Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Cow Pony

It's nearly Halloween so I thought I'd share a photo of a true cow pony. Yes, that's a pony underneath the bovine attire. And I'm the guilty party who had an abundance of felt, a hardy sewing machine and far too much time on my hands. One year, when I was consumed with competing on the local county circuit and staying in contention for year-end awards, I became very ill and required some emergency abdominal surgery. Needless to say, I was suddenly out of competition. Literally. So when it came time for the annual end-of-the-year championship show-- held each October the week of Halloween -- I had to find some way to still participate. So along with cheering on my barn buddies who were vying for the year-end titles, I decided to create an entry for the costume class!

I designed a cow costume for a very compliant pony hunter in my trainer's barn. My victim? A pudgy gray mare named Amanda. I made my own pattern, holding tracing paper up to Amanda's body and measuring with a tape as I went along with a felt-tipped pen. Then I cut and sewed and glued felt together, also attaching wide strips of elastic to the "cow legs" so that Amanda could step into her "cow pants." The mask was the best part, as then Amanda was truly a cow and not a pony.

My trainer, Susan, dressed up like a farm girl. She borrowed a big brass cow bell from her neighbor and hung that around Amanda's neck, and then carried a real life baby calf bottle.

When it came time for the costume class, we all gathered at the back of the show barn to put the finishing touches on Amanda's get-up before she went into the arena. It was a melee of people wielding scissors, yarn, needles and thread and a very gooey hot glue gun. That's when this snapshot was taken. (You'll have to forgive the port-o-potty in the background, but then, what's a horse show without its port-o-potties, right?)

The class was huge! But Amanda was the only horse or pony wearing a costume from head to tail. That, apparently, disturbed the other entrants because as Susan led her into the arena there was much snorting and prancing and whirling. Poor Amanda! We could see the expression in her big brown pony eyes through the cut-outs of her cow mask. She looked as if she were saying, "Hey, it's just me: Amanda. I've been competing here all week. What's wrong with you guys?"

Obviously, Amanda was unaware she'd been transformed into a cow.

Fortunately the other four-legged entrants soon calmed down. I think they all acclimated to the bizarre outfits of all the other equines and figured it was simply the silliest darn horse show class they'd ever participated in.

When the awards were announced, Amanda had won. I was so happy! Even though I wasn't able to ride in the championship show that year, I was still able to participate, even if it was on the sidelines, and even if it was as the costume designer to the cow pony.

However you celebrate, I hope you have a happy, safe Halloween!

I enjoy your thoughts and comments... and I reply to them as well! Just click on "comments" below or email me at: hc-editor@bowtieinc.com

Monday, October 29, 2007

My Life as a Horse Show Judge

Yesterday I judged a horse show near Los Angeles. This was a county-rated hunter and equitation show and I was assigned to officiate over the arena where the crossrail and novice rider divisions were being held. Maybe it's because I taught kindergarten and first grade for a while but I enjoy sympathizing with the little kids whose ponies won't quite make it past the outgate without some demonstration of their displeasure. And I have 40-something barn buddies who bear an expression of mortification as they gallop toward their first jump on course. So I'm right at home judging these sorts of classes. Believe me, I'm right up there in the judge's booth wishing and hoping and silently clucking along with every rider.

Yesterday was no exception. The cutest bunch of little kids rode in the "mini stirrup" division. That's for munchkins 8-years-old and under. They jump a course of 2-foot fences. Admirably, each child was properly mounted on a suitable pony or reliable older horse, and their coaches and trainers had prepared them well. Nonetheless, there were some priceless moments. Like my fellow judges, I'm not much for dispensing advice at shows. I'm there to judge, not to conduct a clinic or lesson. But when one little girl, not much bigger than a ladybug, knocked herself out of a ribbon in the equitation flat class, I felt compelled to speak to her.

I picked up my walkie-talkie and asked the announcer to tell the little kid to ride over to me. She did. In a moment I was staring at the face of a sweet little girl with an upturned nose like a pixie and a set of braids adorned with pink bows.

"Honey," I said, "when you're doing the sitting trot and I ask for a canter, you're not supposed to walk first. You need to go directly into the canter."

She looked at me with big, blue, puppy dog eyes and said, "I'm sorry."

"No, no, you don't have to apologize," I said, unable to avoid laughing. "But you're so good," I explained, "this close to being perfect. And I just wanted you to know why you didn't get a ribbon."

