Leadership Conversation

Summer has been pretty good to us here in Virginia. I have been on a slightly different routine with Khaleesi where I have been aiming for more polarized training. This includes regular low intensity training like hiking up and down the mountain that doesn’t break down her body but builds the engine contrasted with fewer high intensity training where we do shorter sessions of mostly cantering until she needs a break then cantering again until she needs a break etc.

I really like the approach and it appears to be doing something positive for us, including me because though I do ride her regularly I also now hike with her on foot as well so I’m getting more workout that I normally would and even in riding I’ve come to jog long downhill segments especially if rocky because we are faster, but more than speed for the sake of time she can do a slow jog on that downhill (where I’m aiming for higher HR than picking her way down, but still in a low threshold) without injury or putting excess stress on her joints which make it a better workout even at low intensity.

My training this summer feels a lot smarter and intentional than in years past. Time will tell if it’s more beneficial.

Something else I’ve been layering in this summer is a shift on the concept of leadership — which is a term tossed around quite a lot in horsemanship and means different things to different people. 

I recently heard Andrea Wady talk about it in ways that gave me pause to consider because it was not what I usually think of a being a leader.

Wady has done a lot of observation of wild herds in the UK and the US as well as other places around the globe and has been on a lifelong journey into the world of pure liberty which is not the same as good training that can eventually be done without ropes and halters. She used to do this more conventional liberty work in Costa Rica where she lived for 18 years but began to ask the question: if my horse knows that there are consequences for not doing what I ask, is that truly liberty? Or is it good training? What happens if I were to take away the treats and the ropes or sticks, and have a real conversation with my horse? Not a trained conversation.

When I heard her interview I almost screamed out loud: YES THIS IS WHAT I’VE BEEN ASKING FOR YEARS!? WHAT HAPPENED!?

She tells of going out with her horse that she could ride and work with at liberty and they took a hike into the Costa Rican jungle off her property and was so excited to see where their relationship was. She went on the share how she was devastated to find out a couple miles into the jungle… that her beloved friend the horse had ditched her and ran home when she realized the choice truly was there to do so.

Since then she’s been trying to sort out what real freedom and choice would look like and is doing fabulous things with horses and people. What I admire the most about Andrea is that unlike me she is so much better at helping people start with bite-sized small things to pepper in where I tend to jump off cliffs and go all into try out these things- and most people (wisely so) are not willing to do that. She also uses things she observes about how horses communication and connect but is candid about the fact that we are not a horse nor should we pretend to try to be one. We aren’t fooling anyone. We can however try to understand how horses think and communicate and get better at meeting them in a way they might understand.

One of the concepts she challenges people to reconsider is what makes a good leader. We often say that the leader moves the other horse’s feet, so we must also be the one to move the horse’s feet, and they should never be able to move our feet. We imagine the lead mare who if she doesn’t get her way with a look or ear flick will snake her head, bite and kick.

Andrea shared an example she once observed of the wise mare standing at a water trough who notices a young gelding pin his ears and begin to move purposefully toward her. Almost bored looking the mare wanders over to the shady spot under the trees and the gelding arrives at the water to find no opponent there to push around and then also notices the rest of the herd heading toward the shade because it’s pretty hot this afternoon and that seems like a pretty good decision.

Who is the leader? Probably the mare. Who did she push around or pin her ears at? No one. She could have stood her ground and kicked the younger gelding, but it probably seemed more effort than she wanted to put out on a hot afternoon. She didn’t round up the herd and move everyone’s feet, she just made a good choice. And she probably has a history of making good choices. And so when she does things the herd follows her lead. Sure she can enforce her space bubble or push horses around, but she doesn’t need to do that much.

This is what I’ve heard called passive leadership and it comes from just being a good leader.

When I thought this through a bit more I realized that the best leaders (in the world around me) are not the bossy ones who move everyone’s feet but lead through example. They show more than the tell. They live out what they want to see around them. The best leaders don’t have to make everyone do what they are asking, they start out ahead of everyone and do things that others want to be part of.

She often stays with me until I have to leave after we work together anymore. I hate having to go.

While it’s true that Khaleesi will not hesitate to move another horse’s feet with force if that horse is where she would like to be… she is rarely very violent on a day to day basis, and generally the herd just follows her lead naturally because, usually she has the best ideas. And the funny thing is she never uses a halter or lead rope. The horses always make a choice. The horses always have freedom in the herd.

Another interesting challenge to my concept of leadership is the sacred cow idea that in order to be the leader we must be 100% the leader 100% of the time and the horse must always know that compliance (even if it’s to try while learning a new thing) is the only right answer and if we ever let the horse get away with saying no thank you to a request our future is doomed.

Wady talks about sharing the leadership from time to time in order to come to learn about the world of your horse from their eyes. This should only ever be done thoughtfully with safety in mind. It isn’t a process of zero structure and the possibility of ending up on a highway with a horse who is now leading but put in a position to make poor choices that could end up getting someone hurt.

What it might look like is deciding on a certain amount of time each day or each week when in their own pasture you begin to follow their lead on purpose. She talks about asking your horse to take you on an adventure for once- in your own field. The problem is many horse’s favorite adventure might be grazing, and humans think that’s a terrible adventure and have no patience to stand with a grazing horse and give five minutes to matching the weight shift and slow movement of their feet and legs to see if you can be in harmony with them. How about squat down as they graze and notice what’s in the grass… different kinds of grasses, clovers, weeds, what’s the soil like? Pick through some of it on your own- how does it feel? Most humans struggle to spend five or ten minutes like this with their horse. But it wouldn’t hurt any of us to experiment and try.

Khaleesi’s idea of a great adventure

What about an arena area set up with a mounting block, some cones or buckets, anything else you might use in an arena… could you go in there with your horse, no halter or lead and go along as your horse checks out the different things… don’t try to lead them over to things, and don’t just watch as they do it… go along, touch what they touch… smell things (we don’t smell things very often do we?) turn things over so they can see the underside, bang on it and make noise, are they slow to process things or more quick to move on? What do you notice about them?

These small moments you could work in from time to time not where they just get to do this on their own, but you join them begins to create a different kind of connection.

What I’ve noticed is that we are predatory straight line thinkers usually with goals and a timeline. Here is what I would ask you- if you’re not feeding your horses or cleaning up around the barn and busy with something but enjoying that the horses are around… kind of like an equine fish tank… when was the last time you engaged with your horse in something that was not your idea?

This is the normal order of business I THINK for most horse people (you may skip or add a few but I think you’ll see my point):

  • Approach horse
  • Halter immediately
  • Bring horse in
  • Feed horse
  • Groom horse
  • Load on trailer
  • Put on tack
  • Get on horse
  • Ride horse (trail, or arena, either way it is all the human plans)
  • Get off horse
  • Untack
  • Load on trailer
  • Release horse to environment

In all of the normal routine is there in your routine built in a moment of “ask horse what she wants to do or what she thinks about this” moment? If so is there a “right answer” involved? So maybe 95-99%… or maybe even in some cases 100% of the time interacting with our hoses is our plan. This is often what we also look at as leadership, we are the leader. 

So what’s wrong with that? Is the reaction I get most. Either the human is aware they really only have a horse to do what they want with (and then they have all those other hours to just be a horse and that’s a lot more than with me and my demands right?) or they actually think that horses are not intelligent sentient beings who have thoughts, opinions, curiosity or are capable of taking us on an adventure anyway. They only want to eat, they are just dumb creatures of instinct, you’re putting way too much into this.

Well. I suppose it would be a waste of time to try to change anyone’s opinion about any of that. I can only share what I’ve seen as I experiment.

Contrary to what I used to think, if I ask my horse if she would like to make a choice from time to time it doesn’t make her less inclined to follow me when I ask for the leadership role. I think it makes her more inclined to submit to my leadership when I ask.

If you ever want to test all this out, you can try having a conversation with no method of control. See what you can ask your horse to do truly at liberty and you’ll have a gauge of where the relationship is. Of course if you’ve only relied on tools in the past you might have to work on some simple ways to communicate in order to even start this because you haven’t developed any common language except feel on a lead rope for example. 

In the end you may see it as a waste of time. I can understand how someone would think that actually. Entering the world of the horse is like going from New York City to Mayberry and the New Yorker is not going to have much patience for how long it takes the sheriff to form a complete sentence. We are pretty sure that the only way to accomplish our goals is to get on and get working.

And yet… after adding in bite sized pieces and parts of this, I took Khaleesi for a high intensity work out on the river trail. I actually now am becoming more adept at shifting leadership in small ways more fluidly. I have never had her carry herself as balanced as she began to offer me at the beginning of this ride, in what I considered the warm up part. We walked, did some lateral work back and forth on the wide trail, I did some backing up and some reaching for her in softness. The best of these things became interspersed with asking her if she’d like to stop a moment (eat grass)… if she asked to stop and listen or look (strange sounds) we would sometimes do that… I was more in tune to the things she might ask me in this process and more likely to find a moment to say “sure, we can stop here and tune into that sound and see what it might be”.

Sure you can have a bite but then let’s go

As we continued on this warming up part of the ride each time she took up the trot she lifted into with balance reading my mind perfectly, but without me asking, once, she offered an idea: how about I pick up into the canter here at the same slow trot speed and give you the most floaty, balanced, lifted canter you’ve ever ridden in your life?

And I said: I love that, yes, that’s a great idea I’m with you!

It all happened in a matter of microseconds but it was all her idea, I was not going to canter until a bit later. And in truth I have never ridden her with this lovely of balance and lightness in my life. She gave it, offered it, to me. In that very moment she was the leader and I said yes.

It felt so good I think I cried a little. No kidding. And when she felt done we stoped. Also her idea. And then just stood there a moment both of us enjoying the sound of the river below, the breeze in the trees, and I noticed the smells in the air. The way she sighed and stood softly I think she was quite pleased with herself.

After that we continued to get warmed up and then hit the turn around of the trail where I planned to ask her to give me everything she had on the way back. Three miles of as much cantering as she could do. And then my plan was to repeat for a total of 12 miles for the afternoon of low intensity followed by all out high intensity. At the turn around there’s some grass in a circle and I allowed her a short snack. When I asked her her to attention and to return she didn’t fight with me, she knew her turn was over and we were going back to work.

I turned her around and barely thought: canter. She lifted off in a great strong canter though not as floaty as the one she offered earlier, and I never asked again the next three miles. Every time she asked to slow to walk or trot I said yes, and every time when she felt recovered enough she went back to the canter on her own. She was doing it, I just had to stay with her because I needed to support her changes and not get behind her movement in my body. For three miles she gave me all she had and it was stunning.

When we returned to the trailer I had planned to let her graze and recover then do it all again. That was my human training plan. I usually stick pretty tightly to my plans… I am a goal setter after all. But something about that ride was special enough I had a gut sense not to be greedy. Take what she gave me and tell her it was enough today. In fact it was better than enough.

I let her eat some grass while I untacked her and loaded her up for home. What I did learn about 20 minutes later was a massive storm was blowing through the area we had been and a warning came up on my phone as I went though town. So in the end, it was a good choice all around. That’s just a side note.

Maybe that ride was going to be unusually strong and connected regardless. I guess we can’t know for sure. I had been doing some of this time with her off and on and been building up a bank account of connection recently. I’m sure some other factors played into the perfect storm that brought such a great ride. However I do see a difference in our time together as I’ve begun to reconsider what good leadership is.

I should clarify that this is not the same as there being no one in charge, no leadership. When I decide to have a conversation about leadership with K or she asks me about an idea and I say yes, sure, great I’m with you, it is not random. There is an interaction happening over who is leading. Some people have no concept of what leadership is and have random free-for-all going on with their horses and that is not a good thing.

This interaction style will mean different things for different horses just like every parent knows that each child is unique. Khaleesi and I will forge a slightly different leadership dynamic than Wyoming and I will. I have also gone too far sharing leadership with Khaleesi and found where things don’t work very well. Even in freedom structure is helpful. 

It is also true that my horses on the whole have had more choice and freedom and their voices tend to be considered probably more often than most normal horse people are willing to take the time and patience for… for better or worse. I think someone whose horse hasn’t had much say or freedom needs more structure in transition or they are likely to feel lost and confused. 

Probably one of the biggest blocks to this is fear of losing control altogether. If anyone is curious to try to do some of this experimentation, you might remind yourself that control is an illusion anyway. You aren’t going to do too much “control” damage by going out into their world and learning how to be with them without controlling them as a start. In a really bad situation you’d be better off with a horse who knows how to make a decision and who feels connected to you by choice than one who is afraid of you or knows if it doesn’t comply there will be punishment. Someday something the horse fears more will come along… and injury usually comes out of that.

If you want to have a conversation about what it could look like to begin this process in small bite sized ways feel free to connect with me! You can find lots of information on Hopehorsemanship.com.

Meanwhile… get out there and feel the grass! Sniff the air… and hear the sounds around you. Slow down just a little, it will only do you good!

