Thursday, December 30, 2010

How much do they know?

My daughter, Olivia, is home from University for the holidays. She hadn’t seen Kwintus, our lovely old KWPN (ex)dressage-master, since early September, when he was suffering from terrible toothache and the dentist came to take a look at his mouth. That day, just before the dentist arrived, she took him for a short, gentle walk to the village and back. She didn’t know it was the last time she’d ever ride him. The following day, I drove her to England to start her new life.

I’ve written quite a few posts about the series of problems Kwintus developed after Olivia went off to University, problems which led to me having to retire him at the beginning of November. I’ve often wondered whether Kwintus somehow knew that Olivia had graduated from high school, was going off to University, and would no longer be a regular part of his life anymore. You see, fundamentally, Kwintus was her horse.

Sure, she and I shared riding him, but when, almost four years ago, we set off to Germany to find a horse, I wasn’t one hundred percent sure that the riding bug would get such a strong hold of me again. I’d had a serious riding accident, hadn’t ridden in many years, and wasn’t sure I’d ever want to do more than go for gentle outside rides. Kwintus changed all that.

But as much as Kwintus clearly loves both of us, I think he has a super soft spot
for Olivia. I think he knows he’s “her” horse. I think he’s always considered himself as her “teacher”. Kwintus and Olivia always looked perfect together: Kwintus is not a very big horse (he’s 16hh), and my daughter is quite a lot smaller than me (I’m 5’9, with big bones!), so their partnership always appeared far more esthetically harmonious. At least, that’s what it seemed like to me. And in those perfect moments when everything came together, Olivia and Kwint had a magical connection. There was something...well, something almost romantic about their partnership! And, seriously, when I took Olivia up to the stables to visit Kwintus when she came back from England for the Christmas holidays, you’ve never seen a happier horse!

So when Olivia went away to University, did Kwintus know it was the end of an era? Did he decide that his work was over, and that, at the respectable old age of 18, it was time for him to enjoy a well-earned retirement?

In your experience, do our horses “know” more than we think? I’d love to hear your personal stories.

And speaking of personal stories, seeing as tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, and that 2010has been a very emotional year for Olivia, Kwintus and me, I’d like to share something special. I recently came across the following story in my hard-drive, and reading it made me all warm and fuzzy inside. Ok, so it made me a little tearful, too! It's Olivia's account of her very first competition with Kwintus, three years ago. The way I see it, it’s her “International Velvet” moment!

Happy New Year to everyone!

The Winnings, by Olivia Bossert

Kwintus climbed into the van. You never would have known that he didn’t like the dark. He was as good as gold. I yawned impatiently.

“What’s the time?” called out my mother.

“About 5:30am. We should probably get a move on,” I replied. The barking dogs could be heard from the canteen. All the other horses had woken up and were becoming restless. I moved to the front of the van, gave Kwintus a carrot, a kiss and closed the door. Two months of training and today was the day.

I glanced at the rising sun over the Neuchatel lake. The crimson sky was spectacular. I needed something to lift my spirits and calm my nerves. I felt the car shake as the two anxious horses complained. I was as restless as they were. The nerves came and went, and I went over my programs continuously. If I forgot something, a moment of panic would occur and I’d scream at the others in the car, asking them what came after the 10 metre volt. Before they could answer, I’d already remembered.

We drove for another 30 minutes before arriving at the competition in St Blaise. We were directed into a big green field where other vans were parked. Dozens of horses whinnied and snorted all around, breathing in the fresh morning air, puffs of smoke wafting from their nostrils. We climbed out of the car, and I rushed to the door of the van. I hoisted it open and Kwintus pocked his head out, looking enthusiastically at everything around him. His braided mane looked lovely against his thick strong neck, and the white heart on his forehead was striking. He nudged me softly, and began to paw at what he thought was the ground. He startled himself and looked at me. I gave him a carrot and patted his neck; he was going to need the energy.

Kwintus and I walked into the warm up arena, and I glanced at all the other riders. I was the youngest. Everyone around me was over 25, and I felt vulnerable. What on earth was I thinking? There was no way I’d ever be good enough to beat any of these people. But before I could panic, I heard Marie-Valentine, my trainer, tell me to pick up my reins and collect Kwintus. She was the only trainer there, and I was thankful to have her. She called out to me, wondering if I could shorten my left rein a bit, and make his right hind-leg more active. I began to trot, and I could instantly tell how proud Kwintus was. His vain attitude was showing more than ever. He pranced around the arena as though he was an Olympic champion. Somehow, I felt the same.

I looked around for my father and my boyfriend. I’d been looking forward to showing them how much I’d progressed in two months.

“Are they here yet?” I called out to my mother.

“They’re by the ring!” she replied.

I closed my eyes and prayed nothing would go wrong.

I broke into an elegant canter, and practiced a few simple transitions. I could feel the sweat dripping down my back and my reins slipped through my hands as my palms got sweaty. It was my turn next.

Marie-Valentine told me to stop working, and walk Kwintus for the next five minutes. I did as I was told. I went over the program in my head at least a million times, and before I knew it, I was trotting down the centre line and saluting. I looked up, forced a smile, took a deep breath, and pushed Kwintus on.

“Go to the left, go to the left. After that, extend the trot.” The whole time, orders from my subconscious went in and out. A moment of panic. I forgot what to do, but within seconds, I had remembered the 10 metre circle. I managed the circle quite well, and carried on to the diagonal. Everything had been going perfectly. Five more minutes, just me and my horse. My left leg moved back, and we cantered. I squeezed my legs, asked for an extension, pushed Kwintus faster and faster, then sat deeper into my saddle and closed my seat to ask him to slow down. Using my abdominals, I sat even deeper into Kwintus, asking him to stop.

“That must have been an 8 out of 10,” I thought, quickly. But I didn’t have very long to think about the extension, I already had to transition into walk. I halted for three seconds, and asked Kwintus to go backwards five strides, sighing when I felt his hind quarters move slightly to the right.

“You’re so silly, you could have done that perfectly straight Kwintus,” I thought, hoping he would hear me. Somehow, I think he did.

When it came to the final extension, my heart was beating faster than ever. I felt nauseous and tired. All I could think about was the extension, and the halt at the centre line. Right before we reached the corner, a surge of excitement exploded inside me, and I gave it my all. Kwintus flung his legs out as far as he could, and I felt his strength soaring across the arena. All of a sudden, it was over. I saluted and smiled, showing all my teeth (even the little gap in my mouth!). I heard cheering and clapping. I looked back, and realised that my whole family was there, cheering me on and congratulating me.

“You gave the best performance! It was beautiful. Swift and clean, so precise. Your mother was near tears!” called out Carine, my friend who was about to enter in the same program as me. “I’m so proud of you.”

I didn’t know what to say. Had we really done it? Two months of training, had it really paid off? Were all those strangers really clapping for me?

Surely not!

I walked back to the van, patting Kwintus and kissing his neck. I was sweaty and tired, and all I wanted to do crawl into the car and sleep. When I reached the van, I jumped off his back and took off the saddle. When I turned around, I saw my trainer and mother jogging up the field.

“Congratulations! Wow it was absolutely beautiful! We are all so proud of you,” exclaimed Marie-Valentine.

“Everyone is talking about you. They’re all wondering who you are, where you’re from, who trains you!” said my mother.

