Somehow, impossibly, Jammer is seventeen.
He has always been an old soul, and now his body is catching up. His spine dips. His joints warm slowly. His mane has thinned.
This is the horse who carried me 100 miles in a day, on more than one occasion. He cleaned up for several seasons on the endurance trail. We won things. He won me.
And then, the headshaking. Strange symptoms finally coalesced into a diagnosis. I retired him early. Sadly. A piece of me retired with him.
In the years since, I've ridden him from time to time. We even top-tenned at one, last 50-miler in 2020. It was the best thing that happened, that Covid year. The worst thing happened, too, when he colicked a couple months later.
He pulled through, but I retired him for good. And he has aged. Perhaps it's being without a job, or just without enough movement.
He is sound and sane, as kind a gentleman as ever.
But the headshaking is insidious. Though managed, it causes stress. All those vertical flicks have hollowed his topline, so lovely in his prime.
I don't know how long we'll have. Probably many years, but fewer than we would, if not for that chronic syndrome.
So, I have decided. I'm going to ride Jammer regularly again. Get his body moving. And his mind. And mine.
Like many endurance horses, Jammer is tremendously experienced, but he is also perpetually green. We always focused on conditioning, not training. I hadn't yet committed to more advanced work under saddle.
It's never too late. To give us purpose and direction, I'm going to take Jammer right through all the basics. Soften him up laterally, then vertically. Practice some sidepasses and patterns. Perhaps he's up for flying changes.
To keep things interesting, I'm going to do it bareback.
Well, why not? We'll keep rides short. I'm not going to ask his high-mileage hocks for anything crazy. We'll use a nice bareback pad and a plain, old snaffle.
Besides, I could use the practice.
It'll be like learning ballroom dance with my spouse in our seventies. We'll improve our balance and strength. Exercise our hearts. While we're both still here.
A little girl lives a quarter mile up my road, on a three-acre plot with a battered farmhouse and tumbledown fence. She runs to the mailbox when I ride by, and she calls me "her Highness" when she thinks I cannot hear.
It is embarrassing, but sweet. After all, I have not quite been adult too long to recall how an imagination, just ten years old, might transform a neighbor woman with long hair and a gray horse into a princess astride a milk-white steed.
"You know what?" the girl asked one day, when I paused to let her stroke my noble charger. "Horses are my favorite animal." She cradled this truth in conspiratorial voice, as if it contained a wish too great for hope.
I understood. Oh, I understood!
That was two summers ago, but I thought of it today when I passed that house to discover in the pasture something like a pony. It's an awkward little beast of indecipherable heritage, stitched together of breeds that ought never to meet, yet blessed with a coat of palomino dapple that I'm sure its young mistress believes is solid gold.
I've smiled all afternoon, thinking of that girl. Though stifling hot and thunder torn, today is, for her, that perfect day. It is magic, but it is real!
She knows nothing of devastating colic, mysterious lameness, a crushing fall. She's never borne the weight of a thousand training hours destroyed by one bad step, a gate left open, a twist of wire buried in the weeds. She sees nothing in that pony but her fondest dream come true.
I had that magic once. We all did. And yet, somehow, it slipped away. The travesty struck in silence by the same, subtle shift that degraded running and jumping from play to exercise, contorted sleeping on a friend's floor from adventure to necessity, and ravaged the sensuality of meals with stomach-turning guilt.
Conditioning our horses has become a duty. We want not so much to ride as to have ridden. Because we are supposed to. Because we said we would. We focus so hard on the minutiae of tack fit, of hoof care, of speed and feed, that we forget to cast our hearts over the horizon and ride to find them.
And so, our hearts are simply lost.
I was recently gifted another chance. Two weeks after our last endurance ride, Consolation tied up. It was my fault; I cut her grain ration while she vacationed post-event, but I should have eliminated it entirely. The excess carbohydrate crashed her system only a few minutes into our first warm-up as we started back to work ~ and the result was a month of no work at all.
Disaster! Disappointment! The angry slap of goals thwarted again. Again. Again! All the things of which my little neighbor is innocent, because she knows things that matter more.
Consolation is recovered now. Today, as we trotted beneath shifting skies with wind abluster, I pondered that girl and her shambles of a pony. I may have finer horses than hers, newer tack, stronger technique. But she has something better still.
She has, in full measure, that which I clasp like water in my hands: The sunshine sense that a horse ~ any horse! ~ is spun of purest joy. And to have one of your own? Such is heaven, most of all.
[Originally published in The Barb Wire, July 2010]
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I've been thinking about Bella. As I mentioned yesterday, her feet have gotten a bit sticky. Although I appreciate her level-headed, low-reactive nature, it comes with the flip side of (gasp!) laziness.
Laziness? I'm not sure that's the right word, but I'll leave it for now.
Anyway, another word with which I'm not quite comfortable -- despite having used it it capital letters in yesterday's blog -- is RESPECT. I got a good reminder last night when a friend commented on a social media post I'd shared months ago.
That post, written by Kathleen Beckham of Ethos Equine, questions whether horses are even capable of experiencing the complex, contemptuous emotion that we humans label "disrespect." She observes that horses act either out of instinct or training, including inadvertent training, and that feeling we get of the horse being disrespectful is actually a reflection of how we feel, not how the horse feels.
Some people have very negative feelings about the word "respect" as it pertains to horses. Personally, I'm not allergic to the idea. I think the problem is not so much in the word itself as in how it can influence our attitudes and behaviors.
What if, instead, we addressed (vs. attacked) the behavior (vs. problem) with a confident (vs. aggressive), teaching (vs. whip-into-shape) mindset?
In her post, Beckham writes, "I choose to replace the word 'disrespectful' with the word 'disregard' if I have to use a word for it. Many, many, many horses have found humans to be inconsistent, confusing, emotionally incongruent and unhelpful in critical ways, so they develop a 'disregard' for the human. In other words, the human is so difficult to make sense of that the horse simply dismisses them. If pushed, this horse will cycle through flight (try to get away), fight (kicking, biting, striking, pushing) and freeze (locking up)."
As trainer in my area, Dana Lovell, says, "Your horse isn't giving you a hard time; he's having a hard time."
Beckham advises labeling the horse in terms of "comfortable" or "uncomfortable," rather than assigning more complex emotions that are more likely to be our own. Framed that way, I can describe Bella as uncomfortable moving out with more energy. The word "resistant" comes to mind as well. When pushed, she tends to stall out or protest rather than speed up. This is most evident at the canter, but also true in other gaits.
Whatever you want to call it, the next question is what to do about it.
I don't want to swerve into the camp that views horses through a hyper-empathic lens and never actually makes progress because they're afraid to trod upon the horse's sovereignty as a living being. That lens, like the "disrespect" one, skews anthropomorphic.
In her podcast episode #47 on Locking and Unlocking Traits in Your Horse, Stacy Westfall says, "I think a lot of times people are afraid of intimidating the horse or patterning the horse, and...they don't allow that horse to learn that respectful foundation of following simple directions without complaining."
So there's a balance, right?
In Bella's case, I believe swift departures and energetic gaits instead of sluggishness and crowhops is a fair, simple expectation. Fine. My job is to help her to be comfortable giving that swift, energetic answer to my cues.
Taking further leaves out of books from both Clinton Anderson and Stacy Westfall, I went into today's lesson with an intention to reestablish the expectation of "move your feet now." I made sure that I raised my own physical energy and made the work both more intense and more brief than usual. It went like this:
1. Warm up (unsaddled, with halter) with the Lead Beside exercise. I chose this because it suits the theme of keeping up with my requested pace while being familiar and appropriate for a walking warmup.
2. Lunging for Respect Stage 1 (unsaddled, with halter) in the round corral. I focused on transitions rather than changes of direction, particularly from trot to canter to faster canter back to trot. In the interest of keeping her physically fresh -- especially given the hot weather -- and mentally relaxed, I gave her frequent breaks while doing a bit of desensitizing, head-lowering, etc.
