Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year already

This year began with Steve still healing and recovering from his accident in July of last year. We were all doing okay until April, when I came off Lena and broke my first bone ever--my left ulna.

My recovery did not go as quickly and smoothly as I might have liked, and in June I had a Titanium plate inserted so the bone would actually grow back together instead of each piece waving at the other from afar.

Calabar and I have made a lot of progress, actually. He even learned to chase a mechanical cow in October. Not too shabby for a "crazy" Off-Track Thoroughbred.

Lena got to remember that she is cow-horse bred, even if she looks like a spotty Thoroughbred.

Steve and I learned our horses travel well and can handle new situations, even over night, as long as they have food and each other. In that order, once they settle in. And we learned Bar would not starve if left in a paddock with Lena. Big bossy brown horse.

Katie made a decision to get a horse more suited to her, sold Sammy, and adopted Forrest.

Elmer came home to roost permanently and we now have our perfect indoor/outdoor cat. Indoor a lot on these cold, nasty days as a matter of fact.

And of course this year also began with the loss of my father, a man who I would gladly call friend even if we weren't related--a thought I shamelessly stole from him, along with the frayed knot joke. Miss you lots, Dad.

Happy New Year, everyone.

May 2011 bring joy, peace, and much good will to all of you.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sort of a saddle update

I have yet to see a saddle that sits as nicely on him as this one does--despite it's sort of un-orthodox appearance--but I was once more thwarted tonight in my attempts to see how it works with me in it. I know Dave wants pictures, and I'd like to oblige, just have to get the weather to cooperate. The weather and apparently the universe, too.

Sunday, it was pouring rain. Monday, I worked too late. Last night, it was pouring rain--even more than on Sunday. Today, however, was lovely! Clear skies and cold, but NOT RAINING! Yes!

So I called Steve to tell him I would be late because Bar hadn't been out in a couple days, would probably be fresh, and I didn't want to rush through trying the saddle.

The rigging on the saddle threw me--two back latigos and no front cinch--a true centered rigging set up, I think, for which I was unprepared. I improvised by slapping a cinch and latigo on the front rings and hauled it all down to the lower barn so I could saddle down there after we warmed up.

Then I let the boy run off some steam in the round pen. He shot around to the left in a nicely balanced (albeit fast) canter until I called him into the middle.

And then I saw it. Left rear shoe no longer centered on left rear foot. Off by about two inches to the outside.


I pulled it off right then and there, grumbling to myself all the while.

I won't work him--let alone ride him--when he's missing a shoe. I know some people might, but I think of how out of whack my body would get if I walked around with one heel higher than the other and choose not to.

So we played with some desensitizing exercises, particularly with the lunge whip which (for some reason) terrifies him. I apparently don't possess the skills necessary to crack it, which is really what sets him off, but did wave it and slap the ground with it until he could bring himself to stand still. That's progress as far as I'm concerned.

Mike (our fabulous farrier) comes out on Friday, so I'll just give Bar tomorrow off and hope the nice ladies at Saddles to Boots will let me keep the saddle another couple of days. If not, I'll return it, then borrow it again over the weekend if it's still there.

Did I mention how well the saddle seems to fit?

This is either a sign that the saddle is not for me or a lesson in patience.

I'll get back to you all on which it turns out to be.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Spotty Horse gets posted

My dear friend and fellow horse blogger Katie Dougherty posted a link to another blog that lists this blog--Spotty Horse News--as one to read!!
13. Spotty Horse : This blog will reel you in because it’s clearly written by a true horse lover and natural rider who isn’t afraid to ask readers for help when she needs it.
It also lists some of my favorites, like Retired (or Un-Retired these days) Racehorse, Grey Horse Matters, and Green Slobber.

I really do write for me, to chronicle my own wacky journey. It is nice, however, to know that I'm not shouting into the wind and my words resonate beyond my own head.

Just one little bit

I am a good horse owner, better than most, not as good as a few, and always conscious of the things I haven't done. I did not get to my horse tonight and know I need to get out there tomorrow, if only to try out the saddle I found--an endurance trail saddle made for Gaited horses that sits on his back like it was made just for him. Craftsmanship-wise, it is a work of art. Aesthetics-wise, well.. Steve referred to it as the ugliest saddle he's ever seen. It is, however, set up to be a really nice, lightweight trail saddle. And--I repeat--it seems to fit Calabar like a glove.


It is winter and tonight was a particularly hideous night of deep puddles on roadways (challenging for the Miata) and cold, persistent rain.

It is vexing to not get out there some days, and to not get him the care and exercise he needs on those days. I could guilt trip myself for days, but that is probably not productive for anyone.

This article from Sue at Off-Track Thoroughbreds reminded me that doing what you can is often doing enough.

It could, however, stop raining for a few days. Just a few. Really, that's all I need.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Goofy horse videos

I got a new toy for Christmas and really wish the weather were better so I could share videos of us trail riding or something besides the indoor arena and muddy paddocks. As it is, beggars cannot be choosers, so you get a few choice nuggets from two days of a bored, soggy, amateur videographer and her favorite equine subjects.

First, here is Forrest expressing his opinion of day number ?? of rain. It's been so many in a row, I'm not sure any of us can remember. Notice his response to the word "grain."

And here is a not-so-great video of Bar being, well, goofy. I am still learning proper video techniques and apparently switching the angle mid-shoot is not recommended. Sorry! My favorite part of this one (aside from the rearing, which is okay if I'm outside the round pen) is his sideways leap, all four feet off the ground. Sproink!

Last but not least is Lena demonstrating proper rolling technique. She would get all the way over if it weren't for her withers, which must be from the Thoroughbred in her bloodlines.

I do promise to try to post better videos in the future, but it will probably have to stop raining before any really interesting subject matter arises.

Sooo.. maybe June?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Calabar's papers

Devon gave me a most fabulous gift today--almost as good as the big, brown, bouncy gift I got three years ago.

All racehorses must be registered with the Jockey Club, and these are Bar's papers. They show his breeding and registrations, plus the two wins in his record.

