Saturday, January 28, 2012


There have been many posts on the death of an animal family member, mostly horses, so I don't want to repeat the sentiments of everyone who owns and love their critters: we outlive our pets and know at some point that we will have to deal with and make decisions about their deaths no matter how difficult. Thursday, however, we had to put our lovely Labrador retriever down, and the sadness is still on my mind. Dozer had been on two pain medications for over a year, yet his arthritis continued to get worse. The past several months, he struggled to get up, his hind legs often collapsed, his breathing was labored, and he limped on his front. Still he greeted us cheerfully, ate heartily, and although he couldn't handle our long walks, he refused to give up our twice-a-day short walks with me and his other two dog buddies. Until last Monday.

I knew something was off when he vomited breakfast. Without meds, his pain quickly increased, but when I tried to entice him with pills in cheese (his favorite) he refused with clamped jaw. A first. Unfortunately, my husband had just gone out of town for work, and I knew I would be handling this alone. Which isn't easy with a one hundred pound dog. Thinking illness (yeah, I know. Such denial!), I managed to load him in the van and head to the vet. $400.00 later the vet told me what I already knew--he had congenital heart problems along with everything else and his lungs were filling with fluid. One more medicine to add to the daily dose.

After I got him home, he speedily went downhill. He fell several times and could only get up with a towel sling I used to lift his middle. Then on Thursday after class, I came home to find him flat on the garage floor where he'd fallen and hadn't been able to get up. He'd waited patiently and quietly but looked at me with trusting eyes as I helped him to his feet. Well, you can imagine by Thursday, I'd about cried myself dry because I knew the decision was being made for me. Luckily, it was a beautiful day, so I got him on his bed in the sun, where he lay with his one buddy, Jake, until my husband came home late afternoon (there had already been many teary phone calls) to say goodbye and wait for our wonderful horse vet who came to the house. I gave Dozer a last hug and kiss, and like a giant coward, left to teach class. When I came home, I helped Bruce dig a grave in the pasture and we buried him.

While we dug, my husband and I talked about how part of the difficulty of losing Dozer, other than he was a great friend and 'child', was his leaving the family marked a sad passage in our lives in other ways. Dozer grew up with our children--they were eight and ten when we got him--and now they are grown and making decisions about new lives and places to live, and will soon be leaving us, too. When my kids headed to college, although it was a tough transition, they came home often, and we all adjusted. Now my daughter is graduating and thinking of moving west with her boyfriend. We also see our son, who is working about two hours away, less than we used to and know that one day, he may move away to follow a dream or career. Which is what we want, I know. We can't cling to our children forever and our beloved pets die before we do. Each change, each passage, for me is gut wrenching. I slowly adjust and try find new passions because I realistically know that this is how life works. Still, it's just dang hole-in-the-heart hard.

Thank you for letting me share!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

An Equestrian Hiccup?

Last weekend, I took a lesson with a French Olympic rider who comes to my stables once a month to coach two other ladies. One of them, Nicole, rides or lunges Qrac for me once in a while if I’m away or can’t make it to the yard. I’d only ever seen this trainer once, a few weeks ago, when he gave Nicole a lesson on her three year-old, big moving German Warmblood mare. But since I was riding Qrac while Nicole took her lesson, I didn’t really get the chance to watch.

Nicole raves about this man, as does the other lady, so when they invited me to take a lesson with him I was excited. I looked him up on the Internet because, although I’ve been into dressage for a long time, I’m not familiar with many international riders. This man’s track record is very impressive; he’s been French champion at least once, has won numerous Grand Prix’s, and participated in the European Championships, the World Equestrian Games and the Beijing Olympics.

So early last Saturday morning, I saddled up Qrac and lead him into the arena. Nicole, rosy-cheeked and sweaty, was winding up her lesson on her young mare. I walked Qrac around the arena on foot for a couple of rounds, then climbed into the saddle and headed towards the trainer. “What do you want to work on?” he enquired, to which I replied, “Well, pretty much everything.” explained how I have problems getting Qrac to take the left rein, particularly in canter where he tends to lean onto his inside shoulder, still occasionally switching leads. I told him I try to work my horse in shoulder fore, using a ton of inside leg, but that it’s really hard work. I also told him that I try to keep the tempo slow and regular in all three paces as Qrac has a tendency to fall onto the forehand and run. So, lots of things to work on. Lots of basics.

The trainer asked me to pick up my horse and begin my warm up session. I took my time as I always do, concentrating on the tempo, on getting him between my inside leg and my outside rein before asking him to trot. Qrac is a Lusitano. He’s very short-backed, extremely supple, and loves to escape by wiggling. I have to really work on keeping him on the contact, but it’s a work in progress (and I must say we’ve made a lot of progress since I bought him last April). He tries to evade by coming above the bit, or by dropping behind the bit, or by wiggling around somewhere in between. Often he’ll transition into a beautiful trot for two strides, then ruin it by coming above the bit, which is what he did on Saturday when I asked him for the first walk trot transition. I worked on getting him slow and round and regular on the left rein, but only had the chance to do about two or three rounds on a big circle before the trainer told me to switch rein, which somewhat threw me. I did as I was told, concentrating on trying to get Qrac to take more contact with the outside rein, but before I knew it, the trainer told me to switch reins again and to move into canter.

Canter?! Already?! I usually work Qrac for at least fifteen to twenty minutes in trot before I canter because I’ve found that it helps him stay in rhythm, helps me keep him balanced and focused and quiet. I’ve found that if I canter too soon, when I go back into trot he has more of a tendency to fall on his forehand and run after his feet. But, last Saturday, I wasn’t going to argue with an Olympic rider, so I did as I was bid.

It was awful. When I asked for canter, Qrac got all flustered, wriggled, went above the bit and fell into a fast, rushy trot. I steadied him, asked again, upon which we managed and ungainly, croup high trot canter transition. We did about two rounds, and were then asked to transition back to trot and change the rein. The right lead canter felt choppy, but at least we didn’t do any uncalled for flying changes. But I was disconcerted, out of my comfort zone, unsure. I was also already dripping with effort.

After a few rounds of right lead canter, the trainer told me to transition to walk. He told me Qrac needed to be more active, more regular in a more forward cadence. He told me to transition into trot, and clearly wanted that transition RIGHT NOW, IMMEDIATELY, whereas, as I mentioned earlier, I like to prepare my walk trot transitions for as long as it takes to get Qrac ready. Yes, I probably prepare them for too long, but at the stage Qrac and I are at, surely there’s a happy medium? Nevertheless, I obediently transitioned, and set upon steadying Qrac between the outside rein and the inside leg, working towards a slow, regular rhythm. But the trainer didn’t want “slow”. He asked for more activity, for me to ride him far more forwards. Uh-oh, I thought, doing what I was told. Sure enough, Qrac’s trot immediately became choppier, rushed, running after his own feet. I lost his back, lost his concentration. “Ten metre circle at every other letter,” ordered the trainer. But that’s all he said. He didn’t offer any detailed advice, the way Marie-Valentine does. It was simply “ten metre circle”.

We skidded around. I felt horrible. Qrac felt horrible. I did my best to try to recuperate the rhythm, trying to get Qrac to relax into this quicker rhythm, but it didn’t feel right. Soon the trainer asked us to canter again. Off we went, both of us dripping with sweat. It felt uncoordinated, ungainly, unattractive. I felt like a beginner. Qrac felt nervous, unsettled, stressed out.

“Ten metre circle at every other letter,” ordered the trainer. “Balance him. Balance him. Keep him active. Keep him in front of your legs.” But again he didn’t give me any personal tips on how to balance him.

To cut a long, sweaty story short, by the end of the session, Qrac and I had managed decent ten metre circles in trot and canter on both reins. And the final left-rein shoulder- in felt very good, with Qrac light on the contact and very uphill. When I asked him to stretch into the cool-down trot I thought he felt easier to balance than usual and that his trot felt bigger and a tad loftier. But maybe it just felt bigger and loftier because he’d felt so choppy and rushy in the beginning. I don’t really know.

