Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Riding Smoky

by Laura Crum

Not so long ago I would have told you that I didn’t plan to ride any more young horses. And I meant it. I never thought I’d climb on anything less than eight years old and a reliable, broke horse ever again. I’ve trained somewhere upwards of a hundred colts in my life, but since then I’ve taken quite a few years off to be a mom, I’ve grown middle-aged and stout, and I just don’t feel up to riding/training young horses any more. Sounds fair enough, right?

But then my friend/boarder took a three year old colt in exchange for a debt and asked me if I’d train him (I trained a few other horses for this friend that he liked.) I said no. I said I was done with training horses. We turned the colt out in my sixty acre pasture and let him learn to be a horse. We sent him to a trainer we both trusted. And now Smoky is five years old, a green broke horse, and back in my barn. And guess what? I’m riding him…and enjoying it.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but somehow I became convinced that I’d feel OK on Smoky. And from the very first time I rode him, I felt fine. Yes, he’s green, and requires support, guidance and correction that the mature horses don’t need. But he’s kind and willing, a bit lazy, and shows no real resistance. I feel very safe on his back. He lopes nice circles in the arena and goes down the trail without spooking at anything. So far so good.

And then, yesterday, the wind was blowing like crazy. My son was determined to ride. I saddled Smoky, and the colt was looky. Why wouldn’t he be? The trees were crashing around; I heard one go down up on the ridge.

“We aren’t going out on the trail today,” I told my son. “are you sure you want to ride? Its awfully windy.”

“I can go faster than the wind,” my kid replied.


I saddled Henry, my son’s horse, who appeared completely calm and unworried by the wind. At the same time I regarded the obviously anxious Smoky, who wasn’t very happy about the blowing trees. And I felt a knot of anxiety in my stomach.

I could cope with Smoky being looky and/or jumpy—I knew that. But I wasn’t sure I could do this and still keep my focus on my kid and his horse. And when I ride with my kid, my focus is on him, and keeping him safe and happy. And even Henry is capable of spooking if a tree tips over right next to him. So I felt anxious—worried that I couldn’t deal with all these factors.

In my younger days I’d have stuffed the worry down and climbed on the colt. But I’m older now and a mom. I took a step back mentally. What is important here? What is important is keeping my kid safe. It will do this colt no harm to stand saddled and tied for a few hours and not get ridden. It will, in fact, do him good. And I climbed on steady Sunny and rode with my kid.

My son had a ball, loping endless circles on a wild windy day. His grin was a mile wide. I kept my eye on Henry, who remained completely relaxed the whole ride. It all went well.

And when I unsaddled the gang, I was glad I’d paid attention to my instincts. Not just because everybody was happy and healthy, but because I’d been relaxed and enjoyed my ride. I had done no harm by not riding the colt when I felt anxious. I’ll ride him again, many times, I hope. I had simply done a smart thing.

So I want to put this little wisdom I’ve gained out to all the others out there who, like me, once rode better than they do now. I’m finding its Ok to limit myself to what I feel comfortable with. I don’t need to beat myself up over being afraid. I can enjoy riding Smoky when it feels right, and I can do him no harm by giving him some time tied up and saddled when it doesn’t feel right (and by the way, this is an old horse trainer’s trick for getting horses broke—lots of time standing around saddled.)

I read a very good blog post on Janet Huntington’s Mugwump Chronicles blog on this same subject the other day, and it really inspired me to keep trusting my instincts. As a fiftyish “re-rider”, my main goal is to keep myself and my son safe, and my second goal is to have both of us relaxed and happy horseback, rather than anxious. Pushing myself to do what I don’t feel comfortable with does not further these ends.

And it still turns out that I can ride young horses (gentle ones, anyway) and enjoy them—as long as I listen to my instincts.

Anyone else have any insights to share on this subject?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Horses and Life Lessons

In my recent posts I have talked a lot about searching to find balance with the many demands on my time and having a renewed faith that I wasn’t the only horse crazy out there. In her recent post Laura wrote about finding her balance and purpose in motherhood and Michele wrote about the joy and angst of being a horseshow Mom. Well, I personally feel that there is no greater gift and no job more important than being a Mom. Although it never worked into the cards for me to experience motherhood, I take my role as “Aunt Terri” and a mentor to numerous kids very seriously. I believe deeply in the adage that “it takes a village” and get great joy being a second Mom to all of my students, helping them reach their goals, consoling when things don’t work out, giving them the occasional reality check and setting the right example.

In the horse show world, trainers get to observe every kind of parent. The helicopter, the worrier, the ones who are living vicariously through their children, the ones who apply too much pressure to win (those don’t last long at my barn) and thankfully most often the self-less, supportive parent who is content to stay in the shadows and allow there kid to shine. Regardless of the variations in parenting styles, most parents with children who participate in equestrian sports are very involved parents and in my book that is what matters most. With the numbers of latch-key kids, and parents too busy with their own lives to barely have a conversation with their teenager, I applaud any parent who is involved even if I do need to rein them in from time to time.

