Saturday, January 31, 2009

Have Lead Pony, Will Travel

As I've mentioned before, I give riding lessons at the facility owned by my former show coach, Sue Smith. Sue's husband, Bruce, is an officer with the Arcadia Police Department, and part of his job is to patrol Santa Anita racetrack. Bruce began a mounted patrol unit for the Arcadia PD, and his first police horse was his own AQHA gelding, Ringo. The two of them-- Ringo even had his own badge-- monitored huge race track crowds during big events like the Breeders Cup. They've also searched for 'perps' while cruising through the parking lots of Arcadia's shopping malls during the Christmas season. Though Ringo retired honorably from the mounted patrol unit, he seemed bored just being an occasional lesson horse for novice adults. He's 22-years-old, but he's one of those awesome old fashioned American Quarter horses blessed with incredible soundness and a solid work ethic. So when Sue and Bruce heard I was looking for a lead pony to escort Cowboy, my mom's colt, around town, they offered up Ringo. How could I go wrong?
This photo was taken the first day that Ringo arrived at my parents' small ranch, which is actually just across town from Sue's. Ringo and I have known each other for years, so he's quite trusting of me. But as you can tell by the look in his well-seasoned eyes, he's not quite sure what he's gotten himself into.

The very next day Ringo discovered his new job: Lead pony and mentor to young Cowboy. "Hmmm..." Ringo says, "I thought my pension from the police department precluded me from any more active duty assignments."
The first couple of episodes in the Ponying Department went fairly well. Ringo is very forgiving, but he's not a fool. If Cowboy got too rambunctious, Ringo would do the "Aged Quarter Horse Gelding Stare" and snarl at Cowboy until the yellow colt regained his composure. Ringo also exudes confidence, and Cowboy picks up on that. An added bonus? Ringo had a stint as a roping horse, so if Cowboy ever hinted that he might not want to continue down the trail, I didn't hesitate to dally the lead rope around the saddle horn and allow Ringo to convince Cowboy that it would be much easier for everyone if he just obligingly came along.


After only a few sessions, Cowboy was following Ringo everywhere as we coursed through town along the bridle paths. We encountered barking dogs, water puddles, construction workers, flocks of poultry, other horses, trash bins and lots of traffic. Since Ringo pays little or no attention to any of it-- other than making sure we're all safe and accounted for-- Cowboy doesn't react, either. However, I'm sure some adventures await us. That's how my life with horses always seems to go.

Monday, January 26, 2009

All the UNWANTED Horses

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's living in a region where the neighborhood landscape is slowly taking on the aspects of a boomtown gone bust. The further I ride Wally up the hills, around the more expensive homes that overlook the golf course, the more I encounter foreclosure signs. Many of these "luxury" view homes sit empty, with forlorn front yards and opportunistic weeds creeping up through cracks in the barren patios. Some of these homes were once beautifully landscaped, but now everything stuck in the ground is some shade of brown or rust.

But just as the economy has decimated the housing market, it has also affected the horse market. One of my longtime friends is a USEF hunter judge who has a training barn at the posh Del Mar Horse Park near San Diego. She said she's suffering through the lowest number of clients she's ever had. Another well known hunter trainer, with a longstanding reputation for producing successful young riders, is reportedly down 25 clients. That's a huge loss of income: 25 horses, which were once in full training, have left her care. All of you aspiring horse trainers take note: Being a horse trainer is not high on the list of profitable occupations. That makes sense. Who can afford a horse-- especially a show horse-- when you can barely afford your mortgage? And if you've been laid-off from your job, the last bill you're going to pay is your board bill.

Trying to unload that unwanted show horse isn't working out so well, either. A good friend of mine ended up with a lovely roan mare (complete with four flashy white stockings) that jumps beautifully, does her flying lead changes and suits both adults and kids... for, well, just about nothing. I'm serious. She paid almost nothing for the mare. The previous owners were at their wits' end. They kept dropping the mare's price while still incurring a hefty board bill, until it became more cost effective to just hand the mare over to a good home with someone they knew and trusted.

