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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Lily and the Whippet

On Friday, I brought Lily in from the field and tied her to BO's 8-horse trailer next to the tack room. We are allowed to tie the horses there while tacking up.

It had been 74 degrees on Thursday...but it had promptly dropped back down to 45 degrees by the time I arrived at the barn on Friday.


So Lily was kind of a nervous Nelly while she was tied. All of the horses were being frisky, including the youngster Amanda was working in the round pen. I can't really blame Lily. She danced around at the end of the lead rope, called occasionally, but held still while I was grooming and tacking up. I still kind of groaned internally, thinking that I was in for a horrible ride.

The lump on the side of her mouth did end up being some sort of abscess. It finally popped, drained and healed, so on this day I bridled her with her kimberwick bit for the first time in 2 weeks.

She stood for me to mount up from the ground...and then wanted to walk off immediately. I asked her to stand, which brought about a lot of head tossing from Her Highness, but she obeyed and stood until I asked her to walk off.

She hesitated for a second at the driveway and I tapped my boot with the dressage whip...and she walked on. We picked up a trot as we were going past the neighbor's field with the mule....

...and Lily proceeded to drag me onto the bridle path that leads to the trails.

I was like, "Uhhhh...what are you doing?"
Me: "Ooookay?"
Lily: "LET'S GO LET'S GO!"

I asked her to stay at the trot as we went around the neighbor's field and then looped back towards the road. We went up the road once, around the other neighbor's corn field and then back into the other neighbor's back fields. Lily was a trotting machine, arching her neck and powering through in whatever direction I asked her to go. I laughed at her and finally relaxed, enjoying the ride. This was sooooo totally NOT what I had been expecting given her behavior while tacking up! She gave me correct bend when I asked for it, stretching out into her most lengthened trot. It was a joyous ride.

We did a couple of laps around the neighbor's field. I was posting along to the music playing on my headphones when I suddenly heard barking and looked up: the neighbor's Whippet was coming towards us full tilt, barking and snarling.

Photo from here.

"Watch out, Lily!" I said out loud to her, bringing her to a halt.

For all of her energy prior, she came to an absolute stop and stayed there, as the 35 lb tan-and-white sighthound came barrelling towards us. I stared him down, letting my weight sink into my heels as I relaxed in the saddle. Lily flicked an ear back at me but remained completely unperturbed as this creature came at us as fast as his legs could carry him.

He came to a sliding stop about 3' in front of us, hackles raised. Lily tensed momentarily but immediately relaxed when I remained unconcerned. Sighthounds like Whippets and Greyhounds are among my favorite dog breeds. I knew he wouldn't harm us: he was simply being threatening because he was afraid and we were in his territory. The dog circled us and I turned Lily to continue looking at him. "Go away!" I told him in a calm tone of voice. He trotted around us, keeping his distance, but would not go away. I finally asked Lily to trot after him to give chase and he backed off. I asked Lily to back up to take the pressure off of the dog in reward, while still facing him, and he stayed where he was. "Good boy!" I praised him. I was about to turn Lily away in the hopes that he'd stay, when his owner called him back to the house.

The Whippet ran back towards his master. I waved a thank you but had Lily leave the field to play it safe: I wanted to be able to continue using the neighbor's fields in the future!

We headed off down the trail. Lily became a little hesitant but continued on with minor prompting.

We crossed the small creek and rode the loop through the neighboring fields, then turned around and headed back towards home.

I let Lily canter up the hill back towards the neighbor's field. We walked through: no sight of the dogs. And then I let Lily canter up the far hill onto the bridle path. We walked the rest of the way home on a loose rein.

We completed 5 miles in an hour of mostly strict trotting. I had not been looking to do speed, just time. Overall, it was an awesome ride: Lily is always the one pointing me out things that she is nervous about and I'm always telling her, "It's fine, don't worry." It was a wonderful feeling to be the one to point something out to her and have HER response be, "Don't worry. I got this!"

Lily in the mare field.
(There was a temporary shuffling of horses around in fields and now there is a mare-only field.)
Gracie was in the run-in shed stuffing her face with hay...

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lily's Return

As some of you are aware, Lily basically had a full 2-month break between November and December when I was recovering from my head injury. (For newer readers or readers tuning back in, the head injury did NOT occur while riding: I always wear a helmet (the photographer for the sidebar photo insisted I remove it for the shot; it got put back on immediately after the photo) and most of the time, an ASTM certified safety vest too. The concussion was a stupid pasture accident where I got knocked over backwards onto the only rock in the entire field.) One of my fears regarding Lily's extended break would be that she would become attached to her little herd of three, especially given that she had become the alpha after Fort Valley, to the point where it would be difficult to get her brain back into a working groove. I was hoping that the improved relationship we'd built over the last year and a half would tide us over.

