Reluctant Cowgirl


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Theme of the Week: Pace

We had another lesson last weekend and my friend Paul and his wife Nel (and her mule) came over the mountains to join in. Paul tried out and purchased a new horse that day – a grey PRE gelding named Mateo that I might have bought if he didn’t. Those Spanish horses are just so gosh darn pretty.

We worked on one-handed riding to emphasize the use of our other aids in steering, which I found very helpful. It can be so easy to fall back on the reins and grow dependent on them. Henry was a little distracted in the group lesson setting, and we also talked about empathy and giving credit to the animals for putting up with all the wild scenarios we put them in.

The best part of the group lesson was when Alice hopped on Mateo at the end to do some “military style” riding with Nel and I. She turned on some music and we rode three abreast and I had flashbacks to drill team riding at 4H camp and boy, was it fun. Henry was very good about being packed in with two strange horses but it was harder than I thought to keep the right pace with a snappy little mule and a big, stretchy Spanish horse.

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Column of threes, aka the odd trio

Pace is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately as I think about endurance riding. The books all say you need to find your horse’s ‘all day trot’ and that has been a real challenge. Henry has reverted to the giraffe trot on many occasions recently, and I feel like I’m begging and pleading with him to put his head down a bit and relax into it, engage his core and hind end. Aside from looking ghastly, the giraffe trot is also horribly uncomfortable to ride.

I thought maybe I just needed to get out and trot him a good long time to find that trot, so last night we trailered two miles up the road to ride on the forest roads. My goal was to ride for an hour and do more trotting than walking. I brought RCowboy on his mountain bike and two dogs badly in need of exercise.

I will now summarize how this ride went from start to finish in bullet form:

  • 6 pm, unload from trailer. Woo, hoo! Beautiful night. Let’s start off walking and jogging in hand to get us both warmed up. This is going to be great and we’ll be home in time to make spaghetti and meatballs.
  • Mount up. He’s forward but controllable. Dogs are going berserk.
  • Argument with RCowboy about which road to take. I loathe going out-and-back and would give my kingdom for a damn loop. He claimed there were no loops where we were. I figured he was probably wrong, but had no good evidence.
  • Took the trail I wanted. H suddenly kind of tense but I’m trying to just ride through it.
  • H explodes into a bolt because the grey dog runs in from behind him. The grey dog goes everywhere with us. He has never before cared one bit about the grey dog. I ride my first bolt without dying.
  • H remains tense. “Well, this is terrifying.” (I actually say this out loud.)
  • All trails I pick dead end, so we turn around and get on the one trail we know goes a long way. We trot some, canter a little. I cannot find the all day trot. It is either too fast and bouncy or he’s breaking back into a walk. He’s especially unhappy about trotting on the stretches of hard, rocky ground. I start obsessing over buying hoof boots, which is probably not what I should be doing while riding.
  • We have a couple pretty good stretches at trot and canter. (They feel long, but in reality are probably only a minute or two.) I’m smiling. Everything is green and lupine and balsamroot are blooming and it’s a very WOW spring evening. I’m SO going to do my first LD on this horse soon. I love this.
  • I keep waiting for the loop to form, but don’t say anything. It’s probably like 7:30 pm. We’ve been out 1.5 hours.
  • Again, even after 5-6 miles, I cannot make my horse do a comfortable, consistent trot. He’s starting to be Obnoxiously Hungry Horse, threatening to go full stop from a trot to stick his face in whatever green thing is on the side of the trail. I have to keep rein and leg on constantly.
  • There’s still no loop. RCowboy finally asks how far we’re planning to go; it’s going to be dark soon. I tell him about the loop. He reiterates that there. are. no. loops.
  • We turn around. It’s a long way back and the sun is setting and I *still* can’t make my horse go the speed I want. I snap at RCowboy and tell him to “just go back” because I’m tired of him stopping to wait for us. We’re plodding along at a pokey walk now because I’m too frustrated to keep trying to trot right and my legs are fresh Jell-O.
  • My brain is going “I’m never doing this again.”
  • A mountain lion killed someone on a mountain bike in Washington this week. Mountain lions like to hunt at dusk.
  • I hate my horse, I hate my tack. I hate everything. I don’t want to do endurance. Our ride has become a slow, sad death march back to the trailer. We have gone 8.5 miles. It is dark-ish.
  • Horse suddenly terrified that there’s a mountain bike on the trail ahead of us. I dismount because another bolt right now will absolutely kill me.
  • Silently walk next to angry man on mountain bike the last mile back to the trailer.
  • Horse will not load into trailer. Of course he won’t. It is full dark and after 9 pm.
  • RCowboy, displaying an amazing load of patience for this juncture of the evening, loads horse for me. It is not pretty, but it gets done. He also tries to talk to me about focusing on all the good things that happened tonight, and I want to murder him.
  • Get home, examine odd sweat patterns that probably mean saddle doesn’t fit, feed, feel terrible about myself, pour large glass of wine and eat leftovers while watching dark crime show set in rainy city. Sleep the sleep of babes.

