Monday, December 19, 2011

Why Are You Here?

You're probably here because you followed a link from my comment on another Blogger blog. (I haven't had any luck with Open ID, so using my Google account is often the only way Blogger will let me comment.)

The Barb Wire is still going strong at the Wordpress site. Come on over and remember to update your subscription!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Anybody Here?

Just curious!

The 2011 training and endurance season is ramping up over at The Barb Wire on Wordpress. Trot on over. :)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Closing up Shop

Hi, all. Due to continued spamming, I've just closed comments to all posts on this old site. However, all the posts (along with commenting ability) have been imported to the new The Barb Wire on Wordpress, so you're welcome to leave your thoughts there. Thanks!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Canyonlands Story is Up

...on Wordpress. Story and slideshow.

Also, click here for links to In the Night Farm on Facebook and Twitter.

(I feel like a librarian sending nasty reminders to return overdue books. Don't worry -- I'll quit soon!)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Aaruba is on Wordpress

I've posted an Aaruba update on the new Wordpress site for The Barb Wire! Have you updated your subscription yet? ;)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

In Case You Missed It...

I posted a new Acey training update today at the new TBW site. Come on over, and remember to update your subscription services, links, and feeds. :)


Friday, September 17, 2010

Moving Day

The Barb Wire has moved! Trot on over to the new site (, where I've just posted an introduction to the promised series on Equine Exertional Rhabdomyolysis, aka Tying-up Syndrome, and don't forget to update your bookmarks. See you there!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Big Easy

I study a great deal on the subject of horse training, and I've a good memory for words. The result is a mental collection of phrases that guide me every time I work with a horse.

"Where you release is what you teach." (Jeff Spencer)

"If there's a problem with the horse, look to the trainer." (Robert Painter)

"Emotional control is crafting cues around the horse's own flight mechanism." (Charles Wilhelm)

Lately, the mantra that has surfaced most often is one of my own: "If it isn't easy, it isn't time."

This concept is applicable to almost all horse training situations, but is was tiny, fiery Acey who really drove the message home.

Alternating Current came to me straight from Quien Sabe, completely untouched but nearly mature. She's seven now. Plenty old enough to be not only under saddle, but out on the endurance trail. She would be, too, except that I made a mistake.

I should have known better. From the earliest stages of gentling, Acey has proven the kind of horse that reacts to new situations with intense emotion. Only through patient, persistent, steady progression was I able to touch her face, halter her, lead her, pick up her feet.

When I first mounted Acey in Summer 2009, she responded with the strongest "freeze" reaction I'd ever experienced. Days passed before she attempted to take a step, and then it was sideways, backwards, any direction but forward.

Eventually, I got Acey to move out. Fine. We spent a couple days walking around the round corral, reversing, circling, and learning to pivot...and then things went wrong.

With most horses, I ask for a trot very early on. They tend to accept this with a moment's confusion, a lightbulb moment, a hesitant attempt, then success.

Not Acey. In her characteristic fashion, she reacted to my new request with emotion. Her head went up and her back stiffened. And I (fool!) kept asking. In fact, in a classic "training FAIL," I asked more vigorously. I tapped her sides with my heels (new to her) and even flicked her rump with the rein (also new).

She panicked. Bolted. Bucked. After a couple rounds of the corral with no sign of stopping, I initiated a less-than-graceful dismount before she could manage to do it for me.

And then I spent the evening licking mental wounds that hurt much more than the bruises I incurred.

And then I spent months making it up to her.

You see, I'd asked for something that was too hard. I should have recognized Acey's obvious signals that she wasn't prepared to attempt a trot. Had I waited another few days, another week, maybe more...until it was easy...then it would have been time.

The second time around, I remembered. I led Acey back through all her groundwork, and didn't so much as put a foot in the stirrup until I was sure she was prepared to stand quietly when I did so, despite her bad memory of that last, fateful ride. Then I spent days getting on and off, never asking her to move.

Eventually, when she felt relaxed and balanced beneath me, I requested a pivot. She obliged. We backed a little, sidepassed some. A few days later, she moved forward -- just a few steps, and we wrapped up the session there.

The weeks since have seen extraordinary progress. We've walked over and among obsticles in the round corral, practiced bending, and reinforced one of my favorite commands: whoa. We've even left the round corral for a couple rides along the road, which she has handled with admirable quiet and enthusiasm.

Have I asked for a trot? A few times. Have I gotten it? A few steps. Have I requsted more? No. Because it isn't easy yet.

Any decent trainer knows to break concepts into bite-sized chunks. But this goes a step further: You don't introduce the next chunk simply because it's the next puzzle piece that's supposed to fit. You wait until it comes naturally.

The day will come when Acey offers to trot. It will feel almost as though we've done it a hundred times before. It will be simple, not scary. Fun instead of forced. We'll wonder why we ever worried.

It will be easy, because it will be time.
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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Downhill Climbing: Old Selam 2010

At this time last week, I was high on a forested mountain trail, grinning and still holding Consolation in as she sped toward the first water stop on the first loop of the 50 mile race at Old Selam. She had her wits about her, but she was moving out, and I was in love.

We'd driven to ridecamp the day before -- just the two of us, alas, because Ironman had to work -- and selected an easy parking spot at the far end of camp. I spent the early afternoon setting up my "living quarters" in the stock trailer, which works quite well when I camp alone, so long as it doesn't rain. There's plenty of room in there for a kitchen and cot, saddle rack and feed, and the hay platforms at the front of the trailer serve nicely in place of bureau drawers.

Homemaking complete, I helped myself to a beer and haltered Consolation for a reconnaissance walk around camp. We found Amanda settling in with Kophy, her gray Arab all set for his first 50-mile attempt, at the opposite end of the main drag. Wayne and his mare Obsidian were nearby, too, though Elly was on call and couldn't be there. All told, the crowd was relatively small, but the faces familiar.

