"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Full Circle

I took Gracie on a short trail ride with Kathy and the blonde bombshell was an absolute pill starting out. I had not seen her be this bad since my first few rides on her: balking, cow-kicking, blowing through my leg and moving laterally whenever she was upset, gravitating towards the nearest horse (Queenie) every time she had a fit. She even did a courbette:

Conclusion: I bring out the athleticism in my horses?

Thankfully, everything Gracie does is smooth, even her naughtiness. I wasn't ever nervous or afraid when she did any of this, just irritated by the behaviors. As we were walking down the bridle path hill, Kathy suggested her returning home and me staying behind to do hill sets with G-mare. I thought this was a fantastic idea. Kathy continued on and I unleashed Gracie...into her gait. She gaited all the way up the hill, all the way down the street we explored a few weeks ago on our first solo ride, all the way back to the hill, then gaited up and down the hill 3 times. She was perfectly well-mannered.

The fits? She'd just wanted to move faster than a walk. That is all. She was never pulling on the reins or trying to bolt while gaiting. She just gaited smoothly and happily with ears pricked on a relaxed rein. Huh...

I took her back to the barn afterwards, gave her a bath and fetched Lily for an arena ride.

Lily was a superstar. We did trot-halt-back-trot transitions, then canter-halt-canter transitions. She was nailing those canter-halt transitions so well that I decided to do canter serpentines around the arena. We'd serpentine, do a simple change with each change of direction, then continue cantering. She was awesome at this 100% new to her exercise. At one point she started trying to anticipate which direction we were going to turn, darting her front end sideways to one side and then the other with each canter stride. Laughing, I pulled her up, patted her and let her chill for a minute, telling her what a good girl she is. I didn't want her to get worked up about trying to figure out what I wanted before I asked it. She loves to please and gets frustrated if she feels like she's not understanding what I want. We then resumed the exercise, completely relaxed again. She gave me a 1-stride simple change right at the end of the exercise. One day we will get a flying change. One day. We then did large figure-8s at a canter around the arena with a simple change in the middle. We then continued with the figure-8, but continued on the same lead halfway around the arena after the change of direction, effectively maintaining a counter canter until Lily would do a simple change on her own halfway around the arena. We did this once in each direction. This is huge progress for Lily: she didn't use to be able to counter canter.

Kathy, Phoebe and I trailered over to Little Bennett for another ride. I took Lily this time around so she could have a day of active rest just walking on the trails. I strapped Lily's Vipers on her fronts and decided to give the Gloves on her hinds another whirl. Just to make sure all the equipment is working.

Kathy & Queenie, and Phoebe & Deja

These flowers smelled absolutely amazing.

Love those happy ears!

Lily led all the way and we had an awesome time. She had one minor meltdown over a huge light-colored boulder. If the boulder is light-colored, it's all that more likely to eat horses. She danced in front of it until I sent her forward into a trot around it. She settled down immediately after. LOVE that she won't mentally hang onto things anymore! On the way back to the trailer, we had to ride through a particularly muddy section of hoof-sucking wet clay. It literally sucked BOTH of Lily's front boots off. (Thank you Kathy for noticing the first boot in the mud!) I got off, annoyed at the boots. At this rate I need to start carrying an extra bottle of water so I can rinse my hands every time mud pulls the boots off. They made a wet squelching sound when I plucked them from the mud. They had so much mud in them that I had to scoop it out. Back on they went. The left front got pulled off one more time. I'd had no problems on the same trails going away from the trailer, but by the time we were heading back I think they were so heavy with mud they were coming off a lot easier. The Gloves stayed on without a problem.

Towards the end of our ride, we came upon a second bridge. A river flowed underneath it with shallow sandy banks, and I told Kathy and Phoebe I wanted to take Lily in the water. It was just so clear and inviting. Lily did me proud by drinking like a champ. Kathy and Phoebe followed us in.

Bonus: the muddy boots got cleaned! Haha...

Once out of the water, we continued walking for a ways. Suddenly, Lily moved over to the side of the trail and halted. I was wondering what had happened when she suddenly postured to urinate! I patted her and told her good girl. A lot of horses will hold their urine until they are back at the trailer or even back at the barn! Lily used to be of the second camp, which is a concern when you are riding for hours away from home: it gets uncomfortable for the horse to be moving along with a full bladder, unwilling to void.

We did 7.2 miles in 2 hours.

I was surprisingly tired at the end of this ride, so I gave Gracie the day entirely off. We had a big day planned for Sunday and I wanted her well-rested. 

