Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's here!

I like This Time of Year. I don't like the cold or the snow. I don't like the fact that it is dark when I wake up, dim when I drive to work, and pitch-black when I drive home.

I don't like the 10 pounds of potatoes and pie that seem to have made their way onto my rear end.

But I do like that there is something waiting for me on the stoop almost every day.

Ooooh, what's this ginormous box?

It makes the other boxes look tiny.

Even the tree is intimidated.

This box is addressed to me, and in the interest of Really Wanting to Open It,  I have decided that it is a late birthday present and not an early Christmas present. Late presents must be opened immediately, even before the work shoes come off.  I mean, it might be perishable. There's not a moment to lose. This is a SAFETY issue.

Not impressed?

VoilĂ —it's out of the box! Still not impressed?

Oooh, ahhhh... The Kuda in all its glory.

Blue has a date with dressage tomorrow. In the meantime, many thanks are due to my parents for the wiggle room in my budget and to my long-suffering husband for being such a good sport. Without his tacit agreement (an eye roll is as good as a nod, right?), I never would have bought this saddle.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Excuses, excuses

Yesterday was my 30th birthday. The last time I set eyes on my horse was Sunday, Dec. 11—you know, back when I was in my 20's.

I did not ride Dec. 12 because I had to work late. Actually, I should clarify: I've been working late every working day since the week before Thanksgiving. I've also had to come in on Sunday. In December, this is pretty normal operating procedure; I anticipated the holiday rush. But just because you see the oncoming train doesn't mean you have the wherewithal to get out of the way.

I did not ride Dec. 13 because Heather was using the arena, and it was cold, and I'm lazy. Heather has been very diligent about using the arena at night ever since Gary put up the lights. She and I have talked about this. Basically, it is easy for her to get up the gumption to ride at night in winter because the arena is literally in her front yard. It is a 20-minute drive for me. And I'm a wimp in the cold darkness.

I did not ride Dec. 14 because of my company's Christmas party. 'Nuff said.

I did not ride Dec. 15 because of pub trivia. Our team won for the third consecutive week, probably because of the lack of sports questions.

I did not ride Dec. 16 because I was getting my hair colored. "Red, the color of 30th birthday denial."

I did not ride Dec. 17 because of my birthday party (phase 1). I suppose I could have pulled myself together and ridden in the morning before the festivities started. (But I didn't.)

I did not ride Dec. 18 because I was recovering from my birthday party. A certain local Mexican restaurant has a specialty called a cazuela, which translates roughly into "soup bowl full of rum and triple-sec." My birthday dinner was at that restaurant. Mistakes were made.

I did not ride Dec. 19 because of my birthday party (phase 2). Friends who did not make it to the Saturday birthday party invited Brian and me out for dinner and drinks. And it was my birthday, after all.

Today is Dec. 20, and I don't anticipate seeing Blue until the 23rd. I have made peace with that. One byproduct of age is accepting that you can't be everything to everyone. Right now, I can't be a gung-ho conditioning buddy. The past two weeks have been swallowed up in overtime, holiday parties, birthday festivities, nasty weather, and all the other effluvia of wintertime. So Blue got a little break, and I got a little older, and we're both OK. 

Also, I'll be making up for it. My office is closed from Dec. 26 through Jan. 2, and I plan to spend as many of those days riding as the weather will allow. I got an absolute STEAL on a Kuda MasterFlex on eBay over the weekend, and it should be here in time for my vacation.

All in all, things are shaping up nicely.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dickensian Weather

...External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge...

...No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him...

...No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty...

   Foul weather didn't know where to have him. 

The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect.  They often "came down" handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house.  It was cold, bleak, biting weather...

...foggy withal...

...and he could hear the people in the court outside go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them...

...The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already—it had not been light all day...

...and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air...

...The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms...

...To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My business is casual

You know those people who can't use a public restroom? I used to be one of them.

And I shouldn't say that I couldn't altogether. Given enough time—and complete solitude—I could do the deed. My specific problem was that I couldn't actually "go" unless I was alone. I was embarrassed to have others hear me tinkle. This was the usual order of events:
  1. Realize I needed the restroom.
  2. Arrive in the restroom (our office has three stalls).
  3. Sit on the toilet.
  4. Hold it in until everyone else was gone.
  5. If someone came in while I was mid-business, I'd clench until I was alone again.
Yeah, typing it out makes it seem even more loony. And what's more, this had been going on a long time. Think of all the elementary school stalls, the college dorms, the highway rest-stops. If you add it all up, I've probably devoted entire days to "holding it." 

Days. Of. My. Life.

I don't know where this self-conscious, irrational phobia came from. The idea of making a sound—any sound—in the potty is deeply embarrassing and unpleasant for some people. It forces us to acknowledge that sometimes we aren't meeting the imaginary ladylike ideals. Or maybe it’s just gross. I don’t know for sure.

But I have found the cure in endurance riding.