No Man’s Land

June brought some down time after the OD ride and some fun cross training. Khaleesi enjoys jumping and I love trying different things so we went to visit Caroline for a fabulous day of lessons and lunch with a bonus of relaxing in the river in the afternoon. Iva came along and rode Stella the pocket rocket pony who is aways on “go” and she had a lot of fun with her.

I particularly like cross training because it uses different brain and body pathways and is a workout that is also fun. However I’ve been starting to dig into this crazy idea about working in lower heart rate zones on purpose for extended work outs because apparently they are key in developing endurance fitness. Today I had a great opportunity to play around with that!

Besides walking the mountain I have not done significant out of the field riding with Khaleesi and today was the day to get out and start getting some miles. I had picked out the hidden valley/poor farm loop which is around 16 miles with maybe 950 feet of elevation as it loops from a long dirt gravel road to the river trail. It’s a pretty good moderate loop close to home. 

I packed up my pads and girth and reins and half chaps and my sponge even; I made sure all the extras were in the truck and loaded Khaleesi for the 15 minute drive to the trail. Only when I arrived, parked, and then opened the door to begin pulling out tack something pretty basic had not made it. The saddle. Ugh. Well I’m not going bareback for 16 miles, it’s not so far so I headed back up to the barn- grabbed the saddle- and then returned to the trailhead, 30 minutes additional now but still worth it to follow through on my plan for the day.

As I began to get K ready something was obviously not right… oh no. The stirrup irons were still on the saddle I use for jumping. That is not good. Now I have the horse unloaded, half ready to go and I’m facing the decision of what now. I couldn’t see another 30 minutes of travel (and gas!) and I also couldn’t see bailing on my ride. So I decided to find out what 16 miles without stirrups would teach me.

No irons!

First I had to toss any expectations of how long this would take. My guess was I’d be walking most of it though I hoped I would be able to sit the trot without stirrups after I got settled in. 

Second this ride was going to be slow, but it would take a fair amount of focus if I wanted to get through without coming off the horse. Stirrups give a lot of stability for that moment you flush the grouse, spook the turkeys, or startle the deer. Then of course there are the funky shadows that are not alive at all but can be equally concerning to a prey animal out in the wide world.

What I learned.

I can sit a trot without stirrups pretty well if I am balance, and if my horses is balanced, if she is straight, moving in strength and not rushing or distracted. In order for me to have a nice sitting trot on K she has to be in good form and I must be loose but still have structure.

If I began to get out of control I would generally tighten up, get stiff and it would all get worse. Yet even in realizing that I was never able to pull back the whole horse and human balance without coming down to a walk and starting over once I lost it. I assume I am the problem most of the time, but I began to notice that actually we might be going along fine until K noticed something, and would bend her neck to follow the interest that caught her glance. This would then bend the ribcage and throw off her balance. Actually in this ride, as I was focused on this intentionally, it was rarely me that got us wonky. So I learned that I probably can use to go back and restart more often instead of accepting a less than balanced trot when we are training. Eventually we might be able to rebalance in the gait, but not yet.

Every time I wanted to trot I would gather my reins and wait for her to give into them slightly as she would begin to come into balance with the speed of her front and hind which would prepare us to lift into the trot. As she lifted I could go with her in that left to right rhythm combined with up and down and a little later I realized if I looked up and opened my shoulder blades it worked even better. If  she rushed into it and pulled along on her front I had zero chance and would be flung all over the place. 

How much attention I paid to this form was way way more than normal for me. It’s a lot to think about and demand every time you or she wants to trot. Also I’m not thinking every trot needs to be at that quality of balance and strength. And yet it was clear to me that I should spend more time finding this quality on rides even if we don’t hold it as long. That strength will build if I’m more intentional about it  

Overall I had no choice but to be balanced because any time I went to one side or other I began to fall or shift. Considering I did not fall I think my balance is doing pretty well.

Last I have been working on improving my own riding in the canter and the stretches we cantered were I think my own best canter yet. Not having stirrups gave me no option except than to follow her body. Of course I had to be very discerning because one funky shadow or a fisherman’s bike hidden behind a tree and I’d have been tossed. I think she could tell and when she cantered she held it well, she stayed in control with good form and rhythmic. I also had to get quicker at asking for quality transitions. If she rushed into the canter or fell out of the canter into a jiggy trot I was all but grabbing onto her neck like a monkey for survival. So as we transitioned I would ask her to stay balanced into the canter, or sometimes I would pick the canter up right from the walk. Then transitioning down I had to immediately go canter-walk with a step or two of trot sometimes but that was a good challenge that became much more important that usual.

As for the zone training, I’m just in the beginning of that journey, but as far as I can tell in the early stages of understanding (oversimplified). Zone 2 training in the articles I’ve been reading (I realize there are sometimes 5 zones and sometimes 6 zones in HR studies, this uses 6) is in the range of 70-80% HR capacity. Here is what I’ve seen so far:

Most people skip over zone 2 because it doesn’t feel like a workout. To stay in zone 2 usually you have to dial back your activity so you don’t bounce into zone 3-4 which is where most people do the majority of their workouts and is basically the “no mans land” of HR training. Apparently elite athletes know you should basically avoid this range except during your event. It’s not easy enough to give the benefits of the zone 2 I’ll list below… but it’s not intense enough to bring the benefits of the occasional all out workouts that are also important to mix in here and there. (Occasionally workouts at high intensity are also of great value!)

  1. Zone 2 increases the number and efficiency of mitochondria in your body. More mitochondria means you’re able to create ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is what fuels every cell in your body. When you are in zone 2 creating lots of mitochondria you’re able to use oxidation to turn fatty acids into ATP and this is “a lot of bang for your buck”. Otherwise your body has to switch from oxidation to burning glycogen/carbs to keep up or get ATP from lactate. Now we’re getting into layers that are deeper than I’m ready for quite yet. What I did find interesting is without zone 2 training the body becomes inefficient at using fat for fuel, and that inefficiency contributes to a variety of health conditions including insulin resistance, and cancer.
  2. Zone 2 training improves performance as an endurance athlete. More time spent in zone 2 allows you to go faster for longer and apparently is what separates professional athletes from amateur. The issue is it doesn’t “feel” like enough of a workout so most people won’t spend enough time focused on it, but the magic is the more time you spend there, you increase capacity and gradually you are going faster at a lower heart rate, increasing your pace without shifting over to carb-burning. One interview shared by spending the majority of her time in zone 2 (running) over years her finish times at races continue to improve significantly. The paradox to those in the know is: go slow to go fast.
  3. Zone 2 improves cardiovascular health. The heart grows stronger and also pumps blood more efficiently, the body expands its cardiovascular system and gets better at delivering oxygenated blood to the whole body. This also improves performance.
  4. Zone 2 prevents injury and aids recovery. It allows for quicker recovery which we all want to see in an endurance event. The zone 2 workouts put the least stress on the body (joints, ligaments, tendons etc) and enables you to workout more and longer with less exposure to breakdown and injury.

Horses and humans are not exactly the same, but I am willing to guess these apply to horse fitness as well. I used to have a HRM for K but it’s gotten old and there are some issues I haven’t been able to solve with the watch and so I’m looking for a new system. This is a case where I can do some good walk workouts mixed in with some hard intense training, but I think knowing I am not slipping into zone 3-4 which is apparently easy to do would be key.

There was a period of over a year when K was not totally sound, which was frustration for me. We could not sort out exactly what it was, but she was totally fine at the walk and so we did walk… then Molly mare entered the scene and her body was a mess and so was her brain from the life she came from of racing her around with no form or balance. We had to teach that horse to walk again and it took a ton of walking miles to get her to realize she could (in part she was so out of balance and weak she often rushed because she felt unstable). But K and I dutifully walked many miles with the pair during that time. It was like I was being set up to do a lot of slow foundation work. I spent the time working on straightness and balance since we had no speed. When K came right again and we began to compete last year she went from being the turtle at every 50 to coming in above middle usually in the teens which for a horse like her is pretty good. Looking back I have to ask, was I accidentally spending a lot of time in zone 2? And now have I begun doing too much zone 3-4 training when we do go out?

I see a lot of breaking down over time of horses in the sport of endurance, it’s a hard sport on the body. But I keep believing there has to be a better way to succeed and also have a horse who stays sound and healthy over it’s lifetime. Some people do a great job of this, but it’s not easy. Lots of hard miles take a toll on anyone.

Quality over quantity has already been a factor I’ve been working with, form and balance are important to create strength that will serve the horse to be less prone to injury or wear. I am already more curious to begin working on this in my own physical training.

Like most things that are done with excellence… it’s time consuming, takes a ton of patience and is often counterintuitive. I have learned if you don’t enjoy the process, doing things well will be frustrating and annoying and you’ll generally settle for good. I’m ruined for good… I am on a life quest for more.

The truth will set you free.

For being a relatively confident person who doesn’t deal with many fears and anxieties, endurance events this year have been a unusual source of great unknowing and nerves. I think the main reason for this is I have some hypothesis in play that are a bit untested and trying out some things that could go backward on me. But the success/failure of this long range trajectory won’t show up in one ride result. It’s going to show up in the health of my horse and her ability to continue to compete over years and increase in strength, and the need for medical intervention to keep her healthy or not, her mental buy-in to increase so she continues to be willing and not bunt out, alive and not shut down, and especially being a non-arab, can she excel and someday not only complete, but be competitive? Sometimes it’s hard to stay focused on the long game when one ride looms large in front of you.

Biltmore was an important lesson but not super fun. I was unsure how much damage might have been done in that ride physically and just because it’s not obvious doesn’t mean a crack hadn’t formed that will reveal a weakness later. Generally I like to dig out cracks and find them so I can bring the weak things into strength, however sometimes a small hairline fracture really needs to be left alone to heal, digging at it will only weaken it and create more damage. So which is it?

I was fairly certain one day of riding in the wrong saddle should not destroy her physically for months to come. However something from the past was re-opened and it wasn’t good. I thought this one needed to be left alone to heal and rest. Unfortunately I only had a month between Biltmore and OD and a month of rest seems like a terrible idea (especially with the amount of spring grass I have no control over her consuming right now) and also she had a huge rest over the winter so some reasonable work seemed pretty important before taking on what I think is about the most difficult ride we have around here.

I found some compromise by riding her on walking mountain climbs that didn’t stress her soundness and when I pushed her to do some hard climbs up and down with technical rock patterns I ended up getting off her and hiking or jogging which freed her up to get some exercise without having to balance me on extreme terrain. This felt like a great way to encourage her to keep working without stressing a potential crack I might have.

As the mid way mark got closer I knew I had to have more solid answers. I had avoided taking her on trot miles but she needed to go into taper down rest soon and I’d delayed signing up for the ride as long as I could. I had to know. 

We trailered to the scenic river trail which is the most flat track terrain with lots of miles I have and it’s great for the occasional “fitness” outings. I think we could get 30 miles out of it if we used it all. I planned to do 10 miles or so and to test the system at a trot. Would she be sound?

I was worried, but I kept coming back to this phrase: the truth will set you free.

I DO want the truth. 

I did want to go to the OD ride, and if she was presenting at all lame I would not go, so what I hoped as the outcome was: not lame. However, I had to see now if there was a problem and then it would be a matter of addressing it. Nothing to fear. The truth will set me free from fear. Worrying about the potential of her being lame was much worse than knowing she was lame and figuring out how to help her.

Turns out she was fabulously sound and energetic trotting the miles out and then doing walk-canter transitions on the way back with a few miles of strong cantering. So we go. 

I knew in my heart we were going to this ride the same as I knew last year the rides we were going to. These plans, as strange as it is to explain, are kind of above my pay grade. It’s like as I go I get the outline. I kept sensing we were GOING to the OD, but I also was a little shell shocked from the last ride. Something I have learned is the sense I have to go to a ride does not necessarily correspond into a surface layer success of completing the ride. God is more interested in building my character, in teaching me things that will serve me long term, and though “failure” is never fun, it is actually in those experiences we learn the most. There are tons of biographies and books written about how necessary failure is to the bigger things humans can achieve, but it’s never particularly fun. So in knowing that I was being called to get to the OD starting line, that did not mean I felt confident we wouldn’t be faced with yet another hard lesson. 

The OD ride had a 50% success rate for me & K. In years past we had completed twice and pulled twice. I kept having nightmare visions of the last gravel road miles into the second vet check when the last time we rode she had that slightly off feel, that one side landing heavier, pounding the gravel and the other side lighter… uneven… it’s not good. Not exactly lame, but not right. And sure enough pulled at the vet check, slightly off. 

Working in the clinic over the weekend some easy group class patterns trotting a cloverleaf she began that strange popping up like she’s trying to go into a canter but then doesn’t. It feels like that not exactly sound horse that I had for 2 years a while back. I was concerned.

I almost pulled out of the ride a handful of times in 2 days. But something kept pushing me to go. And then I was practically nauseas because I was would think: ok, you’re pressing me forward, but I don’t want another failure lesson… I’d rather stay home. It’s safe at home. This does not feel solid.