Charles and I met Carol and Ride Vet at the barn around noon: we were hauling in their 3-horse trailer to the Agricultural History Farm Park for a 15 mile ride. I wanted to see how Gracie would do over a longer distance at a faster pace with Charles on board, test some more equipment on Lily, and hang out with Carol. 

We were a very medical group: one general practice vet tech, one critical care vet tech, one registered nurse, and one military research veterinarian!

All the horses had snacks before loading onto the trailer: Gracie had a bowl of Safe Starch forage and Lily received a flake of alfalfa, and I took a haynet full of grass hay for each of them for later.

Ride Vet drove us, parking in the field used for equestrian parking, helped Carol get ready (she was trialing some new gear also), then sat down in a chair in the shade to study for his boards while we rode off to play endurance.

Marefaces at the trailer while we finished getting ready. Lily immediately got to work munching on hay while I tacked her up. Gracie is really getting the hang of all of this. She was being a brat when we tied her so she could graze (wandering around, pulling on the lead, being wiggly for Charles who was trying to tack her up), so I tied her short. I was surprised when she immediately simply cocked a hind foot and stood quietly taking a nap without fidgeting/pawing while we puttered around.
And yes, we have upgraded to caged stirrups. OMG you guys! If any of y'all spend many hours in the saddle on the trails, you should TOTALLY splurge on these. Your body will thank you. They are the EZ Ride Caged Stirrups in nylon plastic. They are 5" wide and 4" deep, allowing you to pretty much shove your entire foot in the stirrup without having to worry about your foot going through the stirrup thanks to the cages. Why is this a good thing? It allows you to ride in sneakers (wahaha) but it also allows you to weight your stirrups as if you were standing on the ground. A godsend if you have any knee, hip or back issues. This particular pair I found used on eBay for a song, but having tested them out now, I can tell you that they are well worth the full price.
We had a BLAST! 

We rode off towards the corn field loop and towards the tunnel. Charles had hiked this trail with me last summer and he was surprised by how much it had changed. Also by how much faster it was on horseback vs walking!

Right before the tunnel, however, we discovered a monumental ditch taking over the entire trail. It was about 5' wide and 3' deep. Some drainage pipe was being placed in the ditch. Technically the horses could step down into it and back up safely, but the black pipe was too much like a horse-eating serpent.

I knew Lily could jump it. She has jumped similar ditches from a standstill before. However, I knew she would jump it so high (because of the "serpent") and long that I wasn't sure I'd be able to stick it!

So I dismounted, unclipped one end of the reins to turn them into a 9' lead and walked to the edge of the ditch. Lily stayed right by my side and peered down at the ditch, snorting. Holding the end of the rein in one hand, I pointed across the ditch and snapped the fingers of my other hand. Lily obligingly gathered herself and leaped, arcing gracefully into air, landing on the other side and spinning around to face me, standing still to wait for me.

This is one of the coolest tricks I've ever taught a horse, and it was the first sign that Lily gave me that she really trusted me. Back when we first moved to MD, Lily had never experienced ditches, creek crossings or real mud before. She was terrified of all of these. I started working her over these obstacles by leading her across, as it was the only way we could get to the trails at our first barn: we had to cross 2 ditches, several mud pits and 2 creeks. The smallest creek was also the muddiest and the most terrifying to the Lilybird. 

Our second time on the trail, I led Lily to this spot. I went across first and Lily initially didn't want to follow. Then suddenly, she changed her mind. I saw when she decided she was going to leap across. There was not a lot of room on my side, so I turned to get out of the way...slipping and falling in the mud at precisely the exact second that Lily became airborn. 

I instantly curled up into a ball and winced, expecting to have 1000 lbs of horse crush me. 

Nothing happened. After a second, I slowly opened my eyes and looked up...and realized that my head was right between Lily's front legs. My legs were between her hind legs. Oh yes she had landed on top of me, but she managed to do it so that she didn't harm me. She just stood there with all 4 legs splayed out, stock still, at the moment in time when she was the most afraid of everything. When she was the most afraid of mud. When she could have scrambled to get out of the muck, she just stood there, feet sinking in the mud, careful to not move, to not step on me, while I slowly got out from underneath her. And praised her and praised her and thanked her and thanked her.

As it turns out she did break one of my feet. She must have accidentally stepped on it upon landing, then immediately removed her foot. She let me hold onto her mane for support the mile and a half hike back to the barn.

I never once complained during the recovery. I was too relieved. It could have been my skull. 

I owe her my life. 