That's when her coach approached and we all had a 30-second confab on the importance of keeping our pony on our aids in an equitation class so we're prepared for whatever the judge might ask.

As the day wore on, the riders got older. I had a bunch of adults, two of which had a habit of conversing with their horses throughout their entire hunter class. Goodness knows I've had many a conversation with my show horses while on course, but it wasn't always something I'd want my mother-- much less the judge-- hear! However, these two gals were both more genteel. One lady, aboard a very handsome flea-bitten gray, kept saying things like, "Oh, you're such a good boy, I'm going to give you extra treats."

Naturally, the silver-colored gelding was the type to be a good boy regardless of treat enticements.

The other lady voiced a running commentary on her round. Her horse, a very typey chestnut gelding, cruised over the jumps at what could best be described as a congenial lope. The lanky red horse gave no indication he was going to refuse a jump, yet I could hear the lady saying things like, "Ugh! I can't make him get going!" Was that directed at me or to her trainer?

All in all it was an interesting day. When I went into the horse show office to pick up my check, I got a lot of positive feedback from the manager and several of the competitors' trainers. I'm glad I got to share in their day at the horse show, which provided another experience in my life with horses.

Would you like to comment or share a recent horse show moment? Just click on "comments" below or email me at hc-editor@bowtieinc.com

Friday, October 26, 2007

It's amazing the things you toss out, only to rediscover years later that those very same items were really quite valuable, if only in sentimental terms. Classic horse books are such things, in my mind. I used to hoarde them when I was young, as if each one was a literary treasure. At the very least, they were my refuge. I could lose myself among the pages of a great horse story. At least for a while I could be on the back of a galloping Arabian stallion, or hunkering down with a pony during an East coast storm, or gentling a mustang filly named Flicka. I'm not sure why I cast off these hardcover gems originally. But for the last few years I've been re-collecting them all. My bookshelf has become a stable of classic horse books from my youth: Smoky (3 copies), Black Beauty (a pair of copies, each with a different illustrator), Ride Like an Indian (an admirable admonition if there ever was one), and many others, including a healthy dose of Marguerite Henry and C.W. Anderson.

A while back we conducted our own informal survey of favorite horse books for Horse Illustrated. You can read the list of favorites here:
Favorite Classic Horse Books

While re-reading that list I found the lack of contemporary horse fiction interesting. So someday I may write my own. I can't reveal much about the plot, as it's in a rough draft format now, except to say that it includes lots of action, some humor, at least one great horse and a dash of romance. You know, just an everyday sort of tale that occurs all the time when you spend your life with horses!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Great Corn Escapade

That's a very special bag of frozen corn that I'm holding next to my mare, Lexi, in this photograph. In fact, I dare say that no one will ever consume the corn in that bag. Of course, there's a story that goes along with it. And since there isn't much happy news in my part of the world-- wildfires have yet to be quelled and it's 95 degrees, dry and smoky-- I thought I'd share something that happened a few weeks ago in my life with horses...

Ron and I had left our bedroom windows open in hopes that the night air would help cool off the interior of the house. He slept fine. I'm a notoriously light sleeper, however, so the fact that it didn't cool off kept me tossing and turning. About 2:00 am I could hear Lexi really thrashing around in her paddock. I knew something was up, so I hopped out of bed, shoved my feet into my slippers and dashed outside. Sure enough, something had really upset her. She was extremely aggitated, but even more peculiar, she would suddenly cease her whirling around to sit on the paddock railing and rub her tail. I mean, really, really rub her tail. I could hear the fenceposts creaking against her weight.

Unfortunately, this was a moonless night, so I ran back to the tackroom and grabbed a flashlight. I put a halter on Lexi and led her out of her paddock. She was in such a dither I figured the last thing I wanted to try was tying her up in the inky blackness. So I held the end tip of the lead rope with one hand and inspected her with the flashlight with the other hand. She seemed in good condition except for a furiously flicking tail. Naturally, you know what that meant: I had to reconnoiter hands, leadrope, flashlight and antsy palomino mare to look under her tail and see what I could see. Nothing like performing an equine gynecological inspection at 2:00 am, right?

What I saw startled me. Forgive me for being a bit clinical, but Lexi's vulva and vaginal region was swollen as if she'd just given birth. Having foaled out dozens of Thoroughbreds and warmbloods in the past, I was familiar with that post-partum appearance, but it just didn't make sense. Nonetheless, I couldn't stop myself from glancing at the bedding in her paddock, just to make sure there wasn't an unplanned surprise there. Nope. I just had a mare with a very uncomfortable, uhm, mare problem. At 2:00 am.

