BIG HORN — Eight years ago in the heart of a cold Wyoming winter, a horse named Hudson saved a girl named Molly from her fear.
Fifteen years ago, Ralph and Karen Copenhaver started boarding and training horses at Hanna Creek Acres in Big Horn, never dreaming they would one day be in the business of saving people from their fears. When Molly Watson was 8 years old, she was thrown from her horse into a bed of red gravel. She lost consciousness and fractured her skull. Her damaged jaw stopped growing and had to be mended. Crippled by fear, Watson’s heart needed mending, too.
The winter after the accident, Watson went to see Ralph Copenhaver at Hanna Creek Acres, hoping he could help her regain her confidence.
At first, Watson stood outside the pen and watched her brothers ride the animals that had once quickened her heart with fondness but now quickened it with fright.
Then Copenhaver gave Watson a brush and a horse named Hudson, and the healing began.
It happened slowly — slender hands rubbing a velvety face, Hudson restraining his power in a gentle nuzzle, a steady walk in the round pen ride after ride.
As she brushed Hudson’s hair and pressed her tiny frame into his powerful neck, Watson began to trust again.
“In the round pen, we’d walk,” Watson said. “Ralph would ask if I was comfortable and then we’d trot. I never wanted to go past a trot because I felt that was the scariest thing ever.”
One day, after four months of weekly lessons walking the round pen, Watson’s brothers challenged her to stand on her horse as they did on theirs.
“That’s when everything went back together,” Watson said.
Watson is 16 years old now and regularly rides P. Diddy, Copenhaver’s granddaughter’s jumping horse. Not just anyone can ride P. Diddy.
“Molly’s coming on so good that she can handle him,” Copenhaver said. “That’s by a lot of feel.”
Feel. It’s as mysterious a concept as it sounds, but it’s crucial at Hanna Creek Acres.
Not long after Copenhaver began training horses at Hanna Creek Acres, clients and his granddaughter’s 4-H friends began to see that he should train riders, too. They asked him to do clinics and private lessons. Hanna Creek became more than Ralph and Karen Copenhaver had ever dreamed it would.
Riders come in the morning, before school, to help with chores. They come in the afternoons for lessons with Ralph. Some come all day, every day in the summer because Hanna Creek has become a second home.
They practice groundwork, the crucial touching and feeling of the horse; they ride bareback, backward and standing up; they earn and learn trust.
Each rider, like each horse, is different. Some want to become better by learning how to communicate with their horse like Copenhaver does. Others, like Watson, need help getting back in their saddle. Some don’t want to ride at all but discover riding is exactly what they needed.
Over the years, Copenhaver has trained several children with autism or other disabilities. Karen Copenhaver recalls one girl with autism who screamed on the back of her horse for a year before something happened. She began to trust the animal with a strong back and big heart. The screaming stopped.
“He has always been affectionate toward horses, and he seems to understand, because he wants to understand, more about them than most people do,” Karen Copenhaver said about her husband.
That deep understanding is part of what Copenhaver calls “feel.” It is how he trains horses and how he trains riders to connect with their animals.
When he gets a new horse to train, Copenhaver cups his hands over its nose so it can smell him. He places his hands over the horse’s eyes so it can see him without seeing him, see that he’ll be good and that his heart is gentle. He brushes it, saddles it, rubs it with blankets and bridle.
Feel is tone of voice, commands given with respect. Feel is physical touch.
It is a woman knowing where she wants to go before she asks the horse to go there. It is a man turning his head and shifting his body weight before a tender tug at the reins.
Feel is horse and rider becoming one — at walk, trot, lope and gallop.
“Horses got a heart bigger than the world if you just get inside of them and let them know that you’re good for them and you trust them,” Copenhaver said.
Clients think the Copenhavers have hearts bigger than the world, too.
Kids call them grandpa and grandma. Adults call them friends. Nobody ever goes hungry; Karen always has chili, or bologna spread, or cookies to give away. “Karen’s Carryout” they call her open kitchen door. Ralph and Karen Copenhaver delight in the connections that happen at Hanna Creek — both rider to rider and rider to horse.
Chloe Veinbergs experienced that connection when she moved to Sheridan this summer and began to ride “religiously” at Hanna Creek. She made friends and discovered she had natural skill. Then she met a horse named Sundance.
“Chloe and Sundance, they both needed somebody,” Ralph Copenhaver said.
Sundance’s owner knew she could no longer care for him, but she wanted to give him to someone special. Veinbergs was the perfect match.
“When Chloe showed the love for Sundance, Sundance give it back to her,” Copenhaver said. “They just do great things together.”
Maybe doing great things together is the best description of feel. It can be instant connection. It may be slow and steady. Whatever it is, for Watson, Veinbergs and scores of others at Hanna Creek Acres, feel is the art of trust and a new way of life.