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!


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


…. And GO!

Below is an excerpt from my Hope Horsemanship August Clinic update. This portion focuses on what Khaleesi & I worked on that I believe will make our endurance riding more successful over time.

Currently Iva & I are planning to head to Big South Fork the weekend of September 10 for a 55 mile ride for K and a road trip, camping practice and a practice ride on our recovery from travel day. Hope is still not ready to compete but she continues to improve all the time.

The biggest highlight of the clinic for me came in working on balance and bend with Khaleesi which is leading to more self-carriage and strength. She is beginning to use her hind end more powerfully which is really fun to engage in. I am learning how to always get better at supporting her. I’m starting to notice when her hind end and front end aren’t matching in speed or energy, and slow down the front to match the hind. My feel for minute body changes in both of us is becoming more refined each time Emily comes and the changes made in almost imperceptible ways sent her into a deep processing pattern as she began to make changes along with my higher ability to feel us balance together. Super cool to do, probably pretty boring to watch.

My take away concept is broader, it’s the idea of: And Go! I have been riding K through my energy for years now with increasing success. If I want her to pick up a trot I rarely have to use a physical aid, but if I change my energy from the 1-2-3-4 walk temp to a 1-2 1-2 1-2 1-2 she will almost always pick up a trot; if I put my energy to “zero” she’ll sometimes stop so abruptly I come off balance before I’ve ever thought to touch the reins.

Yet something I have never attempted is to create an energy shift in my body, and then hold it momentarily until I give the “And Go!” to execute. This was an entirely new dimension of communication for us. Instead of simple transitions now as I communicated them with my energy as I wanted them, I was giving a preparation for the transition. Previously I had the thought: I’d like to transition to a trot. Then I would bring my energy up to a trot, and as the horse sensed that happening she would pick up the trot (or if not I would add an aid to support her understanding of what I wanted). I was careful to control my energy not to be sending unwanted signals.

Why this had never occurred to me before I’m not sure but it’s huge! Now I can take a moment to bring up the energy for a trot and then wait for it….. and when I’m ready give the and GO! This tool because key for coming into a higher level of balance because what I want when asking for the trot is to do it in balance. And another nugget I learned this clinic is that when energy leaks forward which looks like a speeding up into a transition, the balance is lost in the transition and the new gait is begun out of balance onto the forehand which is exactly what I want to change going forward.

Now as I began to work with this I would be at a walk in balance and begin to change the energy but ask her to wait for it, to prepare, and when I give the and GO then the transition is simply from a walk up into a trot without speeding up the walk in order to find the trot. This preparation gave K a moment to feel her energy build before the release of the energy which meant it could come in balance through her entire body more effectively.

This added a layer to our previous energy style riding and at first she wasn’t clear on what I was doing. Previously energy up meant GO into the next gear. At first I had to use my aids to slow the “front door” by actually holding firm in my hands and not allowing her to rush forward then finding a way to translate that the energy was being released in the and GO. This I can’t fully explain and it took me some time and experimentation to feel like I found a way to do it that she could understand and anticipate. When it worked she powered up into balance in the transition and it was great fun.

When it didn’t work because of me trying to learn how to do this more effectively I would bring up the energy and shut the front door for energy leakage and she knew the energy was moving but didn’t know where to go so we danced a few times all over the arena sideways, sometimes backward and often a combination of everyway but forward as she knew she was supposed to respond somehow but I was saying not forward. What I was really saying was “hold onto it and I’ll give you the cue in just a sec” but with her dancing all over trying to sort out what to do with the energy I gave her that became tricky to execute.

What’s been a blast is to practice this from a halt to canter. Recently she began giving me some real blast off departs off her spring loaded hind end and a few times I had to hold on and apologize as I lost balance when she gave me exactly what I asked for and I wasn’t truly prepared for what it would feel like.

Halt to canter blast off

I reflected that sometimes I sense this same thing happening in my own life. As I try to walk in step with God, early on I was getting pretty good at flowing with his movement and if I got the sense to move, I moved. However I have felt recently that I’m getting the message to prepare for a move. But hold on. I start dancing all around my life in every which way with ants in my pants because I know a change is coming. Now I’m beginning to see that he is being kind by telling me to get ready. It’s actually nice to have warning that things will change soon- but I have to wait to get the and GO signal. I think I’m still trying to learn what that is exactly.

Something I would do for K when she would get bunched up and bothered trying to give me every answer she could think of when I was asking her to prepare, was to breathe out, relax slightly and rub her neck and give her the assurance: good girl, you’re just fine, thanks for paying attention- just wait one second and I’ll release you. The last thing I’d do would be to make her feel like she was wrong in her anxious response to this new level. I am always pleased when she responds with such sensitivity- even if it gets briefly counterproductive.

I’m pretty sure God sees us in a similar way. When he begins to upgrade us to new layers of walking with him and we get anxious trying to figure out what he wants from us, I think he wants us to find some peace as he’s just asking us to prepare and be ready for the imminent release…

….and GO!

The Skies I’m Under

This blog was drafted on August 3 just before the Emily Kemp Clinic. It was left unfinished in the whirlwind of clinic and aftermath until today. The clinic was a wonderful success and an update including some near future plans will follow shortly.

And hold me fast, hold me fast
‘Cause I’m a hopeless wanderer
I will learn, I will learn to love the skies I’m under

Mumford & Sons

Life so often speaks to me in song form, and as I write a long overdue update the only line I could imagine to begin comes from a song I love by Mumford & Sons Hopeless Wanderer. Each year, each month, and each day I’m beginning to find the wisdom in learning to love the skies I’m under. Sometimes this is easy because they are beautiful skies, clear skies, maybe even rainbows and unicorns in the skies to quote my good friend. Sometimes this is a challenge because the skies have dark clouds forming in the distance, or maybe lightning sparking danger above, threatening or downright frightening skies. Sometimes it’s simply rain that changes plans but does little harm.

Nothing about this Summer has been according to plan. And yet, I am learning to love the skies I’m under all the same.

Previously on Green To 100….

In Six Feet Over the Line Jaime & K have a fantastic return to competition with a 14th place finish in their first 50 mile entry in over a year. Things look full speed ahead! Then in Have Mercy the plot twists when a 26 mile training ride goes very wrong and Jaime & K are rescued by a band of dual sport bikers on a very desolate back road after a serious fall where K is cut almost to the bone on her front knees. This changes everything… Yet the healing is miraculous and Slow is Smooth Jaime & K go to the Old Dominion ride, but as drag/safety riders, not competitors and share the joy of serving instead of competing, and being saved from a day in miserable rain. Things were looking up after the 30 miles of drag riding in early June… but the skies weren’t done bringing the unexpected yet.

Upon returning from the Old Dominion weekend, Khaleesi found the promotion promised in the herd move had come. The herd doubled shifting her from the two mares she had been leading with confident authority to five- two new mares and a young gelding. Now there was the established herd of three and a band of three previously unconnected horses trying to sort out a new herd hierarchy. To the humans, this was not a surprise, but I’m not sure K understood as I tried to prepare her that the new office on the high ground with the beautiful view would come with new responsibilities soon.

The stunning new herd of six

Looking back I don’t think I would change anything because transitions are always hard — dragging them out isn’t my style, but this one was particularly hard on my herd leader. First she was slightly compromised because of the recovery from the knee injuries (thankfully this came when most of the healing was in place) but 2 weeks of antibiotics due to the depth of the wound and proximity to the joint added systematic compromise to the physical and mental stress. Now she was taking on the added stress of a herd transition with 3 completely. new horses with various backgrounds. Thank goodness she had Wyoming as her second in command! That wild mare constantly had her back, though occasionally overzealous in her job, she was stunning in her loyalty and attention to detail.

The first real issue showed up as a grapefruit sized hematoma on her left shoulder one morning- no obvious sign of being kicked, but the herd dynamics were all over the place so it’s impossible to know what happened. She didn’t seem overly tender and she didn’t present as lame so I did things I could to help encourage it to heal, but serious riding was now once again on hold.

Next one of the horses began to present with a cough, mucous, and then a fever. My horses tend to have a strong immune system which I pay close attention to, support regularly, and count on as my first line of defense in avoiding vet care bills. Wyoming and Hope did not show sign of illness, but K was weakened from a long course of antibiotics, deep wound healing, herd transition stress (especially as a lead mare), and now another injury, she began to pick up a cough and a nasal discharge.

