Thursday, December 31, 2009

On Riding On

There's something to be said for appreciating the way life is,
rather than the way you meant for it to be.

I owe you all an apology for my long absence. All I can say is that I must have needed a break. I didn't intend to take such a long one, but that's what happened. 2009 has been a long ride for me, both personally and professionally. The trail got steeper after I wrote this post, but I stick by what I said: Without the hard times, we wouldn't know what triumph really is.

Yes, it's been a long year. I didn't accomplish most of the goals I set out at the beginning. My equestrian goals suffered most of all, due partly to injury and partly to emotional distraction. Over the past few months, I've rested from horsemanship as much as blogging. I've done almost no training or riding. I've fed and watered the horses, watched them from my window, petted their fuzzy shoulders and simply let them be. And let myself be. Quiet. Undriven.

Slowly, softly, desire has crept back in. I almost want to ride again. I almost wish the snow and ice would vanish from the round corral, freeing me to train baby Inara, to start Ripple Effect under saddle, to progress with Acey and ramp up Consolation's fitness again.

Because 2010 is here. I am entering it stronger than ever before -- physically, mentally, emotionally. Life holds some interesting prospects. I promise I'll become less scarce soon, to let you know how it goes.

Happy New Year, my friends. Thanks for sticking around.

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Friday, November 20, 2009


I do not appreciate injustice.

Lies are about the worst thing I can think of.

It infuriates me to see unethical behavior gain the upper hand.

I am tense to the point of physical pain. The best thing I can say is that at least it's Friday.

Several people expressed their sympathy today. They asked if I was going to ride this weekend. Just making conversation. Knowing that riding is something I enjoy. Something I might do for relaxation.

I suppose I surprised them by saying no. But I haven't any patience left.

Ever tried working when a horse when your fuse is short?

It's a bad idea. In fact, to the horse, it's downright unjust. Confusing.

She doesn't understand lies, my horse. Whatever I tell her with my body and tone, she takes as purest truth.

She has no concept of misdirected rage.

She doesn't understand, "I'm sorry."

So I'll repair fence, or shovel manure, or fill the water troughs by hand. Maybe I'll just close my eyes and listen while the horses chew their hay. But I won't ride. Not until I'm good and ready to do it right.

This tempest ain't in any kind of teapot, see? It's mustang-wild. There's plenty of damage to be done, and I can't do enough to stop it.

But I can keep it from harming my horse.


What a novel idea.

Related Posts

A Moment of Silence

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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Liberty Work

I woke this morning in the mood to dance.

It was a feeling borne of a late-night talk with a friend, during which we discussed the magic that draws a good horse to a good handler despite the horse's obvious physical superiority.

"I frequently marvel," I said, "that I can put a bit of string on a 900-pound prey animal and lead it through strange and frightening territory with that string in an open palm, and it will stay with me. This despite the fact that there is nothing, nothing in my power that could stop that horse from leaving if it wanted to. Tell me that isn't magic."

"Sounds like trust," my friend said.

"Trust. Yes. But not blind trust. That is the magic."

Think of horses in a field. Watch them long enough, and you'll see that they control each others' movements with subtle -- and occasionally dramatic -- bits of body language. Tilt of ear, angle of body, suggestion of raised hip. They have no need of whips or ropes or chains; their language is based on the twin elements of respect and trust.

Respect comes first, every time. Introduce a new horse to the herd, and you'll see this truth in action. Only when the hierarchy is well established will you see emerge the equine version of friendship; that is, trust. This is the turning of two horses -- apparently spontaneous, but actually subtly cued by the dominant horse -- to scratch each others' withers. It is standing head to tail in the shade, flicking flies from one anothers' faces. It is the magnetic pull of follow-the-leader that moves small societies within the herd from place to place throughout the day.

Horses, clearly, are wired for liberty work. If I am good enough, if I can learn their language thoroughly, I should be able to dispense with the artificial tools I use to compensate for my inferior size and strength. If I have earned the right to lead, my horse and I will move in seamless dance with no physical bond between us. When we fail, it's my fault every time. The horse already knows her part; it's my responsibility to learn mine.

Liberty work is exactly that: work. It depends upon concentration, understanding, empathy, precision. Respect. Trust. Among horses, liberty is made or broken by the worth of the leader.

A horse at liberty demands clear, consistent, honest leadership. If she doesn't get it, she rebels.

Proof, yet again, that horses are wiser than men.


Related Posts:
Shall We Dance?
Dirty Dancing
Call Me Crazy: A Word about Natural Horsemanship
Twenty Minutes in Photos: Trust-Based Training at Work
Heart in My Hands: Gentling the Unhandled Horse
Independence Day?
Shot in the Dark: Liberty

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Shot in the Dark: Wisdom

He who seeks Wisdom by looking to the wise
may count himself among them.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Golden Days

I don't do takeout often, but today, I can't resist.

My friend wrote this.

I wish I had.