The weird thing is that I came away from the lesson quite enthusiastic. I felt like I wanted to work with this trainer again, which is strange since my general impression during the lesson was “oh dear me, I’m really not sure about this.” But I’m a person who likes to please and who tends to think that other people know best. Besides, who was I to question an Olympic rider?

Later in the day, I went to watch him teach more lessons at another stable close to where I live. He was friendly and charming with me, a real gentleman, and all the riders seemed to idolize him. Yet I couldn’t help thinking that, compared to the way Marie-Valentine teaches, he wasn’t precise enough, wasn’t involved enough. It was repetitive, all “ten metre circle”, or “shoulder-in” , or “pirouette”, but with very limited technical advice on how to actually perform or improve the movements.

I looked forward to riding Qrac on Sunday, as, when it comes to riding, you often reap what you sow on the following day. Unfortunately there was a lesson going on, as well as quite a few other people riding at the same time, and someone lunging, too, so I didn’t really a good idea of whether or not the session with the French trainer had been beneficial.

However, on Monday afternoon, when Marie-Valentine came to give me my lesson, Qrac made it clear that Saturday’s session had not been beneficial. He ran after his feet, wouldn’t settle, fell on his forehand, fell on his inside shoulder and generally felt super-stressed. The canter was such a nightmare that I finally asked Marie-Valentine to get on and tell me what she felt. Being a brilliant, sensitive rider, she soon worked him through, but got very sweaty in the process. “Wow, shoulder-fore is a real workout,” she gasped, working away. This was reassuring; clearly it wasn’t just my crappy skills in shoulder-fore!

After ten or fifteen minutes, she dismounted and handed Qrac back to me, encouraging me to get back on for a couple of rounds to see if he felt any different. He did, of course! I always feel as though my horse has grown by ten centimetres after she’s ridden him. And he was far more balanced, far softer. Much nicer to ride.

She and I talked about the negative effects of the Saturday session, both of us agreeing to mull over the different approach, and to discuss it over the phone over the next few days. Marie-Valentine has no problem with her students working with other trainers, and is always interested to hear what they have to say, what they suggest. But we soon both agreed that the French trainer’s approach hadn’t worked for Qrac and me. I can’t help wondering whether he’d have a different approach the next time I took a lesson with him, whether he’d have thought about how my horse reacted to being “rushed” into the exercises, whether he’d be willing to try things from another angle. I feel that a true professional should be open enough to do so, but then again, I’m an amateur, and he’s been to the Olympic Games, so clearly his method worked pretty darn well for him! Nevertheless, when he comes back in February, for the moment I’m not chomping at the bit for an encore.

Have you ever done a clinic with someone with amazing credentials, yet with whom you didn’t click, “equestrianly speaking”? Would it be a shame to give up on this trainer so quickly? Would it be more sensible to try it again and see how it goes?

The thing is, when I think of the session I did last October with Bernard Sachsé, the ex-stuntman confined to a wheelchair since 1994 following a terrible horse riding accident, who has since been French Champion several times, and who participated in the Para-Olympics, there is simply no comparison in the quality of the coaching. Like Marie-Valentine, Bernard offered personalised advice every step of the way, and didn’t just content himself with ordering a series of ten-metre circles. Lessons with both Bernard and last Saturday’s trainer ended with Qrac moving nicely, but Bernard’s route to the nice movement made far more sense to me, and I’d definitely jump at the opportunity to do further sessions with him (I think he’s coming back to my area in March).

Of course, it’s good to be challenged, to try new things, to step out of your comfort zone. But the more I think about it (and writing about it today has really helped), the more I believe that when it comes to horses, you have to choose one path of training and not stray too far off it, especially if the path you’ve chosen seems to be working for you. After Monday’s intense “fix-it” session with Marie-Valentine, I took the pressure off Qrac for two consecutive days by lunging him in a slow, gentle cadence. Today, when I got on him, he felt like himself again.

What do you think? Am I over-analysing the whole experience? Could part of my reaction to the Saturday lesson be ego-related, highlighting my short-comings as a rider? Or is it simply a case of what works for some riders and horses simply doesn’t work for others?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Confessions of a Horse Trainer

by Laura Crum

Lately I’ve been reading some interesting blog posts about “lightness” in a horse and the general subject of communication between horse and rider. I’ve heard some neat ideas—and I have some thoughts of my own to offer today. What follows may not be a concept that most will agree with, but I’m not shy about bringing up controversial subjects, because I believe the discussion that sometimes results can be very productive. So here goes: In my experience it is sometimes the very concept of “training” and often the agenda that goes with a “horse trainer” that gets in the way of the communication and harmony we are trying to achieve with our horses.

Now I’ve spent many, many years in the company of horse trainers, and learned a lot from them. And then some of it I had to unlearn. I’d venture to say that at this point in my life I get along with my horses better and “read” them better than I ever have in my life. And a lot of what I do now is quite contrary to what those horse trainers taught me. But there’s plenty that I owe to them. Today I want to discuss the process of outgrowing a “training” mindset, and what that can sometimes do to improve communication between horse and rider.

My own path has gone like this: I rode for many years in my youth without instruction and learned to be comfortable with my horses and get along with them. I did many things that some might consider ambitious—jumping, trail riding for long hours in rough country by myself, galloping across big open fields, riding bareback…etc. All of it—my ability to stay on, my degree of relaxation, my ability to communicate with the horse-- just evolved and was largely instinctual. Eventually I decided I wanted to compete, and in my 20’s I got very passionate about cowhorses, and I began to take lessons from and then work for various cowhorse and cutting horse trainers. I learned enough to be able to competently train a horse on my own. I progressed as a horseman. In some ways, anyway.

Here’s what actually happened. You be the judge. The very first cowhorse competition I ever entered, I was 19 and I rode one of my uncle’s rope horses, who was a pretty good cowhorse in a very workmanlike way. This was a ranch cowhorse class, which, in those days, meant that you did the cow work portion of a bridle horse class and not the dry work. Which was a good thing, because my rope horse mount could no more have done the dry work than he could have flown to the moon. But he would work a cow.

Now, I didn’t take any lessons to prepare for this class. My sole bit of knowledge came from watching a few bridle horse classes in the past and practicing at home in the roping arena. My lack of experience cannot be overstated. I really knew nothing. I had entered in our local county fair, there was a buckle up for first place and at least twenty entries, some of whom were riding pretty fancy horses. I had no prayer of placing, realistically.

I won the class. (If you don’t believe me, say so, and I’ll post a photo of the buckle.) It was the first buckle I had ever won, the first cowhorse class I had ever competed in, and I was hooked. I wanted to learn everything about this wonderful sport, and I wanted to do lots more of it.

(If you are wondering why I won—and a few other people wondered that at the time—the answer is simple. The judge was a rancher who was looking for a horse you’d actually like to use on a ranch, and the fancier turns that some of the other horses made did not impress him as much as the solid way my horse worked. My focus was simply on getting the job done. I also drew a good cow. When a gal riding an ex-bridle horse protested at the placing, the judge’s response was “I’d rather have that roan son of a bitch than your flashy black mare on my ranch any day, so that’s how I placed em.”)

Anyway, from this beginning I went on to work for half a dozen cowhorse and cutting horse trainers and I learned a lot. I also unlearned a lot. I was taught to sit deep, rather than the somewhat forward stance I’d evolved from riding with ropers; I was taught training techniques I’d never heard of, and then techniques that were the exact opposite of the first techniques; I used fairly severe bits and training devices that were all new to me and eventually became old hat, and I competed for ten years and only won one other buckle. Oh, I placed and won various awards, but I did not become any kind of superstar in competition. During this time I started at least fifty colts myself and helped train probably a hundred others. I was definitely getting a lot of experience with horse training.

