Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Going to the Big Races

I've spent plenty of time at Golden Gate Fields and I always love my trips to the backside with Devon, watching people who love racing and their horses do all the work necessary to keep those horses happy and healthy. And Golden Gate Fields is fun for me, as is the Santa Rosa Fair, because names and horses are familiar to me.

But I am headed down to the big time tomorrow morning--Breeders' Cup. Santa Anita, where statues of Seabiscuit and Zenyatta are on display and big hats are par for the course. I do not happen to have a big hat but am very excited to get down and see statues of those two famous horses. Katie made me promise not to get arrested for climbing on them. I will try to comply. Really. Meeting some real ponies is also on my list and one of my favorites is supposed to be down there--Lava Man!

Why am I headed down to the craziness of Breeders' Cup? I mean, aside from the sheer joy of being surrounded by other people who love the warm smell of horse and the excitement of watching horses run?

I will be networking with race fans and talking to the public about Neigh Savers and all the wonderful things aftercare organizations do to help racing Thoroughbreds transition to new careers. I will also be trying not to come home with any more dark brown racehorses, though they are my favorites by far.

So if you don't hear a lot from me over the next few days, that's good--it means I'm talking to lots of people and sharing the Thoroughbred love.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween Play Day

Calabar, Lena, Allie and I went to a play day on Sunday and  while it wasn't a day of perfectly behaved ponies, we all had fun and we all learned a few things. Calabar may have learned more than the rest of us and it's a minor miracle he is still speaking to me. Especially after the glitter.

"There is glitter. On my butt. Really, Mom?"
Calabar learned that sheep exist, along with hot air balloons and elaborate costuming options. Lena learned that it is unlikely that flags will eat you despite what you might think. I learned I can ride a wild horse and stay on and Allie, well, Allie hopefully learned something beyond the fact that I get lost on outings.

Allie and her cow pony princess.
My main goal was to get Calabar out and try this new thing but make it as positive an experience for both of us as was possible. There were some moments I wasn't sure that outcome would actually transpire, but we all made it through despite some very interesting challenges.

Things started mildly enough, with us pulling in and parking at the arena and beginning to groom the horses as they munched. Calabar did notice many things--multiple horses and trailers, music coming from the announcers booth, announcing coming from the announcers booth. These are things that may cause a little sense of deja-vu as they are reminiscent of the track. Lena was mostly concerned with her hay. Actually, she was more interested in Calabar's hay, just to annoy him.

We went into the arena to warm up, keeping the two horses together at first but gradually separating them as they both calmed down. Calabar and I sauntered through the poles a few times and he watched other horses do it faster with mild curiosity, possibly a little anxiety. I sang to him. I talked to him, noting odd things around us. "Yes, that's a blow up Frankenstein over by the snack bar."

At the end of the arena, he suddenly caught sight of both a hot air balloon on the horizon and a horse being a little zoom-y while being lunged--obviously that horse knew something was bad and terrifying--and we had our first dance of the day. I sat through it and he came back down with relative ease and we went back to our warm up.

We were walking with Allie and Lena again when the sound of thundering hooves came from behind us. Calabar scooted forward, likely to either get in front of the horse trying to pass him or just get out of the way. Again, I stayed with him and brought him back to himself.

At least until he saw the sheep. Apparently, sheep are really slathering horse-eating monsters or perhaps someone has heard the rumor that wolves sometimes play dress up, too. Calabar was fine when he could face them, but the second we would turn to walk back to the arena he would whip around me--never in the bubble--so he could face them again. Eventually, when they did nothing but lay there and stare at him, they ceased to be terrifying.

Amazingly enough, while I was a little nervous, I didn't find myself willing to get off and give up.

Even after the next freak out which was--by all accounts--a ride worthy of any rodeo bronc. We were doing figure eight flag barrels. You take a flag in, ride around the far barrel one way, swap with a flag there and head towards the near barrel (as in near the exit gate), circle it the other way, swap with a flag there, then ride back to the center before turning and exiting the arena. Apparently, Bar thinks there is only one direction to circle a barrel and he argued. A lot. Oh, and the flag can only be on one side of him, too. Until he stops, sticks his nose into the bucket of sand holding the flag and says, "OH! It's just a flag! Okay, we can proceed now," like he didn't just spend what felt like forever doing his own little dance moves.

Me, doing whatever was opposite enough of what Calabar was doing to keep me on his back.
And just like that, the storm was over and he proceeded to act like a normal horse and we finished the course and exited the arena to applause and kudos for our wild ride.