I handed the reins to Marie-Valentine, and she took him to the other side of the van to let him graze. I sat down and had a drink. There were too many thoughts bouncing around in my head.

“Olivia! You’re first! You’re first on the list! Can you believe it?” I turned around and saw my father smiling at me. “You’ve got a score of 69%!”

Suddenly I felt quite dizzy. 69%? I had to be dreaming.

“It’s true Olivia, all the other riders have scores of 65% or less!” insisted my boyfriend, Tim.

I blinked at him. Could it be possible? All those other riders! All those people who had been riding that program for years! Had I really beaten them?

“But what about that man that went before me? He’s been riding for years! I used to watch him when I was only seven years old, sitting on top of fat ponies! Surely he must have beaten me.”

“He hasn’t.” Marie-Valentine explained calmly. “You’ve beaten everyone!”

It felt too good to be true.

And yet, a few hours later, Kwintus and I had beaten everyone! Yes, we had won our very first competition!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Quiet Mind

by Laura Crum

I haven’t been doing much riding lately. Make that ANY riding. Its been raining a lot and everything is wet. Mud in my corrals, a mucky spot at one end of my riding ring, the trails are too wet to ride. I’m not complaining. We have the occasional dry winter out here on the central coast of California and then I ride a lot, but most winters we go through a few multi-week periods of rain, and the horses and I take a break. It doesn’t do us any harm. I get my horses out to graze almost every day, and because I don’t want them tearing up the softer, damper places on the property, I handgraze them, keeping them on the dryer ground. This takes more time than turning them loose, but I like it because it keeps me interacting with the horses. Which is how I learned something new.

I have written a lot about how much I enjoy my two quiet, bombproof geldings, Henry and Sunny, when my son and I ride them on the trail. But here’s something else I found out—a quiet mind is good for other things. Its very relaxing to be around.

This seems self evident, but, in fact, I never thought about it before. A quiet minded horse is different from a gentle horse. My horse Plumber, who will be 22 this spring, is a gentle horse. I’ve owned him since he was three, I broke and trained him, and I rode with my son in front of me on Plumber when my little boy was 3-5 years old. I’ve ridden Plumber through the mountains and team roped on him. And Plumber has been living in his big corral on my property for nineteen years. That’s how well I know Plumber. I’ve never come off of Plumber and neither has anyone else. Plumber is a truly gentle horse… but he doesn’t have a quiet mind.

What do I mean by this? It’s a little hard for me to explain, so perhaps I’ll just tell you how I came to this conclusion. In the course of handgrazing Henry, Sunny, and Plumber these last couple of weeks, I made an odd discovery. Handgrazing Henry and Sunny is very relaxing. My two calm, bombproof horses come quietly out of their pens, even though it is a couple of weeks and more since they’ve been ridden, they march steadily alongside me to the spot where I’ve chosen to graze them, and, at my signal, they put their heads down and graze. I watch them crop grass happily and I daydream, or stroke their shoulders or watch the breeze in the leaves or the quail pecking in the brush. Very pleasant. I’m aware enough to cope easily if something came up that I had to deal with, but it almost never does. A branch falls, the dog comes rushing out of a bush, someone slams the door at the nearby house—these horses may look up and prick their ears in an alert, interested way—that’s it. We’re all relaxed.

Then I get Plumber out. Now I trust Plumber not to hurt me—step on me, kick me, whatever—much more than I trust Sunny, who likes to play dominance games. So this is not a matter of being gentle and trustworthy. But Plumber is not “quiet minded”. He never was. A playful, curious, interactive horse, Plumber tries hard to please, is always a little anxious, and is very sensitive and reactive. He was an easy horse to train, but even as an older horse, he spooks at little things and is just, well, not quiet.

So, I get Plumber out of his pen and he half prances alongside of me. He is totally under control, just full of energy. When I signal him to graze, he starts here, then moves over there, then wants to walk over here. If I touch his shoulder he starts. If the wind blows in the trees, he starts. If the dog comes charging through, he spooks. Not on top of me, mind you—he has better manners than that, but he spooks. And this goes on the whole time I graze him.

Plumber has always been like this. When I would handgraze him as a reward after a good workout as a four-year-old, he would act like this. For many years I was so used to it that it didn’t even register. But, suddenly, the other day, it struck me how much more relaxing it was for me to graze Henry and Sunny and how much I enjoy this trait of quiet-mindedness.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Plumber and I will take care of him until the day he dies. But I was able to acknowledge to myself that these days I prefer a quiet-minded horse. It is not that I’m afaid that Plumber will hurt me. It would take a pretty difficult horse to threaten me while I was leading/grazing him, and Plumber never threatened me in his whole life, during the many years I rode him. No, its more subtle than that. I can’t relax with Plumber in the same way I do Henry and Sunny. Its like sitting by someone who is restlessly tapping their fingers and toes and chewing their nails, constantly fidgeting, always looking around to see what’s going on. Its hard to relax in their prescence.

As I say, Plumber was always like this. He didn’t like to stand still while you were on him, and would fidget, chewing the bit. And yet he was an obedient, hard trying little horse, despite his spooking and fidgeting. During the years I rode him, I accepted his minor anxieties and just lived with them. We were good partners. So it almost suprises me that after three years of handling/riding mostly Henry and Sunny, how attuned I’ve become to these two horses calm, confident, relaxed way of being. Now Plumber’s reactive, anxious energy, however well intentioned, somewhat gets on my nerves, makes me feel jangled.

I’m not sure how Plumber got this way. It could be something in how I trained him. Yet I’ve known him since he was born, and he was always an inquisitive, active, sensitive colt. I’m inclined to think its his basic nature. On the other hand, I didn’t know Sunny and Henry as colts, nor did I watch their training, so I don’t know if it was something in their nature or in their training which disposed them to be such calm, self-confident horses. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.

Its been an interesting thing for me to learn. First to notice that Plumber’s energy is unsettling in comparison to Sunny and Henry, and second to notice how much I like these quiet-minded horses. Their confidence in themselves leaves me feeling free—I never noticed before how much of my own energy was always bound up in being attentive and reassuring to my horse—I guess this is a legacy from all those years when I trained young horses. To ride a solid minded horse (or handle him) is very freeing. You can trust him to take care of himself for the most part.

Sunny and Henry are not deadheads. They run and buck and play in their large corrals as much as Plumber does. But their underlying nature is different. They are essentially quiet, calm, little horses who know their way around and are not afraid of much. Both were performers at team roping, which demands a lot of a horse, so they know how to exert themselves when its asked of them. What they are is solid-minded, confident horses—and for me, these days, this is a trait to be prized. Not just because they keep me (and my son) safe, but because they give me, in turn, a quiet mind.

I don’t think this idea even existed on my radar when I was younger. I chose my horses because I thought they might do well at whatever event I was pursuing at the moment, and because I was drawn to them. I tried to choose willing individuals that I could work with. Sometimes I succeeded in picking a horse that really suited me, and sometimes I didn’t. But the concept of looking for a quiet-minded horse because such a horse was conducive to tranquility in one’s own mind—this concept didn’t exist for me. I would not, I think, have distinguished between a gentle horse and a truly quiet minded horse, nor between a quiet minded horse and one that was simply dull. I just never thought about it.