It was a pleasure to finally not only recognize people, but to actually be recognized in return. The endurance crowd has always been friendly, but as with most tight-knit groups, it takes a while for a newcomer to integrate into the fabric -- especially if said newcomer is too shy for her own good. At this ride, at last, I felt like I could sit down about anywhere and have someone to talk to. I intend to remember this every time I see a newbie at a ride!

Anyway, Consolation and I enjoyed a restful night despite the chill, and I woke promptly at 5:00 a.m. despite an alarm clock failure. Consolation demonstrated her usual distaste for having her hind boots put on -- as much as I love her Gloves, I'm going to try glue-ons one of these days just to avoid the hassle -- but otherwise demonstrated a pleasant attitude as I tacked up, took a last gulp of coffee, and mounted just as the sky lightened to gray.

We spent a full 20 minutes warming up, taking no chances since this was Consolation's first endurance ride since her tie-up in June. Even after the trail opened, we alternated between walking and trotting for the first few, uphill miles, just to be sure. Finally, sensing not a whiff of trouble, I let her move out.

We found ourselves somewhere in mid-pack, traveling in a bubble between groups, and Consolation cruised along eagerly for a couple miles before we were overtaken by Annarose on her bay mare, Ginger. Three more riders joined us as we tipped over the brink of the mountain and started down a winding logging road.

Those three were the first to comment on Consolation's downhill trotting prowess -- but not the last. We heard the same compliment at least four more times that day. And it was true. Always smooth, Consolation is particularly skilled at skiing downhill at a brisk clip, well-balanced and under control. Downhill trotting is hard on a horse's knees, of course, and we usually avoid it during conditioning rides. However, it may prove one of her greatest strengths during competition. I'm a good downhill rider, and my Stonewall saddle is secure for me and well-fitted for Consolation, so between us we can comfortably cover ground while other riders slow up.

Throughout the race, Consolation and Ginger matched each other well for speed. Annarose was lovely company. Ginger towed Consolation up the hills, and Consolation slithered effortlessly down. Up and down, up and down, through an 18-mile loop, a 20, and then the final 12. No dramatic spooks, no unseated riders, and just one minor detour off trail (oops).

Sometime in late afternoon, we cruised down into camp for a mid-pack finish. Consolation vetted through "a little tired, but not bad," certainly fit to continue, and wasn't even stocked up the following morning. She ate and drank as reliably as ever, and I'm thoroughly convinced that she's ready to try a pair of 50s at Owyhee Canyonlands in a few weeks.

I hung around to volunteer (pulsing, mostly) until the middle of Sunday afternoon, then loaded up for the drive back to In the Night Farm. Three hours later, Consolation stepped out of the trailer looking fit and frisky as could be, and spent the evening cavorting about her paddock with Acey and Ripple.

She's on holiday for a couple weeks now, but in the interest of tie-up prevention, we're enjoying some short, evening rides. Yesterday, we trotted a few miles along the country roads in the setting sun, bareback and smooth as could be, uphill and down.

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Surf and Turf

I haven't died. Really.

I'm still alive and, I might add, quite touched by all your kind comments on my last post (The Golden Pony). You're the reason I write, my friends -- it's good to know you're reading. Also, I registered your requests for a post on equine exertional rhabdomyolysis (aka myositis or "tying up"); my efforts in that direction have developed into a series of draft posts, so stay tuned.

Anyway, I've been absent from the web due to work-related busyness followed by a much-needed vacation. I spent 9 days rafting the River of No Return, a 90-mile stretch of the Main Salmon that runs through Idaho's Frank Church Wilderness. I'll post photos on my companion blog, NightLife, as soon as they're processed.

(By the way, I just moved NightLife from Blogger to WordPress and am working on a similar transition for The Barb Wire. Thoughts? Opinions?)

ANYWAY (geez, I'm distractable today), Consolation and I are now preparing for next weekend's endurance ride -- Old Selam. If you're in the area, be sure to check out the ride flyer and Facebook page. Also, this ride has an interesting history. I wrote up the story a couple years ago.

Consolation and I are planning to do the Saturday 50. It will be her first race since she tied up in May. Because my schedule has been so hectic, I was reluctant to ask her for a 50 until a more experienced friend pointed out that she's fitter than a lot of horses that people enter, she has a good base from last year and this spring, and horses maintain their condition during rest much, much better than human athletes do. We'll take it slowly (as if Consolation would permit me to overwork her even if I tried!) and enjoy the scenery.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have packing to do!

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Golden Pony

A little girl lives a quarter mile up my road, on a three-acre plot with a battered farmhouse and rickety fence. She runs to the mailbox when I ride by, and she calls me "her Highness" when she thinks I cannot hear.

I find this embarrassing, but sweet. After all, I have not been adult too long to perceive how an imagination, just ten years old, might transform a neighbor woman with long hair and a gray horse into a princess astride a milk-white steed.

"You know what?" the girl asked one day, when I paused to let her stroke my noble charger. "Horses are my favorite animal." She cradled this truth in conspiratorial voice, as if it contained a wish too great for hope.

I understood. Oh, I understood!

That was two summers ago, but I thought of it today when I drove by that house to discover in the pasture something like a pony. It's an awkward little beast of indecipherable heritage, pieced together of breeds that ought never to meet, yet blessed with a coat of palomino dapple that I'm sure its young mistress believes is solid gold.

I've smiled all afternoon at the thought of that girl. Though stifling hot and thunder torn, today is, for her, that perfect day. It is magic, but it is real! She knows nothing of devastating colic, mysterious lameness, a crushing fall. She's never borne the weight of a thousand training hours destroyed by one bad step, a gate left open, a twist of wire buried in the weeds. She sees nothing in that pony but her fondest dream come true.

