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This Ain’t No Lollipop! Eagle Extreme 2013

Friday morning, May 10.  I’ve taken the day off work.  Ride camp is only a hour’s drive away, but I’m ready for a little vacation and don’t want any pressure getting settled in for Jammer’s first endurance ride.  I reckon we’ll pull in early, set up camp, and spend the day basking in the sunshine while the rest of the trailers roll in.

We surely do get that sunshine!  It’s unseasonably warm for this area — close on 90 degrees, and expected to be just as hot for Saturday’s ride.  And I’ve ridden Eagle Extreme before.  It’s deceptively difficult.  Close to home, just in the foothills overlooking Boise, on the trails where many local riders condition their horses.  But close and familiar don’t mean easy.  There are some long climbs ahead.  And as I say, it’s hot.

On the bright side, Jammer is a gem in camp.  He takes in the sights calmly, eats and drinks, hollers some but doesn’t fuss.  When Karen Bumgarner arrives with her horse Blue, we set the boys up next to each other, and Jam’s world is complete.  He and Blue have only met once, but Blue and Karen are our babysitters for Jam’s first ride.  The pair of them appear to get along swimmingly.

It’s good to see old friends at the ride meeting.  I’ve been away from my sport too long!  Management backs the start time up from 7am to 6:00, out of respect for the heat.  That’s welcome news.  I’m all for saddling up by lantern light and trotting past the vet at daybreak.

Come morning, Blue is a bit doggy right out of the gate — he’s used to starting at a walk, but this vet requests a trot — but Jam is feeling frisky.  He prances along with his nostrils full, but his manners are intact and I’m not working overly hard to hold him in.  We see horses ahead on the trail, but he doesn’t rush.  Before long, a few late-starters pass us and he isn’t fazed.  Oh yeah. I’m really starting to like this horse.Jammer Eagle Extreme 5-11-13

The sun climbs.  The horses climb.  We ride up and around the cliff known for the woman who died when her husband pushed her over the edge.  Her friends put a white cross at the top, years ago.  It’s still there.  We pass it twice on the lollipop trail — the first lollipop of the day — and trot merrily back to the vet check where both horses earn all A’s.

Eat, drink, you know the drill.  Jam hasn’t done this before, but you wouldn’t know that by looking.  He’s already drinking at every opportunity, using his head, focusing on his food instead of the usual ridecamp bustle.  Yep, really starting to like this horse.

The second of the two loops features the real climb.  Up and up and up and up and up!  We trot much of it but walk some as we follow a creek bed, then a gulch, up from the sage desert to where the lupines grow.  Near the top, we take a short detour to visit a water tank that fills from a slow spring; Karen knows it from prior years, so our horses get an extra drink without having to add more than a few extra steps to the ride.  Lucky horses.  It’s really hot now.  Sunscreen stings my eyes.

Finally, we reach the top.  We’d be thrilled, except that we know what’s coming.  The long lollipop.  And I do mean long.  Lots of rolling hills of the variety that tend to slow you down unless you want to beat up your horse’s legs.  Looooooooong lollipop.  Lots and lots of rolling hills.  We ride all the way out to the Emmett highway before circling back, then have to go past the quickest route toward camp and come down the long way to add even more miles.

It’s somewhere in that last stretch that Karen exclaims, “This ain’t no lollipop — it’s an all day sucker!”

She’s right.  Boy, are we glad when we finally drop into the valley and hit the homestretch!  Jammer knows where we are and trots in strong, all day sucker notwithstanding.  Good horse.

The timers cheer us in and congratulate us on our turtle placement.  “Ummmm….”  Uh-oh.  We can’t have turtled.  We know for certain (thanks to lollipop trails) that there were riders behind us when we came into the hold.  Nobody passed us on the second loop.  Something has gone wrong.

We pull out our maps, discuss the issue with management, and figure out a likely scenario.  It appears that the three riders behind us missed a turn on the second loop, which brought them into camp too early, without having covered all the miles.  Drat.  The ride manager heads over to their trailers, where they are already unsaddled and changed into shorts, to discuss their options.

Meanwhile, Jam vets through with top marks.  His pulse is low and he looks fantastic.  The vet suggests we try for BC, but Jam’s trot-outs aren’t spectacular (training oversight, totally my fault!) so we decline.  In hindsight, maybe we shouldn’t have.  Ah, well.  Maybe next time.

Management re-appears to let us know that the mistaken riders have decided to head out again and finish the miles.  They’ll trailer out part way to save time, ride the missed section, and earn completion only.  That puts me and Karen in 8th and 9th place, with a ride time of 8:38.  It’s dang hot and I feel badly for those poor teams that have to go back out, but I’m impressed that they’ve decided to do it.  Real endurance riders do what it takes instead of throwing in the towel.

Back at our trailer, Jam drinks more water and dives into a pile of hay while we riders find a scrap of shade and some beer.  First 50 done!  It was a tough one, but Jam made it feel easy.  Yep.  Sure do like this horse!