Well, my theories were correct. Not only was Lily reluctant to leave her herd, her increased responsibility over the other horses trickled into the rest of her life: she felt like she constantly needed to be on alert, watching for danger to protect those in her care, and she didn't want to be away from the herd for long on the trails. She was much more high strung than she had been in a long time and for the first time ever, I was battling a mare that wanted to run home after trail rides to be back with her herd. It wasn't a food thing, as I usually fed her before going out on rides, as I do Gracie to prevent the same thing; it was an "other horses" thing. I had initially celebrated her becoming herd leader, as it meant that for the first time in her life she was confident enough to assert that role among other horses. I assumed it meant that she would be even more confident in every other aspect of her life. Herd dynamics can be personality-altering: it will affect a horse's behavior under saddle most of the time.

So I didn't ride her alone on the trails; I just rode her with Charles and Gracie so Lily could be worked at the trot. Trotting makes it easier to keep her focus on the trail and on me, and having a buddy helped her to not worry quite so much. The rushing home thing was still there, but every time she had a fit about wanting to canter home we would do things to mitigate the rushing: backing up towards home, halting and having to wait every time she wanted to rush, turning around and cantering away from home every time she tried to rush (for whatever reason this one is a great reset button for her when she's being especially argumentative), etc. I was always able to get her to walk home on a loose rein...not a leisurely stroll of a walk, but at least a walk where I didn't have to fight her every step of the way. It just usually tacked on an extra 30 minutes minimum to the planned length of the ride.

"Whyyyyy are we stopping? We're almost home!!"
And then we moved and Lily went through her usual attachment phase where she latches on to whatever horse is most familiar to her (in this case, Gracie) as a sort of security blanket in an unfamiliar environment. She has some weird abandonment issues (I swear she was weaned too early). Thankfully Charles had the first 2 weekends in Frederick off so we were able to take the horses out together and do stuff together so Lily wouldn't have anxiety attacks. Interestingly, in the new herd Lily had no interest in being leader and so Gracie, always being the bolder one, took the lead role in the temporary herd of four, with Saphira the paint and Sweet Pea the Palomino, two very sweet and submissive mares. Lily was happy to be second in command.

It affected their behavior on the trails together: Lily was quite reluctant to lead for our first couple of rides outside of the new barn, and Gracie was more than happy to assume that role, whereas before, when Lily was herd alpha, Gracie would refuse to lead. I think it's fascinating how herd ranking can affect dynamics elsewhere. We rolled with it in the beginning as Lily got the hang of things in the new environment.

I took Lily outside alone once during this time and I had no "go" button whatsoever. She had lost all confidence in herself and while she trusted me enough to walk forward when requested, she refused to trot. We made it as far as the neighbor's field with the old horse and the mule (I've referred to this one ride a couple of times now; this is the official write-up right now), which is literally the property next door...and Lily refused to budge: she wanted to stop and stare at the mule specifically. Never mind that the mule was at the back of the 5 acre pasture on the other side of the road...those long-ears might kill a horse, you know.

That's the mule on the right. They were even farther away than when I took this photo.
I know what happens if you let Lily stare at something for too long: she can blow up. Which can involve rodeo-worthy bucking.

Not Lily
This really is Lily...
You get the idea.
So I kept turning her head to face the road in front of her as I requested her to continue walking. She would take one step at a time and try to crank her head to stare at the mule. It was ridiculous: I ended up pony-kicking my formerly uber-sensitive creature just to get her to move forward one reluctant step at a time. And then she said, "Oh hell no!" and started marching backwards away from the neighbor's property towards home.

So I said, "Oh hell no yourself!" and swung her around so that she was still backing up, but away from home. To my surprise she kept up the same lively pace that she had had prior...until she realized what was happening and she said, "FINE. I will stop now." We had a backing up impasse, where every time one of us was facing the direction the other was wanting to go, we would back up away from the direction the other wanted to go. It was a situation where, 2 years prior, my anxiety levels would have skyrocketed but Lily was simply being a stubborn mule herself and I was bent on winning the argument. I stayed relaxed, laughed at her ridiculousness, rewarded every tiny effort on her part with a "Good girl" and a pat on the neck, and continued working her until we FINALLY made it past the neighbor's field...thanks to mini leg yields down the road. I rode her a small ways down the road, trotted 5 steps, and then called it a day and walked back home on a loose rein.

Of course the mule was not an issue on the way back home. -_-

I tried not to stress about this, since this was the first time Lily had been off property by herself since before Fort Valley...which was back in October! Some backsliding was to be expected. I just hoped that we wouldn't be pony-kicking on the trails whenever we were alone for the next few months! Ugh!

A week later the girls were integrated with the main herd of 12 other horses, where both Lily and Gracie were solidly in the upper middle of the rankings. I ventured to take Lily alone outside of the farm again to go do hill sets on the road...and it was a complete non-issue.

The day Charles and I found the way down into the river, Lily led about 50% of the way. While riding on the road past the river, Gracie wanted to go in front and Lily, who had been keeping a nice steady trot, kept slowing down to defer to her.