Regarding goals for the ride, we were certainly out for an hour. We most certainly did not trot more than walk.

It’s amazing how little time it takes to forget how shitty something can feel. Today I’m all “let’s go out again! I bet I can find a loop! Where’s the entry form for my first LD?”

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At least we saw a pretty sunset


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Owyhee River Challenge

I took my horse to an endurance ride, and I did not cry.

Did I neglect to put that on my list of goals for this event? Yup. But really it was the one that mattered most. I wanted to have a positive experience, which means no crying. (I’m a 38-year-old woman, and I am a hell of a crier.)

We arrived Friday early afternoon and unloaded the dogs to pee while we scouted the area we’d chosen to park in and contemplated the setup of Henry’s pen. He waited in the trailer looking out at the growing ride camp. Once we’d decided on a spot, I unloaded the horse while RCowboy started pounding in stakes. Ride camp was an ugly, weedy mess with little to no edible forage, but Henry still marched around shoving nasty dry dead weeds in his mouth. He seemed fairly relaxed about everything, until he realized we had parked near the hill where folks that were doing the CTR (competitive trail ride) that afternoon descended to come into camp for their vet checks.

There were horses all around us. He has no issues with horses a few hundred feet away. But horses on the horizon or in the distance are terrifying. I can only imagine it has something to do with his wild days, when spotting brethren in the distance could mean rival stallions or sassy mares that wanted to run him out of dodge. The riders and horses sent him into a bit of a fire-breathing dragon episode. I clung to his lead and tried to regain his attention. I asked for circles and he gave me a grand, prancing trot with his tail held high, neck arched, nostrils flared. I asked to change direction and I got head tossing and blowing snorts. I was scared. But I took some deep breaths and stuck to what I knew and I talked us both down. I looked for focus and tiny bits of relaxation and gradually they increased until he was once again less dragon than horse.

It was very windy with some rain that afternoon, so we were both getting wet during this episode, and when he came down from his stallion throwback he took a couple rolls in the nasty weedy dirt, coming up with a caked, dusty coat and mane and tail full of sticks and debris that made me very thankful we weren’t going into any competitions that required looking pretty.

The rest of the time at camp was without incident. He respected the fence. He ate, drank, slept. I never saw him lie down, but he was obviously relaxed. He nickered to horses a few times, but it was a very low, calm greeting, not the panicky screams of the buddy sour Arabs all around us.

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Not a big deal.

He continued to watch the horses and riders coming down off the hill with interest, but there was no more snorting or running about. The wind and rain did not let up all afternoon or evening so I elected not to ride that day. I went to the ride meeting in the evening and then walked the dogs and we cooked a hot meal in the trailer after getting cots set up for sleeping. It was so rainy and windy and the foster dog barked at every noise he heard so no one slept a wink that night. The riders were off by the time I got up Saturday morning; the 55 started at 6:30 and the 25 at 7:30. I’d been worried that Henry would get very worked up seeing everyone heading out, but he continued to not care about much of anything.