I know. I'm sounding awfully doom and gloom, but the bad news hits me from everywhere. Nearly every day I receive emails about free horses. I'm not sure how I end up on these mass email lists, but somehow my name is included and you ought to see the fliers and photos that come attached. Each one is worded more frantically. Each one gets more plaintive, more dire. The worst one had pictures of a half-dozen Thoroughbred mares, all in poor condition, that had been whisked away from a local horse rescue site that had become overwhelmed with unwanted horses. The saddest part? The nice person who took these mares in was now faced with feeding them. They had begun to realize that no one in particular wanted teenaged Thoroughbred mares with mediocre bloodlines, especially when they were in-foal to a mediocre stallion.

Another email directed me to a listing on Craigslist. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Craigslist, it's an online site for classified ads selling everything from futons to lawn mowers and designer clothing. Now, apparently, it's also a site for unwanted horses. This ad, accompanied by several photos of a cute greenbroke Paint filly read something like: "FREE HORSE: I love her, but I no longer have the time or the money to care for her. Please come take her."

Yesterday in the feed store, my sister pointed out a poster that featured a photo of a small bay gelding standing in a corral. In ink pen the handwritten message said, "Bring your trailer and $300 and take him away."

Are you getting the idea that there are a lot of unwanted horses?

If you need more examples, click on this link, which goes back to a recent batch of news on Horse Channel: You Know there are a Lot of Unwanted Horses When... If at some point the link doesn't connect you to the newswire stories anymore, I'll sum them up for you:

1. An adoption of BLM mustangs, held in Utah, featured a herd of rare and highly admired Spanish mustangs, descendants from the horses brought to North America by conquistadors. Of the 362 horses available, only 8 were adopted, for a whopping total of $725. According to the BLM representative, it was the smallest turnout she'd ever seen.

2. Officials in North Dakota and Montana are considering re-visiting that whole ugly anti-slaughter thing. Why? Because there are so many unwanted horses in those two states that horses are being abandoned or neglected. Plus, the states' constituents are now being forced to consider paying the cost of euthanizing their unwanted horses. Oh, the horrors! What? You mean if you take on the responsibility to own a horse you should consider ahead of time that you might one day have to pay to have the horse euthanized? (Oops. Sorry. I'm off topic. This rant will have to go on another blog).

Hopefully, you've grasped my point: Things are tough for horses these days. The unwanted horse is a by-product of our broken economy.

I don't have any answers, although I have some wishes. I wish that horse breeders would opt out of producing a huge crop of foals for the next couple of years, even if it means pensioning out older broodmares. I wish that more sellers would cut their losses and seek out the best homes for their horses, like some deserving kid who might not have a fortune to spend, but they'll love the horse to death and give it a wonderful home. And I wish that more mustangs could outrun the wranglers the next time the round-up heads their way, because life on the open range somehow has to be better than becoming yet another passed over, unwanted horse.


Yeah, I know. I rambled a lot today. But if you feel like rambling, too, just click on "comments" below.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My Friend Oliver

If I look like I belong on Oliver, it's probably because I do. I know all of his quirks... and all of his gifts... in much the same way I know my longtime friends.
I made a promise to my husband, Ron, that I wouldn't jump any horses after my riding accident. But ya' know, when it comes to riding and horses there are just some promises you simply cannot keep, not even to your husband. (Single horsewomen, take note of this fact). One of the very few horses I still jump is Oliver. Ron has finally accepted that he cannot keep me off the big bay gelding. But I think he's finally okay with that. You see, Oliver is not a green or unpredictable horse. He's an older teenager, and he's been in training at Sue's barn for nearly 10 years. Over the years I've often been the one to school Oliver. Many times I've climbed aboard him at shows and tuned him up for one of his young owners before they took him into a medal class. Want to know something even more special? Oliver was the last horse I rode right before I hopped on Barbie for the fateful course where I was injured. And Oliver was the first horse I rode when I finally got back in an English saddle a year later. So you can understand why I feel safe on Oliver. He's like an old friend.
Lately I've had more opportunities to ride Oliver because his current owner, Kiersti, is off to school and simply doesn't have time for him. She'd love to lease him to a deserving competitor, but in the meantime I get to ride him. Lucky me! Because he has so much schooling, I get to polish my skills at the counter canter, execute flying lead changes down the center line of the arena, and practice shoulders-in and leg yields. I can almost imagine that I'm back in the show ring, or at the very least, preparing for a competition. And while I'm limited to how high I can jump-- and so is Oliver, due to his age-- that doesn't mean that I can't relive a few medal class rounds by occasionally zipping around a rollback turn to a small oxer or cantering through a bending line.
Like many warmbloods, Oliver is a slow burner: he isn't apt to dash off toward a jump. But he can be a little faint-hearted at times, because his brain is about a half-step behind his body. Fortunately, I'm aware of this, so I synchronize my mind to coordinate with his. I prepare to ask for a canter before I actually press my leg into his side to get the actual transition. I think he appreciates that. I certainly appreciate having Oliver in my life.