I put her back in her paddock and considered my options. For a moment I considered calling my vet, Jennifer. She's actually a good friend of mine, but not even good friends like to be called at 2:00 am for anything less than an emergency. Was this an emergency? Did I want to use my "Get Your Vet Out of Bed Free Card" for a swollen, itchy horse hoochie?

I decided to hold off until colic, fever or hemorrhagic bleeding was involved. It was obvious that Lexi wasn't suffering from some spontaneous vaginal tumor, nor was she bleeding or systemically ill. When she wasn't thinking about scratching her itch, she would munch hay. Hence, rather than rousting Jennifer, I figured that applying cold water might make Lexi feel better until sunrise. Then I could call Jennifer. With a new treatment regimen, I led Lexi in the dark over to the faucet, turned on the hose and then tried to juggle lead rope, flashlight (because I needed to aim just right), hose and horse tail. It was sort of like target practice by Braille. With water.

That did not go as planned.

Reasoning that the water was the problem-- Lexi was none too happy about undergoing hydrotherapy in the dark-- I came upon another bright idea: Applying ice to the afflicted area.

I bet you're seeing where the bag of frozen corn comes in, right?

I stuck Lexi back in her paddock and sprinted back inside to my kitchen. I rummaged around in the freezer, looking for that bag of frozen peas all of us horse lovers are supposed to keep on hand for times like this, when we need an impromptu cold compress. But the only frozen green veggie I had was a package of Brussels sprouts. And that just seemed like not a good choice. Then I spied the bag of corn. Purchased on sale, I'd been saving it for Thanksgiving, when I'm traditionally summoned to produce my famous creamed corn casserole. But it was needed now.

I dashed back outside and grabbed Lexi again. Wisely, I decided this was going to be a two-fisted operation, so I abandoned the flashlight. I looped the leadrope over the hitching post and lifted Lexi's tail. I stood off to the side just in case she took offense and kicked. I talked to her in a soothing tone, as soothing as I could before I put a bag of frozen vegetables under her tail. And then one, two, three! I zeroed in on Lexi's puffy parts and pressed the cold corn against the swelling.

Lexi was a bit startled, to say the least. But after a few moments, she stood still. I held the bag there for a good ten minutes, hoping that the corn wouldn't defrost before Lexi got some relief. Despite my concern over Lexi's predicament, I started to laugh. Why on earth does anyone ever think that owning a horse is glamorous? It was now 3:00 am and I was still in my pajamas and slippers holding a bag of frozen veggies on my mare's vulva.

Eventually, I re-inspected Lexi and determined that the swelling had subsided. She seemed more comfortable, so I put her back in her paddock. I then retrieved a patio chair and plunked myself down in front of her gate, just so I could keep an eye on her.

It seemed like an eternity, but eventually the horizon lightened. It was time to call Jennifer, now that the worst of the crisis was over. But I felt that I needed a true diagnosis just in case this happened again. Since Jennifer lives just a few blocks away, she arrived in minutes. She did her exam, and then told me what I had already figured: Lexi had been bitten by a bug, perhaps even a spider.

"When the swelling goes down completely you may even see the actual site of the bite," she said. Jennifer said that she's even seen young fillies, not even weaned yet, get bitten under the tail. "It's dark, it's soft, it's warm and moist in that area," she explained. "The horse lies down and the bug or spider heads for that area."

With a shot of pain meds and some oral steroids, the swelling improved dramatically in just a few hours. By the next day, Lexi was completely back to normal. Trust me, I checked.

As for the corn? I decided to re-freeze it and keep it on hand for a little while, just as a joke. That plastic bag of veggies has gained quite a reputation. And, amazingly enough, it's almost the end of October and I haven't been asked to bring my creamed corn casserole to the family Thanksgiving party.

Any comments? Want to share a story of your own? Click on "comments" below or email me at: hc-editor@bowtieinc.com

Monday, October 22, 2007

Yesterday, between battling wind gusts and battening down the hatches (I think that's an old sailing term but it describes my windy day duties perfectly), I noticed the faint yet distinctive scent of smoke in the air. And this wasn't the smoke from a barbecue or a fireplace. It was the acrid, nose-stinging odor of a wildfire. The hills directly behind my new home had burned last year, right up to the backyard fence of one of my neighbors. Fortunately, neither homes nor horses were lost in that blaze. But some of the other horse lovers in this region aren't so lucky this year.

