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.

Clay Pots and Loud Singing

Last week I was hurtling toward ride weekend doing my best to get through each day and knowing if I looked too closely at all that was and wasn’t in place in my own strength I might panic and end up in a total crash. As I took care of exactly what was in front of me hour to hour I realized this was the only way I’d make it through the Fort Valley ride that I began to wonder what on earth made me commit to! Ride the trail in front of me. In a moment of reflection I realized I felt like an Israelite heading into the promised land with the strangest of battle plans because it was the Mighty Yah Creator of the universe loves to give creative strategies such as…

That time the Angel of the Lord gives the brilliant strategy to Gideon (who was a total coward on his own, but was called by that Angel Mighty Man of Valor). First Gideon assembles an army. He starts out with 22,000 men to go up against the oppressive army and God says that’s too many. He gives Gideon a few tests to whittle them down to 300 before the number is small enough for God’s purposes. Then the plan is unveiled: Get some clay pots and torches… spread out along the hillsides around the oppressive army and upon the command break the clay pots all of a sudden revealing the torches and the 300 lights will stun the oppressors to confusion and they will end up turning on each other in mayhem and the battle will belong to you! (From Judges 7)

I might have asked if there was a plan B?

Still, maybe that plan was better than the one God gave King Jehoshaphat. When three armies came against Israel, Jehoshaphat was terrified. The story tells us he told the whole kingdom to fast and seek God’s favor, then he went to inquire of God and told him: You’re our God, you rule heavens and earth and didn’t you give us this land and we are about to be wiped out! You have to help us! We are all going to die, and then what? Next God says not to worry, this battle isn’t yours- it’s mine! You’re going down there, but you won’t have to fight, just stand firm, don’t flinch and watch what I do to show off for you! Thus the people took courage, and they went down to the battle ground, and they sent out the worship team to … sing. Yep. That was the plan. Loud singing: Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast LOVE endures forever! As the story goes, the singing grew and the Lord set an ambush against the attacking armies and they ended up destroying each other. Not one escaped

I like singing… but I can’t imagine playing my violin out in front of the army as a winning strategy.

So this is how I felt heading into this weekend. The closer the ride got, the more I began to envision the grueling climbs, the myriad of rocks and the endless mazes of grassy fields in the last loop as dusk begins to set, the mile 40 blues K always seems to get, and the fact that I also volunteered to take on the responsibility of a junior rider- so I would have to work that into every decision on the trail that day… The very real challenges got bigger and bigger. I had a slightly queasy feeling- why on earth do I do this sport?

Like a familiar theme this year, I had one or two phenomenal rides after the last 50 (Big South Fork), then disharmony on the trails and distance rides, went back to the arena to find harmony and balance and hoped it would be enough. As I reflected I thought to myself: I am coming into this very difficult 50 mile ride with an arsenal of clay pots and loud singing 😳 This meant I had every confidence and also no idea what would happen. This battle was not going to be won by my amazing preparation or skills.

Photo by Becky Pearman

One nice thing about the Fort Valley Ride is that it’s relatively close to home (about 3 1/2 hours drive with trailer). I arrived at camp Friday afternoon to set up and settle in without much drama. Mike came soon after with Peggy Sue in tow- her first ride weekend! I so enjoyed having her there, I cannot handle the responsibilities of race weekend with a horse and try to keep track of a dog and Peggy Sue cannot bear to be separated and left alone in the trailer, so if I had to leave her behind without a human buddy (in a strange place) she would howl and cry pitifully the entire day. This ride PS had Mike, Niveah, Amy, and Stephanie all around to keep her company and I think she enjoyed the adventure. The vet in went fine and K had a heart rate of 36. She was entirely bored with the whole thing until….

The biggest complication of the evening came from my decision to do a trace clip. Being a mountain beast, her coat is already very thick and I knew it would be hard on her to move through the day in a winter coat especially as the temps go into the 60s in the afternoon. It’s been at least 2 years since I’ve clipped her, but I used to have no trouble- in fact I used to clip decorative stars and hearts into her rump, so I assumed it would take a minute to reacquaint the clippers but figured it would be workable. My clippers are not put together at the moment so I asked Amy if she’d bring hers, I could do it the night before.

The reacquainting did not go well. Extra factors included having to use a generator (loud machine too close for comfort to start us out in the slightly concerned category), then the cord snaking through the grass like a little black snake was unavoidable and right in front of her feet no matter what I did. Then there’s the clippers themselves which we flicked on right in front of K next to her neck sending her into a terror at the strong unexpected vibration. We were off to an unfortunate start.

