Sunday, January 30, 2011

Passu - My "Little Friend"

I trudged up the concrete steps to the line of waiting yellow school buses. The smell of diesel fumes wafted through the air, turning my stomach. It was going to be another 40 minute bus ride home, I would most likely be motion sick by the time I arrived at the bus stop. Usually the short walk from the bus stop to my house would cure me of the nausea. Still, I hated riding the bus. Actually so far I hated everything about the 6th grade. I was one of the smallest kids in the school, and I always felt like I had a target on my back. I was an outcast in a small affluent town. No one was impressed that my dad was Chief of the Boat of a Naval Submarine. I didn’t wear designer labels like the rest of the girls my age. My bad haircut was growing out and looked funny; I had no self-confidence when I was around the other kids. Puberty was just beginning and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t survive it.

I kept my eyes down as I trudged up the stairs, looking at my feet was safe, making eye contact was not. Suddenly the familiar sound of a car engine caused me to stand up straight. I knew the car before I even saw it across the street. It was mom’s copper colored 1978 Dodge Aspen station wagon. I loved the sound of that engine; it meant I wouldn’t have to ride the bus home. I had stopped expecting the car to be waiting for me outside the school shortly after I started middle school. Mom had explained that it was too far for her to drive every day to pick me up. The elementary school was a short distance from our house and only a few minutes out of her way. I suspected that dad had something to do with the end to my car service home. He often accused mom of babying me, nothing like a daily nauseous bus ride to help me grow up fast. I plopped down in the front seat, throwing my book back at my feet. My younger brother screamed from the back seat. At 4 years old he hated being strapped in. He was known for undoing the buckles of his seatbelts and climbing into the rear cargo hold of the wagon halfway down the road. I smiled at him and mom, I didn’t care where we were going, I was just happy to not be in the line of waiting yellow buses.

Mom told me we were going to look at a horse, which really took me by surprise. My parents were not looking for another horse for me as far as I knew. I had been riding my sister’s horse Suki, as I had outgrown my pony Misty. I still fit the 12.2 hand pony physically, but I had come home from a week of summer camp and refused to ride her after spending entire camp session riding their big draft horses. My older sister had moved on to other things and no longer had any interest in riding. Suki had been taking up space in the pasture, so she seemed like a natural progression for me. The only problem was that she didn’t jump. She was a Morgan/Quarter Horse and a stubborn one at that. She was in fact named after a mule. I had just starting jumping on Misty before my parents sold her to the neighbors as a first horse for their daughter. I didn’t mind riding Suki, but my parents could tell she wasn’t the right horse for me. The horse we were going to look at was listed in the classified ads of the local paper; she was a 19 year old Quarter Horse/Welsh Pony cross. She was a been there done that Pony Club mount and she was free to a good home – a price even my parents would agree too.

The farm we pulled into was surrounded by lush green empty pastures. We were met by a college aged girl, who explained that the horse we were looking at was the last one to go. She and her sister were both going to school away from home. The other horses had sold, but this one needed a special home. Her name was Passu – it was Blackfoot Indian for “little friend”. She was 14.1 hands, dark bay with a white blaze down her face. While she wasn’t the prettiest horse out there, she was by far the kindest. Passu was in a smaller dry pasture closer to the house. She was a founder risk out on all that lush green grass. The college aged girl lunged her for me. She then slipped on a headstall with a snaffle bit and had me get on bareback. Passu was very responsive to my aids. She was easy to ride compared to the horses I had at home. After a few laps I headed back to my mom with a big grin on my face and proudly announced that Passu was perfect. I had assumed that it was a done deal. Passu’s owner informed me that we were not the first people that had come to look at her. They had received over 30 phone calls since placing the ad in the paper. There was another mother and daughter coming to look at her later that day. Quick on my feet, I jumped into a diatribe about how well I would take care of Passu. I told the girl about our farm, the pastures were large, but Passu would be out with other horses. I would make sure she didn’t founder. We also lived near 120 acres of trails and I would be sure to ride her every day. I would also ride her at the local playday horse shows, something she had done for years with the two girls she grew up with.