Partner

Jammer was the last, trained gelding to sell last year from Belesemo Arabians.  He wasn’t bred on their farm, which is only 10 miles from mine, but on an Idaho ranch where he spent his youth tearing about the hills with his herd of equine hellions.  He was handled for deworming and hoof care, but not doted upon.  This, and his reserved personality, made him amenable to handling but hardly the pocket pony that is more typical of Belesemo’s stock.

He didn’t snuggle, so he didn’t sell.  Until I got a look at him.  I found him not stand-offish, but a perfect gentleman.  Big, honest, and willing.  He had the “kind eye” we all read about from Black Beauty on up.  A big, smooth stride built on old-style conformation made to win races, not halter classes.  Solid training.  Desert smarts.  The mind and physique I was looking for.  I took him home.

Fully mature and under saddle, he was ready to jump into conditioning right away, though it was too late in the year to register for any rides.  We focused on getting to know each other, laying baseline fitness that would pay off come spring.  He swallowed his workouts whol, and enthusiastically, demonstrating increased fitness every time we hit the trail.  Our longest ride last fall was around 25 miles in hills, and he came through fresh as a spring daisy.

But it wasn’t spring.  It was winter, and winter fell deep and cold.  There were days in December when the weather would have let me ride, but my heart did not.  That was a time to focus on other things, to rage and process and accept.  And so I did, and February came, and Jammer was still there in his thick, silver coat and black eyes to match his mane.  His personality warmed with the weather.  He’ll never be a “velcro horse” like Majesty or Ripple, but that wild-horse caution slowly vanished from his face.

We returned to the trail and stacked on miles.  We started with about 20 miles per week, split among two or three rides.  I moved him along faster than I would have done with a younger horse.  He was coming 8 years old, ranch raised, under saddle with regular riding for over a year.  I kept an eye on his appetite, tendons, and aspect.  Consistently 100%.  Excellent.  Over about two months, we worked up to a brisk 30-miler in the hills.

And then it was time.  We registered for a ride.

There’s more.

All this time I was getting to know Jammer, I was also getting to know Tyson.  We met on an unseasonably warm, February day.  It was one of those meetings we all have now and again — the kind in which you connect with someone on an uncommon level and sense potential beyond the average sweetheart, co-worker, friend.  It happens in all kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones, but it doesn’t happen often.  And when it does — especially when you’re both single and share all the right interests and worldviews — you pay attention.

So we’ve been busy.  Skiing.  Hiking.  Dual-sport motorcycling.  Travelling.  Hanging out on the farm.  Exploring music and food.  And taking Jammer to endurance rides.

Yes, rides.  Plural.  He’s already up to 110 AERC miles (oops — spoiler!)  and I owe y’all some stories.  Stay tuned.

Joyride

I’m baaaaaaack!

I haven’t been posting, but I have been riding, and it’s just about time to put Jammer in the trailer (along with the usual assortment of hoof boots, tack, blankets, feed, sprays, ointments, breeches, chaps, helmets, sunglasses, trail mix, propane…) and head for the hills.

We’re all set to attempt his first 50 at Eagle Extreme.  It’s a desert ride, and we’re expecting warm temperatures for this early in the season.  The horses still have a bit of winter coat hanging on, and the day is supposed to get up to mid-80’s.  That may slow us down, but it isn’t as though I was planning to burn up the trails anyway.  Not on Jam’s first time out.

I have a lot of packing to do between now and Friday, when we’ll leave for ride camp.  Preparing for an endurance ride is always a project (10-page packing list, anyone?), but this time I’m out of practice.  Can you believe I haven’t done a ride since Consolation’s last 50 at Fandango last May?  I’m just about a year — and a lifetime — out from that ride and I am way beyond excited to be back.

Excited in a quiet sort of way.  A content sort of way.  A way that has learned to be at peace in this moment, because we never know what is coming, but today there is sunrise and coffee on the north deck and horses in the pasture and people who care about us scattered all across this world.

Back in December, when there was more darkness than sun, I posted this L’Amour quote:  “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished.  That will be the beginning.”

It was true.

I knew it at the time, but it’s nice to be on the other side.

No, I haven’t been posting.  But I have been riding.  And living.  Learning.  Exploring.  I have taken up new sports (because I have time for THAT, right?) and enjoyed friends and worked hard and met someone special who can both understand my being and broaden it.

Fifty miles on the back of a horse under the Idaho sun sounds like a perfect place to contemplate it all.  To let the gratitude sink in.  Because that is what I feel.

Those mugs and hats and t-shirts have it right, you know.  Life is good.

See you on the trail!

Overflowing

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.

Maj&Jammer1-13

Bittersweet

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.

RubaWinter2012web

The Waste that Wasn’t

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.

Break

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.Jammer12-30-12d

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.

A Thought in Winter

aarubaeyequote copy

Photo by Tamara Baysinger.   Quote by Louis L’Amour (who knew?)

Stubborn Is as Stubborn Does

“She’s stubborn.”

“So you like ’em stubborn.”

“Yup, she’s…stubborn.”