The smoke I'd detected was not from my immediate area. Instead it was an endless cloud of smoke produced by at least a half-dozen wildfires throughout Southern California. I knew it was bad when my friend, Andrea, called me on her cell phone. She had judged a horse show in Santa Barbara (about 2 hours north of L.A.) and was headed home. But the fire in Malibu had closed the freeway and she needed a circuitous route. I linked up to Mapquest and sent her inland. When she finally got home that night, she called to tell me that the route had taken her on a tour of many of the California fires.

"It's horrible," she said. "My car is covered in ash, like it was snowed on."

Then I read this news item in Horse Channel's breaking news section:
Horses Lost in Wildfire

It's particularly poignant to me as I've been to Golden Eagle Farm, where apparently so many horses were lost. The site is a bastion of quality homebred California Thoroughbreds. In fact, we encouraged our cousin to name her show horse in honor of one of Golden Eagle's most famous race horses, Best Pal. I can't imagine the horror felt by the staff at Golden Eagle Farm-- of seeing the wildfire, whipped by incredible winds, marching like an invading force of soldiers over the hillside. How do you save hundreds of horses in a matter of minutes?

My husband and I have already discussed just how we'd evacuate Wally and Lexi. And our town, Norco, is very much a horsekeeping community. There's a citywide evacuation plan for horses and large animals, as well as a long list of volunteers trained for such an emergency. If you have horses anywhere near a fire-prone area, I encourage you to have a plan in case you need to flee. Sometimes, when you smell smoke, it's already too late.

Have any comments, personal experiences or thoughts on this topic? Share them by clicking on the word "comments" below or emailing me at: hc-editor@bowtieinc.com

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The wind began last night. Or I guess it was very early this morning. It all depends on your perspective but I was sound asleep at 1:30 am when the first wave of gusts hit so I'm going to refer to it as "last night."

The winds we get in our part of Southern California are pretty astonishing. Big tractor-trailer rigs flip over like pancakes on the nearby freeway. Huge pepper trees snap like uncooked spaghetti. And our endless drought conditions leave the hillsides ripe for disaster, making any whiff of smoke a cause for alarm. The horses out here don't care for the windy weather, either. But after they've lived in this region for a while, they get used to it. They adapt and learn to persevere.

Fortunately, mine are pretty well sheltered in their covered paddocks. Nonetheless, once my husband and I were awake-- and I mean wide awake-- at 1:30 am, it became my duty to venture outside repeatedly and make sure my horses hadn't pulled a Wizard of Oz and blown away.

"I think you'd better go outside ever so often and check on Lexi and Wally," Ron said.

"Uhm, check on them and do precisely what?" I wondered.

"Well, if they're really upset from the wind, I guess we could put them inside the garage," he replied.

Oh, now wouldn't that be special, my horses weathering the wind storm inside the garage! We could turn on the radio, open up the little fridge we keep out there and let them snack on 7-Up and oatmeal cookies. When they got tired, they could hunker down on that old army cot. Or maybe Wally the Wonder Paint would like to open up the tool chest and do some woodworking while Lexi caught up on her reading, browsing through our stack of dusty National Geographic magazines.

Needless to say, the horses stayed put. Thus far the roofs atop their shelters have as well.

So for all of you in other parts of the country who envy our generally mild winters, take solace in knowing that we don't always have horseback riding weather all of the time. During wind storms like this, we just adapt. And persevere.

Have you and your horses endured some incredible weather? Please share. I'd love to commiserate! Just click on "comments" below or email me at: hc-editor@bowtieinc.com

Friday, October 19, 2007

So I bought my husband a horse...

I really did search for just the right horse for my husband. Like most men, he wanted a horse that was cool to look at to boost his ego. But he also wanted a horse that was quiet and well trained, so as not to bruise his ego when it misbehaved. And so I bought him Wally, a Paint gelding that had won quite a bit in the walk/jog division. Naturally, I did not tell my husband that the horse's main claim to fame was as a kid's show horse that was never challenged to lope or break a sweat, because that would be an affront to the male ego. (See: explanation, above).

Thanks to a 30-day tune-up with yours truly, Wally does indeed lope quite nicely on command now. And, as a horsey wife, I am lucky that my husband was willing to take a lot of lessons to learn how to ride properly. (Just look past the fact that in this photo he has assumed the traditional Manly Saddle Slouch).