I don't know why you were so upset, Mom. This is kinda fun!
Then it was time to prepare for the costume contest. I thought I had a cute idea, though at the time I came up with it I didn't know how appropriate the day would make it. I found an astronaut costume and covered my dark brown horse with glittery stars and, well, just glitter to make him look like a dark and starry night. His crescent moon was a nice touch. Allie and Lena were a cowboy and Indian Princess Pony. Lena says to be sure the Princess part is highlighted--capital P.

Crescent moon on the galaxy horse.
We seriously underestimated the creativity and dedication our fellow show-goers had to the costume portion of the day. There was a horse dressed in purple spandex and spots--complete with a tail--as Dino from the Flintstones. There was a Mad Hatter and a Clown and a Vampire horse.

And then there was what led to the final melt down of the day for my poor over-stimulated pony--Lady Gaga and her cute little Arab, complete with head to toe veils, a skull-topped rain stick and a jingly chest collar. Poor Calabar said that was just too much for him and we decided to opt out of the costume contest in favor of just watching, which was okay. He calmed down and stood with me while Allie and Lena finished the costume judging and then did the egg carry.

When the egg carry was over, Allie let me know she was okay to be finished and we started to pack everything up. Amy (aka Lady Gaga) came over without veils or scary skull stick, but with her horse Sultan still jingling in his fancy costume. This time, Calabar did not spin out in fear and--with huge eyes--stretched out his neck to see if indeed there was a real horse under the bangles. Allie gave Calabar a treat for being so brave, so he tried it again. He still wasn't sure about it all, but at least he went back to curious instead of terrified so we ended on a good note and headed back to the barn with our glittery and painted ponies.

I could (and did a little bit) critique and nitpick my actions or my position or how I handled each and every new thing that came up. I could let it sap my confidence and keep us from trying new things.


I could be proud of Calabar and me and the fact that the bond we've built--the trust and respect--got us through this day of scary sheep and more new things than the brown horse had experienced in years. I could pat myself on the back for staying on a horse as he became an overly athletic version of himself.

Methinks I'll go with the latter.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Ollie's gift

Some things are really important and some things are not and sometimes a little gray cat can remind you what  in life matters and what needs to flow on by.

Ollie the forest cat
Oliver was just such a little gray cat and we loved him every day he graced us with his quirky presence all the way through today when he just couldn't do it any more.

Ollie (named after Oliver Twist) was found by a friend of ours in a storm drain, badly beat up and very hungry. They took him to the vet, got him cleaned up, but he just didn't fit into their existing cat family so they began looking for a new home for him.

We lucked out, or rather Ollie decided he could tolerate us (well, Steve more than me) and last Thanksgiving he came home with us. He didn't appreciate the long car ride, but after a few weeks he decided that living in the redwood forest suited him just fine. 

"My stump, my dragon."
He dealt with our cats mostly by batting out with a long arm first and asking questions later. They learned not to mess with him fairly quickly, though Elmer did occasionally test the boundaries. We figured out Ollie was deaf and also didn't see up close very well, but he still enjoyed the backyard almost as much as sitting on the sofa curled up and purring next to Steve. 

Steve was his favorite, paws down. Ollie was drawn to the peace and quiet of Steve--a safe human who also happens to know all the places cats like to have scratched and rubbed. Very often, I would catch sight of him looking up at Steve, an absolutely adoring look shining from his eyes while his rumbly purr filled the whole room. 

Best sofa cat in the world
This cat could purr like crazy and he did so with the slightest provocation, right up until the end. By then, he could no longer get up on the sofa and he would rest in the middle of the floor so anyone walking by would have the opportunity to scratch his head on their way past. His sight was nearly completely gone as well, so it also insured he would know when someone was headed to the kitchen, allowing him to follow and be sure to get a treat. 

It is a bit raw around here right now, a little empty--even though we still have plenty of cats floating around. Ollie was always talking, and we would both talk back even though he couldn't actually hear us. 

"The kitchen is awfully quiet," Steve said to me just now. There is no one to save extra steak or chicken for any more, either.

We had him less than a year, and the hole he has left behind seems disproportionally large. We gave him a good life here and he was happy. After hearing his story two weeks ago, the vet looked at him--full of tumors and still purring on the floor of the exam room--and said, "This is probably the happiest he's been in his whole life.

We certainly would like that to be true because he gave as good as he got.