Since I started doing the distance thing, I have peed next to the trail, only somewhat obscured by sagebrush, as a dozen riders go by. I have peed behind boulders and trees while someone else held my horse and knew exactly what I was doing. I have peed next to my truck and trailer out in the middle of nowhere, and also within sight of farmhouses. I have peed in foul porta-potties, on the shoulders of well-traveled gravel roads, and while holding the reins of one or more bewildered horses.

In the immortal words of Johnny Cash, I've peed everywhere.

For a time, I was on a diet that required me to drink 60 to 100 ounces of water a day in addition to any non-water liquids I was consuming. With my walnut-size bladder, that means sitting at my desk desperately needing a potty break every 10 minutes or so. 

And because of endurance, I could do it. If I can go out in nature where anyone can see me, I can certainly go into a three-stall bathroom and shamelessly use it for the purpose for which it was designed. 

And I don't care who hears me.

Sitting there now, I sometimes just want to exclaim, "Hello, world! Yes, that's me you're hearing! Go with the flow, my sisters!" But then I remember that not everyone is an endurance rider… yet.

Monday, November 21, 2011

How do you break the cycle?

Does anyone have a good routine to break the cycle of emotional escalation between horse and rider?

Scenario (cobbled together from various incidents): On a cool day, you take your horse to an unfamiliar place. He's a little "up" from the cold and a little "up" from being away from his buddies. There's unfamiliar debris next to the road or arena, and your horse seems more worried about than he should be. You mount up and can feel the high-headed tension of the coiled spring beneath you. He walks out short and tight, looking everywhere but forward. You catch yourself subconsciously gripping with knees and taking up the reins. His reaction is to be evasive and above the bit. Even the slightest leg aid gets an exaggerated reaction (i.e., silly sideways scooting that leaves you off-center). By now, your spine is rigid and your posture defensive. So is your horse's.

We've all been there. What is your strategy for dealing with it?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hey, what's that?

What is that? Do you see it? Look closely.

Did you spot it yet?

Still don't see it?

I'll tell you: That is our mountain loop disappearing for the season.

You know what else it is?

It's a great excuse to get out the blanket. Isn't he cute in his winter coat?

Yep. We live in a beautiful place.

[Note: these photos are about a week old. Today the mountains are even whiter—but you can't tell because we are socked in with the should-be-famous "Walla Walla Stinking Fog." It slides over from the paper mill on the Columbia and settles into every nook and cranny in the valley. If you've never smelled a paper mill, you're lucky.]

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bluster and bobble

Two very good rides this weekend, despite the pre-winter bluster.

It is now well and truly dark at 4:30, which means I had about an hour of daylight in which to ride after work on Friday. When I drove up, Heather was tacking Bunny to do the short road loop. She invited me along, but you know I'm kind of anti-road-loop since our last experience.

I had been wanting to try the arena exercises from Heather's lesson last Sunday. I did my best to listen to the instructions while I was taking pictures, but I have not had a moment to ride in between. This was a week of chaos and overtime on the work front (especially disappointing since Heather's husband just added some stadium lighting to the arena so we could use it at night).

I've been reading one of my TTEAM books again too, and had decided to try some bridleless work with the neck ring if there was time for that. I made time by multitasking—I decided to use the neck ring for warm-up. So we toodled around the arena at a decent walk with me not touching the reins at all. Blue did fine. It wasn't the miracle of human-horse synchronicity that Linda makes it sound like in her book, but it was good to know that I have another exercise in the toolbox.

In the lesson last Sunday, Anna had Heather ride Bunny toward the corners and concentrate on stopping her straight by lifting the reins straight up (rather than pulling). Anna's on a real "independent seat" kick right now, so her focus is very much on helping her students fight the urge to brace against the horse's mouth.

Blue and I have been working transitions the last couple of weeks, and I have found him heavy and awkward on the forehand. He never stops neatly on the first try, and when I release, he practically falls flat on his face. So imagine my surprise when he stopped neat and straight every time I lifted instead of pulling. It is a lesson in humility that he was more than happy to whoa when I stayed out of his mouth. That means I am the problem in this case. Sigh.

This is going to be an extremely hard habit to break. "Pull back for whoa" is pretty much the first thing you learn about riding. They tell you that one at the pony rides at the zoo, for heaven's sake!

This is more a trust issue for me than anything else. The idea that I could safely stop my horse on the trail with just a lift of the reins and no additional contact goes against every self-preservation instinct I have.

For now, I'll keep working it in the arena until it feels natural for both of us.

The second exercise from Heather's lesson was a bit more involved. The idea was to walk the horse straight down the long side of the arena with his nose tipped to the outside. While I have read a lot about using the different parts of the horse independently, I haven't had a ton of luck with it in real life. The idea here, as I understand it, is to begin introducing the idea to the horse in a very logical way. Yes, I can face one way and walk another.