Photo by East End Portrait Photography

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Making of a Monster: Owyhee Canyonlands 2009, Day 5

All right, all right -- I'll write, I'll write! You guys crack me up with your comments.

But I'm warning you, it's like I told Ironman shortly after dismounting on Day 5: I have no story to tell. No one kicked or bucked or ran away or fell off or won or got lost or came up lame. It was just a plain, old, marvelous, enchanting, exhilarating ride.

... ... ...

Why are you all still here?

Oh yes. The question of the 50. Well.

"What are you doing today," Ironman asked for the benefit of his video camera, aiming the viewfinder at me and Consolation as we strolled toward the starting line.

"We're doing the fifty." I said. "At least, we're going to try. You never know what will happen."

Consolation certainly thought she knew. Milling among the other horses, she quivered with controlled excitement. When the trail opened and we all took off like a herd of turtles, walking along the gravel road and the steep hill we'd climbed at the beginning of Day 1, she pranced along at the back of the pack. It's only 30 miles, Mom. Let's go!

You don't know what you're in for, little lady.

She listened (mostly) to the repeated "no" of seat and reins, and I didn't have to work too hard to hold her in. All the same, we were both delighted to reach the top of the ridge and take off trotting under an expanse of iron-clouded sky. The endless wind swirled her mane around my hands dust rolled away in clouds from the line of horses strung like beads along the trail ahead. It filled her nostrils with fuss and snort, but she responded willingly enough when I planted her behind another horse to help moderate her speed.

Still, the first seven or eight miles flashed by. I felt we'd scarcely begun when we found ourselves already at the first water stop. Horses clustered around a pair of large tanks set a few yards off the trail. Among them was a lovely, chestnut sabino I recognized as Amanda Washington's new mare, Replika.

"How's it going?" asked Amanda, whose response when I'd told her the evening before that we planned to try the 50 was, "About time!" (Incidentally, Karen Bumgarner said exactly the same thing minutes later, then proceeded to reassure me that what I'd heard time and again is true -- it's not the miles that beat up young horses, it's excessive speed. I must say, their confidence in us was inspiring.)

"She's fine," I replied. "Doing great." (I did say that I have no story, remember?)

Indeed, Consolation looked happily around, ignoring the water. Cool day, early in the ride, no cause for concern. We headed back down the trail, now alone in a gap between riders. Within minutes, however, Amanda and Replika caught up to us. The mares paced each other nicely, Consolation drawing on Replika's speed, and Replika on Consolation's calm. Amanda and I chatted our way on into the vet check, where Consolation vetted through with all A's.

I threw a fleece blanket over her hindquarters to stave off the chilly, moist breeze that had the volunteers shivering. She ate samplings of various hays and wild grasses while I consumed a handful of nuts from my saddlebag, but she showed no interest in her beet pulp or water. Ah, well. Still early, still cool, and I've learned that she generally doesn't drink until we're at least 15 miles in.

"Ready?" Amanda called, appearing nearby with Replika in hand. I offered Consolation one, last chance at the trough -- no go -- before stuffing her blanket back into its plastic bag, in case of rain, and mounting up.

The second loop took us down the sandy wash we'd ridden on Day 1, then all the way out to the Snake River. On windier days, I'm told, the river flashes with whitecaps, but today its waves sloshed more gently toward shore. All the same, Consolation wasn't interested in drinking along the muddy, buggy beach.

By the time we reached a second river access point, this one with a bucket waiting for horses that prefer not to drink from natural sources (not that such is typically a problem for Consolation), I was really ready to see her take in some water. Alas, she was far more interested in ridding her ears of the riverside gnats while chewing mouthfuls of grass than in drinking. All the same, her attitude and energy level remained normal, the weather chilly, and our pace very reasonable. I figured she'd drink when she was good and ready.

Boy, was I right! About five miles from the vet check, I felt her flagging a bit and commented to Amanda that she finally felt like she needed water. Sure enough, the moment the pulse timer declared us "down" at the vet check, she spotted the trough and dragged me there so fast that I accidentally bumped into another rider who was peaceably watering her horse at the crowded tank.

Finally, and to my great pleasure, Consolation drank so much I thought she might drown. (Perhaps she learned a lesson, eh?) She earned all A's from the vet again, then steadily munched hay right up until it was time to leave again. Her ribcage felt discernibly wider between my knees as we walked the first half-mile, warming up slowly under a sky darkened by increasing threat of rain.

Taking turns in the lead, Consolation and Replika carried us back across the desert, across the highway, across the ridge where the storm pulled their tails horizontal and wrinkled their noses with displeasure at a spattering of icy drops. We dropped off the ridge, trotted along the road, then bounced back up and across the bluff behind ridecamp. Consolation swept toward the finish on a wave of energy, snorting playfully at clumps of sagebrush and the tiny creek where Ironman waited with his camera.

