Heart Horses

I think anyone who has been around horses for any length of time has heard the term “heart horse.” That special horse with whom you share a special bond, an almost indescribable feeling you get when you’re around them.

I found the above video yesterday, courtesy of my Facebook feed, and I couldn’t help but tear up as I watched it. I love some of the descriptions they use…how they are “…the horse that brings out the best in you…not only teaches you to be a better rider, but a better person.”

I’d never quite heard it put into words that way, but I think that describes it really well. I can say I’ve learned something from every horse I’ve ridden, and there are very few times I’ve ever regretted climbing into the saddle…but those heart horses…they’re something special.

I got very, very lucky: my first horse is one of my heart horses. Not too many people are that fortunate right off the bat to end up with a lifetime heart horse that they keep for a couple decades and counting. Granted, I spent several years of riding lesson horses before I ever got Mimi, but some of those lesson horses did their best to try to dissuade a small, horse-crazy child from further pursuing her passion.

Fortunately, there were enough good ones — the priceless schoolmasters — that kept me in the saddle and kept me going. But until that first time I climbed onto Mimi’s back, I didn’t know a horse could make me feel that way. The naughty ones had terrified me, and the schoolmasters took care of me through the fear…but on Mimi? For the first time ever on the back of a horse, I felt fearless. Together, we could go anywhere, do anything…we could fly.

Of course, that feeling didn’t always exist…for the next couple of years, there was a steep learning curve of young rider + young pony, with more than one session that ended in tears (since I was too young to curse at the time). But I always clung to that feeling I had on our initial ride together, knowing what was possible.


together, we can fly

Do we get more than one heart horse in life? I certainly like to think so, or hope so. I’ve gotten along well with pretty much all of the catch horses I’ve ridden, have clicked with a few of them, and yes, have even felt that same “together, we can fly” feeling with one.

So, what is it about a heart horse that makes them special? Everyone is probably going to have their own answer for that. It may not necessarily involve logic. In fact, if you sat down and made a pros and cons list of that horse’s characteristics, there’s probably a subheading somewhere on that list of “All The Reasons This Is A Bad Idea.” But there’s a reason they’re called “heart horses” and not “brain horses,” because while the brain is chewing over logic, the heart is daydreaming of the most recent Magical Moment with that horse.

It may not even take much. Half an arena length of a perfectly balanced, floating canter. A whiskery nuzzle against your cheek to sop up tear tracks. Whatever silly shenanigans they’ve most recently come up with (such as why my 26-yr-old pony has suddenly reverted back to her juvenile behavior of destroying her fly masks on a weekly basis?!?).

Or it’s something huge, like such a feeling of confidence and connection that you have to curb the impulse to jump on their bare back and head off to parts unknown. The forgiveness and trust they extend, even when you’ve done things that should have broken it. The lessons they are gracious enough to teach. Knowing when they absolutely need to take care of their rider.

Large or small, those moments all add up into a wonderful kaleidoscope of memories and feelings that envelope you, and you want to laugh, and smile, and cry all at the same time, because it’s a feeling that’s hard to compare to anything else.

One of my favorite tights companies, PerformaRide, recently released their 2019 limited edition range of tights and accessories, and this year’s theme is “Empower.” Four prints/designs, each with a different animal as a totem of an element of personal empowerment and the feelings we have in the saddle. Flamingo: Graceful; Tiger: Power; Wolf: Courage; Horse: Freedom. I really can’t think of a better way to distill down the essence of what I feel in the saddle than that.

For sure I’m more graceful dancing up the trail with my horse than when I’ve shuffled the same trail on my own two feet. Power? We all know the notion that we can physically control a 1000-pound flight animal is laughable…but the true power comes from being in a partnership with said 1000-pound flight animal, and them trusting me enough to let me guide them. “In riding a horse, we borrow freedom.” Nothing more needs said, other than to celebrate the feeling of cantering through the desert, with nothing but the sound of hoofbeats, snorting nostrils, and the wind whispering past your ears. And courage…it’s taken a lot of courage to get me in the saddle on many occasions. But in return, I’ve seen that courage come back to me, with that incredible, “take on the world and fly” feeling.