3. Lunging for Respect Stage 1 (saddled and bridled) in the arena. I followed the same trot-canter-fast canter-trot pattern as before, again with several rests.
4. Ridden Transitions. I hopped on and followed exactly the same pattern from the saddle, for a total of maybe 10 minutes. Maybe even less. This was all about moving the established expectation from groundwork into ridden work, letting her succeed, then quitting while she was in a good place.
Overall, it went well! Bella still had a touch of resistance under saddle, but much less than before. I think she even had a little fun with the fast canter part, which isn't something I'd encouraged until now.
Here's what's interesting: I don't think the mechanics of the training session -- that is, what we actually did -- would have changed depending on the word I used to describe Bella's behavior (disrespect, discomfort, disregard, resistance, whatever). However, I do think the attitude with which I approached the session benefitted from giving the words some thought. I arrived as a teacher, not a dictator. Bella surely knows the difference.
We'll keep at it over the weekend and see how things go. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on RESPECT...or any other name?
I can't believe this, but... I have an arena!!!!!!!
Anyone who has been to my place knows that I have five acres on a hill. The only two level spots are just big enough for my house and my round corral. Everything else is on a slope -- and it's not a slight grade, either.
For most purposes, the slope is fine. It's the reason we have a beautiful view, and the horses (not to mention the people) get great exercise trudging up and down it all the time. But for training? Ehhhhh, not so much.
You might recall that I'm using the Downunder Horsemanship (DUH) Method to train Bellalunaa and Ledger. I managed to get a good start on Bella with just the round corral and trail riding on the canal banks, but let's face it: there are some DUH exercises that you simply can't do in a small corral, on a narrow dirt road, or on or a slope with questionable footing.
So, after about 16 years here, I finally did it. I hired someone to level part of the pasture for a 90 x 120-foot arena. It was quite a project!
It's hard to tell from the photos, but that's about a 12-foot carve-out at the top of the hill and nearly that much of a drop-off outside the arena fence on the downhill side. Wowza.
But let me tell you: Game. Changer.
It has only been done for four days, and our summer afternoons are too hot to work horses hard, so I've had time for just two training sessions in there with each horse.
Prior to the arena project, Bella had progressed to Intermediate riding and groundwork exercises, but to get there, we had to skip or half-ass a few Fundamentals. Now that we have proper facilities, I'm taking her back through everything.
Predictably, I've found a few holes -- most notably, sticky feet. Not outright refusal to move forward, but sluggishness. Especially as she gets tired, Bella gets grouchy about being asked to move out. She's even crow hopped a few times when she thinks it's time to quit cantering during the Cruising Lesson.
Sigh. It's always disheartening to have a horse come along so well, then have to go back and patch holes. At least, that's my initial, emotional reaction -- but not a particularly helpful or necessary one. I'm reminding myself that this is a normal part of the training process and there's no shame in taking as many steps back as necessary to build a stronger foundation. Refusing to move out, even to the point of crow hopping? Spotlight on R-E-S-P-E-C-T!
For the record, I did ponder whether this issue could have a physical origin. However, I think that is unlikely. Bella has been in regular work plus hilly pasture turnout for months, and I think her fitness level is appropriate. Her back isn't sore. Her legs remain cool and tight. She is sound and free-moving both under saddle and at liberty. I'm pretty sure this issue is all about attitude.
I spent some time thinking it over, and I figure groundwork is the place to start. We'll do a bunch of Lunging for Respect I & II, with a particular focus on moving out NOW when asked. (Throwback to the Bucking a Bad Habit NWC video from March 2012!) Bella knows this stuff, but it's obviously time for a reminder.
It's also a good reminder to me of the importance of continuing to review and build on groundwork, including lots of backing, bending, yielding, etc. as part of every session. It's so easy to get lax on requiring snappy responses, especially when I'm in a hurry or feeling worn out by the heat. But you know how horses are...always learning...and whether they learn the right thing or the wrong thing is up to us.
Ready, Bella? Let's make it right.
Want to know what happened next? Go to Respect By Any Other Name.
Thanks in part to fuel prices, my summer plans have adapted to focus on training, rather than competing. Ledger is well-positioned to continue physical conditioning while broadening his training, and Bellalunaa is just blossoming from blank-slate status.
I have time for a solid session with one horse nearly every day. Sometimes, I can fit in a second lesson with the other horse, even if it's just a quick one focused on a single exercise. Alternating between horses is working pretty well for everyone.
Making it happen, of course, involves flexibility. I'm presently exploring:
I'm also training with a more deliberate strategy than I've used previously. I'm working through the Downunder Horsemanship Method. I'm watching the videos and applying the exercises, in order, as best I can without complete facilities. (What I'd give for an arena, some days!)
I know Clinton Anderson isn't for everyone. He isn't even for me, a lot of the time. I like his earlier work, such as one finds in the classic training series. His more recent "ego-tude," as I call it, rubs me the wrong way -- but that doesn't make his Method invalid.
I do think there’s risk associated with applying a canned method to every horse. Rote application of prescribed exercises regardless of the individual will work...sometimes. Other times, it'll just piss the horse off.
Clinton acknowledges that "feel" is important, and I think he means more than just the appropriate timing of a release. I'm pretty sure he means that each horse should be approached thoughtfully, by a trainer as willing to learn as she is to teach. It seems to me that the exercises can (and should) be applied somewhat differently depending on each horse's physical, mental, and emotional status both overall and during a particular session.
Anyway, I'm pleased to be learning the Method properly after having been exposed to it in bits and pieces for years. Ledger is the second horse who has come to me after being started in this way, and I must say I like the solid foundation and clear "buttons" it puts on a horse. It's a good fit for me right now.
For those of you who are familiar with the Method and interested, here's where we are:
Bellalunaa is a little more than halfway through Intermediate on groundwork. She's almost done with Fundamentals under saddle. Her strong points are retention (seriously, she has the most amazing retention!) and softness. We're still working on a tendency to crowd into me when sending or circle driving outside the round corral, as well as picking up her hind feet.
I don't have an arena (or any land flat enough to create one), so we do all our work either in the round corral or on the trail. Around home, "trail" means mostly rural roads and canal banks. It's not always ideal, but if we let that stop us, we'd never progress at all.
It's gratifying to watch both horses improve day over day, and I have no doubt that all this work will pay off when we get back on the endurance trail!
It was 1980s human potentialist Marilyn Ferguson who said, "Fear is a question: What are you afraid of and why? Our fears are a treasure house of self-knowledge if we explore them"
I don't think the real horseman exists who hasn't been afraid at one time or another. Author Mary Twelveponies breaks the fear of horses into three, common categories:
I've felt all three at various times, usually more than once and sometimes for extended periods.
But the others...they must be faced squarely, evaluated, and addressed. Through education. Through creativity. Through graduated exposure. And sometimes, through good, old-fashioned "getting back on the horse."
Fear is a question: What are you afraid of and why?
Originally published in The Barb Wire, May 29, 2011
For the first thirty years of my life, I didn't consider myself an athlete.
I was the kind of kid who preferred books, animals, and blackberry picking to any kind of team sport. I had good parents who made me try all the things: kiddie soccer, basketball, ballet, softball, swimming, track. I liked some better than others, but nothing stuck. By the time I hit high school, I had no interest in trying out for any kind of team.
In undergrad, I became what I'd call an "exerciser." I jogged or went to the gym, maintained a healthy bodyweight, and had no trouble meeting the demands of farm life. I rode horses and rowed rafts and spent a lot of time outdoors. I even completed a half marathon once, but that was mostly about running away.
For the first time in my life, it dawned on me that I felt like an athlete.
An athlete! Me!
But...was I really? My only official sport was endurance. Try as I might, I couldn't get comfortable with the notion that distance riding, in and of itself, was what made me an athlete. In truth, endurance riding was one of the easiest wilderness challenges (physically speaking) that I was engaged in at the time.
