Reluctant Cowgirl


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I’ll Show You Doldrums

A post on Horse Nation caught my eye today. It was called “The Doldrums” and written by some woman in Virginia who had big plans for her winter after a productive January and a good attitude about the new year. The photo posted with her complaints about how “winter, frankly, sucks” shows a photo of a regal warmblood wearing a sheet in the rain. The ground is wide open, the grass even a little green. I rolled my eyes hella hard because girlfriend, you have no idea what winter is.

Winter is March 9th being 7 degrees with all of February’s snow still piled up around you, either frozen solid, filthy from where you’ve futilely tried to shovel or snow blow, or crumbling underfoot making it impossible to walk comfortably or safely anywhere. The hay is running low and grass of any sort is a farce. In the paddocks here? Piles of mucky poop, half frozen, half swampy, with little rivulets of brown poo water running through when the sun shines. We have a tractor on order; that’s how bad this winter has been.

The days it’s not snowing have been brutally cold and windy, and sure, like you Horse Nation writer girl, I have a covered arena but I promise mine is colder. I haven’t taken a single ridden step outside that stupid building in months, other than riding on our dirt road where I am constantly terrified Johnny Snowmobile is going to come flying around the corner driving too fast for the conditions and giving zero effs about who else might want to use the road. Not exactly a relaxing ride.

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What could possibly go wrong

I keep going up there once or twice a week, pretending we’re making progress, forcing a smile on my face, playing music, pretending to enjoy those four walls and neglected surface. Turns out the worst way to have fun is to try to force yourself to do it. Who knew.

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Pretending to do the things

So while March marches on (daylight savings time is here!) in its frigid, snowy state, I’m bottle-feeding my friend’s lambs and saying goodbye to the latest foster dog, buying a new propane refrigerator (ours has been broken since January and we are surviving on the “cold box” which will not be cold once the weather warms…the weather will warm eventually, right?), buying a tractor, trying to plan for spring projects, and immersing myself in reading and writing. It could be worse, but it’s still winter.

 


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Third Winter

We’re waist-deep into February and with it third winter, which looks a lot like first winter, only with some of second winter thrown in, and only appears in some years, most notably (and inconveniently) those in which you are trying to complete a horsemanship challenge.

Yesterday I spent the morning snowshoeing through someone’s private property (he lives in California, I was assured) looking for a missing Shetland sheepdog that had spent the past two nights out in the snow and wind and frigid temperatures. It’s not looking good for this dog, I thought, as I schlepped a couple miles following nothing but coyote and rabbit tracks.

Nor is it looking good for my horsemanship challenge, for which I did not log one hour last week. Some days snow management takes precedent, or pottery class, or working late at my desk to catch up for all the time I spent watching Elisa Wallace videos on YouTube. (Facepalm.) Other days it’s 18 degrees and I just nope the nope right out of the idea of doing anything involving a horse more than the need to feed.

Sunday I did go out and squat in the paddock for a half hour, scratching and rubbing and throwing a blanket over the mule’s head. This is the kind of horsemanship I like to practice in this weather. Leaning on the animals and offering them the pleasure of my fingernails run across their hides. Some of the horsemen I follow call this the real work; finding relaxation and implementing “ten-year-old girl training.”

Sure, whatever fitness we’d accumulated in January is slipping away. Yes, this is not going to get us any closer to those 40 hours promised. No, I didn’t ride. I’m just over here, buried in snow, having a covered arena, sure, but not really wanting to use it on a regular basis. The path up there is currently marked only by snowshoes.

Call it a third winter slump.


In more positive news, I did complete my January yoga challenge, and am so far 12/12 in my February challenge to write at least 750 words each day of the month.


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Week 3 of NFHC: Give him his Head

This Anna Blake blog post followed by this Anna Blake blog post (god, she’s fantastic) came at the perfect time for me. The outdoor footing has continued to deteriorate and as expected by week 3 Henry and I were both extra reluctant about arena work. We’d pulled out obstacles, we’d gone bareback and used two different saddles, we’d used a hackamore, a snaffle, and a halter, we’d done ground work and been at liberty. He was feeling like his sticky old self and my motivation was failing. I see him cavorting in the pastures, some days running hard (with perfect self-carriage) for 30 minutes or more, covering ground, having a blast. But then I get him in the arena and think ‘more leg’! and get nothing but tired resistance. Henry is not lame or in pain.

The second thought, if a horse isn’t forward, has to be the rider. To use your own indelicate term, are you lazy? Is your energy low? Your body restrictive or uncommunicative? Does your energy tend toward frustration rather than enthusiasm? Are you the one who’s not forward?

Probably. (Definitely.) I adopted a very green horse as a very timid re-rider, and from the beginning what I did to him was say “NOOOOOO MY GOD WE ARE GOING TO DIE”  every time he went forward at all in a way that made me uncomfortable, which was basically any way other than a halt or easy walk or trot. I told him forward was bad. My hands and seat said “do that and you will be punished.” So here I am 2.5 years of education later, trying to fix it.

