Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Things I wish other drivers knew about hauling horses

My bumper sticker, now on order.
To my fellow horse-owning-and-hauling friends, this will be preaching to the choir. To my non-horse-owning-and-hauling friends (and I do have a few), please help pass the word to other non-horsie people and help me prevent trailer accidents.

All of us who haul horse trailers have stories and pet peeves. We even have fantasies of trailer-mounted weapons to deal with the idiocy that surrounds us while we attempt to safely haul our horses wherever we may be going. People cut us off. People tailgate. People flip us off when they pass us because they assume we're deliberately making their journey take longer.

Unfortunately, this can and does lead to tragedy.

As many in the horse community already know, Pollard Eventing--a prominent training team in the eventing world--lost three of their horses in a trailer accident over the weekend. Someone pulled out in front of them and there was no way the driver hauling the horses could stop in time. The trailer flipped over with six horses inside, one horse died at the scene and two more were euthanized over the weekend due to complications from the wreck.

This gives me nightmares. When I think of trying to get Bar and Lena out of a trailer lying sideways without causing any of us more harm, I can barely imagine how that might work. I hope I never have to find out. When I think of losing either of them, my heart squeezes in my chest and--yes--I have to blink back tears and think of something else.

But to lose my horses because someone else did something stupid? Because so many people do not understand the mechanics of towing a trailer--how that mass affects your speed, stopping distance and ability to correct on the fly? I honestly do not know how I would ever forgive that person--and that's assuming they made it safely away from the accident scene.

I've posted about this before, but here are some things I wish other drivers knew about what it's like to haul horses. (Feel free to add to my list in the comments field.)
  1. We have to drive the lower posted speed limit because we are hauling a trailer. I'm not getting a speeding ticket just because you're in a hurry.

  2. We are hauling live creatures in that metal box and we'd like them to be in good moods when we get where we're going. 1,200 pounds of cranky horse is not entertaining, let alone double or triple that. They are balancing inside, constantly compensating for the movement of the trailer, and driving like Mario Andretti makes that hard for them, which upsets them, can lead to injuries within the trailer and future trailer loading issues--all of which can be avoided by gentle driving practices.

  3. Rocketing around corners is both dangerous and nearly physically impossible. Not to mention it affects the aforementioned live creatures and leads to number two above. Passing us on the inside of the curve is stupid and dangerous, but if you insist, be sure you hit the oncoming traffic instead of our trailer. We might even forgive you for hitting the truck as long as the horses are okay, but no guarantees since we love the truck, too.

  4. We have to speed up slowly. Peeling out is unwise--even if we have the truck to do so--again for reason number two above. 

  5. We need more room to slow down than you do in your sports car. A LOT more room. We can slam on the brakes, sure, but when you pull out in front of us, you better accelerate so we don't have to choose between hitting you and slamming the horses around or (worse) jack-knifing the trailer. You, by the way, will be on the losing side of that choice should we have to make it. If there isn't enough room for you to accelerate, DON'T try to pull in front of us. That three-to-four-second long space in front of us is there for  a reason--actually, two reasons in our case, Bar and Lena. Please be coherent enough to notice the size of the trailer behind the truck and calculate additional space needed for us to stop that rig. If you are unable to calculate it, DON'T pull out in front of us.

  6. Tailgating will not make us drive faster AND it makes you harder for us to see if you're that close to the trailer so we may not notice you if and when we come to a pull out. If it is safe to pull over, believe me, we will. If it's not, we won't. We're not deliberately trying to slow you down, I promise. 

  7. If you have any doubt, don't "go for it" and risk an accident. It's not worth it. 
Really, I think everyone out there should try hauling something at least once so they can feel the way the weight affects the handling of the vehicle. Doesn't have to be a horse trailer, not really. To really get a taste of it, put your kids, friends, dogs, cats--cats would be a great example--in a trailer and drive how you think we should be driving. Then open up that trailer and see just why we drive the way we do.