I'm also lucky that I'm married to a guy who is one of those all-around athletic types. He took to riding quite easily, and we spend at least one day a week trail riding together. Of course, being a man and all, my husband perpetually wants to go faster than a walk, which leaves Wally wondering just what happened to those walk/jog competitions.

Have any horse husband comments to share? Email me at: hc-editor@bowtieinc.com or just click on the word "comments" below!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I've been getting some feedback and emails from readers. Thanks for your comments. Keep them coming!

After I wrote about how my young riding students were bundles of endless energy at last weekend's horse show, one mom related in an email how her young daughter was so gung-ho about riding that a good winter snow sounded appealing. Such inclement weather would mean a temporary ban on her daughter's riding, which would allow the adults to catch their breath.

I find the enthusiasm little girls have for their ponies and horses endearing. I have one little girl (who doesn't yet have her very own horse) who, when permitted to choose the decor for her new bedroom, insisted that it be decorated like a stable. Her closet doors are rough-hewn, unfinished wood. There's a mural of a stable shedrow on her wall and the headboard of her bed is made of jump standards and crossed rails. Her grandmother, caught up in the creative frenzy, explained how she was going to turn the flower boxes outside the window sill into mangers and fill them with straw. I have yet to see it in person, but I understand that it could start a new trend: Barn Chic.

The only aspect of a horsey lifestyle that makes it into my interior design is dust. I tried once to integrate a lovely striped Navajo saddle blanket (well, I thought it was lovely) into my living room by using it as a throw rug. My husband was aghast. "People will think you were sitting on the floor cleaning your western tack," he said.

He also put the kybosh on hanging a collection of vintage snaffle bits on the wall. "The place will look like a blacksmith's workshop!"

Thank goodness I didn't give in to impulse and buy those wagon wheel planters, huh?

I’d love to hear your thoughts or any stories you have. Click the comment button below or if you prefer, email us at hc-editor@bowtieinc.com.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Consider this the first installment in a recurring series I'll call: Things that Torment Horse Show Judges.

Today's episode: The Small Class Crisis

One of the worst dilemmas I face when I'm judging a horse show is having to decide the ribbon placings in a small flat class of maybe 2-4 riders. Let me explain why.

When a flat class is large it's actually quite simple, most of the time, to spot the first three placings right away. They shine. The other rankings tend to fall into place as the class progresses. Of course, when a flat class is too large it engenders a whole other rant about trying to sort through 16 identical bay geldings, each ridden by a girl in a navy blue huntcoat. But that's a topic for later!

The very small classes are challenging to judge for two reasons. First, there's the decision-making process. If it's an equitation class, a small class of riders forces me to consider which is a worse flaw: A lower leg that is shoved in front of the girth or a rider who doesn't seem to be fully in control of her mount. In hunters under saddle, what exactly am I supposed to do with a trio of horses, none of which epitomizes anything near the ideal under saddle horse? Should I pin the horse that's stiff behind over the horse that moves like a sewing machine in front? Second, there's the emotional aspect of judging a small class. This is really hard if the competitors are all cute, earnest little kids. I know I'm supposed to be as objective as possible, and award the blue ribbon to the most deserving exhibitor. But I also hate to be the person who very clearly conveys the message that darling, pony-tailed Samantha aboard fuzzy, sweet-natured Starlight is going to get third place out of three once again. If I could explain why to the kids and their parents-- that if Samantha learned to tell when she was on the wrong lead, or if Starlight didn't toss his head at the halt-- then maybe I wouldn't feel so conflicted. But at most of the shows I judge, I rarely get that opportunity. I am, after all, there to judge, not to host a training clinic.

And so, this ends Part One of Things that Torment Horse Show Judges.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Is there anything cuter than a bunch of horse crazy little girls? I don't think so.

I spent today, Sunday, at a little schooling show here in town with the 5 girls that I teach. Each Horse Show Mom confided how her anxious daughter couldn't sleep the night before. It wasn't fear of riding or jumping or showing, but sheer excitement. One mom told me that her daughter was so concerned that she'd be late that she stayed up almost all night, and then physically pulled her mother out of bed.

Each one of my riding students was a bundle of energy. As for me? By the end of the walk/trot classes I was dragging myself from horse trailer to backgate, my feet throbbing inside my paddock boots. By the conclusion of the crossrail division I was glancing at my watch and thinking, "When I get home, will it be time for a nap, or should I just take a hot bath and go straight to bed?"

