Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Gift

My daughter recently asked me if I'd chosen a topic for my next blog entry.  Since I hadn't yet decided, I suggested she give me a few good ideas.  Her little face brightened up and then, wrapping her slight arms around my shoulders, she whispered, "I'd really like it if you wrote about me."

And so I will.

My daughter received her first saddle last week as a gift on her eighth birthday.  Those of you who ride know, your first saddle is a big deal.  You remember it with the same sense of nostalgia that you give your first bicycle.

Hartley Galaxie Close Contact Saddle
Hartley Galaxy
I was fifteen when my mom and dad bought me my first saddle.  It was a well-broken in (some would say worn out) Hartley Galaxy.  I loved that saddle and had such a sense of pride when I would bring it to my once a week lessons at the local pony mill.

To this day, that dinged up saddle holds special meaning to me.  It signified to me that, while my parents couldn't afford to buy me a horse or send me to a lot of horse shows, they supported my love for riding.  That saddle allowed me to ride many different horses and ponies that, without my own saddle, I wouldn't necessarily have had access to.  When I outgrew my Hartley, I needed to get a job (doing what else but mucking stalls) to earn money for a new saddle.  My measly paychecks combined with the trade in value of the Hartley got me to my next saddle and so it went for years.

Decades later, I am able to give the gift of a saddle to my daughter hoping that she, like her mother, will come down with an incurable case of the horse-bug.  The saddle is nowhere near the top of the line, nor did I want it to be, and the gift of a pony is not going to happen anytime soon.  As a parent, I want my daughter to appreciate that riding is a privilege and, like most things in life, she will need to work hard and sometimes sacrifice to succeed.  In the meantime, I hope she enjoys the view from atop her very own saddle.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Now That's Using Your Noggin!

It's no secret to anyone over the age of 3 that life has a funny way of being inconsistent and unpredictable.  I mean, you can't really count on too much.  

Among the few things I can rely on are the following:  I need corrective lenses if I want to see anything.  Seriously, I can't read a paper without my reading glasses and can't safely go down a flight of stairs before popping in my contact lenses. 

Here's another thing I can put money on: My metabolism is slow.  It's plain and simple.  I know that if I want to indulge myself on tasty meals garnished with a nice dessert and washing it all down with red wine, I will have to pay the piper, so to speak, and spend a week or two eating twigs and berries until I can wear my jeans without getting rubs in obscene places.  

Finally, I know that in the sport that I've chosen, I can count on falling off every so often.  I learned early on from some horse person or another that "if you don't fall off every once in a while, you're not trying hard enough."  

Apparently, I've been trying really hard for the past few months.

Until recently, I couldn't tell you when I'd last fallen out of the saddle, which is remarkable considering how green Romero was when we started working together.  Towards the end of the summer, I had an opportunity to take a clinic with a well-known hunter-jumper trainer.  The session was hard work, but I felt Romero and I were doing quite well...that is, until we started jumping.  

We aced the first few warm-up fences with ease.  Then it was time to start doing some course work.  Well, don't you know, over the first fence -- a little white picket gate - Romero lost his head, panicked, and - from what I hear from others who were spectating - tried to jump the fence with his back legs first. Yeah...well, you don't even need to ride horses to know that just won't work.

Up we went and down we came - but in separate parts of the ring.  My left stirrup flew off into the air, Romero sprinted to the other side of the ring, and I landed - face first in the sand footing - somewhere in between.  It wasn't pretty.  I conked my head hard enough to make the clinician suggest I not get back on my horse.

Last week, during my lesson, I happened to come off again.  This time over an oxer that sits on a diagonal line that neither Romero nor I can quite figure out the distance to.  Well, up we went and down we came after Romero caught his front foot on the back rail.  

My poor horse threw himself in reverse, but couldn't help dragging the roll top element of the fence with us for a few steps before finally untangling himself then turning and wiggling right out from under me.  Boom!  There I was again, this time in the silty footing of the indoor.

Stubborn as I am and despite the mild ringing in my ears and general sick feeling that you get when you bang your head on a hard surface - I wouldn't recommend it - I finished the lesson and, in the end, Romero and I found a decent spot to that damned oxer.

