Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Fall Trail Ride

Fall in the Pacific Northwest is fraught with perpetually gray skies and incessant rain. Once in a while, we get a few sunny fall days. During those rare times when the sun peeks its shy head out of the clouds and graces us with its presence, most of us native northwesterners jump at the chance to be outside.

Last weekend was one of those weekends. It was a low 60s, crisp, but sunny, fall day. If you read this blog regularly, you know my mare has been battling lameness issues. She’s certainly never going to be a dressage horse again, but she appears sound enough for casual riding. With that in mind and a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I decided to take her out for her first trail ride in about seven years.

So I tied Gailey in the crossties and groomed her. I hauled out the western saddle, dusted it off, and heaved it onto Gailey’s back. Dang, but I’d forgotten how heavy that thing is. I probably haven’t used it in seven years.

This would be the second time I’d ridden Gailey this year. With the exception of a short walk through my neighborhood, she hadn’t been out of an arena in about seven years. The cautious side of me heckled my more “reckless” side about how stupid it was to hop on the back of a horse without any preliminary work when the horse hadn’t been ridden more than once in a the past year. Let alone take this horse out on the trails by myself.

Yet, I know this horse. She’s never been one to need lunging before you ride her, always been a bombproof show horse, and a dependable trail horse. I decided to trust her.

I called to the dogs, got on Gailey’s back, and off we went through the gate in my arena which opens onto commercial timberland with miles of logging roads. She walked along, enjoying the day and relishing being outside of her small little world.

We ambled through the clear cut into the woods with Douglas Firs and cedars surrounding us on all sides. The cold bite of fall floated in the air, even though the temperature bordered around 60 degrees. Sunlight filtered through the tree limbs and dappled the gravel road with rays of sunshine. The dogs ran ahead sniffing all great the scents. The yellows and reds of the maple and alder leaves added color to the woods.

On a long rein, Gailey weaved back and forth across the road like a drunken sailor. I’m not sure why walking a straight line was such a challenge to her, but it was. I finally had to take up some rein just to keep her straight. I don’t know if she was sight-seeing or trying to find something edible close to the road which she could grab on the way by. Not that it mattered, we were on a trail ride not a food foraging expedition.

Our little ride lasted only an hour, but it brought back memories of how much I’d once enjoyed rides in these woods, especially in the fall. Of course, the rain has since prevented a repeat of last week’s ride, but I’m hoping for at least one or two more trail riding days before the really nasty weather sets in.

I hope you all get the chance to enjoy a little fall color with your horses.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Special Lesson with the Remarkable Bernard Sachsé

I recently had the opportunity to take a riding lesson with Bernard Sachsé, a truly remarkable man whom I’d never heard of until my trainer, Marie-Valentine, asked me whether I’d be interested in doing a clinic with him. She told me a little about him, mentioning she’d read his book a few years ago and had been blown away, not only by his background but by his incredible courage. I looked him up on the Internet, found his website and was immediately eager to work with him. I also ordered his book, “Sur mes Quatre Jambes” (On my Four Legs) on Amazon and, when it arrived a few days later I read it in one sitting, finally turning off the light at one thirty in the morning. If you can read in French I highly recommend it.

Classically trained in dressage at the Haras du Pin, one the most prestigious and rigorous French riding schools, Bernard Sachsé worked as a stuntman in movies and shows all over the world. He even rode horses on stage in ballet and opera performances, working with the likes of Maurice Béjart. His accounts of the difficulties of galloping up narrow ramps through curtains onto slippery stages and then back down the ramps in pitch black gave me goose-bumps. It is obvious from what he writes that most film directors or ballet producers have no idea how complicated their demands can be when it comes to working with horses.

Tragically, in 1994, Bernard lost the use of his legs on a film-set in Geneva. The accident took place in front of the cameras while performing a particularly dangerous stunt that the director wanted to edit into a previously shot polo match. Bernard had trot up, then make his horse rear and fall over backwards. For reasons he never understood, Bernard had not been allowed to ride the horse beforehand.

The cameras rolled and Bernard attempted the stunt only to be surprised by the horse’s apathetic reaction. Instead of going up into an energetic rear which would allow him to flip over backwards, he reared lazily, sank slowly on his haunches, and did a sort of floppy tuck-roll. The second take was hardly better, and the head stuntman snarled disdainfully at Bernard, asking him whether he wanted him to do it instead. Irritated, Bernard told him he’d try again. The third attempt showed improvement, but by then Bernard had come to the conclusion that the horse was neither strong nor enthusiastic enough to perform the stunt flamboyantly. He told himself he’d have to make the most of the tuck-roll and got the horse to perform it with a little more oomph by the fourth take, which satisfied the film director who suggested they move on to the next scene.

The head stuntman, however, intervened. He said the horse could go higher, that they would do it again.

Bernard did as he was told. His horse reared, tuck-rolled, and Bernard lay on the ground, waiting for the director to yell “Cut!”. Unfortunately, the horse didn’t wait, and as the animal struggled to its feet, Bernard felt one of its legs slip beneath his back. He recalls an elusive cold trickle down his spine. He knew immediately that his spinal cord had been damaged.

The head stuntman urged him to get up, saying it had been the best take, that the horse had reared far more flashily this time. But Bernard couldn’t move. Soon afterwards he was transported by helicopter to the Cantonal Hospital in Geneva where
the doctors informed him he’d spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Rehab was a nightmare, the pain horrendous, yet Bernard was determined that before too long he’d ride again. When he spoke of this to the doctors they just raised their eyebrows; as far as they were concerned the notion was inconceivable. Nevertheless, in March 1995, only nine months after his accident, two friends helped him up onto one of his most trustworthy horses, a twenty-four year old schoolmaster. Bernard’s wife, Agnes, held the horse’s head and, once Bernard was ready, lead him forwards a few paces. Bernard was terrified, the motion made him seasick, the height gave him vertigo. He panicked, tensed, holding onto the neck strap for dear life. And then suddenly, magically, the fear dissolved and his body remembered what to do. The horse flexed to the left, to the right, offering a collected walk, even some lateral movement, a hint of piaffe. That night Bernard went to bed exhausted but high on happiness. Pretty soon he set himself a new goal; to participate in the French handicapped dressage Championships.

Would you believe he won the gold medal, two years running? Would you believe he taught himself to trot and canter, was selected to participate in the Para-Olympic games in Atlanta? Bernard didn’t win, but came fourth in the individual programs (the judges said he “didn’t appear handicapped enough”!) and played a decisive part in the French team’s bronze medal. Four years later he took part in the Sydney Para-Olympic games, where once again his apparent ease on horseback played against him, placing him in a less severely handicapped category of riders (he recalls watching the winner warm up her horse in rising trot and “standing” canter).

Bernard Sachsé lives in a small village in northern France where he owns an equestrian property. He rides every day, gives lessons to local riders, and offers clinics for external riders who can stable their horses at his facility. He travels all over France, and regularly visits the French speaking area of Switzerland to teach.

My lesson with him two weeks ago was fantastic. First of all, I had no idea what to expect from a teacher in a wheelchair, and secondly I didn’t know how Qrac would react to being ridden in new surroundings. This was the first time I’d be riding him anywhere but at “home”. Also, I was flying solo as the friend who was supposed to accompany me and help me out with Qrac suddenly needed root canal treatment, poor thing! Whisking me further from my comfort zone was the fact that it was very windy, that I had no idea where the equestrian centre to which I was travelling was located, that it was over an hour and a half away, and that I’d be returning home in rush hour traffic. Quite a big deal for a chicken like me!

Of course, when I arrived at my stables, Qrac had rolled in his field and was sporting muddy dreadlocks instead of a long lustrous mane. Thank goodness he’d been wearing his outdoor rug as I’d have been frantic if he’d been thoroughly caked in mud! I didn’t have much time to give him a thorough grooming as my other trainer, Greg, had to leave our stables at one o’clock at the latest, and I wanted him to help me load Qrac in case he played me up, which he did, if only for a minute or two. With my lesson scheduled for four, leaving just after one gave me more than enough travelling time, but under the circumstances I didn’t have much choice.