Today one of my greatest pleasures is hanging out with my horses, whether its hand grazing them, or sitting in my chair in the barnyard, watching them munch hay, or sitting on the porch as they ramble around my property, grazing in the sunshine. And this hanging out is most peaceful and rewarding to me when I’m in the company of a quiet minded horse. Not to mention that quiet mind is very helpful when we’re on a trail ride.

So today I’m curious if there are traits that you prize in horses now that you either didn’t care about or weren’t much aware of when you were newer to horses. For me, it’s a quiet mind; anything special that you value?

And Happy New Year to all—may 2011 bring you much joy.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sites to Inspire

As we head into the New Year 2011, I wanted to share a few equine sites I visited recently that you might find useful and inspiring.

First, here is an outfit similar to Netflix that specializes in renting horse videos. It's called GiddyUpFlix and boasts more than 1000 training and horse info videos. I have never used it, but with the price of training videos being so high, the concept seems interesting. Here is the link:

Second, most of you may know that the legendary racehorse Zenyatta was just retired to begin her life as a broodmare. Arriving at Lane's End Farm in Kentucky during a December snowstorm, she spent her time inside her huge new stall, with time outside being limited to handwalking in a snowfilled paddock. Finally acclimated to her surroundings and calming down to her new life away from the racetrack, she was allowed to run free and play.

and here is a video of Zenyatta on the first day of her release:

And Third, in a post sure to inspire us to never again complain about our circumstances, meet Bettina Eistel, a woman born without arms, who cares for, saddles, rides, and competes in dressage on her horse Fabuleax 5. Here is the link: This is truly amazing.

Happy New Year, Everyone!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happy Holidays from Friday Harbor

I'd like to wish everyone a Happy Holidays and best wishes for the new year. My husband and I decided to spend Christmas in the San Juan Islands this year. If you've ever read any of my books, you'll remember two of them are set in the San Juans on Orcas Island. My 5th book will be set on San Juan Island in the Friday Harbor area.

An update on Gailey. She is now lame in a front leg. The vet injected her a week ago, and she's been on bute. I'll start bringing her back tomorrow. It's been an up and down year for her, and I hope 2011 gives me more opportunities to ride her, instead of less.

Since I haven't had time to compose a post for this Sunday, I thought I'd share some of my pictures with you from our trip. I hope you enjoy them. Blogger would only let me load these pictures, so I posted some more on my Jami Davenport blog. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in the islands. I'd love to do this again. Last year we spent Thanksgiving here. By the way, I noticed a lot of horses on this island and even horse trails at American Camp.

Here's wishing you a wonderful New Year and may all your rides be safe and fun!!!!!

We had a rough crossing.

Roche Harbor's Hotel De Haro

A Sunny Friday Harbor on Christmas day taken from our room overlooking the ferry landing
American Camp--Occupied by American troops in the 1860s-1870s when the British and Americans claimed these islands.
A view of the Islands and Cattle Passage from American Camp

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tips for the Trail

by Laura Crum

I want to begin this post by referencing a comment on my previous post “Good Trail Horses”. kippen64 wrote that her criteria for a good trail horse were almost completely different from mine, and the quiet proven trail horse could wait until she was older. I think she raised a good point. I’m writing about a specific concept, here. It won’t apply to everyone. There are many riders in the world who are bolder and less worried about safety than I am. Such riders would find our horses boring. Also, I chose my two trail horses because I wanted to give my son a safe, happy, relaxing experience on the trails, and we both needed bombproof trail horses to do this. However, since owning these horses, I have heard so many people (on the blogs and elsewhere) discuss their anxiety issues regarding trail riding, or, worse yet, their bad wrecks which have caused them to be afraid to trail ride at all, that I have realized that there are a lot of folks who would really benefit if they owned horses like Sunny and Henry.

So, to clarify, the sort of trail riding I am talking about (and doing) is very quiet, relaxing rambles through the countryside. It is not ambitious, from a devoted trail enthusiast’s point of view. Three hours is a long ride for us. Our horses are gentle and reliable and the territory we ride features dirt trails through forested, rolling hills. There are steep places. We also ride on the beach. Virtually all my rides these days are in the company of my ten year old son. So, if you are a fit, experienced, ambitious rider with no anxiety issues regarding the trail, my posts about trail riding are not likely to apply to you, and I do understand that. My “tips” are mostly aimed at those whose goals are more like mine.

OK—on to the point of this post. Not so long ago I read an interesting comment on another blog. I absolutely don’t remember who said this, so if somebody does, please remind me. It was in reference to whether one should lean forward when going uphill on the trail and lean back when going downhill. Or should one just sit up straight. This astute commenter said that one should stay at about the angle of the trees.

This interested me, so on my next trail ride, I paid attention. I have been riding so long that I don’t make any concious effort to do any particular thing, but on this ride I tried to see if I leaned or not and did I stay at the same angle as the trees. Well, this isn’t all that easy to determine around here because a lot of our trees are twisty things—liveoaks and madrones and the like. However, whenever I got next to some straight trees (pines, firs, redwoods) on a steep slope I found that yes, indeed, my body was at the same angle as the trees. So this advice seems accurate to me.

It isn’t that one leans exactly. One simply stays perpendicular, while the plane of the horse’s back tilts under one. I thought that was a pretty good tip. Because, as another commenter said (I think it was Funder, correct me if I’m wrong), it isn’t all that helpful to the horse if you lean too much, and many horses will point this out to the rider.

This got me wondering if I had any useful trail riding tips to pass on. I do a lot of trail riding, so certainly I should know something that might help someone else. You’d think. Anyway, here are some thoughts that occurred to me.

Spooking. People talk a lot about horses spooking at objects on the trail, and how to handle this. Most any horse will spook on the trail, at least occasionally. There are so many unexpected things: hikers half concealed by bushes, deer crashing away through the brush, funny looking stumps that could be crouching predators…etc. I don’t fault even a “bombproof” horse for making the occasional startled jump. I’m prepared for this, and I’ve taught my son to be prepared, too. My system is to ride with very light contact. If I think the horse might spook, I will increase the contact—barely. We are still talking very light contact. I am trying to be reassuring, not trying to force the horse. I make sure I have a hold on the horn (and to all you purists who don’t grab the horn, all I can say is spend a few years riding cutting horses and you’ll learn the value of this). I speak aloud. If there is a hiker, I talk to the hiker. If it’s a stump, I mention it’s a stump. If it’s a deer, I say so. Just in a relaxed conversational tone. I may speak to my riding companion, if I have one, warning that my horse may spook. I say this lightly, as if there is nothing wrong, just a trivial matter. I don’t say, “whoa there” and talk nervously to the horse or to others. I do not tighten up my legs. I don’t pull on the reins. If the horse spooks, I hang on by my grip on the horn. I don’t tighten my legs or the reins after he spooks, either. My body stays loose and as relaxed as I can make it. I may pick up on the reins if the horse seems to be going to make more than one jump, but its very gentle. In that case, I might say, “Whoa.”

