Bumps in the Road

IMG_9493(Dharla)

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Well, to be more exact, bumps on the horse! A few days back Dharla came down with a really bad case of hives. When I went out to feed in the morning she had a couple of suspicious lumps on her neck and flanks. Having seen this before (with our other Arabs), I went over Dharla with a fine tooth comb. We’ve usually sees this happen in response to a tick bite or some other type of insect problem. However, we’ve always wondered if perhaps the hives could have been caused by something the horse ate? Given we’ve just started letting the horses have short, carefully timed grazing visits in our pasture, I had my suspicions that it might be related to that.

When I went out to feed the horses lunch Dharla was covered with lumps and bumps of all sizes. It was really quite alarming and I had to fight the urge to panic. Dharla didn’t seem the least bit bothered by her condition, so I took my cues from her. She was greatly interested in her hay and she wasn’t itchy or showing any signs of respiratory distress. I stood nearby and observed her for quite some time until I was certain she wasn’t in any sort of trouble, then I went and got my camera. While Beanie got hives on several different occasions, he never had them like this! Some of her bumps were twice the size of my palm, especially between her hind legs and in her lower chest area. Fortunately, her head seemed the least affected by the swelling. I think that would have pushed me over the edge.

By dinner time 3/4 of the bumps had vanished and/or were greatly reduced in size. I breathed a sigh of relief. The next day Dharla still had some areas of her body that had big patches of pea-size bumps, but nothing like the day before. I actually rode her that day, but we just did a leisurely walk down the Airline Trail. I was prepared to turn back at any point if the bumps grew at all in response to our exercise, but they didn’t. Today Dharla is almost 100% fine. I doubt we’ll ever know what caused her hives, but I did let her go down back and have a little more grass yesterday afternoon. So far, she’s good!

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Ring Around the Rosie

IMG_9533(Rascal, above)

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I gave Dharla about a week off from ring work. After six months of constant ring riding I decided we would only do a little trail riding first. I wanted to give her a chance to wipe the slate clean of all the repetitive circles and requests to do this and that. While “schooling” is nice, too much of it gets on my nerves. And I gotta think that if the monotony of schooling drives me a little crazy, then it must bore the heck out of my horse too. I like to pretend that horses think it’s just nice to meander down a trail every now and then and not have to think about too much except where to put their feet and not to rub up to close to a tree. So we did a bunch of that and it was truly wonderful to be stress and “request” free for a change.

Eventually it was time to take Dharla down to our ring and do little test ride. I’ll admit, I had some trepidation. History has shown that Dharla has some “issues” with our arena and as hard as I’d tried, I was unable to ever feel like I had a handle on our problems down there. In fact, the problems we had with schooling had alot to do with my decision to put her with a trainer. But it was finally time to take the real test and see if any of our lessons would stick and we could duplicate that work ethic at home.

Dharla certainly knew where we were, yet she seemed calm and willing to listen. It may have helped that Rascal stayed up at the barn with Bullet, which resulted in less calling to us down in the ring. Oddly, Rascal hollered a few times, but he wasn’t nearly as persistent as Bullet used to be when he was left behind alone. I always had my suspicions that the incessant calling from Bullet didn’t help Dharla focus very much, but I never wanted to use that as an excuse. Either way, I was pleased to note that the few times the “boys” hollered didn’t seem to matter to Dharla at all.

We started with a lot of nice forward walking and jogging. Dharla was quick to relax, drop her head down into a nice position and engage her hind end. Since most of her issues crop up at the lope, I found I was content to just walk and jog for awhile. I seriously considered not even trying to pick up the lope. Part of me wanted to only do the things I thought we could do well, so our first ride down in the ring would be a success. I mean, that’s sound, logical thinking, right? But deep down I really wanted to know where we stood. Was Dharla going to revert back to her old, fussy ways or was she really willing to work with me and give me her best effort? I relaxed and let her pick up the pace, literally letting her jog into a nice quiet lope. I was stunned by how quietly she loped! No tail wringing! No head tossing! No bucks, hops or shying! We loped a few nice circles and then transitioned back down to a slow, but forward walk. Head down, chewing and blinking …. was this my horse?

To answer my question, we reversed. Granted, I’d started the lope on Dharla’s strong side. Hey, I’m not an idiot! But now it was time to see what I’d get when I asked for the lope on her more difficult direction/side. We spent a fair amount of time just walking and jogging again. I wanted to make sure she wasn’t keyed up from the previous lope. We changed directions several times and when I thought she was nice and relaxed I asked her to pick up the pace of her jog until she stepped right into a lope. Again, she did this with no fuss and no issues! I was literally shocked! We completed a few nice circles, then took the pace back down to a walk where Dharla once again completely relaxed.

We then worked a bit on backing and flexing side to side before I decided it was time to see how she would respond to a direct cue to lope off from a walk. Starting with her strong side first, I asked her to transition from a walk to a lope, which she did without any fuss or hesitation. I think what honestly surprised me even more was that she kept her pace very controlled and didn’t go off like a rocket, or try to buck or shy at some imaginary thing half way around the arena. This truly was the absolute best ride I’d ever had in my own arena since I brought Dharla home four springs ago! We followed the same pattern as before, slowing to a nice relaxed walk and changing directions several times before asking for the lope in the opposite (harder) direction. Again, Dharla moved right off the lightest touch of my leg and quietly moved around the ring as asked. I was ecstatic!!!

We ended with some nice simple walk/jog patterns and headed back to the barn. Our ride lasted about 45 minutes. There wasn’t a single buck, shy or cow hop and there was no sign of her old tail-wringing and head-tossing. I’m still not thoroughly convinced we’ve put all our issues behind us, but this was certainly a HUGE improvement over the past and a great confidence builder for us both!

