Pictured: Alexie Britt, of Ojai, at an introduction session to horse archery at Hidden Creek Ranch, Maricopa on Feb. 17, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers. 

by Kimberly Rivers

Horses are woven into the history of the land now called Ventura County and today remain an important part of the lives of many who still live here, for either recreation, livelihood or both. 

Destressing and getting outside are recommended for maintaining physical and mental health in the best of times; horseback riding is a uniquely enjoyable way to do both, particularly during these pandemic days. 

Many think equestrian pursuits are out of reach — but that doesn’t have to be the case. With opportunities for trail riding rentals and riding lessons opening up after strict pandemic shutdowns, getting outside with a horse could be just what is needed to soothe the soul. 

Here are two accessible and pandemic-safe opportunities for horsing around.

Equestrian life coaching

“When they do these sessions they learn to find themselves again, they turn into themselves again,” said Imme Spencer, 46, of Santa Paula. She is a long-time riding instructor and horse trainer who has recently expanded on her life coaching sessions involving horses. Her clients “realize things to apply to their own life almost naturally. I haven’t seen anyone walk away who isn’t elevated in their feelings.” 

Amy Super with Buddy during a Woman and Horses clinic at Heart and Soul Horsemanship in Santa Paula. Photo by Michelle Kemick.

Spencer has been in Ventura County since 2012. She moved to the United States from her native Germany in 2001. “I’ve been around horses all my life. My dad loved horses. We didn’t have the finances to have our own.” But she was always around animals and horses. From the time she was very young she said, “I wanted to be on a horse. I was always trying to get on horses. I taught my first lesson when I was 18 in Germany.” 

Imme Spencer of Heart and Soul Horsemanship, with her gelding Stag. Photo submitted.

While studying biology at the Georg-Albrecht University in Göttingen she cared for dolphins and California sea lions at a nearby zoo. She also worked at the Maui Ocean Center researching bottlenose dolphins and green sea turtles. But her love of horses drew her to a position managing Lahaina Stables, caring for 20 horses and leading trail rides. 

She left the islands for California when she was invited to work on a thoroughbred farm in Hemet, where she bred and ground trained colts and cared for 160 broodmares, foals and five stallions. She made her way to the Central Coast’s Rancho Oso in Santa Barbara and for eight years was the head trail guide responsible for a string of 30 horses and 70 privately owned horses boarded on the property. During that time she continued with training and wrangling, along with riding in rodeos and ranch sorting competitions. She has done everything from vaulting (gymnastics on horseback) to cow work (gathering, tagging, vaccinating and shipping). 

Spencer’s wide range of experience has shaped her approach to horses today. Rooted in the “natural horsemanship” creed of “working with the horse’s nature,” she has deepened the principle, seeking to work with the horse from “a place of understanding, so they understand the meaning.” She says this approach “builds confidence” in both horse and rider, “and makes it safer for us.” 

“When the pandemic hit it all shut completely down,” said Spencer, who lives with her horses and dog at Aliso Ranch in Santa Paula. All lessons, training and clinics stopped. “Eventually everybody wanted to come back slowly but surely.” 

Today, she is doing one-on-one private riding lessons with current clients (she has a waiting list) and consulting on horse purchases. She can stay physically distanced because these experienced riders know how to saddle and bridle the horse without her assistance. 

She has also expanded her work with horses and people to include life coaching. During the lockdown she received her life-coach certification and built on a past workshop she did called “Women and Horses.” These sessions offer a unique opportunity for “self discovery” in the company of a horse. 

“Women and Horses” was an eight-session course, “strictly for women. The coaching [now] is for all genders.” She said she created it because she was getting requests from folks who wanted to come learn about and be around horses but not ride. “Some have never been around horses, maybe they are afraid or intrigued.” 

The coaching sessions are private and begin with Spencer talking with the client about what they want to examine or work through. Depending on what comes up, Spencer may select a horse from her herd for the person to work with, or allow the horse to choose to work with them. 

She’ll take the person down to the paddock, and walk around the horses.

If the person is really nervous, they may spend some time brushing the horse or just being near for a little while. Spencer will go over the basics of equine psychology. Then the horse will be loose with the client in a round pen that is a little under 60 feet in diameter. 

“We talk through the particular person’s life experience, and anything they are having trouble with at the time. They work with the horse and it takes off from there. There is no strict schedule to it.” 

Marie McCreary with the gelding Buddy, at a Women and Horses clinic with Heart and Soul Horsemanship in Santa Paula. Photo by Michelle Kemick.

Things inevitably “come up” for the person while they are working with the horse. 

“One thing I see happen a lot,” Spencer says, “[is the client being] really gentle, so gentle that the horse doesn’t understand what they want him to do. Often, that applies to their life. Maybe not standing up for themselves, not being firm enough in setting boundaries. That comes out with the horse. You have to make sure he doesn’t walk over you. If you ask him to back up, he needs to do that.” 

People have to realize they can still be a nice person and clearly ask the horse to respond. In fact, the clearer they are, the better response they get. “That’s what is going to help you in life, to get you on your path in life. It shows where we need to firm up, where we can communicate a little better. If they don’t understand us, they can’t do it.” 

She laughs a bit when thinking about the connections between a horse responding to “cues” from the person working with them, or not responding. “Whatever you allow, you’ll get more of. If you allow your horse to do this . . . walk over you . . . he’ll do that more.” People can immediately connect that experience with the horse to their life experiences, maybe with a spouse or family member. “We need to say something if we want to change something.” 