Going clockwise, nose tipped left, he got it pretty quickly. He was soft and not too crooked. He was moving off my leg and seat. I felt optimistic that this was an exercise we could master. And then I turned him around.

Counter-clockwise was a fiasco. "Stiff" doesn't even begin to describe his reaction. I kid you not, he could barely walk. He pulled and fussed, stumbled, swished his tail… and then grudgingly took a couple steps. The only time he really did it well was as Heather and Bunny were coming back up the driveway. Then he bent and looked right at them as I drove him down the arena. Of course, when we got to the other side and he had to face away from them, the whole thing fell apart again.

<Note: Heather told me Bunny was trotting a solid 14mph, and actually passed a slow tractor out on the road. This jives with my internal clock. It seemed like she was back almost before she left. I have a feeling Heather will be a force in LD in the coming year, but I think Blue is going to need another year of nutritional recovery and conditioning before we consider getting competitive, let alone trying for tractor-passing speed.>

Anyway, the fact that Blue was able to do the exercise counter-clockwise when there was something he wanted to see off to the right makes me believe that there is a mental component to the stiffness. I will try a combination of TTEAM and April Battles' methods to release any lingering tension, but then it might just come down to insisting.

We went back around the "good way" to end the training session on a high note.

On Saturday, I woke up late to roaring wind and ominous skies. I discovered that I had slept through the first half of the crucial/stressful college football game (Go Huskers!—eventually!). Laying there on pins and needles at the thought of another embarrassing Big 10 loss, I imagined riding at Madame Dorion—the howling wind sandblasting my eyes while I desperately tried to make myself as visible as possible to the hunters—and I was overwhelmed with laziness. Brian and I spent most of the day sprawled on the couch. He played xbox. I watched.


But I regrouped 24 hours later. Heather and I had planned a lake ride for Sunday afternoon and no amount of wind was going to keep me from doing at least a little conditioning. So although it was still very gray and blustery, we decided to brave it. It seemed like a safe assumption that the wind would be less offensive down in the woods near the lake. That was 100% true. It was almost—dare I say—a pleasant day out of the wind. Plus the lake was nearly deserted because of the iffy weather, so we could keep up a good pace without worrying too much about trampling pedestrians.

Blue forged the entire time. And I mean literally every stride was clack, clack, clack, stumble, clack. I shifted my weight. I two-pointed. I dropped the reins so he could find his own equilibrium. Nothing was working. Coming down the switchbacks on the far side of the dam he stumbled so hard that I was sure he was going down and taking me with him. He crumpled forward on the downhill, half righted himself, but tripped again as gravity and momentum threw him forward. I threw him the reins and sat still to give him every chance to recover (and give me every chance to bail if I had to). It took a momentous effort, but he hauled himself back up and continued as if nothing had happened. Disappointingly, our little brush with mortality didn't seem to make him more careful. Clack, clack, clack, stumble, for another 6 miles.

Don't get me wrong. His behavior was sensible and forward overall. He even seemed downright cheerful on the single track through the tall grass (Hello, HOTR!). He didn't do anything ridiculous all day other than being a little "looky" when we went by Dean's horses. But his forging made me cautious when I probably should have been more encouraging. He went roaring down a couple of hills in what would have been an exhilarating trot minus the forging. The speed and rhythm were there. The grace was not. So I was checking him and trying to get him to rock back and use his butt. No dice.

Jeff the farrier is coming tomorrow, but Blue's feet aren't particularly long or too far out of whack to the naked eye. I suppose he could be a little thrushy from the sudden change of weather. Everything else seems normal. Is thrush all it would take to disconnect him so completely from is own hooves?

I guess we'll just have to see what Jeff has to say about it.

PS: If you haven't been following Aarene's Endurance 101 online clinic, go now.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Treat-seeking missile

Blue has what Heather and I call the "mustang metabolism." Her mustang Quincy gets fat just looking at grass. And if there is no grass, he will eat whatever there is.

Blue must have a mouth of steel too. I have seen him dig in and eat star thistles. He's eaten all the puncture vine and ragweed out of his pen. He will pick up a whole tumbleweed as it tumbles by.

But just because he'll eat anything that can't outrun him doesn't mean he lacks taste.

Oooh, is that a cucumber? Don't mind if I do.

Nom nom nom nom

Is that watermelon I see?

(He even spits out the seeds.)

Hmmmm... cantaloupe rind. Well, if you insist.

Since he's shown such a penchant for treats, I don't know why it took me so long to try the Amazing Graze toy with him. It has just been sitting around the basement at my house or in the scrub behind the trailer at Heather's since last winter. Maybe longer.

And it took Blue about two seconds to figure out that rolling the toy made the treats come out.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Curse of the Road Ride

Anytime my friends in Western Washington complain about the rain, or friends in Central Oregon complain about the cold, I have two words for them: Road Ride. 