The horse crazy little girls? They were still be-bopping around like crickets at the end of the long, dusty day.

Don't get me wrong; I had a great day at the show. My kids did well, but more importantly, each one got to practice what they'd been learning in their lessons. And they were safe and they had fun. But I was amazed at their youthful exuberance that lasted all day long. A day of horse showing was just so much fun!

When I related the day's experience, my good friend Debbie said, "Don't you remember when we were perfectly happy to get up on show days before sunrise and hitch up the trailer in the dark?"

Yes, I do. And I have a bittersweet fondness for those sleepless nights. I, too, would toss and turn, just aching for the alarm clock to announce that it was time to head off to a horse show while there was still dew on the ground. It was, indeed, a very special era of my life. But it's certainly not one that I could revisit. My aching feet wouldn't allow it.

Were you a horse crazy kid who couldn't sleep the night before a show? Are you still that way? Or are you now at the point in your life where you don't compete in any class that's scheduled before 10:00 a.m.? If you'd like to share your thoughts, click on the "Comments" link below or email us at: HC-Editor@bowtieinc.com .

Saturday, October 13, 2007

I'm taking my kids to a show tomorrow. Okay, so they're not really my biological offspring. They're 5 of the kids that I teach. I am their riding instructor and despite the fact that I did not want to get deeply involved in teaching riding lessons, I can't help but get caught up in their enthusiasm for ponies, horses and everything associated with the critters.
Naturally, I hope they all do well at the show. It's a small affair, one of those little schooling shows where the courses often don't adhere to any sense of logistics, and where a kamikazae pilot would feel right at home in the warm-up ring. Fortunately, the school horses and ponies are what I refer to as 4-wheel drive equine robots, so they're unflappable under these sorts of conditions. Even if they don't come home with arms full of ribbons, I intend to see that each of "my kids" has a good time. We'll see. I'll let you know tomorrow.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

It's 4:20 a.m.

I was awakened about 30 minutes ago by the sound of our neighbor's three-legged dog barking. The only reason I mention that the dog is short one leg is because I find it remarkable, even now... at 4:20 in the morning.

Thankfully, the dog is not a watchdog nuisance, but more of a reliable sentinel. If that dog is barking, then I know there's a good chance that something might be going on out back with my two horses. That's because the three-legged dog's home is on a bluff that overlooks my corrals. So I dragged myself out of bed, fumbled in the near dark for my pair of muck boots, and tromped out to the backyard. Wally was half asleep, standing in the turnout where he spends the night. Lexi, my palomino mare, was doing quite the opposite. She was ripping around her corral snorting like a dragon. She seemed to be extremely annoyed, perplexed or distraught over something down the hill.

I looked. I investigated. I strained my eyes to see but I saw nothing other than a sleepy street. My neighborhood was quiet. The only thing that seemed a bit out of the ordinary-- different from the other 184 nights Lexi has spent here-- was that the people down the hill, at the back of our property, had left the lights on that illuminated their swimming pool. All that meant to me was that they were wasting electricity. But to Lexi it was a cause for great alarm.

Not wanting to run an experiment to see just what can happen when a mare going bonkers is confined in a small space, I pulled a switcheroo and put Wally back in his corral and put Lexi in the big turnout. And yes, this is at about 4:00 a.m. And I am in my flannel pajamas.

Immediately Lexi scooted around the turnout like a ghost with a golden sheen. Her tail was arched over her back, her nostrils were flared. She sounded like a vacuum cleaner on overdrive, snorting with every lofty stride. I ran to the feedroom and gathered up an armload of carrots. Fortunately, carrots soothe a savage beast. I stood there for a good 10 minutes, shoveling carrots into her mouth in order to distract her from pool lights. Once she seemed to settle down (at least to the point where I didn't think she was going to pull a Pegasus and fly out over the fencing), I came back inside. And here I sit, typing away, because I can't possibly go to sleep now. Besides, the sun will be up in another hour. And then my neighbors will turn off their pool lights.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A Dear John Letter

Horse racing is not a sport that I follow closely for a variety of reasons, but occasionally a particular horse captures my imagination-- and my heart. One of those horses was John Henry, a scrappy, physically unremarkable dark bay gelding with a cantankerous disposition. He was no flamboyant Secretariat. John Henry was a working race horse that appealed to those of us who liked the idea that a horse bereft of a fancy schmancy pedigree could still win millions at the races.