I did not watch the clock (probably good) but that little rough trace clip took a REALLY LONG time to get done. And I probably owe Amy a few gallons of gas keeping the generator running as I coaxed her to relax while the sounds were vibrating and then did some groundwork and rubbing, and releasing, and fought against frustration- also trying not to think about us being a strange slightly embarrassing unwanted center of attention in ride camp for anyone that came by our way for an hour. It was not pretty, but, in time, especially after Mike thoughtfully offered to help hold the clippers giving me an extra hand to work some ground maneuvers I did get most of her neck clipped.

The clip was done for speed and functionality, not style or elegance. But I think this side story mattered more than I realized. Later Amy came over and said the peanut gallery had been observing during their dinner and the general sense was that I had a lot of tenacity to stick with her and then to get it done. They agreed I had a gift of perseverance. That little but mighty prophetic word was going to serve me the following day.

Ride morning was basically uneventful, it’s such a gift to have help- Iva and Mike have unique strengths and one of Mike’s is he can take care of the coffee with an expert hand. That’s huge on ride morning. And he has a brain for remembering the list of things I need to remember but can’t always get organized. Madison was coming off a pretty good cold and wasn’t feeling 100% but she was determined to get out there and do her best. This ride has a fair amount of pavement right out of camp and then a 2 mile or so steep gravel road and the ride does a controlled start to avoid a group of horses scrambling on pavement in the high energy a ride start tends to have. K has composite shoes so I can trot along on pavement with good traction and concussion relief but Madison’s horse Demitri was on pavement ice skates in metal shoes and also he can be squirrely in high energy situations with other horses like a ride start so we took the approach of pretending it wasn’t race day and left camp after the rest of the horses were gone at a leisurely pace, we began in the back of the 22 riders that day and pretty much kept that placement the next 10 hours.

Fort Valley is an Old Dominion ride, and so it is one of the more challenging East Coast rides boasting rocky trails, lots of climbs- very few flat grassy roads, but also is beautiful and held at a time the trees are changing to brilliant golds and reds. Part of the ride is along the Shenandoah River. This ride heads out of camp (which is in a valley) up the ridge for two out of the three loops and includes the segments I call “Tread-Mill-ford” Lane (the two mile relentless steep gravel road up the mountain), and the “Trail of Tears” which is the other side of the ridge that is rocky and steep and it’s not easy going up or down it. This ride demands climbing and descending that mountain twice to get to the trails in the next valley over with lots of technical maneuvering for the horse, and none of that is fast. To survive these rides one MUST take any opportunity to move along and get moving.

Great road for moving along the Shenandoah

Yet this was exactly what was not happening for us on Saturday. Moving along. It was the strangest thing as I reflect. I had gone through two other challenging rides in the ride season where K was strong and just weeks ago she had taken on the Big South Fork trails at a fast trot and canter for two solid loops of about 35 miles moving even in some good ridge climbs. On Saturday K was motivated early on, but for various reasons we had to pull back (first it was pavement, then gravel, and then some of the rocky technical sections) and before long the momentum she had begun with fizzled out until it was like we were slogging through wet cement. Demitri wasn’t inspiring any forward energy either, so at times we seemed to be struggling just to keep a decent pace. This continued to get heavier and I began over the miles to have a sinking feeling… at this rate it didn’t seem very likely we would finish at all.

Segment from what I nickname the Trail of Tears

The entire first loop had setback and heaviness. To me it felt palpable, like a blanket over us. Something was wrong. I sensed it wasn’t exactly physical. Neither K nor D were having physical issues- it was like a fog was over us and we couldn’t get traction mentally. I began to pray against it. Yet the hopelessness would sneak in. More than once I found myself giving up. The first loop was almost 20 miles and took us just under 4 hours. At this rate we were in trouble, especially because I kept hearing about the dread second loop which was 18 miles but included the newly reopened Indian Graves section of trail. Someone the day before said it was terrible “I’d rather do cougar rock at Tevis any day that go back through that!” of course she followed up with the sentiment “Actually Jaime you’ll probably love it” I was certainly curious what this Indian Graves trail could be like, but it didn’t seem that picking up speed was likely in that technical steep trail.

Both horses vetted through just fine at the hold, Mike is great with K, encouraging her eat all she wanted of her own stash of food and hay though she wanted to roam the crew area for everyone else’s spread full of things I probably don’t allow her! And Peggy Sue was a great crew dog laying at my feet and staying closeby the team.

Madison and I got on trail exactly on time without any extra minutes to spare and heading back up the 2 mile climb with uninspired horses. D wanted to turn around and she had to hand walk him in the pavement area (which was wise) in order not to have that conversation in the saddle in a place they could end up out of control (ice skates on pavement). Back on the horse heading up the gravel road neither horse was particularly interested in this grueling 2 mile climb. I worked on interval transitions to keep K’s mind on something productive. Madison occasionally got D to trot on and inspired K to move a little faster for a segment here and there.

