Reluctant Cowgirl


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2019 Horsemanship Challenge

What’s so beautiful about these days is that life feels like it’s everything all at once.

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Best sunset of the year so far. 

I borrowed this line from a longtime favorite blogger, JoytheBaker. It rung true for me last week the way few other things have, as the calendar page flipped and instead of feeling like I was trapped in the dark winter doldrums I walked out into 2019 throwing punches.

First, I started a 30 day yoga challenge, which I’ve tried before but never succeeded at, my body and brain always deciding after some non-critical juncture that it has better things to do, like play with my horse. But not this time.

Then I went to my first pottery class, a Christmas gift my my beloved who seemed to sense a rising need for a creative outlet bubbling up in me. I’ve done pottery before and flung myself into this thing feeling confident and excited.

Next, I vowed to read more books than ever before.

And THEN, I saw a post on Facebook about a horsemanship challenge starting January 6th. The goal is one horse, 30 rides, 40 hours over 12 weeks. I said hey, I’m on a roll here, everything is fresh and new and doable. I’m not scared of anything!

So here we are, feeling everything all at once; going for it. At the end of week one I have 3 hours and 2 rides. We started out with a  hand walk/hike over on the BLM land bordering our property which was a lot of fun. Then, on my birthday, we took a leisurely stroll around the property, and finally, on Friday, with the footing outside steadily turning to crud from the freeze/thaw cycles, we worked in the arena for an hour. I downloaded some songs to my phone that were supposed to have a beats-per-minute value for trotting, and stuck it in my breast pocket. I’m not sure how good we did at matching the tempo, but it was definitely fun to add music to the mix.

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Stopped to check the game cam during my birthday ride and someone was creeping on me.

I finally did the math and realized that I’ll need to keep an average of 3+ hours/week to complete this challenge. Going to try to stick to a Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule and add in weekend rides when I can. Right now the old snow is hard and crusty and does not make for good footing, so we’ll need to get creative about arena time quick so neither of us lose our minds.

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After our Friday arena ride. The days are getting longer!

I’m hoping to also get back to a habit of regular (weekly?) posting here. I can’t promise the content will be riveting but it will be honest and perhaps make you chuckle once or twice.

Bring on Week 2!


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So Reluctant – Where 2018 Went

I didn’t ride for two months. It got hot and I got frustrated and started to think of my pony as a shut-down beast sick of my ineptitude going through the motions to prevent discomfort, albeit stubbornly. He snatched grass, he balked, he made me feel like a 6 year-old with spaghetti arms and toothpick legs trying to move a fat, obstinate pony. I love this horse, but he is smart, and while I hesitate to use the word “lazy”, he prefers not to work and knows exactly how to work me to get out of it. Finally I said, you win. We took a break. We still spent time together, but it was easy time, standing and licking and chewing and breathing. It was exquisitely boring.

We’re back at it now, going slow, trying to be patient and firm, but enjoy each other. We took a couple lessons before the snow fell and they went OK. They cemented my feelings that it’s all me, and my inability to be firm and ask for something and stick with it until he takes the suggestion. I vacillate between wanting to take the time and effort to become one of those horsemen full of finesse and exquisite feel who can get animals to do their bidding with tiny cues and no resistance, and just wanting to do enough to get my horse to go where I ask him to at the speed I request. I don’t feel like I can stand forcing him into work, and I’m not sure how to convince him without force. He clearly came with innate ability as a trail horse, but thinks the ring should be left for those fancy purebreds. I have deep moral and ethical struggles about all this that leave me flummoxed.

But did I mention how much I love him?

When we weren’t riding, he still came through as a pack horse, helping to drag a deer three miles through rugged country. He still nickered every time he saw me, and responded with aplomb to forays into clicker training. He stayed relaxed, but aloof. All the things I love about him didn’t change. He’s still smart and funny and I throw children and beginners on him without a worry in the world. On New Year’s eve, I rode him all over the property in a halter in snow up to his hocks and then joined friends at a bonfire where he hammed it up, drinking beer and kissing dogs. He was the life of the party.

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In 2018, we didn’t complete an endurance ride. We took as many steps backward as forward. We didn’t go to any clinics, and our lessons were inconsistently scattered throughout the year. But we didn’t have any wrecks, I don’t believe I outwardly wept over any rides, I successfully re-trained us on trailer loading after we got really bad at it, I got better at not leaping off his back every time he showed the slightest bit of resistance, and I tried some trail rides in new places without dying. Room for improvement? Sure. But it could have been worse.