But my favorite part? The description of his star and the distinguishing cowlicks, of course.


Six years ago, we had no horses. Five years ago, three of us shared one horse--Lena Rey Flo. About then, I bought this ornament, signifying the three of us and our bond through Lena.

Today it has a whole new new significance--three humans, three horses, six souls.

A gift beyond measure, however you measure it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Hippo Holidays to all

The holiday photo shoot went well, but it is awfully hard to get all six of us to look good in one picture! However, with some creative editing, I came up with this.

Happy holidays to everyone and their families, from our odd little herd.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Much ado about nearly nothing

After much anticipation and preparedness for a wild and crazy horse tonight, well.. I didn't get one.

He was so happy to be out, so happy to roll and stretch his legs, he did everything I asked, when I asked it.

I was ready for antics! I was willing to trot with him down to the arena to anticipate and work within the exuberance!

He must have known it and decided to mess with my head by being cooperative and calm.

Sneaky big brown horse.

What happened to December?

Bar and the dumb mud

I started off this month blogging pretty regularly, but something happened, and poof it's been over 6 days since a real blog post. A lot of work, some holiday stuff, but mainly just me not writing. Or riding much, for that matter.

Yesterday was par for the course for this week, with the minor exception that I got to leave work early to meet the vet for vaccinations. What does it mean when you consider an afternoon off to watch someone stick needles in your horse a break? Oh well. Beggars cannot be choosers.

Bar was sorely disappointed when we showed up to the barn yesterday afternoon and all he got was a rabies shot and some grazing before Steve and I headed home to get ready for my office's year-end party.

The Thoroughbred was not amused.

He danced all the way back to his paddock, looking longingly into the nice, dry indoor arena. "But I could roll! And run around without sliding! And buck! And fart, even!!! MOOOOMMMMMMMM!" We got to the top of the hill by his paddock and I sent him around me as he tried to bounce past me. He, slid a little, then backed up--all the way out of my space--and reared, expressing his utter frustration with the lack of movement over the last few days. Then he looped his front leg over his lead rope, as he usually does in this instance, came down to earth and looked at me for help.

He stood calmly and quietly the whole time I was unwrapping him from the lead rope, and I told him I totally and completely understood. Really. Unfortunately there were people riding their quiet horses in the indoor arena and they were not the types to appreciate Thoroughbred exuberance. Especially after it's been cooped up in the rain for two days.

My theory is he is so careful with his footing that he won't really frolic in the mud for fear of slipping, so he stands a lot, doesn't get to lay down as much, and gets itchy under his blanket. During the winter in particular, the time we spend in the round pen always starts with a good roll. Always. I'll even carry the tack and grooming supplies down with me so we don't have to trek back up to our barn in the rain to get saddled, just so he gets his roll in.

I suppose that makes him a little spoiled, but if it were me, a good roll when that blanket comes off seems like a very logical and necessary thing. Plus, if he gets in a thorough dust bath in the beginning, he's not thinking about it when I want him focused on other things--like the little human on his back.

After one more day of rain and no work, he ought to be really fun when he comes out this afternoon. Maybe Bar could be the next Space Shuttle!

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Originally uploaded by spottyhorse67

I found the shoe in the mud, much to my relief. Gives me a tie score so far this winter. Yes!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christmas photo shoot

Proof positive that Thoroughbreds like to play dress-up. Lena only succumbed after seeing the boys in their holiday outfits.

One group shot

Yes, we actually contributed to and participated in cutesy photo taking. Well, sort of. Horses don't give in to much of anything they don't think is their idea, but we managed to get some good photos, though not necessarily of all six of us at the same time. That would be a Herculean task for sure. However, add a little creative editing and we'll end up a holiday card with good shots of each horse-owner combination.

Group shot in which all horses look annoyed

Lena even let us put the Santa hat on her, but only after she saw that Bar and Forrest both had decorations and decided she felt left out.

She looked from Bar to Forrest and back again, then allowed the hat to be placed on her head

Check out Katie in the perfect halter-class pose. She never did this in shows!

Technically, Katie should be a little further away, but the smile and the stance are show-worthy

Bar looks stunning in both hat and antlers, and I admit to being utterly and completely biased. He is a truly handsome horse and as soon as his shoe is replaced, we'll get back to our fun.

With hat

With antlers

Much thanks to Joan Rasmussen over at "Cowboy and Dexter's Excellent Adventure" for her fabulous photography skills!

Friday, December 10, 2010

The shoe sucking muck has arrived

Last year, around this time, iodine foot

Oh, I mean Winter has arrived--along with the shoe sucking muck.

As I've perhaps mentioned before, Bar has fairly typical Thoroughbred feet--thin-walled and prone to flaking and peeling, which can make winter in wet and woolly Northern California a little challenging. At least when it comes to keeping iron nailed onto those feet.

It's not as bad as spring sometimes, when you go back and forth from wet to dry to wet in an endless loop. The hooves expand and contract to keep up, keeping the farrier's stock in nails at seasonally adjusted high numbers. And you, the owner, have been known to employ duct tape until your shoer can get out to the barn.

Bar's space boots

So it shouldn't have surprised me, after all the rain we've had, to show up last night to a missing rear shoe. But it did. Apparently, I chose to focus on the fact that it's gotten so much better (which it has), blithely assuming he wouldn't lose shoes anymore.

Silly, silly owner. It's winter. It's wet. He has super absorbent feet that suck up the water in his paddock like hard little sponges. Then the shoe starts to work it's way loose. Then the mud starts to dry up a little and get stickier, making sucking, slurping noises around your boot as you clean the paddock.

It's just a matter of time at this point.

What really bugs me is not being able to find the shoe and having nightmares of it lying there in the muck, nails up, waiting to wreak even more havoc. I looked. I scanned back and forth with my flashlight (since of course it was dark when I got to the barn and noticed the missing shoe). Then I looked again when I miraculously managed to get to the barn tonight with just a little bit of light left in the day.

Could I find it in the fetlock-deep, hoof-shaped puddles? No. Did I stick my toe into every one I saw? Yes.