"Looks like you have an endurance horse," Amanda said as we dismounted and led our ponies in for 24rd and 25th place out of 32 starters and 30 finishers. She's right, I realized, feeling a grin creep across my face. I do have an endurance horse again. At last.

We received our completion from the Headless Horseman....

...and huddled on the porch that evening to listen to the final day's results.

"I'm not sure this is right," the ride manager said as she came across our names. "Did you ride the fifty?"

"Sure did," I said, as Karen Bumgarner called out, "Amanda and I forced her into it. I think we may have created a monster."

Yes, ma'am. I think you just might have. Perhaps there's a story in my little gray mare, after all. Ride on!


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Friday, October 16, 2009

Riding Aside

While Consolation rested on Day 4 of the Owyhee Canyonlands Pioneer, Ironman and I compiled this directory of Things to Do When You're Not Riding:

1. The dishes.

2. Climb a big hill...

3. ...and do Zorro impressions.

4. Or, visit a ghost town...

5. ...with a white church...
(a very photogenic white church)

6. ...and an old outhouse. Sorry -- tours by appointment only.

7. Start your Christmas shopping.

8. Or play in an old loading chute.

9. Back at camp, pour a bit of whiskey. Play cribbage. And ponder the familiar question: Should we ride the 50 tomorrow? It's our last chance! Shall we try it? Ponder...

10. ...and, finally, reach a decision.
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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Down the Rabbit Hole: Owyhee Canyonlands 2009, Day 3

My boots had scarcely touched the ground after Consolation's Day 1 3rd place LD finish before Ironman and I began speculating. The horse looked really good. She'd handled the race well both physically and mentally. What if she could do a 50, after all?

What if? What if? We pondered the question throughout her rest on Day 2 of the ride, and by evening had decided to run the idea past the vets when checking in for the next day's race. Two vets were on hand to ponder the matter, and both approved the idea...but one pointed out that the Day 3 50 was actually a 55 and included a rocky 25-mile loop with little water.

Hmm. Back at the trailer, over steaming bowls of marinara with ground beef and veggies, Ironman and I decided to stick with the original plan. We would settle for the LD again on Day 3 and leave our options open for Days 4 and 5.

Come morning, the 50's started under a sapphire sky. A brisk but light breeze played around camp as I made leisurely preparations for Consolation's 10:00 a.m. start time. Due to the logistics of ensuring that vets were present both at the out vet check and back in camp for the finish, we LD's had quite a lie-in.

[Warning: Digression Ahead]

Which reminds me: At the ride meeting that night, I overhead someone refer to Limited Distance as "Luxury Distance." I must admit that I took some offense to the joke -- not because I disagree that 25 or 30 miles is quite an easy distance to cover in a day for any reasonably fit rider and horse, nor because I feel its risks and challenges are on a par with 50+ mile endurance races. (The data is clear that endurance is a whole other animal than LD when it comes to equine metabolic health.)

Rather, I was a bit miffed by the jester's apparent assumption (and yes, I'm making an assumption of my own, here) that all us LD riders chose the LD precisely because it was easy, fast, fun, and a way to win prizes for less work. Perhaps that is true of some riders. However, the majority with whom I chatted on the trail were there for other reasons. Most were on young, green, partially-conditionined horses, mounts coming back from injuries, or old endurance horses that still love the sport but aren't quite up to long distances anymore. Many, including me, longed for the day their horses would be ready to graduate to 50's and were simply using the LD as a stepping-stone to train and condition while still enjoying a formal event.

Here's my point: Go easy on the assumptions, please. And I'll try to do the same.

[End of Digression.]

By 9:45, Consolation and I were in the warm-up paddock with 16 other teams. Catching sight of the chestnut gelding, Drifter, whom Consolation had tried to kick on Day 1, I circled around to let his rider -- Carol, whose husband Craig had ridden Drifter on Day 1 -- know that my horse seemed to have something against hers. She called back that we'd soon find out whether it was Drifter or Craig that Consolation disliked!

Chuckling, I turned my attention back to Consolation's warmup. The arch in her neck and flare of her nostrils told me, quite clearly, that she had figured this game out. It was time to play!

Moments later, the trail opened. None of the milling riders headed for the trail. I shrugged and leaned forward in the saddle. If no one else was going... Consolation bounded up the rise and set off at a strong, working trot. She suffered a moment's hesitation as we passed along the road above our trailer, but a nudge in the ribs reminded her that we were off for a day's adventure. By the time we'd crossed the creekbed and started into the desert, I found myself actually working a bit to hold her in. A miracle!

Even better, this was no wrestling match such as Aaruba and I endured many times at the beginning of races. Rather, it was a discussion of enthusiasm versus restraint, and within a couple miles we'd agreed upon a steady trot punctuated by some walking down steep hills and over occasional gullies.

To my great surprise, the only other team in sight was Carol and Drifter. We leapfrogged along, alternately exchanging Consolation's calming effect for Drifter's "pull" up the trail. Only a few minutes seemed to pass before we encountered photographer Steve Bradley's familiar sign: Photo Ahead -- Space Out.

