Citabria Wolfskill and her horse are both 10. Her grandpa Dave bought his granddaughter the stocky, tan quarter horse, Winnie, as a weanling when Citabria was born.
Now, Citabria wants to learn how to rider her trusty mare. For the past decade, the two have been watching one another from afar as they both develop the requisite muscles and abilities to ride. They are both physically ready to go, so now the focus is on learning the necessary skills.
Enter Whitt Hawk of Hawk Horses, a horse trainer from Carlile (north of Moorcroft) who lives near the Wolfskill’s ranch and is helping Citabria develop the chops to control the large mare. They’ve been working together since mid-January. The focus of one of their recent sessions was another lesson in learning to read horse body language before taking over the reins.
On Saturday, Whitt led Citabria in a wide circle through the fenced corral on Wolfskill’s ranch, demonstrating to her young charge how to navigate the long lines attached to on either side of the horse’s bit. As Whitt walked alongside the horse, she lifted one arm and then another and Winnie turned left, then right in tight circles guided by a couple of “whoa girls” from the trainer.
Because horse are prey animals, Whitt said, they tend to react to everything going on around them. They need to trust their rider, who has the responsibility to communicate in the horse’s language, body signals.
Whitt guided the horse in a figure eight before it stopped threw its head in the air with a disgruntled whinny. It was just Winnie living up to her name.
The mare has a bit of an attitude, Whitt told Citabria. Like people, horses’ attitudes change daily though their dispositions and temperaments are unwavering. Winnie had some training in the past, but enough time has gone by that she’s out of practice. As such, she’d much rather be out in the pasture with her buddies than working in the corral. She’s a good horse, just a bit unmotivated, Whitt said.
The horse is also testing them, she noted, to see what she can get away with.
“I always say that horse psychology and child psychology are really similar,” Whitt said. “Kids are always trying to figure out their environment to test their boundaries. That’s how they learn, right? Well, it’s the same thing in a horse’s mind.”
Winney has got an idea in her mind that maybe she doesn’t actually have to do this, Whitt told a nodding Citabria, and is testing them to see if they’ll make her do what they ask.
It’s about earning the horse’s respect by being consistent and fair, she said.
Winnie is also on the older side when it comes to being trained. Usually horses come to Whitt for “tuning” or “legging up” and a refresher on training and physical conditioning to prepare the horse for the owner to ride. The horses Whitt works with range from weanlings to mature horses. The riders she helps start at age 5 and ride up to adulthood.
That said, Winnie is coming along nicely in the month Whitt and Citabria have been working with her. Whitt typically works with a horse nearly every day for two to three months and has a 60-day minimum on her training contract, which she feels ensures the horse has a solid foundation.
“The big thing is developing a relationship of respect,” she said. “Quiet, repetitious exposure helps develop muscle memory, so horses give the desired response. Physical conditioning is necessary to prepare the horse to carry the weight of the rider.”
Now it’s just a matter of helping Citabria gain the skills to navigate the much larger horse.
East Coast “Horse Kid”
Standing with his elbows on the fence outside of the corral, grandpa Dave Wolfskill watched Whitt and his granddaughter move in head-dizzying circles as the trainer longlined Winnie while Citabria looked on.
Wolfskill met Whitt two years ago when his neighbor, Everett Zimmerschied, brought his new bride home from Wolf Creek, Montana. He was immediately impressed with her horse knowledge, and after watching her work with both the mare and his granddaughter, Whitt has further earned his respect as a “horse whisperer.”
Despite the cliché, Wolfskill is effusive in his praise of the 35-year-old Pennsylvania native who he said is as talented as she is driven.
It’s been a long ride for Whitt to get to this point, living a dream that was unwavering ever since a young age.
Whitt estimated she was about 4 years old when she got her first pony. She grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania near the New York border in Warren County. Though her grandfather ran some cattle, Whitt’s parents weren’t ranchers or “horse people,” so she had to be determined and creative when it came to pursuing her interests.
Her dad was a mechanic and her mom worked in computer technology. As a child, she boarded her horses at other properties until the family could afford to build a small, two-stall barn on their land to support Whitt’s goal of one day working with horses full-time.
Admittedly, to her school mates, Whitt was considered a “weird horse kid” because she was so passionate about her interest, participating in competitions from the age of 8.
“I guess they call it bullying now,” Whitt said. “A lot of kids weren’t that motivated, but I wanted it bad enough to make it happen.”
Because her family didn’t have a lot of money, Whitt traded chores with her wealthier friends to borrow their fancy shirts for competitions and then traded and bartered for other things she needed.
When her parents split up, Whitt moved to Idaho with her mother and new stepfather, an accountant. She had to sell her horses for the move, which was the hardest part for the then 16-year-old girl.
Once in Idaho, however, Whitt got a job guiding trail rides. From there, she attended the equine program at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, and also worked with individuals with disabilities in a residential care facility. During this time, she did part-time work as a loper and stable hand for other horse professionals.
Later, she moved to Wolf Creek, Montana, to manage a horse facility for a large ranch.
She initially thought the safe move was getting her teaching degree. But in the end, she decided that stability and money weren’t going to make her happy, so she stuck with horses against the advice of some who told her she was setting out for a rough life.
Over the years, she worked a myriad of jobs training horses on private ranches, guiding tours on dude ranches and working at the Boys and Girls School in Montana, where she taught horsemanship for the school’s physical education program.
A few years ago, a couple mutual friends introduced her to Everett. Though she never set out to deliberately marry a cowboy, she admitted that it was a nice surprise that has worked out really well.
Everett, a fourth-generation Wyoming rancher, has a spread on Cabin Creek outside of Carlile, where the couple runs cattle and uses horses to ranch, including Whitt’s favorite pony Snowy, a Missouri Foxtrotter.
Today, even the worst days are better than she ever imagined, she said — even the sleepless nights during calving season.
It’s safe to say that training horses full-time and helping Everett with the ranch and cattle are her dream job.
“Even on those days when you’re feeling a bit down or tired, all I have to do is think about how I don’t have to sit around in an office,” she said. “You just a grab a cup of coffee and get to work for the day. Just looking at the horses and beautiful view is all it takes to get motivated.”
As for advice to others who also want to pursue their dreams — whether it be horses or anything else — Whitt suggested just sticking with it. Much like the attitude she brings to horse training, she said the key is consistency and determination.
“I always say it’s like being water on a stone,” she said. “You just drip away until you wear it down.”