Then There Were Three

IMG_0692(Bullet, near the end of winter, intent on his pile of hay)

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The ride home with Dharla was 100% uneventful. In fact, given she’d only been out on the trail once in six months, I was thrilled to see she didn’t lose her trail feet or trail sense one bit. She seemed happy to see Bully and they rode back to our farm like it’s something they’ve been doing every day.

The introduction with Rascal was a bit of a show. While none of the horses seemed to have truly bad intent, there was lots of front foot strikes and squealing … mostly on Dharla’s part. Pretty typical mare behavior I suspect. Bully more of less just tried to stay out of the line of fire and when all else failed, he munched on hay. It really helped that Bully is calm and sensible about most things and not given to hysterics or drama. After about an hour all three horses were eating their own hay and minding their own business for the most part. There was still the occasional squeal and faked attempt to lash out, but nobody was really serious about hurting anyone. Thank God! Rascal has turned out to be more pushy than I expected and though he’s small, he considers himself a contender! He’s still not sure if he want’s to keep Dharla from being too close to Bully or keep Bully from being too close to Dharla! He’s a funny one, that little stinker!

The day after Dharla arrived I was up and on her the next morning. We had a really great ride down the Airline Trail. While that’s not the most challenging ride, regular readers might recall that even after three years of consistent riding I was struggling with an over abundance of spookiness and skittishness on this trail. I don’t know if Dharla was just totally flummoxed to be out on the trail again (after 6 months of arena riding) or what, but she was like a totally different horse. Things I expected to spook her didn’t even get a rise out of her and the one or two times she kind of hesitated were so understated, they were barely noticeable. We did some nice long, slow, collected jogs and a couple of easy lopes all without any shenanigans what so ever. I was VERY pleased!

Later that afternoon I took Rascal out. We also had a nice loop through the woods together. Unfortunately, that night the weather turned back into crap. The temperatures dropped significantly and heavy rain moved in. After much discussion and debate, I finally decided to put Dharla in a stall for the night. It’s a wee bit too soon to expect the horses to have worked out all their hierarchy issues enough to share a small run-in on a cold, rainy night. Right now Dharla has the least amount of coat among the three, and she’s leaner than she’s ever been, so it was kind of an easy decision. Again, I was pleasantly surprised at how she didn’t fuss or stress at all at being shut inside. Normally this isn’t our usual MO, but since that’s what she’s been used to doing at the boarding barn I guess it didn’t bother her very much. I’m not sure if my horse has really matured in the six months she’s been gone or if I’m just seeing the effects of the time she spent in training, but either way I’m very pleased and I hope it lasts!

Homecoming

IMG_5848(Dharla, in her pudgy youth)

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Weather pending, I’ll be riding Dharla home today! I’m excited and sad. Excited because it will be great to have her in my own back yard again, but sad because I’ll miss many things about having her in a big barn. I’ll especially miss our trainer and the barn manager. They’ve done such a fantastic job of taking care of my girl while she’s been staying with them. Dawne has made so much progress working with Dharla. Me? Well … a bit. I feel more confident that I’m in control and I’ve learned a TON of things I never knew about the finer points of Western riding. Dawn has such a gift with horses AND people … something I know from reading and hearing about other rider’s experiences is hard to find. Many trainers are better with one or the other, not both. I feel like I hit the trainer jackpot with Dawne though.

Adam, then barn manager will also be greatly missed. I’ve so enjoyed our daily exchange of stories, news and ideas. I know going out to feed at my own barn will be far lonelier than the time I spent mucking out Dharla’s stall there. As much as the chaos of after school and weekend lessons won’t be quite as missed, I truly did get a kick out of watching many of the kids ride. For the most part they are cute, and talented too … albeit a tad noisy at times! I’ll miss the barn cats, who would appear out of nowhere to rub against your leg, or suddenly leap out of the woods opposite the arena scaring poor Dharla right out of her mind. Well, I WON’T miss that quite so much!

I won’t miss the indoor arena, either. While having an indoor arena was one of the main attractions that peaked my desire to board, it turns out my horse didn’t particularly adjust well to it. In her defense, the indoor was dark and shadowy, with lots of odd creeks, pops and sounds that made Dharla very uncomfortable and nervous. Then there was the constant dull roar of activities that always seemed to commence the minute I mounted up. That happened so often, it grew into a barn joke. Was there a delivery of hay, shavings or grain pending? If so, minutes into my ride you could count on the truck arriving and unloading right outside the far end of the arena doors. Was there work scheduled to be done on the arena roof? It was a sure bet that the construction crew would start their project as I led my horse to the arena. Was the vet or farrier scheduled for a visit? They’d show up only minutes into my ride. If it wasn’t that, the Gator was constantly zipping here and there, buzzing past the arena doors like an angry wasp. Overall, Dharla learned to cope with most of these distractions, but it usually wasn’t a picnic.

I got out and trail rode Dharla only once. The balance of trail riders to show riders was about 1 to 10, and even then most of the trail riders were summer riders only. The longer I boarded Dharla the more I sensed she needed a break from the constant schooling, but the opportunity to get out on the trail with a buddy was almost non-existent. And that’s my main reason for bringing Dharla home. Well, that and the fact that it’s been the coldest, rainiest, snowiest season in decades. I can’t afford to pay board to have my horse standing around in a stall all day. And I don’t think that’s a healthy option for Dharla, either. I’d much rather she come home and be a real horse than pay to have her stand in a stall all spring. (The barn has turn-out, but only if it doesn’t threaten to rain. Apparently one of the drawbacks of boarding at a big show barn is that show horses shrink if they get wet. Or something to that effect.)

