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.

On Fear, Falling, and Horses

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sticky moments along the way

I came across a really good post a few weeks ago on Facebook, shared by a page I follow, on fear and how it relates to horsemanship. The gist was fear can be a big obstacle…but it’s also an important emotion to recognize as it relates to self-preservation and keeping a modicum of common sense about us.

I’ve always been more of a “scared” rider. Maybe some of that is my own personality as a whole — I tend to be a somewhat cautious, careful person in pretty much all aspects of life. I play things safe, I’m not a huge risk-taker, and I don’t like to get hurt, physically or emotionally.

How am I possibly drawn to horses, and an extreme sport such as endurance riding?

Probably because as much as it scares me sometimes, it also pushes me out of my comfort zone, reminds me that life is meant to be lived, teaches me things can and will go wrong without it being the end of the world (thus far, at least), gets me outside of myself, and, if I play my cards right, rewards finding the balance between caution and bravery.

Granted, I’ve come a long ways. There was a time that, to get me to actually ride outsidet the safe confines of the area, my old trainer would have to clip a leadrope on Mimi and head out the gate, leaving me little choice but to clutch the saddle horn and whimper in futile protest.

Was my pony that “bad” outside the arena? No. On the contrary, she was actually super bold and liked to “trail ride” on the streets and canal banks near the barn. But she was “looky” and had a very fast reaction time.

And I have a very hard time forgetting or letting things go, so after the one fast spook-spin-bolt that resulted in a parting-of-the-ways, Ashley-getting-lawn-darted-onto-pavement incident, I’ve had a hard time relaxing in an “urban riding” environment…never mind that happened like 17 or 18 years ago.

Ummm…let it go much? Maybe???

Upon actually writing that out, even I have to shake my head a bit at myself. I mean, I wish there was some “sprinkle pixie dust, wave a magic wand, and poof, Instant Brave Rider” secret I could tap into and make all of those fears and self-doubts go away.

But there isn’t. At least, not the last time I checked.

But there is experience, a bit of “grit your teeth and do it,” and the positive affirmation of post-adventure survival. Sitting and being all cogitative and academic and thinking about all of the “what ifs” almost makes it worse — way too much dwell time. Getting out and doing something tends to produce a more positive mental outlook.

A couple months ago, I got lawn-darted. A complete accident on both the horse’s part and mine, but for the first time ever, I actually had a horse go completely down with me. I’ve had incidents of horses tripping and taking a knee, and even my own Mimi has always had a tendency to catch a toe on an underlying rock, a by-product of her daisy-clipping ways (and not always paying 100% attention to her footwork, especially in “easy” areas). So I tend to “ride aware” with good contact, always ready to catch/stabilize as much as I can. It didn’t help in this case. One second, we were trotting along on a slight downgrade, and the next second, I was skidding on the dirt.

If you’ve got to have a horse fall with you, this was seriously the way to do it. Physics worked in my favor and I got ejected clear of the saddle and ahead of the horse, and didn’t get fallen on or rolled on. My shoulder and arm took the worst of the impact, and then my hip and my head. (Yes, I was wearing a helmet. Yes, it has been replaced.) Given the fact I went skidding down a single-track trail comprised mostly of decomposed granite, I’m shocked and pleased my tights didn’t even suffer any rips. (Shout-out for the Irideon Synergy tights.)

Horse was fine, saddle was fine, I got a few bruises, but was fine. And, shockingly, not even particularly mentally shaken up, which is most unusual for me. Hmmm. Signs of bravery and acceptance of “you may get hurt along the way, but there’s an even better chance you probably won’t” possibly making an appearance?

I still don’t know what caused it — whether he was getting tired, maybe a bit footsore, or just caught the right rock or dip in the trail at the wrong time? But up to that point, we had a fabulous ride — covering some really beautiful, fun trail at a really good clip. It was the kind of ride that had really served to give me a good confidence booster and validation of my ability to ride, so maybe that’s why I was able to be more circumspect about the whole fall thing?

Of course, it didn’t exactly help that the next time I rode, the horse (a different one) I was riding did a very nice stumble on a downhill, but at least she caught herself. Twice in a row would have just been too much.

But it also got me thinking, and generated this subsequent blog post contemplating my own riding and being a possible contributing factor to these incidents.

For what it’s worth, I would also like to get back to taking some lessons in the future, especially with a new horse…I benefit from someone else’s eyes on me, and if I’m listening to someone else’s directives, I’m less likely to wuss out and “overthink” and more apt to just “go with it.” And I know I’ve developed some very bad “lazy rider” habits over the year that are going to take some work to correct.

I’ve been riding now for over 20 years…and there’s still so much I’m improving on and learning. Fortunately horses (the good ones) are a remarkably forgiving journey.

