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]
You might also like:
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!
Never miss a post!
Fill out the form in the right-hand sidebar to subscribe.
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.
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
I rode Consolation yesterday. It was her first outing since I laid her off at the beginning of last summer due to her undiagnosed, but obvious, discomfort under saddle. We jogged six miles in the sunshine. She felt good. Content.
But not like an endurance horse. Never one of my most driven mounts, she felt distinctly disinterested in speed and distance. I doubt I'll attempt to condition her this season. Or ever. She gave me 875 endurance miles, plus countless more in training. That will have to be enough.
If a career path fizzles before I reach the corner office, was my experience wasted? If a relationship crumbles after three years, or five, or ten, have I thrown away that time?
Yes, I am older now. Yes, it takes effort to update my resume, go out and date, start a young horse, shoulder the effort and face the fear of starting over, starting new.
But see the good times had, the completions earned, the accolades received, the scars that strengthen! They don't vanish because the path on which I found them ends in a cliff. A journey abbreviated is not a journey obliterated. The treasures I claim are mine to keep.
Don't waste the litter of your past. It gathers about your feet like shale tumbled down a hillside. Step up on it. Feel it shift beneath your soles, and climb.
The last stanza of my favorite poem reads thus: Nor doom the irrevocable past ~ As wholly wasted, wholly vain ~ If rising on its wrecks at last ~ To something nobler we attain. [H.W. Longfellow]
Squint against your tears, my friends. See the shining? Reach out. Take hold. Climb.
Originally published in The Barb Wire, February 2013
Laid bare to the elements, I felt every insult more keenly than I should. My old resilience was beaten down. Hypervigilant, I suffered from blows that I only guessed would fall.
I tried to find myself among my horses, but they, too, sensed my absence. My body may have been in the saddle, but my mind attended a courtroom of the soul. It spent hours in that lonely chamber, making my case against what shouldn’t have happened, but did.
They say being angry is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. It’s true, of course. I knew that. I felt that. I fought that. I did all the things: exercised, ate well, journaled, practiced yoga. I sat with my meditation app and tried to be present.
It was a podcast that broke me loose. A podcast by a gentle friend who doesn’t know me, but whose work I have followed for many years. I met her in the fitness and nutrition space. The podcast wasn’t about that, though. It was called “Hypothangry.”
She talked about her habit of imagining confrontations. Entire scenes of conflict – involving a stranger in the coffee line, perhaps, or else her ex-husband – played out in her mind. These events that never happened left her fighting mad. Her boyfriend dubbed it being hypothangry, which is to say, hypothetically angry. She’d been fighting battles that didn’t actually exist. And she chose to stop doing it.
I listened to that podcast on yet another long walk on yet another tormented day. It was summer then, and as I listened, I began to feel the sun. The world brightened as if months of fog had burned away at once.
Meditation transformed from a fifteen minute practice to a gentle hand on my shoulder throughout the day, an arm around my waist at night. Instead of trying to center on my senses and my breath, I simply noticed when my thoughts spun toward the blades.
I became aware of the turning point that waits just before cortisol takes hold and drags me into the ring. In that moment, instead of stepping through the gate, I whisper, hypothangry. A reminder: Don’t be hypothangry. Or hypoth-anxious. Or hypoth-sad.
Be, instead, just here.
When the water tanks were full, I trudged through the snow to drain the hose. Slowly, thoroughly, because it will be cold tonight. Already the temperature was dropping as the snowclouds rose, pulling away their blanket of fog and exposing icy stars.
Like anyone with a farm in colder climes, I felt the respite of full and heated tanks. Storms may come, pipes may freeze, de-icers may fail, but my precious animals have all they need today.
I stayed with the horses for a while, stroking under their manes as they cleaned up their hay. The brimming tanks glistened black against the snow. A farm cat stretched upon hind legs to taste. Tomorrow, chickadees will line the rim, bobbing their cheerful heads. I will watch from indoors as the horses wander over and drink.
Presence, I’ve learned, is neither seated meditation nor flight from reality. It is simply a pool that rests under the storm. It doesn’t resist growing shallow and prone; it holds nothing back for fear of freezing. It quietly sustains because that is its nature, because it is here and this is now.
Presence, my friends, is water in winter.
You might also like:
The skies have rained and blown for weeks. Blankets have been on and off the horses. Salted mashes consumed. Saddles nestled in the tack room, waiting.
And then, yesterday!
Dawn broke still and the farm floated alone in a heavy cloak of fog. Mist froze on branches, wire, hay, and manes. I warmed a saddle pad and bit indoors, waited until afternoon to mount.