As a trainer and riding instructor, most of my career has been involved with an incredible organization – The United States Pony Club (USPC). Now don’t let the name fool you, not everyone rides a pony, the organization was founded in England where the word “pony” refers to a child’s mount. The USPC is a non-profit organization that, through a well established curriculum, teaches equestrian skills to children from as young as 5 or 6 through age 25. In addition to an emphasis on horse care and teamwork, USPC offers instruction and achievement ratings in 3 tracks – Eventing, Show Jumping, and Dressage. Rating levels start at the “D” level for beginners and progresses up to the “A” level for advanced riders. USPC offers great fun and camaraderie for its members and also boasts graduates that are equestrian stars such as Olympians Lendon Gray, Karen O’Conner, David O’Conner, Stephen Bradely and Gina Miles, individual 3-day Event Silver Medalist from the Bejiing Olympics.

But I think the most important things that Pony Club, and horse ownership in general, helps to produce is responsible, caring adults. The upper level ratings, B, HA and A for Pony Club are quite intense both in the sense of jumping heights upwards to 3’9” at the “A” and doing 2nd and 3rd level dressage, but also in the respect of performing under pressure after months and even years of preparation. Now how many of us have had to produce at work under deadlines and other pressures and how many of us have had to learn the hard way, that if you really want to achieve a goal you work hard for it, sometimes for a long time, and even then not everything always works out like we hoped. How many of us today know someone who thinks that life itself owes them something and these individuals just don’t understand that achievement and rewards are more about tenacity and perseverance than luck and entitlement.

All of these important life lessons are learned in the Pony Club program. I was just reminded of this fact this past weekend. I have been a National Examiner (the person that evaluates riders at upper level ratings) for Pony Club for over 10 years. This past week I was in Virginia conducting a “B” level rating and all but one of the candidates fell short of riding up to the B standard. This made for a disappointing and disheartening weekend for candidates and examiners alike. But amazingly at the conclusion of the rating on Sunday, each of the girls went out of there way to thank me and tell me they had learned a lot and they appreciated the kind and empathetic way we had conducted the rating. They all felt that, in spite of the disappointing results, it had been a positive learning experience and they were going to regroup and try again in the future. Now how many life lessons is that, wrapped up in one weekend. Grace in defeat, gratitude, seeing the positive side to a bad situation, accepting constructive criticism, maturity and class in disappointment, perseverance, and being tough enough to pick yourself up and try again. Boy, I know a lot of adults who would not have maintained that good of an attitude.

Yesterday I was sitting in the Dulles airport waiting for my delayed flight to finally take me back to California; feeling very worn out, a bit defeated and wondering why in the world I do this (God knows it is not for the money) when my cell phone rang. It was a call from one of my fellow examiners telling me that one of girls who had had to withdraw because her horse was not performing well, had called another PC examiner to say that even though she had not passed, it had been a great experience and that she hoped to see us again. This young lady, who had been in tears the day before, was happy, grateful for the opportunity and determined to try again. Oh yea, that is why I do it.

What life lessons have your horse experiences taught you over the years? What experiences from your horse life do you take with you into your professional life or even your role as a parent? Do you feel, like I do, that what I have learned from horses has taught me to simply be a better person overall. I’d love to hear your stories.

Terri Rocovich

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Finding Balance

By Laura Crum

No, I’m not talking about the sort of balance we need to stay aboard these horses and not end up on the ground at their feet. I’m talking about a different sort of balance…the sort we need in our lives. Terri wrote in a recent post that she needed help finding a balance between writing and riding. I don’t know that I’m in a position to offer much help, but now that it’s the rainy season here in coastal California, and I’m not riding as much as I was, I’ve started to think more about finding balance in my life.

This “balance” is, I think, going to be different for every person. For myself, I am balancing my son’s needs and wishes, our needs as a family, my horses, my writing and my garden. All of these things take up a lot of time. And I totally sympathise with Terri’s point that it seems like there are just not enough hours in the day. For sure, one thing or another is going to be somewhat neglected.

So, I’m going to start out with a funny statement. In my case, balance involves not prioritizing riding too much. And due to my past, that’s hard for me to do. It’s a long story, which I’ll tell in a future post, but I have a huge tendency to feel guilty if I don’t ride my horses five or more days a week. And right now I am actively choosing to prioritize my family’s needs and my kid’s needs. He will only be young once. I want to be there for him and also to enjoy this experience of raising a child to the fullest. So, in a way, you could say that both my riding and my writing have suffered since I had a child.

The funny thing is, I don’t even want to go back to the way I was pre-child. I prioritized riding and writing to a huge degree—to the degree that I felt trapped by my obsessive need to pursue these two things. I have to tell you, the truth is I prioritized riding and training my horses to such an inordinate degree in my twenties and thirties that, well, I’m not gonna say this ruined my first marriage, but I will say it contributed.

