Out of the Arena

Winter is a busy work time for me- I would love to have more days at the barn, but teaching, grant writing, meetings and rehearsals turn me into a weekend rider from mid-January through about April. Things gradually ease up through late spring and longer days and decent weather make riding more accessible. These are the dark days.

Weekend barn time is still barn time- so I’ll take it! This time I’ll combine my two days into one post to catch up here at the blog. It will be a kind of long post… hope I don’t bore you with too much at once…

Friday

View from the girls' run in barn.
View from the’ run in barn.

Friday was ugly- we had sleet and snow with high winds. I spent a little time with the girls in their run in barn feeding, grooming, checking feet. Khaleesi’s hoof bruise is spreading if anything. She isn’t lame on it, but I don’t like the way it looks. I clean it out and hope it will continue to improve. Faygo looks great- the snow cleaned up her always dirty coat (she is always rolling in dirt, mud or whatever is going to make her beautiful white hair discolored), and she is a nice weight and is healthy this winter.

It was just nice to see them again and have some non-agenda time. I love watching them munch contentedly on their hay bale. I love the smell of horses, hay, and the cool fresh air. I think that’s important to do once in a while- not only bring them in and make them work every time you see them.

Saturday

My new winter tights and below zero rated gloves arrived just in time for an early afternoon ride! I head to the barn with the plan of taking the pony ride to my arena and doing some more training with Khaleesi. Ideally I’d like to ride at least 4 or 5 miles but it doesn’t work that way. Khaleesi is incredibly slow today, I wonder if her feet are tender- though she doesn’t look off. We ride to our favorite look out spot (climbing the mountain is good for a work out even if it’s only an hour or so of riding) and then instead of doing the loop I’d hoped to, we descend to the barnyard for some work in the arena.

My goal today is to begin with what we finished with last week (6 imperatives: we’ll go around the arena both directions, then try for some figure 8s to show we really do have some control). I turn Faygo out to graze and do my groundwork reminder, then hop on Khaleesi. Every time I get on her things get easier. Her little tantrum arguments are less scary for me and are shorter with each work session. Today we only have a brief “conversation” before settling into our job and we do a nice walk around the perimeter in each direction then I go for some figure 8 patterns in the center of the space. I set the camera up to get a video and didn’t realize it was on time-lapse. So this video made me laugh, but I loved what it showed. We have have some good steering beginning now!

We finished with adding a little bit of trotting on a slight uphill part of the arena where the footing was decent. She has a fun trot though I have no idea if it’ll be a good endurance trot. Personally I think it’s a little big to ride it for 100 miles- at the moment I feel like I’m being tossed into the air with each step. But I’ve never owned a trotting horse- and only ridden a trot a few times, so it is probably only my perception. I don’t think the little western saddle that I picked up as a good deal (at least until I figure out what saddle to use with her as we get into a riding routine) is the best for riding a trot either. Basically I like the saddle- but a more english style saddle might put me is a position better for doing a trot for very long).

Of course, I have no real idea if I even will be riding a trot. If she eventually racks- I think that’s going to be the gait we’re working toward, and that should be very different than riding or sitting a trot. At the moment, I’m just happy we trot a little!

Upon returning to the barn I found Nettie and her friend waiting for us to say hello (and get a horse fix). Nette has helped me work with Khaleesi from the very beginning when I was lucky to be able to tie her.

Flashback! Khaleesi, Nette and me the first time we got the saddle on..
Flashback! Khaleesi, Nette and me the first time we got the saddle on..

Nette was there the first day we got a saddle on her back- in fact she ran home for a bottle of wine that we toasted in red solo cups to our exciting accomplishment that day and watched her walk around eating grass wearing her first saddle. There was a time Nette was slightly nervous to be around Khaleesi (she was slightly unpredictable as all young horses can be), but today she took the lead rope and walked her around like a real “grown up” horse with no concern at all. I love thinking of the past experiences and comparing them with where we are today. It’s nice to be reminded there was a time I couldn’t even tie her without wondering if she’d break a lead rope.

Khaleesi in her diaper boot
Khaleesi in her diaper boot

Nette and her friend helped me untack and groom and we decided to clean her hoof where the bruise is and pack it with some Ichthammol and do a duct tape diaper protector boot to see if that might help. At least I’d like to keep it from getting infected or continuing to get worse. She was a champ as we covered her hoof in the diaper and then wrap, wrap, wrapped it good with pink camp duck tape (that’s all I had on hand, but it’s a nice fashion statement). She is overall a pretty compliant horse. She didn’t like the whole idea, but after getting over it she didn’t seem to mind all that much. Cleaned up, turned them out.. went home for a soak in the hot tub. What a great day.