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This is all fine.

I volunteered to pulse and scribe during the vet checks that day and the action came in spurts. I’m terrible at math under pressure and was terrified I was pulsing animals down wrong, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t cost anyone a placing. My favorite riders were a group of young girls on grumpy mules who were winning the 25 miler. God, to be a young, fearless rider again.

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These ridiculous mules are rolling at the vet check. They DNGAF.

Once things slowed down at the vet check I worked up the courage to saddle up and pick a trail to ride. I cheated and brought my comfort boyfriend and dog along. We did about 7 miles and I definitely got off a couple times in the beginning when I got nervous. But we worked through it. We trotted and cantered some but nowhere near enough to be considered endurance riders. It was leisurely. The sun came out. I smiled a lot. We did not get eaten by the ride photographer, who was a Very Scary Being Parked in the Creek Maybe to Eat Us.

That night was awards and a potluck. I won a TTouch session and a package of Mrs. Pastures cookies in the raffle, the latter of which Henry lost his mind over because I only ever buy him low-calorie health food treats and Mrs. Pastures are basically horse Ho-Ho’s. The weather was much improved and we were treated to a gorgeous sunset.

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My new buddy, Bravo, resting up after coming in second in the 55.

Needless to say we all slept well on night two. Unfortunately we woke to more rain and fog and I thought, this has been good enough, let’s pack up. I don’t need to ride again. But as we had a leisurely breakfast and started to pack the weather improved and I threw on a saddle and headed out alone. We did an out-and-back on the trail we’d done the day before in the reverse direction. Again, I got off a few times. But we crossed paths with several of those frisky mules and their kids and a few other horses and nobody got too upset and we made it back to camp unscathed. Victory.

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Good boy.

So there you have it. My first endurance ride and campout with the mustang was a positive experience and I’m eager to try more. The thing I’m finding out about endurance though is that most of the people are specialists who become consumed by the thing and do it so much it becomes their entire life. Me and Henry, we’re generalists. I definitely want to give LDs (“limited distance”; rides less than 50 miles) a try and see how that goes, but I don’t know if I have the desire to aim for Tevis. There’s a lot of badasses in this sport, and I’m continually floored by their efforts, especially the women of a certain age who are pounding out 8-18 hours in the saddle through wicked weather and terrain while taking good care of their partners. It’s a heck of a thing. But for now we’ll take it slow and easy and see where the trails (and dressage lessons) take us.


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Trail Lesson and First Ride Camp Prep

We leave for the Owyhee Endurance Challenge in a couple days. We are just trail riding, volunteering, and getting exposure, so I’m not stressed about Henry’s conditioning or finishing our first LD, but there’s plenty else to be anxious about.

Last weekend’s lesson I asked to concentrate on trail type work, so trainer pulled out all the obstacles and we worked on them in the indoor. (I would have preferred to be outside for even more distraction potential, but they hadn’t watered down the outdoor.)

Having been a Makeover horse, H was desensitized to the max. His freestyle involved a huge bouncy ball and jumping into the back of a pickup truck while a cap gun was fired over his head. My current trainer seems to think he was over-desensitized. But give him a few years and no exposure to those crazy things and he’s gotten a bit reactive again. He wasn’t particularly fond of the “car wash” at our lesson but after a few turns and slow approaches he let it go and went through. Trainer cracked whips and flapped flags and he danced around a bit, but I didn’t freak out and we worked through that too. He also threw a couple big head tossing fits about backing up, which is new and pretty annoying. But trainer said something about just looking through that behavior and on to the next thing (“that’s not even happening”) which really hit a note for me. I tend to dwell/focus on the misbehavior/scary moments so letting go and looking for the next moment beyond that garbage is a new and promising method. Also we keep finding that I hold tension in my arms and chest when I’m nervous, so I need to keep my elbows heavy and relax. It was strange but fun to have a whole lesson on obstacles, and I’m glad we had another positive experience.