The journey went smoothly, I drove slowly so as not to arrive insanely early. The only hairy moment happened when I overshot the turn-off for the equestrian centre and had to find a place where I could make a U-turn. This always gives me palpitations as I have a terrible time reversing my trailer and am constantly terrified of finding myself stuck in a narrow dead end (it’s happened!). But the saints were with me and I found a fantastically giant circular turnaround space and arrived at the stables with plenty of times to spare, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing as I soon discovered that Qrac doesn’t really like standing in his trailer unless I stand by the side door talking to him.

I was a little worried about unloading him by myself, but the lady who’d organized the clinic arrived (there wasn’t another soul around) and kindly offered to help. Qrac came out slowly, even regally, arching his neck to survey his surroundings. He didn’t prance or get all nervous and silly, so I was very proud of him. The lady held his halter while I saddled him up, pointing out the canter track around a cross country course where I could walk him to warm him up before the lesson. I climbed on and we set off. Qrac felt a little electric as we stepped through the gates and onto the track; the wind was blowing flurries of golden leaves all over the place, and the cross country course jumps looked a little scary to him (to me too!) but I just chatted to him non-stop and he settled down and strode around almost like he owned the place.

I was walking Qrac around the arena when Bernard Sachsé arrived, coming straight from the airport. We chatted for a while; he asked me some questions about Qrac (it turned out that he was very familiar with the Massa stud farm in the south of France where Qrac was born, and had just come back from there with a new horse), what we could and couldn’t do, whether there were any particular problems. He came across as very friendly and down to earth, very much like he does in his book. His assistant hooked me up with a wireless earpiece so he could talk to me easily from a distance and the lesson began.

By this time a photographer had arrived, as well as another person with a video camera, which was nice as I’d been relying on my unfortunate root canal friend to take some photos. Qrac was a little spooky in the arena, but Bernard spoke to me calmly, giving me tips, getting me to breathe deep in my belly, to “think” my horse calm, to get him to listen and connect with me. Once Qrac had settled, we moved on to shoulder-in where Bernard worked on sharpening my awareness of where my weight was distributed in the saddle, and where I place my legs. At one point he specifically told me to put my right buttock deeper into the saddle, to sit taller and to use my outside leg (we were tracking left) a little further back and apply a more regular pressure. I immediately felt Qrac’s back come up to meet me as his hind leg stepped a little further beneath him. Magic!

We worked on the trot in a similar way, Bernard gradually getting me to ask Qrac for more collection by using shoulder in, halts in shoulder in, and then moving straight back into trot. Qrac seemed to be enjoying himself; he certainly felt fantastic to me. I don’t think he’d ever offered me such a good trot; he felt connected and forward and springy. The canter work was great too; Bernard really got us going forwards and Qrac’s rear engines were firing on all pistons, giving me such great sensations that I couldn’t stop smiling. By the time we finished (and I was sad to
finish, the whole experience having been so utterly more-ish!) Qrac felt wonderfully supple and loose and was so attentive to me that I could transition from canter to walk simply by lifting my solar plexus. This, of course, made me smile even more!

I thanked Bernard for his help, chatting for a while (he really liked my horse!), and then took a very sweaty Qrac (not to mention a very sweaty me) back around the canter track to cool off. If Qrac was strutty before the lesson, now he thought he was seriously hot stuff, striding around, rolling his shoulders. He was tired though, and was happy to get back to the trailer where, once I’d undressed him and suggested a carrot, he walked into the trailer all doe-eyed and goody- goodyish. I could hardly believe how well behaved he’d been during the entire day, and how well we’d coped just the two of us!

I’d love to take a clinic with Bernard Sachsé over several days, and might consider trailering Qrac to his centre in the north of France if ever I have the opportunity. I’ll definitely take lessons with him if he comes back to Switzerland next year. I found the experience truly inspiring, mega motivating, and also really fun. I’ve rarely felt so much admiration for someone; having read his book before I met him definitely heightened my respect for him. I loved his special charisma, the sparkle in his eye, his cheeky sense of humour, his respect and passion for horses. I loved how involved he got with my ride, how he gave me the feeling of riding with me every step of the way.

Have you ever had a similar experience? Do you know anyone who has overcome a dramatic accident and willed himself/herself back into the saddle?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


by Laura Crum

I guess life is all about change. Certainly my life with horses has been about change. About the only constant is that I was always horse crazy. Here’s the first photo I have of myself on a horse. I am two years old. The horse is a pony named “Tarbaby” that belonged to my horse trading uncle. The photo, which sits by my desk, says nothing about my small self. Rather the notation on the back reads, “Pony for Sale.” Apparently the picture was taken to prove the pony was gentle rather than to capture my happiness aboard a horse. But you can see that I’m happy.

Throughout my childhood my parents steadfastly refused my pleas for my own horse. Eventually, at fifteen, I was allowed to buy one with my own money. This horse did not really work out, but I wasn’t discouraged. I kept trying. And when I was twenty-two I bought the first horse I would keep until he died (in his late 30’s). This is Burt, a horse I rode for many years on commercial cattle ranches and showed at a very beginning level in cowhorse and cutting.

Burt was a kind, willing horse. I bought him as a five year old with thirty days on him, and trained him myself. He was the first horse I ever “made.” You could work a cow, gather all day in rough country, corral rope on him…etc. He was a great ranch horse. But in my late twenties I became obsessed with competing in cowhorse events.

Burt was a nice horse, but not the sort of horse I could be truly competitive on. And I had the competition bug. So I bought Gunner, a fancy three year old QH with ninety days on him. I did all the rest of Gunner’s training myself and competed on him pretty successfully in cowhorse, cutting, and, eventually, team roping. Here’s Gunner and me winning the cutting class at our local county fair.

I still own Gunner, he’s thirty-one and happily turned out to pasture. Here we are when he was eighteen, a couple of years after I retired him.

By the time Gunner was retired, I was obsessed with team roping. I bought a half interest in Flanigan, who was a solid seven year old team roping horse, and competed on him for almost ten years. I also rode him on numerous pack trips through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Flanigan was truly a magical horse for me, enabling me to do many things I’d only dreamed of doing. Here I am roping on Flanigan with my friend Sue Crocker heeling on Pistol.

And here we are riding through Kerrick Meadow in the Sierra Nevada.

At this point in my life (my thirties), I really liked training horses. I bought several colts to train and rode some for others. Of these, the one I kept and rode myself for many years was Plumber, a horse I’d known since he was born. I bought him as an unbroken three year old, trained him myself to be a competitive team roping horse, and rode him until he was nineteen. Plumber is twenty-two today and retired. Still sound and happy and living with me. Here’s Plumber a few years ago. Always a very sweet horse, which I think you can tell from his expression.

When Plumber made it clear he really did not want to be ridden any more, I bought Sunny, a steady little trail horse. At the same time I bought Henry, an equally steady horse, for my then seven year old son. The two horses have taken us on hundreds and hundreds of happy rides over the four years I’ve owned them, and have been total rockstars when it comes to reliable. Here we are on a recent autumn day at the Lookout, Monterey Bay in the background.

I know I look mean in the photo, but we weren’t really upset with each other--we had a very happy ride. I am asking my kid why he can’t just smile at the camera, and he is insisting he doesn’t like having his picture taken. My husband, who hiked with us, was trying to get a nice photo in front of our favorite spot. The horses look cute, anyway, and obligingly pricked their ears.

This string of photos does not reflect all the horses I’ve owned, let alone all the horses I’ve ridden. But it does show the five horses who have been my main mounts throughout my lifetime. Burt, Gunner, Flanigan, Plumber, and Sunny. As well as Henry, my son’s horse, who has given us so much. Gunner, Plumber, Sunny, and Henry are still with us. Burt and Flanigan I owned until they died. These photos also demonstrate the big changes I’ve gone through in my “horse life”. From a toddler sitting on a pony, to an active trainer/competitor, back to a sedate middle aged woman sitting on a slightly larger pony. Its been quite the path. Forty years of non-stop horse ownership.

