Sunday, November 29, 2009

Felice--The Happy Jumper

I started taking dressage lessons in my college years. I didn't own a horse at the time, but a friend of a friend of my sister's had a horse she wanted to find a good home. It had some soundness issues but could do dressage. We checked out this pinto, and I immediately wanted the horse. A day later the person backed out and the horse was no longer available. I was bummed.

The friend knew of another horse, so we checked her out. Felice was a six-year-old Anglo-Arab mare, gray, over sixteen hands. I lived with my sister that summer. She had access to a barn and pasture next to her house. So Felice came to live with us.

Looking back, I'd have to say Felice was a little hot for me at my level of riding. I'd been taking weekly dressage and jumping lessons for about a year, but I'm not known for my coordination or my nerves of steel. Felice liked to go and go and go. What else would you expect from her breeding?

Felice had been evented by a teenager since she was three years old. The teenager loved that mare. She had straight, short pasterns. By the time, she was five she'd been diagnosed with navicular disease. Her owners had her nerved, hoping to continue to jump her. She couldn't stay sound, and she stumbled. So they'd given her away to me with the caveat that I'd return her if I ever decided I didn't want her. I spoke with people who knew the horse. Many of them mentioned, disapproval in their voices, how hard and often this mare had been jumped at a young age.

My veterinarian recommended a horseshoer. He said if this guy couldn't keep this horse sound, no one could. I begged the shoer to come out. He finally agreed, even though he wasn't taking new clients. The man was a miracle worker. He rolled Felice's toes and put pads on her front feet. She stayed sound and didn't stumble as long as he did her feet. Anyone else, she immediately went lame.

Felice and I had a few good summers.  We lived next to an arboretum with bridal trails and an abandoned golf course. The two of us galloped across the golf course and went miles on those trails. We even attended a couple horse shows within riding distance, and I received my first ribbons.

Felice LOVED to jump. It was a shame she couldn't jump any longer. Once a week, I rode a few miles to take lessons at a nearby equestrian center. I'll never forget one incident. I was in a group lesson. We were taking turns cantering around the arena. There were a few small jumps set in the middle of the arena. When it came time for me to canter. I steered her to the rail and asked her to canter around the arena. She was having none of that, not with jumps in the arena. She ignored me and headed for the jumps, popping over all three of them, turning around and jumping them again. Jumping excited her and scared me. Plus, jumping made her sore. We avoided places with jumps after that.

Felice knew a lot more than I did at the time. In fact, she did changes like nobody's business. All you had to do was switch the weight in your hip bones and slightly move your outside leg back, and she'd change. She'd do lead changes every stride if asked. She did half-passes, shoulder-in, haunches-in with the slightest cues from me. I wish I'd owned her about ten years later when I was good enough to appreciate all her talents.

I owned Felice for two years, keeping her at my sister's, six hours away from where I attended college. I didn't get to see much of her during the school year, and I couldn't afford to bring her to college with me.

My sister moved, and we no longer had the free barn and pasture at our disposal. I was graduating from college and didn't know where I'd end up. Felice needed regular riding or she became almost too hot to handle. You couldn't wear her out on a lunge line either. Lunging made her hotter.

So I contacted the teenager's mother and asked her to take her back. She picked her up while I was away at college. I told her several times to make sure that my horseshoer shod the horse. He'd agreed to continue as she was such a nice horse, way too young for her problems, and he felt obligated to keep her sound. The mother blew me off, said they had a good horseshoer.

Several months later, I dropped the mother a note to see how Felice was. She'd had the mare put to sleep. They couldn't keep her sound. I was devastated and so very sorry that I'd ever given the mare back to them. Someone would have loved to own that mare, as well trained and responsive as she was. She didn't deserve to lose her life at eight years old. To me, they had an obligation to her since they'd overjumped her in her youth and contributed to her navicular disease.

Several years later, I ran into the "teenager," now an adult and a well-respected horse trainer. She asked me how Felice was? My mouth fell open. I didn't know what to say. This girl's mother had never told her I'd given the mare back. She thought I'd kept the horse. I didn't have the heart to tell her what really happened so I merely said Felice was fine.

She probably was fine, galloping around horse heaven and jumping jumps to her heart's content, pain-free and happy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Thanksgiving Story

By Laura Crum

First of all, I wanted to let you all know that I'm not the only writer left on this blog. My fellow authors have had some health problems--themselves, their family, their horses (and I hope your mare is doing well, Jami)and/or they are very busy right now and unable to post. As a group, we've all agreed that we need to prioritize the important things (family, health, horses...etc) over writing blog posts. So, currently I'm holding down the fort. But I'm sure the others will be back as they feel able. Anyway, today I wanted to share a story about something I'm thankful for, in honor of Thanksgiving.

