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.

Finding My Footing

It’s not even been a month. I never expected to feel this deeply, be so strongly connected already. I knew from previous experiences that I liked this mare, enjoyed riding her, felt like she had potential, and had fun with her. I never thought she would bond to the level of my soul as much as she has.

I also hadn’t realized just how badly I needed this. This being a purpose, a project, to be in the driver’s seat (saddle?), to be in a position of daring to even think about being able to put some of my long-held distance dreams on track again.

I am so thankful for the experiences catch riding has given me. Not only was I able to keep riding and competing, I learned so much during that time period, the kind of learning that can only come from riding that many different horses and riding with that many different people.

But there’s nothing quite like one’s own horse, and the potential for an active future laid out in front of them. I hadn’t realized just how much of my enthusiasm had slowly faded, how much I was going through the motions, but without a whole lot of motivation or inspiration.

To that end, I’ve sent off our first “official” ride entry as a proper team (ie, “it’s my name on the ‘Owner’s Name’ portion). Now, fingers crossed that the ride actually happens. It’s not until October but management is going to decide at the end of this month if they’ll be able to make a viable go of it.

Given that Liberty has had a year off, hasn’t done an endurance ride in about 4 years, it’s ridiculously hot out, and historically, most of our previous ride attempts were done without much by way of ideal conditioning and prep…we’re starting small, aiming for the 12-mile “fun/trail/intro/whatever-you-want-to-call-it” ride. Maybe conservative, but my aim is to set ourselves up for success as much as I can along the way, and that includes not picking one of the hardest LDs around to kick things back off again. The 12-mile course is much more straightforward, and it will be a fun weekend of camping, being among endurance friends again, and starting to figure out our routine together.

I’m excited about being back in the position of ride planning and speculating on ideas and schemes for the future, but even beyond that…

This mare makes my heart happy.

Virtual Tevis: Week 2 and into Week 3

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We’re currently sitting at a little over 7 miles along the Virtual Tevis trail, which means we’ve crossed under Highway 89 and are making our way into the Squaw Valley ski resort and up to High Camp. I loved the section from the start to the highway on the ride, and I really enjoyed seeing it is full daylight last year when I took my rider’s mare out for a pre-ride on Friday.

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Just a little taste of what the area between the start and Hwy 89 looks like.

And for fun, a video of what the area of the highway crossing looks like. This is looking south, from the north edge of the bridge over the trail crossing. Riders come down the trail on the east side (at some points you can see them snaking their way down some switchbacks in the background), cross under the highway via a trail underpass, ride up alongside the bridge, make a sharp turn to ride northbound alongside the highway (there’s a concrete barricade between the trail and the highway), and then another turn off the road onto the trail. This is from 2018, the year I rode, and Roo and I show up at about the 1:30 point in the video — little grey Arabian in yellow tack, and I’ve got a grey shirt, black tights, and white helmet.

I tried to embed this, but the Facebook embedding code doesn’t want to play nice with my blog, so here’s the direct link for the public Tevis Cup Facebook page and subsequent video:

https://www.facebook.com/TevisCup/videos/1975576312466525/ 

And a second video, this one from 2016, from the perspective at the south end of the bridge, watching riders come up from the underpass.

I’ve hung out and taken photos/videos at the Hwy 89 crossing twice before, and it’s a ton of fun. Timing is such that if you’re part of crew that needs to be at Robinson Flat, you can’t be at 89 and still make it to RF in time to catch the front-runners, but it’s a great place to hang out and get to see the entire field of entrants come through in a relatively short period of time. Everyone is still clustered together as this point, so it usually takes less than an hour to see everyone go by.

It’s currently 113* here in Phoenix, and I’m really missing my annual Tevis getaway now. Not only for the Tevis environment and social aspect and catching up with my tribe of like-minded Tevis obsessees, but also for the fact that for at least a day or two, it means a respite in weather and the higher-elevation cooler temperatures. (In fact, yours truly briefly appears in the second video as well, about 2 minutes in. The wild tangle of blondish curls and the multi-colored puffy jacket? Yep, that’s me and my very distinctive jacket.)

But even more than the weather, the socialization…I find myself craving the energy and unique sensation that only Tevis has. There’s a vibe there, the kind that gets under your skins, the kind that fuels hopes and dreams. It might be a long shot, or it might not. At this point, I have no clue, so I can’t help but dream big and find my motivation from the possibilities.

