Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Final Epiphany

The next morning there was a rider working on "the creeper."

It's moment like that, when Mark gives advice that is so simple, its hard not to feel like a doofus for not figuring it out yourself. Like when you mom shows you how to keep the plastic in the dishwasher from getting flipped over and filled with water.

"You have to set boundaries and stick with them," he said, walking her though boundry setting.

In reality we are the creeper, aren't we. We let things creep by us until before you know it things aren't working out the way you planned.

We rode in the arena after the clinic. Smokey and I worked in the round pen - the night's festivities, and unusual confinement resulted in one wired pony - and he was better. Good enough for me to try the canter, a sustained one. With a soft back.

And it worked.

We packed up and headed to the campsite. I felt good, I'd accomplished a little and learned a lot. But it would all change in 24 hours.

Nails Creek state park is a fantastic equestrian facility. The pens for horses are amazing, and we settled in for the night in the dark due to our late departure from the arena. I knew I was dragging my feet. Everything was so wonderful. I cooked dinner, my special goulash, and played my bass uke (like a four string mini guitar) and laughed and enjoyed the night.

I didn't want the morning to come.

This next part is too hard to write, even now, weeks later. It's why its taken me so long to write this entire series, why I have avoided writing it because I didn't want to admit my failing, not here.

It's why it's been weeks before I could talk about this, let alone share it here.

But I'm not one to crow about my accomplishments and duck my failings. Especially this one. Because I'm not really ashamed of this moment, this step on the journey. Because it's honest. I'd only be ashamed if I avoided the truth of it, if I didn't own it.

But I'm not going to make it long. Honest is one thing, but it's still not easy to talk about.

The next morning we saddled up to ride. Smokey was up and I was sick to my stomach. I couldn't bring my self to get on him, so I led the trainer's horse while she rode Smokey to a point where he was more settled.

And I still didn't want to get on him. At that moment, that low, low moment when she was urging me to get on I shouted "Look, Smokey isn't my trail horse. Lily is my trail horse."

Lily is my trail horse.

This horse, my dear Smokey, who I had ridden in the mountains, taken to rides at Storm Ranch, this was not the horse I wanted to ride on trails. I wanted to ride Lily. My highly trained, finished horse, who I can galllop with a halter and stop on a dime.

As I walked back to camp I thought about this.

During the drive back I thought some more.

Over the last three months my daughter's illness has reset my world. I've had to face realities.

I don't have time to train this horse. And with the medical bills I won't have the funds to provide him a trainer.
I don't have the energy to get through these issues. Nor the time and support system to get there.
I don't have the time to condition this horse for long trail rides and to do endurance as was my dream when I bought him.
I've been over horsed, but wanted to overcome it. But right now that's not where my world is. My world demands something different, demands I focus on overcoming something altogether different.

I am holding him back because I don't have it in me to deal with everything in my life - with a demanding 60 hour a week job, a chaotic family life, and health issues - especially because no one else is riding.

And I'm holding me back. I don't go on trail rides with friends because I need to get through this with him - yet I don't ride the horse I can ride anywhere. My finished horse is lossing muscle tone because no one is riding her, and yet my young horse is riding the same 10 acres over and over, getting a decent handle but good and stuck.

Right now, with the stress of my life, I need to face facts. I will do more and learn more and enjoy more if I accept the gift of Lily and pass on the gift of Smokey.

This Sunday Smokey will go to a wonderful home with an amazing woman I met who has been looking for this horse. I've done well by him. I've helped him become responsive, kept him sensitive, taught him enough basics to be a wonderful companion.

Now someone else will take him the rest of the way.

I'm lucky. I've found him a wonderful home and I can now give Lily the attention and adventures she wants, and if she's in better shape she will have a better chance of staying sound.

Because I love Smokey I'm letting him go. Because I love myself, I'm giving myself a really wonderful horse. Lily. She'll teach me a ton, and I'll become a better horseman with her as my partner. And because my family needs me more than ever, I'm reducing my time away because Lily needs less of me, but is there for me at the same time.

