Reluctant Cowgirl


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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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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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Being Neighborly

I’m leaving for a week in Florida tomorrow. The timing couldn’t be more perfect because the temperatures have recently gone south of reasonable again and I’m over it. This morning’s low was -4.7 °F. You can take that and shove it.

So today was my last day of work, and I got up around 7 to start chores before a couple conference calls and bunch of loose end-tying. The home phone rang as I was in the middle of soaking alfalfa pellets. It always startles me because no one calls our land line. It’s basically just there for calling 911 in an emergency because we live in the middle of nowhere.

On the line was a gentleman who lives down the road. We met last year when he just drove down the driveway on a random Tuesday at 10 am the way country people do, to ask if he could use our covered arena to break some colts. There were about 16 feet of snow on the ground (slight exaggeration, but not much) and it’s hard to break colts in those kind of conditions, apparently. I asked around to make sure he wasn’t some kind of swindler and got good references, so I thought if he followed up and agreed not to sue us if sh*t went sideways, we’d say sure. He never called because winter just got worse and even I couldn’t access my arena.

Fast forward to this morning, and he’s calling my landline at 7 in the morning asking to use the arena again, today. Sure, I say, because what the heck else do I say? No, this is weird, how in the world are you country people so unabashedly unafraid to ask for things?

A couple hours later there’s a truck and stock trailer with five horses, one man, one wife, and one three year old child in my driveway. They leave the child sleeping the running truck (“the babysitter”) and take a chestnut with a blaze and a tall grey to the arena. Don’t sue me!, I call in my head as I watch them go and hustle inside for conference call number one. The remaining three horses stay at the rig, two tied inside and one out; I watch them fidget during my call.

A couple hours later I take lunch break and stand in the corner of my arena, watching these strangers work their colts. (One is a mare, by the way, which always bothers me about the term “colt-starting.”) They are five years old with about 20 rides on them and very sweaty. I make a bad joke about how I should let them work with the mustang for a bit – he hasn’t sweat since I bought him. They are desensitizing and working on lateral flexion. The mare is very cowy-looking and spry with those prototypical QH hindquarters. The grey is more my style; maybe appendix bred. They tell me he’s “lazy.” I like him even more.

They ask me questions about my mustang and I kind of ho-ho and ha-ha my way through the responses. I feel like I know nothing, suddenly, confronted with these life-long cow horse people who have seen my dressage saddle hanging on the fence and my fat mustang munching hay in the paddock. I don’t know how to explain that I am just returning to horses after a long time away and taking my time. I don’t cowboy and I have no horse friends and I am standing awkwardly in the corner of my own arena freezing my face off and feeling like an outsider. I did my best to be friendly but might have used too much of my social defense mechanism, sarcasm.

There’s another grey and a grulla, and they get the next workout. A black and white paint does not get worked; he’s “already broke.” I don’t get to see the second pair of horses working because I’m in frantic mode at my laptop, watching horses and small children get shuffled around outside my window while I check in for my flight tomorrow and speak to engineers in Mableton, Georgia about a project in Michigan. They load up and leave around 3 after neatly scooping their poop and saying thank you.

I moved to the middle of nowhere and bought a property with one of the largest (and only) covered arenas in the county, and sometimes sh*t gets weird for a neurotic, introverted Yankee like me.


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Dogs and Horses

I’m a dog person. If my whole life had to be about an animal it would be a dog. If I had to take one animal to a desert island? Dog. The dog is my heart animal, in that everything that has to do with them is done with my heart. I’m not that interested in training or competing or doing much of anything with them except everything – the daily travails of boring sit by my feet during the work days to the weekends full of adventure on trails and in cities, swimming in mountain lakes and chasing rabbits across the sagebrush for fun. All of it, a dog or two by my side. If I could only choose one animal to have for the rest of my life, I would take a dog. Not a horse.

But! This is not a world where we have to make those kind of choices, thank goodness, so now I have both. Dogs AND horses. And I have this blog that I thought would be about horses but guess what, winter is long here and sometimes there’s only so much to say about horses. So let me tell you about some dogs.

  1. The Brown. She’s numero uno in everyone’s heart and has earned it. She hails from squirrel hounds in Tennessee but has lived in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Oregon. She’s aging gracefully with bunny hair between her teeth and an elk bone buried nearby for safe keeping. She takes the spot closest to the wood stove and the horse poop pile furthest from the mule. We jokingly say that her motto is, ‘ I do what I want,’ and she largely does.
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It almost looks like she’s being obedient here.

  1. The Grey. This dog is half wild but somehow entirely domesticated. We took her in when her redneck, deadbeat owners refused to care for her and she came begging to the neighbors (us) for food during her pregnancy and raising puppies. (Her puppies looked like full-bred border collies. The dad was not much of a border collie. The Grey is not much of a border collie. Dog genetics are weird.) She’s probably got husky in her and she loves to run and hunt. But indoors she is a princess and she has adapted to life by the fire with gusto. She has way more livestock experience than The Brown and thinks that chasing horses and mules when they’re wound up is fun. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.) She’s an outstanding ambassador for the canine race otherwise and her biggest concern in life is going up to every human she sees to ask them whether or not they think she’s pretty. (Spoiler alert: she is.)
  1. The Fosters. This year we decided to pitch in and give the local animal rescue a hand by fostering dogs. This entails providing the bridge between whatever situation they came from (it’s best not to even imagine) and their forever homes. So far we’ve had two: Little, a heeler-border collie mix who was an adorable, energetic sprite of a mutt, and Daisy Deuce, who seems like she could be a mix of a golden retriever and a river otter, except colored like a border collie mix. She slides around in the snow otter-like and spends much of her time in repose on her back, a hoard of toys and socks and towels she has collected strewn about her. We’ve had her less than a week and the transformation has been astounding. I might have cried a little today watching her play, after witnessing the shut-down, timid creature that walked in this house a week ago. That’s what I mean when I say dogs are my heart animals, everything about them pings at that big old muscle in my chest.