Augh. It's like torture. Do I go out and buy a metal detector? Yes, of course the thought has crossed my mind. Several times by now, as a matter of fact. Will I? Jury is still out on that.

In the meantime, while waiting for our farrier to come out, I'm not working Bar--sure to lead to some real fun next time he's out.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Searching for a new (to us) saddle for Bar

Like most Thoroughbreds, Bar has a steep wither angle--skiers would love this slope on a mountain run. That makes it challenging to find a properly fitted saddle, especially when hunting for Western/trail saddles, which seem to be built for rounder Quarter-horse types. Lena actually has her own set of impressive withers, so I was sort of able to pad up and make do with the saddles we had, at least for awhile.

But it's time. Mostly because with the addition of Forrest, the tack sharing has become a little more challenging. If the three of us actually wanted to ride together, it would be a bit of a scramble right now, and while the cutting saddle is great for high-withered horses, I sure don't want to lift it--all 35+ pounds of it--all the time. Especially since I'm 5'3" lifting it onto a 16.2 or .3 hand horse.

The other challenge is that Bar is not perfectly symmetrical--his right shoulder, probably from taking care of the bowed tendon, is much more developed than his left. I suppose it's good I don't also have to fit a saddle to myself in the same way or we'd really be in trouble.

If I had the money, I'd simply go for a new saddle from somewhere that would take my wither and back tracings and suggest the right thing for my boy. However, used tack is my option, so the search may take a little while.

I've thought once or twice about a custom-built saddle, but then you're stuck with a saddle that only fits one horse. Not to mention the cost of said custom-built saddle.

Besides, there's almost nothing I like better than shopping for tack. Except shopping for tack with an unlimited budget, of course.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Mail order horsemanship

My great grandfather had horses, working horses, and apparently needed some assistance with training them. So, long before there were the Parelli's, Clinton Anderson, Mark Rashid, or any of their predecessors (like the Dorrances), there was Professor Beery. I have eight of his mail order lessons, including lesson number six--"Promiscuous Vices." Despite the title, it unfortunately does not describe how to get your spotty mare to stop backing defenseless geldings into corners.

However, there are some great tidbits so far, though not necessarily in the order they were originally presented:

"Watch the horse's eyes, ears and muscles, for they are the mediums through which it will convey it's intentions to you."

"By these means of expression, the horse will never lie to you; treat him just as frankly, and never lie to him."

"Since you must talk to your pupil through signs, do not become vexed if it does not respond to your signs correctly, but rather blame yourself for not having made the signs correctly."

"Whenever you lose your temper, you lose the power to reason and place yourself upon the same plane as the colt, where he has the advantage because he is stronger than man. Morover (sic), do not abuse your horse, for you lose his confidence and madden him. A man ought to be a shamed to abuse a horse that acts only from instinct, because he does not do what man has probably reached through a long process of reasoning."

I particularly like this bit about teaching a colt an early lesson in the round pen (or a reasonable facsimile): " Remove all feed or chickens, etc., that would attract the colts attention."

My mom's cousin found these in an envelope her father had been given by my great grandfather, sent them to my mom, who sent them to me.

What a cool gift!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Blanket wads

This is what you get when Lena wears her blanket--little rodents. Okay, they aren't really rodents but they sure look like rodents. I'm wondering if I have a whole new pet rock phenomenon here.

Our horse blankets have a nice mesh inner layer. It helps buff their coats by pulling off dead hairs and--obviously--consolidating them into little fluffy wads.

Or not so fluffy in Bar's case. He does not create quite the same cute wads. His hair is a different texture--both finer and softer--so it combines with the mud and dirt, creating what looks more like, well, manure clumps.

Lena's wads are works of art and amuse me to no end with their fuzziness.

Katie and Steve have not yet seen the marketing value of the wads. Katie said, "Ew," as a matter of fact. I can see my vision must be developed further before unleashing this on the world.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

My three muses

Writers and artists rely on muses--spirits or spirited humans--to inspire their creativity.

My muses are of the four-legged variety, though I also think of my dad almost every time I sit down to write. (And not just from an English teacher's copy-editing viewpoint.)

Lena was my first muse, full of energy and sensitive nearly to a fault. She was willing to mold herself to whichever rider climbed aboard that day, and so very strong and balanced in her movements.

The brain is always working in this spotty head

Bar, of course, was my second muse and has inspired tales and prose I didn't know lived within my brain.

Smallest ears of the three, this horse of mine

And now there is Forrest, who with his very arrival has presented delightful challenges to my darling daughter and provided a whole new perspective.

Baby face

Such fabulous muses, so many stories yet to unfold.

A one-eyed racehorse

When we were at the track last weekend, I saw a curious thing--a one-eyed horse in the paddocks before a race. Devon said he was being schooled, and I'm pretty sure he didn't actually race, but it made me so curious about his story. (Her story? I saw the eye, but not much else.)

I would also submit this as evidence that not all racehorse owners and trainers will spit out a horse that isn't a winner, or even a prospect. Maybe I'm way off here, but this horse has got to be a long shot by any stretch of the imagination. And yet there he was, being handled with care and concern, just to teach him whatever lesson was in the offing that day.

I want to know who this horse is, know how he came to be missing an eye and how it is he is still on the track with such a shiny coat and attentive handlers. The gentleness I see in the way he's being handled below, the attention he's being given, speaks volumes.

I may never know what his story is, but he has certainly given me something to wonder about.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


I dreamed last night of riding Bar out onto a wide open beach, turning parallel to the surf, and urging him up into a gallop. I leaned forward, out over his neck, feeling his mane and the wind in my face, without an ounce of fear.

I count it as a good dream, a hopeful dream, a dream of things to come.

Playing with intentions

Communicating what you want to your horse can be challenging--especially if you aren't entirely sure you want what you're asking for. There are cues, of course. Leg cues, voice cues, and any combination thereof that horses can (and are) trained to respond to.

But how can you make it seem, well, seamless? How can you ask for a trot, then a canter, without that awkward jog in the middle? If you don't really want a canter because perhaps you're terrified it might morph into a gallop, well then what? How does that translate to your horse?