If the horse is quick, tense, and hollow, the rider must adjust her energy to embody quiet confidence and safety, soft sit bones and lots of exhaling to cue relaxation. Make simple, steady transitions that are easily rewarded, show him the way back to forward balance and rhythm.

If the horse is heavy and slow, the rider must adjust her energy again; check yourself first. Be honest about stiffness in your own body, and any judgment or restriction in your mind. Are you riding like someone who’s been made to feel wrong every day of her life? Are you looking for something to punish or something to cheer? Can you be Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire and then vice versa?

Start here: Put a smile on your face and crank up the music. Remind yourself that you love horses.

Oh, Anna. You are a goddess.

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Off with his head -er, headgear.

I pulled off his bridle. I asked my partner to come up to the arena and “be a cow.” We chased him around barrels and over plywood bridges and across lodgepole pine cavaletti. He tossed his head and swished his tail and I did everything I could to make my body say YES, YES, YES. We go forward! You can even canter if you want! Put your head down – there’s no way for me to freak out and yank on it because my overly-active imagination thinks you are going to buck! (You never buck.)

We have so much to work on. Winter is long and mud season feels longer, and the arena for now is our only destination. So I’m glad for the far-off teachers who take the time to instruct us with their generous writing and unending kindness, giving us ideas and exercises and encouragement when those of us on lonely dirt roads are at the end of our ropes. For the foreseeable future I will be doing at least a portion of each ride with no bridle, focusing on my own lightness and gratitude and enthusiasm. I’ll crank terrible pop music that makes me want to dance and try to continue to communicate that I’m sorry for all the times he said yes and I said NO WAY, JOSÉ. I’ll find whatever cow equivalents (or maybe, god forbid, actual cows) help open us up and drive us forward.

And I’ll keep listening for more whispers from the greats, trickling through the internet tubes.


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Week 2 of the NFHC: it’s Second Winter

When winter starts here in northeast Oregon (roughly mid-October) it’s so cold and crisp and when the snow falls it’s the kind of fluffy stuff the horses prance and gallop through just for fun. God, I love that winter. First winter is the damn best.

But then second winter arrives. Second winter is a lot like what I knew in New England – the temperatures vacillate between cold and cold-ish (and sometimes venture darn near warm), the snow falls as half rain or sleet, and that previously-fluffy, gorgeous white stuff that fell during first winter freezes and half-thaws over and over again during these miserable 37-degree days (with <20-degree nights), creating a horrendous ankle-grabbing surface that is what I imagine walking in Hell feels like. The driveway begs me to pull out my ice skates.

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No, that’s not a pond. It’s my driveway.

During second winter, the horses camp out in the run-in sheds, venturing only as far as the waterer and screaming at me every time the door opens because they are STARVING and couldn’t possibly wander out in the pastures looking for grub because they might break a sweat walking in the snow-ice. The poop piles are slushy gross mountains that on the warmest days are surrounded by vile yellow-brown moats of liquid. The skies are grey 6 days a week and while the days are surely getting longer, it’s nearly impossible to tell because it’s so damn grey. No one is happy.

Except the dogs. The dogs are always happy.

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Current foster dog, Buzz, thinks this weather is JUST GREAT CAN WE GO WALKING NOW?!?!

Last week was particularly difficult to motivate to practice my horsemanship. It was either snow-raining or windy and I’ve already mentioned the footing and we’re already sick of arena riding. But if not for the arena there would be no riding at all right now, and I know how lucky I am to have one so I’ll stop being a whiny princess.

After taking much of late summer and fall off from any real work, both Henry and I are out of shape. I forget how much strength it takes for him to balance and collect and me to stay in the saddle at anything more than a pokey walk. We did a mix of bareback and saddle rides last week and when using the saddle I lengthened my stirrups to work on my legs. One day we trotted for about 25 minutes and my legs were the proverbial Jell-o. H is not soft. He is not collected. His self-carriage is non-existent and I am not sure if it’s my riding or his being out of shape (it is most definitely my riding but a little bit that he’s out of shape). These rides aren’t much fun, poking around in circles, trying to relax and be forward. But I’m trying to get better at “lifting the corners of my mouth” and keeping the expectations low. I throw in some obstacles because H is great at obstacles. I do a little liberty work first, and he gets rewarded with treats. H loves treats.

Some days I don’t feel like I notice any difference or improvement and I’m tempted to feel frustrated. Then I come in and log my hours and think, time is time, and it takes the time it takes. And if I can get across my ice rink driveway and into the arena for a few minutes, I’ve done a great job.

End of Week 2 stats: 6.5 hours, 5 rides.

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Snatches of sunlight. Spring will come.


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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.