Eventually I got burned out on judged competition, for a whole lot of reasons that I’ve written about before so won’t belabor now. I started competing at team roping (a timed event) and I trained quite a few horses to be competent team roping horses, using the techniques I’d learned from the cowhorse and cutting horse people and combining them with the knowledge I had of roping and rope horses. I made some pretty nice horses. Two of which (now retired) are still living with me (and sound). I’m pretty proud of what I accomplished. But at a certain point I was ready to be done training horses. I didn’t want the stress, I didn’t want to get hurt (too old to take the rough knocks), and--I’m finally getting to my point—I was kind of sick of the whole “training” process.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a definite need for horse trainers and horse training—but there’s a downside, too. When you are training a horse you are perpetually in the “teacher” role with that horse. The dialogue goes something like this. “No, I want you to depart in this lead, not that one.” “No, you need to check when I pull on the reins, not raise your head and bull forward harder.” “Yes, that’s right, that’s what I wanted,” (appropriate release/reward). Even when you take your young/green horse for a trail ride, you are teaching him the behavior you want. “Just relax, its not that scary, yes, you must walk by that bush…etc”. There is an adversarial aspect to this because your student isn’t always keen to learn every aspect of the job you are teaching him, especially when certain things are genuinely difficult to do and require effort and hard work. Thus horse training, though it can be very rewarding, can also be stressful for both horse and rider.

There’s another problem, too. Horse training requires that the “trainer” be constantly “telling” the horse what is wanted. And this is a two-edged sword. If a person gets too deeply absorbed in this mindset, virtually all his/her riding time becomes a “lesson”—both for themselves and the horse. And a lot of the joy, as well as the intuitive communication, can go out of the process. And, as I was starting to see, this “trainer” attitude can, at a certain point, actually take a horse backwards.

What do I mean by this? Well, let me give you an example. A certain older man who rode with our small group of ropers considered himself to be a trainer. He frequently gave advice –both to those who asked and those who didn’t—on how to re-train rope horses in order to make them better “broke”. It wasn’t lost on me that those who tried to follow this advice almost always ended up with horses that did not work as well as they had previous to the re-training. It wasn’t that the advice was so much wrong, as I came to see. It was more that the horses didn’t need training.

So this was my first sticking point. I was tired of this trainer mindset: “You need to keep improving, both yourself and your horse. Take lessons, keep training, even on a broke horse.” I could see that this didn’t really work. I knew I was sick of the ego involved in that point of view. But what was the alternative?

I have to admit, I stumbled upon the answer more by chance and laziness (and maybe instinct/intuition) than by any logical progression. Sick of trainers and training young horses and the whole training mindset, I bought two broke horses for my son and myself to trail ride and just went to enjoying them. I absolutely did not “train” on them in any way. They both knew their job; they both had their idiosyncracies. I devoted myself to meeting them in the middle. I expected them to do the job I had for them and to be obedient; I did not pick on them about unimportant details or try to retrain them. I respected them as competent partners who could do the work I had—and didn’t demean them by treating them like colts. And I achieved a very different relationship with them than what I had had with the horses I trained.

As I said, this situation arose partly from my own laziness. But another factor was all the harm I had seen done by trying to re-train broke horses. The older man I mentioned above was the catalyst who taught me this very important lesson. He would buy a broke, competent rope horse and immediately go to retraining the animal. Most rope horses tend to carry themselves a little rigidly (its helpful in the job they have to do), they like to lope in the left lead (they need to be in this lead to make the turn on a roping run), and they are often a bit high headed. This man would take a twelve year old horse that was a solid competitive horse, put a snaffle bit on him and try to correct these “faults”. He would insist the horse “give” his head, lope in the right lead…etc. Some horses accepted this (eventually) and learned to do these things the guy wanted. Some became more and more frustrated and eventually blew up. You couldn’t even rope on them any more. But all of them grew far less confident as rope horses and began having problems they hadn’t had before. It was easy to see that the “retraining” had undermined their confidence in themselves and their understanding of their job. Overall, no matter what it achieved, it was a negative for them emotionally.

My own approach became very different. It was based on respect for a horse that could do a competent job. With my two bombproof trail horses (who were ex team roping horses), if they wanted to lope in the left lead, I just loped to the left. I let them pack their heads how they wanted, as long as they went where I told them. I made no effort to tune up their rather lazy responses to cues for a turn on the haunches in the arena. I insisted on obedience—if we said lope, they were to lope. If we said cross the creek, they were to cross. But as long as they were obedient, solid, safe riding horses, I did not correct them to speak of on technical details. And I was absolutely amazed at the harmony we achieved.

These horses very soon made it clear that they WOULD meet me in the middle. Many of their small negative behaviors simply fell away. They became very relaxed and their degree of reliability, always high, just went up and up. They trusted us and they were confident in themselves and what their job was. They faced any situation that came up out riding with their confidence intact. We seldom argued about anything. My palomino gelding (Sunny) went from a horse my friend called “Small Nasty” to a horse he admitted was a really nice cooperative citizen. And all these good things came about from a LACK of “training.”

I have read some interesting things on other horse blogs (Horse Genes, Mugwump Chronicles, A Year With Horses, Hick Chic—all listed on the sidebar—to name just the posts I happened to see) about “lightness” and I find it fascinating that Sunny and I have achieved a certain sort of “lightness”, albeit not what most people mean by that, through our non-training approach. Sunny is not light in the bridle, he is a clunky mover in many ways, and he just ain’t technically “light”. But this tough minded little guy has become such a willing partner on the trail that when I approach an obstacle, say some rock and logs that we must cross, I can think “the left side looks easier” and the horse will make for that spot. Virtually every time. I am riding him on a loose rein, in a hackamore, and the most I ever have to do is touch the opposite side of his neck with that slack rein and the horse is right where I want him. In that sense, on the trail, he is light. He somehow “hears” my thought and aligns himself with my intent. We work together almost without a physical cue.

There has been quite a bit of discussion in the comments on other blogs about how this sort of “lightness” can be achieved, and I can say that in my particular case it came about through my non training approach. This approach can be boiled down to 1) respect what the horse knows, and 2) remain in charge. In short, though I don’t pick on my savvy old horses about unimportant details, I also don’t brook any insubordination. I remain the boss. Most of the problems with broke horses arise (in my opinion) from over “training” and/or by not staying in charge (not being a good leader). There is a very big difference between allowing a rope horse who is uncomfortable in the right lead to lope in the left lead, and letting that same lazy horse refuse to pick up the lope on your cue. There is an equal difference between “listening” when your trail horse lets you know that a section of trail or obstacle looks/feels dangerous to him, and allowing a horse to balk at an obstacle and refuse it—particularly one you know is safe. (For those who want to know, in the first case the horse sends the message “I’m worried about this but I’ll do it if you tell me to.” In the second case the horse sends the message “I don’t want to do this and I’m refusing." Two different messages.)

Now I am the first to say this non-training approach is not going to work in all situations. Young horses need to be taught to do their job. Horses with a dangerous, problem behavior need retraining, if possible. But a great many older horses really benefit from being met in the middle this way, given a job they understand and are let to do, without being picked on (otherwise known as trained on). So now I want to go back to the statement I made at the beginning of the post.

If you have a green horse, you may need help training him. If you have a problem with your horse, you may need help training him. If you want to compete successfully in a certain event, you may need help from a trainer who is experienced at that event. But if your horse is doing the job you need him to do, you may want to consider not messing with success. You may want to resist that trainer/horseman who is so sure you need to “teach” that old pony to take his right lead, or give his head. You may want to think twice about the advice to take your solid older horse and put that snaffle bit on him and treat him like a colt. Because that approach, in my experience, is more likely to send you backward then forward, and is very capable of giving you problems that you don’t currently have.

Sometimes you’re better off just to enjoy what your horse can do and simply ride him with an uncluttered mind (thanks Kate), focusing on getting the job done (whatever your job is), and not always trying to “perfect” or improve your horse’s performance. Sometimes “training” can get in the way of that intuitive communication that results in “lightness.”