Here I am, a week later and still a little sore in my neck and lower back with a tiny bit of a lingering headache.  That's all fine and good - it's what's to be expected, right?  But then I start to think like an actual responsible adult.  Two good smacks to the noggin in less than 6 months probably isn't the best thing for anyone, let alone a middle-aged mom of two.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Summer Lovin'

I arrived home yesterday after a great riding lesson caked in a sticky film of dust and sweat with a ball of frizzy hair piled on my head and I couldn't have been happier.  There's something about this summer that is just so perfect and satisfying that I never want it to end.  I would liken it to that delicious moment when you sink your teeth into a ripe peach.

Contender Peach Tree

Holding the plump orb of a summer peach in your hand, its soft warm skin kissed with the red, yellow and orange blaze of the sun,  you pierce the delicate fruit and release succulent nectar which drizzles to your chin in golden rivulets of syrupy splendor.  My summer has been a lot like that simple but fulfilling pleasure.

This year, I decided not to overbook the kids with activities or other obligations and, with the exception of one week of writer's camp for my daughter, we have spent hours of quality time together.  We're nearing the end of July and I've only heard the dreaded "I'm bored" three times (yes, I'm keeping track).  Instead, the three of us have been playing, enjoying the local pool and getting together with good friends.  At the end of the day, we fall into bed exhausted but looking forward to what adventure the next day has in store for us.

We've also discovered three very nice girls who like to babysit.  What a lucky strike!  Not only will the girls babysit while I go for a ride, but my husband and I have actually been able to enjoy a kid-free meal or two at some of our favorite local restaurants.

Did I mention riding?  Oh, yes, the riding.  Romero, formerly known as Wassachusetts, has been an absolute dream these past few weeks.  One of the finest moments of this summer was the successful trail ride this past Monday.   In fairness to my horse, I've only taken him on a true trail ride - walking the turn out fields after a lesson hardly counts - a handful of times and that was last summer.   With the support of three other women riders and their trail steady horses, Wassachusetts and I rode through the woods, under low branches and into a large open field without incident.  I focused on supporting him with my lower leg while letting the reins hang loose, which, trust me, took some doing on my part since it felt completely and utterly counter-intuitive.

As we made our way through the wooded trails,  I noticed just how reactive my horse was to my body language.  When I got anxious, he would start to arch his neck and jig, but as soon as I relaxed my lower back and hips, the tension in his muscles would almost automatically dissipate.  I also noticed that if I took any hold at all on his mouth or face, he would get nervous and stop focusing on having a rider on his back, but putting a loop in the reins and hugged his sides with my lower leg, made him a happy trail horse again.

When we got back to the barn, I was absolutely ecstatic.  I have no poker face - nor do I try to have one - especially when it comes to riding.  I was beaming that sunny July afternoon, gratefully indulging in one of those delightful, ripe peach moments.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Crazy Cool

It was long overdue, but Wassachusetts finally has a new (and enormously improved) horse show name. For those of you not familiar with this bizarre naming ritual, take note: Horse people are an odd sort when it comes to choosing a name for their mounts, and when it came to dubbing Wassachusetts with his own fancy-schmancy show name, well, honestly, I had an easier time naming my children.

Initially, I was happy to keep the name Wassachusetts.  The name was so strange and awkward that it gave me a little giggle every time someone was forced to say it.  At our second horse show, the announcer stumbled over the name like she had a mouthful of marbles; it seriously lightened my mood and alleviated my bad case of nerves as I entered the show ring.

What I hated was that each time Wassachusetts was muttered either at a show or in casual conversation at the barn, I found that I was the only one who got a kick out of my horse's eccentric appellation.