On a recent post of mine about my trail riding (Trail Ride Drama), Fantastyk Voyager commented that I should enjoy my current contented life with horses because it probably wouldn’t last. This comment made me think. Change is inevitable, I know. If nothing else, my son will grow older and I will no longer be riding with my “little boy”. And/or I may tire of trail riding. But more than that, I will some day either be old enough that I can’t ride any more or I’ll be gone. We don’t last forever. This change, too, will come.

At first, this is a sad thought. But the more I considered it, the more I realized that it depends on how you look at it. Looking at these old photos of myself, I knew that in the thick of my roping days, if you had told me that ten years later I wouldn’t be roping any more, I would have been very sad. I would have told you that I wanted to keep roping until I was eighty (at least). But when the change actually happened, it was gentle and pleasant. I lost interest in roping and competing. I was very happy to enjoy relaxing trail rides with my son instead. Might it not be true that when I am old enough that I can only toddle down to the barnyard and feed, this change will feel appropriate also? Perhaps I will be at peace with it, as I have been with the changes that have happened so far.

The truth is I don’t miss the many things I’ve done with horses. Ranching, horse packing, cutting, cowhorse, team roping, horse training…etc. I’m glad I did those things. They were all very happy parts of my life. But I’m fine with where I’m at now. And I’m hoping I’ll be fine with where I go next.

So how about you guys? Any insights on change or growing older with horses? Its sort of the bottom line.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Safari Adventures Post #2 - Cheating Death

By Terri Rocovich

At the end of my last blog, I left you all wondering how it was that my friends and I cheated death not once or twice but three times on our first day of Safari in Kenya. After our successful crossing of the Mara River, albeit not gracefully, we proceeded with our first ride on the Masai Mara of Kenya. We traveled single file after the river crossing since we were weaving in, out and hopefully around Acacia trees. Acacia trees are proof that plant life can bite as much as an animal. They are trees with an attitude. Their thorns are several inches long and catch and snag on everything. You do everything to avoid the thorns because even the slightest encounter will leave a stinging, nasty scratch. The terrain was also uneven and rocky as we made our ascent up a moderate size hill.

There was little talking since all of us were mesmerized by our new environment. Your eye could hardly take it all in let alone your brain process it. We had been riding for about an hour after the river when our tranquility came to an abrupt end. I was the 5th rider in the line of our group of 11 when I heard a sound that was unlike anything my ears had ever heard. Tristan, the Safari guide, and 3 riders in front of me, including my friend Carolyn, had rounded a curve in the trail dropping temporarily out of site. There was the deafening roar of an Elephant and then together Hallum and Carolyn came back toward me with panic in their eyes frantically saying, “Go back, go back. “ These instructions were more difficult to follow then you might think since turning around on a narrow trial bordered by Acacia trees, and doing it quickly was tricky to say the least. I let Carolyn and Hallum pass me and was attempting to turn my horse around when I could hear the Elephant roar several more times and I could hear Tristan crack his bull whip while screaming, “Get back, get back you cow” at a massive Elephant Cow who was in full charge stance with her huge ears out wide and her trunk up. She made several short aggressive charges at Tristan but was backed off by the sharp crack of the bull whip that simulated the sound of rifle fire.

Realizing that it would be almost as dangerous to turn and run from a group of charging elephants in this terrain, Tristan had decided to make a stand. David, an old friend of his from England and a veteran of many Safaris, stayed with him to face down the elephant cow. It was one of the most surreal and frightening experiences of my life time. I could only partially make out the silhouette of the massive elephant through the trees but my ears took in everything else. It was like a scene from a movie, yet I was in it and could at any moment either be mulled over by elephants or shredded by Acacia trees trying to escape. Not exactly the choices I thought I would be faced with my first ride on Safari.

We had inadvertently surprised a small matriarchal herd grazing and the dominant cow clearly did not have a sense of humor. After the elephants had backed down and moved away from us, we continued down the trail. Tristan said that it was very unusual to see elephants in this area and he thought that the cow that had made the charge may have had a bad experience with horses in the past and that would explain why she was so aggressive in defense of the group and their calves. My heart was still pounding to the point that I could feel my veins pulsing in my neck. I cannot recall a time when I have been more frightened or more out of my element.

After spending the next several minutes looking behind us to make sure we were clear of the elephants, we traveled in silence I think all a bit shell shocked. The terrain had smoothed and flattened and when she could my friend Carolyn rode up beside me. Our eyes were still practically popping out of their sockets and we just shook our heads without saying a word. Trying to change the mood Tristan started to talk about the area and the elephants. It did get us all to relax and although I will admit I was still a little rattled.
When we came across some downed trees and logs, Tristan, knowing we were 3-day event riders, looked at Carolyn and I and half suggested and half dared us to jump it. My friend Carolyn is as game as they come and she picked up a canter and jumped over the downed tree. Not to be out done, I followed as well as a few of the others. The horses that Carolyn and I were riding had been 3 Day Event horses so they jumped with spunk and enthusiasm. The other horses jumped honestly, some with more scope than others. We had great fun jumping this and that until we started our descent back to the Mara River and then camp.

I had pushed our encounter with the elephants to the back of my mind until we came upon two bachelor Cape Buffalo bulls glaring at us. Tristan lead us at as far of a distance as the downhill trail would allow explaining that the Cape Buffalo was one of the most aggressive and dangerous animals in East Africa so we would give them a wide berth. Hyper sensitive after our elephant encounter the group moved as stealthily as possible and my heart was once again pounding at a velocity I did not think possible without being on my treadmill. The bulls stood side by side watching us with what seemed like venom in their eyes as we passed. Now I was downright freaked out. I never had any illusions that this Safari was a trip to the zoo, I wanted it to be an adventure, but I had not had this expectation of risk. To try to calm myself down and make light of the situation I looked at Carolyn and said “Dorothy, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.”

We laughed but were still anxious especially considering we had to cross the Mara River, with the potential of a run-in with the hippos, in order to get back to camp. We reached the river after about another 20 minutes and I noticed that the current looked stronger and the river deeper. But neither of these facts was going to change the fact that camp was on the other side, so in we went. Within 10 feet across, my horse was swept into the current and could no longer touch bottom. She swam with all her strength and I did my best to support her with the reins as we fought our way across. Tristan had warned us of an area near the far bank with rocks hidden beneath the surface of the murky brown water. I was doing well to swim to the bank avoiding them when one of the other rider’s horses was also swept up by the strong current and then into me taking us both into the rocks.

My horse Sage nearly went down struggling over the rocks but miraculously managed to get over the rocks and onto the bank. What amazing horses they all were and as the trip progressed I would learn to appreciate them more and more. Nearly fearless and tough as nails, these horses cross the Mara several times a season through sometimes treacherous terrain. Event riders pride ourselves on knowledge of conditioning horses but even my most fit event horse could not hold a candle to these not to mention that they would go lame within days walking on the terrain. My dressage horse would have curled up into a ball and asked for a lawyer, or the humane society, within 5 minutes.

After making it back to camp and we all ate and toasted our survival. The late hour dictates that I need to finish here but next blog I will tell you about yet another elephant encounter (and not a friendly one), out ascent up the escarpment and my first encounter with lions while on horseback.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Comfort Zone

When I was growing up, I loved watching the television show "The Twilight Zone." (Okay, that information really dates me.) Today I still love suspenseful movies that are filled with horror/chills/mystery as long as the violence isn't gratuitous. And the novels I write for children have tight plots, cliff-hangers, and spine-tingling scenes. But in reality, my life is more "The Comfort Zone" than "The Twilight Zone," especially when it comes to riding.