(One example of this that happened for me was when -in the midst of my training days- I began riding a broke rope horse I had not trained myself. This was Flanigan. Flanigan had certain strengths and faults, as all horses do, and just as I have done with my trail horses, I simply met him in the middle and tried to get along. I insisted he do his job--every horse will need the occasional reminder-- but I didn’t sweat over or try to correct his minor peculiarities. I considered him a “made” horse and I knew darn well that he understood a good deal more about the job of team roping than I did. I certainly didn’t try to “train” him in any way. We achieved an extremely harmonious partnership, and in some ways I was able to work with Flanigan more easily than the horses I had trained myself. Why? Because I wasn’t in “trainer” mindset with him. I wasn’t trying to be his teacher. And he wasn’t relating to me as the trainer/teacher. I was the boss, yes. Not the trainer. It made a subtle but important difference in how we communicated. The funny thing was that my friend, Wally, riding Gunner, a horse I had trained, found Gunner to be amazingly light, responsive and “in his hand”—but then, he didn’t train him. He just roped on him.)

So there’s my insight on lightness/communication. Sometimes its best not to train—just ride. This isn’t going to be helpful in all situations, but if you, like me, are riding a broke horse in the double digits, I think its worth contemplating a little. (And Terri, when you talked about the difference between the horses you rode in Africa and your show horses at home, I am thinking this is where some of the difference comes from. What do you think? )

I know a lot of people will probably disagree with the statements I’ve made in this post, and I am very happy to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to state your own approach to this subject in the comments.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My Pony Days with GallopNYC

by Natalie Keller Reinert

Around here, Wednesday is Pony Day.

On Pony Day, I put on my barn clothes (old flare-legged jeans I never wear anywhere, green t-shirt, Aeropostale zip-up someone once gave me, apparently believing that I was a seventeen-year-old high school student) and my Ariat paddock boots (which, in contrast, I wear all over the city) and hop on Florence, my purple bicycle, to ride over the mountain to the stables.

It's not really a mountain, but when you have grown up in Florida, having to ride up the ridge that bisects west Brooklyn really feels like conquering Mt. Everest. When I get to the summit, at Prospect Park West, I expect to see Victorian-mustachioed mountain climbers celebrating their victory with their sherpas, but it's really only the Italian bakery and that French place with the "fromage" sign in the window.

Riding down the hill on the other side is an exercise in faith: faith that one's vintage bicycle has modern brakes; faith that no one will decide to open the door of a parked car at just the wrong moment and flip you heels-over-head. It's a very steep hill, with a blind curve.

The view in Prospect Park
Then there's the pedestrian bridge over Ocean Parkway. Can you bicycle up and over a pedestrian bridge? Answer: if you stand up on the pedals and nearly kill yourself in the process.

All that should be adventure enough, but my destination lies just at the foot of the pedestrian bridge, and after I've fought with my bike lock for five minutes, it's time to actually get down to work.

Because friends, there are ponies in that there building!

I think one of the coolest things about my neighborhood is that it's a ten-minute bike-ride from a stable. I can't ask for a lot more than that. There aren't very many stables in New York City anymore, did I just get lucky? There's even a dressage arena in the corner of the park where we enter. So nearly every time I go to the park, I get to eavesdrop on a riding lesson.

(It's a real chore not to offer suggestions, too. The tragic life of an ex-riding instructor.)

Rider and volunteers in the ring at Kensington
The ponies of Pony Day live at Kensington Stables, where I volunteer with GallopNYC to do, well, pretty much whatever they want me to. I help move the carriage out of the "arena," a small square space where horses can get a little free time, roll in some dirt, and riders can almost execute a twenty-meter circle. I groom horses before their lessons. I seek out lost girths and match up stirrups and leathers. I do gloriously horsey things.

Then the students arrive.

GallopNYC is a therapeutic riding organization that operates out of two riding stables in New York City: one in Brooklyn, and one in Queens. Most of the students have developmental disorders. They might not speak clearly (or at all), or be obsessive about odd things and find it hard to focus, or have other symptoms that make it impossible for them to lead an independent life.

I think the only logical thing to do with someone who never gets to feel independent is to put them on a horse.

I mean, what do horses make us feel? What magical keywords show up again and again when we gush about why we ride? Here are three: Freedom, and exhilaration, and flight. Here is another: power.

Yes, I've walked this big mama!
Imagine those feelings to someone who is always being minded, someone who will always have to be cared for and guided and instructed like a child. It must be like rising up on their own wings.

The biggest and brightest thing you see during a therapeutic riding lesson is the smile on the rider's face.

The second brightest thing is the smiles on the volunteers' faces. We get an almost unfair amount of pleasure out of this work. Oh hi, I groom horses, hold them for a boy while he and his instructor saddle them up, and then walk and trot the horse around the ring while he practices posting and two-point and throws beanbags hilariously all over the arena. I know, I know, I'm a hero.

Or I am just having a really great time?

The only thing better than waltzing around the tiny arena at Kensington is walking a tacked horse down the street and around an elaborate traffic circle at the southwest corner of Prospect Park (on a marked horse-and-rider lane, mind you) and into the trees of the park. There, a beautiful meadow called Bowling Green has been set aside for GallopNYC. This is a real treat, because with all the space, riders get to trot more than a tiny circle, and I have found that my riders really like to trot.

No matter how worn out and grouchy and behind-deadline I am (and I am usually all three of those things) after two hours at the stable, I'm completely revived. There's so much energy, and enthusiasm, and excitement crammed into those two hours. There's so much happiness and accomplishment.

I used to think that therapeutic riding required skills I didn't have. It turns out I couldn't have been more wrong. No, I'm not in anyway educated or certified in working with developmental disabilities. But I can walk a horse. And, believe it or not, not everyone can do that!

GallopNYC has a great Facebook page, by the way, full of horsey content. Give them a "like!"

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Winter "Wonderland"

I'm no stranger to snow. After all, I was born and raised in Eastern Washington.

For those of you whose only exposure to Washington is Seattle and rain, Eastern Washington is quite different. Once you cross the Cascade Mountains everything changes. The Douglas Firs give way to Ponderosa Pines. The dense underbrush turns to sagebrush and cactus. The wet turns to dry in the summer and snow in the winter.

So I grew up with snow and learned to drive in snow. That doesn't mean I like it. Oh, yeah, it's pretty--for a while--then I've had enough of the stuff. I've never been a cold weather person. In Western Washington, you have all sorts of complications when it snows which I didn't have in Eastern Washington. For one, the traffic is a heck of a lot worse. People aren't used to driving in snow, nor are cities and counties used to dealing with snow. Crazy drivers seem to think that four-wheel-drives stop faster or have some magic way to get traction on ice.

This past week, we've had the snow storm of the decade in Western Washington. Luckily for us, the snow was mostly an inconvenience. It could've been much worse. Mother Nature gave us fair warning, starting with a preview of 2 to 3 inches last weekend, then a few more at the beginning of the week. On Wednesday, the main event brought ten plus inches of snow in about eight hours, piled on top of the existing snow. That's a lot of snow, even in areas used to handling snow. The encore came in the form of an ice storm with freezing rain and high wind warnings.

It could have been so much worse. I missed a few days of work but was able to telecommute and do most of my job from home. My husband only missed one day and had the roads to himself on his drive to work the second day. We lost power for only six hours, while many unfortunate people still don't have power. Several of our trees lost their tops during the ice storm portion, but nothing hit our house, the fences, or the barn.

Our animals fared well. The cat, a creature of comfort, refused to go outside for three days, while the dogs loved the snow.

I spent a lot of time breaking ice from the water trough and hauling buckets from the tack room to the stall. I couldn't get the wheelbarrow through the snow, so the stall needed a good cleaning today.