So, Ok, I have come to believe that over-prioritizing riding doesn’t work for me. Not just in the sense that it doesn’t work for my family, but also that it doesn’t work for me as a person. Sometimes I actively don’t want to ride. I want to work in my garden or go on a hike, or do some sort of expedition with my family. I want to be able to feel good about this. And because of my tendency to feel guilty when I don’t ride (because of my background with horses), I sometimes have a hard time feeling content when I don’t ride a lot.

This reached a crisis in my life about ten years ago. I had been riding, training and competing obsessively for twenty years. I felt guilty if I didn’t go to a competition every weekend, or didn’t practice several times a week. At the same time I had a property that I loved and I really wanted to spend long, lazy days working in the garden. The two desires were a huge conflict for me. And in a fit of pique I gave up competing.

Well, it wasn’t exactly a fit of pique. I had grown sick to death of the nasty things people do to themselves, their horses and others in order to win. I had ceased to see winning as desirable. I was sick of feeling like I “needed” to go compete every weekend. So I quit.

(I am not intending to criticize all those who like competition, mind you. Not everyone is nasty in the interests of winning. Nonetheless, I saw a great many horses crippled—and subsequently thrown away like broken sporting equipment-- and a great many people were less than kind to others and miserable themselves—all because they so needed to “win”.)

Anyway, I quit competing. I kept my horses. I still rode. I had a young horse I was training. But I didn’t let competition, and the need to train for competition, dominate my life any more. I worked in the garden a lot. I was happier.

Then I got pregnant. I gave up riding. I still had my horses, but my old team roping friends rode them for me (these were good rope horses and my friends were glad to borrow them). I had my baby. And it wasn’t until my little guy was six months old that I got back on a horse again (with my baby in front of me in the saddle). Over a year without being on the back of a horse.

And it felt just fine, actually. I was in no hurry to get back into riding again. I got on a horse once every month or two…until my kid turned three and began actively lobbying to ride. So then I began to ride a couple of days a week…but every ride was with my son. We walked, trotted and loped in sedate circles, that was it. This went on for a couple of years. And I was still perfectly content.

I learned something. I still loved my horses. I fed them morning and evening. I enjoyed them. I did not give one of them up. But I did not need to be obsessive about riding and training. Things went along just fine when I wasn’t obsessing.

I should add into this story that I keep my horses either turned out in large pastures or in big corrals (100 feet by 100 feet on average) where they can run and play if they are not ridden. They are never confined in small pens or stalls unless they need this due to injury…etc. And in the years when I rode very seldom, as I said, my friends did ride the using horses regularly.

So, fast forward to the present. After several years in which my son rode in front of me, I had a year of hand walking, longeing and ponying Toby the pony (with my kid aboard) and a year of riding alongside my kid and Toby in the arena. All pretty sedate. And then when Toby died two years ago, I bought Henry for my son, and Sunny for me (our two “bombproof” trail horses), and my kid and I began to go out on the trails.

For the first time in ten years, I had a horse that was solely my horse again—nobody rode him but me. And guess what? I began to obsess on getting him ridden. I also had a new event. I fell back in love with trail riding, the passion of my teenage years, which took a backseat to various sorts of cowhorse-type competitions in my twenties and thirties. Suddenly I wasn’t happy if I wasn’t out on the trails at least four days a week.

And you know what? This did not work to my advantage. Obsessing on riding and being unhappy when I couldn’t get it done made me, well, less happy. It took the major setback of Henry’s colic to get me to revaluate my priorities and start trying to find that balance again.

So now, once again, I’m back to riding when it works out and relaxing about it when it doesn’t. In my life, realistically, this means riding about twice a week, more often in the dry season, less often in the rainy season. The horses seem perfectly happy with this. Once again, I’m happy, too. I’m finding out that balance for me, means not prioritizing riding too much.

I don’t say this would necessarily be true for others. In fact, I’m hoping some of you will explain how you get balance in your own lives. Perhaps for some it means riding more often, and cutting back on other activities.

OK—I see I haven’t even touched on the issue of how I balance the writing into the equation. But this post is getting too long and I need to go feed my horses. So, a future post on how I fit writing into my life will be forthcoming.

Also, for those of you who write to me in the comments that you have posted something on your blog that I might be interested in, I do try to go to your blogs and read. But my computer is old and cranky (I mean seriously old and cranky—it is twelve years old, uses Windows 95, and has a dial up connection) and I frequently can’t view blogs. And it takes forever to get the comments to come up, so I don’t try to post comments on other blogs any more. I did make it to Kate’s blog and got to read about her horses. And Jackie of Horses and Turbos, I tried to get to your blog to read about your trail rides with Starlette, but I just couldn’t get it to come up on my screen.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Magazine Junkie

I admit to being a magazine junkie.