Consolation and I happened to be in the lead. We trotted happily along, ears up and smile in place, while Steve snapped our photo. Then, just as I called "Good morning," something on the other side of the trail caught Consolation's eye. A prey animal through and through, Consolation tends to leap first and asks questions later...and boy, did she leap. I was on the ground before I saw it coming, reins still in one hand, scrambling up with one dirty hip but no appreciable pain.

I mounted from the off side and was on the trail again within ten seconds, calling back reassurances to Carol's concern. I'm not sure Consolation ever quite figured out what happened, and I never did see what spooked her. Probaby one of those equinivorous sagebrush.

Eminently grateful not to have landed on a rock, I chatted with Carol as we followed the ribbons along more dirt trail, then up a long stretch of gravel road before cutting off again for a long climb up a rutted and beautiful trail that led to the top of a ridge. From our new vantage point, we looked back and were startled to see neither hide nor hair of another rider. We exchanged a look of mild concern. Where was everyone? Surely we couldn't be that far ahead! We'd hardly rushed; in fact, we'd walked nearly all of that last climb. Could we be off trail?

But no, there were our ribbons, leading away across the ridge. There weren't many extras, but "comfort ribbons" were hardly necessary as the trail was clear and no turnoffs presented themselves. We trotted on, wind rushing in our ears, glancing back on occasion with the full expectation that other riders would soon appear.

They never did. Eventually, the vet check materialized before us and we dismounted to walk in. Consolation was at criteria immediately upon arrival. She helped herself to a long drink, then vetted through with all A's. Restless and determined to spend most of her time staring across the plain for incoming horses (the next LD riders proved to be about 10 minutes behind Carol and myself), Consolation nonetheless consumed a reasonable quantity of hay before the end of our hold.

Carol and I set off again together. Our horses trotted side by side, each slipping occasionally in and out of the lead. We amused ourselves with commentary about how it must be Craig -- not Drifter -- to whom Consolation took exception, after all!

Buzzing back along the same trail we'd ridden into the vet check, we passed our fellow LD riders with smiles and waves. Eventually, they'd all gone by in the opposite direction, and we once more had the ridge to ourselves. Drifter took the front position, and Consolation pounded after him, her brisk trot peppered with occasional canters and one joyous buck that resulted in my trot-only edict for the next few miles!

This was easy to enforce, for we soon encountered a left turnoff that led down the canyon and into a stand of trees. The trail wound like coiled rope among the cottonwoods, whose branches all but closed over our heads. Consolation and I chased the disappearing flashes of Drifter's tail down and around, leaves brushing my helmet and knees.

"I feel like Alice in Wonderland!" I called ahead to Carol, whose face was radiant when we caught up to her in the creekbed at the end of the rabbithole. "What a fantastic trail!"

Still grinning, we plowed through a rough-and-tumble, cross-country section where bright ribbons wound us between sagebrush and rocks, occasionally pulling up sharply to navigate steep washes or tricky tangles of brush. Whipping along with Consolation's face light in my hands, her body balanced between steady reins and guiding knees, my Alice in Wonderland fantasies evaporated in favor of old Westerns. We were stagecoach bandits fleeing across the desert, spurred by adrenaline and flush with success!

And then, we arrived at The Hill. John Teeter had mentioned during the ride meeting that he'd trained one of his horses to tail on this this particular section of trail. I could see why! Pulling up at the bottom, Carol and I stared up the long, steep track.

"We supposed to go up that thing?"

"I think so... Yes, see the ribbon?"

"Here goes..."

It was a tough, glorious climb that left the horses puffing with effort and pride, and Carol and me laughing giddily at Drifter's frequent attempts to meander off trail in search of an easier route. We paused at the top to give the horses a breather and snap a few photos.

From there, the ride back to camp was a breeze. We flew along, our horses full of air and sprite, and arrived at the finish almost side by side. Consolation once again pulsed down right away to secure the 1st place slot (shock! surprise!), while Drifter called to his buddy but still came down in plenty of time to take 2nd place 26 minutes ahead of the 3rd place team.

I led Consolation through her BC exam in a state of quiet exhilaration. Yes, I was excited to have won (Who'd have thought? We didn't even try to hurry!), but mostly I was high on sheer love of the sport. Carol and Drifter had been fantastic company, the trail beautiful, the weather fair, and my horse -- my horse! -- she was the best of all.

After all those months of wondering whether Consolation would ever find her spark, ever truly enjoy our miles on the trail, all my doubts were finally washed away. Not only does she love the game, but she's good at it, too. She listens. She thinks. She makes suggestions. She learns. She eats and drinks and rests and, when the time is right, she applies herself heart and soul to the job at hand.

I carried a beautiful poncho from Argentina back from the ride meeting that night, Consolation's 1st place award...and I also carried a familiar question: What if? What if she really could do a 50 this week?