My monologue must have worked, because a few days later Passu was dropped off at our house. Now that I look back on it, she was one of only three been there done that horses I have owned. She carried me to countless playdays, pony club events, mounted meetings and riding lessons. She was the confidence booster I desperately needed. I rode her for two years before stepping up to my next mount. She took the best care of me on countless adventures. My mom knew that when I headed out on a ride, I would always come home safe. Passu was the reason I survived puberty and the harshness of middle school. She was indeed my “Little Friend”.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The skeleton in Grace's closet

The red mare galloped through the open gate, unaware that it led to a trap. Her only focus was to get her foal away from the loud four wheeled machines that the men rode. 3 of them had come over the hill and into the pasture that morning. The mares and babies were accustomed to the men and their 4 wheeled noise makers on wheels; the machines were used to move the herd from pasture to pasture. Today was different. The noise had started out as normal, in the distance heading up the hill. The mares called to their foals at the first hint of change. The fillies were 5 months old now and were starting to spend more time in a small herd of their own. They were in the middle of a game of chase when the frantic calls came from their mothers. The small bay foal was the first to break from the herd of youngsters. As she reached her mother’s side, the four wheelers surrounded the two of them.

“This one first!” one of the men shouted. The wheels of his machine crept closer to the mare’s hind end. When she moved away from the pressure, the other two men moved in at her sides, leaving her only one way out, away from the herd. The mare shot off in a panicked trot, her bay foal loping at her side. They headed down the hill, towards the open gate where more men were waiting on either side. The clang of the closing gate startled the filly as it closed behind them. She leapt past her mother and right into the fence of the round pen. The machines fell silent on the other side of the fence; the men dismounted and headed towards the closed gate.

Several men had climbed onto the sturdy railings of the round pen, while two others mounted on horses entered through the gate. The red mare moved down the rounded fence line to get away from the men. She went out of her way to avoid the large post sticking up from the middle of the round pen. She had been her before; this wasn’t her first visit to the round pen. She knew that the several inches of sand around the tie post would only wear her down. The mare stopped along the fence, on the opposite side of the pen from the gate. She pressed her baby against the rails, protecting the small foal from the two men with the ropes.

“Pssssssttt…” hissed a voice from outside the pen. The bay filly shot forward as the electric prod reached through the middle boards of the fence, zapping her right side. The mounted men were too quick for the mare and foal. In a split second both the mare and foal had ropes around each of their necks. The man on the large gelding wrapped his rope around his horn just as the filly hit the end of it. The stout gelding sat back as small foal shot backwards away from him. The filly leapt into the air as the rope tightened around her neck. She shot backwards again when her hooves touched the ground, slamming her body into the fence. The small foal froze in place when she heard the scream from her mother, followed by the clang of the gate as it closed shut. Her mother was now on the other side, being led away. Forgetting about the rope around her neck the foal rushed towards the gate. The end of the rope had been moved from the saddle of the big gelding to the tie post in the middle of the round pen. The post was sunk into several feet of solid concrete; it did not budge as the weight of the small foal pulled the tension of the rope against it.

The pull of the rope swung the filly around as the hit the end of it. She was now facing the looming post she was attached to. She ran to the right, the direction her mother was led off in. She screamed frantically for her mother, she could no longer see the red mare. The rope was now pulling the filly in a circle around the post, with each lap, the circles became smaller. The filly was still galloping when the slack in the rope ran out. The sudden tension swung her off her feet, slamming her into the post. The rope had slipped up her neck closer to her ears.

She lay on the ground, dazed for a moment before slowing climbing back to her feet. She was now alone in the pen with the post. She had not noticed the men and the other two horses slip out during her frantic laps. As she took a step forward, the rope pulled tight against her throat latch, there was no more slack in it as it was wound tightly against the post. The filly struggled to remain standing in the deep sand underneath her hooves, the round pens footing was intentionally thicker around the tie post. She sat back, her hind legs shaking below her as her neck stretched out in front.

