Sunday, June 26, 2011

What is our job?

This video of Andreas Helgstrand at the WEG2006 Freestyle Final recently resurfaced and it both inspires and depresses me.

This horse--Blu Horse Matine--is magnificent. She is enjoying the entire exercise, dancing in time with the music and playing the whole time.

Not long after this, she was retired to become a brood mare--not unreasonable all things considered--and the world lost her. She died, in foal, after a paddock accident in which she broke her right front knee.

[UPDATE: WendyU sent me this link to a story explaining Blu Horse Matine's retirement was due to an injury that wouldn't heal, not just to make cute baby Blu's.]

So I ask you all, what is more important? Breeding the next champion or giving the existing horse a job they love?

There is no easy answer, and no right or wrong--certainly no black and white.

In the human species, some are meant to be brood mares and some are not. Are horses really so different?

I understand the economics. This mare was the potential broodmare to several champions. I know that the foal Zenyatta carries is worth millions.

But part of me cries out that it doesn't matter when the champion herself hasn't finished, that relegating her to the breeding pen takes away the fire we all admire--the fire that gives her a reason to exist. A job, as the plebeian among us might say.

I know. More human emotions being assigned to horses. But then again... horses are beings of extreme emotion, curiosity, play, and intelligence.

What we tell them, what works for us, is: "Thanks, you've done great working every day, interacting with your trainer and other humans, plus learning new things! Now go off and wander around in a pasture, be retired, and make babies!"

But does it really work for them? And is it fair? We've bred and raised them to compete, so how does the transition work for them and could we make it better? Could we perhaps take that ex-racehorse for a gentle ride even if we do have her in foal to a multi-million dollar stud? If she's happier, won't the foal be happier? And by happier, I of course mean healthier.

I admit this is a bit of a rant. I just think we (the collective horse-owning we) owe it to our horse buddies to give this a little bit of thought.

It certainly can't hurt.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Playing hooky

We went on a trail ride today, and I knew from the get go that it would probably derail tomorrow's lesson.

I didn't care.

Neither did Bar, for that matter.

It was a gorgeous day in Northern California--not too hot, not too cold, sun shining down and a gentle breeze blowing.

The horses were initially a little suspicious. It has been months since the four of us have been out, though Lena had been out with Katie, Forrest, and Russell a few times.

Lena and Bar both headed to the back of their paddocks when we approached with their halters, staring at us . They'd heard the truck pull up. Heard us hitch up the trailer. Watched us take the tack down and get it loaded. They stared at us--side by side, separated by a wall of pipe panel--as we made encouraging noises from the front of said paddocks.

I walked back and haltered Bar and began to walk him towards his gate. Lena took one look and allowed Steve to capture her. She did, however, pause to make sure we really were all going going somewhere together.

Now we have never really had a problem getting both of them out, so either it's been way too long (a definite possibility), or they are a little barn sour. Or both.

We attempted to load Bar first as Lena has "issues" in the front--left turns taken too fast in particular. We had Lena tied to the side, fairly long, and while I was trying to get Bar to get his big, brown self in the trailer, she walked around and stuck her head in the trailer. So? We loaded her first and Calabar hopped in right after her.

"Hey. I'm out of frame.. helloo??"

On the way back, it worked a little differently. Bar hopped in first, then Lena Ray--nearly pulling Steve in behind her.

In the middle of it all was a great trail ride. With lots of tasty grass along the way. The horses were great--feisty and energetic, but controllable and having fun. I (as always) was more relaxed on the trail, which means Bar was also more relaxed.

Howz your grass? Mine is tasty!

A beautiful day. A great ride. Happy humans and their ponies. Can't ask for more than that.

Oh, and p.s. To the guy in the dual cab dark blue Dodge who continued on 116 as we turned right onto Mirabel at about 12:30 p.m. today? Was that your I.Q. or your sperm count? I have some more math for you. Horse trailer + crazy tourists + 25 mph speed limit through downtown Forestville = not a time to hurry. So deal with it and be a grown up. Oh, wait. You failed.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Why I do this

I was busy surfing around tonight, checking in on blogs I hadn't read in awhile, when I came across one of my favorite author's "About" page.

Natalie is so right, though I wouldn't have known it until I adopted my own ex-racehorse.
"For those not experienced with retired racehorses, the training path can sometimes be rocky. Many unlucky Thoroughbreds bounce from owner to owner after what seemed like a match made in heaven at the initial adoption or purchase."
Rocky indeed. In Bar's and my case, that could be construed as an understatement.

And yet.
"The purpose of this blog is to ensure that people aren’t just adopting Thoroughbreds, but succeeding with Thoroughbreds."
My successes are not ribbons or higher jumps. At least not yet. My successes are riding my horse and figuring out how to express to him what it is I want and having the light bulb go off for him.

My success is a horse who puts his head in the halter willingly every time I walk into his paddock. My success is a horse who stands quietly while I saddle him. My success is a horse who looks back and sighs when I miss my leap onto his bare back but doesn't move--and then lets me try again.

