That’s what I see when I look out my window now. Empty paddocks.
There are horses, still. Six of them. Two will leave at the end of the month. The remaining four are mine. They will stay. And I will have time to give them the attention they deserve.
Six years ago, I started this blog with a dream of promoting the Barbs by riding them in endurance. Colleagues in other states would train and promote other Barbs in other ways. My breeding stock would be available to help meet growing market demand through commissioned foals.
I spent endless hours working with the horses, all of which came to me virtually untouched. I trained them one by one, chronicled triumphs and frustrations, solved dilemmas ranging from recalcitrant attitudes to ill-fitting hoof boots. I took them down the endurance trail. They did fine. Not spectacularly, but respectably. They did fine.
Meanwhile, the market changed. The Great Recession cut into nearly everyone’s lifestyle. Raising and selling horses was never an easy business, but now it grew even harder. Especially for a small, hot, “boutique” breed without a long performance record in an area that focuses on stocky, quiet, Quarter Horse types for western sport.
In other areas, fellow breeders seemed to be collecting stock but not really using their horses. Word was not getting out. Interest was not growing.
And I changed. I wanted to focus more on endurance and less on training. I wanted to go faster down the trail than the Barbs wanted to carry me. It took years — literally years — to release the old dream enough to buy a pair of Arabians for my endurance mounts. When I did, I was glad.
But what to do with the Barbs? I loved them as a breed. I loved them as individuals. I had two, world-class stallions, five lovely mares, and a gelding that, while stunning, didn’t seem suitable for endurance. I also had a single income, a fun but wildly busy life, and too much awareness of what happens to unwanted horses to even consider breeding foals that I didn’t have time to train and that the market simply wouldn’t bear.
In the sport of endurance, rider can choose to pull her own horse out of the race. Anytime. For any reason. No questions asked. No vet or manager approval required. Because sometimes, the rider senses something no one else can, and the rider knows what is right. This kind of pull is known as “Rider Option.”
Nobody ever wants to quit mid-race. It usually feels like failure. But life has taught me that what looks like failure often is not. Journeys left unfinished were not taken in vain. (Remember this post?) Dreams shift. We carry treasures with us from memory to motivation.
And so, after months of consideration, I made a decision. I would pass the Barb breeding torch to others. Insider and Acey went to Wisconsin. Tuetano is with a trainer who is preparing him for travel to his new ranch in Texas. Incognito (rechristened Inara) is with a Barb enthusiast here in Idaho. Consolation and Sandstorm leave for Colorado next month. CJ is with an Idaho family, soon to be started under saddle.
All except CJ (a gelding) remain in the Spanish Colonial horse community. They went to homes of people I have known for years. They are safe. They are valued. They’ll be used to preserve and promote the breed.
And the empty paddocks? I’ll tear some out to make room for a barn. Others will house Jammer, Maji, Ripple (yes, I kept one Barb), and the new mare I picked up as guest mount for less experienced riders.
Those empty paddocks are sadness, but they are also deep relief. They represent the end of guilt over having such fine horses and not using them. A gift to the breeding community. Lower hay costs. Attention freed up for the horses that remain. And especially, more time to ride.
It is, after all, called Rider Option.
See you on the trail.
A small chalkboard hangs in my kitchen. I scribble quotes on it from time to time, bits of thought encapsulated by someone who stopped to think about what is good or right or true.
For a while now, it has offered only two words: Live beautifully.
Some people raise their eyebrows when they see it. Some shift in slight discomfort, as though it were an inappropriate glimpse behind the curtain of my soul. Most ignore it. A few ask.
What do I mean by that? Live beautifully.
I mean that I choose to fill myself with all that is whole and healthful, genuine and bold, gentle and courageous and wise. Things that build instead of break. Exploration that brims the heart to overflowing, until I can’t help but share my gratitude with anyone, everyone, in my path. Quietly. Subtly. Beautifully.
Of course I fail at this sometimes. I am no better than anyone else. But it matters that I try.
The best views follow the steepest climbs, my friends.
And I am atop a mountain.
Your responses to my recent posts are part of what got me here. They have filled. I hope to repay you.