Just like everything else in this economy, the magazine industry is struggling. This year two magazines (non-horsey) I've subscribed to for years have ceased publication. More and more people are getting their info off the Internet and not reading magazines. Yesterday I received a special notice from Sunset Magazine, one year for ten dollars. I've never seen Sunset so cheap. It's usually three times as much, which is why I let my subscription lapse. Now I'm going to renew. It appears they're trying to keep their readership and bring back their former subscribers.

I started thinking about the horse magazines that I enjoy. As horse people, I'd like to encourage all of you to subscribe to your favorite equine magazine rather than buy it off the grocery store shelf or borrow it from a friend. Not only is it much cheaper to subscribe, but it'll help ensure it continues to be published. Most magazines are offering subscriptions for $10 to $20 a year right now. That's less than the cost of one or two lunches. Or team with a friend and get a subscription together.

Here are a few horse magazines that I enjoy every month:
  • Practical Horseman--I've been subscribing to this one since 1980. Practical Horseman is one of the best magazines when it comes to accurate and in-depth articles on horse health, feeding, care, and how-to articles. It's primary geared toward English riders in dressage, jumping, and eventing. Currently a subscription costs about $19.95 per year.
  • Dressage Today--I've subscribed to DT since its inaugural issue. Obviously, the magazine's emphasis is on dressage with dressage-related health care and training tips, along with dressage news. Also $19.95 per year, though I've seen it for $9.99 at times.
  • Equus--I've subscribed off and on to this magazine over the years. It's dedicated to health, care, and feeding of horses. The articles are usually well-written and researched. It doesn't contain a lot of how-to articles on riding, but you'll find everything else inside its pages. Again $19.95, though I've seen it cheaper, also.
  • Horse and Rider--I haven't subscribed to this one in a while, but it's a western version of Practical Horseman with valuable training tips from popular western riders. Also $19.99 per year.
  • Western Horseman--I've read this magazine since I was a small child. It's chocked full of articles on western riding, horse care, and even the western lifestyle. This magazine is great reading with something for everyone. Subscriptions are $18.00 per year.

The first four magazines listed above happen to be published by the same publisher, who bought out several horse magazines years ago. There has been a deterioration in size and amount of original articles since that date, but I still believe they are good deals for your money.

Please tell us about your favorite magazines and any I've missed on this list that you enjoy.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Horse Show Mom

I am officially a horse show mom. Yup. I wish I could be showing right along with my daughter, but as many of you know, my accident prone mare is still on stall rest from the "chip on her shoulder." Yes--silly Krissy fractured a small piece on the scapular spine and all we can do is let it heal--time, time, time (and money)--good thing I adore that mare because she seriously always has something going on with her.

Anyway, I'm not going to talk about Miss Krissy today. Today I want to talk about being horse show mom and my kid and her pony.

Monty (our pony) is really pretty special . He seems to really understand when his little girl is up on him and what his job is. However, that doesn't mean that I don't get a little nervous when she's in the show ring or now when she is out on the cross country course. I was sort of wishing she would fall in love with dressage more-so than the jumping, but, this is not the case with either the kid or the pony. They LOVE to jump.

The passion for the jumping is also where mom's nerves get a little sketchy. Monty has been known to be quite excited at the prospect of being out there on the course. I know--I've had to use a pulley rein on him a time or two out there, and so when the decision was made a little over a week ago to let the kid and pony do a one day CT, I was like, "Hmmm...really?" Terri assured me that both the kid and pony could handle it.

To be sure we took them over to Copper Meadows (where the event was being held) for a practice run a few days before the event. As I worried, Monty got a little strong and tried a shenanigan after one of the jumps, but the kid didn't let him get away with it. She brought him back quickly and confidently, and then she got mad at him. I love that this kid doesn't get scared when he gets strong. She just gets a little irritated. So, they jumped that particular question a few more times until everyone felt good about it. And then they moved on to the next section of jumps and it all ran smoothly from there.

Now the practice is one thing, but putting it all together out on course with the kid and pony on their own out there is a whole nother level of nerves, because they are out there without Terri or mom, and all I can do is watch and pray it goes well.

So, the dressage test went well, the stadium jumping went great and then it was time to go out and do the course and I was a wreck. I am sure Terri knew I was a wreck as I said a quick prayer to St. Francis. I also took Monty's sweet face in my hands and looked him the eyes and said, "You take care of your kid out there. That's your job."

Know what? That is exactly what Monty did. They were brilliant and when they come off the course I was whooping and hollering like I'd just one the lottery. It felt like I did. It was one of the best moments of my life. Silly? Maybe. But it was.

My daughter and Monty went home with a second place ribbon and she had a huge smile on her face for the next two days. Monty got extra goodies and a big kiss on the nose from his mom and his kid. I'm pretty sure Terri gave him one, too.

How about you--any horse show moms in the group? If so, do your nerves get to you when watching your kid? Or even just watching your kids ride? Or what about you, do you get nervous when you show? If so, how do you handle it?

