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

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Transformation Tuesday

There are 22 years and about 24 lbs between these two photos. I am 5’4”. Both photos were taken in Arroyo, Puerto Rico.

Top Photo

I was 17. I weighed 110 lbs; that bikini was a children's size 16 because that was all that would fit me at the time. I was close to the end of my battle with anorexia, though I would continue suffering from disordered eating for the next 8 years. It had started with the goal of being stronger, of being "toned" (this is why I hate this term so much) and it turned into this downward spiral of excessive cardio, fear of eating, and wanting to take up as little space as possible. I didn't know how to stop obsessing over food and the mirror and the scale and whether my belly was flat and my ribs and hip bones showed and that I needed to burn every last calorie I ate. My body language was timid, wistful, shy, which is exactly what I was back then. Women have this warped mentality that if you’re thin, you’re automatically going to excel at life and be happy and confident. It is a LIE.

Bottom Photo

Taken this year, at 39 years of age and 134ish lbs. I am exactly what I was trying to originally be when the top photo was taken: strong. Period. Both inside and out. I eat, I lift, I ride, I work with animals for a living, I had a blast on this vacation...because I live, which is the most important part. My entire body language in the second photo reflects this. It’s taken a lifetime of growing and learning and so much trial and error. The results started happening when I decided to begin focusing on what I could do with my body instead of what I needed to do to make it look a certain way.

Form follows function.

Don’t give up on your journey. Don’t give up on yourself.

And don't be afraid to take up space.

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Story of Indio, the Gaited Horse Who Trotted

One of my many reasons for significantly reducing the equine content on the blog was that I was riding less, doing other things that also interest me tons that I really wanted to write about, and also because the little riding that I was doing was just not that interesting. This blog has become a lot more about quality than quantity.

The equestrian blogs that I follow range in subject from trail riding to h/j to Working Equitation to eventing to endurance...I realized recently while reading that I have again fallen into a niche. First by choosing to write about more than just horses, and now with the fact that I own one horse and she is gaited. 

There aren't many gaited horse blogs out there. And not many of my readers are familiar with them. :)

One of my posts that was a bigger hit was this one, where I explained the many, many different special gaits of gaited horses, drew the parallels between the gaits despite breed differences, breed standards and idiosyncrasies, and compared them to the trot in regular trotting horses to make it easier for everyone to understand. I haven't yet found anything quite like that post on the internet and I'm glad that I wrote it. 

I've also discussed how I use dressage concepts for getting gaited horses fit. I wrote about that here. That post brought about some interesting comments, and also brought to light the fact that sometimes even gaited horse people don't understand the different breed standards and terminology for the special gaits (i,e: "pace" and "rack" are basically the same with simply a longer or shorter stride, more or less collection, and more or less knee and hock action, with the pace being desirable in some breeds and undesirable in others. Again, go to this post if you want to know what I'm talking about. :) It is chock-full of photos and videos on the subject!)

So you know what feels really good right now? 

To embrace the fact that I learned to ride gaited horses first, that I know how to ride them instinctively at this point, and to finally come full-circle to return home to this world with Gracie. And I'mma tell you about it...as best as I can, because sometimes it's hard for me to tell you what, exactly, I'm doing to achieve a specific result. For me, it's like trying to explain breathing. 

But first, I have to tell you about Indio and the things that I learned from him when it came to conditioning 5-gaited horses.


Indio was my first experience with a gaited horse that also trotted. The Puerto Rican Paso does not have a trot by breed standards. The Colombian Paso, however, is a different story: it's common (and desirable) for them to be able to trot in addition to their special gaits. Indio was a Colombian Paso. 

(like I've said before: we don't typically ride gaited horses with helmets on the island. *shrug*)
I had moved Lucero to a small boarding facility literally across the street from where we lived (I could walk there) so that I could have access to a real riding arena. We had close to two acres ourselves but as noted in my Puerto Rico posts, it was all uphill. Pretty difficult to ride on! I'd ride in circles on our driveway (I am willing to bet this is what has made me quite creative in arena settings...) 

Driveway, at the top of the hill where our house was.

Driveway in front of my grandfather's house.
Old photo from when I lived on the island, but this shows the largest portion of the area that I rode on, namely on the grass on either side of the road to form a sort of oval. I basically rode in the area between the two houses.
Driveway, as seen from the big house.
Or we'd take to the streets for longer rides in town on Sunday mornings when people were sleeping in or attending church, which meant not many people were out driving.

We'd make a left here to head towards town. (The photo was taken coming from the opposite direction.)
Funny: it's taken me a couple of weeks to put this post together and in adding the photos, I just realized I've been dreaming about these days on Lucero again.
We had to ride past this sign every time we'd head out.
There is a major intersection up this particular street where I would always turn because it took us through the more picturesque parts of Guaynabo. Note that there is no sidewalk: I literally rode ON THE ROAD and shared the street with cars. My horse was the definition of bombproof.

We went up and down this road. The house on the right had a Rottweiler and another large-breed dog that would always rush the fence, barking ferociously. Lucero didn't care.
We rode numerous times down the road where this photo was taken. You see those houses at the foot of the mountain, next to that cleared patch of land? We used to ride through that land before the houses were built on it.

Yes, I rode all over downtown Guaynabo City on my little sorrel Paso. I once even rode him all the way to school (4 miles from home) on a weekend and galloped him on the school track (with prior permission from the school director because I am civilized like that) and had an absolute BLAST.

Anyway. This barn was called Rancho Rossy, or "Rossy Ranch." It was owned by a woman who was a friend of my grandfather's growing up. She had been a powerful female landowner and Thoroughbred breeder because...

...because she won the lottery. 

Like my grandfather, she came from a long line of hacienda owners. Despite being well-off her dad used to play the lottery every week, always with the same number. When he passed, Encarnita continued playing, sometimes having to do it in hiding because it was frowned upon for nice girls to gamble. This was par for the course with her though: like so many nice Puerto Rican women, being told that she couldn't do something was just more reason for her to go out and do it. And that's how she also learned to use the heavy machinery on her parents' hacienda, despite it not being seen as something that "ladies" did. Which is how she was later able to run that hacienda single-handedly without the assistance of a man. 