My first job was at a small, shabby horse farm in the valley below my childhood home. Its driveway peeled off from the corner of a gravel road lined with triple-strand hotwire paddocks, all nibbled bare and dotted with broodmares. The barn was creaky and drafty, with packed dirt aisles and a cloth-draped radio tuned to the country station. It smelled of shavings and Coppertox, of wool coolers and, when the wind blew west, the manure pile out back.
I remember the horses, each dished face with black globes for eyes. Each name and star and sock and personality, even the patterns they left in the stalls I cleaned day over day for a couple years between the ages of twelve and fourteen. I can still sing along about you and me goin’ fishin’ in the dark. I remember the mare that colicked and made me put my foot down with my mom for the first time, because I really could not leave her to go to my piano lesson, $60 paid in advance or not.
Most of all, I remember the farm’s owner. She was short and craggy, with cropped hair dyed black and heavy makeup that sharpened her narrow eyes nearly as much as the suspicion that always lay behind them. I rarely saw her without bloodred lips. The lips almost never smiled.
Her name was not Mae, but let’s pretend.
Mae had a jovial husband, round in the belly and sad behind his grin. I saw him only occasionally, but he was always kind to me. I marveled to see him with Mae, because the pair of them were so different. He gentle and she harsh, he easygoing and she tense. Terse. Poised like a wire stretched too tight, clinging white-knuckled to her tough persona. I wondered, even then, then if it was all she had.
She loved her horses in the way hurting people do. In the way that says: you alone will not betray me. You are not my daughter who grew up and moved away and never calls. You are not the old husbands who cheated, the farmhouse falling down around my ears, the abusive parents, the unfair manager who cost me a career, the drunk driver who jabbed this endless pain into my spine.
I am guessing. Mae never told me her story. Not in words. But I worked for her long enough, well enough, that she sometimes let her armor slip aside. Beneath cowered a woman who wore Paloma Picasso and gave me a tiny bottle for Christmas. Who sold me a colt for less than he was worth, taught me to build his hindquarters and stand him up, paid for an overnight trip to Washington where he won Reserve Champion at the big Arabian show.
She gave me tea in her cluttered living room on rainy days, rasped in her smoker’s voice over the soap operas that were the anthem of her afternoons. She said little of substance, but the things she did not say told me her rocky exterior was only a dam of anger holding back a lifetime of tears.
I think of her in the hard times. How quick she was to wrath, how limited her capacity for joy. Her path, whatever came before, had left her all but devoid of any ability to trust. I think that’s why she liked me, and perhaps her husband, too. Our loyalty was simple. Consistent. It surprised her. It was the only thing that reminded her to smile.
The thing about hard times is that they end. Worst case scenario, they end because we’ve died. Best case, and most common, either we or events around us shift and the trail widens and we carry on. This is when we make our decisions:
What will we carry with us? The pain, or the healing? The betrayal, or the wisdom? The longing, or the truth? Will we come away with greater confidence than before, and with gratitude, because we have learned how strong we are? Or will we be cut off, shut down, stolen away?
I saw Mae cry once. Several years after I stopped working for her, I dropped by her place to deliver a framed pencil drawing I’d done of the stallion Ben Bask. It was one of my better pieces. I have no idea why I wanted to give it to her, except that I thought she deserved to be remembered. To be thanked for teaching me — without knowing, through bad example — how I do not want to be.
She is probably dead now. Resentment like hers destroys body and soul before their time. But I am not afraid to hope (because that I what I do) that before the end she found another way, and didn’t let the winter take her after all.
I rode Consolation yesterday. It was her first outing since I laid her off at the beginning of last summer due to her undiagnosed, but obvious, discomfort under saddle. We jogged six miles in the sunshine. She felt good. Content.
But not like an endurance horse. Never one of my most driven mounts, she felt distinctly disinterested in speed and distance. I doubt I’ll attempt to condition her this year. Or ever. She gave me 875 endurance miles, plus countless more in training. That will have to be enough.
Here is the dark side of being goal-oriented. I struggle to give up on this mare. On anything. It is easy to forget, when I fail to reach my destination, the views I enjoyed along the way. My reaction is common, I suppose. It is also a failure of perspective.
Consider this: What is the destination? When does effort become achievement, striving morph into success? Is it at 2,000 AERC miles? 5,000? If I retire a horse at 1,655 miles, have I somehow failed?
If a career path fizzles before I reach the corner office, was my experience wasted? If a relationship crumbles after three years, or five, or ten, have I thrown away that time?