Bar will not bounce to another owner. He is mine. I am his. We both know it, and it is all good.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Whose body is this, anyway?

Bar and I had our long-awaited lesson today and I spent much of it convinced I had bent elbows.

The photographic evidence, however, proves me so very wrong. I don't understand how I can tell my body to do one thing and have it completely disregard my commands. Bah.

Luckily, Bar was gracious and charming and tolerated my ramrod straight arms and odd attempts at posting with quiet dignity and patience.

The lesson was good, and gave me lots to work on (as you can see), but the very best part was working quietly past my fear that Bar would act out when he got tired of all of the boring circles. Though he did get tired (as did I), he just kept at it with only a need for minor encouragement a few times. Not one buck or bolt manifested, though it was also 90 degrees outside so some of his enthusiasm may have been diminished.

What do I need to improve? Everything, of course. But in particular: keeping my elbows bent, shoulders back, and hands soft; keep the pinky off the reins so they don't get broken if he tosses his head; relaxing; consistency. And all of this is worse when we go to the left, for some reason. I could blame it on the twist in my pelvis (caused by a slight curvature in my spine and compounded by an old rowing injury), but both Steve and Peter say I just don't look as relaxed that direction.

The perspective from astride my wondrous steed is one of feeling more out of balance going to the left (clockwise). That probably makes me tense up more, which in turn tightens everything up. Peter says my inside (left) arm drops and to just keep reminding myself to lift it (and Bar's shoulder) up. I don't see why I can't just put my body in the right place and have it stay there, but the evidence in the photos is hard to refute. It doesn't stay and I will have to practice, practice, practice to retrain those muscles to obey.

Dumb muscles.

Recalcitrant body aside, my horse and I did a good job today and made a few more strides towards learning to ride better together. He even pretended to be a Dressage horse a couple of times, dropping his beautiful head and neck into a nice arch and giving to the bit. (By then Steve was tired of being my staff photographer, though, so you'll have to take my word for it.) I'll bet it was one of the few times I bent my elbows, too.

I am encouraged, and that helps in so many ways. I'm not perfect, he's not perfect. I twist funny, he doesn't always get into frame and he drags his feet. But we're figuring this out together--one small step at a time--and we've come to some sort of agreement that what we're doing is good and helpful and a vast improvement of where we were.

He nuzzled me at the end of the lesson today, staying close and wanting reassurance that he'd done okay. I told him with pets and a cookie that he had done just fine. He told me I'd done okay, too--straight arms and all.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Roller coaster rides

Arisail heads to the gate

In the horse racing industry, there is sometimes a razor's edge between pragmatism and hope. Maybe more than sometimes.

In the Belmont yesterday, a 24:1 horse and first time jockey beat all the favorites. That was an inspiring fairy tale ending to the Triple Crown races, but the real world of racing requires a lot of hope, a lot of faith, and a lot of working with what you've got.

Arisail's (a.k.a. Casey or K.C., not sure which) first race was today. She has been working well and while I don't know her as well as I do Sittytwofitty or Continental Cream, Devon and Howie have been very excited about the way she has been training.

What is going on over there??

It was a tough race for her debut--one mile on the turf. Not to mention big crowds, a helicopter, and fire trucks for the "Horses and Heroes" day at Golden Gate Fields. Surprisingly, Arisail handled the helicopter parked in the middle of the track quite well. The commotion in the pre-race area? Not quite as well, but not too bad all things considered.

They break

The razor's edge is knowing all of the practical reasons your horse might not do well and willing yourself to be okay with whatever happens... and still feeling that crazy hope they might just pull it off.

Arisail broke okay (she's in the first pole position, number 1), but ended up trailing and had too much ground to gain to be a contender. On the plus side, she ran strong and looked very comfortable and powerful at the end of it all.


As we trailed behind Arisail on the way back to the barn, Devon said, "I guess you shouldn't have skipped your lesson today." I disagree.

I did skip my riding lesson, but the track scene always teaches me something and today was no exception. Watching a first race is like sending your kid off to school--all excitement, apprehension, and hope. My heart hammered in my chest before and during the race, and all I wanted to do after the race was tell Arisail she did just fine.

It's probably a good thing I'm not a race horse trainer. Horses pick up on energy around them, and my swirly human emotions would do nothing to smooth out the roller coaster for these equine athletes.

But it's such an amazing ride.

Beautiful day for the races

Jessica Boyd
Spotty Horse News

Postponed due to horse races!

I'm taking a little break from lessons this week because our friends Devon and Howie have a lovely 3-year old filly running her first race at Golden Gate Fields today.

Bar and I have done some good work this week and I'm looking forward to getting us a lesson, but there's only ever one first race. Besides, it's a beautiful day (finally) in Northern California.

More later, including photos.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Lena schools me for next week

Sunday I had another lesson using Lena, and she did an admirable job of being good, but still challenging.