Have a great weekend and hug a horse!


P.S. My new website is up and I hope you'll visit it at

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Autumn Ride

By Laura Crum

Ok, I’m going to start out by apologizing…its another trail ride post. I know I write a lot of these, but hey, its what I mostly do with my horses these days. And I just went on a spectacular ride this last weekend. My son and a friend and I rode the trail we call the “swingset loop”; this trail actually figures in my forthcoming book, “Going, Gone”, due out next spring.

The swingset loop is so-named because about halfway around the ride, way back in the woods, the trail passes an abandoned swingset, near the ruins of a little old house. It’s a bit eerie, in a way, and I thought it made a perfect feature for a story that involves a modern version of a haunted house.

Back to reality….I hadn’t ridden the swingset loop in a long time, over six months, because Henry, my son’s horse, colicked at the end of January and had to go to colic surgery to have a very large stone removed. For three months I was busy rehabbing Henry, and all my trail rides were short solo loops. Then for the next three months we were legging Henry back up, sticking to the easier trails and shorter rides. So its only been for the last month or two that my son and I have been riding the steeper, longer trails.

The swingset loop takes us about two and a half hours to ride. We go out my front gate, cross the road and start up the ridge we can see from our porch. The trail is narrow, steep in places, winds its way along a wooded sidehill, and requires one to dodge some knee swiping trunks that lean into the trail, and duck for some very solid “head bonker” boughs. There are brushy detours for downed timber, and, in general, a fair amount of pushing through brambles and bush. Then we drop over the ridge onto more open trails, and ride along a long valley on the other side, passing through huge redwood groves, by the abandoned swingset, past big views of the coastal mountains, and, finally, overlooks where we can see the whole Monterey Bay. After this we start back up the ridge, clambering up some very steep spots, and come to a bluff above the bay that I call “the Lookout”, where the view is spectacular. And then we wind our way back down the ridge on a gentle, pretty trail and strike the route for home.

Imagine all this on a crisp, sparkling autumn day when the sun is warm and the shade is cool. The leaves are turning to gold on the broadleaf trees, and the sky is that impossibly deep violet blue. The distant ridgeline of the Santa Cruz Mountains is sharp and clear, and the bay, when we see it, is such a brilliant shade of aquamarine that its hard to believe. It looks as though we could see all the way to Japan.

The horses are steady, alert, and seem happy. They’re legged up enough that they don’t sweat much, even on the steep climbs, despite their developing winter coats. My son chatters happily to me and whistles as he rides along, I listen to him and enjoy the scenery, my friend brings up the rear, happy to ride quietly along. We pass a young deer grazing in the dappled shade of a liveoak grove. For whatever reason, the animal is not afraid of us, and merely lifts his head to watch us as we pass not twenty feet from him.

The trail seems a bit overgrown since we rode it last, but we have no problems. We see where someone is building a new house, and I hope they won’t decide to interfere with the access. Its always a nerve wracking business, wondering if the next new resident in these hills will prove to be a horse hater and try to ban equines from the trails. It has been an ongoing battle over the years, and one that makes me very sad.

But on this day we see no one but the deer; no other horsemen, no hikers, no residents, either friendly or irate. We ride for two and a half hours through the hills near my home and we might as well have been in the wilderness far, far away. It was truly a lovely afternoon.
I realize that not seeing this trail for six months or so makes me appreciate it more. The views are fresh and new to me, each redwood tree, each grove of liveoaks, seems different somehow. I notice that the big madrone trees near the Lookout are showing young green bark under their peeling red outer skin.

As we arrive back home, I think, as I always do, how grateful I am for our two steady trail horses, Sunny and Henry, who make all this possible. Without their unflappable composure, I would probably be afraid to take my nine-year-old son across the busy road and along trails where in the past I have met dirt bikes, all sorts of wild critters, odd hiking parties (including one with a tiny pony on a very long leadrope and a goat following along loose, complete with a collar studded with jingling bells), not to mention the day some resident or other was clearing brush with chainsaw and wood chipper right by the trail and did not seem inclined to pause while we passed. I could go on and on. But Henry and Sunny have weathered every obstacle with perfect aplomb, and I’ll always be grateful for what they’ve done. Our two little trail horses have a permanent home.

I’m even more grateful since I perused a few horse blogs yesterday, and was shocked to hear how many people have been badly hurt lately in horseback accidents and are afraid to ride, or are trying to ride and struggling with health issues from previous falls, or are just plain struggling with fear issues to do with riding. I know all about fear issues, and if it weren’t for our two steady horses, I know I’d be struggling with fear a lot, too. Especially on the trail. Especially taking my son out on the trail. And I have to say that I’m also grateful that I have, to put it plainly, been lucky. As Janet once wrote on this blog, any horse, even a “bombproof” one, can dump you. Stuff happens. Unpredictable stuff. So my gratitude goes out in a big way to the two little horses that have come through for us every time, and also that fate has not tested us too severely (we haven’t been stung by bees, for instance, or a host of other disasters I’ve seen…I could go on and on). And to those whose heartfelt comments I read on other blogs, some of whom have commented here before, I am so sorry to hear of your struggles and injuries. I know I could easily be in your shoes. I hope horses return to being a pleasure for you.