Once the horse is standing still, I pretty much ignore the spook. If the horse is still scared, I might wait a minute until he sorts it out. If he dances around a little, I’ll maintain light contact and encourage him to walk forward. Once he seems calm, I ask him to walk by. If he remains frightened and I have a companion, I’ll let the companion give me a lead, if his/her horse is calm. Once in my life, faced with a very high, scary bridge and four horses that had never been over it (I was the leader), I got off and led my horse. In every other case, I have stayed aboard and walked on by (or danced on by) the scary object. In short, I simply try to minimize the whole thing. This works well for me. It builds my horse’s confidence and he grows progressively less worried and spooky.

The way I handle spooking has a lot to do with my background riding cutting horses. A good cutting horse’s move with a cow can be a lot like a sudden, powerful spook. Cutters hang on with their grip on the saddle horn and try to keep their body loose and relaxed. They sit deep in the saddle, virtually slumping their shoulders forward. The legs are loose, not gripping to hold on. This enables the rider to cue the horse but also helps the horse to stay centered and calm, helps him not to “work out” toward the cow, a big no-no. The reins stay loose, again helping the horse to remain calm. When I say I pick up on the reins after a spook, it’s the exact same motion a cutter makes when he gently asks his horse to “quit” a cow. Calm, reassuring, light contact. I have to say that having a saddle horn to hang onto is pretty essential when it comes to riding a spook this way, and I have been known to encourage English riders who are nervous about trail riding to use a western saddle for this purpose and see how they like it. I do know a few dressage riders who ride “western” on the trail.

In any case, the way I handle spooking has a tendency to make most horses less spooky, and keeps everybody calm. I do not think that I, personally, could ride this way in an English saddle. Perhaps some who are better riders than I am could do this. But maybe not. Years ago I was riding a paint horse named Simon on a solo trail ride and met another rider on a blind corner. Neither horse had heard the other horse coming and both spooked quite violently. I hung on, riding the spook as described above. The other rider, in an English saddle, came off and landed flat on the ground, still holding her reins, I might add. I got off and made sure she was OK. She was. In the course of remounting and chatting, I discovered that she was a very experienced dressage rider and had done tons more with horses than I had ever thought of doing. The difference between us when it came to that spook was the saddle horn.

When it comes to the kind of horse that is chronically spooky, and inclined to panic and bolt, I would not ride such a horse on the trails—period. Way too dangerous. Get another trail horse would be my tip there. (See my previous post “Good Trail Horses”.) It is my inclination to think that unless you are fit and fearless and want a training project there is no need to ride a horse on the trail that wants to bolt. Again, it is very dangerous, and there are so many horses that won’t do this.

Jigging. In my experience, almost every horse can have a jiggy day, or at least a jiggy moment. Horses that are chronically jiggy (herdbound, barn sour) are virtually impossible to cure. Horses that are willing to bolt towards home…etc, see the above advice. But even my Sunny horse, who is a calm, reliable trail horse, will have an occasional minute of getting just a little “strong” on the way home. Maybe one ride in a dozen. No big deal. He doesn’t even break out of the walk. Just pushes on me a little. My solution is to sit deep in the saddle, take the weight out of my stirrups, relax, focus on cooperation. I will remind the horse with one rein, gently, to pay attention. I will talk to him a bit, asking him to pay attention to me. (This works on Sunny—doesn’t work on a lot of them.). I may stop and stand still for awhile (again, this helps Sunny—doesn’t help a lot of them). I resist the urge to pull on the horse or give him an annoyed jerk. And this behavior does annoy me. However, I have found that reprimanding the horse for jigging in a forceful way does not help. Hanging on his face will not help. If I am on a solo ride and there is no time pressure on me, I will turn back out and go home a different way. I may go home by a steep downhill trail, where Sunny must pick his way carefully (do not try this on a chronic jigger—it could be dangerous—I have had such a horse get sideways on very steep ground). If my horse had more of a problem with this than Sunny does, I might stop in a little meadow, get off, take off the bridle (my trail horses wear a halter under their bridles), and let my horse graze awhile until he was calm and relaxed. And no, Sunny has never been jiggy enough to warrant this, nor have I ever done it on any other horse, but its been mentioned on other blogs and it makes sense to me.

Another point. I don’t trail ride with my reins hanging in great loose swags. I see others doing this and I disagree with this practice. I ride my horse with minimal contact, but the “feel” is there. I let my horse know where I want him to step on tricky trail. I don’t let him choose the route, riding with totally loose reins. Why? Because I have known several horses that, ridden like this (not by me), stepped in the wrong place and slid off the trail. One to his death. It is a mistake to assume that your horse will not make a mistake. They do. Be alert, aware, and forge a relationship with the horse whereby he accepts your input easily and willingly (and you do this by riding this way all the time). Thus, even on flat ground, approaching a small ditch, I will let my horse know where I want to cross. He may indicate another preference, and I may go with his choice, but I decide. Every time. For me, this is a safety issue.

Another safety issue has to do with footing. I have done a lot of trail riding on rock (see my book, “Slickrock”), though there is no rock on my local trails. In the winter there is mud, however, which can be very slippery. I would caution everyone new to trail riding to be very thoughtful about mud or rock when its combined with steep slopes. Or level trails with “exposure”—a steep drop on one side. This can be very, very dangerous. I have seen experienced trail horses slip and go down under these circumstances. Just because another horse gets through the slippery piece with no problem does not mean your horse will also have no problem. All it takes is for one hoof to slip and for the horse to get worried and start scrambling. I saw a very experienced trail horse end up rolling down the hill this way (he had some scrapes and lost some shoes but was OK—the rider bailed off and was OK, too). I don’t ride in the hills when I don’t feel the footing is good. In my case, I also don’t wish to tear up the trails and make them unpleasant for hikers and other horsemen. I wish all other riders would show this sort of consideration, but they don’t. At least around here.

Then there is traffic. Horses and cars are a bad mix, as many have pointed out. The nearest I came to a terrible wreck involved riding a gentle mare along a city street. We had parked there because the rodeo parking lot was full and we were riding to the roping at the Salinas Rodeo. We only had about a block to go. The street was jammed with trucks and horse trailers which forced me off the sidewalk and onto the shoulder of the road. The mare was not afraid of cars, but she spooked a little at a giant storm drain in the gutter—just as a city bus zoomed by. My left stirrup came about three inches from the side of that moving bus, as did the mare’s foreleg. It was a very near thing and it sticks in my mind. I have never ridden a horse along the shoulder of a busy road since.

I do cross a busy road to get to the trails near my house, and though I don’t enjoy it, I feel it is reasonably safe. I wait by the side of the road in a big field until there are no visible cars and then trot briskly across. My horses are not the least afraid of traffic and wait by the side of the road like statues, knowing the drill. But I still wouldn’t ride them down the shoulder. That one lesson sticks with me.

Perhaps my biggest piece of advice is more or less contained in my previous post, “Good Trail Horses”. If you want to trail ride in a relaxing way for fun and are not into doing a lot of training, choose a horse that is suited to this activity. I have owned some chronically jiggy and/or spooky horses in my life, and though they were stars at their events, they would not, I think, have made satisfying trail horses for most people. Nor do I think that even a much better trainer than I ever was could have changed them much in this respect. They were flighty, energetic horses, inclined to be nervous and/or anxious, or just liked to go, and walking quietly down the trail wasn’t in their nature. They weren’t the type of horse to make endurance horses, nor was I interested in this, but I do understand that for those of you who want to cover lots of miles at a brisk pace, the requirements are different. You may need an energetic, lively horse. I am talking here of the sort of relaxed trail riding that I do, which others have expressed an interest in.