Awhile ago I wrote a post about a horse named Harley—a good team roping horse who suffered a suspensory tear, and after two years of rehab and two surgeries was still not sound enough to be a rope horse. Harley was pasture sound, however, and my uncle, who owned him, wanted to find him an appropriate home. A friend of mine, who had loved horses in her youth but hadn’t ridden for years, was interested in taking Harley. Though she had some land, she didn’t have a horse corral, merely a pen where she kept her goats. She really didn’t know a lot about horses, and I was torn over whether it was a good choice to give her this fairly high-powered, though well broke, horse. Some of you wrote in, and most said I should give it a try. This was my feeling, too, so I went over to my friend’s home, helped her make a plan for horsekeeping, and several weeks later my uncle delivered Harley. So here’s the follow up.

My friend’s husband built her a nice corral and shed for the horse. My friend’s twenty year old son took a big interest in the project. Between them, this family groomed and handwalked and grazed Harley every day. Last week the friend reported to me that Harley looked sound to them, but would I come see. I went over there last Weds and Harley did indeed look servicably sound. Trotted in a straight line on hard ground, he didn’t bob. The family asked if he was sound enough to ride. I told them yes, he was plenty sound enough to be walked and trotted lightly. The son climbed on the horse bareback, with a halter, and walked him around, and though Harley was reasonably cooperative, it was clear that the horse had a lot of life, and it would be better to ride him with a saddle and bridle.

I found an old saddle that they could buy cheap, and loaned them a bridle and saddle pad. On Saturday, I brought the gear, and a friend of mine who used to rope on the horse, over to their house, and Mark (the friend) gave them a first lesson. Harley did great. My friend’s son rode him very successfully. I think they’re off to a good start as a partnership. Harley looks happy and in good flesh. He’s come back to riding horse soundness. And he’s such a nice horse. I was really tickled.

So here’s a happy story for the day before Thanksgiving. I am so grateful that I was able to put Harley and this family together. They are enjoying and benefiting each other, and to think that Harley was about to be put down if a home couldn’t be found(!) What a waste that would have been. It is just so much fun when we are able to facilitate something like this. I wanted to share this story and thank those of you who advised me to give this situation a chance. And if anybody else has a happy ending story to share, I’d love to hear it. Happy Thanksgiving!--Laura

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sitting in the Barn

By Laura Crum

Today I want to write in praise of a simple pleasure. Sitting in the barn, watching your horses. Perhaps watching them munch hay, or just watching them be horses. Swishing their tails, playing “bite face” with each other, nibbling grass. Seeing that all are healthy and relatively content. Just enjoying being near them, not needing to do more. Is there anything nicer than this?

Not that having a good ride isn't wonderful, too, as I wrote about last time. But there is a unique, subtle pleasure in just being with our horses when we aren't trying to accomplish anything that I think is valuable, and we miss it if we are always busy trying to get something done.

The other day it was chilly and I didn’t feel like riding. My son also didn’t feel like riding. I lectured myself a little bit about exercising the horses (my usual guilt trip), but I just wasn’t motivated. Still, I walked down to the barn in the afternoon.

The horses were glad to see me, as usual. The ones who like to nicker nickered at me. The other two came up and stood near me. I sat down on the haystack and watched them for awhile. It was very restful.

I admired my little palomino horse and my older brown gelding, both of whom are in good flesh and look content. It made me happy to see them looking so healthy and strong. My son's sorrel horse, Henry, looked good, too, despite having gone through colic surgery last spring. My two boarders are thriving. All of the horses are woolly, as I don't blanket and they have their winter coats. But I like fuzzy horses in the winter.

I watched the horses and the breeze. I watched the blue-gray California quail who emerged from the brush and began to peck at the hen scratch. My son was swinging in his swing that hangs from a big liveoak in the barnyard.

That restless little voice inside informed me that I should get a horse out and brush him and saddle him and tie him up, at least, even if I wasn’t going to ride. I should do something. But I just sat there.

My son was perfectly happy to swing for awhile. Then he wandered along, visiting with each horse in turn. Then he sat on the hay with me and we talked about each horse and his particular personality. After that my kid went over to the chicken coop and began naming our “teenage” chickens, considering them old enough to have names.

I just kept sitting on the haystack, watching the horses and the trees and the wild birds. And it came to me that I should do this more often. Just relax and enjoy being with my horses. Take in the deep pleasure that their presence is to me. In a way, its like stopping to smell the roses, rather than always busying oneself with tending the garden. We need to do both. And I for one have a tendency to busy myself too much.

So that’s my post for today. A suggestion that we should all take time to sit down and relax in the prescence of our beloved horses, not doing anything in particular. Just being together. Just sitting in the barn.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Nice Ride

By Laura Crum

Don’t you just love it when once in awhile you have one of those idyllic rides that make you realize why you fell in love with riding to begin with? Yesterday was one of those days for me.

