Sunday, October 24, 2010
Thursday, October 7, 2010
Sunday, October 3, 2010
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Friday, September 17, 2010
Sunday, September 12, 2010
"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
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
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!
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
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
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
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.
...and headed to the ride meeting.
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.
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.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
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
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
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
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.
Mentor in Motion
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Saturday, April 17, 2010
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.
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
~ Spartacus Jones
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Sunday, April 4, 2010
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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Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Truth be told, all you have to do to get meals on this farm is stand around and look pretty -- if you're a horse, that is. I never could get it to work for me. Maybe I should try a new haircut?
Freebies notwithstanding, Consolation has worked hard enough this week that I'm glad to keep replenishing her smorgasbord of sweet, fine Oregon hay.
Last Sunday, my Facebook page was full of status updates from enthusiastic endurance riders in my area. We had sunshine and temperatures in the fifties. Never mind the stiff breeze, everybody saddled up at least one horse and put in some serious time on the trails.
Consolation and I were scheduled for a 14-mile conditioning ride, and we got it...plus a few. The weather was so fine that we looped wide and topped out at 18.5 miles in 3 hours, for Consolation's typical LSD speed of 6 mph. I hadn't planned on riding that far until the last weekend in March, but Consolation handled it beautifully -- barefoot on gravel all the way.
Consolation took Monday and Tuesday off, which worked out nicely because I needed to put in some serious time at the office. Besides, our persistent spring winds insisted on blowing...and blowing...and blowing...
This afternoon, despite scattered rain and still more wind, we scraped together enough sunshine for a thrilling 8 miles along our country roads. I've noticed before that the first ride after a long workout and adequate rest often features an extraordinarily buoyant horse. Today was no exception.
Strong and cocky as only an endurance horse can be, Consolation started our ride with a few devious attempts to sidetrack me from her workout, with the result that we returned to the soft edges of the plowed fields for some more interval work. As Jane of The Literary Horse (one of my all-time favorite blogs) pointed out in her comment on my Quick and Dirty post, prudent application of the "wet saddle pad" theory is a beautiful thing.
Note: Prudent application means directing extra energy into productive activity, NOT exercising a horse into submission. Critical distinction.
Anyway. Today's ride was...intense. We churned through plowed earth, sped along harder surfaces, spooked violently at everyday objects, and finished with a healthy trot up a gradual, 2-mile incline. 8 miles total, in exactly 80 minutes. 6 mph again, but a far different workout with a far different training effect. Today's ride contained a lot of interval work, pushing Consolation's anaerobic capacity for short periods, with active rest between.
It's during workouts like these that I'm glad I train hard physically, too, because I know exactly how my horse feels. (I set down my opinions on this subject last summer, in a post called Straight Sailing: Thoughts on Fitness for Endurance Riders.)
Intervals are exhilarating, but they're also tough. Done right, they're really tough. We did 'em right.
So, as I said, I was more than happy to offer Consolation an extra flake of hay tonight. She was more than happy to take me up on it. And I'm smiling to see her in her paddock right now, standing around, looking pretty.
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Sunday, February 28, 2010
As I pulled on my insulated breeches and headed outside with my Stonewall on one hip and helmet strapped firmly to my head, I knew I was in for an adventure. Sure enough, Consolation greeted me with a rare game of Ha-ha You Can't Catch Me, followed by a round of Dance at the End of the Rope while I excavated her from a layer of mud and tacked up.
She shied and blew as we headed out the gate, leaving the other horses whirling about their pens like kernels of corn in an air popper. The wind rushed in my ears, loudly enough that I twisted repeatedly in the saddle to check for oncoming cars. Meanwhile, Consolation walked in short, mincing steps that guaranteed her hindquarters would be well under her should her high head and pricked ears detect an excuse to run.
Unfortunately for me, excuses lurked behind every fencepost. Windblown trash, clattering tin on the roof of an old barn, dogs approaching unheard over the gusts, tumbleweeds and laundry flying ghostlike on the line. I might as well have been riding a stick of dynamite.
And (of course) it started to rain.
This didn't seem like a good day for the brisk, 8-mile trot I had planned. Consolation had plenty of energy for a ride twice that long, but I wasn't sure I wanted to spend many miles astride a beast whose mind was so tossed by emotion. Still, I was determined to log good workout. We've penciled in the 50 at Owyhee Spring on May 1 for our first race of the year, and that date ain't changin' because of a little February storm.