Gailey had had enough of being cooped up so I opened up the pasture gate and let her run. I happened to have my camera in hand as the dogs and I stood outside the gate and watched as she ran laps around the small pasture. She'd rip along the fence line, wheel around, and gallop back toward me. With move that'd make a reining horse jealous, she'd slide to a stop inches from the gate, snow flying. She'd wheel around again, bucking and rearing and race back across the pasture. Her sheer joy over her freedom was a treat to watch, and I thought I'd share some pictures with you. I hope you enjoy them.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Billy Dal Gang

I have posted this short story in the past and it is also in an anthology that I contributed to, which was edited by our friend Verna: Why We Ride: Women Writers and the Horses in Their Lives

This is a fun story for me. It  is what my childhood was all about and why my passion for horses and writing continues to be so strong still today. I hope you enjoy!

Have a wonderful weekend,

P.S. Anyone with a Kindle can download my book THE CARTEL  for free for the next 24 hours. There are a couple of horses in the book, and one character who has a goal of going to The Olympics. (she happens to be my favorite character. Hmmm...) 


The Billy Dal Gang
Michele Scott

            We called ourselves “The Billy Dal Gang.” Four ten-year-old girls, their horses and my dad.
My dad Dal was, of course, Billy Dal. There was Billy Stace, Billy Renee, Billy Laura, and me Billy Shell. While grooming and saddling up our horses, we’d get into character. Billy Dal would set up the scenario. “Okay, girls, we got three bad guys, and I mean bad guys on the run. They stole a lot of money from that there bank.” He’d point to our house. “Now we gotta go find them and arrest them, and bring ‘em back.”
            “Yes we do, Billy Dal!”
            “We gotta be real careful and sneak up on ‘em. They’re armed and dangerous.”
            We would giggle at my dad’s silly antics, but once we were up on our horses it was a different deal. We were playing the roles. Dad had a sure-footed Quarter horse named Smokey that led the gang. He was a horse with sharp instincts. Several times as we would wind down single file from the mountain, the thick chaparral smelling sweet and earthy, surrounding us on the rocky trail, and occasionally, Smokey would stop on a dime. Billy Dal would turn around bringing a finger to his lips, his blue eyes tinged with a stern warning for us to not move. Our adrenaline pumping as we’d come to know before we ever heard the zing and rattle of the snake that Smokey had spotted a rattler.
We would wait for the snake to back away before clucking the horses forward, as Billy Dal’s constant rule was to leave nature alone. He didn’t believe in killing the snakes out on the trail as many others did. “They were here first,” he’d say.
Making it down off the mountain we would ride through what we learned was former Indian grounds in San Diego county. As we descended into the foothills, we passed a crumbling stone wall built hundreds of years ago, ancient remains at the bottom of the mountain. Danger lurking around every corner, on every trail. It always seemed as if a slight breeze was blowing through that passage, even on days when there was no wind. It was the kind of breeze that carried a whistle on it, and would make the hair on the back of the neck stand on end. It was easy to let our young imaginations get the best of us, wondering if someone was watching us as that feeling of an other worldly presence remained strong until we got down onto the flats. We would all grow quiet passing through the open crevice in the stone wall. In a word, it was spooky. And Billy Dal loved to add to the mystery of it all.
Once we past the cobblestone wall and entered the flats, Billy Dal would again bring a finger to his lips and shake his head. We all understood that this time it wasn’t a snake. He’d point straight ahead and mouth, “Bad guys.” In retrospect I think my dad was just trying to get all of us little girls to stop yapping our mouths because we could make a lot of noise, particularly my friend Billy Stace and me.
            Billy Stace and I had a kind of competition between us. It was called, “My horse is faster than your horse.” This debate could take up the entire three hour trail ride if we didn’t have the distraction of The Billy Dal Gang. Stace had a petite grey Arabian mare named Zelle. Zelle was a little loose in the brain. Okay, she was nuts much of the time, but, yeah, she could run. My horse was definitely faster, though--definitely. I’d had the good fortune to raise this mare from a yearling when my dad had her delivered for my sixth birthday. He bought her for a hundred dollars without ever seeing her. He coined her ugly duckling when she stepped off the trailer. But to me she was the most beautiful horse in the world, and she was by far one of the most patient animals I’ve ever had. This mare as a two-year-old would let me lay on her back while in her corral. I’d climb all over her. I have no clue what my parents were thinking, but thank goodness the horse was as sweet natured as she was.
Full grown Dandy stood over sixteen hands. She had only two spots on her rear, but apparently that was enough to be a registered Appaloosa, and this horse could haul butt! Stace and I liked to get down to the flats and race each other. I can still hear the argument now. “I won, Shelly. I did. You started before me, so technically I won and you cheated.”
“No way. I started when you started and I won fair and square. My horse is faster than yours,” I’d say.
“No she isn’t.”
“Wanna make a bet?” And this was how it went. We started bringing stopwatches with us, but the argument to this day (thirty years later) still has not been decided. Both Stace and I (we are still great friends) have agreed to disagree on this count. Dad wouldn’t let us race each other when he was with us, but on those days when he couldn’t go, we were all about getting down onto the flats and moving out.
            Dad also liked speed and, as Billy Dal, he added a bit more tension to our game besides only seeking out the bad guys. My father, as you’ve guessed by now, is quite a storyteller. We’d be riding along down on the flats with cottonwood trees on either side of us. Many times cotton would blow in the wind and we might suggest it was snow falling, even in eighty degree weather. Each of us with long hair hanging down our backs, our faces turned up to soak in the sun, and all of a sudden Billy Dal would say, “Oh no. Oh no. We gotta get outta here!”
            “What? Why?” the Billy Dal Gang would squeal.
            “It’s the hoop snake!”
            “The hoop snake?”
            “Oh yes. The hoop snake. You don’t know about the hoop snake?”
            “No,” we would all sing out.
            Billy Dal would point up. “Look up there at the top of the ridge. Don’t you see it? He’s the color of coral with black rings every few inches on his diamond back skin. He’s related to the Diamond Back Rattler, but he’s much deadlier. And he’s after us.”
            “What do you mean?” one of us would ask.
            “I mean he’s spotted us and in a minute if we don’t get out of here, he’ll be down off that mountain so fast and bite your horses and have us all for dinner.”
            “He’s a snake, Billy Dal. He can’t eat us all for dinner.”
            “He’s not just a snake. He’s the hoop snake. He rounds himself up like a circle, takes his tail in his mouth, and rolls down the hill. His prey are horses and their riders, and believe me he could eat us all up. We gotta go. Now!”
Billy Dal would put Smokey into a gallop and we’d all follow suit, laughing and squealing and carrying on about how we’d better hurry so we didn’t become snake food. I don’t know how many times we played out this scenario. It could have been a hundred or more. It didn’t matter. It was so much fun and we’d add to it, change it up a bit, but it always came down to pure ecstasy and freedom on the backs of our horses.
After a good gallop and getting away from the hoop snake, there were all sorts of other “enemies” we had to keep an eye out for. There was a pack of hostile Indians we had to watch out for who, if we weren’t careful, could track us and we’d wind up scalped. We had to watch out for all sorts of wild animals and of course, those bad guys. Any chance we had to “getaway” from anything considered an enemy, we did, and we did it quickly.
Our trail rides typically wound up at “the saloon.” We’d ride along a trail that would take us through a golf course. We’d only go onto the course if it was later in the day and Billy Dal scoped it out to make sure there weren’t too many golfers on the course. I still have no clue how we never got kicked off that golf course. We’d ride through on the cart trails and on up to the bar, where Billy Dal would order us all Shirley Temples and he’d have a beer. I think part of the reason we didn’t get kicked off is we were sort of entertainment. I’d learned how to stand up on Dandy in the saddle and I was even able to do a headstand on her back. We were like a regular circus show. Looking back, I have to wonder how I made it out of childhood.
“Okay, gang, we’ve had our refreshments and now we gotta get back out there and track those bad guys.”
“Yes, sir, Billy Dal!” And we’d be off again and back out onto the trail. If the day was a hot one and the river bottom had water in it, we’d many times head over to the river, we’d untack the horses, slide off the their backs as they went into the water and hang on to their tails and swim with them. Of course there were always “dangers” in the river bottom, too.
“Watch out for that crocodile, Billy Shell,” one of the other gang members would yell.
“Yeah he’s gonna eat you.”
Fits of laughter would break out amongst us as we truly were having the best times of our lives.
We also had names for our trails. Our favorite was the jumping trail. My mother would never allow me to jump as a kid (guess what I do now?), so I’m pretty sure if she knew about this trail she’d have come totally unglued.
The jumping trail was covered with brush and cottonwoods. Talk about a cross-country course! Jumping the trail was always precluded with another story, like almost everything we did as the gang. The best part is that with all of the trees and brush there were shadows that filled the area. Imaginations ran wild, and even on days my friends couldn’t join us, I could come up with all sorts of fantastical story ideas. As far as I was concerned, fairies hid underneath the rocks that lined the trail, elves played in the shadows, and trolls hid underneath the logs we jumped, waiting to surprise us with their snaggly teeth and green, grotesque faces. They never did, but it was great to imagine that they might.
And of course, there were the horses who were characters in their own right. They tolerated our fantasies. Dandy was never one to spook or do anything flighty. She was calm, strong, and patient for a young horse. Smokey was the leader, like Dad—both wise. Billy Stace had Zelle who ironically enough was a lot like my friend—both a bit hyper and strong willed. Billy Renee had an older Thoroughbred who tolerated whatever was tossed his way without much ado, and Billy Laura had a Buckskin gelding who wasn’t the best mannered animal of the group (loved to nip others’ rear ends), but all the same he followed the pack and no matter what, we knew when we set out on those horses with my dad that we weren’t going to be disappointed.
The only disappointment came when we heard those words, “Well, Gang, we better head home. The mother folk will have dinner ready and it’s getting dark.”
A collective sigh would ring out and we would head back up the hill and into our neighborhood.
There are days now, as I learn more about the horse than I ever learned as a kid, that I wished I’d participated in Pony Club or horse shows, other than the little backyard shows I’d occasionally do. At times I feel ignorant about these amazing animals. But as I reflect back on my childhood and how horses were such a huge part of it, I realize I wouldn’t change it for the world. I may not have understood the mechanics of the animal, the right feed to give them (we were known for feeding them coffee cans filled with grain daily with their hay—the horses loved it), what the right lead was, or the right diagonal, or any of that. That all came as I grew into an adult. But what I did learn, what I do understand, is that to me the horse represents far more than being an animal who tolerates me up on his/her back. To me, the horse represents family, friendship, imagination, and total fantasy. The soul of the horse has driven me to explore who I am as a creative person and that comes from the animals I enjoyed as a kid and the father who was never too old to be a kid himself, but always wise enough to be safe, loving, nurturing, and fun.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Magical or Foolish?

