In thinking of a title for this post I could only come up with something to attempt to describe how pleased, happy and elated I am after today! This is the best day of 2015 (so far!).
I felt Khaleesi was ready for a trail ride, but not alone, and I had come up short today for someone with the experience to come “babysit” us and be able to keep Faygo in control. So I resigned myself to find a “Plan B” and after some thought I came up with a really fun afternoon plan of riding around the arena as an obstacle course with both my girls. It turned out that Nette was available to come “play” with us this afternoon. I was looking forward to spending some time with Nette, and psyched to do some fun activities and put off the trail ride until the circumstances were truly right.
Sometimes you have to be flexible and believe that it’s just not the right day for what you thought you had planned.
But as I so often find when I let something go- it sometimes comes back to you. In this case I got a last minute call from an experienced rider saying she would love to drive an hour up here to take a trail ride and be the one in Fagyo’s saddle so that I could get Khaleesi out on the trail.
On the most beautiful weather day this year Plan A and Plan B were coming together- splendid!
I have to take a moment for a shout out to my fabulous husband who helps me with everything that comes up needing a power tool! He took off Khlaeesi’s saddle horn with the sawzall (which ended up being much harder than I thought). You may notice the purple, blue and black animal print duck tape (duck tape has the coolest patterns!) on the saddle pommel where we wrapped it. Also, he helped make my jumps and a platform so I could set the course up in the first place. He is ever patient and long-suffering with my obsession- in fact I haven’t overheard him tell anyone at a cocktail party lately he wishes his wife only had a drug problem… “no… worse… it’s horses….” He is such a good sport and I am lucky to have his support in my horse crazy life, as I’m sure it’s not always easy on him.
We began with a walk-through of the home-made course – I led Khaleesi and she had no issue with any of it. Then Nette walked her through- and she was nonplussed.
For fun (my fun, not so much hers!) I rode Faygo through it. She came through a bit hot, and not nearly as clean as Khaleesi, but she did everything I asked (with a bit of expected Faygo-tude). She is a T-R-A-I-L horse, not an A-R-E-N-A jump through hoops horse you know!
Then I got on Khaleesi and we rode through the course, not perfect control, but certainly passable. It was a blast to have her do so well and not be fearful of anything there. Also, we did it in her training halter- not a bit, so I was pleased with the amount of control we did have!
Ironically, today, the first day I ever set up a little home-made obstacle course, the person who came to help ride Faygo for me, Judy, competes in evening. I tried not to be self-conscious of my jerry-rigged course as Judy came walking down to say hello. I was happy to hear that she was impressed that Khaleesi walked right onto our wooden platform on her first try as I overheard her say to Nette “Not all horses will do that you know”. (True! Even Faygo balked at me our first time over it)
After some fun in the arena, we put on our boots (the horse boots) and hit the trail. Before getting on her the nerves began…
are we really ready for this? am I moving too fast? breathe like it’s no big deal or she’ll wonder what I’m afraid of!
She walked off from my mounting stool a few times and I hoped it wasn’t a sign that she was going to be total disaster. But eventually I did get on her, and we posed for a quick picture (Thank you Nette!) and then walked off together toward the same trail we’d ridden in times past (ritualistic habituation again- start with what you know, then build from there)
Khaleesi was fantastic, sure-footed, under control, and she took the lead spot occasionally as well as followed easily. If we got behind a bit she didn’t fret. We went over, under around and through up there on the mountain, and no matter what she had to do we worked it out as a team. We even unlatched a gate together (though we couldn’t quite get it open ourselves). We rode over 5 miles today at a decent clip of around 3.5 mph. No, not enough to finish an endurance ride, but certainly a great starting point. And Khaleesi “the anchor” kept up much better with me riding her as opposed to dragging her along.
Ok it was just a trail ride, but I felt like we rocked the mountain! I felt like I was on top of the world.
Not to take anything away from Faygo the fine… she was patient, waiting for us every time Khaleesi pooped (most horses can walk and poop- Khaleesi hasn’t figured that out yet), she let us take the lead on occasion and never griped, she kept a good pace without leaving us behind entirely, and though it’s still a little slick out there (especially with front boots), she took great care of Judy (who is a lovely rider herself) and did everything exactly right. She even closed our last gate with Judy hardly having to do a thing!
I am so proud of my girls- I am beaming that they did so well — I can hardly share it in words. I am so proud of what we’ve accomplished in less than 7 months, which seems like a long time in some ways, but such a short time in others. I don’t think I’m any kind of amazing horse trainer, or that she is any more impressive than average horse. I’m sure that in some other situations people might say 7 months is a long time to take a 4 year old horse from green to on the trail- but, we’ve made our own path, we’ve done it our way, and bonded in the journey. And as the AERC folks would say- we are riding our own ride!
I have focused mostly here about training and conditioning the horses but I have been thinking hard about the fact that an endurance ride also means conditioning and training of the rider. Me. I’ve read a ton about what I need to do to get my horse ready, but I’m not completely sure what will make me most fit to finish the ride healthy. 100 miles and over 12 hours on a horse sounds exciting, but given a horse today that could do the distance- could I do the distance? What would be my weakness that I’m not aware of having never ridden that long at one time?
I ran a marathon the year I turned 30- I’m aware of the need for discipline and mental toughness. I know that a large part of preparing myself for this ride is mental; physical training helps to build mental resolve along the way. Also, I realize that many people get off and walk or jog miles of the race to give their horse a break and to move their legs, so being able to run a few miles during the day will be vital.
There is also the issue of weight. Water, fat, muscle- sure more weight in muscle means I’m more healthy than if it is fat, but in the end my horse would still prefer I lose the pounds I gained last holiday season. When I registered for AERC, I had to sign up for a weight class (Lightweight, rider and tack weight is 160 to 185 pounds). I assume I will have at least 20 pounds in saddle and tack. Right now Faygo’s saddle weighs 21 pounds alone- that doesn’t include any other tack. I’d like to get Khaleesi a lightweight saddle, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Thus, for now I’m taking the cold mornings and heading to the gym trying to cross train (though mostly cardio types) climbing, rowing, elliptical, and treadmill make up my week hoping to lose a few pounds and also stay fit. I hope to interject some yoga when I get the opportunity to continue to work on strength and flexibility as well. Since I’ve gotten more serious again and started making better food choices and drinking more water I have lost a couple pounds but yes, even more important for now, I feel better physically.