As I said last year, I’m not much for goal setting and resolution-making. But who doesn’t love the potential of a nice, clean slate?


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What My Mustang is Made Of

For $40 and the trauma of pulling 40 strands of your horse’s mane out, you can find out the top three breeds that may have contributed to his lineage somewhere down the line based on maximum likelihood estimation and a bunch of genetic principles I learned my sophomore year in college and have long since forgotten. This, as everyone has noted, is mostly done for mustangs, but now that I’ve done it I kind of want to send in my old horse Rube’s mane hairs and see what they say. (He’s very probably an Arab x QH but I know nothing about him other than he is in his mid-30s and has done everything from packing to barrel racing.)

I love mutts. Hybrid vigor is real. My dogs are wonderfully mixed-up creatures and I have no desire to find out their ancestry. But for some reason the mustang genetic testing at Texas A&M intrigued me. It’s cheap because it’s research and they present it that way, not as some boutique handout of guesses accompanied by fancy branding, and as a scientist I appreciate contributing to the literature. I’ll rip hairs out and indulge my curiosity for that.

Anyway, Henry. Henry is a mustang from the Triple B Herd Management Area (“HMA”) in eastern Nevada. He grew up in the wild and wasn’t gathered until he was six. For all we know, there could be baby Henries running around out there. It’s crazy to think about. His HMA is in a pretty harsh and desolate area of the Great Basin Desert, and like many other HMAs, is currently severely overpopulated. In February 2018, the BLM gathered more than 1200 horses from Triple B, and a couple dozen were euthanized due to body condition scores of three or less, i.e., they were emaciated and had a poor prognosis for recovery. I found woefully little information about the origins of the horses in the Triple B HMA, and therefore my guesses about my guy’s  background are based on standing back and squinting at him, trying to remember the horse breed books I stared at for hours on end as a child. Percheron? Paso Fino? Andalusian? He’s short (14-14.1 hh) and stocky with feathered fetlocks. On the rare occasion he gets riled up, he arches his neck and prances like a PRE. But other than that nothing about him screams ‘athletic.’

Imagine my surprise at the results. We should apparently be show jumping, because breed #1 was Hanoverian, and #2 was Holsteiner, two very athletic warmbloods. (Incidentally, during my brief, teenage career in the jumpers, I was obsessed with these two breeds and remember doodling their brands in my high school notebooks.)

Hanoverian? No. (From Hanoverian.org)

Holsteiner? Not really even a little bit.

The third breed was something called an Argentinian Criollo. Bingo. This witherless animal looks just like my short, curvy beast except with about half the back length. (Seriously what’s going on with her hip it’s like a mile long?)

Yes. Criollo from Wikipedia.

Criollo-ish.

One statement that stood out to me in the explainer for the genetic testing was

The more breeds involved in a cross the lower the probability that a good result will be delivered.

Mustangs originated from Spanish stock, sure. But over generations new breeds and crossbreds were added into the mix when people released them or they escaped. What if at least one of every breed known to North America has been introduced at some point? What if half that number had been? This test would be worthless. It’s possible this test was worthless, based on the statement above.

Whatever the case, I believe these wild (feral, non-native) horses are something entirely different from the animals they started from, shaped by survival and selected by nature, not man. Which brings me back to where I started, believing that I own a mutt with sturdy legs, a good brain, and the ability to survive on weeds and dirt. But I should probably start jumping him soon just in case there really is some Hanoverian in there.


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To the Mountains

I live about 20-30 miles from several trailheads into the biggest wilderness in Oregon. Last week my cousin was in town, and we took her up there on her first backpacking trip. Three days after returning from the three-day trip, and with the major projects of fixing the water and replacing our batteries (off-grid living is fun) complete, we realized we had a free weekend day and went back up for an afternoon with Henry.

It might be only 20-30 miles, but they are all dirt, and for most of them you can’t go over 10-20 mph. So it takes more than an hour to get to a trailhead, and when you arrive the horse is coated in a thick layer of road dust. (God I hate you, stock trailer.) He steps out and shakes off and it is absolute Pig Pen.

Also there are a million blind turns and rednecks drive like idiots and I try not to pee my pants in the passenger seat from nerves the entire time.

