Friday, April 30, 2010

Rough Road Ahead

I got some bad news this week.

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

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

"Well, what can you do?"

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

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

Photo by Michael Ensch

Last night, I got another piece of interesting news.

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

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

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

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

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

Best we can do.
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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Fit for Fifty!

We weren't lost.

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

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

But we'll get to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 miles.

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

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

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

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Friday, April 9, 2010

Shot in the Dark: Restoration

Horse time is the best antidote to people time.

~ Spartacus Jones


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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Lessons in Losing

Remember Inara?

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

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

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

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

Sandstorm was easy. She knows the ropes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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