The Parelli's talk about using your own energy--bringing it up or down--to share your intentions with your horse.

Mark Rashid talks about visualizing and changing your own movement to signal what you want, instead of springing it on your horse all of a sudden. (At least in their opinion.) In the clinic we audited, he pointed out that the motion at all gaits is the same, just faster, so all you have to do is communicate that change in cadence to your horse.

That is easier said than done for some of us.

I decided to practice with Lena tonight and see how I did before getting on Bar. Why? Well, Lena is a much more sensitive horse. You think of changing directions and she's already there. She tells me I'm hitched up on the left by shifting off in the opposite direction, and stops on a dime when you sit back in the saddle. Usually, anyway.

Plus, I hadn't really ridden her since the broken rib and knew I had to get back on for both our sakes.

At first, she couldn't figure out what I was asking, which was okay because I had to think about how I was asking. The really cool thing was having her ears on me the whole time, which means she was using that big brain of hers--for good instead of evil this time. We worked on upwards and downwards transitions, the former being easier for her since it's what she's usually asked for. We ended with some fairly decent downward transitions from canter to trot to walk. They could have been smoother, I'm sure, but she was so with me in her head I thought it was a good place to stop.

Then I worked with Bar a little bit. Now Bar and I work on transitions in the round pen all the time--with hand and voice cues from me on the ground. Actually, he'll even change cadence if I sing faster or slower.

Lena is much more sensitive to my position, but I think Bar and I are more mentally tuned to one another. I think about a trot, change my motion, and I instantly get a trot. It works the other way, too. I think about a walk. change my motion, and I get a walk, then a halt. He is sensitive to my position, too, but instead of drifting when I get out of balance, he stops.

We had a little hurdle for me to get over last night, too. Romeo and Manna came in right after I got on and while I trust Romeo, he and Bar have a "thing," a competitive thing, and I worry about Bar acting out. But I need to get over it, I need to trust my horse and trust myself. So I visualized a calm horse handling this new parameter. Luckily, I also know Manna can handle her horse and deal with a horse that might get a little nuts, so all I had to worry about was Bar and me. Mostly me.

We walked them next to each other a little, Bar got big and bossy and tried to bite Romeo, then settled down and wanted to be right next to them instead of on the other end of the arena. But he didn't fight me when I moved him away. Success number one! We started to work on our trotting (okay, my trotting), and circled the round pen while Romeo and Manna rode on the outside of the arena. Bar was good and paid attention to me, despite wanting to chase after Romeo. Probably pass Romeo, knowing Bar. Success number two!

I probably could have ridden him longer, challenged both of us a little more, but since he was really with me and behaving, I figured I'd stop our ride on that high note. Actually, I think the real success was me staying calm, staying balanced and centered, so he could focus on what we were doing. Because it's perfectly normal to ride with other horses that aren't Lena. No big deal, right buddy?

With Lena, I changed my body and motion. With Bar, I channeled my energy in a positive direction. Both horses followed and all of us learned a few things. I'd call that a good day.


"Uh, there's a horse running loose through the campground!"

I saw this unfortunate blurb in the local paper (okay, the online version of said local paper), and while the news is a bummer, it brought back what has--with time--become a rather amusing memory. I think I've told this story at least twice here, but in honor of the campground, I thought I'd pull it out again. Besides, it amuses me more each year that goes by.

A month after we got Bar, we decided to venture out on a trail ride. Where should we go? Oh, I know! The beach!!

Can you say rookie mistake?

It was cold. It was windy. Bar had only been with us a very short amount of time. Very short. A blink in horse-human bonding time. We were both uneducated in the ways and lives of Off-Track Thoroughbreds, though Bar had been out on trail rides at this very same beach with his trainer and apparently loved it.

However, I was not her. I was a new and untested human.

We got out of the trailer, got saddled up, and headed out towards the beach, sand and wind blowing in our faces.

Bar took one look at the sand and snorted. "What kind of footing is this? It doesn't look solid and safe to me!" But he went forward, mainly because Lena was bouncing along fine in front of him. I highly doubt I had much (anything) to do with his decisioning at that point.

We got a little way down the trail when another rider crested the hill in front of us, headed back to her trailer. Her horse was blowing and sweaty, which set of Bar's radar a little right there. Then, for whatever crazy reasoning, Steve and I decided to try to pull off the narrow trail and let that rider pass us.

Long story short, I separated Bar from Lena on rather treacherous (in his mind) footing, then pulled on his head. He had one option--go up, and up he went and off I went. I slid right off and right underneath this huge brown frantic horse. Bar must have levitated straight up and off the dune because I saw hooves between the arms wrapped instinctively around my head and then he was gone.

I stood up, all eyes on me--I guess it looked bad, Steve's face was a little ashen--and when Steve asked if I was fine, I said, "Yes," pointed after Bar, and said, "Go get him."

"Please don't head up Highway 1," I thought to myself.

Bar, however nuts he may have felt at the time, kept his head to some extent. He took a tour of the campground instead--probably looking very dark and dramatic on that foggy, misty morning with his head up and wild eye.

"Yes," said Steve in response to the query about the horse dancing through the tents, "I know, thanks."

Meanwhile, I was trudging through the sand worried about my horse, not realizing how lucky I was to be trudging. Several riders came back to check on me and seemed reassured when I spoke in coherent sentences.

Bar circled the parking lot once, then allowed a woman on a different spotty horse to catch him. Went right up to her, as a matter of fact. Which, of course, is what one does when one is a racehorse--you go to that pony horse for safety.

It's been nearly three years since that attempt, and we have yet to go back there. It's not even really that I'm afraid of it, but it's quite a slog through the dunes before you even get to the beach, and then--unless it's a perfect day--once you actually get to the beach, you are often hit with stinging sand and cold wind.

But I would like to go back some nice spring day, so it is unfortunate that the California State Budget is such that this hugely popular campground has to close so many sites. Poor Bar won't get nearly the audience this time.

