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.

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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!

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Happy 26th, Mimi + Coon Bluff Ride

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Happy 26th birthday, baby girl!

I seriously can’t believe my little pony is 26. She really doesn’t act like it, especially mentally, and physically, she still seems like she’s doing quite well. We just puttered around today, and mostly treated it as an excuse to overindulge her in carrots and apples and cookies.

But last weekend was her “pre-birthday” ride, and we explored a brand-new-to-us location: Coon Bluff out at the Salt River. I’ve ridden around several different areas at the Salt River over the years, including Bulldog Canyon, Blue Point, Stewart Mtn, Phon D Sutton…half a dozen staging areas all within a few mile radius of the same intersection. But Coon Bluff was a first, and we saw all new-to-us trails, and had probably one of the best rides we’ve had in several years.

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pre-ride napping against the trailer

Most of our group rides lately have been group ride, which are fine…it’s certainly better than not getting out at all. But they’ve never been our favorite thing, for many reasons. Mimi is competitive…she likes to lead, or be very close to the front. I am a chronic overly responsible worrier, which means I am always listening for every indication of possible equine shenanigans or trouble. In a group ride, I don’t always know the people and horses, or know their capabilities, so I have a hard time relaxing when I’m constantly on alert for how everyone else is doing. Historically, I’ve had the most enjoyment either on our own, or with one other horse/rider.

This time, wish granted, since it was just barn owner Chris and myself riding, and Mimi and Chris’s mare Tuudy are buds, but not excessively so. Tuudy also likes to lead, but they’re a good trail team in that they are actually able to trade off leading-following fairly happily, with neither of them really setting the other off or devolving into jigging fits. Which meant we both had a really good ride.

Chris had been to Coon Bluff a few times before, so she navigated, showing us access pints to the river, crossing points when it’s low enough, and a great mix of trails. The area is also host to the multiple mini bands of the Salt River Wild Horses. And they were out in droves that day. Super-proud of Mimi…she was curious, but happy to keep trucking by at a healthy distance away.

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In fact, I was super-proud of her all day. My arms and hands were feeling pretty sore, and a firm grip wasn’t happening after a 12+ hour carpet and tile cleaning job the previous day, so I was riding with a loose/soft rein…big change of pace for me, the chronic “when in doubt, shorten the reins and grab harder” control freak. :/ And you know what? She did fabulous, including through some spooks and moment that rightly should have set her off (rattling truck with kayaks on top, off-roading through some rough stuff right beside the horses)m and then later meeting kayaks down in the river.

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The last time she saw kayaks, about 10 years ago, she was not this amused…and I was not on her back.

Kind of hard to believe that even at age 16, she was generating reactions to things like kayaks, enough to make me not want to be on her back at the time…bombproof, she certainly is not. And the funny thing is, even after what will be 23 years together this fall, I’m still learning how to be better…for her, with her. But this was probably one of the first times I’ve had that relaxed of a ride on her, that I didn’t micromanage every one of her reactions, and finally just trusted all of the work, training, and years together…to trust that she wouldn’t jig if I gave her a loose rein, that her spook at a plastic bag would be contained and in-place, that just looking at something meant that’s all she was going to do…just look.

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This footing!!! I want to put a ride on out here someday. Pretty sure I can get 50 miles of trail. And a lot of it looks like this. A few sections of rock, but it wouldn’t be AZ without at least a few obligatory curses at rocks along the way.

The last year or so of catch rides I’ve done and horses I’ve ridden have done light years for my confidence and competence again. I mean, yeah, I still have plenty of self-doubts, and moments of wondering about myself and the sport of endurance, but it’s gotten better, at least.

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wild lantana…it loved the really soft sand areas

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The kind of trails that made me long to be back in endurance mode with her.

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River-side trails…that’s the Salt River just below us.

Now, the whole Salt River area is one of those spots that doesn’t have much by way of marked, “official” trails. Some marked Forest Service roads (it’s all Tonto National Forest back in there), and a handful of short signed trails…and a whole spaghetti-tangle of rider-made trails and wild horse trails (that go under the mesquite trails that are tall enough to clear the back of a little 14hh wild horse…but not so accommodating of a mounted rider). So it helps to have a good sense of direction, and someone who has been there before. And even they, you might end up detoured and getting in some “bonus miles” because you have to keep detouring around the herds, and getting a little off track…

But the bonus miles meant we ended up logging a nice 7-mile ride.

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It’s a jungle out there…

And whoever says Arizona is a dry desert with no trees??? Liars. This whole area is mesquite forest, cottonwoods, and other shrubby vegetation stuff that is more than happy to grow near the river. It was an absolutely delightful little jewel of an area to discover, and I’m still amazed I hadn’t been to it before.