The vet visit checked over all the horses and K took a respiratory antibiotic for rough lung sounds. (Have I mentioned I avoid antibiotics if at all possible! This is more antibiotic usage in two months than the rest of her life I think). The sick little new horse got the same treatment- K improved, but the little new horse did not improve- in fact she got worse.

A follow up visit the next week had the vet now concerned and she had to consider a potential strangles outbreak. K had seemed much improved and I considered having her swabbed and removing her completely so she could avoid a possible quarantine, but when I went to bring her in I saw more nasal discharge and my heart fell. Whatever this was, we were in the thick of it and there was no escape. The only way was going to be through.

The next two days were rough as I considered that not only had I lost six weeks of my good riding season to illness and injury, but I could now lose the rest of it to a more serious illness and a possible ongoing revolving quarantine door as horses clear fevers and get tested positive or negative. Forget training rides, competing, and even my August clinic was spinning down the drain- I wouldn’t even be able to take her off the property until the last horse was healthy for two weeks. I felt like I was being pulled into a prison. It was a horrible nightmare.

And yet, in the waiting for test results I did come to peace with it. I was reminded of another guy who was forced into prison. The prison prepared him for his eventual rise to the man with the most power in Egypt after the Pharaoh himself (see the story of Joseph in the Bible… Genesis 37-50). I decided if I was going into prison I was going to let it shape me in a positive way, and I’d use the time for what I could. There was nothing to be done at this point anyway- and once again, maybe I could have prevented it all, but I’m not sure that’s the point in the end.

The third day I got the news: the horses were all negative for strangles! YAY! Yet this brought a hard twist that brings me no joy, the sick little mare had something else that was much more serious and we pulled out all the stops and immediately took her to VA Tech for evaluation. This blog is not about her story, however I will share in a nutshell- she was gravely ill with an equine pneumonia and she had also picked up anaplasmosis which is a tick borne disease — together took her down fast. Her immune system was not strong and could not fight it off. Her new owners have been fighting for her and the little miracle horse is still showing a will to live and through courses of tests, antibiotics, two stays at Tech and a little confinement time at home in between she is improving but her long term effects may mean she is limited for work through the rest of her life – regardless she is a special creature and she’s getting all the opportunity to have a life they can offer. I think her story will have a happy ending even if it’s not what was expected when she was purchased. Time alone right now will tell.

Back to Khaleesi, all of these details have meant a summer with almost no serious riding and now a place of once again starting over. Not completely, her base is good, but months of turmoil bring me peacefully to a place where I understand I cannot control all these things, and even if I could- maybe I shouldn’t. I have come to see the purpose of life is not to be as comfortable as possible, and avoid difficulty at all costs. In fact, I’ve begun to see that though living with wise choices is always preferable and I don’t advocate doing stupid things just for the sake of experience. I do think we are usually faced with imperfect options and have to do our best to balance outcomes and immediate needs.

I can have peace and know this is a long-game … I don’t have to panic that my immediate plans are crumbling around me. The sooner I ask: What am I missing here? What do you want me to see? Open my eyes to what IS going on and how I should respond…. The sooner I find a spaciousness under even stormy skies and can enjoy the process and look forward to when things come around to the rainbow and some sun breaking through.

So at the time I began riding K every day even for 45 minutes around the farm if that’s all I could do. I began to slowly rebuild and also review from the previous clinic because I hadn’t had a lot of time to work on the things we had begun there in the turbulence called summer 2021. I began to enjoy my trail rides and put side passes over tree limbs, circles in the trail/road intersections, ask for bend and begin to explore counterbend around trees, check in on the backup, see if I could get increased balance and movement more from the hind end. I worked on hinging my hips better in the trot and quieter hands in the walk.

Great branch to practice side pass on the trail!

Every ride I took the time and patience to isolate the shoulders or ask for a turn on the fore and see how light I could ask for the hind to cross.

Sidepass practice on the trail fun!

And though we still weren’t taking on big mileage, my mare was soaking in the mental work and thriving each ride. She continued to get softer and more willing and offer me better answers more quickly. We got deeper together again. Unlimited layers I think. I’m starting to get less amazed that really- yes – it keeps getting better… and better. I fell more in love with the process of conversation and curiosity as I accepted the current skies and realized again that no matter what happened to my near future plans- nothing could ever take this love away from me.

As long as K is with me, I can engage our communication and deepen our understanding together on the ground, in the saddle, bareback, it doesn’t matter, no one can take that away. The rest is frosting. Yes… even the clinic.

Thankfully with the negative strangles result the clinic was saved and so were some of my riding options. And the skies began to clear a bit… I will update soon on what came next!

Slow is smooth.

The Old Dominion weekend 2021 did not go as I envisioned after the amazing 50 mile ride from Camp Bethel a month ago. I’m so grateful. 

It appeared that Khaleesi had finally made her come back and I assumed full speed ahead into some 50 mile rides with the end of the season potentially doing a 2-day ‘hundred’ or back-to-back 50s at Fort Valley in October.

God willing.

The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.

Proverbs 16:9

On a 25 mile training ride in mid-May we crashed hard on a dirt road and everything spun down the drain in front of me as my horse bled profusely from her deeply cut knees still 6 miles from the trailer. If you haven’t read that story you can find it HERE: Have Mercy Blog

I didn’t know what would happen or how the healing cycle would go, but it was clear my best laid plans were being derailed. My most basic hope was that this wreck did not permanently damage my favorite horse in a way that might be bigger than just a ride postponement. 

If you caught the update on the Emily Kemp clinic at the end of May, you know the healing was bordering on the miraculous and though I considered the real possibility of not being able to participate at all, we rode in the clinic and in fact got a lot out of the work together. K seemed to refuse to accept she was injured.

Working on body balance and strength which will serve us well on longer distances when it is more developed

With 2 weeks to the OD I knew regardless of how great she was healing, it would be a mistake to push her into competing in a tough 50. So I shifted into alignment toward what turned out to be the better plan A. 

I would originally have competed the 50 on Friday. Iva & Hope had planned to try the intro ride on Saturday. The intro ride was about 12 miles and would give the two a chance to see how the horse takes to ride camp, being separated from Khaleesi, taking on some rugged OD trails, giving electrolytes and making sure the horses eat and drink.

Iva giving electrolytes after the big loop 1 climb

Instead I scrapped the 50 and volunteered Iva and myself to drag ride on Saturday. I would give Iva and Hope an ‘intro ride’ myself while simultaneously volunteering to help as a safety rider behind the 100 mile riders giving back to the sport in a small way. With this plan I could personally help Iva understand the riding aspect of endurance which is a small repayment for all the help she’s offered crewing for me and K over the years.

Turns out heavy rains the week of the race took a toll on the already challenging trails and after dozens of horses churned it up they were a sloppy mess. The rain continued on and off Friday through the competition and I was grateful I hadn’t entered. The ride is tough enough on a good day. K and I have finished both the 25 and the 50 of the OD and it’s hard on the horse.

I didn’t end up feeling we had missed out, I felt we had been spared.

This is not the last ride opportunity of our career together! 

The first loop of the 100 mile competition was our drag riding assignment which was great because we were ready to go for the ride start. Both K and Hope were not too excitable and we had no trouble. We did however have a snafu connecting with the drag rider manager and didn’t get out of ride camp with our radio and official vests until almost 30 minutes after the last rider. 

That combined with the fact that we weren’t running 100 mile horses, we rode the loop safely (and in these conditions it was slower than normal) and turned into the first vet check after the last rider had already left the check into loop 2. 

This created an unusual complication for loop 2. The original loop 2 riders were Griffin (a friend of mine) and a woman had to pull out late notice due to a family emergency. K was doing so well I volunteered to ride loop 2 with Griffin as long as we had not trouble in loop 1. So just arriving into the check and needing at least a couple minutes before heading out to the next segment for my horse to get a drink and snack- I was now the hold up of the loop 2 drag rider departure.

A new plan formed from ride management and we shifted once again.

Iva and Hope got a ride back to camp with volunteer extraordinaire Dale Weaver while Griffin and I were sent via separate trailer to the next vet check to ride loop 3 instead. We would wait at the 2nd check until the last rider went through but if there was concern we had fresh horses to go back into the 2nd loop for a search and rescue.

Riding with Griffin & Sully

I am pleased to report that Hope and Iva made it back to camp without trouble and Hope had no concerns separating from K (we did wear her out!) and K hardly noticed when the trailer pulled away with Hope on board. She had work to do. 