"No," I told her. "I want you in front, so you stay in front." I gave my boot a light tap with the whip once and Lily hopped to it. I didn't have to repeat the request that ride...or ever again since.

Things got much, much better after that. Not that they had been bad, but I'd been a little nervous about Lily's partial regression. We had worked so hard to get her to the point where she was last year! It was a relief to see The Sane Mare make a full comeback in such a short period of time.

We had a spectacular hill set workout last week where Lily started sort of "Meh." It was enough that I debated cutting the session short if she wasn't feeling peppier by the 5th rep.

I have failed epically at getting a photo of said hill...but this is the spot at the bottom where we would turn around to canter back up.
Well, by the 5th rep she was hauling ass up the hill, going faster and faster on the way up with each consecutive run, until she was full out galloping by the time we hit the 7th rep. I got to practice my two-point! And then we had a close encounter with an ATV, where Lily was an absolute ROCK STAR...but I decided to take the rest of our workout to the hill at the back of the neighbor's field just to play it safe and stay out of the way.

Lily trotted towards the neighbor's hill and the second I unleashed her onto the bottom of it, she lunged up towards the top with such force that she almost popped me out of the saddle! DAMN I'd forgotten she could gallop like that! She came back down to a trot at the top of her own accord, and we power-walked back down the hill. I grabbed the breastplate wither strap for the last two runs!

And then she walked all the way home on a loose rein, like the mare I came to know and love while training for endurance last year.

Oh, and she was in the S-hack. No bit!

Walking back home. Yup, she was looking at the neighbor's mule, but she had no concerns about walking onto the grass on the left shortly after I took this photo. :)

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Saturday Snaps: Charles Imitates Zombie

The other day Charles and I went to Cracker Barrel for dinner and we had to wait around for them to seat us. There was no one at the hostess booth and Charles kept investigating everything behind it and reaching for stuff. Specifically the crayons they have for little kids...I swear he's like a 5-year-old sometimes. But the way he kept touching everything suddenly reminded me of Zombie, who absolutely must touch everything he is curious about with his paws. I told Charles, "You're just like your cat!"

"Oh what, you mean like this?" he said:


"Yes," I said. "Like that."

And then when we got home, Zombie got his hello kiss:

But Charles didn't want to be left out:

This was all a week ago and I'm still laughing...

They really do have a serious bromance going on, though. It always warms my heart to see them together.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Oh Frabjous Day!

I owed you guys a post about last Monday (where did the whole week go??!)

Charles was working so I was on my own with the horses. I had made arrangements to ride out with Amanda, since she was going to be working more than one horse on this day. I arrived early at the barn to set up feed for the girls for the week, then fetched Lily from the field.

I had her tacked up by the time Amanda was ready to get Antonio, a 5 year-old gray gelding.

We had the option of riding in the neighbor's large blue stone outdoor arena or going for a hack. Since I had Lily ready and wanted to do a longer ride with her specifically, we decided to go for the hack. Amanda wanted to show me the alternate route to the bridge we had seen on our previous ride together.

The ground was still wet mush so we trotted where we could and walked the rest. Antonio led the way or we rode side-by-side depending on how much room we had.

We went around the perimeter of the neighbor's fields, followed the path around part of a corn field and onto a paved road.

A cyclist went by us, which worried Antonio but Amanda stayed very cool and relaxed and other than pricking his ears forward with all his strength and doing a little 2-second dance, he did great. Lily was all, "Whatever."

Amanda asked Antonio to cross the bridge first. He did some side-stepping and snorting as she kept her leg on him and her hands wide and soft, creating a sort of tunnel with her aids where the only way was forward. She talked to him calmly and let him figure it out. 

It only took a couple of minutes before he willingly stepped onto the bridge and went across like he'd done it every day of his life. Very cool. Lily had waited patiently throughout and followed nonchalantly.

I think this is the part where I finally relaxed. I had not realized how much tension I'd been carrying with me on trail rides. I'm just like my horse: Lily turns into an anxious mess over time as herd leader because it's just one more thing for her to worry about. I love love love riding with Charles and I wouldn't change that, but there is a HUGE part of me that worries about him and Gracie constantly when we're riding together. It was great to suddenly not have to worry about the other person and horse riding with me; I could just focus on Lily and me.

We rode around a small field on the other side of the bridge and then backtracked. It was a wonderfully uneventful ride. We did 5 miles in about an hour and a half.

Field on other side of bridge.
The bridge. Lily got to lead about 50% of the time on this ride.
Once back at the barn, we realized Robin, the other barn trainer, had arrived. Amanda invited her to come with us, so she grabbed one of her horses, a cute little palomino mare, and tacked up while I fetched Gracie and Amanda got another of the baby Arabs.

Amanda brought her two dogs, Ebenezer and Grendel. I was initally not sure how Gracie would react to dogs with us, but it turned out she didn't give a hoot. I was SO happy with her!

