Sunday, April 05, 2015

The diver and the ex-racehorse

Once upon a time, there was a woman who--like many women do--discovered horses later in her life and, once hooked, jumped in with her whole being. Then, a little bit later in life, she discovered scuba diving and--as with the horse fetish--dove in with all the enthusiasm previously laser-focused on soft noses and not landing on the hard ground.

Much hard work and cool sunglasses make for pretty poses.
 Why on earth she, er, I decided we needed two such gear-intensive, expensive hobbies could be worthy of a deep and philosophical conversation... or seven. Luckily, there just isn't time to figure out what I'm making up for with all of this because there's just too much fun to be had.

A gnome in scuba gear!
However, trying to balance the two interests has not been easy and--try as I might--there doesn't seem to be a way to do both things at once. I'm also pretty sure the warranty on my gear would not cover horse-induced damage like trampling or being dragged through the sand--probably with me still in it.

Forcing my horse to wear scuba gear in the name of art?
"Hey, Calabar.. why don't you hang out on the beach and wait for me while I go play underwater for an hour? Oh, and do you mind if I weigh an extra 70 pounds with all my gear on on our way out to the beach? What was that? Carry it my own damn self through the deep sand?, okay."

It is plausible that he would hang out on the beach and wait for me. Maybe. Carrying the gear out is a definite no. He says he is NOT a pack mule and the beach is for rolling in the deep sand and running on the hard-packed sand, not for doing something silly like going underwater. Who would want to do that, anyway? Crazy human.

"You are out of your mind, silly little neoprene-clad human."
And Lena says things that inflate--like BCDs--are for eventers, not cow ponies. Notice there are no photos of her in anything resembling scuba gear, oh no.

"Oh, no. There will be no scuba gear on this beautiful face."
So until I find a way to merge my two worlds--which would likely incur the wrath of animal rights organizations across the planet--I'll just have to dive some days and ride other days.

Life could really be a lot worse.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Writing and riding

I'm not sure how it happened that my time has been so swallowed up by other things that blogging has fallen off my to-do list but it very obviously has done just that. Much of it stems from the overwhelming feeling that revelations and insights about my relationships with the horses could not possibly be as interesting to others as they are (sometimes) earthshaking--or at very least head-shaking--to me.

Calabar and I are still working on our riding and we seem to be cooperating better than ever these days. He needs a confident hand--or as Allie says, more leg--and somewhere along the line, I found that in myself. At least most days. It also appears I've forgotten how to ride in a western saddle, so I'll be working on that with Lena and hoping I don't irritate her too much in the process. My left foot refuses to stay in the stirrup at a canter, regardless of what direction I'm going or how short the stirrups are. I have no idea what's causing this so my only solution is to toss that heavy saddle up more than every other month or so.

After Allie tortured my by raising the stirrups
We still have not gotten out on the trail this year but the trailer is in good repair so if I can stop making us too many plans on the weekends, it could actually happen now that weekends are back to normal. I'd been working Sunday-Thursday which left Saturday as cleaning and family errand day. Convincing Steve to play hooky on a Friday was never as successful as I'd hoped it might be. Oh, well.

It's like riding a bike? 
We did get up to Slide in July and had a nice time despite inferno-like temperatures. We didn't ride as much as we planned because of the heat, but Allie got to work the mechanical cow on Lena, Adrienne got to ride again after a long (6 years?) break and we got to catch up with Ike and Cheri. It's a gift in life to know people you can reconnect with easily, like the last two years were only a couple weeks. The plan is to visit in October next year when temperatures should be less horrid.

Lena shows Allie how to chase a cow
Calabar and Lena also got to meet Tuffy which was an interesting experience for all of us. Neither of them, to my knowledge, has been around foals much. They were totally enthralled with this tiny baby horse. Even my big, brown gelding was completely enchanted by this little being.

"His nose is so small!"
"No, we can't have one," we said.

"Are you SURE?" they said.

"Tuffy is right there!"
"Oh, yes. We're sure."

Tuffy and his momma, Truly a Hot Pepper
So.. I am continuing to learn and am finding a bond with Calabar that deepens with every ride. Do I have the need to share each and every milestone? Not so much any more. I have some other writing projects I'm working on and he plays a part in them, as does Lena, but my journey here has hit a bit of an impasse. Will I come back to it? I probably will here and there. I love my horses and the joy, grounding and comic relief they toss into my life on a regular basis. Sharing that with the world is simply not a priority for me anymore.

