The rain and mud don’t bother Miranda Deal as she calmly corners a mare in her pen, halters her and leads her to an open field to practice her “flexion.” Daphne, a 5-year-old former racehorse, has been with the young trainer for a few weeks. She is already improving with her ground manners and her ability to bend her neck without moving her feet, as Deal demonstrates.
“If I stop, she stops. If I’m turning, she’s not walking into me,” Deal said. “She’s paying attention to what I’m doing and tries to read my body language.”
Daphne is one of the more difficult horses Deal has worked with in her two years of professional horse training. It’s no joke, she said, that the thoroughbred mare, accustomed to the racetrack, has a lot of issues moving to the right. She was also pushy and disrespectful when her new owner purchased her for less than $1,000 and dropped her off to train with Deal.
“On racetracks, horses are a thing, not a pet,” Deal said. “I don’t think she’s ever had the chance to bond with anybody.”
Deal will continue to work with Daphne for months, starting first on the ground and then moving into the saddle to teach her the rules of riding: how to seamlessly move away from applied pressure and follow subtle cues. By the time Deal is done with Daphne, she will be a “finished” horse.
“‘Finished’ as far as they don’t have the little quirks anymore. It’s kind of all been worked out, where you can take this horse and take more of a beginner rider and team them up with a trainer, so the rider will learn from this finished horse who knows what it’s doing,” Deal said. “My main goal is to have a soft and supple horse at the end of my training.”
To achieve those results in the 80 or so horses Deal has trained, she approaches her horses with “firm but fair” methodology, guided by the practices of esteemed trainer Buck Brannaman, one of the leading experts in the field.
“You have to give the horse the good deal first,” she said.
Some other tenets of her practices are always ending a training session on a positive note and teaching the horse that cooperating with humans can be stimulating and enjoyable. Another important aspect is bringing in the owner during the latter half of the training to ride their horse, so that the two are able to “speak the same language.”
“Ultimately, they’re paying for this horse, and they’ll have this animal for, hopefully, their entire life. So I want them to enjoy this horse,” she said.
An El Dorado County native, the 24-year-old trainer cut her teeth with Kristen Westhouse of KW Horsemanship, apprenticing under her for four years.
“We created this friendship,” Deal said of Westhouse, who also follows the Brannaman philosophy. “She taught me a lot.”
After that, Deal moved to a ranch in Colorado where she guided trail rides and was introduced to the cattle side of the horse world: cutting, roping and team penning.
In the Rocky Mountains, Deal “fell in love” with working cows, and has set her sights on becoming a more specialized trainer in the near future, finishing horses in a specific sport.
Beyond the increased value of a horse that is able to compete, Deal says that riding a horse that is a true athlete is “one of the best feelings ever.”
Still, Deal says she will always stick to her roots of working with a horse from the ground up, establishing a certain level of respect and comprehension before training it in a more specialized set of skills.
A significant part of Deal’s life that has lent her a deeper understanding of horses is her daily work with Opportunity Acres in Shingle Springs, a school for autistic youths and adults, where equine interaction is used as a motivator for personal growth.
“(Students) are just super drawn to getting to work with (horses) and handle them,” Deal said.
Many autistic people have sensitive ears and can become agitated by triggers that a person without the diagnosis may never otherwise notice. Additionally, some of Deal’s students are nonverbal and unable to tell others what is bothering them. Working with them has been a lesson in communication, she said.
“It’s kind of the same thing with the horses. If you get scared every time I try to put your blanket on, let’s back up and work with this and help you understand that it’s not going to hurt you or give you some kind of solution (to) your problem,” she said. “It’s just being aware and paying attention to literally everything.”
In some situations, however, making over a difficult horse can be reduced to a showdown in who can be more stubborn.
Deal fondly remembers her toughest case, a 16-year-old haflinger named Ben who was 400 pounds overweight.
“He was ginormous. He would basically run himself to death when you tried to catch him,” she said. “He didn’t want to learn anything new. It was very hard to convince him that there was something good that would come out of this.”
There was no breakthrough moment with Ben, Deal said, just a lot of hard work.
“I slowly, slowly, slowly started to change is mind,” she said.
After a few months of training, Ben had lost 300 pounds of fat and gained muscle, becoming one of the most powerful horses Deal has ever ridden. She no longer needed a halter or rope to work with him on the ground.
“We didn’t have anything connecting us,” she said. “He would watch my body language and move off of it. It was like we were dancing together. … It’s literally one of the coolest feelings in the world to be able to control this horse, who has a mind of its own, with just your body language.”