Reluctant Cowgirl


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Theme of the Week: Pace

We had another lesson last weekend and my friend Paul and his wife Nel (and her mule) came over the mountains to join in. Paul tried out and purchased a new horse that day – a grey PRE gelding named Mateo that I might have bought if he didn’t. Those Spanish horses are just so gosh darn pretty.

We worked on one-handed riding to emphasize the use of our other aids in steering, which I found very helpful. It can be so easy to fall back on the reins and grow dependent on them. Henry was a little distracted in the group lesson setting, and we also talked about empathy and giving credit to the animals for putting up with all the wild scenarios we put them in.

The best part of the group lesson was when Alice hopped on Mateo at the end to do some “military style” riding with Nel and I. She turned on some music and we rode three abreast and I had flashbacks to drill team riding at 4H camp and boy, was it fun. Henry was very good about being packed in with two strange horses but it was harder than I thought to keep the right pace with a snappy little mule and a big, stretchy Spanish horse.

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Column of threes, aka the odd trio

Pace is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately as I think about endurance riding. The books all say you need to find your horse’s ‘all day trot’ and that has been a real challenge. Henry has reverted to the giraffe trot on many occasions recently, and I feel like I’m begging and pleading with him to put his head down a bit and relax into it, engage his core and hind end. Aside from looking ghastly, the giraffe trot is also horribly uncomfortable to ride.

I thought maybe I just needed to get out and trot him a good long time to find that trot, so last night we trailered two miles up the road to ride on the forest roads. My goal was to ride for an hour and do more trotting than walking. I brought RCowboy on his mountain bike and two dogs badly in need of exercise.

I will now summarize how this ride went from start to finish in bullet form:

  • 6 pm, unload from trailer. Woo, hoo! Beautiful night. Let’s start off walking and jogging in hand to get us both warmed up. This is going to be great and we’ll be home in time to make spaghetti and meatballs.
  • Mount up. He’s forward but controllable. Dogs are going berserk.
  • Argument with RCowboy about which road to take. I loathe going out-and-back and would give my kingdom for a damn loop. He claimed there were no loops where we were. I figured he was probably wrong, but had no good evidence.
  • Took the trail I wanted. H suddenly kind of tense but I’m trying to just ride through it.
  • H explodes into a bolt because the grey dog runs in from behind him. The grey dog goes everywhere with us. He has never before cared one bit about the grey dog. I ride my first bolt without dying.
  • H remains tense. “Well, this is terrifying.” (I actually say this out loud.)
  • All trails I pick dead end, so we turn around and get on the one trail we know goes a long way. We trot some, canter a little. I cannot find the all day trot. It is either too fast and bouncy or he’s breaking back into a walk. He’s especially unhappy about trotting on the stretches of hard, rocky ground. I start obsessing over buying hoof boots, which is probably not what I should be doing while riding.
  • We have a couple pretty good stretches at trot and canter. (They feel long, but in reality are probably only a minute or two.) I’m smiling. Everything is green and lupine and balsamroot are blooming and it’s a very WOW spring evening. I’m SO going to do my first LD on this horse soon. I love this.
  • I keep waiting for the loop to form, but don’t say anything. It’s probably like 7:30 pm. We’ve been out 1.5 hours.
  • Again, even after 5-6 miles, I cannot make my horse do a comfortable, consistent trot. He’s starting to be Obnoxiously Hungry Horse, threatening to go full stop from a trot to stick his face in whatever green thing is on the side of the trail. I have to keep rein and leg on constantly.
  • There’s still no loop. RCowboy finally asks how far we’re planning to go; it’s going to be dark soon. I tell him about the loop. He reiterates that there. are. no. loops.
  • We turn around. It’s a long way back and the sun is setting and I *still* can’t make my horse go the speed I want. I snap at RCowboy and tell him to “just go back” because I’m tired of him stopping to wait for us. We’re plodding along at a pokey walk now because I’m too frustrated to keep trying to trot right and my legs are fresh Jell-O.
  • My brain is going “I’m never doing this again.”
  • A mountain lion killed someone on a mountain bike in Washington this week. Mountain lions like to hunt at dusk.
  • I hate my horse, I hate my tack. I hate everything. I don’t want to do endurance. Our ride has become a slow, sad death march back to the trailer. We have gone 8.5 miles. It is dark-ish.
  • Horse suddenly terrified that there’s a mountain bike on the trail ahead of us. I dismount because another bolt right now will absolutely kill me.
  • Silently walk next to angry man on mountain bike the last mile back to the trailer.
  • Horse will not load into trailer. Of course he won’t. It is full dark and after 9 pm.
  • RCowboy, displaying an amazing load of patience for this juncture of the evening, loads horse for me. It is not pretty, but it gets done. He also tries to talk to me about focusing on all the good things that happened tonight, and I want to murder him.
  • Get home, examine odd sweat patterns that probably mean saddle doesn’t fit, feed, feel terrible about myself, pour large glass of wine and eat leftovers while watching dark crime show set in rainy city. Sleep the sleep of babes.

Regarding goals for the ride, we were certainly out for an hour. We most certainly did not trot more than walk.

It’s amazing how little time it takes to forget how shitty something can feel. Today I’m all “let’s go out again! I bet I can find a loop! Where’s the entry form for my first LD?”

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At least we saw a pretty sunset


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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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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.

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.