What is it about horses that Mary Little loves?
That's not an easy question for the president of the Payson Horseman's Association to answer. But after considerable thought, she finally comes up with a response.
"About anything and everything," she said.
"They're beautiful movers. They're kind of intriguing to teach. They're like kids; you have to constantly make sure they're doing the right thing. They actually test you all the time. But when you successfully teach a horse something, it gives you and the horse a real sense of accomplishment. They are just so eager to please."
Non-horsemen don't want to get a whole lot deeper into a conversation about horses with Little, because it won't be long before they have absolutely no idea what she's talking about.
For example, here she is explaining one of her most successful training experiences in horse-speak:
"I have a young horse who was green broke, but she had no reigning abilities or anything else. But now I pull logs on her, she canters, she's into the bit, she knows how to reign, she knows her leg cues."
See what we mean? You need your own horse whisperer to translate.
But other horse lovers understand Mary Little immediately, and that's all that really counts.
Born in Nebraska, Little and her family moved to Phoenix when she was quite young. Although her fondness for things equine is not difficult to trace, it is not entirely genetic.
"I grew up around horses," she said. "My Dad was always involved with them, and my sister had a horse. But my Mom is totally afraid of horses. She'll look at them from a distance and say how pretty they are, but she has no interest in getting close enough to touch them."
Little first rode a horse when she was in grade school, and by the age of 19, she was roping cattle from their backs. Even so, she hardly feels like she knows everything there is to know about her favorite animals. That's why, to this day, she continues to take weekly lessons from Teri Hallman, a Star Valley-based trainer.
"You can never learn enough," Little said. "No matter how much you think you know, when you work with someone like Teri, you think, 'Man, I didn't know anything about horses.'"
The whole idea behind the Payson Horseman's Association, in fact, is to elicit that same reaction.
"The majority of people up here take very good care of their horses," Little observes. "With the Payson Horseman's Association being up here, there are probably more informed horse owners up here than there are in the Valley. But there's still a lot they need to know."
The PHA has been around in one form or another since the late 1960s, Little guesses. It had all but vanished about five years ago, when she and some fellow equestrians were having "so much fun riding together and participating in other activities that we wanted to get other people involved."
The group now has 265 members, but Little estimates that there are "at least 2,500 or more" Rim country horse owners she'd like to corral.
"It's really unbelievable what this association provides," Little said. "First of all, it's a really neat group of people, and they're all willing to help each other out. We have a monthly newsletter filled with all sorts of vital information. And at our meetings (held the second Wednesday of every month at Mario's restaurant), we have incredible speakers."
Among the recent guest-talkers have been Steve Edwards, a well-known contributor to Western Horseman Magazine, and the even more well-known, Al Dunning, whom Little describes as "the Monty Roberts of reigning" a reference to the man who inspired the book, "The Horse Whisperer."
The stated purpose of the PHA, Little said, is "to inform and educate people on how to take care of their animals, to protect and preserve our trails, and to prevent this community from losing sight of horse people.
"Payson was a ranching community at one time, and it's still famous for its rodeo, so what better place to have an association like this?
"I don't think there's a bad place in Payson to ride, I really don't," Little said. "You can go just about anywhere and have a good time.
"There's a trail I love that starts in the Houston campgrounds and goes to Shoofly and all the way over to Star Valley. I've been out to Preacher Canyon and Horton Creek, and down to Gisela. Last month, our whole group went to Wildcat Springs, and this month we're riding to Oak Springs up in Pine."
Her favorite place to reach by horseback?
"Wildcat Springs," Little said. "Last year, it was really beautiful, because there was a creek you could ride beside. There's a nice, half-finished, abandoned log cabin back in there where you can sit and have lunch. There are usually a lot of campers out there, but we go in the middle of the week when it's not so busy."
A runner-up, she adds, is Kinder Springs in the Clints Well area.
"We had a campout there in the middle of about 500 cows which is a real learning experience for your horse. It's flat, and you've got big pine trees, and you can ride all over the place."
For those who are not horsepersons but are thinking of joining their ranks, Little has lots of sage(brush) advice. "The best thing would be to contact someone who gives lessons and have them go out with you to look at any horses you're thinking of buying," she said.
"They can tell you if the horse would suit you and your skills. It's just like taking your mechanic to look at a car you're thinking about buying. The horse may be beautiful, but it may be too much for you.
"After you learn how to ride, then you can get something that might have a little more spirit."
The biggest mistake made too often by first-time horse buyers, she said, is when "they buy a horse, thinking they're going to ride it but after the first six months, they decide they've got other things to do, and they let the horse sit in a corral.
"A horse needs to be ridden at least three or four times a week, and really, you should ride or work it at least a half hour every day. You have to be committed. If you don't want to commit, you shouldn't own a horse."
But if you are indeed ready for that commitment, there are three vitally important steps which must follow pony procurement:
"You need to find a good trainer, you need to take lessons to learn the proper way to handle a horse. And, of course," Little adds with a grin, working in one last plug for her favorite organization, "you need to join the Payson Horseman's Association."