You guys may be suffering from the weather, but it appears that you are riding on actual (somewhat) maintained trails and dirt roads. At most, you might come upon logging equipment or the occasional mountain biker. 

We are riding on the shoulders and in the ditches of paved, two-lane country roads—roads that lead to popular wineries visited by inebriated tourists in sports cars year-round. 

Semis are roaring by mere feet away as strange horses (or worse—cows and llamas) charge at the fence lines just a few feet in the other direction. 

Walla Walla is a cycling mecca. Bikes silently appear from behind out of nowhere. 

Lifted trucks driven by adolescent boy-men rev their engines and honk. Crotch rockets roar past without giving a thought to my fragile body, carefully poised on a living, breathing, fight-or-flight animal.

And before you remind me that I should at least be grateful that it was 65 degrees outside at the end of October, let's be clear. It was 65 and overcast when we started our 10-mile road loop. Five miles out, literally as far from the house as we could possibly get, it began to rain. Not sprinkle, not drizzle. Rain. Heather and I were both soaked. I wrung water out of my short-sleeve shirt. My seat saver was swampy. Our horses were out of sorts, trying to turn away from the rain. Every car, truck and farm implement that went by splashed and sprayed. I could barely see out of my glasses. Blue very nearly lost his cool more than once, including an out-of-control hand-gallop uphill on wet pavement. I didn't try to one-rein stop him because I prefer not to die.

Every road ride is a little adventure like this. And I'm starting to think that the amount of solid "work" that we are able to do is not worth the risk to life and limb. 

On the other hand, a road ride costs me much less fuel than a trip to Madame Dorian, Bennington Lake, Harris Park, Cache Hollow, or Ernie's loops up at Biscuit Ridge. 

But now that I've actually typed out the pros and cons and am reading them, the idiocy of what I'm doing is pretty obvious. I can always free up enough money for more gasoline. It is harder to scrape up money for a helicopter ride, emergency surgery, a lifetime of physical therapy and the amount of counseling that would make me forget what it felt like to live that scene at the beginning of The Horse Whisperer. You know the one.

The urge to condition my horse might—literally—kill me. How am I only just realizing this?!

Two steps forward, a long walk back

Saturday I intended to go to the lake, but got caught up formatting the endless stream of ride results and standings for the November PNER newsletter. I looked up from InDesign at 3:30 and realized I'd better get it in gear if I wanted to ride in the daylight.

We warmed up with bareback arena exercises, then I went and got the saddle. Oh boy, did my stirrups feel short after all that bareback work! I took them down a notch, and we started out to ride the perimeter of the pasture, which encompasses a mix of steep and rolling hills, a bit of gravel, and a slightly obstructed view of neighbors gardening, mowing and just generally being as spook-inducing as possible. 

The circle in the ground where the round pen used to be is still pretty visible. It will probably be visible to archaeologists 1,000 years from now, with or without satellite imaging. I thought it would be a good challenge for Blue to be trotting the pasture at a good clip, then to take that circle like a volte and continue back to the perimeter. It turned out to be a very good exercise, as he tried to run out of the circle about ten times. We'd start in a relaxed trot, but as he reached the far end of the circle (closest to the trailer and hitching rail), he'd speed up, put his nose in the air, and drift outwards with no regard for my seat or legs.

He's an opinionated beast, and I suppose his opinion was that it was time to quit. He was wrong of course. By the second attempt, I was ready for him, with a more aggressive seat and leg. No dice. He fell out of the circle in a stiff, fast, hollow, angry, head-tossing trot. I one-reined him to my knee and gave him a taste of the spurs (both actions being punishment and not aids—yes, he can tell the difference) until he was turned back into the circle. Then I proceeded as if nothing had happened. Five strides later, back in the same spot, he did the same thing again. So I did the same thing again. 

We went around like this more times than I'd like to admit. This kind of testing behavior does not reflect well on Blue. Trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result doesn't say much for his intelligence, either.

We got through it, though, and returned to the perimeter. When we hit the gate, I turned him out of the pasture and headed for the trees.

The nice thing about riding in this kind of tree farm is that everything is in neat rows, providing a nice visual cue for where to go. So we did a 300-yard straightaway, then cut between two trees and did the same thing in the other direction. Lather, rinse, repeat. When that got boring, I started slaloming the trees two-by-two. All of this was going very well. Blue was light and interested. Then The Bad Thing happened. Physics conspired against me.

I reached up to push a long, leafy branch out the way, as I had a hundred times before. I released it, and, unlike the hundreds of times before, it came aback at just the right speed and angle to smack Blue right in the butt. He gave an almighty kick. I landed up on his neck with him still pitching, and I had a decision to make. I wasn't having much luck with stopping him or getting back down into the saddle, so I decided to slide off to the side.

That worked out fine except that I let go of the reins. So Blue energetically trotted toward home without me. I keep meaning to teach him to come when he's called. Times like this, I wish I'd done more of that training with him when he was confined to The Pen.
"BooooooBoooooo!" I called in my sweetest singsong. "Come here, Boooo!"
He stopped a couple football fields away, flicked an ear at me, took a moment to consider, then turned back toward home at nice, smart trot. He looked much too proud of himself.