Our property borders BLM ground and last week they put a bunch of cows on it (your public lands, ladies and gentlemen), so last night I took the opportunity to ride over there and see how H did in close proximity to the fat black creatures, since we will likely encounter them in the Owyhee. I took old Rube as an emotional support horse.

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Cow patrol.

The cows were not a big deal. We also walked right by the formerly terrifying cow lick bucket by looking through the obstacle and not dwelling on it (I can learn!), and I did a lot of turning from home, etc. to induce head tossing and working through it. We were out for at least 1.5 hours and it felt good to have that time go positively again. Yesterday I freaked myself out by reading about “race brain” and all the crazy stuff that can go on at endurance rides when competitive horses want to GO GO GO, so doing a longer ride where we went where I wanted to go at the speed I wanted to achieve felt good.

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Last night’s project was untangling that tail. Mane is next.

Now it’s time to pack and prep. We are bringing three dogs (our two and the current foster, a bouncy black lab) and sleeping on cots in the trailer. H will be in a small electric corral. My goals for the weekend are:

  1. Keep my horse calm and contained at camp, eating and drinking normally.
  2. Ride at least twice. There are 10-15 mile loops available, I believe. If I can do each of those I’d be very happy, and a third ride would be a bonus. If stuff is really not going well a shorter out-and-back to start would become the best option.
  3. Attempt to ride through obstacles including bad behavior, staying calm and relaxing my upper body. If stuff goes sideways (bucking, bolting, rearing), get off and walk or jog the beast. Breathe.
  4. Volunteer with the vets and or to help out the competitive riders. Soak up some knowledge.
  5. Meet some decent people.

Wish us luck.

 

 


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Dual/Mule Lessons

We’re on a roll with scheduling and going to lessons. Two in one spring might not seem like much but when you consider our previous record of taking an entire year to get back down into the valley to ride, this is stupendous.

I called to confirm our time and immediately after I hung up Reluctant Cowboy asked if we should bring Sam. I tried calling back but got no response. Sam, of course, is the mule we got for the cost of his vet bill last fall because we had the burning desire to get a longear and are extremely gullible novices who will take any animal someone says needs a home. (He might to go auction, they said, and you KNOW what happens to animals that go to auction…)

I argued that we should not bring a second animal to the lesson without the instructor’s permission to do so, but Cowboy said I was being ridiculous so even though we were running late he loaded his critter in with mine and off we went.

If Sam is one thing he is loud. He got off the trailer and bugled his presence to the entire valley. If Sam is anything else he is pushy, so he immediately began showing Alice and anyone else who was on the premises exactly why he and Cowboy need some pointers. But it was Henry’s and my turn first, so he went into the round pen to bray and have anxiety attacks while we went to the indoor to work on freeing up the hip.

I have no photos from the lesson so please accept these handsome headshots.

We started out doing Alice’s patented ‘stop sign’ work in hand, where the point is some suppling and beginning lateral work to warm up. He did magical, beautiful things for her and then I led him through a much more stumble-and-laughing-at-myself  version. Next we mounted up and worked on tempo at the walk and full, bending corners (look with your eye, outside rein, inside leg), circles to a set number of steps and then a somewhat face-paced, chaotic call and response set of turns all around and across the arena which was actually pretty fun. We finished with the stop sign exercise under saddle. Arena work is getting so much better now that Henry has lost a few pounds and I’ve gained some confidence.

Hm, yes, you make it look so simple.

Sam’s lesson showed just how smart he is, and how ill-equipped we are as horsemen to deal with mules. But it’s encouraging to see how quickly he responds when he’s being asked by someone who knows exactly what they’re doing. By the end RCowboy was able to keep his attention for more than 2.4 seconds at a time and keep him out of his space much more effectively. And I’m happy to say he’s continued the work at home. There are some days I think we’d all be safer and better off without that mule, so I’m glad to see some work being done with him, and to have gotten Alice’s opinion that he’s not a bad animal who’s beyond help.

 

Personal space issues.