This is important as she is preparing me for a lesson on Calabar.

The difference between them is interesting. Lena knows what to do. She was trained in both cutting and basic western riding skills--stopping, turning, neck reining, collection. She just doesn't always do it. She likes to drop her right shoulder as you move to the right and cut corners no matter what direction you go.

Calabar doesn't really know what to do, so he reacts. Even Peter says he's not bad, that his main problem is not knowing what you want and then trying to get around it. He needs guidance, just like Lena, but in a slightly different way.

Lena needs a reminder that we know she knows what she knows.

So we spent time on moving her forward, staying straight, and collecting. It did take some doing, but once she saw I wasn't going to let her slack off, she got better. That was about 5 minutes before the end of the lesson, but hey.

We (well, I) also worked on posting because, as Peter says, I have to do it on Calabar. He has a big trot. BIG. Bouncy. Hard to sit. So I post, and not very well. In fact, the last time I got dumped, I was posting. I bounced too high out of the saddle, laughed.. and ended up on the ground when Bar bolted forward.

So Peter pushed me to work on posting effectively. We made some progress, but I think it's an ongoing project. I swear I was barely out of the saddle and Peter said I was still too high. Sheesh. "It's a back and forth, not an up and down." "Lower!"

My posting aside, I felt good about the lesson and what we worked on. My seat feels better, softer, more solid. I feel calmer, more confident. Again, it may be because of all the bits and pieces Peter makes me think about--hands, shoulders, feet, not to mention directing the horse. It was also good for Lena to use her body the right way and she seemed calm and happy when we were done.

My plan is to take a lesson on Calabar this coming Sunday. I'm nervous, I admit it. But I also know it's time to see what he and I can do.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The horse industry adapts

An oft-repeated theme on this blog is the hard hits the horse industry has taken due to the litigious nature of our society, the lack of people taking personal responsibility for their own actions, and the insurance industry protecting itself from liability.

Many horse businesses struggle to balance offering the horse experience to new riders (and therefore expanding the pool of horse fanatics) with rising costs. There is no easy solution, but it seems that the horse industry is adapting.

This business model by Coastal Horseback Adventures is an interesting solution, and quite possibly a trend in the industry. It offers training and new experiences with your own horse, but with the support of experts. It is also the way our friends at Slide Mountain have chosen to go, and it makes sense for a whole lot of reasons.

The very fact that the guest is riding their own horse limits the company's liability. When I broke my arm, Kaiser called me and wanted to know if I owned the horse I'd been riding. As soon as I said, "Yes," the call ended. When Steve and I go up to Slide in July, we will still learn a lot, but we decrease Ike and Cheri's risk by bringing our own horses. We don't necessarily decrease our own risk, but it allows adventures without Slide holding the bag if something goes wrong.

The only thing that bothers me--and will continue to do so--is that the pool of places potential riders can go to try this whole horse thing is shrinking. Unless you already own a horse. it is getting more and more challenging to even come close to having any of these kinds of adventures.

And adventures are good. If it hadn't been for Slide and their wonderful horses, I'd have never gotten hooked in the first place. Some might say that would have been better for my health--it certainly would have resulted in fewer things broken--but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Not one thing.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Second attempt. Technology is challenging.

Jessica Boyd
Spotty Horse News

Calabar helps test my mobile blogging capabilities

Jessica Boyd
Spotty Horse News

Tribute to the Space Shuttle

The Space Shuttle program has been a constant in my life for, well, most of it. And the tie in to horses is here, really! Natalie of Retired Racehorse fame started a spirited conversation on Facebook that started with spiders and led (via Florida) to this trip down memory lane.

I am a space junkie. I love the concepts and science of what it takes to break the bounds of Earth and get into space. Really, I love what the knowledge it will take to get us there will do for us--and where it will take us--in the long (or short) term.

I remember the outside view of the Shuttle program, and Steve was lucky enough (or in the right place at the right time) to have actually been a part of the early design team. He was actually (if you can imagine the bureaucracy of this) the IBM liaison between the Air Force and NASA. Oh, the stories he can tell. And he knows just how many tiles--specifically shaped tiles--live on the bottom of the "brick with wings."

One of my "where was I when" memories was the Challenger accident in 1986 and I still hold my breath for every launch and every landing. One of the first questions I ever asked Steve was how he felt about it. Our relationship started years after that, but I still remember his quiet, thoughtful response--and that it basically came down to politics and risk.

Yeah, I probably fell in love right then.

But I digress.

The Shuttle program has been a piece of me--a passion if you will--for so many years. Every launch, every photo from space, every space walk has touched me in some adventure-seeking way.

I can believe it is coming to an end--nothing as old as these girls are should still be subjected to atmospheric pressures on any regular basis. What is hard to swallow is that there is nothing in their place. No plan. No prototype. Nothing. (At least as far s the public view is concerned.)

How could we have come so far and still be standing still?