I have been riding very sporadically, between being busy and the weather…etc. Two days a week is about my average. And I actually haven’t been feeling very motivated to do that. But yesterday was sunny and in the 70’s and my friends were going to gather the cattle and do some practice team roping. For the first time in awhile, we loaded Sunny and Henry and went along.

And it was glorious. My son pushed cattle on Henry and I helped run the chutes. We both loped big circles in the huge, beautifully groomed arena. The sun shone brightly. This particular arena has the cattle field on one side and a forest of mixed oaks and redwoods on the other. Not a road or a car to be seen. I loped along on my steady little yellow horse thinking that hey, I’m having fun. My son had a grin from ear to ear. What a pleasure.

It dawned on me that sometimes, between the work and the worry factors, horses can seem almost a burden (well, they’re never quite that, but I’m guessing you know what I mean). So its really nice that we get rewarded fairly frequently with these delightful moments. For me, these days, they mostly occur as I do the mundane tasks of feeding and such, or when I’m riding along the trail. I haven’t been very excited by riding in the arena for awhile. So it tickled me that for once I was thrilled to be loping big circles on a horse who felt good (hadn’t been ridden in a week).

Sunny’s energy was high, he enjoyed the loping as much as I did. His long mane (it hangs several inches below his neck) flared in the breeze of his motion and I was amused to see how much of a kick I got out of watching the shiny gold light sparks on his palomino neck and seeing his shaggy cream colored mane swing and lift in the rhythm of his stride. It felt in some ways like being a teenager again and admiring my horse because he was so “pretty”. At times I think I’ve spent too many years in the horse biz to be seduced by the cute factor, and/or the thrill of just flying along on the back of a horse, but it turns out I’m wrong. Those things can still get me.

On top of which I get the thrill of seeing my son discover these delights. In class yesterday, when he was asked what he would be grateful for on Thanksgiving, he said, “Our horses—especially Henry.” And when we got to the roping arena, big and wide open for loping in the winter sunshine, he said, “I just want to live at this arena. Then I could lope forever.” And I knew just what he meant.

So, anybody else out there have any inspiring horsey moments to share? The ones that get us through the difficult times and make all we do with horses worthwhile. Sometimes its just the little things…like loping circles in the arena on a sunny November day.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Goodbye to Howie

These past few weeks have been stressful for me horse wise. My mare is suffering from cellulites, as you probably know from my last post. It’s a slow healing process, but she’s on the road to recovery.

A week after my mare contracted cellulites, another horse in my barn also got it. Silhouette in Time, aka Howie, was a wonderful old gentlemen, a Thoroughbred schoolmaster, who’d been successfully competed by his owner to Intermediare. In his early twenties, he was teaching a new generation of riders. One rider won her first blue ribbon on Howie this past summer. He taught his riders the upper level moves with the patience of a saint, never giving anything for free, making you do it right to get the desired results.

I knew Howie pretty well, he was stabled across from my horse for a few years. Originally, Nicki evented Howie. Eventually, she focused on dressage. Howie wasn’t bred for dressage or conformationally predisposed to being a dressage horse. Because of his amazing heart and fighting spirit, he tried for his owner despite his physical shortcomings and took her a very long way. I believe Nicki won her silver medal on him.

Howie had a predisposition to cellulites. He contracted it a few years ago, and Nicki almost lost him, but he’d pulled through.

The day before this latest bout of cellulites, he’d been used in two lessons, one in the evening, and showed no signs of distress. When a student went to the pasture to get him for a morning lesson, one hind leg was swollen to twice its size, and he didn’t want to move. The vet was called, Howie was treated with an IV of antibiotics, among other things and put in a stall for the night.

Sometime during the night, Howie lay down. He tried to get up and couldn’t. In his fight to get on his feet, he kicked out the entire front of the stall and was found early the next morning lying in the aisle way amidst broken boards. I understand it took several people to help get him to his feet. He was put in a pasture and blanketed.

I saw him later than afternoon, obviously in great distress. Several of us, including his owner, watched him and wondered what to do. Shortly after I left, Nicki took his temperature. It was 105. A few minutes later, Howie went down, and he wouldn’t be getting up again. The infection had gotten into his bloodstream. The vet came out immediately and put him to sleep.

Howie was put into a trailer for his last trailer ride and taken to Nicki’s parents’ farm and laid to rest.

All of us who knew him are heartbroken over the loss of this sweet old guy.

Enjoy those green pastures forever, Howie.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Getting it Right

I grew up riding, but not showing or ever really having any formal instruction. I trail rode with my dad and some friends, and I did the occasional back yard show. I had a lot of fun. Now my little girl is riding and she has the opportunity to do both showing and trail riding--and learn from the best. I am sort of living vicariously through her because the kid has the balance of a cat and can seriously ride.