How does this work?

I’ve been doing tons of reading… and listening (to videos, podcasts…) anything I can get my hands on to help me figure out what this process is supposed to be. I have tons of questions.

How do other people do this journey? What do I not know that I will need to know? What mistakes am I most likely to make? Is my horse right for the job? How will I know? What is the first ride like?

Moment on Saturday at the top of the mountain- pony ride.
Moment on Saturday at the top of the mountain- pony ride.

I loved hearing an interview with Julie Suhr who has many awards and has finished the Tevis Cup over 20 times in 5 decades (she is in her 80s now). Her first Tevis (100 mile) attempt was within 2 years of returning to horses (after a 20 year break). She really had no idea what she was in for at the time- I was ready to hear her amazing story of novice horsewoman finishes in the top 10 on her first attempt without even training. But I was delighted (well, that might not sound right as I don’t delight in her failure at all, but it was refreshing…) to hear how she barely made it into the first checkpoint, her horses heartbeat didn’t go down at all, and her jeans had already chaffed skin off her legs. She was pulled at the first stop. Yet she became addicted, and learned all she could about how to train and became one of the most successful endurance riders of our time.

The 100 mile cannot be done on a horse younger than 60 months (per the AERC rules), but it’s recommended that no horse be truly trained toward this kind of distance until they are at least 4, preferably 5 years old to really allow their tendons, bones and joints to mature before putting the kind of stress on them this training takes. Thus many seasoned endurance riders suggest you shouldn’t have a horse under 6 or 7 in an 100 mile race. This works well for us- next month Khaleesi will turn 5, and we are just beginning the journey.

Here are some other horse specific things I’ve picked up along the past couple weeks:

One of the most important things an endurance rider looks for in a horse are good feet. They should be healthy (not crack easily), not too small, and it’s better for them to be slightly longer than wide. (Check: except this hoof bruise, her feet are basically hard, don’t tend to crack, and though she is slightly smaller than Faygo- her feet are larger, and slightly long. In fact I had a challenge finding hoof boots for her because her feet are a bit on the long side)

It is better for a horse in endurance to have spent much of its young life turned out in a herd on a large property with a variety of terrains. That horse learns to think and fend for itself more than one kept in a stall or small paddock, and works it’s muscles and joints in more ways as they are developing as well as learns to drink from just about any puddle and stream and learns balance on different kind of footing early on. (Check: Khaleesi was brought in at age 2 to get handled for a bit, but until I took her at age 4, she lived in a horse herd on a large property with diverse terrain)

As for temperament- some people find a hot, sensitive horse to be helpful as they tend to want to go-go-go. This is not really the case with K. On the flip side, others say it’s better to find a stable more grounded horse that is not so distractible as those go-go hot and sensitive horses also tend to be the ones who may fall apart. (Hopefully Khaleesi will find some decent gaits and speeds eventually and yet have stability. It’s a bit to early to tell if she’s start moving as we work, or if I will constantly have to push her and find she hates the miles).

For now I entertain myself asking if she is the right horse for the job. I look for signs she will be “the one”, but truly I have no idea if she ever really will do 100 miles.

Sunday

Khlaeesi realxing in the early afternoon
Khlaeesi realxing in the early afternoon

I head to the barn to find the girls laying at the edge of the field half asleep. I have to walk all the way over to them (slightly unusual for my girl to not come running to meet me at the gate). Faygo gets up and walks away to eat- Khaleesi does not move. I walk all the way up to her (hoping she is ok). Her head is up, alert, she doesn’t appear to be in distress. Her pink camo hoof is still on- is she too freaked out to walk on it? Has she laid here all night because she is afraid of her duck tape boot?

I approach her and rub her head. Are you ok? Are you just taking a nap? Can you get up? I crouch down and rub her neck enjoying a quiet moment where she is just content. She is breathing deep and slow, but not seeming in distress. I put on her lead rope and tell her its time to get up- if she can… and if she can’t……

She puts out her duck tape hoof first and stops.

She looks at me Can you get this thing off me please??

I pull out my pocket knife and cut it off for her. Ok… now you need to get up for me before I start to worry

After some coaxing with the lead rope she gets to her feet, she drags behind me as I walk across the field are you sick?

I stop at the water trough and we wait for Faygo to catch up with us (she is also walking slow): did you guys eat something bad? are you just tired today, feeling lazy? 

