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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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. I believe that how I eat and move impacts not only how I ride, but how I think and feel. This blog is about the practice of being my best self for my horse. I hope you'll come along for the ride. ~ Tamara
The Sweaty Equestrian