I know that I can ride but there is this part of me that is a perfectionist (nicer word for control freak). I'm like this in most aspects of my life except for my messy car (it's a disaster but that's another story). For me, I want to be the best that I can be at everything that I do. When I take a lesson, I really listen and do my best. I try really hard. I really, really want to be a good rider. It's that simple--and a good horse person. That part is easier for me because I love the animals. I could be with them all day, every day and not get tired of talking to them, grooming them, feeding them cookies and hugging on them. Doing all of that is like meditation for me. It's my solace. But the riding is where I feel I lack and I know there is always room for improvement for everyone, but I guess I'm kind of insecure. Not that I'm ever afraid I'm going to come off. I know it's a possibility but I've got a good seat that I attribute to the bucking bronco of a pony I had as a kid. My downfalls are that I tend to get stiff in the elbows, and I grip with my knees a lot of the time when I need to be using my lower leg.

Where am I going with this, you ask? Not sure, but here's the deal--I have discovered that even as an adult I need confirmation that I'm getting it. I'm fortunate to have Terri because she's good at both teaching me and at letting me know when I'm doing it right. But she also likes me cause she's my friend and like a sister to me. She's also a stickler for correct position. So it was pretty cool when a few weeks ago she asked me if I would ride Monty in a clinic that Brian Sabo was teaching for instructors. Essentially it was about the intructors not the riders. However, I couldn't help feel good and smile when I heard Mr. Sabo tell the instructors that I was a good rider!

Am I just plain silly for caring about this, this much, or do you "out there" in Internet land ever feel this way in your lessons or when you're showing or even just out on the trail? Is getting it "right" a big deal to you? I sort of feel like a little kid worrying about this, but it really does matter to me.

Have a wonderful weekend.
Happy Trails!


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Quirk

By Laura Crum

My horse, Sunny, has an odd quirk. Its not something I feel I need to fix, and I’m not sure how I’d fix it if I wanted to. It’s a strange behavior, one I haven’t run across before. I thought I’d describe it and ask if anyone else has a horse who does anything like it. Maybe I can learn something.

I bought Sunny two years ago. I knew his background—he’d come from old Mexico via a horse trader, and was brought into this county by a team roping friend of mine (see Sunny’s photo on the sidebar). Sunny was a mediocre team roping horse, but a steady reliable mount and “cute”, and my friend sold him to a woman who wanted a trail riding horse for her daughter. I knew the woman slightly and knew that her daughter and various other beginners used Sunny for many trail rides during the three years she owned him. Nobody ever came off of him. However, the woman’s daughter outgrew her interest in horses and Sunny was for sale. I needed a gentle bombproof trail horse to give my son a lead as we began trail riding together, and my old gelding, Plumber, was too jiggy and spooky to be the right one. So I bought Sunny.

Sunny proved to be just what I needed on the trail. He is steady, quiet and reliable…you can ride him anywhere. Up and down steep, tricky trails, in the surf, across muddy little creeks, along busy streets, you name it. He rarely spooks, he does not jig to speak of. But he does have one little quirk, which I have never really figured out.

The very first time I took Sunny on a trail ride, he gave his usual stellar performance. I was very happy with him. We were almost home and the horse and I were both relaxed, at the flat-footed walk. Crossing a piece of level, sandy ground, Sunny, for no apparent reason, “caught himself”, and gave a very minor crowhop. He did not put his head down, he just hopped his butt in the air and scooted forward a stride. And then he was fine. It was a nothing, but it was odd.

I was puzzled. I checked to see if the back cinch had flanked him. No. I looked down to see if he’d stepped on a stick or something prickly. But there was nothing there. I kicked him up to a lope to see if he was planning on trying me. He loped off like a gentleman. I shrugged and rode on home, figuring it was just a momentary aberration.

But Sunny’s quirk persisted. He didn’t do it every ride. But maybe one ride in six, he’d have a little “moment” like this. I hardly knew what to call it. He never put his head down. He was never really out of control. He never came remotely close to unseating me. He always walked off quietly when he was done. But he also didn’t quit doing it. It was annoying rather than threatening, and at first I mostly ignored it. But I got curious.

I couldn’t figure out why he was doing it. It always occurred very near the end of the ride. Sunny would have been calm, quiet and cooperative throughout the ride, as he always is. He might have had to pass various spooky/difficult stuff, and he was reliably steady. And then, when we were almost home, for no apparent reason, he’d do his little thing.

Sunny’s quirk could take many forms. If there was a horse behind him, it would appear that he was kicking at that horse. If my neighbor’s tractor struck a rock as we rode by he would appear to be spooking at the sound. If I had to kick him up to a lope as we crossed the road, he would seem as if he were attempting to bolt. Sometimes he just appeared jiggy for a few minutes and hopped his butt around. But I was aware that all these behaviors were various manifestations of his quirk. I just didn’t understand why he did it.

