Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Looking Backward to the Future

February came in December this year here in the twigs of Sussex County and it seems to have taken me and many of my friends by surprise. Forget that the cold makes bones ache and tempers short. Ignore the snowthrower that should have been exhumed from its burial plot in the tool shed before the first flakes touched down. Let go all of the frozen hoses and unfilled potholes and the space under the barn door that went without that load of shoulder stone someone (could be me...I'm not saying) forgot to order back in September when the late summer lulled us into lethargy. All of that is water under the....

Well, it would be water under the bridge if it weren't frozen now.

But New Year's Eve is nearly upon us! One more day, and 2009 will disappear forever to be replaced by a whole new decade ripe for sullying with our craziness. It's time to look back and be grateful (okay...a little pissed, but mostly grateful) for what the past decade has brought.

2000: The Millenium Bug went the way of the Pet Rock, which is to say it hit its peak early, then died a natural death when it became obvious that there wasn't much excitement value in watching clocks tick.

2001: You're expecting some comment on 9/11, so here it is. Bad year all around, but many of us went on to live fruitful lives despite the cloud of depression hanging over the planet. I watched my daughter graduate from college without becoming a drug addict (that is, I did not become a drug addict to compensate for my irrational concerns about her college experience).

2002: The UN Security Council passed the resolution that was designed to either a) force Iraq to disarm, or b) allow us to invade. We picked b. New horses came and occasionally left the farm while my daughter experimented with a lesson program, training, and, most of all, returning to the fold where Mommy Dearest collided with her reality. It all worked.

2003: Katherine Hepburn died, the Iraqi Freedom war began, and in an unrelated incident, I detached a retina. Nine months of staring at people's shoes passed before the surgeon finally, with great enthusiasm, sucked the stuff out of my eye and gave me eyeball stitches that went a long way as a disciplinary tool in my high school English class. "Sit down and shut up or I'll show you my eyeball!" Waaaah! I used the time off to compile my first book. Mars Odyssey climbed out of the atmosphere and into Mars orbit. Remember SARS? Yep! This was the year.

2004: The war continued while we prepared for my daughter's wedding. As someone who's own personal entire wedding planning episode took under three months, the advance-planning stages of this epic event overwhelmed me to the point where I became a home-bound psychotic and bought the ugliest dress in the mail-order catalog to wear to the reception.

2005: The Wedding Happened. We all survived. Most of us, intact. The former-daughter-now-wife and her two riding horses left. I spent the next six months having thrice-weekly confabs with the vet over the lump that appeared on my daughter's aged gelding's face. I had Cornell's vet school on speed dial.

2006: Not much happened in the larger world as far as I can ascertain other than the launch of history's longest and most obnoxious Presidential campaign. Two horses died, which was far more meaningful, and I got sick. That pretty much killed the rest of 2006, though it did not prevent me from putting together another book.

2007: This year started on a Monday. Could there be a worse omen? The war dragged on. A partial solar eclipse almost eclipsed war news for ten seconds. Halley's Comet did not return, but is scheduled to do so in 2061 if you don't mind waiting. I got to ride a fabulous dressage horse that did not belong to me and whose owner showed the poor judgment of letting me set butt in saddle on her boy. It was close to my birthday, which made it a truly pithy moment full of Grrrl Power fist-pumping which caused my bursitis to flare up.

2008: New President, Barak Obama, became the no-holds-barred target for every whifty wingnut this side of Sarah Palin. Very exciting year as far as news, but the horses were totally disinterested. I may have to install cable TV in the barn to keep their enthusiasm for human idiocy at a fever pitch.

2009: Yep, he's still President. I discovered that I'm allergic to cold weather. I learned that in August when the temperature never reached the required scorch-on-contact 105 degrees that I'd hoped for. Granted, I save a lot on electricity since the horses were fine with fans, obviating the need for the planned A/C installation in the barn. However, lacking excuses, I was forced to ride daily, which trickled down to an exercise regimen that would allow me to continue to do so. In recovery I wrote my third book.

2010: Wait for it.... Meanwhile, party hearty but safely, and may the New Year bring something to the table that the last ten were lacking, whatever that might be for you and yours.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Horses For the Holidays

It's safe to read this today. No pleas here for you to send more money or bring home a horse or other rescued pet. Today I'm in awe of the generosity of people I don't know but would like to meet one day.

In my splotch on the planet, horses have it pretty good. There are wonderful homes where owners care deeply about their responsibility towards whatever pets they choose to keep. There are several excellent rescues and no-kill shelters. They can all use a little more financial support, but they are doing an amazing job.

But just now I followed a few threads on Facebook and was dumb-struck (yeah, I can be struck dumb) by the number of horses recently adopted out of the kill pen at Camelot Sales here in Cranbury, New Jersey. While I was feeling sorry for all those abandoned horses, other, better people were busy making room for them in their barns. I could not be more impressed by all of you who continually jump in to save an animal from an unhappy ending.

I do want to note that although Camelot and its kind may seem like cruelty personified, it is not the fault of the auction owner or personnel when a horse winds up in the pens. The care they receive once they are there is, but not the decision to put them in that setting. If there are angry barbs to be launched, their aim needs to be clear. Without the auctions, many of these horses would have simply starved to death, abandoned to their fates by owners who could not or would not see them through to a kinder conclusion. Close the pens, and where will those horses go to find new homes? How will anyone know they are in need?

One poster brought up the fact that euthanasia is still too expensive in many areas. This is an issue that will continue to bring the crazies out of the woodwork on both sides. Euthanasia is not that expensive. Many vets are donating their time at venues to help strapped owners put their horses down humanely. Death may not always be the best solution, but it is an option that needs to be faced without anger and conflict. Is a horse better off humanely killed than painfully starving? Hell yes! But we all need to agree not to target the owners who make that choice as evildoers bound for Perdition.

Another voice aimed barbs at the breed associations, AQHA specifically. Yes, they need to stop offering incentives for breeders. That would go a long way toward eliminating excess horses. The time for numbers competition among the breeds and self-serving approaches is long past. But local jurisdictions also need to get on board and stop requiring breeding and selling of babies for a farmland property tax assessment and abatement. A move toward keeping horses as a requirement would be excellent and might open up new options for owners. Here in New Jersey, it's only been a little over a year since equestrian activities were finally permitted a slot in the "Right to Farm" regulations. Prior to this change (and thanks to the NJ Horse Council for that lobbying coup), nothing equestrian counted as farming, so the difficulties faced by farm owners were legion and expensive to deal with, and breeding was the only sure bet.

Still another voiced the belief that backyard breeders will keep breeding no matter what they are told. That's another problem. Gelding could be made cheaper and breed registration more expensive. When the bloom is off the breeding rose, perhaps more breeders will see the wisdom to keeping only their top stock intact and gelding their babies pre-sale. They could increase their own share of the market with a simple snip-snip and give the industry a leg up on solving this problem.

The issues in our business are many and complex, but there is one simple solution. We need to work together. Horse people are notoriously independent. Like cattle and dairy farmers, they don't like to be told what to do, and government regulation is poison to their souls. Find a way to convince horsemen that the business needs some serious cut-backs and that fewer people need to try to make a living at being horsey, and a paradigm shift will follow.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ode to Azithromycin

Sleighbells ring, are ya' listening?
On my lip, snot is glistening....

The First Cold of the Season has to be among the most depressing of all pre-holiday events as it bodes so poorly for raucous good times. In my case, it's just adding to an already severe case of Christmas Blahs, but for some it is truly a slimy fly in the ointment that is Holiday Planning.

Still, there are bigger fish to fry, so Kleenex wads aside, we need to focus.

Today I was sad to find not one but two emails in my in-box listing horses that are in need of immediate homes. The death of the founder of the New York Horse Rescue would be sufficient cause for glumness on its own, as a fine vet has met an untimely end and leaves a wife and two young children behind to grieve their loss. But there are horses involved as well that now need to be rehomed as quickly as possible.