It will be interesting to see how things play out. Since Dharla left we’ve added Rascal to our farm. When they meet I don’t think there will be any issues, but she hasn’t seen Bullet in six months either. So who knows what kind of rodeo we’ll have? Thankfully, all three horses are pretty sensible and fairly easy-going, so I don’t expect any lasting problems. There might be a little jostling for the hay at feeding time or nit-picking for the run-in when it rains, but I don’t anticipate any more drama than that.

Oh, My Darling!

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I had a great lesson on Dharla this morning. It was the kind of session where I came away feeling like we’re (finally) starting to work more like a real team. Needless to say, it’s been a long road!

I put Dharla in a training barn back in the beginning of October with the idea that I’d have her in training for a few months. Realistically, I was thinking maybe three months at most, but I planned on seeing how things went. Fortunately, I wasn’t married to a calendar, because while Dharla seemed to settle in quite well, getting us both used to the routine at a big barn was a bit challenging.

One of the first things we had to get used to was learning to ride with constant distractions. There were hay and grain deliveries, vet visits, and farriers working, not to mention the constant hubbub of daily life on a busy boarding farm: people constantly coming and going, horses frequently being shuffled in, out and around the farm, and the steady buzz of the Gator as chores commenced on a routine schedule. Meanwhile, both Dharla and I struggled to get accustomed to riding in a dark, shadowy indoor arena. Sometimes we were alone (scary for Dharla) and sometimes we were joined by anywhere from one (OK) to five (are you kidding me?) other riders. For a horse and rider with almost no experience riding in a crowded (or deserted) arena, this took some getting used to!

Then winter came. In early December it got frigidly cold and snowy, and it stayed that way until the last day of March. As a result, there was less turnout time for the horses, which translated into excess energy during rides. Oh, the horses got plenty of free time to run and play in the indoor arena, but that can’t take the place of several hours of fresh air and the freedom to move around at will. And then there was the dreaded snow-sliding-off-the-metal-roof. As I soon learned, that was the undoing of almost every horse at the barn. First I’d hear one person came off their horse when it spooked at the random whoosh of snow sliding off the roof above. Then another came off. And another. Before long everyone grew hyper-sensitive to the situation on the roof, and several riders even chose not to ride if the roof showed any sign of dumping it’s load.

Then we had to contend with the wind. The indoor arena is a large metal box with double sliding doors at both ends. No matter how hard we tried to secure those doors, the wind would constantly tug at them, making them rattle and bang. A steady wind was better and Dharla eventually came to accept the constant clanging at one end of the arena or the other. But if it was a gusty day and the doors banged at random, then that was another story altogether. I soon learned I’d have to contend with sporadic bucks and shies that the wind would produce.

Our winter rides were frustratingly up and down. I’d have a productive, communicative ride one day, followed by several rides where it felt like Dharla and I were on completely different planets. I was more than willing to go with the flow and do whatever it took to help Dharla feel more confident in her surroundings, but I must admit that I came home thoroughly frustrated more often than not. This brought me back to the same old, worn- out question I’ve faced since I bought Dharla almost four years ago. Am I the right rider for this horse?

We somehow managed to get through the worst of the winter. We had enough passable rides to keep me hopeful that with the arrival of spring we’d see a vast improvement in our environment and consequently, our ride. Unfortunately, I was very naive. The flurry of activity on the farm increased in direct proportion to the improvement in the weather. Not to mention, the New England show season started the last weekend of March. (Are they nuts? We had five inches of snow on the ground!) That means riders who were (mostly) absent during the worst of the winter are suddenly underfoot again, trying to make up for lost saddle time. The outside arena was (and continues to be) partially flooded. You’d think fixing the drainage in the outdoor arena would be a top priority, but so far that hasn’t been the case. Although it’s been an unusually wet and cold spring, everyone’s pretty psyched to start riding outside. However, with almost half of the arena under several inches of water, this makes for some pretty interesting rides. Especially when two or three people try to ride at the same time! And did I mention all the horses have spring fever? Yup, they’re pretty full of themselves too!

All nit-picking aside, when we began riding outdoors Dharla immediately showed signs of significant growth. Naturally, our first ride or two outside were a little super-charged and energetic, but she wasn’t over the top. And she didn’t give me hissy fits or temper tantrums over anything either! No shying at the far end of the arena, no bucks, no lines drawn in the sand. I was pretty amazed! When I take into consideration that I’m riding her in a brand new saddle and riding her with a level 2 Mylar bit, I’m pretty ecstatic about her mental progress. It feels like her work ethic has come a long way since we started our more “formal” training back in October.

One of the nicest changes I’m seeing is with our upward transitions. Dharla has always been comfortable transitioning from the walk to the jog, but transitions to a lope were usually accompanied by signs of tension and unease: a tail swish (or three), a head toss, and even a cow hop or two have been known to show up when I ask for a lope. (And sometimes I get all three!) So I’ve backed things down and kept the majority of our focus on making sure we’re really comfortable at the walk and trot. No sense picking up the pace if we’re not ready. Meanwhile, my trainer has been gradually working out the bugs with the lope.

Once Dharla got the reinforcement she needed and clear, consistent cues, she began to lose her stress over loping. She’s still a bit stiff and resistant when asked to lope off in a clockwise direction, but her right lead has always been her weaker side. I’ve also noticed that some of Dharla’s tendency to rush and push forward has eased up, and she’s starting to get more comfortable working at a relaxed, steady pace. These changes that I’m seeing may seem small, but the end result has been encouraging. I always knew Dharla had a lot of potential, I just didn’t think I could develop it by myself. Getting and working with the right trainer has been the best decision I’ve ever made. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’m so glad I went that route.