With that big purr and quirky personality, Ollie reminded us that life is short and sweet and loving another being has no guarantees, though it very often carries big rewards. Oliver was just such a reward and there are no regrets here, just a little more silence than we're used to. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

My muses--one OTTB, one with spots

Calabar--the muse, the mirror, the magical pony
Calabar has taught me a lot and has led me down the path towards what seems to be a new chapter in my life--do all Off-Track Thoroughbreds create such transformation for their owners?

That would be a lot of transformation across this new land of Off-Track Thoroughbred loving fans. World-changing transformation.

This could be truly awesome.

But back to me and what Calabar has done for me.

He has--through trial and tribulation--taught me how to believe in myself and in him. He has shown me the truth in my instincts and challenged me to be braver and push past fear. He has carried me when he was hurting and bounced me off when I wasn't paying attention. He has asked me to get on and ride. He has shown me joy. He has made me cry in frustration. He has taught me patience and how to open up and play.

He has turned me into an advocate--a loud and occasionally strident advocate--for the Off-Track Thoroughbred. That in turn led me to Neigh Savers and working to move racing Thoroughbreds from the track and into new careers.

I was recently promoted to the board of Neigh Savers, which is both humbling and exciting. Helping direct this organization and be more active in our efforts to promote OTTBs is like ice cream every day. Better, actually. When my job got if-fy earlier this year (still there, by the way), Steve asked me what I really wanted to do.

This is it.

I love horses, all horses, but the Off-Track Thoroughbred has given me a mission and now a path to help fulfill that mission.

Neigh Savers led to the Thoroughbred Classic Horse Show Series and I suspect this is all just the tip of the iceberg.

Many thanks are due to Calabar--my fuzzy brown mirror. Thank you for showing me your heart and leading me to myself. But there are kudos due also to the spotty horse who started this ball rolling by being her beautiful and challenging self. Lena Rey, we would never be here without you.

Lena--the original muse, the mare that began it all

Friday, October 19, 2012

Bar and his farrier--a love story

Mike has been shoeing Calabar for nearly five years and recently began telling me how good my horse has been behaving. I thought, "Well, sure. Compared to how he behaved the very first time Mike came out, I'm sure anything would be better." But I watched yesterday first hand as my formerly rambunctious Off-Track Thoroughbred stood completely quietly the ENTIRE TIME Mike worked on him. He didn't swing back and forth in the cross ties. He didn't fight for his feet. He just stood there and practically napped most of his appointment. 

Mike and Bar--pals at last
It just goes to show you (shoe you?) that patience and consistency will eventually win out--even if it takes awhile to get there. 

And it took awhile, that's for sure.

About two days after Bar became mine in December of 2007, he got out and tore up his back feet. I had not had the chance to put back shoes on him, yet, and even after two years barefoot, his feet had not turned into anything other than typical Thoroughbred feet. Having both hind feet in tatters, Bar was not comfortable and it was necessary to call my fabulous farrier, Mike Brookfield. Mike had been working on Lena for several months after our erstwhile farrier disappeared into the ether and her feet were in great shape. Of course, Lena's feet are a farrier's dream while Calabar's are, well, a farrier's retirement account. 

Unfortunately, Calabar was not the world's best citizen for our inaugural shoeing together. He was convinced Mike was going to do something terrible and he was a much more defensive horse back then. I don't really know why this was the case with the farrier, though. He had a great farrier at the track and shoes were a very common part of his life, so really there was no excuse for his behavior. He swung back and forth. He leaned on Mike. He basically did almost everything in his power to distract from the shoeing process except bite or kick or strike--which gave him a few points but not many. Mike ended up building a barrier around Calabar with various objects so when he swung, he encountered something whichever way he went. Mike also might have done the fastest shoeing job ever that day, but shoes were applied which was all we needed.

Bar and his barriers--these are the external ones
He did get better for Mike after that, little by little, but was never a perfect angel in the many times I watched. There were a couple of times Mike eased some pain--once from an abscess and once when he thought he might have run a hot nail and re-set it. Knowing my horse, I could swear that has something to do with his new attitude.

Whatever the reason, watching Bar stand quietly and politely was cause for a small moment of celebration. I can't take credit for it all, no. Mike has always been clear and consistent with his expectations in terms of behavior while underneath my big, brown horse. He has also been kind and gentle. These are things all horses notice, and Calabar is no exception.

I'm just glad one of us has learned to stand still at least some of the time.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Massage Mirror

Some of you know that my horses get massages but I never do. It recently occurred to me that loosening up my own body might help Calabar's way of going--or at very least, help me stay out of his way better. To be fair, I scheduled massages for both of us this week. Calabar is not good at massages and it turns out, I'm only marginally better at talking myself into holding still.