This is from the trail ride we tried after the one described above--when we figured out the beach was not the best place to start. After the fact, of course.

Katie is already wanting to see how Forrest does his first time out on the trail, and smiled wickedly as she suggested the beach. Honestly, Forrest might be fine wherever we take him, but it might also be good to start somewhere with a slightly less sensory-overload possibilities.

We'll just have to see. Of course, we'll also have to get both boys in the trailer, but that's a whole other blog post.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wondering about Bar

Calabar by a nose--giving #8 the eye

Bar was off the track for three years or so when we adopted him. I've watched all his races (more than once) and I know how he ran. Fast, by the way. I know he was a sprinter, not a long-distance runner. He excelled at 5-1/2 or 6 furlong races--unless there was mud. Even now, he dislikes mud. On the track? Messing with his footing? Forget it.

But I've never seen him before a race. Or after a race. Never seen him load into the gate or parade around while the bettors decide if he's the one who will win.

Watching Forrest and Sitty makes me wish I'd known Bar longer, before he was mine.

I've seen Forrest before his first race, getting ready, parading. I've watched Sittytwofitty eyeballing the crowds and her competition, standing calmly while being saddled, confidently heading out to the track and loading into the gate, ready to go.

What was Bar like? Was he calm? Was he he wired? Was he the one bouncing out of the paddock while the other horses paraded around?

I will probably never know, and it probably doesn't matter. Okay, maybe it matters a little. Because I love this horse. Because I want to know more about how his brain works so we can work better together.

Then again, I'm pretty far along in figuring out how his brain works so maybe it is all about moving forward from here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

My favorite On-Track Thoroughbred comes back to racing

The friends we got Bar and Forrest from are still in the racing business, and their big mare came back to racing today after a six month break to recover from an injury. She is my favorite On-Track Thoroughbred, so we took a trip down to Golden Gate Fields to go to the races and support her.

Sittytofitty is a big girl. Over 17 hands and absolutely beautiful. She's a distance horse, tends to come from behind and start devouring track with her long, powerful stride. She hasn't won her first race, yet, but has nearly always placed in the money.

Besides her size, the other thing you notice about Sitty is her sheer presence. She is there, calm and paying attention, watching as things unfold around her. There is not a mean bone in her super-sized body.

She was ready today and, at five, the oldest horse in her race. It was a mile race, originally scheduled for turf, but moved to the outer track due to weather. She broke well, then settled towards the back as is her norm. She made up ground on the final stretch and ended up fourth, a nose behind the third horse and only a neck behind the second horse. The odds-on favorite, ridden by the favorite jockey, won the race.

Maybe fourth sounds bad to you, but if you'd seen her run, you wouldn't think so. She looked great. Strong, confident, and ready for more at the end--she really does love to run and looks darn good doing it. A few more strides and she'd have had 3rd if not second. And for a first race back after six months, none of us could be happier for her.

Sitty is second from the left

It was obvious she felt good, too--with her ears up, eyes flashing, head tossing, and tail swishing as she walked it out after the race. She actually got picked (along with the winner) to go to the test barn. Since her odds had been 33:1 early on, her strong finish meant she had to pee in a cup. (Which--in case you're curious--racehorses do on demand.)

She, however, thought it meant it was time for her photo shoot.

Happy horse, happy groom

Good job, Big Filly! See you next time!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Moments to remember

Bar gave me a gift last night, one that washed away all the stress of the work week and told me the journey he and I have taken--all the ups, downs, bruises, and scrapes--has been worth it.

He asked me to get on and ride.

It had been a long week, and I'd already missed two nights at the barn when I called Steve to say I'd be late again and to eat without me--I really needed my horse fix.

It was dark, cold, and rainy when I pulled in and the arena lights were off. I had planned on just patting Bar and giving him some carrots just to let him know I was indeed still on this planet and thinking of him.

But he wanted out. He came splashing through the mud, nickering at me, asking for head scratches and carrots. I slipped the halter on and down we went (after blanket removal) to the arena--rain on our heads, water under our feet.

As we walked into the arena, he started to do his spin around thing--I even felt him expand in size right there next to me (Thoroughbreds can do that, you know). And then, when I didn't react, he.. just.. deflated. Not in a bad way, just in a "well, maybe I don't really need to do that tonight" way.

So instead of heading to the round pen for our normal routine, I unsnapped his lead rope and gave him the whole arena. He rolled, he ran, he bucked, he farted. He would come towards me and veer off, never once invading the bubble.

I sat down in the dirt, back against the round pen (which for those who don't know rests inside our already crowded indoor arena) and watched him. He was beautiful. Picking himself up over and around the ground obstacles, spinning on his hind end, rolling and throwing up clouds of dust he would then snort out of his nose.

Then he stopped, wandered into the middle of the arena, and stood watching me. He nibbled one of the cones. Looked over at me. Snorted. Looked over at me. Wandered over to the mounting block. Looked over at me. I was relaxing, letting the week roll out of me, and just wondering what he would do. He stood still, going back and forth between nosing the mounting block and looking at me. He took a step towards me, so I stood up. He closed the distance.

I wasn't even thinking I'd get on and ride until that moment. I was just letting things play out to see what happened. It was enough to make both of us think, and since I didn't do what he expected, he didn't do what I expected.

I snapped the lead rope back on his halter and looped it around, then led him back to the mounting block. He let me get on from the wrong side, checked to be sure he had a leg on each side, and off we went.

We didn't do much, just some walking, side-passing, and backing, but it was one of the best rides I've ever had because he asked for it. Now maybe he just thought this was what he needed to do to get back to his pen. That's okay. It was still communication. I got it. He got it. It worked.

One of those "Aha" moments for sure. Not to mention warm snuggly moments when you know you've made a connection with your horse. Almost nothing sweeter than that, my friends.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Four Thoroughbreds, one indoor arena

Two of the four

Sounds a bit like a recipe for disaster, doesn't it? Especially on a crisp fall evening--all the excuse a horse needs to act like a wild and fierce war horse. One other horse used to be enough to send me back to Bar's pen without working him, but after his antics the other day, I knew we had work to do.

