In the Night Farm…Your Ride is Here.

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There’s something about being on a horse that makes people want to say hello.

I do most of my conditioning rides on the grid of agricultural roads surrounding my farm.  Just about everyone who passes in a car, driving a tractor, or riding a motorcycle offers a wave.  Once in a while, someone stops to chat.

Sometimes, they’re concerned about my safety.  (This occasionally leads to offers of new places to ride on private property.)  Sometimes, they are horse people curious about Consolation’s breed, hoof boots, or tack.  Sometimes, they just comment on the pretty day, the pretty horse, and (without saying so outright) the pretty nice feeling that most people make the world a better place.

Just last week, a guy pulled his truck over to ask if he could introduce his lovely, half-grown Weimaraner to Consolation in the hope that the pup would be less inclined to chase horses in the future.

A couple miles up the road, a faded sedan stopped in the oncoming lane.  The window rolled down to reveal the gentleman with the Walkaloosas, who occasionally drops by my farm astride his mare.  His face was unusually ashen, his eyes hollow.  I asked how he was, and he said not well.  We talked horses and weather.  And then he said he’d lost one of his grandsons the day before.  The boy was three months old.  Found dead in his crib, of unknown cause.  A foal was due at his place any day; I should drop by.  I said I would.

Then there is the woman who rents the old house at the S-bend.  Her driveway is full of old cars from a lot owned by her husband, who recently passed.  She has a new mare, a gentle, senior Paint found on Craigslist for $250.    Perhaps we’ll ride the irrigation road some evening, and she will tell her story.

Two of my favorites have names I don’t know.  One is the mail carrier, always cheerful in her white Jeep with the orange light on top.  Sometimes I wonder how much she knows about me, from my mail, and seems to like me anyway.

And, there is the farm worker with the battered, two-tone pickup he drives among ditches, fields, and barns.  We pass each other often, sometimes several times a day.  My clothes and activities change — from breeches for riding to jeans for training to shorts for sprinting — and our frequent, speechless encounters make us laugh.

There is the husband and wife team that drives the school bus, the cattle rancher whose stock sometimes turn up on my land, the gardener whose handiwork I always slow to admire.  There are the cyclists who call out to let me know they’re passing, men who cut the motors on their chain saws though Consolation isn’t spooky, the reining competitor whose trailer I once borrowed for a veterinary emergency.  Kids who wave, kids too shy.  Dog-walkers.  Seasonal workers grinning under broad-brimmed hats.  A loose collection of folks who know almost nothing, yet almost everything, about each other.

People sometimes ask if I get bored of riding by myself.  Not often, I say, and I’m sincere.  But the truth is, I don’t really ride alone.


The Old Gray Mare

The sun came out today.  It spilled warmth across the snow still cast like a discarded bridal veil over the curves and valleys of my farm.  The icy crust softened, no longer knifelike on equine legs.  Its perfection begged to be broken.

I wasted no time on breeches, belt, or chaps.  Old sweatpants and two layers of fleece would do, a hat beneath my helmet, gloves.  Consolation wore only her Indian bosal, more halter than bridle.  Is there any way but bareback to ride o’er deep and drifted snow?

Consolation has never carried a rider in such environs.  The peculiar quiet, broken only by trains of geese that clattered across the sky, made her jump at every turn.  A flurry of game birds set her heart to pounding beneath my knee.  She snorted and bounced, all wild eye and fun, until the knee-deep effort set her mind to task.

Her tension ebbed, and I rocked astride her like a boat at anchor.  Both hands on the reins, fingers extending lightly to keep time with her bobbing head.  Both heels pressed into air beneath her ribs.  Both scanning the snow for safest passage.  Both inhaling chill and passing warmth between us.

To ride bareback is to play in duet.  It is sex that happens because it is supposed to, not because someone planned it.  It is naked dressage, riding stripped to essentials.  Balance.  Contact.  Depth.   Feel.  Dare I say Love?