Here’s to Henry and Sunny—thank you so much.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Renewed Faith

A Renewed Faith

In my last post I asked “why we all do it” what intangible element keeps us committed to our equine friends and I can’t tell you how valuable and reassuring I found everyone’s responses. In a world where the simple pleasures are so often lost in the shuffle, I found through your comments that there are many people who, like I, find great merit in the simple company of a horse.

“Enjay” wrote about how the simple act of leaning on a horse and just feeling them breathe, listening to their heart beat and feeling their warmth is part of what brings her joy. How beautiful is that! I can remember when I was a little girl, I fell hopelessly in love with one of my Dad’s fillies that was destined for a racing career. When “Sugar” was just a foal I would sneak out of the house with my pillow and sleep with her in the pasture with her dam watching over us both. And so many years later it is that simple sensation of feeling her breathe that stays with me.

Kate wrote that she feels that horses are more fully alive and aware than we are and being with her horse helps her be more fully present and less in the me, me, me mode. Well Amen to that. God only knows how self absorbed I would be if I didn’t have my horses, dogs and cats to keep it real. There are my equalizers and my equilibrium. Without them my life does lack balance, humility, and that gentle reminder that I am just that little part in a very big picture.

Maryann wrote that just a little sniff from her horse Banjo is all she needs to keep her committed. Boy Am I happy that I am not the only person addicted to horse slobber. Isn’t it amazing that horse goobers makes us content. I know we are a little weird, but what a great kind of weird. On the rare occasion that I travel for something that is not horse related, I start to go through horse smell withdrawals. Years ago when I had an “office type” job I had to travel to New York for a week of meetings. After a couple of days I was going stir crazy and had to ask to pet one of the Central Park carriage horses to ease my homesickness. Finally, my hands smelled like a horse. I didn’t want to wash them all day so I wouldn’t lose the smell and yes, my coworkers thought I was certifiable.

And my good friend Michele Scott wrote that for her it is all about the unconditional love. That her horses are what ground her and fill her life in so many ways. This I know, because I have the pleasure of boarding Michele and her daughter’s horses at my barn. Krissy and Monty know that they are favored children and have boundless personalities as a result. Michele and I have discovered that we have almost a freakish amount of things in common and one of them is our bond with the horses. We can talk for hours about the silly little things that each of the horses do, noticing every nuance and detail like they are golden. It is so nice to have someone in the barn with the same level of connection to the horses as I do. As a trainer I have to deal with every type of personality from parents to kids and some of it is good and some, bluntly, not so good. I have learned to temper myself, be more accepting of various levels of commitment and not to always be so exacting in my standards. But if the horse’s quality of care is compromised, I back away and they lose me as a trainer.
I really loved the comments from “OneDandyHorse” who talked about how the only time in her life without a horse was one of her worst. She now has a young horse and they calm each other and are true partners. She wrote that her horse lessons her burdens and is her joy. Like this writer, I have a horse that was saved from an auction and he has also become one of the greatest joys in my life. I will write more about this horse in the future, but in three years “Hank” has gone from 2 steps away from a rendering plant to being a winning Event Horse and one of the greatest joys of my life. His personality is still emerging from the darkness of abuse and distrust, but he is progressing into a great horse and an even greater friend. I too don’t know if I could live without horses in my life and really hope I never have to find out.

Lastly, Gayle wrote that it was only after getting a horse that she really started to write. Why is that you think. Perhaps it is the grounding, perhaps we write best when we have other fulfillment. My biggest challenge with my writing and my horses and my training career is balancing it all. I have not quite figured out how to not over commit myself and let the hours fly by without getting all of the things accomplished I needed to. I know this may sound trite but there really doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. How do you all do it? How do you keep your writing and riding in balance with each other. Boy could I use some advice.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

First Loves

by Mary Paine

I have mixed feelings about my very first horse. I was twelve years old and my family just couldn't afford to get me my own horse. They were able to pay for two lessons a week and I was a barn rat for extra rides and time with the horses. I saved for what seemed like forever to be able to lease a horse for the winter season (this particular barn only ran it's lesson program three seasons). I dreamed of leasing Ritchie, a lovely aged Thoroughbred Hunter.

Excited beyond belief, I went with my mother, cash in hand, to the owner of the facility to lease Ritchie. When we got there she told us there had been some sort of mix-up and Ritchie had already been leased to another little girl. My heart was broken. I sat there with my fistful of money and she explained that Colonel, another horse in the barn, was available for lease, but she warned me he wasn't the same horse I remembered from last year.