Adding to the sadness was a listing with photos of a gaggle of animals currently housed
at Camelot auction house at 43 Brickyard Rd, Cranbury, New Jersey (call Frank, 609-448-5225). The prices range from ridiculously low ($100) to awesomely ridiculous (about $500) for well-broke, apparently healthy and possibly sane equines. Word has it that the entire group, all horses that either did not sell at the recent auction or were purchased for resale by Buyer #10 (listed as "feedlot" and rumored to be a well-intentioned kill buyer who prefers to resell the animals to new homes) will be headed to slaughter on Sunday. This coming Sunday. The Sunday before Christmas and right after Hannukah. If I was alert enough to know the date of Kwanzaa, I could triple heart-wound you.

So what's a pre-holiday horse person to do? Click the link above, that's number one. Do what you can to help even if it's just passing the word. If I am starting to sound as annoying as a toddler's tin drum, that's a good thing. Go do something for someone, and I'll fade Silently into the Night.

You might be interested to know that if you have an annual income of over $35,000, you are actually quite well-off. Doesn't that make you feel more generous? You are above-average in wealth and undoubtedly also brilliant and violently attractive to the opposite sex. Put all that awesomeness to good use and find a way to help.

Don't make me get my Grinch on.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ho, Ho, WHOA!

Still 'tis the season, right? So what's with all the glum faces I see around me?

What I'm thinking is that we as a lump sum of humanity have become depressed, dejected, disappointed, and otherwise demented and there is no one to blame but ourselves. Sure, we're jobless. Sure, we have little hope of surviving to the New Year with any sort of flash and flare. But there are some diamonds amidst the coal in our stockings.

One lovely glimmer our credit card bills that are shrinking because we're afraid to spend, and that's a good thing. Though the cost of everything has risen exponentially, prices are starting to decline...a good and a bad thing, but we'll stick to the good part for now. After all, we horse people have never been known to be overtly reality-based. Why start during the holidays?

Horses are without a doubt the most expensive of house pets, yet the vast majority of us are managing even if it means skimping on bedding to make sure the hay keeps coming. Grain is a luxury in times like these, and that's okay. Water and good hay will take Fuzz Butt far without too much strain on his health (though his attitude may be taxed to the max). If they're happy and healthy, they're fine and better than many.

In my last post I suggested that some of us (you know who you are) who like to throw money at family and friends during the holidays in the hope that they might actually like us after New Year's might do better to toss a little in the direction of some of the needy horses and other house pets who are suffering more than we humans through this financial drought. I'm making that suggestion again (can't hear it often enough, can we?), but in deference to those who have whined that they really don't have cash to spare, I'm adding that volunteering time is also a really fine thing to do.

Of course I'm focusing mostly on the animals who we capture, keep, and often torment for our own bizarre and questionable purposes and who have no options since they can't unionize, write letters to the editor, or turn us in to the watchdog agencies on their own. They deserve some extra consideration all the time, not just at the holidays. But there are also humans out there in need, sometimes just craving a friendly shoulder or a leg up on a job application or a cup of coffee paid for by the stranger in line behind them at Dunkin'.

Time to drag out that copy of the Pay it Forward DVD you got for Christmas a few years back and watch it. Not all of it; you can skip the part at the end where the kid dies because that's just too depressing for a holiday pick-me-up. But let's have a go at some Random Acts of Kindness, shall we? The lady who gave me her shopping cart yesterday with the quarter still installed in the chain release said "Merry Christmas!" For a minute it really felt that way, and I smiled for the rest of the hour of dragging-and-dropping foodstuffs in my mindless weekly ritual. I smiled at the checker and bagged my own groceries. That made her smile and wave her arthritic hand at me. I'm sure the next person in her line was greeted with something more kindly than her usual scowl and rumble.

So small, that quarter, and yet so...well...ripply in effect.

Let it start with us horse folks. When you're at the farm market, pick up a bag of slightly bruised apples and drop them off at the local equine rescue. Go break the ice in your neighbor's water trough while she's at work or dump her dog's water dish and refill it. When you pass the pet shelter, stop in and ask if they can use a hand this weekend cleaning cages and grooming animals. If you have kids, get them on board as well.

We're a damned decent species when we've got sufficient motivation. Think of this as the beginning of a better year--not better in the sense of bringing you more of the same old same old, but better in ways you can't imagine yet--and use that thought to spark something. You'll be amazed at the outcome, I promise.

And order my books. There's no hope of delivery in time for Christmas, but IOU's in pretty holiday designs are always welcome.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sleighbells Ring

Nope, not looking like this out just yet. At least not here in the twigs of New Jersey, though I'll bet my friends in the Dakotas are seeing something pretty much like snow right now.

But even as the little bit of unexpected snow we got yesterday melts away, it's time to think about winter and horses and horses in need of help this winter.

Naturally, if you have horses and you are a decent caretaker, you're already planning whatever adjustments you need to make for the weather in your area. Here at the farm it was a quick plug-in of trough de-icers, the addition of the heated bucket for the two boys who live in the barnyard, and the disconnection of all the hoses from all the "freeze-proof" hydrants. Remember, they're only freeze-proof if they're not full of water, so take the hoses off and open any valves so the water can drain back down into the nice, freeze-proof ground.

Then, because this snow was a tad unexpected, the two horses still wearing shoes had to be consulted. The mare, Pokey, has no issues. She gets to stand in the pasture on the hay the herd has been rolling in and peeing on for the past month, so there's little danger of snow balling up before I can get those summer sneakers swapped out for the winter jobbies with the rim pads and the borium studs. But good ol' Leo, my faithful partner in crime, came in balled to the max last night, so today he was forced to put aside his fashion sense and live with the pretty red Simple Boots he shares with Dakota. There was much discussion as he stuck his booted foot out for me to look at, and the expression of horror on his face ("You're joking, right? In public I have to wear these?") was charming but ineffectual as I was off for the day to visit my 92-year-old father whose issues are far more pressing than Leo's dislike for the My Pretty Pony look.

Medium blankets all around last night as the freezing rain and snow combo sent the herd scrambling for cover, and they'll live with those until I have time to take them off. Or until after the next predicted rain storm on Wednesday. Whatever. They're fine.

But as I cruised Facebook this afternoon and saw the unending list of adoptable horses, it occurred to me that a lot of animals are not so fine. So I'm going to suggest that, if you can afford it, you add a name to your Holiday gift list. You must have someone on that list who really doesn't need or want whatever you were planning on spending on him. That five bucks you were going to toss to the paper delivery guy who has managed to dump your Sunday news in the mud three out of four times....why not consider sending it to one of the horse rescues or animal sanctuaries? There are plenty of them out there, and not a one would turn down even the smallest donation. Got an extra bag of feed? A few bales of hay? Some free time? Let this season's joy be reflected in the lives of some animals who might otherwise just languish in their suffering. You'll feel better for it, and they'll appreciate whatever comes their way.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Shameless Plug and Eight Belles

You must know someone deserving of one, two, or even three awesome horse books. I might even be convinced to offer a three-fer. One never knows. All three of my books are available through iUniverse, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and me (if you're local--no point throwing shipping costs to the wind). It's a Horse's Life! traces a year in the horse world with instructions on how (or how not) to turn a backyard barn into a boarding farm. Horses in the Yard is a treatise on what it is to own horses and deal with their quirks and sublime craziness. Horses Happen! is a how-to and survival guide for the poor soul thinking about buying their first horse and for the more experienced horse person who just wants a trip down Bad-Memory Lane. Buy them! You'll like them, I promise.

So much for the Shameless Plug.

On to the legacy of Eight Belles. I must credit this photo as deserved to the site Eight Belles Legacy where you will find ample photos of this lovely girl and other racehorses upon whose sadness stands a wonderful effort to bring about some changes in the racing industry.

