Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Would You Like a Cosmo? Why, Yes, Of Course!

If you have been reading my blog, and I most sincerely appreciate that, you will recall my friend Patty and her special bond with Pistol, a former racehorse. Patty is a great horse woman and also has a side business of making dog beds with organic materials and other canine wellness products.

But there comes a time where every woman has her moment of weakness. For some, it’s a pair of shoes or the die-for handbag. For the rest of us, it’s a killer deal on fly spray, can't-resist muck boots or that gut instinct about a horse. I think we have all been there. It happened to Patty about a year ago when she decided to check out the postings on the Camelot weekly Facebook site. (Camelot is a feed lot in New Jersey where horses are sold before being shipped to …  well, we won’t mention that part). She saw the photo of the small white and chestnut pinto. I remember the photo myself and don’t know of any horse person who would not be moved by the timid, but curious face. 

Well, it was only a few days later when Cosmopolitan, named for the cocktail in honor of our monthly tack room happy hours, showed up in the trailer, thanks to our generous barn owner who was open to this great experiment and had rescued a number of horses herself. He went immediately into quarantine along with his personal collection of lice, ticks, hopelessly burr-tangled mane and tail, and a mud blanket. He was a mess. 

Cosmo: Week One, Early 2011
His story explained his low weight. He allegedly was found wandering the woods in West Virginia. He was scared and young. No way did he want anyone to touch his ears. He didn’t even know how to eat a small piece of carrot or apple.

As with most rescues, he responded quickly to a carefully administered diet to gradually bring him up to weight. Patty got the worst of the filth off of him at first, but gave him some space to adjust to his new environment and gain her trust before attempting a full-blown bath. Wish I had a video of that adventure!

Lots of dewormer later and after a vet check, he was ready for full human intervention. I remember the day we treated him with lice powder. Easier said than done to treat a squirmy youngster with that stuff and not coat ourselves in it. That was also the day we readied a small paddock near the back of the property.  After a month in his stall, he was ready to leave his quarantine. I think this video says it best:

Patty could tell right away that Cosi, Cosmo, Cosimoto, Cosmonaut, The Coz (they all end up with more than one nickname, don’t they?) had a natural desire to please. With no idea about how he had been trained, Patty saw that he had had some handling. He reacted calmly to having his hooves trimmed and accepted a halter and would lead. He seemed comfortable with tack. But the barn owner summed it up best when she observed that he was “cowboy broke.”  With a rider on his back, he said “time to go!” And so, his re-education began. 

Here are Cosmo and Patty just working on a quiet walk in the round pen after several months. He tries so hard!

About a year later, and what a difference. His coat shines. He greets you at his stall door every time. He stands on the cross ties quietly. He is learning to go forward and straight in the ring. His talent is riding out alone or with a group on a trail. No matter how many speeding bike riders, screaming kids in strollers or barking dogs he encounters, Patty is able to ride him on the buckle. 

He loves his Jolly ball. And, yes, he loves carrots and apples. And bananas.

Photo: Cosmo one year after coming to ARF
Patti and The Coz -- He is such a ham for the camera.
This was taken close to his one year anniversary at the barn.
More to come on Cosmo…

Friday, March 16, 2012

It's Time to Ride Again

Prefacing note to readers who ride regularly: Do you have a friend who used to ride? Then please print or forward this blog entry to that person and say, “See? I am not the only one who thinks you should get back in the saddle!”
I’ve been working on a few blog entries recently, but coming up on the one year anniversary of this blog, I decided to revisit my original purpose. At the barn and away from the barn, I encounter women all the time who tell me they used to ride as kids or before they got married or started a family.  All of the stories begin the same way. First, they let out a long, wistful sigh. As they start to tell me their stories, they get a faraway (or is it slightly lovesick?)  look in their eyes as they describe the favorite pony they first jumped, bareback rides through the creek in the summer, times they fell off but didn’t care, that great horse show or when they first haltered the tallest horse in the barn without standing on a bucket. 

I enjoy hearing their memories, but these women all have one thing in common: they all end their mini-life narrative with a similar statement. I could almost mouth the words along with them. It goes something like this:

“Yeah, I wish I could ride again.”

“Yeah, those were the days. If only I could go back.”

“Yeah, it would be fun, but I just don’t have the time now.”

Ok, enough with the excuses. Here’s why:

Life is short.

You are not getting any younger.