Luckily, it was a bunch of other Thoroughbred owners and their horses, including Manna and Katie. They tend to be on the forgiving side when someone gets a little raucous. Oh, and they don't usually blame you if their horse acts up--in fact, there is often laughter and camaraderie instead of huffiness and condemnation.

Bar looked into the arena, saw all three other horses and riders and those brown eyes got really big. I let him watch for a second, then opened the door slowly, warning the one woman I haven't had him around that sometimes he gets a little dramatic. She chuckled.

Right. These are Thoroughbred owners. They like a horse with that buzz going on. In fact, they actually prefer it.

I wasn't brave enough to ride with all the cantering and energy out there, but I did work him in the round pen and he actually did really well. Even Katie said so. He stayed focused on what he was doing, with only a couple minor lapses into slightly frenetic behavior--generally when Romeo was cantering around the outside of the round pen. Very distracting, apparently. In fact, the third woman commented that he looked really happy! Yay! Then she laughed when he started bucking and showing off.

I still wasn't quite ready to get on him, though, until it was just Katie and Manna, Forrest and Romeo. And then it was bareback, and only to walk, side pass, back, and stand still while there was cantering and sideways-Forrest-trotting going on. BUT. I got on. And Bar did great.

Maybe we should work with Thoroughbred people all the time. It will be good for both Bar's confidence and mine.

Monday, November 15, 2010

On the bit

Not having much in the way of training in my life--well, except for on-the-job-stay-in-the-saddle-or-else training--this term hasn't meant much to me. Nor, for that matter, has collection. Particularly when I watch other people and their horses in what seems to be a parody of that term.

Lena is collected much of the time, it's just the way she is. One of the things Cheri said about Lena is she was always so confident, so sure of where her feet were at all times.

Bar is learning, and I can see the difference in his topline and in his overall strength, movement, and confidence every day. I can tell he feels it, too, knows his body is more in balance and therefore stronger.

But on-the-bit was an odd concept for me. We learned to ride Lena with a loose rein, only picking up her mouth when we wanted her to do something.

Bar had no idea what to do with a loose rein, and I'm afraid I didn't help early on by grabbing his face when I'd get nervous.

In a book I just finished, The Byerley Turk by Jeremy James, he talks about the style of riding I've seen encouraged--holding the horse back with your hands while pushing him forward with your legs. His description is from the perspective of a Turkish groom who has traveled miles with the first Thoroughbred and knows what kind of response this might lead to. It does. The rider who used that technique ended up in the dirt, and that kind of makes sense when you view it from the horse's perspective. "Make up your mind!"

The concept itself is important, but figuring out what it really meant eluded me and therefore was not easily translated to my dearest darling opinionated Thoroughbred.

This post by Glenshee Equestrian Centre, to which I was directed by Kate at A Year With Horses, makes more sense than anything else I've read, seen, heard, etc.

This last paragraph sums it up, but the whole post is definitely worth a read:
"Rather than the rider demanding the horse both yield to pressure while paradoxically accepting a strong contact, the rider offers a gentle contact and the horse, once he knows he can trust the consistency and fairness of the hand, will seek that gentle contact wherever the hand may lead, and allow the hand to shape his entire carriage and movement (the action of the rein through the body) with that same light feel. This, to me, is what it means to be “on the bit.”
I am looking forward to practicing with this methodology a little more, and I'm sure Bar is too. ("Finally she's making sense!") Lena already gets it for the most part, but it certainly won't hurt to play with it with her as well.

The thing I love about horses is there is always something new to learn. When there isn't, I'll just have to invent something lest we all get bored.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Two OTTBs, two personalities

I never want to hear "Thoroughbreds are all x-way or y-way" again. Not that I wanted to hear it before, but I got to witness first hand just how different two ex-racehorses can be today.

No worries, there were no injuries, but there was spinning and dancing.

Not, however, by Forrest. He was an absolute angel, despite being very nervous when the saddle went on and the bit went in.

It was Katie and Forrest's first ride today, and Katie did a great job of taking it very slowly. First she hand-walked him with the saddle on until he relaxed, then added the bridle and did the same. Only when he stopped chomping on the bit did she get on, and then she held him to a walk. Same deal, walk until he stopped chomping on the bit and relaxed, and then she got off. It wasn't even particularly hard to keep him at a walk, though at first you could tell he was waiting for her slightest signal to move faster. They even had to deal with a horse in the round pen and he was great.

Enter the "seasoned" horse, the one who has been doing all of this much longer.

I saddled Bar, kind of eager to get back on and actually ride after being off for four weeks or so after the rib incident. I wasn't planning on riding hard, just working on our side passing at the walk and trot, plus the ever-important stop-and-back.

Peter warned me he had two more horses to lunge, and brought the first one--a gray--into the round pen. In the meantime, one of the other boarders had come back from a trail ride and had a horse in their trailer calling out.

Bar, the horse that has walked around with me on his back bareback for weeks, jigged sideways and spun when the horse in the round pen started up. Oh, I stayed on--that bareback riding appears to have helped my seat tremendously--but it was almost like he forgot I was there. I reminded him with some nice, tight circles, but holy cow I forgot how he could move.

He did this a couple times, then when he settled down by the wall furthest from the round pen and relaxed, I gave him a carrot. Yes. You get a treat for not being a spaz. Hm, he said.

Then Peter brought in the next horse, who proceeded to buck and fart and was a louder horse than the previous one. So we had more dancing and more spinning, so more circles. Then he relaxed again and got another carrot.

At this point, I knew Bar needed to move more than my ribs were ready for so I unbridled him and took HIM into the round pen. He approached it with wide eyes, certain that all the ruckus (though it had ended by then) was a demon about to consume him whole. So we went in to confront said demon and to see where the boy's head was, since it was not 100% where it needed to be--with me. Heck, I'd have settled for 80%!

Lunging won't tire him out. That's not why I do it. I wanted him to relax and focus and I can see that better from the ground right now. He did, and I got back on. We worked on the things I wanted to work on before the shenanigans and he did everything I asked. Perfectly.