We arrived at an unspoken agreement that day: I would not lead her through this kind of obstacle anymore, I would send her across first and then follow. I would never send her through anything I would not cross myself. And if I absolutely had to cross first, she would wait for my permission to follow. She agreed that that was a good idea. We started that day. On that day, after that incident, I sent her across the dreaded ditches first, which she crossed then turned around each time to wait for me to follow. I never really "trained" her to do that. Somehow through my body language she understood that that's what needed to happen and she chose to oblige. If you want to read the whole story, including the recount of the disaster that was our very first MD trail ride on the Ag Park trails (our previous barn backed up onto these trails), you can go here.

Sending her ahead down a very steep bank that she used to be afraid of.
Sending her across the smaller ditch on these trails.
This is the moment before she turns around on the other side to wait.
Photos are from this day, a month after the foot incident. I had taken Charles on the trails so he could see them and I took the opportunity to practice our new skill with Lily.

I am still in awe of her when we come across something like this ditch on Sunday and she willingly leaps out first into the unknown on my command, just because I asked her to, because she trusts me. 

I met her on the other side and we waited for Charles and Carol. They too dismounted and led Gracie and Katie across. 

We all mounted up again and continued on our way at a trot. Lily trotted over the long bridge and right through the tunnel with barely a step of hesitation.

The tunnel
Sorry about the recycled photos guys: since we were moving at speed I really didn't take many photos during this part of the ride. All of these earless photos are from last year when I hiked this on foot with Charles, but you can at least get the mental picture. :) It breaks up the wordiness.
Trail on the other side of the tunnel
We picked up a canter at the same exact spot where Lily had a meltdown a year ago while riding with Tina and Houdon.

No meltdowns now. We led the way, cantering easily over the silky green grass, Charles and Gracie behind us, Carol and Katie bringing up the rear.

My favorite section of this trail.
We continued on at a trot past the nursery. There was a muddy section in this portion of trail where Lily lost a front boot again (AAAUGH) and I had to dismount in the muck to retrieve it and then replace it. Really need another bottle for rinsing hands!

Grassy trail that runs parallel to the nursery. You can see the nursery fence on the right.
That tree on the right is so much bigger now! Its shade reaches the far side of the path!
Once we were on dry ground, we picked up another canter until we reached a dip in the trail, where we slowed to a walk to cross 2 bridges. There was one more meadow after this where we cantered one more time.

Path through the meadow leading into the woods again
We then slowed to a walk to negotiate the remaining trail through the woods. Good thing we did: as we entered the woods at a walk, I was looking off towards the left where there is a pond with a trail on the other side. I was so focused trying to see if I could spot that other trail that I was taken completely by surprise when Lily startled. Nothing bad, she just jumped in place, but it was enough to make me exclaim, "Oh shit!" involuntarily. In front of us was a Sheltie off leash, staring at us curiously. His owners were coming right behind him with their other dog on leash. Their dog was well-trained with a solid recall, and the people were very nice. We all laughed together: Carol had just been saying how odd that we had not encountered any hikers yet, and the hikers were saying that the last thing they expected to find was horses on this trail!

This section of woods is behind a school where they had some sort of activity and we could hear music blaring from speakers. It didn't bother the horses.

Someone had left a bright yellow sleeping bag, of all things, hung over a tree stump. It was like it had deliberately been placed there to spook horses. The best part: NONE of the mares spooked at it. Lily gave it a brief look and kept right on going. Gracie and Katie didn't even glance at it.

The trail dead-ends on a road so we turned around at that point and backtracked, alternately trotting and cantering back towards the tunnel. It was at this moment that Lily started setting the pace on her own. Where before I had been requesting w/t/c, now she would start asking to trot or canter as she felt the urge.

We again dismounted upon arriving at the ditch. Lily again jumped when I sent her across. Gracie didn't want to follow Charles through the ditch this time, so I had him hold Lily while I found an alternate route through the chest-high bushes on the far side of the ditch. It worked. Carol and Katie followed Gracie's example around the ditch.

We walked until we reached the cornfield trail.

Trail around the corn field. Photo also from last summer.
On Sunday, that trail was covered in shimmery green grass and the baby corn already sprouted.
The loop around it is about a mile long. All 3 mares wanted to canter so we let them. It was SO. MUCH. FUN! This was Charles's favorite part of the ride. Him and Gracie caught up to Lily and me and we rode for a ways, side by side. He was grinning from ear to ear, his position almost perfect. Carol and Katie brought up the rear, and when I turned my head to check on them, Carol had the same grin on her face! Katie looked like a war horse, cantering powerfully along in a collected dressage frame with her neck arched. Like I said: Carol is a lovely rider and knows exactly how to bring out the best in her mare!