Luckily there was an alfalfa field between me and home, so I didn't have to walk the entire way. We got back to the driveway, did the perimeter again, did the circle again, and called it good. It was getting a bit dim out anyway.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lopsided, and some thoughts on saddles

Work gets out early on Fridays, so there was still enough daylight to do some riding. I went in with a plan to work on my own balance. Something I never would have done with the unpredictable Otto: bareback arena work.

Obviously I started at the walk. I haven't ridden bareback a whole lot, and it shows in my complete lack of ability to sit a horse. I remember when I got Gazab, way back in Nebraska, my dad rode him bareback around the pasture at a canter. I wouldn't even canter in a saddle at that stage. 

I still can't canter bareback, but after a lot of initial wobbling, I got to be pretty comfortable in the trot on Friday. I felt a real sense of teamwork with Blue. It seemed like he was working just as hard to stay under me as I was working to stay on top of him. 

I have been contemplating getting some sort of deep-seat "Englishy" saddle as an alternative to the Specialized. I feel like swapping periodically might be better for Blue's back and my riding. Part of this contemplation has been looking at Blue's back. Sitting on it bare gave me a better sense of how he's using it now, and what the overall silhouette is. The next step was to stand on something tall behind him and look at symmetry (or the complete lack thereof).

My poor track record of staying in the saddle attracts me to something like this: 
Short of someone turning the horse upside-down and shaking him, I'd pretty much be glued in. The trouble with poleys (i.e., those leg-holder-inners on the front of the saddle) in endurance is pretty obvious: You might end up with bruised legs from posting into them for hours at a time. I also have heard from many people that the fit on Aussie saddles can be iffy at best, and that the good ones cost a fortune. Plus, I really love the dressage-style rigging on my Specialized. I'd hate to go back to a bulky western knot or a fat English buckle under my leg.
So what are my other options?
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I flirted with the treeless thing for a while with Otto. I bought a very pretty used Torsion to use as a backup saddle. It was so light and cushy… like a leather easy-chair. Unfortunately, it was amazingly slick, and the lack of twist made it feel like I was a living in a Thelwell comic. 
Needless to say, this is not a particularly secure way to sit, especially for Otto's "sideways teleportation" style of movement. 

They make treeless, flex-tree and semi-treed saddles that are meant for a more secure ride.

Like this one, for instance.

I'm intrigued by the Kuda saddle above because it looks like it might offer a bit more security and grip. Maybe even a teeny bit of twist and lift so I don't feel like I'm sitting directly on Blue's spine. On the other hand, they aren't exactly cheap from the dealer, and they are new enough that the secondhand market is almost nonexistent. It would be an expensive experiment.

The other saddles I came across seem almost too good to be true. 
Kind of a dressage/endurance hybrid.

This one doubles as a mattress.

That seat is completely impractical for my needs, but look how pretty!

Imagine, no fenders or leathers under your leg, plus a front grip. And again, all that padding!

This one reminds me of my RL Watson, a saddle that made my butt very happy.

All of the saddle styles above come from the same maker, Sycamore Creek/CTK. And they have dozens more styles. I always check when I'm thinking about a piece of equipment or clothing. Sycamore Creek has no ratings lower than 4 out of 5. That's pretty much unheard of, even for some of the most upmarket commercial saddles. The reviews rave about the customer service, great price-to-quality ratio, super comfy construction… Did I mention the prices? I think the most expensive of the saddles above comes in under $700. You read that right.
The hardest part about Sycamore Creek would be choosing a style. I actually emailed Tony, the U.S. distributor, and asked for his opinion on my situation. I told him the four models that seemed closest to what I was looking for. He said any one of them would probably work for Blue's back conformation, so the choice was more about what worked for me as a rider. They will customize the saddle to fit us both.

What would fit me, dear reader, is a leather saddle with some grip, at least a 5-inch-deep seat, a high cantle, dressage rigging, leathers instead of fenders, and enough rings and straps to contain all my gear. I also need it to cost less than $1000, last forever, and fit my horse perfectly.

Is that so much to ask?! :)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

They call it work for a reason

Arena work isn't exactly my favorite thing in the world. I appreciate the safety of the relatively controlled environment, but it also gets boring. 

Heather was supposed to have a lesson on Sunday, so we thought the prudent choice would be to take the horses to the arena on Wednesday evening and make sure they could handle it. Both have been in indoor arenas before, but this one is a 3/4 indoor with potentially scary mirrors and barn cats trotting around under foot. No sense taking chances with a nervous horse when you're paying a trainer $85 an hour—we'd get them used to the environment on our own time, thanks very much.