I think that's okay, at least for now.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Headed to Slide Mountain

After a lovely diving vacation last month, it's pony time! We are headed up to Slide Mountain Ranch with Calabar and Lena to spend some time trail riding, swimming, hiking and whatever other trouble we can get into up in the Sierra foothills.

Wreck diving in Cozumel--another great if expensive hobby!
Ike and Cheri no longer have the guest business, so we are staying in a house in Twain Harte near the lake and leaving the horses at the ranch. This means they will not hear the toilet flush at 4 a.m. and assume I'm coming out to feed them. Or maybe they will but I won't be there to hear them start whinnying for breakfast. I am trying not to be concerned about not being right there and am mostly succeeding. It would have been better if we'd had more practice being away from the barn of late, but with life being life, that hasn't happened.

It's been way too long since we had them out, even just to trail ride. That's nearly entirely due to my work schedule--I was working Sunday to Thursday, with Friday and Saturday off, leaving us with only Saturday to do family stuff. I went back to Monday through Friday after we got back from Cozumel, so a normal weekend schedule should allow for more trail riding. However, with this, that and several other things, we still didn't get them out before we head up to Slide on Thursday.

I'm sure it will be fine and they will settle down nicely. Certainly they will after a few hundred laps around the arena and up and down the mountain behind the ranch.

Really, though, it's just a chance to get away and see people we really like and play with the horses away from the arena.

Maybe this time I can even get Calabar to work the mechanical cow!

"Right," he says, "Only real cows, not bags of socks."

"Why am I chasing a bag of socks?"

"Duh! Because it's fun, Calabar!!" says Lena.
Updates on Ike and Cheri, the new foal and Calabar's progress with cow chasing--plus plenty of pictures of Lena actually working the mechanical cow because she thinks it's fun--coming soon.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Calabar the Calm

That title is not a typo. I'm not 100% sure it's not a behavioral anomaly, but it is not a typo. Not lately. And while I don't want to jinx myself (or him), I also want to give the big brown horse some credit for his hard work and dedication to being cooperative. Especially at dinner time. (His, not mine. Mine comes after his.)

What are we doing? Besides drooling a little, I mean.
He is attentive. He is relaxed. He is full of curiosity and playfulness. I have been experimenting with loose reins and a bareback pad, relying on balance and trust--letting go of a need to completely control him--and believing we work better together than bouncing in different directions. This is hard at a trot where there is a lot of bouncing but it turns out we can actually get in sync. The canter is, however, much more divine.

It seems when I let go of the need to control, which stems from the fear that still lurks in my psyche, he relaxes. And when he relaxes, I relax.


Epiphanies are sometimes so very hard to get to. At least until they hit you in the head with a resounding "thunk." Or "think." It might be "think." Unless I think too much and then the thunk is better.

As I've often said--though likely in different words and turns of phrase--going with logic would have brought me to a different horse. The thunk of my heart when I first met Calabar definitely overrode the think part of the equation.

Leading with my heart has (mostly always) turned out to be the right thing. Even if he reverts to Calabar the goofy tomorrow, it's been well worth it to walk, trot and canter this road with him.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Missed May entirely

Where on earth did May go? Jeeze.

There were some changes in my life but I can't believe that I missed an entire month! However, it is apparent that I did.

Many changes. I parted ways with Neigh Savers, which was hard but likely best for all concerned. Especially best for Calabar and Lena who would prefer I spend time with them and not horses that are not, well, mine.

I started working Fridays at the dive shop I frequent (Sonoma Coast Divers) because I love diving almost as much as I love horse smooches. Which is a lot in both cases. This means I technically only have one day off a week but it is worth it! Retail is a whole new experience and I'm learning more about another sport I love! How awesome is that?

Calabar on my tank. My worlds collide.
In my now more limited spare time, I'm working on a project that combines both my passions--horses and diving--in a way that I hope will impact the lives of humans and horses--especially ex-racehorses.

We are headed to Cozumel on June 20th for a dive trip. Expect interesting updates!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Who's listened to you lately?

Horses have a lot to say but humans are not always good at hearing it. We get caught up in our own timelines, our own plans, and stop hearing anything outside of our own heads as we pursue that goal on the horizon, whatever it may be. This strategy can keep us focused on the end game but might make us miss some things on the way. Like an opportunity to connect with a big, brown racehorse. Or the universe. Could be the same thing some days of the week.