The dogs were leading the way.
Gracie was all, "Whatevs."
Riding around another neighbor's cornfield. 
It was also blissfully uneventful. We walked, trotted and even cantered a short stretch  around the nearby fields to complete a 3 mile ride in about 40 minutes or so.

We had an absolute blast. Both Robin and Amanda are accomplished horsewomen and I was completely at ease with them: they were both in complete control of their horses and knew how to correct them in a drama-free way when necessary. Gracie was a very, very good girl.

I hung around talking afterwards and got home a lot later than expected, and then had a hard time falling asleep because I was so giddy with excitement over what great rides I had had on this day.

I was actually excited about riding again! I'd forgotten what that felt like.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Weather Gods

The weather gods were up to their early spring antics this past weekend.

I woke up to a cloudy, rainy day. Charles was working so I went to the gym while waiting for the rain to stop, then headed out to the barn when it looked like the skies were clearing up a bit.

I pulled Lily from the field first and set her up with a flake of alfalfa to munch on while removing the encrusted mud from her coat and tacking up. I knew the trails and fields were going to be way too soggy so I figured we'd do canter sets up the slope of the gravel road.

This was our first solo outing with a goal since...October? Maybe the beginning of November? I don't remember when the last time was that we went out by ourselves, just Lily and I, other than the one failed attempt shortly after moving to the Frederick barn (which I didn't blog about because it was all of 15 minutes of "Lily, mules are not carnivorous").

Lily hesitated at the driveway but ever since the last failed solo outing, I've been riding with my dressage whip again. I never ever touch her with the whip (it's just not necessary with this horse; the only times I've touched her with it has been on rare occasions when reinforcing lateral work and all it takes is a whisper touch on the body part I want her to move); I simply tap my leg or the stirrup cage with it if Lily gets balky. When a squeeze of my leg didn't get her to go forward on the driveway, I tapped my stirrup cage once. Lily gave a little jump in surprise but walked forward. Lots and lots of praise!

She turned to the left of her own accord and broke into a trot before I asked for it. Good girl!

My goal was 10 reps of trotting or cantering up the hill and walking or trotting down the hill. It was our first hill set session since before Fort Valley in October, and I wanted to use it to gauge her fitness as well.

The road in this section is gravel and it had mixed in really well with the earth underneath it...so fresh gravel had been dumped on the road recently. From a distance you can't tell very well but the new gravel is obvious when you get closer. Lily has pretty solid feet, especially since I stopped micromanaging them, but mud + rain + snow all contribute to softer soles: she lowered her head and trotted up the gravel of her own accord but I could tell she wasn't 100% comfortable. After that round I asked her to use the grassy road verge for our reps. She cantered up the hill and trotted back down for the first 4 reps and then she was breathing hard, so we simply walked down after each canter rep down so she could take a full break. This worked very well. I really, really need to re-do her blanket clip! I think it will help. She is a shaggy winter beast at the moment.

By the 6th rep the verge where we were cantering and walking was getting a little deep (because mud under all the grass). Amanda had told us how to get to the BO's hay field and I saw the entrance from the top of the road hill now that I knew where to look. So I asked Lily to go up to the hay field, which is basically another hill that springs out from the road.

Lily gave a big startle as she stepped onto the hay field, but I couldn't see what on earth had spooked her. There was nothing there; not even the wind was blowing. Lily paused for a moment, then, knowing what was expected of her, sprang forward into an easy canter up the hill. I had forgotten that even the hills were soggy from all the rain and snow melt and I could hear her hooves squelching in the ground with each stride. We reached the top of the hay field and walked back down. And then I heard it: a crackling, buzzing and popping above us. It was actually pretty loud when Lily's hooves cantering through the mud weren't drowning it out and I ducked instinctively, not knowing where the hell the sound was coming from.

Did you know that power lines crackle when rain water hits them? I sure didn't, and there are power lines over the hay field. The lightest drizzle had started when I asked Lily to step onto the hay field: the sound of the raindrops hitting the electric lines was what startled her.

Lily was absolutely fine but the sound disturbed me enough that I decided to use the other half of the road, going up towards the barn driveway and away from the power lines, for the remainder of our hill sets.

Yes, my horse is braver than I am.

Lilybird was a rock star and we finished with one extra set going up and down the road at a walk to cool down. It was good to have my endurance and trail pony back to her normal self FINALLY!

I tied her up by the round pen with another flake of alfalfa and her grain. She continued eating happily while I went to fetch Gracie.

She may be a little out of shape but she sure has retained her booty throughout her extended vacation this winter!
G-Mare is starting to associate Charles and me with food, since it's the first thing she gets when we take her out of the field, and she came right up to me when I walked out into the paddock by the barn. She'll occasionally nicker at us too, which is awesome. :) Even if it's only because us = food.