It was a Sunday afternoon and the horse camp was deserted. Henry, as usual, did not seem to care about anything other than how much grass he could consume, but I was getting myself all worked up about llamas. Because the weekend was ending and it was possible we’d run into pack llamas coming off the trail we were heading out on. My mustang busted through two fences and had a 1-hour long meltdown over a donkey. I don’t want to see him meet a llama.

I put on our awful western saddle because I don’t know why (I feel like people judge me riding in english tack out here?), realized I’d forgotten a part of the breast collar at home, and promptly walked off without a helmet on. I was so nervous I didn’t know if I’d even get on him, so maybe I figured I didn’t need it.

Our first encounter was with two women backpacking with fishing poles. I allowed H to stop, stare and listen as we chatted with the girls. He soon realized they were just humans with long pokey things and OH HEY, THERE’S SOME GRASS.

Next we crossed a wooden bridge with a snort but no real hesitation. Then we just walked normally like a human and a horse on a trail. Then I realized I’d just backpacked 30 miles and had blisters and an Achilles strain and deserved to ride on this overweight horse. So I hopped on (sans helmet; I’m mortified) and we rode a couple miles with four creek crossings, some gnarly rocky terrain (I got off for the worst of it) and our biggest issue the continued struggle to impress upon him that riding time is not eating time unless access to grass has been granted with a certain command. (At one point RCowboy asked if it would be possible to ride him with a muzzle on.) Also he is fat and out of shape and several times performed like a dramatic, unruly pony who would just like to be left on the mountain rather than have to climb one more step, please.

“I could not possibly go on”

On the way back down we rode through a huge meadow (SO MUCH NOSE-LEVEL GRASS) and through the big creek. I took off his saddle and let him have a swim/roll because he’s a good boy and he was going to get filthy with dust on the ride home anyway.

Horse-shaped hippo/water buffalo

So we don’t have proper trail tack that either of us enjoy and we still haven’t gotten the llama thing (or the bear thing…or the other million things that could go wrong on the trail) out of the way but it was a nice ride and a great first step in the mountains. Where there’s lots of grass.


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Two Years; an Extreme Mustang Makeover Adoption Story

Today is my two-year adopt-aversary with Henry Wheeler. Certainly people have accomplished more with their horses in two years in terms of ribbons and trophies and points, but we’re taking the slow and steady approach, and I’m okay with that.

Yay.

Since I’m not sure I’ve ever shared the story of Henry’s adoption, today seems like a good a day as any.

Once I decided I wanted a horse, I decided I wanted a mustang. I am a firm believer in and lover of mutts and their associated hybrid vigor, and as an ecologist loved that I could be the reason there was one less horse on the range. (While I certainly don’t want to see wild mustangs extirpated, I definitely think their numbers are too high to be sustainable for both the ecosystems they inhabit and their own survival. It’s a very complicated issue but there is no disputing that gathers happen and horses go to holding facilities and any chance to adopt one out is a good move for everyone concerned.)

Once I decided on a mustang, I started looking for adoption events, and the Extreme Mustang Makeover was the best option for me because the horses would be saddle trained. I may have been sort of clueless adopting a horse with just 100 days of training after being ‘out of horses’ for 20 years, but at least I knew enough not to get myself an untouched or TIP-trained mustang. (TIP horses have been gentled and taught to load and unload from a trailer, halter, and pick up all four feet, but nothing more.)

The Extreme Mustang Makeover is an outstanding program. Say what you will about forcing horses to a certain place in 100 days (I would argue ‘forcing’ isn’t even an appropriate word because a lot of trainers hold their horses out of the competition if they don’t think they will be ready), the pageantry and fun of these type of events do great things for the breed. Leading up to the event I stalked every trainer I could find online, looking for updates on Facebook and Instagram that would give me insights into the personality and experience of the horse and the philosophy of the trainer. But not all trainers are social media-savvy, and some just don’t post very often. In the end I made a short list of horses I was interested in based on a single photo of each on the EMM website.

We drove to Nampa, Idaho with the dogs and an empty trailer, having set up a round pen in the apple orchard outside our residence at the time, a 460-square foot single-wide. We stopped at the feed store and picked up two bales of hay – one grass, one alfalfa, because I had no idea what I was doing – on the way. We arrived Saturday in time to watch the pattern class and attend the ‘Meet the Mustangs’ event in the stables. Youth freestyles were going on, but I tried not to get distracted by all the cute yearlings. The group of riding horses was mostly made up of representatives from the Idaho Black Mountain and Hardtrigger HMAs, with a couple of Beatty’s Butte (OR) and Triple B (NV) ‘stangs thrown in. All were geldings. The color range was mostly bays, sorrels, and a couple blacks. No greys or flashy pintos to catch my eye and make me irrationally choose a horse with an incompatible attitude because of its color.

