He cut his first teeth on the reins of his dad’s horse, wedged snugly between him and and the saddle’s pommel. Wyatt was on a horse before he could walk.
This is Wyatt Gilbertson’s third year at Hillcrest where he is a freshman. He sits quietly across the table from me now, blue eyes down, camo cap pulled low on his forehead. As soon as we start talking about the Minnesota State Fair, where he competed two weekends of last month, his face lights up. He talks of qualifying for two separate riding classes with two different horses and having to choose. He decides to take Ace, a 12 year old quarter-horse gelding down to St. Paul to compete at the state level. He tells of countless hours spent training for three minutes in the ring. Wyatt shows me the pattern he needed to memorize for the course which involved a bridge, a gate, and navigating narrow paths between parallel poles laid out on the ground. The horse must not nick the wood with his hooves. He must begin on a certain foot, pivot on a certain foot, move in very specific ways. Points are deducted for the smallest mistake. And they have just 3 minutes to complete the course. Ace has been trained to respond to the slightest shift of Wyatt’s weight, the least pressure from his knees or heels. Horse and rider must be in absolute sync and this does not happen without a lot of hard work.
Wyatt’s riding teacher, whose tutelage he’s been under since first grade, insists that four phrases never be used in response to his instruction or correction:
Wyatt pulls out his phone and shows me the video of his best ride, pointing out the significance of every intricate move, like an artist describing his favorite painting. Wyatt’s face is flushed and he smiles and laughs easily as we talk. Wyatt recalls the first time he met Ace. Ace was a young horse--unruly and willful. Wyatt was just a little boy and had to carry a whip with him when he was near Ace because the horse had a propensity to lunge and kick or bite. An accident a couple years later left Ace blind in one eye and it changed his demeanor. Instead of becoming more difficult and fearful, he became more mellow. Wyatt and Ace’s relationship also changed. Ace learned to trust his human and to work with him. In competition, no one in the arena knows what is going on behind the scenes. No one is aware that, with just one eye, Ace only has 50% of his field of vision. Half of his world is in total darkness. The horse needs Wyatt to “tell him” where the obstacles lie and he must trust him completely. There is leadership that Wyatt must provide. There is respect between rider and beast. Together they execute a wordless dance. Wyatt directs, Ace responds. Their first trip to State, they take 8th place.
The following weekend, Wyatt brings his two Australian Shepherd dogs; Kodie, a 9 year-old veteran of 5 consecutive trips to State, and an 11 month old puppy named Kacie to the show ring. Kodie completes a flawless performance a fraction of a second behind a tough competitor and is awarded Reserve Champion. And then Kacie goes on to wow everyone in her novice classes, placing 5th out of 16 in Beginner Obedience and 8th out of 19 in Pre-Novice Rally--pretty impressive for a pup! Wyatt attributes their success to the strong bond they share. Kacie adores Wyatt and never takes her eyes off him while working or playing. He is looking forward to the years ahead they’ll have to work together.
Wyatt’s favorite Bible verse is Romans 5:8. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus does for us what we could not do for ourselves when we did not deserve it. Likewise, in Wyatt’s work with animals he is able to do with/for them what they could never do without him. And the result is a beautiful picture of humility and trust, something we can all learn from.