I also noticed that, for whatever reason ~ advancing age, cumulative injuries, chronic illness, family responsibilities ~ a lot of riders made it through distance events on grit and knowledge, despite an absence of noteworthy fitness.
That's not a moral judgment; it's just a fact. And it made me consider: If someone who doesn't especially condition herself can do as well or better than a fit person in the same event, then simple participation in that event does not make me an athlete.
Back in my "exerciser" days, I was reasonably fit. But I didn't intentionally train to improve my physical stamina and skill to better engage in sport. I wasn't an athlete yet.
On the flip side, one of the athletes I respect most, ultra runner Tommy Rivers Puzey, recently spent months in a hospital bed, enduring a grueling race against a rare cancer. He could scarcely open his eyes, let alone run, but he was an athlete still.
That said, I think it's fair to say that fitness and athleticism do tend to correlate, especially over time. An athlete may not appear fit at a particular moment, but he or she will usually manifest change in that direction as months or years go by.
Indeed, this sport is special because it allows non-athletes of all ages to play a thrilling, glorious, risky, challenging game. It is a gift from the horses, really, that most of us cherish and none of us deserve.
But what if you do want to approach riding as an athlete? What does that look like? What does it mean? What would it cost, and what might you gain?
We equestrians have a way of getting prickly about the physical demands of our sport. We brag to our officemates about pushing wheelbarrows and hefting oats. I've even heard riders compare posting 25 miles to doing squats for hours at a time. (To that one, I'm just going to say it: If you really believe that, sister, you're either posting wrong or you're squatting wrong, or both.)
Ouch. I know. Ouch.
I'm not saying that endurance riding isn't hard. It is. It takes knowledge, persistence, and courage. Riding 100 miles in a single day hurts like hell. But I'll bet it doesn't hurt like doing about any other sport for the same length of time. (Except maybe golf. Or baseball.)
Hell, I'm middle-aged, short, and about as genetically average as it's possible to be. I can't imagine running or swimming or rowing or sailing or cycling or climbing for 20 hours straight. But even I can ride that long.
Being an athletic rider means that I eat well, I sleep lots, and I cross-train hard. Hard enough to build my body, my character, my feel. Hard enough to honor the effort with which my horse honors me.
I run for my horse. I lift for my horse. I stretch and fuel and recover so that I can be there for him ~ really be there ~ in the dark hour on the mountain when it's just the two of us surging over unseen trail, my hands in his mane and his body in my mind, melting together into a single, sweat-soaked creature that is worthy of being called Us.
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Hay is expensive! There’s nothing more frustrating than watching your horse toss his meal out of the feeder onto the ground. Not only does that behavior lead to waste from trampling and wind, it also increases your horse’s risk of sand colic.
What Makes a Good Horse Hay Feeder?
Over many years of horse ownership, I’ve searched for a solution that:
Having struck out on commercial options, I came up with a way of modifying a bunk feeder from my local farm store to meet the above criteria. I made two of them last spring. Since then, they have been tested by at least six, different equine personalities…and approved by me.
I needed one more, so today I took pictures as I pulled it together. Take a look at the final product, then I’ll show you how to make your own.
What You'll Need
To make your feeder, you'll need:
How to Make Your Waste-Less Horse Hay Feeder
This is really easy, I promise. It took me about 30 minutes, including finding the right drill bit and pausing to snap photos.
STEP 1: Drill holes in your bunk feeder. Fun, right? It's easiest if you tip the feeder on its side.
The red arrows in the photo below show where the holes need to go. Hint: The mid-point between the legs is at the 9.75 inch mark
You'll put three holes on each side of the feeder, just below the lip. I find that this spacing works really well. It's easy for me to slip flakes of hay between the crossbars, but hard for the horse to throw them back out.
STEP 2: Thread both ends of one of your sections of paracord through one of the holes. Leave enough of a loop to clip on a carabiner.
The purpose of the carabiner is to keep the paracord from slipping through the hole. You could use something cheaper, like a large washer, but I like the carabiner because it doesn't have any sharp edges to wear on the cord, and it's easy to unclip if I ever need to remove the crossbar in a hurry.
STEP 3: Thread one of your sprinkler risers onto the paracord.
The purpose of the PVC riser is to keep the horse from getting tangled in something more flexible (like chain or uncovered paracord). It's also not particularly interesting for most horses to chew on, and it's smooth against their faces as they root around inside the feeder.
STEP 4: Thread both ends of the paracord through the hole opposite the one you started with. You should have a few extra inches on the other side, which will make it easy to tie a simple knot to close the loop. Be sure you pull the cord pretty taut before tying your knot. Mine ended up with just enough slack to expose about an inch of paracord on each end of the PVC riser.
Clip on another carabiner to keep the knot from trying to slip back through the hole over time.
REPEAT STEPS 1-4 to add the remaining two crossbars. Ta-da!
STEP 5: Use the cam straps to secure your new feeder to the fence. This way, it's easy to detach the feeder for cleaning, but your horse can't push it all around his paddock.
That's it! For less than $150, I have a bunk feeder that is the best combination of easy use and effectiveness that I've managed to find yet.
How well does it work? That depends on the horse. I'd say it keeps 90-100% of the hay off the ground for most of my horses most of the time. My determined hay-tosser occasionally gets up to half of his hay out of it, but usually much less. I call that a win.
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Mr. Sweaty and I had a fantastic time at Old Selam 2021! The ride was well managed, as always, and full of friends supporting the SouthWest Idaho Trail & Distance Riders (SWIT&DR).
As you may recall from The Worry List, I was planning to ride the Day 1 50 on Starfish, then do a day or two of LDs with Ledger. Unfortunately, my concerns about Starfish played out and I decided not to ride her, after all.
So, Ledger got to go instead. You can read the ride stories here: Day 1 and Days 2-3. I didn't have room for all the fun photos (mostly taken by Mr. Sweaty) in the stories, so I tossed the rest of my favorites into the slideshow below. Enjoy!
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Alrighty, then. Having survived Day 1, Ledger and I donned our tights and tack for Saturday's LD.
I'd made a tentative plan to ride with my friends from the day before ~ the ones with the young Arab and the adorable mule ~ having first extracted a promise that they wouldn't wait around for me if I needed to work Ledger through some challenges.
We started with groundwork again and waited for the crowd to leave. As agreed, our friends went on ahead. The trail began just as on Day 1 ~ with a sharp turn back toward camp just a quarter mile out. This time, I was prepared for fireworks!
But, none came. Bonus: I didn't have to wade across the creek.
Sure, Ledger was excited. No, he didn't want to walk. But we didn't have any crazy antics ~ and blessedly, no more half-rears. Yesterday had taught us that neither the leverage of a junior cowhorse nor the gentleness of a mullen mouth was ideal for him in this situation. I really wanted a regular, d-ring twisted wire snaffle, but I didn't have one along. So, we made do with the non-leverage ring on the junior cowhorse.
Loop 1 featured the usual assortment of youngster shenanigans: Trot too fast, try to canter, get denied, try again. Try really hard to trot too fast. Catch up with mule and spend a couple miles with muzzle buried in mule's tail. (May the heavens rain carrots down upon Applejack the Mule. He is my hero.)
The last couple miles of the loop found us a hundred yards or so behind another rider, who was taking it slow. Ledger still had plenty of spark, but this was a perfect chance to make him deal with going my pace despite seeing another horse ahead. We walked ~ or tried to ~ and yielded into a one-rein stop every time he broke gait. Over and over. Until finally, he got it.
We walked in on a loose rein. Good boy!
Now, the vet. Ledger had been quite an embarrassment on Day 1, fidgeting, half-heartedly swiping at the vet with a hind leg (GASP!), and running me over on his trot-out. This time, I did a little extra work before getting in line: I thoroughly patted down Ledger's belly and flanks looking for ticklish spots (none found) and reminded him of his head-down cue.