Laura has discussed in many posts about the traits of a sane horse and how she is now more excited about a pokey trail ride than a wild gallop after a cow. Me, too. Some of that is age (maturity, please) and some of it is the amount of time I have to exercise/train my horse. So in order to keep my rides free of gut-wrenching, hair-raising horse scares, I have perfected "the comfort zone."

I ride alone in wide open fields. Relish and I have been together for seven years since he was a two-year-old. He is not mean or ornery, BUT he is physically strong and mentally strong-willed. Every time we ride, his thinking process (as far as I can tell) goes like this: okay, she's made me walk back to the barn for seven years, but maybe this ONE time, if I break into a trot, she'll forget and I'll get to gallop . . . So we have had our moments. However, they have been few and far between because I have chosen to be cautious--not "scared out of my pants" cautious, but "let's avoid that" cautious.

I have only come off Relish once when a coyote leaped from a bush in the woods directly in front of us while we were trotting. Relish spun, the saddle slipped, I plopped to the ground, and he stood and stared at me as if to ask, "What the $%^& are you doing down there?" I was lucky he didn't take off with the saddle under his belly--a sure disaster. But I have mostly managed to avoid this type of accident, which is bound to happen on the trail, by sticking to my and Relish's comfort zones. Someone zooming a four-wheeler around the field? We go the other way. Wind blowing like crazy? We stick to trotting behind the barn. Spring fever making Relish antsy? Lots of circles on the only flat spot (groundhog holes carefully marked with sticks)in the field.

Some would say I am a chicken, and yup, I don't mind giving them a cluck or two. But at this point in my life, I am not interested in training a horse for competition, so for me, out alone on an unpredictable (by nature) animal, being chicken is fine. Not that I can avoid all disasters. Like the coyote they do happen. And I do spend time (when I can) getting Relish used to new 'spooks' (such as the blowing bag adventure) but I continue to minimize the risks I take and the bones I break by sticking to the comfort zone.

So how is your riding these days--are you into "The Twilight Zone" or "The Comfort Zone"? I'd love to hear your stories!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Barefoot Versus Shod

by Laura Crum

Apparently these are fighting words. Since I began blogging it has (slowly) dawned on me that horse people seem to take this subject very, uhmm, “seriously”—it appears to belong in the same category as religion and politics when it comes to discussion. Why, I have no idea. For me this topic is not fraught with emotional baggage of any kind, so I’m just going to wade in with my observations—based on forty years of non-stop horsekeeping. Feel free to fire away at me. I like a good argument—oops, I mean discussion.

First off, I was raised (in the horse biz) by a bunch of team ropers, and using horses were (mostly) shod. We used to be pretty proud of those relatively rare individuals who didn’t need shoes, but most horses got shoes as a matter of course if they were to be roped on. Same went for the cowhorse people and cutters I later rode with. No one I knew made much effort to see if a horse could go barefoot and still do his job comfortably. I owned one horse in my youth (an Appy named Nylon who had white feet) that never ever wore shoes. He was a rope horse and was also ridden on plenty of rocky trail rides—no problem. But we considered him the exception that proved the rule.

My first “fancy” horse was Gunner, a well bred QH gelding that I took to the Snaffle Bit Futurity and to various cutting events. Gunner was a tender footed horse and I kept him shod. Eventually I had to keep him in shoes and pads in front or he would get sore in deep ground (such as many of the arenas I rode in). I ran him in shoes and pads for oh, maybe eight years, before I retired him at fifteen years of age, due to various arthritic complaints. He never got thrush and his frogs stayed fine—I kept an eye on that. After he was retired to pasture I left him barefoot, and he did OK. I don’t believe he ever was using horse sound as a barefoot horse—if I led/lead him across hard ground (gravel road…etc) he walks very gingerly. But in the pasture he trots sound. So, I consider this a success story. Shoes and pads kept this tender footed horse sound throughout his competitive life and did not damage his chances for a happy barefoot retirement. Gunner is sound, if a bit rickety, today—at 31, almost 32 years. That’s over fifteen years of happy barefoot retirement.

Next we have Plumber. I bought Plumber as an unbroken three year old. He had never worn shoes and had been turned out in pasture all his life. When I bought him he was lame due to sore feet—his crappy, flarey, brittle little feet were all broken up. I shod him. He got sound. And Plumber was shod non-stop until he was twenty—at which point we retired him. He never wore pads. He ALWAYS wore shoes. And he stayed sound. He remained a tender foot. Freshly shod, he would limp on rocky ground. But he was a working rope horse who never missed a day due to lameness. We retired him at twenty (still sound) because he didn’t want to run any more, and we wanted to honor his choice. He had paid his dues. I pulled his shoes.

Plumber has been retired and barefoot for two years now and is pasture sound, like Gunner. Like Gunner, I don’t think he is using horse sound—he walks very carefully on the gravel driveway. But he trots sound in his corral. Another success story. Shoes kept this little tenderfooted gelding using horse sound for many years, and did not damage his chances for a happy, sound, barefoot retirement.

At this point you are probably thinking I am a big advocate for shoeing, but that is not the case. Between one thing and another (my own instincts and conversations with Mrs Mom being a couple of the things), I have begun to think that many/most horses would be better off without shoes. Four years ago I bought Henry and Sunny for myself and my son to trail ride. Both horses had been shod non-stop by their previous owners. When I asked if these horses could go barefoot, the people shrugged. “Never tried it.”

Since neither I nor my farrier could see any obvious reasons the horses could not go barefoot, I had their shoes pulled. And both horses went perfectly sound and barefoot for three years—including plenty of graveled roads and some rock on the trail. No problem.

If you are wondering why I shod Gunner and Plumber and not Sunny and Henry, the answer is twofold. My views about shoes versus barefoot have evolved over the years to where I actively think horses are better off if they can go barefoot. But, and its an important but, Gunner and Plumber needed shoes to stay sound as using horses. Henry and Sunny didn’t. At this point in my life I would always rather have barefoot horses, if possible— not only do I think its better for their feet, but guess what? It saves a bunch of money. Why in the world not have your horses be barefoot if they can go barefoot comfortably and do their job?

But….why in the world have your horse be limping around, too sore footed to ride (and unhappy to boot), when shoes, or shoes and pads, might make him comfortable and useful. This dedicated approach to “barefooting” reminds me of the folks who let their child die because they don’t believe in western medicine, or some other religious reason. Doesn’t work for me.

This spring Sunny came up lame in the right front and was diagnosed with a tiny chip on the edge of his navicular bone. I gave him a month off and shoes and pads in front (as the vet recommended), and he was sound. I shod him one more time with pads, just to protect his foot while I rode him—he stayed sound for lots of autumn trail rides. Last week I pulled his shoes and he’s barefoot again. So far, he’s still sound…and I hope he’ll stay that way. But if he doesn’t, I’ll put those shoes and pads back on.

I’m not afraid of shoes—Plumber was shod without a break for seventeen years and he’s a happy pasture sound, barefoot twenty two year old pet. I’m not afraid of pads-- Gunner wore shoes and pads non-stop for eight years and he’s a happy, sound, barefoot thirty-one year old pasture pet. If Sunny needs shoes and pads to go sound, he’s gonna get them. But if a horse can go barefoot and stay sound, as Henry is doing, he’s definitely going to stay barefoot. I think being barefoot is a better choice for most/many horses. Its obviously more natural. I, myself, go “barefoot”—in the sense that I wear only sandals and unstructured Ugg boots. When I gave up formal, structured shoes (and riding boots), all the aches and pains in my feet gradually went away. I get it that barefoot/natural feels better. But if I found that for some reason I needed shoes in order not to limp, I would wear shoes.

I absolutely cannot see any reason to be morbidly attached to either shoes or barefoot. Surely we need to do what works for the horse, and for ourselves, and limping around sore footed is no fun for the horse. Not being able to use a riding horse is no fun for the person. Given my own experiences, I am going to make the decision to shoe that sore horse every time, with pads if needed, if there is a chance that this will make the horse sound. I have frequently shod horses who got sore footed for one reason or another and then been able to take the shoes off after six weeks and not put them back on. They aren’t a life sentence. But they can be a life saver.

