Oh, My Darling!

IMG_0956

*

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

IMG_0696

 

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)

*

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

IMG_3807-4

(Click on photo for better resolution)

*

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

IMG_2617(Click photo for best resolution)

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.)

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

(Tia, above.)

Getting There

IMG_6393(Click on photo for best resolution)

*

About a week from now I’ll be moving Dharla to the “new” barn where I’ll board her for a month or so. I’ve chosen this barn based on several criteria, one being that I’m hoping I can ride her there. I actually have two routes to pick from, but both will involve slightly different stretches of riding along a back road.

*

I haven’t done a lot of road riding and admittedly, I’m very nervous about it in spite of the fact that the roads on either route will be very low traffic at the time of day I plan to ride them. One route has a road that has more houses along it, which means possibly more cars and …. well, stuff. Like garbage cans, basketball hoop/stands (why people put those things at the end of their driveway I’ll never know. I guess it’s  a testament to how little traffic there really is and how cautious they expect the drivers will be … which is a good thing, right?), and people doing things like mowing lawns and building additions.

*

I wouldn’t have to ride along this road very far and most of the things I’ve listed are doable, albeit with patience, great caution and the right timing. However, there is one thing at the very end of this road that gives me reason to pause: a small dairy farm. Yup, cows. I’ve heard from other riders at the barn that some of them have had a tough time getting their horses past the small group of Holsteins that reside on this farm, and that’s when riding in a group. So I tend to have my doubts that Miss Scared of Everything is going to saunter past a herd of cows without having some serious trepidation.

*

It was with this potential hurdle in mind that I set out to try to ride this route yesterday. The trip started out with a beautiful ride down an old abandoned dirt road that I haven’t ridden since my days with Tia. Needless to say, I felt a bit nostalgic and teary. There was a light gentle breeze and golden leaves rained down all around us. I could feel Tia’s presence with me and it was peaceful and quiet. Well, except for the occasional loud snort from Dharla’s nostrils. I spoke to Dharla softly, told her stories about Tia and all the times we rode this way together, back when the road was just a footpath through the woods. Dharla listened, held the course and we continued to make good progress.

*

The dirt road becomes a long uphill climb that ends at the start of the paved road. At this point there are houses on both side of the street, but it’s still fairly rural and the houses are set farther apart and well back off the road. Unfortunately, I discovered that Tuesday is garbage day and as a result, every driveway had not one, but two cans at the curb. (Garbage and recycling) At the first few houses Dharla was a bit dramatic about passing the cans. Not horribly so, but enough that I was glad I didn’t have to worry about cars or traffic. Apparently someone had a construction project in progress and the noise from that prompted a high alert response too. Throughout all this I tried to keep Dharla moving forward, albeit at times slowly and cautiously.

*

The next big eye opener was the basketball stand at the end of a driveway. We got past that with a bit of side-stepping, snorting and wide eyes, only to discover that the next house up the road was a small Christmas tree farm and they had a small potting-type shed near the end of their drive. That too, sparked great fear and trepidation. *Sigh* I suppose now would be a good time to mention that a few days earlier I drove this road myself, checking to see what sort of obstacles we might encounter. Just to be forewarned. But I guess there’s nothing that can really prepare you for the way the equine mind works.

*

We got past the driveway with the shed just in time for a car to approach from the rear. They were slow and cautious, but they didn’t really have much of a choice as Dharla and I had certainly claimed more than our fair share of space on our side of the road. I have the sense that the people who live in this neighborhood are fairly horse-savvy and as a result, will give me all the time and space I need. I can only hope.

*

We continued on down the road. I could see the corner stop sign looming in the distance, which meant we were almost half done with the road part of the ride. I want to feel relieved, but I knew that the cow farm was coming up on our left. Less than a minute later Dharla suddenly froze and took several deep sniffs of the air. Yup, cows. We couldn’t see them (and in all fairness, they might not have even been turned out to pasture), but we could sure smell them and they smelled ..

S-C-A-R-Y!

I let Dharla think about the strange smell for a few seconds, then tried to urge her forward. No dice. Eyes wide, head up, I could feel her begin to tremble and so I made the executive decision to end the ride there. (I had not kept her halter on or brought a lead rope or I might have dismounted and tried leading her past) We turned around and started to go back in the direction we’d come and immediately encountered two cars. Thankfully, both drivers came to a near halt and gave us plenty of room. As we rode back toward the dirt road all the obstacles we’d passed only moments before seemed a lot less worrisome than the cows!

*

The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful. We retraced our steps toward home, taking a slight detour at the end to ride along another nice trail for awhile. It was too nice of a day not to enjoy it to the fullest and I wanted to make sure Dharla didn’t think freezing up on the cows meant she could just turn around and go home. Um, no.

*

My plan for our ride today is to test the other route. I’ve driven this route too and it has it’s own challenges. For one, the road section is longer, but it’s more rural and the shoulders are grassy and much wider. That’s a plus. I honestly thought this would probably end up being the chosen route, but I wanted to try the cow route first because it’s the most direct way there.  I will get there, I’m just not 100% certain how yet. If I have to enlist someone to ride with me then I will, but I’d like to try to do it on our own. The barn is only 3 miles from my house by car and probably half that as the crow flies, but right now it kind of feels like the longest ride in the world.