This morning I ran 6 miles on the treadmill and when I get bored or tired I try to imagine dusk on the trail, many miles left to go and riding in some beautiful place heading into the darkness with my horse knowing we are still going strong. Cheesy, absolutely, but it keeps me going. It is important to work on mental imagery that will help me when I really am riding in the dark, tired after a lot of miles, and be my own cheerleader – remembering back when in a cold winter I ran miles on the treadmill in anticipation of the honor to ride in an endurance event.
In the afternoon I went to pick up the girls.
I ran 6 miles… now your turn! Let’s GO! yeah!!!
They were laying in an old hay pile half asleep.
They were not as pumped about our goal as I was.
They did get up and come into the barn however- grain is a great motivating factor!
Khaleesi’s new hoof boots came (well they are used- gotta love ebay!) but new to us, and fit great. I’d put the boot on to continue to try to heal her sole/bruise and it was looking pretty good. Fed them, cleaned them up, saddled and now they have matching boots for the trail. The weather wasn’t too cold today, feet protected… we’re set…
Here’s a quick video of her walking with two boots for the first time- you might notice that one foot (her Left) is the one with the bruise and she’s had the boot on that foot for a couple of days already. Her Right is new to her, so the Left walks normally while the Right is a bit off at first. Of course she figures it out and is fine in a few minutes.
Though I do think Khaleesi liked the foot protection- she seemed to have a slightly better pace and didn’t have to pick so carefully through footing, she is still the anchor horse. I reminded myself that these are her first real rides, she is building muscle, working tendons, ligaments, joints, the mental ability to focus on a trail ride for over and hour. I have to remember she is still NEW to this. We basically go her pace, which is on average 3.2mph. Considering our average speed a week ago was about under 3mph this is a slight improvement! just realizing this as I write….
ok… i’ll that that… any incremental improvement is good!
We rode about 4.6 miles which isn’t terrible (not the 6 I ran that morning myself though girls… really, you have 4 legs and are meant to cover ground!) then we stopped as usual to work at the farm. I decided to take a break from our habituation pattern and we never go into the arena today- we make a change. I walk her in the big field first and then hop on. We ride in the big field, big squares [well, kind of squares, we still don’t have straight lines down so well. We do zig zags.]
Our steering is like:
Jaime: We’re going to head for that pole
Khaleesi: I want to head for the gate to visit Faygo
Jaime: Nope- the pole
Khaleesi: the gate
I put a very short video of us trot trotting back to the camera after a zig zag back from the pole. I left the end on because I like the moment where I take her back to the camera spot, I ask her to step over (AND SHE DOES!) and stands while I pick up the device and work the video setting for a moment.
All in all We have a nice ride. Still in the comfort zone, but at some point — I am not even sure what I was thinking or about to do — I was in a drift for a moment I guess……………. all of a sudden I am airborne and pop back down in the saddle- slightly brushing the horn with my thigh (that horn comes off today) and am like WHAT WAS THAT? there’s a little buck action and then we’re stopped again.
What I think happened is that Khaleesi started to slip her back feet in some mud while we were on the fence line and her back foot hit the wire fence and she did a little panic and it felt like her rear end was bucking. Or she was “done” playing with me in the field and thought she’d see if she could dump me and head for the grass. Honestly I’m not completely sure what happened it was so fast. What the end result was though- I did not fall off, and I made her walk around that area a few more times before we wrapped up – she was resistant of that area now. I wanted to be sure that if she slipped she didn’t have a phobia about that place (the footing wasn’t bad, but there were two slip marks in the grass where we were) it was a freak thing. And if she bucked me she realized that was not going to get her what she wanted either.
All in all a good day, but I need a Faygo day now. We are both a little tired of dragging the anchor horse around, and if I’m going to start AERC events with Faygo- she needs some real miles and we need to do some of them alone. Saturday is Faygo-day. I’m going to see what kind of miles on a mild winter day we can tack on and at what reasonable speed we move, and how she does, what kind of shape she’s in today. She may not be excited about it, but I am. A day with my first love….
Saturday Faygo and I did take a ride together. We did 7 miles at a moving pace of about 4.3mph, total average 3.6mph (including stopped times). She walked out nicely, but she gets very hot heading home, this is fun to ride, but she’ll kill herself before she slows down. At one point at the top of a hill I had to get off her for a minute so she wouldn’t prance, dance and toss her head while heaving away. (Also I needed to check my GPS as I wasn’t exactly sure where we were). I don’t know what her heart rates are, or how her recovery is and I’m curios to see that data for her. That is my biggest concern, she has huge ‘heart’ and she would die trying to finish (get back to the trailer!). I need to work on pacing her and being sure she can clear a checkpoint. I think we can figure this out- I have a heart rate monitor on order for her.
It was a lovely afternoon just the two of us. Sunday is supposed to be gorgeous… not sure what I have in store for that day yet….
Winter is a busy work time for me- I would love to have more days at the barn, but teaching, grant writing, meetings and rehearsals turn me into a weekend rider from mid-January through about April. Things gradually ease up through late spring and longer days and decent weather make riding more accessible. These are the dark days.
Weekend barn time is still barn time- so I’ll take it! This time I’ll combine my two days into one post to catch up here at the blog. It will be a kind of long post… hope I don’t bore you with too much at once…
Friday was ugly- we had sleet and snow with high winds. I spent a little time with the girls in their run in barn feeding, grooming, checking feet. Khaleesi’s hoof bruise is spreading if anything. She isn’t lame on it, but I don’t like the way it looks. I clean it out and hope it will continue to improve. Faygo looks great- the snow cleaned up her always dirty coat (she is always rolling in dirt, mud or whatever is going to make her beautiful white hair discolored), and she is a nice weight and is healthy this winter.
It was just nice to see them again and have some non-agenda time. I love watching them munch contentedly on their hay bale. I love the smell of horses, hay, and the cool fresh air. I think that’s important to do once in a while- not only bring them in and make them work every time you see them.
