Every morning around 6, Missy, a 15-year-old black, easily spooked quarter horse with not a stitch of white markings, watches Jenny Lancaster cart bales of hay and measure scoops of grain.
She watches the human fill water troughs and buckets. Her ears twitch and turn when a car goes by and when a dog barks. Missy intently observes Lancaster work with the other horses.
The mare's big brown eyes follow Lancaster's long blond hair from paddock to paddock, from tractor to truck. Missy hadn't been consistently worked with or ridden for many years, and Lancaster wants her to know that the people and things around the 10-acre Diamond Horseshoe Ranch on Ranchitos Road aren't out to harm her.
Missy was acquired by a trade in the beginning of February. Lancaster's goal is to help Missy find her courage to be ridden without fear and to find the right human for Missy.
Lancaster acquires a lot of horses at her Taos ranch. She had 18 horses (some hers, some boarders) in February. “Winter is the down season for boarding,” she says. But horses like Missy are her favorites.
"They're such a challenge," Lancaster explained with a slight adjustment to her perfectly molded, slightly scuffed felt cowboy hat.
"Then I kind of become the student because I learn so much from each of them,” she said. “In the wrong hands a horse like this, with so little experience, is very scary to most people. She's jumpy. She's dangerous actually, and she doesn't mean to be; it's just that she hasn't been worked with a lot. I know she's a quality mare. I know that I can find her the right match, but I have to work with her first, and I have to get her safe, and I have to know a lot about her. Then I will be able to find her person."
Oddly enough, the mare's bloodline come from a famous reining sire named Spooktacular, which never fails to make Lancaster chuckle considering the "spooked" state Missy showed up with.
Lancaster starts Missy's work day by lunging her in a circle to expel some energy and help her settle down. Like excited kids, horses need to get their edge off before they can start clearly communicating.
By this summer, Lancaster is certain Missy will have shed her jumpiness and be given a chance for a happy life. Any other scenario than a good home for Missy is unacceptable.
"In the wrong hands had this woman (former owner) just taken her to a sale or somebody thought, 'Oh, she's so pretty. Maybe it'll work out,' and they didn't have the education to really help this horse they would get frustrated with her," Lancaster surmised." She might wind up in a sale or something — she might wind up getting into the wrong situation. These are my 'fixing horses,' which is what I really love to do."
Patience. Everything Lancaster does is based on patience, and a lot of it.
"Developing a relationship of trust is what really gets a horse to progress quickly," she explained.
When Missy first arrived, Lancaster couldn't touch the mare's face, head or ears. Missy was nervous about having the bridle put on. It took three days to get it over Missy's ears without her panicking.
Lancaster studied with three Texas horse trainers who used different methods of varying levels, giving her a well-rounded library of techniques. Even with all of her knowledge and experience over many years, Lancaster admits that horses who mirror Missy are a risk. But bravery overcomes fear.
Can a horse's behavior ever scare Lancaster? Certainly. That's when she starts from "ground zero" all over again. But on this mild February day, neither horse nor human felt fear.
Because a goal is to have Missy ridden, Lancaster gradually lifts herself up to a partial mount. She balances her torso on Missy's back, not yet sitting in the saddle. Lancaster gives Missy's rear a gentle pat. She dismounts and walks around the horse from front to back, and pats her along the way so the horse knows where Lancaster is at all times. And to let the horse know no surprises are coming.
Only then does Lancaster fully mount Missy for a relaxed trip around the ring. Even after only a few weeks of being at Diamond Horseshoe Ranch, Missy knows Lancaster's voice and touch. With a little rein work and slight leg pressure, Missy's memory of carrying a human is coming back to her as if she had never missed a day of riding.
"I work with these horses because I can. You don't just throw a whole life away just because they're a little broken up," Lancaster said, pleased with Missy's calmness in the ring. "Some horses come here that have some injuries. We can maintain their level of comfort. And most horses here have wonderful owners. They can trail ride in the mountains and just be horses. Just like people, horses can come with baggage. I just want them to have a long, healthy, beautiful life."
Lancaster has seen a spike in her boarding business over the last three years, in part because of an increase of out-of-staters bringing their horses to Taos for training and to ride them while on vacation. She doesn't often take on a beginning rider unless they are buying a horse, preferring to work with both horse and rider and thus cementing a bond of trust. And for some new riders, other lessons are learned.
"I don't really like to just teach a person to ride," the mother of two boys explained. "I've found that it's a little bit easier for me to work with people who don't have a lot of confidence. Confidence building is a big one for me, so I do help people who are fearful of horses, yet they want to have this relationship with this horse."