I had that magic once. We all did. And yet, somehow, it slipped away. The travesty struck in silence by the same, subtle shift that degraded running and jumping from play to exercise, contorted sleeping on a friend's floor from adventure to necessity, and ravaged the sensuality of meals with stomach-turning guilt.

Conditioning our horses has become a duty. We want not so much to ride as to have ridden. Because we are supposed to, because we said we would. We focus so hard on the minutiae of tack fit, of hoof care, of speed and feed, that we forget to cast our hearts over the horizon and ride to find them.

And so, our hearts are simply lost.

I was recently gifted another chance. Two weeks after our race at Owyhee Fandango, Consolation tied up. It was my fault; I cut her grain ration while she vacationed post-race, but I should have eliminated it entirely. The excess carbohydrate crashed her system only a few minutes into our first warm-up as we started back to work -- and the result was a month of no work at all.

Disaster! Disappointment! The angry slap of goals thwarted again. Again. Again! All the things of which my little neighbor is innocent, because she knows things that matter more.

Consolation is back at work now. (Forgive me -- back at play!) Today we trotted through the world, all shifting skies and wind abluster, and I smiled to think of that little girl and her shambles of a pony. I may have better horses than hers, better tack, better technique. But she has something better still.

She has, in full measure, that which I clasp like water in my hands: The sunshine sense that a horse -- any horse! -- is spun of purest joy. And to have one of your own? Such is heaven, most of all.

You might also like Timing Isn't Everything.

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sweat Stains

I must apologize for my long absence. The stressful situation to which I've alluded in previous posts continues, and it seems that more often than not lately, I arrive home with no energy left to draft a post worth reading.

I'd be lying if I said the same stress hasn't affected my training; it has. More than once, I've given up my weeknight training plans in favor of a few hours' escape through cooking or a book. Horse training takes a great deal of emotional intensity, and I often feel I have little left to give.

And yet, I have kept on. It's well past time I updated you on my 2010 plans for the equine residents of In the Night Farm. Mind you, I've learned my lesson about setting hard and fast goals when it comes to training and endurance conditioning. Something is bound to go wrong, and having expectations too high only makes the fall too painful.

These, then, are ideals. I'll work toward them and get as far as I can, and take the pitfalls in stride. Stay tuned for updates on each of the following horses:

Inara -- As part of her purchase price, Inara is to go to her new owner with basic groundwork complete. She'll catch, lead, lunge, pick up feet, deworm, and trailer load.

Alternating Current (aka Acey) -- It's time to start this fiery, little mare under saddle. It would be fantastic to have her ready for her first LD by the end of the season, but I'll settle for getting well into a foundation of long, slow distance work in preparation for next year.

Ripple Effect -- Can you believe she's four this year? Yes, it's time to start her under saddle, too. A significant part of the project will be getting her comfortable with leaving the other horses and facing the great, wide world.

Sandstorm -- You haven't seen enough of this fantastic mare. The tallest Barb in my herd, she's an astonishing mover with a sweet but cautious personality and potential I'm just beginning to tap. I'd like to finish gentling her (she's another that arrived at In the Night Farm completely untouched) and get plenty of groundwork done so I can start riding her next year.

Consolation -- Endurance, of course! We had a setback in mid-June that has taken us out of conditioning for a while (details in an upcoming post), but it's about time to hit the trail again. Hooray!

Crackerjack -- See "Ripple Effect." These half-siblings were born just a few days apart, but CJ isn't quite as physically mature as his lookalike sister. Still, it won't hurt to proceed with his groundwork as soon as I'm done with Inara to free up a time slot. Maybe, by the end of the season, it'll be time to step aboard.

I must say, it's nice to come in after a long day in the round corral, pour a tall glass of iced tea, and look out over so many sweat-stained equine backs. I know just how they feel. We're working hard, the ponies and I. We'll get there.

By the way, I'm still encountering spam problems despite having enabled the word verification feature for comments. Sadly, this has forced me to take the next step -- comment moderation. So, you'll notice a delay between commenting and seeing your comment posted. I'll try going back to just word verification after a while, when the Chinese-character blighter decides to give it a rest.
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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Eddy Turn: Owyhee Fandango 2010

Among the files of my life headed "Horses," "Fitness," "Cooking," "Writing," and "Career," is another whose label reads: "Whitewater." I'm nearly as familiar with the gentle rocking of a river as I am with that of a horse's back.

When navigating our narrow, technical, Northwest rivers, the eddy turn is a useful skill to possess. It's a maneuver in which the oarsman positions the raft so its stern just misses a mid-river boulder. A couple well-timed pulls on the oars draw the boat partway into the pool of slow current below the rock, holding the stern in place while the faster current swings the bow around. The result is a reset angle and brief pause that enable the oarsman to set up for obstacles below.

I thought a lot about eddy turns on Sunday, as Consolation and I trotted alongside the Snake River during Day 3 of the Owyhee Fandango Pioneer ride. A month ago, despite rapid training and conditioning progress since February, the 60 at Owhyee Spring found us stalled in an eddy of balkiness and lack of enthusiasm.

I described in this post several changes I made in the hope of improving Consolation's performance at our next ride. Now, the time had come to test whether those changes would sweep us back into the current, or leave us stranded mid river.

With hopes and spirits high, Ironman and I pulled into the Teeter ranch around 3:00 on Saturday afternoon. We selected our camping spot carefully...

...jogged around to loosen up before vetting in...

...and headed to the ride meeting.

In the midst of two weeks of wind and rain, the manager announced, we were to enjoy a day of sunny skies and moderate warmth. We 60-milers would follow an out-and-back trail that led across the desert to a vet check at a neighboring ranch (15 miles), then dropped into the Snake River canyon and looped around some petroglyphs before returning along the same trail to the vet (30 miles), then headed back to ridecamp (15 miles).