So, I decided to take advantage of a tool I have at my disposal for only a few weeks out of the year: dirt. Lots of it.
As soon as Consolation was warmed up by a few minutes' trotting, I guided her off the solid shoulder and into the freshly plowed (but not planted) edge of a field. Ahh, perfect. Deep and soft, but loamy instead of slick. Excellent footing to prepare for the sandy canyonlands trails -- and a safe outlet for Consolation's abundant energy.
The fields around In the Night Farm go on for miles. We took them at a smooth jog, Consolation's agitation gradually sinking into effort as her hooves plunged into the soil and her nostrils widened to pull in the energizing wind. Ever conscious of her precious tendons and ligaments, we took breaks to walk again on solid ground, returning to the fields when the storm-driven demons clustered again around her brain.
Four miles of that work was plenty. The last field, a gentle uphill along the tilled edge of a nursery bristling with ornamental trees, painted her neck and shoulders with sweat. When it ended, I dismounted to walk the final half-mile, stroking the dampened curlicues of her coat, satisfied by the short period in which her respiration eased.
Interval training has unquestionable benefits, and I was pleased with the day's work as I returned Consolation to her pen. Nevertheless, we're still due for a stretch of long, slow distance work -- 14 miles later today, according to my Conditioning Log. Let's hope the weather cooperates.
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Wednesday, February 3, 2010
I confess that I was slightly nervous. As many miles as I post, as many hours as I spend safe in the saddle, I can never quite forget that with riding -- particularly on green horses after winter layoffs -- comes a set of significant, undeniable perils. It doesn't help that I can't escape my temperamental hamstring, a constant reminder of the risk inherent in our sport.
Well. There's nothing to do but do it anyway. Visualize the best result (which is thereby made more likely), quash the fear, focus on passion, trust your skill. Every ride, it's easier. As a good friend of mine noted, the worst parts are takeoffs and landings.
Yes, I agreed...in more senses than one! But I needn't have worried.
Swinging astride felt like exploring my garden in early March. Here, the ghosts of perennials awaiting spring. There, some windblown clutter for sweeping out. Everywhere, the earth sweet and solid and familiar, pliant in my hands, rich with promise.
All the miles Consolation and I have covered together came rushing back, tumbling one over the other in their haste, chattering in our small, secret language hammered out on the anvil of experience. The occasional, impatient dip of her head. The respondent press of my calves against her ribs. A word, a breath, a hint of give. The sorting out of which job belongs to whom, reminders that all belong to both.
We spent half a mile on static, more or less, as together we remembered. And then? The ancient, centaur magic! The reins turned to blood that flowed between us. We talked like old girlfriends clutching hands across the table at an empty bar, grinning, pulled toward one another by conspiratorial murmur."Remember the old days?"
"The wild days, you mean? Hell, yeah."
"Those are the ones. We should do that again."
And we waved for another round. _________________________________________________________
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Saturday, January 30, 2010
Many of you have commented on Consolation's name -- how appropriate it is to our journey, how you read it as Constellation for weeks, how it is strange and somehow perfect.
Well. The truth is that she was originally registered under another name. I changed it -- registry and all -- to suit the circumstances of the time. Yet even I have been surprised by how thoroughly this powerful mare has lived up to her gentle name. This is our story.
Consolation was born a very dark black-bay with an odd star on her forehead in the shape of her native state. Being a filly by Arivaca out of Dove, she was christened Idaho Dove. I first saw her as a two-year-old, one of the most awkward in the herd, when her coat was greying in patches and her star had faded like Venus into daybreak.
Among the other fillies -- the blacks, the chestnuts, the grullas and buckskins and bays -- she stood out, but not for anything good. I knew her bloodlines were strong, but was not impressed with the gangling beast I saw. The others were rounder, brighter, altogether lovelier.
This was in the fields of Quien Sabe, where I worked weekends for a year and lived for several months with the goal of training to take over care of the Barb preservation project as its founder aged. Moving to the ranch had been a lifetime decision involving the sale of my house in town and sacrifice of a decent job, but it was a dream the likes of which few people ever have opportunity to chase.