Now that spring is actually here I’m wrestling with the idea of bringing Dharla home for a while. She’s spent the last six months working hard and getting ridden a minimum of five days a week. A little change of pace might do her good. That said, she’s just recently turned a corner, which makes me hesitant to stop her progress right now. I’m really struggling to decide what to do. Fortunately, the barn owner and trainer are OK with me taking things month by month. If I decide she needs a break I’ll just ride her home. If she continues to make good progress then I’ll keep boarding her there. I still miss having her here at home, but she seems very comfortable where she is. That makes it easier for me to keep her there for now. When it gets hot and buggy I might change my mind. I’ll have to wait and see how much riding I’m willing to do when the heat and humidity arrive!

Spring Fling

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It’s been a LONG time since I’ve posted. yes, I’ve been busy. Yes, I’ve been riding. But it was a long, cold winter with lots of snow and bitter temperatures. Heck, it’s the second week of April and it’s STILL cold. And very windy. But at least the snow has melted, or pretty much so.

I’ve spent the better part of the last few months just letting Rascal settle in. It took about two months before I started to see his true personality, and I’m still making new discoveries every week. He was pretty shut down for awhile. That’s totally normal, I think. After all, Rascal had to endure some pretty major changes in his daily life. Mostly, I think he missed his owner. Given she had been the main presence in his life since he was two, they had a very special bond. I didn’t try to replace her, but simply gave Rascal time to process his loss and get acquainted with me. He’s a bit of a wary boy. Shy, and not overtly affectionate with strangers. But as the weeks wore on Rascal started to come out of his shell. I got fewer sidelong glances and the distance between us began to close. At some point he actually started to show a real interest in me and then I knew he’d turned the corner. He was settling in.

Inclement weather and/or lousy footing kept the opportunity to ride just out of my grasp. All told, I managed to sneak in three rides on Rascal before giving up and deciding to wait for the conditions to improve. What I observed on those few rides was a little horse with a lot of try and a few subtle quirks under the hood. Nothing I didn’t expect! I figured it would take some time for us to learn how to read each other and know what was expected. Rascal seemed a little wary about the trail and his surroundings, but with steady support he was willing to trust my judgement.

I’m not exactly sure how much trail experience Rascal has, so I plan to treat him as though he has none. That means giving him lots of time to get accustomed to and process the variety of things we’ll be seeing regularly out on our rides. Water, huge boulders and rocks, joggers running toward (and up behind) us, bicycles (most which will approach and pass us at high speeds), dogs, both loose (illegal, but a frequent occurrence) and leashed, and eventually cars, when we do a little dirt road riding. That’s a lot of things to condition a new horse to. And not knowing how Rascal will react to each new thing and in different settings, it’s a bit stressful for me. But so far Rascal has been taking most things in stride. He’s got Tia and Dharla’s distrust of large rocks and he’s not quite sure he likes crossing small streams. (Shallow puddles are fine.) We have yet to have a bicycle come up behind us, but when passed head-on he seems to handle it pretty well as long as we can move well off the side of the trail. (Not always feasible) It would appear he’s not thrilled about dogs. Even leashed dogs give him a bit of trepidation, but he doesn’t lose his marbles. He just kind of skitters sideways.

Rascal’s whoa needs a little refresher, and once stopped he doesn’t like to stand still. I’ll find lots of ways to work that practice into our rides. He has a wonderful little western jog, but his lope is a bit choppy and tentative. I think he has a nice comfortable lope in him, but he’s rusty, out of condition and a tad anxious. My plan is to do LOTS of walking, jogging and some hill work to get him back into shape before worrying about his lope. I can find plenty of things to work on while we wait for the arena dry up enough to use. Every now and then Rascal gets the idea in his head that he ought to turn around and go back the way we came. When that happens he does a bit of backing and scooting sideways. I’m not exactly sure what that’s all about, but we’ll work it out. I’m pretty sure I’m (inadvertently) miscuing him for something that I’ve yet to figure out. He’s sensitive and sometimes a tad willful, but not in a bad way. I have to chuckle at how quickly he’s learned his way around here. I’ve already noticed that his “going out” walk is half the speed of his “coming home” pace! He’s a smart boy!

I’ve been riding Dharla over at the “big barn” as often as possible, which translates into about 4-5 rides a week. She’s transitioned from full to partial training, which also has her getting ridden by the trainer three times a week. My progress with her (and consequently, my emotions) have been all over the map. But more about Dharla another time.

Twice Blessed

untitled--23(New Amigos! Click on photo for best resolution)

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Things have been up and down with Dharla. Basically, she’s doing great. Me? Not so much. I worry. I fret. I get impatient, mad and frustrated … mostly with myself. The negative-speak in my head often overtakes rational thought and I’m embarrassed to admit that I hit an all-time low last week when my trainer caught me quietly riding my horse in tears. Yeah. Just a combo of being worn out and tired of trying to be patient with my inexperienced and very forward horse and my own stupidity and incompetence.

That moment aside, Dharla is making progress. She’s not the same horse she was when I put her in the trainer’s hands two months ago. That’s not to say she’s turned into a push-button, totally compliant mount. She’s still feisty, stubborn and apt to turn downright pissy when things don’t quite go her way. But she’s not nutty or dangerous or willing to go to battle just to prove her point. She never has been. Basically, she’s just a horse who hasn’t been properly asked to work, and the idea of having to do so now rubs her somewhat the wrong way. So she throws a few hissy fits and looks for any opportunity to squirt forward or move faster, even when she knows that’s not what’s being asked.

But Dharla’s momentary fits of indigence are often intermingled with moments of breathtaking brilliance, strength and beauty. When I watch the trainer put her through her paces I’m literally mesmerized. This horse can (and will) be pretty amazing some day. And she’s still the most sweet, compliant horse to work around when she’s not worried about being ridden or the trolls hiding in the corners of the indoor arena.