Smokey's new partner and I will stay in touch, even ride together. I've set up a trial period, established that I will provide him a home in the future if he ever needs one. But I'm confident that won't happen. When I saw her ride, and saw him respond, my heart softened and I had my final epiphany.

This is love, my heart said. When you let them fly. Even if it's not with you.

Even when it breaks your heart.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Epiphanies. And Why I Hate Them. Part 4

Smokey was not crazy about his stall. Not. at. all.

"If you are constantly fixing it for him, he'll never learn it." Mark was talking a rider through a transition. "Start small."

Here's the man (who liked to be in control) and his dream horse.

I watched with interest as he peeled away the noise the rider was making, the changing of cues in an effort to get the right response. Instead, just stick with the cue and reward when the horse gets it right, even slightly.

Rescue Mare and her Rider, working on transitions

The rider kept her cue and the next canter transition was smoother. "What you're doing is filling in holes in his foundation."

The Tiny Lipanzzer

The rider noted that she had trouble keeping her horse in the canter. I leaned forward. I have this trouble with Smokey too.

Mark started talking about riding at the canter. He explained in great detail the way the energy rolls off a horse at the canter. There are two energy forces at work, one moving like a pulley coming from the hindquarters going forward and the other a spiral from the bottom. If you aren't moving with the horse, you are blocking that energy, forcing the horse to work through it. A young horse get's blocked, older horses learn to power through it - like the horses that stop when we lean back.

Mark noted the times he's seen riders kick out one leg in front of the other during the canter, almost like they are leading with that foot.

I swallowed. Yup. Guilty. It's what I'd been told to do. He told a funny story about a martial art master who said, after trying to get a group of students to do a move correctly, look in the mirror. "If you look ridiculous, technique is wrong."

That's what I like about Mark. He makes you laugh and he's happy to be the brunt of the joke. Lessens the sting.

"The key is to soften your back. Just think of it soft. Kicking the leg out - it's a sign of a tight lower back," said Mark. "You're a rock in the saddle."


The day rolled to a close and I was looking forward to riding in the arena and getting up to a canter on Smokey. Maybe we'd manage an entire circle. What would THAT be like?

We saddled up and I tried lunging Smokey on a line. Fogettabutit. We headed out to the round pen - which was really too slick for a decent session. He expressed his anxiety and I let him run it out a bit. Soon I had a horse I thought I might be able to get on.

We did fine in the arena, after a bit, but we had to keep moving. Soon we were cruising right along. The barn owner was anxious to try the trails around the arena, but Stephanie and I wanted to stay in the arena. At home there are plenty of trails, and no arena with incredible footing, lights and walls to contain the enthusiasm of our horses.

So she hit the trails and we stayed in.


Later there were adventures with steers, but I'll keep it brief (I will be posting a longer version on crib notes later). Suffice it to say I was hoping to have Smokey desensitized to cows, but got way more than I bargained for when they were tieing steers to tables right outside his stall and grinding away their hooves.

And then one broke loose.

Yeah. I'd say Smokey got some desensitization. If he'd been any further back in his stall, he'd have gone through the wall. But like a rubber necker on the freeway, he was also fascinated by this weird animal that was tied down to a table to get shod. I'm sure he thought what I did.

Can't you just learn to lift your hoof, dude?

I ended up on a pile of hay with a guy who had a bad shoulder (I can't afford to get it banged around, he said wryly. I felt the same), watching as they manhandled one particularly onery steer.

Once again I felt a little guilty about the work that goes into making me the meals I set down on the table. Those cows are TOUGH, but not as tough as the kids handling them.

I promised to remember this night when I cooked up our dinner the next day - hamburger meat.

It was the least I could do.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Epiphanies. And Why I Hate Them. Part 3

There were several more riders, but rather than go rider by rider, and because there was some repetition of things I've mentioned in other clinic posts, I'll instead pick moments along the way.