No.  For all the storybooks, the anecdotes, I still cannot believe that horses love.  Not in the way of dogs and men.  That which a horse offers, to one deserving, is a finer treasure still:  it is Trust.

Consolation has not been an easy horse.  As recently as last April, I remained unsure that I would keep her, after all.  Our relationship had been a struggle between wills, two alpha mares unwilling to bow.  And yet, today, we traveled with nothing between us, partners adrift in an icy meadow crisscrossed with tracks of pheasant and quail, of rabbits and dual coyotes that bounded after.

We will ride like this again, someday.  Someday, when she is thirty and I am fifty-four, Consolation and I will chase another winter sunset, together, as far as we can go.

Photo by Michael Ensch

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The Golden Pony

A little girl lives a quarter mile up my road, on a three-acre plot with a battered farmhouse and rickety fence. She runs to the mailbox when I ride by, and she calls me “her Highness” when she thinks I cannot hear.

I find this embarrassing, but sweet. After all, I have not been adult too long to perceive how an imagination, just ten years old, might transform a neighbor woman with long hair and a gray horse into a princess astride a milk-white steed.

“You know what?” the girl asked one day, when I paused to let her stroke my noble charger. “Horses are my favorite animal.” She cradled this truth in conspiratorial voice, as if it contained a wish too great for hope.

I understood. Oh, I understood!

That was two summers ago, but I thought of it today when I drove by that house to discover in the pasture something like a pony. It’s an awkward little beast of indecipherable heritage, pieced together of breeds that ought never to meet, yet blessed with a coat of palomino dapple that I’m sure its young mistress believes is solid gold.

I’ve smiled all afternoon at the thought of that girl. Though stifling hot and thunder torn, today is, for her, that perfect day. It is magic, but it is real! She knows nothing of devastating colic, mysterious lameness, a crushing fall. She’s never borne the weight of a thousand training hours destroyed by one bad step, a gate left open, a twist of wire buried in the weeds. She sees nothing in that pony but her fondest dream come true.

I had that magic once. We all did. And yet, somehow, it slipped away. The travesty struck in silence by the same, subtle shift that degraded running and jumping from play to exercise, contorted sleeping on a friend’s floor from adventure to necessity, and ravaged the sensuality of meals with stomach-turning guilt.

Conditioning our horses has become a duty. We want not so much to ride as to have ridden. Because we are supposed to, because we said we would. We focus so hard on the minutiae of tack fit, of hoof care, of speed and feed, that we forget to cast our hearts over the horizon and ride to find them.

And so, our hearts are simply lost.

I was recently gifted another chance. Two weeks after our race at Owyhee Fandango, Consolation tied up. It was my fault; I cut her grain ration while she vacationed post-race, but I should have eliminated it entirely. The excess carbohydrate crashed her system only a few minutes into our first warm-up as we started back to work — and the result was a month of no work at all.

Disaster! Disappointment! The angry slap of goals thwarted again. Again. Again! All the things of which my little neighbor is innocent, because she knows things that matter more.

Consolation is back at work now. (Forgive me — back at play!) Today we trotted through the world, all shifting skies and wind abluster, and I smiled to think of that little girl and her shambles of a pony. I may have better horses than hers, better tack, better technique. But she has something better still.

She has, in full measure, that which I clasp like water in my hands: The sunshine sense that a horse — any horse! — is spun of purest joy. And to have one of your own? Such is heaven, most of all.

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On the Wings of a Storm

I paid less than $400 for Aaruba. His breeder wanted quiet Arabians and Pintabians, and Aaruba wasn’t. No, Aaruba was the plain gray, high-headed, wide-eyed, last straw that sent his sire to the vet for gelding.

I first saw him on the kind of windy, muddy day that whipped his mind to wildness. Still a leggy four-year-old, he flashed about the makeshift corral as if the storm were inside him, no buck but plenty of air, a whirl flat knees, good hooves, and that indefinable something that trumpets, “I’m the one!”

We made the deal.

Aaruba came home friendly but troubled, ravaged by a sea of emotions, in desperate need of a captain. Together we navigated the straits of training — he the ship and I the sail — to open waters and sunny days.