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The one official trail sign I saw out there…

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Keeping up her “endurance pony who will drink from any water source” credentials

 

 

 

February

Here we are, at the end of February, and I find myself running out of days to squish in a post to stick to my “at least one post a month” streak that been going now for seven and a half years. That’s pretty much unheard of for me, who often has the attention span of a gnat, and difficulty seeing ideas and projects through to completion. (Ask me how many half-finished craft/creative projects I have sitting around. Better yet, don’t.)

It’s not that I don’t have anything going on — I’ve got plenty keeping me busy right now. I just don’t know how much of it is considered interesting, blog-able content. I’ve crafted this blog around my endurance shenanigans, and right now, those seem to be few and unpredictable. That said, having a ride season that, only three months into it, has already run me through the gamut of emotions, was enough to finally galvanize me into action towards making some changes and additions in my life.

This whole week, I am participating in a 5-day Advanced clinic on the Masterson massage method, and intend to finish this year what I started last summer with that first two-day intro clinic — getting my full practitioner certification in the Masterson Method.

Not only is it something I really enjoy doing, but it’s a way of working with horses that doesn’t involve training, or vetmed (both things I’ve considered in the past and ultimately rejected). I hesitate to say it out loud and jinx myself, but I feel like I might have actually found that niche for myself that I’ve been searching for. Not only that, but my aim is to have it be enough of a financial boost once I get going with it that it allows me to once again pick up endurance under my own power (and ponies).

So we’ll see. That’s pretty much the biggest thing on my plate right now. I’ve had some good times this past month — I’ve gotten Mimi out on trail a couple more times (which is a couple more times than last year, huzzah!), but mostly she’s enjoying being my Masterson practice pony; I’ve had a couple of days of going up to the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show and hanging out with friends; it’s rained quite a bit (which is much more like the typical rainy February that I can remember growing up); and I’m doing my typical scurry around to get ready for the AERC Convention the early part of next month.

So with that, a few photos from a ride around the neighborhood last weekend, before I scuttle of for another clinic day.

What We’re Wearing: Mimi, Jan 2019

I have to say, I really enjoy the gear acquisition and testing element of this sport. It’s become a long-standing joke around the house that I’m basically a revolving door of tack sales — find a good deal, buy it, sell something else that’s been sitting around.

I’m also constantly evaluating if what I’m using is still working. With Mimi, I’ve ended up changing saddles several times over the years as she has changed shape. I’ve also changed tack sets and played around with various colors — but this is nothing new, as the original barn color I picked when I got her and for our first couple of years was hunter green, before gradually migrating over to the current purple that it’s overall been for the past 20 years. And I change out bits all. the. time.

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The current gear line-up

As of January 2019, here’s what we’re currently using:

  • Frank Baines Reflex dressage saddle
    Ironically, this was the saddle I kept arguing with myself over why it shouldn’t work — it’s a proper dressage saddle, not an endurance saddle; it’s a 17″ seat, there’s no way that should work. But it’s wide enough to fit a 55-gallon drum, and it actually puts me in the best position of any of the saddles I own, and one of the better ones that I’ve ridden in, period.
  • JMS sheepskin cover
    Originally got to go my Duett, but it actually fits the FB really well, too. It’s almost 12 years old now, and parts of it are looking a little worse for the wear (such as the fact it doesn’t entirely cover the bottom of the saddle flaps), but the sheepskin is still pretty fluffy.
  • Stillwater mohair dressage girth
    Another piece that goes back to when I first got the Duett, and it’s still barely showing wear. I really like the sturdy neoprene-and-leather combo on the buckle backing. Never had any rubs or soreness with this girth.
  • Archer Equine saddle pad
    A score at last year’s AERC Convention, I am in love with this pad for when I want something that is plain wool with no inserts. It’s durable, washes up beautifully without clumping, and fits a bunch of different saddles. The company is based out of Australia, but they have at least one dealer here in the States that I know of.
  • Taylored Tack Zuni Halter-Bridle
    I love my TT stuff. I always wanted to get Mimi a set back when we were competing…but better late than never, especially since I was able to get a bunch of it piecemeal, here and there on used tack sales.
  • some kind of Myler bit (this is case, the MB41PB kimberwick)
    Even at coming-26-years-old, a snaffle is still not going to happen out on trail. We can school in a snaffle in the arena all day long, but as soon as we hit the trail, I need something stronger. Currently on rotation is a couple of different kimberwicks, a pelham, or a Myler combo.
  • Taylored Tack Best Beta Comfy Reins
    The current go-to. I change out my reins on a super-frequent basis, and probably have more sets of reins than any other piece of tack. Except maybe bits.
  • Taylored Tack Kickapoo Breastcollar
  • Taylored Tack S-Hackamore Set
    We alternate between this and the bit. The headstall is the TT Simple Hackamore Headstall that I added a snap-on browband to…because pretty. thumbnail_img_6033

Another angle

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Close-up of the head gear. I love the Zuni browband style…adds some interest and a touch of “different” to the look.