My sister and I saw John Henry many years ago when he was still in fine form, at Hollywood Park race track near Los Angeles. I don't recall much about that day except that we felt we were traveling to see a legendary creature, a four-legged figure we'd only glimpsed in grainy newspaper photos. And then, there he was, fuzzy shadow roll on his noseband, his plain brown head bobbing all the way to the post, his ears and eyes revealing an outright disdain for the other horses that dared to encroach his space. We were enthralled.

Many years later we saw him again at Kentucky Horse Park, where he lived a luxurious life in retirement beginning in 1985. He was not the embodiment of a phenomenal race horse. If a visitor didn't know better, they might think they were gazing at a common saddle horse, albeit one with a condescending demeanor. John Henry was not a horse that the public was allowed to pet. But when I chatted up the gal who led him out for his regularly scheduled walk of fame, she did permit me to ever-so-briefly pat his chocolate colored neck. I touched the leather halter and traced my finger along the brass nameplate that without a single flourish read, "JOHN HENRY."

Perhaps it was the fact that I was revisiting that momentous trip to Hollywood Park, or maybe it was because I'm a confirmed horse lover, but I got teary-eyed. I was standing next to one of the greatest horses of my lifetime.

When I read that John Henry had been euthanized on the evening of October 8th, I cried again. It was time, no doubt, for the old horse (he was 32) to leave this earth. He'd been in failing health due to his advanced age and his veterinary attendant felt that the horse could no longer be kept comfortable. He died surrounded by his caretakers, including the woman who'd handled him for 16 years. We should all be so lucky to pass away in the company of those who loved us.

And so, farewell, dear John. And when we cross paths again, could you please prick your ears forward just once, for me?

I know a lot of you have memories of John Henry, too. HorseChannel has a John Henry Memorial page, where you can leave your condolences and memories, and read other peoples' comments.

Monday, October 8, 2007

This is my sister, Jill. She's my younger sister (she'll be thrilled to know that I pointed out that fact) but quite often she assumes the role of Big Sister. I lean on her a lot for support and advice. It's hard to believe that when we were younger-- much younger-- I was rather snotty toward her when it came to sharing rides on our pony, Honeybee. Now my favorite rides are often those I share with Jill. The reason Jill is on my mind lately is because she's having surgery on Wednesday. She has bad knees, a family trait she inherited, unfortunately. I've lost track of how many knee surgeries she's already undergone, but suffice it to say that she refers to her naughty knee as "Frankenee" because of the many criss-crossed scars.

My sister has a great attitude about her trips to the operating room. With regards to her knee about all she wants to know from her doctor is, "So. Like how long will it be before I can ride again?"

Do you have a sister or brother or cousin or other relative who shares your love for horses? Is there anyone else in your family who lives a Life with Horses? If so, I'd love to hear about them! Just click on "comment" below my posts and a window will open up, allowing you to post remarks.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Enough already with the wind.

I live in an area of Southern California that is very prone to high winds. I've got a range of mountains in the distance, foothills outside my backyard and the hillsides of a national forest behind me. When the wind blows, it zips through a valley-wide tunnel created by the natural landscape. My horses having static electricity in their tails is not the worst of my worries. Nor is their being so high that handling them is like flying a kite on the end of a lead rope. I worry instead about tree branches blowing into my paddocks and fires igniting the dried grass on the slopes nearby.

I guess this is my way of saying that I won't be riding today. I hope you're enjoying better weather for riding!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Why do I decide to ride in the wind? That's a question I have yet to answer. Despite what I know about how horses react to the wind-- what with tree branches blowing, dust swirling and odd scents wafting through the tumultous air-- I go ahead and tack up, anyway. That's what happened yesterday. My husband and I had planned on heading out to the local river and the adjacent park (scene of my recent ride with my sister and her mare, Cookie), so when the wind picked up I had a decision to make: To ride or go play raquetball at the gym. Or vacuum my house. Not feeling like whacking a ball around a stuffy indoor court nor like being a Domestic Goddess, I opted to ride. It turned out to be... well, not so bad. My husband (who took this photo) had a great ride on Wally, the bald-faced Paint, even though the horse justifiably spooked once when some Mallard ducks erupted out of a clump of cattails. Lexi, on the other hand, was like riding a golden keg of dynamite. It was one of those rides where I never felt in danger of coming off, but was nonetheless grateful that I was wearing my helmet. You know, just in case.