Lily ended up taking the lead. I sat back with the reins in one hand and just let Lily canter on easily for as long as she wanted to. 

Carol and Charles were right behind us and suddenly they both yelled, "Boot!" Lily came to a stop with just a cue from my seat. I hopped off: it was her LH Glove. The gaiter on it is frayed and it was hanging on from the Velcro strap. I have the replacement gaiter for it but keep forgetting to bring the boot home to change it. I strapped the boot back on and mounted up again. We walked on for the next third of the way around the corn field trail, then picked up a canter again on the steep hill at the far end, Charles and Carol leading the way this time. Lily lost the same boot one more time, in the same fashion. I just removed the boot and attached it to my saddle bags. It was maybe 1/4 of a mile more until we returned to the trailer.

We walked the remaining distance. This is when Lily started of her own volition to snatch bites of grass while continuing to move forward at a walk. 

Good endurance horses know how to take care of themselves. They eat when they are hungry, they drink when they are thirsty, they urinate when they have to, and they also take care of themselves over varying terrain.

Ride Vet was sitting in the shade studying and welcomed us back. "You finished your first loop?" He asked us. We said yes! We had just completed about 7 miles in an hour or so.

I dismounted to remove Lily's other Glove and leave both hind boots in the trailer. Charles and Carol stayed on their horses in the meantime. I hopped back on Lily and we continued on our way.

We walked and trotted around the next corn field and took this trail backwards from what is described in that post. I urge you to go read that post, as you will be able to truly see just how different this mare is now and how different the ride on this day was from what it was that time, our first solo ride on these same trails.

Whenever we walked Lily continued reaching down or to the side to grab bites of grass, never missing a beat, the entire time we were walking. 

We rode down to the creek. We had heard rumors of the creek having been turned into a deep lake by a massive beaver dam that had been built over the course of the last year. The recent storms had washed the dam away, leaving a widened but shallower creek.

We took the horses into the water. Lily drank and drank, which was great to see after her minimal drinking on our trail rides over the winter. Gracie had a couple of drinks, while Katie thought about it but didn't really drink. Carol practiced throwing her sponge-on-a-leash into the water and squeezing it over Katie's shoulders and neck. Katie wasn't too thrilled and tried to turn around the way we had come! Carol turned her around and both her and Charles followed me up onto the trail.

Gracie too!
Katie thinks about it.
Katie pretends to drink so she can go around Gracie and try to escape back up the trail!
The trail was the same yet so different from when I rode it last spring: the vegetation was denser, taller, greener. The forest was gorgeous. 

Lily led the way at a trot, ears pricked, unfaltering, down this trail that had caused both of us so much worry in the past. It was awesome to be able to look out onto that gorgeous forest and enjoy the ride without worrying about my horse being stupid. Because we trust one another now. It was awesome. So awesome. I was grinning from ear to ear. I looked back to check on Charles and Carol, and they had the same goofy grins as me.

We trotted on in single file, following the bends and twists in the trail without missing a beat. When we arrived at their specific section of the trail, we discovered that the two ditches had become so deep and wide with the spring rains that that whole entire section of trail had been closed off. A new trail had been built going around that section. The new trail was flat, uncomplicated and so much safer!

We rode down to the small driveway with the big bridge. That was the first bridge that Lily ever crossed. We trained and trained and trained on that bridge for months during our first winter in MD before I could ride her over it without having to dismount.

One of the many times we practiced crossing that bridge in January 2013.
She crossed it on this day NBD. We rode up the super steep driveway then turned left onto the meadow trail here, following that treeline.

The steep and very long driveway that leads to the meadow trail.
Photo taken in January 2013.
It is so green and overgrown now that you would not recognize it after looking at this picture!
The last time I rode on this trail, back when we boarded at our previous barn, Charles had walked with us and both Lily and I had been a bundle of nerves. At a walk.

On this day, we led the way confidently at a trot. Lily chose to trot.

From that first expedition on this trail with Charles. This is the path that goes around the meadow.
What a difference in this horse. What a difference in me. 

To get to the rest of the trails, we had to go through an especially long muddy section of trail down into a flowing stream and up a bank. The first time we had seen this section, Lily wouldn't even set foot in the mud. 

On this day? She just walked all the way down to the water, didn't even glance at the mud. She went right into the stream and started drinking. We stood there for a good 5 minutes while Lily drank as much as she wanted.

