Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Beautiful Day, Without a Cloud

Some mornings are just born lovely, like Tuesday. There was a crisp luminosity to everything I could see from my kitchen window. The angle of the sun, still low from its winter zenith in the eastern sky lit the trees sharply on one side and made hard dark blue shadows on the back of the trunks and branches, so that all the lines I could see were vertical and dramatic. The sky was robin egg blue with no sign of a cloud and there was a pleasant coolness to the air with promise of a nice warming later in the day.
There are so many things that can happen on a day like this. When the weather is lovely like this, all the potential chores that need to be done outside can be done with the joy of not having to fight the elements, and it becomes more a matter of which to do first. I felt an optimism and an urgency to get outside and do as much as I possibly could to take advantage of such sublime weather before it changed back to some version of the previous rainy, moody, and challenging conditions. The difficulty was in deciding which of the endless things that I wanted to get done, or needed to do, or both. The decision being almost impossible, of course I chose to ride my horses.
And so I spent the majority of my hours on Tuesday working all three of the ones in training, Kitty, Sunset, and Atlas. Long time having been irregular in my riding schedule it was so nice to be able to immerse myself again in the process. The warmth of the low sun gave a bit of sleepiness to the animals and I did have to wake Kitty up from a stupor a time or two while I was working her. In fact all were a bit lazy and inattentive but it was just so nice being back aboard. I spent a bit of time working with them in the arena and then took each in turn down the driveway to the pond dam where the fescue grass remains a lush green and let them gorge.
There are few things I can think of that are more soothing to me than sitting on a grazing horse on a beautiful day while it enjoys a bit of this green grass especially when all else is dormant and brown. There is a gentle swaying as the horse reaches from side to side for the choicest bit of tender blades, the sound of tearing grass and then the contented chewing and blissful gazing around before going for the next bite. The horse is in a zone of total contentment and it is contagious.
It was another pretty day yesterday so I rode all three again and was reminded again of how important consistency is. Having two or more days in row to work a horse is like night and day in terms of the closer communication, and perhaps some looser muscles and joints, on both the horses' part and mine. The horses all went so well, relaxed and paying close attention to my aids.

Atlas is making the transition from being a green broke to becoming a solid citizen, as my dear friend and former instructor, Col. Howard Morris would say of a young horse. This boy has some fancy gaits but what a fabulous canter. It always is special to watch any type of really good athlete or dancer preform. They move with a cat like grace, with a power and balance that sets them apart from the group of their peers. Gravity doesn't seem to influence them the way it does everything else and your eye is drawn involuntarily to them. So it is with Atlas. I just enjoy watching this colt move, but getting to ride him is amazing.

Today is a soggy leftover from a flooding rain last night. The ground is a saturated sponge and there is nowhere dry enough to ride so I am aiming now to get stuff done on this computer. That is stuff that doesn't have anything to do with thinking about horses and writing blogs about horses. Boring, but must be dealt with. I just hope that tomorrow will be pretty again and the ground will be dried off enough to get the ponies back out and ride.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Working Girls Go On a Walk About

The first indication of animal mischief on my way to the barn this morning was an uprooted recently planted blackberry shrub. Once it was set back in its hole, I walked on to the barn and there I found a fairly large pile of horse poop right in the middle of the aisle way, that had not been there on my last visit to the barn yesterday afternoon. A stall door was ominously open to the aisle way and so was the other stall door open to the pasture. Then a big white face peered around the corner just outside the back of the barn. It was Sunset, the wonder horse, standing , waiting patiently for me to come get her and put her back in her stall. Kitty, my other mare was a couple of yards behind her and she made her way over to us, also ready to be put back in her stall as well.
They both had a very tired, sheepish, and not feeling so hot look about them. I locked their gates to their stalls and more clues of their activities began to expose themselves as I went about feeding the other horses. As I feared, on this outing the two ladies had found the feed can and had obviously had quite a feast on it. Grain was scattered about and the diminished quantity left in the can meant that one or both of them had put away some food. The hay pile also showed signs of another gorging. Several bales had been opened and partially eaten and then pooped on. Counting piles of the droppings in the area around the feed room area back of the barn made me guess the girls had been there for several hours, just eating, then pooping, and eating again, etc.