Are they perfect? Hahahaha…no. See above about the “teaching you to be a better rider.” And better horseperson. And how to think outside the box. How to question the norm. What to do when “what you’ve always done” doesn’t work. They also make me want to be better. To figure out the why behind a behavior or other challenge, and figure out what they might be trying to tell me. To better my skills, my knowledge, my communication. I’ve learned better emotional control, and impulse control. I’ve learned to let go, trust the horse more, and to not micromanage. To pick my battles. That those extraordinary horses in life may comes with a few extras quirks, shenanigans, and speed bumps in the road.

To those special, special horses who have left your hoofprints permanently embedded in my heart…thank you. For everything. The good moments, and the bad. The times I’ve wanted to scream or cry, and the times I’ve wanted to shout from the rooftops. The life lessons. The mane to cry in. The whiskery muzzle to smooch. The shenanigans, the laughter, the headaches, the heartaches. All of it has shaped my life, and contributed to the building blocks of who I am.

Your turn, readers…Let’s hear about your heart horse(s) and celebrate these special equines in our lives!

silhouette 1 copy

Delayed Gratification


noun en·dur·ance \in-ˈdu̇r-ən(t)s

the ability to withstand hardship or adversity; especially: the ability to sustain a prolonged stressful effort or activity

See also: “delayed gratification”.

I’ve said it before, and it bears repeated: endurance ain’t for the faint of heart. Or the impatient. Or anyone who can’t deal with bouts of “one step forward, two steps back.” Some people make it look easy, but that’s rarely the whole story. I would say it’s somewhat unusual to not have some kind of setbacks, injuries, plans going awry, and life definitely not going as intended. And, speaking from personal experience, trying to adhere to a rigid plan and schedule is what creates so much internal angst and pressure on our parts.

Our horses don’t care about a “schedule.” They have no concept of time as we see it, nor do they understand our impatience when they “won’t get with the program.” You can’t rush success/progress/experience…and if you try, it’s more apt to be a shortcut/patch-job that will likely later end up blowing up spectacularly. There’s a reason for the popularity of “made” endurance horses: Appeal to those that may not want to take, or have the time to start a young horse from scratch.


And, as a friend recently put, “dry spell” is spelled “e-n-d-u-r-a-n-c-e-r-i-d-e-r”. Which is so true. The whole endurance journey is a lot of ups and downs — and I’m not just talking about the hill climbing. It’s probably going to be somewhat rare to have constant smooth sailing. Of course there are steps you can take and things you can do to help minimize some obstacles and potential stumbling blocks…but sometimes life just happens. Personally, I’m in the middle of one of those dry spells right now, and really, this is a case where temporarily accepting it, versus working myself up into a major angst-fest over things I have no power to change or influence, is the healthiest course of action. (Not to say I always take the healthiest course of action. This blog post was written in one of my more rational and charitable frames of mind.)

ride pics 002

Life tends to have cycles and seasons all on its own, and throwing something as involved, complicated, and time-consuming as endurance into the mix can be that much more complicated. Sometimes it turns into an exercise in evaluating your priorities, learning balance, figuring out the “can’t do it all” factor…and then a bit of “the stars aligning.”

Julie Suhr once said about finishing Tevis that it is “one third horse, one third rider, and one third Lady Luck.” I would say the same applies to endurance in general.

And in a perfectly timed “universe has a sense of humor” coincidence, this year’s copy of the Tevis Forum magazine got delivered in the mail when I initially started working on this post. Ha. Hahaha. As anyone who has followed my blog for any period of time knows that’s one of my ultimate destination goals…and that the closest I’ve come to the stars aligning is multiple times of crewing, and some chances to preview and pre-ride sections of the trail. It’s all leading up to that point…steps in the journey…but in the meantime, I can’t help but sometimes feel a bit of “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” syndrome…and wonder just how long I have to keep delaying gratification?