Any tips you can contribute? Many of you have done lots more ambitious trail riding than I do these days, and could probably offer some good advice. And happy holidays to all of you—from soggy central California. We’ve passed the winter solstice—from now on the days get longer!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Warmbloods or Quarter Horses?

Every time I walk into the barn, I marvel that this beautiful creature blinking her big, soft brown eyes at me is my horse.

From the time I was old enough to say the word horse, I’ve loved horses. In college I wanted to learn to ride “English” and fell into lessons from a dressage instructor. A few years later, I saw my first warmblood, a Trakehner/Quarter Horse cross. I fell in love with the big, powerful creatures bred in Europe for their movement and temperaments.

My dream horse became a 17-hand warmblood. Over the years, I fantasized about owning such an animal. Now I marvel at the fact that I do own the very horse of my fantasies. So I’m trying to enjoy every minute of it as I doubt I’ll get another warmblood. If I do, there’s no way it could ever match Gailey in my mind.

As I read and studied about warmbloods, I was fascinated with the warmblood breeding programs. Warmbloods aren’t purebreds, they’re types of horses named for areas in which they are bred or breeding programs. The various programs often add horses of other breeds into the mix to refine/improve the breed. Also, most of the warmblood registries require some kind of testing in order for a horse to be approved for breeding, regardless of whether or not it’s already registered with the society, especially stallions. This also fascinated me. In America with our American breeds, you can buy an Arabian, Quarter Horse, Appaloosa, etc., and breed it to your heart’s content and register all the offspring. No testing required. Anyone can have a backyard breeding program. In fact, you don’t even need a purebred registered horse.

Breeding anything to anything just isn’t done in Europe. Many of their breeding programs are run by the government or were originally run by the government. Does this result in a superior horse? I would suspect your average warmblood off the street is superior to your average American breed, depending on your criteria. On the other hand, I would also match the best of our horses against the best of their horses any day. If that’s even possible because it would be like comparing apples to oranges. Quarter Horses were bred for a completely different set of qualifications than warmbloods. They were working cow horses with inbred cow sense. My warmblood mare wouldn’t have a clue what to do with a cow.

Warmbloods were war horses at one time. Now they’re bred as sport horses, mainly for jumping, dressage, and eventing. Yet, if I was in the market for a nice, low maintenance trail horse, you can’t go wrong with a good Quarter Horse. Around here, an average warmblood goes for about $10,000, while a nice trail-horse-type Quarter Horse is around $2500. Then add the costs of feed and maintenance. Usually warmbloods are more expensive to feed, as they’re larger. Also my warmblood certainly has more health issues than my Morgan/QH ever had.

I love riding my warmblood. I’ve never ridden a more comfortable animal. I also love just looking at her. She’s a beautiful, noble creature. Yet, despite my admiration of warmbloods, I’m guessing my last horse will most likely be a Quarter Horse, as I slowly transition from competitive riding to trail riding. I can’t justify the expense of a warmblood unless I’m showing it. Plus, I could probably keep two Quarter Horses easily on my property, as opposed to one warmblood.

So as Gailey struggles with soundness, I’m trying to live in the present, but I’m also considering the future. I’m guessing my future horse is a Quarter Horse.

I want to wish everyone a Happy Holidays and a very Merry Christmas. I hope you have a good one.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

May the Planets be with You

Recently, it seems that the planets are rolling around in the sky, conspiring to align in the crappiest positions possible for so many people around me. Every other person seems to be getting sick, or if they’re not getting sick, they’re dealing with sick relatives, or a sick or injured animal. Some are worrying about their kids’ problems at school, or about problems at work, or about how the heck they’re going to pay a particularly impressive mountain of bills at the end of the month. The ones with the most crappy planet alignment are dealing with all of the above, which seriously sucks. Come to think of it, I’m in the latter category this month. Mars and Mercury must really have it out for me.

Oh well. Chin up. Things could be a whole lot worse. Blessings aligned and standing by for assessment. The only way out is through, right?

The planets will realign, of course, as they always do, and things will improve. This time of the year tends to be pretty hectic, with everyone running around preparing for the holidays, which is pretty insane, really, as Christmas is supposed to be all about love and peace and hope, and not about stressing about decorating and what to buy who. The notion of “all is calm, all is bright” tends to only exist in the Christmas music the shopping centres have been force-feeding us with since late October. I used to quite like Wham’s “Last Christmas”. Now it makes me break out. In spots, not into song.

The crazy thing is that we all know Christmas is supposed to be all Zen and Silent-Nightish, yet with all the pressure it’s hard not to scurry over to the frantic, frazzled, dark side, be it physically or mentally. My frantic scurrying has been more mental this year, as all sorts of unpleasant recent events have shoved high-energy shopping sprees right to the back of my mind. And I’ve always been aware that there are more important gifts to give than material ones, but I always like to “give” in one way or another, and not just at Christmas. I love making things for people, and as I mentioned in a comment on Alison’s latest post, in the last few weeks, I’ve spent hours knitting scarves for friends and family. The clicking of my knitting needles makes watching Jack Bauer’s curtain call (we’re watching the final season of “24”) more productive, it’s also kept me from biting my nails down to painful levels, although the sorry state of my gnawed disasters suggests knitting with Jack has definitely not been enough. I wonder if Jack Bauer bites his nails…

Otherwise, Kwintus is fine. He’s been officially retired for a month or so now. His shoes came off about two weeks ago, when a giant dump of snow made going out into the fields with shoes impossible as he ended up teetering around on ice-wedges. He’s definitely a happy horse, quite full of himself, dancing around on his lead rope whenever he’s led from his stable to the field and back. He’s always delighted to see me, and one of the nicest images I have of him lately is him cantering towards through the snow after I called him. He stumbled once or twice, presumably due to a mix of uneven terrain and neck arthritis, but camouflaged his momentary lack of elegance with a series of bucks and cat jumps! Cute!

I miss riding him. I miss riding in general, and have no idea when I’ll be able to buy another horse, but as of January have been offered the possibility of riding a friend of mine’s dressage horse once or twice a week at another stable, which is great. Meanwhile, I can’t seem to stop myself from looking at horses for sale on the Internet, which is silly since buying anything at the moment is out of the question, not only for financial reasons, but also because I’m not ready emotionally speaking.

Also, I don’t really know what type of horse I’d want. Good dressage horses are so very expensive, and judging from the problems other riders around me are experiencing at the moment, they also appear to be increasingly delicate. In fact, horses in general seem to be increasingly delicate, developing all kinds of problems at a younger and younger age. My vet seems to think over-breeding is becoming an issue, as well as over-feeding during the mares’ gestation period, not to mention putting too many demands on very young horses’ athletic performances. What do you think?

And is it just a local issue (Western Europe) or are you also hearing about more and more horses failing to pass vet-checks during the acquisition process? With all the high-tech instruments now involved in vetting horses, I can’t help thinking we’ve got to the point where we’re looking for trouble, nit-picking on tiny weaknesses that might never turn into massive problems. But then again, I’m no expert, so I don’t know. Clearly, if you’re paying thousands or tens of thousands (not to mention hundreds of thousands, or even millions!!!) of Euros/dollars/pounds/et al for a horse, you’re going to want reassurance that the tiny flaw in his/her tendons/ligaments/bones/et al aren’t going to turn your investment into a very bad joke within five minutes. In this light, I totally get that the poor vets need to nit-pick in order to cover their backsides in case it all goes belly-up. I just wish things were simpler. Less stressful. Don’t you?