Friday, January 16, 2009

You Might be a Horsewoman If...

I have come to the conclusion that I am 100% horsewoman. How do I know? There was a time when I would make regularly scheduled visits to Macy's and browse through racks of DKNY jeans and Calvin Klein blouses. Now I get all excited when Target puts their long-sleeved t-shirts on sale, because I buy one in every color. They neatly tuck into the waistband of my Wranglers. Fortunately, I live in a town where there are lots of horse crazy women just like me. My trail riding pal, Natalie, is one of them. Ask her about the guy she's currently dating and she'll speak matter-of-factly about his good points and bad points. But ask her about either of her two grulla geldings, and she simply gushes. Like many other horsewomen, my friend Natalie will always think of her horse as the handsomest, most perfect "man" in her life.
A true horsewoman, I believe, is like that. We can find fault in just about every human being, but we find little to complain about when it comes to our horses. Our horses don't have nasty habits, they have "idiosyncrasies." Our horses aren't spoiled, they're "pampered." Our horses aren't annoying or obnoxious, they're "characters." Lord knows I've uttered precisely these exact words and phrases when referring to Wally. My final telltale sign of Horsewomanship is this: If you were given $100 to spend frivolously-- not to pay a bill but to spend however you please-- what would you buy? If your answer includes a 50-pound bag of anything made by Purina, an item of tack or a stall cleaning implement, then you truly are a horsewoman.
Just click on "comments" below to share your thoughts!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Well, it Could be Worse...

Ask my sister her vision of hell and she'll describe the same tortuous scenario as most of the horsey folk in this area: "Hell is all wind, all the time." Since Thanksgiving we've alternated between chilly cold winds (non-stop for days) and then blasts of hot winds (non-stop for days). The only horses we dare ride during these wind storms are the Extremely Good Citizens that aren't unnerved by airborne debris, or the veteran show horses that've "been there, done that" in all kinds of weather. The green or sensitive horses? Forget it. Everything in the environment is swaying and the air smells of unfamiliar scents. It's like trying to ride a kettle on the verge of boiling over. But regardless of temperament or training, I don't think any horse enjoys the wind. Like us, they simply find ways to endure it. The only thing that interrupted my self-pity party was the email I got from my old high school pal, Wendy Ward. She now lives in Idaho, and every winter she sends me a photo of her ranch, just so I can keep my weather-related rants in perspective:
Hmmm... What can we do on a wintry day? How about we shovel snow off the roof of the barn! Then we can gaze wistfully below at the round pen and pasture, and envision what it'll be like when we can actually see dirt.
So while I moan and complain about the winds, I have to remember that we each have our version of hell during the winter months. And about all we can do to endure is to dream of spring.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pony Power

I just got an email from the mom of one of my lesson kids. Nearly every Saturday she hauls her daughter and the family's pony out to Sue's, where I spend an hour or so helping the young girl finesse the pony's flying lead changes. She also works on properly bending him through the turns and just genereally coercing him to conform to the regimen of a structured lesson. Because he's a relatively small pony, I rarely hop aboard for a schooling session. But when I do it's a memorable occasion because then The Pony is Not Happy. Why? Because Auntie Cindy means business when she hops in the saddle.