by Laura Crum

Warning: for those of you who enjoy my upbeat posts about what is good in my life with horses, this is not such a post. Every now and then I like to keep it real by calling it as I see it when it comes to some bit of what I consider to be dangerous silliness that is circulating around horse blog land. (Or that I see in real life, for that matter.) Sometimes this stuff is coming from what most people consider to be “reputable sources” and I notice that, for whatever reason (maybe folks are intimidated), nobody seems willing to speak up and say, hey, I don’t agree with this. So, I’m speaking up. Mostly because I do believe some things are truly dangerous and should be avoided by all but the most experienced horse people. The downside is too great. Those who disagree with me on this one, feel free to say so in the comments. I am always Ok with hearing a dissenting point of view. I like to raise “difficult” questions and issues because sometimes the discussion that comes out of this is very interesting and productive. For those who would rather not hear my fairly strong opinions on the subject of horse training methods, please click on the “x” now.

So here’s my rant:

Not too long ago I read a couple of blog posts written by two very different women who both call themselves horse trainers. There’s not too much these two have in common, other than that general classification. But yet they both wrote lyrical pieces about “playing” with a rearing horse at liberty. And I have to admit I winced.

Both of these pieces were well written; though they come from very different perspectives. One woman was advocating (and offering to teach) this sort of thing. The other was merely writing about something she’d done in the past. But both made the “game” sound downright magical. Had I not had as many years of experience with horses as either of these gals, I might have been tempted to try such a thing. And all I can say to that is, yikes(!)

Let me just put this simply. Playing games with a rearing horse at liberty is foolish and dangerous for most people. Maybe these two trainer gals have some extra special skills that protect them from harm. Or maybe they’ve just been lucky. But I am here to tell you that won’t necessarily happen for the rest of us, and the downside is huge.

Not long after I first began blogging, I read a post in which a woman who had been playing such liberty games with her horse was kicked hard in the chest and suffered a heart attack. I read that and my first thought was, “Ouch. This is just the kind of life threatening, completely unnecessary wreck we horse people DON’T need.” My second thought was, “Who teaches these people to do these silly things?” Having been raised by traditional horsemen, I would no more play “games” with a horse at liberty than I would lie down in front of one and try to get him to step over me (and yeah, they probably do that, too).

(I would like to add as an aside here that I’m sure that there are positive, relatively safe ways to work with horses at liberty, aside from round penning—I’m quite familiar with that-- and I’m equally sure that some of you can explain them to me. I do know that some training methods rely on these liberty games and some people think highly of them. I am not an admirer of such methods, but I totally respect everyone’s right to their own approach. If you’ve studied this stuff and you are an expert, more power to you. What I am trying to point out in this post is that there is a big, big possibility of getting hurt if you are not totally on top of your “game” in this area. This is not something to play around with because an online “trainer” that you admire has talked about it.)

At one point, in a discussion with one former horse trainer on a similar subject (interacting with horses at liberty while feeding), I said, “Well, that works until it doesn’t.” And boy did I catch hell for saying that. I had disagreed with the mighty trainer and put forth an opinion that assumed I might know as much as she did on this subject. And that didn’t fly at all. But folks, I am standing by what I said. These kinds of games work until they don’t. And when they don’t, the horse has just double barreled you in the chest.

How do I know this? Because I’ve spent plenty of time watching horses play with other horses in the pasture or paddock. And yes, they rear and play bite face and run about, having great fun. Until eventually a non-dominant horse thinks this might be his moment, or a dominant horse decides the other horse has stepped out of line. And whammo, here comes the double barreled kick. And its not playful. Its powerful.

Plenty of horses have been seriously injured this way. Plenty of horses have had to be put down due to a broken leg—some I have known. A few horses I knew of were kicked square in the head and died on the spot. Yes, it happens. And if you don’t think it can happen to you when you’re playing with a horse at liberty, interacting with him like you are another horse, then I think you’ve been drinking too much of the Kool Aid.

The one woman who advocates these games goes on and on about how you can deepen your relationship with your horse by doing this sort of thing and brags on the magic that is possible. There are photos of her in EXACTLY the wrong position to be in with any loose horse. I’m reading away wondering what she puts in that Kool Aid to get folks to suspend their common sense, when I come upon the icing on the cake. This woman recommends that you play these games before you ride your horse. Every time. And if your horse doesn’t want to “engage”, then you shouldn’t ride the horse that day. I mean, seriously?

Now if this person wanted to reply to me, I’m guessing she would say that she stands in these oh-so-vulnerable positions with a loose horse because she has developed a relationship of trust with said horse. And that this is all part of the magic that is possible. And my reply to this would be just what I said before. It works until it doesn’t. And at the point where the horse decides he’s not in the mood for your game—well, you’re back to being double barreled in the chest. And yes, this happens to experienced horse people. And yes, they do get badly hurt. Again, the downside is too great.

OK. Here’s my thoughts on the magic that is possible with horses. And I absolutely have this magic with my horses all the time. If it weren’t so simple to achieve, maybe I could set up as a horse guru myself.

