Monday, April 27, 2009

Dear Choir:

If you cannot train your dog to stay on your property no matter what, find a way to confine it. Period. Because if you don't, someone could get killed. On Saturday, that someone could have been me. And I do not appreciate it.

Take responsiblity before irresponsibility takes a life.

And everybody said Amen,


Consolation and I had a nice ride on Saturday. It was sunny out. Light breeze. Cheerful farm workers waving from the fields as we trotted by. Hawks balanced like tight-rope walkers on threads of sky. Perfect.

Early in the ride, we had a little scare when a merle mixed breed ran across the road to bark at us. Consolation whirled and ran a few strides, but a deep seat, calm voice, and tug on the reins brought her back under control.

We turned around and continued down the road. The dog, which had retreated across its yard, came at us again. This time, Consolation stood her ground while I ordered it it back. It stopped. That dog got a good scare off me when it was a puppy, and it knows my voice. We carried on.

Two miles later, our geriatric friend the laborador lumbered along the edge of his lawn, woofing warning. "It's just us again, Black Dog," I called. His cloudy eyes blinked and tail wagged. We carried on.

Half a mile up the road, the rottweiler stud hit the wall of his chain-link kennel with the force of a charging bull, all bared fangs and hackles with spiked collar between. Consolation flinched, but she's nearly convinced by now that this predator can't reach her. We carried on.

At the end of our sixth mile, we passed the farm where lives the dog I hate most: a Border Collie with irresponsible owners. This dog isn't the run-bark-and-back-off sort. He's a herder, and not a polite one. He can't be yelled down. Even Aaruba, who is very responsive to me and brave about dogs, has a hard time facing up to him because he's so quick and focused on getting around to a horse's hind end.

Fortunately, the whole front side of the farm is free of concealing bushes, so I typically have time to see the collie coming and dismount. Normally, there follows a period of trying to keep my horse calm and handwalk her out of range while the dog's owner limps out, red-faced with impotent shouting, to retrieve his beast. We've talked before, that owner and I, about the danger his dog poses to me, my horse, and itself. But no fence has been erected, no stake and chain installed.

On Saturday, I was pleased that the collie didn't seem to be home. Consolation and I walked briskly past and were half a field away when I pulled her off the road to let a couple large, white utility trucks roar by. Sane as Consolation normally is about traffic, I was surprised when she spooked as the second truck passed. She leaped forward, and I shifted again into calming mode. Molassas voice, "Easy-easy, Lady, I've got you." Deep seat, low reins.

But this time, she didn't stop. She sped up. Her head and back rose. Not the truck, then. Something else. That dog.

Sure enough, I glanced back to see a flash of black and white snapping around Consolation's near flank. It must have nearly been hit by the truck in its haste to ambush us.

Great. Now what? The three of us were flying across a plowed field -- far too fast to attempt a single-rein-stop -- at an angle that would force us either over a 12-foot dropoff into the irrigation canal or out onto the road. I tried circling left, away from danger, but the dog was on that side and Consolation wouldn't turn.

I could, of course, try to ride it out in the hope the collie would stop before we hit the edge of the field...but I know that dog. He doesn't stop.

So, Plan B. B as in Bail and try to keep hold of the rein. Not ideal, but better than the alternative. I was just preparing to act when Consolation rendered my efforts unnecessary. She let loose a twisting, double-barrel kick that unseated me and would have sent that dog to the seventh circle of hell, had she connected.

It's hard to say what happened next. I don't remember falling, but the landing is pretty clear. I came down on Consolation's off side, directly on my back with my right leg still in the stirrup. My head slammed down into the back of my helmet. My first thought was, thank God for that helmet. I'm okay. And then, where's Consolation?

I scrambled to my feet. Oh, [insert expletive of choice]! Leg pain. Bad.

On the bright side, my fall seemed to have scared the collie off. Consolation stood forty feet away, facing me, her great black eyes full of questions...and trust. She wanted her leader. After all the bonding issues we've had, it was almost worth the tumble to see that face looking back at me.

She stood calmly while I retrieved her and checked her over. No apparent damage. I wasn't so lucky. As I led her back toward the road and the adreneline drained away, my leg demanded an increasing amount of attention. So, I ignored the imbecilic owner's belated attempt to recall his dog. He was a quarter mile away, in the wrong direction. I needed to get myself and my horse home.