Problem is, I miss riding. Oh, I ride Dharla almost every day, but that’s not the kind of riding I’m used to doing. That’s schooling, and for now schooling isn’t FUN, it’s work for both Dharla and me. And most schooling sessions last only about 45 minutes or so because it’s  mentally and physically exhausting for us both. What I miss is spending a couple of hours a day out on the trail and not thinking every minute of my ride about what me or my horse are doing and if we’re doing it right. I miss having that quality time with my horse. Consequently, I end up going over to the barn and riding, then finding any excuse I can to just hang around and be with my horse. Which is kind of strange. I mean, she just wants to go back out to her paddock and eat or take a snooze.

This conundrum has led me to explore other avenues to scratch my horsey itch. Avenues such as taking additional lessons or half-leasing a horse from the barn, neither of which I’m particularly excited about. I mean, one can only absorb so much instructional information at a time. Enter, Facebook. I joined a couple of regional and local horse pages about a year ago and I freely confess that I’ve been scanning the postings about horses for sale or lease with a growing interest. While I’m not particularly interested in buying another horse, the idea of leasing one has definitely grabbed my attention.

A week or so before Thanksgiving I read a post about a Quarter Horse that was in need of a new home. The owner was in college and in a difficult bind. This was her first and only horse. To give you a little back story, at age seven and after much pestering, her father agreed to buy the girl some riding lessons for her birthday. She took to horses like a duck to water and it wasn’t long before she was mucking stalls and doing odd jobs at the stable to pay for more saddle time. Naturally, the girl begged her father relentlessly for a horse of her own, but it wasn’t until she had shown considerable commitment that her father caved. When the girl turned ten the father bought his daughter a very young, predominantly unbroken Quarter Horse. She called him Rascal.

I know you’re wondering what on earth was the dad was thinking when he bought such an inexperienced, young horse for his daughter? Let’s just forget that for a moment. The girl was tough. She’d spent several years fighting tooth and nail to have a horse of her own and she wasn’t going to give up the chance to have her own horse just because she had to start from scratch with it. And so she did.

Can I relate to that? Yes. If you go and read about my early history with horses you’ll see this young lady and I have much in common. We both learned via the school of hard knocks. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! Flying by the seat of your pants and learning things the hard way can impart a certain amount of confidence and a rapport with horses that many people spend a fortune and a lifetime to get.

So the young horse and girl grew up together. They did things that fearless young horses and girls will do, like go everywhere and anywhere together and just have fun. Life is never simple, but the horse helped the young girl weather all kinds of storms, including her parents divorce and her mother’s remarriage. Through it all they rode on beaches. They went camping. They entered some horse shows. You name it, they did it. I saw the photos. But I saw more than that. I saw a young girl who morphed into a young lady who simply adored her horse, and the father who made all her dreams come true when he bought his daughter this horse.

Unfortunately, children grow up. When the girl reached college age she chose to attend a university that was only about an hour away from home, but the distance between school and her horse grew worrisome. Too many weeks began to pass between visits and so she pleaded her case with her father. Although her father wasn’t a horse person he knew the importance of a strong bond, so he agreed to help his daughter move the horse closer to school and he picked up the boarding tab to boot. Thank goodness for loving fathers!

All went well until June 2013. Suddenly, without warning, tragedy struck. While changing a tire on a tractor trailer that was stranded on a major highway (his job) the girl’s father was stuck by another truck and killed instantly.

Gone.

And if that wasn’t enough, four months later the girl’s step-father was killed in an auto accident.

Gone again.

I can’t imagine being 20 and losing two fathers in four months. The emotional and financial implications of both these losses were huge and they had an immediate ripple effect on everyone in the family. I saw the first posting on Face Book the week before Thanksgiving. No mention of the tragedy, it simply stated that the poster was looking to free-lease her horse in exchange for it’s care. The post was accompanied by a photo of a little bay horse with a soft eye and a cute face.

I was instantly drawn to the photo. After all, Beanie was a bay and the similarities between the two horses were striking. I went on to read a bit more about the horse. It was small (a plus), it was a Quarter Horse (a plus), a gelding (perfect!) and he had been there, done that. (HUGE plus!) I kept reading, thinking I’d eventually come across something that would rule out this horse as a possible candidate for our farm. Much to my surprise, the post didn’t mention anything that sounded the least bit iffy. I shot off a response hoping I might be able to contact the owner before the holidays kicked in and the weather went south.

The girl sent a quick reply to my inquiry and we decided to talk on the phone. It was only then that I learned the sad story of the reason behind her need to place the horse. Her composure while telling the story was nothing short of amazing. She wasn’t going to beg anyone for sympathy or use her sad loss as a means to find a quick fix to her problem. That said, she was in an incredibly tight jam. Not only did she not have the funds to pay for room and board for the horse, but the small private farm had recently changed hands and the owners wanted her horse out immediately, if not sooner!

With the holiday right around the corner it was tough to set a date to see the horse. The girl didn’t put any pressure on me to do so and much to my discredit, I kind of let things slide. I dunno. It’s easy to get all excited about something, but another thing entirely to work out all the details and make it happen. I got a bit overwhelmed thinking about what it would take to actually bring another horse to our farm. Would my husband even get on board with the idea? We’d gotten used to the simplicity of having only one, sometimes two horses, instead of three. Days slipped by until another week or two had passed when I saw the post again. Pleading. Begging for someone to take this horse. Not buy the horse, but lease it for free.

I contacted the girl (again) and this time I actually made a date to drive out to meet her horse. The weather forecast was awful so we chose the only day that it wasn’t supposed to rain or snow. I think I was prepared to discover something majorly wrong with this horse, something the girl had either overlooked or had purposely left out of the description in hopes of placing him. But I was wrong. What I found was an adorably kind, patient, gentle little gelding with gaits as smooth as butter and an owner whose humble strength moved me to tears. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes as I watched the girl ride her horse around in the semi-frozen, greasy pasture. He was obedient and willing in spite of not having been ridden in a couple of months. No buck. No head tossing. No fussing. Just a cute-as-a-button ride. I hopped on, got the same response, and in that instant I was totally and thoroughly sold on taking this boy home with me!