Magic is walking down to the corral and having your horse meet you at the gate and put his head in the halter. Magic is grooming and saddling with no issues and climbing aboard. You’ll notice I don’t mention round penning or lunging or any other “ground work” first. We just climb on and ride off—on two relaxed well-behaved horses. We walk until they’re warmed up and these horses carry us willingly and reliably wherever we want to go. Along the beach, through the woods, across the creek, up the steep, narrow path through the trees…you name it. Magic is feeling completely relaxed and comfortable as you ride along by the surf on your equally relaxed and comfortable horse. Magic is being free of anxiety, let alone not being scared or hurt. Magic is doing this over and over again, hundreds of times, with the same pleasant result. That’s the kind of magic I have with my horses.

My horses nicker when they see me, they meet me at the gate to be caught, as I said before. They do what we ask when we ride them. They are calm and reliable. I believe that we are all happy with each other. And this is the magic I have—and the magic I want. I cannot imagine a system that involves giving up a proposed ride simply because Fluffy doesn’t choose to engage in the liberty game today. In my eyes that’s not magic. That’s silly.

How do I achieve my brand of magic? Its simple, and I’ll give you the secret right now for free. I interact with my horses as a competent, kind, firm, consistent, traditional horseman. And I thoughtfully chose two solid, broke, experienced trail horses in the double digits for my son and myself to ride.

Its not tricky. I don’t play games with my horses. I do catch them at times to turn them loose to graze, I do make sure the rides are well within their capacity, I make sure they have plenty of space to move around 24/7 and I feed them carefully such that they are at the right weight. I feed three times a day. I don’t ride them if they are sore or off in any way. I care about them and retire them when their working days are done. My horses take reassurance from me and accept my leadership. They trust me. Just as I trust them. But I still treat them as a traditional horseman treats a horse.

What does this mean? It means I stay in charge. I remain the boss. A kind and thoughtful boss, but the boss at all times. I am a boss who is willing to listen to another opinion (cause yeah, I pay attention when my horses try to tell me something). And I don’t fool around playing games with loose horses. (Yes, I’ll go in the corral or pasture and rub on a horse or whatnot, but I remain carefully aware of staying in a safe position at all times and I keep a watchful eye on the horse’s body language.) I’ve seen too many wrecks in a lifetime spent with horses (fortunately very, very few of these wrecks involved me), to want to take an unnecessary chance of getting hurt. You horse gurus feel free to comment and tell me what I’m missing. I’m here to say what I’ve got. A solid track record for staying safe, having lots of fun on horseback (and not spending my time dinking around with my broke horse on the ground, which I don’t enjoy), and keeping both horses and people undamaged and happy. That’s poetry to me.

And playing games with a rearing horse at liberty? That’s foolish/dangerous in my book. Perhaps the gals who wrote those lyrical passages can manage to do it safely…most of the time. But they are doing no one any favors to describe such a thing in a way that encourages naïve young girls and equally naïve and not-so-agile middle aged women to see this as a fun/magical thing to do with a horse. Even with an experienced “trainer,” I’ll stick with what I said long ago. That sort of thing works until it doesn’t.

Feel free to give your own take on this in the comments. I’m aware that some folks I respect are more partial to these liberty games than I am and I am happy to hear where I might have something to learn. I always like hearing others’ ideas.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Here's to the Retirees

By Terri Rocovich

Blogs in past weeks by Laura and Alison; and the worry that Francesca went through to get Qrac settled into a new home; got me thinking about retired horses and how important it is that we remain responsible guardians throughout their lives. On one of her past blogs Laura commented about her heard of equine retirees, that we, at the very least, owe horses a happy and peaceful retirement. I could not agree more!

I have never been one to sell or pass horses along when they need to slow down or retire completely because of age or injury. This is not to say that others should not, sometimes finding a semi-retired horse for a beginning rider is the best thing that benefits both parties as well as the horse. Several of my students have horses that were formerly high level competitors and these horses, now in their teens and twenties, are now gleefully teaching their riders jumping and dressage at a lower level. However, I also tell my clients who are lucky enough to get one of these wise and accomplished horses that, when the time comes for full retirement, they are responsible for that horse’s care for the remainder of their days. It IS the least we can do.

As for me, I have sold only 1 horse in my lifetime. This is partially because I get far too attached to my horses to let them go and partially because as a trainer, my semi-retired horses have an invaluable use as schoolmasters. On the occasion when horses due to injury can no longer work at any level, I let them live out their days in pasture but with the same level of health care as any of my competition horses. Horses not in work still need regular farrier care, deworming, vaccines etc., and somehow people forget this when horses are no longer in full work.

As hard as it is in some ways to watch out animal’s bodies’ age (I feel the same way when I look in the mirror), it is fun to watch their personalities change, or not, as the years pass. My personal herd of retired or semi-retired horses include Pete, my 23 year old thoroughbred, Tahoe, my 30 something lesson pony, Charlie, my 32 year old retired event horse and Hank, my 12 year old Paint, sidelined because of progressive Sidebone. Pete and Tahoe still have careers as schoolmasters while Charlie and Hank are not ridden at all.

I have had Pete since he was 9 and his personality has not mellowed much as he has reached his golden years. Even though he is definitely creaky, especially on cold mornings, he still thinks and acts like he is in his prime. The running joke in the barn is that he thinks that 23 means 2 plus 3 equals five and that is how he should act. He is still known to spook at invisible demons and leave the ground at inopportune times, especially if someone dares to hang on the bit while riding him. He is good hearted about his acrobatics and rarely does anyone come off of him, but he does get rider’s attention as if to say “I may be older, but I still have it.” In spite of his age, he still has a huge extended trot, albeit not as through as it used to be. His flying changes are a bit stiff but he now often throws a buck in the middle for some added flair.

Tahoe on the other hand relishes in his role as the elder statesman and is renowned for his sweet temperament and his talent for building any rider’s confidence. At 30+ years old I don’t allow much jumping for Tahoe, other than very small ones, but his value lies in easy trot and canter that even the smallest of kid can feel comfortable on. This is not to say that Tahoe has always been perfect. He could be quite the bad boy when he was younger and sent my niece flying on more than a few occasions that would then result in “Aunt Terri” tune-ups on appropriate behavior. Today though Tahoe takes his job as a babysitter very seriously and will walk the minute he feels a kid off balance and wait for them to right themselves. He loves being in the center of attention with the kids and will stand patiently for hours being groomed, giving kisses and begging for treats.

Charlie is a mare that I bought as a 3 three year nearly 30 years ago back in my barrel racing days. She is an appendix quarter horse and was bred for speed which I thought made her perfect as my next barrel racing prospect. She was fast and could spin and turn on a dime, the only problem was that her dislike for running barrels was only matched by her dislike of cowboys, ropes and rodeos in general. Needless to say I started looking for another career for her which is what led me to the sport of Eventing. Charlie was a cute mover and could score very well in dressage when she chose to be calm. She also loved the running part of cross country and was a very scopey jumper when she chose to be. Detect a theme here? It is amazing that I love her as much as I do considering how often I flew through the air like a missile off of her. Charlie could easily pop over a 4 foot oxer one moment and then dump me on a small cross rail the next. It all depended on the day or the minute. Can we say moody mare!!
She did have a somewhat successful career as an Event horse but it was definitely hit and miss but regardless, when a suspensory injury ended her jumping career, I kept her eventually sending her to live in pasture at my sister’s gorgeous farm in the Santa Barbara area. Charlie is now 32 and has cataracts in both eyes that significantly impair her vision but she lives in a pasture with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. Geez, I want her retirement.
Hank is the adorable Paint on which I am pictured on the side bar of this blog. He was rescued from Mexican Charros and even though his past abuse still keeps him from trusting anyone completely, he was a great lower level Event horse and rose to 2nd level dressage until Sidebone, probably stemming from past abuse, calcified to the point that I just could not keep him sound, even for flat work.