I crawled out of my sleeping bag at 5:00 the next morning to feed Consolation and get her hoof boots on while Ironman -- may blessings rain upon him! -- made coffee. Consolation's body sang with quiet energy as I swung astride and headed for the starting line. Looking good, I thought. Looking good.

We started immediately when the trail opened, having no need to hold back as I used to do on Aaruba. There's a lot to be said for Consolation's easygoing demeanor. "Race brain" is not a problem. And yet, much to my delight, she had plenty of controlled speed to offer as we trotted down the road and off into the hills.

We let the leaders string out ahead of us, settling into a bubble where Consolation traveled happily along to the first vet check. And what a vet check it was! She spent the 50-minute hold up to her eyeballs in green and dew-soaked grass.

I was about to mount up when another rider asked if I'd mind having a riding partner. "Not at all!" Thirty miles is a long way, and company sounded good to me.

As we started into the long loop, my new friend Carrie explained that her mount, Kasey, had exhibited poor appetite at the check and was therefore under careful observation. We paused frequently during our trek to the canyon, offering tufts of desert grass that Consolation ate and Kasey mostly refused.

Down in the canyon, however, it was Consolation that became the potential problem. Typically a good drinker, she refused to touch the river water that was our only source of hydration. I kept a close eye on her those 30 miles, but her eyes remained bright and her attitude positively brilliant. Imagine my surprise to discover that she actually wanted to race!

We flew down the trail, threading our way between sagebrush and looping the petroglyph rocks, ignoring the Memorial Day assortment of fisherman and ATV riders, trotting and cantering our way back to the vet check for another set of A's...after Consolation took her customary scuba dive in the water tank.

I thought we might lose Carrie and Kasey at that check. Halfway through the canyon, Kasey had begun to exhibit the rapid, shallow breathing and flared nostrils of a horse experiencing inversion, or "panting." Typically, his performance was otherwise fine and he even recovered his appetite as we approached the end of the second loop, but inversion (in which the respiration rate exceeds the pulse) is a classic sign of overheating, which can lead to serious problems.

Thankfully, Carrie and her crew were able to cool Kasey sufficiently and gain veterinary approval to carry on for the last loop. I was glad to have his speedy influence, for Consolation had finally slowed down a bit. I'm sure those last 15 miles would have been much more difficult without Kasey to pull her along.

She kept up, alternating between a trot and canter, sometimes rushing enough that I had to apply some rein. That would have been fine, except that one of my reins broke 6 or 7 miles outside camp. I tied it back to her bridle with a bowline and we carried on despite her annoyance with the swinging weight of the knot.

Though Kasey's inversion returned early in the loop, we all arrived safely in ridecamp to claim 5th (Consolation) and 6th (Kasey) place, with a ride time of 8:25. Consolation vetted through with a B on gait, apparently due to a mild cramp in her hindquarters. (She seems quite all right now, but I'll give her a full two weeks off, just to be sure.)

Some of the mathematicians among you are wondering what's so great about averaging 7.1 miles per hour. That's a pretty moderate pace for endurance -- a perfectly good, steady, long-distance pace, but hardly the stuff of champions.

But compare it to our speed at Owyhee Spring, which came in just under 6 mph. Add it to Consolation's new found enthusiasm for the sport. Consider that lifetime mileage is (in my book) preferable to first-place finishes. You see? For Consolation, for now, 7 mph is "champion" enough for me.

Perhaps our slow start at Owyhee Spring was merely an eddy turn in the rapid of Consolation's endurance career -- a pause in which to reconsider, redirect, and make the necessary changes to prepare for what lies ahead.

And what is that, exactly? I have my eye on Sunriver...

On an unrelated note, I'm sorry to say that I've had to reinstate use of the word verification feature for comments. I removed it months ago upon your request, but alas, the spammers have found me. My apologies for the inconvenience -- please don't let it keep you from leaving comments. They're my favorite part of blogging!

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

It's That Time Again!

After a couple days' vacation, Ironman and I are headed back to In the Night Farm this morning to load Consolation, her pre-packed tack, and our camping gear. By early afternoon, we'll be en route to the Teeter Ranch near Oreana, Idaho, for Day 3 of Owyhee Fandango.

The Sunday 60 is an out-and-back trek along the Oregon Trail and Snake River. Although out-and-backs aren't always the most popular type of trail, I'm looking forward to it. I suspect the "turn around on the trail" effect will be a good motivator for Consolation. Knowing where she is, where she's going, and how many miles lay ahead may prove easier for her than looping out from base camp.

Additionally, I have high hopes that the changes I made to Consolation's nutrition, conditioning, and hoof boot fitting after Owyhee Spring will bear out in the form of improved performance on Sunday. We shall see...
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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cantering Conversations

I’m unusually conservative when it comes to introducing the canter with my horses. It always interests me to see other trainers start a green horse cantering on its tenth or eleventh ride. What, I wonder, is the hurry? No doubt they have their reasons, but I prefer to wait up to a year before asking my greenies to move up from the trot.

I have my reasons, too. Almost as soon as my horses are under saddle, I move their training sessions onto the trail. With endurance as a goal, this makes perfect sense – why not start in on that long, slow distance base while establishing the basics? But, out on the road or trail, without the security of fences or company, mental steadiness is paramount. I’ve no interest in injecting a shot of speed-induced adrenaline to the proceedings. Besides, a young endurance horse can gain nothing but benefit from many months and miles of trotting, trotting, and trotting some more.

That said, the time for cantering does come – and Consolation has arrived. I mentioned in my last post that I’ve added significantly more cantering to her workouts as a means of increasing her fitness and exploring ways to increase her average pace. As with most new requests I make of Consolation, convincing her to canter has required extensive conversation.