So why do we do this???

Because when it does all come together, it’s so worth it. Because sometimes have plans go awry can result in interesting and unexpected detours or re-routes, not all of which are a bad thing. And because it’s life. Life is unexpected, and rarely follows our idea of a well-behaved and orderly plan and function.

But that’s all part of living.

Desert Forest Ride066

Then and Now

From this: 
March 2001
Estrella Mtn NATRC
photo by Cristy Cumberworth
To this:
January 2014
Bumble Bee 25
photo by Susan Kordish

Coming up on 14 years of a lot of blood, sweat, tears, miles, and above all, learning. May my capacity to learn never cease, and the wisdom provided by horses keep coming.

life lessons from the endurance trail

Endurance riding…and honestly, anything involving horses, ain’t for the feint of heart.

But you know what? Neither is life.

In general, horses and riding have not come easily for me. It’s my life passion, and I’ve yet to find anything I would give it up for…but I’ve had to fight for it every step of the way. Every goal, every achievement, every milestone.

My first introduction to lessons and riding was a rough start when I was persistently and maliciously dumped by one particular horse. I got to the point of being so scared that I would be nauseous and crying on the drive down to my weekly lesson. But I wanted to go…insisted, through the tears and shaking nerves, that I would go and I would ride. (There was also always a slim chance that I would get to ride one of the *good* horses, so I had to take that chance…I think there’s a life lesson about hope and optimism buried somewhere in there.) My parents didn’t force me. In fact, they offered me every out…but I refused to take them up on it.

After about of year of this, they moved me to a different instructor…one who employed reliable, kid-safe, caretaker lesson horses. Early impressions and imprinting are hard to overcome, though, and it would take several years, some patient instructors, and a couple of sainted equines (Deck and Snappy, I owe you everything) to help me piece my shattered confidence back together.

Even now, I’m not a brave rider.

I quit jumping after one wreck too many…I came back one final time a year after my worst incident to “conquer the fear,” which I did in a pretty stellar fashion (5 courses, including a timed jump-off and the highest I’ve ever jumped the pony — 3′) and I haven’t jumped since.

And while we’re on the subject of true confessions? I used to be scared to ride out of the arena. My trainer used to have to literally clip a leadrope on Mimi and pony/drag me off the property. I’m betting I’m the last person on this planet anyone would have ever bet money on becoming an endurance rider. And not just an endurance rider, but one with Tevis aspirations.

Do I still get scared?

All the time.

I hate hitting the dirt. When I part company with a horse, rarely is it the “gracefully slide/roll and stand back up again” variety. It usually involves some kind of story/drama/trauma, and subsequent splat in the dirt.

I don’t get along well with uptight, nervous horses who need lots of coddling and reassurance…or the kind who need a devil-may-care rider who laughs off spooks and misbehavior. I can be confident and guide an inexperienced horse along the trail, provided that horse is the kind of base personality that tends towards bold and doesn’t constantly second-guess me when I say “It’s okay, keep going forward, nothing’s gonna get you.”

And the biggest obstacle I face as an endurance rider is the fact I am paranoid and afraid of breaking my horse. I’ve had enough challenges and issues with Mimi over the years that it’s made me hyper-aware and overly cautious about pushing a horse, let along pushing them too hard. Again, the early imprinting of having to struggle through and hold my horse together to get those miles…every ride completion we have is a victory and a celebration that I don’t take for granted.

But doing endurance has forced me to recognize those issues, to face them, and attempt to deal with them. Last year was an excellent stepping stone for me. I rode lots of new horses. Some experienced, some brand-new greenies. Not just once, but several times, I climbed on a horse I’d never ridden until the morning of the ride, and proceeded to ride 25-50 miles on them. I toughed it out on horses who I didn’t completely mesh with…and really, really appreciated the ones I did.