We finished with all A's. The vet said we were good to go for Day 3, if we wanted. I did want to, of course... but ...75 miles in a weekend for a first-time horse? That sounded like an awful lot. I want to build this horse, not break him!
Not one to pass up an opportunity to build on his improvements, however, I volunteered to pull ribbon on a 12-mile loop. We could do those miles slowly, I figured, and just mull over our lessons learned.
Back to the one-rein stop. Yeehaw! Ledger folded around and stood still, shaking. I tried not to let him see me laugh. He absolutely refused to go back up that hill. I got off and showed him the way, but not without stopping to document his bulging eyeballs as he skirted the cemetery with flanks aquiver.
One week from today, I will (knock wood) be riding at Old Selam, which is Idaho's longest-running endurance ride and one of my favorites.
Old Selam has been a ride of many "firsts" for me:
This year, I hope to add two more:
But you know how it is. With firsts come worries.
Well, okay, ALL endurance rides come with worries! But firsts are the worst.
Instead of downing a handful of Xanax, I'm trying to identify the individual sources of my generalized anxiety. That way, I can strategize to mitigate them as much as possible, and maybe even get some sleep the night before.
So, here we go:
Worry #1: Starfish's Nervousness
Here's my plan:
Why the SmartDigest Ultra?
Well, I've found that when horses' tummies gets grouchy, they often respond rapidly to a dose of Equerry's Electro-Probiotic Paste. Within 15 minutes, their appetite returns and they resume life as usual. I've had this work in several horse, and I always keep a few tubes on hand. Naturally, I considered including it as a preventative in Starfish's race-day protocol. It doubles as an electrolyte source, too! BUT WAIT...the paste contains sodium bicarbonate.
Maybe the Equerry's paste doesn't contain enough bicarbonate to matter, but I'd rather err of the safe side. So, I went looking for a product that offers similar probiotic and other stomach-soothing ingredients without the sodium bicarbonate (or any substances that would violate AERC's drug policy). I landed on SmartDigest Ultra Paste. The ingredient list compares favorably to the Equerry's paste in terms of probiotics, and it has even more soothing ingredients like pectin, kaolin, and l-glutamine.
Overkill? Maybe! But I'd rather be sure she's comfortable all day long.
Anyway, back to my worry list.
Worry #2: Ledger's Boots
The problem with "almost" is that it usually isn't quite good enough for a long trail ride. The 1s stay on and, after some hoof touch-ups with my rasp, they aren't twisting anymore. However, they do have just a bit of a gap at the quarters that makes me wonder if we'll have trouble with them coming off once we throw in a few creek crossings and steep embankments. I'll keep working on the trim and bring along some athletic tape, just in case we need to wrap his hooves for a better fit.
We're also trying to figure out interference protection. He doesn't interfere badly, but he did knock himself in the front once before his shoes were pulled. For now, I'm putting fetlock boots (the kind designed for hinds) on all four, which looks a little odd but offers the protection on want in front.
In the rear, I'm watching carefully to see whether his near-side boot rubs on an old wire scar that bumps up on the front of his fetlock. If it does...well, I'm going to have to get creative.
Worry #3: Behavioral Unknowns
Will they settle in camp? Will he eat while she's out on the trail? Will she get anxious at the start? Will he be racy? Will she cross mud? Will he cross water?
My mind could spin in these circles forever. Or, I could put as many tools in our toolkits as possible and know that even if we have some trouble, we'll be prepared to deal with it. I've been focusing a lot more on groundwork than usual -- running the horses through Clinton Anderson's Method properly, in order and without skipping anything.
My original reason for doing so was to lay a foundation on the ground for dealing with specific issues under saddle with Starfish. I wanted to have all the "buttons" installed to help me redirect her when faced with her nemesis: boggy ground.
I'm definitely not above dismounting to deal with a sticky situation. I call it joining the I Choose Life Club. Ha ha.
Some people worry about getting off because the feel it rewards the horse for bad behavior. Stacy Westfall addressed this in one of her podcast episodes. Her solution? "Get off more." The idea is that if you dismount frequently, regardless of the horse's behavior at the time, the horse won't associate the dismount with his behavior. Clinton Anderson's take is that as long as you deal with the behavior, it doesn't really matter to the horse whether you're mounted or on the ground.
All things considered, I think we're ready. Mostly ready? Ready! We've practiced vetting and trot-outs, climbed hills, watered at canal banks, dialed in diets, tested tack, and packed the trailer. Now, it's time to do our best and see what happens.
As I reach the end of my last bucket of Buckeye Perform N Win, I find myself on the hunt for a new electrolyte product to use during conditioning. (I normally use something with higher concentrations during 50-mile or longer events, when replenishment is more urgent.)
Perform N Win was popular among endurance riders for its sweet taste and gentleness on equine tummies. I wrote to Buckeye to ask about the discontinuation and rumors of an upcoming re-formulation. They responded quickly and kindly with the following:
I also asked on social media what other AERC riders who used to use Perform N Win are using, and thought I'd share the jist of the responses here, since that post will soon be buried.
This is hardly a scientific survey, but the most popular electrolytes among respondents to my post were Mad Barn's Performance XL and Kentucky Performance Products' Endura-Max. Some riders were also using Kentucky Performance Products' Summer Games, the product suggested by the former maker of Perform N Win.
I pulled the comparison information below directly from the product labels. The companies format their analyses a bit differently. (Note things like sodium and chloride breakdown vs just salt, and chlorine vs chloride.) Being neither a nutritionist nor a chemist myself, I won't attempt to elaborate or interpret. Instead, I included complete ingredient lists for a fuller picture. If you're knowledgable on the subject, please do add your thoughts in the comments!
A couple of the analyses include additional nutrition information. For example, Summer Games offers copper, iron, manganese, and zinc; Performance XL offers vitamin E and ascorbic acid.
Most riders who commented on Mad Barn's Performance XL noted that their horses love it. A couple said they (the riders, that is) didn't care for the smell of the product. One noted that while it doesn't include a buffer, it is not caustic. This makes sense, given the relatively low sodium concentration.
The KER article notes that well-respected endurance vet and rider Dr. Garlinghouse combines equal parts electrolyte and kaolin pectate in a blender to make a smooth, tummy-friendly concoction that can be syringed into the horse during competition.
In the interest of thoroughness, other favorite electrolytes cited by riders on social media included: Apple-a-Day, Perfect Balance, and DAC. One rider also mentioned Endura-Max Plus, which is a paste version of the same KPP product. It includes a buffer but, at about $10 per single-serving tube, is considerably more expensive than the powder.
I'm thinking of trying the Mad Barn product for use during conditioning, as its lower concentrations should be easier on the horses' stomachs.
For competition, I like the idea of buffering Endura-Max with kaolin pectate (which can be purchased by the gallon for $10-20, depending on the vendor). My horses typically eat their electrolytes in a mash, so I'll have to test whether they'll mind a bit of kaolin pectate in the mix. Stay tuned.
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Well, maybe he will and maybe he won't. Only time will tell. But, he has potential!
This is A Knight's Tale, affectionately known around our farm as Ledger. (You've seen the movie, right?) I found him in southwest Oregon, having been nicely started by an owner who didn't quite have the time to meet his demands for a high-energy job. He's seven years old, 15.2 hh, kind, and a little bit too smart.
Before I go on, shout out to his seller for doing things right. She advertised him 100% honestly: He's not for a rider who wants to go slow. He needs regular mental and physical work to stay out of trouble. He has some old scars from tangling with a fence as a youngster. Speaking of fences, he doesn't always like to stay in them.
He's also sweet, sound, and sane, and the seller insisted on a 30-day trial period to ensure a good match. She internet stalked and interviewed me, and included a buy-back and first right of refusal clause in his sale contract. We're now friends on social media, and I love having her support as I launch into his new career.
I brought Ledger home five weeks ago. The drive was a beautiful 450 miles across central Oregon. I spent nearly 12 hours on the way back, easing my precious cargo through the twisty mountain highways. We arrived home tired, but none the worse for wear, and spent our first few weeks getting to know each other.