You would feel younger if you started riding again….oh, wait, that one got your attention, huh?

So here goes. I’m going to try my hardest to convince you that you should. To help you out, I’ve compiled plenty of arguments to the positive. Please adapt as needed to counter any negativity you encounter from any significant others, family members or total strangers, for that matter.

  • You love Spring—it’s getting warm and you love to be outside. What better time to reinvent yourself than post-parka, snow boots and windshield ice-scraping weather?
  • You know that riding is great exercise. Who doesn’t need more exercise?
  • You can ask horses to do cool stuff which is pretty amazing and maybe the best argument ever because they are so willing. They are big, warm and fuzzy. And cute.
  • You need an excuse to shop, and the tack shop has great deals. Because you need a new helmet and boots. And the clothes are way more fashionable than when we were kids.
  • You will look forward to your riding sessions like a kid looks forward to a favorite holiday. In fact, you will think about it all week. Next time you’re in a boring meeting, you can use the time productively to think about perfecting your sitting trot.
  • You can put new stickers on your car—like the outlines of horses doing an extended trot or barrel racing. Or that bumper sticker that says “Have you hugged a horse today?” How fun is that?
  • You get to tell people about your new (old) hobby. “I’m an equestrian.” To say it just sounds cool.

  • You can hog up the DVR with all of the London Olympics coverage of the equestrian events that will air at 4am. It’s educational! You have to watch the masters so that you can learn.
  • You are old enough to not care what other people think. So relish with amusement, instead of dread, that weird look your family and friends give you when they think you’re crazy for riding again. This may take a little practice.
  • Your diet will improve. Because horses love carrots and apples so much, they inspire you to eat healthier.
  • You like being in your happy place. And the barn is your happy place. It makes you a happier person at home and at work, too. It’s your time when you can block out everything else.
  • But, maybe most of all, because you really love riding and horses. You have denied your inner horseperson long enough while you were putting everyone else’s needs before yours. 

Okay, riding friends, what other arguments can you add in the comments?

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

When to Start

A lot of people ask me when is the best time for kids to start taking lessons. They are always surprised when I tell them between seven and nine years old, depending on their ability to focus and follow directions.

I suppose we are fixated on the age of young athletes—during every Olympics there is the “up close and personal” profile of a superstar who started a sport “before she could walk!” But the truth is, unless kids are able to get on a horse every day or several times a week, they are just not going to be that amazing protégé in an hour a week, at least not right away.

I remind parents that even the youngest beginning riders have to multi-task when they start riding. There are so many things to remember: heels down, sit straight, look up, process instructions given by the instructor, have some fine motor skills for holding the reins correctly, just to name a few. Anything else is a pony ride, which is fine, but given the cost of lessons these days, it’s not unreasonable for parents to want their kids to learn at a safe pace on quiet horses and have some fun, too.

Practicing riding skills on bare back improves balance.
Expectations are important, too. When I help my trainer start a new group of beginners who have not even touched a horse before, we are careful to set expectations for kids and parents alike. Hollywood movies have etched into our brains that iconic image of a cowboy hopping on the back of a horse without a care and galloping into the sunset (without a helmet, no less). We explain that the first few lessons are slow and heavy on the basics and big on safety: entering a stall, leading a horse correctly, mounting, dismounting, starting, stopping, the basics of steering. 

Safety first! Daisy is an excellent teacher.
She won't let young riders rush her out of her stall.

So, parents of the horse-afflicted, my advice is to make sure your kids really want to ride, are willing to follow directions and know that their first lessons won’t be wild gallops through flowering meadows and rainbows. If they are more interested in the petting the barn cat than the ponies, wait a year—for their safety.

Friday, October 7, 2011

No, You Don’t Have to Get Back On

Everyone knows that saying about getting right back on a horse after you fall off. No matter what! Well, I really take issue with this philosophy.  It depends. Instructors who enforce this rule without thinking through the situation are not being responsible. Sure, it can be a wise move for a kid who isn’t hurt and needs a confidence boost right away, provided that the horse is quiet and not the cause of the fall. But, I’ve seen injured people allow themselves to be persuaded and get back on, unaware that they need medical attention. Myself included: In college, I got back on a horse before I knew I was suffering from a concussion. I do not remember riding for nearly 15 minutes before a smart observer took me to the hospital. To this day, I still don’t remember being at the hospital for hours.