It felt as if he were giving me the finger. If I could put words to his gesture, I thought they might have been, “OK, I’ve taken you on one more ride. I came through for you. But I’m nobody’s sweet little pony. Get it?”

This made sense as far as it went, but I failed to see why he needed to do it. We get along well for the whole ride and then at the end he needs to give me the finger? Why?

I remained puzzled by Sunny’s quirk. He continued to do it once every few rides. I could never predict when. Sometimes when he was fresh, sometimes when he’d been ridden a lot. Always very near the end of the ride, but not in the same place every time. He never made any effort to get me off—that clearly wasn’t the point. But it was a gesture of defiance—it did have some negative component, that seemed obvious.

It was annoying and puzzling. I tried punishing him for it. This made him a little jiggy when he was about to do it; he was gearing up both to make the gesture and be punished. I could feel when he was about to do it (due to the increased energy) and I sometimes just stopped him and made him stand. When I had time, I turned him around and went back out for another ride. None of these things made much impression that I could see; Sunny’s quirk remained the same. Every few rides he produced his crowhop (for lack of a better word). Once he made his little gesture, he walked calmly and quietly home.

So here I am, after two years of owning and riding this horse, still no wiser as to why he needs to do this. Sunny clearly gets along well with me, he nickers when he sees me, he comes through when I need him. But he retains this odd behavior. As I began by saying, I’m not sure I need to fix it, or how I would fix it if I wanted to. But it interests me. I would be fascinated to hear if anyone else has had experienced something like this and what your take on it might be.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Inter-equine Relationships

The funny things that horses do.
By Terri Rocovich

I am always puzzled when people make the comment that horses are not very smart and even go as far as to say they are stupid. To me, these people have never spent time just observing horses and watching their complex social interaction and interpersonal relationships. I have a fairly small training barn that averages about 12 horses in residence and I love watching the interaction between each of the horses. I am a strong believer in letting a horse be a horse, even if they are a high priced dressage or event horse, they still need to have friends and be part of a herd. Because of this premise, we figure out which horses get along and every horse at my facility, with a few exceptions, has a turn out partner that they can get time to hang out with, graze together and often times play to their heart’s content.

One of my horses is a 20 year old thoroughbred named Pete. Pete is a precocious character whom has a sweet, kind nature but who also has a very high opinion of himself. Pete has had a good life, being the favored son and enjoying much success competitively but Pete has also had very complicated relationships with his fellow equines. When I first purchased Pete back in 1999, he fell madly in love with my mare Carrie. He was obsessed with her and she, being the ultimate equine cougar, exploited his attachment to maintain control and make herself feel younger. When Carrie passed away, Pete suffered through every stage of grieving and would not even consider accepting a relationship with another horse for several years.

Now 4 years later, he has developed an interesting friendship with one of my other horse’s Hank. Hank is a paint/pinto (I always get the definitions confused) who I took in as a rescue 3 years ago. I will tell you more about Hank’s amazing journey in another blog, but he has become both sibling rival and partner in crime to Pete and I think he is helping to keep Pete young. The other morning I got a kick out of watching the two of them taunt each other. Hank has been on a bit of a diet lately (I kind of went a bit overboard on the rescue him nutritionally thing) and he finishes his food before Pete. Their paddocks share a pipe fence (they have stalls with attached paddocks) and Pete, purposely pushes his feeder closer to the fence so Hank can see him slowly finish his food but Pete keeps his hay just far enough way that Hank is not able to grab any through the fence. Hank responded by taking his nose and sliding shut the door to Pete’s stall, essentially shutting the door in Pete’s face. Pete of course took his nose and slid the door open again which Hank in turn shut the door again and turned his butt to Pete’s corral.

Now you tell me that horses don’t think, don’t plan their actions and don’t have all the nuances to their relationships that we have to ours. Pete and Hank at various times compete with each other for my attention, they love each other, they hate each other, and they are each other’s playmates and rivals. They entertain each other by removing the other’s fly mask or bell boots and have become artful at redecorating each other’s blankets in the winter.

They are only one example on the many interesting interactions that happen daily around here. I love watching it all. It is always fascinating watching the changing dynamic when a new horse comes on the property. What kind of funny things do your horses do? Do they have a BFF? A rival? Do they get jealous of each other or a newcomer? Do you think your horse is smart? I know mine are, although we do have a few in the barn who ride the short bus. I’d love to hear your stories. Tell me if your horses play tricks on each other or have lovers quarrels or sibling tiffs. It is all so interesting and entertaining to me, certainly better than any soap opera or reality show that I have ever seen. Maybe that is it. Horse lovers need their own daytime drama – “As the stable turns”, or “All my Foals” or “The Stallion” or “Survivor – Pasture edition” what do you think?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Horse with a Heart

I'm very happy to welcome back guest blogger Francesca Prescott.