Nearly three years later, I can sometimes offer a bit of the captaincy to him. Yesterday, fresh from two weeks of bad weather and little work, he seemed nevertheless in a mental state to chart our course. And so, I settled into my new Stonewall and handed him the wheel.

He ran.

For most of sixteen miles, he ran, and a winter storm gave chase. A frozen landscape streamed past, pulled tears from my eyes and sweat from his neck. We cantered free as water, free as wind, our bodies long and loose as the reins between us.

I scarcely touched his face or sides but listened instead to his language pure as breathing. Our path looped wide, spun at last on a gust toward home. Winter nipped his flying heels. Naked tree limbs shuddered and the bellies of the clouds grew pregnant with snow.

And I? I clung astride that plain gray, high-headed, wild-eyed, will-o-the-wisp whose size and strength far outstripped my own, a creature more emotion than logic, more motion than matter, more worth than gold, and I was not afraid.


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Timing Isn’t Everything

On a hill overlooking Oregon’s Willamette Valley, there is a house with a large yard. Beyond the yard is an overgrown walnut orchard. At the edge of the walnut orchard is a yellow barn. And in the yellow barn sleep the memories of my first endurance horses. They whisper among the cobwebs, curl like cats upon the beams, press their hoof prints in long vacant stalls.

They were Arabians, of course. A black-bay mare, elderly and kind, with a stripe and snip and one white hind. Another bay mare, agitated, ever pacing. And a rose-grey gelding, the first I raised and trained from youth, the horse of my heart. Who can tell how many miles we traveled, those Arabians and I, bareback and fleet among the wheat fields and vineyards and woods that made our home?

In those teenage years, I knew nothing of the sport of endurance. I rode for sheer pleasure, alone for hours at a time with the wind cool on my temples and a horse hot between my knees, my fingers tangled tight in reins and manes. I wore sweat pants and t-shirts, paddock boots, never a watch. The shadows kept time as the trails wound on. My only rule was ‘home at dusk.’

These days, I surround myself with layers of data. Rides progress from planning chart to stopwatch and stethoscope to spreadsheet. The resulting lists and graphs intrigue me, and I find no sin in this.

But lately, these October days beguile. Shall I ride hills when the trees are aflame with autumn in the valleys? Must we canter when the last rays of an Indian summer could, if only we walked, cloak us in remembered warmth?

And so I slow my horse’s pounding feet. I close my eyes, sway upon his back, absorb his breaths as though they were my own. Speed and mileage mean nothing today. These, after all, are the rides logged not on paper, but on our very souls.

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Introduction: Equine Gastric Ulcer Series

If I had my way, I would not be writing this post. If I had my way, Aaruba’s gastric ulcers would have resolved with treatment and never recurred. If I had my way, I would not care about ulcer treatments, preventatives, or alternatives.

Alas, I do not always get my way.

By the end of the day following our 55-mile ride at Owyhee Canyonlands in September, two weeks after Aaruba finished his month-long course of GastroGard, I knew the ulcers were back. Aaruba’s poor appetite and uncomfortable aspect led to a call to the vet, which led to another $500 GastroGard purchase and $100 in Doxycycline, in case the recurrence was due to an infected ulcer.

The antibiotic treatment went out the window after four doses. Poor Aaruba despised the stuff and lost every bit of appetite the GastroGard had so recently restored. So, I had to hope the GastroGard alone would do the trick…but what if it didn’t?

Time to do some homework.

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll provide a series of posts detailing the questions I asked and the answers I compiled from various resources both online and in print. My research focused particularly on gastric ulcers in endurance horses, which face some special concerns. Here are the questions I’ll address:

  • What strategies can prevent equine gastric ulcer formation or recurrence?
  • What medications and alternatives are available to combat equine gastric ulcers, and are there any problems associated with their long term use?
  • How effective are ulcer preventative supplements, and are there any problems associated with their long term use?
  • How do the costs and benefits of various supplements compare?
  • What does the American Endurance Ride Conference say about ulcers and ulcer treatments in endurance horses?
  • And finally, how will I apply this information for the benefit of my own herd?
Please remember that I’m neither vet nor expert. I’m just a bookish nerd who loves my horse but can’t afford a lifetime supply of GastroGard. Feel free to comment throughout the series with your own experiences or additional resources. I look forward to your insight. After all, gastric ulcers are extremely common in performance horses. It pays to be informed.