With Liberty, I’m finding that baby steps now are going to lead to incremental leaps in the future. This mare is so smart, and has such a huge try, that I feel like taking the time now to really lay this foundation and establish trust between each other will really pay off in the long run. Because she is also stubborn, dominant, and opinionated…but that’s okay, because I know how to work with that.

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War Mare Personified

Funny realization I had…she and Flash remind me so much of each other. They both equine personality test as “rock stars,” and she would be the “queen” counterpart to his regal, slightly imperious “king” aspects. Initially I didn’t make the connection of similarities — it had been a couple of years since I had been around her when I started riding Flash, but having ridden him and spent time with him off and on over the past couple of years, the similarities really struck me this time around as I’ve been working with Liberty. And that knowledge has been super instrumental in leading to success with her, because it’s taught me to respect their opinions, and to stay very level and matter of fact, and not take their opinions and small acts of defiance or attitude personally or overreact to them, but still stay firm, and redirect or correct as necessary, but done in a way that isn’t emotionally charged or defensive. I know Flash made me a better horsewoman, and in turn, I find myself now transferring those same skills into Liberty. It’s calm, confident leadership that supports but extends trust to the horse.

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Today’s nemesis was something in that corner by the evil trailers.

Today was a day that demanded some tact and patience. Liberty’s biggest issue is she can be balky. If there’s something she doesn’t like, she will stop, plant her hooves, and refuse to move. She’s gotten away with it, too, because she learned that rather than fight her, her rider preferred to just dismount and lead her if they were solo, or rely on a tow from the other horse if they were riding with people. I myself employed the “buddy tow” system when I’ve ridden her in the past, especially at rides, or found myself relying a little too much on the ability to smack her with a crop. And I just don’t want to have to rely on that in the long run. So I was rather pleased to have her balky side pop its head up sooner, rather than later, and give me the opportunity to work through it today.

Shagyas are known for having a stubborn streak, which can make them interesting characters to work with, especially when that’s on top of an already opinionated horse. But by my own genetic background, I’m half-Slavic, which means I’m just as stubborn as my mare, and I was determined that I would out-patience her.

Ultimately, we stood in that arena corner for almost 10 minutes, eking out one step at a time. I had a couple of simple guidelines: she couldn’t back up, and she couldn’t bolt or rush through. And by the end of that time, she had made her way up to the scary corner, given several good Arab snorts, and then finally, I felt her give a big breath and relax her whole back and body. From there, we proceeded to do another 10 minutes of solid walk work until I really felt her settle, and then from there, we were able to do almost 10 minutes of solid trot work. I also started asking her for a little “more” in her trot, not just the soft little dib-dib trot, and it turns out she’s got a very nice 8mph trot in there. Not only is this building her fitness, it’s building my comfort levels, as well as readjusting my own internal odometer to “normal horse pace” versus years of “pony pace.”

I was thrilled with how the session went today. Was she perfect? Nope. I don’t know her well enough to know if we’re still working the kinks out (very likely), she’s still getting into the habit of regular work (also likely), or something is not comfortable — still haven’t found a bit she likes, and I don’t know if she likes the Total Saddle Fit girth versus the mohair. Thing to keep experimenting with. But we worked through some hiccups, and I’m super-proud of how both of us handled it. I kept my patience and my cool, and most importantly, my confidence. And she worked through a major balky moment without becoming scared, or resentful.

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Definitely still talking to each other at the end.

When we finished, as I was untacking her back in the barn, that mare’s face was fascinating. I could see the wheels turning in her eyes as she was processing everything, and she stood for a solid five minutes licking and chewing and yawning. Some major releasing and processing happening.

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Post-shower, enjoying making a mess of her sloppy mash. She’s definitely getting more svelte, and I’m seeing some more muscle development. She’s also reverting to more of her true seal bay color that she’s usually been. Previously, I’ve never seen her as dark, almost black, as she was when I brought her home. Which was fine, she’s beautiful either way, but I do lean more towards the seal bay shading as my preference, just because it’s a little more contrast on her beautiful face. Guessing some of this is sweat/salt/sunfade…but she was in 24/7 unsheltered turnout up in Kingman, and they get plenty toasty up there, too.

On the pony front…

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She received the talk about using your powers for good or evil at some point in her life. I now know which side she chose…

Fine, Mimi, I get it. No more fly sheets this year. Obviously making her exuberance over not having to wear clothes anymore known…

Destructive tendencies aside, Mimi is loving retirement life. As long as she gets first cookies, a cool shower when it’s hot, her itchy spots scratched, and the food supplied, she’s a happy camper, and seems to be rather content that I have something else to occupy my riding time and attention.