Heading down the back side of the mountain was slower this time that even the first loop and every rocky patch K slowed down to navigate the rocks like they were incredibly bothersome, but I’d look back and see that D had fallen behind, so in part I know her attention was also on her trail companion and she is not one to be in such a hurry she leaves her one charge behind. After all we had had the talk before going out: the horse and that girl are our one job- we have got to be sure they are ok. How much she understands I sometimes wonder, but she is not completely ignorant. Somehow- she does know things. And she wasn’t leaving D behind, not very far at least. That being said- she was not the K on fire I had experienced in my other rides.

Again, hopelessness lingered. We were way too far behind. Yet that didn’t seem right to me… My middle name is Hope. My horsemanship business is HOPE Horsemanship, I am totally OK with not finishing, but it was way too early in the day to make that call and fall into despair. How was I feeling such a complete hopelessness that I would give up so easily even trying? This is just not me… what is that fog, that dark cloud? At points when I wanted to just give up to the sucking darkness and resign myself to a death march back to camp over time and not considering the 3rd loop I would remember the words over me the night before: perseverance, persistence and instead of falling asleep mentally I continued to fight against the cloud and pray. I struggled against frustration: why are these horses so dull today? I didn’t want to end up in an argument with my horse which was not far off the way I was feeling and the way she was so slow to respond. What do I do about this?

That’s when I asked myself: How does the advice that came from Iva last week help me today? Her word she felt applied to this ride, going into it and getting through it, how do I apply it?

Harmony.

First HARMONY in myself. It’s ok not to finish, relax and remember- you ENJOY riding your horse, and it’s a beautiful time of year, and it’s ok to be in the moment and not stressed about the rest of the day. Being ok with various outcomes is not the same as resignation that there’s no hope.

Second, HARMONY with my horse. I could not prod and nag her along, I was going to need to get WITH her and join her in this even if it meant that she was slogging through the fog for some reason. Frustration was not my friend.

But a third application struck me, and as we continued to ride on, I put it to use.

I began to sing.

And Madison began to join me in singing.

And the horses began to trot. And they began to canter along the grassy roads we came to.

And if we lessened the singing the horses slowed down. We sang loudly and trotted and cantered to the end of the grassy roads. It still felt like dragging along but it was dragging at least a little faster! Now it felt like we were starting to move but not freely. The singing was dragging them out of the fog but they were so heavy!

As we headed onto the single track toward the Indian Graves section, still at a pretty low overall pace I continued to pray, to ask for our horses to break free and the fog to lift off of us. When I felt the hopelessness return I remembered that I was a person of tenacious perseverance. I will stay in this ride and do my best each segment of trail and regardless if we finish or not I was going to see the Indian Graves and that would be an adventure! And I held onto Joy with both hands.

The fog continued to shift though in this part of the ride I felt movement and lifting, and then a definite pulling back to hinder the progress and then forward, and then holdback… Inspired by the idea of the Indian Graves Madison and I began to sing songs of resurrection power and coming back from the grave. There finally came a tipping point. Finally at about mile 30, after over 7 hours since the start we came to the steepest part of the trail that day and K came alive and she hauled up that mountain with a fresh wind and new strength. We began to climb and climb up the rock faces along the narrow trail and she and D finally broke free. At the toughest part of the trail our horses finally began to fly.

Top of the mountain after climbing the toughest most technical section of the day we were finally cut loose and on the move!

Once we hit the ridge we collected a rider who had stalled out and gave some of our fresh wind to them and helped them through the last part of this second loop. K led the way down the ridge, still rocky, steep and technical but she began picking up more and more momentum until we made it back to Milford Road and trotted back into camp at about the latest time I though a finish could be possible with a new hope.

The horses vetted through quickly again and we headed out with fresh strength to the shortest last loop with only one climb and lots of pasture and country roads. We may not make it in before dark, but we had three hours to do the easiest 12 miles. Maybe for the first time ever, K trotted out of the second hold taking on the last loop with an eagerness I rarely see around mile 40.

The last loop was uneventful and moved along at a good pace. The heaviness never returned and the horses moved freely through the grassy fields and wooded single tracks into the dusk. We enjoyed riding as the sun gradually disappeared leaving us searching for glow sticks in the last few turns and celebrated the bright light in the distance that meant the finish line was within view, still over 30 minutes to spare on the clock. As we came into the final section I let out a loud shout and yip yip yip across the fields as I knew our crew had been waiting on our arrival to welcome us in!

