Learning Arabian

In all fairness to mares, I’ve actually had to have “that” pre-ride chat with more geldings over the years. Granted, the proportion of mares to geldings is significantly smaller, but I don’t feel like I’ve been handed as many shenanigans by the mares. But then I am ardently biased towards Team Mare, so take it for what you will.

That said, last weekend involved full-blown Arabian Raptor Snorts after Liberty decided that large rocks were her mortal enemy. It was probably the spookiest she’s ever been, but even then, I can’t complain when the worst she does is stop and stare and snort, or maybe veer sideways a couple feet if the trail is wide enough. And what I really love is that she doesn’t overreact. Once she’s past something, it’s over and forgotten about, and she doesn’t hold onto worry or angst or keeping ramping up. I’ve said it before that she’s a very “thinky” horse and appreciates some time and no pressure to work something through in her brain. She is bold and brave but she’s also sensitive, and too much pressure will get her back up and make her start to resist.

She does “noble and majestic war mare” really well.

It’s been a learning curve to go from stock-breed Mimi, who is pretty mentally stoic, to life with an Arabian. Mimi is hotter and more sensitive and reactive than her breed typically is, so in that sense it’s not been nearly as challenging of a transition as it could have been. And catch riding so many Arabians over the years was also a really good experience and exposure to the breed (as well as boarding at a barn that’s always had a least a few Arabs on the premises).

But catch riding is a bit like I imagine having visiting grandkids would be — at the end of the day, you get to send them home to their parents.

In the case of endurance and catch-riding other people’s horses, you generally don’t experience as much of the behind-the-scenes, daily living aspects. In many cases, you show up at the ride, ride the pony, hope you have a good ride (and if you didn’t, you don’t have to see them again), and walk away at the end of the day. Some of my catch rides, I did ride more behind-the-scenes and put some training and conditioning rides on them, but even that’s not the same as having your own horse, and all the little intricacies that come with that.

This is so us right now, especially in the arena. Liberty actually does better work out on trail than in the ring.

But daily (or “however many days out of the week I make it down to the barn” boarding life) interaction and engagement is where that true partnership foundation is laid. And Liberty and I are learning together. She’s a very “snorty” horse, period. Not necessarily in the snort-n-fire show ring sense, but as we’re going along the trail, especially at a trot, she likes to do these rhythmic little snorts in time with her movement. At first that was a bit unnerving for me, because I wasn’t sure if that was a precursor to her ramping up, but the more time I spend with her, the more I’m learning that’s just her.

She also tries to be very communicative with me. I’m finding she is a very honest horse — to steal an Australian turn of phrase, “she doesn’t have any dirt in her.” Which is probably one of my new favorite descriptors. Even when she’s feeling super-sassy and up, she’s not the kind to spook at a blowing leaf. If she alerts on something, it’s legitimate. (She was totally chill with bobbing Mylar balloons caught in a bush last weekend.) If she’s acting concerned or anxious, it’s for a reason, not just “being naughty.”

Last weekend was our final “big” training ride two weeks out from our scheduled LD ride at McDowell. We did the second loop of the Tonto Twist ride, which features a nice mix of single-track, double-track, some climbs, a bit of technical, and some sand. It was pretty much a full-body workout, and although she was salt-crusted by the time we got back to the trailer, I believe that was largely due to the fact it was warm (upper 80s/low 90s) and she has a fairly impressive fluffy winter coat happening. Not long, but definitely soft and fluffy. Hugging her neck right now feels a bit like hugging a favorite teddy bear, which is super comfortable but not all that great for physical work when summer still insists on hanging on through November. So we’ll be removing some of that hair before the McDowell ride. And even with the heat and the hair, her pulse was at 58 as soon as we got back to the trailer after 14 miles. I’m very happy with how she’s come along in her conditioning to date, both physically and mentally, and I feel like I’ve been able to accomplish quite a bit in the slightly over 3 months that it’s been.