Be sure to let me know how that goes for you, especially if you use cats.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Slide Mountain

Gold Country in spring colors
Well we made it home from our mini-vacation at Slide Mountain Ranch with all of us (mostly) in good shape. Steve and I are both a little stiff, though the first day back of sitting in office chairs was actually worse than the aftermath of riding for a few days in a row. Lena also did a bit of a number on herself scrambling in the front bay of the trailer again, and Bar is still feeling a little on the lazy side. Even so, with the opening of overflowing work email inboxes, the temptation to turn around and head back to the hills was nearly overwhelming.

One of the best parts of going to Slide (aside from having my horses right outside my window, enabling much covert spying) is the quiet. We can be as busy as we want, we can be as mellow as we want, and there are good arenas and access to trails right from the property. It certainly leads to less monotony for everyone, that's for sure. Calabar and Lena both pushed out on the trail happily after a brief warm up in the arena on day two (after day one's raucous behavior in the upper arena, they were much calmer), trotting up hill, ears up and eager, only slightly apprehensive about what might lurk around the next turn. Dropping back down on the ranch after that for the rest of their breakfast and a snooze in the sun (or the shade in Calabar's case) was their idea of a pleasant afternoon. Steve and I chose to relax and read in the newly re-insulated and very cool bunk house, though me holding still for too long is not possible so I broke it up by walking out to pat the horses.
Lena watching the ranch activity
Bar and I spent a lot of time working on our trot this trip, at first without a lot of success. Watching us, Steve gently reminded me of what Ellen had taught him about working with the rhythm first, then trying to slow it down. Huh. It actually worked. Also, with the deep arena footing, I was able to achieve a lovely and gentle canter with Calabar that felt light and balanced. Our walk is good, our canter is usually good, and now we're making progress on the trot. Funny what a few days in a row of riding can do for you.

Lena and Steve working the mechanical cow
We even had a cutting lesson on the last day using the mechanical cow. Well. Steve and Lena had a cutting lesson. Calabar had a "why am I chasing this bag of socks?" lesson that was more amusing for us than instructive for him. He watched Lena closely and quite calmly as she fiercely chased the fake cow back and forth across the arena. Then it was his turn. Only he seemed to have figured out the cow only went so far before it came back, so no amount of encouragement--including way too much forward leaning by his rider--would make him run back and forth after it. He would turn in place, yes. He would follow for a few steps, yes. But as you can see, his expression shows he is not sure what the point of the exercise is--why waste all that energy when the device would simply return to him?

"Why am I chasing this bag of socks?"
I could have insisted, I could have used spurs or even the dressage whip, but I'd really rather he was more self-directed when we are doing something for fun. He will not ever be a cutting horse, no, but he does like to play so I was a little surprised he wasn't more interested--especially since he's chased it before. It was the last day, though, and it might be a better exercise to try when he's fresher.

Yep, there it is. Hang on, it'll be back.
We did have a couple kerfuffles that last day between the horses, though, and still can't quite figure out why. First, when we brought them down to saddle, Calabar lunged at Lena a little more aggressively than was called for. I'm okay with playful banter as they sort things out, but not all out teeth-baring--especially when I'm at the end of the lead rope. I got after him and they were good after that as we warmed them up for our lesson, hiked them back up the hill to the bunkhouse so Steve and could have some water before Ike got down to the arena, and then they were both very good in the arena. Lena only got upset once when Calabar and I left to go get Steve's spurs, but she was okay as soon as we got back. Then, as we were leaving the arena after the lesson and both horses were next to each other as we closed the gate, Calabar kicked at her and banged her left rear cannon bone. It was mostly superficial, but again--not okay when I'm at the other end of the lead rope.

Then we had to tolerate both of them hollering for each other while Steve and Lena were down at the trailer treating her wound. "He just kicked you!" Steve said to the anxious spotty mare. "She's still down there because you kicked her!" I said to the big brown horse as I made sure he didn't leap out of his paddock. Sheesh. Then everyone was back in their paddocks with an evening snack and calm settled once again over the ranch. Our best guess is Calabar simply gets grumpy and tired--no excuse, but something to watch for, be aware of and manage going forward. We should also work on the herd bound issue as it's a bit challenging sometimes.

