CONNECTING WITH KIDS
- Mardi Ford
- The Observer
Jim Palmer circles the arena astride the young black Morgan named Mint. He's just spent a month working with him for a La Grande client who watches the pair closely from a spot by the gate.
Though Palmer has another horse and rider waiting patiently outside the arena for a slice of his time on this Friday evening, his attention remains focused on the task at hand.
A puzzling new behavior needs correction.
Instead of responding properly to leg cues to turn, the handsome young gelding has decided to try kicking out instead.
Right poke in the rib, out shoots the right hind leg.
"He just started that two days ago," Palmer says to the owner.
He's had two of her horses, both young Morgans, at his place in Vale for the past month Â— working with them, a refresher course.
Though he brought them back today, Palmer has come for more than the stubborn handful of horse flesh that's got him temporarily puzzled.
His prime objective in coming to Union County for the weekend is to show a group of 4-H kids how to better handle their horses.
For almost a year, he's been giving up one weekend a month to come to Larry and Suzi Romine's arena north of La Grande for the kids.
Though Palmer has been around horses all his life, the former director of Malheur County's Juvenile Correction program began training horses professionally about 10 years ago.
"Jim is an interesting guy," says Suzi Romine. "He looks like something out of the pages of a Western book, although he originally hales from the East. He recites poetry and once taught for L.L. Bean."
The pair met more than a year ago when Romine went to Vale to look at a horse Palmer had for sale.
"The best thing about that horse deal is that I met Suzi," Palmer says.
The admiration is mutual, though they only say the really nice things about the other out of hearing range.
"I immediately just loved Jim. His work with horses provides very sound foundations. He uses natural horsemanship methods. And he's great with kids," Romine says.
Palmer already had some connections in Union County. He had been working with Jim and Tracy Sauer of Sauer Farms in Summerville.
"I've lost track of how many horses I've started for them," Palmer says. Eventually, the Sauers referred them to some of their friends in Imbler and his reputation grew.
"I've generated a fair amount of business in Union County. People here have been good to me," he says.
Which started him thinking about a way to give something back. The idea of working with kids seemed like a good idea.
"I love working with kids," he says.
Besides his work with troubled youth, in the past Palmer has also coached youth sports.
Romine offered her arena to the idea.
There were so many kids at that first Saturday clinic, both Palmer and Romine remember it as crazy Â— too many horses and kids of divergent skill levels to get a lot of work done. But everybody had a great time and adults watching from the sidelines begged to be part of it. So when they figured out a plan on how best to conduct multiple clinics, the adults got Palmer to themselves on Friday nights.
Romine says the 4-Hers pay $10 for the weekend and can come all day on Saturday and on Sunday mornings. On Friday nights, the adult clinic is $20 per rider, begins at 6 and runs for two or three hours.
What participants pay barely covers expenses Â— enough to buy the gas to get Palmer and his horse here and home again.
"The clinics aren't about making money, but to say thanks. My expenses aren't much Â— Suzi houses and feeds me while I'm here," he says.
"Usually we just feed something to him while he's in the arena. He starts on Saturday morning and we make him go 'til he drops," she says.
Palmer hands the reins of that feisty, black Morgan over to his owner. He turns his attention to a quick lesson with a patient Sarah Henry, 11, and her 9-year-old mare Annie. Before the adults arrive for Friday night's clinic, Palmer wants to help Sarah teach Annie how to better respond to cues. He teaches her how to teach her horse to yield to her cues.
"Teaching a horse to move where you want it to go shouldn't be about forcing them, shouldn't be about strength. A 70-pound kid can't force a 1,000-pound horse to move where it doesn't want to go anyway," Palmer says. "You have to teach it to want to."
Palmer says Henry, who shows her horse in 4-H, has been faithful about coming to the clinics.
"She's a good rider, a little advanced for Annie," he says.
Palmer remembers watching the pair during clinics last winter.
"Ninety percent of the time they were getting along and 10 percent they weren't. Basically there was a disconnect Â— Sarah wasn't sure what to do to get Annie to respond, and Annie wasn't sure what Sarah wanted," Palmer explains.
But he says Henry is one of the kids who faithfully goes home after a clinic and works with her horse on the things they learned during the weekend. By the next clinic, Palmer always saw an improvement.
"Homework is important," he says.
When asked what she thinks about Palmer and his teaching, the seemingly serious young lady breaks into a very childlike grin.
"I like him," she says firmly.
Palmer remembers one day in particular when the exercise was to get the horse to side up to an obstacle, close enough to touch it. As he watched them, he noticed Annie would not go the last few inches. But Henry didn't give up and didn't give in. She kept her cool and remembered what she was taught. Finally Annie responded by doing what she was asked. A small but mighty victory.
"That's what this is all about. It's kids like Sarah that make this worth it Â— that's the reward for me," Palmer says.
It's an age-old dance he's seen over and over Â— a horse is willing to go part of the way, but then balks. Sometimes the rider gives up and the horse never learns.
" Â‘Nope. Sorry, but that's not in my contract,' the horse says. Well, you can't settle for that. You have to change the terms and show them the behavior you want is in the contract. Be patient and the horse will learn. They will do it for you when asked," he says.
You just have to renegotiate the contract.