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Upward In the Night

You would have bought it, too, that saddle in a stranger’s garage the day before the sale was to open.

Never mind that you shouldn’t have dropped the cash, that all five of your newly-acquired Barb horses were virtually wild. Never mind that you couldn’t halter any of them, let alone test for saddle fit. Never mind that, for you, endurance racing was merely a pile of library books and a dream.

It was an endurance saddle, a Stonewall with centerfire rigging and fenders burnished by the rub of breeches over countless miles. It was a step — one taken out of order, but a step nonetheless — toward a cherished goal. The saddle was hope.

So I bought it. Six months later, I bought an Arabian horse called Aaruba. He cost little more than the saddle, as his breeder was eager to dispense with the energetic gelding who’d proved a poor example of the mellow temperment characteristic of his herd. Aaruba featured patchy groundwork, about 20 rides under a hasty trainer, and a reputation for bolting when mounted. But, after some initial adjustments, the Stonewall fit him as well as the sport for which he was chosen. After eighteen months of remedial training, I cinched up that comfortable, old saddle and started conditioning.

I never imagined that Stonewall Saddle Company would one day make the gracious offer of a sponsorship. And yet, as of yesterday morning, Aaruba and I have the honor of being sponsored by Stonewall — and the special treat of a custom endurance saddle, complete with conformal foam over a tree specially made for Aaruba’s back.

Jerry Stoner, the saddle’s original designer, was both an endurance rider and a Space Program engineer. He knew that NASA had developed a material called conformal foam to line astronauts’ seats, protecting them from from pressure points even through the high g-forces of takeoff. Seeing an opportunity to offer his horse additional comfort on long rides, he designed a saddle reminicient of the old McClellan (but much more comfortable for the rider!), with a layer of conformal foam between the saddle’s bars and sheepskin lining. The result is a saddle that conforms to the horse’s back, evenly distributing weight along the panels and allowing painless freedom of movement.

Step one in the creation of Aaruba’s new saddle is for me to measure his back in two different ways. First, I’ll make line tracings of his back as instructed by the Stonewall Saddle Company website. (Keep an eye on that website — the company is under new ownership, and the website is slated for extensive remodeling.) Next, I’ll use the Dennis Lane Equine Back Profiling System to give the saddle makers a 3-D model of Aaruba’s back. This information will be used for macrofitting, that is, making the custom tree. Conformal foam will take care of the all-important microfitting that is impossible to achieve through tree design alone.

I can hardly wait to try out my new Stonewall endurance saddle. In the meantime, though, I’ll continue to enjoy the used one I fell in love with amid the garage sale clutter. Every time I ride, it reminds me of the time, not so long ago, when I bought a saddle to ride a dream.

It was in those days that I borrowed the name for In the Night Farm from Longfellow’s pen:

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

I’m still at the trailhead of this exhilirating journey, poised now on the brink of my second LD. Many miles — joyous miles, painful miles — lie between here and my lofty goals. But every day I take another step, and another, and another…toiling upward in the night.

Glory in Motion: Riding at the Speed of Delight

As I drove home from the office yesterday, steely rainclouds pelted my windshield with more water than the wipers could keep at bay. I toyed absentmindedly with the heater and radio knobs, debating whether to ride Aaruba, or just do a bit of liberty work with him, when I got home.

As I dashed from car to house, the idea of half an hour in the round corral seemed much more appealing than that of ninety minutes of trekking along the roadside, drenched with rain and tire spray. On the other hand, our forecast suggested that today might not be any better. So, I whipped up a quick snack, shimmied into my Patagonia’s, and grabbed my Wintec Aussie saddle instead of the usual Stonewall.