(I also need to do a proper Virtual Tevis update — the original finish date has been extended out to the end of the year, due to all of the wildfires and bad air conditions that a large part of the western US was dealing with for the better part of the late summer/early fall, but I believe that we should end up finishing our miles pretty much concurrent with the McDowell ride. We’re currently sitting at 64 miles, the Chicken Hawk vet check.)

When I look at pretty much every picture I have of me riding this mare, I have this same perma-grin plastered across my face.

When I look at the calendar and realize it’s only been 3 months, I’m a bit surprised. I feel like it’s been a lot longer. Granted, I’ve known Liberty for over 7 years — I first catch-rode her in 2013 — but all of those interactions were brief, weekend forays rather than the day-to-day type of steady relationship building that we’re doing now. I fell in love with her the second my butt hit the saddle 7 years ago, and I got the same immediate ‘click’ with her as I had gotten with Mimi, but I couldn’t have predicted just how strongly I would connect with her and how incredibly happy she makes my heart and my soul.

While part of why I waited for so long to get a second horse was financially-based (boarding two horses is a pocketbook commitment), I’ve come to recognize that was just a part of it, and the “easier” reason to give. The other part…I think I was afraid. Sure, I’ve ridden a lot of horses over the years, but I’ve only owned one. What if I wasn’t good enough of a horseman to take on another horse? Mimi’s carried the water for me a lot and let me get away with a lot, and she’s my heart pony. What if I never got along with another horse as well as I have Mimi? Would I constantly be comparing a new horse to Mimi? Would that create an unfair expectation or comparison on a new horse because they weren’t Mimi?

What I’ve learned, though…for the right horse (and pony), there’s more than enough heart-space for both. The two mares have their similarities, and their differences. Mimi poured her heart into being the best endurance pony she could be, and what she accomplished was remarkable given that she was never bred for or intended to be an endurance horse. I will always be in awe of her drive, work ethic, and enthusiasm, and she is probably the most well-rounded, versatile equine I will ever be fortunate enough to know. She’s certainly not perfect, loathe as I am to admit that, but I couldn’t imagine a better pony or horse to have as my first one.

Liberty was purpose-bred to be an endurance horse. Quite literally…the Landers specifically picked out a 100-mile proven Shagya Arabian stallion to breed their race-bred Arabian mare to with the intent of producing a heavyweight-capable endurance offspring. I don’t know if she’s HW-capable or not, but she’s certainly more than substantial enough to tote me around. And the difference in size and physical capability is quite astounding. I’ve found myself truly relaxing and enjoying training rides and saddle time.

For years now, I’ve admittedly coddled and bubble-wrapped Mimi, afraid that what I was asking her was going to be too much, or that I would hurt her. Probably a bit unfair to her and not giving her enough credit, but she’s my baby, and I always worried about her. Catch riding some very capable horses at rides got me much more relaxed and enjoying the whole process, and this past weekend, I had probably one of the best training rides I can remember.

Even though Liberty was spookier than usual (it was windy, a touch chilly, she’s getting very fit, and she hadn’t been ridden for a week), I was relaxed, I wasn’t concerned with her spooks, and we just felt so together. At one point, we veered off the wider double-track we had been on to detour onto a more technical single-track. She had been in “forward endurance horse” mode, and almost immediately she dropped into “back-country wilderness mode,” picking her way carefully and sensibly through the technical rocks and climbs. Once back on the main track, she was eagerly offering to pick it back up again, only to easily come back down when we hit another technical rock wash that she carefully navigated through.

This has actually a major point of contention between Mimi and myself over the years, especially when riding in a group and she isn’t leading — she doesn’t always sensibly take care through really technical areas, and more than once I found myself muttering at her to “pay attention before you wipe us both out.” In fact, one of the standout times that Flash really impressed me was up in Strawberry, when we were bushwhacking through some downed aspens. He had been a bouncing fireball up to that point, just wanting to go, but when we got to those downed aspens that formed a spaghetti-tangle of cavaletti-like step-throughs, he navigated through them like an equine version of the board game ‘Operation.’

You had to remove the different pieces without the metal tweezers touching the metal edges. Fine motor skills and good hand-eye coordination were helpful.