But I’m not going to worry about my future potential bankruptingly-expensive super delicate dressage horse’s nit-picking vet-check. Not now, at least. Nor am I going to dwell on the negative effects of those misbehaving planets. I’ve got a lovely warm house, plenty of delicious tangerines in the fruit bowl, and a nice man delivered a giant box of chocolates to my doorstep this morning. My little dog is feeling better (he had a parasite in his intestines, poor guy. He was soooo sick!), and my slightly bigger dog doesn’t seem to be cross with me for having him castrated last week (Ouch. I know. But it had to be done.) My daughter is home from University for a month, my son’s school holidays begin tomorrow lunchtime, and my husband is off work as of tomorrow evening for two weeks. How many more blessings does a woman need?

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone. And may the planets be with you!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Cute Factor

by Laura Crum

The above photo shows Sunny, my good little trail horse that I’ve written about many times. Usually I focus on what a star he is as a bombproof trail horse, and yes, this is the reason I bought him. However, this photo shows the other reason I bought him, which I do not reveal to many people. So, here I am, revealing it to the world…

Don’t you think he’s cute?

I hasten to add that the photo was taken last summer—Sunny does not look like this now. I do not blanket and my horses live turned out and enjoy rolling on the damp sandy ground. Sunny is currently a fuzzy little yak, of an all over dirty yellow color, as his coat is much lighter in the winter and the rolling makes his mane and tail the same dingy yellow as the rest of him. Not terribly attractive. But he still makes smile. Dingy yellow and all, he is a little spot of sunshine on a gray drizzly day, lighting up his corral.

I was raised to think that you bought a horse because he could do the job you wanted to do, not because of his looks. I was taught that a pretty head or a pretty color were only important for resale value. What you wanted was a sound, athletic, broke horse, with the sort of conformation to stay sound, and to heck with what he looked like otherwise.

I still think that, sort of. But I have to admit that Sunny stuck in my mind because of his color and just the overall cuteness factor. Sunny does not have particularly good conformation and he isn’t all that well broke. I tried him as a riding horse for my son and rejected him, eventually choosing the much better broke Henry. But Sunny stuck in my mind. Six months later, when I decided to buy a bombproof trail horse for myself, I went back and got him. I knew he was a good trail horse, of course. But also, I couldn’t forget him. And I’m afraid his color and cuteness may have had something to do with it.

The thing is, Sunny’s “cuteness” has been very rewarding to me. In three years of owning him, he has made me smile countless times that have nothing to do with his abilities. I smile when I drive in on a gray day and see his bright shape in the corral. I smile (and take endless photos) when he gleams like polished gold in the summer. I smile when I’m riding and see his long white mane springing off his shiny neck. I like to watch the silver and gold light sparkles on his slick hair. And though he does not have a classically pretty head, I love his “little girl’s stuffed animal” appearance. Sunny is just plain cute, and it gives me a lot of pleasure.

I would have said this was my own private aberation, except that so many other people have oohed and aahed over this horse. Tough, old cowboys tell me what a good looking animal he is and I have to stop myself from asking “Did you look at him very hard?” Because Sunny is not really very well made and is a decidedly clunky mover. Every single horseperson I know has at one time or another complimented me on this horse—I have to say that I think they, like me, are seduced by the cute factor.

So that’s the subject of today’s post. Do you have a horse you love partly for how cute he is? And I have to add that every horse I’ve loved has become cute to me—for various reasons. Bright red Henry who sparkles like a copper penny in the sun, with his cheerful white-striped face and bright eyes, Gunner with his big blaze, Plumber who nickers to me constantly…I could go on and on.

So that’s my question for today. Any of you, like me, been seduced by the cute factor? And what is your horse’s particular “cuteness”? A little white snip in just the right place? An endearing habit? There are so many ways a horse can be cute. I guess that’s one reason why we’re all horse people.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Reducing Holiday Stress

When I can't think of a thing to post. I go back and read my fellow IE bloggers' posts to find inspiration. The last two posts by Alison and Laura and Francesca's posts regarding Kwintus, all hit close to my heart, especially this time of year.

Gailey is lame again, oddly enough, it's the front leg this time. I'm waiting for the vet to x-ray her. He flexed her on Thursday, and she trotted away quite lame. Sigh... I'm frustrated with how seldom I've been able to ride lately because of her on/off lameness.

In the meantime, another friend of mine who has two very nice dressage horses had to rush one horse to the local trauma care center. Her gelding has a very serious issue. The chances of him making it longer than the next two months are about one percent. This friend, I'll call her Sandy, is already trying to figure out how to purchase another horse. Since she works full-time and doesn't have the support of her family in her riding/showing, I question her buying yet another show horse. She questions me only having one "show" horse.

Over the years I've worked hard to reduce the stress in my life. Riding one dressage horse on a regular basis is all I can handle with writing and a full-time job, not just financially but emotionally. I don't like spreading my life so thin that I'm run ragged all the time. Yet, I can certainly see her point. I've been out of the saddle more than I've been in it these past several months. Yet, I can't justify having another horse as a "backup" in case something happens to the current one. I don't have those kinds of resources. Even if I did, I probably wouldn't do it. Especially if my family was dead set against it, and it caused tension and unrest.

Yet, I also see my friend's point of view. Horses are her priority, her life, the thing she lives for. For her, the added stress is worth it. For me, I need more balance in my life. I need time for other interests, time for family, and I don't want to tie up all my expendable income in horses. As a result, facing Gailey's eventual retirement doesn't leave the gaping empty hole it might in others. Oh, there'll be a hole, but it'll be quickly filled with all the other things I love to do.

When Gailey is no longer rideable, she'll retire at my home. Whether or not I'll get another horse is up in the air. That's a commitment I've made to her. I imagine that's how most of us come to have "unusable" horses.

Horses fill our lives in different and varied levels. What works for one of us, won't work for another. Always having two horses fulfills a need of Sandy's. Only having one riding horse fills my needs. We're all different, and our solutions to problems are different. Some of us invite stress, some of us avoid it. I've learned to avoid stress the older I get. Which is probably why I'll eventually fill my horse fix with a nice little trail horse, and why she'll continue to ride and show two horses, despite the extra stress it puts on her, the extra money she spends, the problems it causes within her family, etc. The last several times I've spoken to her she's burst into tears. Believe me, she is not the crying type. I question if it's all worth it for the return she gets?

So as the holidays approach, along with the stress that comes with them, do yourself a favor. Give yourself a present. Find ways to reduce the stress in your lives. I, for one, didn't decorate for Christmas this year. We won't be home for Christmas, and the decorating has lost its appeal to me. I found a 1-foot tree and plugged it in. I cut back on present buying. I donated money to charities rather buying gifts to exchange at parties. I'm simplifying my life. The truth is no one cares that I didn't decorate or that I didn't spend tons of money on gifts.

So to all of you, have a Merry Christmas, enjoy your family and friends, and remember the true reason for the season. Simplify your life and go back to basics on what's really important to you.