Buddy separation: check

Griffin and I enjoyed the nicer 3rd loop (the second has to be the most grueling and my least favorite!) and at the end of the segment we came upon a rider hand walking a horse struggling with metabolic concerns (not eating or drinking). I’m glad we were on that loop to keep them company the last 2 miles.

Griffin and I heading into loop 3

Considering the wounds K was healing from had meant some of our training for the OD 50 was spent in recovery and limited movement, I was very pleased for 30 miles on Saturday of riding with some technical terrain and good climbs with the mid day heat and humidity factored in as well. It turned out to be great training. 

Something I am getting better at as life goes on is making plans to the best of my limited human ability, and staying aware that I don’t have all the information the creator and sustainer of the universe does. He now has my full permission and cooperation to interrupt what I have in mind and redirect me to a better course. I have come to learn He has my best interests always at the forefront and cares more about my horse even than I do. I never want to force ahead when He’s trying to signal me to slow down or change course. This doesn’t mean I’ll never hit resistance or forces that come against my path, but I’d rather have the backing of the God of the universe while I’m facing difficulty than to be out on my own going rogue!

Looking back, even the wreck on my training ride turned out to be a miraculous amazing experience that showed me what is possible when I relinquish the death grip on my goals and watch carefully for the better path. When I find this better path it isn’t always the easiest, but somehow there is a “smoothness” to it where things work even completely in spite of what one might expect from the circumstances. Even my injured horse was able to work through a horsemanship clinic while healing with amazing speed and strength and then shifted into a 30 mile OD style training ride where I was able to give back more than I took which was a real blessing looking back.

Getting ready to drag ride at the 5:30am start

There is a saying that slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. This is how I see our path in the season I am in. There is a LOT going on around us right now. We came back from the OD weekend to 3 new horses in the herd, that’s a big transition and will mean regrouping some things in the short term. I’m building on some new ideas working with local people (especially kids!) who can use some help with understanding horses, I’m organizing all the details of the August Emily Kemp Clinic, I have a book in the late stages of printing, and summer brings some music opportunities with both students and my own professional services. If I were to have to control it all I would be overwhelmed.

Instead what I’ve found is something will come to the forefront and I address it. Other things hang on the periphery, with various stages of priority and that sometimes changes as environmental factors adjust that I cannot control. When I step back just enough and trust I see clearly what to do next, what must wait, and how far to move before shifting. It doesn’t always line up the way I thought, and I find myself like a good dance partner softening up to be led in places I might have wanted to push through my own agenda.

At the moment the march toward a single-day 100 is not a straight line path. I am a straight line thinker which is also in line with my predatory (as opposed to prey) nature, just ask my horses! It seems curvy and one must slow down a bit in order to manage the shifts with grace. Yet I am beginning to see purpose in it, and often the fastest way between places is actually NOT a straight line. Sometimes a zig and a zag expertly navigated can weave us around landmines we cannot see.

The next competition I have in my sights is Big South Fork in September. I will stay in tune to the signals if that is indeed where we will end up next. Sometimes the plan changes to move out a planned ride, but occasionally the opposite happens and an event is moved up the timeline as well. It’s always fun to see what will come!

Slow is smooth…

Smooth is fast!

Six Feet Over the Line

I am beyond pleased to report that the Blackhorse Ride this weekend brought celebration and success and the mare I’ve poured so much into greatly outperformed my hopes and expectations.

Oddly enough I felt unusually unsure of myself while loading my horse onto the trailer and hitting the road on Friday morning. In fact I found myself questioning just about everything along the way – uncharacteristically of me. Friday itself went smoothly down to a relaxed shady afternoon warm up ride, everything seemed in place. Still I lay in the dark unable to sleep the night before, once again, wondering what I am doing here?

I hate getting up in the cold dark early morning. I am not a morning person. That’s not entirely true, I am a person who likes to spend the early morning on my couch next to the big picture window with my latte and journal praying over the day to come and seeing the sun peek over the mountains probably with a cat on my lap and if it is cold, a fire crackling in the wood stove. I am not a get up early and do something difficult morning person.

It was going to be a potentially long hard day and no guarantee of success. Wouldn’t I rather sleep in a little, wake up when the sun is warming the earth just a touch and do a nice easy 25-30 mile ride that I had decent assurance would be successful? We’d done that kind of distance to prep for this, on these same trails. Thankfully this ride didn’t offer that option so I couldn’t be lured to take the ultra conservative “safe” option.

Yet the alarms (bird sounds at least, I can’t stand to be jolted awake with a loud noise) began around 5am and I entreated Mike to please turn on the tent heater for me… um and Iva of course (Iva is never cold, she didn’t need the heater but it made me feel less like the cold sissy I am). I can’t come out of the blankets until my nose isn’t frozen! Not only did Mike dutifully figure out the tent heater (thank you for loaning it Timmy!) but he also started the coffee and assured Khlaeesi who was beginning to nicker at us as she could tell we were up and moving around inside, that her breakfast was definitely high on the priority list… after I got enough heat to brave coming out of my cocoon and some coffee… then she would get something to eat…. maybe I could get Iva to start on the food… Iva is never cold.

The trailer ‘bunkhouse’

The morning went smoothly as ever. I had TWO amazing crew helpers and that was HUGE. I’ve often done this completely alone and I can pull it off, but having all those hands was beyond what I can explain for making the morning less stressful. Mike (who rode the single track section of trail the afternoon before on his mountain bike with his chainsaw in the trailer behind him, cleared the last of the downed trees for us. He was the ride camp hero for more than just me!) is great at being willing to figure out anything you ask of him, and Iva has been working closely with me for a year or so now — she has a good grip on how we do things and she is now equipped to be more proactive than she was able to be in years past.

I can not say thank you enough to both Mike and Iva who took the time to serve both K and me and others at the ride (Can I mention that Mike’s post ride home made Mac and cheese with extra meat and hot sauce is ridiculously worth every mile I rode!), and Amy and Madison and Niveah as well who didn’t ride but instead made sure others could and also helped me personally. Along with Mary the ride manager who had the vision to resurrect this ride from like 25 years ago, and many other volunteers without whom we couldn’t have an organized ride. I am grateful to each and every one of you

Amy, Iva & Mike

Because of my amazing team I was actually ON the horse and ready to go 10 minutes before start which is definitely a first for me.

I headed right out when the trail opened. I didn’t feel the need to “race” in the front, but one strength of my mare is a good brain and she will be more likely to take care of herself and conserve energy than to kill herself running too hard. Knowing I’ve finished rides with minutes on the clock in years past I did not want to waste any of them hanging out in camp leaving with the second or third waves of riders trying not to get caught up in the excitement of the front riders.

Beautiful sunrise on the trail

Though not out of control, K was nevertheless all business from the words “trail’s open”. I found myself negotiating with her to find a sensible pace yet not waste any energy in a fight with her. I think our conversation would have sounded like this had she been able to speak words:

Ok, I got this let’s go!

Yeah, ok, but did I tell you this is actually a 50 today? It seems a bit aggressive a pace for this long a day- and it’s your first ride back in 2 years.

I’m telling you- we’re good, let me run, I can keep up with these clowns.

Um… I won’t tell them you said that… see that horse ahead of us, that horse is likely to finish this thing in first place with a crazy high vet score and has like 6000 miles experience doing this. That horse could do this 50 twice today and still finish like it’s a walk in the park.

I can take him.

No. Not doing that. There’s no way I let you pass that horse. Sorry

I feel great! It’s a cool morning and I’m rested up. You gotta trust me, I’m so ready for this!

Ok. I trust you, I won’t hold you back much, but seriously. That horse is where I draw the line. We stay behind him no matter what. I have to be the brains here. You be the legs, and we’ll work together, ok? I trust you and give you some leeway to set the pace, and you trust me when I say ease up just a little.

Thus we began at a pace I wasn’t expecting, but I had a sense I did need to trust her. I was ready to give her a chance in the early cool morning and spend a little we might have to give back in the heat of the afternoon with less incentive of other riders as we often end up in a pocket alone at some point during the day. She might get excited but she won’t kill herself keeping up with a herd. This I am confident of.

She felt stronger than I’ve ever experienced coming into a ride in her body and she came through the two checkpoints much faster than I had hoped- crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway twice, navigating lots of rocky technical single track and dirt and rock roads with almost constant up or downhill, bringing us into the first hold at mile 18 in 2 hours 49 minutes.

