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Listening to the horses' needs

2011-07-16T11:55:00Z 2011-07-18T11:21:00Z Listening to the horses' needsBy Meg Glens Falls Post-Star

From the moment Marie Bombardier laid eyes on the neglected Polish Arabian, she knew she had to bring him home.

She had just driven 3 1/2 hours with a horse trailer in tow and paid a woman $900 to load up Ollie.

She wasn't sure he would even survive the trip back to Hudson Falls.

He had sores on his body and was thin, dirty and full of burdocks. Bombardier could tell he had worms, because his belly was bloated. Ollie's feet were so infected he could barely trot. An ill-fitting saddle caused his hair to fall out on his back, and he had suffered a separated shoulder that had come from a kick from a larger horse, Bombardier said.

Ollie was in such poor shape that Bombardier was concerned about being arrested for animal cruelty and presented pictures to a veterinarian and a farrier to prove that she wasn't responsible for his condition.

She said she had never seen such extreme neglect in an animal.

Where others might have given up on 14-year-old Ollie, Bombardier persevered.

On the way back to her farm, she stopped every half hour to let the horse rest and "love on him."

Once home, Bombardier slowly nursed him back to health. She soaked Ollie's feet in buckets and gradually eradicated the worms. She began working him on a lunge line in the spring to build up his strength. She laid poles on the ground so he could learn to pick up his feet again instead of dragging them.

The horse also had chiropractic work done.

Now 2 1/2 years later, Bombardier said there is very little evidence of Ollie's former life, save for the white hairs that have grown in among his reddish coloring from the poorly-fitted saddle.

She is proud of seeing a socially awkward horse become part of the herd, and Ollie's yawns make her smile.

"When I can see him release all that stress that says to me, ‘Thank God you're not going to bully me.' He's been bullied his whole life," Bombardier said. "Watching him grow confidence and to have that trust after everything he went through - to have that love for people - is amazing. This guy is my gift."

Perhaps it's Bombardier who is Ollie's gift. As a certified horsemanship association instructor, she considers herself a horse "listener."

"I work from where the horses are at. It's learning their language and communicating with them instead of expecting them to learn my language," she said.

Bombardier believes in natural horsemanship, which involves being a partner with and "reading" your horse in his physical, mental and emotional states.

"It's almost like a dance. When I ride, I want them feeling for me, and I feel for them - and it all comes together. My legs are their legs," she said. "What works for one may not work with another, so you have to adjust the situation."

Bombardier uses a system of "ask, tell, command." She first asks her horses to do something, but if that doesn't work, she tells them. As a last resort, she commands it - but never with force.

To get a horse to back up, for example, Bombardier holds the rope around the horse's neck and points at him with it. If that's not enough, she will wiggle the rope in his direction, and finally, she'll pop up the rope on his chin so he moves backward.

Ollie often likes to nuzzle close to Bombardier, and while that could be considered a sign of affection, Bombardier said it's important that the horse knows his boundaries to keep herself out of danger.

"They're going to be on top of you, and they weigh 1,200 pounds. Even Ollie weighs 900 pounds. You can get killed," she said. "It also develops confidence in him to be able to stand out there away from me."

On her Castles in the Sky farm in Hudson Falls, Bombardier has seven horses, five of which are rescues. She provides lessons, summer programs, horse care seminars, pony rides and birthday parties.

She said she tries to keep the lesson horses engaged so they won't be bored and gives them specific tasks to do.

"When they have a job to do, it makes a difference to your horse. They really want to work for us and want to help us," she said.

Bombardier said she has loved horses since she was 6 years old, when she told her mother she was going to move out West and be a cowgirl when she grew up. Like many little girls, she devoured books on horses to educate herself.

When she was 21, she went to New Mexico for a year to manage a 20-horse dude ranch in which she bought and sold horses, bought the tack, hired the wranglers and scheduled rides and lessons.

Out West was where she could find all the big names in natural horsemanship: Marty Martin, Tom Hunt and Tom Curtain, whom Bombardier considers her mentor.

She came back to the area and worked for a few stables. Two years ago, she received her horsemanship certification.

Bombardier found eight acres in Kingsbury and has been slowly transforming the property since last November for her own horse farm. She is hoping to erect an indoor arena soon to give riding lessons year round.

Bombardier likes working with horses because, she said, they don't lie, they're not malicious and they're forgiving.

"To me, if you could put the perfect person together like that, that would be somebody I'd like to be friends with," she said.

Bombardier credits natural horsemanship with helping to turn "flighty" or "pushy" horses into solid, reliable animals, some that could potentially go to "forever" homes.

She said she would only release her rescues to caring, attentive owners and would want to be able to check on them. She also would insist on a new owner signing a contract that would allow her to have first refusal if the person ever wanted to sell the horse.

"It would have to be a perfect situation," Bombardier said. "These guys all deserve a chance."

She would then rehabilitate other rescue horses, and much like Ollie, give them a chance at a happy life as well.

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