Being twelve years old and accompanied by my mom, who was a lovely lady who had never been on the back of a horse in her life, I clutched at this straw and resolutely thrust her warning out of my mind. I assured her that I would absolutely love to lease Colonel and handed over my money.

I was in heaven. I ran out to the stable and petted Colonel all over, cooing over him and telling him all about the wonderful things we were going to do together. That evening my dad found an old wooden trunk that would serve as a tack box. I painted it powder blue (a definite tween color) and used my remaining savings for brushes, etc. for the box. My dad helped me haul my brand new (to me) tack box down to the stable and I was ready to go.

I saddled Colonel and off we went to the outdoor ring. We had a terrific ride together and in a delighted haze I asked someone to open the gate for us to exit. Here is where everything changed. The minute the gate was open Colonel took off at a full gallop toward the barn. Unfortunately, I had never been taught what to do in this situation so I hung on for dear life until Colonel decided to come to a halt. We repeated this process daily until one day I was leading him and he took off on me. I was holding the lead rope correctly, but the force with which he took off fractured my left pinky, which is crooked to this day.

I loved Colonel with all my heart, even through my tears in the ER. Many years later when I bought Spencer, my first horse, I felt great joy, but there is something about that first experience that still tugs at my heart. Sadness that Ritchie and I never had that magical winter together and sorrow that my memories of Colonel are tainted with that touch of fear.

My first equine love was a double-edged sword, but I like to think I learned a lot from the experience - about horses and about life.

All the best,

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Riding Lessons

By Laura Crum

One of the reasons I never tried to become a horse trainer, though I worked for half a dozen of them as an assistant, is that I don’t like to give “riding lessons”. This isn’t because I can’t teach or don’t like to teach. I taught high school English in my twenties, for several years I taught a course on “How To Write A Mystery” at our local community college, last year I taught a short course on how to write a story to my son’s homeschool group. I have given riding lessons to children and adults. I’m currently giving them to my son’s friend. And one of my big activities since my son has been born has been teaching him to ride.

So, I can hear you saying, what do you mean that you don’t like to give riding lessons? Well, what I mean is that I tend to teach in a very hands off way. As someone who was the victim of a great many very hands on riding instructors, I have pretty strong feelings about the “yell at them constantly” approach. Of course, one need not yell—though a great many trainers/teachers that I have had certainly did so. But my thinking goes further than just not wanting to scar someone else the way I was scarred. I believe that we all learn best when we work things out for ourselves. And direct instruction, in general, not only doesn’t facilitate this process, it hinders it.

I can just feel the hackles going up on everyone who gives riding lessons, so before I go any further, I’d like to give an example of what I mean. When I say I taught my son to ride, its only partially true. What I actually did was facilitate my son’s learning to ride. I virtually never gave him any formal instruction, nor has anyone else. From the time he was six months old, I put him up in front of me on gentle horses. By the time he was four, he was very comfortable at the trot and lope in the saddle with me. When he was five I bought him a pony. For the next year my son rode by himself on this pony, always on the leadline. I took the stirrups off his saddle. My kid learned to trot and lope comfortably on the leadline, or being longed, or being ponied from my horse. When he was six, I put the stirrups back on the saddle, put the bridle on the pony, and let my son begin riding independently. At first I stayed nearby at all times. I kept him in round corrals and confined spaces. By the time he was seven my son could trot and lope the pony independently in the arena and was clamoring to go on trail rides.

Toby the pony died when my son was seven and I bought Henry, a very reliable, calm, somewhat lazy horse. My kid transitioned easily to the horse and within a month we were going on trail rides regularly. My son was a bit frustrated riding Henry in the arena because Henry was lazier than Toby and much harder to kick up to a lope. For a very long time (like six months) my boy couldn’t get Henry going faster than a trot, even using the crop I gave him. I just waited, figuring that he’d work it out. And eventually he learned to spank the horse at the right moment and get him in the lope.

All this time, I rarely told my son what to do. I mostly just let him do what he wanted to do. I corrected him when it was needed, but it was always short and simple. “Shorten your reins before you try to lope.” “Make sure your reins are even.” “Remember to sit up straight.” Over the course of an hour, on average, I might make three or four such comments. That was it. I would say “That looked great,” when he did something particularly well. Mostly I stayed out of the way.
My son developed an excellent seat. He developed quiet, steady hands. He was almost never fearful or anxious on the horse. He had lots of fun. He fell off once. He hasn’t gotten hurt—knock on wood. He loves his horse. He loves to ride. Problems do come up. And I let him work them out. I give suggestions when he is frustrated, but I do not get on his horse and “fix” the horse.