If there's anything sadder than the agony of a fatally injured horse in any discipline, it's the willingness of critics to jump on every effort to improve the contributing situation. The initiation of the NTRA SIA, an independent commission set up to ask the important questions and take feedback from the public, should have been welcomed by all horse lovers. Unfortunately, there will always be naysayers in the muddle. In this case they are nay-saying that this is a hired-gun committee under the thumb of the racing industry and that no change will come from its efforts. This is almost as rational as the Palin Death Squads and my suspicion that the aliens took my excellent horse and replacing him with a weird doppleganger resistant to my perfect training methods.

But if you are a fan (or a foe) of racing and would like to have your say, email your comments to They take all comers. Tell them how you feel about training methods, breeding, track footing, feeding, how cute those jockeys' silks are...anything that you feel needs to be addressed. Then do your homework and stay on top of what's going on in racing. If you're dissatisfied with the speed or efficacy of the changes, say so. What you can't do is loiter around the networking sites and the horse forums and grab just any post by any stranger and take it as gospel to be passed on relentlessly.

Change in any area of life requires commitment and reasonable expectations. Join the effort or leave it alone. Undermining it isn't an option for a Thinking Horseman.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

When is a Horse Not a Horse?

First, go buy my book. Then I'll be happy to answer the question.

I'll wait....................

Okay. Thanks. I'm counting on getting rich and famous, so keep ordering.

The answer to the question is "Never!"

Simplistic? Not really. The subject of "horseness" was brought home to me recently when I followed up with action the words of my favorite horse psychic, Ginny Palmieri. It all seemed so straightforward. Zip has pain in his withers, so I put a wider gullet in the saddle and added a gel pad. Bingo! Dakota feels he should be recognized for not bucking off the beginners I put on his back, but he likes teaching people about horses. Gave him some strokes and an apple, and gave the barn slave a lesson. Yee-HAH! Leo wants more attention. Easiest of all since he's the horse most likely to have his nose in my armpit wherever I travel. Zap!

On down the list of complaints and requests I went, fixing and adjusting wherever I could, fully expecting in the end that there would be considerable change in the animals' attitudes and behaviors. In truth, there has been, but all within the "Horseness" parameters. This is where beginners and stubborn experienced horse people come a-cropper of the reality of Horse Life. When a human loved one says, "Stop poking me in the eye and I'll gladly make you dinner on Friday night," it's a safe bet we can interpret that in clearly literal terms. I pocket my finger; Cliff gets out the fry pan.

In the horse world, however, it's not so clear-cut. Horses have other things going on in their lives besides us. Horses remember things like pain, while we often forget where we parked the car. Horses know that squirrels don't have their best interests at heart. And horses don't just shrug and let bygones be bygones. It's a process. Correction of situations requires a lengthy series of repetitions, small improvements, incremental adjustments, and, in time, possible success. No matter how hard we try, they will never really speak Human, and we can only approximate Horse.

So that's my warning for today. Finding out that there's a problem is great. Acknowledging that you are the cause is the next step. Making adjustments and apologies as needed is required. Then you wait...patiently...for what might be a very, very long time. Frustration must not cause rushiness. Anger may not creep into the equation. We must be one with the Cosmos and let the horse work through whatever he's working through and be delighted when the change finally comes. We must Be the Horse, who waits for years for us to notice that his stall floor lists to the north so he's got one shoulder that's higher than the other.

I'm human enough to deal with that. Are you?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Buy My Book (and other stuff)

Well, it's finally happened! Be sure to get your copies today. There's no telling when the world might actually come to a end. You wouldn't want to miss this opportunity!

Click on the book cover for a quick trip to the publisher's place, or wait a little and visit or Barnes& if you prefer. Order all three of my books at once at Amazon and you'll qualify for free "Super Saver" shipping! Yee-HAH! It's available in paperback for $13.95, e-book (from the publisher) at $6.00, and Kindle version at Amazon for $7.99. Pick one. Or two. They're small.

It's a seriously good book for novice owners or for those of us more experienced horsey types who like to laugh at novice horse owners. It'll bring back memories.

On to other stuff!

This has been a big week for my horses. Not only have they come face-to-face with impending winter lay-off time (and seem to be doing a snow dance as I type), but they also had their brains picked by my favorite telepath, animal communicator Ginny Palmieri. I'm not going to share their secrets here, but I will say that I now know I own a horse who, were he human, would have "one hand down his pants and the other would be holding a beer". I suspected as much when I saw the cigar butts and the Racing Form outside his stall door.

I also own a horse who is "sooooo interesting!" That's generally not what a horse owner wants to hear. Words like "simple", "uncomplicated", "desperately craving your approval"...those are the good words.

But on the whole, the herd seems to be doing fine, which makes me happy and validates the huge carrot investment I made last month.

If you own an animal, you already know that they have ways of reading your mind. My cat Tuft knows precisely the moment I decide I'm going to settle in in front of the fire with a book. He has to go out then, and will brook no discussion. The cockatoo, Angel, knows when I'm on the phone with someone I haven't spoken to in a while and who might think it worthwhile to call the authorities to find out why I am torturing birds in my home.

But these warm little bodies house brains that are constantly filtering information to and from us. We just tend not to listen very well. That's where nice folks like Ginny come in. I'm not saying you need to rush right out and call a psychic to find out why Fluffy ate the Tiffany pendant your new beau just gave you. I'm not saying you really want to know the answer to "how does Lucifer feel about the new kitty brother I gave him?" I'm just saying, don't sell the little buggers short. They'll tell you everything if you just stop talking for a minute and give them a chance.

There are a few books available that will give you instructions on communicating with the animals yourself. I've tried that. Apparently I don't speak any foreign languages. So I will continue to rely on periodic check-ins with Ginny to make sure the herd and I are all on the same side of the barn, so to speak.

And yes, Pokey, you are a very good girl!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Far Hills and Faraway Ponies

I'd fully intended to send this video to Facebook, but I realized it would draw more comments from more folks who believe ponies live long enough to raise several generations of children and that no horse should ever be sold, and I wouldn't have had the chance to really put in my two dollars' (inflation, you know) worth.

Chico is obviously an amazing pony, and this video was made in part as a farewell memory for his young owner and in part as a sales pitch in hopes that Chico would wind up in the hands of another child who would love him as much as Scotty has. Word has it that he did just that.

The bond shown here is amazing, and it's a wonderful commentary on what can happen when wise, horse-smart parents introduce their children appropriately to a love of animals and give them the skills to be safe and happy in their horse lives. That ponies are outgrown is just the nature of the beast. It's not sad. It's life. And I can attest from experience that though Chico undoubtedly went through an emotional period of loss after he moved on, he most likely adjusted and was just as pleased to be fawned over by yet another child...and another after that until he reaches the end of the road and his forever home.

My daughter once bought a lesson pony. The pony proved to be too small for some students and too hot for others, so after two years she made the sad decision to send him on to a new home. We picked his buyer carefully, refusing the crazies and the insipids and settling on a lovely grandmother small enough to ride the pony and loaded with grandchildren who would also love him. But the pony wasn't nearly as sad as we were. As much as he seemed bonded with us, he was a total whore for any child under the age of ten, with or without carrots. He knew instinctively that kids were going to be his life, and he was more than fine with that. He didn't even wave goodbye.

So watch the video with an eye toward helping the children in your life form the same kind of bond with whatever animals you choose. Horses are not for everyone, but the connection with animals is.

On to the Race at Far

Saturday, October 17th, was cold, rainy/snowy, and without much merit overall with the exception of the running of the annual Far Hills Steeplechase. The races held that day were as exciting as they are every year, though the slippery footing left some jockeys shutting down when they realized they couldn't win. They get points for sanity. There's no glory in a steeplechase version of Barbaro.

This race card is more than just another link in the national steeplechase chain. Begun back in the 1950's as a thank-you to local farmers from the Essex Hunt, this particular outing is hosted at Moorland Farms for the express purpose of fund-raising on behalf of the Steeplechase Cancer Center at Somerset Medical Center in New Jersey. And a fine job it does! An annual event, the Far Hills Race is a gathering of the wealthy and the insane from the Tri-State who tailgate with elan and pay big bucks for the privilege. We were delighted to luck into reserved parking this year so we could join the happy throng of some 35,000 whackadoodle race fans.