Yes, I am older now. Yes, it takes effort to update my resume, go out and date, start a young horse, shoulder the effort and face the fear of starting over, starting new.
But see the good times had, the completions earned, the accolades received, the scars that strengthen! They don’t vanish because the path on which I found them ends in a cliff. A journey abbreviated is not a journey obliterated. The treasures I claim are mine to keep.
Don’t waste the litter of your past. It gathers about your feet like shale tumbled down a hillside. Step up on it. Feel it shift beneath your soles, and climb.
The last stanza of the poem from which my farm takes its name reads thus: Nor doom the irrevocable past ~ As wholly wasted, wholly vain ~ If rising on its wrecks at last ~ To something nobler we attain. [H.W. Longfellow]
Squint against your tears, my friends. See the shining? Reach out. Take hold. Climb.
This has been a hard winter. Snow fell just after Christmas and has lain on the ground since. At the new year, temperatures dropped into the single digits and only visited the teens on the occasional afternoon. Mornings dawned in negative numbers. Frost-free spigots froze. Black horses shimmered silver with daylong frost.
Before and after work, I hauled buckets of hot water from the house, up the icy path and down again, to supplement the efforts of tank heaters and a t-post dedicated to smashing rims of ice. On weekends, I managed to finish the new pasture fence — bundled in wool socks and ski pants and fleece and gloves that I changed periodically as they soaked through — so the horses could get out to play. I stacked a load of hay on a day so cold the snow wouldn’t stick to the bales. The physical effort was sufficient to keep me warm for reasonable periods. But riding? That wasn’t going to happen.
This has been a hard winter. I’m running this farm on my own again. What happened was a deep shock, like an earthquake that comes without warning and leaves devastation in its wake. Everything is stark. Bleak. The trees are stripped bare. Freezing fog muffles the view. Color vanishes beneath the bleaching, blinding snow.
Yesterday, it rained. Temperatures soared to mid-thirties. Earth appeared in a few places, like finger holes in a vast duvet. The blood of four lambs, slaughered last week, glistened in crimson pools that refused to sink. Then, overnight, it froze. Grief is like that. Anger, too. Today’s forecast is warm again. Drizzly. The kind of day that stirs together drift and berm and turns it all to frigid mud.
But warmer is warmer. Time takes winter with her, in the end. I want to ride again.
Success requires the alignment of your actions with your intentions.
Years ago, I wrote a blog series called “Fit to Ride,” on the subject of why endurance riders ought to be as fit as possible and how they might accomplish such. I offended a few people who misunderstood me. They thought I’d insulted the riding skill of some people who are overweight or dealing with other physical limitations. In fact, here is what I said:
“I believe that an ideal endurance athlete — the human half — must be both lean, that is, have a low body fat [percentage] and strong… (Note that, as discussed in the comments precipitated by this post, “lean and strong” looks different on different people. I’m not talking about preparing for a beauty contest here. This is about contributing my fair share in a team event.)”
Note that I was talking about the ideal endurance athlete. Most of us can’t be “ideal.” We can, however, be our personal best.
Admittedly, I did throw down the gauntlet with some tough love in the Straight Sailing post to which the above quote refers. Maybe I wouldn’t put it quite that way today. (Maybe I would. Depends on my mood.) But even in that post, I went on to say this:
“In fact, one of my favorite things about endurance is that it’s a rare sport in which kids can compete alongside their grandparents, and some of its top riders excel despite physical ailments that make them look like everybody’s last idea of a champion athlete.
What I am saying is that if you’re settling for mediocrity, you’re failing your horse. Even if your fitness level is “not that bad.” Even if it’s “above average.” If it’s not your personal best — and that’s a moving target, ladies and gentlemen, so keep striving — it’s not good enough.”
Now, I know some endurance riders who are heavier or weaker than their ideal. Some of them are much better riders than I. But here’s the thing: That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t work on their fitness. It means I should work on my riding. We can all improve, and if we want to be the best partners for our horses.
Thankfully, none of us have to be supermodels or superheroes to do well in endurance. Many of us, including me, have some physical issues that prevent us from achieving our ideal bodyfat percentage, range of motion, balance, straightness, or whatever. Horses are generous animals that put up with our many shortcomings. Still, wouldn’t you agree that it’s our job to minimize the impact of those shortcomings?