We only had one problem. Well, maybe two or three. First of all, I had to convince my husband that we needed a third horse and second, neither the girl nor I owned a trailer. I pretty much figured we could find (read as: hire) a means of transportation, but I wasn’t so sure that I could (sight-unseen) sell this horse to my husband. What did know was that time was of essence. The clock was ticking and this girl had to get her horse rehomed as quickly as possible or risk his getting kicked off the property. The girl had literally been driving around with two bales of hay and a bag of grain in her car because the farm owner refused to let her bring any more feed or supplies to the barn. I’d like to think they were ignorant of how difficult it is to rehome a horse at the start of a New England winter, but even that said their cruelty and lack of compassion was totally uncalled for. They made it pretty clear that time was of essence.

I won’t bore you with the details, but obviously we overcame all our obstacles. It was an incredibly challenging and stressful week of pulling strings and calling in favors, but in the end Rascal was delivered to our farm the afternoon of Friday, December 13th. (Thanks Dawne!)  Rascal’s introduction to Bullet was uneventful and relatively calm and both boys settled into an uncomplicated partnership. The weather took an immediate turn for the worst and we got several inches of snow the day after Rascal arrived. It would have been nice if the new horse had a few days to get the lay of the land first, but it wasn’t in the cards. However, Rascal has turned out to be the easiest horse we’ve ever had. Nothing phases him.

A week later I did a maiden, 2 hour ride on Rascal. First time out on the trail and he just took everything we saw and did in stride! He has a champagne jog and super light mouth. Nothing bothers him … not the huge icicles hanging off rock ledges, not seeing frozen Salmon River up close, not being lunged at by an out of control German Shepherd on the Airline Trail, not being passed by several cars on a short segment of road, not having my riding partners go off on a different trail leaving us to finish the last 1.5 hour of our ride alone. Even when snow suddenly came crashing down from the ledges along the trail this boy just stood still for a second or two, then went on his merry way like it was just another day in the woods for him! Rascal’s going to be a great little trail partner for sure!

 

I’m feeling twice blessed: Once with the arrival of this amazing little horse and twice with the new friendship of his mom. I can’t thank Danielle enough for trusting me with her Little Rascal. It’s somewhat bittersweet to feel so good at the expense of Danielle’s loss, but I know she’s happy that we’ll be taking good care of her boy. So I’m going to let myself enjoy this giddy feeling for a while. I think I deserve that much.

Going Pro

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It’s been awhile since I’ve posted. Needless to say, I’ve been pretty busy. Dharla has been boarded at the stable a few miles from my house since early October. My last few posts were about my attempts to ride her through the woods to the stable, none of which (thanks to a small cow farm) work out as I’d hoped. I finally caved and called the trainer who promptly showed up with a trailer. After a small amount of prompting Dharla loaded right up and we delivered her to the barn in ten minutes. That was a lesson in keeping things simple. (Rolls eyes)

We gave Dharla a couple of days to “settle in” at the new barn. I did some hand walks and the trainer (Dawne) lunged her in both the indoor and outdoor arena. Basically, we gave her some time to get used to the new surroundings and routine. Overall, I thought she handled the change like a champ. Around the fourth day or so it was time to get to work, so Dawne tacked her up and hopped on. Again, Dharla coped fairly well. Dawne didn’t ask too much of her on the first few rides, she just wanted to get to know what makes Dharla tick and let Dharla get to know her.

At the beginning of the first full week I went to get Dharla from her paddock and she was three-legged lame. Good grief! We couldn’t find anything obviously wrong with her leg or hoof and so we assumed it was probably an abscess. The big change in footing may have been the culprit, but the timing was really unfortunate. Unsure how long she might be out of commission, I had to contemplate bringing her back home to convalesce. I wasn’t going to pay top buck to have her just standing around when she could come home to do that. We packed her hoof with a dressing, put her in her stall and by some stroke of good luck she was 100% sound the next day. We’re still not sure what the problem was as we never saw any drainage from an abscess, but it could have been a minute pin hole. We gave her another day of rest and then training commenced again.

The problems I’ve been having with Dharla at home didn’t take long to bubble up to the surface. Mind you, it’s nothing earth shattering, but the things I’ve been questioning and trying to “fix” were not in my imagination. It didn’t take long for me to see this might be a lengthy process. Not that I’m in a hurry, but what started out as getting a month or two of professional help has turned into probably keeping my horse in training through the entire winter. For now, the plan is to keep her in full training for at least three months followed by a month or two of partial training. We may (or may not) take a few week break in between things, but she’ll still be getting ridden during that time.

From what we can see, Dharla has two separate issues. The first isn’t always necessarily a problem, but depending upon the situation it can morph into one. Dharla can be overly reactive and spooky. I’ve talked about this problem almost since I started blogging about our riding adventures and it’s never really gotten much better. In fact, at times it seems like it’s gotten worse. I’m aware that spookiness can be a symptom of a myriad of other problems and I haven’t ruled out having her checked or tested some of the more likely possibilities. (Lyme & EPM) I always try to give Dharla the benefit of the doubt when she reacts strongly to something that frightens or bothers her, but I can’t deny that all my patience and our repeated exposure to those things hasn’t paid off very much.