Sadly, this being our first year, we didn't get that the rules on paper are just that. Next year we will know that "no open flames" does not preclude a four-burner, propane-fired kitchen range. "No canopies" is just for giggles, I'm sure. The only restriction actually adhered to was the "nothing larger than an SUV" rule, which made maneuvering around the other parked vehicles a little easier. One van in the melee would have created a gridlock worthy of and ABC News flyover.
So is a trip to Far Hills in your future? I have already decided to keep my two spaces for next year and add as many more as I can manage so that our Homeless Race Fans' Tent City can be upgraded to the same level of style and class as this one below. The inflatable ponies eventually made their escape.

In case anyone is wondering, the winner of the high-dollar stakes race was a horse belonging to the Merck (Pharmaceutical) family, one of the rare occasions when a New Jersey horse actually won the New Jersey race. Since this meeting offers the highest purses of the entire national circuit, that's very exciting for the family and for NJ race fans.

Come next September, when your summer is winding down and you're beginning to look for ways to perk up your fall schedule, check the date for the Far Hills Race and sign up. We'll see you there!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Falling Into Winter

Isn't this cute? On my desktop, the snowflakes twinkle. That's supposed to make me feel better about the fact that it frickin' SNOWED yesterday. Snow! In October! In New Jersey! There are only a few things that make living in the most-taxed state in the union tolerable. Good weather is one of them. Snow in October is against the rules.

Anyway, it's time for a look forward and backward. A backward glance shows Pokey recovering nearly completely from her laser cancer surgery. That's the best news I could have had. I didn't ask my vet to check her when he did her shots, but his intellectual curiosity got the better of him and he had to take a peek at this rare surgical site. He was delighted with the outcome, and so am I. I explained my change of post-op routine to exclude the nasty 5-FU ointment until the dead tissue was done sloughing or she launched a new tumor, and he concurred that salting the goo away for the next re-occurrence was the best bet. Yippee!

For anyone out there considering a laser tumor removal (which is primarily for skin cancer in horses but works well for squamous cell carcinoma), know that the after care is a little more difficult than you will be led to believe, but the outcome can be excellent. Reading up on 5-FU, I learned that its major downfall is its inability to penetrate skin, so it is really only useful on the open wound resulting from the surgery. Once the wound heals (or if you can't scrape away the scabs and sloughing dead tissue) it no longer serves much purpose. At nearly $300 a tube (yeah, really), it behooves the cautious owner to use it in the most effective manner...sparingly.

So it goes with Pokey. Zip is once again sporting lameness, this time only saddled and longeing over jumps. The fun just never ends. Before REAL winter, I will ask the lovely Carol Edwards, Chiro to the Equine Stars, to give him a working over in hope that we are still dealing with the results of that locked rib.

Everyone else, including Pinky who for some reason is missing some joint action at the walk but can trot and canter perfectly well, is doing fine. Yay for doing fine!

Looking forward, my new book will be out shortly. I'm relieved, mildly excited (because there have been issues with publisher errors and I haven't seen the final proof block to be assured they've been corrected), and looking for a new project. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Boredom leads to bad voices in my head.

This is the cover of the new book:

Don't bother trying to order it (I just know thousands of you are going to flood the website with requests), because it won't be available for a couple of weeks yet. I'll let you know. Thanks for asking.

Also looking ahead I see that tomorrow's Race at Far Hills will likely be run in the rain, snow, sleet, hurricane, tornado, or whatever other evil Nature has decided we deserve this year. Be there anyway. We will. We'll be hard to see under the tarps and blankets, but look for our Gallant Hope Farm parking area on the hillside and come say hello. We need to know we're not alone in our insanity.

To paraphrase (because I'm too lazy to open it and look at it and quote it accurately) the classy "skin" on my laptop (purchased from my fave online catalog, Despair Inc):

Madness does not always howl. Sometimes it comes as the quiet voice at the end of the day asking, "Hey! Is there room in your head for one more?"

The answer is yes.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Saved by Mylestone!

I've been a supporter of Mylestone Equine Rescue for several years, ever since a friend introduced me to their program via a benefit wine-tasting. I went for the wine. I stayed for the wonderful job founder Susankelly Thompson and her group do for the horses.

Mylestone is housed on a farm in Warren County, NJ. I was amazed to see how efficiently MER has used the land. Each horse has ample space to move around outdoors, either a shed with easy access for cover and shade at the animal's whim or a stall in the clean, airy barn, and lots of attention from staff. Privately-kept horses should have it so good!

What makes Mylestone special (apart from the obvious and intense dedication of the staff of volunteers who care for and work with the horses) is that every effort is made to rehome the animals that are capable of moving on to a forever home. But those that cannot go on are guaranteed a permanent home at MER with continued care until their time on the planet is over. That means a lot.

I won't belabor the details of the functioning of the group. Everything you might want to know is on their website. What I will add in an attempt to drive home the need is that these horses, many of which came from private owners who could no longer cope with horses in their lives for whatever reason, are all needy. They have been ill, abused, neglected, and left to suffer, though not always by the owners who sent them to MER. Though veterinary and other professional care is generally donated, the medications are not. Nor is their feed. Several are on special diets and endless doses of supportive meds to make their lives the best they can be for however long they last.

The need for volunteers and donated feed, equipment, and cash, cash, CASH is pretty much endless. As horses leave MER for new homes or for their final resting places, new ones arrive, each with its own problems and issues.

Visit the website, check the wish list. If there's something you can donate, do so. Visits are not arranged or encouraged on weekdays--the place is buzzing and volunteers are fewer during those times--but if you want to see what's going on before you send a donation, ask for an appointment and visit on a weekend. You will be as pleasantly surprised as I was, I'm sure.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Middle-Aged Horses

While we're on the subject of middle age and fearfulness, let's take a quick look at the fearless middle-aged horse. After all, middle age isn't just for humans, you know!

I said that a lot of fearfulness in riders of any age (but older, less sane riders most of all) comes from trying to ride the wrong horse. I suggested that as we grow old, our brain hairs wither and we tend to remember only the best times of our horse lives, the ones spent galloping around like lunatics, doing things our mothers didn't want us to do, making boarding farm owners old before their time. When that happens, we buy and try to ride horses that are too much for us. The result is often bodily damage (real or projected onto an internal screen) and fear.

So the middle-aged horse is a serious candidate for consideration when a middle-aged rider who might have some inky fear besmirching her heart wants to get back in the saddle after a layoff. Middle-aged horses are not their lunatic offspring. Not that there aren't Wild Willies in the "aged" group (that's over 12 in some circles, over 15 in others), but unless Big Buddy was kept in a stall his whole life, he's seen and done a lot more than his younger herd mates. Not as much scares him. Not so many squirrels in his woods (or in his head).

On the other hand, unless he's been run into the ground and is sporting a bunch of medical issues resulting from poor management, he's still got ample vim and vigor to make even the coldest heart cockles tingle with warmth. Want to go dashing through the woods bareback? He's probably a safer bet than Hooligan, who may get so excited he'll run you headlong into a tree, forgetting how much taller you are in the saddle than on the ground. Buddy will give you a run for your money, but at a slightly slower, more measured pace. Dakota, pictured here, is 18 now. You'd never guess it to look at him. Granted, he was never the most enthusiastic of horses, but in his dotage he is my number one choice for a leisurely ramble down the road. He's immune to traffic of all sorts including the kids from the neighboring high school who seem to think horses need to be honked at. He's also quite amenable to a barrel run, though his limit is three before he suggests dinner and a movie. And he'll happily pop over cross rails up to a height of four inches. I've tried raising the bar, but at five inches he stops dead and waits for me to lower the rail before he backs up and hops over.

Now, Dakota may be a little too quiet for most experienced riders. It's a matter of taste and how you choose to spend your saddle time. He's my guy for the challenge of the twisty back road with the trucks whizzing by. Leo, at 23, is my choice for everything else. Want to run? He's your boy. Want to jump a little? He'll do that too, up to about 18 inches (after which his arthritis makes him hop like a jack-in-the-box). And he'll spend all day wandering through the woods, delighting in the neighbors' kids' toys that blow freely past him and entranced by the contractor blasting foundation holes with dynamite. No fear.