Ledger was trained using Clinton Anderson's Downunder Horsemanship Method, with which I have some familiarity because I had another horse trained that way a few years back. When a "testing" behavioral issue cropped up, his seller was very helpful in advising me on the specific groundwork that would punch the right buttons in his brain. It worked...and that got me thinking about revisiting the Method to refresh my memory. More on that later.
As Ledger settled in, his personality and athleticism burst out. As promised, he loves to go down the trail and appears to be the kind of athlete that eats workouts for breakfast. He bounds up hills like a jackrabbit. He's fitter than I expected -- a happy surprise -- though I was aware that his seller had been working toward a September LD. I suspect he's the type that would let me work him too hard, so my present mode is one of cautious progression. I don't want to take advantage of his strong aerobic system before his structures are ready.
I got his teeth done and had my favorite vet/chiropractor look at the funky kink in his loin. He doesn't seem to have any pain or limitation associated with it, and goodness knows he can get his hindquarters under himself! The vet assigned me some bodywork exercises to see if we can smooth out that bump, but said it doesn't seem to be anything to worry about.
After our successful trial period, I led Ledger down to my neighbor, a retired farrier, to get his front shoes pulled. I'd been prepping his hooves with Durasole and was pleased to see that he walked out nicely on pavement and gravel immediately after the shoes came off.
I did some trimming to balance his feet and was quite pleased by the progress. (Sorry, I forgot to take an "after" photo.) Size 1 Easyboot Gloves fit him fairly well right off the bat. It's not perfect; they stay on but twist a little, so we may need to do the athletic tape wrap thing for his first event.
Assuming no surprises, Ledger will be coming along to Old Selam in a couple weeks. I think he could probably do a 50. However, I'm going to play it safe since I have a thorough knowledge of him and his fitness history. We'll probably try for the LD on Day 2. If he finishes looking stellar, we can always do a second LD on Day 3.
And now, the sun is up and coffee is gone. It's time to ride!
By the middle of July, all the talk of tough 100's and buckles had my attention. Too many years have passed since I made it to all the rides, rode all the days, dreamed all the dreams.
Yes, there was one thing and another. Injuries (me), syndromes (horse), fires (house), change (career). But now I have ~ god willing and the crick don't rise ~ two sound horses and a fairly cooperative physique.
I also have the realization that I've kind of let myself settle. Settle into the ease of conditioning when I could (which is to say, not enough) and prioritizing other things.
There was a time when I simply couldn't get my head around how people could be content to do only a handful of rides per year. They wanted to do other things, too. Go to family events. Travel. Garden. Whatever.
I didn't understand it then, but I understand it now.
I've always been the hot or cold type. I'm in or out, on or off, black or white. In attempting to find a healthy balance between trying hard and accepting things beyond my control, I managed to put myself in the unfamiliar gray zone of half-assing it. Unfortunately, in this sport, half-assing it isn't enough.
Tired of sitting on the sidelines with a not-quite-ready horse, I decided to buckle down.
Step one was to identify my highest priorities. Here they are, in no particular order:
Step two was to make sure my partner was on board. I told him what I wanted to accomplish with the horses, what it would cost in time and focus, and how I intended to balance that with other priorities. His support meant I could proceed without guilt or resentment.
It still looks like that, and you know what? It's working. My days are very, very full, but they are also very, very satisfying.
While cleaning paddocks or sorting hoof boots, I often listen to Endurance Horse Podcast. I've been struck lately by the tenacity of riders who stuck to their dreams despite family, health, and economic challenges. Some of them slogged through years of setbacks, but eventually they found a way.
They are who I want to be when I grow up. So today, I buckle down.
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2021 AERC Convention Notes: Nick Warhol on What Makes a Great Endurance Horse, and How Do You Get One?
You know Nick Warhol, right? Over 13,000 miles in 13 years of endurance, 30-plus 100-milers, ride manager, former AERC board member, and storyteller. Yeah, you know the guy. His talk at the 2021 AERC Convention was worth the price of admission. (You can still access all the Convention sessions through the end of March!)
Warhol began with a disclaimer: All opinions are his and could be argued by others.
I reckon that’s true of anyone trying to sort out what makes a great endurance horse. We all agree on good feet, correct conformation, and all that…but Warhol’s focus went more than bone deep: His #1 most important trait for an endurance horse: its mind.
Warhol listed a variety of mental attributes of a good endurance horse, noting that some are trainable, and others are not. Here’s his list:
This is about the point where Warhol began spinning stories. Those were the best part, but you simply have to hear them in his voice. I’ll just capture his practical points here.
Spooking (the phantom type, not the occasional honest spook) is problematic and even dangerous. Warhol said that, in his experience, spooky behavior is best addressed through relationship rather than training.
Okay, I can’t resist. I’ll pass along one story:
Warhol had a gorgeous, talented mare. She was fabulous, but he clung on as he rode her, afraid of hitting the dirt (again) on one of her dramatic spooks.
A friend finally advised, “Don’t ride her like she’s gonna spook. Ride her like she’s not!”
He added that no matter what horse you buy, it’s possible her personality and mindset will change when you start doing endurance. Your unicorn could turn into a dragon at the starting line. It is, quite literally, the nature of the beast.
When asked how to prevent race brain, Warhol answered like a card-carrying member of what I call the I Choose Life Club: “Go ahead and get off until they calm down. When the frenzy stops, get back on.” Cheers, Mr. Warhol.
Of all the talks during Convention, this one resonated with me the most. I’m currently searching for my next "perfect" endurance horse. No, I’m not shopping. I’m assessing a couple mares that are already in my pasture.
Neither is perfect, but they both have so many strong points. Some of their weaknesses can be trained away. Some of their strengths may evaporate under the pressure of an event. Only time will tell.
I’m working with the pair of them. Listening, watching, asking questions. Where do they shine? What imperfections can I live with? Are the good things about each horse good enough to make up for the bad ones?
Here's the thing: Those mares are watching me, too. They're reacting to my strengths and weaknesses. The difference is that they don’t have a choice. They’re stuck with me. So I’d damn well better give them my very best.
You might also like:
Dr. Stephanie Seheult on How Your Body Works with your Horse
Dr. Langdon Fielding on Electrolyte Problems in Endurance Horses
Dr. Melissa Ribley on Riding in Different Conditions
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I always enjoy presentations by Melissa Ribley, DVM. Her talk at the AERC Unconventional Convention on March 6, 2021, was especially effective in sharing her passion for traveling to endurance rides all across the country. My notes capture the highlights, but there's no substitute for the full video, now available from AERC through the end of the month.
Dr. Ribley is an extremely experienced endurance vet and rider. Not only does her AERC record span well over 20,000 miles, it also reflects her love of traveling with her horses. Competing in different regions means implementing good hauling practices and being prepared for all types of climate and terrain. Dr. Ribley shared tips on all counts.
Five Reasons to Ride Out-of-Region
Dr. Ribley started by sharing some enticing reasons to explore endurance rides in other regions:
I've only made it to one out-of-region ride in the past, and it really was fun for all the reasons above. Dr. Ribley got me thinking about doing more, but I'm not sure how I can pull it off on a practical level. My vacation time doesn't go as far as I want to! Maybe in retirement. Stay tuned.
Tips for Traveling with Your Horse
Dr. Ribley provided excellent advice that can reduce stress for both horses and humans on cross-country treks with the trailer:
Tips for Riding in Diverse Terrain
Once you get to your destination and give your horse some rest, it’s time to ride! Dr. Ribley offered thoughts to bear in mind when riding in different types of terrain:
Tips for Riding in Diverse Climate Conditions
As both a vet and a rider, Dr. Ribley is well acquainted with the impact of climate on horses’ ability to perform. She shared some excellent advice for keeping our equine partners safe in all conditions:
Dr. Ribley took some extra time to focus on hyperthermia. Horses whose temperatures exceed 103 degrees Fahrenheit are in danger!