What’s more intriguing is that when given the chance to explore something that she reacts to initially, Dharla often doesn’t act frightened of the scary object. For example, she’s been acting terrified of one corner of the inside arena. That particular corner has several different objects temporarily stored there, so we decided to pull a bunch of the objects out into the middle of the arena to see if we could figure out what (exactly) was bothering her. Turns out, she seems to have been frightened by two large planters with silk plants in them. Yet, once the planters were out of the corner she showed absolutely no fear of them whatsoever, and walked right up to them boldly and stuck her nose in the flowers. She proceeded to walk, trot and lope a circular pattern around the planters with no hesitation at all. The next day the planters were back in the corner and she went back to shying halfway across the arena every time we came anywhere near that corner. Once again I allowed Dharla to (slowly) advance into the corner and explore the planters gingerly, and once again she showed no fear, sticking her nose right into them. But once we returned to the other end of the arena she immediately fixated on that corner and started “worrying” about it and resisted going anywhere near that end of the ring when asked.

This sort of thing has grown very frustrating. I’ve tried letting her explore things while using praise and rewards to encourage her and I’ve tried simply ignoring the scary stuff. Nothing seems to work. It’s like once she fixates on something she simply can’t get her focus back on track. I don’t think it’s a trust issue. Dharla has shown a complete willingness to trust me in many different situations. For now, all I can say is that I’m pretty stumped.

Dharla’s second issue is a noticable right-sided stiffness and unwillingness to bend when moving in a clockwise direction. She’s pretty good at the walk and jog, but once the pace moves beyond that she braces and stiffens up. She does this whether the trainer or I am riding her. She also reacts very strongly to any use of your right leg, either squirting ahead quickly or giving a little cow hop from the hind end. It was suggested that I have a chiropractor evaluate and possibly treat Dharla, which I’ve done. I can’t say I’m seeing any major progress with this yet, but at least I feel like others are seeing it and I’m not losing my mind or imagining things. (Both the chiro and the trainer see exactly what I’ve been talking about)

Obviously, my riding form is probably a contributing to Dharla’s stiffness, which is another reason why I wanted to work with a professional trainer. Part of the problem is that Dharla is still very green at being schooled, but the other half of the equation is that while I’ve ridden nearly all my life, I’m not a schooled rider. I don’t think I’m doing anything to precipitate Dharla’s spookiness, but if I I can learn to communicate with her better then some of the other problems will probably work themselves out.

Overall, Dharla has been doing very well. I think she adjusted to the change in lifestyle pretty nicely. She seems content, cooperative and happy at the barn and I see (and often ride) her every day. It’s been an adjustment for us both. I’ve never had a horse in a “big” barn and so there’s lots for me to learn about that lifestyle too. I miss having her at home, but I’m enjoying some of the perks of having her at a bigger place. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be able to keep riding her this late into the season if she was at home. Hunting season is in full swing, making even a simple trail ride a bit too uncomfortable. I’ve also enjoyed meeting other riders and their horses and hearing their personal stories about their journey.

 I believe it will be beneficial if I can keep working with Dharla through the winter. Cold, but better than just having her stand around most of the next four months. So keeping her there longer has forced an investment in some new winter apparel for both Dharla and me. I needed a better pair of cold weather riding gloves and Dharla needed an entire wardrobe upgrade, including a medium weight stable blanket and a new turnout rug. Normally, I’d let Dharla grow a nice fuzzy winter coat and only blanket her on those wet, snowy or rainy occasions. But since she’s being ridden daily we’re keeping Dharla’s coat a bit shorter. The barn has Geo-thermal heat and with the added body heat from all the horses it maintains a pretty comfortable temperature during the winter months. But the indoor arena gets downright nippy and after a workout the transition for a damp horse can be uncomfortable. A new wardrobe means Dharla can make the transitions between temperatures with ease.

I’m looking forward to seeing what happens over the next couple of months. I’ll be shifting from full board to rough board, which simply means I’m going to provide the hay, grain and daily stall cleaning service. This will help make our stay there a bit more affordable and will allow me to spend more on the training than the stabling. I’ll try to update things here as we go along on this journey!

Take Three

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Yesterday’s attempt to do a trial ride on the second alternate route to the barn didn’t quite work out as planned. It was another beautiful, albeit warm fall day. The leaves were gently dropping from the trees and the woods were just cool enough to be a welcome reprieve from the sun. I got a slightly later start than I’d planned and I didn’t actually leave my barn until shortly after 10:30. Not that it really mattered, but I usually like to get an early start if possible. Less people out and about.

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I hadn’t ridden five minutes when I came upon a vehicle parked on the Rails-To-Trails, better known in this neck of the woods as the Airline Trail. The SUV had a Department of Environmental Protection insignia on the door and there were three men and a woman milling around the car. (Technically, the DEP is in charge of managing the Airline trail since the land it uses is under their jurisdiction.. However, the word “manage” is probably a gross overstatement, but that’s a story for another time.) Since Dharla has only one speed when she’s alarmed, we approached with caution. Turns out, they had a bunch of video equipment set up and were shooting a promo video of the trail.

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The DEP folks asked if I’d be willing to be in their video and my response to them was only if they were willing to listen to my list of complaints about the problems equestrians encounter on the trail. They agreed. I put Dharla into “park” and spent the next few minutes telling them how rude bikers are and how dangerous the trail has become for most horse users. After we talked I consented to them filming Dharla and I as we walked on down the trial.

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This set my departure back another half hour or more, but I finally got underway. The route I planned to follow involved riding through the woods until the trail opened up into two large expansive fields that once upon a time, used to be a tree nursery. This large tract of land is affectionately called the Peach Orchards, though the tree business has long since been abandoned. A local sportsman’s club has been leasing this parcel for the last two decades and it’s used for field trials and training bird dogs. The sportsman’s club posted the land years ago, but we’ve more or less been given a  verbal OK to ride our horses across the fields during off-season. Bird hunting officially kicks off the third Saturday in October, so there was a 50% chance that my riding through the fields was still going to be OK.