The first thing I asked each trainer as I made the rounds at each stall was whether they planned on adopting the horse. I did NOT want to be in a bidding war with a trainer that had fallen in love with their mustang. I’ve been a foster mom for dogs and I know how easy it is to get attached to an animal, and if they want to keep them they should be able to do so, by all means. Some folks responded along the lines of “hell no,” (those raised red flags for other reasons), others said squirrely things like “I’d really like to keep him, but…”, and one or two said they planned on bringing the horse home no matter what. I crossed those off the list and didn’t bother with any more questions. A few said they loved the horse and wanted them to go home with a wonderful adopter, and those were the ones I pushed further with questions. How tall is he? Is he good with dogs? Has he ever bucked, bitten, kicked, reared, bolted? Is he “stud-y”? How is he on trails versus the arena? Perhaps not strangely I remember the answers to these questions from only one respondent, Whitney, Henry’s trainer. She stood in his doorway with the door open and he quietly munched hay beside her. She ran her hands through his mane and talked about how much she’d come to love him, and how once she’d earned his trust he’d decided he would do anything for her. Everything she said was the right answer, his easy-going demeanor was hypnotizing, and Hip 5 moved to the top of my list.

Stable signage from the event.

After my time in the stalls, I had a short list of three horses and it was time to go back to the arena for the freestyle competition. Henry and Whitney had made the top 10, and would perform for about 7 minutes with a sock hop theme, doing everything from bouncing giant beach balls to jumping into the back of a pickup to chasing a cow. It was a great performance and they ended up fourth overall.

Mustang in a Ford.

 

Like some kinda cow pony. (Credit Lynda Allan Photography)

I had full on chills and wanted to bring this horse home with me so badly at this point, and was very grateful he had such a low hip number so I wouldn’t have to anxiously wait through all the others to bid. Have you ever bid in an auction? Have you ever bid in an auction on a living being that you have suddenly fallen madly in love with? I had not. I was nervous, but Whitney wanted him to go to me, as did several new friends we made in the stands. I had an idea how high I wanted to go, and when they called out for bidders I started waving my number like crazy, and the new friends helped get the auctioneer’s attention when it was needed. Someone across the arena was also bidding on him, and my entire body was shaking as I kept pleading for them to give up before I had to. They did.

I jumped up and down and ran to the arena fence to hug Whitney through it. We were both crying. It was such a good feeling knowing she was rooting for us to be together, especially because I know how much she cared for him.

Not a fake smile. I got a pony!

 

It was a whirlwind day and we wanted to get him home before it was pitch dark out, so after completing the paperwork we said many teary goodbyes and exchanged numbers. He got a hay net and lots of pets and we hit the road.

Still wearing his hip number, first day home.

He slept so hard the first few days I had him, I started to wonder if it was normal. What a crazy 100 days for a formerly-wild stallion from Nevada. I’m glad to have learned a lot from and about him in the two years since, and can’t wait to see where we are in another two years.

Like a giddy child.

 


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Notes from a Summer Evening

It was still in the 90s when I grabbed my pony tonight. Summer is real.

Lately we’ve been trying an assortment of approaches aimed at relaxation, focus and building our partnership. I’m sorry about how sappy and cliché that sounds. But when I have more bad interactions than good with my horse I am ready to try anything.

We start with slow, careful catching using approach and retreat. When he doesn’t show stress I move toward him, when he does I back away. There are generally some scratches and a treat involved. I do my best to wait until he’s fully relaxed and willing before I put the halter on. I’m tired of rushing. It doesn’t work for us.

Next we went to the arena and did ground work. The aim was keeping him with me and engaged, so I broke out some cavaletti and cones because he gets bored easily in the ring. We walked and trotted, we side passed, turned on the haunches. We worked on backing into parallel ground poles, which was the hardest obstacle for us today. I laughed and had a big stupid smile on my face because he seemed to be enjoying it all, which is mostly all it takes for me to be happy.

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OK, this is cool.

Finally, I threw on my saddle and did a few of the obstacles riding, then rode him out of the arena and across the property, climbing one big hill and taking a nice break in the shade for a few bites of grass.