As I rode, the cloud melted. Sunshine – jewel-bright, scarcely remembered – glittered the frosty trail. No people were out. No cows. No foxes. Few birds. Sometimes, my mare and I stopped just to listen to the silence.
I’ve done a lot of listening this year. A lot of waiting. A lot of accepting.
Back in February, I dared to hope that this would be the year my endurance stars would realign. After years of roadblocks, I would have horses fit. Be injury-free. Not be crushed by work. Make it to rides at last!
And then, COVID.
But I had a horse ready for the third…
…until a normal dose of bute crashed her kidneys without warning. She spent most of a week – not to mention a large pile of cash – in the hospital. We saved her life, but not her career. Horses with compromised kidneys shouldn’t be put at risk of dehydration. She can do almost anything now. But not endurance.
So, I got my old campaigner out of semi-retirement. He was a rock star before headshaking syndrome put him out of the game. But he’d been looking better for several months. No reason not to give him a shot; we could always reverse course if he wasn't happy.
He was happy. So, so happy! It was all I could do to keep his inner monster from eating too much trail, too fast, at Top o’ the World. We finished our first 50 together in several years. We really were on top of the world.
But at the next ride, he colicked near the finish. We treated. He’s fine. But I gave him the rest of the season off. Next year may be on the table for him, or it may not. We’ll have to take it as it comes.
I’ve been doing a lot of that. Not just with endurance, but with work, and with the intrusion of a housing development they want to build in the field next door.
It’s so easy to get angry, isn’t it? When all you want is a break? Just some clear sailing, please, for once?
But we don’t learn much on smooth seas.
When the waves are high and the fog closes in, and we are chilled to the bone just trying to find our way…that is where the answers are. We must get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Learn to rest in uncertainty. If we can find peace in that place, we can find it anywhere.
There’s an interesting book, if you’re struggling, called Life is in the Transitions. It tells stories of people who have suffered much more than I. Its point is that – contrary to our cultural undercurrent of expectation that life is “supposed to” always move us onward and upward – our lived experience rarely follows that trajectory. We should expect to be in the midst of transition (often the uncomfortable variety) for about 40% of our lives. Might as well get good at it, eh?
Trail riding can be nice, I’ve discovered. Just walking. Getting to know a new horse, without focusing on hills and heart rates and speed. Exploring new trails or visiting old ones. Quietly watching the sun soak through the freezing fog...melt the resistance...and shine not on the way things should be, but on how they actually are.
It’s bright again today. I’ll saddle two horses – the one with damaged kidneys and the one that colicked – and embrace this fleeting moment that holds them both.
You might also like:
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]
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
I didn't go to any rides last year. I couldn't. I am going to tell you why.
My horse wasn't fit, because I wasn't fit to ride. There wasn't anything wrong with me, exactly, but everything was wrong around me.
After nearly 15 years of my career (the kind that earns a living, not my endurance career), I found myself the target of a campaign to make me go away. It was about politics. It was about money. It was about a special interest group that didn't want me doing the job I was hired to do.
Ugly doesn't cover it. Defamation ran rampant, culminating in accusations ranging from incompetence to illegal activity. Powerful people believed the story without checking the facts.
I had my friends, of course. People who knew the truth. But there's no stopping a runaway train.
It was't that I didn't ride. I did. I rode for hours. But my mare and I didn't condition. We walked.
Sometimes, I listened to music or a podcast. But mostly I just rode, shell-shocked, listening to the wind and feeling the sun and staring at a world that would never look the same.
A few years ago, I had a big, strong, fit horse. We were getting top-tens and BCs and completing hundreds. We had our eyes on Big Horn, then Tevis. Walking was not in our vocabulary. When forced by footing or slope to cool our heels, we did so with reluctance, gritting our teeth until we could fly again.
But last summer, I lacked the energy to trot, let alone compete. Slowly, mile by mile, month by month, I learned to let go of what should be and accept what is.
People don't always behave ethically. The truth doesn't always win. This ain't the movies, darlin', and sometimes the bad guys get their way.
Sometimes, walking is enough.
At Christmastime, I walked away. From the job, the lies, the money, the strain. I spent January in Death Valley, walking some more. Through slot canyons. Across salt flats and painted hills. Through the stunning debris left by waters that used to roar and now have gone.
Then I came home. And saddled my horse.
We trotted today, but it's early season and she hasn't done a 50 since late 2017. So we also walked. Down the hills, through the sand, up the steepest climbs. The wind sang. The sun embraced. And walking felt every bit as right as speed.
There's a saying that sticks in my head, repeating itself on a loop I need to hear: Light in the leg, soft in the hands; ride the horse and not your plans.
It's not just about horses, is it?
It's about life.
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