My new winter tights and below zero rated gloves arrived just in time for an early afternoon ride! I head to the barn with the plan of taking the pony ride to my arena and doing some more training with Khaleesi. Ideally I’d like to ride at least 4 or 5 miles but it doesn’t work that way. Khaleesi is incredibly slow today, I wonder if her feet are tender- though she doesn’t look off. We ride to our favorite look out spot (climbing the mountain is good for a work out even if it’s only an hour or so of riding) and then instead of doing the loop I’d hoped to, we descend to the barnyard for some work in the arena.
My goal today is to begin with what we finished with last week (6 imperatives: we’ll go around the arena both directions, then try for some figure 8s to show we really do have some control). I turn Faygo out to graze and do my groundwork reminder, then hop on Khaleesi. Every time I get on her things get easier. Her little tantrum arguments are less scary for me and are shorter with each work session. Today we only have a brief “conversation” before settling into our job and we do a nice walk around the perimeter in each direction then I go for some figure 8 patterns in the center of the space. I set the camera up to get a video and didn’t realize it was on time-lapse. So this video made me laugh, but I loved what it showed. We have have some good steering beginning now!
We finished with adding a little bit of trotting on a slight uphill part of the arena where the footing was decent. She has a fun trot though I have no idea if it’ll be a good endurance trot. Personally I think it’s a little big to ride it for 100 miles- at the moment I feel like I’m being tossed into the air with each step. But I’ve never owned a trotting horse- and only ridden a trot a few times, so it is probably only my perception. I don’t think the little western saddle that I picked up as a good deal (at least until I figure out what saddle to use with her as we get into a riding routine) is the best for riding a trot either. Basically I like the saddle- but a more english style saddle might put me is a position better for doing a trot for very long).
Of course, I have no real idea if I even will be riding a trot. If she eventually racks- I think that’s going to be the gait we’re working toward, and that should be very different than riding or sitting a trot. At the moment, I’m just happy we trot a little!
Upon returning to the barn I found Nettie and her friend waiting for us to say hello (and get a horse fix). Nette has helped me work with Khaleesi from the very beginning when I was lucky to be able to tie her.
Nette was there the first day we got a saddle on her back- in fact she ran home for a bottle of wine that we toasted in red solo cups to our exciting accomplishment that day and watched her walk around eating grass wearing her first saddle. There was a time Nette was slightly nervous to be around Khaleesi (she was slightly unpredictable as all young horses can be), but today she took the lead rope and walked her around like a real “grown up” horse with no concern at all. I love thinking of the past experiences and comparing them with where we are today. It’s nice to be reminded there was a time I couldn’t even tie her without wondering if she’d break a lead rope.
Nette and her friend helped me untack and groom and we decided to clean her hoof where the bruise is and pack it with some Ichthammol and do a duct tape diaper protector boot to see if that might help. At least I’d like to keep it from getting infected or continuing to get worse. She was a champ as we covered her hoof in the diaper and then wrap, wrap, wrapped it good with pink camp duck tape (that’s all I had on hand, but it’s a nice fashion statement). She is overall a pretty compliant horse. She didn’t like the whole idea, but after getting over it she didn’t seem to mind all that much. Cleaned up, turned them out.. went home for a soak in the hot tub. What a great day.
How does this work?
I’ve been doing tons of reading… and listening (to videos, podcasts…) anything I can get my hands on to help me figure out what this process is supposed to be. I have tons of questions.
How do other people do this journey? What do I not know that I will need to know? What mistakes am I most likely to make? Is my horse right for the job? How will I know? What is the first ride like?
I loved hearing an interview with Julie Suhr who has many awards and has finished the Tevis Cup over 20 times in 5 decades (she is in her 80s now). Her first Tevis (100 mile) attempt was within 2 years of returning to horses (after a 20 year break). She really had no idea what she was in for at the time- I was ready to hear her amazing story of novice horsewoman finishes in the top 10 on her first attempt without even training. But I was delighted (well, that might not sound right as I don’t delight in her failure at all, but it was refreshing…) to hear how she barely made it into the first checkpoint, her horses heartbeat didn’t go down at all, and her jeans had already chaffed skin off her legs. She was pulled at the first stop. Yet she became addicted, and learned all she could about how to train and became one of the most successful endurance riders of our time.
The 100 mile cannot be done on a horse younger than 60 months (per the AERC rules), but it’s recommended that no horse be truly trained toward this kind of distance until they are at least 4, preferably 5 years old to really allow their tendons, bones and joints to mature before putting the kind of stress on them this training takes. Thus many seasoned endurance riders suggest you shouldn’t have a horse under 6 or 7 in an 100 mile race. This works well for us- next month Khaleesi will turn 5, and we are just beginning the journey.
Here are some other horse specific things I’ve picked up along the past couple weeks:
One of the most important things an endurance rider looks for in a horse are good feet. They should be healthy (not crack easily), not too small, and it’s better for them to be slightly longer than wide. (Check: except this hoof bruise, her feet are basically hard, don’t tend to crack, and though she is slightly smaller than Faygo- her feet are larger, and slightly long. In fact I had a challenge finding hoof boots for her because her feet are a bit on the long side)
It is better for a horse in endurance to have spent much of its young life turned out in a herd on a large property with a variety of terrains. That horse learns to think and fend for itself more than one kept in a stall or small paddock, and works it’s muscles and joints in more ways as they are developing as well as learns to drink from just about any puddle and stream and learns balance on different kind of footing early on. (Check: Khaleesi was brought in at age 2 to get handled for a bit, but until I took her at age 4, she lived in a horse herd on a large property with diverse terrain)
As for temperament- some people find a hot, sensitive horse to be helpful as they tend to want to go-go-go. This is not really the case with K. On the flip side, others say it’s better to find a stable more grounded horse that is not so distractible as those go-go hot and sensitive horses also tend to be the ones who may fall apart. (Hopefully Khaleesi will find some decent gaits and speeds eventually and yet have stability. It’s a bit to early to tell if she’s start moving as we work, or if I will constantly have to push her and find she hates the miles).
For now I entertain myself asking if she is the right horse for the job. I look for signs she will be “the one”, but truly I have no idea if she ever really will do 100 miles.
I head to the barn to find the girls laying at the edge of the field half asleep. I have to walk all the way over to them (slightly unusual for my girl to not come running to meet me at the gate). Faygo gets up and walks away to eat- Khaleesi does not move. I walk all the way up to her (hoping she is ok). Her head is up, alert, she doesn’t appear to be in distress. Her pink camo hoof is still on- is she too freaked out to walk on it? Has she laid here all night because she is afraid of her duck tape boot?