Anyway, I am deeply puzzled by the scores of folks who think riding horses MUST be shod (this would include most of my team roping friends), and equally puzzled by the barefoot zealots—who I have mostly run across on the internet—who think shoes are EVIL and should never be used. Both positions look equally silly to me.

I do know it is quite possible for a horse’s feet to be seriously screwed up by bad shoeing practices—though this has never happened to me. I’m pretty particular when it comes to this stuff—and no farrier ever shod my horses more than once if I didn’t like the way the shoes looked. I think that some horses with messed up feet due to poor shoeing can be helped by pulling the shoes, good trimming, and turnout. However, on the other side, I have definitely had the experience of a sound, barefoot horse being overzealously trimmed and coming up sore. The horse was miserable, and, of course, we couldn’t use him. Sure, I could have let him hobble around in the corral until he toughened up, but that wasn’t the choice I made. I put shoes on him…and you never saw such a happy horse. He ran and bucked and played, his demeanor proclaiming to all and sundry, “Look, look, my feet don’t hurt any more!” This horse wore front shoes for one six week period (and we were able to use him) and went back to being barefoot (and stayed sound). No harm done. Thank you shoes.

The main thing I have against the advice to leave a sorefooted horse barefoot until he gets sound (with proper trimming included) is that this can take a LONG time, depending on the horse. Sometimes the horse never gets using horse sound as a barefoot horse. Some horses have good feet, some horses don’t. But more than that, life is uncertain, and I think we all know that a lot can change very quickly. The horse can colic and die, the person can get cancer and be unable to ride…stuff happens. I would not choose to leave a horse lame if I wanted to ride him if shoes (or shoes and pads) would make him sound today. I would not shoe a horse if I thought shoes would do him any real harm, but based on the examples I have given, I think you can see that it has not been my experience that shoeing, even prolonged shoeing, will necessarily do any harm.

And yes, it does depend on the farrier. My own horses have had one farrier for the last twenty years, and I do credit him with the fact that I have had so few soundness problems. He’s not a fancy shoer—he’s a gruff old cowboy—but the horses’ feet look natural, and, as you can see from my previous stories, they have mostly stayed sound.

So, in the end, I would definitely prefer my horses to be barefoot, and all my horses are barefoot today. But if they need shoes (or shoes and pads) to keep them using horse sound, they are darn sure going to get them. And I really see no problem with that (based on my own experience), other than the expense.

OK—I am happy to hear other points of view. What’s your position in the great barefoot versus shod debate?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Toys for the Equine

I've always felt sorry for horses that have to stand in a stall all day. Equines are much happier, I think, when they can get outside and "be a horse." To graze and roll and run, and do all those things horses naturally do, makes for a much happier and well-adjusted animal, in my opinion.

But not all of us have access to large pastures for our animals. Even if you keep one in a small paddock, though, there are things you might provide them with to alleviate boredom.

Here are a few: (You might notice that these models are actually *cough* donkeys. I used what was readily available, but hey - they're in the same family.)

Numero Uno requirement for equine happiness - the favorite rolling spot:

Because what equine doesn't feel better when they're covered in dirt?

Mr. Chocolate
And if you have any means at all of providing your horses with a hill in their corral, it will provide hours of entertainment and exercise as they go up the hill:

And down the hill:

We also have a large stump in the paddock, and it works well as a scratching post.

Of course there's always the ubiquitous horse ball:

Chester and Beau
And the orange cone:

What toys do your equines have?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Simplifying My Life

My goal for this winter is to simplify my life and get rid of stuff that I haven't used or looked at in over a year. I'm starting with the attic. So today I hauled boxes out of the attic, one at a time. They've been stored in there since we built the house in 1994. I was actually doing quite well until I got to the horse books and the model horses.

The model horse in the picture below was from a kit in which you put the horse together and painted it yourself, complete with mane and tail. I loved this particular model more than any of the dozens of Breyer horses who graced my bedroom shelves as a kid. Notice, I even made a double bridle for the horse. I can't remember what I named him/her, but I suspect this horse had more than one name. I couldn't bring myself to throw him away even though he only sports one good leg. So I put him in a Rubbermaid bin along with a few toys I can't part with either.

The next box presented even more problems. It was full of horse books, most of them out of print, some of them belonging to my older sister which makes them quite old.

Below are photos of one box of the books. There are a few more boxes. If you click on each photo, you can see a larger version of it. Many of them are by Marguerite Henry and C. W. Anderson. There are so many old favorites here, books that kept me company, books that fulfilled my fantasy of owning a horse, books that transported me to other places on the backs of beautiful animals. How I loved those books.

Here's my dilemma. What do I do with these books?

I'd gladly give them to a child who is as horse crazy as I was, but I don't know one. Neither of my step-granddaughters are passionate about horses like I was. They wouldn't appreciate these books like I did. I thought about offering them for sale on eBay, but I simply do not have the time to put them out there or handle all the overhead that goes with selling adn shipping on eBay.

Would a library take these books? A women's shelter? A hospital? Yet, I hate to see them ruined by careless children in a group situation. I want them to be treasured, loved, and passed down to another generation of children.

I even considered giving them away to readers of this blog, but I simply don't have the time to organize a project that large, nor could I figure out who to make that work without creating a lot of overhead for me.

There are so many old favorites among these books:
  • A Horse to Remember by Genevieve Torrey Eames
  • Rufus, The New Forest Pony by Jean Rowan
  • Several versions of Black Beauty
  • Famous Horse Stories library of books
  • And the list goes on
So I'm open for suggestions. What should I do with these timeless horse books, many of them are no longer available?

On a book-related note, my equestrian romance, "The Gift Horse," is a retro release at Bookstrand publishing this month. You can purchase it from Bookstrand for 50 percent off through November 12 by clicking this link:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Confessions of a Lazy Horseman

by Laura Crum

So every once awhile I get to wondering about why I’m such a lazy horseman these days. In my younger years I trained and competed and progressed in various ways—I worked hard. I rode my horses on multi-day pack trips in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and my friends and I did the packing ourselves. These were true horseback adventures—though not as adventurous as Terri’s recent horseback expedition in Africa (!) Nowadays, as I commented on Francesca’s charming post about riding like Carl Hester, I don’t strive to learn and improve. And, as I explained in my last post, “Trail Ride Drama”, my current goal is “adventureless” trail rides. I am enjoying riding my relaxed little horses on very relaxed ambles through our local hills—mostly at the walk.

I’m happy, the horses are happy, my son is happy, but progressing and learning, we’re not. And since so many other folks, some as old and older than I am, make no secret of their goal—to always be becoming better horsemen—I sometimes wonder if there is a small flaw in my character.

Am I just lazy? Or is it something worse. Complacent? Indifferent? Am I neglecting my son’s well being by not urging him to compete? Or at least urging him to learn more new, challenging things all the time? Cause nope, I don’t do that. If he’s happy to chase cattle and go on trail rides, that works for me. When he states a desire to learn something with his horse, which he does from time to time, I help him with it. But I don’t push him. Many mothers I know would want their kids to progress from chasing cattle to actual roping at eleven years old. Me, I don’t care if he never decides to rope. I’m just glad he’s enjoying his horse.

But I do sometimes wonder why I’m so unmotivated. I wonder if this attitude is rubbing off on my son—to his possible detriment. When I was his age I took formal riding lessons—and competed in horseshows. I think my son rides as well as I did at eleven—in the most basic, important senses. He has a good seat and he knows how to get along with his horse. He can make lazy Henry mind him—very effectively. But unlike me at the same age, he really has no idea of what sort of things he would be judged on in a show ring. He frequently sits in a “cutter’s slump”—which you cowhorse people will know is an effective and comfortable way to sit a horse—but it would give a dressage rider palpitations of horror. Yes, he’s having lots of fun. No, he would not win any blue ribbons—in any event I can think of. I haven’t taught him those skills.