I got to thinking about all this again when Dennis Summers, on his 4th Gear – Power Up Your Endurance Horse Facebook page, challenged fellow riders to join him in setting measurable fitness goals and holding each other accountable. Dennis talks about rider fitness in 4th Gear, too.
I’m always glad to read what other riders have to say on the subject, not least because nutrition and fitness are major passions of mine, right up there with horses and endurance. I’m forever digging up more information on the subject, and I’ve learned quite a lot that has changed my personal habits for the better since the original Fit to Ride series posted.
Hence this redux. I’ll keep it short — just a few posts to cover nutrition, exercise, and some miscellaneous other topics that I’ve found surprisingly helpful. I hope you’ll read along with an open mind, gather up scraps of information, and consider them as one opinion of many as you reach your own conclusions.
Sometimes, in order to make things better, you have to accept the way they are.
I don’t mean we should settle. I mean we should shift.
Not give up, but go around.
As much as I want to be out on the endurance trail, my mares aren’t up for it at the moment. I’m correcting that as best I can — but sometimes, time can do work that I cannot.
In the meantime, I am re-thinking. Re-framing. Circling back.
I have been here before: Longing to ride endurance. Not having a horse ready.
Those times, I buckled down and got a horse ready. I can do that again.
So I have been thinking. Talking it over with knowledgable friends. And have something like a plan.
It’s a multi-faceted thing. Details to follow.
This has been an odd summer.
The horses aren’t themselves. And I am not myself.
Both Consolation and Acey seem to be struggling with vague, yet persistant, “issues” since Fandango. I’m not sure what is going on, especially with Consolation, but I’m experimenting with omeprazole because I suspect ulcers.
In the meantime, I haven’t been riding much. It isn’t fun to ride horses that don’t want to be ridden. We’ve had a few short, pleasant rides. Kind of like trail rides. (How novel.) Both of my new saddles feel wonderful — to me and, I’m pretty sure, the horses — and I miss spending time in them. But the girls don’t feel motivated to condition, and so I languish as well.
Part of me thinks I should try harder. Push through. Make it happen. (Yeah, I’m pretty sure the horses wouldn’t appreciate that.) Because it’s what I do. Even when it’s hard. Even when I don’t feel like it. No matter what. Passion is supposed to burn.
Where’s the fire?
But then again, I can’t force the horses to feel better. I need to slow down. Pay attention. Listen.
Go back to the vet, perhaps? We’ve tried chiropractic, steroids, massage, and hock injections. (This is for Consolation; Acey is a separate, and less concerning, matter.) It’s too soon to tell about the omeprazole. Could be stifles. Or West Nile. Or inadequate fairy dust.
I just want my horse to be happy. If that means relaxing a bit, laying off for a season, remembering that there will be more rides in other years…then I guess I should accept that and enjoy today. Because today is all we have.
Where’s the fire?
Owyhee Fandango was my first ride. It was 2008. I rode Aaruba. We finished the LD in the top 10. We looked happy.
On this eve of Fangango 2012, I’ve been flicking through photos from that ride. So much has changed.
Back then, I had a battered, old stock trailer and was grateful for it. I was afraid to tow a horse and was grateful that Travis agreed to drive. We slept in a tent. Late the evening before, we had to put Aaruba in a site-provided pen because he couldn’t handle standing tied to the trailer, and we had no portable corral. I rode in cotton stretch pants because I couldn’t afford breeches. My horse wore Easyboot Bares that I needed help putting on. I had a habit of arching my back terribly in the saddle. I didn’t know where to park or check in or find a grease crayon or where to hang out during the hold. Many people ignored us, but some helped, and I was grateful.
Mostly, I was grateful to finally, finally, finally participate in the sport I’d read about and strived toward for years. Endurance is one of those things you can usually make happen, using what you have, if you want it enough to keep trying. And I did.
I still do.
This morning, I will leave for Fandango again. I’ll drive myself, but Aaruba will stay behind. I’ll have two mares in an upgraded trailer, with fence panels and a camper for lodging. I’ll shoot for three 50’s instead of one LD. I will wear breeches. I will not arch my back. I will know where to go and the names of a few friends. I will still keep my fingers crossed because no matter how many miles I accumulate, every ride is another adventure.
For every chance I’ve taken and every chance I have left, I am grateful.