- I don’t know if this is exactly how it happened. This is what it looks like in my mind when I think about it. I wasn’t there, but Grace was. She is the frail little filly and this is the story of how she was weaned. This was my horse’s introduction to humans. No wonder she was half wild when I met her as a two year old. After they were all “weaned” from their mothers, she was turned back out with the herd of fillies. 4 of them came from California together, when they got to Washington State, Grace almost had to be weaned all over again, this time from her sister Ginger, the two of them were inseparable.

The story came up again today when Grace and I went to Sarah’s for a lesson. The focus today was more Connected Groundwork. Sarah noticed the positive change in Grace’s wither right away; she then went to work on relieving the tension in Grace’s head and neck. That is where all the trauma lives. If I am truly in my body and connected with Grace; it is hard not to get emotional when working her though this. It is one of the deepest layers of the onion; it takes her back to what had to be the scariest moment of her life.

Grace made it clear to me today that she is ready to work through this now. I have always believed that horses are emotional beings. Yes, I understand that they do not think like humans, and I tend to believe that they live in the “now”, but I cannot ignore the fact that my precious mare “goes somewhere” every time we address this injury. Today was the first time I saw her allow someone in to that scary place. The difference in her head and neck when were done with the session was remarkable. The biggest change I saw was in her eye, there was a new level of trust that wasn’t there the day before. I’m not sure if Grace knew 10 years ago when she chose me that our journey would lead back to this place of healing. I just know that I am privileged to be along for the ride.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Another Layer of the Onion

Do you remember when Shrek said that Ogres are like onions? I am finding more and more that horses are like onions. Every time I uncover another layer of the inner workings of Grace, I find another one beneath it. They are all connected, but I find I also have to address them individually so that they can work together as a whole.

I have spent most of my time over the years focused on Grace’s hind end. Her left hock has been a glaring issue at times. Years of compensating led to issues with her hips and the lumbosacral area of her back. We have made some pretty amazing progress in the last 6 months in her movement. Her back has changed; areas that were once weak are now strong. Grace’s posture has changed and her stride behind is longer and much closer to correct. There are days that I swear her back is shorter and her neck is longer. The left hind toe drag that I had come to know as “her sound” is all but gone; I haven’t heard it in weeks.

If you were to follow the invisible flow of energy through Grace’s body it would start at her hind end and move towards the front end. The energy would build and flow in waves as her impulsion from behind increased, only to stop dead at her withers. Grace seems to be “locked down” right at the base of her neck. I wasn’t really aware of it; until Sarah showed me how to “unlock” Grace’s wither at our last lesson. It was only for a few strides, but I had that 17 hand dressage horse underneath me. It felt like she lifted me out of her back and onto the crest of a wave. I am started to get a few more strides at a time at home before Grace locks me out. The difference now is that I feel it. She has been locked down for years, and to me it was just normal. Now when she does it, I am immediately aware of it. It feels like someone let the power out of the wave and it just goes flat.

Now that we are working in the dark at home during the week, this seems like a perfect time to refocus on
Connected Groundwork. Sure enough there is an exercise call the “Wither Rock”. Sarah and I worked on it at our last lesson. It always amazes me how well the Connected Groundwork actually works. It is fairly simple, the movements start out small, I don’t sweat, I don’t have to chase my horse in circles or chase her with a stick. It’s much more “centered” than all that. It is a balance of energy. I know when I am doing the exercises correctly because within minutes I become grounded and very aware of how my body relates to my horse’s body. Even on the ground the smallest movements in my energy translate to movements in my horse’s energy.

As we start to unpeel this layer of the onion I can’t help but wonder what is next. Will there come a day when I finally finish peeling away all the mystery and find the “perfect” horse waiting for me in the middle? I almost hope not because I fear that if that day happens I will have nothing left to learn.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

My Favorite Parts of Grace

I have said more than once, that I know Grace's body better than the back of my own hand. Even under her fuzzy winter coat I recognized them. I started to wonder, which of her many body parts are my favorite.

There is her tail, thick long and black. It is the first thing that most people notice about her. Oh, but look at that nice hip! Do you see that funny dent on her butt in the middle of the picture? That has been there since the first day I met her. It is coincidentally the same size of a young horses hoof. I've always wondered if she was on the loosing end of that fight. She also has an old scar on the other side that you don't see in the winter. It looks like it came from a rope, it's very small, but I know exactly where it is. I often get asked about it in the summer. Grace must have quite the story to tell about what her life was like before I met her as a 2 year old.