I approach her and rub her head. Are you ok? Are you just taking a nap? Can you get up? I crouch down and rub her neck enjoying a quiet moment where she is just content. She is breathing deep and slow, but not seeming in distress. I put on her lead rope and tell her its time to get up- if she can… and if she can’t……
She puts out her duck tape hoof first and stops.
She looks at me Can you get this thing off me please??
I pull out my pocket knife and cut it off for her. Ok… now you need to get up for me before I start to worry…
After some coaxing with the lead rope she gets to her feet, she drags behind me as I walk across the field are you sick?
I stop at the water trough and we wait for Faygo to catch up with us (she is also walking slow): did you guys eat something bad? are you just tired today, feeling lazy?
Khaleesi just stands by the water… I figure she isn’t going to drink, but Faygo is coming so I wait a little longer… Khaleesi pushes some water around with her nose then takes a big drink- Good, that’s good to know, she is drinking.
We head to the barn, Khaleesi reaches her nose around and scratches her side- Are you colicky? or just need a scratch?
I put out grain for both and they devour it- another good sign.
I get the thermometer- another first for her… sticking something up her butt… well, the day had to come eventually…. she danced around a moment then got back to eating her food and seemed to comply (she’s pretty compliant, I think I said that earlier). Temperature barely 98 degrees F. That’s a bit low. Not red flag exactly, but I assume she should be closer to 100 or 101.
I groom them up, deciding if they are fit to take out, or if I need to scrap plans and turn them back. They seem to be fine- the hoof is the same, not better not worse, not very sensitive, and she’s not lame on it. I decide they were just in mid-morning nap mode and not actually sick.
We tack up and it starts out as a nice gentle ride. We walk easy, still haven’t gotten Khaleesi’s boots (they should arrive this week) so again we walk SUPER slow and do the same mountain top loop down to the arena as the previous day. My GPS says we walked 2.3 miles at an average of 2.4 mph, actually I thought it was like 1 mph (or so it felt) so I suppose that’s not so bad. The walk home was shorter, but climbing the mountain is good exercize so I’ll take it.
Same routine… Faygo grazes, groundwork, get on, ride the fence line… both directions… figure 8s… We have another argument today- more serious than yesterday but I am not afraid anymore, I hold onto the saddle horn, kick her and insist we do this.
Today she amps the tantrum up one notch and as she says FINE, WE’LL DO THIS she trots and does some canter steps instead of walking around and back toward the gate.
I say Great- I wanted to trot today anyway! That was fun… we’re going to do that again! I turn her and tell her to go again.
She says Oh come on… I’m not in the mood today.. but then she goes, and here is the video:
I am working on voice commands with her- if she does have some different gait options, I’d like to be able to ask for trot, or rack, or canter (if Carrington can do this, I think I can learn to as well!) So for now I’m saying “Trot Trot Trrrrot” when we trot.
I love it! It’s fun! we’re finally moving!
So then I decide. Today is the day. Not because she’s behaving so well, but because I realize that I have gained confidence finally to the level that I am ready. Not that she is is ready or not ready- but that I am ready.
I hope off her, open the arena gate and we walk out.
I get back on.
Outside the arena.
I try not to hold my breath You have to breathe… you have to breathe…
She gets a slightly different feel of energy in her body- we have no fence now to stop us. Of course, we are in the “barnyard” so there are trucks, tractors, buildings – not just an open field. It’s a good first environment.
I ask her to walk over along the road (the farm road, not a real road). She says no, I don’t think so- lets eat grass.
I say yes, walk on in my happy voice… kick her, then drive her with my reins just back and forth on her whithers- nothing that hurts, just annoying… she takes a step.
Yes. We are doing this.
She walks tentatively and doesn’t like the big tractor with the massive hay spike (that’s ok, I don’t want to get too close to it either girl…) so we avoid that by going under a big wire encased in plastic holding up a power line pole- I think: I couldn’t have asked her to do that if I tried- that’s good, I’ll go through that space. It’s easy for us to fit through. We take a few steps and stop and smell the air, look around, do the same again. We are walking outside the arena, going around the office barn buildings and will be out of sight of Faygo for a bit (that’s good).
She comes around the other side on the ‘road’ and we return to where Faygo is eating (she couldn’t care less what we’re doing). Then we cross the ‘road’ again and do the same loop. I have learned that 3 times is the charm with her. It takes her 3 times to do what I ask before she is confident and easy with it. This is confirmed again today. The third time in that same loop- through the power line wire, around the building, back to Faygo we are “trot trot trotting” most of it.
It’s getting time to head home. Always end on a good note- don’t push to where she gets frustrated. I let her eat a bit while I get Faygo ready and hop on her. We take a shorter loop home and celebrate another great day.
Now I just need to get someone to come ride Faygo- while I ride her… on the trail…
Monty Roberts believes there are 6 imperatives for the riding horse. No matter what the discipline is, there are six basic things that a horse must reasonably do for one to be able to ride: “It is absolutely essential that your horse go forward, be able to turn left and right, stop, back up, and stand still.” Today, Khaleesi and I went back to the arena and I am ready to say that she has at least a basic level of all six. I am now confident that I can make her walk forward, we have steering (left and right) – though it’s not power steering- it’s basic understanding of turning both directions, and I can make her stop, stand still, and yes- we can even back up.
I heard Monty Roberts do an interview not long ago where he talked about the research he has been doing on ritualistic habituation. I can’t say I completely “get” it, but the basic concept I picked up was that horses do best when learning one skill only- until they “cannot get it wrong”- then build on that skill one more skill at a time. This was so specific that he even insisted doing only ONE SIDE of the skill for that work session. [equine speak note: you have to teach horses things on each side separately. For example if you are able to ask the horse to step over with pressure on the right, you cannot assume she will transfer that information to step over with pressure on the left without practicing that side separately.]
I have decided to give this approach a go, and the last training session we rode in the arena about two weeks ago I ONLY worked on going around the arena in one direction focusing on her left steering as much as possible. Last weekend I decided not to work with her under saddle because she came in with a strange swollen cut on her mouth/lip and though she seemed fine overall I didn’t want to take the chance something with the bit or reins might come in contact with the wound and hurt. My hope for this horse to have positive experiences as much as I can control to keep her as interested in working for me. Now that she was healthy again (face wound healed) my goal for the day was to start with the direction we finished in our last session and hope that she “couldn’t get it wrong” and then turn her and begin working in the opposite direction and work on her right side steering.