And that is also why she continued stubbornly playing the lottery every week long after her father died, which would give her the ultimate reward: she won. She used the money to do what she had always wanted: breed racehorses. And that's how Encarnita Rossy became one of the first women to import racing Thoroughbreds from the US onto the island. She had such a good eye for outstanding horses that other owners and breeders would try to outbid her on the horses she chose at auctions. 

In one of those odd plot twists that life sometimes throws at us, she married a man who turned out to have a gambling problem...who bet their land and their horses away. All that was ultimately left were the barn and the surrounding small acreage that she had turned into a boarding facility. She had stayed with this man, helped him through his problems because despite everything they loved one another, and she had subsequently outlived him. 

When I moved Lucero to her barn, Encarnita Rossy was a small, elderly woman with bowed legs and strong yet gentle hands knobbled by arthritis, that looked like she could have been a jockey herself back in the day. Just like she had run her hacienda single-handedly, she now ran her boarding facility alone, with her giant German Shepherd dog at her side.

I adored her. 

The only photo ever taken of Encarnita and me.
We knew the headliners of one another's stories from the mutual acquaintance of my grandfather. I never knew if it had been by choice or because she couldn't (you don't ask these things), but she had never had children so there were no grandkids to come visit her. Both of my grandmothers had passed away by that point, and so her and I sort of gravitated towards one another, looking for something that we both needed. I don't remember how it started, but it wasn't long before I found myself sitting on Encarnita's porch in the humid heat of the late afternoon, listening to her racehorse stories while she proudly showed me their photos and the newspaper clippings of the races they had run, as the sun set behind the mountains across the great Bayamon River that now demarcated the end of her property. 

This story that I'm telling you? I got to hear it firsthand from her. :) It was this extraordinary story of this extraordinary woman growing up in 1940s-1950s Puerto Rico, and she told it in the simplest, most matter-of-fact way while I listened with starstruck wonder. I think you can begin to understand what a special thing it was for me to be able to keep my horse at her barn.

Encarnita's Shepherd. He pretended to be a fierce guard dog but he was a big mush that couldn't get enough pets.
She had two men that worked for her: Juan the trainer and farrier, and Yamil the stable hand. 

Juan was a stocky middle-aged man in his 50s with a handlebar moustache and a deep baritone voice not unlike a Spanish Sam Elliott's that most horses seemed to find as soothing as I did. Yamil was a hard-working young man only a couple of years younger than me, who had the red-tinged skin that not many Puerto Ricans have nowadays: the remaining evidence that there is still a trace of Native blood flowing in our veins. 

Juan with Lucero.
This trio of photos was taken by my mom after I moved to the US.
Lucero's left ear had always been a little droopier than his right after he was violently ear twitched by a trainer when he was a colt. That was the last time he was touched by a trainer: I took over his training after that and did it all myself. Anyway: his left ear got droopier with age, which gave him a 24/7 quizzical look.
Lucero HATED having photos taken. I swear: I don't have more pictures of him because any time I pointed a camera at him he'd start moving. I'm willing to bet he was being wiggly when this photo was taken, hence Juan holding his lead rope so high and Lucero's look of annoyance. Lol My horse was a really good boy, but just like Gracie, he had Opinions about everything. She reminds me so much of him.
Lucero always loved Yamil.
Lucero. He was approaching 20 when these photos were taken and had gray on his eyebrows and around his muzzle.
Where do I play into this? There were close to 30 horses boarding at this barn, the majority of them Paso Finos and gaited pleasure horses. I was one of only two female boarders at the time and I was the only boarder, period, that was at the barn every single day.  Juan and Yamil were always there too, so it wasn't long before we kind of became the Three Musketeers of Rancho Rossy.

Juan was in charge of shoeing and trimming most of the horses in the barn and he had several of them in his care for training. He wasn't Encarnita's direct employee but he worked off part of the board for his training projects in exchange for helping around the property. It was a lot. Yamil sometimes helped him, but he had his own chores to do and so Juan did the brunt of his work single-handedly.

Giving Lucero a drink of water from the hose in the wash rack after a ride.
I was at the epitome of my era as the horse-crazy girl who couldn't get enough hours in at the barn. I'd arrive in the morning on my days off from work at the Museum, ride and take care of Lucero, and then putz around doing menial barn things like cleaning tack. It was always wonderfully quiet in the barn during the day and Juan and Yamil were both good company: they weren't the types that would come do small talk just for the sake of talking, and I think they appreciated that I was the same way myself. We often hung out in comfortable silence, each of us doing our own thing.

Riding Lucero in the arena at Rancho Rossy.
I don't remember quite how it began, but I started to help Juan out with his training projects more and more. He wasn't used to having help but I'd happen to be in the right place at the right time and would step in to do simple things like momentarily place a hand on a fractious horse's bridle so he could mount up with more ease. I'd linger sometimes to watch what he was doing: I had no first-hand experience with training show-caliber Pasos but that is what Juan was doing with some of the client horses in his care, and I wanted to learn.

In one of those turns that the Universe seems to constantly be taking for me, one day Juan got kicked in the knee by one of this more challenging projects. He was fine, but it meant that he was out of commision for a couple of weeks when it came to riding. He was still able to shoe horses though it took him significantly longer.

It was a really hot Saturday afternoon. I had lingered in the barn after riding Lucero because I really had nothing else to do that day. Yamil had just finished mucking stalls and Juan was shoeing one of his training horses who wasn't exactly cooperating, much to the injured man's chagrin. I finally stepped in and put a hand on the gelding's halter and he immediately relaxed and stopped fidgeting. He was a gorgeous blood bay with a thick black mane and tail, taller than your average Paso and with thick-boned sturdy legs. I was surprised that he had settled so quickly just from me touching him. I stroked his Roman nose and he lowered his head towards me.

Juan thanked me profusely. He was especially sore on this day.