What if?

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Desert Storm: Owyhee Canyonlands 2009, Day 1

There's nowhere on earth like the Owyhee canyonlands. Roughly fifty miles south of Boise, Idaho, the high desert stretches over a vast canvas of plateaus, ravines, and washes. Its surface is littered with rock, deep sand, and pillows of beige "moon dust" that billows up from trotting horses' feet, coating lungs and tack and obscuring the vision of all downwind. When the weather changes, gusts roar over the ridges like invisible water. They cut through clothing and stagger unwary hikers, turn horses to devils, chill hands and whip bits of desert debris to stinging dust.

When Ironman, Consolation, and I pulled into ridecamp on Monday, change was in the air. After a week of summer highs, temperatures had begun a twenty-four hour plunge to freezing nights and blustery days. By evening, ridecamp huddled, shivering, in the arms of autumn, and Tuesday was birthed on a gust of desert wind.

The air smelled of sage, of clouds and dust, as I slipped on Consolation's new Easyboot Gloves and saddled up.

She shied and snorted as I led her about camp amid snapping flags and dogs, excitable horses, and roaring generators. By the time I mounted, however, she was restored to her usual calm. Fifteen Limited Distance riders, including myself, were set to to at 9:30. We gathered at the start to await the familiar call, "The trail is open!"

When it came, Consolation and I left with the frontrunners -- or frontwalkers, if truth be told. Looking ahead to five days of races, no one was in a rush to wear out his mount on the first loop. Janet on Ladybug (in purple), Craig on Drifter (the chestnut), and a few others joined us for a mile's walk that escalated into a jog, then finally a trot as we climbed the first, steep hill and rode away into the canyonlands.

Atop the ridge, Consolation surged beneath me. Slapped broadside by the wind and memories of her first race at Old Selam, surrounded by other horses whose hooves pounded the double-track dirt trail, her emotions escalated to a state of excitement that culminated with a double-barrel kick at poor Drifter. Nineteen years old and a Tevis veteran, Drifter took her failed attempt at domination in stride. I, however, spent the rest of the week training my mare to mind her manners!

That kick was about the most exciting event of the day. Consolation settled quickly into a brisk trot that carried us across the highway and along a trail whose dust, nearly a foot deep in places, swelled in windborne clouds. Some riders pulled bandanas over their faces; others, like myself, put extra space between ourselves and surrounding teams, allowing the air to clear before we had to breathe it.

Eventually, the fine dust gave way to sand, and I pulled Consolation down to a walk to protect her ligaments, as we haven't conditioned much in deep footing. Several other riders did the same, and we leapfrogged each other for a bit until we broke out on firmer track leading into the vet check.

We vetted through with all A's. Consolation didn't drink, but we were only 16 miles into the ride, the day was cool, and she ate well, so I saw no reason to worry. I mounted up shortly after Craig and Janet left on Drifter and Ladybug and left the vet check immediately upon the end of my 40-minute hold.

Consolation and I set out alone this time, she spooking at the blowing ribbons that led us through a left turn only a few hundred yards from the vet check. As we trotted along, I glanced up the hill to see both Craig and Janet riding back down. They seemed to have missed the turn.

Interesting. It occurred to me that I was now certainly somewhere in the top ten -- always a nice place to be, though I had no intention of racing. Limited Distance is, in my mind, primarly a training and conditioning event, not a contest.

Though Consolation was moving out fairly quickly, she's certainly faster in the presence of another horse. I was glad, therefore, when Janet and Ladybug caught up to us -- and even more pleased for the chance to chat with Janet for the rest of the ride. She was pleasant company indeed, and our mares paced each other well.

As we climbed the last hill toward ridecamp, Craig and Drifter caught up to us as well. Joking about Consolation's apparent dislike of Drifter, who seemed to have fallen in love with her, we cantered some along the ridge, then dropped to a walk down the other side. The horses had plenty of sprite left in them, so we amused ourselves with a "race" toward the finish, cantering and trotting intermittently up the road and into camp.

Craig and I arrived at the in-timer together. Glancing at the clipboard, I was shocked to see that we'd arrived third and fourth! Pulse-down determined the placing, and Consolation came down first to secure the third place slot.

Ironman was equally surprised to find us in so soon. I'd predicted a ride time much longer than 3:34! Fortunately, he was ready for us with a clean, straw-bedded pen, full water bucket, fresh hay, and extra hands to help me juggle tack, horse, and vet card -- because we weren't going to pass up our chance for BC!

Meanwhile, Consolation took a nap.

Come evening, well-bundled but comfortable in the relative shelter of the yard, we accepted not only a completion award and third place, but Best Condition and High Vet Score as well. Never mind that the BC was a mistake -- the following evening, it was re-awarded to BehKhan instead -- we still got HVS, and I couldn't have been prouder of my girl.

Even better, I realized as darkness fell over ridecamp and Ironman poured celebratory measures of whiskey, the Owyhee Canyonlands Pioneer had just begun.