Bunny took only a few minutes to settle, but Blue was especially enchanted by the mirrors. He wasn't scared, exactly, but he felt it was necessary to puff himself up to impress the horse in the mirror. Then the horse in the mirror had the audacity to also puff himself up and prance around. They had a bit of a face-off, but Blue relaxed when he realized that the horse in the mirror was having to work just as hard as he was at his sidepassing. (And really I think he figured the whole thing out within a few minutes.)

Heather has been lending me her issues of Dressage Today as she finishes with them, so I have had some very specific exercises I've been wanting to work on. That night, we worked transitions between back, halt, walk and trot. Blue was game, but heavy on the forehand and not exactly "soft" in any sense. Before he had a chance to get resentful, we switched to spirals for awhile. He was good to the left but stiff to the right. Not a surprise to me. His nose is always tipped left, even just standing at liberty. We're working on this too.

Overall, the night ride at the arena was a good one. We made reasonable progress on a few things, and incremental progress is all I feel comfortable asking of any horse. What was really eye-opening was how sloppy I was. My seat was bouncing all over the place, and it seemed like every time I released the tension in one set of muscles, another set locked down.

I could feel it in my body, and worse I could see it in the mirrors.

Being weak and overweight is incredibly frustrating. I can see that if I were a more sedentary being, inertia would be my friend. Since I'm not, I'm constantly hoisting one or another heavy, unstable object (i.e., my thighs, arms, back, belly) onto the horse and trying to keep them coordinated. I think a lot of the reed-thin riders kind of take for granted that their center of gravity is basically stationary. Mine bounces and wobbles. Here's something I never thought I'd say: I'm fortunate to carry more weight in my belly and seat. I can't imagine being busty and riding effectively.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rant, as promised

Lately there has been lot of talk on the PNER and AERC message boards—and in the blogosphere, for that matter—about finding ways to increase endurance ride attendance/memberships/revenue. Basically, we’re seeing the usual panic that sets in when the economy tanks and business isn’t as brisk as it used to be. Horses are expensive. A co-worker recently told me about an article that estimated costs at $3,000 per year per horse—and that’s just for subsistence-level horsekeeping, not competition.

Most of us have had to economize in one way or another. That said, I think it is pretty much impossible to predict how an individual rider plans her season based on money alone.

I mean, if you look at me, 2011 was just one setback after another—bad weather, health issues and injuries (mine and the horse), variable fitness (mine and the horse), training setbacks, one really untimely ride cancellation during the EHV scare, selling one horse, buying another, and just having other obligations on some weekends. None of those problems had anything to do with lack of funds for entries.

Of course, I count myself in a lucky minority. I work a job with normal weekends, banker’s hours and plenty of paid vacation. It isn’t a hardship for me to take off a Friday to go to a ride. For someone like my husband, who works uncertain hours and days and has extremely limited vacation, serious endurance competition would be just this side of impossible. More people our age have his kind of job than have my kind of job, especially as companies continue to squeeze employees’ free time while they pay lipservice to the so-called work-life balance.

Some of the people in the PNER email group are talking about how hard it is to make choices from week to week about where to go when “popular” rides happen consecutively. They forget that we are incredibly lucky to live in a region where this is a problem.

For now at least, there are so many people willing to put on rides that we have a ride almost every weekend from mid-April to late October. Many of them are multi-day affairs. We can’t all go to every ride.

What would get me to go to more? Good weather. I know you can’t really control this one, but for those of us who sleep in a tent on the cold, hard ground, the weather is a big deal. I am only riding for one-tenth or less of the total time I spend at the ride.  It would be nice to have a modicum of comfort the rest of the time. Fear of the weather kept me from going to MRRT and Grizzly in the early part of this year—even though I had an extremely fit horse. Good weather made me wish I could have gone to Klickitat, Renegade, Bandit, and Foothills—even though Blue was nowhere near ready.

I don’t expect ride managers to start providing hotel rooms. But it might be nice, especially leading up to the early-season and end-of-season rides, to see people offering sleeping space in their LQ or camper to those of us who have to rough it. Even if you don’t have room for my horse, if you have room for me to get eight hours of high-quality sleep, I will pay you for your trouble.

Failing that that kind of hospitality, and failing a complete turnaround of Northwest weather (haha), the next best thing to attending more rides myself is attending the same number of rides and just bringing more people along.

I have tried to do my part with new people. I’ve ridden with more than one first-time rider. I think that we should confer sainthood on anyone who rides with newbies and juniors regularly. I’ve been lucky to team up with newbies who, for the most part, share my beliefs about what constitutes a good pace and acceptable horse behavior. But not every new rider is like that.

I failed one such rider this year. She had the goodness to haul my horse to HOTR, but I didn’t have the good grace to ride the LD with her. Heather and I had our own strategy planned out, and we (wrongly) assumed that our driver did too. I had a fantastic, top-ten ride on Otto that day. Yay for me, I guess.

Because here's the thing: That fantastic ride cost me an opportunity to help someone else feel the joy of completing a ride.