Light rain dotted the saddle as I tacked up, but by the time I swung astride, the band of clouds had blown eastward. Aaruba and I set off after them…and darn near caught them, too.

Aaruba was brimming with energy after two days spent resting and chowing down on a diet calculated to pack more pounds on his frame. Last fall, a serious impaction colic put him in the hospital for almost a week. He lost 250 pounds and gained a name for himself as one of the most unlikely survivors his team of vets had ever seen. Confined all winter by atrocious weather and worse footing, he regained a respectable amount of weight, but I couldn’t put as much food energy into him as I’d have liked to because everything I tried turned him into a frustrated, head-tossing, paddock-pacing beast.

Now that he’s on a conditioning program, however, it’s time to pad him out a bit more. Unlike human athletes, who perform best with as little body fat as possible, horses rely on stored fat to provide energy during prolonged exercise. Free choice oat hay, supplemental alfalfa, and several pounds of oats dressed with corn oil are doing the trick…but the first ride after a good rest period can be an adventure.

Sure enough, after a mile’s warm-up at a walk and jog, Aaruba turned on the turbo. Neck curved in that glorious Arabian arch, he charged along the gravel shoulder, shying at mailboxes and songbirds for the sheer amusement of it. Half laughing, half cursing, I jostled for balance in the unfamiliar saddle with its relatively forward seat, narrow leathers, and standard English irons. (Perhaps next time I want to test a new saddle, I’ll do it when the horse is a touch less fresh.)

Three miles down the road, we were still cruising along, all speed and suspension, far exceeding our prescribed 6 mph pace. A familiar mantra played in my mind: Ride the horse and not the plan. Usually, this admonition reminds me to slow down, give the horse time, scrap the plan if the horse isn’t ready to follow it. This, however, seemed a rare opportunity to exceed the constraints of my Training Tracker.

“Okay, fella,” I told Aaruba. “Let ‘er rip.”

Though Aaruba would gladly have offered a hand gallop, such an effort would be foolhardy at this stage of conditioning. We agreed instead upon a surging trot. Normally, we jog for miles on a slack rein, but today the lines between us sang with tension.

May I go faster? he said.

If you can do it at a trot, I said.

I can, he said, and pulled his hindquarters deep.

His shoulders pulsed beneath me and the road spun out behind. Heat rose from his skin, engulfing my hands and warming my calves. Having reached a truce with the new saddle, I posted low and steady, my grip firm on the reins, a conduit transmitting energy from haunch to head and back again.

You know the feeling: It’s acing the interview for your dream job, kissing someone you hardly know, traversing a high ropes course, rafting the Colorado. It’s being a child on the beach, ankle deep in riptide, wondering if it’s just you or the whole earth that moves.

It’s seeing thousands of training hours turn to gold.

Our sixth and seventh miles took us up a gradual incline. Slowly, Aaruba’s neck relaxed out of its arch. He even consented to walk the eighth and final mile, reducing our average speed to 7 mph. Back on the farm, I released him in a grassy pen. He rolled, took a few bites of grass, then leaped and spun on a gust of wind — clearly, as they say in the endurance world, “fit to continue.”


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Applied Physics

As part of my undergraduate work, I took a course entitled “Conceptual Physics.” The point of the course was to introduce and enhance an understanding of physics without the usual trappings of mathematical formulas that look like someone spilled alphabet soup on your textbook. Having always been the writing and literature type, I surprised myself by ranking the course as one of my all-time favorites.

Early in the semester, we reviewed the concepts of inertia and momentum. Inertia is defined as the tendency of an object at rest to remain at rest, or the tendency of an object in motion to remain in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force.

Momentum is a bit more complicated, but it can reasonably be defined as a property of a moving object that determines the length of time and amount of force required to stop the moving object. A particular object’s momentum is a product of its mass and velocity.

I find that inertia and momentum affect not only the physical world, but also our mental environments. When we make a commitment to reach a goal — losing 30 pounds, saving enough money to replace the carpet with hardwood, or training that filly in the back pasture — we throw ourselves into a surf of conflicting forces that will do all they can to thwart us.