As I continued my routine of getting the others fed more clues to the nocturnal activities of these two showed that there had been quite a bit of scooting around the fencing of the pastures of the other horses. Deep foot prints and slide marks showed they had done some serious dancing and playing on this little walk about. Fortunately they had steered clear of the tractor and its implements and the two didn't have any outer signs of injury. My concern here now was their sheepish moods and whether a bit of colic and or founder is in their future from this overeating binge.
I left them in their stalls for an hour or so to see if an impaction was likely. They both passed on a good sample of a previous meal so I let them out into their paddock. They then lethargically meandered over to the water tank and took long drinks, ears drooping and eyes tired and half closed. Clearly these girls were feeling the effect of all that over eating and running around. I will continue to keep an eye on them and if no soon improvement is made to their mood I will call the vet.
Horses are really such hard animals to keep safe and sound. They can tear up anything, open locked gates, eat until they hurt themselves, and even manage to step on sticks the wrong way and puncture the soles of their feet. The possibilities for injury and damage to themselves and property is unlimited. I ride by fields of cows laying right next to piles of sheet metal and barbed wire and ask why is it they can stay next to such stuff and not jump in and get hurt the way a horse would? It amazing horses make it to retirement age at all. Some days I wonder if it is worth the effort to try to keep them at all.
Yesterday I did manage to ride all three that I am presently training, these two working girls and the gelding, Atlas. Great rides on all three and warmer weather brought a good bit of better spirits to me. Ice is finally beginning to melt in the pond and the water tanks and the stress level it has caused on the farm is melting with it. Today my plans for getting inside projects done will be tempered with a few trips to the barn to see how my ill feeling over eaters are doing and keep fingers crossed that they ride thru this escape from their stalls with no effects.
I will also put extra snaps on their stall gates, and oh yes, the silly beasts are still worth it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Mojo

What will I remember about the start of 2010? For starters, the most insane weather, first incredibly wet and now incredibly cold. Our pond has completely iced over solid and thick. I have been wearing a camouflaged sleeping bag whenever I have had to venture to the barn to feed the horses, thaw out frozen faucets, and chip holes in the ice in the water tanks. It makes my muscles and shoulders tighten up with shivers and my poor lips are in shreds. I do not like the inconveniences of cold weather. It would be different if I knew that this was the norm, and could have those things which are vulnerable, like the water situation, set up to be frost free and warmed. My wonderful outdoors life has been put on hold, I am being held captive, and I am doing some serious chomping with cabin fever. It has been this way now for a darn long time, way too long. I am over it and am ready for spring, or at least a thawing of the permafrost here.
The best thing by far that has happened this year, or in a long while, is that once again, the University of Alabama won the National Championship, this time for the 13th time in its history. Thankfully, in at least one area of the current chaos of the cosmos, the world is back spinning in greased grooves. It was such a special season of watching the team grow and improve, the stars emerge, and having Coach Saban's teachings and rantings pay off with the championship win, and seeing so many awards given to his fabulous players.
From the beginning of the football season Mark, my fanatically rabid fan of a husband, and I watched the games with a determined ritualistic pattern of behavior. There were certain places we sat to watch the games, particular drinks that we would have to drink in order for the team to do well, foods that were eaten or not, and most definitely some people, who mistakenly thought it would be hilarious to telephone us in the middle of the game, that remain persona non gratis. We felt it our duty to do our part to help the team get through each game with a win, no matter the sacrifice.

Superstitions have their own amusing way of growing and becoming masters of your behavior. Once a pattern of things going one way appears, there is a desperation to find the reason for it doing so, so that whatever the thing suspected of being the reason for the pattern, can be reused to same effect. If scratching the dog on the head coincides with Alabama making a score or happens when the other guys drop the football, then the dog is probably going to get a lot of scratching. Mark carried a piece of St. John the Conqueror's root in his pocket during the games and our game day outfits did not vary.
When I used to go to a season full of horse shows, the pattern I found for me to win the blue ribbon was that I had to purchase a new horse related thing before each show. Had to, or risk losing. It didn't require anything be expensive and for that matter, be needed, but I was doomed if I broke from this pattern. I also kept a penny that I had found in the bottom of my right boot, I had a laminated four leafed clover in my tack box, and a small bottle of brandy in there too, in case I needed it for consolation. A friend of mine who was also going to these shows then, had to eat tacos the night before the class or she too was lost. Whatever works, works, that is until it doesn't seem to work anymore. Then you seek out the next rabbit's foot, talisman, or good luck charm that puts things back right.