"Should you really be shoeing horses with that knee?" I chided him.
"Meh. It's fine. If I can't ride, I need to be able to do farrier work more than ever. I have three more horses I need to shoe after this one." He went on to express how stressed out he was about not being able to work with his project horses: most of them were owned by clients, so he was being paid to work them.
"You know, " I finally said, "I'd be happy to help you with the riding part of training if you want." I meant it. It would be awesome to get to ride more Pasos, especially high caliber ones.

I had been expecting to be shot down, but Juan seriously considered this. He explained that he wasn't comfortable having me ride his client horses since he was being paid to ride them himself, and he was hoping to be riding again soon. He then looked at the horse he was shoeing.

"You can ride this guy," he said. "I'm working with him as a resale project and he could use the exercise right now. He's been on the backburner for a few weeks now because I've had so much to do with the client horses."

And that's how I met Indio.

Juan had me ride him with his supervision the first time. I tacked him up with my saddle and Juan's training bridle. I had been warned that the gelding would try to bolt the minute I put my foot in the stirrup. He would settle immediately if I asked him to calm down once I was on him, but it could be hard to just get on him to begin with: like most Pasos owned by men at any point in their past, he had been trained to take off the second a rider got on him. Not at a gallop, which was his saving grace, but at an animated paso largo. This was one of the things that Juan had been working on correcting.

Yamil and one of the boarders (aka a man) were enlisted to hold onto Indio along with Juan so I could get on him the first time.

Juan wasn't kidding. Despite the men holding him, Indio half-reared when I put my foot in the stirrup, but I swung up with lightning speed (he was tall for a Paso at 15 hh but after years riding 17 hh OTTBs, he was nothing.) The men let go once I was in the saddle (this had been discussed prior) and Indio exploded. I swung him around towards the barn driveway as he took off at his biggest gait. He got 3 strides in before I could ask him to halt and was relieved when he responded by slowing down, just as Juan had told me he would. I took him into the arena and rode him around and around, doing small circles and figure-8s and rubbing his withers with my knuckles in reward (while he was so agitated, I was not comfortable loosening my hold on the reins!) every time he responded to my requests. I was honestly really impressed with this horse's responsiveness. He was nervous and reactive but at the same time so self-contained that I got the impression that he just really wanted someone to trust. He was out of shape and tired quickly though...and when that happened, he started trotting. It was a very smooth trot but still a trot nonetheless. I had looked at Juan in confusion, as I was not used to Pasos with a trot, and asked him about it.

"It's because he is out of shape. As he gets fitter, the trot will go away and he will be able to gait for longer periods of time."

I can't explain to you what I did. I can't quite explain what I do now when Gracie offers to trot and I ask her to switch to the gait, because you are literally asking the horse to change from diagonal movement to lateral; it's not like requesting a trotting horse to go from medium trot to collected trot, but it is very similar: it involves a half-halt and a tightening of my lower abs and pelvic floor muscles while sitting deeper in the saddle (so a real half-halt) and the horse will understand and switch. Or rather, they understand when I ask for it and switch. I've tried to show Carlos how to do it on Gracie and he has to ask her to walk from the trot and then request the gait from the walk. My gaited horse education was unique in that it was taught in the French classical manner (yes, in "third world country" Puerto Rico in the 80s...) and I have yet to come across gaited horse trainers that teach riding these horses in this manner, so I haven't been able to have an educated conversation with another gaited horse person who understands what I'm talking about in...ever.

Shown: canter-trot-gait transition on Gracie. Because now I have footage. :)
Note: asking Gracie to deliberately transition from gait to trot without doing it by allowing her to collapse on the forehand? Still figuring that one out! 

Anyway. At the end of that first ride on Indio, I was able to get him to just walk (not all Pasos are trained to do this under saddle, believe it or not!) and slowly let the reins slide through my fingers until he put his head down. He walked with a swing in his step like a Walker's running walk, clearly expecting to be spurred back into action at any moment, but his ears swivelled back and forth like, "Really? This is what you want me to do?"

"Yup, really: this is all I want you to do," I said, as I stroked his neck.

Juan was pleased with my riding of the big red gelding so I was cleared to ride him whenever I wanted.

Was I afraid that first time? No. You see, this is the part of my story with horses that is different from most people's: I learned to ride on gaited horses. I took up jumpers because gaited horses were too easy for me: I wanted the challenge of posting the trot and cantering and going over fences. But also because, when Lucero was a baby, he was such a handful that I figured he'd also be a handful under saddle and I wanted to learn to stick anything so I'd be read for him. The shortcut to achieving that was learning to jump. I did meet my goal: at the height of my jumper days, the only thing that could get me off was a refusal at a jump, which is why I loved horses that were bold and fast over fences: I much preferred to be focusing on organizing an eager galloping beast before a fence over having to spur a timid, insecure horse up to every jump. Bucks, rears, bolting, spinning, run-outs, kicking out? I could fearlessly stick all of those. There's a reason why I was nicknamed "Velcro Butt."  My attitude on difficult horses was akin to Dom's with the racehorses in this post. I could have written that during those days. Me with a crop on an ornery school pony named Tricky (for obvious reasons) that kept throwing the kids in camp, "YOU *smack* ARE NOT *smack* GETTING ME OFF! *smack-smack*  I was not afraid to kick a misbehaving horse forward, and I was used to winning arguments every time because I could outride any horse's antics. I was also always within the confines of an arena with deep sandy footing that, should I come off, would provide a soft landing which helped when it came to fearlessness. I was not reckless though: I rode difficult horses with supervision, with my trainer or more experienced riders around, never alone. Also: my confidence outside of the arena was a very different story.

The big arena at El Centro Ecuestre, the barn where I rode and competed during my time training with Ron. Yes, this arena was huge and El Centro hosted international-level competitions here. It was one of the oldest showjumping barns on the island and it doesn't exist anymore: it was shut down in 2012 for remodeling but never opened again.
I'm the rider on the left in this picture, on a very young OTTB whose name was, ironically, Gracie. You can see that she is sort of piaffing nervously and I'm like "Whatevs." Gracie was very, very green and I had been enlisted with putting arena miles on the mare. She was eventually shipped to the US mainland for a career as a hunter.
All of that changed the day that that one pony at the training/horse rental barn in Tampa, FL reared and deliberately flipped over backwards on me when I tried to win the argument. It was the first time I was seriously injured in a fall from a horse. I was 25 years old and I was never the same after that.