Mike & K snuggle-walking back from vet in

I went. We vetted in. And all was well. Yet I still heard so loudly in my mind: you don’t belong here. You are so stubborn insisting on making this work with a non-arab. If you want to do well just get a different horse that has breeding and talent. Plus you know deep down you are concerned she’s somehow not sound and yet you’re going to start this ride with those concerns? She is never going to be a competitor. You’re a total outsider in this club and you don’t belong. 

STOP! I told the voices to leave me alone. Then I asked God if he would defend me. Counteract them with some of his own truth over me!

And instead I heard: Well. You are an outsider here. But that is exactly where you belong and that’s ok. My favorite stories are always the underdog or the outcast coming to upset the status quo! It’s what makes things interesting and gives you more to work with.

Great. That’s not the comfort I was looking for.

I was grateful to have Mike there to support us. He is a great crew and K really likes him. As I shared some of my doubts I had to smile as he told me just what I knew was true, though it wasn’t the platitudes that would bring false comfort that I kind of also wanted. Since when have you been all that worried about looking foolish? You have to take risk in order to grow, it’s true, you guys may or may not finish this ride, but if you don’t I am confident you will take the lessons and come back stronger from it. You find the courage to ride out tomorrow, and you take what the day brings and you deal with it as it comes. You guys will be fine.

Truth.

Mike bringing K out to tack up Thursday

I know this trail. I was practically sick. It’s a lot of climbing and a lot of rocks and I could envision us pouring out all we had over it and then being laughed out of a vet check for lameness or possibly some metabolic thing in the heat. You should have known better why did you come? Thankfully the night before the ride we had an intense storm roll through that brought heavy rain, lightning strikes and loud thunder. That kept my mind occupied through the night on something else.

The morning came and I forced myself out of my hammock cocoon and began the morning prep to ride. Going into ‘get it done’ mode helped and soon we were at the starting line and on the trail.

She was happy at the start- everyone’s happy at the start! But even in the early tiny climbs I felt her begin breathing harder. Slowing slightly. Oh I knew we had not done enough training with my worries about her soundness. Mile 2 was way too soon for her to be faltering! And not like her. She kept up a pace though and we fell into a group that asked her to lead for them and she seemed to pick up her responsibility Khaleesi style and giving her a job switched her gears to now forward moving over even the rocks and climbs. Not far before the big climbs however she stopped for a BIG drink and another group was approaching. The horses we were with decided it was too risky to get behind another group and they took off. I stayed and let K drink her fill. The other large group went on as well as she drank and she was now behind both groups. This was ok, but she generally does better when we don’t get stuck alone in the back where she decides it doesn’t matter anymore and begin meandering along. Not ideal.

The biggest climbs of the day I knew she wasn’t going to be much faster than I can hike, so I got off for this one and again the big climb in loop 2. We had one more rider pass us here but it was ok. She was still doing well. I hopped back on and I was truly surprised how soon we came out on the ridge where she ate some grass and moved on.

We came into Bird Haven around 8:50 and people always look at us a little sideways as we trot past them to get in as quick as possible (don’t we know the walk into vet check rule?). One thing this particular horse does well is drop heart rate if nothing is wrong. In 4 minutes we dropped tack, took a pulse check, did a couple sponges and had our pulse time heading through the vet line.

Here is where things began to concern me. She generally has great CRI (unless something is wrong) and here her CRI went 56/64. Unusual for her especially so early in the day. Everything else looked good and she had gut sounds and decent hydration so the vet wasn’t worried but suggested she just needs to cool a little more – she is a tad… “fleshy” (truth) and that is probably all it is. 

She ate, but only about half. Also unusual. She generally licks her feed pan clean in the first hold. Mike walked her and she ravaged the grass, so that was good, but I’d have loved her to eat more of her food. Thankfully she peed (which she hadn’t all day at the Biltmore) and though I had nagging concerns but nothing to prohibit us from going back out. 

Not feeling confident, we left and she went willingly but she was unmotivated. So was I truth be told. We hit the gravel uphill and she began doing it: that thing where she pops up her front end like she might canter. But it feels off. It’s not exactly lame because she then goes alright but it is not a smooth transition. And she was not moving quick up the hill either. 

Turn back. You know where this leads! This leads to that bad trot in 15 more miles after you’ve climbed that insane mountain and ridden the rocky ridge and then you hit the gravel and you know she’s lame. Why do that to yourself. Why do it to her. Turn around. Go back. 

I came so close. I was about to do it. But then I heard: don’t give up yet. I know you’re concerned but it isn’t the end yet. Give her a chance to see if she will come right. 

She found a mud puddle from the storms overnight and stopped to tank up on water. 

I dug a little deeper in the moment. 

What is it you want? I want to finish today. I feel like if I fail I am a fool because I “knew better” than to come in the first place. 

Remember that thing you heard about failure… and the most successful people? Yes. Last week I heard that the most successful people have at least two OR MORE real failure cycles before they hit pay dirt in life. They keep trying even in the risky times. 

Ok… so what do you really want? Are you that afraid of failure even though you know it can be the exact ingredient you need for a bigger success ahead of you in time? No. I am not that afraid of failure really. 

So what do you want?

I want the truth. Only the truth will set me free.

Exactly! Be brave. Dig into this and find the truth. Don’t fear the truth! Even hard truths! They bring increasing layers of freedom, and you do not have to fear. This isn’t about one day’s outcome, it’s about a lifelong pursuit!

The truth will set me free.

She drank the puddle dry and then we heard hoof beats coming down from ahead. The group we had led in the first loop was wildly coming back toward us saying they were sure we had missed the turn, so we went back not far until she then saw it was impossible the turn was this far back so maybe they were correct after all… and thus we re-joined the group, and true enough with the motivation of some friends she seemed to forget about the goofy trot thing and just began to jog along with everyone.

We continued into the long 17+ mile loop into Laurel Run that includes the climb out of hell and then the steep loose rock descent lay in front of us. As always I got off on that climb and I stayed off until we reached the ridge. We did get left behind and had a couple riders go by us but she was still moving and I believed that it was not worth pressing her especially with the concerns I had at vet check 1. I kept hearing that I was putting money in the bank here and it would be worth it when I needed to write a check later that wouldn’t bounce. When we came out onto the ridge there was grass everywhere and she ate like a fiend. They would have been good places to move on, but she was ravaging the grasses so I let her eat… and walk… and eat some more… and walk… and eat some more. She ate a ton. 

Then we navigated the ridge with all the rocks at a moderate unimpressive speed. She gets totally annoyed at the bouldering and it puts her in a foul mood. But she kept going. At some point a small family and the drag rider caught us (oh no, the drag rider… this is really going poorly for us today!) but actually it was a massive blessing because the drag rider had my rider card which had fallen out of my jersey pocket. (I had a dream a few weeks back that Dianne Connolly told me if I could find my rider card and brought it to them they’d be sure I got listed as completed since I had a great ride). Maybe being so slow on that loop that we connected with the drag rider was a secret ingredient to us finishing this year. 

Afterwords we began to navigate the technical terrain with annoyance but faster than the little family and drag rider so we moved on ahead. When we got to the downhill segment she began to try to move but did not like sliding out- she has a good head on her shoulders and is not inclined to race ahead of her ability to not sustain injury. She she’d trot a few steps then slow and slip then trot a few steps then slip and slow. So I got back off and began to run down the hill. We had practiced this at home a fair amount. With me not on her she began running down the trail right behind me and I was going as fast as I could on my own two feet. It was working much better! 

After descending the mountain I hopped back on and we hit the infamous gravel road into Laurel Run. I had no idea what the cut off times were but felt ominously like I must be close. I picked her up into a balanced trot and she was totally sound and light. I prayed it would continue and I didn’t ask her for speed, just consistency rhythm and balance. 

As we approached the VC there was a short out and back where we needed to grab a clip to prove we added the extra miles that makes this ride now a 55 (the last time I rode it was a 50 and this is new to me). I asked when the cut off was and the volunteer said I was no where close to that so yay! We went down to pick up our clip. (… did I mention I had a dream a few weeks ago where I was in a ride where we were running on foot with our horses and I had noticed that there was an out and back we must not miss picking up a clip and ribbon or we would be sent back? Strange huh…)

This vet check she once again pulsed within 4 minutes to 60 then her CRI was 52/56 which was better but still not as she usually is, and apparently gut sounds, hydration, muscle tone and everything was A. I asked how she felt with her back and hind as well, that’s a lot of climbing and a lot of up and downhill trotting: the vet assured me everything was loose and felt great, so back soreness or tight muscles.

Dianne’s niece Elizabeth stayed with me the entire check and continued to sponge K while she ate voraciously until her skin was cool to the touch. This I learned a couple years back from April Dobson who also rides a non-arab. Don’t just get them down, get them cool, more money in the bank for the ride home.

Elizabeth & K at Laurel Run

At this point I felt I had a nice size nest egg in that bank account and I hoped we could start to spend at least some of it. I didn’t need to spend it down to zero, but enough to get us home strong.

After Laurel Run it’s really “all downhill” home. Ok, so not exactly really all downhill, but no more massive climbs and still some rocks sections but no insane technical ridge lines. The worst of that ride is in loop 2 and loop 1 is no slouch either. Loops 3 is pretty gentle and loop 4 is a quick jog home.

She picked up a balanced rhythmic slow trot right out of the gate and I didn’t bug her to push for any speed. We had plenty of time there was no reason to press her. She ate more on this loop and I let her but it was grab and go now. She also drank a fair amount out of the streams. 

Another habit I took from riding with Angie Crestwell McGhee last year was to sponge at all times. Every mud puddle. Get good at tossing and squeezing constantly. I did that through this ride and I think it does help. I do it at every single sighting of water.

She had only been picking up speed the last few miles. We passed a few riders this loop. Once again trotted into the last hold as quick as possible and once again in about 5 minutes we had a pulse time. This one took longer because I could not get a reading and wasn’t sure we were down. Considering I was toward the end of the group by now the vet check was quiet and I thought it would be ok to walk over even if we weren’t down to find out. Turns out the problem was her pulse was so low it wasn’t picking up reliably. She came through at 48.

This was probably the best vet hold yet where she was back to her old self and had a couple B grades for hydration but everything else including gut sounds A. 

The last loop she wasn’t convinced I knew what I was doing because though its back to camp it goes out a different way. She questioned me a few times but not out of exhaustion, more confusion. I had to prod her on to believe me and she always did then would ask again: are you SURE this is right?

Yes. There’s the blue and white ribbons… we’re good!

So remember in loop 2 when we added a couple miles because you missed the turn….

Yes I remember I’m sorry, that was tricky but this time I’m sure.

Eventually she began to believe me and kept gaining steam. By the time we met the part of the trail we began on she got excited and began rolling along like a train. It occurred to me later that she never hit a wall this ride, it wasn’t super fast, but in all our history of 50s, even the ones we’d turtled, she always hit some kind of a wall around mile 38-45 and even if we were headed back to camp she was plain tired. For this ride, the last 18 miles she only picked up speed. Now she was long trotting over the terrain and I was doing my best to ride well and not get in her way and warn her of any obstacles she might have not seen. 

We hit the gravel road back to camp and no sense of unease or being slightly off. She was flying along in a big extended ground covering trot and kept it going right to the finish line. There she stopped on a dime and seemed quite pleased with herself.

It’s not over until the final vet sings. We walked over to drop tack, cool briefly and see what we would find. Her final CRI was 52/48. That’s my girl. Dr. Bob who helped me at the treatment vet at Biltmore said this was a true test of my mare and she passed it strong. He congratulated me on a great job managing her all day and coming back from a hard lesson a month before. 

I was relieved not to have another hard lesson. The truth I found when I finally had the courage to ask for it was kinder than I had anticipated. So often it is.

Photo credit Becky Pearman

We still have a long road ahead. But this is good. Any journey worth traveling has some good twists and turns along the way, and takes the time it takes. The things I am learning as I manage her physical/mental/emotional training and our relationship— how to build her up over time and not break her down —  will serve me for a lifetime, and at least a long career for her… God willing.

Everything is grace.

I really need to be on the road early. It would be so much easier to close her in the smaller paddock than take the chance I’ll have to follow her around the many acre field in the near dawn hoping she will be on board with leaving with me for the weekend. She isn’t stupid, she knows I packed up and I never come that early to feed unless we are doing something… She is the leader, she worries about leaving Wyoming in charge, she might want me to know her concerns before she agrees to halter up, and that could take some time. Time is one thing tomorrow I do not have any to spare. It would be wise to pen her in. Wouldn’t it?

Yet on the flip side, I need her to have buy-in this weekend. If I pen her in, she’s going to be pissed all night in there. She hates confinement when she is supposed to be leading the herd, keeping them safe, making sure they know where to go, where to eat, where to poop, and when to drink. She is good at her work. If I pen her in she’s going to greet me in the morning with a big fat attitude and though it might be easier to get the halter on her and walk out, it is likely we will start the day already at odds, and then likely will take her more time to communicate her displeasure to me before getting on the trailer. And if I have to force her on the trailer we start the whole weekend from negative.