We began last year at Owyhee Canyonlands, near the end of her first 50-mile race. I believe in making the right answer easy for my horse to find, and it seemed wise to take advantage of both the pull of the horse ahead (to encourage speed) and the weight of miles behind (to minimize, erm, overzealous expressions of enthusiasm). Sure enough, we got in a few stretches of buck-free cantering – a perfect introduction to the gait.

This spring, I needed to move Consolation’s canter to the conditioning trail. We started with extended canters during her liberty sessions in the round corral, boosting her fitness and balance for the gait. Next, I began asking for a canter under saddle. Because she is prone to slow motion but not to racing home, I found it most appropriate to do so during the latter half of our rides, when we were pointed homeward.

At first, a few strides was plenty. Unsure of her own balance and particularly my desires (a possible argument for introducing the canter earlier), Consolation required substantial urging to continue cantering. After a few sessions, she got the idea, but keeping her in the gait remained difficult due to her general distaste for expending more effort than she deems necessary.

We kept at it, though, and within a few weeks, we'd developed a language that seemed to build her confidence and enthusiasm. I asked her to canter only when she felt energetic and positive, and used as a pre-cue a verbal, "You wanna?"

Depending on her response -- slowed trot or gathered quarters -- I either desisted or proceeded with the standard canter request. Seat, leg, rein. Voila!

[Digression: I thought long and hard about whether it was a good idea to give Consolation a say in the matter. After all, aren't our horses supposed to obey our leadership, immediately, at all times? Well now, that depends. In matters of safety, yes. But in our athletic endeavors, Consolation is a full partner and responds best to mutual respect.]

Sure enough, it wasn't long before she discovered the fun inherent in speed. Now it was her fitness level, rather than her mind, that held her back. She’d falter after a quarter- or half-mile of cantering, dropping to a walk with such abruptness that my seat – already much enhanced by the experience of riding this mare – made additional, rapid improvements.

Still, we kept on. I concentrated on timing my requests so that I asked her to walk or trot moments before she made the decision on her own. I tried never to let her get winded or weary, because if cantering became work instead of fun, we’d find ourselves locked in an everlasting battle.

Finally, the old magic happened. It always does.

After a long series of incremental improvements, Consolation made her great leap into achievement: Two days ago, she cantered over half of a 14-mile ride. She volunteered to canter. She wanted to canter. She asked to carry on even when I directed her to stop. We discussed the matter as partners, co-conspirators there on the sunlit, windblown track, and reached a happy compromise that cut twenty minutes off our usual time.

That’s my girl.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Sticky Sixty: Owhyee Spring 2010

My goodness! Is it the end of May already?

Between work travel and a disrupted internet connection, the weeks have slipped by since the Owyhee Spring endurance race that was Consolation's and my first of the year. A few of you have even sent emails wondering if our carcasses are rotting in the desert.

I'm happy to announce that Consolation and I survived the race in fine form, though it wasn't as smooth as I might have hoped. Since receiving our completion, I've mulled long and hard over the troubles we encountered and come to several, important conclusions that I think will improve our performance in future races.

But first, the story:

Owyhee Spring was a brand-new (and well-managed!) ride this year, held in southwestern Idaho's Owyhee canyonlands a mere 90 minute drive from In the Night Farm. We were, of course, hoping for sunny, brisk weather in keeping with the ride's name...but alas, the sky was leaden with windblown rainclouds as Ironman and I pulled into the desolate bit of ranchland that served as base camp.

We outfitted Consolation in a couple layers of blankets -- one for warmth and the other for waterproofing -- before heading off to the pre-ride meeting that was, blessedly, held in a large, fully-enclosed shop that contained quite an astonishing assortment of antiques, including a genuine Wells Fargo stagecoach in excellent repair. (I hear tell the owner may one day enlist his six matched, Amish-bred chestnuts to complete the hitch.)

After nightfall and a healthy splash of whiskey, I nestled in the back of Ironman's rig with fingers crossed that the next day's weather forecast, featuring heavy winds and thunderstorms, would prove wrong. That seemed unlikely, however, as I gradually drifted asleep to the rock of buffeting wind and spatters of rain on the roof.

It was a restless night, and morning came much later than I'd have liked. My alarm finally chimed at 5:30 a.m. I rolled over and listened for wind. None. Shivering and fumbling in the glow of a flashlight beam, I dressed in thermal socks and several layers of fleece before stepping out into the dark pre-dawn. Sure enough, the air was still, albiet scented of impending rain.

Consolation greeted me with a whicker that turned quickly to grouchiness when I distracted her from her breakfast long enough to slip Easyboot Gloves on her front hooves. I considered booting her hinds as well, but decided that her many miles of barefoot-on-gravel conditioning constituted adequate protection from the desert terrain.

By the time I mounted up for the 8:00 a.m. start -- about 20 minutes early because I wanted to ensure she was warmed up despite the chilly weather -- Consolation had clearly realized what we were there to do. The excitement of the event, plus over a week of rest prior to the race (not ideal, but my travel schedule didn't cooperate), had her feeling rather hotter than usual. This was not a bad thing. Consolation's "hot" equates to many endurance horses' "calm." Besides, I knew we'd need a bit of early speed in order to complete the ride at a decent hour.

We started off at a medium trot as soon as the trail opened, letting the field widen into a bubble around us as the front runners blazed ahead and the warming-ups and slow-steadies trailed behind. Consolation and I negotiated a pace that I felt would cover some ground and satisfy her need to move out, without allowing her to work above her present level of fitness, which wasn't as advanced as I'd have preferred.