But anyway. Riding the antics of a gaited horse who is closer to the ground and does everything smoothly is a very different story from riding the levitating capabilities of a 17.5 hh athletic baby just retired from the racetrack. I wasn't afraid of Indio's potential antics because I was confident in my riding abilities and I trusted Juan.

Juan's knee healed quickly. Within another week, he was able to start riding again and I was invited to go out on the roads on Indio with him and Yamil so I could really get a feel for the big red gelding.

We had so much FUN. Yamil had his own little mare at the time who was a resale project and Juan was on one of his client horses. I had already been working with Indio during this brief interim and had gotten him to calm down significantly when it came to mounting up. It had honestly not been hard: he was far less reactive without men around him and he recognized me as a separate entity from them. I think he had never been handled by a woman before in his life...which meant I felt kind of like the lady in those medieval stories where the unicorn only allows her to touch him.

I tacked up Indio and swung up with minimal effort. It would take a few more months before he'd truly stand still for me to get on, but he didn't try to rear and he only got two strides in before I asked him to walk...on a loose rein...and he obeyed.

The three of us rode out onto the streets as if we were, indeed, the gaited version of The Three Musketeers, the shod hooves of the horses ringing loudly on the pavement in unison, paca-paca-paca-paca.

Indio was amped. He felt like a thunderstorm beneath me: he was a powerful rolling ball of smooth energy that I could completely control with the lightest touch of my fingers on the reins. It was the most amazing feeling.

"This will be a shorter ride," Juan said, "because Indio is out of shape. We'll do longer rides later."

We rode all over town. Juan and Yamil took me around some streets that I had never driven through, discovering beautiful parts of Guaynabo that I had been missing out on. There are no photos because this was long before smartphones existed. Cell phones didn't even have a text function yet, never mind the ability to take photos! All I have are the memories of riding through tree-shrouded back roads, the still morning air already thick with humidity as the birds and coqui tree frogs chirped in the jungle around us while the bright sunlight filtered through the trees. The men led the way and I followed, a giant grin plastered to my face as I took in the sights, Indio's long black mane rippling in the breeze created by his movement.

He didn't trot once on this ride.

I have no idea how many miles we covered. I had no concept of that back then; I could only measure a ride by time. We rode for what was probably an hour and a half to two hours, during which time the horses became quite sweaty. Indio's thunderstorm energy had dissipated by then and I got to see who he really was: even when tired, this horse would not stop until you asked him to. He would keep going, going, going because it had been drilled into him that that was his job. He would work until he collapsed. This sadly was a desirable quality in a Paso living in Puerto Rico, but I realized that this would be the biggest part of my work with him: to teach him that it was okay to let me know when he was tired.

I spoke up now and told Juan, "I think Indio needs a break."

He looked over at the big red gelding, who was still going like a freight train but breathing hard, foam starting to form around his shoulders, and he agreed. (So you can imagine how he felt when fresh, that he still felt like a freight train when tired.)

We slowed the horses down to a walk. It took some convincing on my part to get Indio to chill out but he eventually relaxed and with a big sigh, downshifted to a big swinging walk and lowered his head.

And so Juan led Yamil and I to what appeared to be a small house on the side of the road with a cleared area across from it that served as an impromptu parking lot. We tied the cooled-down horses up at a hitching post (Guaynabo City has hitching posts at so many of its businesses because it is so common for people to ride their horses around. When land is at a premium and you have horses, you get creative when it comes to riding) and crossed the street into the house.

It so happened that they sold milkshakes, sodas, water and ice cream!

Juan bought us a round of milkshakes, which we slurped up in less than 5 minutes. It was so HOT!

We hung out talking in the sitting area in front of the house, I don't even remember about what because this was so long ago. I don't remember for how long we sat...maybe half an hour? But half an hour was all it took for Indio to recharge his batteries: once we mounted up to return home, I was, again, on a barely contained red storm. And this was this horse out of shape??? Holy hell.

We rode straight back to the barn (only about 30 minutes riding; the entire ride was three hours in length including the stop. I remember because I had wondered, "So how long are the rides when the horses are conditioned?" Answer: all day), where the three horses were hosed down and put away in their stalls with fresh hay and water.

I only got to ride with Juan one or two more times; our lives would change not long after that. Yamil and his wife had a baby, which meant his time at the barn had to be more efficient and he often left early on weekends to help out at home. I fell hard for Indio...within another month of consistent work that gelding trusted me so much that I could not bear the idea of him ending up in the hands of a man that would beat him into running upon mounting up, especially after all the work I had put into him to get him to settle down.

I bought him myself.

He was the first horse that I bought with my own money. Juan and I negotiated his price and he sold the horse to me for half what he had originally been asking for, which was fair: I had ultimately put all the finishing work on the horse myself for free. My grandfather, who was the king of bargaining, had been proud.

He never got to meet Indio. My grandfather fell sick after that, sick enough to require hospitalization. I think all of us in the family knew that an era was ending, but none of us knew how or why.

As for my trotting gaited horse...he only trotted in the arena when he was tired. I learned to consistently request the transition from trot to gait, and the trot eventually disappeared entirely. He also had an amazing canter, and it was not uncommon to catch me cantering him around and around and around in the Ranch's little arena.

I started riding him on the streets on my own, which is where I loved him the most. I had never ridden a horse that felt like he could go on forever but as he got fitter, he proved that he could, indeed, go on forever if that was what I wanted. Lucero had just started to develop the heaves that would eventually kill him, and hot, super humid days were out of the question for riding him. I had bought Indio simply because I loved him but he became my backup horse. Sometimes that which you need arrives in your life before you know the extent to which you'll need it.

My grandfather was released from the hospital and sent home. I didn't understand why he had been sent home: he needed supplemental oxygen and a special hospital bed because he couldn't breathe. He couldn't stay at his house at the bottom of the hill because he needed supervision.