Khaleesi picked up her trot across the finish line and my favorite memory of the day could be how excited Peggy Sue was jumping for joy next to me and K- impatient for me to jump down and give her a happy rub. She had been waiting all day for me to return for good! There are few things like the joy of a happy dog when her owner has returned!

The horses vetted through fabulously. K came in quickly with a 60/56 heart rate and totally sound with good energy and impulsion leftover. She dove into recovery eating and I had made her electric pen easy to expand with a new section with fresh grass so after a little nap she got to work on the untouched grass. This ride she seemed the least “worse for wear” of all of them. It was also our slowest ride, but on the flip side the most challenging.

Anyone who reads my blog-journaling journey knows I see an underpinning of an unseen layer to all of life. By far this endurance ride had the most bizarre connection to the unexplainable zone I’ve yet encountered. I do not understand fully all that went on but I think if the veil were pulled back and I could see all the unseen activity of the day it would be fascinating. It’s like the wind, we all know it exists, it moves things and creates a stirring, but we cannot see the wind itself.

Something unusual was at play on Saturday- I’ve begun to see when I am being pulled directions that run against my natural character/personality to be suspicious (the hopelessness, the heavy fog, and the despair are not normal for me, they are what make me tune in that there is “wind” in the atmosphere). That pairs with the complete shift that came about- and in the most difficult part of the trail that day- and very clear night and day change that came with it. I know my horse and it was like she was finally freed from some unseen hinderance to return her to her normal self. Maybe it’s the time of year- the celebration of dark things is also very real, and humans even without realizing it seem to give more power to the negative and twisted realms of death and despair. We even saw creepy decorations on trail near some houses that our horses (and I) did not appreciate.

Regardless- I choose to celebrate life, resurrection, and light. And the light overcomes the darkness, and the darkness cannot comprehend it. Whatever the deeper details of this story were, life and hope overcame and we finished the ride against some real doubt and struggle. I may not have brought a clay pot and torch onto the trail (well I had a headlamp but didn’t use it), regardless I’ll go with the loud singing anytime! And I couldn’t have had a better trail buddy to sing against the darkness than Madison and brave little D as our rear guard.

Thanks to Amy Stone, to Niveah, and especially to Stephanie (Madison’s mom) for all the amazing help before, during and after the ride, and for trusting me to carry such a special junior into the dark! Thanks to all who prayed us through the day across the country. And a special thanks to Mike for setting aside a weekend to support my dreams even through less than ideal circumstances!

A thousand paper cuts

“If you’re doing something wrong you will find resistance. If you’re doing something right you will find resistance. When you should be concerned is when you don’t find any resistance.”

Kris Vallotton

Fort Valley 50 is a week away.

I am used to resistance. In fact just getting to this year was a struggle through resistance as I refused to accept that my 9 year old mare was never going to be fully sound and strong. Getting to the first ride in May was the culmination of swimming through resistance and a refusal to give up no matter how many months and miles we had to walk and crawl to rebuild and learn. I spent the entire training up to the ride and the entire ride wondering if the dreaded off steps would return to take us down once again. They did not. She finished strong.

As much as that day felt like a victory it was only the beginning. Apparently arrivals are only station changes to the next leg of the journey. Each major clinic (which I host up here through Hope Horsemanship) and each endurance ride had resistance. Some was extreme and violent (a bad wreck that left K bleeding profusely out of both knees on a back road that doesn’t see much traffic) and some threatening (a potential quarantine from a suspected strangles outbreak that turned out not to be), and some annoying (does the horse disappearing the morning you plan to depart for the ride fit here?).

Resistance is real. As real as good and evil. As real as light and darkness. As real as love and fear. There are personal forces that war behind the seen things. The struggle I face is determining the difference between resistance from dark forces who want to keep something beautiful (usually love or joy or kindness) from coming to fruition; or when the resistance is from the good creator who is trying to help me get back on track. Often to a simple human such as myself they have similarities.

We goal driven humans, if we had a playbook or roadmap, are inclined to go it alone: Don’t worry coach I got this. We are the ones who if God gave us the destination we are likely to beat him there missing important things along the way. So instead every time it’s reliance each step on where the guidance is going. This reminds me of the story of the nation of Israel finally coming into their promised land after a lifetime for most of them in the wilderness, God told them it was time to go in and begin to posses the land, after an amazing victory at Jericho Joshua (the leader God had chosen) sent some men to scout out the next conquest and they came back feeling pretty strong saying something like: Don’t worry about Ai, this should be easy, in fact don’t send everyone, it’s a small conquest and not well fortified, just send a small delegation and we’ll make quick work of it…

No where in this story does it imply that Joshua asked God what to do about this next event, so they sent a small piece of the army and lost a lot of lives and were sent packing. Joshua then tore his clothes and then turned to God to ask for direction. It’s when we assume we have the plan that we can get into trouble.