Hank was miserable just hanging around my barn and would sadly watch me ride the other horses not understanding why not him. I finally made the decision to let him live at one of my client’s facility and be a barn mate to her horse. Hank is happy and healthy and is a great buddy to Faleno, Sandra’s horse. Hank and Faleno play and hang out together and Hank has recently taken to jumping out of Sandra’s arena when turned out (a 4’ fence) so he can go graze in her avocado orchard. Not great for his Sidebone, but try telling him that.
The other retiree at my place is Krissy, Michele Scott’s mare. Krissy suffers from a mild neurologic “wobbler” syndrome which prevents her from being worked. She can be ridden as long as she stays quiet and does not over flex her neck but that is not always an easy feat. She still thinks she is a sweet young thing and when not trying to be the “cougar” to every young male horse on my property, she is bucking as playing in the turn-out like a 2 year old.
Sadly not every horse enjoys the happy retirement that they deserve and even some of the most accomplished and famous of equine athletes have been cruelly discarded once they are no longer of “use” in other words, making money, for the human that controls their destiny. One such case was Ferdinand, an incredible thoroughbred race horse that even after winning the Belmont and being exported to Japan as a breeding stallion, ended up at the killers when he was no longer of value to the syndicate that owned him. It all comes down to the ethics and scruples of these horse’s human guardians.

This brings me to another equine celebrity who IS living the kind of pampered retirement that they deserve. Anyone who even remotely follows Dressage knows the name Brentina. Brentina was one of the greatest dressage horses of all time and she and her rider, Debbie McDonald, accomplished what no other U.S. horse/rider dressage partnership had done before. Their accomplishments are too many to list, but Debbie and Brentina were one of the first to really put the U.S. on the global dressage map. And I am happy to say that Brentina receives the same level of conscientious care today as she did in her competitive years. How do I know this?? Well I am proud to say that, at least for this Winter, Brentina is a resident at my sister’s farm in Santa Barbara, a fact which gives my sister gloating rights over me, probably for life.
This past Christmas, I got teased when, upon arrival at my sister’s place on Christmas eve, I stopped by her barn to meet Brentina before going up to the house. My sister Christi, chided, what you go to see Brentina before me, to which I answered – well it’s BRENTINA!!!!

To add to my star struck delight, I even got the opportunity to bring her in from pasture and groom her. What an amazing horse she is, even several years retired, she is still gorgeous and loved all the attention I showered on her. She loves her face to me rubbed, especially her eyes, and is VERY serious about her food. Debbie McDonald chose my sister’s farm for Brentina to spend this winter because of the grass pastures, a 16’ stall with attached paddock, their ability and willingness to soak her hay and feed several small feedings per day, plus the farm’s proximity to Brentina’s regular vet. I think I can safely say that in retirement Brentina receives a higher level of care that many people do let alone horses. In a world where competition horses are often discarded and/or even put down when no longer of competitive value, Debbie McDonald’s devotion to Brentina’s care and happiness is both refreshing and gratifying. It is as it should be.
I only wish that every horse in their “declining years” could live this kind of life. Like Laura said – we owe them at least that much. Do you have a retiree? I would love to hear about them.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A New Passion!

I've been negligent lately about commenting on the blog, updating my Whirlwind Facebook page, dusting, brushing my teeth, grading papers (you get the picture) because I am suddenly pursuing a new passion. No, it's not washing clothes and hanging them on the line. I'm auctioning and thrifting in preparation for opening a booth in the local antique mall. What??? you ask. Where did THAT interest come from? And how are you going to fit it into your already crammed life of teaching, writing, riding, blogging, and poop cleaning? Good questions, so let me try and explain it to you (and me).

I have always loved auctions, antiques and vintage anything, but in the throes of raising a family and establishing a career, those interests flew out the door along with the extra money needed to actually buy at an auction. Now, however, my son has graduated college and has a good paying job. My daughter is in her last semester and the prospect of her leaving the nest has sent me into a panic. When she went back to VA Tech after Christmas break, we both boo-hooed like babies. I knew last summer when she left for college that something was missing in my life and that I needed to find a new passion to lessen the pain of Beth setting out of her own. Writing has temporarily fizzled. After sixty books and too many proposals to count, I am worn out. So when a friend suggested an auction in November, I heartily agreed and was instantly hooked. Since then, I have decided to become a business woman, albeit one who has never been able to do math. I've gathered goods with gusto, talked to the tax man, met with other booth renters to pick their brains, and am gradually preparing to DO IT.

We who live in the land of plenty are fortunate to be able to reinvent ourselves. I am astounded at my excitement at this new path. The photo of vintage aprons thrills me as much as finding Arcoco plates at Goodwill for 25 cents a piece and a Royal Doulton figurine for a dollar. I know I won't make a profit for months at a time, but right now, the fun outweighs the reality. Now the big question is: what passion would you like to pursue that somehow got lost in your life? And are you ready to go for it? Or are you already pursuing that passion?

Oh, and PS if you're cleaning out your attic and basement and find some odd/cute/vintage collectibles, I'll pay shipping and even make an offer!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

All the Pretty Things

I’ve always loved fashion and clothes. It’s genetic; my grandmother owned a shop filled with fabulous women’s wear, so my mother grew up with first hand access to the latest styles. As a child, one of the highlights of going to visit my grandmother in the north of England was diving into a big wooden trunk filled with dozens of party dresses my mother wore to dances in the nineteen-fifties, selecting something twirly-skirted and fabulous, then wiggling into it before catwalking up and down the long hallway that overlooked a big square patio. Sometimes my friend Jillian would come over from across the street and we’d play on the swing in the garden, enjoying the way the wind whooshed with my mother’s satins and silks. In fact, until recently I still had a beautiful black lace outfit my mother wore to a particularly special party, but since it didn’t fit me or my daughter, I gave it to my slinky-figured younger sister who wowed the crowds when she wore it to a party last summer.

As I get older I don’t buy as many clothes as I used to. While lovely little designer dresses still tug at my heartstrings once in a while, most of the time I’ll just give them an amorous fondle and put them back on the rail, because chances are I’d wear them once in a blue moon, so what’s the point? My wall to wall wardrobe is filled with clothes that I’ve had for years but hardly ever wear, because - most of the time - my lifestyle revolves around jeans and jodhpurs and sweaters and tee-shirts. Where do I go day, after day? I go to the stables, and I go grocery shopping. Apart from occasional weekend evenings when my husband and I will see friends or maybe go to a restaurant, that’s about it.

Nevertheless, wherever I go, whatever I do, I always like to look nicely put together. And since the thing I do most is ride, I like to look nice while doing it. Although I tend not to be organized enough to match my clothing colour scheme to my horse’s colour scheme on a day to day basis (I have a friend who is!), I’m picky enough to switch a red fleece blanket for a navy blue one if I happen to be wearing my plum riding coat instead of my dark green one. I wouldn’t want to give Qrac, myself or anyone around us a colour-clashing induced headache!

I’m gradually developing a pretty impressive collection of colour-coordinated saddle blankets and bandages. It’s probably a dressage thing, but I love to see Qrac elegantly decked out. I love grooming him until he’s super-shiny, painting his feet with black hoof oil, and spend ages brushing out his long, thick mane and tail, occasionally using a dollop of Cowboy Magic (I love that stuff! They don’t sell it here, so I brought a huge bottle back from America when I visited last summer) for a super-swishy effect. When it comes to tacking up, if I don’t have bandages to match a particular saddle-blanket, I’ll compromise with white or off-white. I go through phases when I like to dress him in bright colours, such as the bright turquoise he’s wearing in this photo…

Most of the time, however, I prefer more subdued, classical colours. Last weekend I bought a lovely sandy coloured saddle-blanket edged with white and pale blue, which is great as it works with quite a few sets of bandages. I also bought a vanilla coloured one edged with blue striped piping that will look gorgeous with matching vanilla bandages! I also ordered a lovely black one edged with silver, which I’m considering having embroidered with his name. It probably sounds really silly, but when I’m driving to the stables, I often find myself planning Qrac’s “outfit” for
the day. Shall I dress him in the dark grey with the white edge? The chocolate brown?
How about bright red? Or maybe that nice old brown and blue saddle blanket? He’s not worn that one in a while. Hmmm… Decisions, decisions!

How about you? Are you interested in clothes? Do you like to play dress-up with your horse?