He says great things every day
As they transition away from their life on the track, ex-racehorses can be surprised by the new things they encounter in this strange new world of not-the-track. They adapt well--with a little time and patience--to cross-ties, being outdoors, dirt, heavy western saddles, weird games non-track people play and more. What sometimes surprises them most is having someone slow down and listen to them.

The people on the track (for the most part) do love and care for their horses. They know them, their personalities and quirks, and do what needs to get done to keep horses healthy and running. And they spend a lot of time doing that. But it is a business and very often things have to happen on a timeline--a human timeline around workout times and race days and the ticking of a clock that a horse doesn't necessarily hear.

Despite the human energy around them, some horses expect you to be listening. Lena not only expects it, she demands it and woe betide you if you go off somewhere else while you're riding. The ground can be nearly as unforgiving. She is a very expressive (some might say dramatic) mare. Not very affectionate in general but you can always tell when she doesn't feel well because suddenly her big head is in your chest with the likelihood being that she'd sit in your lap if she could. That's when--if you're listening--you be sure you have the vet's phone number close at hand. She's also extremely good at telling you when you are off-kilter in the saddle. "I think I'll zig zag now because you are posting on some crazy diagonal." 

Calabar did not expect anyone to hear what he had to say. Not really. He came to me certain he had to take charge because it was unlikely I would fathom the thoughts going on inside his big brown head. He was right at first, but he--more than any other horse--taught me to listen. There have been many incidents along the way that have cemented our relationship--from what liniment he prefers to saving him from the yellow jackets--and I've had the enormous pleasure to watch others prove themselves to him by simply hearing what he had to say. 

"Oh, I think I ran a hot nail," said my farrier after Calabar reared slightly in the cross ties while Mike held a front foot. Did Mike get mad? Nope. And not without cause. Calabar has not always been overly-cooperative for Mike. Mike stopped, pulled the nail and I swear I saw relief flow across that big brown horse's face. He even smooched Mike and has become easier to shoe since then.

Often the racehorses I've worked with are like Calabar. They've seen a lot, they've been handled a lot, but they haven't always been listened to a lot. Or not always when it mattered. And it's not just racehorses in that boat, there are plenty of horses out in the world with owners who don't want to or can't listen for whatever their reasons are. Those humans are missing a very important part of the conversation, of the relationship they could have with their horse, but they must like that path through the world.

I have seen that look of surprise and relief on more than one of the Neigh Savers horses I've worked with when I didn't get mad, when I didn't force an issue, when I stopped and said, "How can I explain this to you better so you understand me?" Or, "Why is this thing hard for you?" Or "What do you feel like doing today?" Or even just, "How do you like to be groomed?" Maybe this spot is sore or that spot needs a little massage or there is an itchy spot that just has to get scratched. Find them and show that you are paying attention, that you hear them even when they don't use words.

Nick is saying "I need something to do!"
Many of the horses also like to know what it is your doing. Show them the product you're going to spray on them, let them smell it. Take the time to let them understand and agree and you start to build that conversation so when the bigger issues come up--like cross ties and western saddles and large bodies of water--you've got a track record of trust behind you. 

It can get frustrating sometimes, of course. You've got stuff to do and the horse is bouncing away from you for some unknown (to you) reason. Lena likes to move. She likes to dance and prance and will spook just to entertain herself on occasion. Getting aggravated really doesn't help and merely lets her know she's won the latest round. Pretending you actually knew what she was going to do, however, that accomplishes many feats. In other words, go with it then find a way to slow her down and engage her brain more so there is less mental energy going towards practicing her sideways canter.

In other words, you also have to know when they are playing a game and call them on it. Ironically, this ends up building trust because they realize you have them figured out at least a little bit which means you were actually paying attention. Listening. Observing. Smothering laughter on occasion.

When you've been practicing your listening skills, it means you can often anticipate behavior.Any chance to prove you know what you're doing gives you that much more confidence and leadership which goes a very long way with 1,200 pounds. Not over-reacting when they do their silly thing and controlling it when they do it is sometimes anti-climactic but much more fun. Especially when they realize they've been had.

After a lunge session in the indoor arena awhile back, Calabar spied Peter doing battle with the terrifying patch of blackberry bushes in the back corner of the outdoor arena and we absolutely had to investigate. He didn't drag me but our pace was brisk and he would have had his nose in the bushes as Peter flung cut pieces around us if I hadn't kept the brown horse back a step or two. 

After our inspection, we turned to leave and I KNEW as soon as the butt end of my horse was pointed towards Peter and the bushes, Calabar would do what I call a "spin and face the danger." I could say I am so connected to my horse that I picked up on his psychic energy but it's really just as simple as sensing his more obvious Thoroughbred energy and reviewing past experiences.