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I listened carefully for gun shots as we rode along the brush-hogged lane that led to the first field. I didn’t hear any indication of other inhabitants, so we continued according to the plan. Years ago we dubbed the first field the “landing strip” because it was formally used for that by someone who owned a small private airplane. Twenty years ago when we first started riding up in the orchards the only thing that remained of the airport was a few wind socks and the long, smooth strip that ran down the center of the entire length of field. It was a great place for racing our horses, which we did with abandon. Well, mostly the guys raced and I loped along after them. This landing strip still remains and the club keeps the waist-high weeds cut back, but it’s surrounded by an expanse of fields that have become choked with small invasive trees and weeds. In other words, visibility is fairly limited to the landing strip and yet you have the feeling of being out in the wide open spaces. Except you’re surrounded by four foot tall golden rod and an assortment of long grasses and weeds.

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I knew Dharla would be somewhat spooky up in the Peach Orchard. We’ve ridden up there several times, but always with another horse and rider. It’s an intimidating place to be when you’re all alone. I’m not the least bit worried or bothered about being up there, but I sensed Dharla’s nervousness; she was wound up tighter than a bottle rocket. With hunting season coming up in a few weeks I had to assume the sportsman’s club had stocked the fields with pheasants and I fully expected that at some point we’d flush a pheasant up from the nearby brush. I also knew that might cause Dharla to totally lose her cool, but I didn’t dwell on it. I figured we’d deal with it if/when it happened. (It never did.)

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As we continued to walk down the center of the landing strip I listened carefully, straining to hear if there was any hint of anyone hunting or working their dogs up ahead. At the end of the strip the path bends sharply to the right and winds around a large stand of fully mature maple trees. I’ve been riding up in the Peach Orchard for so long that I can remember when the nursery planted those maple trees. They were barely knee-high sticks then. Now those trees are several stories tall. At the end of the strip I stopped and let Dharla munch some nice green grass; a reward for keeping her cool as we rode down the landing strip. She was still quite nervous and spooky, but in a controlled sort of way.

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We moved on and headed toward the part of the path that would lead us around a road barrier, then dump us out onto the dead-end of a paved road. From there we would need to ride along the shoulder of this back road for about ten or fifteen minutes. I didn’t expect much (if any) car traffic and we wouldn’t have to pass any cow farms, but I still wasn’t sure if there might come upon any issues that I hadn’t seen when I drove the route a few days before. Unfortunately, I never found out. As we approached the dead-end I saw two trucks parked there. My heart sunk. Seconds later I saw two men dressed in full cammo. They waved. I waved back, dismounted and walked toward them. We exchanged greetings and moments later I found out they were there to work their hunting dogs.

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We chat for awhile. Both men were friendly and not upset in the least that I had crossed their hunting fields, but when they heard my hopes to repeat this ride in a few days they were concerned for my safety. With hunting season about to go into full swing, there was no guarantee that I might not run into other club members working their dogs. That could prove to be disastrous as the dogs are not necessarily trained to ignore horses. (Some do, but the young ones? Not so much) I agreed and after a couple of minutes I remounted and returned home the way I’d come. Had I continued on toward the barn then I’d have to wait until these guys were done training their dogs  before I could return and cross the fields for home. That wasn’t a good plan.

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So back we went. Funny, how a horse can be so nervous on the ride out, but not the least bit concerned when going home! I was feeling pretty down. It’s starting to look like the only option left is to try to get my horse past the cow farm. It’s not the best route, but it’s the quickest. Perhaps with a halter and lead rope I’ll be able to get off and lead her past the cow pasture? From what I can tell, the fence-line is very overgrown and for all I know, we won’t even see any cows. But you can smell them, and that’s a foreign (read as: scary!) thing to Dharla.

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Today’s ride will be back to the first route. Oh, I could ride all the way around the Peach Orchard and access the other approach that way, but that’s a LONG ride and I’m just not up for it. No, I need to see if we can get past the cows. If not, then my plans to board Dharla will have to go on hold. I’m saddened and frustrated by this possibility, but that’s all I can do until I can come up with another plan.

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(Tia, above.)

Spring has Sprung

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I was riding quite a bit until I got bogged down supervising a seriously large landscaping project. We had a crew in to do more tree and landscape work around the new barn and it required being present to answer lots of on-the-spot questions. Try as I might, it was impossible to carve out enough time to get my routine chores done and the dogs exercised and have enough time left over to ride. Seemed like every time I thought I could break free I was needed to discuss and decide something or other. Unfortunately, that was also the nicest stretch of weather we’ve had this spring. Good for getting landscape projects done, but I think I may have missed some of the best spring riding. Today it’s windy and quite cold. The thermometer is barely showing a chilly 50 and it’s rainy and damp. They say tomorrow might be better, but that remains to be seen.

Dharla has been doing great! I’ve done some very nice trail rides as well as some good ring work. I’m please with her growth and maturity. The miles are starting to really pay off. Aldo still rides her once every other weekend or so, which means she’s getting exposure to things I won’t probably do with her when I ride. Not that we wuss out, but I ride predominantly alone so there are certain risks it doesn’t make sense to take. I have a neighbor who has ridden most of her life and was seriously injured in a riding accident last weekend. She was out trail riding alone. Good thing she was carrying a cell phone and was able to get a signal. I saw Lifestar fly over my house, but never dreamed it had someone I knew on board … with nine broken ribs and a punctured lung. Yeah, that made me recommit to wearing my helmet (I do!) and taking a few safety precautions before I hit the trail.

I’m hoping after the holiday I can get out and pick up where we left off. Perhaps this cold snap will keep the onslaught of bugs away for a few more weeks? Hot humid (non-riding) weather will be here before we know it and I’ll be dragging my feet again.