Reluctant Cowgirl


2 Comments

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.

IMG_5232

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.

IMG_5273

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.

IMG_5277

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.

IMG_5301

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.

IMG_5513

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.


1 Comment

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.


1 Comment

First Lesson of the Year

I take lessons with a wonderful older woman who is loved and respected by the horse community of this isolated, rural area (and beyond). She grew up in a ranch family but expanded her knowledge beyond quarter horses and cow work to train in classical dressage and Doma Vaquera. Last year she traveled across the country to work with Bettina Drummond, who trained under Portuguese horseman Nuno Olivera. It’s an honor to ride with Alice, and each time I make the effort to get over there I marvel that we are lucky enough to have such a consummate horseman at our fingertips here in the middle of nowhere.

Alice is also a fine teacher, and her lessons begin and end in the same way. She always starts by asking how things are going and what I might like to to work on. This time I responded by saying, “well, this is kind of embarrassing, but we’re still awful at bridling.” I went on to babble for three minutes about our problems, how he backs up 15 steps and sticks his head straight in the air the moment I present the reins, how I have trained him using positive reinforcement to drop his head to the ground but it hasn’t seemed to help, how I probably screwed him up to begin with by being rushy and banging him with the bit and maybe his teeth need floating. She listened patiently because she is a fine teacher, but in the end just said, “let’s have you watch first.” She proceeded to take my horse, “bridle” him using the leadrope as a bit, asking him to drop and pick up the “bit” repeatedly with his head cradled gently in her arms. He did not take a single step backward. His nose wasn’t in the arena dirt, but it never went above her waist. He did not protest. She sent him an invitation and he RSVP’d ‘yes.’ She repeated the steps with the bridle with the same result, then handed him over to me. He said something along the lines of ‘well, you’re still not that woman but you are under her guidance so okay.’ (RSVP: maybe.) I really believe there is some amount of magic to Alice’s level of horsemanship. It’s timing, it’s your own self-carriage, it’s visualization, it’s knowledge and understanding. It doesn’t involve excuses or long-winded variations on a single theme. It’s simple and clear and it works.

That all being said I have no idea if I will be able to get the bridle on this horse as effortlessly as I did Saturday ever again.

IMG_4629

In lieu of very funny looking video from the lesson, here is a pretty picture of us on a hack the day before.

After that lesson in humility, I told her I was also interested in working more on my seat aid, as the concept is a bit obtuse at my level of practice and rust. So we worked first on the lunge with her instructing me to feel the timing of his inside hind and count it out, using the feel of my inside sit bone and a slightly forward outside rein at both the walk and the trot. I’ve been feeling bouncy and stiff in my lower back lately and this exercise was helpful in getting my butt where it needed to be. She also encouraged more posting from the thigh and had me standing in my stirrups at the trot, which felt so impossible it was almost like I’d never done half-seat in my entire life. (I spent 1/3 of my life in half-seat or two-point during my teenage years.)

After work on the line, she had us work at the trot first riding the arena as a square (we’re really good at that; for some reason that’s one of the dressage lessons that sticks with me) and then making circles in each corner. The circles were challenging – she said to make them ten strides and the first few took at least 13-18. But we got it eventually. At this stage she was mounting up on the Andalusian that she’d had tied for the first part of the lesson and for the remainder we rode together, which was very fun for me who constantly rides alone, and good practice for Henry who is a formerly wild horse who still wonders on occasion what the hell he’s doing with his life now. We followed Alice and the grey Andalusian around the ring for the remainder of the lesson, doing modified shoulder-in work as a means of suppling. We both needed some time to catch on to this exercise, but when we did my boyfriend was cheering and very excited so I imagine it must have looked pretty cool. Unfortunately he was too engrossed to take any video at that point.

At the end of each lesson we go over our “take-home.” I always know this question is coming but still struggle half the time. I went with suppleness, as the final exercises were revelatory and continuing them will greatly benefit Henry’s “football player” body and my confidence that my dirty, short, stocky mustang is capable of great things.

Alice was very encouraging and kept saying how much she liked Henry’s attitude and energy level today. She would say things like “that’s really great…for Henry” because she understands that this is a formerly-wild animal that got rushed through a 100-day training challenge and then purchased by an admittedly novice re-rider. He can be focused and excited to work and then suddenly go sullen and shut-down. She also complimented his weight, which is something we’ve been working on for more than a year now, and probably is in direct correlation with the improvement to his energy level.