A Horsey Christmas

So, Christmas coming up makes me wonder - what's the best horsey gift you've ever received? Have any of you ever received a horse (or given one) for a Christmas present?

Adorable picture from Tuesday's Horse

I've never gotten a horse for Christmas, although I did receive a shorthorn heifer named Raisin for my birthday one year :)

And in the years I owned a tack shop, Christmas was always a fun season. Not only did we get to stock equine calendars, ornaments, horse books and greeting cards, but it was a lot of fun watching people pick out presents for the horse lovers in their lives. Some lucky people received new bridles, blankets, and even saddles.

So, I ask you - what's the very best horse gift you ever received? Or gave to someone?

Share with us.

And here's hoping you have the best horsey Christmas ever!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Pre-Holiday Musings

Since this is often a stressful time of the year, I've decided to blog about the joys in my life to remind myself what's important. I'm not talking about terrific family and friends, all in good health, which are the ultimate large blessings, I'm talking about the smaller blessings that make each day special.

First is living in the country. The temperature has plummeted so for me, it's too cold for riding. But twice every day rain or shine, I walk my dogs, feed the horses, and enjoy the outdoors. The horses are shaggy and healthy with a stream that never freezes, and they have all the sweet hay they can eat and a huge four-star run in shed. Not four-star luxurious (it's in a big old barn), but four star in soft footing and plenty of room to escape the rain and snow.

Second is having two jobs that I love: teaching and writing. Neither have made me rich--I make about the same as an adjunct at a community college now as I did ten years ago, and my book advances have barely budged since I began writing. But both are satisfying in different and wonderful ways, and I am thankful every day that I continue to be passionate about careers that 'chose' me.

Third is the joy I find in volunteering. I am a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected children. I won't go into detail about my work as a CASA, instead, I'll blather on about the joy I get from giving back. Studies have shown that 68% felt that volunteering made them feel healthier. I am proof!

I could go on and on since there are so many blessing and joys in my life--too numerous to mention--and I thank you for 'listening' and hope you will be inspired to share some of yours!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Perfectly Useless Horses

by Laura Crum

This post has been in my mind a long time. Because I occasionally read other blogs (when I have time) and some, particularly Joe’s TBFriends blog, are about rescuing horses. I read this blog and I think, I wish I could take on another horse. I wish I could help Joe in this noble work. And I do believe it is a noble work. But I always add things up and realize I can’t. I don’t have room or time for another horse, let alone I can’t afford the cost. I still feel sad about it. There are so many horses that need help.

I said as much to a cowboy friend the other day, and he looked at me like I was nuts. “Laura,” he said, “you already take care of seven useless horses. What more are you supposed to do?”

Well, I thought about that. I do take care of seven retired/rescued horses. Three were rescued from others for one reason or another, four are horses I rode that were retired due to age or injury. Some of them have been in this group of pasture horses for over twenty years.

My friend said, “How many people do you know that have taken care of a perfectly useless horse for over twenty years?”

That really made me think. I know there must be plenty of others in the world who have done and are doing this. There are people who write for this blog and who write in the comments that I know are taking good care of their retired/rescued horses. But I also know that there are so many so-called “rescues” that come and go, after taking on more horses than they can care for, frequently leaving a legacy of dozens of half starved horses that yet another rescue has to take on.

I thought about what it really means to retire a horse—and believe me, I know. Years and years (sometimes over twenty years) of usually escalating cost, as the horse needs senior feed and more vet care as he gets into his late twenties and thirties. And if you are a responsible horseman, you make sure the horse has pasture or adequate turnout time—it is not doing any horse a favor to keep him in a small pen the rest of his life when he can no longer be ridden. And then, there are the final months/years when you agonize over whether his quality of life is good enough, as he grows more stiff and sore or has health problems. Finally you make the call and with much sorrow, end his life as peacefully as possible, paying quite a bit for this privilige. This, all this, is a huge investment in time and money and emotional energy.

So today I want to send out a huge thank you, not to those who rescue horses, even though I totally admire the good horse rescues out there, but to each and every one who does retire their riding horses when they become too lame or old to use. Thank you so much for your kindness and love. If every horse owner were like you, no one would need to rescue horses. All horses would have a good life.

And I want to make a plea. Please, even if you, like me, can’t afford to take on a rescue horse right now, make a plan to retire the good horses you have when their riding days are done. Selling them to a “good home” does not cut it. Not unless you remain responsible for them and keep checking on them and are willing to take them back if needed. I can tell you dozens of stories of older horses who were sold to a “good home” and ended up going down the road…to an eventual fate we all can guess.

Yes, sometimes older horses do get a good home. Henry got one with me at nineteen years of age. Sunny, too. Because I am going to retire my two good little trail horses when their using days are done, even though I bought both of them as teenage horses. But sad to say, I’m afraid this is the exception not the rule.

So this is the point of today’s post. A huge thank you to all the unsung heroes of the horse world who do retire their horses when they are no longer able to do a useful job, and a plea that more people consider this. I truly believe you will be earning much good karma, if that matters to you. I know it isn’t always easy or convenient. But it’s the right thing to do. Keep your good horses and retire them when their working life is done!

And if you keep a few “perfectly useless horses,” to quote my friend, and have done so for years, I'd love it if you'd write and tell me. I know that quite a few of you do this—it cheers me up to realize I’m not alone. I’m sure we can all share stories both about how expensive and time consuming this can be—and the smile it brings to your face to see your old horse looking and feeling good on green grass. I think, of all the fun things I have done with horses, this may be my favorite. The joy of knowing that my old friends are having a good life—after all the gifts they gave me—well, its hard to describe how rewarding it is. Perhaps some of you can do a better job than I can. Any old horse stories to share?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Good Trail Horses

by Laura Crum

Recently I’ve had a few folks ask me how I happened to pick out Henry and Sunny, the two horses my son and I use for trail riding, and how someone else could select a similar horse. Usually they say, “I want one like that.” Or “I want to enjoy that kind of trail riding—how do I get a horse like that?” What they admire, of course, is our two horses’ “bombproof” quality—how they will go anywhere calmly and quietly. This is what I selected these horses for. So, I thought I’d write a post on this subject.

First off, I did select Henry and Sunny very purposefully to fill this need. I wanted two absolutely reliable trail horses for my son and myself. And I was willing to forgive a lot of things if the horses could do this job. In Sunny’s case, particularly, there was quite a bit to forgive. So, my first piece of advice would be to keep the goal in mind when selecting a horse. In my experience, horses who are excellent, bombproof trail horses are not usually superstars at some demanding arena event. My best team roping horse, Flanigan, was a great trail horse, but he could spook—and make some mighty big jumps. He was a real athlete. And he was very cold-backed. In those days it didn’t bother me. But its best to remember that the very sensitivity, responsiveness, and athletic ability that make a horse a good performer in the arena are traits that may weigh against the ability to go quietly and reliably down the trail.

What is a good trail horse? This will differ from rider to rider. I wanted horses that would walk quietly (no jigging—including on the way home and on solo rides) and were virtually spook proof. I wanted horses that could deal with anything—traffic, mud, surf, strange horses charging by, barking dogs, wild animals, public situations…etc, without turning a hair. I wanted to make trail riding as safe and relaxing as possible for myself and my son. I wanted horses who would stay relaxed themselves at all times and were willing. I wanted zero problems on the trail. The horses needed to be experienced and sure footed enough outside not to put us at risk by stumbling or falling or panicking when faced with a steep hill or any other sort of trail obstacle. You get the picture. I wanted bombproof trail horses.