He was coming down the long side of the arena the first time I saw him. Big and bay and muscular, he had an elegant, easy walk and a confident, somewhat debonair allure. His broad forehead and kind, golden eyes were enhanced by a neatly plaited forelock. He wasn’t a particularly big horse, but he was round, compact and well-proportioned, and his thick, strong neck was shown to advantage by a set of perfect plaits. His tail was thick, long and glossy. But what struck me most about Kwintus the first time I saw him was the perfectly symmetrical heart-shaped white mark on his forehead. Okay; geometrically speaking, the white mark is actually more of a diamond shape. But to me it will always look like a heart, probably because I fell in love with this horse the moment I laid eyes on him. He had something special; a charisma, a presence, a gentle and endearing “cuteness” that made me feel happy. I glanced at Olivia, my fifteen-year-old daughter, hoping she felt the same way. I knew my eyes were sparkling, but were hers?

This magical moment took place two and a half years ago, when Olivia and I travelled to Germany accompanied by our trainer, Marie-Valentine Gygax (who, in my opinion, has to be the best, most patient and enthusiastic dressage trainer on the planet), to look for a dressage horse suitable for both of us. Our needs were pretty straightforward: we wanted a horse with three good gaits and a good character at a good price. Ideally, we’d imagined buying a horse aged between eight and ten, but we were open-minded, which is a good way to be when you want to buy a horse. As a case in point, during our first trip to Germany two months earlier, we’d fallen for a six-year old mare with a sweet character and a trot to die for. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, an intensive vet check revealed that the mare had a triple heart defect. She and we were not to be. It was a major disappointment, not to mention a financial setback for our limited budget. We’d already spent a substantial amount of money on plane fares and car rental, and during that initial horse-hunting weekend, had clocked up 800 exhausting and exhilerating kilometers dashing from one yard to another to try various potential mounts (Horse shopping? What a rush!). And while there was no end to the offer of dressage horses for sale in Deutschland, many of them were either beyond our means, or, for one reason or another, not suitable for a young rider and her middle-aged mother. Most of the good quality horses we could afford were young and inexperienced, and the idea of buying something so green made me nervous. I was an experienced rider, but had hardly ridden at all for seven years, having lost my nerve following a bad accident with my four-year-old Dutch warmblood. I was also concerned about putting my inexperienced daughter on something bound to unexpectedly explode, which at some point most young horses inevitably do. No, I wanted a horse with a little more mileage, one that was “safe” and uncomplicated. Basically, I was looking for a schoolmaster. But the problem was that nice, ten-year-old schoolmasters always come with stratospheric price tags. Without access to a stratospheric bank account, keeping an open-mind was definitely a must.

A few weeks after our veterinary tribulations with the cardiac-unfortunate mare, Marie-Valentine rang to tell me that Holger Münstermann, her contact in Germany, had found a few more horses that might be of interest to us, so I booked the flights and the three of us soon flew back to Germany. Unfortunately, when we arrived, one of the horses we were supposed to see had already been sold, another was lame, and yet another turned out to be a complete dud. We were shown a very nice ten-year-old mare, but I wasn’t completely convinced. Apart from not being a schoolmaster, she also had a weird habit of wobbling her lips while being ridden that got on my nerves. I was beginning to get worried; we’d flown all this way twice, and our equine budget was wasting away on travel expenses. Wasn’t there anything else we might see?

“Well, supposedly there is a very good horse at my friend Norbert’s yard, not too far from here,” said Holger, “The thing is that this horse is already fifteen-years-old. I wanted to show him to you the first time you came, but was told he’d just been sold to Japan. However, that sale fell through. I wasn’t going to mention him this time because I remember Marie-Valentine saying that fifteen might be a little too old. But I’ve been told that he’s an excellent horse, the ultimate schoolmaster and has competed up to Prix Saint-Georges.”

While my interest sparked and my ears pricked, my daughter looked disconsolate. “I don’t want to look at a fifteen-year-old horse,” she sighed. “I don’t see the point.”

“A fifteen-year-old horse who has done Prix Saint-Georges can teach you everything,” replied Holger, sitting back in his chair, stretching his legs and crossing his hands behind his head. “In fact, for a young rider like you, an experienced horse like this might really be ideal. It’s worth going to take a look at him, anyway.”

But Olivia wasn’t convinced. She thought she’d be taken to see something resembling the poor old burnt-out riding school horses she’s spent years coaxing around arenas back home. Having lost her heart to the prancy little six year old mare with the heart malfunction, she didn’t want to be coerced into settling for an ironing board with a cast-iron mouth. Nevertheless, between the three of us, we managed to convince her to give this old fellow a chance, and drove over to Norbert Van Laaks’ stunning stables.