Just remember that too quiet is as bad as too hot. When fear is your riding partner, you may over-compensate and opt for the least noxious horse on the sale site. A "pusher" is hard for an older, experienced rider to deal with as he may require all your energy just to get from the barn to the ring or the trail. If you're tired before you even get going, you're only trading boredom and frustration for anxiety.

Shop on!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Middle Age, Part Two

I was 32 when this picture was taken. That's so long ago that I had to check with friends to make sure this was a picture of me. I barely remember what it felt like to be that young and....well, alert!

Since my post about middle aged riders and fear, I've done some talking to other old people and some reading, and I've reached a conclusion or two. Middle aged (and Other Aged) riders are not more afraid of riding. They are:

1. More aware of how devastating injuries can affect their daily lives and stretch their families' love and patience to the breaking point, and

2. More likely to own the wrong horse.

By the time most riders have reached an advanced age, they have experienced a number of traumatic events, many of them horse-related. I was fifty...uh....over fifty when I had the only riding accident that sent me to the ER. Not that others should not have also done so, but on this occasion there were witnesses, so I couldn't just hobble to my bathroom and pour peroxide on whatever yucky places needed cleaning. I had to actually seek treatment. A good thing, as it turned out, as I needed stitches. Horse people are notorious for do-it-yourself medicine. Heck! If you can use a clamp to stop a horse's digital artery from relieving the animal of its life force, it's not a huge leap to pick up a needle and thread and "fix it" when some interior portion of your own body is trying to become exterior. Duct tape and a riding crop have splinted many a sprain.

The ER visit didn't cause my long recovery period. The type of accident did. But my family really had to step up during that time, and it took nearly two years for my left shoulder and hip to resume total (almost) functionality. Suddenly it wasn't funny anymore.

If I didn't have my own farm, if there were no horses, chickens, and people here to be cared for, if I'd been able to walk away and hole up for a time while I healed, I might not have experienced such a rude awakening. From what I've discovered in my recent conversations, it's the folks who have horses at home who are the first to discover capital-F Fear. The ones who board out but wind up in a body cast are the next group. The ones who lose jobs or spouses or the ability to function without support are right up there too.

In other words, it's not that middle-aged and older folks are more fearful, it's that they are more likely to have had a serious injury, for the odds to have finally turned against them, and they're more attuned to how their absence affects the larger world around them.

We are also more likely to be unwilling to give up on a horse that isn't working for us anymore (or one that never was). I'm old enough to have horses that have been with me for fifteen years. A fifteen-year-old rider can't say that. A fifteen-year-old rider thinks six months is a long time. Inertia is big in older folks. As I watched Zips Moneypit happily rediscovering his jumping bone, I couldn't help but think that he's misplaced here. He'll stay here until he dies (or I d0) because I know the folly of trying to rehome a horse that age that has never lived anywhere else. And because giving up on him smacks of giving in to my aging.

And we're forgetful! We remember those days when we galloped bareback and helmetless (yes, we did) through the woods and we buy horses that remind us of those days. Then we get on them and feel as if we're suddenly wrong. Different. The horse that attracted the memory us scares the bejeezus out of the real-time us.

Now, that doesn't mean we need to quit. We do, however, need to pay homage to our advancing years and think about also having a horse that is an easy, safe ride. Having more than one horse is out of the question for many people in this economy, but if we have the wherewithal, it's an excellent option. When I'm fresh out of nerve, good ol' Leo is there to cart me around, zippy enough to be fun and solid enough to erase all doubt that I can still ride. And there's Dakota, western to the core and dead-broke-quiet, but happy to try popping over teeny-tiny cross-rails if I'm in the mood.

This isn't the end of the story, I'm sure. The more people I talk to and the more letters and articles I read, the more I see that there are threads that tie us together but also vast differences in attitude and experience. I'll be curious to see where this all comes together into some sort of coherent theory.

Meanwhile, I'm going riding.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

This is me.

This is me the day Cliff and I exercised the gift certificate I bought at the Mylestone Equine Rescue charity auction. The certificate entitled us to a portrait sitting at a fabulous (and I mean that in every sense of the word) studio much heavy traffic away from home.

The look of intense constipation on my face here does not reflect my feelings about the event, only my effort to capture this one-time-only outfit for a book cover head shot by setting my new camera's automatic shutter release timer and, having done so ineffectively, my effort to press the shutter release and run quickly to the window and sit down. I give myself credit both for not falling out the window and for putting this miserable photo out in a public space.

But before I wrench a shoulder patting myself on the back for such idiocy, it is with great pleasure that I share my total fascination with the photography studio of Kramer Portraits in Hillsborough, NJ.

I'm not a portrait kind of person. I'm certainly not a ruffly-white-blouse portrait kind of person. My only "portraits" since my first marriage in 1971 have been the annual desecration of that term by the photographer that did the school pictures where I worked. There's not much one can do with a thousand rapid-fire sittings in one afternoon, so I'm not complaining, just explaining. When I won this Kramer sitting, I had no idea what I was in for.

First, Kramer isn't your average photo studio. I've been in those. I dragged my teen-aged daughter to two of the stripped-down, stool-and-background type common to the Twigs where I live. I'm a novice but not entirely a newbie. I had a head shot done at Wal Mart for my first book.

But walking into the opulent outer waiting room at Kramer's was an unexpected pleasure. The decor is elegant, the walls lined with amazing portraits... even the coffee was fabulous! For the hour we spent being posed, lighted, and shot by Peter, we were royalty, and suddenly the cheesy Ralph Lauren ruffles and suede jacket seemed appropriate. Peter was pleasant, even affable, offering water and conversation while we relaxed into the photo shoot. The hour flew by.

This weekend we returned for more coffee and a viewing of the proofs. This is a modern shop, so the photography is digital and there are no clusters of tiny pictures on sheets of paper for your fondling pleasure. Instead we relaxed on friendly, stylish furniture while Monica flashed not only our portrait options full-sized on the screen, but our chosen portrait in various incarnations directly onto the background photo I'd emailed her of the wall in my living room on which the portrait may finally hang. What ho! 'Tis a brave new photographic world!

I will return for another lovely interlude with the charming Monica when the portrait, retouched, hand-painted, and framed, is ready for pickup. My only regret in all of this is that I won't be needing another portrait, probably ever. If I were the vanity-struck type, I'd happily make an annual thing of this if only for the opportunity to see what Peter can do with me in riding gear, in jeans and my barn jacket, and maybe in a ball gown, should one pop up on the sale rack at Marshalls. Considering what he did with the Bozo look in the photo above, I have a feeling any morphing would have an elegant and beautiful outcome.

If you have a chance to attend next year's wine tasting fund raiser for Mylestone at the Lloyd farm in Califon, NJ, let me be the first to announce that Kramer's has already offered to donate another gift certificate for the silent auction. Bring your checkbooks.

Monday, September 21, 2009

"Middle Aged and Afraid to Ride"

When I saw that topic in Juli Thorsen's blog today, I had to borrow it and comment on it. It's something that's been nagging at me this week. It's nagged so loudly that I ordered new sand for the arena rather than saddle up Zip for the battle I know is likely to come when I ask him to do things my way. Theoretically, he'll be happier with new footing and peace will reign. Theoretically.

The question is, is middle age (okay, so maybe I'm just a smidge past that into $2 Off For Seniors) causing my lack of enthusiasm for the fight? Is the sum of all the injuries, added to the sum of all the riding years, making me a dullard, albeit a sane one?