Related Posts
Fit to Continue
Bring Me That Horizon: Fifty-five Miles at Owyhee Canyonlands

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009


There is a backhoe parked in my driveway tonight. A sable mound of earth, freshly turned, is just visible from the north deck. It is Goldie's grave.

Goldie wasn't my horse. She belonged to a friend who needed a quiet place to bury her. Somewhere she could settle into dust, and in some other century blow across this hill in the autumn wind that only yesterday filled her crescent nostrils and billowed her flaxen mane.

I didn't know her well, never rode her, never stroked her. When she arrived at In the Night Farm, she was already gone. She died in her own pasture a few miles away -- familiar, safe, in the company of her chestnut companion.

I didn't know her well, but I admired her fine, straight legs that protruded from the bucket of the backhoe. Her bones and tendons stood out lovely and artistic, striking, intricate perfection. Sheen still lay like sunlight on her coat. Neatly rasped hooves, all black, wore fringes of coronet hair grown long for the winter she'll never have to face.

I didn't know her well, but I felt the whisper of her passing. Someone had covered her face with a blanket for the journey between farms. I couldn't see her eyes, to know for sure her soul had gone, but I wondered if she could see me.

Horses can, you know. They see us better than we see ourselves.

I didn't know her well, but she was a good one -- a lucky one, too, to die at home with the family that loved her most of her life. She was twenty-eight.

Farewell, sweet Goldie. Happy trails.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Fit to Continue

We're baaaaack!

Many thanks to all who sent their well wishes to me and Consolation for our week at Owyhee Canyonlands. Those of you who follow us on Twitter (and bothered with the math) may already suspect that things didn't go precisely as planned.

They went better. Much better.

I'm too wrung out to tell the story now, but stay tuned for full details...after I get some sleep!


Don't miss the ride stories...

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Shot in the Dark: Renewal

Rest when you're weary.
Refresh and renew yourself, your body, your mind, your spirit.
Then get back to work.

~ Ralph Marston

Photo by Michael Ensch

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Ready, Partner?

Adventure is worthwhile.

~ Aristotle

Smart man, that Aristotle. And so, we're off, Ironman and Consolation and I! Off the grid, off our rockers, off to the Owyhee Canyonlands Pioneer. See you next week!

Photo by Michael Ensch

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Doin' It Again

This morning, I am sipping coffee from my favorite mug -- the black and coral one that was my completion award for last year's finish on Aaruba at Owhyee Canyonlands. I didn't know it then, but that was to be Aaruba's last race.

This year, I'm feeling both reflective and excited as I prepare to do more miles at Canyonlands than I did last year, though in smaller increments. Consolation isn't quite ready for her first 50, but we're going to try for 3 LD's, with a day off between each. The first two days are 30's and the last is a 25, so with luck, we'll make it an 85 mile week.

I frequently hear from other riders with Barbs, Spanish Mustangs, and similar types that while their horses may not be the speediest in the bunch, they do tend to show the same kind of self-possession and persistence that Consolation demonstrated last month during her first LD at Old Selam. This, they say, makes for excellent multi-day and long-distance mounts. A theory worth testing, if ever I heard one.

So, I'll spend today packing camp chairs and clothing, breeches and blankets, tack and toiletries, bales and beet pulp. I have saddle pads to wash, tubs of water to freeze for the ice chest (it lasts longer than the compressed-chip ice blocks you can buy at the Stinker Station), meals to prepare, and whiskey to sample. (It's a rough job, but...)

I'll take a quick ride on Consolation, just to be sure she's strong and loose and set to go with her new Easyboot Gloves. I'll run through safety checks on trailer and tack. And come nightfall, I'll sail to sleep on a wave of anticipation.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Emotion in Motion: Turning Spooks into Speed

Consolation has felt different since completing her first Limited Distance race at Old Selam. I hope I'm not anthropomorphizing here, but she seems to have discovered her own athletic ability. ("What? You mean I can go that fast, that far? Cool!") Always one for conserving energy, resisting haste, and smelling roses, Consolation has recently exhibited an unprecedented level of enthusiasm during our conditioning rides.

Problem is, her newfound energy doesn't always translate into the much-desired increase in speed. As any rider knows, a horse's energy most often moves in one of two directions: forward or upward. So. If Consolation ain't goin' forward...

Yes, my little gray mare has decided that conditioning rides are exciting. So exciting that she ought to bounce along at a medium pace, head up and eyes bulging at such formerly uninteresting bits of landscape as rocks, ruts, and tangles of weed. When moving through a particularly nerve-wracking area, she shifts into "suck-back" mode. You know the feeling: it's visible in the photo below, in which I'm encouraging Consolation to investigate a water trough in ridecamp at Old Selam. The horse is moving forward but thinking backward, torn between curiosity (or duty) and apprehension.