The drive home was pretty uneventful, though we had to battle a headwind all the way so our gas mileage slipped a little. Still love the way the new truck hauls, though. It is steady and always seems to have more to give you. Pulling its own weight on an uphill freeway entrance, it jammed up to 70 (oops) with no problem and more power in reserve.

It is good to be home, even if my email inbox was full of fun and games. Oliver obviously missed Steve and has barely let him out of his sight (such as it is) since we got back. Elmer stomped around for a little while in disgust, but appears to have forgiven us as well.

Surprisingly, I had enough energy to get on Bar again after work yesterday. Actually, my back--having been stuck in a chair again at my desk for several hours--insisted. Bar was a little on the lazy side, but we had a good ride and he was patient and listened--even when I forgot how to do the trot thing again.

One of the things I noticed, while working through a few minor panic attacks this trip, is I can get on him and ride him in new situations--even if I'm a little terrified. So if I can ride him in new situations and new places and stay on and learn things, we can certainly do more at home, too. Since we both need to work on our stamina and attention spans before we go to Slide again--have to be able to keep up with those short little cutting horses, let alone Lena Rey--more will be required.

I actually think we're both up for it.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Last lazy day at the ranch

The last three days have gone by fast, but we've loved every minute of it. Even the more interesting minutes. Like chasing Calabar around in the vegetable garden. (See my previous post).

Calabar and his favorite tree at Slide
Today, I had big plans to get up early and ride twice--once in the morning, then once more later this afternoon. I got up early, but things are moving slowly here and all of us--horses included--are feeling mellow and relaxed, so one ride may have to suffice.

This really is one of my most favorite places on earth to be, not that I've been a lot of places, mind you, but the energy here is so good and the occasional lack of cell service is not such a bad thing. (She says, blogging away in a totally comfortable chair on the wireless we suggested they add.)

It's not fancy. No one turns down your sheets and leaves chocolate on your pillow every night. But nobody tells you how to ride (unless you ask for a lesson) and the peace and quiet--added to ponies right out the back door--is like heaven for me. Even though said ponies expect a treat every time they hear the bunk house door open.

We sat and had dinner on the deck last night, in full view of Calabar and Lena. They watched us the whole time, listening to us laugh and tell stories as they swished flies. They both seem happy and calm, though it took Calabar a little longer to get there. Lena seemed to say, "Oh, I remember this place," and settled in fairly quickly. Ike says she sure recognized the mule, aka the "food mobile," which comes as no surprise to those of us who know and love the spotty horse with the voracious appetite.

That same deck will be a perfect place to watch this evening's solar eclipse after we get that last ride in, which seems like an appropriate ending to our visit. Eclipse, my other favorite spotty horse--and Lena's older (he's 28) brother--was named for the eclipse. He and I have a grooming date today, so I actually get two e(E)clipses in one day.

I know people who push hard from one end of their vacation to the other, cramming in as much activity as possible. That's fine for them, and admittedly, it is hard for me to sit still and relax for too long--even with a good book. But this down time has recharged my seriously sapped batteries in a way that running from one thing to the next (which is what I do at work every day) could never do.

So now I will sign off and enjoy the rest of this day. Catch you all on the flip side!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Springtime antics at Slide Mountain

Calabar watching from the safety of his paddock
Happy Preakness day from Tuolumne, California where it is a beautiful, sunny day in Gold Country. Dry air, though, unlike what Maryland is probably like on race day.

We had our own little race yesterday up here. Well, Calabar and Lena did anyway. Steve and I stood and watched and made mental notes to ourselves for next time.

Lena trying to tell if she knows those other spotty horses she can see
Both horses seemed very relaxed and calm as we saddled them up. Like last time, I carried Calabar's bridle--intending to do some circles on the lead line to see where his head was. My own little safety check as it were. As it turned out, his head was on the fluffy soft footing that was PERFECT for rolling after being in a trailer for five hours the previous day.