Second crossing under the Blue Ridge Parkway
Morning view on the single track section of Glenwood Horse Trail

Slow and smooth, unhurried, I pulled her tack (though not required) and walked her to the pulse box where in 4 minutes from arrival she pulsed at 48. We were at that point in 10th place.

She had barely sweat and ate and drank like a professional. The hold was 40 minutes and Mike was there helping out as a volunteer. He made sure she had plenty of carrots and my human electrolytes were refilled and I had anything I needed.

Mike get some cuddle time with K after checking her feet

It wasn’t cold enough for me to have concern about her getting chilled and I’m glad I pulled off her tack, I think getting a break is better for the horse if possible. It’s worth a little extra effort.

Trot out at first hold.

We were ready to go a few minutes before out time and hit the trail at a trot to finish the loop back to base camp 12 miles away for the second hold of 50 minutes.

In the first loop there were two checkpoints and spotters who had water and hay. Most of the people racing in front of us had passed on taking time there but in both cases I paused and encouraged her to grab a bite and drink and hopped off to electrolyte at both. It cost me some time, but I think it was worth it. This meant however we were — as usual — in a lonely pocket by the time we got to the hold, and also left alone with the majority of the 40 riders behind us and the top 9 with a decent enough lead we weren’t likely to catch up.

In one of those moments of humor about 4 miles in, I absolutely could not go on trotting if I did not relieve my bladder as much as I hated to take the time – and I jumped off after a stream crossing barely getting off the trail to do a very quick relief break. Just a few minutes before I said a brief prayer that I knew my horse would really like some company. Other horses are huge encouragement on a long day riding hard and though she wasn’t tired she was feeling much less inspired than she had with other horses around. Lord, could you send us a buddy for her to share some miles with?

Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor? It was just when I jumped off and barely got off the trail for some quick business that I heard hoof beats coming at us!

Oh I’m so sorry! I just could NOT wait! I cried out in desperation as Libby and Silvia approached the water crossing and kindly said not to worry, they wouldn’t look.

Their horses took a quick drink as I pulled myself together and got back on my horse as they trotted by. Khaleesi more inspired again picked up her pace willingly and they had a great pace for her. We leap frogged a while as one or the other would canter up a hill or extend a trot down the other side. They turned out not only to be nice riding companions, but we had wonderful chats about some fascinating horsemanship ideas that I found insightful and gave me some ideas in some areas I’d been working on that were oddly another kind of answered prayer. God doesn’t waste a thing. I’m so often amazed.

We did the roughly 12 miles in 1 hour 32 minutes, still a pace unexpectedly strong for this horse on this trail. This stretch wasn’t technical (except the one rocky mile in and out of the first check) it composed of lots of dirt/gravel forest service roads but I found them to be relentless with up and down- in fact looking back the biggest challenge of this ride was there was nothing flat. Everything was climbing or descending, and the ground was all hard rock or gravel (I can’t imagine the pounding on legs and joints without the composite shoes on this ride.)

Vet check

The three of us trotted into the second vet check at the same time and parted ways to take care of business back in camp crewing from our trailers. K was hydrated and sound and Iva kept her in the shade eating mostly grass and carrots though she did chow some of her wet Coolstance and hay pellets with chia seeds as well.

K & Iva – one of the few people I trust completely with my horse.

The course map was set up that the first 30 miles left camp through a back trail, did a large loop returning to camp through the same back trails for the second hold. My concern was the last 20 miles was an out and back to the first hold again, also out the back trails with the finish line at the front of camp which took off a couple miles to make the mileage correct. I have a smart mare. She asks questions like: why after riding 30 miles, now that we have returned to the trailer and food and rest would you want to leave again? Did I do something wrong? And why go the same way we just came from? Why don’t you go jog another 20 miles on your own feet if you want to go so bad?

Quite honestly I find them to be valid questions and it’s a bit difficult to answer them to a horse that doesn’t speak fluent English… even if she did my explanation might fall short since she’s the one doing all the running.

In years past this has been the most difficult challenge I face with her mentally. On a massive loop like the OD the question isn’t there because once we leave camp in the morning it’s 50 miles back to camp at the end of the day so the entire ride is a mission that makes at least some sense. On rides like Forth Valley or Biltmore when we come and go from camp this is more difficult and I’ve had to insist (force) more than I’d like. I don’t love it when I have to say: Because I said so, now just do it or I’ll use my crop….

I am pleased with two pieces that came in leaving this second hold.

First I allow this horse to have choice in accepting the bit. I offer it and 99% of the time she takes it on her own when presented within 3-5 seconds. With one minute to “out” time I offered the bit and she delayed. Everything in me wanted to shove my fingers in her mouth and get it done (clock is ticking), but some small amount of patience apparently has taken hold in all of this journey and I decided to access my self-control instead.

I know she knew what this meant and she was not ready to concede yet. Her decision to take the bit or not is one place I give her choice- and for the most part it’s real choice because I haven’t had to force it in a very very very long time. I decided this was not the moment to start. She had bought us time moving so strongly early today. She had earned a moment of patience and self-control as the clock continued to tick.

Once again I offered the bit. She stood still, head down, lips and teeth closed. I waited.

I seesawed the bit a little to ask with more intention. She left her teeth closed. I waited more. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick… I imagined our buddies that would be helpful for us to ride with as long as possible leaving us behind as I gave my horse the choice to finish tacking up. I put the last 20 miles on the table right there with a bit presented for consideration, knowing I could shove that thing in, I have the ability to get it done, but this is where the metal hits the road- do I have the stomach, the courage to let her make the choice? For how long? I think it was like an hour, but probably it was 2 minutes. As I waited and softly asked her if she would do this with me, she opened her mouth just wide enough and reached her lips to the bit taking it in her mouth and though she made it known this was not completely enthusiastic, she would go.

As I passed the out timer double checking I was clear to go I got the comment: Yeah, you’ve been “out” a while now. Truly, 5 or 6 minutes is more than I’d like to give up, and in the end that’s about the difference that put us behind the two riders that finished before us, but still, I wouldn’t trade that moment I waited for her and honored as much as I could her choice.

The next challenge was to get her to move forward at anything like the pace she left camp in the cool exciting morning start. I was lucky to get a decent walk though I was pleased that I didn’t need my crop which I carried just in case the entire day. The “in case” was in large part to be prepared for being squeezed between riders which is the one situation if I can’t get control of she is most likely to kick and I may need something with more communicating power to move her were that to happen. There are sometimes riders out on these rides who don’t have a whole lot of control over their horse and that can get sticky from time to time.

If anyone read my training on the trail post I talk about using transitions to encourage forward energy and how I believe I have inadvertently contributed to a horse that isn’t as forward over years of riding without thinking about “release” on the trail and when. I used that information instead of my crop to get small increases in speed and then relax back to a walk until I had built up momentum. She began to offer willingly more trot and faster speeds again. We both had a little after lunch lull but this was by far the most successful final loop ride camp exit I’ve ever done with her.

After about 5 miles our friends caught up to us, they had gotten held up in camp and left later than planned but they came along just in time and once again K was glad for the company and picked up motivation to ride along together. We enjoyed the company all the way to the checkpoint (previously the first hold) at mile 40 and Mike was there still waiting for us to come through and helpful as ever encouraging us along as I stopped to electrolyte and allow for a few bites of hay or whatever was in that grain pan she found that might have been oats or who knows what… she vacuumed it up before I could ask the question and in the end it didn’t matter, she was entitled to a fun snack at this point even if it was beyond our normal dietary offering.

After a very brief pause we all turned and headed back toward camp for the last 10 miles. I was glad for my new friends but found their horses who are much more seasoned in 50 mile events had figured out this was the last stretch back home and they continued to pick up speed. Meanwhile K began to find her tank running low and thought she still cantered up hills and trotted on down them I knew both of us were beginning to wear. After a few miles we crossed a stream and K dove in to get a big drink– their horses pranced and begged to continue on. That was really alright, I knew we would be fine and didn’t need to keep their pace.

K and I stayed a few more minutes in the stream where she drank her fill and cooled her feet knowing her buddies were going to be long gone. This horse, when it comes down to it WILL manage herself over the emotional need to “keep up”. She will drink when she’s ready even if she’s being left behind, and she will finally slow her pace if she just cannot keep up.

I decided not to inform her those clowns from this morning that she was so certain she could outrun were likely approaching the finish line while we waited out here still 7 or so miles out. As our buddies pulled away we moved from basically 10th place to 12th. Still ahead of the solid “mid pack” I thought would be a wildly victorious day, and way way ahead of the “turtle” prize that I had still considered a successful day.