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This is even cooler, frankly.

We observed that the cows had been moved from one side of the road to the other, and it was very interesting to him. I didn’t make fun of him and tell him to get over it. I said I was sorry the cowboys didn’t send him a memo; that he really should be the first one they tell when they are planning to make changes to the surrounding rangeland. I forgave his tension and waited for it to pass.

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But…but…but that’s not where they belong.


Incidentally, I also took some photos of my ass in the saddle while he was having that grass break and boy am I sure now that my 16.5” saddle is too small. Turns out I’m not some string bean teenager anymore. I keep lamenting how hard it is to stay in the correct position and going, ugh, stop making excuses, probably your riding just sucks. But maybe I really do need something a little more roomy.

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3-4 fingers? I can barely get a single pinkie back there. Geez. #amateurhour

I don’t even know where to begin the saddle search. I asked a couple friends on the East Coast and one said Wintec or Albion, the other, a saddle fitter, suggested County. When I google ‘dressage saddle fat wide short backed mustang no withers’ I get a lot of hits for Duett. But will I like a Duett? Will I like a County? WHAT THE HECK THERE ARE 7,324 SADDLE BRANDS AND MODELS OUT THERE WHERE DOES ONE EVEN START.

I’m not really ready to buy new, but even if I was, if I haven’t already mentioned this one thousand times, I live in the middle of nowhere, in cowboy country. The closest tack shops with dressage saddles are 3-5 hours away. Saddle fitters, same. So do I buy used from a seller/consignor with trial periods? It seems like that’s probably the safest bet.

I’m most comfortable in a dressage saddle, and think the right one should be something I can use for lessons and trail riding. Maybe down the line a proper endurance saddle will become necessary, but for now one good, well-fitting dressage saddle is all I want.

(Except for the Wade western saddle I need for my cowboy cred. I never can tell when one of my neighbors is going to ask me to help move cattle, and I absolutely cannot show up in a dressage saddle.)


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Lessons in Humility

This could probably be the title of every post about a lesson, but this one was especially humbling.

It was a brisk, breezy day and we rode outdoors. Lately Alice saddles up her young Azteca mare to ride with me, which I love. Not only does it give us both experience riding with other horses, it also gives her a birds-eye view of my riding, and Henry a kick in the pants. (Would you want to be chased by a fiery grey mare?) I have no idea how in the world she is coordinated enough to both control her green horse and critique Henry and I for an hour straight at all three gaits, but she’s really good at it. She prefaces these lessons by saying “remember, I’m not yelling at you!” because she really does have to yell sometimes, and when the yelling is also combined with chasing it can be a little intimidating.

RCowboy got a good amount of video from this lesson, so I could slowly scroll through and take screenshots of us and remember how little I know and how poor my equitation is.

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Left: how to canter. Right: how not to canter.

The words I heard the most during this lesson were “HE’S BRACING” which are also the words I say to myself the most when I ride in the arena alone. In the journey to suppleness and self-carriage we are taking very baby steps which include all the bending and rollbacks and 10-m circles. I am learning how to properly hold my reins and keep my eyes up and shoulders level.

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Try to focus on the scenery and not the miniature trotter and his incompetent jockey.

We did have our moments. Some of those turns really got him to engage and when it all comes together Alice gives a whooping “YESSSSS!” and I smile. My mindset and attitude have come a long way and I definitely have fun with these lessons, even if we are far from perfecting anything or even showing consistency. I laugh out loud a lot, because if there’s one thing I can master it’s not taking myself (or any of this) too seriously. I’m lucky to own a horse and have the time and means to ride him in lessons; everything else is just gravy.

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Me: bend, pony, bend! Pony: THESE MARES ARE SO DISTRACTING

When we finished up Alice asked if she could ride him to demo some homework. She first showed me three rein positions to ask for suppleness at the halt and then at the walk and trot. Then she got him to do some very pretty trot and canter work.

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Gosh my horse is pretty when someone else rides him.

A lot of times I have to remind myself that when I got this horse less than two years ago he had 100 days of training, and his trainer spent about 60 of those days just trying to touch him. He came to me with less than 30 rides on him. When I got him, I hadn’t owned a horse or ridden consistently in 20 years. It’s fun to see what he’s capable of in experienced hands, and where we might go with time and patience.

And maybe spurs.

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Zoom zoom.