No. I can’t do it. 

I’ve spent months… years investing in our relationship, giving her as much choice and freedom as I can possibly stomach. This IS the whole point- to choose excellence and freedom when it could (is likely to) cost me. That is when you find out what your core values really are. When the rubber hits the road. When there is a real risk of something. Can I put her first when it might hurt? Will I live what I say I believe?

I have to. Otherwise what is the point of all that time I put into our relationship based on her freedom? It would be for nothing if I trap her when it counts. This weekend I want to do it right. From the very starting point at home.

I chose to trust her.


This is how our first event weekend (Biltmore 50) of 2022 began. I had planned to leave Khaleesi in a smaller pen overnight so she would be easy to get my hands on first thing in the morning but in the end, in my heart, I knew it went against my core values. And I left her free in the field wondering if the morning would mean an hour of pursuit asking her to be my partner and come with me of her own will. Leaving her free was a chance I had to take.

I said a quick prayer on my drive up to the barn in the morning: Lord, I hate to ask you to make my circumstances easy, because I know so often it’s in the challenges you teach me and I grow, but today, this morning, PLEASE help me get the mare on the trailer quickly, we have a long drive and a lot to do today in order to ride tomorrow. Thank you. Amen.

Moments later my eyes watered as I drove in to see her eating grass in exactly the place I had wanted to confine her. If I would have confined her I would have completely missed the magic of the fact that she was there without being confined. Now I don’t imagine she was exactly waiting for me to come load her up for the Biltmore, but still seeing her waiting in that little pen struck me in a deep place. She also got on the trailer without much conversation. She came willingly.

Thank you, I whispered and heard in reply: This weekend you will learn about grace.


I had a sense this ride was going to have special impact, but I didn’t know going into it what that would mean. You see I had a dream a few nights before. In the dream I was riding in a 50 event with Khaleesi and we were doing great. We came in at 5pm, but in the dream this was so early no one was set up to record or vet us. The finish line was completely unmanned and there were no vets present and so we went on our way. I remember specifically thinking: we didn’t do a trot out so I must not have vetted. A while later I returned and found my name was not on the completion list. When I asked about it, the ride manager told me if I brought them my ride card they would give me a completion, but I either couldn’t find it or didn’t bother to look. In the dream I knew what we had accomplished, and it was very good, and it didn’t matter very much that we weren’t on the list and no one else would know.


The first rough spot came upon arrival. Main camp was full and I would need to make myself home in the satellite camp. What? How could everything already be going wrong? This is terrible! This was directly followed by a message that my crew friend whose help I needed to begin setting up wasn’t going to be there for a while yet. 

Somehow I forgot to give thanks that the terrible storms relented and moved out upon my arrival. I didn’t use my raincoat the entire weekend where it was soggy for the day previous- grace!

When I came to my senses I took a step back to note- it’s likely there is a good reason why this satellite spot is the best place for us. I changed my mindset and instead turned to curiousity to find out why it would be better in time.

The rest of the day was smooth and we got everything done we needed. I wanted to take a tack up ride but the skies were threatening as evening wore on I’d heard we had tornado watches. It felt an ominous warning to let it be, trust the process, and stay in tonight. There was a fair amount of rain over night but no tornados or lightning strikes.

When we finished all our prep work and sat inside the trailer for dinner we looked out and saw the dark skies behind with sun illuminating just that special way … we looked at each other knowingly and said together: it’s rainbow lighting! Sure enough as we went outside in the light sprinkle, it appeared. A promise in the form of a colorful bow, right over Khaleesi in the field who seemed to be gazing at it as well.


Long time readers of my blog may remember there was an extended season of intermittent lameness I spent two years trying to get straightened out with vets, and radiographs and injections, and nutrition, and composite shoes, and clinics, and better riding skills and all the minute and major pieces and parts one might look to in order to solve this annoying problem. Looking back I see the gift buried in all I learned and the places I was forced to up my game where I may not have bothered had she been doing “fine.” But for all that time I did not have a clear answer to why my horse was not truly sound when the pressure came on. One thing I could do was walk the mountains. And that season (a year or more) of walking taught me about excellence and form, straightness and balance. I also would go play in the arena with friends and while they trotted and cantered around I often found myself standing still in the center working on very fine tuned things like turn on the fore or hind or how light can I ask you to lift that leg, or bend your neck, or catch my feel from the reins… light back up, lateral work, I got pretty creative at a walk or halt. I also found composite shoes which have been a huge game changer for K.

Last year at a clinic (we are having one again June 3-6, 2022 and still have a few openings!) with Emily Kemp we did some saddle fit experimenting with all the saddles people had brought (all the ones I tried were from Balance International, but different styles and sizes). We found my Felix 8x GPJ which I had been using for a couple years seemed at the outside like a good “fit” but in practice it simply wasn’t all that stable– other saddles seemed more “at home” on her back. For anyone not familiar with Balance saddling, it is not standard saddling, it’s functional saddling, the saddles are intended to be wide to allow the horse movement and muscle development that brings about changes and increased muscling as you ride, so the fit must be generous and the padding system they’ve developed has the same response and feel as soft tissue, so it allows for the back to move, blood to flow freely in the muscles (most saddles if they “fit” do not allow this blood flow in motion) and the pad gives and responds as much like soft tissue as possible. So these saddles are an art to work with and as the horse changes you must be prepared to shift and change pads (and occasionally saddles) as needed to fill in or take out space created by the horse’s changes over a season or time. (If you are interested in this system you can read about it: www.balanceinternational.com/functional-saddling)

It seemed clear that the Nexus R width saddle was better for her (note that a Balance Regular is still miles wider than traditional wide saddle trees) and I was able to borrow one to ride in for as long as I needed it. As I rode her in it she got stronger and more muscled and we moved to another borrowed Matrix saddle that was slightly wider but not as wide as the Nexus W. This season she has muscled up even more and within a year she is now using the Nexus W tree and it’s been giving me the best fit and sweat patterns I’ve ever seen. The Felix model in 8x is wider than all of these but also shaped somewhat differently- it APPEARED to me to give also more shoulder freedom, but now I think that’s not exactly the case.

This is actually the Balance Matrix but you can see that it is wider than most traditional saddles. In some ways they give the freedom of treeless with the stability and support of a good tree.

And so, I had this nagging question: Will this growth process continue until she eventually develop into the Felix 8x being the best fit? 

So I asked my friend who I’d loaned the Felix to and happened to be crewing that weekend- can you bring it so I can see what it looks like on her a year later?

And to me it looked great!! Gave her lots of room to move, but not so rocking and unstable as it had been a year earlier. Khaleesi developed a lot over this past year between the balance and straightness we’d set up foundationally and the ability to allow her free change and growth with different saddles (thanks Amy!) and pads. 

So I decided to try the 8x Felix again.

Ok. To anyone else this seems an obvious broken rule: NEVER TRY A NEW THING ON RIDE DAY.

At the time I thought without actually thinking at all: it’s not new, it’s the saddle I rode with for years, and now it seems to fit even better, and I like the freedom of the GPJ (jump) seat instead of the GPD (dressage) style that felt more confining.

I tried it the first loop which was short- 15 miles, so if it wasn’t great I wouldn’t be out on the 20 mile loop at least. 

Looking back in hindsight I noticed at the start Khaleesi was more “mellow” than usual and occasionally at the trot she didn’t seem as balanced and had some off steps. This takes me to the second puzzle piece of the day. My farrier had a family emergency that kept him from putting on our new ride shoes before the ride. I was able to have the ride farrier help, but I was riding in fresh shoes at the ride. This I knew was not ideal, but I had no other option. At least she has been using the same shoes for two years now. But this is why on the first loop I thought any gait anomaly might have been from new shoes put on by a new person to us. Maybe it just took some getting used to.

During the loop she picked up some energy and evened out, I did not sense her being off or lame after we got moving. She was strong the first loop and did the 15 miles in under 2 hours. For us that’s good time. She vetted great and dropped immediately with heart rates of 60/56 and no issues. She ate and drank.

Brandea and K first hold.

The second loop was 20 miles and I put on the Nexus W saddle that she had been riding great in this spring. She went out on trail with more energy and picked up more and more as the loop went on. She shocked me as she seemed to only get stronger moving along – passing riders here and there and pressing me to keep a pace faster than I would have asked her for. She was strong willing and happy, not at all out of control. And over the years I have learned to trust her, we do this together. She finished that 20 mile loop for us in a record 2 1/2 hours.

Ace crew Abigail joins us for the day.

This time she vetted in immediately at 56/48 with all A scores and no sign of any muscle tightness even though there was a lot of mud from the previous days of rain. She ate and drank well at first, then stopped eating to rest a bit, I couldn’t believe we were going back on trail for the final loop of 16 miles at 1:43pm. That was way ahead of our usual pace for a 50. And a happy healthy horse more willing than ever. What a day!

Becky Pearman photo credit

Seems like a perfect opportunity to wreck a good thing right?

In my first draft here I tried to explain my reasoning as to WHY I changed back to the Felix 8x, but it doesn’t really matter. It made sense to me at the time. Now is when you should hear the dark looming music in the background, but if you don’t- here’s another layer to bring up the volume: I used a different extra pad than in the morning, a smaller one in width (not thickness). There is a sheepskin quilt, then a closed cell base pad- and for this saddle a smaller “JB” (junction box) pad that comes in two sizes. First loop I used the larger one (which is rarely used and considered remedial), this loop I wanted to try the standard one. What on earth I was thinking… I wasn’t. I had flipped to learning mode on a ride day- running experiments. Which in some ways tells you what my true goals are!! At heart I am a truth seeker above all else. This was a fantastic opportunity to get data. And learn I did.

Today this is the part of the movie I have to cover my eyes as I rewatch it to share it with you.

Heading out she was willing and we began with some walking to wake her up from her vet hold nap. When the family I’d been riding with caught up to us on their way out she perked up and began to trot along. We trotted and cantered a ways down the grassy stretch but within a mile or two I felt things changing. She began to lag and eventually the group we’d enjoyed a lot of trail with pulled away from us. Now we were both tired, and what can be covered in a fresh horse becomes uncovered in a tired one… so the truth I was seeking became increasingly clear. 

First my right calf began to bother me. That was a deja-vu moment because in years past I had this very problem on long or fast rides and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I haven’t had this problem in the past year so it’s return was very concerning. Already a few miles into the loop, we continued on at a slower but still decent pace. It was shockingly clear that I did not have the same horse. And I wasn’t the same rider either. The combination of her discomfort in the saddle made her movement harder to balance well and I was tired too so then my lower back on the right began to be sore. Add to the mix the Felix is the general purpose jump style which for how much I love the freedom when I am fresh, it gives me little rider support when I’m getting tired and sore. Changing diagonals became less fluid. She was willing, but held back as we traveled through. At about half way through the loop she began for the first time all day to ask to walk. I absolutely said yes to that and it was a green trail along the river where she also ate a fair amount of grass. When I asked for a short trot intervals it began… the same exact off feeling I used to have in years past.

It was like a nightmare all coming clear. My own body pain, her own irregular movements, We hadn’t felt this since I’d sent the saddle off with Brandea last May. I got off to check her feet, all clear. We had 6 more miles of this 50 to go.

We walked and cantered (cantering was easier for her and me not creating the same issues the trot movement did) and occasionally trotted on grass and I found I could get myself into just the right loose feel that she would trot sound for a while. That was more painful for me because it affected my calf more when I positioned myself for her to have the most support (or me getting out of her way). If she trotting unsound we walked again.

I had some choices here. And I did what I believed was best at the time, and I’m ok with the way I navigated this, though I can understand why others may well have done things differently. We could have walked in the last 6 miles. We did walk a fair amount of that actually. I even considered taking off the saddle and going bareback (is that legal?), but decided against that because I do ride her bareback from time to time in winter for short rides, but I’m not an amazing bareback rider, I don’t think bareback is great for them at longer stretches, and I did not think it would be better for her. What I decided to do in the moment was rely on her as my partner- and work together. She did not want to be out here forever either it seemed and when we began to turn back toward the finish as the final miles approached she continued to move forward.

I know this horse. I know her heart, and her spirit and her ability. In every single 50 we have competed there has come a point in the third loop where she has ground to a halt and suggested we just give up and camp here. Every ride there has been a point where I’ve had to encourage her (this is not a euphemism; I actually mean I tell her how powerful she is and I sing to her, and I tell her I know she can do it! I often get off and walk with her and tell her how much I appreciate her effort and that she is so much stronger than she thinks she is!)

It was not lost on me that though neither of us were doing well this loop, because of the mistakes and intentional choices I made, she NEVER ground to a halt, and even asking to walk was still energetic and forward and felt different than in rides past. I did not force her at this ride. And so we worked together on a ride the trail in front of us plan, and I knew in my heart there was a very strong chance this horse was not passing a final vet. And yet, we rode together our best in the moment with what we had. 

I never looked at the time. I didn’t want that to be any factor. I knew we had all the time in the world today. She had bought it early on.

