Reluctant Cowgirl

April Showers

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We’ve had a week of weather here in the inland Northwest. It hasn’t gotten out of the 40s and most days included quiet bouts of sunshine interrupted by random bursts of wind, rain, snow, hail, and graupel. Today has been a constant steady drizzle. I’m off for a few days of camping and hiking in Arizona tomorrow, and I couldn’t be happier about it unless I was taking the mustang with me.

I did ride a couple times during breaks in the weather and followed through on my promise to do stirrupless and bareback work. I have the sore muscles to prove it. I’ve also been focusing on hip opening yoga moves at night in front of the TV. When I did ride in the saddle I lengthened my stirrups and while it didn’t quite feel natural it wasn’t full-blown OHMYGOD IMMAFALLOFF either. Progress.

I got the fancy camera out for a bit during the ugliest weather day and caught Sam and Henry in full-blown stir-crazy mode. They have been taking their frustrations with the weather out on each other and both (mostly Sam) are covered in cuts and dings.

(Please note the final frame of old man Rube, thankful that he is no longer Henry’s whipping boy.)

I’ve been trying like hell to not turn these animals out on grass this spring. It’s hard when I know how much they enjoy big acreage and the variety and movement that comes with it, but Henry’s weight has been out of control for a long time and I’m finally making headway. Rube does get let out by himself because he’s thirty-something years old and allowed to eat as much as he wants, and Henry gets snacks after working, but Sam is just SOL and tells us how he feels about it regularly.

Hopefully the weather will start taking a turn for the better after I return. We are currently one month out from the endurance ride weekend I plan to attend and trail ride/volunteer at, and I still have no idea how I will contain my animal there. It has been a long and frustrating search for panels that don’t weigh a hundred pounds or cost a thousand dollars, and at this point I’m considering throwing my hands in the air and using the battery-powered electric set-up I bought last year.

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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.

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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.


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Endurance 101

I chickened out on bringing my horse to the Endurance 101 clinic I’d signed up for because the weather looked downright dastardly and considering our last camping trip with Mustang Henry was in the snow with a potential wolf-guard dog fight outside the tent, I really wanted to wait for better conditions to give it a go again. So I drove from my middle-of-nowhere ranch 3 hours southeast-ish over to the middle-of-nowhere BLM ground where the clinic was being held. I knew no one and was the only person there without a horse. (There were really only a handful of people there though, due to the weather.) The clinician was a rough-around-the-edges no-bullshit type who judged me for not bringing my horse and didn’t really have an outline or a plan and dispensed a fair amount of information anyway. I asked a lot of questions which is not something I typically do but I’d just driven 3 hours and was now standing in the driving raw wind unable to feel my fingers or toes and missing my favorite basketball team’s tournament game to do so, so I was going to get my money’s worth, dammit. We covered nutrition, gear, saddle-fitting (I wish I had gotten an audio recording and or video of the two active endurance riders there talking about all their tack as proof that you always need more for skeptical boyfriends), conditioning, course marking, pulsing and vet checks, and probably some other stuff. A local farrier gave a presentation on the leg which was fascinating but not particularly endurance-related. I still don’t really understand when shoes or boots are required in this sport, but I have a feeling you just know.

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I had no idea how many bones make up the leg. It’s unreal.

After lunch there was a little more chatting and then those with horses began to saddle up for a 10 mile ride. I began to seriously regret not bringing a horse, because even with my plentiful nerves it’s difficult to watch a bunch of people mount up and ride off without you. But on the plus side I got to get back into my warm car and head home.

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Don’t you just want to climb into that sheepskin and settle in for 50-100 miles?

We were given a cd with a ludicrous amount of files on it providing information beyond what was presented. There is more than I can tackle in a few days, and probably the answers to all the questions I didn’t ask are contained within.

My biggest take-home from the trip was that probably the best way to get going in this sport is to ride (DUH). I am very good at listening to my nerves above all else and making excuses, but this really would have been a perfect small-scale opportunity to introduce my horse to a setting that involves trailers and horses parked in the middle of nowhere and setting out on a group ride with some guidance. I really did us both a disservice by leaving him home, garbage-y weather be damned. The good take-home was that the people were by and large nice, and welcoming, and encouraging. Two of the ladies I met were probably not destined for getting into endurance events, but were interested in getting together to ride this summer anyway. Having some people to ride with would really perk up my confidence and interest.

We got home in daylight but were exhausted and it was sideways-wet-snowing out, so I didn’t do anything with Henry. But Sunday brightened up and after a little arena warm-up we went about 2 miles up the dirt road, turned around and came back, riding for more than an hour and interspersing some nice trot. On the downhill toward home he insisted twice that we should try to canter but I said hey, young man, let’s take it easy this trip and leave the fast gears for the uphill. Out-and-back rides on a dirt road with potential traffic are not ideal, but until the ground firms up it’s the best we can do. I hope to get in a 5+ mile ride before the week is out.

There’s an endurance ride at the same site as the clinic the second weekend in May. I’m not entirely sure if we’ll be ready for our first LD (25 mi), but at the very least we are going to go camp, get experience and exposure, and RIDE.

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Imagine him looking very bright and eager and not so skeptical.


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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.