Back on the road, I mounted gingerly. Half a mile's ride was enough. The damage to my leg seemed to be concentrated on the lower, rear inside of my right thigh. Already swelling, it made sitting astride both uncomfortable and unsafe. I dismounted, but walking wasn't much better. Cell phone time.

I called Travis. No answer. Called again. Left a message: "I'm okay, but I need you to call me right away." Walked on. Called a friend who lives nearby. He got in his truck and headed my way.

Meanwhile, I tried riding again but got off when swirls of distortion began swimming like soap bubbles across my vision. So I gimped another mile, using Milady's neck as a crutch, before help arrived.

Being only on more mile from home, I sent my friend to fetch Travis. He led Consolation the rest of the way and put her up while I hitched a ride in the truck and headed straight for the ice and ibuprofen. My vision had cleared and I experienced no further symptoms of head injury, so I decided against a trip to the ER.

By Sunday morning, my head was back to normal (well, as normal as it ever was -- which is to say, not very), but my leg was clearly not. I haven't figured out yet how much damage is done. I'm hoping it's just a massive bruise rather than a stretched or torn hamstring. My knee may or may not be affected. We'll see.

Either way, it could have been worse. Had those trucks not come along to boost us off the shoulder, Consolation and I would likely have been chased down the road instead of across a field. The same fall on pavement instead of freshly-plowed soil could have been fatal -- even with a helmet. It could also have broken any number of bones from hip to shoulder and given me one hell of a road rash. We could have been struck by a car. We could have been killed.

Travis is all for shooting the dog.

Me? I'd rather set my sights on the owner.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Shot in the Dark: Goals

If you are bored with life, if you don't get up every morning with a burning desire to do things -- you don't have enough goals.

~ Lou Holtz

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Message in a Bottle Rocket

Aaruba came home to In the Night Farm on a July afternoon in 2006.

The first thing he did was look for more space in which to move around. Failing that, he paced. It was the first of many signals that Aaruba would never be content to stand around.

Because of his shaky training foundations and highly emotional nature, as well as my own need to build confidence, we spent an entire year on groundwork. If the was one thing he never lacked, it was energy. When we finally we began training on the trail in July 2007, his tireless nature remained intact. From the first day forward, he never stopped asking, "Can we go? Can we? Farther? Faster?"

By summer 2008, we'd settled at last into a steady conditioning schedule involving roughly 40 miles of long, slow distance work per week. At long last, Aaruba seemed happy. He thrived on effort and motion, loved nothing better than the open road. Endurance was his life.

These days, post-colic, he finds himself back in that pen, unemployed and disconsolate. Watching him breaks my heart; it's like seeing a high-powered businessman who retired and wishes he hadn't, or an Olympic hopeful rendered quadriplegic by an automobile accident. Knowing him as I do, I see that he is in frequent pain. I think it is minor, but history shows that he's exceptionally stoic. He plays anyway, more than I wish he would. Every day, I watch him run and buck and spin about in search of purpose and release.

As Aaruba emerged from his recent colic emergency, I talked at length with several vets who know him well, both healthy and ill. All agreed that if Aaruba were the sort of horse that could be content with an occasional amble along the irrigation ditch, that would be the safest way of life for him, given the probability that he suffers from small intestinal adhesions. But Aaruba is not that sort of horse. He had "Fit Arab Syndrome" long before he was actually fit. He's as likely to hurt himself in the pasture due to lack of work as is he is to suffer damage during an extended trot under saddle. In short, I must consider the whole horse.

It is unfair that he hasn't the power to decide for himself. Lacking a voice, he must rely on me -- his best friend, I hope -- to listen as carefully as I can and choose for him.

Some of the answers are obvious. He wants to go! Yesterday, I tossed my Stonewall over his back for his third, short ride since he returned from the hospital a month ago. We walked the first mile, warming up, reasonably calm. But when I asked for a trot, I got full-on powerhouse mode. I wasn't wearing a watch, but I'd put that trot in the neighborhood of 18 mph. We cantered a little, too, which was heaven for us both.

And then, reluctantly, we walked again. Two miles of speed, for a horse accustomed to 15, was not enough. Aaruba turned almost instantly into a horse I didn't know. Clearly having outrun his brain, he danced and jigged, head high enough to burn his ears on the setting sun. He got light in front and even half-reared once -- a move entirely out of character for my sweet, if energetic, boy.