When the finish line came into sight she began to canter down the last grassy stretch, I was so proud of her strength that day even though I had a sinking feeling this was not going to go easy. No matter what she was my amazing hero. I was ridiculously proud of all she offered me.

Henry announced that number 330 finish time was 4:59:08.


That would be about 5pm.

In that moment I knew my dream had real connection to this moment, and what we gained on this ride would not be obvious to the general public, but yet I didn’t lose heart because also I knew that under the surface important things were going to put us ahead in other ways that were more important than our name on the list. And it would be ok. Even this would be used for my good. And I knew also Khaleesi would be ok too.

What a fairy tale scene the Biltmore grounds are- backdrop for a grand tale I suppose.

Right then it was nice that we were in the satellite camping because we could stop at the trailer to drop our tack and prep her to walk to the vet. It was breezy and overcast and I didn’t want to cool her with water. She always drops heart rate and the mile walk to vet seemed enough to me. So I didn’t even check it. Another assumption that did not serve me well.

Her heart rate was not down enough. In fact it was variable which is not good. She would go from 64 to 68 to 70 to 64 to 60 to 56 to 64 to 68… We went out to cool her down, Dr. Art said she felt warm still to the touch. Here I am SO thankful to the friends there who helped us with water and ice and even some calcium and advice. But the problem was deeper, she had done those last miles in pain and it was going to take time for that to clear out (days not minutes).

We were now out of time to get her pulse down (I hadn’t hurried the mile from the finish and time at the trailer and then the cooling her) back in the final vet we had a similar heart rate pattern though all the numbers a little lower. We did a half trot out and she was not right, so chicken or egg here- metabolic or lame, she was not getting a completion. Funny, didn’t I have this dream we didn’t make the list?

So we visited the treatment vets Dr. Bob and Dr. Lynn who took pulse, temperature, listened for gut sounds. She wasn’t sick enough to panic, but she needed to be observed. They suggested she could get better and be fine, but if she got worse it could go dehydration colic wrong. So I grazed her around the swampy grass nearby that was very wet for about 20 minutes and let her ravage the greens and sip from the puddles (she had drank after the finish as well). Then she peed and it was not light, but not dark enough to be overly concerned, and the vets determined she was moving toward better and would be fine to walk back to satellite camp. Keep an eye on her and let them know if anything changed. No treatment needed for now.

I took the walk of “shame” to the treatment vet.

Back at satellite camp, there was tons of grassy meadow areas and fewer people. Brandea and I decided we actually liked being in the suburbs better than squished in main camp and it’s likely in the future I’ll probably go there willingly. But now she had acres to hand graze Khaleesi on to keep eating the healthy green stuff ensuring she would have a better chance of recovery. She did come around and never needed treatment, but something happened to me in that evening: I took the walk of “shame” to the treatment vet with my horse. It was my first time. Yes, I’ve had lameness pulls in the years back when I was riding in my Felix 8x when after 30 miles she would come up slightly lame. But no one was ever concerned for her metabolic state. It was a check over and you’re good to go… hope someone can help you sort out the lameness later.

Please hear me: I chose those words carefully- not to put shame on anyone reading this who has been to the treatment vet for metabolic issues. But to express how it felt at the time for me to be there. Because in the handful of years I’ve been doing this sport, I hadn’t yet had this experience, so I did not understand all that came with it, and honestly I found myself quietly, secretly in my hard little heart, judging those who did end up there. Now I wasn’t proud of being that way, but I knew it was there. And it bothered me honestly. I don’t want to be that person who looks “down” at the “other people” who end up in treatment. In my mind I realize that things happen, but the deeper truth was I did see myself as “not like that.”

Some of you may find this blog uncomfortably honest and vulnerable (I find this blog uncomfortably vulnerable), but this year I had asked God if he would help change my heart. I didn’t want to be the person with so little compassion for those around me. I love the horses and hate to see them suffer, but I also want to love the people too. Authentically, not fake, not having to pretend I had compassion, but deep down feeling like I was different somehow. God is so good. He is eager to answer the prayers that request us to grow I think faster than any others. And so he met me there. And even gave me a dream so I would know: it’s ok, this is going to be good for you, you just have to trust me.

I felt that shame and had to also deal with that (I do not carry that shame but it was something I had to work through too). 

I want to be a successful rider. I want an awesome horse who competes strong. I want to honor my horse. I want to have a good record of finishing rides. I want to eventually be able to move up distances too. 

But more than that, I want to be someone who brings encouragement, compassion, help, and life to the communities I’m involved in. I want to be a better human to the humans and horses around me. These are the real goals, the true vision that matters to me more in the end. Because of how this experience went for me I had a heart shift. But for the grace of God go I too, and I am not separate, I am not different from “you.” 


And in that same lesson of grace some the weekend brought beautiful things to be thankful for. The lesson was exactly what it needed to be and I’m thankful my horse IS fine and didn’t need treatment and didn’t suffer more than she did for me to learn these things.  In fact, she never seemed overly concerned, and yesterday she came to spend time with me in the field- uncharacteristicly asking me to take the hairbrush and scratch her in many different places while she stood with me. She’s not generally a warm and fuzzy mare. The grace here could be that she doesn’t see me as “doing this to her” as much as “we did it together and made it through.” The only explanation I have for that is because I never forced her, even from not locking her up in the pen the night before. She was given the honor of choice and freedom as much as possible the entire time even in the last loop I only took the gaites and speeds she offered willingly.

I learned that the answer to the 8x Felix is NO. I will sell the saddle, I don’t think it’s a bad saddle, it’s just bad for us. I also learned that more of my problems in the lameness years were from that saddle than I realized. I had various people check it out and none of us thought it could have been that problematic of a factor. I got huge clarity on this ride how big a problem it was, but I do not think I would have known so quickly and clearly if I’d have started mixing it in on training rides. Maybe. Maybe not.

I learned that my past totally successful electrolyte program needs to step up when she is this strong. She worked much harder than in years past and will need more support than she used to need. 

And another question that I believe was answered: All this time I put into extreme relationship building, giving her as much choice as possible, building strength over cardio fitness… are these a waste of time, or the right direction?

These investments in relationship are paying off in spades. She had four months of no-halter liberty style free choice this winter and the bond it created between us is revolutionary. Brandea who used to “live” with us and now only sees us together a few times a year said it was a noticeable shift. The change from last year to this year is a leap.

I am also seeing fruit from the years of the (imposed) slow work in balance for form over everything else. This spring my training rides have been at whatever speed she chooses as long as we have form and excellence- she can walk it all if she insists. 

What she gives me today willingly is exponentially more than what I’d gotten out of her pushing her in the past. She rode stronger compromised but willing this weekend than I’ve ever seen her before. The foundation is solid, and I’d say she even likes her work. Those things are going to be gold as we continue on.

The next morning in my hammock cocoon I did question (again) why I do this. It’s a lot of work. I was grateful to have slept the night instead of been still riding with the 100 mile riders. Do I really want to ever ride 100 miles?

Yes. It only takes a day until I remember why I do this, and why I love this sport… and all the people in it. And I love them even more now than ever.

And everything is grace.

Whatever comes my way
I will walk through the flames
You’re turning my fear to faith
My doubt to praise
And everything is grace

True in the pouring rain
True in the crashing waves
It’s true even in my pain, my heart can say
That everything is grace

Matt Maher: Everything Is Grace

Equine Shabbat?

This season I am committed to offering Khaleesi as much choice as she can possibly have, as is my habit: to the very edge and sometimes probably over the edge depending on where you’re looking at it from. I am also committed to approaching this season differently than I have in the past such as: I am entirely less interested in miles and a training schedule… and much less interested in what I can get out of her than finding out just what she has to offer me.

I took a risk this winter on a total four month riding break where I did 100% free choice, no halters allowed, liberty work. So if she wasn’t interested voluntarily then nothing happened. This is how I wanted to begin the year for us, in many ways like a Shabbat… and it was evening and it was morning… Jewish culture begins the day at sundown unlike our ‘hit the ground running’ western cultural view. I am beginning to think everything of value begins with intentional rest.

Yet the concept of Shabbat is not about merely resting. It is a purposeful decision to stop the frantic busy pace we think we must sustain in order to be successful, and to make time for what is more important. Shabbat is about connection even more than rest. Intentional peace and a reminder that we are not gods- that we do not actually hold the universe singlehandedly on its course. It is an act of trust that we can stop the spinning to see what is really available, and usually find we are actually better off for it.

The investment felt costly to me. It was a risk to not do the “normal” things to move toward a goal in the predatory straight line thinking human kind of way.  For me TIME is always a costly investment. I may not have a lot of money, but even so at least it is replaceable. Time is only redeemed through the very creator himself- for me it is the most valuable thing I have to offer, and the thing my horses all require the most sacrifice of from me. 

The last thing I wanted to see was the costly investment I made this winter in our connection and relationship get instantly flushed down the toiled as I returned to my normal ways of rushing around training lots of miles, forgetting what really matters and expecting her to just be on board… I mean I feed her don’t I? Doesn’t she realize she owes me her entire life? [that was sarcasm in case it doesn’t come through in print]

Thus I’ve been intentional about how we’ve returned to work, and allowing her as much choice as possible has been a new foundational piece, well, let me restate that: I am significantly expanding what I thought was the amount I could allow her to choose.

The only thing it’s cost me thus far is time. 

And this mare is worth every extra minute I honor her with. So I’ll pay that gladly.

Really… it’s not that bad!

Today I was pleased with the picture that is coming into focus. Here is what it looked like in a snapshot.


I arrived with the truck and trailer to feed, this usually tips my observant and wise mare off that someone is going somewhere.

Feed the horses free in the field as always, knowing full well she is likely to be suspicious of the trailer- still will never use a feeding to “trap” her and all horses eat as usual.

Khaleesi surprises me by hanging close to me after breakfast (this is unusual)- so I take a few minutes and grab her halter- we do some positive reinforcement chatting around her interest in the halter. However I want to load my tack before I put her in the halter, so I know for certain these conversations will not end with her haltered. It’s just chatting for sake of chatting. (Old Jaime would consider this a time waste)

After a few minutes I walk off to finish my chores and assemble her tack for my planned 12 mile ride. When I return to the field she and the herd have crossed the “moat” and are in the far corner (of course) I smile, because it doesn’t matter where she goes- I will pursue- it just means I get a little extra walk in today, and honestly, I can use it.

The ‘moat’

I use the far gate so I don’t have to swim the moat and approach but do not completely close the gap between us. She is smart, and she already knows she’s going somewhere today, but she seems to enjoy the pursuit this season. For a while I was curious as to why she appears to like interacting with me, and yet she would still walk away and I had to learn this “pursue” concept. Then Iva observed: Jaime, I think she actually likes this part… when you go find her in the field and have the whole conversation around her leaving with you… it’s interaction she seems to look forward to… I have come to see there is truth in it. My mare likes the pursuit. The interactions we have before I hook her up and go about my business. This part of the process is really all about her and asking how she is doing today and what’s on her mind.

So I pause a few feet away from her and she looks at me. I hold out the halter toward her in my hand and she takes a step toward me and touches it with her nose. We spend a few minutes doing positive reinforcement until I make a large circle in front of her with my arm and the halter and she dives her nose all the way in- only then do I put the halter on. Her choice.

I begin to walk and she does not. I turn to her and invite her toward me. She comes a few steps and we have a chat about leaving the field together. She is well trained, I can drive her with my lead rope, I could add pressure from the halter- these would have her obediently walking with me, but I don’t do any of those. I continue to invite and discuss. Soon she is walking next to me as we head toward the gate. Her choice.

Right now the grass outside the gate is lush and sweet. After I get the gate shut I allow for a few bites here and there as we meander toward the barn and trailer. Purposefully suggesting she get a few bites here and there. Here is where my predator straight line thinking is the most challenged! I can promise you this is completely against my own instincts and grain to allow my horse to eat grass and wander toward the trailer instead of hiking over there toot suite and yet this lingering is one of her favorite things. When I do suggest we continue to walk- she always goes with me. Her choice.

Then I do as much of the curry comb shedding and quick grooming possible while she is munching on the favorite grass near the trailer because she absolutely has no interest in being groomed ever, and though I can insist she stands quietly while I do it, she will graciously allow me to get every flake of mud off without complaint if she can respectfully munch while I get that done. I am not ok with her being out of control eating and dragging me around so that I cannot do my grooming- so we negotiate terms here, she cooperates pretty nicely. Her choice.

Now it’s time to go, so I walk over to the trailer. For a few years she has been a fabulous easy loader. I send her right on and if she balks at me, I just add pressure and she obeys. She knows where it’s going to end and it’s never worth the extra energy to fight me. However a couple weeks back she did balk and resist loading just a little. That time I tried something also unlike me- I took a step back. I told her I know she has concerns about her herd- I would too if I were her, I mean we leave Wyoming in charge for goodness sake! No one including Wyoming loves that. However, I think they will all be safe, and Wyoming will survive, so here… focus on me and lets do this together. So instead of sending her on with additional pressure, I get on and invite her in, but I do not add pressure. And I wait. I only ask that she stay focused on me- not the herd or distractions. Today that process took three minutes.