I didn't feel like riding Gracie out on the now wet roads so after she was done eating her grain + meds, I decided to do a ground work session with her in the covered round pen. I've only done round pen work with her a handful of times and I really wanted to test her previous knowledge.

Amanda had said we were welcome to borrow some of her training equipment. There is a carrot stick in the tack room so I brought it out to the round pen. I was honestly inspired by a post Melissa wrote a while ago on her blog, Tales of an Endurance Wannabe. I loved the way she had Vegas the mustang turning with just a flick of her carrot stick and I wanted to see if I could get Gracie to do that. She will turn at my request at liberty but she does the incorrect turn-to-the-outside. We started out on the longe so she could get the idea of what I wanted. I'd point the carrot stick in front of her while requesting her to stop. She would halt and turn to face me. I would then flick the carrot stick to get her to turn away in the opposite direction. She understood right away, so I let her off of the longe line and she gave me some really nice work. We worked on the same thing: trot, halt with the carrot stick + verbal halt command, then change direction with the flick of the carrot stick. I don't like drilling her because she does get bored and starts to get creative, so we only did about 15 minutes. I then asked her to walk and she did a lot of stretching down with a swinging back.

She has a ridiculously huge stride at the walk. She overtracks by at least a foot. It's like riding a camel.
Her most collected gait is actually slower than her regular free walk!

Stretchy mare is stretchy
She's funny in that she drools while working, whether with a bit or without, whether with a rider on board or on the ground. I don't think I've ever noticed that on a horse before, and I've forgotten to mention it on here before. Not a lot; just a little lipstick. Of which I have failed to get pictures of.

She got groomed and I put both mares back out in the field as it started to rain harder. Thank you Weather Gods for letting me work with my horses!

The rain slowed back down to a drizzle on the drive home and I was able to witness this beauty on the mountain, the likes of which I had only seen in Elkins, WV since leaving the island.

Rain clouds stuck over the mountains.
Home is on the other side of them.
I had missed this kind of view SO MUCH. You guys have no idea!
Going down the other side of the mountain. The fog/rain clouds obscured the peak!
I got home grinning from ear to ear. The ride on Lily, the session with Gracie, the rain, the fog, and driving through the clouds had all been the most wonderful gift.

I was having a very lazy morning so I just strength trained at home until the sun came out from behind an overcast sky...but the wind continued. Dammit. So I got dressed and off I went to the barn.

The wind was worse out there. The forecast had said 40 mph gusts, but what we were getting out at the farm were 40 mph constant winds. Lily didn't care. I set her up with her alfalfa by the round pen, where she was receiving the wind in full force, and she dug right in. I tacked up with the idea of hitting the trails, figuring that once we were in the shelter of the trees the wind would not be as strong.

She's had a small swelling on the inside of her left cheek, right by her bars. The vet checked her mouth before the move and declared we could wait another 6 months to do Lily's teeth, as they were excellent. I noticed the swelling last weekend but it had decreased significantly in size over the week and I had stopped thinking about it. On this day, however, it was larger in size again and Lily was very sensitive to having it touched. I had ridden on a loose rein the last 2 days but I wondered if the bit had somehow irritated the spot. I gave Lily a dose of bute and was about to untack and put her back out when I remembered the S-hack.

I put it on with her bridle to make sure it didn't touch the side of her face where the swelling was located. It didn't. I played with the reins and it still didn't touch the swelling. I free lunged her in the round pen in both directions to check her attitude and she was quite willing. Completely unconcerned with the gale blowing outside.

So I hopped on and rode her around the round pen to be 100% SURE that the S-hack didn't bother her. It didn't.

Right at that moment the wind somehow blew the round pen door open. Lily came to a halt and looked out, ears pricked. I thought, "I guess it's now or never!"

Mind you, I had not ridden Lily on the trails with the S-hack yet. Any trails. We had only ever done 2 paddock dressagey sessions with it. And here I was taking her out onto these new trails by herself on one of the windiest days ever without a bit. But I actually felt good about this decision.

Lily walked out quite gamely and went on up the road at my bidding. We were literally walking into a wall of wind. It was blowing so hard and so strong that I had tears running back from my eyes. As if we were galloping. Except we were walking. It literally took my breath away.

We made it up to the bridle path between the neighbor's farm and the bunker house. Instead of heading up towards the trails, I chose to follow the fenceline in the other direction, which borders a grove of trees. We are allowed on this section as well and it was a welcome respite from that insane wind: the trees completely blocked it out. Lily picked up a trot of her own accord and we trotted on until we came to the end of the tree line. We then turned around and went back towards the bridle path. Going up the bridle path, we were back to walking into the wind full-force. GRRRRRRR...

Lily looked at me out of the corner of her eye. "Are you sure about this?" she seemed to ask. But she kept on walking. Tears were pouring back from my eyes and I had to squint to be able to see. I ultimately turned Lily around. No, it was too much. I just couldn't deal with that kind of wind.