The first loop led us 25 miles out across the desert, down into the canyon and along the Snake River, then back up a steep and rocky trail that slowed us to a walk for quite a distance. Although nearly everyone must have walked much of that ascent, it was afterward, as the trail stretched on, that riders began to pass as Consolation slowed to her customary 6-7 mph jog. I'd anticipated this and wasn't concerned, but I was mildly dismayed to find that Consolation expressed no interest in aligning herself with a passing group. It seemed she'd rather cover the miles at her comfortable pace than have the companionship of (let alone competition with) other horses.

And so, we arrived back at camp for the first vet check quite alone, but healthy and sound. I huddled in the car for a snack and some overdue efforts at hydration while Consolation, blanketed against a strong, damp wind that had risen with the sun, munched hay and beet pulp.

Forty minutes later, we started Loop 2 -- still wind-buffeted, still alone. We were only a few miles in when a lone rider paused in passing to ask about my saddle. I told her it was a Stonewall and the love of my life.

Her comment? "There's not much saddle there!"

"True," I agreed, "but it feels like more saddle than you'd think." Good thing, too -- because somewhere out on that 17-miles of trail, it became clear that I hadn't done as much riding as I ought to have to prepare myself for a 60. If you're going to ride tired, it's best to do it in a comfortable saddle!

Unfortunately, my beloved Stonewall couldn't help the fact that the kneepatch of my favorite breeches had, for reasons unknown, begun rubbing the back of my left knee. Discomfort turned to downright pain as Consolation and I trekked along through cheek-chafing wind and several cloudbursts. We were lucky, though -- ridecamp (and quite a few riders, too) suffered a heavy pounding of hail that afternoon.

More frustrating than the endless wind and my burning knee was Consolation's behavior. Early in the second loop, she began a campaign of resistance featuring sudden halts and refusals to resume forward movement. It was as though she was saying simply, "I'm done now. Not goin' on, sorry." Each time, getting her moving again required considerable urging.

I'd have been alarmed, of course, except that this tactic wasn't new. It was merely the latest in my strong-willed mare's experiments, exhibited during many, previous conditioning rides. She'd vetted through at the first check with all A's, was eating, drinking, peeing, and pooping normally, and generally gave me no particular cause for concern about her physical state.

Mentally, though, I had a battle on my hands. Consolation, fairly enough, didn't really see a point in continuing to cover ground, particularly out there in the storm-whipped desert, all alone, mile after desolate mile. She's too smart a horse to waste effort -- which, unfortunately for me and my rubbed knee, meant that I had to expend a great deal of effort indeed.
Pushing a testy mare through a 60 mile endurance ride is quite a different proposition than keeping her trotting for 15 miles of conditioning on a weekday afternoon. By the time we finished the third loop (with a ride time of 9:50, which would have been fine if I hadn't had to practically get off and shove my horse down the trail), I was considerably more exhausted than I've ever been after a ride of any distance.

The next day, despite having completed my longest ride to date, I was both sore and unsatisfied. Consolation's vet card showed all A's at the start and both mid-ride checks, and only a couple B's (impulsion and gait) at the finish. Despite a wickedly rainy, blustery night in camp following the ride, she presented the next morning bright-eyed and strong, with only a hint of stocking up around her fetlocks.

And yet...and yet. She hadn't been happy about those 60 miles. Her attitude and low energy level weren't anything I wanted to deal with at future rides. But what was I missing? Did she just need more experience, more time to go her own pace and discover the excitement of competition and speed? Could a subtle, physical issue underlie her reluctance?

After many days of thought and several conversations with other, more experienced endurance riders, I decided to apply a multi-pronged solution to our problem:

1. Higher-octane fuel

Though Consolation has always maintained her weight easily on just a quality blend of grass hay and alfalfa, she may need additional energy from concentrated feed. Two weeks ago, I added a daily pound of beet pulp and 2.5 pounds of oats to her ration. Though minimal, this amount of grain, in addition to her usual hay, is all she seems able to consume in a day. Even so, it has certainly made a difference in her base energy level -- she's been considerably hotter (and a little faster) than usual on recent conditioning rides.

In the future, I may experiment with adding pure fat to her diet; right now, I hesitate because I can't think of any reason to believe that artificially modified fats (like vegetable oil) would make any better building blocks for the cells of equines than they do for those of humans, and I need to research sources of fats that are both natural and affordable.

2. Nutritional supplmentation

At the suggestion of an endurance friend, I've put Consolation on a high-quality, flax-based vitamin-mineral-plus supplement called Show 'n' Go. She's also getting Fastrack probiotics.

The benefit of such supplementation is typically subtle, particularly after only a couple weeks, but my hope is that the supplements will fill in any nutritional gaps left by Consolation's regular diet.

3. New boots

When a friend mentioned that she'd observed Consolation landing toe-first during a trot-out at Owyhee Spring, my ears perked up. I knew Consolation's bare feet were well-maintained and she'd been landing heel-first during her liberty sessions in the round corral...but she had, indeed, felt slightly short-strided during the race. I'd wondered that morning if her Easyboots weren't just a hair too tight. Perhaps they'd been pinching her heel bulbs -- certainly an uncomfortable way to spend 60 miles!

After hearing my friend's observation, I bought Consolation a pair of Gloves a half-size larger and have been using them since; they're a shade too big, but I think I'll try adding power straps and see if we can't arrive at the perfect fit.

4. Hill work

I've tried to do hill work with Consolation all along, of course, but there's no denying that the best hills to which I can ride straight from my driveway are inadequate to prepare her for the longer, steeper climbs we encounter on race days. In fact, I'd venture a guess that we've pretty well maxed out the level of fitness we can achieve from road-riding alone.

So, Consolation and I have been taking weekly jaunts to the foothills to condition for 2-5 hours of sand, hills, and uneven ground. It's time consuming -- over an hour's trailer ride each way -- but absolutely necessary. My hope is that improved physical fitness will delay the point at which Consolation "hits the wall," mentally, and stops trying.