If I had been less selfish, I might have earned the sport a new devotee and made a new friend. Instead, my driver left the ride exhausted and bewildered. She skipped awards and went home as soon as my horse was rested enough to get in the trailer. It was only a matter of months before she was selling the horse she had bought specifically for endurance.

And to think, I could have prevented all of that if I had just looked beyond the end of my own nose.

I think that’s really the key to getting better attendance at rides. It’s not so important when or where the ride is conducted. It is important how the ride is conducted.

Ride managers and volunteers have a responsibility to make things as straightforward and easy as possible—especially for the first-timers. Frankly, a ride that is managed with first-timers in mind is easier for everyone anyway. Well-marked, well-organized and well-explained trails are a boon to everyone. Friendly, helpful people at registration and vet checks can be the difference between a good weekend and a bad one.

Experienced riders need to be prepared to stand in for the ride manager when they aren’t present. When we meet someone 20 miles out who is lost or hurt or confused or on foot, we need to slow down and as if we can help. We need to be prepared to explain how a vet check and hold work—potentially a million times. We need to shut off the adrenaline and remember that very little is actually at stake at any given ride. This isn’t the Kentucky Derby, and winning won’t make us millionaires.

But helping another person—making them feel wanted and appreciated—might save the sport. That’s what’s really at stake. If I want to be an old-lady endurance rider in 2045, I better be ready and willing to make sure there will be young-lady endurance riders here to mark my trails.

And yes, I will make sure I have an extra bunk for them in case of bad weather.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pre-rant rant

I had a rant—and I mean a full-on diatribe—ready for the blog last week. The web forums for PNER and AERC are both lit up on the subject of attracting more riders in the face of a bad economy, declining ride entries, blah blah blah.

And I was pretty well set to post it. But then all of a sudden it was Wednesday night, and I still needed to pack for my Annual October Seattle Vacation with Brian. And now I'm back in the Wallas, and all of the material for the November PNER newsletter is sitting in my inbox like a ticking time bomb.

Do I finish my blog post and ignore the (literally hundreds of) results and standings that I need to format? Should I wash the pile of laundry we accumulated in the city? Isn't it enough that I moved it from the suitcase to the floor? What am I, some sort of wizard?

The truth is self-evident. Internet forever!

Rant coming up in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why I’m not ready to ride Tevis

First, non-endurance friends, read here what Tevis is.

I’m not ready to ride 100 miles in a day (or even 90-ish, as they may have done this year). Putting aside all the concrete reasons that I'm not ready, including (but not limited to): Not having enough money for a trip to CA, not having a fit horse, not being a fit rider, never having ridden more than 30 miles continuously, not being a "morning person" and needing much more frequent bathroom breaks than a Tevis-winning pace will allow, I also am just too damn lazy. Let me illustrate.

I’ve copied 2011 winning rider Jeremy Reynolds’ schedule from ride day and compared it to my own schedule for the same Saturday. It puts my productivity in pretty harsh perspective.

6:30 a.m.
Jeremy begins the ride, cantering through darkness with a herd of fire-breathing elite equine athletes.

I am still in bed. 

7:30 a.m.
Jeremy arrives at Lower Quarry–East, averaging 10.1mph.

I am still in bed.

8:01 a.m.
Jeremy arrives at Franciscos–East, having already gone 20.1 miles in less than two hours.

I am still in bed.

10:21 a.m.
Jeremy arrives at Foresthill–East, having traveled 38.6 miles. He will now have a one-hour hold and vet check.

I am still in bed. (Do you see a pattern forming?)

11:24 a.m.
Jeremy leaves Foresthill–East.

I wake up 11 minutes after Jeremy leaves Foresthill. In those 11 minutes he has traveled about a mile. I have gone the 10 steps to the bathroom and back.

12:01 p.m.
Jeremy arrives at Chicken Hawk/Volcano–East, having traveled 42.7 miles.

I am putting frozen biscuits in the oven and frying breakfast sausage. I am still in my bathrobe. Brian is playing Call of Duty in his underwear.

1:22 p.m.
Jeremy is leaving Chicken Hawk/Volcano–West, having traveled more than half the ride distance—57.3 miles.

I am now wearing pants.

1:55 p.m.
Jeremy cruises into Foresthill – West. He is at 61.4 miles and will have another hourlong hold.

I am in the truck on my way to Heather’s to ride Blue.

2:58 p.m.
Jeremy leaves Foresthill – West.

Blue and I are at Bennington Lake. We are about 15 minutes into our ride.

5:22 p.m.
Jeremy arrives at River Crossing – West. He has ridden 83.4 miles today.

I am already back in the parking lot at Bennington Lake grooming Blue. I rode a few moderately paced miles of hills in ideal October-in-Walla-Walla weather (i.e., 70 degrees and sun with just the hint of a breeze).

I'm not a real endurance rider; I just play one in this blog.