Instead of calming down as he moved around me on the lead rope, he was actually becoming more agitated. Hm, that was odd as he will almost always relax after a few turns--especially if Lena is still near by. Turning my head to check on Steve and Lena, I suddenly felt the height of the lead rope in my hand drop several inches. And there was my big brown horse, in his saddle, rolling. It couldn't have been very satisfying, but he didn't care.

There are several routes I could have gone here, but first the saddle had to come off so I could wipe him and it off. Unfortunately, as I was taking off his saddle, Lena decided she also needed to roll off the travel grime. With Steve in the saddle no less.

Realizing we weren't getting anywhere with them until they got that (and more, as it turns out) out of their system we unsaddled them and let them loose together.

Woosh! After more intense rolling, they began chasing each other. I was headed over to the side to get out of their way when I heard, "Calabar, NO!" Fearing doom, I turned to see my big brown horse doing laps in the vegetable garden in the center of the arena. Now, luckily, Ike and Cheri had just begun planting--late this year--so there wasn't a lot for him to step on. Miraculously, he didn't step on anything--still don't quite know how that happened. As I attempted to guide him out of the entrance to said vegetable garden, he slowed to a stop, faced the two-or-so-foot-high railing and popped over it with ease.

And then the race was on.

It was like the Kentucky Derby, only with spots.

Calabar actually tired out before Lena did, but kept after her. At one point, he actually charged in front of her and turned her on the fence. That's my big, brown cow pony! Of course, then she passed him again and he reached out and bit her, which I believe is frowned upon in the big races.

After a few more minutes of all out speed, Calabar signaled he was ready to quit--ear and eye pointed at me, looking in at me with big, tired brown eyes. I walked towards them both and he stopped in his tracks and walked over to me. Lena wasn't quite so cooperative, at least until she saw me lead Calabar off, but she let Steve catch her shortly thereafter.

Then, oh yes, they got saddled and ridden some more.

Having Lena lunge Calabar may have been one of the best training tools I've ever used, actually. I'm much easier on him than she is. Things were a little more subdued this morning and we saddled and got right on and had pretty well behaved horses in the arena and on the trail.

Now, yes. This is probably not the best way we could have handled it, but on the other hand, I can certainly see their point of view. The paddocks here are big, but are on a slope and don't have the nice sandy dirt they have at home, where they are both  very regular and serious rollers. Plus they are in a strange, wide open place and rolling can mean vulnerability.

The footing in both arenas is deeper and softer than what we have at home (to protect the bones, joints, tendons and muscles of the cutting horses here) and, apparently, irresistible. Not that they tried today, mind you. Today they stood still while being saddled and walked into the arena without a hint of dirt sniffing. --Calabar gave me the most lovely, smooth uphill canter we've had in a long time--happy ears, gentle breathing--and then a trail ride to boot.

Next time, there will be some sort of running loose when we get here--though we will endeavor to spare the vegetable garden for sure. Running loose and rolling to get the traveling wigglies out before asking them to do something really seems only fair. I have to get my traveling wigglies out, too, though I usually stick to a walk and some yoga.

After our ride this morning, and after confessing the story to Cheri, she suggested we take them down to the covered arena and let them roll again. They now think they are in heaven. Lena even got all the way over, which--while her withers are not as significant as Calabar's--is a mighty feat nonetheless. There was, however, no racing. There was only a little half-hearted trotting. And then they were both happy to return to their paddocks for water and the rest of their breakfast.

He just looks sweet and innocent
Never a dull moment with these two, which is probably good all things considered. Ike did ask how high he should build the fence around the garden, though. Um? Calabar once supposedly jumped four-plus feet?

The only pictures so far are these, from me while on the ground. I should really start having a photographer come with us, I swear, but that might lead to far too much embarrassment. Then again, it might be worth it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Constant learning

Calabar and Jess--to every season, turn...

Calabar has been my teacher now for over four years. Sometimes the lessons are good, sometimes they are not. Sometimes he is learning, sometimes I am learning. Of course, it's better if we are both learning, and that does actually happen sometimes.