Originally Mom and the aunts were going to rearrange the entire office area downstairs to turn it into a sort of open bedroom but there was so much furniture there and so many bookshelves (no matter how clean you keep them, bookshelves will always have some degree of dust) that it seemed like an impossible idea. It was I that offered my bedroom for my grandfather to stay in. Everyone had been surprised, "Are you sure?"

"I would do anything for him. It's just a room. He can have it for as long as he needs it," I had said. I really didn't care. This man had given us everything. How could I not give him my bedroom?? My bed was moved into my brother's room and we shared the space just like we had when we were kids.

Because our house was a the top of a hill, you could hear everything on the street below, including the loud ringing of gaited horses' hooves being ridden on the road. It was a sound that had always made my grandfather and I smile involuntarily.

It started raining the day my grandfather was brought home from the hospital. And every morning that he was home, I woke up at 5:00 am, went down to Rancho Rossy, tacked up Indio and rode him up and down the street in front of the house in the pouring rain before I had to return home to change and go to work at the Museum.

I did it because I hoped that Abuelito could hear the hooves in his sleep, and that deep down inside, it would make him smile.

I did it because those brief moments riding in the rain gave me reprieve from the tremendous grief that was building up behind the wall of self-control that I was existing in in order to function. When I wasn't riding or working, I was helping take care of my grandfather: we were doing this in shifts.

I did this every day for a week. I don't remember anything else about that week other than my desperate need to ride before work. Saturday rolled around and Mom and the aunts had to go work at the art school. My uncle came home to help out with my grandfather's care. I woke up extra early to ride. I had this inexplicable urgency: I needed to ride both horses on the street in front of the house. I needed Abuelito to hear Lucero's hooves on this day at this time. I didn't know why.

I don't remember either ride. I just remember returning to the house and rushing upstairs so I could relieve my uncle, who had been sitting with Abuelito.

I walked into the room and there had been a change. Abuelito was asleep, like he had been for the most part since returning home. I can't tell you how he had changed, but he had. I looked at my uncle.

"He's not doing well," Uncle Rafa said quietly.

I sat down on the bedroom floor next to the door like some sort of gargoyle guarding my grandfather so Rafa could take a brief break.

After what seemed both like an eternity and no time at all, Rafa returned.

During that time, Abuelito's breathing had become more difficult. He still seemed to sleep peacefully and I wondered if he knew we were there. I stayed in the room. Both Rafa and I were quiet.

Abuelito moved his hands and opened his eyes slightly. The rain had stopped outside but the skies seen through the giant wall of windows in my bedroom were as overcast as they had been for weeks now.

Abuelito tried to speak but Rafa told him it was okay. We took a spot on either side of the bed and each of us took one of my grandfather's hands. He held our hands back. His breathing became deeper and slower, with an increased effort. And then he gave a soft sigh and his grip on my hand relaxed.

He was gone.

And the skies opened up and it began pouring again outside.

I don't remember anything else. I don't remember when he was taken away, or when the hospital bed and oxygen were picked up, or when I started sleeping in my room again.

All I remember is the continued rain. The rain that wouldn't fucking stop. And my continued need to ride in it. Because as long as I could ride in the rain, I wouldn't cry.

This is the reason why I can't. stand. riding in the rain. This is why I hate it so much, and why all those endurance rides that started with rain were so hard for me. Because riding in the rain reminds me of those endless rides where I tried with futility to escape the grief that I carried inside me on two horses that never once questioned my emotions. They just took me wherever it was that I wanted to go and got me back home to the barn safely.

And I didn't cry. Abuelito's funeral was a week later. I wrote a letter for him that I read out loud at the funeral as the tears finally streamed down my face, and I kept it together so I could finish reading.

While I was reading my letter, the sun finally came out. This is a translation:

"My grandfather died.

An hour ago, in front of my uncle Rafa and me, each one holding one of his hands. I had never seen anyone die before..and it is exactly how it's described. They take one last breath and the candle's flame blows out. 

What else can I say? Other than Abuelito was always there for us when we were little. Ever since we arrived in Puerto Rico, he was always there. When he lived in Dorado and we visited him at his beach house on Sundays, and he taught us how to really swim on the ocean and how to float on the water even when there were waves. He gave us our first bikes, which we rode all over the villas. Later when Rafa got married and he moved out of the little house on our hill, Abuelito moved in so he could be closer to us. He got us our first baby chicks, which grew up to be egg-laying hens, and for a long time whenever we had eggs at home, they were the eggs laid by our very own hens. He gave us geese, the little goat that I owned when I was in 5th grade, and he spurred on my dream to own a horse by paying for my riding lessons. He gave me my first saddle and my first halter long before I had a horse to put them on, but it was his way of making a promise: "You will have a horse one day." He later created this whole conspiracy to get me my horse Lucero, who was just a 7 month old colt back then. Abuelito helped me train him, and he was the one that held the longe line when I finally rode Lucero for the first time. And when I decided I wanted to ride jumpers, he also fueled my dream of one day making it to the Olympics. He was always so proud of how well I rode and how much I was constantly learning. He always said I was "a professional"...his whole desk was covered in photos of my riding adventures. [I always thought he would have been so happy to see my accomplishments in endurance, so much more than anything I ever did jumping...] 

He taught us how to plant vegetables, to cut down trees with an axe, to use a chainsaw, to carve wood, to hammer correctly and do all sorts of carpentry so that we would know how to fix things. He taught us how to use the bow and arrow, how to climb mountains, use a machete, climb ropes, and how to swing from the tire he hung from the tree on the side of the hill at the back of our house. He taught me patience and to live in the present, because I was so impatient I was always asking, "When?!" His response was always, "When the time comes." It was him that inspired me to use the steep hill of our driveway as my personal gym, who would take us out celebrating every time we achieved a goal we had set for ourselves, whether it was graduating from school or placing in a show. He was the one that asked my mom to turn the TV on to the local news the two times I ran The World's Greatest 10K on the Teodoro Moscoso Bridge, in the hopes that maybe he'd catch sight of me amidst the enormous crowd running the race.