A good ranch/barn/farm is not a good ranch/barn/farm without some dogs. There will always be as many as we can fit on mine.

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Dogs and wide open spaces; two of my favorite things.


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Gratuitous Horse Shopping

I don’t need another horse. I still can’t believe I own three. But I’m so in love with the mustang that I constantly think I want more. I want like five just in case I ever have five friends visiting at once that want to ride with me? Because I think it would be fun to lead small group trail rides? Because you can’t escape the potato chip joke?

Except replace “one” with “seven”?

Anyway. I’m good with my herd for now. But I learned a thing from Olivia that window/fantasy shopping for horses (and tack and farms and…) and blogging about it is a great way to help with “the wants.”

So I give you…the February 2018 Northern Nevada Correctional Center Saddle-Trained Wild Horse Adoption!

I have never attended a correctional center adoption. I imagine these inmates train with mostly heart and brawn. They aren’t refined competitors or professional trainers. I love the idea of bringing home a horse that they have gentled to finish, but am nowhere near ready for that yet. Still, it’s fun to look.

Can we talk about how chunky these boys are? They all look like draft ponies who have been on unlimited alfalfa, except for a few, and everybody could use a few lessons on self-carriage. But there’s a lot of potential! Most hail from the Little Owyhee or other Nevada HMAs. We’ve got zero greys (boooo), pintos or palominos but some nice bays and blacks. I avoid sorrels and roans for the most part. I’ve got a short, stocky mustang already, so give me long and lean. Here’s my top 3:

  1. Disco. This guy is 16 h and has a super kind eye. I love his three socks and little star. It’s a little strange to pick a horse without seeing his movement, but I can imagine that body working nicely in a dressage setup. He looks like a thoroughbred!

    Disco, 16 h, Little Owyhee HMA

  2. Feather. I need another black horse like I need another horse period. But I think Feather is nicely put together and ready for business. Plus it looks like he has the capacity to grow a metric ton of hair, which is really high on my mustang wish list.

    Feather, 15.2 h, Little Owyhee HMA

  3. Macaroni. OK, I know I said no sorrels, but I’m calling him a liver chestnut and a hunk. All cleaned up he’s gonna be real flashy and he looks well balanced.

    Macaroni, 15 h, Little Owyhee HMA

This rounds out my choice ‘stangs for this episode of Gratuitous Horse Shopping. Who would you pick?


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Trail Ride Success

Heading out off our property has been haunting me since the fall, when I took the mustang on his first overnight (at deer camp) and had one really lovely walk with him and then a second day where he spent 3/4 of the ride trying to toss me off, or at least act enough like he was going to toss me off that I would dismount and he would get his way and there you have it, the opposite of success. This was also coupled with another October experience at a poker ride that ended with me in tears, so let’s just say I didn’t really want to take this horse off the property very badly. But we weren’t giving up, and the mild winter makes for very few excuses, so on Sunday we loaded him in the trailer and drove a couple miles up into the forest to ride on the dirt roads.

You know it’s serious when I get the western tack out.

He was a bit bouncy and did not want to stand still to be mounted, which is consistent with mounting done outside of the arena for the most part. But I can handle forward if he was controlled, and from the start he did listen to me every time I asked for his attention. Three dogs and a boyfriend accompanied us on the trail with three of the four behind us most of the time. It didn’t take long for me to be comfortable enough to ask for a trot, which was again, forward, but not so much that it worried me. I steered him around the icy puddles he didn’t seem to be very concerned about and he followed my aids. During one of our trots he snuck in a few canter strides, which felt like just a little bit of feeling good and not at all about him trying to take off. I thought it would be great to do five miles, but the weather turned to crap so it probably wound up being closer to four. On the way back he did some dancing and a little head tossing, and a few times I obliged the weirdo requests to walk off into the woods instead of staying on the road. I stuck to my guns otherwise, and did not dismount until we were back at the trailer, relieved.

Obligatory cheesy smile because horse is not being a jerk and I can feel my toes. (Toe feeling and smile were lost not long after.)

It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t on our own, which is when I’m much more likely to panic and worry about being thrown and therefore immediately hop off and weep, but it was a start. I beamed the whole way home.

My brown dog was such a trooper on this walk. I loved having her by my side.

Of course the outcome of this one, positive ride made me suddenly eager to start doing some conditioning and the next day it snowed but I thought I would still get out there and get a couple miles in. The dirt road was an icy mess and the creek was suddenly under snow and terrifying and it got dark and next thing you know I was walking him back home having realized that maybe the mild part of winter has departed and it might be a good idea to hold my horses on the trails until we can see some dirt again.

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Two things I bought myself (both used on eBay) as birthday month gifts to get excited about more time in the saddle:

  1. A Garmin Forerunner GPS watch. I have been wanting one for years but since I stopped running very much it felt like something I didn’t need. (There are so many phone apps that do the same thing.) But if we’re going to do endurance miles this will be a much more fun and easy way to track time/distance. It’s already motivating me to move more, even unrelated to the equine.
  2. A sheepskin seat cover. This thing is used and I have no idea if it’s contoured for a western or english saddle but I used it on my western this weekend and hoo-boy, was that nice in the cold.