Good luck charms work because of the focus and the power of positive thinking that you give them and that makes them have strong magic. They become symbols of the hard work and energy that goes in to any endeavor to being a winner. A simple rabbit's foot doesn't have any special magic until you believe it does, and to win at anything you have to have both the magic, and the dedication to the job. Clearly Alabama had both for this year and I hope for more years to come. They sure improved the beginning of this year for me. Now we only have to wait until August or September for the next games and then see what our next rituals will be.
Until then......Roll Tide.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Value of a Work Horse

I have to begin with saying that I love my horse, Sunset. No, I am not 9 years old and believe that my pony wants to do everything it can to please me because it loves me. Removing that, Sunset is about as close to the perfect horse I could ever want to deal with, ride, drive, what ever.

Sunset Beach is a 10 year old Dutch Warmblood mare who I bought as a yearling from a breeder in California and had her shipped here to my farm in Alabama. From the minute she got off the van she impressed me with her cool, calm, and reasonable nature. She had just spent a full week in a tiny box stall in a semi, zigzagging across the country, stepped off the ramp and gave a look around and then proceeded to walk calmly another several hundred yards across an open field to her new pasture without an ounce of frolic, the other horses running madly around their fields whinnying and bucking.

She is from the old school line of the Dutch breed, the Gelderlander, the Basis horse, used in the agricultural areas, known for their work ethic, power, and steadiness. But they are not dull. Sunset is no Jaguar, but more of a cross between the Hum-ve and a Rolls Royce. Sunset is a bright chestnut with a lot of chrome, built square and wide, has a block shaped face, and grows a fuzzy, feathery legged coat long before the snow hits here once a decade. And she has one blue eye.

When I began her training I first taught her to lunge with a bit of desensitization/sacking out stuff, then ground drove with harness. I then had someone start her in a carriage for a month. Sunset took to driving as though it was we who were so stupid to not know that that program was already installed. I don't even remember how I began riding her. There was no period where she was being broke. She just went to work. Not that she began with flying lead changes but her learning curve was a very steady upward climb, and continues. She has never given me objection to do anything I have asked of her, never bucked, reared, or so much as made a face at me. She just does her job. That is the highest value to me that she, or any horse, could have.

I think about my great grandfather, and both of my grandfathers, who all dealt with horses and mules on a daily basis, for farming , transportation, and lastly recreation. Imagine my great grandfather dragging my great grandmother in a wagon from North Carolina to Tennessee with a horse he had to lunge to get the bucks out of everyday before hitching to and rolling on. Then too, my grandfather who traded horses and mules for farming/plowing had to have those animals that were able to start their daily work without having to go thru a dressage typical warm up to do their jobs. Calvary units did not begin their charge into battle with a few hours of trot transitions and shoulder in.

I think we as riders in a limited environment forget that horses were originally domesticated to work for us, and that meant traveling, carrying, and with no nonsense. The horses that got with this program were highly valued and the ones that didn't most likely became stew.

Because our world is mostly bound by fences we now tend to keep our horses traveling in precise circles, seeing little, cloistered, creating unsafe horses for doing anything but this. We have begun breeding dramatic movers for these confines, disregarding the qualities that defined and made possible things like the settling of America, things like solid temperaments and brains. Riding horses with this fine way of moving is great fun but sad for it to become an end all, with both rider and horse forgetting that all that discipline in the circle has purpose for safer traveling and work. We have become hostages to white railed arenas.

Yesterday I did ride. Time being tight I chose the one that I knew would just get going with no issues. It was freezing and I wore an enormous camo insulated jump suit over my riding pants and boots. I climbed on Sunset, who has maybe been ridden 3 or 4 times in the last two months, walked out to where the ground was not so hard frozen, and even tho this mare was fresh, she immediately went to work right where we had left off. With my extended outer wear it would have only taken a tiny hiccup to have me slide right off but again, my girl was great. Did I say I love this horse?

Perhaps because of my background as a kid galloping evil ponies, later eventing, and then more recently doing combined driving events with Sunset I remember the joy and freedom of just going somewhere, sometimes quite fast. I also recognize that the horses that I regularly take out on long drives or trail rides are always happier and safer. Sunset was born with an excellent brain but others who are more flighty can greatly improve with just being allowed to go somewhere with a purpose. I encourage all to try it. Ride on and happy trails.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Taking Care of Your Equipment

My last entry said it was chilly when I got up. Ha. Today is flat out freezing cold, literally, and forecast to be even colder for the next basic week. The routine will include but not be limited to having pipes to wrap and or faucets to let run, busting the ice in water tanks to keep the horses drinking, covering of the camellias that are in bud now, just trying to protect those things which are not accustomed to such temps . It probably won't include any riding unless the sun comes out and I can find enough clothes to wear. I plan to do a bit of inside stuff and then maybe some tack cleaning and assessing as to wear and stress damages on the leather, and tidy up the barn.