Getting “selfie” video is a little tricky, but I can set my phone up on the fence and if I end up in that zone there is at least some footage. Both the “stop” and the “stand still” imperative is pretty solid while I get the camera function ready, then I have to lean over to set the phone on the one area of the fence it will balance safely. Unfortunately the part of the arena she always chooses for her argument is outside the zone, so though I know what it feels like, I am curious what it looks like.
Let me back up a step as this is my first post of the riding part of our training. For the winter I have moved my two mares to the farm next door where there is a better shelter for them. At our “home” farm, we have a pulled wire fenced in area that used to be the garden that is a great size for training. I call it “the arena”. We are used to being in that space, and there are no other horses in view here, so less distractions and a little more focus on me. There is a lovely scenic route that is about 2 miles from our winter barn to the arena and I have found it’s nice to take a little pony walk to get there with her in saddle and bit, getting used to her tack, getting some energy out, as well as having to focus on me before we start our work.
Our routine right now is to take a 2 mile walk through the woods to the arena, then I give her a couple minutes break to graze on the good grass while I situate Faygo to hang out while we work. When I’m ready I collect Khaleesi and it takes a couple minutes to explain to her (language gap I suppose) that she is done eating and needs to pay attention to me now. To do this we start with groundwork: walking her around the square exactly how I plan to ride her. If she’s not hearing me (listening to me) she pulls her head away, tries to eat with more attitude and a couple sessions ago even rears up behind me to tell me very loud and clear “I WANT TO EAT- NOT WORK! GO AWAY.” If it comes to that we do some more fast changing intense ground work that pulls her head into the game: back up, walk forward, stop, walk fast, stop, walk normal, turn directions with me, stop, step over, back up… etc… At some point there is a switch where she stops trying to eat and gets in tune with what we’re doing. At that point is when I hop up on her back.
After a few steps with me in the saddle is generally when the argument starts, but only when we are in that same corner of the arena. Each ride the argument is less serious- and never have I thought she was going to hurt me. Here is our script:
Khaleesi (stops and refuses to move): No, I don’t want to walk that direction. I want to stand here and eat grass.
Me (with my legs): You have to walk – this is why we’re in here; and (with my hands): also, I want to go THAT way.
Khaleesi (does little bucks with her back end as I prod her on): I’m going to throw a tantrum and see if you’ll give up.
Me (still kicking and very aware of my breathing- do not get excited, do not yell, calm and focused and fair, if needed sing… how much is that dogggyy in the window…. the one with the wagggin taillllll….): This is a lame tantrum. I am not afraid of you, we’re friends, remember… WE ARE GOING TO DO THIS and I will get my way every time…
Khaleesi eventually: Ok, it seems like it’s easier to just do what you’re asking and not make such a big deal about it. Actually, this isn’t so bad after all.
The first argument a few weeks ago was the worst and I wondered if I might get hurt (the day she reared up while I was leading her), but we worked through it safely and calmly. Each time we work the argument has less heart in it. Today I was ready for it, and it was pretty brief. I continue to gain confidence that I can make her do things, and she continues to learn that I will always make her- so lets not fight.
So.. where were we?
Ritualistic Habituation… right… After three times around the square in the old direction (review the last lesson first) she completely “got” what I was asking. It was solid. Then I decided to turn her around and walk the opposite direction. It’s the same skill, but because it’s the other side- I have to look at it like an entirely new skill, though one she has some reference points for so hopefully the second side will at least be a little quicker. The video shows us walking in the original learned direction (our 3rd time of the day), then I stop her (one imperative) and she stands still (another imperative) while I fix my feet in the stirrups as they had been slipping a bit, then I ask her to walk on (3rd imperative) until we come to the corner the camera is set up, the gate. I always enjoy watching her moving her lips around while she thinks and works. Then we try the new direction. Here is thought bubble play-by-play at that point:
Me: We are going to turn around here and go the other way.
Khaleesi: This is the wrong way, you must be confused.
Me: I hear you, but I think we can go the other direction too.
Khaleesi: If I throw a tantrum or pretend I don’t hear you can we just stop here and eat grass?
Me: No… walk on now.
Khaleesi: Ok.. fine… wait… hey, you CAN go the other way.
I find it interesting how much it took me asking her (this wasn’t an argument, really it was just a conversation) to go the other direction before she settled into it. One reason I like seeing video is being able to notice later how things went as I don’t always remember it fully after the fact when I’m focused on what I’m doing.
After reversing direction with right hand steering today I can say we have at least a grasp on the 6 imperatives for the riding horse. We have a long way to go in improving control and fine tuning, but I feel good about having the basics in hand now. My next goal in the arena is to ask her to trot for more than a couple steps. The footing was really sloppy today, and I do want to give the “one skill a session” approach an honest try- so though I wanted to push her and start working on trotting around the arena (it’s so fun- she has great trot!) I decided to exercise self-control and end while we were still ahead giving her only one “new” skill to process.
I released her to graze a bit (reward, rest after a good work session) while I went to get Faygo and we returned our two miles home. I think she might have a small bruise on the bottom of one of her front feet. She didn’t appear to be lame on it, but I made a conscious effort to really slow Faygo down and Khaleesi’s pace home. Most of the ground is good, but there are a few patches that are a bit rocky and I wanted to let her pick her way more carefully in case her foot did hurt and to not make the bruise worse. Hopefully with the weekdays off it will improve.
So ends another great day at the farm: two fantastic mares, one more small step towards our goal. AND speaking of goals, I joined the American Endurance Riders Conference [AERC] today. I’m not sure if we’ll able to ride even a “Limited Distance” ride this year, but we are officially members now and for the moment Faygo is my registered horse. I hope we may be able to do a beginning ride and get a feel for how they work.
I hear the weather is supposed to be very cold this week- we are still waiting for winter to rear its ugly head and this year. I have been pretty lucky to do as much riding as I have- eventually Old Man Winter will keep me inside and make riding the horses tougher. Today was a gift!