So I wonder. Am I a lousy horseman?

I sometimes think maybe I should get a horse I could do more with—Sunny is a good trail horse, but a very clunky mover in the ring. Sure I can make him lope decent circles—but its no fun. It’s work. In fact, it hurts my back. I could borrow my friend’s black horse--who is a pretty mover, well broke, and very smooth--and probably not just lope decent circles, but do flying changes and all sorts of cool stuff, cause hey, I used to know how to do that. But the thought does not fill me with enthusiasm.

And then I read a blog post about a horse that has to be put down because of terrible injuries—sometimes sustained competing—sometimes just in turnout. Horses being horses, they get hurt. And I read about people who’ve been hurt themselves or badly scared in riding accidents. And I start to think that all of us being healthy and happy (people and horses) and enjoying our lives is really the bottom line. Instead of worrying that my horse life is boring, I should be giving endless thanks that my horse life is (right now—knocking on wood) peaceful and uneventful. I remember the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” and I think—nope—I want to live in dull, boring times.

Peaceful/boring—its all in the way you look at it. And yesterday, drinking my cup of tea on the porch and watching my horses happily munch their lunch, I knew that I was happy to be a boring, do-nothing horseman. I like my uneventful trail rides. I like not “working” with my horses, just enjoying them. I like it that I don’t ride unless I really feel like it. I like that my horses are solid and that they have enough room to run if they feel like it, so I don’t feel guilty if I don’t ride them. I like all of this. And if my son learns this way of being with horses from me, I’m not sure I haven’t done him a favor.

I know I’ve said this before, but I’m going to repeat it, mostly for my own sake. The joy in horses, for me these days, comes in the simple, little things. I’ll give you some examples, illustrated, no less. Feeding my horses at sunrise—below you see Sunny having breakfast.

Strolling down the trail on a sunny day with my son.

Taking in the Monterey Bay from our favorite spot.

Watching my boy’s happy face as he brings up the cattle.

The simple pleasure of looking past my horse’s ears.

These are the little things that give me joy. I don’t find joy any more in pushing myself to learn/achieve more. I don’t find joy in pushing my horses to become “better.” I don’t find joy in working hard at some aspect of horsemanship, though I do understand the joy that is possible in working hard to achieve a goal, and have experienced this in the past. It may be a flaw in my character that I no longer want to work like that. But if so, I am just going to accept it. Because if my life with horses is peaceful and happy, that’s a good thing, right? Perhaps there’s no need to worry about the things I’m not doing. Perhaps I should just be content with what I’ve got—and the relaxed mindset that goes with it.

The truth is that having written this post, I have no idea if I’m confessing to being a lazy/lousy horseman, or claiming some minor form of enlightenment—hopefully something in between. I also have no idea where the future will take me—perhaps back to something more adventurous horsewise—who knows? I only know where I’m at right now. And I don’t know if this is a good thing or a negative thing—it just is. Does anyone else feel like this? Any insights?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Trip of a Life Time by Terri Rocovich

Some how I knew that this trip would change me. That I would come back different, with a new broader perspective of the world and my role in it. This is the case in more ways that I will ever be able to cover in one blog post. Therefore, this will be the first in a series about the incredible country that is Kenya.

First let me give you all a general overview. The trip started its planning stages well over a year ago but I have wanted to go to East Africa as long as I can remember. There were 4 of us from San Diego that ended up going although originally it was supposed to be 6 of us. Circumstances changed for some so it ended up being just 4 old friends and we joined up with others taking the Safari once in Nairobi. The trip was a riding Safari in Masai Mara, a region that is known not only for its beauty but also the diversity and bounty of animals (I hesitate to use the term Game because I loathe hunting and I associate the terms). Our group flew from San Diego to London, spent a night there to acclimate and then flew to Nairobi; a total of 22 hours of flying time and a 10 hour time difference. Talk about jet lag!

My friends and I started our adventure in Nairobi with a 2 night stay at a place called Giraffe Manor. The hotel per se is like an old English Manor that also happens to be home to 11 Rothchilds Giraffe as part of a conservation and education program. The Rothchilds Giraffe is extremely endangered with only about 600 individuals left in the world. The service and food was on par with a four star hotel with the added gift of being near and even being able to feed the giraffe. The staff at the Manor delight in their jobs and their relationship with the Giraffe and they are eager for you to have an equally amazing relationship.

We arrived at the Manor in the late afternoon after flying all night from London and taking several hours to go through customs, get a trip Visa and then the drive from the airport through Nairobi which is one the most dangerous parts of the trip. We were all exhausted but were quickly reenergized at site of our first Giraffe. I have spent my life around horses and other large animals and am rarely intimidated but I will admit that it is very intimidating the first time a massive giraffe walks up, towering over you and reachs down with their long necks to retrieve a treat from you hand. They are as graceful and beautiful as they are kind and gentle. Beautiful is a word that doesn't sufficiently describe them. Their eyes are I think the most gorgeous in all the animal world. They are large and dark with eye lashes that would make any super model jealous. They move with a calm, deliberate and elegant stride. These giraffe know that they have no threats so they are even more relaxed than most although I will say that even the Masai Giraffe that we saw later on the Mara possesed a similar tranquility to their demeanor.

The next morning I awoke before dawn not quite knowing what hemisphere I was in. The staff had brought coffee to my room when they saw my light on so I walked out onto the balcony connected to my room to watch my first sunrise in Africa. And to my delight there stood Daisy, one of the Giraffe looking up at me (since my room was on the second floor) as if to say "Welcome to Africa." All of the rooms at the Manor are supplied with tubs of hay pellets, so I watched my first sunrise in Africa sipping coffee and feeding Daisy from the edge of my balcony. Surreal to say the least. Our 2 days at Giraffe Manor were filled with hours watching and feeding the Giraffes and worthogs, watching the antics of the resident dog, shopping in Nairobi and a tour of the home of Karen Blixen, the author of Out of Africa (One of my favorite books). The group visited a baby elephant orphanage were we all "adopted a baby" to help support the effort. As you may already know, the African Elephant is endangered and sadly babies are orphaned quite frequently due to poachers, the drought and human conflict.

Later that day we were even treated to a visit with Ed, the 3 month old baby giraffe that was generally shy of people. Watching Ed (who was born standing 6 feet tall) and his Mother, Lynn, was not unlike the behaviour we see with mares and foals. They are doteing, loving Mothers who never let their young far from site.

On our third day we went back to the Nairobi airport to catch a small plane to meet the horses and the Safari guide on the Mara. Little did we all know that later on that day we would cheat death not once but twice and see more variety of wildlife than you can see at a zoo and this was all in a few hours. Unbelievable! Upon landing on a small dirt airstrip, we met Tristan our guide. He was charming and intelligent as well as direct. My kind of person. On the edge of the airstrip were Zebra, Antelope, Wildabeast, Masai Giraffe and Cape Buffalo. As we drove toward camp along the Mara river we saw hundreds of Hippos and 2 HUGE crocodile. Not long after, once we arrived at camp, Tristan announced that the group would "attempt a river crossing" later that afternoon. I did not like the word "attempt" and did he not see the crocodile the size of a small car basking on the river bank!

Well we did cross the river, which was almost up the horse's necks and crossed only feet away from Hippos partitially submerged in the water. Hippos are actually considered one of the most dangerous animals in Africa and cause more injury and death to people than any other species, including the big cats. Yes that is me below on the gray, almost getting swept downriver, where the hippos were. Almost a little bit more up close than I had planned on.

Let me say that the horses were amazing and unflappable.

The horse I rode, Sage, saved my butt more than

a few times. Most of the horses were no beauty queens but they were tough and smart and incredibly fit. Any of my wimpy California show horses, would be begging for mercy and booking the next plane home.