It is Monday of the first week of a new year. The revolving door of visiting family and friends has now stopped spinning, sheets and towels have been washed and put away, the last of the chex mix has been consumed, and a few resolutions have been tossed around. I love having the company of everyone at the holiday time but wish somehow that their visits could all be coordinated to happen at one time instead of being strung out for a month. It is just exhausting keeping up with all the hospitality jobs that it entails. My world, today is now back to the quiet of pre-Thanksgiving, just me and the critters out here. Big sigh.

As soon as I find my lovely camo jump suit I will head to the barn to feed and assess cold damage and hope seriously to not find any. I need to top off the bird feeder too. Looking out the back porch window I can see some very slowly moving, very fluffy birds frantically searching for one more sunflower seed. A likely time for a visit from a sharp shin or coopers hawk to come blasting thru to get themselves a meal of bird. Nature is a tough chain to be in the middle of. My personal preference is being in situations where humans are pretty close to the top.

Cleaning bridles and saddles was something I used to never give a thought to, because I just simply never cleaned them. At first I didn't because bringing my things home from the barn to clean gave reminder to my father that I greatly preferred riding horses with all the dirt and smells and not so lady like activity to being at the country club visiting with friends and playing tennis. He would give me such a hard time about it that it just wasn't worth it. Funny, he used to have a stipulation that every time I spent out at the barn had to have been earned by equal time spent playing tennis. I got very good at tennis and my saddle was dry and crispy.

My attitude changed about the importance of first, buying only good quality leather and then second, taking care of it, when I had a major equipment failure. Trying to be a bit frugal years ago, I bought a cheap bridle thinking it would be a great way to not waste the use of a good bridle while working a young recently backed mare. It was stiff and a poor piece of what might be regarded as leather, made in India, and a really dumb red color and, sure enough, I got what I paid for.

This young mare had been sent to a trainer and had just returned, supposedly, quite broke and ready to go. It didn't take too long to see that she still had some bucks under the hood, so I set up my ride to deal with this issue. What she did not want to do was to go forward on command, so I put my leg on and suggested that she move. As predicted her head went down and her back came up and the cork was just coming out of the bottle when I grabbed the right rein short up and lifted with all I could to rearrange her teeth. Pop went the rein.

Uh oh is right. With her newly found freedom from the effects of me, she then proceeded to let the next cork out with more conviction. I was already off balance so sending me flying was nothing. On the way back down into earth's atmosphere I was already thinking about that poor choice of bridle and how I needed to get back on her once I was back on the ground, and use the better bridle back in the barn.

It was then late October and the ground had dried to a well seasoned concrete slab and I hit first on my left hip and then face planted into a fire ant bed. With my breath knocked out and stunned, I laid there for several minutes wondering how bad was it. When I had finally realized the ants were all in my hair and I was being eaten alive, I got to my feet and went to the barn to catch the horse. My back hurt like crazy and I was allergic to the stings but my plan was to get back in for a few before heading to the emergency room.

I didn't make it back on the horse that day because I could not lift my left leg to get up, (later it was discovered I had broken spinal processes L3 and 4, hence no connecting functional muscles.) I drove myself to hospital,where I spent the next week in total bed confinement scratching the ant bites, followed by another month of rest wearing a corset. All of this, because of a weak and poorly tanned and made piece of leather, followed by an equally poor decision in buying it.

Coughing up the cash for a well made bridle any time, but especially in these economically disastrous days, is a tough thing to justify. One of my bridles that I did splurge on nearly 15 years ago, a Stubben, is now a bit worn after a lot of use, but the leather is still strong and pliable. I take good care of and try to use only the best leathers now. There are many places for error and mistakes in working horses and it isn't such a good idea to cut any corners on this area. It is just too potentially expensive to do otherwise.

Ironically the title above is a part of the mantra that my tennis promoting father used to preach to us as kids about caring for the things we had and used (I guess he didn't regard saddle care as falling into this category at that time). The whole saying from him was for us to "take care of your equipment and your equipment will take care of you". I have learned all I need to know about this lesson the very hard way and I do follow the mantra. Some times what our parent say actually makes sense...sometimes.

Hey, the sun is now out, the sky is blue, and the mud is frozen. Sounds good enough to go riding for me. Besides today if I get bucked off I will at least have on enough padding to bounce.