Spencer says that her clients’ transformations have been immediately noticeable. “I love it because they always feel better.” 

She feels called to the work because it’s about helping people to “follow their soul path. I don’t want them to be conformed. People start coming alive when they do the thing that really calls them. Having a horse around brings that out in them. I don’t need to teach anyone to ride to do that.” 

For more information about life coach sessions with Imme Spencer, visit www.heartandsoulhorsemanship.com, call 808-280-1815 or 805-671-5136, or email heartandsoulhorsemanship@gmail.com

Mounted archery

Hidden Creek Ranch rests in a valley surrounded by the Los Padres National Forest  about 40 miles north of Ojai. The ranch is just off Highway 33 on Lockwood Valley Road, in northern Ventura County. It offers classes in horseback riding and mounted archery. A two-hour lesson involves shooting only from horseback at a walk, while a riding lesson is included with a four-hour session. 

Heather Lomax demonstrates rapid loading, drawing and shooting at an introduction session to horse archery at Hidden Creek Ranch. Feb. 17, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

“It’s just amazing, we’ll be back,” said Kirstie Reed. She and her daughter Sofia, 11, and friend Alexie Britt, all of Ojai, had just finished a two-hour introductory class in Mounted Archery with Heather Lomax. They were all smiles.

The day started with introductions — all in masks and physically distanced — at the barn. All had some experience with archery. The Reeds were comfortable in the saddle and Britt hadn’t ridden in many years. 

First up was an archery lesson on foot. The group gathered in a large riding arena with three targets set up. Lomax went over the basics of shooting. Since all three attendees had experience with archery, the main aspects concerned the differences between mounted and standard archery. It’s a lot different than using crossbows. 

Lomax also went over range rules. Not unlike at a shooting range, safety is very important: While the arrows have modified heads, they are still a weapon, and when a person draws the arrow back they are considered “armed.” 

Heather Lomax (left) leads an intro session on horse archery with Kirstie Reed, Sofia Reed and Alexie Britt at Hidden Creek Ranch in Maricopa on Feb. 17, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

“It’s all intuitive . . . nock, draw, shoot,” instructed Lomax. “You don’t have time to look down the arrow at the target [as with standard archery] . . . shoot quicker, draw and shoot . . . keep looking at the target.” 

There are different methods of “nocking” or loading the arrow on the bow. Persian or Mediterranean are two, the differences involving which side of the bow the arrow is loaded on, and the positioning of the fingers and thumb on the drawing hand. 

Heather Lomax demonstrates how to pre-load three arrows, so they are ready to “nock” and shoot quickly when on horseback at Hidden Creek Ranch, Maricopa, Feb. 17, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

Lomax explained that while archers can choose the method that feels better, she encourages them to practice imagining being on horseback and unable to look at their hands. She also tells them to keep the bow in their vision periphery; if they get in the habit of nocking the arrow while looking down, they will be hitting the horse when in the saddle. 

Lomax learned mounted archery first from her mother, Judy Osburn, who learned from Elizabeth Gonzalez Tinnan, a well-respected and award-winning mounted archer and instructor. The two also attended a clinic Gonzalez Tinnan held last year at Varian Arabians, a world-renowned breeding stable in Arroyo Grande. 

Lomax was hooked. After more than 20 years of breeding and training Tennessee Walker horses with a focus on bridleless riding, the move to mounted archery was a natural progression. 

Today Hidden Creek Ranch (where Osburn has lived since the ’70s, and where Lomax was born and raised) has one of only two permanent regulation 90-meter mounted archery tracks in California. This allows the resident club, Poseidon’s Horse Archers, founded last year by Osburn, to host competitions. Work has begun on a cross-country track that will include targets along a trail over rolling hills and winding through trees.

It only took a few minutes of practicing before the clients’ arrows found their marks on the targets. After a few rounds practicing nocking and shooting, Lomax introduced a method of carrying three arrows in the bow-holding hand, which allows for quicker, more efficient knocking. 

Sofia Reed, 11 of Ojai, at Hidden Creek Ranch, Maricopa on Feb. 17, 2021. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

The most challenging aspect of shifting from traditional archery to mounted archery at this point seemed to be the habit of sighting the target down the shaft of the arrow. It’s typical to draw the arrow and line it up with the target. But there’s just no time for that in mounted archery. You have to let the arrows fly at the draw. 

The group practiced shots while walking: trying to not stop, to keep looking at the target (not at their hands) and quick-loading three arrows. It’s harder than Lomax made it look. Even so, all three student archers hit the target, most of the time. 

Now it was time to mount up. The group headed to the barn. Those experienced with horses were handed halters and told which horses to catch: a black mare named Copy, as in “She’s a carbon copy of her mother,” explained Lomax, and a chestnut mare named Stella. Lomax bred Copy and rides her when she competes. 

Each archer selected a helmet from the tack room; all riders must wear a helmet at the ranch at all times when on a horse. Once the horses were bridled and saddled the group walked back to the arena. 

The horses knew their jobs and walked forward in the lane. The now-mounted archers were mostly quiet in concentration, focusing on efficient knocking. As they all got more comfortable shooting from the saddle, the celebratory “Yes!” as the arrow found its mark became common. 

“There is just something amazing about shooting an arrow from the back of a horse,” said Lomax. She said most people who try it love it. She gets many people who have next to no riding experience, although she also has people trailer in with their own horses to have Lomax teach both horse and rider the quickly growing sport. 

For more information on mounted archery instruction at Hidden Creek Ranch visit hcrgaitedhorses.com/new-horse-archery.