Chase it I did, but it got away. Relationships aren't always what we'd like them to be, and a few months at the ranch proved enough. It wasn't going to work out. Sadly, painfully, I made the wrenching decision to return to life in the mainstream and leave the Barb project to its fate.
A few of the Barbs came with me. They were payment for labor completed, hours spent, hopes dashed. Insider and Tuetano, Acey and Sandstorm...and Idaho Dove. Though I had hand-picked most of the others, that gray filly was not one I'd have selected. But, she was a Barb with good bloodlines, and one of the few made available as payment. I accepted her -- and re-named her Consolation.
She was, you see, a sparkle left behind when the meteor fell. A piece of Quien Sabe, beloved, carried home from battles lost. The scent of a lover, long abandoned, left upon clothing at the back of a drawer. I determined to cherish her, awkwardness and all.
But oh! As time passed and her belly grew round with the foal she carried, the rest of her body changed too. She transformed from a disorganized filly into a mare capable of stopping me in my tracks when I glanced up from farm work or from the window of my house. To this day, I find myself gazing at her, awed, stunned by her balanced proportions and regal carriage.
There is more. The part you already know. The part about the years of heart poured into dear Aaruba, molding him from a disturbed colt into a promising endurance prospect. The part about his battle with ulcers and chronic colic and, eventually, the devastating decision to retire him well before his prime.
But she was waiting, my Consolation. Waiting to occupy my mind and emotions with the challenges only a willful and intelligent mare can offer. Waiting for me to become who she needed, so she could do the same for me.
We finished a few races last year. Little triumphs, in the big scheme of things. Big triumphs, in our little sphere. And really, does anything else matter when you're among horses? This is their gift to us -- the shrinking down of all that matters. Here. Now. You. Me. There is no tomorrow. No one else. This is freedom, my friends. This is Consolation.
Mentor in Motion
On the Wings of a Storm
High Gloss Finish: Old Selam 2009
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Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
It was just a walk. And yet, it was so much more. After a long winter's nap, it's nearly time to get serious about conditioning for the 2010 endurance season. I've spent some time on the AERC website lately, checking out the ride calendar for the northwest region. It includes a new ride, the Owyhee Spring on May 1, that sounds perfect for Consolation's first race of the year -- the 55, of course, because we know she can do it. And so, this walk was step one in preparing us for what I hope will be the first of many strong, sound completions in 2010.
Though unseasonably warm at 45 degrees, today's weather also featured blustering wind and all the equine antics that come with it. I set out with several purposes in mind:
- To reintroduce Consolation to the concept of having a career. After several months off, her mind has clearly relaxed into its natural state; she was hard to catch and reluctant to stand for brushing, and our first mile out was filled with silliness that I largely chose to ignore, so long as she abided by the basic rules (no crowding, keep slack in the lead, mimic my pace).
- To reestablish trust and leadership in Consolation's mind and emotions. I've often repeated that "the horse you lead is the horse you ride," and I want to be sure my willful mare and I are thinking together before I mount up.
- To begin toughening Consolation's hooves for miles of barefoot travel on gravel and occasional pavement. Though she's spent the winter on a dry lot of variously frozen, snow-covered, and muddy soil, Consolation has excellent feet and showed no sign of tenderness during today's 3.5 mile trek.
- To prepare Consolation's mind for being ridden in windy conditions. For all that we completed several races together last year, she is still a green and powerful mare. Since we'll need to condition on windy days if we're to be ready for that 55-miler in May, I figure it's best to start early on getting her accustomed to the gusty landscape.
Our training session offered benefits for me, as well:
- Walking is remarkably good for human health. For all that I prefer heavy lifting and high intensity interval training, there's no denying that moving slowly has a remarkably metabolism-boosting hormonal effect on the body.
- Even better, today's walk offered a simple way to ease back into the habit of horsemanship. I've said before that horse training is a discipline, like writing a novel or eating well, that thrives in an environment of commitment. It's time to buckle down for 2010, and I'm feeling more ready every day.
Yes, it was just a walk. But it was a start. A slow, easy, purposeful start start toward whatever adventures this year in endurance may hold. And out there, leaning hard into the wind that lifted Consolation's mane and whipped my hair free of its braid, I couldn't help but recall a quote by Jimmy Dean: "I can't change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination."
Come what may.
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