In the heat of mid afternoon we slowed pace and worked intervals mixing up walk, trot and canter to create focus and switch up which tired muscles would be engaged. After 2 more miles, around 5 to go, I began to sense a very slight uneven trot that seemed the smallest touch heavier on one side no matter what diagonal I chose. Now the paranoia began to set in.

My worse nightmare of all- a lameness pull- began to bubble to the surface.

Had we ridden too hard today?

Would I ever get out from underneath the mild subtle intermittent lameness?

Was I being an idiot to keep thinking this horse could do this sport?

I would have been better off walking a ton more if she truly wasn’t strong to do the amount of trotting we had.

I got off and walk/ jogged about a mile. I checked her feet again to be sure no rock had embedded itself. Was that a head bob? Did I not change diagonals enough? Still cannot get a reliable left lead canter- we did much more cantering than we used to all Right lead. Could this contribute?

Four miles to go I felt we would never finish if I didn’t get back in the saddle again. I can’t jog up and down these hills after riding 45 miles! So I began to ride as much sitting trot as possible, to encourage even movement now that she was tired her trot slowed to something manageable. Two riders trot by us… now in 14th place and still way way ahead of my expectations. 3.5 miles to go.

This will never end.

Up again, down again relentless hills… 2.8 miles to go. Worry plagues me. Finally we come to that intersection we’ve crossed every which way through the day and has water buckets and hay.

One mile to go

From here I knew the last mile was downhill- pretty steep, and hard pack dirt that was rutted out in places. I was tired, she was tired, It would be easy to slip or slide here, I wasn’t at my strongest so wouldn’t be much help to support her. I made the choice to jump off and hand jog her in.

As we headed down the last mile I watched her trot next to me as sound as the day she was born. As I jogged along I was able to enjoy looking next to me – her body lean and strong and even. We crossed the finish line all 6 feet on the ground together. Symbolically I thought it fit. We were more of a team than we have been in years past, yet less of a team than I hope we will be in rides to come.

Finish line

Iva and Mike were there to greet us and help me walk her into camp, pull her tack and get her through the vet. Amy came to make sure we had all we needed and she flew through the last check without a hitch.

Iva walks K in as Mike takes my gear and hands me a cold coconut water
Pulse at 56
Final test: trot out is sound!

Amy also helped teach Iva and me the best way to wrap tired legs- she has a ton of experience in these things and I’m grateful for her help.

Definitely a day to celebrate!

There are things going on in my horse herd that have me continuing to question deeper what’s possible between a human and a horse. I don’t think it is any accident that God set us in the path of Libby who mentioned the way she and her husband work with their horses leave much more choice and that the horses respond to it in amazing ways. She didn’t begin the questions, she verified that many of them are the right ones to be asking and I’m getting “warmer” in the search. I think I give my horses more choice than many are comfortable with already, but in the end I’m prepared to “get it done”.

Is it truly choice if the horse cannot say no?

What if K wouldn’t have picked up the bit? How long until I would have stuck a thumb in her cheek to open her jaw? I don’t consider that inhumane yet I think waiting on her to make that one decision meant something- both to her and to me. It gave her an honor of choice in that moment- and I’m VERY glad she chose the way she did because in the end, I don’t think I would have given up finishing that ride because my horse didn’t open her mouth. How long I would have waited? That is the real question. Yet… down deep I would like to think someday I might be the rider who would not go out at the second vet check because my horse said No.

Taking a step back and looking at it, what exactly would I have lost?

Not a thing. Miles on a record that no one really cares about anyway except maybe my ego.

What might I have gained?

That is much harder to answer. Maybe everything- and maybe nothing.

Sometimes in the early mornings I hear those soul whispers. They are always significant. This morning very clearly I heard: why do you fear if you give your horses more choice it will mean they will refuse to comply? Horses are built to want to partner and work for humans- it’s our own human methods and systems that destroy that willingness, generosity and bond. It can be regained but you have to be brave enough to try….

My whole horse journey has been winding around this direction since I found Khlaeesi on a local farm determined to do something different from what I had seen around me. A way with less force and more partnership. Have I found freedom or simply a kinder and gentler prison?

I know many people will find these questions ridiculous and a waste of time. I’m not certain they are wrong.

But I’m not certain….

At the core, what I dream is an equine partner with spirit in tact, choosing out of free will to work with me. Not an animal slave I’ve trained to comply or else. These are different ends of the spectrum and most people are probably not at either extreme. I have some ideas to play with, so if I learn anything useful I’ll make sure to update you. I won’t be throwing out the baby with the bathwater and opening my pasture gates setting the mare herd free to the mountainside any time soon. In fact I don’t even allow then to eat all the lush grass they want at the moment as they don’t seem to be capable of making good choices of when to take a break and end up gaining too much weight for their joints and too much sugar for healthy hooves and eat themselves literally sick if left to their own devices.

Apparently with domestication comes some limits. Probably different people have different tolerance for these limits. Maybe I will head out in search of where my tolerance can stretch and what might happen there.

In the concrete world of calendars and events, getting through this ride well sets us in line for the OD 50 once again- the ride I’ve completed once and not completed twice.

In the next month after she has some time off physically, I will dig deeper into more canter work and keep climbing the mountains here in our backyard. I am excited about the Emily Kemp Horsemanship Clinic Memorial weekend because aside from the composite shoes which I contribute the greatest chunk of success to, the improvement in my riding balance and not only getting out of her way but becoming a part of her strength I think is a close second and I still have a lot to improve on. I’d like to get a more reliable left lead canter which has been a weakness the entire history of my riding her. And I will be experimenting in smaller ways to offer her more choice than I already do to see if I can build a stronger partnership and get more buy in from her.

And just maybe we will once again conquer the Beast of the East’s 50 mile course… together

Return to the start

Less than one week to go. Saturday, May 1, Khaleesi will start her first 50 mile endurance ride since June of 2019. The 2019 season began with a 30 mile no frills ride where she placed 8th on Easter weekend. I considered riding her a second day and then decided she had done well and I would take a “win” and go home to prepare for the June Old Dominion 50.

We started that beast of a ride and at the second vet check, on the rocky ground of the trot out she wasn’t quite right. It was one more lameness pull where the cause was hard to pinpoint but something was wrong.

After the heartbreak of a non-completion on Friday I switched gears and focused on helping my dear friend Amy through her successful 100 on Saturday with amazing horse Amillion Frills and isn’t she just that.

I have meant to write this update of sorts for a couple weeks and as I finally sit her at my kitchen counter on a Sunday morning I reflect on two things:

  1. I just told a friend last night right here in the same kitchen counter in response to a question he had asked me: “I’ve never made the decision to set aside my own agenda in order to help or be there for someone else’s and regretted it later. Never.”
  2. I’m about to hit the road today to get new composite shoes put on Khaleesi for the ride… and this deep dive into composite shoes that has been a game changer for us wouldn’t have been as likely had I not been sitting at a vet check waiting for Amy looking for someone to chat with – a lameness pull in a history of lameness struggles on my mind- finally desperate enough to need new answers.

Regarding the first point: truth is I’m not some kind of saint who loves to self-sacrifice to help my friends follow their dreams. I was there to help Amy and Frills regardless if I completed the ride or not. I rode Friday so I could crew for her Saturday. With a lameness pull the day before it was more challenging to cheer her onto amazing success still choking on the bitter pill that once again I had failed to complete a ride on the horse I believed in regardless in the face of evidence sane people would accept she just might not be suited for this sport. It would have been easier for me to lick my wounds in the corner and pout. I probably did a little of that over the 24 hour period… yet the bigger truth is I do want my friends to have great success- I just want to be successful with them!

Sometimes it seems like God is particularly mean spirited when he gives the things you wish for to everyone around you while he sits you in a corner for some greater purpose. But in reflection today, I can see time after time that God actually IS incredibly kind to me, even when it is a stretch in the moment to see it. That’s when we are called to have life endurance which parallels the equine sport I’m attracted to. When we gut out the confusion and do the right thing even when it isn’t exactly where our heart is yet we find grace. Even better I think when are (eventually) able to admit it is not a natural bent to be that way- though I am sure other people are way more gifted in this grace than I am.