Several riders rode english, which is different from the other clinics I've attended. The young woman was quiet, it was nearly impossible for those of us in the stands to hear her. She was riding a young horse, maybe 14 hands on a good day. His build was odd - huge head, pony body. He was, according to her, a Lipizzaner.

All of us were confused. This was a tiny horse. Even Mark seemed shocked, kept asking her about his breeding. The horse was well trained but you could see how rigid he was going. I gathered from Mark that she wanted to work on her canter departs. He watched as she demonstrated.

My novice eye only saw a bumpy ride, very little flow to the horse's gait.

"Go ahead and stop," said Mark. "How's your shoulder? Have you injured it?"

She said it was sore. It wasn't clear there had been an injury. It reminded me of the time I told my mom I broke my thumb hiking when I'd actually fallen from a cliff while rock climbing.

I wondered if her mom was among the auditors.

He had someone hold her horse while he took her through some physical therapy. Using a lead rope he had her do long stretches for her shoulder from three angles. Then he had her do it on the other side.

When she got back on her horse, it took just a few strides and the ride became more fluid. We were stunned.

"If there is tightness in your body, the same muscle will be tight in your horse," said Mark.

The little white Lipizzaner made it's fluid canter circles, moving into each gait softer every time.

A tiny bit of dread was dogging my heels. In another day we'd break camp here and the trainer wanted to hit the trails. I was looking forward to camping, but not to riding.

Not on the trails.

Every now and then over the span of the arena I'd see Smokey rearing in his stall, trying to see his friends. Pretty soon we'd be riding in the arena, this long, deep, glorious arena. I figured I could handle that without too much of a problem.

At least I hoped I could. I thought of the tiny Lipizzaner, his quiet, careful rider, her fluid movements. She had started that horse herself. Even in his rocky gait he was willing and quiet. And well trained.

"You did a real good job starting this horse," Mark was saying as the pair rode a slight diagonal. "Real good job."

I couldn't hear her, but saw her smile.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Epiphanies. And Why I Hate them Part 2

The man laughed awkwardly. "I've been told I'm someone who likes to be in control."

"You can't control your horse until you can control yourself."

Mark was still talking to the gentleman on the buckskin Andalusian. The man was an excellent rider, from what I could tell, but after noting the things Mark had pointed out I could tell what he was talking about. Years of instruction about leaning back to stop your horse, pushing out your stirrups, all of it was muscle memory for this guy. Hell, it was muscle memory for me, until that clinic in Sante Fe a year and a half ago. And still I would find myself doing the same thing - leaning back if my horse didn't stop, pushing into my stirrups as if they were brakes.

I wondered at the first horse who learned to stop when the human on him instinctively "applied the brakes", leaning deep into the small of the horse's back. That horse must have thought "Okay, I *think* he means to stop despite the fact that he's doing all this leaning thing" and managed to fight against his own balance and stopped. And was quite relieved when the leaning and pressure stopped.

Darn that willing and forgiving horse. He taught that human that you could overcome a horse's sensibilities. You could teach it to overcome our odd leanings, and stop.

But it would be tough. Tough on the horse.

Slowly the man gained control, but he realized this would be a longer journey, not something he could get done in 45 minutes.

I thought about Smokey and I. I've been troubled about my reluctance to take certain leaps with him. Sure, I'm not leaning back any more, but there are certain areas I just can't seem to move forward either.

It had been a year and a half since I rode in a clinic with Mark. We had fixed our brakes, come a long way. He is a fine horse.

But I've been at the limit of what I could do with him for some time. I've not been able to overcome my reluctance to go out on trail. To get out of a very very small box with him. How much longer was I going to go this way, standing in the way?

He's almost six. This is when he should be... doing a hell of a lot more.

"You need to get out of the way of your horse," Mark was saying. "It's like we yell at them in German. Sure, they don't speak German, but we think just by getting louder..."