For a horse that has loaded in 13 seconds, three minutes is a long time I suppose to wait, but the process is worth it, because instead of her loading despite her internal resistance, she pauses, drops her head, goes deep away inside with her eyes rolled back, and seems to be completely blown away that I am asking her and in a way that communicates: take as long as you need. When she comes back from that deep thought state, she calmly steps onto the ramp and loads without any stress or resistance in her body. Her choice.

For tack, sometimes I find she takes the bit on her own and sometimes she avoids it. Because I can ride her safely and effectively in a halter, right now I allow her full choice each ride to take the bit or leave it. Today she said no thanks- so I put the headstall and bit back in the truck and we headed out halter only. Her choice.

Riding in the halter… her choice that day

This day I decided to do the miles at whatever speed she offered and see what came. In years past I had goals in mind, how fast we should be able to go through the terrain so we can build on whatever we had previously because we are green to 100 not “green to whatever happens.” I mean if I left it up to her we could end up walking 12 miles right? So what? What if today we walked 12 miles? Is that really the end of the world? So I took the worst case and make it my expectation and made friends with it, and off we went.

The start of the 12 miles is a big climb so it was very appropriate to walk. However I found to my delight that many times on the first half of the ride (all the climbing is in the first section, and the road was improved with the big quartz rock making sections of it rought footing), yet when she could I was pleased to see she offered me lovely strong trotting sections and a surprising amount of balanced voluntary cantering. I tucked away my phone with GPS and clock on purpose in my backpack so I could not see miles or time, instead I focused on quality of balance (she seems to be pushing her ribcage out to the right lately) and paid attention to her energy leaks and when I did that it was amazing how she became more forward in a relaxed and balanced form and then got faster and faster. At the end she was close to a 5 mph average pace without me ever asking for her to move faster and always allowing her to transition downward if she asked to. Her choice.

View from the highest point of the ride

Many horses I am learning, Khaleesi in particular, get rigid under force. I think many riders can feel some physical brace, but there are also mental and emotional bracing that happen when they are forced through their human activities and they all connect. A horse that is bracey cannot use their body fully for strength and efficiency. As I look in and around me I do think we humans are so used to getting things done many of us don’t know what a soft and “through moving” horse feels like. Horses live out an extreme amount of grace and I think they can fool us to think they are willing when they are obedient, or well trained, but hold resistance within, Today I would say if you have to use a tool to get something done (stronger bit, martingale, spurs, chain on the lead rope would be examples), this is probably a place of force and brace that could be smoothed out for improvement. There are tools that give us better communication for clarity (a rope halter, a dressage stick?) that can also be instruments of force, and I think deep down we know which is which. It is possible there are times to need tools, but consider asking the important question: who do they serve?

Do the tools serve me getting a shortcut to my goals? I mean the finish line, the ribbons, the graduating to the next level, or even getting to ride with friends when my horse is not actually mentally or physically ready for that group…. Those are so important right? And who has the time to work together with the horse to get them on the same page in the gradual time consuming way it takes for us both to learn to do better? It’s true: better riding and handling skills take us time to learn, and then getting the horse to accept a new way of operating, and to accept that we have also changed and gotten better… that also takes time.

Is it worth it?

After the ride. She is soft and happy and relaxed

I can’t answer that for anyone but me.

The beauty of the entire process in this day was her connection to me. She was relaxed, I am smoothing out the braces. She has more buy in to everything we are doing than ever before. I will continue to get her out for physical work, the strength she has right now didn’t come from running miles, it came from walking a ton of them properly, in balance, on the trail and in an arena where we could focus. We walked a ton of junk miles in years past without an understanding of balance and form and those did not serve us. Intentional riding is what has.

What I need to add now is a return of the cardio and stamina capacity she had last season. What I am seeing is the efficiency that comes from the strength she’s developed appears to be making the process of getting fitness faster. I have never developed a season this way before and I don’t yet know what will come of it. 

But I’m happy enough with what I’m seeing to set our sights on Biltmore in May and test it out. For now we are going to drag ride the Old Dominion No Frills ride this weekend (two days). I find a lot of value in going to the ride to NOT compete. It changes her mental attitude toward the weekends and gives her variety – meaning every time I load up the trailer with all the gear and then her, we aren’t doing 50 or 55 miles working hard, sometimes we have the fun of all the energy of all the horses and we just do 15-18 miles and come in intentionally last. I can do those miles alone at home easily, but it isn’t the same. I think drag riding when offered is a wonderful gift in the development of a solid endurance horse personally and I’m grateful that OD rides still use drag riders. 

Khaleesi is thriving so far this year, on all integrated fronts: Physical, Mental and Emotional. Having her voice heard and honored hasn’t left us lost and wandering, in fact it’s made her more likely to offer me what I really want from her anyway. The trust that she is on my side is paying off in spades. The bigger picture though is about the human. Working to honor her more and more each year has made me better.

Considering she’s pretty much always been fabulous, it seems the changes in me that have the potential to really up our game. I’m sure she’s glad I’m catching on!

Efficiency & Energy Leaks

March 30, 2022

Where is the energy leaking?

This question asked by Emily Kemp last summer has been key for me in pinpointing what is going on in my horse as I’m riding her. 

I want to bring K around not only with cardio fitness and muscling but the muscles in the right places to carry herself in strength over long distances with less potential injury over time. I want form AND function. I want efficiency and strength. This month as I gradually increase fitness, I am inspired to dial in this concept of energy and where it’s going. As an endurance rider, I want optimum efficiency. Leaks are never a good use of resources!

I have spent a couple of years focused on finding straightness on the trail (thank God I became forced into this for my own good!), and finally have a sense that is coming into … alignment (pun intended). I understand pretty well what straight looks and feels like, and if we are both focused and connected I can ask for it, and now I have a good chance at maintaining it for increasing intervals. 

Today as we rode along the mountain trails I stayed in the question: where is the energy leaking?

Each day is unique and I begin with observation to see where the horse is which will determine where we are starting. Today was a scattered horse whose attention was on the herd and environment more than me. I took that into consideration while bringing her in and tacking her with limited success adjusting her state of mind. When I got on her she immediately walked off before I could put my feet in the stirrups and she took off heading who knows where. 

It was a great place to begin! She was leaking EVERYWHERE both mentally and physically. 

I addressed this first by attempting to direct the energy. In some cases shutting it all down, plugging the cracks and starting again might be helpful but it seemed to me she wasn’t going to get still enough to make that work out for us without a fight- and I never want to fight if I can help it. So I took the massive energy leakage and began building some banks to channel it in the direction I wanted to go.

It doesn’t feel great to be on a horse who is going out in all directions. It was like chaos in her mind and body. I like to imagine banks to a river help direct the flow into something productive and beautiful … without them you end up with a swamp!

In this case I didn’t get too picky on the speed leaks, but first addressed the direction.  At the core this was a massive mental leak, but I chose to help her with the physical to get down to the mental. I did this by becoming more specific about my line of travel and her attention ahead. I was riding in a halter and lead rope but I carried a dressage stick to help me fine tune if I needed it. If her mental attention leaked out to the sides I used whatever seemed best in the moment (rein, leg, stick) to direct her energy focus on the trail ahead. This was physical, however in short order she began to come out of the chaos, relax into a good forward walk and the connection between us became quieter and stronger. 

Now that the mental leak was largely sorted out, I began to dial deeper into the physical. I used to think walking on trail for hours got boring. That is because I had so little imagination for all that can be accomplished walking- that must be accomplished first at the walk and will not come into alignment in trot or canter if it is not first built at the walk.

I have fabulous training grounds right out of the barn with a great mountain and mostly wooded, grassy (and somewhat rocky) logging roads that are wide enough to work both straight lines and lateral movements. There are also various fields we can stop and do some circles or long side pass practice along the way. Though the roads are kept pretty clear there are often random logs that are great for problem solving and working together (trail obstacles!).

The first thing I check in with is walking a straight line. This is the thing that has taken me a couple years to dial in. Maybe you will be quicker! You need some riding that isn’t rocky single track to learn this (though we love those trails!), and when you think you have it down try it in an arena, field or pasture to test it. Here is what it should look like:

Mentally fixate on a line of travel on your trail and ask your horse to stay on the line. Create an imaginary box around you and negotiate realistically with your horse as to what your horse will succeed staying in and that box should continue to narrow down as you improve. If you’re new to this your box might be pretty wide. Make sure you and your horse are capable of succeeding as you start so this is fun and encouraging! As you choose your line of travel notice if your horse “leaks” to the right or to the left. Allow the leak then ask to return- do not hold your horse to the line, this creates a horse that cannot hold a line- like a car needing an alignment so you’re always holding the steering wheel in order to travel straight on the road. Your horse CAN learn to walk straight but you have to ask for it first. Have patience, just keep returning to the line and allow them to sort out the game.

If you can walk on a straight line of travel, the next thing you’ll begin to notice is if the body, or neck, or head, hind or shoulders are leaking. In this case they would be pushing on the rectangle to take it out of shape. This takes time to catch in subtlety but it’s worth the deep dive any time you are walking you can ask yourself what you’re feeling here. If you have a physical pathology developed where your horse is traveling off balance it may not be fixed by simply asking for straight. It could be an injury or your own imbalance that is causing an issue the horse is compensating for. First check in with your own body and consider exploring a therapist (counterstain is amazing if you can find someone who does that) or even yoga or pilates — something that can help you understand better your own idiosyncrasies. This is such a gift to your horse who might be forced into compensating for your own imbalances. We aren’t going to be perfect as riders and we may have real physical issues, but doing the best we can and continuing to improve what can be improved is a mark of excellence that is worth engaging in.

As for the horse, I think taking some time to experiment in various sizes of circles in a field can help show you if you have a shoulder falling in or a mid-section collapsing and you may need help to develop a plan to strengthen a weak side. I have a good friend who took in a horse with a shoulder that always collapses in, she’s been digging into Manolo Mendez videos and articles to give her some ground patterns to help the horse begin to pick up that shoulder on her own first from the ground, then using the same concepts from the saddle. The process to help this horse come back to balance after years of poor riding has taken a few years but has been incredibly gratifying to watch! [Mendez is truly an artist with horses and has tons of great resources to get you thinking about balance in your horse mentally and physically definitely check out his website! www.manolomendezdressage.com]

All of this can become a rabbit hole, but I promise it has a ton of pay off for longevity of your horse physically and strength in whatever competition or fun events you engage in.

Note: as a trail rider I realize my horse likes to be aware of her surroundings, however I discourage her from walking with her head going side to side constantly looking around. I do it gently and ask her to focus forward again- this is a mental leak- I want her to know over time she can trust me to basically keep us from being eaten by a cougar and her job is to keep us moving forward. I am not particularly hard on her for looking however her eyes naturally have a great range peripherally so I want to discourage too much body connection to distraction, I patiently remind her to return to what we are doing, please.

Once I sort out if we are moving basically straight when I ask, I check in on leakage to the front and rear of my rectangle. Will my horse basically stay at the pace I ask (make sure it’s reasonable for the terrain and fitness level). Is she rushing? This will ALWAYS mean she is heavy on her front end which I DO NOT want EVER. In endurance circles I overhear many times people who are fighting for speed with their horses in a race. If we are ever in a tug of war over speed the horse is necessarily heavy on the front end and rushing out of balance. Adding a tool (bigger bit, tie down etc) to fix this will make the imbalance worse. Riding many miles with imbalance will eventually result in injury or chronic issues. It’s a mental leak in the rectangle that is coming out physically. This can be fixed (with a ton of patience, especially if the problem has been cemented in lots of rushing practice) but probably not on race day!

If my horse is rushing I try to sort out why and then “close the front door” for her. Is it my own excited energy she feels coming through that I need to tone down? Is it the environment (race day, high winds, deer or turkey nearby?) how do I help support the horse?

K loves race day starts, she is much more energized and engaged. In our case when that environment has her jacked up I negotiate and manage it so I am not fighting with her but once again channeling it. I will allow her to move faster in the start if she will work with me to find balance in her body and not go out of control. This works for us and she stays “with me.” In her case we settle down into a good pace pretty quickly because we are more connected than if I were to fight and hold her the entire time. This puts us working together toward the same goal, not in a fight (fights are huge energy leaks!) but this is also something we practice all the time, not only when it’s dialed way up and we have no tools for it.

In my case I am more likely to have a horse that is leaking out the rear which basically means going slower than I am asking. She isn’t “lazy” as much as she needs support and direction similar to a horse leaking out the front needs support and direction by closing the front door. The dressage stick is super helpful for that as well and if I ask for a speed and she doesn’t maintain it- AFTER I check my own energy, ask with some leg pressure and if nothing changes the stick tap on her hind backs up my request and it’s amazing how quickly she finds the pace and can maintain it. 