Had I finished the ride successfully I would not have been desperate for another answer. I had tried everything. Starting barefoot when she was 4 and just under saddle, hoof issues took me to metal shoes… more issues… shoes and pads… more issues… then back to barefoot for about two years and had some good success including completing some tough endurance rides (like the OD Fort Valley) in Scoot Boots (I highly recommend them and they are still my back up of choice).

If I’d had continued success even if it wasn’t flying colors, I would have stuck with them, but I had suspected they weren’t going to take me as far as I want to go and now another pull staring me in the face. Thus the time and place so lined up for me to find myself talking to a long time endurance rider also waiting at the vet check (randomly ?? not likely) who had great experience with the Easycare Flex Composities, and was able to point me to someone who would do a reliable job getting them put on for me within a drive that wasn’t close but it was possible.

There are a handful of things that I’ve changed and improved in this almost 2 years of rebuilding my horse from the ground up. This composite shoe component I believe is the most important piece. If you haven’t seen it, below is the interview with the guy who currently shoes my horses, and his experience with them across many horses since beginning to work with Khaleesi and me about 18 months back.

Marcus Wise Composite Interview on YouTube

Aside from hoofwear that has given impact protection on her legs, joints and tendons, I had to learn about the constantly changing padding process in the Balance Saddle System (and I still am working in that though I’ve seen it is worth it!) I’ve also gotten help scientifically dialing in her nutritional profile with forage testing, I’ve changed up how I manage grass vs. hay in spring and summer. I’ve done the deworming protocol for possible parasite aneurism which would contribute to some questionable things I noticed in her hind end and the way she moved and held herself over a year back… This is the third year of using the neuromuscular dentist (Natural Balance)… I’ve spent countless hours learning to ride better, balanced… lighter. I have put a whole lot of energy into the long process of changing her physical balance to power from her hind. I’ve worked on her mental system connecting us for better efficiency of movement because we are increasingly working off the same page. Oh and of course lameness exams and radiographs and in 2019 an injection (standard hyaluronic acid and steroid) into the fetlock where very mild changes in the bone made the idea worth exploring (I have not injected the joint since as she has gotten strong and showed less lameness issues.)

So almost two years of piecing together anything I could to come out of intermittent lameness, build strength and health, and being cautiously optimistic as both she and I healed. I suppose it’s worth a side glance to the fact that winter of 2019 is also when my own life exploded personally and so maybe we both have been climbing back into strength in our own ways.

Each ride expansion (distance, speed, technical challenge) she’s come through in strength to the point where I am confident that it’s time to return to a ride start. After that it’s all up for grabs, anything can happen. She might finish strong and (frankly) shock me with her performance. She might finish solid or even win the turtle (come in last!) yet a finish truly is a win for us at this juncture. She might not have what it takes to move fast enough through the terrain and we can’t pull through the cut offs… but if she comes up lame….. (well I won’t say here in polite company what I’ve thought I might be frustrated enough to do in that case…)

Either way we are both in a new place today. She has matured and strengthened in those years of slowing down and building a better foundation. I have matured through the storms of life I faced. No matter what happens I know I am with her. I still aspire to see this horse through a 100 mile completion God willing and if something doesn’t show me it is detrimental and wrong to push that forward, but I have come to know that it’s the horse, and it’s the horsemanship process that I love more than the “sport”. The big goal is learning to be better, to ride better, to communicate better, for her to be able to trust me with more of her giant spirit because I am faithful in the little things as well as the big things. That is the real goal. That is the big stuff.

Finishing an endurance ride is the little stuff. The icing. The way we get to play around and test the important things we’ve spent and will continue to spend the bulk of our time on.

And the little things do matter too. And so, we return to the start to see what we can learn once again.

How to teach your horse to spook: training on the trail

I’ve heard people talk about training on the trail before. In the past I think it’s been more of a way of saying: we don’t need to do circles in an arena to have a well trained horse. The “training on the trail” I’ve seen has been pretty large scale need-based, like making sure a less experienced horse will cross streams, rivers or bridges, and go around or through a real-life obstacle down tree or the like. I’ve also worked with friends on the trail to address barn sour horses, or horses that cannot be separated from the “herd” they are out with. These are minimum requirements for being a trail horse and necessary for sure. The trail seems a good place to address them, but it wasn’t until this week I went deep into using the trail for some serious work.

I couldn’t have done this work unless riding alone. There is on-the-trail training that can be done in groups, but the things I addressed could only be done solo because my timing was key, and other people change the ability to focus so accurately on exact timing. This might explain why I haven’t seen this level of training on the trail before, because I wasn’t doing it, and riding in a group is not conducive to it.

The title of this post is borrowed from a Stacey Westfall podcast I really enjoyed “How to train your horse to spook” (Episode 68 from March 2020). I don’t have a spooky horse and I wouldn’t train her to, so I almost passed it by but I was curious… so I downloaded it.

It’s a great podcast, I highly recommend it. Stacey goes into a tongue and cheek explanation of how one WOULD train a horse to spook at things as a back door way to seeing how one might begin to reverse the “training”. This year I’ve spend some effort trying to see more clearly from the horse’s perspective and understand the part we play in their choices and behaviors- especially ones we would like to change.

I notice people with horses they’ve accepted do less than ideal things like toss their heads, run through the bit at races (race brain), barn sour, buddy sour, tripping, “laziness”… and I have a few others of my own I began to experiment with.

If we were to change perspective and consider what it would look like to train in the thing we don’t want, might we see things we are already doing that are creating the problem? If so, we are now empowered to help make positive changes.

Khaleesi is competent in the “elementary school” functioning of a basic horse. I am pleased to say finally this horse can start, stop, and steer and is pretty light to work with. We are getting a nice back up, and I daresay there isn’t a non-life-threatening trail problem we can’t get through together (I ride a lot of back country places and have been in challenging to sketchy situations and she and I are able to come together to move through them together for better or worse), and I am pleased to say we can even do some decent circles in an arena with some fancy footwork when the communication is working well.

I am digging into the deeper questions, like straightness, proper bend going around curves, less sticky in the back up, more lightness moving off my leg at all speeds (laterally, not forward) and as a bonus, I am fairly certain she has more to give me in the effort department but tends toward “conservation of energy” especially when we’re alone. Lazy? I have noticed out with a friend she easily picks up the pace and is strong for more miles at faster speeds than she offers when we ride alone. Apparently I have a motivational question.

These aren’t new for me. They are long term habitual things I am seeing I likely built in. She has ALWAYS tended toward borderline “laziness” on long trail rides alone, and I finally noticed over a year ago while working with friends in an arena that she sometimes will go around a full lap or two with the entirely wrong bend in her body— with very little I was able to do about it at the time!

Armed with these top layer questions, the need for some long miles to prepare for our first 50, and no arena to play in at the moment anyway… I hit the trail solo for a 20 mile ride.

I’ve had a lot going on this spring, it’s grant writing time, concert season, final juries are coming up at the college, transitions are in play that take extra energy, and spring- it always seems the most violent season to me as the entire world comes back from the death of winter. Birth (and rebirth) is violent, and the weather going through extremes of freezing rain to warm sunny days are draining. Some days just choosing clothing is stressful for me.

I arrived at the field and thought to myself “There’s no way I can do a hard 20 mile ride today. I just want to go back home and take a nap.” My long rides so far this year have been with a good buddy and down south where the footing is friendly and the climbs are reasonable. Today I was headed out for Beast of the East style rocks through most of the ride and we would go over two mountains and ride a hilly Ridgeline for about 4,500 feet of elevation. Solo. 

One thing I’ve learned: when feeling overwhelmed, try to simply ride the trail in front of you. Just do the one next thing. Looking at my horse, with her shedding messy muddy coat of hair I thought: ok. I just need to bring you into the barn. Let’s start by shedding some of that hair and mud. I can do that.

So anyone who is facing something big to take on. Just pick up the next thing and DO THAT. Eventually you’ll have the whole 20 (or 50 or 100) miles and a beautiful sunset on the mountain photo to remember it by.

Unfortunately I look at arena work and “training” differently from the need for miles and “conditioning” which is usually what the trail is for us. I would say from observation that Khaleesi LOVES arena work because she loves to LEARN and she also is a great conversationalist. I would also say from observation Khaleesi doesn’t love working hard doing long miles “mindlessly” out on the trail. Honestly, mindless hours on the trail for “fitness” are boring for me too. Especially solo. This definitely affects me and how I see the work we take on. I took on this tough day with the challenge to see if I could change my mind and find a way to change all that.

This would take some creativity. 