A week ago I visited my friend the Lovely Ellen Ryan, who showed me her new horse and commented on what a great time I'll have with him when he's settled in and I have a lesson on him. Ellen's faith in my riding ability is one of her more endearing qualities. About two years ago she allowed me a walk-trot episode on her big dressage horse, Tico, and despite being fresh out of chemo, I had a grand time. But staring at the HUGE (over 17hh) young Appendix Quarter Horse she just bought and watching his eyes wrinkle in that "worried" look some horses get, I wondered if I had the same worried expression. That's a really high place to fall from. Really high. She's got nice rubber footing (unlike my wet sand and road grit mix), so the impact would be less disastrous.

But why was that the first place my mind went? Why didn't it go to the incredible stride on that horse and his obvious natural talent and balance and what fun it would be to fly around the ring with him?

I realized as I thought about Juli's question that the creep of fear is insidious and not single-sourced. There's the leftover aching in my joints from injuries past laying the groundwork. There's my recent realization that the farm work isn't as easy as it used to be. There's the thought that has been behind much of my riding for the past 12 years that if I get seriously injured, there's no one to take care of the horses, so I have to do it regardless of my state of health. That's a biggie.

But middle age...? When does middle age start? I always thought it was around 48. When I was 48 I was still barrel racing and had a new foal to train. No fear! Bareback rides on the trail were a regular part of the routine. That stopped when I moved away from the trails and my Quarter Horse mare died.

Does it start, maybe, at 55? That's when I started thinking about retiring from work, and I was pretty much healed from the fall off the loft ladder that caused me to buy one of every kind of back supporter ever made. I was still jumping Zip. Only 2-foot courses, but jumping nonetheless. That stopped when I had the last of the really big falls and dressage suddenly seemed like a really good discipline to learn to love.

Age doesn't seem to be a determining factor. I've known younger riders with far worse injuries than mine who kept riding at the same level and others with no injuries at all who simply slowed down. So it would appear to me to be a matter of personal issues possibly unrelated to but impacting on this horse life we've chosen.

In a few minutes I'll go find Zip in the pasture and saddle him up. Maybe we'll have a fight. Maybe we won't. We'll see. But quitting isn't in the cards. Yesterday Leo and I explored the back fields that I spent two hours mowing. I smeared us both with Cool Green jelly and off we went. But first we played in the ring...and we jumped. It was Leo's idea. Leo, at 23, lost interest in jumping a few years ago. Apparently his arthritis supplement works better than mine. But we had a wonderful time. The day before, it was Dakota doing crossrails (very, very tiny ones that don't worry his western spirit) and trails. Today is a new day and I'm going to try to keep that in mind when I hop on the Big Boy. Tomorrow is newer yet. Maybe middle age starts when we stop remembering that.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

When is Enough?

This pretty white horse with the black head is Pokey. Her registered name is "Missleading", which is also an accurate description of her. She is a Paint horse off the track in Oklahoma and Florida. She's Zip's mom. She has a huge spirit that she shares readily with anyone in need of comforting. She's my friend.

I pretty much make a rule of taking the best possible care of my horses, and Pokey has definitely been a beneficiary of my compulsive nature. But into even the best lives some rain must fall. In her case, there's been ample rain to qualify as a flood.

Foundered and pregnant when I bought her, she popped out a terrific colt and has gone on to live another 13 years with barely a lame step. Then Pasture Heaves happened. About ten years ago, she tested positive to 22 plants in her environment, testimony to what happens when you move a horse from one side of the country to the other. When I couldn't bring myself to tighten her girth anymore (and she is not a bareback horse!), I gave her my blessings to live forever in my care in semi-retirement. Her job is to make sure the geldings don't get out of hand, and to make everyone crazy with her occasional bursts of insanity that seem to take her by surprise as much as the rest of us. Her job is also to make people feel good. I don't know how she does it, but she can send out waves of peacefulness that are nearly palpable.

Then a few years ago I noticed blood on her hindquarters. The vet diagnosed a squamous cell carcinoma, and the surgeon removed it right in my barn. There was no chemo or other advanced techniques readily available at that time, so a couple of weeks after surgery, I removed the stitches, and she went about her life happy and healthy...until recently.

With a re-occurrence of the carcinoma, she and I ventured into a brave new world of veterinary medicine. I'm delighted to report that laser surgery is not just for humans anymore. With a five-hour round-trip visit to the only clinic in the state to sport a surgical laser and an hour of treatment by a surgeon versed in its use, Pokey was once again free of the growth on her barely-used private parts. We rejoiced with carrots and wine.

But now that we are over a week into the after-care for this particular treatment, which consists of rather painful cleanings of the surgical site (to permit healing from the inside out, it was left un-sutured) followed by the application of a chemo ointment called 5-FU, a chemical in common use in humans to stem the growth of various cancers. On days when the surgical site and the nubbins of additional tiny lesions that were lasered off at the same time are "weepy" from the intrusive quality of the chemo ointment, the cleaning is followed by smearing with another ointment. I've opted for Triple Antibiotic over the silver sulfadiazine that the vet recommended only because I know it works on her and I have tons of the stuff. Then there's the antibiotic Tri-meth and Bute for the pain.

I have no problem with playing nurse to my mare. I've diligently followed instructions, and the area appears to be healing. But with the recommended course of Bute doses finished, the pain in that area has increased exponentially. I can see it when I clean the site and she shifts her hindquarters as far away as possible. I can see it in the way she carries her tail straight out away from her painful area. I can see it in her eyes.

I will continue with the treatment as ordered for the prescribed 14 days. We've come so far that it seems a shame not to give her every chance for a longer, healthy life. But the pain is bothering me, and it has caused me to question: Just because we can, does that mean we should?

Pokey is 21. The tumor caused her no discomfort, but the treatment is causing plenty. In another week she is supposed to reappear at the vet clinic for a "touch-up" and a reassessment of a small tumor discovered during the first procedure. A "touch-up" means another round of laser cutting with the same after-care. I'm not so sure this falls into the "we should" class of actions.

At what point does it make sense to let nature take its course? I'm guessing on behalf of this mare that we're at that point. To take away the joy she exhibits in her daily romps in the pasture in order to ensure another chunk of time without guaranteeing that it will be longer than otherwise seems unfair. As much as I appreciate the additional years I've gotten from my own surgery and chemo treatments, I lost a lot as well. Maybe I'm more sensitive to the possible losses as a result.

I will wait it out this time. Pokey will heal (hopefully well) from her surgery, and I'll let time pass. If it takes another four years for the cancer to re-occur, we've done well. If it takes longer, better still. If it comes back quickly, then a new approach may be in order. But for now I'm passing on the "touch-up". This time I will temper my fascination with technology and my desire to wring every possible breath out of this lovely animal with patience and the knowledge that a life lived in pain isn't the goal.

For us, for now, "now" is "when".

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Fan Mail

Not to me. From me. This may seem like an odd topic, but I'm going to cover it anyway. Particularly in this economy, it's worth considering what a few kind words can get you.

In the past, when I taught high school English, I often had the students write either a letter of complaint or a letter of praise to a company as their first effort at a business letter. Most often, they wrote complaints.

"My iPod stopped working!"

"You sent me the wrong size baggy pants!"

"I wanted the Baywatch poster, not the South Park poster!"

But personally, I write more fan mail than complaint letters, and often I reap significant benefits. For instance, a few years ago when I was suffering from a truly obnoxious back issue, I bought a "lumbar extender" from a catalog. The item was such an amazing tool that I felt entirely compelled to write to the maker. My letter so excited them that they asked permission to use it in their ads in exchange for which they sent me a free travel version of the extender. Another company, seeing my letter in the ads, contacted me about a product they were selling--an intriguing new type of back supporter--and asked if they could send me one for free in exchange for my writing a review of it. Yeah, that stuff really does happen.

This all came around again today when I ordered a pain-relief gel from an ad in an online horse magazine. I sent off for a small jar to try on my aching body with an eye toward using it on my aching horses. The site recommended it for all sorts of animals, horses in particular. I filled out the form, hit send, pulled on my big-girl breeches, and headed out to spend some quality time causing poor Dakota to sweat like a pig.