For months, I played the name game with friends.  We tried names with literary or personal meaning and even tried to find witty or funny names, but nothing seemed to stand out.  Finally, I gave thought to Wassachuett's personality.  There is no doubt that he is a very masculine horse with his own independent thoughts about how things should be done.  I coupled this seed of thought with my personal preference to find him a name buried in some great work of literature.  Then it occurred to me. Whose writing would best represent my manly horse?  Why, Ernest Hemingway, of course.

white-haired, white-bearded man with striped shirt
Ernest Hemingway

It didn't take long for a name to come bubbling up from Papa's great body of work.  I'd finally found a name worthy of my fantastic beast.  From here on out, he would be known in the show ring as Romero.  Now, if you happen to be a little disappointed in my choice, hold your horses - pun intended - before forming a final opinion.

In "The Sun Also Rises," Hemingway introduces the reader to a young bullfighter named Pedro Romero.  He is confident, dignified and unwavering in his dedication to the art of bullfighting, just as I like to think that my newly dubbed, four-legged Romero will be committed to his job as a hunter-jumper.  Oh yes, and two other attributes that my Romero and Hemingway's hero share:  They are both strong- willed and handsome.

Curious to know more about Hemingway's character, I lost myself in a trail of Googled information on the novel, bullfighting and even stumbled across a short bio and picture of a famous matador named Pedro Romero from Ronda, Spain.

File:Pedro Romero by Goya.jpg
Pedro Romero

The bullfighter's swoony, debonaire gaze captured by the painter is how I would picture Hemingway's hero and, in turn, is the human face I might put to Romero-the-Horse.

So, good-bye Wassachusetts and hello Romero.  Ole!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Hot Damn

Just as I was nearly convinced that Wassachusetts and I were destined to part ways,  things started to come back together again.  After a ride or two with my trainer's daughter, Wassachusetts started to become more confident in his approach to jumping and I started to dig deep and have more faith in my abilities as a rider - a GOOD rider - and began to trust Wassachusetts again.

On Sunday, we hopped a ride with a fellow boarder and headed to our first show since the spring.  Maybe it was the our renewed relationship with one another or maybe it was the ungodly heat and humidity, but neither Wassachusetts nor I were in the least bit nervous when we got to the show grounds.  I'm the first to admit that I am an anxious, high-strung type of person and Wassachusetts is...well, a young, sometimes feisty, off the track thoroughbred.  'Nuff said.

But this time around, you would have thought we were a seasoned horse show team.  The loud speaker, slamming Port-O-Potty doors and general horse show hubbub never phased us a bit.  My pulse stayed steady as we waited on deck to enter the ring and my heart didn't race when we approached our first fence.

After our first over fences class, the 90 plus degree weather got to me.  Bundled up in tall leather boots, a long-sleeved shirt that buttons at the neck, a show jacked and breeches made my body sweat like a 500 pound fat man in a sauna.  We sought shelter under some scraggly trees, but it was too late.  Sweat dripped from the tip of my nose and drizzled down my back.  Then, I started to get dizzy.

"Oh, great," I thought to myself.  "I'll be 'that girl who passed out at the horse show.' "  And who wants to be her?  Not me!

I took my helmet off to seek some relief and, in typical fashion, fellow boarders helped by carrying cold cups of water to those of us who were showing and holding horses or jackets in an effort to help us keep cool.  The horses were offered a bucked of water, which they gratefully slurped from to satiate their own thirst.  After what seemed like an eternity, each of us filtered back to the main ring to finish our second over fences class and then, at long last, completed the division with the under saddle class.

Wassachusetts was soft in the bridle and responsive to my aids in his over fences classes and wonderful in the hack. We left that day with a pink and a white ribbon (a very nice color combination, according to my excited 7-year old daughter, who promptly squirreled her prizes away).  Better than any prize was the feeling that Wassachusetts and I have conquered a difficult period in our training together and had a better than satisfactory day at a very hot horse show.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Chapter That Almost Wasn't

After what seems like forever, I decided to write a new blog entry.  I haven't been remiss in my updates because of my busy schedule or for lack of material.  Instead, I've been hesitating over my keyboard trying to decide how to narrow down the long list of topics swirling around in my head, and the one topic I keep coming back to would be the final chapter for this particular blog.

My sweet, smart and sometimes overly-opinionated Wassachusetts was giving me more training issues than I'd bargained for when I initially settled my mind on buying a young, green thoroughbred with a racing history.  Over the past two and a half years, I've run out of patience with the high-intensity rides and his explosive tendencies.  I've lost my courage and have a hard time trying to reestablish my trust in him.  Anyone who knows horses, knows that this is a lethal combination that can potentially ruin both horse and rider.