One weird take-home for me from this lesson, absorbed both by watching some video of myself afterward and seeing Alice in the saddle, is that gosh-dangit my stirrups are short. You can take the girl out of the jumper ring, but you can’t take the jumper ring out of the girl, I guess. Stronger thighs will buy me a longer leg, eventually. Our assigned homework was more suppling exercises, but I’m also self-assigning more leg work including going without stirrups.


2 Comments

Our First Clinic

We trucked the mustang a couple five hours over to the Cascades for a clinic last weekend. It was his longest trip since he traveled from the Seattle area to Boise for the makeover event where I purchased him in late July of last year. It would also be his first trip to a place with a whole bunch of strange horses since then, coupled with stall confinement (which he doesn’t do here), wet weather, and oh right, the whole clinic and prize ride. I spent much of the days leading up to this weekend alternately shopping for crap I was sure I needed (a blanket for my wild horse, a saddle pad that wasn’t so garishly ugly-colored, a proper cute riding rain jacket for myself, waterless shampoo so I wouldn’t have the dirtiest horse there, etc.) and watching videos online about how not to be an idiot novice horseman. I’m not sure how I did, but I only bought the blanket and that turned out to be a good decision.

The drive was uneventful and we arrived with an hour to spare before darkness descended. The mustang did not care about the presence of the other horses; he was much more interested in the fact that he was back in the real Pacific Northwest where they still have ample lush clover and green grass in October.

All settled in to his little outdoor stall. This is the driest he’d be all weekend.

This clinic and campout was called the Mustang Rendezvous Clinic and Retreat, and I was really looking forward to both meeting other mustang owners and re-connecting with the trainer who gentled my mustang (also the clinician). Sunday there was a “prize ride” which is also known as a “poker ride” (I’m still not sure I understand what that means) to benefit the group Mustang Yearlings and Washington Youth. Let me state for the record right here that everyone involved with this weekend was good people and I’m pretty glad to have met them all.

So after settling in on Friday we humans enjoyed a potluck and discussed whether or not to trailer from the adorable host site, Flying Horseshoe Ranch, to the closest nearby barn with an indoor arena for the day Saturday in lieu of conducting the clinic in a roofless outdoor in weather conditions that were predicted as ‘100% rain, all day.’ My initial impression was that these people were a bunch of weenies, what the heck is a little rain? We had after all already trailered across two states to get here and I kind of wanted to stay put. But we would of course amicably go along with the majority, who voted on paying the $10 per person fee to trailer in.

Saturday around 5 am the rain started. We were holed up in a summer sleeping cabin with a tin roof and I was already not sleeping due to nerves and because it was about 45 degrees and for some reason my 20 degree down bag was not doing me any favors. We got up and fed in the downpour, then had breakfast and loaded up. At this point I had still not broken out the waterproof turnout that I bought and brought along “just in case” because my horse was a mustang, dammit, and he doesn’t need no stinking blanket.

Illustration of said mustang, in fact needing blanket.

The indoor was lovely and dry, unlike the rest of the world around us at that time, albeit cold. In fact quite cold. Cold enough that during the groundwork portion the clinician’s mother, a dear lady, came over to me and said, “I think Henry is shivering!” And sure enough, he was, the poor, soaking wet bloke. The blanket was removed from its packaging and my impression of my horse’s survival abilities was forever changed. I guess this is why mustangs come from the desert and there is no Cascades HMA. Wet + cold = bad for just about everybody, wild horses included.

On the ground we did a lot of basic work on personal space, ground tying, proper leading and tool use (flags, whips, rope). Much of this was stuff that I’d worked on and understood, but after many months of working by myself (with the help of the internet) I can’t say how good it was to work on it while watching other people and being able to ask questions.

We are basically professional ground-tie-ers.

In the ridden session we concentrated on lightness and softness, and I got some special instruction on baby-steps to collection. When I got the mustang I fell in love with the trot his trainer showcased, pretty and engaged, strong and solid. In the year since, under my novice riding, it has turned into a bouncy giraffe impression and I am so ready to reverse that change. I learned a lot about my riding in that afternoon including that I am both tense AF and leaning all over the poor dude when I’m trying to turn him. Turns out if you put all your weight on his right shoulder while asking him to go right his answer is “no way dude.” Can’t say I blame him.

Look how good I am at LEANING! (Also note previously-mentioned hideous saddle pad – is it pink? Is it orange? Who knows!)

By the end of the session my legs were screaming and I was smiling and I felt like I had a ton of things to work on along with actual ways to work on them. Yay, clinics. So many things learned, and thanks go to Whitney, mustang trainer, clinician extraordinaire, and overall outstanding human. I wish we lived closer.

This post has gotten long, so I’ll wrap up the weekend in another one. To be continued.