I had that same feeling from Liberty this weekend. Calm, sensible, controlled, and trail-versatile. She might not have a lot of love for the arena, but I didn’t bring her home to be a show horse, I brought her home to be an endurance horse and trail horse. I can’t wait to hit the competition trail with her again, but I’m also enjoying the training rides so much. The routes I’ve been riding with her are all trails I’ve ridden before over the years and know, and I’m amazed at how easily the miles go by on her. Not only does she cover ground well (I’m having to learn to re-calibrate my internal odometer), she’s both physically and mentally comfortable for me to ride. Bringing her home has definitely been a learning process, with some ups and downs along the way, but I’m feeling really good about where we’re both at, and where we go from here.

October in Pictures

Well, October got away from me a bit. I feel like I crammed a lot into this month, and some of this stuff probably deserves its own post, but at least I’ve place-marked it here for the immediate time being.

Off in la-la-land to have dental done. After a session of natural balance equine dentistry, I saw some marked improvement in her acceptance of the bit and softness, so she definitely needed some work done. This was my first experience with this approach and so far, I’m liking it.
Someone got a new stable halter…and she doesn’t know what to think about it.
October is Mimi’s “Gotcha Day” month and this year marked 24 years together for us! <3
A good chunk of this month was devoted to working on trailer loading. She did good work last weekend, so <fingers crossed> that we’re on the leeward side of that climb.
New PerformaRide tights and matching buff.
October is also Sofie’s “Gotcha” month…5 years for my sweet heart-dog.
I set up my GoPro for one of my arena sessions. It…wasn’t pretty. At least screen caps I can selectively pause at “reasonably together” moments. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at video of myself ride, and let’s just say I’ve got some work to do.
This mare’s brain impresses me so much. That road in the background dips down at that point and then climbs again, coming within about 60′ away from where we park at this “trailhead” (really more of a large pullout off the road). We were passed by 18-wheelers, groups of motorcycles, trucks pulling boats, vehicles with kayaks and rafts strapped on top, and none of it fazed her. And at this point, we were the only ones there, too.
I love riding Bulldog Canyon. Aside from doing the Tonto Twist ride in January, it’s been a while since I’ve done any training rides out here and I forget how nice of a trail it is and how gorgeous the scenery it is. This is one of the larger wash sections but it’s a mix of sand wash and double-track road and single-track trails.
She’s another horse that I tend to have a stupid grin on my face whenever I ride, especially out on trail. We’re a bit of a hot mess express in the arena, but on trail is where she truly shines, and I spent most of the ride either giggling, or with an ear-splitting grin on my face. And a lot of exclaiming, “I love this horse.”
Salt River is running really low right now, but it’s still pretty, and made for very peaceful and easy drinking towards the end of our ride.

New Horses Are Rollercoasters

I got a bit off track this month for blogging…not for lack of content, but more getting sidetracked and before I knew it, it’s the end of September.

We’re two+ months into things with Liberty, and after the one-month honeymoon, the hamster started falling out of the wheel a little bit, and we’ve definitely moved into the period of ups and down and the testing phase.

I’ve had her out on trail twice and she’s been brilliant. She’s bold, brave, forward, thinks before she spooks (if she even bothers to spook…she’s much more inclined to stop, think, process, then move on) and seems to love being out on trail. The arena, not so much. We’ve also got a major hiccup in our trailer-loading abilities. So more of this month has been spent on ground work and arena work versus trail work. I’m not concerned about that part, I already know she’s a good trail horse, and conditioning miles are all she needs out there. But I want her solid and reliable and cooperative on the ground and in the arena as well.

We’re also doing little things like working on polite syringe protocol. She’s another one that hates being syringed, but she’s a heck of a lot harder to wrestle with than the 13.3hh pony (who pretty much just protests for form these days), with a nasty habit of slinging her head around and bashing it into whatever happens to be in her way.