In other words, one Thoroughbred--off the track within the last month--handled a stressful situation with less drama than another Thoroughbred--the one who has been off the track for six years. But I was able to bring Bar back and get him focused on work.

Yes, I am comparing the two, but not because I think one is better than the other. They are different personalities. Completely. Just like people. Maybe as different as Katie and I are from one another, even.

Devon told us Forrest was more easy going and easier to handle than Calabar.

I don't really care.

I love my horse. He teaches me more every time I ride him. Today he reminded me I need to pay attention and notice when we are entering into interesting and possibly stressful situations. That's when I need to calm down, when I need to give him the best I can give him.

Forrest told Katie the same thing, he just was a little less dramatic about it.

Forrest is Forrest and Bar is Bar. They are indeed both Thoroughbreds. They did both come off the track. But to say one is like the other is to miss the nuances and specialness of each. To say they are the same is to miss what both of them can teach each of us.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The gift of writing about Thoroughbreds gives back

Awhile back, I wrote a post about the healing power of horses and linked back to a story about Zenyatta and an Autistic boy named Jack.

This morning, there was a new comment on that post: "Howdy - I am Jacks father the autistic boy who connected with Zenyatta. Ya'll are absolutely correct thoroughbreds, they respond to the energy being projected upon them. We adopted a racehorse named Spot The Diplomat who was recently retired at the age of six and was ridden by Mike Smith as well. He is completely gentle with our entire family. We have two autistic boys they run and grab his hind legs - under his belly - pull his tail - ride him bareback. Spot doesn't even flinch and smiles while they do it. He is a part of our family and very happy helping the boys. He has completely mellowed from their energy to the extreme. Thank you for all the kind words about healing and autism. The horse connection is real! God Bless " Grant Hays ".

Writing about horses has been an outlet for me, one that gives my rambling thoughts and opinions a channel. Topics have ranged from just being glad to hang out at the barn to injuries and illnesses to behavioral challenges. Sometimes I even wax philosophic.

I am glad (and often humbled) to have people read my words and give me support, feedback, and ideas.

This is the first time a comment gave me chills, though.

Big thank you to Grant Hays for his kudos to Thoroughbreds and for making my whole day with his kind words.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Learning from Forrest

Bar watching Forrest arrive

This post could be about what Katie's learning as she works with Forrest, but it's not.

It's about watching her with her young, fresh-off-the-track Thoroughbred and wishing I'd understood things a little better when I brought Bar home.

Forrest is curious about everything. It's all new, it's all different from his previous life--including obstacles on the ground and the indoor arena and working at night under lights.

Bar was older when we got him, and had a little more experience, but not as much as I mistakenly assumed. He'd never really seen an indoor arena, either, or worked at night or clambered over logs on the ground.

The difference is in their reactions to new situations. The motivation is the same--"This is new, this is different, how do I deal with it?"--but where Bar went for huge, dramatic movements, Forrest stops and gulps, needing to be coaxed along gently. (Yes, he really does gulp. It's rather endearing, actually.)

It took a long time and patience for Bar and me to build the trust we have--the trust that means he pays attention and is alert, but doesn't spin up out of control because he knows I've got his back. And his front. Sides, too.

I don't regret the journey at all--the training epiphanies alone have been worth the struggles. To have come through it, emerge on the other side, and feel this connected to Calabar is a gift beyond measure.

I only feel a little twinge watching Katie and Forrest, wishing I'd figured things out a little sooner for Bar's sake. Then again, I wouldn't have learned nearly as much about myself or been able to appreciate the path he's taken to meet me here.

Here is good. There, wherever that is, is good, too. We're not done, yet, this big brown horse and me. There are many adventures to come and many trails to take.

And I've got a horse who will travel with me.

What more could I ask for?

Monday, November 08, 2010

Dark horses get dirty too

This is for Dave at A Tale of Two Buckskins--bay horses get just as dirty, they just choose a different color palette. Or maybe Bar wants to be a Buckskin?

And yet more evidence:

I rest my case.

A tale (but no pictures, sorry) of two OTTBs

Last night, we took Lena and Forrest down to the arena. Mostly because I'd already worked Bar, but also because I erred on the side of NOT putting two Thoroughbreds together immediately. Other horses have always been a trigger for Bar, so I didn't want to freak out the new horse with big brown horse explosions.

As it turns out, I worried for naught--the boys did just fine. Better than fine, actually. Bar started in the round pen, working out cold-weather kinks. Forrest and Katie worked over obstacles while Steve observed what could have been incipient chaos.

It wasn't.

Bar was calm and focused on his work, giving a balanced canter and varying is speed on command. Forrest was attentive to Katie, though still wouldn't cross poles on the ground one direction even though he'd cross them going the other direction.

Then we switched, and Bar worked over obstacles despite oddly syncopated rhythms coming from Forrest in the round pen. Normally, disturbances of that sort send Bar into at least a freeze while he figures things out, and usually a larger-than-necessary up-down-sideways maneuver.

It was like he knew he had to be the grown-up, the steady pony horse on the track, the calming influence. My horse? My crazy, bouncy, ginormous moving, brown horse? Yup, he said. That youngster needs me.

Forrest watched Bar go over the poles the "wrong" way, and then proceeded to navigate them with Katie. He had watched Lena yesterday, but hadn't copied her.

Somehow Bar was a different nut. Well, I know he's a different nut, but apparently Forrest thought he was an okay leader.

The camera we had wouldn't take pictures in the indoor arena--it's lit, but not enough anymore after the time change. Otherwise, you would see pictures of the Thoroughbred mind-meld. Bar and Forrest--forehead to forehead, passing unknown secrets to one another. Not really sure I want to know, but I do wish I had pictures.

After that, Forrest proceeded to very thoroughly--much to Bar's discomfort finally--sniff and snuffle the big, brown horse. Interestingly enough, Forrest went right to the bowed tendon. Then the girth and flank. The look on Bar's face was priceless--ears back towards Forrest, but not pinned, looking down at me as if to say, "What on earth is he doing??!!" Finally, he had enough and moved away, but never kicked or struck or even squealed.

