As my red mare Ruby and I walked into the open courtyard at the end of Puerta La Cruz Road, it felt like we were entering an all girls school. Women dressed in bright orange uniforms, hung together in small pods, bonded with unspoken loyalties. But this place ain't no girls school; on this bright sunny Saturday spring morning, we had arrived at a low security women’s prison called Puerta LA Cruz Conservation Camp in Warner Springs, California.
As the women of all ages, sizes and origins set eyes on Ruby, they gravitated towards us as if pulled by an invisible magnetic force. Horses have an innate power to attract, and Ruby with her flashy red coat and bright almond eyes provoked attention from even the hardest, toughest, criminal.
It was our first visit to the prison, and I had no idea how it was going to turn out. Taking Ruby into a potentially alarming environment, busy with crowds of people and loud speakers; ‘whatever happens’, I coached myself ‘I’ll use it as a teaching.’
As it turned out Ruby was quite content to gorge on the fresh, green, grass, while the inmates watched with avid curiosity from the concrete pathway, a foot beneath us. We had our stage and audience and now it was up to me to engage the women in an hour presentation of ‘how to relate to a horse.’
"Good morning everyone, my name is Sara Fancy and I’m an equine specialist. I specialize in teaching people how to relate to horses, and this is my mare Ruby."
A slur of questions bombarded me, "How old is Ruby?" "Can I hug her?" "How much does it cost to feed a horse?" "Was it you I saw riding last week?" Careful not to ignore anyone, I consciously answered each of their questions while looking directly into their eyes. They smiled back at me and for a split second I felt like a super star.
Moving the presentation in the direction I wanted it to go, I announced that who ever would like to touch Ruby would have the opportunity to do so after I coached them on the safest way to greet to a horse.
"When people approach horses for the first time, they go for the horse’s face, but this is probably the worst place to meet a horse as you could quite easily get mowed down. The safest way, is to approach and touch the side of the horse’s back."
One at a time, I invited each of the women to step up onto the grass platform to touch Ruby. Whereas some of the woman had never been in close contact with a horse before, there were others who at one time in their life had owned a horse. I could tell by the way Ruby responded to each of the woman’s touch, if the woman was holding her breath. Gently, I instructed the woman in question to breath and consequently Ruby let out a huge sigh and dropped her head. It happened enough times for the women to understand how horses are physiologically connected to us.
I invited questions and one older woman wanted to know about the private life of Ruby. "If she has a boyfriend, (I’d mentioned Ruby's attachment to Pretty Boy) does she have a cycle?" "Yes", I replied "horses have cycles just like us and in the horse world there is a prejudice against mares. I’ve heard them referred to as moody mares or bitchy mares, and in the cowboy profession and entertainment world, they are rarely used as they are known to distract the geldings from their jobs’.
I explained how mares in heat will try and get attention from the geldings anyway possible. I gave the example of when I ride Ruby, with Pretty Boy ponying behind us. How Ruby takes any opportunity to push her butt into Pretty Boy’s face. The women laughed and I tell them how mares wink and squirt. Ruby, seeming to enjoy this part of the conversation, let out a rapid sequence of heavy, nasal, sighs which caused the women to laugh harder.
"However, personally, I love mares because they are intact, (nothing has been taken from them, unlike geldings who’ve had their testicals removed). I find the females to be affectionate, protective and extremely loyal.’
More laughter from the prisoners as unbeknownst to me, behind my back, Ruby had discovered the carrots I’d brought with us. Snatching them away from her I handed out small pieces for the women to feed to Ruby. “Be prepared to get your hands wet” I said as I demonstrated how to hold their hands out like plates that go under the mouth and not into the mouth. Ruby went from one hand to the next and some of the carrots dropped to the ground as frightened inmates pulled their hands away quickly once they felt the intensity of Ruby’s appetite.
Our presentation concluded with a quick demonstration of how I ride Ruby bareback and bit-less. “There is no need to use harsh equipment in the mouth if you have a relationship with your horse. I want my horse soft and yielding like this,” I said as Ruby, acquiesced attentively to my subtle rein commands; backwards, to the side and spinning in tight 360 degree circles.
"Will you come back tomorrow?" one of the prisoners asked, "No but I‘ll come back with another horse in a couple of weeks," I promised. As they hurried off for their head count, Ruby and I, unlike them, had the luxury of walking freely through the exit gate, homeward bound.