So we’re going back to square one, starting with syringing yummy things like date syrup or molasses from a syringe. I think it’s working, since I caught her making a grab for the ziploc bag I store all the syringe and electrolyte accouterments in and attempting to liberate the syringe. We’ll see if she still feels that way when I start incorporating the salty stuff, but for now, she’s happily trying to chomp the syringe in half.

I’m also addressing some of the “make sure there’s no physical issues to give rise to objectionable behavior” angles — such as, she needs her teeth done, which may be part of why she can be fussy and resistant to the bit. Given I’ve tried half a dozen bits on her, and she hasn’t seemed to love any of them (and downright hated a few of them), I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt in this regard and think that this may be her way of saying “ummm, this is not comfortable.” So, teeth get done this upcoming weekend, after which time we’ll then resume re-assessing bits and hopefully moving forward with more momentum.

But even with some of the ups and downs, I feel like overall we’re still making better forward progress than steps back, so I call that a win. Although I did cancel our entry to the fun ride at Man Against Horse — I want her to be more solid with the trailer, as well as there’s some modifications I want to make to the trailer for it to be more storage-friendly/useful. In addition, I didn’t get her out nearly as much as I would have liked to (horrible air quality for several weeks, the aforementioned loading issues, picked up some extra work on weekends…so, y’know, life) so instead, we’re aiming our sites on the LD at the McDowell ride in November, and then another LD at Estrella in December.

And ultimately, at the end of the day, she still makes me smile.

Mimi got to go out a couple weeks ago, too. After Liberty’s steadfast refusal to load on day 2, I didn’t want to get into another battle with her more than i already had, so she got stuffed back into her stall, and Mimi got to go out. And she made a liar out of me — with her complete lack of enthusiasm for working in the arena, I figured she was done, and ready for total retirement. But I had committed to meeting a friend to babysit her on her new young horse, so I figured at worst case, I could hand-walk Mimi for the 5 or so miles we were planning to go. As it turns out, I think she was just bored and ring sour, because she was full of all kinds of cheer and enthusiasm (and soundness) when we hit the trail. So that’s good to know, and that means I’ll be incorporating taking her out some more as well now.

First Milestones

It’s been a month and 5 days since Liberty come home. In that time, I’ve put a dozen or so miles on her in the arena, with 7 or 8 rides, plus some non-riding groundwork days, the idea being to make sure we had a solid foundation and all the critical buttons installed and functioning before hitting the trail.

Today, though, I was ready to hit the trail. It was my “birthday gift to myself” — to finally head out and start putting our trail miles on as a team, hopefully the start of what will be many more.

This mare, on her own, is a gift in her own right. She is so much what I needed, moreso than I even realized. While a part of me wishes I had been able to bring her into my life earlier, I also think that both of us are at a better place, mentally, than 7, 6, even 4 years ago. I know I have grown as a horsewoman since our early rides together, largely in part to the years of catching riding, and I’m in a much better state to be the kind of rider that she needs. She’s matured a lot, for her part, and has gotten to be a very good communicator. Or maybe I’m just a better listener now. But either way…I was so pleased with the end result of today’s ride.

She’s been really good for me in the arena, and that’s a venue that she’s not particularly well-versed in. But out on trail? She was stellar. She was bold, solid, and unflappable. Went in lead, middle, or back of our group of three without any issue. Handled the strange “mud run” obstacles that are staged permanently along some of the trail without even a blink — large pits covered in chain link, construction pylons, half-covered culverts, large stacks of straw and palates. She displayed a lovely 4.5 mph walk, was responsive to requests to keep to a walk even when she wanted to trot inclines. And I stayed confident, relaxed, and trusted her, riding with very light contact but staying out of her mouth and trusting her to make smart choices. And she did.

With today’s ride, we reached our first Virtual Tevis milestone — 14 miles to High Camp and Watson’s Monument.

On the actual ride, reaching High Camp was the first real chance I had for a break — quick work of jumping off, tossing Roo’s reins to a volunteer while he drank, and ducking off out of the way to water some non-existent bushes (squat in the weeds/grass, no one cares…), then electrolyting, hopping back on, meeting up with some friends, and starting the last bit of climbing up to Watson’s Monument.