In my early research about going the distance on a horse, one thing that seems pretty obvious is that hoof care and protection is not only of vital importance, but also might pose new issues that I haven’t seen in my past trail riding habits. Our riding circle here is pretty dedicated; “in season” (when the weather is nice enough to be out more than a few hours) we often put in mulitple long rides each week in some rough terrain and we all stay on a regular farrier schedule. [equine-speak translation: a farrier is a specialist in equine hoof care that combines some blacksmith and veterinary skills to properly care for horses feet]. I like my farrier (let’s call him BW) and trust his experience and ask him for advice on just about everything “horse” related. There is no way we can succeed without help and advice from my farrier.
Flashback: Early August, 2014
BW first met Khlaleesi when I’d had her just over a week. He was doing a trim and shoe appointment for Faygo and I asked him to come see the new girl. Not to work on her (I could hardly groom at tie her at the time) but just to meet her and give me advice on what he would like me to be doing with her to prepare her to be safe for him to work on in the future. I went to collect her from the field and of course instead of coming over to me she ran away, and when I did bring her around, she reared up on the lead rope, shied away from him, and acted like a complete nutcase. I was completely embarrassed. Like a professional, BW walked around calmly, did a couple minutes of groundwork with her and handed her lead back to me. He couldn’t touch her- or even come close. He shook his head and asked me what was her breeding again? (The Quarter Horse guy is not a big fan of those buggy-eyed wild Saddlebreds). When I ticked off her heritage (Racking Horse, Saddlebred, TN Walker, Arabian) I will never forget what he said to me. “She’s probably going to be a handful. If you’re lucky the TN Walker will help add some calm to her personality. The Arabian will be tough at first, but once she become your horse, she’ll be the most loyal horse you ever had. She will do anything for you….” and then he continued on to suggest some things to help get her used to having her feet worked on and wished me luck.
His next visit later in the fall I had worked hard on picking up her feet, cleaning and filing them myself and all her basic manners. I crossed my fingers that she wouldn’t be such a monster and was delighted when he not only could pick up her feet, but he did a “baby” trim on them – not a full work up, but more than I’d hoped for. When he finished I beamed when he asked me “are you sure this is the same horse?”
Present Day Again
On this, Khaleesi’s third farrier visit she had a complete trim and only once did we have to “school” her for trying to pull her hoof away. Of course it is the left rear- we found that one to be the resistant one the time before as well. She stood quietly while we talked as well.
I said “I know you’ll call me crazy, but I’ve made a goal to do a 100 mile endurance ride with this horse… I’d like some input on how that might change how we trim and shoe her going forward, probably not right away, but eventually.” Not surprising, but I was glad to find that BW not only did have some insight, but shoes for a serious competitor in long distance endurance rides- a vet with what he considered “An amazing Arabian”.
He had worked a 100 mile race and of course found “those people” to be slightly crazy, “you should see them come in to the checkpoints with people dumping water on them and the horse to cool it off before vet check, some of them demanding new shoes in the next 5 minutes and i look at the horse’s feet and want to say ‘you’d be better off walking the rest of the way yourself than ride THAT’… sometimes they DQ (pull/disqualify) even if the horse is in good shape because the people aren’t fit to finish… it’s hard… i’ve seen them take a fall (horse and rider) flying over some bad footing, roll off, get the horse up and hop back on in motion and keep on cantering down the trail… crazy these people… i tell you what….but- it’s good to have goals Jaime, it’s what keeps us off the couch eating bon-bons. Good for you.”
We talked about the issue of training and wearing through shoes faster, of lightweight shoes, carrying hoof boots for back up, of the angle of the hoof that helps the rear end “power through” more easily for better speed. In the end we’ll have to see what her gaits are like to know what she needs, but for now the pressing question was: how are her feet doing with the small amount of winter riding with no protection? Do I need to get boots on her now, or is she doing ok. So far he said her feet look good: they are hard feet and are holding up well.
Before he left, he gave me a phone number; told me that this woman in Northern VA would be the one to bring me in as a volunteer in the OD (Old Dominion) race (tell her I gave you her number)- they always need volunteers, and there’s no better way to learn about that event than to be at one and see it for yourself.
After the trimmings were all cleaned up we saddled up Faygo and hit the trail before the bad weather came in. It was snowing when we headed out, but a pretty snow and I knew once again it wouldn’t be a long ride and we could deal with a little chill.
We took the same exact 4.5 mile track as the last ride. My hope was to shave some time off not by moving faster, but by dilly-dallying less. We did about the same exact ride in the same exact time so not any improvement, but we got out there, and considering the weather and my schedule has us only riding a few hours a week right now- just going out and doing it is what counts the most.
We just might have done a little better had I not lost her for a few minutes. Occasionally she decides to stop and Faygo doesn’t get the memo until it’s JUST too late and I loose the rope. I have been experimenting with girth tension with Faygo recently- ever since her issue with Lymes disease last year her top line has seemed to widen a bit, and feel like I’ve found a good tension that I don’t have to pull so tight she pins her ears and fights me, yet the saddle doesn’t slip along the ride. The only issue is if I don’t have some height getting on and off, the saddle pulls off center and it’ just a pain; if I don’t absolutely have to get off I try not to. Thus I try grabbing the lead rope without getting off balance in the saddle which is a little tricky if she is being evasive. Faygo is amazing and I can put her exactly where I want her to be- but still it’s hard to get my hands on that rope if Khaleesi won’t bring her head up. At one point I tried to just move along to see if she would trot on up to go with us. You can see in the picture to the right how well that worked out for us… She stood rummaging through the dead leaves for something interesting to munch on and we ended up having to go back for her. I didn’t have to get off in the end and was able to grab the rope at just the right moment when she came up and we moved on along.
I try to remind myself that she has never been asked to walk steady on for over an hour and just doing it is the important part. Faygo has years of doing this and is ready to power walk through and get there and back so she can chill by the hay bale again. Each pony walk is a struggle between “fast Faygo” and our anchor “Khaleesi” who seems to be wondering where on earth are we going when this place right here seems really nice. Why don’t we stop and graze, hang out, relax more often? Sometimes Khaleesi DOES get a little burst and she trots up and we get a nice pace going for a spell. With the cold weather, the strange “wound” on her face last week (which looks all healed and good now) and shortage of time I haven’t been doing much work on her back recently. I think getting her to understand drive from being on her will help her to start to move out more on our walks as time goes on. She has a beautiful trot and I’ve seen her run across the field when she wants to. Her walk isn’t as big as Faygo’s, but it’s not slow either. As a training partner- Faygo is a powerhouse and going to really challenge her, and it’s a challenge for me to keep Faygo from dragging her through the woods at too fast a pace. I don’t want to discourage Khaleesi or make her hate going out on our walks early on.