When you are more--shall I say, mature--falling really does hurt. No longer do you “bounce” like kids seem to; you are much more likely to land on the ground with a resounding thud. As a kid, I had my share of landing on jumps, through them, over them horseless, a very scenic route around the sides—all unscathed. As an adult, a fall results in a painful consequence such as an x-ray or multiple visits to my favorite massage therapist (who also rides—that kinda helps with the embarrassment factor).

Fortunately, I have a wonderful trainer who has helped me overcome some real confidence-shaking moments. After one fall that landed me outside of the arena, I waited about a month for the bruising and pain to subside before I felt I could go back to the barn. When I did, she said that if all I wanted to do was sit on the horse in the ring, not even walk, and call that a victory, that was good enough for her. 

So I recommend that is what you do. Find a friend or trainer or instructor who knows when going slow is what you need or will help you find non-scary ways to get your confidence going in the right direction again. Don’t force yourself or ignore the sirens in your head—those sirens are nature’s way of reminding you that you are no longer that infallible teenager. 

This is Belle, a large Pony of the Americas. I don't ride her very often (I feel way too big for her!), but nothing beats a quiet hack on a schoolmaster to boost your confidence after a fall. Ponies like Belle are worth their weight in gold.
I know a lot of women who have returned to riding having once performed amazing and fearless feats of horsemanship in their youth. But something about getting older makes us not want to take the risk anymore. I know I could handle a nervous horse, but some days I don’t always want to. And, maybe because we are a bit older, we find our most satisfying moments while riding are a bit different than when we were young. It’s not about jumping a certain height or riding the newest horse in the barn. It’s something more meaningful—maybe a quiet walk around the field or how your horse drops his head and closes his eyes when you rub behind his ears.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

When a Horse Trusts You

Well, I better start writing about my friend Patty as she will be the subject of several blog posts. She gives me that much material to write about. 

I’ve known Patty for about nine years at the barn where I lease. She is an excellent rider and has also been dubbed the social director of our little group of ladies who ride in the ring, on the trail or just hang out in the tack room for the occasional happy hour. 

But for as long as I’ve known her, she has had a very special relationship with Pistol. Pistol, long retired from an unsuccessful racing career, is a mahogany bay, 16.2 gelding. He is also one of the best trail horses in the barn and can do some dressage. Affectionately nicknamed “Forrest Gump,” Pistol is laid back and will lick you to death if you come close enough. In fact he usually only resembles his name during turn-out when he demonstrates his characteristic bullet-like exit from the barn and into the field. 

Patty and Pistol on the trail last winter.

Patty has been his “mom” for many years and knows him better than any of us. In fact, it’s their tight bond that got them both out of a bad spot last summer. 

I was not present on this particular trail ride, but heard the story afterward. Patty and Pistol rode out with another experienced trail horse and rider on a warm, sunny day, as they had hundreds of times before. They decided to take a familiar trail and knew it crossed a small creek. It had recently rained, but the water was not much higher than usual, so they looked around and seeing no hazards decided to cross. Pistol is a great lead horse, so he and Patty went first, without hesitation.

Mr. P is a great lead horse.

No sooner did Pistol take about ten steps in the knee deep water, then sunk up to his chest, his feet sucked into a muddy hole below. He could not move. Patty warned the other rider not to enter the creek. She was not sure what to do at first, but jumped off and tried to help pull Pistol out by the reins.

It was no good. He could not move. By now, Patty was getting worried about the possible outcome. She knew she could not panic. Covered in mud and soaked herself, she somehow found footing to the side of the horse and pulled his head around. With great effort, he was able to dislodge his feet and climb out onto the bank. Rattled and obviously exhausted by the effort, Pistol stood on the edge shaking and shivering for quite a while. So did Patty. She realized the only way back to the barn was to go back through the creek. She was not sure if Pistol was going to go along with that plan.

When they had both caught their breath, Patty decided to go for it. She tried to lead him back through the creek, but like a smart trail horse, Pistol said “forget it.” She took her time coaxing him and eventually, he actually walked back through the water. Somehow they were able to side-step the offending hole and stay on more stable ground.

“It just goes to show you what you can get your horse to do when he trusts you,” Patty told me after the incident. Yes, indeed. 

--Many thanks to Alexa and Rachel for the photos!

A Few of the Usual Suspects: Laura on Cheers, Alexa on Cherico and Patty on Pistol.