And I learned to have more faith and confidence, not just in the innate ability of a conditioned, athletic endurance horse, but also in myself that I wasn’t going to break the horse and it wasn’t all going to go horribly wrong. Ever since Mimi’s unceremonious retirement halfway through our last 50 together, I’ve been beating myself up, wondering what I did wrong, what I could have changed, psycho-analyzing every minute detail, and generally feeling sorry for myself and my pony.

It’s taken me some time to get my head around this concept, but sometimes, stuff just happens. You can do everything right, and the stars just aren’t aligned on that day and time. This has been a hard thing for me to grasp. I tend to take it personally when things go wrong, and don’t shake things off easily. Yes, that can be a bit arrogant and self-indulgent…but we are who we are and we all feel, react, and cope differently to every situation. And outside circumstances at the time made it easier for me to just duck and cover, and temporarily go on hiatus from endurance. Even that couldn’t last too long, though, and friends with extra horses started coming out of the woodwork, giving me something to ride.

Yeah, the last couple of years haven’t been ideal, catch-riding and rig sharing/borrowing and generally relying on the good graces of other people when I’m by nature more of a self-reliant person…but it’s better than not riding. I accomplished a number of milestones under those less-than-ideal circumstances, including getting my first endurance and LD mileage patches, going to new rides I’d never been to, seeing friends I wouldn’t otherwise get to see, and facing down some of those above-mentioned personal demons.

Circling back around to where I started, this hasn’t been an easy ride for me. But endurance has been the best soul-searching, horizon-expanding, comfort-zone-shifting thing for me, pretty much ever. Life lessons, indeed. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that there are no easy answers…life doesn’t come with a handbook…you just have to live it.

since when did goals become bad?

“Live, learn & pursue the good life without unpleasant entanglements like long-term goals.”

This was a tagline of a contest advertisement by a sportwear company that I just saw on FaceBook.

I can’t even begin to say how many problems I have with this sentiment.

Since when are long-term goals a bad thing?

Maybe this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, an amusing twist of irony?

If it is, they don’t do a great job of communicating that sense.

When I see that, sarcasm and irony or not, the sense I get is promoting the idea of entitlement, instant gratification, and getting things handed to you without putting in the blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice.

Long-term goals are what separate out the boys from the men, so to speak. How willing are you to commit to something wholeheartedly? How much does it matter to you? What are you willing to sacrifice in order to get to that point?

To me, endurance is all about long-term goals. It accommodates short term goals: “I will finish this ride.” “I will get up early and do that training ride in miserable weather.” “I will learn to maintain my barefoot horse’s trim.”

But to me, having big-picture, long-term goals is what defines endurance. Per Webster, endurance is: the ability to withstand hardship or adversity; esp. the ability to sustain a prolonged stressful effort or activity.

Endurance is what keeps people coming back to a ride like Tevis, year after year: they made a goal to finish that ride.

Endurance is what makes people keep on working with a difficult horse, because they know once they have a breakthrough, the payoff will be more than worth it.

Endurance is when people sacrifice other things in their lives — a teeming social life, frequent dinners and movies out, a new house, a vacation to the Bahamas — in order to follow their passion and goals, be it ending up in the year end points, racking up a certain amount of miles, or committing to spending as much time as possible discovering and sharing beautiful trails with a beloved equine partner.

To me, having a long-term goal is what gives us the fire to make it through the challenges, the rough patches, and the times when it would just be easier to quit.

Tevis is my long-term goal. One of many, really, but that’s my shining beacon that I keep clinging to and dreaming about, the thing that has me writing out full crew instructions for a ride I don’t yet have a horse for, the thing that gets me out of bed early every morning to exercise, because when I have my next competition horse, I will be in shape to jump back into it. (It’s also the thing that makes me say no to an extra scoop of Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Ice Cream, since every extra pound is just one more pound I might have to drag out of those canyons.)

Instant gratification has its place (such as being paid right away for a job), but when it comes to big picture, long-term goals, I’ll take the satisfaction and reward that comes with working for and earning that goal.

Riders coming in to the Robinson Flat
vet check at the 2012 Tevis Cup ride.
photo by Ashley Wingert