I definitely wanted to buy horses I’d “known” for some time, if at all possible. I wanted to be sure that neither horse had ever dumped a rider—that both really were experienced and reliable on the trail. I wanted to be sure they were sound. It is very hard to be sure of such things if you haven’t known the horse awhile. I’d known Henry for over ten years and Sunny for three years when I bought them. So I knew what I was getting. I highly recommend this approach, though I know it isn’t always possible.

Both Henry and Sunny were over ten years old when I bought them (Henry was 19). I recommend choosing a horse in the double digits if you want a reliable trail horse. It just makes sense. There are eight and nine year old horses that are just as reliable, but they’re less common. I personally would not select a horse for this job that was less than eight. I also recommend a horse that has done a lot of work outside. In Henry’s case it was more ranch work than trail rides, but he was surefooted and experienced outside the pen. I recommend looking for a horse who has been a reliable “babysitter” at his last home. Henry’s previous owner was an 80 year old man. Sunny had been a trail horse for beginning riders for several years (and yes, he had some bad habits—but he had never dumped a rider). Both horses had established their reliability “outside”.

I trail rode them both before I bought them and made sure that they walked quietly solo or with others, both home and back. Herdbound or barn sour horses are very hard to cure—though any horse will have better and worse days in this respect. Still, the basic tendency to walk quietly needs to be an entrenched habit, or you do not have a “bombproof” trail horse of the kind I was looking for.

Are these horses easy to find? No. And again, you will probably have to forgive some characteristics that others might call faults. Sunny and Henry, for instance, are basically lazy horses. This is, in part, what makes them good, reliable trail horses. They are happy to walk on the trail. They can both be a bit frustrating in the arena, due to the lack of “go”. Spurs would pretty much cure this, but I don’t choose to ride with spurs these days, nor do I choose to put them on my 10 yr old son. The reasons for this are several—if you’re interested, ask me in the comments. My point here is that the horses can be reluctant to move out in the arena to a degree some would find objectionable. I don’t mind because I know that this is partly why they walk so quietly on the trail. I like their relaxed attitude.

On the other hand, neither horse is a “dude” horse. In other words, an ill broke plug who has never done anything but pack dudes down the trail. Such horses exist, of course, and some people think that buying that kind of a horse is the way to get a bombproof trail horse. I disagree. I recommend buying a horse that is “broke”. Both Henry and Sunny were competitive team roping horses. In order for them to do this, someone with some skill had to teach them to obey even when the pressure is on. Such a horse stands a far better chance of being reliable in a bind than a horse who is quiet only because he is lazy and dull. When something does scare your horse (and it inevitably will), a broke horse will stop when you tell him to, even under pressure. An ill broke horse is perfectly capable of an out of control bolt—even with an experienced rider. One thing that distinguishes Henry and Sunny from a "dead-sided" dude horse is that both horses walk down the trail with their ears pricked alertly, looking at everything.

I have had great luck buying ex-team roping horses who are quiet minded and have been ridden a lot outside. Soundness is an issue. You can’t enjoy trail riding if your horse isn’t sound enough to go. What can I say? Soundness is the bane of all good older horses. You do the best you can to choose a sound horse. Fortunately light trail riding is doable for horses with minor arthritic issues, which most older team roping horses (and I would venture to say performance horses of any kind) do have.

If I went out today to buy another trail horse, these are the criteria I would use. Hopefully a horse I’d “known” awhile (at least peripherally), in the double digits, sound, quiet minded and a bit lazy, had lots of experience outside, hopefully had been a babysitter for others, had never dumped a rider, was reasonably well broke. That about covers it. I like geldings, so I’d look for a gelding. I’d ride the horse outside as much as possible before I bought it. I’d have to like the “feel” he gave me on the trail. I’d forgive other faults, as I said. No horse will be perfect in all respects. The horse needs to be “safe” outside. He doesn’t need to be a star at anything else. (I realize other folks will have different needs—many want a horse to do an arena “event” or two and also be a good trail horse.)

What I wouldn’t care about: Looks, color, breed or confirmation—as long as the horse had no obvious predisposition to a problem. I have known many somewhat crooked legged horses to stay sound into their thirties. I’m not critical when it comes to straight shoulders and the like. If the horse is sound and has been sound, I am willing to forgive a lot of confirmation flaws. I have also known plenty of horses with excellent confirmation to have soundness issues. I think the fact that the horse has been a sound horse all his life is the best prediction. That said, horses with little feet and light bone turn me off. I am very attracted to horses with good bone and decent sized feet that are not low in the heels. And having said I don’t care about color, I will admit that like everyone else I have colors I prefer—and I think this does influence me quite a bit, despite my inclination to think it shouldn’t. I find Sunny’s bright gold color very appealing and he makes me smile every time I look at him and that’s worth something. But I never cared for sorrel horses, and having owned wonderful, reliable Henry (who is a bright copper red sorrel) for three years, I am now a huge fan of a good red horse, so I think this works both ways.

Linda’s post yesterday mentioned withers and a good walk, and I think most of us would agree these are nice traits. But my horse Sunny has low withers and a slow walk, and I picked him anyway. Henry is not a particularly fast walker, so the two horses go about the same speed and both walk out willingly on the trail. They just don’t have a fast pace, and that’s OK for me. Again, I think you have to accept some trade offs, and I really prioritized the solid, bombproof trail horse quality over anything else. Other riders might prioritize the fast walk and accept a little less reliability.

I think you should always buy a horse that looks “right” to you. This is a hard thing to define, and maybe this sort of insight only comes over time, but I’ll put it this way. Whether buying a bombproof trail horse, or a potential star at some event, once you’ve determined the horse is suitable, look at him and ask yourself, is this what I want to see in my corral (or stall). If the answer is not a solid yes, its worth thinking about. At this point in my career, I always listen to that little intuitive voice.

What I would be very leery of: A horse that for whatever reason had been turned out and not ridden for some time previously (this would include broodmares and horses that had been turned out to be healed up from something). Such a horse is an “unknown”, whatever its prior experience. A horse with a known health problem would cause me to think hard. I’ve been there, done that, and it can be expensive and very sad.

I would avoid any horse that is not a fully “made” horse. This is a matter of judgement on the horseman’s part, so I can’t really advise you how to make that call. But experienced horses in the double digits are pretty much made horses de facto—whether for better or worse. If you want to teach a horse to be a good trail horse, younger horses can be fine, but I am not talking about a training project here. I’m talking about relaxing rides through the woods with a child.

I’d take my time, and I’d be willing to spend up to $5000 (in my part of the world). I would not be turned off by a horse that fit my criteria and was in his late teens. If he had been sound all his life there’s a good chance he’ll stay sound. And if he stayed sound through his late twenties (very possible) there’s ten lovely, peaceful riding years. As opposed to miserable struggle (potentially) with a younger horse that is not “bombproof”. I know what I’d rather have.

Ok. There’s my thoughts for those who want a horse like Sunny and Henry. Any insights from you guys?