Got Game?

As a friend recently put, “[She] is a testament to why I love mares. They’re just so GAME.”

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the epitome of game face/war ware face

Really couldn’t put it better, or more succinctly, myself. I’ve touched on it here and there in other posts, but never directly addressed it, but I’ll come right out and say it: I prefer mares.

I won’t get into the mare versus gelding debate, and my opinion on geldings isn’t a disparaging one — I certainly like a good gelding, and if the right one crossed my path, I wouldn’t turn him down. But I have a soft spot for the girls, and given two otherwise equal horses, I would be more likely to give the nod to the mare.

“Oh, good, you can have them!” seems to be the more common refrain, especially among endurance riders, and indeed, I have a handful of friends who flat-out refuse to own mares. (In a field of 198 starters this year at Tevis, there were only 46 mares.)

a little more “goofball” than “game face” at this stage….

I really don’t know why mares have such a soft spot for me…I mean, the first lesson horse I habitually rode was a nasty witch of a mare who thought her job in life was serving riders with eviction notices, and the next two “nice” confidence-building horses were geldings.

And then there was Mimi.

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Funny thing is, she actually caught my Dad’s attention first — I was hung up on a spotty, experienced — and unfortunately lame — gelding when we went pony-searching at the POA International Sale, and it was at his urging that I shelved my disappointment over the gelding and climbed on Mimi for a test ride.

We haven’t looked back since.

It didn’t hurt that she was — and still is — one of the prettiest POAs I’ve ever seen (nope, not biased at all…;)) and basically the epitome of “little white princess pony,” who can be just as sweet and charming as anything when she wants something.

And then there’s the side of her that kicks her stall, bites you when you wake her up at o-dark-thirty in the morning, nickers and squeals at fenceposts in the spring, and pulls the nastiest faces — all the things that make you say, “Oh. Ah, yes. Mare.”

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Yep, still love my mares.

I can’t speak from the perspective of actual ownership of a gelding — just peripheral experience of riding with Dad and Beamer, and then the handful of other people’s horses I’ve ridden — so I don’t know exactly how much of this is “long-time bond that comes with working for a horse for a long time” versus “brand new horse I’m crawling aboard and asking them to work with me.” But the geldings have worked for me…the mares have poured their hearts out for me.

Of course, with Mimi, that’s definitely a long-time bond and partnership at work. But Liberty? I feel like she’s really trying, even with the limited time and rides I’ve had on her.

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showing potential for a professional game face
photo by Susan Kordish

It’s ironic, given the fact that I myself tend to be overly dramatic, more emotional, and not exactly long on patience…that I would gravitate to mares versus steady-eddy, worker-bee geldings. And especially given my worrywort tendencies, you would think I would gravitate to the ones who won’t let themselves be pushed too hard, versus the overachieving mares. (Although to be fair, it’s a 50/50 thing on the overachievers. One [Mimi], I’ve always been afraid she’ll go until she drops. The other [Libby] has already displayed self-preserving tendencies.)

So it’s not something I can really put my finger on, exactly, other than overwhelmingly positive experiences with very “game” mares. And hopefully many more still to come.

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Do What Works

payson 9-16 012Treed vs Treeless.
Barefoot vs Booted vs Shod.
Brand X vs Brand Y.
Bitted vs Bitless.
Minimalist vs Maximalist.
Training programs.
Diet choices.

Did I manage to hit just about every major hot topic button out there liable to start online riots?

Most of us probably have some sort of an opinion on any of the above topics. And since it is our opinion, there’s a good chance we’re probably pretty convinced that we’re right. (No one likes to have a wrong opinion, right?)

But when it comes down to it, who’s to say what is right or wrong? Obviously there are some hard and fast rules of the world — like I’m pretty sure running a red light is illegal in all 50 states, no matter your opinion on whether stopping for other traffic is stupid or not. But there are a wide range of subjects in which “Your Mileage May Vary” and one size definitely does not fit all.

Especially on those topics that we feel very passionate about, we (myself included!) can get somewhat…ardent in our beliefs. And that passion and enthusiasm is awesome, and usually contagious. It’s the reason for the success of word-of-mouth referrals — you’re going to be more apt to consider something that you received direct information and/or feedback about from a personal, reliable source, versus just a shiny marketing ad.

Where I begin to have a problem is the black-and-white extremism that says “This is the only way to do something and everything else is just wrong” and doesn’t consider that maybe what works for them won’t work for someone else. Very few things in this world are absolute, and while there are times that “If it’s not working, you’re doing it wrong” are applicable…more often than not, it’s better to keep an open mind, be flexible, and willing to do what works.