"Sucking back" is all well and good during introductions to new sights. I can hardly expect my young horse, a prey animal through and through, to accept potential hazards without suspicion. However, sucking back while attempting to trot through familiar territory is not only frustrating, but immensely tiring for the rider, whose body must urge forward a horse that refuses to come up beneath it. If you haven't tried it, just believe me -- posting is only comfortable when the horse's energy fuels the motion.

I don't like to be uncomfortable. So, I decided to do something about it.

But what? Spooky and "looky" though she was, I had no interest in curbing Consolation's increased interest in her conditioning rides. My task, therefore, would be to preserve her energy while changing her behavior -- that is, to convert her spooks to speed.

Step one was to ensure that Consolation's "go" button remained firmly installed. Without a clear, mutually-understood set of signals by which to communicate, I had no hope of achieving my goal. Working first from the ground and then from the saddle, I reviewed the familiar progression: think, suggest, ask, tell, demand. (Physically, this translates to: look, lean, click/kiss, squeeze, kick.) After a brief tune-up, she responded well.

Time for step two. We headed out on a stretch of road we've covered scores of times during the summer's conditioning rides. As expected, Consolation's gait was elevated and her emotions jangling. Almost immediately, she spotted a potential hazard -- a fallen tree branch. The instant I felt Consolation begin to check -- a tension so subtle that it manifested only in a tiny shift of weight toward her hindquarters -- I urged her forward. Her suck-back escalated, and so did my "go" command. It took a moderate knock on the ribs to keep her trotting past the branch, but trot she did, and at a respectable speed.

Step three: repeat as many times as it takes. Obstacle by obstacle, mile after mile, we repeated the process. Hesitate, urge, suck-back, insist. I allowed her to swerve away from dubious objects, but she was not to slow her pace. Gradually, Consolation's suck-backs transformed into mere elevated trots, and their numbers decreased. Several rides later, she began to exhibit the behavior I wanted: increased speed in the face of increased apprehension.

Instead of stopping to stare, Consolation is learning to charge through or past her fears. In the early miles on a cool morning, when her energy levels and emotions soar, a quick think-suggest-ask progression from me irons her bouncy trot into smooth and speedy extension of the sort I've waited months for her to discover. We achieve faster times and better conditioning effect, and I'm looking forward to three LDs at Canyonlands like you wouldn't believe.

Let me tell you, my friends, it feels fantastic.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

High-Gloss Finish: Old Selam 2009

Sunday morning, September 6, 2009.

I stepped out of my tent in the pre-dawn, just as ridecamp began to stir. Occasional flashlights bobbed among the trailers, but most signs of life reached me as sounds instead of sights. Sleepy bumpings-about in trailers' living quarters. The stir of supplements into buckets of soaked beet pulp. Wickers of horses demanding hay.

I added my own, small sounds to the mix: crunching footfalls on the way to the outhouse, crinkle of a Larabar wrapper, soft words to Consolation as I tied on her halter. My significant other (who is not an endurance rider...yet...but can outrun, out-cycle, and out-swim me any day of the week, and shall henceforth be known as Ironman), applied himself to the noble mission of heating water for coffee while I secured a pair of Easyboot Bares on Consolation's forehooves. Her hind boots, stiff in the morning chill, would have none of it. I gave up on them in short order. Almost all Consolation's conditioning has been done barefoot on gravel, anyway, and the footing at Old Selam is generally good. We'd risk it.

Come 7:45, Consolation had finished her beet pulp and I my chilled Hay Day Hash. Her Stonewall rested comfortably on her back, water bottles full and ride card secured alongside riding gloves and a snack in crimson pommel bags. She stood calmly as I tightened the cinch.
The mild nervousness that had pricked my spine for days (How is she going to handle her first ride? Will my powerful, once-wild horse remember to follow my lead?) eased substantially. It faded further as we made for the starting line. Independent Consolation, whose lead-mare tendencies have so often conflicted with my own, carried me peaceably through the crowd as though she'd been racing for years.

No prance. No dance. No paw and snort. Excitable horses swirled around us, but Consolation only watched, in an attitude of polite curiosity, as the trail opened and the herd swarmed out of camp.

We gave the others a few minutes to get out of sight, then waved to Ironman and followed at a walk. Our goal was simply to finish, preferably without exceeding our daily adventure quota.
"You're going for Turtle, aren't you?" the ride manager called as we strolled by. I think Consolation may have been sleeping.

The moment we turned out of camp and up the forested trail, however, her blood pressure surged. Trees! Underbrush! And...omigod, what's THAT??? A slab of granite flung her around in a 180-degree spook-and-whirl, eyes bulging and haunches atremble.