Focusing on these things will make a significant change in the horse’s physical strength, balance and efficiency as well as the rider safety. You are going to be taken by surprise less often if you are connected and engaged in riding with intent, and the horse will feel more secure knowing you are really up there as the pilot making decisions along the way not a checked out passenger. 

The next layer we are adding on the trail is lateral work. I want to fine tune her body moving sideways (while forward) in balance. Usually her front end is more active than her hind, which means the energy to the side is not moving in balance- it’s leaky in the front and sticky in the rear. Early in this ride I asked for lateral (side pass) movement to avoid some tree limbs and when my leg asked to move I got… nothing. This is where the stick comes in handy because I don’t want to have to kick to get a response; the stick is more a clear request to back up my energy shift, slight turn of my head, then leg – then stick. After one reinforced message with the stick she got… less sticky (yep another pun!) and began to tune in to me more than before. When the rocks and footing were agreeable I asked her to zig zag along the trail checking her balance and focus on me as I’d get more subtle asking for a side or to return straight.

Using some down branches for obstacles and lateral practice

I paused at a water hole for my dogs to get a drink and was reminded that sometimes horses are ready for a break and will stand quietly and recharge but often not. Headed back home at this point K was not feeling restful and instead of fighting with her to stand still, I used the time to ask for fine tuned movements at a halt. Disengage the haunches can be refined to just pick up that hind foot (I know some people don’t want to overdo disengaging), asking with either rein cues or leg cues for a shoulder to move over without leaking forward are great quiet connection conversations to have when you need to wait in position for something and your horse is not in the standing still mode. A back up step seeing how subtle the ask can be is also a great option here.

Back in motion I considered the “aha” moment working with Joe Wolter last fall: if my horse is not carrying this straightness and balance at the walk I am not going to have a strong and efficient trot. I should probably forget about what’s happening at the canter!

I am attempting as much as I reasonably can to live by the personal rule: never transition up unless I am certain my current gait is balanced and straight. That includes NOT rushing or dragging. I want the energy of the upward transition to… go UP, not leak forward, back, or side to side. When my horse moves from walk to trot the energy in strength takes her up, into a springy efficient trot and even if it is extended I don’t want it heavy.  Every time my horse even slightly “rushes” into the next gait it is an unbalanced gait and is not as easy to bring into balance. As Mary Poppins reminds us: Well begun is half done!

When my horse lifts into the next gait without speeding up to get there it is powerful.

Moving in balance and straightness is one of the best things we as riders can do to extend their career and help stave off tendon, joint injuries and even arthritis or lameness. It’s simple but takes patience, focus and intent. Considering where the energy is going mentally and physically (and sometimes emotionally) has become one of the most helpful tools I’ve found to identifying how to get my whole horse moving “through” and strong.

I particularly like this moment from Big South Fork captured by Becky Pearman – where K and I felt in strength, efficiency and balance.

Truly, straightness, balance control, forwardness, suppleness, easiness, calmness and efficiency, are one and the same.

Jean Luc Cornille

Enjoy the process, and let me know how you work on these things in your own training.

Begin again… again… again…

March 11, 2022

I haven’t had much to write since the end of January when I mused about the predatory nature of humans and how it can affect our horse herds.

We have had winter, and it’s busy season for me in the music world. The November-January rabbit hole of liberty experimentation fell away to the essential survival needs and February also included an unexpected trip to Uganda where I had the chance to gallop at top speeds around the lands and villages on the Nile River near Lake Victoria. Khaleesi doesn’t have a super fast gear, but the powerful gray gelding Southern Comfort took my breath away as my young exuberant guide gave me a trail ride I’ll never forget… thundering hooves and the red clay ground racing away beneath me… it was about the closest I’ll ever get to feeling the excitement of a racetrack.

Even excluding a trip to Africa, this year is coming together completely different than last year.

I am the type of person who prefers to get into a pattern and build. Last year I took a weekend each month and headed south to train and ride with my closest friend Brandea and Molly-mare who used to be part of the Hope Herd before they moved away. This difficult expansion (them moving) did have some upside as when the Virginia Mountains were covered in ice, the trails at Dupont State Forest and other South/North Carolina parks were prime. They had less dramatic climbs, great footing, and presented a playground of fun conditioning for my horse and warmth for my winterized heart.

These trips helped us prepare for the planned return to Endurance Events for Khaleesi in 2021, and though some of our early spring events (Leatherwood & Biltmore) were cancelled, the local ride at Black Horse Gap in Fincastle VA was a great reintroduction and K outperformed my hopes with a solid 50 finish on a hard course to usher in a year of challenge and victory.

This year ended quietly with a sense the mare needed some down time from the intensity of rides and clinics of 2021. I had hoped to begin the cycle of trips south to see my closest friend and do some riding together through the winter but the door closed each time we attempted to make plans. And so a quiet winter was spent focused on other things now melting into a 2022 that is hazy for me at best — though I sense it will be good- maybe with surprise treasure waiting to be uncovered.

And so we arrive at March. This is the time to begin the process to uncover what the four solid months of rest, recovery, and release of expectations (#nohalters!) has sprouted under the surface.

The first ride in early March was bareback in the halter and working some simple foundations around the field. I wanted to see if we held some of the straightness we found together in the Joe Wolter Clinic Checking on our connection. It was good. As I brought the halter back and asked for a partner I found K willing and a new spring in her step. Just walking with her out of the pasture felt good.

Riding bareback and remembering simple things like starting out straight and in balance, connecting the lead rope (reins) to each foot, asking for small precise maneuvers and doing more mental than physical was a really beautiful start.

Bareback ride between the field and river

A week later we hit the road up to our friend’s private equestrian facility (The Big Lonely) and Iva and I played in the arena- still more mental and balancing work than hard physical training. This time in saddle and bit. Although we have a fair amount of conversation over the halter, the trailer, loading up… she is an interesting horse that really likes to connect over these conversations and I’m beginning to understand that and not see it as a fault in either her or myself, but an opportunity to chat… when I presented the bit for the first time in months she dipped her head right down and scooped it up.

Caught in a moment of deep thought after some balancing maneuvers.

We had a beautiful easy ride discussing balance, speed, direction, haunches vs shoulders, energy, and straightness. She felt strong and confident in the trot, and overall I am very pleased with the start, although I have no idea what our plans will look like for events this year. I suppose with the insanity of gas prices it isn’t bad to hold off the early spring rides for now. Things should stabilize, yes? We will hope so.

This is a slightly different approach to an endurance season. Even for me. 

I like forward momentum on a predictable trajectory, and I think it’s common for endurance people to be goal setting and achievement oriented. I like to set a foundation and build the layers to get results. This isn’t wrong. And yet I find that horses are not straight line creatures. They often meander over to things grazing harmlessly along the way in slight arcs in their natural habitat (that is unless you’re on the lead mare’s hay pile… that is one time she IS a straight line creature- ears pinned and ready to enforce!) Horses don’t like timelines, and they don’t thrive under constant pressure. No wonder most domestic equines have ulcers and weakened immune systems, yet I’m amazed at their resiliency and ability to perform in our kingdoms so different from the peace they can offer us if we will learn their ways.

I love how relaxed and quietly confident she is this Spring.

So this year maybe I will take a page from my horse’s playbook. This year I will begin with rest. And we will graze in arcs toward a new place that may bring surprise and treasure along the way- things my predator, straight line, human thinking would miss in such a hurry to accomplish a 50 before summer so we can finally start working our way toward that 75 because that’s the way to 100.

I believe we will compete this year. I also believe this mare is building a deep strength that will serve us as we begin to stretch toward more miles in the future. This year? Next? She’s still young (She turns 12 next week) and I’ve heard people finally beginning to realize that horses come into their prime if developed well in their teen years, not as an adolescent. So she is just coming into her greatest strength yet. And if last year was an indication of what is to come, it is worth the wait.

Predator?

There is a saying that goes something like students who beginners are always trying to work on advanced things, but the truly advanced are always circling back to the beginning, the fundamentals. If this is true I feel like I might be light years ahead because I feel like I’m constantly going back, and then circling back even farther again.

How is my 100 mile endurance prospect doing this winter in our training program?

Phenomenal!

What does it look like?

Well, sometimes I talk quietly to her while she grazes, I thank her for being such a solid herd leader and for being a great partner in my adventures. Sometimes I ask if she wants to dance with me and she says: maybe later— sometimes I can hardly get my barn chores done and see her waiting for me in the pen (she invites me to dance). Sometimes I stand next to her for periods of time hoping to eventually convince her I have truly broken the law of predator-prey between us…

This seems like an unconventional way to train for endurance riding.

Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been labled conventional.

The truth is I don’t know if this is a colossal waste of time or the most important thing I’ll ever do. But I have this feeling it’s probably one or the other, and I’m wiling to find out. I do know that I don’t have the typical obvious candidate for a 100 mile horse. As it stands I don’t know if she even is one. I’ve heard that any horse can do 100 miles but I think that’s plainly untrue. Yet my gut tells me more horses could be successful in the 100 mile distance if their mental-emotional state was understood and invested in as much as the physical is– and also if their physical bodies were not only conditioned for speed and endurance, but for form and substance. 

I love the underdog stories and unexpected plot twists so this journey still suits me more than finding the perfect Arabaian and sailing seamlessly (as seamlessly as possible for an endurance journey!) up through the mileage layers soaring across the 100 mile finish. My story has come with a decent amount of plot twists and learning curves, but I find that I love it because it’s mine.

The physical conditioning is the easy part. If I’m going to get this mare through a 100 mile single day event I’m pretty sure it will require total buy in from her. She’s only going to buy in if she trusts me. And I was recently reminded, everything about me says: Predator. It’s hard to trust a predator when you are so clearly prey. 

I sense in a nutshell this will be what this season is about. Convince my horse (because it’s true, not because I’m good at deception) that I have broken the rule of predator-prey in our relationship. I can remember hearing echoes of this early on- how to act like I’m not a predator but I don’t know looking back if I ever took seriously that the heart of the matter is needing to actually not be one. This means not pretending to not be a predator, it means I have to become not.

So what exactly is a predator?

According to Miriam Webster: a person who looks for another in order to use, control, or harm them in some way.

Unfortunately regardless of the journey I’ve stayed on to become better, still the shoe fits a little too well. The bare truth of it is I do seek out my horse to use her for my recreational enjoyment, and I absolutely have preferred to control her more often than not. Thankfully I have never sought her out for intentional harm, but I can look back to times where I have caused her harm with my own goals growing bigger than my ability to see how it was taking a toll on her.

Guilty.

I suppose there are likely people who would argue this is what horses are for. We use and control them for our needs- it’s their purpose on the earth, and most people are a kind of “benevolent predator” maybe. Many people expect their horse to be used and controlled in exchange for providing a good home, food, care and the necessities the horse needs the best they are able to provide.

I can accept that. I think mainstream horse ownership on the whole probably fits that description.

Is there a fine line between using my horse and inviting her to partner with me?

Is there a fine line between training and willingness?

What if she remained unwilling?

This entire experiment is to ask: is there another way? A better way? A more excellent way?

I have a theory, an underlying belief that horses are wired to eventually say yes. That they will partner with us willingly if they are shown the honor and dignity of real choice and my hypothesis is that’s where the magic begins…. for those willing to try. For those willing to change.

Bareback ride in the snow- with halter

I would like to break the predator-prey law in my own herd and see if it creates a horse that truly has buy in, what would it look like and what would it do for us? Is it a possible key to our journey to 100?

There are more questions: how much time would it take to erase the predator history bond and create a new kind of trust? Am I really willing to give it that time? As a human am I even capable of not being predatorial toward my horse?  I’ve met someone who is doing this in her own herd, and what I’ve seen gives me the hope that this could be not only possible, but even worthwhile.

bareback bridleless in the pen

I certainly hope to get back in the saddle this year. We had a great year last year and I still hope to see that deepen and grow into a solid ride season for 2022. I hope to move closer toward that 100 mile goal, but I never was and still am not willing to do it at any cost. 

And so… I hope 2022 will bring deeper buy in from my horses so that my hopes, dreams and goals because they know that in the end I am for them too, not willing to use or harm them in the pursuit of these goals. Relationship first. Trust. Partnership.

Magic?

Rest Reset

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens.

Ecclesiastes 3

Spring and Summer of 2021 turned out to be pretty intense for Khaleesi. I am really pleased with how she carried herself in balance and strength mentally-emotionally and physically. But regardless, the kind of stress of return to competing in 50 mile distances, the travel, the clinics, the herd changes, the physical injuries, the location shifts… it takes a toll.

So after returning from the Joe Wolter clinic I made a deal with my lead mare to give her some time to process and rest from all the transitions, hard work, travel, and instability (location and herd) she’s been through. She is now stable for the winter as far as I know (Lord willing!) with her core herd of three (Wyoming & Hope) and in a great location on the large farm we moved to in the spring. She took me at my word for the month of November I have hardly had a conversation about anything besides feeding and a little small talk. I’ve truly given her some time to just be a horse in a herd and allow her entire system- Mental/Emotional/Physical to get a reset.