We all laughed. I knew for me I wasn't yelling in German. But I wasn't keeping a conversation going either. Instead we were trodding over the same ground, over and over.

And not getting anywhere.

Maybe this just isn't a time of my life to get anywhere. Maybe, with everything, this is a time in my life to be still.

What does that mean for me?

And for Smokey?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Epiphanies. And Why I Hate them Part 1

Have you ever had one of those epiphanies that part of you wishes you hadn't had? One that is so crystal clear it can't be ignored - even though part of you wants you to do just that...

Because epiphanies, especially the important ones, involve letting go of what you thought was true and facing what is actually true. Dropping your illusions. When you have them you can't go back. "Back" disappears and all there is is the next step, waiting, as it has been all along, waiting for you to finally move forward.

A little deep for an opening of a blog post. Let's reel it back a bit.

Let's start with the clinic.

Three of us - Steph, Me, and Donna (the BO and trainer) - took the trip in the Donna's Taj Ma Haul, thrilled to be going on a trip away with our horses. We arranged for stalling at the clinic and were given the go ahead to ride our horses in the huge covered arena when it wasn't being used. Given our modest arena back home, the facility was nearly as much of an attraction as Rashid.

Auditing with benefits. What's not to love?

The stalls, though, were different. Don't get me wrong - they were beautiful. Deep shavings, cedar and pipe. And completely boarded from floor to over horse height. This meant that the horses stalled next to one another couldn't see each other. Not. At. All.

This wasn't a problem for Apollo, the trainer's latest acquisition from the Arabian racing farm. He was quite comfortable there, leading me to believe this was the kind of stalls they had at the track.

Cibolo and Smokey, on the other hand, found them completely disturbing. As far as I know, this is the first time Smokey has been cut off from herd mates visually - other than a few trail rides. He reared over and over, trying to look over the wooden fence at his friends.

"Wow." The trainer and I watched as he stood up on his hind legs like a trick poodle. He learned quickly to stand a bit away from the wall so he wouldn't bump his knees. "He's very athletic."

That's one word for it, I thought.

Cibolo called and called, pacing his stall.

There's nothing much to do. I noted that Smokey stopped rearing when I was close by. But I knew he just had to cope, something he wouldn't do if I baby sat him. We left them to work through this new experience and went to watch the next rider work with Mark.

It was an older gentleman, the only man in the clinic. He was riding a striking buckskin Andalusian gelding, just turning five. The horse was his gift to himself, his "second childhood," he said. His dream horse.

The horse was very willing and he rode very well. The gelding was in a bosal mecate set up with a beautiful head set.

But you got the feeling that the horse was tense. Nervous. Mark watched as they rode, the gentleman noting that he was hoping for a better stop.

The thing about Mark is he can see so well how we get in the way of our horses. How we are reflected in everything the horse does. In the case of this gentleman he was over cueing - leaning back in the saddle and pushing his feet forward as we are so often taught. I've seen that over and over, done it myself on occassion.

With great finesse and sensitivity Mark peeled away the gentleman's cues. In the space of an hour the horse softened, relaxed, and his stop became as simple as a sense that the man himself had stopped.

Mark joked that this probably sounded like a bunch of zen horse stuff, but he's found that horses are reflecting where we are, they are mirrors. We use a ton of cues because we don't let the simple things work first. Whether it's impatience, the tradition of others, or just our nature to be much more physically "loud", we inadvertently make it harder for our horses to respond. And then we up the pressure because they aren't responding. And they end up having to over compensate just to do the first thing they asked us for.

A tiny grain of my epiphany was planted in that moment, but I couldn't see it, not yet.

But in a few days I'd see it.

Anyway, by the end the Andalusian was stopping on a cue so subtle, I couldn't see it. But we could all see the horse relax, the man smile, and the stop become crisp.

I couldn't wait for the next set of riders...

Wednesday, February 1, 2012