5:50 p.m.
Jeremy arrives at Lower Quarry – West, 89.9 miles into his journey.

I drop Blue off at Heather’s and unhook the trailer. I zoom home to say hello to Brian and change clothes so I can go for a run.

7:01 p.m.
Jeremy cruises into the finish at McCann Stadium. He has been riding for 10.5 hours—longer than I have been awake—at an average speed just under 10mph.

I finish a 20-minute run (level, paved trail) at the same moment he crosses the finish line. I feel pleasantly tired.

I can’t imagine how he feels. And that’s why I’m not ready.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Two fantastic rides this weekend. Two very different rides.

Friday after work I was feeling kind of tired and irritable, which is the wrong frame of mind for taking out on the road for mileage. But I knew I needed to ride: Blue is getting F-A-T these days. I'm constantly tweaking his diet, but since he arrived malnourished, we haven't quite figured out what he needs on a day-to-day basis yet. So right now he's probably getting a bit more than he needs... grass hay, pasture, beet pulp, Life Design senior, and half a cup of flax seeds with paprika daily. Believe it or not, up until a few weeks ago we were putting Cool Calories and canola oil on top of that.

On the upside, Heather tells me that he has started frolicking in the pasture (i.e., tearing around like an idiot), so I think he must be feeling better than he was when I got him. I just keep telling myself that all that feed is going somewhere. On Friday, it went toward arena work.

I tend to get bored in the arena. To keep myself involved and to enforce some kind of structure on the ride, I played an episode of This American Life on my iPhone. The purpose is to keep my mind and body relaxed by distracting me just the right amount, while also making it clear when I have been riding for an hour. When the episode is over, we cool down.

I put Blue in the German martingale, and we began some very basic gymnastic work under light contact. Blue tends to stay bent to the left, so my goal that night was to get one good, even, consistently paced volte to the right. And I got it eventually.

The hour went by fast for me, because I was incrementally asking Blue to pull himself into some semblance of a balanced frame. We had moments, friends. It was a start.  By the time Ira Glass was signing off, we were doing neat figure-eights, flexed but not braced.

Blue and I both took Saturday off. My back was killing me (probably because I went for a run Friday night), and I spent most of the day flat on the floor listening to college football. When Brian got home, we went out on a date, which I only mention here because between dinner and the movie we had some time to kill. We went to a bookstore and Brian bought me this:

We didn't get home until well after 1 a.m., but I still stayed up and read the first 20 pages or so. Obviously Blue is no dressage horse, but the advice and some of the exercises that Becker recommends are within his ability now. And others we can work towards. Everything is focused on creating that lightness and oneness of purpose that makes riding so fantastic... on the rare occasion that the stars align that way.

And I have to say, Sunday was one of those days when things just felt great. I took Blue to the lake for a little alone time, just the two of us. I wanted to get him out and let him work at his own pace instead of trying to keep up with Bunny or thinking about how he could cut corners to get home.

Was it the weather? The day off? Some unconscious dressage-by-osmosis from the book? I don't know. But Blue and I were rock solid and full of energy. Nothing could spook him—not mountain bikes, dogs or deer leaping up from almost underfoot—not even Dean's horses calling to him as we bombed down the road next to Mill Creek. Blue attacked every hill with equine zeal, and I just focused on staying out of his way.

I wasn't GPS-ing, so I don't know what our actual speed was. And really it doesn't matter anyway. We were moving at a speed that made us both happy and got us home with plenty of daylight to spare.

Light skies, light hands and light hearts. It was a great ride.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


It was 93 degrees outside on the first day of fall. Ninety-three degrees and bone dry. How dry?

So dry that I raised a cloud of dust just by standing.

So dry that every photo I tried to take was blurry yellow-brown.

Yes, the dust is unpleasant. But the light, fluffy soil that fills the air (and is great for growing onions), also grows my mortal enemy:

Puncture vine.

AKA, goat heads.
AKA, the things that I track around with me everywhere I go.
Heat and dust and puncture vine are not what we're here to talk about though. I'm here to talk about culicoides.

They call them no-see-ums, so look closely while you can.

We had a cold spring and a late summer, so here, all of a sudden at the end of September, the bugs have arrived.

Quincy stopped shaking long enough for a picture. I see at least eight flies on him.

Bunny's tail never stops.

Blue's eyes were red and swollen from the constant irritation.
 Something had to be done. So I got out the arsenal:

The nice thing about it being 93 degrees is that I could safely give Blue an early-fall scrubbing. I spent an hour working medicated shampoo into this:

Hair loss and dermatitis caused by culicoides and the neck threadworms that they transmit. Blue has a lot of these nasty patches of so-called sweet itch.
Then I drenched him in Flysect, smeared his face with Swat, hit all the sweet itch patches with EQyss gel, and topped it all off with a fly mask. The end result looks a lot like what I started with... minus the flies!

Who's a pretty boy? Blue is!