This is the season I’m going to sit in for a little while. I’ve begun doing some liberty and positive reinforcement activities a few days a week when I’m at the barn. I also will begin to ride occasionally in a home field or close by arena to work on our connection and communication with the only goal that we find a way to come together. Gradually peppering in some longer rides as weather allows. I will shift from asking and demanding much to curiosity as to where she is and to take what she’s willing to give and play around with questions she might want to explore, the physical balance we’ve been building on and how our energy connection is.

The sessions will be shorter- not all day training rides or intense clinic work. I will also leave spacious time in this season for as much conversation as she needs when I go to halter her in the field, and lead her in- there is no rushing or forcing to get things done on a timeline. The space between us in generous right now and I add as much choice as I possibly can- drawing the line would she choose to not interact at all with me.

My guess is that horses need more reset time than we realize. Not everyone can afford that luxury I suppose and it must depend on the intensity of the season previous. I feel like she’s had about enough thrown at her to earn as much R&R as I can give her.

I am certain this generosity and spaciousness of time will pay off exponentially more than constant training would.

A moment of thought in our liberty work

In its time, the season will shift back to competition and clinic season and we will begin to ride the wave of more intense physical and mental work and hopefully enjoy a great 2022. I plan to keep my focus on mental and physical balance and strength and build on what I believe gave her the strong return he had for 2021.

Hopefully we have exhausted the herd dynamic changes and freak injuries that made things harder than they need to be on her. Hopefully an extended period of Rest Reset will be restorative to her spirit as well as her body and mind. I will check in as we go from time to time and wish you also a beautiful holiday season leading to an exquisite Christmas and a new year full of hope and glory!

Straight as an arrow

A the end of October I took Khaleesi to a Joe Wolter clinic in Colfax, NC. My original intent upon registering for this clinic was to take Wyoming my mustang and learn how to work this horse that I take two steps forward and six steps back. So many steps back that at this point she isn’t trailering and I decided even if I could slam her on and get her there, it seemed like that might mean twelve or eighteen steps back and I’d rather gradually keep digging myself out of the hole instead of ending up at the core of the earth burned up in fire of her spirit.

I know that all things work together for my good, so even if things don’t look like I had thought they would, I have peace about moving forward, or sideways depending. Also, I love riding Khaleesi and working with her so it would be less stressful and more fun for me and that seemed a gift even if not what I had hoped for at first.

On day one of the 3-day clinic Joe asked about my goals and my horse. I explained I do endurance riding with this mare, but I have a mustang at home I can’t seem to get progress with — I want to have more tools to help her and I get along. He asked me to ride around a little and he would see what I’ve got going for me. It didn’t feel like much as I asked her to walk and trot around the various horses in the indoor without a clear plan in my own head we probably looked like a pinball trying to figure out which way to turn and where to go and at what speed. Also what diagonal since I wasn’t exactly going in a direction intentionally. Not our finest moment… but that’s ok. I want to learn not to look impressive.

Joe asked us to come back over and “let’s visit” a minute.

Joe likes to visit with people. I like that. It’s a conversation, same way he works with the horses. He’s not instructing as much as he is searching for understanding.

He zeroed in on our halt to walk, the very first fundamental thing of any ride: you are standing still (hopefully!) and you need to move. Totally basic. **However not as basic as if you can’t be on your horse standing still- definitely start there if that’s not working yet!** I have been already considering these concepts from working with Emily Kemp this year but I still have a ways to go. Each time I picked up the reins and got ready to move, Khaleesi and I had the same pattern. I was aware, but hadn’t found a way to change it as of yet. First I pick up the reins, next K does one or both of these responses: drops her head and neck toward the ground, turns her head to the right to look at me. Then I would respond to her response with a request to bring her head either up or straight (left rein asking to come into straightness) and when she got lined up we would walk.

I was aware of making preparation to move and seek balance, but the process was sloppy.

Joe watched us a moment and suggested instead of asking her to correct her neck/head being crooked to the right by signaling with the left rein, instead just hold both reins with equal pressure and allow her to figure it out. Ok, got ready to go, picked up both reins smoothly, and then waited on her to find straight. After she experimented and searched she did come to alignment and then he told me to walk off.

Come on back around a minute” Joe responded.

I noticed you have to ask her to walk off. Can you try letting it be her idea? Can you release her when you’re straight so she walks off on her own? You might add just a tiny bit of forward in your own body so she knows you’re looking to move.”

That sounded like a great plan, so I tried again, picked up both reins smoothly and held until she was lined up I leaned the slightest bit forward then imagined that I was just releasing her to go. And she floated on forward straight as an arrow. It was nice!

I had been playing around with these ideas since the Spring, but it was at this clinic when finally something clicked in my body where I could feel what Emily had been trying to help me find- and I began to know when I released Khalessi what would happen. Not only her head and neck, but her weight distribution through her body became more clear and I began not only to wait for her to line up visually, but I would then wait just a little longer until her whole body felt right that when I released her she would float forward in balance and straightness. I noticed when I released her at some points she was mostly straight but not balanced and she would go forward but snaking forward instead of like an arrow as the energy and weight moved through her body more like an “S” than an arrow line.

It was powerful.

I also visited with Joe the next day about a nice back up and he gave me an idea to play with that entailed leaning a little forward in my body and reaching down the reins pretty far, then I would lean back to vertical (it’s a TINY amount of weight shift here) which would take the reins up with my body shift. The horse would naturally back up so smooth to get back under me and I’d adjust the slightest amount forward again which gave her release. The communication to her was so clear she was operating like she was an extension of my body. It was so fun I think I giggled.

I took these fundamental simple ideas and played around with them for the next two days while taking a break here and there to watch Joe visit with someone else. Often what they were talking through didn’t immediately have direct connection to what I was doing- but inevitably some part of the conversation would spark a tether directly to something I’d wondered about as I worked or something I knew I needed to check out with Wyoming. Even if it wasn’t a physical horse communication line, he had so many valuable overarching ideas that listening to his stories or explanations always provided some nugget to tuck away.

Most of the truths were simple, but I could see how often I could nod and say of course yes yes… and then not actually put it into practice.

As I worked on my straightness and balance I got the standstill to walk starting to work better, then I would try to walk in a straight line. That often went off the rails and I played around with asking her to come back to the line. We were working with hands only this clinic (I don’t think it was planned that way, it just developed). I use my legs for hind end communication and also for lateral direction. In this clinic Joe was directing a lot of information to how we can connect the reins to all the feet, the whole horse. I knew this as a concept but I have not been successful previously at connecting my reins to the back feet. It was fun to play around with this and have to get things done with legs ONLY to mean go. Joe clarified he does use his legs, and sometimes when he’s spent time with a horse on being able to get anything done hands only, he’ll switch it up and see if he can get everything done with legs only. At the end of the day the most important point is: can you get it done.

I can put my legs in a lot of places physically to communicate to the shoulder, the hind, the barrel, I can make my legs mean go and I can make my legs mean back up (though it’s not how I normally back up) and my seat and energy can usually stop my horse. I learned that I am more comfortable riding and communicating with my legs than my hands. Learning to use my reins to ask my horse to adjust her hind end was new for me but turned out to be not so hard as Joe walked us through some ideas, and it was fun too! I found it harder to keep her on a line at a walk though by using reins, now that I reflect on that I think it’s because I could get the reins to talk to shoulder/front, and hindquarters/rear, but I don’t think I figured out how to talk to the middle, and if she was walking on a line that began to veer off, I could have used some leg to push the “whole horse” from her barrel back onto my line easier than pointing the front end– or sometimes I accidentally talked to the hind end and became bent and then started moving in a circle.

I share these processing thoughts because the best part of this clinic with the group aspect, was that I had time to take a concept and go play with it and explore on my own. Joe had a fair amount of people to visit with, and instead of wishing I had more of his time to help me, I was grateful to go off and experiment. I’m also glad I didn’t have more opportunity to ask him questions because it forced me to find some solutions my own, and that process was valuable. I know he kept his eye on us all, and if he saw someone getting into trouble he would offer to help. He rode a fair amount of horses over the weekend as well to show what he was getting at, especially if a horse didn’t seem to respond the way he would have guessed.

I think many people with horses are goal oriented and driven. I know I am. I think we like answers and to know how something works. This type of horsemanship can be frustrating if you want to get something done without having to develop a language and relationship. I think some riders would prefer for someone to install a button then tell you how to find it. Good starting, good training, it certainly instills things in a horse that you can count on, however it’s not a motorcycle or ATV, it’s a being, a creature who has a mind, and an emotional system. The hope of finding a well trained horse you can sit on and get an exact response if you can find the exact button as the only layer you access is heartbreakingly limited- for the horse. There is a relationship available of exploration that has the potential to never find its limit. It’s the infinite game.

As I explored the idea of straightness and why does K veer off: is it more one direction or another? Can I set it up so she realizes I want her to beeline for whatever I’m focused on? Can I make it somehow her idea? I also found the question of purpose came into play. Emily and Joe both talked about putting a purpose in the work.

There was a mailbox set up at the edge of the arena and when I’d choose the mailbox to head toward I’d begin to imagine we have to get the mail, hurry on up over there so we can check the mailbox… I found she got straighter. We weren’t obsessed with the straightness, I was going somewhere. This could be why some people I know say they and their horse hate arenas. It takes a little more creativity to find purpose there.

Once I could find balance and straightness in preparation and a walk, I began (more on day 3) to explore trot transitions. It became clear to me how important it is to have a horse that is balanced and straight before asking for a transition. I took the idea of preparation of halt to walk to influence the transitions and waited to find a sweet spot when she was moving really nice, and then I’d ask to pick up a trot nice and smooth from there.

It wasn’t long before I wondered why I had ever asked for a trot when we weren’t in that beautiful balance. How long have I been riding this horse anyway! What on earth have we been doing? Now it seems so fundamentally obvious.

I am convinced that investing time into strength and balance in riding will be the most dramatic influence in our success in endurance. I have been blown away by the changes when I work with Emily during the clinics, continue the search of balance and straightness on our own, then add some miles to ensure she is fit. The changes in her as a whole for competition and being a pleasure to ride are fundamental. I know she feels better when she is stronger and better balanced. Her joints and ligaments are going to take less abuse, her body is going to stand up to the hard work and she is going to be more engaged mentally. This year I learned that horses “rush” because they are not balanced (usually physically, but mentally and emotionally as well) and there is a difference between a strong horse and a fast horse who is rushing and not balanced. The more balance and stability I find the more strength I feel, and that’s what I want to have as a foundation to my endurance program. I don’t want to move into longer rides until this strength begins to translate into all the loops of a 50.

At Big South Fork it was close. I had a horse that was moving in balance and strong for about two and a half loops… maybe 40 miles. For us that’s pretty good!! Fort Valley had some other challenges mentally as we had to adjust our riding strategy to accommodate a junior (what an honor!), but I was pleased that K was able to adjust and still thrive. We are a team who is always able to “ride our own ride” so riding someone else’s ride was a great challenge she took on well.

In the past I have made mileage and terrain my goals to work up an endurance horse for the season. I’ve observed as a new rider much of the mentoring and instruction covered how to get a horse to a ride through adding miles, adding speed vs. distance, getting the terrain. Aside from some surface ideas about having a horse that is basically under control and doesn’t kick other horses or people on trail or in a vet check, I don’t remember seeing much mentoring that prioritized learning biomechanics and self-carriage as a goal before working up the mileage ranks. Many long term successful riders would probably say that is a given, yet talking about it as more of a real priority I believe would help riders who end up with physical issues in their horses after a couple “successful” seasons.

I haven’t met anyone who rides with quality who doesn’t say they crave to go deeper, or to get to new levels of self-carriage and balance. There is not an arrival for this! It would be like someone saying they’ve been to the gym already and they’re good now, they don’t need to go anymore. There is always room to grow.

Also, I think some balance and carriage shaping can be done on the trail and on longer rides, but the truth is that is much more complicated, and if it isn’t happening in a field or arena where the environment is controlled and you both can focus, it probably isn’t improving on the trail. I may change my mind on this point in time, but at least for now I think the work needs to be done in a controlled space with a plan, and then heading out to the trail can USE the skills and balance you’ve picked up in the focused arena work. And my guess is you’ll see the level of carriage and balance in the arena suffers on the trail as you have to get things done and navigate the terrain. This is expected! But if the trail work is all you have, there won’t be the same growth.

At the end of the day… it’s the feel of the horse that will be the game changer. Some people have a better feel than others. I am certain my feel has taken longer than usual to develop. I think I’m dull to these things as a human who is good at pushing through regardless. Sometimes those of us build like this are less sensitive and it can be a strength- but if sensitivity is sought and found, the levels available are so lovely! There are some gifted riders who have more an innate sense of how a horse is moving and how to help them get sorted out even while working a cow or riding the wilderness. I’d sure have a lot less to ponder and write about if I was built like that!

Whatever you do… however you do it, whatever “game” you’re playing with your horse… whatever the discipline… make sure it’s the infinite game.