During one recent lesson, my wise-and-all-knowing trainer instructed me to push Wassachusetts forward and into the bridle, therefore preventing his ability to bolt or carry-on like a semi-wild orangutan, but as I laid my leg on his side and felt him tighten his back muscles and surge forward, I decided I'd had it with this horse.  I pulled him up and announced that I was not going to be run away with today.  No way, no how!

I was more frustrated and angry with myself than with the horse.  Quite frankly, I was downright pissed at myself for not having the stones to ride through his tantrums and nonsense.  Wasn't I a better rider than that?  Apparently not.

By the end of the day, I convinced myself of a lot of things like: I need a smaller horse since my 5'3" frame seems lost and overwhelmed on a 16.2-hand horse; I need a quieter horse that would be less of a challenge; I need to sell this horse. It was this last thought that really stuck.

I filled my trainer's daughter in on my concerns and had her agree to do a few training rides on Wassachusetts.  Much to my ego's relief, she agreed that he was not a particularly easy horse to ride.  This sentiment was echoed by my trainer that not everyone could ride my sometimes fiery beast and that, in short, she had every confidence that I possessed the necessary skills to manage his training highs and lows.  While I still have my doubts, I caved on my decision to sell and - literally- got back on the horse.

It's hard to tell what will happen over the next few months, but thanks to the 90 degree heat and humidity, Wassachusetts has been that quiet, responsive horse I was pining for.  Will he stay this way?  Of course not.  But I can't help but wonder, if I slog through these tough times, will I have that nice, well-trained, quiet horse in a few years?  I guess I'll just have to take it one chapter at a time.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

He's A Hot Mess

Have I mentioned that Wassachusetts was once employed as a race horse?  His less than illustrious career began and ended at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts.  With 8 starts, which included 1 win, 1 place and 1 lousy show to his credit, Wassachusetts retired in 2007 with earnings teetering on $10,000.  And while he may not have been fast enough to make it on the race track, he's more than fast enough for me.


As recently as last week, Wassachusetts reverted back to some of his old ways, but I can hardly blame him.  With the introduction of the beautiful spring weather and riding outdoors, Wassachusetts is nearly beside himself with joy and, quite frankly, a little anxiety.  There's nothing like trying to ride a fresh, young thoroughbred in a big outdoor arena on a cool and slightly windy spring day.  Boy, it seems like there have been a lot of those days lately.

After two episodes of being run away with - which, by the way, simultaneously invokes feelings of terror and exhilaration - my trainer suggested that her daughter do a training ride on my wild pony.   Now, my trainer's daughter is not only a gifted rider, but she also loves the challenge of a hot horse and more often than not, can pin point issues and either fix the problem or give the animal's rider insight into how to approach  and ride through various issues.  I also love the fact that she's empathetic to the rider's concerns and reactions to certain behaviors exhibited by their horses or ponies.  Case in point, I absolutely do not have one ounce of appreciation for Wassachusett's running off with me like a naughty pony taking advantage of a small child.  

A day or two later, I sat with my trainer's daughter to discuss her findings and recommendations.  Apparently, Wassachusetts took it upon himself to bolt during their ride leaving me feeling a slightly relieved because I no longer felt it was something I was or wasn't doing to insight his bad behavior and frustrated because here we were revisiting a vice that I was certain he had outgrown.

So, like any other problem or tribulation in life, you just have to push through it, and, in this case, I mean it quite literally.  When Wassachusetts digs in and takes flight, I need to fight my natural urge to clutch on the reins, trying to muscle him into stopping and opt, instead, to urge him forward with the hope that it will eventually click in his brain that this is not a fun exercise for him, rather it's exhausting and ultimately unsatisfying because sprinting off doesn't allow him to be in control of what we're doing.

Hopefully, Wassachusetts and I will remain patient with one another and quickly nix this bolting issue because it sure would be nice to start horse showing again sometime soon!