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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 rainMatt Maher: Everything Is Grace
True in the crashing waves
It’s true even in my pain, my heart can say
That everything is grace