Naturally, me being me, of course I have an opinion on all of the above topics. ;) However, just to keep life interesting, I’ve had to re-visit some of these opinions depending on the horse in question, and learn to be very flexible.

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At the last ride, Liberty tended to get behind the vertical with her s-hack, which tells me she isn’t ready for that many points of pressure and contact; back to more snaffle-basics for her. I prefer the s-hack for ease of eating/drinking/not removing headstalls…but when the training occasion calls for a bit, that is what I will use.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of treeless saddles…for me. I recognize that they work really well for a lot of people, but my experiments with them have been mostly underwhelming. I also admittedly ride off my stirrups probably a little more than I should, so pressure dissipation on a treeless has the potential to be an issue with me. After sitting in several models of them, I would dearly love to try a ReactorPanel at some point, as their specific flex-panel technology intrigues me. And in the meantime, my old faithful Duett still continues to do the job.

The barefoot vs booted vs shod debate could probably take up a post all on its own. Suffice today: I have barefoot, booted performance horses. I want them barefoot and moving around as much as possible when they’re not working; but the majority of the time when they’re being ridden, I use boots. My personal stance on that is that under saddle, I’m asking them to do things that are unnatural, such as carry and balance weight, and move at speeds that may be faster than the terrain would ideally dictate, especially in a competition setting where we’re racing against the clock and may not have the luxury of slowing down for every questionable section.

As a caveat to that, I will say that training barefoot on a young horse can be a handy training tool. Not only does it teach them to pay attention to their feet — and that landing on rocks is a bad idea — it can also help curb excessive enthusiasm on a more forward horse after they clatter through a few rock piles and realize that might not have been the best idea.

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Sometimes Arizona footing can be barefoot friendly. And then sometimes it’s really not.

And it’s not going to be for everyone. It can take a lot of time, dedication, and the right set of circumstances to have a successful barefoot performance horse. And if it’s hurting the horse, it’s not worth clinging to an ideal…do what your horse needs not what you want.

Oh, and FWIW, on the running front of happy debate topics, I haven’t been able to successfully use minimalist or maximalist shoes. So there. ;) Actually, the challenge of finding appropriate running shoes for myself has been even harder than it was finding boots that worked on Mimi.

Bottom line: Do research, take a moment to think about the arguments being made for or against something, try something, and don’t be afraid to say if something doesn’t work.

Blog Hop: Why Did You Start?

Mel linked to an article of “Why the Heck Some Good Runners Started Running in the First Place“. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a good read — and some of the reasons are definitely not what you would expect!

The blog hop question is simple: Why did you start riding and/or running in the first place?

Riding: I think horses have always been in my blood, plain and simple. My great-grandfather was an officer in the Polish cavalry, so blame a throwback in genetics. I have photos of me in a baby stroller, no more than a year old, staring fixedly at the ponies in the corral at the petting zoo. Forget the goats, the sheep, the chickens. I wanted the ponies. (Not that I remember this.)
And when I was young, I went through a litany of activities, like all young girls do, trying to find their place. My parents only stipulation was that I do one activity at a time, and that if I decided I didn’t like something, I had to at least finish out the season/lesson course/whatever measure of timing is used to determine little kids’ activities. Ballet, gymnastics, t-ball, Girl Scouts…and horseback riding.
Throw enough mud at a wall and something eventually sticks…horses stuck. I honestly don’t know why. I had such a rough start to the whole horse experience that I probably should have been scared off of them for life. I guess if something’s meant to be, that’s the way it goes.
Running: I’ve dabbled in running off and on for years, usually forced through gym class requirements, and occasionally a wild hair when I would get tired of my pony being fitter than me. This time around, I was initially motivated by getting Artemis. Once she hit 6 months old back in the spring, I knew I needed to start doing more than just walks to burn off some of her energy — I only have so much time to be out walking before I have to be back home for work, so a 10-mile walk in the morning wasn’t going to happen. Since she was still young, we started off very slow, very short distances…but it was more intensity than just walking. As she got older, and fitter, we increased distance. And because I was giving her such a slow legging up, I wasn’t subjecting myself to my usual over-ambitious, under-conditioned running attempts that made it so miserable in the past.
I hit the running path hard at the beginning of the summer after the break-up of what I thought had been a good, pretty serious relationship. Perhaps a questionable motivation…but I discovered how much of an escape running is for me. It’s something that is between me, my body, and the ground. I can control what happens, insomuch as anything in life can be controlled. My success is tied in to me and whatever effort I put into it, with some pretty direct and immediate feedback. It’s head-space time for me, whether it’s to think, or try to clear my head.
Horses are my passion, but I’m liking how well running (especially trail running) seems like it’ll be able to co-exist with it.

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