Little did any of us know that later that ride, we would have an encounter where the horse's bravery would be tested not to mention our own. My heart would be beating harder and faster than I thought possible and I would realize that there was no guarentee of safety on this trip. This was not to be a tame Safari ride by anyone's stretch of the imagination.

With that teaser, I will leave the details to my next blog. Hopefully I have not bored you all, I fear that it may be nearly impossible to convey what an amazing adventure this was.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Body Condition Scores

Body condition has been on my mind and in my 'topic' bank ever since the fall rains then sunny but cool days hit Virginia. We have lush grass in our pastures, and in every conversation with the riders I know, the word 'fat' is used to describe our horses. Often I am the one using the word 'fat' because my horses, especially the pony, are roly poly. (This is not a photo of my pony--just one I borrowed from google images.) They don't get enough exercise and are not penned in dry lots, so they graze constantly with no 'off switch' (think Labrador Retrievers and the fallacy of self-feeding.) If this was spring, I would be limiting their intake for fear of founder, but everyone assures me that since my horses have been grazing (guzzling)all spring and summer and since the fall grass does not have the burst of nutrients, they will not founder. They'll just get, well, fatter until winter sets in, and when the vet comes, he will shake his head and will not give them an optimal 'five' score.

Lush grass and body condition are also on my mind because I just came back from five days in Colorado. We flew from Atlanta to Denver, and for at least half the trip, the clear skies allowed me to see and be amazed at how dry and brown the parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and southern Colordo were that we flew over. And I mean brown. Not a splotch of green unless it was an irrigated circle. Fort Collins and the foothills where my brother lives are also dry and unless the pastures are irrigated or along a river or stream, they are brown. I saw a lot of horses. Most were pastured in small fields that had been grazed to dirt. The horses looked good and would probably have been rated 'five,' but I also saw many that seemed thin and listless. Horses are grazing creatures, and if there is nothing to pick at (and they are penned up so they can not move to better grazing like wild horses) it is not optimal either. I also know that when there is no grass, hay is in short supply and people don't have extra money due to the economy, more horses will be neglected and/or dropped off at rescue farms.

Too lush, too dry--neither is optimal, but as always, we horse owners do the best we can with the land, weather and conditions. My challenge is also finding enough time to ride. I'm teaching four courses this semester and traveling to promote my books along with the regular chores reguired by animals and home. Lately we've had great weather, and I'm trying to ride at least three mornings a week--but that's not enough to get my horses from fat to fit.

Do you have challenges to achieving the body condition score that you would like for your horses? Or are you able to balance exercise/nutrients to have that optimal fit horse? I'd love to hear your comments!

(On another matter, Dunslidin please email me at alison@alisonhartbooksdotcom re: Risky Chance giveaway.)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sit Tall and Think of Carl Hester

A funny thing happened to me a couple of weeks ago while I was having my lesson with Marie-Valentine. I hadn’t seen her for a week or two, and I was having a little moan about what my other trainer, Greg, dscribes as my "problematic left hand". I don’t know why but I can never seem to keep it as stable as my right hand, and it’s something that bothers me, because how can it be possible that after all these years something as basic things as that this still eludes me? I wasn’t having a full-blown melodramatic meltdown, more of a jokey self-disparaging poke, which, when I think about it, is probably linked to my Britishness. It’s typical of me, and I’ve been trying for years to remind myself to lose the self-disparaging comments and replace them with positive affirmations to boost my self-esteem. Let’s just say it’s a work in progress. Anyway, that afternoon, as I struggled with keeping my hands level while working on the canter, Marie-Valentine interrupted my “oh-sucky-old-me” soliloquy with a smile-infused “sit tall and think of Carl Hester”.

Immediately, I straightened my spine, raised my head, lifted my hands and put them together, sat deeper into my saddle, pushed my heels down and pulled a mock-posh face. Haha! Carl Hester? Me? Yeah right!

However, beneath me, for a few magical seconds, 490 kilos of horsepower floated up to meet my comic impersonation of one of the best dressage riders in the world. The contact softened, Qrac’s back came up as his hind-leg stepped under a little more and he went into a fabulous, flowing self-carriage.

Stunned by Qrac’s reaction, after a few strides I Carl Hestered my horse back into walk using little more than my stomach muscles and turned to look at my trainer who was grinning from ear to ear. “Et bien voila!” she giggled. “Carl Hester!”


The funny thing is, I’d never seen Carl Hester in action until this year’s European Championships in Rotterdam in August. I’d heard of him of course, but only vaguely. We don’t get much dressage on television here, and the only dressage magazine I get is US publication “Dressage Today”, which he might have been featured in at some point, but I’ve no precise memory of reading about him. Not that I’m much of a reference in who’s who in dressage; a couple of years ago Marie-Valentine and one of her clients went to Holland to look at some horses and came back practically hyper-ventilating because they’d touched Totilas. “Who’s Totilas?” I asked, innocently. Yep. Oops. Granted, it was slightly prior to Totilas mania, but still… I felt a bit silly.

Anyway, on the day of my lesson with Marie-Valentine during which I had my “Carl
Hester moment”, before I picked Qrac up to start work, I’d been walking around the arena on a loose rein, chatting with her about this and that, and happened to mention Carl Hester‘s phenomenal performances in Rotterdam on his ten-year-old stallion, Uthopia, telling her how blown away I’d been by this exceptional couple. Personally, from what I saw, I prefer Uthopia to Totilas, I think he looks more smooth and floaty, and that the movement in his hind legs matches the movement in his front legs, which isn’t the case with Totilas’, but that’s just me. I’d never discussed Carl Hester with Marie-Valentine, but I must have spoken about him with sparkly eyes because it obviously stayed with her, and she was smart enough to get me to visualize his impeccable seat and try to channel it, if only half-jokingly, and if only for a moment.

Ever since my “Carl Hester moment” on Qrac (pff!), I’ve become a true fan of Carl. I’ve watched umpteen videos on the Internet, and thanks to Stacey Kimmel’s wonderful blog, “Behind the Bit”, found out that he’s released a DVD, “At Home with Carl Hester”, which I ordered and am in the midst of watching (incidentally, while I mentioned earlier that I’d pulled a mock-posh face the first time I tried to emulate him, I’m delighted to report that Carl comes across as a lovely, down-to-earth person and not posh at all!). Now, whenever Marie-Valentine comes to give me a lesson she invariably shouts out “Carl Hester” at one point or another in order to get me to sit up straighter and carry my hands; it’s become something of a Pavlovian reflex. I’d love to do a clinic with Carl Hester! Dear Mr. Hester, if ever you read this, why not consider a nice little trip to the shores of Lake Geneva sometime next year?

While Carl flips through his agenda to see when he can fit me in, let me ask you. Do you have a role model? Someone you admire and aspire to emulate, no matter what discipline you ride in? Tell me about them, I’d love to hear.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Trail Ride Drama

by Laura Crum

Trail rides have the inevitable potential for drama. The “outside” world is full of unexpected surprises. I always hope to be spared any excitement; I make the best choices I can to guide us on pleasant strolls through the hills and woods. And-the truth is we’ve had some very peaceful, uneventful trail rides lately. That’s what I shoot for—adventureless trail rides. I love riding through the autumn woods—unworried and relaxed, enjoying the sights and sounds and the smile on my child’s face. But I have to admit, recounting these rides doesn’t make for a very exciting post, as opposed to telling of adventures, disasters and tragedies.

(My son on Henry—sorry for the blurry photo—I have a hard time taking clear pictures from the back of my own horse.)

This last weekend we went on a lovely ride through the hills, and had lunch at the top of the ridge. Every step of the way our horses were perfect gentlemen, despite having had at least a week off. Their calm, relaxed frame of mind kept them from cracking much of a sweat, though the day was warm and they are getting their winter coats. Just a little damp behind the ears after our two hour ride up the ridge. Another wonderful expedition on our good horses, for which I am so grateful. Memorable only for how very nice it all was. No drama. Lousy blog post.

(Here we are on a peaceful autumn trail ride—this photo was taken by my husband, who was hiking along with our dogs.)