The first thing I noticed about this ride is there were no straight paths. Twists and turns were everywhere and lots of switchbacks. What an opportunity to address straightness and bend questions. With a decent downhill grade to start the ride we headed off with a forward walk and I noticed something fascinating. Every time we hit a decent curve in the trail or a switchback my horse ALWAYS pointed her nose away from the turn to set herself up for the turn with an opposite bend.

I can’t imagine the odds could be so strong on her just doing this today and I was fascinated to realize it was too predictable for it to be chance. This is something I had trained in. Inadvertently.

I began to work it by anticipating the potential opposite bend/look to the outside and found myself struggling to make the change in my own body. I desperately wanted to look the wrong way as well! It felt like I was coming to an intersection in a car and not looking both ways before proceeding- yet there was no other trail there and no one in the woods off trail to T-bone us. Every instinct in me said to glance the “other way” before making the turn and I had to fight it in order to look where I wanted the horse to also look and go. 

Now I was certain I had trained my horse without realizing it and that set her up- prepared her badly to position – for that turn in the trail. It happened over and over again. With a new consistency in play, first the left turn improved then with more difficulty the right. I have some thoughts on why the right took longer but I won’t bore you with those layers today.

I have not spent much effort actually steering or supporting my horse around turns in the trail. She is a solid trail horse that can follow a path. She turns on her own. This isn’t a bad thing, but considering I would like to take mindless hours of trail riding and add quality, balance, and strength, supporting or asking for quality in our turns is only going to benefit us and my awareness on every curve and switchback on this ride. Indeed, by the end of the 20 miles my horse had begun to prepare for the turns with better form and carry herself with more balance. This corresponded with my ability to curb the need to look for oncoming traffic that didn’t exist in the woods. The horse learns the fastest when a release is given and peace is found. Small releases and peace come when we stop “asking” but the big changes are best made with a full on stop and process moment.

For miles I worked on noticing an upcoming bend in the trail and preparing to position my horse to move in that shape with balance. It wasn’t until almost 9 miles in that she took a turn without trying to counter bend herself and look to the outside. Without me having to block or shape her she seemed to finally realize this is what I’m doing now. After how many YEARS I had been riding her looking to the outside on turns I’m shocked the change can come so quickly when new information is presented clearly. She just did it correctly with very little direction or blocking from me. As soon as we rounded that turn I put on the brakes and we stood a moment quietly and I rubbed her telling her what a great job she was doing. This would be tricky to time with friends who have no reason to stop at that moment to reward their own horses and if they don’t have the same timing now it isn’t a reward and peace, it’s stressful because the herd is leaving.

The idea that I have been training in things I had no intention of went next to her “conservation of energy” (laziness?).

Any readers for the long haul know I have had some intermittent really mild lameness issues over time. Some of it has been physical and legitimate, but over time I’ve begun to wonder if I had also “trained in” some of it.

Yes. A horse CAN learn to move in a certain way that would seem like unevenness or lameness because of how a rider responds.

With some mild lameness in the past, I definitely became hyper-vigilant. If I felt the tiniest of uneven gait I’d begin to wonder, “is this the start of a new problem? what’s wrong?” I would be inclined to slow down, maybe walk instead of trot, I’d worry it. The horse feels this and if creating a slightly uneven gait seemed to be rewarded by getting to walk and find less work and more peace, the horse will recognize the pattern. I am not saying she is “trying to outsmart me” or “faking an injury”. I am saying horses are excellent observers of patterns and sometimes things we have trained in begin on accident, a couple steps of uneven gait that wasn’t lameness but a funny rock on the trail or some other fluke she begins to notice I back off and give her a rest (REWARD). Looking back I’ve considered this in the past and I’ve begun to experiment with asking her to work through the uneven feel (especially if I had reason to believe she WAS sound and healthy). I have found the uneven gait will usually go away after a bit now.

So in light of some of these revelations recently the question became clear:

how might I have trained this mare to not give me her full effort?

As we ambled along the rocky ridge line I paid close attention to when (still on the way ‘out’ in the ride) she would offer me extra effort and pick up speed with barely a suggestion from me and I did the very opposite I was naturally be inclined to do- I would take those few steps of impulsion and I asked for a stop and rubbed her telling her that was exactly what I liked

What I would have done in the past with my goal of getting through miles was accepted the offer of picking up speed by taking all she gave me and maybe asking for more. Imagine you offer some extra effort at work and your boss says: great, now I know you should be doing more and I expect it, what else do you have for me?

That isn’t likely to make me want to perform over and above. In fact I’ll be careful not to do that again!

My new response to her offer of extra effort (stopping and resting a moment) was more like saying: I love how you put in extra effort on that- take off early today and have dinner on me too. 

Here we were again on a long trail ride standing quietly for minutes at a time not moving down the trail. It is even hard for me not to feel this as time wasted, but what became clear as I bought into my own plan, was Khaleesi began offering extra energy into a walk or trot with increasing regularity. This mare is not built with the need to be in motion (I do know horses who come this way and they have different issues to work on, which is also why this type of on the trail training is not so easy to do with a friend if the horses have different motivation factors) but encouraging her by rewarding her effort toward harder work was paying off even in the first half of the day.

K isn’t particularly barn or herd sour but there is more incentive on the return ends of the ride even if it’s slight so I didn’t do as much with stopping to reward effort on the return trip because leaving her alone to keep moving was more rewarding than me stopping her so much with the exception of climbing tough hills where some extra effort brought her a momentary break to catch her breath.

The last piece I’d been working with has to do with straightness. I have been considering this for a long time but now if we do get a straight section of trail I ride expecting she will basically stay in a line with her body. We are in the woods and I allow for some looking around, but she does have. a job, I am trustworthy and she doesn’t need to be super focused on the environment. There have been times in our life together when she was super focused on everything BUT me. These were the periods she was more likely to startle or spook not less. I want to be working together with her enough that she doesn’t have the boredom to be too focused on everything else. Yet I won’t punish her for taking a look once in a while.

I’ve begun to simply ask her to return her head to straight after she looks. Sometimes I need to widen my reins more than her education level seems to need but it helps to point her more clearly into the tip of my triangle from hands to nose. Once in a while I will stop her lightly and ask for a few steps of back up, also keeping straight then after she feels light there (for us it still takes a few steps to accomplish the light back up) I feel her hind truly engage and then ONLY when her head is straight we push forward from the hind back into forward. I will decide in advance if I want engaged walk, a trot, or even a canter.

I was surprised how much attention it took for me to not go forward until I had a straight horse. How often had I mindlessly on the trail (especially with others) moved off while my horse was NOT prepared in position to walk forward in balance and strength? Yes, many people might roll their eyes at the level of attention to detail this takes, and maybe others will wonder how it took me so long to begin to take on this level, but though my horse CAN walk with her body in a snakey curved like and she can take on switchbacks in a counterbend, it shouldn’t be due to my mindless riding, and worse mindless inadvertent training.

For me, this is how I want my horse to move toward the 100 miles. I want her doing it in balance, strength and with a rider who is working each small ride, each 20 mile ride for excellence. 100 miles is a long way to focus on excellence, but I have to start with the trail in front of me if I will be able to do it at all. Maybe this is the gift in the journey taking me so long.

I had a dream once where I was in a hurry to get going and a wise one said to me:

Great journeys take great preparation.

I found at the end of the ride we were both tired, but something bigger was accomplished than physical miles. The conversations continued through the day and that made for a nice finish together. I had developed a trend of having more conversations with her arena spaces and tuning out her questions asking her for the most part only “to go” on trail days. This change where I engaged her mind more on a long ride was more fun for both of us and created more connection which we both enjoy.

Whatever your “training on the trail” program looks like, my guess is it could step up. Send me a note on what you use trail work to accomplish, have you stagnated (as I had) with a solid horse, or are you still finding new layers to delve into together as you ride? 

Prepare to position

Thank you to those people who have given me glimpses of this thing that I now chase after too…

Over time this blog has shifted from the physical mindset of conditioning and “training” a young non-Arab horse (well 1/4 Arab…) to complete a 100 mile single day event to a wandering road of the deeper life goal and what transformation that kind of journey takes.

It began with the realization that if I was going to ride more than a few meandering hours on the trail with friends I was going to have to learn to ride better. I could trot along for a short burst here and there but upon trotting for miles and miles it became clear to me I was bouncing all over the place at best, and definitely making it harder on my horse than it would be if I had better skill.