For me this applies so directly to my ride year. I have sensed that it’s a season of finally getting to fly forward together in strength, but only because I’ve finally learned to depend and ask for guidance each step, not like some kind of mean control, but like a good parent teaching me how to navigate through in the best way. When I run off on my own I tend to find myself in places I wasn’t intending to go.

I had a ton of resistance to the Big South Fork ride including a missing horse the day I was pulling out, but somehow it was made really clear to me that I was going to go to that ride and something really beautiful would come of it. When God’s involved it’s always bigger than the “ride” and so many really wonderful moments for Iva and me on that trip made it incredibly special. The Fort Valley ride has brought resistance in what feels like death by a thousand paper cuts, no bloody wrecks on back forest roads, no missing horse (yet!)… but it’s that season where the grasses begin to change and last year this timing I had to dry lot K who was becoming laminitic so I’ve had rides where she’s begun to feel the slightest bit off and I don’t want to take a horse that is the slightest bit off to a ride like Fort Valley.

This has meant I brought K to my own property temporarily where I can confine her and she is severely limited with grass to offset the sugars as the grasses make the switch from summer to winter. She’s not super excited about having only Hope as a buddy but she’s downright grumpy that I’ve not provided unlimited supply of the rich “cake” grass she loves the most this time of year. It’s just out of reach beyond the electric fence. I get grumpy when I’m put on a diet too…

Aside from these minor bumps, I’ve had a billet strap I use on a saddle fray off, I’ve lost my bridle (complete with bit and reins) by leaving it behind on a ride, I showed up to my shoeing appointment for this ride without my composite shoes that I ordered in advance to be sure I had the right ones (and my farrier happened to have everything except the shoes I’d need for the hind feet!). I drive over an hour to see him so there was no going back for them that day. In addition this month is a very dense time with all my violin teaching in full swing and it’s the most beautiful month so lots of extra wedding work leaving me feeling on the edge of together. Yesterday I went out to feed breakfast and Khaleesi’s eye was runny and the corner looked unusual- swollen possibly or irritated (a couple hours later it was all fine so I don’t think it’s a problem). It’s just been lots of little question marks that I now pause and ask: hey there, am I on the right track?

This ride is important to me. It will be our 3rd ride this year and possibly our last. It’s a ride the Mike is coming to help crew for me which makes it special. It’s also a ride that Amy and her gang will be at and I have agreed to sponsor riding with Madison the teenager she’s taken under her wing for the 50 ride. The truth is, I’m not unbiased. I want to go. So I have to check myself when I begin to hold too tightly and be sure I’m not heading off course.

I had an interesting dream a couple days ago as I was asking for guidance that made it pretty clear to me when I journaled it out one morning: this ride is a go. In the dream it was clear that God was guiding me in this season from my schedule. And there have been 3 rides this year I would have considered going to that I had prior obligations and had to pass on. The first two rides I’d hoped for canceled, so they were taken off the table. This month I have weddings on every weekend, often Saturday AND Sunday which is unusual but the weekend of Fort Valley I ONLY have a Sunday evening obligation that is also very simple, solo violin ceremony which doesn’t take a lot of prep work or coordinating. It will be easy to come back Sunday morning and have plenty of time to unpack and head over to play that evening. The time for the ride has been left open and the resistance won’t overtake the plans.

That usually means something beautiful is coming- and I’m looking forward to whatever it is! I’ve also come to learn that I’d love a strong finish and success in human terms, but sometimes the beautiful thing is relational or something I learn that will serve me exponentially going forward- so I’ll take whatever comes because it will be a gift and it will be GOOD.

One thing already that has come out of this was an inspiration that came from Iva when I was sharing my concerns with her and she heard a message of seeking Harmony as something vital to moving forward. There are so many beautiful points to that word but the biggest one that sunk in with me was that I have lost some of my inner harmony with the obligations of October and had begun to spin slightly off kilter internally which I know my horse doesn’t appreciate. We had a ride that was incredibly frustrating for me where I felt completely disconnected from her, and she was very distracted. And in that ride she began to feel that slightly off that worries me.

So I spent the last 2 rides instead of trying to get in some miles, back in the arena seeking Harmony together. Slowing down, seeking that balance and strength we had found together this summer. In the end it’s never been the big miles that have meant her success in long rides, it’s been the strength and balance we’ve built and the connection that came with it. So back to the arena for some beautiful moments of learning and connecting and rebalancing.

My goal is not to ever allow our riding to disconnect to the point we find disharmony again. I am sure I will fail, but it’s a good goal to have!