Am I the only one who scans those lists of recently posted blogs that some folks kindly provide and look for a title that suggests something dramatic? I’ll bet not. As much as we may wish others well, it appears (by the number of comments on dramatic/tragic posts) that we are all riveted by disaster.

I’ve thought about this a lot. Its a common device used by novelists. Just describe some graphic, horrible scene and you can be absolutely sure to hook your audience. It’s the premise behind all horror books/films. It’s what’s responsible for the popularity of “thrillers”. It’s the same thing that virtually forces us to crane for a glance of a traffic accident. Some sort of primal need that rivets us to tragedy, even as we may feel/grieve for the participants. Somewhere inside we are acknowledging our own mortality and the relief that at least this isn’t me…this time.

I responded to a comment on my last blog post that referenced the book, “The Horse Whisperer”, by saying I hated that book. Which I did—for a variety of reasons. But one of them was the use of gripping horror in the first scene to hook the audience. I’m not saying it didn’t work. Folks, that trick ALWAYS works. But it leaves a really bad taste in my mouth.

I don’t want to be riveted to the edge of my seat by either book or movie due to the horror factor. I totally acknowledge what a basic human emotion it is, and yet I never feel good about myself when I allow myself to be led by it, in either writing or life. And I am just as human as the next person. You put up a blog post titled “Tragedy”—well, I’m gonna read that first. What can I say?

But…I wince when I catch myself peering at traffic accidents, and I would never consider following a fire truck, or stopping at the scene of a disaster out of nosy curiosity. There is something in our human curiosity about horror that actively repulses me, even as I am drawn in just like the next guy. So every time I am gripped by some horrifying scene in book or movie (or blog), I find myself feeling slightly sick afterward. My main emotion is: I wish I hadn’t read/seen that.

As an author, I actively avoid this device in my books, even though I am well aware how powerful it is. Unlike many bestselling novels, you will not find graphic descriptions of violent tragedies in my stories. Yes, I know they are mysteries, so someone has to die (I once tried to write one without a corpse and was sharply rebuked by the editor—“There’s no body; there should be a body by chapter three at the latest.”), but I don’t focus on careful descriptions of blood and gore. Same for graphic descriptions of sex—that other guaranteed seller. I simply refuse to write that stuff. And no, its not to my monetary advantage.

But what about real life? I know that I am gripped with both horror and sympathy when I read about others and their trail ride dramas. I have a strong “need to know”, which I tend to justify under the label of learning what I can from the incident so I don’t make the same mistake, whatever that mistake was. (A lot of the time no real mistake was made—bad luck just happens.)

Ok, then, what have I learned from other’s trail ride dramas? And perhaps from my own lack of drama, while riding outside. Here’s my list—perhaps it will/may help someone else in pursuit of relaxing trail rides.

1) Ride a steady, seasoned, trail horse in the double digits. This is huge. I’ve talked about it before, many times, so won’t belabor this point, and those of you who are younger, better riders and/or want to do ambitious/competitive rides, well, you know this advice isn’t for you. Those of you who, like me, want quiet, peaceful rides sans “excitement” would do well to heed this point.

2) Hike your proposed ride before you ride it. This may not always be possible, but if it is, it helps immensely. With no risk to yourself and your horse (other than you get tired) you can determine just what sort of trail and trail obstacles you’re likely to meet and make a good decision about the proposed ride.

3) Ride with one or two equally seasoned horses bearing riders you know well and trust. If they are inexperienced horsemen, they must be the sort who will listen to you and do what you say. If they are experienced, their standards for acceptable risk must be similar to yours. If you take a rider on a green horse, put that horse behind a steady horse. If you have a beginning rider, put that rider in the middle with an experienced rider ahead and behind him/her. Solo rides are lovely, but they aren’t the safest or the most relaxing way to go. I like to ride solo, but I am aware that I am much more alert, as is my horse. I don’t like to ride in a big group (more than four). I find it creates a more difficult dynamic, and almost inevitably the horses are not as relaxed.

4) OK—helmets are good. I still don’t wear one (you can scold me if you want), but my son does. I know it’s a good idea—I couldn’t find one—I did try—that fit me and was comfortable. (I actually tried on every “large” helmet at the biggest tack store in our area—not one fit my larger-than-large head The tack store owner, who really wanted to sell me a helmet, told me that none of them fit correctly and I shouldn’t buy any of them. And they were all totally uncomfortable. I really do believe that I should get and wear a helmet, but it is proving even more difficult than I had supposed. Not only do hats of any sort give me a headache, but helmets do not appear to exist in a size that fits me. I plan to keep trying to find one, though, because I owe it to my husband and son.) I will still stand on my belief that riding a solid horse and making good choices is more important for safety—but I think I ought to get a helmet.

5) Riding good trails (not slippery, not too much exposure, not too steep, not too many obstacles) goes a long way to staying safe.

6) Riding at a relaxed pace goes a long way towards staying safe. We mostly walk, trot a little, occasionally lope when we’re all in the mood. We do not gallop madly along. Yes, its fun, and when I was younger I loped and galloped a lot more often. And the last time I was bucked off on the trail I was galloping up a long grade (many years ago). You really do see the countryside much more when you walk. I know, it sounds boring, and maybe to some it is. For me its peaceful and enjoyable.

7) I bring a cell phone. When my husband hikes with us, he brings a pistol. I do not carry a pistol on my horse because I don’t think I could fire it off my horse safely. I also think that a mounted rider can dominate most situations—with either people or animals—if they are thinking. Our only potentially threatening animals here are cougars, and I don’t believe I have ever heard of one jumping a mounted horseman. Most people who don’t know horses are easily intimidated—swing the horse’s butt at them, yelling, “Watch out, he kicks!” I HAVE had someone pull a gun on me when I was out riding—this was many years ago, and I had unknowingly ridden into an area where this someone was growing pot (I figured this out later). I was able to retreat reasonably gracefully—no harm done, and I realized then that it would have done me zero good to have been “carrying” myself. Galloping away is going to be your best defense.

8) I try to keep my rides well within the capacity of both horses and riders. Tired horses and people leads to trouble. For me, this means shorter rides (three/four hours is a long ride for us) and for me, that’s OK. My knees get sore if the ride is too long. In the same sense, riding a sore horse leads to stumbling and potential trouble. All horses on the ride should be sound enough and fit enough that they are comfortable—not miserable. A horse that has a noticeable head bob while trotting in a straight line is not sound enough for a trail ride—there can be exceptions to this, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

9) Pay attention. Even while you enjoy your relaxed stroll through the woods, you MUST pay attention. If your horse tosses his head at a bug, your alert recognition that it is a wasp, and that, whoa, there are several more right here, could save your life. This happened to me many years ago, riding a green three-year-old I didn’t know at all solo through the mountains (I was younger and tougher back then). I had disturbed a ground wasp nest and the wasps were attacking. Fortunately I noticed the very first pass by the buzzing critter and realized what was happening. The young horse was stung once and leaped forward, I regained control and kicked him up to a brisk trot. We were able to get out of range before he was stung again and we did fine. Contrast this to a friend of mine who failed to note what was happening until his steady Eddy horse had been stung several times and proceeded to buck him off, whereupon the poor guy was stung repeatedly after he hit the ground. Not fun. So pay attention. If your horse looks at something, you look to see what it is. If his foot slips, you look down and check the footing. Just pay attention. Don’t assume anything.

10) Listen to your intuition. This sounds silly, maybe, but for me it works. If I feel too apprehensive about something, I don’t do it. I do not allow a bolder companion to talk me into something that feels “wrong” to me on a trail ride. At the beginning of every ride, I “feel” into myself, asking if this will be fine. Usually, I “get,” yep, this will be just fine. If I don’t, I think hard about what choice I want to make. This doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes push past my nerves, it just means that I try to pay attention to whatever inner wisdom I have.

OK—there’s some ideas. Any other good trail ride tips? I’m all for avoiding drama.