Well, it didn’t take long to convince anyone. Because, as I mentioned earlier, this “old fellow” had nothing in common with an ironing board. We watched, our mouths curled up at the corners, as one of Nobert’s riders put Kwintus through his springy paces, our curly mouths widening into delighted grins when Marie-Valentine took over to personally test the horse prior to handing him over to Olivia. When my daughter swung into the saddle, she discovered equestrian sensations she’d only ever dreamed of. Within a few minutes she was over the moon and beyond, being given a private lesson by one of the most notorious trainers in the world (Norbert Van Laak coaches the Canadian team) who talked her through her first flying changes, appuyés and pirouettes. Kwintus’ ears flicked back and forth as he did his best to understand her somewhat muddled instructions. The elegant little horse was the perfect gentleman, even obliging her with a pirouette on the wrong leg when Olivia got her aids in a twist. As far as I was concerned, that was it. With that unbalanced, wonderfully wonky, extra-generous pirouette, I was terminally smitten.

Finally, it was my turn. I’d ridden maybe ten times in seven years, but as soon as I sat on Kwintus, I felt as though I was…well…coming home. Frustratingly, while my body remembered everything, my muscles had a terrible time coordinating the memories. I bounced and jiggled most mortifyingly, but Kwintus didn’t bat an eyelid. It was as if he was saying, “Don’t worry, I know my job. Just try to let me know more or less what you want me to do, and I’ll figure out the details. I’ve been here before, so no stress, honey.”

Kwintus is now seventeen years old and in better shape than ever. He lives the life of Riley fifteen minutes away from my home in Switzerland, and whinny-chuckles whenever we greet him with a “Hi, Kwint!”. He introduced my daughter to dressage competitions, winning her a first place during their first outing together with an impressive score of 69%. He’s given me back my confidence and taught me all the high level fancy stuff. Riding him is as riding should be: sheer pleasure. On top of this, he also has a great sense of humour, and is the most affectionate, sweet-tempered, generous horse I’ve ever known. The marking on his forehead may be - geometrically speaking - shaped like a diamond, but Olivia and I definitely see it as a heart.

Of course we do; we love him to bits!

With love,

Francesca Prescott
“Mucho Caliente! – Wish upon a Latino Superstar”
An effervescent romantic comedy
Available in print from, Barnes and, as well as in Kindle and as an e-book

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Unpredictable

By Laura Crum

Reading Jami’s post early this week had the effect of reminding me how unpredictable life is. Just as I toddled down to the barn last January expecting to catch my son’s horse for his little friend to ride and instead found Henry colicked, dealt with the colic persisting for 48 hours, eventually culminating in our sending the horse to colic surgery to save his life (they removed a stone the size of a big cantalope), and plunging me into three months of rehabbing the horse…well, Jami’s story reminded me that you just never know what will happen next (and I hope your mare is doing well, Jami, and your husband, too). Its not that I don’t know this truth intellectually, but sometimes life seems calm and predictable, as if nothing will change. Its an illusion, I know, but life can seem stable, reliable, downright boring. I think we all forget that it isn’t really like that. Until something happens to remind us.

So yesterday, when I took my son for a ride on the beach, the unpredictable quality of life was big in my mind. Though I love riding on the beach, and in most ways its very safe (big, wide open, nice soft sand, few obstacles), it, like all public places, is unpredictable. People show up with surfboards, kites, tents, big billowy dresses, wild dogs, fishing poles…etc. You never know when your nice quiet ride will become a spookfest. And though I’m pretty Ok with my horse being boogery, I am not Ok with my son being scared, or God forbid hurt. So, I worry.

But it was a beautiful day, perfect for a beach ride, and I don’t want to spend my life hiding from shadows. I hauled Henry and Sunny down to the beach and we climbed on.

Henry and Sunny both felt good. It had been a week since we rode them and they are fat. (An aside—its not entirely my fault they’re fat—they’ve been eating the acorns dropped by the oak trees in their corrals). I felt a little nervous. My mind was on the unpredictable…combined with two steady horses who were feeling good. But we rode down the beach with no problems.

Sun glittered on the water. It was low tide (which I had checked ahead of time, always being one to minimize my risk of problems) and the waves rolled gently a ways away. The temperature was in the low seventies. Our horses marched down the smooth, firm wet sand, looking alert and very happy to be there. My kid and I watched the pelicans dive. It was beautiful. I started to relax. We were having fun. We were about halfway through our ride and everything was great.

And then…. Two helicopters appeared in the distance, flying along the water line, flying very low. Who knows why, but aircraft seem to like to do this. But helicopters are the worst—they’re so loud. I had almost been killed once, riding a spooky horse on the trail when a helicopter came over, flying low.