Do you ride out of region or in diverse conditions? Are there tips you'd add to Dr. Ribley's list? Share them in the comments.
You might also like:
Dr. Stephanie Seheult on How Your Body Works with your Horse
Dr. Langdon Fielding on Electrolyte Problems in Endurance Horses
More conference notes are on the way! You can subscribe to receive email notifications when new posts are published. Just fill out the mini-form in the right-hand sidebar.
I love seminar notes. Rarely can I take the time to go back and watch an entire presentation, but I do re-read my scribbles for a refresher on the key points. I hope that sharing them here will be helpful to you as well.
Of course, I can’t possibly share all the details from this stellar session by Langdon Fielding, DVM, MBA, DAVECC, DACVSMR, and self-proclaimed electrolyte fanatic. To really take advantage of his generosity, register with AERC to access the 2021 Unconventional Convention content, which will be available through the end of March 2021.
Sodium in Endurance Horses
Dr. Fielding began by sharing a typical lab panel taken from an “Ain’t Doin’ Right” horse at an endurance ride. The panel showed higher than normal sodium and lower than normal potassium, chloride, and calcium. He posed the question: Is the problem here too much sodium or too little water?
Because sodium is all about the balance between electrolytes and water, identifying which side of the equation (sodium or water) got the level out of whack is key to preventing a repeat performance.
Potassium in the Endurance Horse
Moving on to potassium, Dr. Fielding said so much of this electrolyte is lost in sweat that low levels are common on lab panels taken during endurance events. Some horses tolerate low potassium better than others, and it’s not always problematic. However, low potassium is common in horses that are struggling or require treatment.
Dr. Fielding added that although weakness is a classic symptom of low potassium, this can be hard to differentiate from normal fatigue in an endurance horse.
Calcium and Thumps in the Endurance Horse
Dr. Fielding noted that although calcium is clearly tied to muscle and heart function, it is less consistently associated with endurance horses that are having trouble.
Low calcium, typically in addition to loss of potassium, chloride, and sodium (in Dr. Fielding’s words, "lots of electrolyte abnormalities colliding"), can contribute to synchronous diaphragmatic flutter, or thumps. Interestingly, thumps may be observed in a horse that is otherwise fine, as well as in a horse that is exhausted.
Dr. Fielding noted that feeing a horse alfalfa (which is high in calcium) can help thumps resolve within an hour or two, but cautioned that giving electrolytes to the horse could be risky if the horse is dehydrated. He said a vet would generally treat thumps with IV fluids including calcium.
It is possible – though this has not been rigorously tested – that feeding a low calcium diet during conditioning, then offering alfalfa just before the ride, can help prevent thumps. Dr. Fielding cautioned against doing the reverse; that is, eliminating alfalfa at a ride if a horse is accustomed to consuming it.
Dr. Fielding wrapped up his presentation with a reminder that problems in endurance horses aren't always about electrolytes…and when they are, the answer isn’t always about changing products or administering more.
Did you get a chance to listen to Dr. Fielding's talk? What did you find most interesting?
You might also like: Dr. Stephanie Seheult on How Your Body Works with your Horse
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Was anybody else thrilled to see that both days of AERC’s 2021 Unconventional Convention start with a focus on rider fitness? It seems to me that interest in this topic has increased recently. Maybe it’s not my imagination!
Dr. Stephanie Seheult kicked things off with a session entitled “How Your Body Works with Your Horse." Dr. Seheult is a Doctor of Physical Therapy with a Bachelors in Health Science, as well as an active equestrian. Most of her clients at Advanced Physio are also riders.
Dr. Seheult described two, common causes of pelvic imbalance:
Dr. Seheult also emphasized the importance of the gluteus medius muscle for lateral stability in the saddle. She said one side is usually stronger than the other. On the weak side, your hip flexor must compensate for your inactive gluteus medius, forcing you to use your hamstring to lift your heel to get your leg on the horse. Whew!
My favorite part of the presentation was the self-evaluation exercises. Dr. Seheult encouraged us to try a few tests in real life as she talked:
Anyway... Dr. Sehult had one more test:
After the self-evaluation exercises, Dr. Seheult was joined by Jeanette Henry, owner of Positively Pilates. The two of them work together on Ride Advanced with Positively Pilates.
I won’t even attempt to recite the nuances of the gentle pilates session Ms. Henry talked us through. It focused on the neutral spine and a rider’s ability to keep the pelvis centered while rotating the legs outward. I found the pilates exercises easy and pleasant, and can definitely see the benefit of looking more into pilates as a way to further strengthen and balance my core.
Access to the videos is closed during the duration of the convention (March 6-7, 2021), but my understanding is that AERC will reopen registration next week. If you didn't get a chance to catch this session the first time around, I highly recommend taking the time to watch the video and try the exercises.
It always seems so much more productive to run, spin, lift, ride, or write. But I know that's short-sighted. Like strength work, mobility work is key to athletic longevity.
How about you? Did you watch Dr. Seheult's session? What did you get out of it?
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I paid less than $400 for Aaruba. His breeder wanted quiet Arabians and Pintabians, and Aaruba wasn't. No, Aaruba was the plain gray, high-headed, wide-eyed, last straw that sent his sire to the vet for gelding.
I first saw him on the kind of windy, muddy day that whipped his mind to wildness. Still a leggy four-year-old, he flashed about the makeshift corral as if the storm were inside him. He offered no buck but plenty of air, a whirl flat knees, good hooves, and that indefinable something that trumpets, "I'm the one!"
Nearly three years later, I can sometimes offer a bit of the captaincy to him. Yesterday, fresh from two weeks of bad weather and little work, he seemed nevertheless in a mental state to chart our course. And so, I settled into my saddle and handed him the wheel.
For most of sixteen miles, he ran, and a winter storm gave chase. A frozen landscape streamed past, pulled tears from my eyes and sweat from his neck. We cantered free as water, free as wind, our bodies long and loose as the reins between us.
I scarcely touched his face or sides but listened instead to his language pure as breathing. Our path looped wide, spun at last on a gust toward home. Winter nipped his flying heels. Naked tree limbs shuddered and the bellies of the clouds grew pregnant with snow.
And I? I clung astride that plain gray, high-headed, wild-eyed, will-o-the-wisp whose size and strength far outstripped my own, a creature more emotion than logic, more motion than matter, more worth than gold, and I was not afraid.
Originally published in The Barb Wire, December 2008
A couple months ago, I asked around on the interwebs about where to get covers to go over caged endurance stirrups -- you know, to keep my feet warm while riding in winter chill, rain, and wind.
You know what I heard back? Crickets.
I definitely needed a better solution. Enter my friend Simone.
Simone Mauhl is an endurance rider in the northwest region. Conveniently for my winter riding dilemma, she also makes tack - much of it custom, and much of it for packing. (We have a lot of hunters out here in Idaho.)
So, when Simone mentioned that she could make me a pair of stirrup covers designed for caged endurance stirrups, I was all over it! We put our heads together and she came up with this design:
Well! That's much prettier than my redneck version, don't you think?
Anyway, back to the stirrup covers. The photos above feature them on a 2008-ish era Easycare E-Z Ride stirrup that Simone borrowed from Mr. Sweaty's saddle for a model. However, she made sure to make the velcro loops adjustable for all sizes of endurance stirrups, with or without cages.
My own favorite stirrups are a battered pair that came with a used Bob Marshall. If I knew what brand they were, I would buy more, but alas, they are unmarked. They're a bit smaller than the E-Z Rides. I tried out the covers on them the first time we got a snowy day with decent footing.
The product is too new to be posted in an online store yet, so just look up Simone Mauhl on Facebook. If you aren't on Facebook, ping me at email@example.com and I'll hook you up.
Happy toasty riding!