Good grief. I righted myself in the saddle and turned Consolation back up the trail, easing past the equinivorous rock and attempting to maintain a trot (but achieving more of a lurching, trot-freeze-trot pattern) past a half-mile's worth of bugaboos before a small group of other riders came into view on the switchback ahead.
The other horses distracted Consolation sufficiently that she soon forgot she'd never been in a forest before. I guided her through a few, touchy miles as she dealt with another new concept -- travelling among other horses. We passed and were passed, dealt with a brief episode of restraint-induced pre-bucking head shakes (No, you may not race the other horses!), and finally settled into a comfortable pace with another first-time LD pair, Jackie and her chestnut Tennessee Walker, Nancy.

Despite being an experienced mountain horse, Nancy kept Jackie busy with a series of impatient behaviors involving a lot of sidepassing and a few crowhops. Consolation largely ignored these antics, and I was pleased by my relatively simple task of guiding her up the trail at her customary, slow -- if a bit elevated -- trot. We passed a few other horses on the long, uphill stretch, including an adorable Spanish Mustang mare and some gaited mounts.
I'd just settled in for what was shaping up to be an easy day when we arrived at the first water stop. Set to the side of the single-track at Mile 6, the troughs offered plenty of room for Consolation, Nancy, Jackie, and me to join the small cluster of competitors variously engaged in drinking and sponging. I dismounted and offered Consolation water, which she didn't drink, and from which she was soon distracted by Jackie's sharp cry. Her mare had managed to slip out of her headstall, step on it, and break one of the cheek pieces.

Oh, dear.

Jackie pondered the snapped leather while I carried on encouraging Consolation to drink. The riders ahead of us continued down the trail, setting Nancy to dancing while Consolation snoozed and another group joined us from behind. One of their riders leaned beside Jackie over the broken headstall...and Nancy made a break for it. In the midst of a scuffle and shout, the chestnut mare pulled free of Jackie's hold and galloped full-tilt up the trail and out of sight.

Consolation still hadn't drunk, but we'd waited ten minutes by now, the morning was cool, and I was ready to go. I rode ahead with a promise to tie Nancy along the trail if I had the good fortune to catch her. Alone now, Consolation took the trail with confidence, if not speed. We'd trotted less than a mile when Nancy came cantering and blowing back toward us. Consolation scarcely flicked an ear.
I hopped off and Nancy came right to me. I gave her a hasty pat, tied her to a nearby pine, mounted up on my own, stock-still horse, and was impressed when she again moved off without protest. So much for my worries that Consolation would focus on the other horses and become unmanageable!
Alone in the woods, I let my thoughts wander as Consolation thudded steadily up the hill. This, I marvelled, is the mare I sometimes feared might never trust me, never offer more than grudging respect. And yet, last night in camp, she whinned after me every time I left her alone at the trailer -- and here we are, together on the trail, trotting boldly into the great unknown.
We covered a few uphill miles alone before Jackie and Nancy caught up with us. Nancy, who doesn't believe in slow going, seemed to have worked off her behavioral issues and we carried on together in good form. We topped a hill to find Steve Bradley, ride photographer extraordinaire, waiting to snap our photos. Grinning, we called good mornings and trotted by him.

Several miles later, we trotted by him again.
...Wait a minute. Again?

Oh, crap.

Fortunately, we'd missed our turn less than a mile back, so it didn't take long for us to recover the appropriate trail and carry on with Consolation in the lead. She handled the trail with remarkable grace for a new, green mount. All I could have wished for was additional speed -- we were averaging a mere 5 miles per hour, including delays -- but I didn't wish too much even for that, considering that the trail involved a good deal more elevation gain than that to which Consolation is accustomed.

All the same, I was glad when ridecamp finally came into view, and even more glad when Consolation pulsed down almost immediately. We proceeded to the vet check and flew through with mostly A's. Our only B+ was on hydration -- a state of affairs that Consolation remedied with a long drink shortly before taking off for our second loop.
Jackie and Nancy, who had been outfitted with a fresh headstall, were leaving at the same time. We agreed that both horses could handle a faster pace, so we put Nancy in front to see if she would tow Consolation along. It worked. We zoomed through most of the second, 14-mile loop at a flying trot that gained us enough places to finish 17th and 18th out of 26 starts (minus 2 pulls).
At the finish, Consolation again pulsed down in plenty of time and vetted through with all A's, but for one B on gut sounds. That's what she gets for being a bit distractable during the hold, rather than settling into her hay! I'm not terribly worried about this being a problem in the future; as calmly as Consolation handled this initial ride, she's likely to be even more relaxed in the future.
Walking back to camp, where Ironman sat plucking away at his guitar and not expecting us for another forty minutes at least, I paused to rub Consolation's forehead. To finish is to win, they say, and I suppose that's true.

But it wasn't Consolation's first LD completion that left me brimming with deep and quiet satisfaction. Those 30 miles of unfamiliar trail, ridden together in an attitude of mutual trust, marked the end of a much longer journey -- a journey from untouchable horse and inexperienced trainer, through balk and bolt, over a mountain of conflicting wills, to the partnership I never quite stopped believing lay on the other side.

To finish is to win? Indeed -- and it is also to begin. We'll take our second loop faster.

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