That’s what the first three people who introduced me to Maji had to say.  I reckon they were right.  I also reckon they knew that “stubborn” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

KS Bold Rusha Rain (Majesty) 11-10-12

Here’s how I see it:

When a strong will works against us, we call it stubbornness.  When the same, strong will works with us, we call it heart.

My job is to achieve alignment.

Stand By Me

You see it at every endurance ride:  Riders hopping along with one foot in the stirrup and one hand clutching a bundle of mane, yelling “whoa, dammit!” as their horses prick their ears and start walking.  By the time the riders lurch into the saddle, cockeyed and groping for the offside stirrup, the horses are trotting.  In most cases, the riders are so relieved to simply be aboard that they stifle their cursing and go along for the ride.

I’ve done it.  Haven’t you?  It’s so easy to “let it go this time,” because his buddies are going ahead, or we need to make up time, or it’s a race day and he’s distracted.  And after all, it’s great to see an eager horse!  Unfortunately, it’s almost as tempting to ignore the behavior during conditioning rides, time after regretful time, reinforcing a habit you don’t like but can’t be bothered to break.

The problem is that refusal to stand for mounting is a nuisance at best and a danger at worst.  What happens when you need to mount on a narrow trail with a drop-off to one side?  When you have a sprained ankle?  When you’re at a busy water tank early in a ride?  When another horse is out of control?  All these situations — and plenty more — also apply to the related behavior of refusal to stand quietly, either in hand or mounted, out on the trail.

I’ve been riding Maji and Jammer for between 4 and 8 weeks now.  They’re both young, enthusiastic, and eager to move out — and the same goes for me!  But when I noticed their behavior trending toward moving off when mounted, fidgeting during pauses on the trail, and rushing toward home, I knew it was time for a lesson.

Maji, who needed the most work, went first.  Here’s what I did:

1.  I got my head straight.  This involved thinking through my strategy and setting aside several hours specifically for the lesson.  Conditioning was temporarily off the table.  This was all about training.

2.  I checked my toolbox.  This meant making sure Maji understood and responded well to the cues I wanted to use for correction.  I chose the single-rein stop (SRS: her head to my foot, disengage the hindquarters) because it’s efficient, safe, rewardable (easy to release), scalable (keep pivoting or stop as needed), and easy from the ground or from the saddle.

3.  I stacked the deck.  It’s always best to set the horse up for success.  In Maji’s case, we were coming to the lesson on a crisp, sunny, breezy afternoon after several rest days.  I lunged her for 25 minutes before saddling up to take the edge off.

4.  I introduced the concept.  Though Maji typically stands for mounting when we’re someplace boring, like in the round corral, I started there so she could get the right answer without added stress or distraction.  As luck would have it, she did try moving off that day, so I was able to SRS her both from the ground and from the saddle, depending on my position when she moved.  We also practiced just standing still with me in the saddle.  This gave us plenty of opportunity to establish the rules of the game:  Stand still when asked, or SRS and keep disengaging those hindquarters long enough that we pivot a time or two or more, depending on responsiveness and attitude.

5.  I upped the ante.  Once Maji was standing on a loose rein in the round corral, we moved out to the driveway, then just beyond the horse trailer where I usually mount up and where the other horses are out of sight.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  We probably spent 20 minutes discussing whether she would stand for mounting, then remain standing as long as I asked, there beyond the trailer.

6.  I took the show on the road.  Down the hill and along the neighboring farmer’s field, we stopped just to look around or for me to dismount and remount.  Much of the time we were pointed toward home.  We must have spun in a hundred or more circles, but I never fudged on the rules:  I ask once.  You obey, on a loose rein.  If you move so much as one hoof, one inch, we SRS.  There’s no emotion involved.  No frustration or kicking of ribs or yanking of reins.  Just calm requests and consistent consequences.  By the time we quit, about 2 hours from the beginning of the lesson, Maji was standing on a loose rein in a spooky area with her face toward home, for minutes at a time.

7.  I reinforced the lesson.  Maji is a quick study.  She often puts up a real fight during Round 1, but when I stick it out and win, she capitulates pretty thoroughly.  Due to a minor hock injury, she spent the week after our lesson resting.  When I finally took her out yesterday, it was clear she remembered.  We had almost no trouble riding the same route, stopping here and there, dismounting and remounting.  We cut our SRS repeats down from 100+ to maybe 5.

Now, all I need to do is remain consistent in enforcing my request during conditioning rides, especially as we find ourselves in ever more stimulating situations, such as riding with other horses, on windy days, and in new locations.

It’s that easy.  You just gotta *do* it.  Two hours of work for a lifetime of cooperation is a great bargain.

[A brief caution:  This post is intended to address situations in which the horse moves off because he is impatient and eager to go.  This is not the same thing as a horse that doesn’t want to be mounted!  If you’re dealing with a horse that moves sideways or backwards, or even rears(!) to avoid mounting, you probably have a pain issue to address.  Consider saddle fit, rider balance, LS/SI/stifle/hock soreness, ulcers, etc.]

Pain situations