As always… I’ll keep you posted!

Speedbumps and Roadblocks

I think one of the key secrets to life is hidden in the ability to discern between speedbumps and roadblocks.

I once had a friend introduce me to someone as ‘a force.’ The positive side is that I tend to get things done. I am good at pushing my way through and if I set my mind to something it takes an act of God to stop me. For real. When it happens (the act of God to stop me that is…) it’s not fun. The negative side of this is the damage that is caused to myself and others in the times I push through into territory I don’t belong, or maybe the right territory but the wrong time!

I have forced myself into enough situations I wish I hadn’t after the fact to begin to see sometimes yellow flags, red lights and roadblocks can be for our own benefit if we pay attention.

I think because my forceful nature is much quicker to kick down roadblocks than ask if I should, I had to take a lot of time learning the art of detours and waiting. Apparently I’m beginning to cultivate that skill because the pendulum is swinging toward lessons of when to push through and not let the speed bumps stop me from going forward.

The lesson of respecting a roadblock came first for me, now I’m seeing the lessons of recognizing a speed bump. A speed bump is something that causes you to slow down and take care, but you don’t stop completely. You continue on with a speed bump.

I had penciled in the Big South Fork ride in early planning for my year, but it was far from obvious that it was a good choice to go… in fact… many circumstances on the surface seemed to read the very opposite.

Khaleesi had a fabulous return to endurance in May 2021, but the summer brought death by a thousand paper cuts- some pretty deep. The highlights are in recent blog posts so I won’t cover them again here- but I didn’t have the summer riding miles I had planned for many various reasons and I was not at all sure she was fit for a 50.

I kept putting off registering for the ride and seeking God’s wisdom for some more clear sign of what to do. I slowed down and took caution and asked for guidance… I made a very clear request one day not many weeks back Please make it clear to me!! That day I loaded up K and Hope with Iva for a fun ride at our local river trail and park. As soon as I offloaded I had a trail monster on my hands. She wasn’t out of control, but she was begging me to fly. Iva was stunned watching us take on the terrain and in sensitivity to sweet Hope who is still coming into solid health we had to hold back for her- but every chance she got, K floated above the trail with a huge ground covering trot like she had wings and the strength in my hands as I navigated her was an entirely new level of balance and lightness.

Eyes wide at the end of the ride Iva said: Well it seems you got your answer today. You asked for clear. I can’t imagine it gets more clear than that!

Indeed.

I relented and registered for the ride. Saturday was the only day that worked to ride with the travel days factored in and it happened that day wasn’t a 50, it was a 55. Great… I’m already feeling on the fence about doing a 50 and now I am stretching into a 55. Ok. I’m in.

After registering and feeling pretty certain it was the right call (if it wasn’t- we may not finish, but that’s ok because we always learn things and not finishing isn’t the end of the world) I had a mixed bag of rides some of which felt solid, some felt downright sluggish and like wading through concrete. Each time this verse kept coming to mind:

Now this I know: The Lord gives victory to his anointed. He answers them with the victorious power of his right hand. Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

Psalm 20:6-7

It was as if the quiet whisper kept reminding me: I already answered you! I said go run the 55- on my word. You asked and I made it clear. Quit asking and questioning, and quit looking around at the circumstances. The circumstances will fluctuate, you must be led by something with stability if you’re going to survive these trying times on the earth. You don’t trust in the circumstances, you don’t trust in your horse- you trust in my name. When I have spoken the matter is settled.

It was so clear to me in a way I can’t exactly explain, that though I held lightly my plans, I moved forward no matter what circumstances looked like. All these things were speedbumps, meant for me to roll over and move through. I kept my eyes out for a true roadblock… until the morning we were set to roll over and onto TN. That’s when things got really tricky.

My horses live on a beautiful farm a few miles up the road. They have access to two massive pastures, and I wanted to get the 9 hour drive south started as early as possible for me which meant ideally loading up in the dark. I also have a T-post electric fence with 3-strands of wire (electric connected) at home on my smaller 4 acre property. I have had the horses here before to work or for an overnight on occasion. This seemed the best plan as they’d be quick to get loaded up Thursday morning.

When the thunder and lightning began to roll through after midnight I wasn’t thrilled. We weren’t expecting a summer storm that I knew of. They’d be ok, but it’s a small pen without shelter.

I was less happy to wake up at 5am to hear the rain was still falling in the dark early morning. It felt like a rain on my parade for sure, who likes loading up last few things and horses in the dark rain? Not this girl.

Little did I know as I got my latte started just what I was about to find.

