a horse, as I wanted to make sure she got a nice gentle steed. He asked her if she wanted to ride by herself or if she wanted to have someone lead her horse. She wanted to ride by herself, she answered without hesitation. The wrangler then turned to me and asked about my riding experience. I did not want to brag about my vast riding experience as I wanted a gentle horse as well, so I indicated to him that I had seen a horse once – in a picture, and if they would just tell me where to insert the ignition key, I am sure I would be just fine.  The wrangler, with a bit of a grin on his face, looked at me as though he had something in mind. “Ronnie for the sweet youngster”, he yelled into the barn, “and Red Cloud for her dad”.

Ronnie was the first to emerge from the barn. He looked like a nice, gentle horse, with a small saddle just the right size for a seven year old. My daughter jumped onto a stump that was there to give a boost up, and then in a blink of an eye she was sitting in the cat bird’s seat, with a big grin mixed in with a small look of concern on her face. Red Cloud came next. He was big, about the size of my Grand Cherokee, and about the same color too. I am sure I had a look of concern on my face as I thought about how in the world I was going to get on this animal. I wondered if I could just lead him on our walk. I am pretty sure I saw cowboys doing that in the movies, where in a tender moment of bonding they walked by their horses heads, having conversations about where the next watering hole might be.  But no, I was expected to perch on top. Without any shame, I decided to use the stump as well to help me get on the horse, as I wanted to make sure I avoided a groin injury, in case the Yankees called on me to pitch in the next home game.

I swung my leg over and was surprised to find myself in the saddle rather then on the ground on the other side of the horse. Well that wasn’t too bad, how hard could the rest be? Red Cloud turned his head to look and see who was sitting on his back. He gave me a look that seemed to indicate that he would appreciate it if I lost a few pounds. I scratched his neck in an effort to generate some good will. Red Cloud seemed to sense that I was a neophyte and decided to immediately take advantage. He took a few steps towards a mare that was standing by the fence. I thought that this other horse must be a friend and he was just going over to say hello. Like a couple of old neighbors who hadn’t seen each other in a few weeks, he was going over to chat about how their various rides had progressed. “Hey, how’s it going?” Red Cloud would whinny. “I’ve got this chubby New Yorker on my back; you have any interesting riders lately?” And she would whinny back, “No, not really”. One of the wranglers, jerked me back to reality, “Keep Red Cloud away from that other horse” she shouted, “he is just trying to get close to her and is annoying her. See how her ears are pinned back? She is about to throw him a kick.” “Just great”, I thought, I am going to be sitting on Red Cloud as he tries to mate with another horse. I had to ask what I should do to get Red Cloud to move away from his potential bride and she yelled over, “Pull on the reins!” After a few futile attempts a wrangler came over and led my horse away. So far so good, we were still in the yard, not having begun our ride yet. 

They lined us up; I was immediately behind my daughter who was beginning to look more and more comfortable in the saddle. We were second and third in line immediately after our guide and off we went. We took what looked to be a narrow dirt path up the side of the hill and began climbing towards the ridgeline of the mountain range we were on. I was expecting a nice tour for about an hour, but we began to climb through thickets and some wooden terrain. My daughter was now getting very comfortable, bouncing around in her saddle, yelling back to me to watch out for this obstacle or that one.

Red Cloud meanwhile had some other things on his mind – like eating grass at every opportunity. He knew who was boss and he knew that it wasn’t me. I began though to get the hang of rein management; how to hold the reins in order to get the horse to do what you wanted. Sometimes it worked.

I noticed something. The path we were on was significantly worn; in fact it was more like a rut. At some points the rut was 4 inches or so below the rest of the ground and at other points the rut was a good 12 inches below ground level. I thought to myself, “How many times have horses traveled this same path with tourists on their back?” I asked the guide at the head of the line if the horses could do the tour without any guide, given how many times they must have made the same trek. He answer affirmatively, he thought that most of the horses if turned loose would follow the script. Humm…I’ve got a horse so used to routine that it does not need a guide. What would happen if something out of the ordinary happened, how would the horse respond? Should I put it to the test?

Just then we broke out of the brush and found ourselves on the top of the ridgeline and were treated to expansive views of spectacular wide open plains with a stream meandering through, about 1000 feet or so below us. The guide yelled back that this was the National Elk Refuge that we were now seeing, winter home to 5,000 or so elk. The view was out of this world with abundant wild flowers around us, but the path was very narrow and should the horse fall, or just decide to brush me off, it was going to be a long way down. I decided it was time to come to some kind of understanding with Red Cloud. I indicated to him that if he kept me on his back and did not stumble on any of the rocks or tree roots that were in our path that I would not pull up on the reins the next time he wanted to stop for some grass. I thought that it was the least I could do for a horse that now had my life in his hands or on his hoofs as the case may be. Red Cloud turned his neck to look at me as I talked to him and I am pretty sure that I saw him wink in the affirmative. A Faustian bargain had been reached. 

We continued on our spectacular tour and I began to think about how organizations can get into ruts, running on autopilot in an extremely routine fashion. Along the way they might try to mate or merge with other organizations, they need sustenance in the form of products or services; both delivered to customers and received from suppliers. But even when operating in this fashion they have the potential of delivering some really spectacular results. But what happens when the non-routine occurs, I had to still test that out.

The wrangler at the end of our column broke me out of my thoughts, when he yelled out “Pull up on Red Clouds reins! Don’t let him eat grass! He is slowing down the whole group”. I apologized to Red Cloud and pulled him away from the grass he was contentedly munching upon as we continued upon our journey. Meanwhile, my daughter was having the time of her life, conducting a non-stop conversation with the guide regarding a whole host of nature related questions, including what animals he had seen on this trail. He indicated to her that in addition to sage grouse, elk, and antelope, that just the other day he had seen a moose. A moose! He now had my full attention.

We eventually ended up back at the ranch and as we entered the yard, the horses that we thought we were now confidently in control of, decided that they would wander to what ever point of interest there was for them. Once they got out of their rut they exhibited a good deal of free expression. Luckily for me the mare was no where in sight.  We got back into our car, after purchasing the obligatory horse riding photos, and my daughter stated very firmly that she could live here.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 22, 2009 at 10:48 am

One Response

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  1. Great story! Unfortunately, horses scare me to death


    October 22, 2009 at 11:58 am

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