Calabar was first and Karen came out Wednesday morning to work on him. As always, she began by watching him move in the round pen and gave me some good news--he is stiff, yes, but he is stiff evenly on both sides which is actually good progress! She also commented after his massage that his hind end feels pretty good and that means we're doing well together, my brown horse and me.

Bar thinking about biting Karen the last time  he had work done
Calabar was not overly cooperative the last time Karen did body work on him, so we specifically picked a non-meal time and set up in his paddock, rather than putting him in the cross-ties. Though normally the last step, Karen started with her laser device first in case we couldn't get to any massage. She let him walk in circles around her while she rested the paddle on the various areas on his body--neck, shoulder, withers, back, etc. He did stand still for some of it, but giving him the option to move helped with his inherent claustrophobia so he didn't fight and Karen ended up getting more actual laser-to-horse time. There was some comment about his owner not holding still well, either, but that was surely about Bar's other owner.

Next she did some massage on his left side and showed me a few specific techniques to use on his shoulders and neck on a regular basis. He still moved away several times, but he was pretty good at letting her dig into that side.

Not so much the right side. He would not hold still at all, but curiously enough, he would circle back to her and put his head in her chest. It was like he was saying, "Yes, it hurts and I know you're trying to help but I just can't release that junk right there quite yet."

I knew just how he felt the very next day when I got my massage. "Oh, wow. That's tighter than I thought it was." There was a spot in my right hip that felt like maybe if I could stand just a little more pressure than the good amount being applied, it might let go. Maybe. It was so tender, though, that holding still was nearly impossible.There was another spot at the base of my skull--also on the right--that created an internal war between pushing into the pressure and jumping up from the table. I stayed put but only because I can tell myself this will make things better.

Calabar does not have built-in assurances that this will help the way I do, but the way Karen worked with him yesterday--giving him time and space and freedom--moved him towards at least thinking about it.

I went to the barn last night, still not sure I could ride with my Forrest-bruised thighs, but determined to at least lunge Calabar to see how he was moving. He looked fantastic--beautiful, rhythmic movement and longer, looser strides, too.

So of course I got on for a minute, bruises and all, and he was actually easier to ride! I mentioned to Karen that I couldn't tell if it was him or me and she said a lot of it was him. I still wasn't sure, but the difference last night was undeniable. Less wonky, both of us.

Bar says I should get massages more often and that he is actually fine, but could I gently rub that spot right there? NO, not too much and not too hard and definitely stop when he tells me to. Ah, that's the ticket.

And indeed it may be just the ticket for both of us, though I should probably spend more time relaxing during my massage versus trying to map my sore spots to where they would be on him and seeing if they match. Maybe next time.

Monday, October 08, 2012


Getting kicked hurts. Seriously hurts. I think it's my first time--which all things considered is pretty miraculous--but ow.

After watching Katie go through everything she went through, I had a philosophical understanding of the pain but today Forrest filled me in on the actual physical understanding.

I was walking next to Katie as she led Forrest to the big arena. I admit, I was preoccupied, thinking about her getting on him and worrying because he was fresh and she hadn't lunged him. (There was a horse in the round pen precluding this.) We were walking past the corner of the indoor arena, coming around to face the outdoor, which is a place both Calabar and Forrest get a little hinky sometimes. Sadly, I forgot this little piece of information.

As far as I remember, I was walking with Katie at Forrest's head when I bent down to pick something up. I started to stand up and felt, well, a blow to both thighs that can gracefully be described as rather painful. Un-gracefully, it can only be described with expletives. Loud ones. On the plus side, had I not already stood up, it could have been my head and that would have been all kinds of bad. We'll take that kind of luck, thank you, though Steve apparently thinks I should not rely on it.

So far, I seem to be fine. There is a horseshoe-shaped tattoo on my right thigh that's more of an abrasion, though I suspect there will be impressive bruising in the next couple of days. However, I can walk and even do squats to some extent.

Ice. Tylenol. More ice. Elevation.

And Forrest got no carrots from me today. Even though I know it is my responsibility to be aware of him,  of his mood and his capabilities.

And that perhaps is the real lesson of the day. It was cool, the wind was blowing leaves and energy all over the place. Had I been walking Calabar or Lena, I'd have been ready for just that sort of reaction. I was just so caught up in worrying about Katie, I forgot about watching Forrest and being prepared.

Make that a lesson learned.