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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The best laid schemes of Mice and Men oft go awry ...

-- Robert Burns, Scottish poet (1759-1796)

So true, as my blogging plans definitely went awry, thanks to an earthquake and then a hurricane. But I will be on schedule again soon and cannot wait to share some fascinating stories with you. 

So how do horses fare in crazy weather, anyway?

Wild horses handle the weather much better than we do. We humans seek out multiple sources of information about what to do, how to prepare, where the weather is coming from, where to go, etc. Their instinct is to simply experience the weather in the moment, find higher or lower ground (depending on the conditions), huddle up and endure the weather together with a sort of zen-like, collective consciousness. 

Horses, like other animals, have a sixth sense meaning they are much more tuned into their environment than we are—they feel the barometric pressure will drop before a storm or sense an earthly tremor moments before we notice the walls shake. You’ve probably witnessed interesting pre-weather event behavior with your own pets.

If you follow me on Twitter (and, hope you do: @midlifehorse), I’ve tweeted lately about my visit with the herd of wild horses in Corolla, NC, the northernmost part of the infamous Outer Banks, and the organization that looks after them. Post-hurricane, I’ve learned that they have fared the storm well, as they have for centuries. A similar herd South of Cape Lookout, the Shackleford herd, is OK, post-Irene as well.

Ditto for the Chincoteague, VA ponies, who were allowed to leave their protected refuge to seek higher ground, in keeping with their instincts. I have not heard about the ponies on the Northern end of Assateague, but since they are the same stock, they probably did just fine as Irene spared that part of the shoreline. And, there are volunteers and resources at both locations to look after them.

I have also learned that the folks at Equine Adventures, in Frisco, NC (south of Hatteras lighthouse), bravely rode out the storm with their herd of 20 trail horses. I hear that the horses are acting as if nothing happened. This part of the Outer Banks took a beating—the storm washed out several sections of road connecting them to the mainland, and they are still without power. Recovery there will take a long time! The owner has launched a blog recently—no doubt she will have some amazing stories to share about the storm.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Visit to Belize

I recently returned from Ambergris Caye, an island off of the northern coast of Belize. It was a family vacation and a wonderful destination. Since I ride year-round, an annual trip to someplace hot and sunny with warm, blue water so that the hubby can enjoy scuba and other water sports only seems fair.

Belize is famous for its waters and protected underwater parks.
Also home to The Blue Hole which draws divers from around the world.

I wish I could tell you that I went horseback riding there (a popular activity), but we stayed mostly near the beach, and no complaints since I love the water, too. But I did see some horses—they are small and finely boned, similar to Paso Finos, which makes sense due to the Spanish influence there. 

A large ray coming to see if we had any fish scraps to share.
Belize is protected by 190 miles of reef, the largest coral reef in
the world, second only to Australia's Great Barrier reef.

If you travel inland, you will see horse farms here and there; many offer trail riding in the rain forest.  Often I saw a solitary horse with nothing but a rope around its neck and a foot-long chunk of wood at the end, a kind of tie down. The horse can move about, but not that freely. I guess it makes them easier to catch. It was not always clear where the owner lived or where the horse was usually kept. Most looked well cared for; I saw only a couple that looked thin. I wonder how they take the heat and humidity? Perhaps it is their breeding: fine, hot-blooded types, like Arabians, that have adapted.

Iguanas everywhere! They are shy. This guy was little.

The strangest sight was that of a lone horse standing in the middle of a cemetery. We were driving just outside Belize City which is semi-urban, by U.S. definitions. In that part of the country, the land is below sea level, so they bury their dead in above-ground caskets, just like in New Orleans. And there, among the crosses and cement crypts decorated with flowers and offerings, was a large horse very nonchalantly standing in the middle of it all. It was the oddest sight. The horse had a rope around its neck, so I assumed it had an owner. Maybe this person thought the grass was an economical way to feed it? Free grazing for the taking? Or maybe it was the caretaker’s way of keeping the grass mowed? I wish I had been able to take a photo. 

A few minutes later, I saw three horses in an empty, grassy lot. There was no fence, no ropes around their necks and people walking by as if nothing was unusual. Stray horses? In a city? With people driving cars around?

When I got home, I tried several internet searches about horses in Belize. Not a lot of information out there except for recreational riding. A small amount of horse racing takes place in Belize. It’s more of a hobby and activity at festivals than a profession or industry. Interestingly, there are several communities of Mennonites that still employ horse power for farming and transportation via buggies in lieu of automobiles. 

A Howler monkey. If you know how to imitate their call,
they will howl back at you. And they are loud.

Instead of horse photos, I am including photos from a few snorkel trips as well as some animals we visited at The Belize Zoo which is more of a sanctuary for native species than your typical zoo. Definitely worth a stop if you visit. The zoo features animals in their natural habitat so you really get a sense of how they live in the wild.

The Leopard at The Belize Zoo. Amazing creature.

A native deer.

The Margay. A jungle cat about the size of a house cat.

We felt honored to spend time with this turtle at the Hol Chan preserve.

--Belize is a wonderful place to visit. If you plan to visit, email me. I am happy to give you some recommendations and travel tips. English is the official language and their dollar is tied to the U.S. dollar, two to one, and only two hours from Miami by plane. So many things to do from scuba to cave tubing and zip-lining to hiking, snorkeling and sailing, and horseback riding. And the food, oh, yes, delicious! And the national beer, even better! Good thing since they do not import beer, they brew their own.

A Mayan temple at Altun Ha which was once a large marketplace back in the day, oh, several centuries ago.

 --Photo credits to my husband and daughter. Great job!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Nothing Like the Classics

I majored in English in college. I read so many books that I was actually burned out on reading anything other than a restaurant menu for quite a while after graduation.  After a time, I started to enjoy reading again, but ironically, despite reading obsessively as a child and taking all of those literature classes, I missed out on many classics.

So every summer I make a point to read at least an old favorite or two or a book that I somehow overlooked. There is something to be said for picking up a cherished book and really soaking it in instead of worrying about getting through ten chapters before the next class.

The same goes for the old classics in horsemanship. Two favorites that I always come back to: Hunter Seat Equitation by George Morris and Centered Riding by Sally Swift. You may know these books yourself, but if not, find and order them today.

George Morris’ advice is just as relevant today as when he wrote this book 40 years ago.  One of my favorite ideas from his book is that you respect the horse always and foremost. But the best way to do this is not by riding as best you can, but by cleaning your tack, dressing out appropriately even just for schooling and being a good all-around horse person and practicing good horse-keeping.

Sally Swift’s legacy continues with her Centered Riding program and method of instruction. But her illustrations and visual metaphors are so vivid and striking that they are easy to remember. I find myself going back to several visuals that work well for me whenever I feel out of position or those days when I’m not in harmony with the horse I’m riding. 

What is on your reading list this summer? A few fun ideas to get you going:

  • I love non-fiction books about horse racing as the stories and people are larger than life. Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand is hard to put down—horse, action and history lesson all rolled into one.
  • Those who have not read any of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books (The Lord of the Rings series) would be fascinated to learn that horses play key roles in the storyline and are revered by the inhabitants of the fictional realm of Rohan.
  • If you have a horse-crazed child, trying reading National Velvet by Enid Bagnold out loud and imitate all of the British accents. Forget the movie—with all due respect to Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney--the book is full of amazingly rich characters and brilliant imagery.
  • For a non-horsey flavor, but a chance to regress to those endless, childhood summers, try Treasure Island or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Pride and Prejudice.
Share your favorites in the comments!