But I couldn't have been prouder of my girl!!! I parked her back with her alfalfa and her grain while I fetched Gracie.

I set G-mare free in the round pen in an attempt to pick up where we had left off the previous day but Gracie was very "up", for which I can't blame her given the weather. We did end up with a mare that had both forgotten "whoa" and to turn to the inside to change direction. She was very worked up. I ultimately let her run around and get some energy out; sometimes you have to do that with her before she's ready to pay attention. When she started looking to me for direction, I asked her to halt and put the rope halter and longe line on her. We then reviewed moving her front end away from the carrot stick from one side to the other. We then did this at the walk, asking for a whoa and then changing directions. I then asked her to trot, and she obeyed when I requested the halts and changes of direction.

So I then set her free and we reviewed changing directions at the walk for a few turns of the round pen and called it a day while she was relaxed. I ended up working her for longer than originally planned but I felt it was a good session. She had her grain dinner while I finished putting stuff away.

I had just released both of them back into the fields when I saw the BO, Elena, and her husband, Phillip, working with one of the goats. (The goats are cashmere goats and need to be combed to remove the undercoat that is turned into cashmere wool.) They waved and I went over to say hi.

We got to talking about being a vet vs vet tech vs RN and then Phillip asked if we had explored around Frederick much. I told him we were in the process of doing so; we had an idea of downtown from hanging out there but weren't yet familiar with all of the surrounding areas.

Phillip cocked his head and grinned, "Have you been to Spook Hill yet?"
I said, "Noooo...what's Spook Hill?"
He was very excited. "I'll take you there right now! It's only 5 minutes away."
Elena was laughing. "No, you have to wait for Charles! Show them when he's around. He's going to love it!"
Phillip: "She can take him later." He was determined to show me this place.

Alright then. We hopped into his Jeep and he took off down the main road, winding in the opposite direction from home and into the tiny town of Burkittsville. It really is only 5 minutes away.

In the meantime, he told me the story of the farm and their house. I am a sucker for stories, especially family stories, and even more when it's stories of people's dreams coming true. I knew part of the story from googling the farm before deciding to move the horses there, but it's even better to get the full version from the people that actually lived it!

Phillip parked the Jeep in front of P.J Gilligan's Dry Goods Store in town. It felt like we were in a time warp. We were surrounded by 19th century stone and plaster houses, all brilliantly maintained.

"I think the Dry Goods Store is still open," he said. "The owner sometimes closes later on the weekends."

Photo from the PJ Gilligan Dry Goods & Mercantile Co website.
There was a stone step made up of a simple slab of stone, and looking down I noticed it was worn down on one side, the kind of thing that only happens after centuries of people stepping on the same spot. You can actually see what I mean in the photo above if you look at the store entrance.

Phillip walked in first and I followed. The first thing I noticed upon entering was the wonderful smell of pipe tobacco. And then I saw the five gentlemen with full gray beards sitting around the wood stove in the center of the store. They all looked up to greet us.

Talk about a time warp!

The wood-burning stove around which the men were gathered. Photo from the internet.
Phillip introduced me as one of his boarders and explained that he was just showing me around. I looked around shyly and one of the men, the owner of the store, piped up: "Women are welcome here too, you know." I burst out laughing. He continued, "The ladies seem to not like the fact that we smoke our pipes in here but you are welcome to join whether you smoke a pipe or not!" I grinned and thanked him, and this gave me the confidence to really look around. I was instantly fascinated. There was a wealth of real antiques from the 19th century. There is a dry goods store in Harpers Ferry that we have gone to, but this one was even better because it is still a real store where you can buy things if anything fancies you.

After a quick look-see, we stepped back out. Phillip looked at me expectantly. "That was SO COOL!!" I exclaimed! He beamed. "Isn't it? He actually dresses up in 19th century garb during the summer to man the store."

We got back in the Jeep and continued on up the hill behind the town. Phillip asked me to describe the land in front of us. We were going down a slope with a small mountain beyond it. There were cars behind us so he took the Jeep all the way up the mountain and into Gathland State Park, which is basically the house of the former Civil War correspondent George Alfred Townsend. Phillip pointed out the monument that Townsend had had built to honor war correspondents and the ruins of the old house.

National War Correspondents Memorial. Photo from here.
He turned the Jeep around and we went back down the hill and up a small rise. Here Phillip stopped the car and put it in neutral. We were facing a small rise.

The car slowly started moving UP THE HILL ALL BY ITSELF. And as it continued on up the slope, IT PICKED UP SPEED. And no, Phillip was doing absolutely nothing; he was just sitting there with his feet off of the pedals and hand off of the gear shift.

Ummm can you say creepy?

So legend says that the ghosts of the civil war are trying to move cars towards safety (away from the mountain; the Antietam Battlefield is on the other side of it) or are stuck in a limbo where they think they are still at war, pushing cannons and artillery pieces.

And that, my friends, is the famous Spook Hill.