Imagine my delight when I returned to find a phone message from the maker of the gel. That is always the first step in a good relationship: Direct Contact. The maker wanted to know where I found the product (checking to see if advertising is working is key to sales success) and how I intended to use it. Within an hour I was talking on the phone to the guy who invented and is marketing this particular product (which shall remain nameless until I'm certain it works).

We had a lovely chat. He asked about my horses and our respective pain issues. I asked about his invention of the gel. He offered to send me free samples to distribute and some videos to show how to use the gel and how effective it is. By the time the call ended, he'd decided to put together a promo package for me both in hope of my continued use of the product and in the greater hope that I might use my personal platform (such as it is!) to support the product. Why not? Once again, I'm going to receive free stuff and the good will of a manufacturer in return for nothing but a small purchase and some kind words.

Do you have a favorite product? Would it hurt you to tell the maker that you love it? Friends have received entire cases of products in return for five minutes of effort. Coupons, special offers, opportunities to make extra money distributing a favored item....there are ample rewards for your kindness. Even if nothing material is forthcoming, you can rest easy knowing that whoever read your letter or email or got your phone call did the Happy Dance and had a better day because you reached out.

Give it a shot! I'll be curious to hear what comes of it. Meanwhile, I'll be trying this new product and will report back, post a Facebook link if it's a winner, and report equally quickly if it's the usual crock of manure.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Some Cheese With That Whine?

Did you ever notice that every time you get sucked up into your own head and the voices there become unbearable, something comes along to shake the tree and rattle loose some of that common sense you used to have?

Yeah. Well, my last whiny rant about poor Zip who seems to travel under a cloud was interrupted, thank goodness, by my grandson and good ol' Duke. Here you see them in an intriguing pas de deux in the driveway. -->

here was absolutely no purpose to their happy playtime other than happy playtime. A little dwarf bonding episode. Dillon has been exposed to horses already because his mom, my daughter, has seen to it that he spends time at the barn with her mare, Dolly. So the fact that he's so relaxed here is her doing. But he'd never been up-close-and-personal with Duke before simply because until he could walk and was in control of at least some of his body parts, it didn't seem wise to turn him loose with the Mythical Beast. On the day these photos were taken, there was no reason not to, so we handed him the keys to his first project pony. Dillon is 19 months old in these shots.

Notice how little concern he has for whether or not his pony can do lateral work? Notice that Duke, new to dog impressions, is doing a fine job of not taking the baby for a drag? Could they be any more relaxed? Only if they were caught napping together on the lawn.

Sometimes it's not a bad thing to just quit all the fussing and fuming and "training" and "mastery" stuff and just relax and be a kid with a pony again. I've been busy breaking Duke to ride in advance of this moment, but Dillon was happier astride the bigger Quarter Horse, Leo. I guess Duke's choppy little stride was disconcerting to a rider for whom "hold on" hasn't quite developed any meaning. Dillon rides circus-style, arms spread and eyes firmly fixed on something the rest of us can't see but Leo can apparently relate to.

But that didn't matter. Riding wasn't an issue. Dillon is here to show us that our horses aren't just cars with brains, nor are they collectibles to display for our friends and enemies in the hope of proving ourselves. These two are just happy walking around together. Not once did Duke yank the rope to grab a hunk of grass. Not once did Dillon try to make Duke do anything other than be with him. Obviously, Duke tipped to something I'd been missing. It was a breath of fresh air for all of us!

Take some time to just BE with the horses! There's more important stuff there than we notice when we're so busy trying to make them, ourselves, and our lives together into something they don't need to be.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Zip's Slippery Slope

Don't bother critiquing my jumping position. I already know it sucks. I put this picture here because I needed to see Zip in the days when our rides were fun for both of us. Sadly, neither of us are enjoying them anymore.

Zip still has all the talent to which this photo does no justice whatsoever. He can still jump and run and collect and lengthen and do lateral work, just not under saddle. One moment in time set off a chain of events that seems to have no end and no chance for resolution. What's an owner to do?

Confession time: I have laughed heartily and pointed fingers at owners who spend endless resources trying to overcome some horse-related issue. I'm not laughing now. Did a minor slip in a trailer really set off a set of orthopedic problems, or is something more going on? Am I being played by my big buddy? Should I launch yet another round of vet checks, adjustments, tune-ups, medications, supplements, and training remediations, or should I just call it quits and pronounce the big guy Pasture Puff Extraordinaire? I am at a loss.

"Ride the piss out of him," my daughter suggested. "He's bored." Okay, fine. So we moved from dressage back to barrel racing, and for a minute, when the Zipster gave me a lovely canter without asking if he really had to do it, it looked like we had a winner. Ten minutes later the balking began and we were not just back to square one, but somewhere in the basement with the squares that didn't make the cut.

"Longe him!"
"Never longe him!"
"Ride him more forward!"
"Stop before he quits."
"Don't let him quit. Force him forward!"
"He needs time off."
"He needs more work!"

...and suddenly I'm a beginner haunted by rail birds, mostly professionals, and riding Zip has become a project instead of a joy. Sadly, it's a project that seems to be destined for failure.

Worst, he's still begging for my attention, doing whatever tricks he can think of to make me smile, and working, working, working right up to the moment when he slams on the brakes. Monday it was 20 minutes. Today 32. That could be progress. Only Zip knows. That today he actually seemed sad when I took him out into the ring, that he balked at walking through the gate, is testimony to how much we're not accomplishing in terms of our relationship.

To my Fellow Sufferers: I feel your pain now. All I can say is to trust your instincts. If the weight of the project seems to be out-of-proportion to the outcome, maybe you don't really get what the project is. I have a feeling mine is more about things I haven't figured out yet than about getting a good horse back on track.

Time.... That's all there is left to spend.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Money-Saving Tip

One might wonder how I'm saving money in this photo. It would appear that I am riding a really nice horse in a really nice arena at a really nice barn. All of that would be true. In fact, the day also involved a clinic with a really good clinician (judge and trainer Linnea Seaman). Not exactly sobbing into my peanut butter sandwich on the front stoop, right?

The money-saving tip for today is: Ride someone else's horse.

Yes, I'm serious.

This is not my horse. This is my daughter's horse. She's the one paying to keep and train the lovely mare, Dolly, while I just nip in occasionally for a quick lesson. Her cost for this outing: Over $350/month plus the clinic fee (which I happily paid on this occasion). Mine: Probably $10 in gas and less than $200 for the rest--clinic fees, lunch, coffee and donuts, and horse cookies. I can do this a lot of times before I even come close to the thousands of dollars she's putting out, right?

Now, not everyone is lucky enough to have a relative with a horse they can ride for free (or in this case for the price of a clinic spot), but you might be surprised at how many horse friends and acquaintances you can scare up who would like someone to ride their horses either as a companion or while they're away or laid up. My daughter was an invaluable resource when I was busy for nine months with eye surgery. Her once- or twice-weekly sessions on Zip kept him from moldering, which I sincerely appreciated.

Of course you have to be a decent rider and your friends need to have faith in your ability, but it can't hurt to offer. Of the eight responses I got in the first hour of my "barn slave wanted" Craigslist ad, all but two would have been more than able to keep any horses I had ridden and in shape, and I'd have paid them for the service. I know I'm not alone. Over the years I've needed help of the riding kind, and was grateful for the responsible people who offered it.

I also know at least one teen who has never actually owned a horse but has managed to ride several successfully for five show seasons. She worked off the free leases or rented school horses just for the day, so her end cost was minimal: Show clothes (which can be had cheap on eBay, by the way), horse rental, some tack (also available on eBay), hot dogs at the concession stand, and maybe Valium for Mom.

So if you're not exactly in a position to own a horse but are physically able and talented enough to ride horses belonging to others, make some calls, send out some emails, post a free ad on Craigslist, and see who climbs the flagpole to kiss your jeans-clad butt for offering. You might be pleasantly surprised. A few thousand dollars saved is... a few thousand dollars saved!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Comeback Kid

I love this picture of my Paint mare, Pokey, because it captures her personality better than any other in my collection. What it says about her is that she is ever hopeful and ever alert to opportunity.