This too, shall pass!

There and Back

untitled-3673(Click on photo for best resolution)

*

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about riding, age and safety. Apparently I’m not alone. I echo Kate’s thoughts when I admit that I often picture myself riding well into my mid-to-late 70’s. After all, when I was in my 30’s I rode for about a decade with an older gentleman who was in his 70’s. So God willing and if my health holds out, the idea of having another fifteen years of riding left in me seems pretty rational.

*

Which brings me to the place where I start to think about how those rides might look. At this point, when weather cooperates I try to ride 4-5 times a week. I almost always trail ride alone, and sometimes I do a little arena riding, but not much. Either way, it’s always just me and my horse. I always wear a helmet and pack a pocket knife, and I try to remember to carry a (charged) cell phone. But I’m usually not riding in places where I can get a cell signal. This doesn’t particularly worry me … yet. It’s just part and parcel of where I ride and where I live. Even in my own back yard a decent cell signal can be sketchy at best.

*

I don’t see the facts that I’ve outlined above changing very much. It’s only when I start to think about my horse that the picture begins to get a bit blurry. I’ve grown quite fond of Dharla. She has her strengths and her weaknesses, but overall she’s a very honest horse. If I look back I can see that although she’s made good progress and matured some, she’s still very much the same horse she was when she arrived 2.5 years ago. She’s sane, but very reactive. High energy, but not hot. Smart, but somewhat independent-minded. I always try to look for the plus factor, not focus on or obsess about the opposite, because I like to believe that if you keep your eye on the good, the other traits will eventually become less and less of a habit until they eventually fade away. Or so I’d like to think.

*

That said, there are some traits that you can’t always ignore, or continue to ignore. Especially if those traits begin to rub up against your own weaknesses or worries. In spite of constant exposure to the same trails and routes, Dharla continues to be a very spooky ride. I can’t deny or ignore this any more, nor do I know how to address it. I don’t mind when a horse has one or two things they’re consistently worried about. Even Tia had her issues with certain things that she perceived were a threat. The difference is that I knew what those things were and I could be prepared to support her through or past them. Dharla’s different in that her list of Big Scary Things changes by the moment. And it’s a LONG list.

*

Part of me wants to try to understand why a horse with a ton of trail miles is still afraid of the same old things we see every single ride, and the other part of me just wants to move on. While I’m sick of this behavior and my patience is wearing thin, I get that my timetable and Dharla’s timetable is probably quite different. I want to give Dharla all the time she needs to be OK with her fears, but on the other hand it’s hard to be patient when I feel like we’re moving at a snail’s pace. I often tell myself that if it takes five years for Dharla to gain more confidence then so be it. The problem is, I’ll be five years older and those five years will get subtracted from the total years I have left to ride.

*

I guess it comes back to the age old question: Are you riding the right horse for the rider you are right now?

*

I don’t know the answer, but I think about it constantly. I do know the answer has nothing to do with liking my horse enough. I love Dharla. She’s a sweetie. But I’m really not doing the things with her that I’d like to be doing right now, and the things that we are doing don’t seem to be helping me gain any ground in that direction. There’s a saying that states: The definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. That sounds logical … except when it comes to training animals. Repetition is a key element of training any animal! So maybe I’m doing things right, but I’m just not seeing our progress? Or maybe I just need help?

*

I’ve decided to move Dharla to the barn where I’ve been taking lessons. Not forever, but I want the trainer to work with us for a month or two, see if we can tweak our teamwork a little and re-evaluate how we’re doing things. I know I can use some help and I think Dharla will benefit from the experience too. Naturally, I’m a nervous wreck. Excited, but really nervous. But I think it’s time to pull out all the stops because eventually, I’m going to have to decide if I’ve got the right horse for the rider I am right now. And I can’t do that unless I’m certain I’ve given Dharla every opportunity to be the best she can be. Her weaknesses are most likely my fault and it wouldn’t be fair to judge her without trying to fix myself first. So I’m looking at this next adventure as an opportunity for us both to learn more about life and about each other. I’ll keep you posted!

Work or Play

IMG_3011(Click on photo for best resolution)

*

When I was young my favorite toys were plastic horses. I didn’t just collect them and put them on a shelf. No, I got them out almost daily and played with them. I played make believe because we didn’t have computers or the Internet or prefabricated play barns or stuff like that. Instead I used empty shoe boxes and the legs under the dining room table to “build” my stable and house my trusty steeds. I “fed” my horses shredded Kleenex for hay and made up lots of elaborate stories about wild ponies that needed to be rescued and trained. Naturally, I always played the part of the heroine cowgirl.

*

 When I got a little older I progressed to the real deal. And I’ve never looked back. I’d like to imagine the young lady in the photo is a lot like I was at her age; more happy being with real horses than collecting them and putting them on a shelf.