This last summer Henry began to develop the habit of dropping out of the lope and trying to stop where the other riders sit to watch at the roping arena where we ride (this spot is the “haze line”, for those familiar with roping arenas). My son wasn’t quick enough to correct the horse before he broke gait, and it began to be a problem. My son could no longer lope circles; it was one circle and the horse would stop in his chosen place. I told my kid he would need to swat the horse with the crop before Henry stopped, but my son (now nine years old) wasn’t quite able to get it done. It takes a bit of skill to keep your seat, keep steering, and reach back and whack the horse at exactly the right time. Henry would get ahead of my kid and break stride and stop. My child was getting pretty frustrated.

So we took a break from riding at the arena. For a month we went on trail rides. We had fun. Yesterday we went back to the arena again. I did not give my kid any instruction other than to say, “You’ll need to get ready to swat Henry with the stick before he gets to the stopping place.” And I loped alongside of him to give his horse a lead. As we approached the stopping place, I said, “Get ready,” And my son, on his own, began to count in rhythm to the loping strides. “One…two…three..” One count per stride. And on “four” he swatted Henry. The horse lifted up and kept loping past the resting spot. We went around again and once more my son counted along with the rhythm of the lope as we approached the spot. “One, Two, Three, Swat.” It worked like a charm. Suddenly my kid’s grin was a mile wide.

“Do you see what I’m doing?” he said. “I’m using the rhythm.”

“I see,” I said. “And its working great.”

I watched my kid lope happy circles, swatting his horse at just the right moment over and over again. I saw how empowered he felt. And I knew that all the instruction in the world about feeling the timing and hitting the horse at the right moment would not have helped. In fact it would have done harm. I know all about this, having been the victim of it for years. One is trying so hard with concious effort to follow instructions that one can’t feel the intuitive physical response that is needed. Without the formal instruction, my son was free to find the natural response. He had the years of riding that gave him the intuition. He was truly able to learn—because I wasn’t trying to teach him and getting in his way.

This is the heart of how I teach. I teach writing the same way. I’m homeschooling my kid using this approach. I find its working on all fronts. Riding lessons for us are really lessons for both of us as I observe and see what is working. I always learn as much as he does. I never assume that I know what the best approach is. I intervene only to keep my kid and the horse safe and relatively comfortable. I am open to see what is going to work for both of them.

All this to explain my original statement. Because as well as my approach works, it takes time. And a person who is expecting to have some knowledge imparted to them in exchange for dollars is apt to be disconcerted by an hour’s ride in which I make four comments. Thus I no longer accept money to teach folks to ride. I’m teaching my son’s little friend for free, but already the mom has wondered if her child needs more “formal instruction.” I smiled and suggested some good local people. The mom asked if I couldn’t do it. I tried to explain that this was the way I give lessons. I don’t think she understood. But that’s OK.

Anyway, I’d be interested to hear what others think of this approach. Have you tried it? Does it work for you? Or does the concept just not resonate? Any thoughts?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Opening That Door

I admit to having an obsessive personality. It serves me well when it comes to being obsessed about riding or writing. It means I stick with something until it's finished. Where it becomes an issue is when the situation is completely out of my control and no amount of worrying, planning, and trying will change anything.

A few years ago I could finish an entire 100,000 word draft in one month. Today, I find it hard to finish 100,000 words in a year. I rode five to six times a week like clockwork. This past year, I was hard-pressed to ride more than one day a week.

Why was this?

I'm a fixer. I want everyone in my life to get along and be happy, but sometimes there are things you just can't fix. Until recently, I'd been focusing all of my emotional energy on a personal situation which was completely out of my control. I've driven my friends and family crazy obsessing over this situation, trying to fix the unfixable, heal the unhealable (I know that's not a word, but work with me here).

As a consequence this thing consumed all of my energy like a living, breathing monster.

I knew something had to change, as tragic and sad as the situation was, it was time to move on and let it go.

Time to get my life back.

For the first time in a long while, I feel peace and relief because I've finally released that unwinnable situation. I'm mentally banishing this stuff from my life and moving on. I've made a commitment to emotionally distance myself from those who've treated me with ambivalence at the best of times and unintentional cruelty at the worst of times.

If you wonder why I'm telling you this on a blog dedicated to equestrian writing and equestrian pursuits, well, let's just say that I'm purging the negative. I'm liberating myself so that I can once and for all reclaim my life. I need to find the person I was before I was consumed by this quest for something that will never be. I hope that our regular readers feel you know me well enough that you'll afford me a little leeway in posting something off-subject. Besides, if my personal revelation helps even one of you with your own personal struggle, I've achieved more than I've set out to achieve.

Yesterday, I rode my mare for the fifth time in a week, something I haven't done in over a year. I hung out at the barn after I rode and talked with people instead of jumping in the car as soon as I was done. I hand-grazed my horse. I cleaned my tack. I felt like "me" again.

So it's time to refocus my life on my friends, my family, my writing, and my riding. Thanks for tolerating my little zig-zag off topic.

Sometimes one door needs to close so another can open. Instead of pounding on that locked door and begging for permission to enter, I'm opening that other door.