We have been dutifully working on our trot like Ellen showed us and the big trot steps behind have been happening--when we are in a tiny, itsy, bitsy circle inside the round pen.

The first thing Bar told me is he's not as good at circles without clear boundaries. Apparently, I am not good at giving clear boundaries with my outside rein because he will lead with his outside shoulder and suddenly we're going sideways instead of in a circle.

We could not make this work at a trot--I'm sure there was bus-driving on my part even if I didn't mean to--so we slowed back down to a walk and got his shoulder to stop popping out and his neck to stop bending quite so far into the circle. After a few good walk circles each direction, we went back to the trot and got better trot circles both directions. I called it good at that point. When all else fails, slow it down and get it right before moving on.

The next ride, we again had lovely tiny trot circles, and still no success in trying to tie them together when I'd go out to the outside of the round pen. Not that he wouldn't trot, mind you, but he would trot his normal jar-my-fillings-out trot as soon as we moved beyond the inner circle.

It occurred to me it might not just be him. The boy really is trying, and I am feeling big movement behind when we do our tiny circles. While I'm sitting that trot, I might add. Sitting the bone-jarring trot is a nearly Herculean feat in my opinion. Especially, as I reminded the big brown horse, sitting it on the sacrum we broke last year.

But I am convinced it is possible to teach an OTTB that the trot is actually more than a warm-up gait to be performed with a high head and entirely on the front end. I like my teeth, thank you very much.

So our last ride, I tried something new. I signaled him the same way on the outside of the round pen as I do in the middle of the round pen. I know. A completely rational and reasonable and smart thing to do, right? A thing I didn't think of doing.

So funny! He got it. I have no idea if what I'm doing is right, but the point is he knew the queue and I wasn't using it so naturally, he wasn't doing what I was asking. At least until I asked him the same way I'd asked-and rewarded him for--before.

Why this didn't occur to me long before now is a tribute to my own learning curve and not a reflection on the lessons this horse has given me. He's been trying for months to tell me I was doing it wrong and actually seemed to relax when I went back to asking him in a consistent way.

Go figure.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Where have I been?

Not very far, it turns out. Just very busy.

Apparently my part-time job situation was a very temporary thing. However, during that brief lull, I found a lot to do so am now busier but having more fun than I could ever have imagined.

Paris nibbling
The NCRR crew is doing well, though our dream facility fell through due to insurance reasons (see my post about how lawyers and the insurance industry are killing the horse industry and spare me repeating one of my top rants.) Paris, our first rehab, has settled in nicely with Karen and is continuing to impress all of us with her gentle nature and sweet personality. We are hoping for rehab number two -- Gio -- to move up to Sonoma County at the beginning of June now that we've managed to find an existing facility.

We're all learning a lot about this part of the pie--how easy it is to find homes for some horses and how hard it is for the rest of them. It may be the most discouraging thing to deal with but it is the reality of what we're doing and just makes the success stories that much more inspiring.

Calabar and I continue to progress little by little. He still wishes I were braver more of the time, but we're both glad my butt has stayed in the saddle (knock wood) lately. We have a new Equipedic pad we're trying and so far it seems to fit the bill and the withers of doom. It's so nice, Steve thinks he may have to order one for Lena, but will test out mine on her first.

Lena is doing very well and even took Steve over a jump quite nicely thanks to Allie's tutelage. Lena quite enjoys the extra attention and riding and it has been really good for her. Calabar has relaxed about letting someone else ride Lena, too, now that he sees how happy Lena is.

Katie and Forrest--Western style
Forrest continues his progression as a Western horse. At a recent event, a woman we were talking to assumed that because we rode Thoroughbreds, we rode English. Katie pulled up this picture of her and Forrest just to prove our point--don't pigeon-hole a Thoroughbred!

Steve, Lena, Calabar and I (corrected, thanks Mom) are headed up to Slide in a few more days to trail ride and play with cows. Calabar is hoping he actually gets to be on the same side of the fence this time. I think he's ready. I may even be ready. We are all certainly ready for a vacation.

Heck, there might even be a few more blog posts and pictures of us in the near future.