She fell into my herd when she was 9, retired from the Paint race circuit, foundered, and pregnant with the ever-popular Zip. She was a bit of a waif, thin and sporting a set of worry creases above her eyes that suggested she wasn't entirely on board with anything we humans were presenting in the way of options.

But Pokey is the embodiment of enthusiasm for life. With only a few minor exceptions, she remained sound and cooperative through her fattening and retraining. She dropped a gorgeous foal on request--that is after The X-Files but before bedtime on the Friday night of Memorial Day weekend when I would have three days off to play with the newcomer. That was 1996.

Pokey wound up, as so many transplanted horses do, with "pasture heaves"--allergic asthma brought on by exposure to tree and grass pollen not native to her Oklahoma birthplace. So, at only 11 years old, she was retired. I could deal with her foundered feet since she was always completely sound, but riding a horse who wheezed like an antique steam engine was more than I could bear.

For 10 years the mare has lived The Life, and she's been happy enough. At least I was pretty sure she was happy until a recent experience caused me to rethink her future. She's had her share of grooming and handling over the years and always loved her bubble baths, but the long grazes on the lawn were reserved for the working stiffs.

If our shoer hadn't been unusually late in arriving, if the weather hadn't been perfect, if the other horses hadn't been out in the pasture, and if Pokey weren't such a fusspot about being cooped up alone, I wouldn't have spent nearly two hours hand-grazing her and grooming her while we waited for the shoer to find the abscess I was sure was percolating in her toe. If we hadn't spent those hours on the lawn, I would have forgotten completely what a personable and kind horse she was...and bombproof! How could I have forgotten her utter disregard for the things that get other horses in a tizzy? Watching her stick her head into the back of the shoer's truck to see what cool toys were buried there, I realized that maybe retirement wasn't quite the answer for this horse.

Yesterday was another pretty day, and we did some experimental work on the longe. We grazed first, of course, and we heaved mightily despite the Tri-Hist with breakfast. But we hit the ground running as fast as ever, undeterred by a notable lack of oxygen. It took a bit of effort to get the mare settled down--"whoa" was never her best thing on the longe--but she did settle into a nice little jog and, finally, a smooth walk.

A perfect walk and a perfect jog for the perfect beginner walk/trot horse for the perfect grandson? Could be. We'll give it a shot. If she's game, who am I to stand in her way?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Greener Pastures (and Stables)

What an idyllic scene! Horses grazing on new grass while their buddy naps in the shade of his favorite round bale... does it get any better?

That is not my topic for today, but it seemed like a sweet lead-in and a reminder of why we do this.

Today I've had a revelation unrelated to drowsy equines and sunny fields. I was cleaning up in the kitchen (What? I do that now and then!) and had in my hand the empty container from my favorite instant coffee. I thought, "Hey! This fits my hand so nicely, there must be something I can use it for." Upon closer inspection I found the shrink label easy to remove and before I knew it I had a great little holder for horse treats! It'll fit neatly in my cabinet or my tack trunk (okay, maybe not the trunk, which is already spilling its contents), or my travel bag. The flip-up lid seals well enough for cookies, probably not well enough for a powdered supplement, though that remains to be tested (after all, the reason it's empty is that it leaped out of the cabinet and dumped its contents into my pasta a few days ago). And these cool, free containers come in two sizes! The smaller one will be great for travel, the larger for storage.

Taking it a step further, I can see that tubes of eye ointment or triple antibiotic that are so easily squished into leakyhood would be nicely protected and easy to find stuffed into these containers. And with the label removed, the translucent plastic is fine for labeling with a marker or stick-on tag.

One further level of extrapolation has me dying to empty the plastic, handled bucket that Domino Sugar recently put on the shelves. I can only imagine what goodies that will hold, and they're stackable!

Free stuff is always good, right? I'm on a free stuff kick since the Blue Seal Feed seminar last week at my favorite feed store. I not only got to watch a fitter fit saddles to a live horse, but I watched the feed rep explain equine digestion with an uproarious display made from garden hoses and plastic soda bottles. But best of all, I "won" four free bags of feed and got a free bag of cat food and some leather-care samples (and dandy cheese and fruit) for my patient attention for the duration.

Some time ago I did a series of articles on cross-over items good for both house and barn. Since the series is still available at the site of the recently-defunct Ecountrylifestyle "Horse Tales" E-zine, I'm not going to repeat the advice here. But I am going to post such finds as the (Taster's Choice) coffee jars and whatever else comes my way. With the economy in such poor shape (if it were a horse, we'd have euthanized it), a penny saved is a penny saved, and an item recycled directly into a new use is better than one sent through the local MUA's recycling plant at the taxpayers' expense.

Next time: What Tube Socks Mean To Me.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Empathy Bone

This picture is black-and-white, but the horse thing most definitely isn't. I had a revelation this morning that hopefully will stay with me when I'm not feeling so gray-scale.

I'm a little "off" this week due to an infection and its cure. Not sick, flat-out disgusting; just indisposed. Who cares, right? See, that's just the point.

When I turned the horses out this morning, I noted that Pokey is sporting her annual hoof abscess. We do this every spring when the rains come and the feet get soft and the newly-opened pastures invite lots of running willy-nilly over rocks. She comes limping in, I wave my magic Bute jar, and we do our best to get past the problem as quickly as possible. Normally I don't think much about it since she's retired, hence not being ridden. She can be as lame as she likes and just recover at peace. A stoic, it's routine for her to refuse my ministrations, gallop three-legged out into the pasture, and from a safe distance assure me that she'll be fine, no soaking bucket thanks. Her pain was obvious, so it was easy to go easy on her and empathize. But what about when it's not so flat-out obvious? How blind is blind?

Who cares when Zip issues a little threat when I deepen my seat? And who cares when Dakota bumps his head on something (again!)? And who cares when Duke is feeling testy because he got a wad of grass stuck in his throat (again!)? And who cares when Leo simply doesn't feel like taking me around the property or ancient, one-eyed Pinky doesn't feel like going out after dinner?

Me. I care. That is, I must care. I don't. Not often enough.

I'm healthy as a horse (despite events that might contradict this, I actually am), and rarely if ever have an off day. So I'm not as empathetic as I could be. When I do feel raunchy, I just back it down a notch and cut my ride short or avoid saddling up entirely. More often I saddle up and avoid the laundry and grocery shopping, but that's between you and me. But how often do I (we) really give horses the chance to just feel out of sorts?

More and more often, as the economy continues to lug on the bit, I hear fellow horseman using the "S" word. "Should" is not a word that needs to be in a horse person's vocabulary. There's no horse that "should" be working six days a week come hell or high spirits even if his board is putting his owner in a hole so deep it smells like fried rice. There's no excuse for not noticing when a horse isn't really on top of things, and there's nothing in a horse's makeup that gives anyone cause to believe that they lie, malinger, or play hooky. Generally speaking, if a horse says, "Not now, I have a headache", he means it.

In his recent essay collection, Big Horses, Good Dogs, & Straight Fences, Mark Rashid relates a moment when one of his four-in-hand Belgian Draft team got testy and out of hand. Naturally it happened in public at a rodeo, so there were ample excuses to be made for the animal's misbehavior and the near-disaster it caused. It wasn't until the dust (or, in this case, the mud) had settled and Rashid had a moment to reflect that he took the time to check the horse's harness. The inch-long spike of hay that was embedded under the horse's tail, driven home by the harness's crupper, would have been invisible without careful inspection and the attitude that there has to be an explanation when a good horse goes wrong. There has to be. Look for it.

Today is as good a day as any to start listening with an open heart and a quiet mind when our horses complain. I'm not talking about spoiling or letting our horses run amok. Just listening. The trainers and owners who pulled horses from the Derby listened better than most, possibly because they have so much cash riding on their horses' continued good health and cooperative spirit. But the rest of us can take pause and look at our equine partners as if they, too, were Derby hopefuls whose futures might depend entirely on our decision on their behalf today.

When you feed tonight, take a close look and ask each horse "How you doin?" You might be surprised at the answer.