I got everything sorted out- last minute things and sent a text to Iva- I’m loading horses and heading out to pick her up. As I grabbed my wet halters and walked into the pen in the drizzly dark I saw sweet little Hope still half asleep with a foot cocked and looked around… grabbed my light… and thought how odd…

Where is Khaleesi?

Not here was the answer I found after walking the entire pen with my light. And no evidence of disturbed fence or a muddy high jump landing.

She just had vanished.

I’ll save you the play by play but it was about the worst thing I’ve faced trying to get to a ride yet. I drove up and down the highway in the early dim drizzle. No sign of her dead or alive. I called the sheriff and no reports of a horse on the road. I called some neighbors, no sign of her wandering in someone’s yard. Now I was beginning to really panic. My mind went into all possible scenarios between her thrashing caught in some abandoned barbed wire in a back wood section of property and finding her dead next week… wandering onto the road and meeting a logging truck… some injury that wouldn’t take her life but maybe end her riding career… or never finding her at all and always wondering what happened?

As I began my hike on foot into the woods behind my house that leads to a massive national forest tract I stopped my vain imagination and insisted that I would not go there. I can’t know what is to come and I refuse to partner with the fear. What I had to do is stay PRESENT and do what I could do right now. In this case begin to walk and look for signs, hoof prints or poop?

There was also something else I’ve come to realize over time: I always have EVERYTHING I need in the moment I need it. This means if I don’t have something exactly now, I don’t need it exactly yet. Logically this follows that right now I didn’t have to have K in possession – because she isn’t here. So I can relax and be curious to see what this outcome would look like. God will use this for my good. Yes, even this.

Is this the roadblock? Have I been heading the “wrong” direction these past weeks? And this is how you’re letting me know? Ok then. You have my attention.

Last thing that I was clear on: this horse isn’t mine. I only manage her and care for her. She belongs to the one who created her and gave her into my care as a perfectly suited gift for me. If that creator of the universe wanted to do something else with her- he gets to make that choice and my part is to ask: show me how you see this, and what I need to see to respond well. Open my eyes.

About that moment my cell phone rang. It was a neighbor, Danny. Danny the one who I can always count on to help out in the stretch of highway we call the neighborhood. Danny whose wife works at the hospital and bandaged up Khaleesi’s knees for me and helped clean out the wounds after our big crash. Danny had headed out to look for K when I called to see if he’d heard anything or seen her, and he’d been out over an hour but found her in a cemetery about 1/2 mile down the road. He said she seemed totally fine and he’d try to get his hands on her. By the time I hiked it back to my yard relieved, I heard that message clearly again: this is a speed bump. Load up and go. It’s now time.

He came walking up the driveway with the wandering horse. I’d already loaded up Hope and was only 2 hours behind schedule, still plenty of time to get set up before dark. I put K right onto the trailer, gave Iva a call and we got on the road.

Easy ride with Iva and Hope and a stop to chat with one of our favorite vets Dr. Bob Marshall

We made it to Big South Fork with no more drama in plenty of time to get set up. Friday was a recovery day and we enjoyed an easy 5 mile walk around some of the trails with both horses, vetted in with no trouble and prepared for the next day. I had no idea what to expect. I knew I was right where I was supposed to be, but I have learned enough now to know that doesn’t always mean a victorious completion- sometimes it means a lesson. I have made a peace with that and find the process much more enjoyable when a perceived outcome doesn’t carry such weight. I was still grateful to have my horse in one piece and we’d made regular jokes about if she was still in her pen, and which cemetery we passed on the way in to look for her first.

The morning of the ride Iva shared a dream she had of me where I had volunteered for a dangerous mission to help women who were trapped in a war zone. She had been inspired in the dream and also volunteered for the war but was in a less dangerous training camp. It was an encouraging picture, and as she shared I noticed again the number 58 written in white on Khaleesi’s rump I sensed something was significant this time to our number. Not able to get service to do a search, I asked Iva to look up Isaiah 58 when she got into service later in the day.

The ride was a gift. Complete undeserved grace. She ran in more strength than I’ve even seen. She began similar to the Bethel Ride in May, but this time instead of one strong loop, one average loop, and then a tough third loop where she began to wear… she took on the first two loops (about 36 miles) at her fastest average speed (about 7mph) including tricky terrain, rocks, ridge climbs, and water crossings without tiring. I was certain at some point she would falter and lag back having spent all her energy too soon for the day. She vetted through with good scores, gut sounds, and heart rates and CRI of 48/48 and this was trotting fast into camp, dropping tack and getting into the pulse box relatively quickly.

Scenes from the trail

The second hold I gave her an extra 10 minutes to drink and eat. The holds were only 40 minutes here which is a bit short for our experience. The extra 10 minutes was definitely worth it (she really tanked up on the water toward the end of that hold) but it meant the small group we were riding with had left us behind. We rode out to the last 18 mile loop alone. The good news is she rode out without much prodding and that is also an improvement for her going back out after 36 miles!