Confidence building is something that she's gotten pretty good at. She reminds apprehensive riders who dream of no longer being scared that it's okay to have a healthy fear of horses because, "they're big and they're strong." But if you can conquer that fear, she instills, it helps you in all areas of your life.
There's nothing more beautiful to Lancaster than to see someone who is shy, reserved and lacking self-assurance to be able to canter their 1,200-pound horse — and all the while the animal is listening to them and taking care of them. "It's quite fascinating. That's my joy. I'm very lucky. I have the best customers in the world."
"You know, horses change people," Lancaster added with conviction. They certainly instigated changes in her life.
The start of it all
A whirlwind existence started for Lancaster in her birthplace, Michigan. She was raised in New York, mostly. Her parents often uprooted little Jenny because her mother was quite the "adventurer."
"We would just pick up and go," Lancaster shared with acceptance in her voice. "We lived everywhere, and when we came out West ... it was pretty amazing."
Santa Fe was the place her parents landed. One day her mom brought home a pony in the back of a pickup truck. They lived on Pojoaque Street. Lancaster was about 9 years old or so. The only riding she had done was little jaunts here and there and a few lessons when she visited her grandmother. Really, she had very minimal horse education when she boldly jumped on the back of Aunt Jemima (named by her mother — "The pony was supposed to guard me or something.") and rode bareback toward Santa Fe Plaza.
"Thirty years ago the plaza wasn't what it is now, and I would jump on this little pony and ride down there and hang out with the Indians, and talk to them and ride around with everybody saying, 'Look at the cute kid on the horse.' "
A love for horses was born.
At some point later on ,the Lancasters were living in Syracuse, New York. There, she discovered an Arabian farm. The trainer took in the wide-eyed young rider.
"She just loved the way I rode. She loved my bravery. She loved my willingness to learn, so she put me to work," Lancaster recalled.
By the end of that year, she was showing horses competitively. It wasn't long, however, before life took another turn and she wound up in Newfoundland, Canada living with her dad.
Jumping horses and working with a jumping trainer took off up north. Her varied and interesting destinations grew from there.
After Canada, she went to Puerto Rico and landed a job at El Nuevo Comandante racetrack walking thoroughbreds at 4 o'clock in the morning. They graduated her to exercising, which was "really cool."
A man entered her life who asked her to teach English riding to children at his stable. In turn, he set her up with another man who was starting a small equestrian center on a French-side beach in Saint Maarten. Six thoroughbreds were flown from Puerto Rico to the Caribbean island.
"It was amazing," she remembered with a gleam in her eyes. "Those thoroughbreds were wonderful. I could take them in the water and work them in the water. It was just beautiful."
Another man, this time a Frenchman who spoke to her heart, swept her off to Europe where she returned to jumping ... and then polo.
"Most of my Western riding didn't come until I came out West (on her own when she was 28 years old), and I wanted to come out here and kinda be a cowgirl," she happily admitted.
She never forgot living in Santa Fe and riding that little pony around the plaza. By the time she was in her late 20s, she had left Europe and was living in Woodstock, New York. But the West always beckoned.
"I decided, you know what, I'm going to try something new. So, I drove out to Santa Fe and I didn't really like it that much. I had a friend in Taos who was a massage therapist and she said, 'Come visit Taos. Come check it out. It's really nice.' I came up and I just fell in love with it, and decided this is what I was going to do. I've been here ever since."
She may have found her forever home, but the horse-training business wasn't so quick to materialize.
"Just because you can ride doesn't mean you can train. And just because you can ride any horse doesn't mean you can train. I was known for being able to ride anything, but that doesn't mean I can get other people to be able to ride those horses. I had to learn how to do that, and so I came to a kind of stopping point after about five or six years. I decided I better take off and get educated."
That's when she headed to Texas. After about a year to a year and a half of training, she returned and soon after her business took off.
"I really had a whole new perspective on how to start a horse from the beginning and then try to get them to a place where they could move on from there, whether a show horse or a trail horse, cattle horse, ranch horse, whatever somebody wanted to do with them," she said.
Lancaster isn't into competitive riding so much anymore. But if she ever felt that itch again, she would likely compete in cutting. The glitch in that, however, is as Lancaster laughingly confessed, she's not very good with cattle.
Horses are very in the moment. Purity and honesty pour out of them.
Lancaster is particularly drawn to those aspects of the horse. "It would be sad to humanize a horse or a horse's emotions because it would almost be an insult to make them more like us," she said. "I think horses have always been there for me. I owe it to them now that I know more about them. I strive to give back because they have always provided me with a form of a living: a job, a career that I love."