However, I’d had helicopters fly over me when I was riding Sunny on the trail and he was fine. In the minute remaining I got Sunny next to Henry. I told my son to shorten his reins and get hold of the horn. The helicopters were almost upon us, the noise was deafening. Henry’s head came up and his eyes got big. He started to move backwards, as if to get away from the choppers. My son said, “Mama!” in a frightened voice. I grabbed Henry’s halter, which he wears under his bridle, crowded Sunny right up next to him and said, “Whoa.” Sunny stood like a rock, unfazed by the choppers. I held onto Henry. On another horse it might not have worked. But Henry is a steady trooper. He stood still. The helicopters passed overhead and went on down the beach.

I let go of Henry and told my kid he’d done fine. We were both a bit shaken. We rode on, but I had a tight ball of fear in my stomach. My mind was fixed on the unpredictable. What if the helicopters came back? What if Henry panicked and ran off? What if my kid fell off and was hurt or killed? What if…? You can imagine.

My kid was not as spooked as I was. When we turned around to ride back, he asked if we could lope, which is something we often do. I was a bit dubious. But the horses seemed fine. So we kicked up to a lope.
Now it was Sunny’s turn. He felt good; he wanted to run. I held him in and he crowhopped and bounced around. It felt like I was riding a pogo stick down the beach. Sunny can’t really dish anything out that I can’t ride, but I also can’t pay attention to much else riding a horse who is behaving like a pogostick. Henry was rapidly loping away from us. I was in no position to keep an eye on my kid. So I called a halt.
“We need to trot,” I said.

So we trotted down the beach. It was almost as fun as loping. Sunny settled into a steady gate, still feeling good, but not fighting me. We trotted a long ways, all the way back to the parking lot. The horses were relaxed and seemed happy. The choppers did not come back. But I have to admit, I was relieved to get back to the rig. We’d had a nice hour’s ride on the beach with only a couple of setbacks. All in all, a success. But “what if” was still big in my mind.

It wouldn’t have taken very much to turn our nice ride into a disaster—I was acutely aware of that. The unpredictable is just that—unpredictable. I pondered the broken bottle I’d seen on the beach, remembering a friend whose horse had stepped on just such a bottle riding across a field and cut his pastern to the bone. The unpredictable.

No, I don’t want to spend all my time riding around my own little arena where I feel safe. But I do, at times, struggle with this fear of the unpredictable. I’ve tried to minimize the risk by buying two reliable horses, and I think this choice has paid off. But as demonstrated yesterday, any horse can spook.

So my question for today is this. Do some of you struggle with this issue? And what are the choices you make? I know there is no simple answer. The unpredictable is just that. If we ride horses and love horses, we are taking a risk, both of getting hurt ourselves and losing the horse that we love. However, life itself is one big risk, and nobody gets out alive. It doesn't make sense to me to give up horses because they are one more form of risk. But I also struggle with my huge need to keep my son as safe and happy as I can. I'm never sure where the line is between acceptable risk and undue risk. I’d welcome any advice or insights from other horse people on how you cope with your fear/anxiety about this.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

My Week with Cellulitis

I got a call late last week from the barn. My horse was in great distress and one hind leg was swollen up like a balloon from the hip down to the hoof. They'd already called the vet. I left work and hustled to the barn.

They weren't exaggerating. My poor mare was in major pain, breathing hard, sweating, depressed, and shaking. She could barely support herself on a single hind leg and it shook from the stress of all that weight. Gailey is a really good patient, thank goodness. She really just wants sympathy. If she could, she'd crawl in my lap to be comforted.

The diagnosis was cellulitis, an infection under the skin caused by bacteria. That's about all I know about it, other than it can be dangerous and painful.

The pictures below were taken a day later after the swelling had actually gone down (believe it or not). So we started on a regimin of injectable antibiotics, a diuretic, and painkillers, and a some kind of special lotion because her skin was weeping.

Meanwhile at home, I have a sick husband with a screwed up back and a bad cough. So that's how my week has gone. Take care of the horse after work: Give her meds, unwrap and hose her leg, put the lotion on, re-wrap her leg, walk her for 5-10 minutes, then put her away. After that, it's home to take care of the hubbie.

The horse is faring better than the hubby. Her leg is almost back to normal size. Unfortunately, the hubby's cough turned into walking pnuemonia. He woke me up at 1 am this morning because he had trouble breathing. I ran him to emergency, and they ended up admitting him. Here I sit in his hospital room, which is actually a quite nice private room with two chairs and a couch. In a few hours, I'll run to the barn and treat the horse.

Which by the way, I found out that another horse at the barn came down with cellulitis yesterday. I understand that's unusual as it's pretty rare. Is that a strange coincidence or what? What the heck could have caused two horses to come down with an infection in the hind leg within a week of each other? I'll probably never know.

The other good news is that I have major medical insurance on her. Which is wonderful as the vet bills are mounting, and we aren't done yet.

So that's my week. This next week has to be better.