Khaleesi just stands by the water… I figure she isn’t going to drink, but Faygo is coming so I wait a little longer… Khaleesi pushes some water around with her nose then takes a big drink- Good, that’s good to know, she is drinking.

We head to the barn, Khaleesi reaches her nose around and scratches her side- Are you colicky? or just need a scratch?

I put out grain for both and they devour it- another good sign.

hanging out on the ground
Khaleesi and me hanging out on the ground

I get the thermometer- another first for her… sticking something up her butt… well, the day had to come eventually…. she danced around a moment then got back to eating her food and seemed to comply (she’s pretty compliant, I think I said that earlier). Temperature barely 98 degrees F. That’s a bit low. Not red flag exactly, but I assume she should be closer to 100 or 101.

I groom them up, deciding if they are fit to take out, or if I need to scrap plans and turn them back. They seem to be fine- the hoof is the same, not better not worse, not very sensitive, and she’s not lame on it. I decide they were just in mid-morning nap mode and not actually sick.

We tack up and it starts out as a nice gentle ride. We walk easy, still haven’t gotten Khaleesi’s boots (they should arrive this week) so again we walk SUPER slow and do the same mountain top loop down to the arena as the previous day. My GPS says we walked 2.3 miles at an average of 2.4 mph, actually I thought it was like 1 mph (or so it felt) so I suppose that’s not so bad. The walk home was shorter, but climbing the mountain is good exercize so I’ll take it.

Same routine… Faygo grazes, groundwork, get on, ride the fence line… both directions… figure 8s… We have another argument today- more serious than yesterday but I am not afraid anymore, I hold onto the saddle horn, kick her and insist we do this.

Today she amps the tantrum up one notch and as she says FINE, WE’LL DO THIS she trots and does some canter steps instead of walking around and back toward the gate.

I say Great- I wanted to trot today anyway! That was fun… we’re going to do that again! I turn her and tell her to go again.

She says Oh come on… I’m not in the mood today.. but then she goes, and here is the video:

I am working on voice commands with her- if she does have some different gait options, I’d like to be able to ask for trot, or rack, or canter (if Carrington can do this, I think I can learn to as well!) So for now I’m saying “Trot Trot Trrrrot” when we trot.

I love it! It’s fun! we’re finally moving!

So then I decide. Today is the day. Not because she’s behaving so well, but because I realize that I have gained confidence finally to the level that I am ready. Not that she is is ready or not ready- but that I am ready.

I hope off her, open the arena gate and we walk out.

I get back on.

Outside the arena.

I try not to hold my breath You have to breathe… you have to breathe…

She gets a slightly different feel of energy in her body- we have no fence now to stop us. Of course, we are in the “barnyard” so there are trucks, tractors, buildings – not just an open field. It’s a good first environment.

I ask her to walk over along the road (the farm road, not a real road). She says no, I don’t think so- lets eat grass.

I say yes, walk on in my happy voice… kick her, then drive her with my reins just back and forth on her whithers- nothing that hurts, just annoying… she takes a step.

Yes. We are doing this.

She walks tentatively and doesn’t like the big tractor with the massive hay spike (that’s ok, I don’t want to get too close to it either girl…) so we avoid that by going under a big wire encased in plastic holding up a power line pole- I think: I couldn’t have asked her to do that if I tried- that’s good, I’ll go through that space. It’s easy for us to fit through. We take a few steps and stop and smell the air, look around, do the same again. We are walking outside the arena, going around the office barn buildings and will be out of sight of Faygo for a bit (that’s good).

She comes around the other side on the ‘road’ and we return to where Faygo is eating (she couldn’t care less what we’re doing). Then we cross the ‘road’ again and do the same loop. I have learned that 3 times is the charm with her. It takes her 3 times to do what I ask before she is confident and easy with it. This is confirmed again today. The third time in that same loop- through the power line wire, around the building, back to Faygo we are “trot trot trotting” most of it.

It’s getting time to head home. Always end on a good note- don’t push to where she gets frustrated. I let her eat a bit while I get Faygo ready and hop on her. We take a shorter loop home and celebrate another great day.

Now I just need to get someone to come ride Faygo- while I ride her… on the trail…

Flashback: Fall training day in her red halter... one of our first rides
Flashback: Fall training day in her red halter… one of our first rides

2 thoughts on “Out of the Arena

  1. Wow! I am so happy with progress made, apprehensive when you write about K’s health, and feel peace when you describe “just hanging out” with your girls. Photos are great!

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