He was always my shelter when there were problems at home. If there was an argument, I'd run down to his house to hide and generally ended up sitting on his balcony, talking, until the storm passed. Even when he wasn't there, I knew that I was safe in his house because he lived there and Lucero lived in the stall in his yard. If I was short on money, he'd give me some chore to do like clean his SUV so I could earn it, which always made me work that much harder. He taught me the value of hard work. 

There are so, so many things... Half of what I know and am, is thanks to him. And I can't imagine life now without him here with us, backstage running the show so that all of our dreams could come true. He did everything in his power to realize my wishes as much as he could, and he taught me that when you really want something enough, you can make it come true. No one ever had a grandfather like him: he was magic and wisdom and strength incarnate. He irradiated these qualities, which forever molded and changed us. 

I never felt that he was old; he just was, without age nor time, solid, present and unmoveable, like that rock you hold on to so the sea doesn't carry you away. 

He made so many dreams come true for us. I just hope that, in doing, that, some of his own dreams came true for him."

I still didn't really cry though.
I didn't really cry over his death until I stepped into his house again this year, 14 years after his death.
Indio was my refuge when Lucero and the little house on the hill and everything about the rest of my existence reminded me of this person who had meant everything, and the enormous void left in the wake of his passing.

I threw myself into work in the Museum, into riding, into giving my cousins riding lessons on the horses. I broke up with my long-time boyfriend whom I was practically engaged to at the time because I decided life was too short to settle for things that are only okay. If you want more, by golly go out and get it now, before it's too late. Carlos happened during this time, and also my decision to move from the island.

My cousin Michelle successfully riding Indio all by herself with a huge grin on her face.
And as always, the Universe conspired. A move that could have been complicated beyond words flowed into place with a seamless ease that still astounds me to this day, some 14 years later.

After I left, Indio and Lucero went to my cousins but they eventually lost interest in horses. Lucero stayed at Rancho Rossy under my mother's care and Indio was given to Yamil, who had fallen in love with him himself by then, with the condition that if he couldn't continue caring for the horse, he was to be given back to us. Indio was, however, re-sold by Yamil and nobody knows what became of the big red gelding after that. I grieved that he most likely ended up in precisely the same destiny that I had tried to save him from, but it was out of my control. Thus my reluctance to sell Lily so many years later.

Life is complicated. There are patterns, cycles, and tides. There is an ebb and flow to it. Lessons repeat themselves until we learn what we're supposed to. We are given signs when we're not sure which path we're supposed to take to help us make decisions, if we pay attention. And we are sent people, animals and situations that help heal us when we need them most.

Like this gaited mare that trots.
And that is how a post that started out with one story turned into a completely different story entirely, like life itself often does.

Friday, November 2, 2018

25 Questions

I have several posts in the works on a variety of subjects but until I finish one of those, here's another horse-themed filler post. :)

Photo from my ride on Gracie 2 days ago.

1. Why horses? Why not a sane sport, like soccer or softball or curling?
For a long time, horses made me a better person because they forced me to check my thoughts and emotions at the door. I found a sense of zen and internal peace when riding that I could find with nothing else. But it was horses, or rather one specific horse, that then turned me into an anxious, emotional wreck because while yes, sometimes her behavior was related to things I was subconsciously feeling/thinking, there were just as many times where the anxious nervous wreck was the horse all by herself and there was no calm in the world on my end that could erase that. I'm not going to sugarcoat it just to be more likeable; I'm going to say it like it is.

I became the self-analyzing monster that I am now because of the way I had to handle myself around Lily. This has been, honestly, a good thing, because in learning to analyze my thoughts and emotions, it allowed me to get to know myself so much better.

I have picked up other sports though. I wouldn't call any of them "sane"... Bodybuilding was not a sane sport. Neither is CrossFit. Powerlifting isn't sane either. Feeling the motivation to run outside rain or shine isn't exactly a sane endeavor either. So I've just added other insane, intense sports that require all of my focus to my first one. The difference is that I've moved from a sport where I had an animal teammate to sports where I have no teammates at all: all of the strength sports are about you vs you. Lily set me up for that when I subconsciously decided that the only emotions I wanted to deal with when it came to performance were my own, and I honestly love it. My love for the iron has allowed me to achieve a sense of self-control that I would never have been able to aspire to with horses.

2. What was your riding "career" like as a kid?
I was horrible at all sports. I was also a horrible rider starting out: I was very overweight and it greatly affected my balance. I fell off pretty much every other day at my first riding camp and broke the record for falls by a landslide. I was shunned by all of the other kids in camp and had no friends. Anyone else would have given up. I became a rider out of sheer determination, discipline and dedication: we did not have the means for me to take endless lessons or lease a showjumper or compete with consistency. But I was willing to work, and work hard to get what I wanted. I was fortunate to have trainers that could both see that and were willing to hone the little talent that I apparently did have to turn me into the girl that could ride anything and everything. At the height of my riding "career" at age 17, I was riding anywhere from 3-6 horses/day both from the lesson program and privately owned showjumpers, actively competing in the PR jumper circuit, and setting my sights on eventually making the Olympics thanks to a trainer that, at that time, was both available and willing to take me there. I even elected to be homeschooled during my senior year of high school so I could dedicate that much more time to riding. That all ended when my trainer moved to the US and was later assaulted and nearly killed in a hotel room: he survived a shot to the head and an ice pick through one eye, but he suffered permanent brain damage. Ever wondered why I don't set huge long-term goals? It is because of that.

3. If you could go back in time and buy ONE horse, which one would it be?
Tamarindo. He was the love of my life. It didn't matter that he didn't belong to me on paper because we belonged to one another in spirit. I was devastated the day he died.

Tamarindo <3

4. What disciplines have you participated in?
Equitation Over Fences, jumpers, dressage, endurance.

From my jumper days.