I had hoped we might run into someone or end up slow enough that someone would catch up with us, but we only passed one rider who was going slow on a horse that needed to take it easy. We didn’t see another soul out there until the spotters who made sure we didn’t short cut a 4 mile section of trail, and then the finish line crew. It was also about the worst loop of the day. It was a figure 8 that took us right back through camp in the middle, this is mentally downright cruel I think and I hated being part of that. I think it was poor planning myself and would have preferred if it had to be this way to use this loop earlier in the day. Riding past camp — alone!– at mile 45 in the heat of the day was probably the toughest thing we’ve had to do mentally.

The other unfortunate part of this last loop was the handful of very steep rolling hills in the final couple miles. At this point she was not as balanced and was weakening from the long day and after I crested the second steep road and saw another down/up I apologized to her (again, this would have been much better earlier in the day) and hand walked her on these really steep hills. They kept coming.

Walking side by side during the steep rolling hills at the end of the ride. The last loop was tough for us but we kept each others spirits up with occasional singing and making jokes…

After these ridiculous ravine type down/up segments it flattened out again and we jogged side by side. When she seemed to even out and move with less stiffness I got back on and we trotted the last mile or two and both of us were surprised and glad to see the finish line. The finish is not in camp, and the approach was in the one place we hadn’t ridden in and out and in and out all day.

She finished in 15th place out of 38, and considering it was the Arabian Distance National Championship Ride (not for us, a non-arabian) there were some really talented horses out there with us. I was surprised and pleased at her strong placing. Especially for the horse who has kept the vets waiting after dark and earned a few turtle awards

Finish line, she perked up as we walked back into camp and had a fabulous final vet report.
Dr. Nick Kohut thought she looked really strong and asked: are you sure you rode the whole thing?

I am beyond pleased with the outcome of this event. As we cantered up mini-big-south-fork cougar rock formations at the end of loop 2 like she was fresh from the start I finally thought I just might have a horse here that can do this sport. After years of rebuilding and strength training, saddle fit questions, mild intermittent lameness, and hoof issues, it is heartening to get through a ride in a new level of strength and balance.

Wrapped up and tucked in for the night

I have two saddles that are working well for her right now. Both of them are through Balance International, one the Nexus R tree GPD, the other a Matrix GPJ. I switched them each loop and found her back to be completely unreactive at the end of the ride. I think the composite shoes are also a key to the success she’s been having and we are still using the last of the Flex full heart bar with side clips stock — next year we will have to try out the other models which I don’t think are quite as good (likely versa grips unless something better comes along this winter). I am also loving my Hope Horsemanship jerseys because they have the back pockets, great for my rider card (it’s easy to grab quickly) and I stuff it full of carrots each loop. For this ride it was the only thing she ate on trail. She just didn’t stop for grass, only water.

If anyone asked me, which… no one generally does 😜 I would say the thing that made the most substantial change in her this year has been working with Emily Kemp on moving in balance, and learning to ride better myself. I have been dedicated to this process for years both for improvement myself and for her. It has taken time and patience and practice to work on straightness and flexibility and balance that finally this summer broke through to a level that is hopefully the beginning of true self-carriage work and using the power of her hind end to drive and not the front end to pull. I believe we have found a new level, but a year or two from now I’ll be so excited about how we’re finally getting it. This process is like unlimited treasure or an obsession that will never find it’s end. Whenever I get excited about how we’ve possibly arrived I only find we weren’t “there” yet because there’s a new even more connected even more balanced and even stronger place we settle into as we continue.

Photo by the amazing Becky Pearman

Yet this is what I love most. I love the endless “better” and the ability to get more soft, more round, more through, more self-carried and even more connected.

I am particularly grateful to Becky Pearman the most extraordinary photographer who has captured the stages of our development each ride over the years, and for Lynne Gilbert my mentor and friend who encouraged me to get a photo album to save the photos in from each ride that I might enjoy looking back from where we’ve come.

Iva taking K back to the pen after vetting her through loop 2

Yet most of all I am grateful for Iva who is my right hand and my left at times. Not only is she fun and we laugh and pray together, but I trust her with my horses and that is a big deal for me. She is always willing to do any of the 5 things I ask of her at once in the middle of a ride. She is always calm and kind no matter how frazzled I get, and she did look up Isaiah 58 for me. We rode under that banner and when we were finished and relaxing for the night I asked her to read it to me. The last verse was the most beautiful to me:

Then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land…

Isaiah 58:14

Indeed.