In the email I received, the mom wrote to tell me that they wouldn't be coming for a lesson today because her daughter had taken a tumble off the pony. Fortunately, she suffered only a sprained shoulder. But she also had a pony hoofprint on her back.


I've always felt that ponies, perhaps due to their indomitable characters, leave indelible impressions on us. In this case, this particular pony literally left an impression.

I'm sure both kid and pony will be back under my tutelage soon. But in the meantime I got to thinking about all the other ponies I've dealt with in my life.

When I was very young, my weekly treat was taking several spins around an oval enclosure at the local pony ride near my aunt's house. My cousin Susie and I would argue over which one of us would lay claim to Donut, the fat dappled Shetland with the bushy flaxen mane. He had the fastest trot, so he made you feel like you were flying when you zipped around the pony ring. At least that's the way a pony can make you feel when you're all of five or six years old.

Then my very first horse, Honeybee, was a large sorrel pony. She was only half-tame and very wily. I'd watch the lessons given by the professionals at the equestrian center where Honeybee was boarded, and attempt to mimic just what they were doing aboard their fancy Thoroughbreds and Quarter horses. Then, at the equestrian center's monthly shows, I'd dress up in my very low-end western attire (spray-painted straw cowboy hat included) and compete in western pleasure and trail. If I had enough Honeybee left at the end of the day, when the gymkhana games started, we'd race around the barrels.

One of my friends and co-competitors at the time was a little blond girl named Debbie Ryan. She had a more stylish pony than Honeybee, a bay Welsh with splashy markings named Flannigan's Falling Star. Our moms would chat while we'd struggle through our slate of western classes. Eventually the two of us became emboldened and ventured into English riding aboard our not entirely compliant ponies.

It's amazing, sometimes, where ponies can take you. I ended up going the hunt seat equitation route. And that little blond girl's name would become Debbie McDonald, and she'd ride a Hanoverian mare named Brentina to a medal in dressage at the Olympics.

If you'd like to read more tales about ponies, and perhaps contribute one of your own, just click here: Have I got a Pony Tale for You! It's the latest offering of HI Spy that I wrote for Horse Channel. I promise you'll also have fun reading what others have written about ponies they've loved... or feared... or both.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Too Sick to Ride?

The last couple of days I've been feeling... icky. I can't quite describe my symptoms. I'm just nauseous enough to keep me on a Coke and crackers diet. My head aches just enough so that I'm constantly rubbing my forehead like I'm polishing a pair of boots. But it's nothing serious. For it to be serious-- worthy of me calling my doctor-- I'd have to be feeling too sick to ride. That would warrant a Level 4 Alert on my "How Does Cindy Feel Today?" chart. If such a chart actually existed, it would look something like this:

Level 1: "I feel great! After I ride Wally I'll call Sue and see if she has any horses that need to be exercised. Maybe I'll even jump one of the show horses around a little course!"
Level 2: "Ouch! Was that my neck that just cracked? Okay, I admit it. I'm not a kid anymore. I have the battle scars to prove it. But I'll feel better after breakfast and then I'm going to ride Wally all the way down to the river and back."
Level 3: "Oh geez. It's 11:00 a.m. and I'm still in my pajamas! Focus Cindy, focus! Ignore the sore throat. Shake off the head ache, splash some cold water on your face and get moving. Get dressed and make yourself ride Wally in the arena, even if it's only for a few minutes."
Level 4: "Thank God my husband has already fed Wally and cleaned the paddock, because I feel terrible. I thought The Plague was eradicated. Not only am I too sick to ride, I'm placing myself under voluntary quarantine and not leaving the house. What time does Oprah come on?"
Fortunately, whether I'm too sick to ride due to actual illness or a flare-up of pain, it never lasts too long. The best cure for any ailment, it seems, is climbing on the back of a good horse!
As always, I enjoy reading your comments. You can contribute your thoughts by clicking on "comments" below. You'll notice that now you'll have to type in a few letters to gain access to the comments section. That's just the typical anti-spam device because unfortunately my blog-- like much of the Internet-- is prone to spamming. And I'd hate for some software program to post links to unworthy sites on my blog.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Un-Barn Dog