There are actually several different explanations for the phenomenon, but I'll let you google that and leave you with the ghost theory. It's far more fun anyway. ;)

Phillip then took us the longer way home so he could show me where the cider house was (they have an orchard and they make their own regular cider and hard cider that you can buy!) and the old grange, a building where the local farmers used to get together to share innovations in farming and technology that made their work easier. I had never heard of the term "grange" before but I do know what a "granja" in Spanish is (another term for farm or "finca") and I'm going to guess "granja" comes from "grange"! Fascinating, no?

We then headed on back to the barn.

I thanked Phillip profusely for this tour that had been offered out of nowhere. I had no idea there were all of these places so close to the barn, and it just reinforced my love of Maryland all over again: there is so much history here, and I find it awesome that the locals appreciate it, protect it, learn the stories and pass them on.

It was a great weekend, but Monday was even better!

To be continued...

Maryland farm. Photo from here.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Trail Access!

On Friday, Charles and I arrived at the barn later in the afternoon than what we had originally anticipated, but the last two weeks have kicked our butts at work so we were just really slow in getting ourselves moving and out of the house.

The perk of arriving late was that Amanda, one of the barn trainers, was at the barn finishing up with one of the baby Arabs and ready to pull another from the field. We had all met briefly last weekend. BO was helping with the little gray that Amanda had just untacked and she told the trainer how we'd been exploring up the road. It turns out that the actual trails are in the opposite directions, and Amanda was more than game to take us on a tour!

Gracie is queen of the hill.
Lily and Gracie had been released from their temporary field into the big 30-acre field with the rest of the herd. The smaller 10 acre field was left open so the horses now had access to all of the land. Lily is the sweetest mare on the planet but sometimes she is not the brightest crayon in the box and had managed to get herself stuck on the wrong side of the fence when her and Gracie had been turned out with the others. I failed to get a photo, but here is a diagram of the field layout so you guys can have an idea:

Gates are highlighted in green. The BO has quite the intricate paddock/field arrangement with plenty of gates for compartmentalizing. The fields can be completely shut off from the creek if necessary. There are another 3 fields, including her hay field. On the bottom left corner is the spot where Lily was stuck. She just had to walk down the fenceline to get into the bigger field beyond! There are 2 water troughs by the barn and the creek is an additional source of water.
The creek. I believe it is a tributary of Catoctin Creek.
View of the bank barn from the road. The white house is BO's. The paddock with the mound of rocks is where Lily and Gracie were turned out with the two other mares so they could meet the herd over the fence. If you look closely, you'll see a dirt path on the inside of the fence: that's the chute from the diagram above.
Gracie was up with the main herd. BO and her hubs had unrolled a round bale down the side of the hill to encourage the horses to move around while eating, since all they had been doing was standing around at the hay rings stuffing their faces day and night:

I think you can see the very faintest haze of green starting to show. There really are some green blades of grass cropping up.
I clipped the lead rope on Lily from the herd side of the fence and she followed from her side of the fence down to the opening in the fenceline that led to the hill where all of the horses were located. Goofy mare.

Gracie and Lily ate their grain while tacking up. I'm going to guess Lily is starting to go into her first big heat of spring because she wasn't particularly interested in her grain today, though she was happy to eat hay and alfalfa.

This guy's antics had me snorting with laughter:

"I heard there was some grain around here?"
(Note Lily's completely unpreoccupied demeanor!)
"Give me grain please! I will lick the air until you do!"
My phone died after this photo so Charles would end up being the official ride photographer, but it was worth this shot!
I did give him a few pellets from Lily's Senior. And earned myself a fan for the day...

We tacked up and met Amanda at the barn entrance. She was riding one of the BO's younger baby Arabs, a bay 5 year old named Tony. He was only broken to saddle last year and he was as solid as they come: one of the calmest Arabians I've seen in a while!

I had been on the right track the day I rode Lily by herself up this section of the road. There is a field with a mule and an ancient horse next to a very cool house that sort of looks like a military bunker.

The mule (lying down) and the ancient horse. The first time Lily saw the mule during our solo ride last week, she was all, "OMG IT HAS LONG EARS! IT MUST EAT HORSES!"
You'd think after hanging out with goats for two weeks any horned or long-eared creature would be a non-issue...
She wasn't horrible though, she just wanted to back up away from it. So I swung her around and had her back up past the mule + horse paddock. It was hilarious.
It's literally built into the side of a hill. There is earth and grass over the roof! We'll try to get a picture for next time. The access to the trails is right after that property, going through a neighbor's land who used to own horses and who allows us to ride in his fields.

Access to neighbor's fields.
There's a large fenced arena with lights that Amanda is trying to get permission for us to use and beyond that a 4-acre hilly field where Amanda and the other trainer had set up cross country-type jumps. She said this was their main riding field at the moment. The owner of this property has a Scottie and a Whippet and while the Scottie doesn't leave the area around the house, the Whippet has been known to go darting after the horses. Not in an aggressive way at all; just playing, but he is very quick and can startle both a horse and rider. She said he will stop if you stand your ground and will run away if you move to chase him.