Drinks some more

Once Lily was done drinking, we continued on our way. The following sections of trail were completely new to me and Carol had only explored some of them, so we winged it, alternately trotting and cantering as we explored, then giving the horses long walk breaks. We all took turns leading. Lily was happy to periodically surrender the lead to the other two, but then would eventually accelerate to take the lead once more. All 3 horses were bright-eyed and eager, with a thin layer of sweat over them to keep them cool but none of them really had foam between their hind legs or under their breastplates. Temps were in the low 80's on this day and, while it was warm out riding in the fields, it was really nice when we were riding in the shade of the woods.

Gracie and Katie got quite competitive with one another if one or the other was in the lead! Katie didn't want Gracie to be in front and the feeling was mutual. If Gracie was in front, she'd try to cut off Katie so she couldn't pass! Goofy horses. We all laughed at their antics.

We somehow found our way back at the corn field near the Ag Park buildings. We cantered about 1/4 of the way around it, then walked the rest of the way back to the trailer. By the time we were back at the trailer, all 3 mares were officially cooled down.

We had ridden for 2 hours and 15 minutes. In terms of the distance, there was a small discrepancy between the two GPS devices used for this ride: Carol has a Garmin that said we did 15 miles, I was using EquiTrak, which said we had completed 13.5 miles. Equitrak had consistently been about 1.5 miles behind the Garmin for the entire ride. I'm not sure which of the two was the most accurate: based on previous GPS mapping of the first loop we did while hiking with Charles, that trail is about 6 miles long but we added at least a full mile by going all the way around the corn field before heading back to the trailer. At that time, the Garmin had called for 8 miles, EquiTrak for 6.5. I'd say it was right in the middle. I never did map out the second loop we completed but we were moving at about the same pace for a slightly longer time. So I'm going to call the distance completed 14 miles. That puts our pace at a little under 7 mph, which is respectable. All 3 horses were still going strong at the end of this. I expected it in Lily and Katie, but I was very happy with Gracie's performance. I'd been keeping a close eye on her respiratory rate, movement and expression while we were riding, and longer walk breaks had been incorporated into this session for her benefit. She was a little tired towards the end in the sense that she was choosing to trot rather than gait, but she still had enough fire to want to try to outrun Katie at every opportunity!

And Lily? It was an absolute thrill to ride these trails again on her and to realize we have truly and finally come full circle. I am so, so proud of her that my heart could just about burst. I have the horse that I knew she was back when I paid the dollar for her. Yes guys, this is my $1 horse, and she is absolutely amazing.

It was a great ride with great horses and great people. Thankfully Carol shares Charles's and my inappropriate sense of humor! There was a constant stream of laughter during this ride.

Back at the trailer, we set up Gracie and Lily with haynets while untacking.

The trailer got packed again, the horses loaded up, and back we went to the barn. Lily and Gracie received baths and their dinners mixed into a beet pulp mash. They dried off while they ate, and off they went into the mare field.

As we were driving out, I spotted them grazing together. I had Charles stop so I could get a picture of them. When I walked up to the fence, this happened:


"Whatcha doing there?"

Seriously, how cute are they?
A study in contrasts and adorable-ness.
You know you're doing something right when you've ridden your horses all day and yet, 10 minutes after turning them out, they still want to come back to you to talk. This was the icing on the cake! I'd say that's two happy mares that love their jobs and their people. :)


  1. I'm going to read this post to Ashke so he understands the proper way to cross a scary ditch. I snap. He jumps. I mean, if I tell him your mare can do it, he should pick it up in a jiffy.

    BTW, sweet job teaching her that.

    Looks like your weekend was wonderful.

    1. I'd played around with some Parelli work with her back in FL, and one of his exercises involves sending horses over and through obstacles. I'd started sending Lily over jumps as cross-training but we only did it a couple of times and it was always hit-or-miss with her whether she would obey or not. After a couple of tries I kind of got bored with it and we moved on to other things. On the day of the accident, she just did it. This ended up being a key in our trail training: she realized that she could indeed do what I asked of her, and I realized that if she was willing to go over/through an obstacle first, she could certainly do it with me on her back. I just had to convince her that she really could do it with me aboard...hahaha...

      Ashke would be a boss with this kind of trick. He's a smart boy. I wouldn't be surprised if he really did pick it up just by you reading the post to him!

  2. Aw, I got all verklempt over the ditch-crossing section. What a gorgeous demonstration of trust.

    Wow, I hope your boot situation settles out ASAP!

    1. Every time she jumps a trail obstacle like that my heart swells. I can't help it.

      On the boots: ugh me too! She's in the process of growing out her Vipers! Thankfully I have 3 different consecutive sizes in them and the hinds still fit, so I only had to order one more boot. I love Renegade but it gets very expensive when the boots need to be replaced every 6 months. I'm assuming at some point her feet will reach maximum capacity...right? Right?