It is Tevis tradition to look back over your shoulder as you crest the top of the mountain at Watson’s Monument and take in the view of Lake Tahoe. Unfortunately, on my year, the smoke from forest fires was so bad, I couldn’t actually see the lake but for a tiny glimmer in one spot. Oh, well. Guess that means I have to go back and get the “proper” view. :D

From Watson’s Monument, it is onward into the Granite Chief Wilderness — which remains to this day one of the prettiest, most fun sections of trail I’ve ridden.

I love how much of a consistent motivator this Virtual Tevis has been, and a great way for Liberty and myself to start “getting our sea legs” together as we slowly accumulate our miles.

One Mile At A Time (Virtual Tevis weeks 3/4)

We are literally logging a mile at a time right now on the Virtual Tevis, and are sitting at just a touch over 9 miles, which means on the ride, we would be winding our way through the Squaw Valley ski resort, on a mix of single-track trails and dirt roads, climbing and making our way towards High Camp.

After the Granite Chief Wilderness, this was one of the prettiest parts of the ride. I had a really good space bubble and was off and on riding with some people I knew, so that made it really fun. I actually made a couple of navigation errors through here, overshooting some critical turns and trail junctions, but fortunately, there were enough people around that I never went more than several hundred feet off course, but still. Highly unusual for me, because while I’ve struggled with pacing, navigation has always been solid.

At the ride, the general wisdom and caution is “don’t go out too fast too early.” I like the think that’s applying to our progress on the virtual ride as well. Baby steps, foundation laying, and slow progress…but the idea is to keep moving forward in a positive manner, and not rush and end up having to backtrack.

To start, it didn’t take long for the first gremlins to make themselves known, as a deep scratch right on Liberty’s girth line (self-inflicted, via rubbing on some bushes out in the pasture) derailed our riding plans for about 10 days. It was deep enough and she was sensitive enough to the touch around the area that adding pressure and friction from a girth didn’t seem like a good recipe for success under saddle.

welcome to the world of sensitive-skinned Arabians

But by today, she was healed up enough to saddle up, accompanied by a healthy layer of Desitin, and a fluffy new sheepskin cover on the girth. Our air quality right now is horrid, between the smoke from CA, as well as a solid batch of our own fires here in AZ, so that curtailed the notion of doing much by way of vigorous exercise.

But that’s okay, because right now, “strenuous” isn’t really our objective. The objective is getting to know each other, learning to work together, laying the framework for a solid partnership. And let me tell you, Liberty is one of the smartest horses I’ve ever worked with. Smart, a good communicator, and probably the most connected/partnered horse I’ve ridden. She has an incredibly strong try and so badly wants to bond with her rider…but also believes very much that partnership is a two-way street and that both entities have to uphold their end of the bargain.

Last weekend, we ended up doing a session in the roundpen, but when we were done, I felt very disquieted by how I had approached the whole thing. Liberty was very “up” — it had been a week since she’d had any work, and the smoky air had all of the horses just a little bit more on edge than usual. So I took my usual approach of, “go into the round pen and burn it off” with the end result of me driving her around, and some very strong moments of cracking the whip and forcing her through some sticky spots, the same way I’ve always handled Mimi.

It got the point across…maybe…but afterwards, I didn’t feel good about it. Yes, she’s a strong, dominant mare, who definitely needs some work on her ground manners and respecting personal space bubbles, but I get the sense that being that forwardly dominant and aggressive isn’t the best way to work with her.

We made our peace by the end

I watch her in the herd with the other horses — because of how she’s grown up, in a herd setting and with lots of other horses, she knows horse language. She doesn’t start fights, or pick on other horses. She doesn’t let herself get pushed around or bullied, but doesn’t go looking for trouble. She gives a lot of warning, and is a very strong communicator before escalating.