Whippets, like the majority of sighthounds, can fly!
We followed Amanda and Tony down a double track trail that wound between two horse properties, down towards Catoctin Creek, where the water level was high and flowing mightily like big river. Amanda said there is a swimming hole somewhere along this particular section of creek. We had to cross a small stream that flowed into the creek. Tony balked initially and while he was making up his mind, Gracie went, "I gotz dis," arched her neck and went on first, all of her own accord. Lily and the Tony followed. 

Charles's and my jaws dropped:
1. Gracie normally won't cross water for the first time while leading.
2. Gracie sometimes won't even cross familiar water while leading.
This was awesome.

Double track trail after the small creek crossing.
Beyond that tree line is the Catoctin Creek, which was flowing as big as a river.
The trail took us through a large field with somewhat deep mud and large puddles from the snowmelt + rain we had over the week. We stayed at a walk while the horses slogged through. I think Lily had not figured out where the water trough was in the new field nor that she could drink water from the creek that flows through said field, because she was very thirsty and stopped to drink from the puddles.

She even munched on some of the wet grass. Good endurance pony!

Walking across the field.
We continued on, up the back of a very hilly pasture, following a fenceline. We all cantered up the hill in unison and the horses all behaved very well.

Big goofy grin :)

It's weird how photos don't accurately represent the scenery. This looks like a grassy valley with a small mountain behind it. This was actually the top of the hill and it was a respectable one. If you walked towards the edge of the yellow grass, you'd see the dramatic dip behind it, which we had just cantered. The mountains sprang up from the creek with sheer craggy cliffs near the banks, which of course you can't see in this photo either.
We eventually arrived at a gate, which took us on some trails that reminded me so, so much of Liz's!

The trails were double-track, hugging the side of the mountain, with cliff soaring above us on the left and dropping below us on the right, towards the river.

The trail led to a bridge but the gate that would have given access was padlocked. We backtracked and took another fork in the trail.

I think you can kind of appreciate the drop towards the river in this photo.
It led down towards the river and then dead-ended. So back up the trail we went to a third fork in the trail that took us up a very steep hill to a gate. Charles dismounted to get the gate open and close it again behind us.

We were back in the field with the yellow grass. The field that was basically a huge hill, with us riding along the top. We explored the perimeters, looking for more trail access but found none, so we rode back towards the big drop at the end of the hill, the one that we had cantered initially.

Charles and Gracie took the lead, gaiting and then breaking into an effortless canter, Gracie's blonde mane flying. They looked like they were having a blast and it was an evident communion of minds.

Amanda and I continued walking; neither Tony nor Lily showed an inclination to canter after Gracie. Amanda said, "Those two really get along." I laughed. "Yes they do. They have the same personality."

Charles and Gracie circled around then came back towards us, breaking to a trot and then back down to a walk as they approached. Which is when he took these pics:

This was the top of the hill. You can see how the land dips towards the trees.
The way back down the hill was over by the tree line straight ahead of me.
We backtracked through the same areas after this.

The marshy field was the only flat section of this entire route. The horses got quite the workout.
We were out for 2 hours. My Garmin recorded all of this as only 4 miles but I don't see how that is possible. Lily's slowest walk is 3.2 mph and we trotted and cantered where we could. Though it did take us a while with the 3 gates each time so maybe it is possible...need to check this with the phone GPS next time and compare.

Temps were in the 50s but despite mostly walking Lily was still quite hot on the walk home. She finally started shedding this week but I think she's going to need to be clipped sooner rather than later to keep her comfortable as the temps continue to rise.

It was a really great ride. We had such an awesome time and now we know where to go if we want to do real trail miles!

And then...we went to this place, which is very dangerous for us:

Have I told you guys that Charles and I are bibliophiles?
It took 5 bookcases to accommodate all of our books: we finally have sufficient bookcases with this move. We still had books in boxes at the Rockville apartment! Even the movers said, "Man, you guys read a lot!" Half of our belongings consisted of books.
When I moved from PR, I brought with me my clothes, my cat, my laptop and my books. Boxes and boxes full of books that I still re-read. They are like old friends that I like to visit. Charles shares the same opinion about his books. You don't throw out old friends.
This store only sells used books. They will buy them from you, too. Most of the books are $1.99.
I was in full sensory overload.
I may have had to pick my jaw off of the ground.
These photos are just a few aisles of a very large store!
The movie/music side. They have old vinyl records at the end! Mom and the aunts had a record player older than me on which they'd play original music from the '60s and '70s on the weekends.
If you buy 3 movies, you get 3 movies free.
I kept my hands to myself and managed to not buy anything at this time: we were hungry and still had to go grocery shopping. We'll be back later! :D