This is my father's dog, Skippy. Though the animal belongs to both my parents I doubt my mother would ever lay claim to the pooch because he's perhaps the most petulant, rambunctious, mischievous canine our family has ever owned. And that's saying a lot. Skippy has eaten or crunched at least $1,000 worth of eye glasses, television remote controls, slippers, shoes and pillows. (Yes, my mother for some perverse reason has kept a running total on the mayhem). Then there's the grocery list of foodstuffs that Skippy has swept from the countertop, ranging from entire sticks of butter to batches of cookie dough and loaves of bread. Last Christmas he undecorated the tree until my parents finally got wise and installed a section of white fencing across the living room doorway. For its own safety, the poor Christmas tree had to be corraled away from the dog.

And yet my father loves that dog. Whenever my dad takes the old blue pickup truck out for a drive-- usually to get a load of hay-- Skippy goes along in the front seat. It's quite the sight to see my dad behind the wheel of the aging Ford truck with the big blond dog sitting alongside him. While you're smiling at that warm image, let me interject that Skippy has entertained himself numerous times on these drives by nibbling through the seat belt, chewing off the cruise control knob and slobbering nose prints on the inside of the windshield. But my father doesn't seem to mind. Nor does it matter to him that Skippy is famously missing the mark when it comes to being a barn dog. He's run off with and buried countless sweat scrapers and riding crops, and nearly every horse brush is peppered with canine teeth marks.

If you're wondering what kind of dog Skippy is-- other than a destructive one-- he's a Labradoodle. My parents have had many, many wonderful Labrador Retrievers, but for some reason they decided to venture into more exotic waters when it came time for a new pup and got Skippy, who's half Lab and half Standard Poodle.

The moptop hair coat is occasionally clipped into a semi-Schnauzer/kinda Cocker Spaniel coiffure. But that requires the services of Sarah, our local traveling dog groomer. She arrives in her state-of-the-art grooming salon on wheels and then proceeds to convince Skippy that he does indeed want to have a bath and a shave. As you can probably envision, that's quite an undertaking, with Sarah at one end of my parents' small ranch, my parents at the other, and Skippy somewhere in between, darting around wheelbarrows, hopping over hay bales and scurrying past the corrals to avoid his hair appointment.

This Christmas, when my sister, my brother and I purchased a gift certificate from Sarah so that Skippy could have a grooming session on us, I asked Sarah, "So this amount will cover everything?"

She sighed and replied, "Yes, it even includes the rodeo beforehand."

I followed up that comment with, "Hey, he really is a good dog... in an amusing sort of way."

Sarah, who has both horses and dogs, then said, "Ya' know, I've 'done dogs' for a long, long time. And over the years I've come to the conclusion that anything with 'oodle' in its name-- Labradoodle, Goldendoodle, Lhasadoodle, Jackadoodle,whatever-- if it has 'oodle' in it, antics will ensue. That's all I'm sayin'."

It's the antics of barn dogs like Skippy that make me appreciate barn cats. Though I'm not really a cat person I do like having a kitty or two around the stable. Here at my house, I'm slowly trying to convince a big spotted feral kitty that I'm not a scary monster. I know it lives underneath the cypress trees I planted on my hill, across from my feedroom, because sometimes when I go out late to conduct a bed check on Wally I see it dash into the undergrowth. Eventually I plan to trap it, get it spayed (or neutered) and tame it enough to get it to hang around consistently. I'll be following the advice found in the article I wrote for Horse Channel: Here Kitty, Kitty... Come Live at My Barn! And by the way, the photo at the top of the article is a picture I took of my parents' formerly feral barn cat. She, unlike Skippy, is quite well behaved and has never once chewed up a set of seatbelts.

If you'd like to share some comments about barn dogs or barn kitties, just click on "comments" below.