So, yes. He did spin--a beautiful pivot off his front end, his butt swinging away from me at an impressive rate of speed--just so he could see what he'd just been looking at two seconds ago.. I looked up at him and asked if he was done. He looked at me, sighed and dropped his head to a normal level as we sauntered back up the hill so he could finish his dinner. There was a time I would have gotten mad and over-corrected him, but over time I stopped that silly human behavior (because he learned to stay out of my space with all his antics) and our adventures ceased escalating into madness. Funny how that works.

Listening, tuning out the background noise in your own head and just paying attention, is hard. But man is it ever worth it when they know you've actually heard them and give you their trust. Even if it's just for an instant, it's an instant you can build on, an instant you won't get without stopping to hear.

The journey doesn't end, it is ever-evolving

Recently, someone responded to a message in a way that intimated they thought I was under delusions of grandeur about my horsemanship abilities.

Not an expert for sure, just willing to keep trying to be better.
Good gravy, no. Obviously, they have never read this blog wherein I frequently highlight my foibles, faults and faux pas and where many of you ever-so-kindly remind me not to be too hard on myself.

All the steps we take, especially the ones that go backwards, are part of the journey towards being a better horse person but there is no ultimate finish, no golden carrot of perfect horsemanship. There is only the next thing to learn and the next "Aha!" be it with Calabar or Lena or any other horse that might cross my path.

Calabar has probably taught me the most but Lena has offered her own version of the world as she knows (and prefers) it. Using Calabar tools on Lena won't always work. In fact, they rarely work. Going over a jump is a great way to get Calabar to have fun and relax so we can go back to (as he says) "dumb" trot work. To Lena, going over a jump  is a horrid form of torture to be rushed through as quickly as possible so we can get back to more fun things. Like cantering big, lazy circles or running barrels.

Learning is hard and sometimes frustrating but without the willingness to question what you're doing and try new things, it is hard to improve or grow in anything you do. Some people have a hard time with this, hate getting out of their comfort zone and facing a little risk. Steve recently came back from a work trip where he suggested some of the other programmers learn a new version of a programming language in order to update one of the systems. They looked at him like he had three heads.

I sometimes feel like I have three heads--all of them telling me to do something else--when I'm working through something with the horses, but that's actually the best part. There is always more to learn, more they can teach you, about everything. How to ride is only part of it. Your energy and the way it impacts those around you. How to listen. How to treat mystery wounds and sporadic ailments that appear out of nowhere.

Even my grand-horse has given me lessons. Forrest recently moved to the big pasture and has been instrumental in teaching me more about herd dynamics. He is definitely a lover, not a fighter, and is luckily faster than the horse in charge of the small band of four (now five) horses. My attempts to show him how to send "Go away" vibes towards that alpha horse have so far resulted in Forrest hiding behind me, but there is hope he will learn and the observations have been valuable to me in any case. Apparently, I'm a little scary. Who knew?

Forrest trying to squeeze into Calabar's paddock
Figuring out the best path forward, being willing to try, to keep evolving my skills, my relationships with my horses--that is the only real goal worth pursuing. Anything else, like someday actually looking like I know how to ride, is just icing on the cake. 

Friday, April 04, 2014

Bouncy horses

Yee haw!
Remember these? I can still hear the sound of the springs squeaking maniacally as I did my level best to launch myself to the sky.

My horse (and several others at the barn) are channeling their plastic imitator this week. Spring, green grass, cool weather and some sunshine have all added up to wild ponies showing off their inner dragons. Or maybe just showing off to one another in the ageless dance of spring, trying to prove they are a good mate.

I'm not sure what good bucking and farting does for him, but Calabar put on quite a show last night when I turned him loose in the arena--highest bucks I've seen him do in quite awhile. Maybe he was adjusting his pelvis? Or maybe he was just feeling strong and healthy and thrilled to be able to run a little.

Lena just likes to wander around and sniff things--probably looking for stray carrots--but it's good for her to relax and wander a bit. She reserves her silliness for spooky corners and the dreaded jump poles. We practice WALKING over the jump. Not hopping. Not bolting over it. WALKING. Thinking is good, too.

Even though the horses are all spring-loaded at the moment, I'm looking forward to spring and sunny days after all this much-needed rain. And thankful we finally got all this rain. Having the hills summertime brown in late winter was disturbing for horses and humans alike.

Happy Spring!