First ride photo Khaleesi at 5 years old- hollow backs- both mine and hers!

Seeking help from a friend with an impressive dressage background led me into the rabbit hole of horsemanship that I had been seeking but hadn’t realized it, and now come to believe is the superpower anyone with insight will develop for higher success in every field and discipline. Above and beyond good equitation what I am speaking of is learning the subtle language of each horse and how to work together in mind, body and spirit not resorting to force to get it done.

Over time my blog has shifted along with this view to interest in the heart of the horse-human relationship over the surface layers of how-far how-fast how-high how-long data. I do have an obsession with getting this little feral mare to a single-day 100, but the real passion has shifted to how we get there and so has my writing.

Finishing an early 50 together

I’ve asked myself more than once: do these things I’m so fascinated with still work in a blog on getting to an ultra-long distance equine marathon? My own personal answer is that it is at the core. Yet being around the periphery of the endurance community there is much more emphasis put on how to get mileage, speed, increased cardio capacity, how to to dial in electrolytes (or not use them at all!), what to feed on race day, what tack is lightest for the horse and easiest for the handler, but though every rider mentions that “training” and riding skill is important- almost like it’s a given… something we all accept and pay minimal attention to unless it hinders getting to the big goal or puts someone in immediate danger.

If you can load your horse somehow, enclose it successfully, keep it from striking out at the vet check, get on it before the ride starts (often with someone holding it still for you), hold on and not fall for each loop, bonus points for not kicking other horses (who by the way may not actually have control over their horses and crowd you or run up on your own horse’s personal space) and double bonus if you can use your arms at the first vet check because your awesome horse is so fast and eager they pull you through the first loop completely braced to run through the bit— you can succeed at endurance riding!

Stunningly bad timing, feel and balance caught at our second 30 mile ride… I always have a positive attitude at least! Somehow this horse always gives me the chance to grow!

This isn’t limited to distance riding sports and there is a full range of excellence to crazy hot mess to go around. I have been a less than shining example of fine horsemanship and drowning in ignorance more than my fair share. As a whole it is too common that the “training” part in many competitive equine sports is only seriously addressed if it gets in the way of “winning”… Seems like part of the driven nature of competitive people. I speak from experience, I fight it back constantly now or at least when I recognize it.

One day however, when I asked for help from my friend, I saw this thing, this real connection and communication between a horse and a human and it’s different enough from what most of the people out there are doing that it stood out to me and I knew that’s the thing I wanted more than the rest of it. I didn’t see good training. I didn’t see a horse who knew the rules of behavior. I saw understanding. And it shone like the dawn to me. It was different.

What I am still coming to terms with is that not everyone is able to see this quality in a horse and human. I’ve had people to tell me it’s everywhere and most people with horses have it, but though I wondered for a while if I was being blind; it’s actually more clear to me as the years go by: it’s not common at all. Most people are still talking about and looking at good training. Good training isn’t that difficult. It’s much better than no training and hugely different than poor training. But all horse training is finite. True understanding between beings has no limits to where it can go.

Wyoming has been a challenge to understand for me in the deeper way she needs to succeed. Yet she has been a gift of inspired growth in my horsemanship life. Working with her always makes my time with Khaleesi more refined.

Recently I have been considering the phrase prepare to position. I’ve read it in Tom Dorrance’s True Unity, I heard Buck Brannaman talking about it in a clinic video, and it’s come over some other podcast and interview media as well. There is something fundamental about this concept in the horsemanship I crave. I currently struggle to improve at this***.

*** side note as I edit the previous line one thing I have observed from the people I admire for their approach and skill in this work… every one of them to a person has something they are struggling to improve in their own self. Timing, balance, feel, understanding, softer touch… they are all on the hunt constantly not for the next event, but the thing….***

Regarding prepare to position, myself and others I notice are asking horses to do something they are not prepared to position for, and most of the time it comes from this combination of lack of experience, patience, knowledge, timing and feel.

How often have riders talked about a canter lead their horse struggles with yet don’t realize that as they ask for the lead with the cue that should work they have the wrong timing of how the feet are carrying the weight of horse and rider? Certainly horses everyday overcome this and get correct canter leads despite the inadequacy of feel in a rider, but if a rider can prepare to position the horse for the correct lead with a feel of the feet on the ground and then ask in good timing, a higher excellence in riding can come out. The horse can move in a balanced way instead of having to overcome bad timing and feel, there can be a new level of lightness and refinement, strength in the movement. Yet the experience, knowledge, patience and work it takes for the rider to get to this is more than most of us have the time to dedicate when we have 24 more miles to go to get the cardio training in for the next event. Just give me a canter here and lets get on with it.

At least that’s how I’ve felt many many days. Let’s not count the ones I didn’t even understand there was a need to develop two different canter leads at all. Ignorance. Simply putting miles in riding a horse does not make one a good rider. I am proof of this!

Another moment of ungrace in our past journey

It reminds me of the advice to try to figure out what is the thing that happened before the thing that happened. Find insight sooner back in the process: do less sooner so you don’t have to do more later. By the time you’ve landed headfirst into a tree, there were steps that brought you there but many of us haven’t worked at training our minds to observe and act appropriately to these moments. Please don’t confuse this with overreacting, that’s actually doing a lot more way too soon that creates a bigger problem than you really have in the moment.

Prepare to position to me speaks of a deeper understanding of where the horse is holding weight or balance or brace that will inhibit the request we would like to make. It uses subtlety to ask for a weight shift before asking for the movement. It puts the horse in a place where it can easily fulfill the request as long as she also understands the request.

I can ask my horse to pivot around her hindquarters but she is going to do this with more quality and lightness if I knew she had shifted more of her weight to her hind so her front can move with ease. Did she stop heavy on her front end? Do I need to first ask for her to shift her weight back before I ask for the front to move?

Really nice moment with Wyoming that inspired a recent ride that was excellent with Khaleesi.

The truth is I have barely begun to scratch the surface of these questions. I have a chance on the ground where I can use my eyes, but in the saddle I have marginal feel and understanding of what’s going on that I can’t see. That’s ok because just changing my mindset to care is part of the greater concept of prepare to position. I will never get better if I don’t begin by asking the questions of myself. Mentally I want to feel this better, that must come first.

It IS ok that not everyone wants to get to this level of finesse and lightness in riding. It is incredibly demanding of the rider. Horses are amazing creatures that can do so much despite our shortcomings in feel and timing. In fact they often do this preparation on their own because they can sense what comes before the thing that comes before what the human just cued. They know us better than we know them.

I can’t understand how anyone who rides a horse would not be craving this kind of connection with their horse. Maybe they haven’t gotten a taste of it yet… maybe their lives are busy with other things…

Gradually over years learning to feel where my horse is, help her balance and I hope improve timing as well leading to a stronger self carriage more often

Simply trying to find incremental improvement here brought some moments with Khaleesi over the weekend where everything came together and she sprang with lightness into a movement that felt like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. When I am in tune to these things and get them right and they encourage her to work in her strength, balance, and lightness with me instead in spite of me it is a taste of something otherworldly. And what I love even more is that over the years I’ve thought I’ve found it in a new depth of movement or feeling and yet always I find there’s more. I think it might just be infinite, these layers available.

In the larger scheme I saw that over these few years of ups and downs with my endurance horse and my sojourn into a horsemanship addiction have been preparing to position me and she for what’s ahead. Through setbacks, mild injuries, incomplete events, personal struggles and everything in between, I can see that all of it has been preparing to position us as a stronger team, with a stronger, lighter, more balanced horse and a smarter, lighter, more balanced rider. I hope that paying attention to building this in both of us will mean a longer window of competitive strength, I hope I can compete her without breaking her down physically even in a demanding sport.

In my case I can look back and see what I didn’t know caused us to have to pay some early fines in physical issues. My unbalanced riding, ignorance in diagonals, leads, and ways to help a horse carry herself properly along with listening to the voices that said to move her into longer distances before we both had a stronger foundation (even though I sensed it wasn’t right somehow) because I was driven toward my goals contributed to some time of having to step back and heal/strengthen physically.

It’s ok. I didn’t understand- it is both a reminder to have grace for others who don’t know more than they do as well as a humility check that I will someday know more than I do today and have things I wish I had done better today. My horse is amazing, well all of them are, and she always leaves the door open for me to grow. She gives me fresh mercies every morning… usually! Occasionally I have to dig myself out of bigger screw ups, but we always come back together…. and sometimes, when it all comes into focus….

we fly…