Arnett Canyon @ Picketpost

Happiness is…

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Starting the new year off right, seeing the trails between my favorite set of pony ears.

We were originally slated for a traditional “start as you mean to continue” day on New Year’s Day itself, with a ride out at Picketpost Mountain…but a cold/storm front moved in, and even dumped snow on the outer parts of the Valley. So the ride got postponed to the weekend, and I spent my New Year’s day in “Closet Purgeatory.” I’m not sure if that means I’m going to spend the rest of my year cleaning, sorting, and organizing things?

Anyway, postponing it resulted in an absolutely perfect day for riding, with the kind of weather that reminds me of why Arizona in the winter is such an ideal place. Highs in the lower 60s, breezy, a few scattered clouds…ideal weather for the older, sometimes-crunchy pony.

Not that she was feeling particularly crunchy this time. I think I shocked her with another outing so soon after our Christmas ride, and when we ended up going to a destination she hadn’t been to in almost 8 years, I’m pretty sure she aged down by a decade or so out of sheer delight. The last time we were at Picketpost, we were still in endurance training mode, and I’m pretty sure she thought the same thing was still true this time around.

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Little stinker being sassy with her pasturemate Tuudy, whom she has merrily lorded over and bossed around for the last dozen years or so.

Picketpost Mountain is a trailhead in the Superstition Mountains, out near the mining town of Superior. It’s an access point for The Arizona Trail, and that’s one of the main features of the trailhead, but there are miles of other trails that connect or branch off from that point. I’ve ridden and hiked parts of The AZ Trail from there, but this time, we would be exploring one of the side trails — brand new to both of us!

A group of seven of us would be riding together, and while the entirely of the trail can be ridden as a 10-mile loop that eventually goes the entire way around Picketpost Mtn, we opted for an out-and-back option…ride out for a few miles, stop for lunch, then head back.

I don’t actually know if the trail itself has a name…it winds through what appears to be called Arnett Canyon on the maps, so that’s what I’m calling it, if only for the purposes of my own identification.

Like the vast majority of the Superstitions, it has rocky parts…some slab type of stuff that is either flat or somewhat stair-steppy, some dry washbeds, some typical embedded rocks in the trail. But there were also some sections that were smooth, gorgeous singletrack that both of us itching to go blasting down the trail.

Bonus of riding with other people...I finally get media of me riding my own pony! And proof that I really need to work on my collapsing right ribcage habit.

Bonus of riding with other people…I finally get media of me riding my own pony! And proof that I really need to work on my collapsing right ribcage habit.

During out Christmas ride, I wondered if that was going to be our “new normal” — while she was willing and happy to go, she also felt stiff, very heavy on the forehead, minced her way along on downhills, and had more than a few stumbles…all things that had me second-guessing if I had any business taking her out on trail anymore.

No second-guessing this time around. Main difference? Switched saddles. I had been using the Sommer Oakfield the previous ride, and I think I finally have to come to the conclusion that it’s too narrow for her, and she really wasn’t comfortable. This time, I used the Frank Baines dressage saddle, and she was moving out and doing her endurance pony power walk. No hesitation, no tripping, very balanced…and color me totally shocked that I’m pretty sure it’s actually the most comfortable saddle I own for me. 8 mile ride, totally at a walk, and I wasn’t sore at all…whereas 5 miles at a walk in the Sommer actually left me feeling it in my legs a bit.

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I can also actually mount from the ground in this saddle. Every other one, I end up rolling on her…in all of her not-quite-14hh-glory. So not exactly a huge stretch and hang time to get up there. But this one stays put. Good thing, too, since I had to test that a couple times after she pitched a couple boots along the way. Time for some troubleshooting, since it’s been ages since she’s flung a boot. I suspect I need to bring her toes back some more, and the combo of that + water + mud was just too much. Eh, well…nothing like putting one’s own work knowledge to the test.

It was an absolutely beautiful trail, though, and really fun to explore an area I had not been to. It’s really quiet back in there, and although the trail is well-maintained, I think it’s not as well known, or gets passed over in favor of The AZ Trail. Which is fine by me, because it felt like we had the entire canyon just to our group. It’s a hidden oasis, tucked into the shadow of Picketpost Mtn, and has that wild, untamed feel that, to me, defines the Superstition Mountains and makes them so unique.

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I’ll leave you with a bit of history — that strip of pavement is part of the original US-60 highway. The trail is about 1/2-mile from the current highway at this point, as the crow flies.