5. What disciplines do you want to participate in some day?
None. I've done all the ones I was interested in. I was interested in Working Equitation for a long time but seeing how disorganized the sport still is (it’s very new in this country)and how harsh the judging can be given how difficult it is (dressage with obstacles, in case you aren't familiar with it) just killed it for me. I honestly just want to have fun with my gaited mare without any competitive goal. It's okay to just want that, guys.

6. Have you bought a horse from an auction or rescue?
I've adopted from rescues: Cloud from Hearts for Horses (they don't exist anymore because the owner was cray-cray) and Rhythm from the South Florida SPCA (if you live in South Florida and are looking for a horse, they do an amazing job: you should check them out.)

Cloud and me

Rhythm. He was such a lovely dude.
Rhythm and me at Wolf Lake in Davie, FL.
Wear a helmet ALWAYS! ;D

7. What was your first favorite horse breed? The one you loved as a kid?
I loved the Marguerite Henry books. Mustangs (anyone else read Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West? I was obsessed with the story and the illustrations by Robert Lougheed) and Chincoteague Ponies (because of Misty, durh) were both really high on my list. I had a distinct preference for small horses because I loved the idea of being able to just swing up onto a horse bareback from the ground. I got that wish with Lucero, who was barely 13 hh.

Shown: cantering Lucero bareback. :D

8. If you could live and ride in any country in the world, which one would it be?
This is an actual ongoing conversation right now. I don't care that much about the riding part because it's so likely that I would have to re-home Gracie that riding would seriously go on the backburner. The front runners are: Nova Scotia, Vancouver and the Hawaii islands (we are divided between the big island and Kauai.)

Well, you can ride on the beach in Nova Scotia. Photo from here. (And also Hawaii and Vancouver.)

9. Do you have any horse-related regrets?
To a degree, owning Lily and blogging about her. She gave me so, so much, yes, including this blog, endurance, and the horse I own now, but she destroyed so much about me in the process: my confidence as a rider, my remaining courage, she worsened my anxiety tenfold, and she made me a bazillion times more superstitious. Reactive horses will improve you as a person and rider,  but at the same time, injury-prone horses that are just as capable of hurting you as themselves do not necessarily make you a better person or rider in the long-run.  I'm just beginning to discover the depths of the damage now. And while she inspired the blog, which in turn brought about so many friends and experiences that have happened because of blogging, at the same time I don't think I would have held onto her as long as I did if it hadn't been for the blog. I'm going to be point-blank honest here: when you have a long-time following who enjoys reading about your horse's adventures, in a way your horse becomes owned by both the blog and the public that reads it. I feel like this is a common problem: some equestrian bloggers will stick with horses that make them miserable because there is some sort of unspoken obligation in continuing the story for your readers. I'm not talking about any specific blogs right now; it's just something that I've noticed over the course of the last seven years writing and reading in this space. When it came to selling Lily, there was a definite concern of, "What will my readers think? How hard will they judge me for 'giving up' on her after so many years?" when I finally chose to sell her once and for good. I originally was not going to announce that she was gone because in the end, the mare was mine, not my readers', and I didn't have to answer to anyone when it came to her destiny and my decisions about her. I still don't. I wrote that post because I needed to write it for myself and published it simply because I thought it was the best piece I have written to date. And maybe, just maybe, it would help out someone else who was in the same shoes and afraid to talk about it.

Have I lost readers since I let the world know she was gone? I seem to have the same amount of followers, but the hits my posts are receiving, even the equestrian ones, are significantly decimated with Lily permanently out of the picture. It shouldn't but it honestly makes me a little angry, and it’s something that I’m sorting through at the moment: Lily's story had turned my blog into one of so many equestrian trainwreck blogs out there. To be brutally honest: if you want to have a huge following here, just post about every problem you have with your horse. There came I time when I didn't want to write anymore  about our latest fiasco and how was I going to get ourselves out of it. I want people to read because they care about my story, not because they want to see how I or my horse get hurt. This was another big factor in my decision to expand my blog content beyond horses and to stop discussing every cut, blemish, ding and frustration with Lily.

Anyway. I can tell you right now: if it hadn't been for the blog, I would have sold Lily immediately after she recovered from her ripped face three years ago because I wouldn't have been worrying about "what readers would think."

As it is, I am the only blog that I know of that is openly discussing the emotional damage caused by a horse that the writer dragged her toes about selling for way too long.

10. If you could ride with any trainer in the world, who would it be? 
It's a toss-up between a Mary Wanless clinic (I was just looking into the viability of that a couple of days ago) and riding again with Manuel Trigo, who teaches dressage in the French classical manner and is a huge fan of Spanish-type horses, which includes gaited breeds. This is his organization's website. Riding with him back in 2012 marked a turning point in both my riding in general and my ability to ride Lily.

Photo of Lily and me at Manuel's clinic in 2012.

11. What is one item on your horse-related bucket list?
I honestly have none right now. Gracie is a part of my life that makes me happy but I am just not excited about horses in general right now and have no long-term goals or desires other than to just have fun with the horse that I have.

12. If you were never able to ride again, would you still have horses?
I would keep Gracie. But once she passed, I would not own more. As it stands right now, I can't really see myself owning another horse regardless. "Never say never" and all that, but that is how I feel right now.

13. What is your biggest "riding fantasy" goal?
It still is to gallop bareback down the length of an ocean beach. I guess this could be the answer to #11 as well.

Canter on a beach, yes, but this was on the Chesapeake (so not ocean) and in a saddle (because at the time you couldn't have paid me to ride this mare bareback.)

14. What horse do you feel has taught you the most?
Lily. See question #1.

15. If you could change one thing about your current horse/riding situation, what would it be?
Gracie wouldn't have arthritis: if that were the case, endurance would be back on the drawing board with the goal of eventually making it to the Vermont 100.

16. If you could compete at any horse show/venue in your home country, which one would it be?
This is also assuming that I'm not burned out on horses like I am right now, I was already prepared to compete at that level, and I had access to a horse that I could compete at said level.
a) I would want to compete at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida. I had the opportunity of spectating both showjumpers and dressage there, and loved the venue and the environment. I never wrote about that here, now that I'm thinking about it.
b) See #15.