Katie and I were both very proud of our horses, and came up with several theories about the interesting behavior. Has Forrest ever really been close to a lot of other horses? Any other geldings, or only mares? For that matter, had Bar before he came to live with us?

I did have to reassure Bar that I was still his human and wasn't dumping him for the new, flashy kid on the block. As cute as Forrest is, he is Katie's and she is his. And Bar is most definitely my partner in this horse journey.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Looking back

Having Forrest arrive has me looking back at the beginnings with Bar, back when I was trying to pretend a) I hadn't already fallen in love with him and b) was still considering other horses. Ha!

It has been a long journey, sometimes a frustrating one, but the theme that crops up over and over (even in those early posts) is how much I love his personality and how--when it really matters--he's there for me. Of course, I had to learn to be there for him, first, but I did and it's made all the difference.

Some of his finest moments have been on the trail, like when we ran into the yellow jacket nest and--even while getting stung--he kept his head and took care of me. I think, though, if I'd panicked or tried to turn him around instead of doing just what we did--pointing up the trail and getting the heck out of there--it might have turned out differently. My reactions matched what any herd leader might do in a bad situation, so it worked. I took care of him, so he took care of me.

In fact, I'm realizing he takes care of me a lot these days. He's also made it clear he prefers me actually riding, rather than watching him from the ground. I get leg leg smooches when I climb up, as a matter of fact--as in he reaches around to nuzzle my leg when I get on.

Besides, any horse who lets you dress them up can't be all bad.

Forrest's first day--full of entertainment

Katie and I ended up at the barn together tonight, in between her two shifts at Wine Country Sporthorse (WCS). Bar had already been out and done some beautiful, collected ground work then given me a quiet, responsive bareback ride, so I decided to play with Lena a little, too.

As it happens, Katie showed up just as I was getting Lena out so we all went down to the arena together--Katie, Forrest, Lena, and me. Lena was a little, um, flirtatious but Forrest didn't seem to mind much once he got used to her slightly over-bearing manners.

Forrest did wonderfully, though he got a little bouncy watching Lena in the round pen and chased her around on the outside of the round pen. (It was sort of cute, actually.) He walked over obstacles nicely, and--it pains me a little to admit this--Forrest seems to be more confident and better with his feet than Bar is. Bar has improved immensely, but I think Forrest does not get as distracted by his own energy as Bar does. And because I'm now feeling horribly disloyal, I will say Bar is much better with his feet on the trail than in the arena, so perhaps it is boredom in the arena as much as anything.

At any rate, all guilt aside, it was a fun way to end our very eventful weekend. And for Forrest, it was an ending that was much better than it could have been for a day that started out with an escape.

Following in the footsteps of his new herd mates, Forrest appears to be an escape artist. When Steve and I got to the barn earlier in the day, we were greeted with stories that Katie had left Forrest's pen unlatched and the boy had done what boys do--run around checking out the neighborhood. Now, Bar did the very same thing two or so days after we got him--nearly ending this story before it began because someone (yes, me) freaked out a little bit. Katie knows that story and it was on her mind yesterday, plus I'm fairly certain she would not still be employed at WCS if she left gates unlatched all the time.

However it happened, Forrest ran loose for a little bit, but unlike his Uncle Bar, he didn't hurt himself and he was fairly easy to catch.

This is the face that greeted Steve and me. "Who me? I would never escape."

All three horses now have dual chains on their gates because I have nightmares of all three getting out. At once. That would probably make headlines. And not in a good way.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Turning the page

Bar greets Forrest

Today was an interesting and exciting day in our horse family, and certainly the start of a new chapter for Katie, Sammy, and an OTTB named Forrest View. Sammy stepped right off the trailer and into her new family, barely looking back at us. After finally deciding to load at his racing trainers' barn, Forrest rode mostly calmly through Sebastopol, then climbed out at our barn and into the next phase of his life.

Katie felt really good about the family who bought Sammy, and the balloons on the mailbox cemented it for me--especially the one that said "Welcome Home!" And then the woman said, "Isn't she gorgeous?" about Sammy--who is cute, but often got secondary notice next to Romeo when they were out together--and we all knew it was the right place for Sammy.

Then came the wait for the call from Devon that they were headed back to their ranch so we could pick up Forrest. Katie was amazingly patient.

When we pulled in with the trailer, Forrest was immediately suspicious. He apparently doesn't like trailering much, but especially away from the barn since that has (up until now) meant back to the track. He likes the track. He likes he activity and other horses. He even likes to work. He just didn't like to actually race. At any rate, the trailer was immediate cause for concern. Perhaps ignoring it would make it go away.

Forrest pretending the trailer is not there

He did finally let Katie get the halter on him, though was not interested in the very tasty horse cookies she offered as a bribe.

Okay I'll go along with you and see what happens

Loading still took us awhile, plus some creativity, but when he finally decided to get in, he was fine nearly all the way home. Only minor trailer rocking through downtown Sebastopol, which all things considered is pretty good.

Katie was careful unloading, but he was a perfect gentleman and came out soft and easy for her.

Forrest arrives

Katie walked him around, let him eat grass and check things out. He came up to meet Bar and Lena--Bar was sweet, Lena was sassy.

Not squealing. Yet.

For all that he is an OTTB, a "crazy" Thoroughbred, Forrest was easy to control and settled quickly. He had never been in a round pen or an indoor arena (let alone one with jumps and obstacles on the ground) and he handled it all with only minor dancing and all the while listening and responding to Katie. He is not as volatile as Bar was, not quite as hard to handle and a bit less opinionated. It is giving me more perspective to watch this younger horse with the same background walk through these new experiences--experiences that must have been new to Bar, too, despite having been around the track a few more times.

Forrest and Katie staring at something

As for Katie, I have never seen her connect like this with a horse. I've seen her grin like this because of horses, but never while levitating off the ground with absolute joy and excitement.

Getting to watch this will definitely be an interesting next chapter for a few of us--not just Katie and Forrest.