It’s something that’s hard to describe exactly, or put my finger on, but I just have a feeling she’s a horse who responds best to softness, and that being louder and bigger is going to put her on the defensive, rather than get results. Now, by soft, I don’t mean tentativeness or timidity. One of the things I love about her is that she’s not a horse you have to be on eggshells around. She is so stable-minded and solid, very non-reactive, and things just don’t seem to faze her. So it’s not like I have to worry about “setting her off.” It’s more, “how little can I do in my ask and get a response from her?”

The phrase “Tell a gelding, ask a stallion, discuss it with a mare”? She is truly the epitome of a “discussion” mare. She’s strong-minded, she’s spirited, but she’s also trying so hard to connect if given the chance.

Today ended up being very productive, and the source of the above revelations. We started with some in-hand work…but rather than running her around, I chose to utilize the trail course for a more purpose-based session. As I mentioned, we’re still working on staying out of personal space, and taking direction well on the ground. By incorporating in-hand work over poles, around barrels, step-ups on the platform, it became work with a purpose and a a clear objective. And we did it together. I wasn’t standing still and making her run circles around me. I was actively engaged with alternating between leading and directing her, providing feedback or correction as necessary.

After about 10 minutes of that, I climbed aboard and we continued our work in the trail course. Originally I used the trail course because it was the available space — the arena was being used for turnout for most of the herd, and it was easier to not have to bring everyone in — but I’m finding that working her with the obstacles is a really good way to get her brain (and mine) to focus on something tangible, whereas in the arena, it’s easier for both of us to get distracted.

One of my biggest shortcoming as a rider (aside from dealing with nerves and some anxiety, which, y’know, is a biggie in its own right and really deserves its own post at some point), is that I’ve gotten a bit lazy. The thing about having a long-term partnership with a horse (24 years this fall with Mimi) is that you end up falling into habits, and it becomes hard to break them after you’re so used to each other. Mimi, bless her, has been supremely tolerant, and we did pretty much grow up together, so there was definitely some of that “learning together” that ended up being hard to undo later because “Why bother? What I’m doing is working, or at least, I’m getting away with it.”

Checking in

Something I’ve never bothered with is developing a strong core. Which is probably at the center and core (ha!) of any and all of my postural nitpicks and issues. (Would probably also help me in the confidence and balance department, eh?) I have a very bad habit of being a “hands first” rider. I rely far too much on the reins for balance and control, and tend to be “handsy” with grabbing at the reins first for steering, etc. I have fairly quiet hands, and have worked very hard over the years to keep them kind and not harsh…but they are controlling. I ride with a lot of contact and have a difficult time giving up that security blanket of control.

So between the hands and the core, my cues tend to look something like “rein first, then look, then add leg.” Which is, of course, completely wrong, but I’ve gotten away with a lot of bad habits over the years that I’m now going to have to very consciously work on correcting. And Liberty is just the horse to do it, because that mare has no problem with clearly communicating, “User error, please try again.” She has a lovely, soft mouth (and I will keep it that way) and is sensitive to the bit, so if I get too handsy, she gets very fussy. But if I actually use my (non-existent) core, sit up, look, add leg, and the finally finish with rein, she steers beautifully and doesn’t get at all fussy or balky. And when I actually use my core, I’m not perched or clingy, so more relaxed, and so she’s more relaxed, and I feel balanced and centered and don’t have to rely on a tight hold on the reins to anticipate every little move…amazing how it all ties together and comes together when I sit up and ride and don’t let myself fall into my lazy rider habits.

I thought I was going to be the one teaching her. But as it turns out, I think she’s going to have plenty to teach me as well. Along those lines, I’ve signed us up for a collaborative Mark Rashid-Jim Masterson clinic in January. I am so excited for this opportunity. Mark Rashid has been a clinician and horseman that I have followed for years now, and of course Jim Masterson is The Masterson Method, which is the equine bodywork certification program that I’m currently going through. And since starting that, my appreciation for the application of softness and how effective it is, has only grown, and is rapidly changing so much of my outlook on what I want my horsemanship to look like.

So although our miles are light right now, I feel like we’re making some major breakthroughs and progress, and doing it on the terms that leave all parties involved comfortable and still speaking to each other at the end of the day.