People who know me well call me one of the most committed, goal-oriented people they know. (The term obsessive is applied with some regularity.) Indeed, I do my best to abide by a strict training schedule that obligates me to work with at least two horses every weeknight, and four per day on weekends. I know that, by following this schedule, I will reach my stated, annual training and conditioning goals for each horse.

And yet, inertia comes into play. Though I enjoy my day job and put a lot of effort into it, such work renders me, for horse training purposes, an “object at rest.” How easy it is, after a busy day at the office, to look for excuses not to train tonight! I need to go grocery shopping. It’s really windy out. I’m still getting over that cold. It’s just one day.

But, almost always, I pull on my boots and head out to the round corral anyway. Why? Because an object at rest tends to stay at rest. “Just one day” often turns into “just two days,” and suddenly it’s Wednesday and a third of my training week is gone, and there isn’t time to catch up because each training hour ahead is already booked to another horse. Meanwhile, I’m left feeling frustrated with myself because I know I haven’t lived up to my own potential.

Happily, inertia works both ways. When I’m “in motion” and making daily progress with the horses, I remain excited about the next day’s lessons. The mass of previous successes builds momentum like a snowball rolling down a hill, getting harder and harder to stop.

This momentum is what propels me through days like today, when it’s 40 degrees out, 25 mph winds rage, rain threatens, and I would prefer to skip Aaruba’s 12-mile conditioning ride. If I hadn’t been consistently conditioning him over the past six weeks, watching his physique change and attitude brighten, it would be all too easy to put off this ride until another day…and chances are, we wouldn’t be ready for the Owyhee Fandango next month.

You see, the last part of the definition of inertia is the most critical. An object tends to keep doing what it’s doing unless acted upon by an outside force. When it comes to goal-seeking, the outside force is choice — your choice. No one is going to make you get outdoors and train your horse. That filly isn’t likely to complain about another day of loafing. But how are you going to feel about it?

Will you feel the daily twinge of guilt when you head out to feed tonight, glance over at your dusty saddle, and wish you’d pulled away from your housekeeping or blogging or bill paying to put in an hour of training? Or, will you bask in the satisfaction of having made the right choice, begun the journey of a thousand miles, given the snowball a hearty shove? Today, tomorrow, and next week, the choice is yours.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a horse to ride.


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A Moment of Silence: Communicating with Horses

After a sleepless night spent trying to save a newborn lamb, followed by a day of urging it to nurse, I was in no mood to train horses on Monday. Exhausted and achey, with frustration bubbling just below the surface, I didn’t trust myself with something so permeable as a horse’s mind.

The pressure was on. As of April 1, my training schedule hit full swing. Though Aaruba was enjoying a day off from conditioning, I was supposed to work with Consolation and Acey, preparing them to start under saddle. Time was ticking, consistency was key, goals tapped their fingers on my brain. Missing a day was not acceptable.

But, as Robert Painter told me many times, “Everything you do with a horse is training.”

Horses don’t come with an off switch. I can’t tell them I’m sorry to be snappish, it isn’t their fault, they shouldn’t be offended. Their sense of justice doesn’t evaporate because I am in a bad mood. An undeserved jerk of the leadrope could create a rift in our relationship that takes weeks to heal.

If I want to be trusted, I must be trustworthy.

Still, I couldn’t stay away from the horses entirely. Leaving all tack behind, I led Aaruba from his pen and let him graze while I groomed him. His coat, still fuzzy from winter, ruffled and gleamed in the sunset breeze. His ears flickered pleasantly, and the smell of spring grass wafted so sweet that I wished I could eat it, too.

I found myself sinking into Aaruba’s smaller world, his life that is just this moment. Swishing tail, smooth muscle, warm body, kind eye. Drifting tufts of winter hair. Stomping hoof muffled by earth. His pulse, soft as dusk, that bumps my hand upon his throat. His heartbeat, mine. Together. At peace.


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