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Is it just me, or do some people get harder to shop for with every passing year? Here are fifteen ideas to help you surprise your favorite endurance rider this Christmas:
Custom Gold Foil Map
These gorgeous maps can be customized to showcase any special location, especially if it has an intricate shoreline or trail system. I purchased one in copper on black. It's stunning in a black wood frame, and the seller was a pleasure to work with.
Charlie Mackesy Book or Print
If you haven't seen this guy's art, you must take a look! Mackesy's work embodies the kindness and gentle humor I associate with Winnie the Pooh, but with horses and without the cheesy illustrations. (Sorry, Pooh.)
High Quality Layers
It seems like distance riders are always asking each other, "What do you wear to stay warm and dry on stormy rides?" My suggestion is to look for gear brands instead of equestrian-specific brands, because the technology used for skiing, cycling, and other outdoor adventure sports is so much more advanced. Some of my favorites are Outdoor Research, Rab, Patagonia, Marmot, and Mammut. Every serious rider needs a good down "puffy" coat and a 3-layer, waterproof, breathable rain shell with taped seams.
Does your rider have a farm name? Ride with a team? Manage an event? Surprise them with the perfect logo -- no design skills needed. You can create your own with support from an app like Weebly Logo Maker or commission an artist on Fiverr. The logo itself is a great last-minute gift, as you can usually get one in three days or less. Pay a few extra bucks for the vector file, and you'll be all set to customize anything: window decals for the truck, completion awards, a metal sign for the driveway, whatever!
Riders can keep both their diamonds and their fingers safer by trading out gold rings for silicone ones during barn time. As a bonus, they're comfortable and stocking-stuffer cheap. Vendors like Qalo and Enso Rings have options that go beyond basic gray.
Feel free to pad your gift with a few emergency supplies, like energy gels, some bandaids, sunscreen, and pain meds to make the walk out more tolerable.
Satellite Communication Device
This is a great gift if you have a healthy budget. I like the Garmin inReach, which fits nicely in a front pocket of my running vest. Its interface is easy to use and can even be operated through a smartphone app, which gives the user a proper keyboard instead of just the integrated grid. Your rider will be able to drop "breadcrumbs" when exploring new territory and send unlimited free pre-typed texts/emails. They'll also have have two-way, real-time communication capability -- no internet or cell service required. And, of course, there's the SOS button if shit really goes down. Bear in mind that you'll need to pay a subscription service (about $15/month) to keep the device active.
Riders doing longer distances often go to bed well before dark. I like a good sleep mask to help block out the world. This one from Sleep Master is my favorite for comfort (very silky, highly adjustable, stays in place) and effectiveness (larger surface area blocks all light).
While you're at it, these Acoustic Sheep SleepPhones are a nice alternative to earplugs for muffling the clatter of ride camp. They're nice at home, too, for listening to music or a sleep meditation without bothering your partner.
Every rider's nightmare is to lose a horse in the wilderness. Equine ID collars can be worn in camp or while riding to help bring a missing horse home. These I.C.E. clips make good stocking stuffers. I'd like to have one on every saddle!
Merri Melde -- aka The Equestrian Vagabond -- makes adorable equine pins and magnets (and other things too) sure to bring any rider luck.
Custom Stuffed Horse
Speaking of adorable! These are pricy as plushies go, but this Etsy vendor will put your horse's markings on a stuffed toy for the cutest keepsake ever.
Most distance events have a race photographer. You can usually find out who took photos at any given ride by checking the event website or Facebook page. Frame a great shot or have it printed on glass, canvas, or metal. You could also make a collage honoring one special horse, or perhaps all the different horses your rider has competed with over the years.
How about paying for a clinic, ride entry, or private lesson with an expert in your area? A session with an equine massage therapist or chiropractor wouldn't go amiss. Also, it's AERC membership renewal season...
For a truly unique gift, look for a craftsman in your own backyard. A couple years ago, my dad worked with Forgiven Fabrication (they are on Etsy now!) to turn a photo of me and my first endurance horse into a steel silhouette.
Cowhide and Sheepskin
Nothing beats coming back to a cozy home after a winter ride. Cowhides and sheepskins are perfect for adding warmth and flair to just about any style of decor. Even better, they hold up beautifully to pet hair, blood, and barf. Trust me on this.
I've had good experiences with Cowhides International (get the Brazilian ones, they're higher quality) and Sheepskin Shop.
What are you hoping Santa brings this year? Add your ideas to the comments, and happy gifting!
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There’s something about being on a horse that makes people want to say hello.
I do most of my conditioning rides on the grid of agricultural roads surrounding my farm. Just about everyone who passes in a car, driving a tractor, or riding a motorcycle offers a wave. Once in a while, someone stops to chat.
Sometimes, they’re concerned about my safety. Sometimes, they are horse people curious about Consolation’s breed, hoof boots, or tack. Sometimes, they just comment on the pretty day, the pretty horse, and (without saying so outright) the pretty nice feeling that most people make the world a better place.
Just last week, a guy pulled his truck over to ask if he could introduce his half-grown Weimaraner to Consolation in the hope that the pup would be less inclined to chase horses in the future.
A couple miles up the road, a faded sedan stopped in the oncoming lane. The window rolled down to reveal the gentleman with the Walkaloosas, who occasionally drops by my farm astride his favorite mare. His face was unusually ashen, his eyes hollow. I asked how he was, and he said not well. We talked horses and weather. And then he said he’d lost one of his grandsons the day before. The boy was three months old. Found dead in his crib, of unknown cause. A foal was due at his place any day; I should drop by. I said I would.
Then there is the woman who rents the old house at the S-bend. Her driveway is full of old cars from a lot owned by her husband, who recently passed. She has a new mare, a gentle, senior Paint found on Craigslist for $250. Perhaps we’ll ride the irrigation road some evening, and she will tell her story.
Two of my favorites have names I don’t know. One is the mail carrier, always cheerful in her white Jeep with the orange light on top. Sometimes I wonder how much she knows about me, from my mail, and seems to like me anyway.
And, there is the migrant worker with the battered, two-tone pickup he drives among ditches, fields, and barns. We pass each other often, sometimes several times a day. My clothes and activities change — from breeches for riding to jeans for training to shorts for sprinting — and our frequent, speechless encounters make us laugh.
There is the husband and wife team that drives the school bus, the cattle rancher whose stock sometimes turn up on my land, the gardener whose handiwork I always slow to admire. There are the cyclists who call out to let me know they’re passing, men who cut the motors on their chain saws though Consolation isn’t spooky, the reining competitor whose trailer I once borrowed for a veterinary emergency. Kids who wave, kids too shy. Dog-walkers. Seasonal workers grinning under broad-brimmed hats. A loose collection of folks who know almost nothing, yet almost everything, about each other.
People sometimes ask if I get bored of riding by myself. Not often, I say, and I’m sincere. But the truth is, I don’t really ride alone.
[Originally published in The Barb Wire, March 2011]
We are grounded.
To varying degrees around the world, we are all being asked to stay home. No concerts, no weddings, no casual afternoons trying on shoes at the strip mall. There is much talk of these measures being too little, too late – or perhaps too much, too soon. We don’t know how bad it will be or how long it will last.
We equestrians, especially the introverts among us, are filling social media with memes: Our sport was made for social distancing. We’ve practiced our whole lives for this. Indeed, we are among the lucky ones whose passions aren’t immediately stifled by the pandemic. This situation would be even harder if we were, say, avid sport climbers or Irish dancers.
But our events are being cancelled, too. Rides are dropping off the calendar as managers make fraught decisions for the good of the whole, or have their hands forced by governmental edicts. Some of us have horses fit to race. Others, like myself, are holding onto the dissolving hope of finally having a good year. All of us are, quite literally, grounded.
Of course, most of us can still mount up and hit the trail. But how is your mental game?
Distance riders tend to be a Type A, goal-driven bunch. We grow despondent when our targets are taken away. Without an event to shoot for, our motivation wanes. Conditioning loses its urgency. Maybe we won’t go ride today.