5. Cantering work

Here's another thought: Consolation may be one of those horses that simply moves more efficiently at the canter. Exploring that possiblity, in addition to adding more intensity to her workouts now that she has a good base of long, slow distance work, Consolation and I have been cantering more during our conditioning rides. I'll be interested to see how this pays off at upcoming races.

Speaking of upcoming races, Owyhee Fandango is happening this weekend! I've attended this pioneer ride twice before -- for Aaruba's first LD in 2008, and last year to volunteer because I'd just torn my hamstring and couldn't ride. At the moment, I have my eye on the Sunday 60, but it's possible Ironman's schedule will move us to the Saturday 50 instead. Either way, I'm eager to see how Consolation handles her second race of the year. Stay tuned!_________________________________________________________Want Want to read more posts like this one? Subscribe to The Barb Wire

Friday, April 30, 2010

Rough Road Ahead

I got some bad news this week.

One of my life's greater frustrations, which I thought was finally coming to an end, has instead been extended for a significant period. The news left me tense to the point of aching, shell-shocked, raw and dangerous as shattered glass.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," I told Ironman through furious tears.

"Well, what can you do?"

I had a few ideas, only some of which were legal, and most of which weren't likely to solve the problem anyway. Eventually, I worked down to the obvious conclusion: "I'll just keep doing my best."

Most of the time, that works. Besides, I can't live with myself any other way.

Photo by Michael Ensch

Last night, I got another piece of interesting news.

Tomorrow's Owyhee Spring endurance ride will be a 60-miler. (I swear it said 50 last week.)

SIXTY MILES? Huh. Well. Okay, then. Looks like Consolation's second-ever endurance ride, our first of the season, will also be our longest ever.

The weather should help. Our previously delightful spring temperatures have dropped to highs in the fifties, with a healthy wind and 30% chance of afternoon showers. Less than ideal for us riders, sure, but marvelous for the horses.

We'll start at 8:00 a.m. in hand-biting, buck-rousing cold. Having watched Consolation -- sleek and electric with fitness, feed, and rest, twisting like a dervish in her paddock last night -- I suspect I'll have my hands full on the first, 25-mile loop. My job will be to keep her from wearing too thin to finish this long, long ride.

My plan is to ride well, ride smart, and do the best we can. I reckon we've a good chance of coming through not only unscathed, but stronger than ever.

Best we can do.
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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Fit for Fifty!

We weren't lost.

We just didn't know quite how to get home.

Well, Consolation probably did. She mostly agreed with me about the appropriate direction to take -- but what she didn't know (or wouldn't admit) was that an impassable drop-off ending in a 30-foot wide irrigation channel blocked our way.

But we'll get to that.

Rewind to last Friday. On the phone with Ironman, who is in California doing cool stuff and getting paid for it, I complained of my fear that Consolation wouldn't be ready for the 50-mile ride at Owyhee Spring on May 1. Tumultuous weather and my equally tumultuous job have cut into our conditioning time, and the weekend ahead was forecast to be stormy yet again.

Already irritable due to a nasty surprise at the office, I hesitated to mount up that Friday evening. Strong-willed and noble as she is, handling Consolation demands absolute fairness, and I wasn't sure I was in the mood. Target practice in the back pasture sounded much more appropriate. On the other hand, we really needed to get in some miles, especially if the weekend weather wasn't going to cooperate. So, I saddled up a blessedly easygoing (for her) Consolation, and we enjoyed a quick eight miles before sunset.

That put us at 30 miles for the week. We'd spent the previous Wednesday afternoon exploring new territory across the highway, railroad tracks, and river. Here's the view from Parma Ridge Winery, where we crested the ridge before heading home.

Nice view. But...just 30 miles. In a week. Not good enough.

We've done a few 20-milers since mid-March, but none back-to-back. Nothing to convince me that Consolation was ready for a 50 after a winter off. I went to bed Friday night with all fingers crossed for enough decent hours to squeeze in some miles the next day.

Saturday dawned frosty and calm, but the wind came up with the sun. I passed the chilliest hours writing Nightlife posts, then took my rasp and new farrier chaps (hooray!) out to touch up Consolation's hooves.

And then we saddled up. The sky was heavy with rainclouds buffeted by wind, but we would do 12 miles, come hell or high water! We did, too. We trotted 12...then went straight instead of turning to make 14 (why not?)...then went straight again to make 18 (what the hell!)...then kept going on the big loop for a total of 21 (huzzah!).

The rain hit on our last few miles, but not hard enough to wash off my grin. Here we are somewhere along the road, paused for a few mouthfuls of grass, en route to Mile 51 for the week.

"I'm going to saddle up and see how she feels," I told Ironman Sunday morning. "We might go for an hour. It might be three hours."

With one eye on the sky, Consolation and I crossed the highway again. And the railroad tracks. And the river. We found our way to the base of the ridge and trotted along an irrigation maintenance road that eventually dropped us onto a graveled road dotted with large, well-maintained, 1960's style homes whose siding and shingles peeked from behind massive trees just budded by spring.

The road led us to the top of the same ridge we'd ascended on Wednesday, but several miles further southwest. I was pretty sure, having studied the ridge from below, that there weren't many roads down it. The winery road we'd traversed on Wednesday, however, ought to be easy to find.

(Yes. This is the "we weren't lost" bit. And we weren't. Not precisely.)

I was sure the winery road lay to the northeast. But which route would get us there?

The miles ticked by. We followed the agricultural grid, with intersections every mile, jogging east toward the ridge at every opportunity and otherwise moving north. Though Consolation seemed to feel fine, I was keenly aware that we were still roughly 15 miles from home and hadn't encountered water in a long while. We really needed to get down to the lower plain soon -- preferably on the winery road, because I knew it would lead us to river access.