Then there is her mane. I love to bury my face in it the day after I wash it. It has that shower clean smell mixed with horse smell. Absolute heaven!

Her Ears! I love Grace's ears! They have those perfect black tips and just a hint of a curve at the top of them. Sometimes they stand up so straight forward I expect them to touch each other. They can also lay flat back, most often when chasing Belle the dog or anytime we get near cows.

Her neck, it is so beautiful when it stretches out in front of me. On the ground she uses it to give me a whole body hug. I love Grace's neck!

Oh my that nose! It just doesn't get any better than that! It searches my pockets for carrots and rubs my face with those prickly whiskers. Grace has the cutest nose!

That soft spot!! Do you know the spot I am talking about? It sits right between her nostril and her lips. It is warm in the winter and cold in the summer. I think I have kissed it every day for the last 10 years.

Then there are those lips. Grace uses them to kiss me right on the lips when I have a carrot in my hand. If I don't give her a treat right away she then uses her lips to grab my nose. It was a cute trick when I taught it to her. Who am I kidding, I still love it when she does that!

Grace has the most beautiful face. She is so expressive, I never have to wonder what she is thinking. She has big jowls and a small nose. It gives her a "baby doll" head look. She is often mistaken for an Arab. I've also been asked how old my "baby" is.

Her eye! Grace has the softest, sweetest eyes. She can see straight into your soul with them. I wish I had natural eye liner like hers.

Grace has a great rear end! It has changed many times over the years. I can always tell if she has been using her hind end by the shape of her butt. Looks really good right now!

Grace's back! Some days it seems to be a mile long. In the last year it has gained a lot of muscle and is much stronger. It is my favorite place to sit.

I guess my favorite part of Grace is all of her parts!
They all tie together to make one spectacular little mare!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Night Mare

I knew on the way home that tonight was the night. I hadn’t sat on my horse's back in 3 days and my rear end was starting to miss the place that felt like home. It was windy but dry on my walk home from the bus stop. The snow from the day before was a distant memory and the now 48 degree temperature felt almost tropical. This was the 4th day in a row I had used the bus to commute to work. I was getting used to walking in the dark. My reflective orange safety vest and miner’s head lamp were now an integral part of my daily wardrobe.

Grace gave me an impatient nicker when she saw me walk past the house and up to her pasture. She was still adjusting to my new work hours. I stopped by the hay tent to get her a small flake before returning to the house.I knew she would do better with a little roughage in her system. The last time I hauled after work on an empty stomach I spent the rest of the night apologizing for the ulcer flare I should have seen coming.

After giving Grace twenty minutes to eat, Belle and I headed back out to the pasture. Belle took off to dart under the bottom wire of the electric fence in Grace’s direction. Grace lunged at the dog, ears pinned against her head as she leapt across the muddy pasture. They were still at it when I opened the gate, I rather naively expected Grace to walk up to me. As she let out a squeal and twisted in the air, I knew it was going to be one of those nights. I had talked myself out of riding in the bareback pad by the time I tied Grace to the trailer. She was much calmer on Monday night when we did ground work in the dark, but that was before a major weather change and two days off in a row. After tacking up, I secured my head lamp to my helmet,stepped off the wheel hub of the horse trailer and swung a leg over Grace’s saddle. My rear end didn’t get its much anticipated homecoming, as Grace bounced up the driveway towards the Saddle Club. Grace spooked at the reflection of the head lamp against the trees and the puddles as we walked into the arena. I took a deep breath, reached up to my helmet and switched the light off.

The change in the energy was instantaneous. Grace’s jig settled into an even steady walk. I could hear her clean foot falls in the wet sand over the sound of the wind. I felt the symmetry of my seat bones in the saddle on either side of her spine. As I made out the outline of the arena fence and the looming trees behind it, it occurred to me that this was the most centered I had ever felt on my horse’s back. Somehow taking away all the visual noise of the daylight had heighted my sense of feel. The core of my body was able to adjust and follow to the smallest movements generated by the horse underneath me. The more we walked in the dark, the more I started to see.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sunday Cows

Grace and I went to a local cow sorting on Sunday. It has been a month since we had the chance to be on cows. Grace had a great time! Cow work is a reward for her, she loves it so much.