17. If you could attend any competition in the world as a spectator, which one would it be?
The Olympics, no matter where they were held.

18. Have you ever thought about quitting horses?
I quit horses when I decided to return to school for my vet tech career. I worked with horses my first summer in school but it was very short-lived due to time constraints between work and classes. I didn't touch a horse for the better part of 3 years and I thought they were out of my life for good...and at the time I was okay with that. What was I doing instead? I bought a MINI Cooper and was learning to do mods on it myself with the goal of eventually racing the car. (NO ONE here knew that one! Lol I might be a cautious person but I always seek out insane sports to do, not just horses...)

We couldn't afford a horse, but as always happens in my life, when I decided I wanted horses again, the Universe conspired to make it happen: it all fell into place like it was meant to be.
As for thinking about quitting after that? Yes. See question #12.

19. If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about the horse industry, what would it be?
Everyone has said the same thing: have horse welfare be a higher priority at competitive events. If you want to have my Black Sheep Blogger honest opinion: I would choose for elective/convenience euthanasia for horses to be an actual choice for owners. Why? Horses are really expensive and people's circumstances can change at the drop of a hat. You can't always re-sell the old but sound horse that hasn't been ridden much in a few years because you were taking care of your growing children, right when your husband asks for a divorce. People get diagnosed with terminal illnesses, they go bankrupt, they lose jobs, they have accidents, they run into serious financial hardship, they get relocated overseas, they change their minds. Horses aren't always young and sound and rideable by anyone who wants to try them. There is also no guarantee that that new owner, if you find one, won't turn around and re-sell your beloved Stormy for a profit...or for slaughter after the first time they fall off. Sometimes you want that horse's road to end with you: safe, loved, happy, instead of sending them off into the unknown. Maybe I've worked in the veterinary industry too long, but to me euthanasia isn't a bad thing. It is often a gift, and it is always better than prolonged suffering. I wish that option was more common for ourselves too. *shrug*

20. What's the dumbest horse-related thing you've done that actually turned out pretty well?
I can't think of anything blatantly dumb per se because I am a nerd that researches the crap out of everything I do, equine and otherwise, as anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will be aware of. I have knowingly taken risks while preparing both my horse and myself as best as I possibly could for it. I don't make decisions lightly. Choosing to do the Old Dominion 50 as my first ride was probably one of the dumbest things I've done, but I did it at the advice of the person that was mentoring me at the time and whose opinion I trusted more than I should have. I had researched the ride and knew it was called The Beast of the East, but had assumed it referred to the 100. The LD was called "easy" and a "great first ride" for endurance prospects by every reputable rider in the local endurance community, so I chose to do the 50 based on that. There were no descriptions of the 50 one way or the other at the time, so I really had no idea what I had gotten us into until we were halfway through the ride and hit that 5-mile vertical climb over rocks that could have killed us if the horses had placed one foot wrong. It turned out pretty well: we completed. Lily was fine afterwards. But I beat myself up mentally over it for the remainder of the year and was criticized for some of my decisions behind my back..except that I did read those criticisms. Guys, I read most comments on every blog I follow. That was 4 years ago and it still feels like a punch in the gut. So...yeah. While the OD 50 was one of the greatest athletic feats I or any of my horses will ever do, I still have a lot of baggage when it comes to that ride, the equestrian blogging community, and what I originally thought was a welcoming online endurance community. While Lily and I were both okay physically after, emotionally I was not.

Lily vs the mountain of the OD.

21. As you become older, what are you becoming more and more afraid of?
As a blogger that is about 10 years older than the average equestrian blogger here, I’ve been criticized in the past for being “too cautious” which is what makes #20 even more ironic. This isn’t just an age thing though: I’ve always been a cautious rider. When you participate in an organized equestrian sport for as long as I did (showjumping, 17 years) and get to see just how badly things can go even in a manicured arena setting, you get the fear of God drilled into you. Example: I saw a friend’s mare stumble while riding at the canter in warm-up...she smoothly took another stride then fell because she had fractured her leg. She had to be euthanized. It was the most random freak accident I’ve ever witnessed in person.

 I've never been afraid of death: death is easy. Crippling injuries that would keep me from being able to work, and thus setting us up for losing everything we have, have always been a major fear of mine. It's even worse after actually having suffered through three major equine-related injuries that limited my ability to work. Hence why I research everything I do before doing it, both so I can minimize my anxiety about new settings/situations and also so both my horse and I are as prepared as we possibly can be for said situation. The good thing of approaching 40 years of age is that I don't feel like I have to prove anything to anyone anymore, either here or IRL. What I do, whether it's writing or riding or lifting or running, I do it for myself, not so I can write about it here for an audience to judge. If I choose to write about something nowadays, it’s because it excites me and I want to share it, or it moves me and I want to put it into words.

22. What horse-related book impacted you the most?
Klaus Hempfling's Dancing with Horses. It changed the entire way I approach horses (and other animals) on the ground, and helped me develop my own groundwork style that works for both me and the horses in my care. It was crucial to my learning to understand Lily's excessive reactivity a few months after she became mine.

23. What personality trait do you value the most in a horse and which one do you hate the most?
It's hard to choose just one of each.
1. Unflappable
2. Independent
3. Trusts by default

Hate the most:
1. Reactive
2. Herd-bound
3. Neurotic

Basically: Gracie is the physical incarnation of everything I love in a horse, while Lily was the manifestation of everything I disliked.

24. What do you love most about your discipline?
What discipline? You mean the gaited dressage-ish that I'm doing right now? 😂
I love that I get to do it with my horse. 😊

Photo of us from 2 days ago.

25. What are you focused on improving the most at the moment?
I'm just working on improving Gracie's athletic capabilities right now. I'm thrilled with where we are headed. Have two videos of a gaited mare doing quality transition work. There isn't much of this in Equestrian Blogland and I'm going to claim this niche:

Canter-gait-canter-gait transitions.
These were soooooo pretty. This exercise used to be impossible for G-Mare.

Canter-trot-gait-walk transitions
(Dropping the reins at the walk was deliberate: letting her stretch down instantly is my reward to her for a job well done.