We circled, flexed, worked on "head-down" cues, and made it home safely. Dismounting, I felt as though I owed him an apology. I've tried to take it easy on him, you see, tried to keep his workload very low in the interest of minimizing discomfort in his gut. Alas, yesterday's message was loud and clear: I am not okay. Mental anguish is worse than physical. Please, please, please take me out more.

So I will. Perhaps there's balance to be found in more frequent, less intense rides. Or somewhere else. I'll look until I find it.

And perhaps, one day, I will be worthy of this kind award from Kimberly Cox Carneal, who is an excellent writer and the author of one of my favorite blogs, Enlightened Horsemanship Through Touch. Thanks for the encouragement, Kim. I'll do my best to earn this.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tough (Luck), Sucker

Well, folks. Today's the day!

The third annual Owyhee Tough Sucker no-frills 25, 50, and 75 mile rides started this morning from the Teeter ranch in Oreana. The sun is shining, the breeze is brisk, the air is crisp...and I am sitting in front of my computer.

Alas, I had planned for the Tough Sucker to be Aaruba's and my first 50 of the season. Before his serious impaction colic in March, he was nearly fit to take it on at a moderate pace. Now, due to the probable diagnosis of small intestinal adhesions, he's eating his way through a very early retirement. His frustration is at least as apparent as mine. There's no question he'd rather be in the canyonlands right now, tearing up the trails.

So would I. My backup plan was to haul Consolation down to Oreana to do the 10-mile trail ride with a friend's husband, who was also starting an endurance prospect. But, as it turned out, he decided to sell said prospect. Meanwhile, my truck announced that now is the time for a new transmission, and my little car just wasn't up to towing the gooseneck today. There went the backup plan.

On the bright side, I'm looking forward to a date with another friend, whose second-year endurance horse is laid up with a pulled muscle, to do the trail ride at Eagle Extreme next month. We'll both be on greenies in the stop-and-stare phase of training, so we're hoping not to have too much of an adventure.

Today, though, I could go for some adventure. Perhaps I'll take a little ride on Aaruba. As always, he'll try to pack 50 miles into 5 -- and I will close my eyes and feel the wind on my face, and imagine we're following that trail of pink markers like breadcrumbs through the desert, one last time.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

All in Good Time

For the past several weeks, I've been riding Consolation at a walk and trot for distances ranging from 4 to 6 miles, up and down the long, gradual inclines that characterize the landscape around In the Night Farm. This basic, early conditioning for the horse's muscular and cardiovascular systems lays foundational fitness without damaging joints, bones, and connective tissue. More importantly, in Consolation's case, it offers a low-pressure environment in which to advance her training in preparation for her hopeful career as an endurance mount.

The potential for high pressure, of course, comes from me. I'm the one who hopes Consolation is ready for her first Limited Distance ride at the Owyhee Fandango. I'm the one who'd like to do at least a couple 50's on her this year. I'm the one who cares if it takes two hours to cover 4 miles because my horse is balky.

Last I checked, Consolation doesn't wear a watch. Lately, neither do I.

You all know I'm a bit obsessive about my endurance conditioning log, in which I record ride times, distances, speeds, and other data in minute detail. Without a watch, I can't record time. Without time, I can't record speed. That leaves me with distance...and a mind properly focused on taking the time it takes to give my horse what she needs.

What does she need? Time.

Consolation has never been an easy horse to train. Interestingly, she was relatively easy to gentle, in the beginning. Self-confidence will do that for a horse. But the same qualities that made her less fearful than others in the gentling pen make her less compliant on the trail -- which challenges me to improve my game.

These recent weeks have served up a crash course in patience, consistency, persistence, and heels-to-the-pavement, independent-seat riding for me, and a series of hard-earned breakthroughs for Consolation. Ride by ride, despite many setbacks and exceptions, I see her breaking free of balkiness and spookiness, striding out with confidence and even delight, taking tentative steps toward partnership. Very slowly, I can feel the balance tipping from "just started under saddle" to "just needs miles."

Today, we'll do our first long ride. Eight miles is hardly "long" by endurance standards, but it'll be the farthest Consolation and I have ever attempted to travel together. We'll explore some territory that's new to her, trot when we can, walk when we must. Maybe we'll stop for a little grazing break halfway.

I won't wear a watch. Not yet. That moment will come -- all in good time.

Post-ride update: She was fantastic! We had one of those golden rides that tells me I'm doing something right, after all. We all need a flight like that, once in a while. Thanks, Milady.

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