You may be wondering at this point: why am I not training Faygo, my trusted powerhouse trail companion, to do this 100 mile race?
It’s a valid question, and the answer has been changing even as I write.
The first answer is that she is older (16 this year) and though that is a prime year for a horse in good health who has been ridden regularly, she has a few drawbacks: she has Heaves (kind of like COPD in people, it’s a breathing issue that would make it very hard for her to do well and pass vet checkpoints. Her recovery time would likely be an issue) and she also had a battle with Lymes disease last year that was hard on her and though with chiropractic work and a fantastic holistic vet she is doing great now, I believe that her joints will deteriorate faster than other healthy `horses and that the residual effects of that will make it harder to do longer and longer miles as she ages.
Because she’s such a smart horse, I’ve begun doing ACTHA (American Competitive Trail Horse Association) events and last fall at her first event we won second place in our (beginner) class. She seemed to really shine at that event and enjoy the challenge, at the moment my plan is to enjoy challenging her mind with obstacles in ACTHA and work on Khaleesi as my distance horse.
However. Faygo is entirely capable of doing a LD (Limited Distance) ride of 25 miles or less and the more I’ve been thinking about this very topic, the more I’ve begun to consider registering as an AERC (American Endurance Ride Conference) member and doing some early LD rides on Faygo to begin to get the hang of it and get some experience on a horse as solid as Faygo is.
So my next job is to join AERC and register Faygo as my horse for now and find a goal ride that’s 25 miles or less to enter with Faygo. I have already placed a call to my farrier’s contact to talk about volunteering at the OD ride in June. Small goals are how you get to the big goals- and the journey along the way is the reward!
Blanket apology to those who have followed my story since last summer, but in order to tell it here, I’m going to do some recap. I’ll try to call my “historical” posts Prologues so you can see when there is truly new content in the future.
Now to begin at the beginning. From my Facebook page on July 19, 2014:
“I’m picking up a young mare to start working with tomorrow (I’m going in to Equus school as I’m sure she’ll teach me more than I’ll teach her), and last night I talked to a woman who happened to be on the farm the day she was born and took video (Thanks Diane Ray). The mama is ‘Feta’ but she said it sounded like the farm hands were saying ‘Fedder’. Before deciding to call her Ireland they thought of naming her Shamrock (thus the captions at the end of the short video).”
I have to include this because it’s not that often you get video footage of your horses first hours!
July 20 Ireland comes to her new home and I settle her in by herself to the smallest cow pen area we have and spend time with her every day just sitting in her space, drinking my morning coffee and reading a Pat Parelli book ignoring her as much as possible and just letting her get used to me. I still have basically no idea what I’m doing, but know I have to learn for myself from as many resources as possible. My biggest inspiration is Monty Roberts and I sign up to see his training videos and watch as many as possible to get a feel for what will help me get started. Eventually she starts to hang out and eat her hay close to me and eventually I get a rope halter on her and can rub her neck and whithers, but I don’t ask her for anything and I mostly ignore her. Occasionally she turns her butt towards me to see what I’ll do- it’s a bit rude, but I try not to overreact and instead ask her to go away when she does that. Kind of like: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
After the first week she seems to look forward to my visits waiting at the gate for me and when I walk around her slightly enlarged area picking up her poops she follows me to where I’m working to eat or watch me. I can easily catch her halter and rub her all over her body and even tie her briefly. This earns her an upgrade to the larger “barnyard” field with shelter and the creek (still by herself). When I come to visit now she first runs as far away from me as she can get and actually puts her head over the fence nose away from me across the creek. I completely ignore her and pick up some poop piles and within 2 minutes she steals a glance, sees that I don’t care (I’m not going to chase you), then trots up to greet me and see what I’m doing then follows me around the field while I’m there. Mostly I try to rub her as much as I can and then walk away and she follows me wanting more attention.
The most exciting part of week two is when my vet and I weren’t able to communicate and she left me the vaccinations to give myself! With moral support of Nancy & Carrington I was able to stick her with the first one before she knew what was coming, but the second one not so easy and she reared up like the black stallion still tied to the post with the needle still in her neck (not my greatest moment) and we had to get her to calm down so I could get the plunger in! What I learned about her is that she might panic, but she is able to calm down before she kills herself in the panic (some horses seem to only escalate and would have ended up wrapped up in the rope on the grown thrashing because they can’t think of anything except life and death). She seems to be able to think about the panic enough to relax before getting to that point- which to me is a very important trait.
At the end of week two we head into my garden “arena” and try to do “join up”. (Equine speak translation: Join Up is a method of helping the horse learn in a non-violent way that you are it’s friend and a place of safety and rest. A successful join up sends the horse ‘away’ from you to run in large circles something close to the normal flight distance of a horse, watching for signs that the horse doesn’t want to continue to have to ‘flee’ but wants to consider making friends instead and letting you be the leader. It’s all about body language on both the human and the horse and I was amazed how it happened just like the videos showed it would. There really is an equus language and she did exactly what she was predicted to.) I had decided that Join Up was going to be the first priority of our work together. If I couldn’t get her in the mindset that I was in charge, but also fair and worthy of her trust, I didn’t think I had much chance of doing any real training with her. Considering how green I am at this it was not elegant, but we do make progress and I kept the saddle and saddle pad in the center of the space so she would get used to seeing it and sniffing it well before any attempt to put it on her! I keep her running the perimeter and when she is ready to come in to me and we join up, I would hand graze her around the saddle tack so she would see it’s not scary- she sniffs it then walks right onto the pad- so she doesn’t seem afraid of it…
By the end of July I’ve worked on rubbing the saddle pad all over her and even walked her around with the pad on her back, I can tie her up and rub her, groom her and pick up her front feet. When I come into her field she comes over to me and follows me around eating nearby while I do things… pick up poop, read, walk around- whatever is non-threatening. We are slowly becoming friends and I continue to ask her what her “barn” name should be. I am convinced she’ll tell me when she’s ready.