East. North. East again. Each intersection plodded into view, accompanied by a pang of disappointment when the road signs failed to name the winery road. I doubted my own sense of direction when Consolation started pulling west. At every intersection, she insisted. So did I, praying I wasn't wrong. Rainclouds burgeoned, we were both tired, and even when we did find the winery we'd still be nearly two hours' trot from home.

Finally, at long last, we rounded a curve to find the road name I'd been waiting for. But...where was the ridge? Could we really have drifted that far west? There was nothing to do but follow the road and find out.

It twisted and turned, changed to gravel, and finally wound through some hop fields to a spread of vineyards. Ah-ha! Please be the right vineyards...please be the right vineyards...

They were. We trotted triumphantly past the winery just in time to catch a face full of rain-scented wind. Turns out the ridge is not straight as it appears from below, but a vast curve that lengthened our journey.

But never mind. Consolation and I were back on the same map. She turned up the speed and I didn't discourage her. We stopped briefly at the river (this photo is from our sunnier Wednesday ride) and hustled home just in time for the evening feeding.

Because Google Earth has been crashing my computer lately, and because I was terribly curious, I actually got in my car to drive our route to determine mileage.

26 miles.

A 47-mile weekend. 55 if you count Friday evening. What a way to wrap up a 77-mile week!

Now, that was the weekend we'd needed: lots of miles stacked one atop the other. If Consolation can do 50 in a weekend, she can do 50 in a day. And she was sound, strong, and ready to coast through a few vacation days while I returned to the office chaos.

Today, I got back on for an easier weekend than last. Just 12 miles under the sun, barefoot in the hills. Consolation has never felt better -- and neither have I.

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Friday, April 9, 2010

Shot in the Dark: Restoration

Horse time is the best antidote to people time.

~ Spartacus Jones


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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Lessons in Losing

Remember Inara?

Born in late July, 2009, this Insider x Sandstorm filly reached a generous weaning age in mid-March. The time had come to separate her from Mama and begin the groundwork that will prepare her to go live with her new family in Oregon.

On weaning day, I was alone at In the Night Farm. No problem, I thought. After all, I designed my horse compound specifically for handling ungentled horses:

The round corral sits in the middle of a square enclosure. When swung outward, the round corral gate can be secured to the side of the square, creating a roadblock that funnels a loose horse right into the round corral for training. All my paddocks are arranged around the outside of the square, with gates that open into the square, so that any horse can be driven from paddock to round corral, no haltering required. So, it might take a little patience, but I should be able to separate Inara and Sandstorm without tremendous difficulty.

Well. The Inara-separation project required several steps involving moving Sandstorm to a spare paddock, then Inara to the round corral, then Sandstorm back to her original paddock, and finally, Inara into the spare paddock.

Sandstorm was easy. She knows the ropes.

Inara? A bit more difficult. Not only did she lack experience with the process of being moved from one pen to another, but her emotions skyrocketed the instant she realized Mama was neither by her side nor responding to her calls. Though Sandstorm's temporary paddock was located near the round corral gate, baby Inara was not excited about going in that direction. Instead, she raced frantically around the square enclosure.

Fortunately, the enclosure is a safe place for frantic racing. Its whole purpose, after all, is to contain wild horses. I waited several minutes for her to settle down, then approached her in a firm but non-threatening manner, asking her to move around the enclosure toward the round corral gate.

Normally, this works beautifully. It's a simple matter of asking a horse, in horse-language, to move in the desired direction.

But Inara wasn't listening. She blasted past me, alarmingly close and fast. I worked my way around and tried again, more forcefully, and prepared to back up if she approached so as to lessen the pressure without letting her by again. No dice. She blasted past.

Oh really, I thought. That's interesting...not to mention a bit disturbing. After all, everything you do with a horse is training, and the last thing you want a horse to learn right out of the gate is that it doesn't have to surrender space to you.

Thankfully, my third attempt was successful. I closed the round corral gate on Inara, figuring that behind 7-foot, 12-gauge panels was the safest place for her at the moment, and sat down on the ground to study her and think.

Where had I gone wrong? What was happening in her little head? And how could I be sure it wouldn't happen again?

Slowly, as I watched her fling herself about the round corral -- pressing her ears back every time she passed me, which I found both fascinating and alarming since she has no reason for animosity -- I formed several conclusions:

1. Part of the problem I'd encountered in attempting to drive Inara had simply been her high emotional level. She was, understandably, panicky and preoccupied with Sandstorm's absence. However, blowing past me still represented a dramatic and willful move.

2. Inara comes from strong-willed stock. Barbs in general, and her sire in particular, have no shortage of courage or willingness to defend their own interests. An admirable trait, this, but certainly one to channel appropriately, for safety's sake.

3. Most enlightening of all was this: Inara has spent her entire life in a paddock with only her mama. She's never had another horse demand that she give way. Like most dams, Sandstorm has docilely tolerated Inara's youthful whims without reprimand. As far as Inara knows, it's perfectly acceptable to run roughshod, like a spoiled child, over anybody who gets in her way.

And there was my answer. The best thing I could to for Inara was to recruit a better trainer than myself -- another horse.

Consolation struck me as the ideal choice. Calm and confident, dominant but not a bully, firm but fair, I knew she'd put Inara in her place. So, after giving Inara a day to get over the worst of her weaning angst, I moved Consolation into her paddock with her.

Sure enough, Inara spent the next few hours learning that life isn't all about getting her way. Better than the most expert human trainer, Consolation used as much force as necessary -- but not a hint more -- to put the filly in her place.

It worked. During Inara's and my first gentling session a few days later, she tried to get past me...once. My body language -- now that Inara could read it and was calm enough to do so -- convinced her that the best direction to go was the one in which I sent her. We had a short but productive session, an unquestionable win, simply because she had learned to lose.


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