My own tendencies run in the all-or-nothing vein. I’m the sort to choose my path carefully, then jump in with both feet. So here I am: up in the air, looking down at the evaporating pool where I had expected to land.
It’s the uncertainty that hurts. Will we have a ride season, or won’t we? Will the medical system get overwhelmed – and if it does, should we refrain from riding, given the high-risk nature of our sport? How will the economic impact resound, and for how long? Will we come out of this with the jobs and homes and hay and lifestyles to which we’ve grown accustomed?
We simply don’t know. Maybe the containment and mitigation measures being taken will succeed, and the economy will right itself posthaste. Maybe not. Data models can speculate, laypeople can debate, but in the end, only time will tell.
It’s like looking out the window and watching your horse cross the paddock, still favoring that tendon he injured last fall. Will he recover fully, or is his endurance career a bust? We don’t know, so we wait, and the ball of anxiety in our stomach burns.
Life takes us there sometimes. To the place where there are no answers, no matter how badly we want them. A cancer diagnosis. A career disruption. A pandemic.
It’s something I’ve thought a lot about in recent months, this challenge of finding peace in the midst of uncertainty. I think there’s much to be said for the meditative practice of simply acknowledging, without judgement, what is. What is in the world. What is in our minds. And then (this is key), letting go of wishing things were different.
You can get redneck with this concept: Wish in one hand, shit in the other, and see which fills up fastest.
Or, you can put it as Buddha did: You can only lose what you cling to.
Either way, the idea is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. To be okay with not being okay. To learn to rest in the wait.
That is a worthy goal, my friends. Something we can work on while we condition for rides that may or may not happen. A frame in which to collect the power of our restlessness.
So let go. Go ride.
My first job was at a small, shabby horse farm in the valley below my childhood home. Its driveway peeled off from the corner of a gravel road lined with triple-strand hotwire paddocks, all nibbled bare and dotted with broodmares. The barn was creaky and drafty, with packed dirt aisles and a cloth-draped radio tuned to the country station. It smelled of shavings and Coppertox, of wool coolers and, when the wind blew west, the manure pile out back.
I remember the horses, each dished face with black globes for eyes. Each name and star and sock and personality, even the patterns they left in the stalls I cleaned day over day for a couple years between the ages of twelve and fourteen. I can still sing along about you and me goin’ fishin’ in the dark. I remember the mare that colicked and made me put my foot down with my mom for the first time, because I really could not leave her to go to my piano lesson, $60 paid in advance or not.
Most of all, I remember the farm’s owner. She was short and craggy, with cropped hair dyed black and heavy makeup that sharpened her narrow eyes nearly as much as the suspicion that always lay behind them. I rarely saw her without bloodred lips. The lips almost never smiled.
Her name was not Mae, but let’s pretend.
Mae had a jovial husband, round in the belly and sad behind his grin. I saw him only occasionally, but he was always kind to me. I marveled to see him with Mae, because the pair of them were so different. He gentle and she harsh, he easygoing and she tense. Terse. Poised like a wire stretched too tight, clinging white-knuckled to her tough persona. I wondered, even then, then if it was all she had.
She loved her horses in the way hurting people do. In the way that says: you alone will not betray me. You are not my daughter who grew up and moved away and never calls. You are not the old husbands who cheated, the farmhouse falling down around my ears, the abusive parents, the unfair manager who cost me a career, the drunk driver who jabbed this endless pain into my spine.
I am guessing. Mae never told me her story. Not in words. But I worked for her long enough, well enough, that she sometimes let her armor slip aside. Beneath cowered a woman who wore Paloma Picasso and gave me a tiny bottle for Christmas. Who sold me a colt for less than he was worth, taught me to build his hindquarters and stand him up, paid for an overnight trip to Washington where he won Reserve Champion at the big Arabian show.
She gave me tea in her cluttered living room on rainy days, rasped in her smoker’s voice over the soap operas that were the anthem of her afternoons. She said little of substance, but the things she did not say told me her rocky exterior was only a dam of anger holding back a lifetime of tears.
I think of her in the hard times. How quick she was to wrath, how limited her capacity for joy. Her path, whatever came before, had left her all but devoid of any ability to trust. I think that’s why she liked me, and perhaps her husband, too. Our loyalty was simple. Consistent. It surprised her. It was the only thing that reminded her to smile.
The thing about hard times is that they end. Worst case scenario, they end because we’ve died. Best case, and most common, either we or events around us shift and the trail widens and we carry on. This is when we make our decisions:
What will we carry with us? The pain, or the healing? The betrayal, or the wisdom? The longing, or the truth? Will we come away with greater confidence than before, and with gratitude, because we have learned how strong we are? Or will we be cut off, shut down, stolen away?
I saw Mae cry once. Several years after I stopped working for her, I dropped by her place to deliver a framed pencil drawing I’d done of the stallion Ben Bask. It was one of my better pieces. I have no idea why I wanted to give it to her, except that I thought she deserved to be remembered. To be thanked for teaching me ~ without knowing, through bad example ~ how I do not want to be.
She is probably dead now. Resentment like hers destroys body and soul before their time. But I am not afraid to hope (because that I what I do) that before the end she found another way, and didn’t let the winter take her after all.
Originally published in The Barb Wire, March 2013
After I learned that endurance riding was a thing, it took four years for me to actually get started. I spent the time reading everything I could get my hands on. That was back before the internet had much to say about distance riding, which meant I was ordering actual, paper books. I lost them all in a house fire in 2018. These are the first five that I replaced:
1. Go the Distance: The Complete Resource for Endurance Horses by Nancy S. Loving, DVM
This book was my bible as I got started in the sport, and I still re-read it periodically. Written by a veterinarian and experienced endurance rider, it covers all the basics: horse selection, conditioning, nutrition, metabolic health, cooling strategies, hoof care, common mistakes to avoid, and more. Though originally published in 1997, it is extremely well written and the content holds up (even if the riders' clothing in some of the photos doesn't).
2. America's Long Distance Challenge II: New Century, New Trails, and More Miles by Karen Bumgarner
This is another comprehensive book about preparing for, and competing in, endurance distance rides. The author's endurance career began before AERC's current record book, which starts in 1985, and is closing in on 30,000 miles. I am eternally grateful to have had her as my mentor and can certainly vouch for her expertise. But don't take my word for it. As of this writing, her AERC record shows 368 endurance rides (including 44 hundred-milers) with only 12 pulls. Astounding.
3. EMERGENCY! The Active Horseman's Book of Emergency Care by Karen Hayes, DVM
This unusual book is designed to guide you through helping your horse when no vet is available. The author provides brisk, precise instructions for how to respond to a colic, founder, laceration, heat exhaustion, choke, eye injuries, sudden lameness, and more while you work on locating a professional. I keep it in my truck for reference when I'm far from veterinary help. Sadly, EMERGENCY is hard to find new, but you can still pick up a used copy for a song.
4. All Horse Systems Go: The Horse Owner's Full-Color Veterinary Care and Conditioning Resource for Modern Performance, Sport and Pleasure Horses by Nancy S. Loving, DVM
Note the author on this one. Yep, she's the same endurance-riding veterinarian who wrote Go the Distance. This book focuses on a wide spectrum of veterinary information, presented for the lay person, with an eye to the kinds of issues that matter most to distance competitors. The electronic copy is affordable, but I'd encourage you to track down a hard copy if you can. After the fire, I managed to get one on eBay for about $60. It's worth it for photos and easy reference.
5. The Horse's Mind by Lucy Rees
This book offers a fabulous treatment of equine psychology. The author covers everything from how the horse's sense organs function to why our equine partners behave as they do. My favorite section, "Horses and People," begins with a discussion of how horses perceive training. It's dense reading, but highly applicable to the ways we interact with our horses every day.
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Thanks for dropping by! I'm an endurance rider in the northwest region of the United States. This blog explores the mental, physical, and technical aspects of being a better horseman, athlete, and human.
The Sweaty Equestrian