Of course, none of this changes anything about how I view going for a ride. Short of a tornado warning, if I'm in the mood to ride-- and NOT in the mood for raquetball or housework-- I'm tacking up!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Horse as Escape Artist.

My gelding Wally is one of those horses with an abundance of personality. He's always busy. Busy thinking and busy scheming. He always has a plan. Usually his plan centers around devising ways to escape his corral or turnout paddock. It's not like he lives in inferior housing, mind you. He has thick rubber mats under his shelter (so he doesn't pick up sand and grit while he eats) and he has bedding where he lies down. He's also got plenty of room to roam. So what's the deal? He's just curious. I can tell how his mind works: "Hmmm.... What lies around the corner? Who's visiting inside the house today? How many horse cookies are left in the feed room? I wonder what this eucalyptus tree tastes like."

Fortunately, the most destructive thing Wally's done when he has succeeded in escaping is to add a lovely scalloped edge to several bales of hay he sampled. Otherwise he merely takes a walkabout. I once found a pile of manure neatly deposited outside my backdoor, evidence that Wally had wandered under the carport and across the patio and peeked in to see just when I'd be coming out to ride him. Or catch him, as the case might be.

After several escapes, where Wally had slyly worked open the snap on his gate with his prehensile lips, I wised up. I went to the local hardware store and bought several of those snaps that mountaineers and rock climbers use. I think they're called carabiner clips. Whatever they're called, they work! They are officially Wally-proof! Though sometimes I can hear him flip and fumble with the new-fangled snap on his gate, no doubt wondering why he can't thwart the design, he stays put. No more walkabouts for Wally.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Pardon me. *cough* I have to pause a second and clear the dust out of my lungs. Oh. And pick a few leaves from my hair.

There. Much better.

You see, I just returned from a trail ride at the river with my sister. I rode Wally and she rode Cookie, her fat-- I mean, "overly robust"-- tobiano Paint mare. It's always an adventure trail riding with my sister. We're both lifelong show ring riders but we also both have a penchant for fun on horseback. In other words, despite all of our huntseat riding we're truly a pair of rough 'n tumble cowgirls at heart.

Wally was quite the gentleman. He's so easy to trailer any place. He unloads, looks around at the unfamiliar territory, and then stands next to the trailer, patiently expecting to be tied up while I grab my tack. Cookie, on the other hand... Not so much. Instead she's constantly on the move searching for food lest she burn off any calories and lose a few ounces.

That constant drive to be a Hunter and Gatherer presented itself several times on our ride. Wally would be cruising along the trail as it snaked between trees and dipped over small embankments at the river's edge. Cookie, however, would be sampling the flora along the way. And she did it with all the grace of an elephant in the process of deforesting the veldt.

Other than that, it was a fun ride. I have a lot of stress in my life at times and trail riding helps me forget about whatever is bothering me. I feel like a carefree kid again on the back of a good horse.

Monday, October 1, 2007

I do a lot of trail riding. Both of my horses, the aforementioned Wally and my mare, Lexi, are ex-show horses now enjoying second careers as trail mounts. They each have their specialties when it comes to the trails. Wally is a happy wanderer in the wide open spaces and wonderful in the water. He'll march through mud puddles, step through gutter water and slosh across the river. He's kind of like a Humvee in horse clothing. But Lexi? She's quite happy to cruise up and down the trails in our neighborhood. I swear she looks at landscape projects in the newer homes and enjoys watching kids play in the front yards. She's a city girl at heart, I guess. But cross water? Not without some major convincing on my part. Lexi could have the first known case of psychological hydrophobia in horses. She's been this way since I bought her. In fact, when I did my pre-purchase test ride I tried to ride her across a swath of boggy ground and realized she preferred to avoid it at all costs. Fortunately, it's getting better. Now she pauses only for a few moments on the banks of whatever wet spot we've encountered. She always seems to be contemplating if there's a bridge nearby or an alternate route around the wetness. Ultimately, she goes forward. And of course, I reward her profusely. But the Great Water Crossing Debate will resume once again the next time we come to a wet spot in the trail. Which, of course, means I can't wait for the rainy season!

Tomorrow I'm joining my sister for a trail ride. We're going to the local nature park, where the undeveloped Santa Ana River runs through a setting of trees and scrub brush. At several points in the trail, we'll have to ask our horses to cross the river. Hmmmm.... Which horse do you think I'll take to the river?