Reluctant Cowgirl


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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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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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New Year “Goals”

I’m not really a goal-oriented person. I love reading and once picked up the book DRIVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and never finished it. That about sums me up.

H’s goal for every ride: get home in time for dinner.

But here are a few intentions for 2018, anyway. (See how I avoided using the word goals there?)

  1. Start lessons in spring instead of fall. Last year a lot of life was wrapped up in the jostling required to buy this ranch. I made excuses all year and did not have a single lesson until October. No bueno.
  2. Attend another clinic. I loved going to the Mustang Rendezvous this fall, and hope to attend again in 2018 if scheduling permits. But I should get to something closer, either with my own trainer or another bigger barn that hosts clinicians. Maybe trail obstacles or beginning cow work. There’s also a desensitizing clinic every spring to benefit a local 4-H or FFA club, which would be great.
  3. Complete a trail ride off the property without either of us having a meltdown. I can hack out all over our property with very few, minor issues. But beyond the confines of these acres we have not been so successful. I tried to do a “poker ride” at the end of the aforementioned Mustang Rendezvous and got into some very nasty arguments about who was in charge and ended that day defeated and deflated. I’m thinking that going out with a trainer or other experienced horse people who are willing to give me some pointers and or reassurance will set us up for success.
  4. Depending on how soon #3 happens, try some endurance conditioning and an introductory ride. I still get all starry-eyed when thinking about getting into endurance but have not gotten the mustang going enough to see how he handles being out there for more than a few miles at a time.
  5. Go camping/do a short pack trip. We had one successful camp trip this fall; the mustang stayed out all by himself in a possibly non-electrified electric tape corral for two nights, one of which included several surprise inches of wet snow and a really rowdy visit from the livestock guardian dogs working at a nearby sheep operation. I figure if he got through that, he’s probably pretty safe to take camping. Hopefully this goes along with more successful trail rides.
    • Adjacent to this is getting the mule to a place where I can trust him enough to take him somewhere and not have anybody die.
  6. Continue to be a good student of the horse. There’s really so much to learn as a returning rider. Everything is different from what I knew as a kid, when, as they say, we ride with 90% brawn and 10% brain. I want to continue reading and watching and learning from the great horsemen/women and develop a higher understanding of this partnership I’m cultivating.
  7. Calm down, stay present, seek peace. I’m a slightly anxious, very sarcastic and somewhat pessimistic human by nature, and I’d like to continue to try to leave that aside when I’m working with the horses and mule and remember to breathe and stay positive. I believe it really does help. I’m not going to be doing any sitting-on-pillows meditation anytime soon, so I’ll continue to try to find that happy place in my time with the hoofed ones.
  8. Keep writing! I have attempted to keep about 47 various blogs in the past decade, and this is the only time I’ve kept one alive this long (by far). I still don’t tell people about it or do anything else that might grow my meager readership, but hey, baby steps.

Happy New Year!

 


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We Bought a Ranch

This sounds like a big deal, but we’ve already lived in the place for almost a year, so it’s less of a big deal than you would imagine. All the really physically hard stuff (the moving, the driving around trying to figure out where you might want to live) has been done a long time. The mentally and financially hard stuff (I would not suggest buying a 156-acre off-grid property from an overseas buyer as a first real estate transaction) is just barely in the rear-view mirror. Okay, yes, you’re right, the financially hard stuff doesn’t really stop when you’re a homeowner, especially one with equines.

The as-yet-unnamed ranch is 156 acres and not on the modern electric grid. We use solar power generated from panels that are almost as old as I am. There’s a back-up generator that we must run on what I consider too regular a basis; roughly every other day when the sun does not shine 100%. But the solar upgrade is not a first year priority because I already lived through one winter with outdoor animals and no ability to keep water from freezing – the system was not made to heat water buckets. So our first big project as ranch owners is buying and installing a Bar-Bar-A waterer. Is this overkill? You might think so. The things are not cheap, and the installation is a bear. But let me tell you about last winter. Sometime around Thanksgiving the temperatures dipped below freezing and they did not get above freezing again until February. Also around Thanksgiving the first snow fell, which was followed by the second, third, fourth…I lost track somewhere around tenth snow. We had a lot of snow. We had brutally cold temperatures. (The lowest I saw was -26 F, and the average for December through January was probably around 10F.) It was freeze-your-water-trough-through-and-through-then-cover-it-in-two-feet-of-snow cold. I carried 5-gallon buckets (3/4 full let’s be honest) from the kitchen sink out to the (then two) equines multiple times daily. We now have twice as many equines. It is something I do not wish to re-live.

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This much ice was in the water trough on September 16th. 😦

The other big pre-winter chore is buying hay, which we find challenging owning only a pickup and stock trailer (i.e. no flat bed, no tractor, so large/round bales are out of the question at this point). Last week we got 2.72 tons of grass hay (22 bales in the pick-up bed and 38 in the trailer) and need to make a second trip to get at least that much again.

There are other chores/projects that would make winter easier on us and the equines, including

  • improving the flooring in the run-in portion of the barn and adding bedding,
  • creating a doorway from the run-in into the barn,
  • building/installing a covered hay feeder,
  • enlarging the windows from the run-in into the barn, and
  • putting up temporary walls on the run-in to keep the snow from piling up inside and creating a frozen/muddy mess.
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Yes, mustang, I too feel like the windows are small and useless.

However the structure of the run-in is warped from several years of cattle poo piling up inside and other abuse/neglect, so it’s a larger project than just the . If we rent an excavator for the waterer installation we may make some headway there.

We’re off to a clinic with the mustang’s OG trainer this weekend, and hoo boy, before you know it it will be Thanksgiving again and I sure hope some of these items are checked off the list before the snow flies.


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Gotcha

On July 30, we celebrated one year together. In the dog adoption world, this milestone is referred to as a “Gotcha Day,” and often celebrated in lieu of a birthday because no one knows when most rescues were born. Same goes for mustangs.

Probably never saw grass this tall in Nevada.

We didn’t do any special treats or long rides. I had planned to compose an Instagram or Facebook post that declared all that this year had done for and meant to me, but the day slipped away, as days do.

So here I am a couple weeks later, staring out the window at the snorting beast, who, for the last few months has done little I can complain about. A few days ago we had friends in town with two toddlers. The older of them wanted to go for a ride, and I chose the mustang over the 34 year-old horse and the 12-hand donkey when it was time to consider who was safest. He carried the two of us all over the property without stepping a foot wrong. I tried not to cry from the overwhelming pride.

This is a formerly wild mustang with a 3 and a half year old child riding him. NBD.

Things changed a year ago when I brought home this horse. First I got giddy and just wanted to hug and kiss him like a child. Then that all led to getting a panel slammed into my face and dismounting in fear when it felt like respect was non-existent and bucks were imminent. Finally I sought out help from the wise horsemen before me (in person and via the internet) and began to grow and bond with the portly, formerly wild dude by treating him like a horse instead of a human or a dog. I learned very quickly how to slow down and be more observant, to seek consistency and clear communication and to above all be fair to him. I stopped telling him what to do and started asking. I made the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy. My whole notion of horsemanship got turned on its head, and with it came many necessary lessons about not just horses, but life. I began referring to him as my zen master, my BLM black buddha.

Zen master HW.

We have a long way to go. He’s not a fine-tuned arena horse and our list of goals for getting out on the trails together is long enough that we’ll be working at it for years to come. But I’m grateful for the year we’ve got under our belt, and excited for the ones ahead.