There were more riders there than the last time we went. It's a pretty low key set up, but organized at the same time. I love that I can haul in, warm up, get in 4-5 runs and be home in 2 hours. I couldn't think of a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon!

Neither can Grace!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Embracing Change

Today is the last day of my job. I start my new one on Monday. It is 3:25am and I am wide awake! It has occurred to me in the last 24 hours that I have handled this major change in my life with flying colors. There was a time in my life when I despised change, and would tend to stay in a bad situation just because it was familiar. This time around I planned for the change, did it on my terms and then embraced it. At 36 years old I am one step closer to becoming a grown up!

I’ve had this week to train the replacement that I hired. I have a ton of confidence in the person taking over my position. I received over 50 resumes in a 24 hour period for what is going to be a part time position. I only interviewed 4 of them, she was number 3 and she proceeded to knock my socks off. Not only is she super organized and is a numbers person (the main focus is accounting), I have the utmost confidence that she will last through day two without crying! I feel that my “special” engineers are in good hands and I can leave them safely behind. I may not even have to change my cell phone number!

My only reservation in the job change has been Grace. The new job will be getting me home later at night, especially since I have decided to ride the bus. The days are just now getting longer, but we still have a few months before it is light enough for me to get a ride in after 6:00pm. I am not a weekend rider. Grace is not a weekend horse. We are also at another breakthrough point in our training, and I don’t want to give her a long period of time off in between rides. While I know it wouldn’t kill Grace to have 5 days off in a row, I am very aware that it might just be the end of me. My horse is my happy place. I rediscover my sanity every time I swing a leg over her back.

I thought I had it all figured out with the neighbor’s indoor arena, but she let me know this week that she isn’t ready to have it open to the public. Something about pending electrical inspections, running lights off an extension cords, fear of electrocution. I could always haul up to Diamond Hill Ranch, but the idea of hooking up the trailer and hauling later at night is not the most appealing to me. There is a constant delicate balance that I practice between work, horse and husband. Getting home from the barn after 9:00pm on a regular basis would most likely throw that off. Besides, I am taking the bus to work to save wear and tear on the truck, not sure that it makes sense to then haul my horse the 5 short miles to the barn every night.

With all this weighing heavily on my mind, I went to my lesson with Sarah last night. Sarah noticed the improvement in Grace as soon as I got on. I showed her what we have been working on and we built from there. It started out great with Grace working over her back and me working her off my leg, but then after 10 minutes we were back into our old cycle. Sarah noticed that I was riding off my hand. I realized that I was only riding off my hand because Grace was no longer responding to my leg. We stopped right there and fixed the problem through a series of exercises that helped me to get Grace off my hand and working back off my leg. I finally felt like I had a clear understanding of how to get this horse trained. I mentioned to Sarah that the work we are doing feels so basic, but it is not something that either Grace or I were ready for in the past. I wondered out loud what it would be like to start a young horse with these methods, working over their back in the correct posture from day one. How much farther along would I be? Sarah was quick to point out that it was only because of the time I had spent with Grace that I was now at this pivotal place. If I had given up on Grace years ago, and replaced her with a horse that would pack me around in my imbalanced body, I would never have grown as a horseman.

It was about this time that it occurred to me that this entire lesson was being done at the walk. Grace’s muscles were starting to tire from working in the new frame. We had reached a major milestone in our training without breaking a sweat. I then had a “light bulb” moment. I could continue to do all this same work at home in the dark. Grace can see at night, we have a safe place to ride, I have a head lamp, why not? I asked Sarah if we could finish the lesson with some groundwork so I would have more exercises to work on at home. The ground work backed up everything we had just done under saddle. We were able to focus on problem areas and came up with exercises to fix them.

I loaded Grace into the trailer even more excited about the new job. I no longer felt limited by the lack of daylight. I am now ready to turn the page and start the next chapter. Bring on the change!