I decided two things in January of 2015: to take seriously the thought that I could complete a 100 mile equine endurance race and to write about my journey in a blog.
I’ve thought about writing down my experiences since moving to the rural Virginia mountains in 2007, but never sat down to do it. Though I’m not sure if anyone besides my mom (shout out to mom… always my biggest fan!) will want to read this blog- I decided to give it a try.
Like any good story, let’s begin in the middle.
This afternoon I rode my trusted trail horse Faygo (Gray, middle aged MO Foxtrotter mare) and ponied along my green horse (for anyone that doesn’t speak equine I’ll translate in some of these early posts: she isn’t actually a green horse though she was born on St. Patricks Day… green means with very little training- opposite of Faygo my trusted trail partner), Khaleesi, for our first training ride. It was cold, and late in the day to get started, but though there were pretty sunny patches of blue skies, there were occasional gusts of wind, and it had rained a bit on and off so I had procrastinated as long as I could. I might have just not bothered, except I had just made the decision in my mind that Khaleesi and I were going to do the 100- so even though it was cold, an hour from dark, a bit windy, and threatened to rain on us, we saddled up around 4pm.
We crossed the highway with trail dogs in tow (Linus and Peggy-Sue) for our first ride with intent on the goal. Even though I knew what our route would be and had no concern of getting lost, I had my GPS to begin tracking our distance and speed. As we walked along (1.8mph- Faygo, this is not going to get us to the finish line…) a big gust blew the tops of the trees and the dark clouds began to move from the Southwest again. I stopped the girls and pulled up my hood and put on my gloves. I can handle a little rain, we’ll only be out here an hour.
This wasn’t the beginning of the journey. That is a bit more vague… was it in July, right after my birthday, when I went to pick up a young horse that I had no idea if I would be able to train? Maybe it was a couple years ago when I signed an agreement to lease-to-own my first horse (Faygo) from one of my best friends and equine mentor? Was it in the years before that when I begged anyone with horses to take me riding and logged in some miles on a rock solid quarter horse mare of another friend? (those were some great adventures!) It might have been during childhood when no vacation was complete without trying to visit a trail riding stable and paying for an hour on a trail horse with a guide… or maybe it goes all the way back to when I was 6-years old, living in a subdivision in Las Vegas- looking up ads in the newspaper for horses for sale and having my mother dismiss my begging with “If you can find someone to sell you a horse that can live in our backyard then sure you can have one.” I did make some phone calls. I can’t even imagine what the people on the other end of the line though of a 6 year old girl asking questions about buying and keeping a horse in her backyard.
For the purpose of this story, we will start with Khaleesi.
Born Ireland on March 17, 2010 at Apple Horse Farm, her mother is a gray TN Walker X Arabian and her daddy is a black and white paint Racking Horse X American Saddlebred. I call her an American Rackarabian Walker. She is dark but not black- lets call her a black bay with one white ankle sock. As my trusted mare Faygo (Faygo my first equine love… Faygo the fine… Faygo the fantastic…) is passing middle-age and had a battle with lymes disease last winter, I decided I would like to find a young horse (a 2 or 3-year old) that I could bring home, get to know, and gradually spend time bringing her along so when the long miles our riding friends enjoy get too hard on Faygo, I’d have another horse coming up to take over some of the work. I decided summer was ideal for me to take this on at first as I had more free time than during the school year when teaching gets busy.
I called a girlfriend whose brother breeds (gaited) horses and asked if she could find out if he might have one to suit me. I wasn’t too concerned about a specific breed or color, I wanted a young mare who would ideally gait, and be well suited for the kind of hard-core trail riding we do. She called me shortly after and said there was one that seemed like the right pick and I went to see her.
Apple Horse Farm has some of the most stunning horses- beautiful paints, reds and grays and there is a lot of Saddlebred in the genetics there- so high heads and alert ears and beautiful bones. Then there was Ireland, in a pen by herself looking dark and plain and not striking in any particular way. But she was a pretty mare and though she didn’t seem fearful, she would not come over and say hello and let me touch her over the fence. She didn’t come over and say “take me home with you…” She was curious but held her distance. She seemed intelligent and alert without being spooky. She turned out to be 4, but after some handling around age 2 she had lived on the acres in the horse herd and was entirely green.
Inner voice: you have no idea how to train a horse… what on earth are you thinking?
Outer voice: Yes. I’ll take her.
So here we are, 6 months later (almost to the day). I am riding through the woods on a cold January late afternoon checking my GPS to see if I have any concept of how fast we are walking and looking at the dark clouds that threaten to soak us in a cold stinging rain imagining that someday I might have to ride at night, in miserable rain after riding 15 hours already remembering a day in January when the same horse wasn’t even ready for a rider on the trail.
And I feel a sense of joy when instead of a pelting rain, large fluffy snowflakes begin to swirl around us as if dancing along in the breeze. It was the first snow this winter I’d been riding in and it was everything winter should be, quiet, beautiful, and still. We walked along in the forested snow globe to do 4.5 miles at an average speed of 3mph. That includes stopping, so it might be a bit higher. Faygo does have a faster walk, but Khaleesi has been an anchor on our pony rides- I’m hoping this is just her getting used to working out and not a sign that she will always be a slow poke! Will she make an endurance horse? Does she have what it takes? When I looked around for answers to what horse makes a good first endurance horse, the answer I got every time was “The horse you have now” and that every sound/healthy horse can finish a long distance race with the right conditioning.
On my conditioning chart, the average horse is supposed to walk at 3.5 – 4mph so we are not setting any records here. Still, it’s January, and my endurance horse isn’t even ready to carry a rider on the trail. So we’re setting a baseline and starting slow conditioning. Basically, we are not even at zero yet. The starting point I’ve read suggests riding your horse about 3 days a week for the first month at an average of 5mph (slow trot) mostly on the flat (that’s a challenge here).
Today: Ponied Khaleesi with Faygo at about 3mph for 90 minutes.
It’s a start… and everyone has to start somewhere.
I promise to mix in a bit of the past six months as well as the journey going forward is as we go. And most of the entries won’t be this long.
I hope you see you here again, and I hope some of my experiences will entertain you enough to read on….