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

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Bloodline: My Mother

My mother's story is so awesome that even as a child, I recognized it. Somewhere back in the old house in Puerto Rico, there is an illustrated version of my mom's story of her horse, Brisa, by yours truly. This is the first story I want to tell you. 

But to tell you the story of my mother, I must first tell you about my grandfather.

I come from a long line of horsemen. Horsemen of power who owned enormous sugar cane plantations and cattle haciendas that bred their own horses for working their ranches.  What breed were these horses? Why, Paso Finos, of course. 

One of the last remaining sugar cane fields on the island. Photo taken by me in the late 1990's. These fields are long gone.

The Paso Fino breed is originally from Puerto Rico, a mix of Andalusian, Spanish Jennet, Spanish Barb and some Morgan. Their gait started as an adaptation to the mountainous terrain of the island. It was then deliberately bred for, as gaited horses were so much more comfortable to ride when checking fence lines for entire days at a time. The Paso Fino was originally bred to be a working farm horse. My ancestors were long riders, men who spent more time on their horses than on their own two feet.

My family owned the land over which the great metropolis of Bayamon and Guaynabo developed, two of what are now the largest and wealthiest cities of the island. There are streets and neighborhoods in these two cities named after my great-grandparents.

My grandfather was the last in that line of power. He was the last to own huge expanses of land, the last to breed his own horses. 

My grandfather as a young man, on his gorgeous bay Paso stallion, Beibi, out riding on my great-grandfather's hacienda.
He had four children: three daughters and a son. My mother was the eldest daughter. When each of the children came of age, they were gifted a horse, but my mother was the only one of the siblings that carried in her blood the love for all things equestrian. 

My uncle Rafa on Morito, a gray gaited pony my grandfather bought for $50 outside of a convenience store! He taught the four siblings how to ride.
My mother was given a sorrel mare. She was a chestnut with a golden mane and tail. They called her La Rubia. "The Blonde". She was pregnant by a Palomino stallion named Casablanca, the grandson of Dulce Sueño. Dulce Sueño is the foundation sire of the Paso Fino breed.

Casa Blanca later became one of the first Paso Finos to be imported to the United States and is considered one of the foundation sires of the American strain of the Paso Fino.
La Rubia gave birth to a colt. Almost white when he was born, he shed out to a lovely Palomino like his sire, golden with dapples that shimmered in the hot island sun.

My mother called him Brisa. "Breeze". He was trained by my grandfather's trainer, Sandalio, one of the last Puerto Ricans with known Taino Indian bloodlines. Sandalio was special. Horses naturally trusted him and followed him in the fields, without ropes or halters to lead them with. In a time long before natural horsemanship was a thing, Sandalio's skills were nothing short of magical. 

He broke Brisa to saddle and brought him to my mother on the day of her 15th birthday, ready to be ridden by her for the first time. My grandmother was deathly afraid of horses and was so terrified by the idea of her eldest daughter riding this young stallion that she hid at the back of the house, crying hysterically. 

From that day forward, Brisa was my mother's horse and only hers. He only allowed her to ride him. His heart was hers. His heart, which had a defect. A defect so severe that at age 7, the family veterinarian turned to my mother after  a physical exam and said, "The only thing keeping this horse alive right now is his love for you." Brisa required weekly injections to keep him going. The injections could only be given when my mother was present: he was untouchable without her there. If she was there, he stood quietly for the veterinarian with nary a complaint. 

Just one month later, on a day when my mother was away for her college classes, he walked to the farthest reaches of the back field to die. My grandfather found his body right before my mother got home from school, at the same time as the man that would be my father showed up at the house for the first time ever. 

My father had been attempting to court my mother for a while but she had never been really interested. He chose both the worst and best possible day to show up uninvited.

My grandfather did not tell my mother that Brisa had died. My father walked in right then and the entire family basically forced my mom to leave with him in a desperate attempt to get her out of the house before she learned what had happened.

And that is how my mother ended up on her first date with my dad.

Brisa was buried that afternoon, in the last remaining acreage owned by our family, behind the house my grandfather built where I would later grow up. My mother learned of his death upon returning from her date.

My father always asked my mother if she ever really did love him, or if she had simply transferred her love for Brisa to my father. 

Perhaps the answer lay in the fact that my mother never owned horses again. 

Until I came along, close to a decade later.

Hint: the adult in this photo? That is NOT me!
This was the first pony I ever rode. :)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Bloodline: An Introduction

My family on my mother's side has owned horses for centuries. I am the last in the line to have them. There are so many stories surrounding my grandparents and great-grandparents, many of them including the horses that made their lifestyle as hacienda and plantation owners possible! And I want to tell you guys these stories. I have been wanting to put them in writing on the blog for two years now. And the catalyst to begin telling them finally happened.

My uncle Rafa, my mother's brother, recently came to visit. It was a last-minute impromptu visit spurred by the emergency of a close friend of his that lives in D.C. Rafa crashed at our place. I had been bummed that we would barely get to see him, since he was going to spend his days at the hospital with his friend and Carlos and I were both working our crazy schedules. But as always, destiny worked  its magic so that both Carlos and I DID get to spend a lovely one-on-one evening with him.

My uncle and me.
I had not seen my uncle in 12 years, since leaving the island. He has always been a huge fan of my endeavors, especially the equestrian ones, to the point of taking on part of the financial responsibility of my first horse Lucero when I moved to the mainland and had to leave him behind. My uncle is the only male among four siblings and like all of the Torrech family, he is as stubborn and willful as any of us. We are dreamers and the majority of us have one foot in the arts and the other in the sciences. We can let our heads get lost in the clouds, but we will work hard until the day we die. When we put our minds to something, you better jump out of the way because we are like bulldozers: unstoppable. It is a family trait.

The last time I saw my uncle, I was in my early twenties and still functioning at "child" level: I was by all means an adult (I had a college degree and a full-time job), but I still lived at home with the family and you honestly don't really grow up until you have to fend for yourself in the world.

This was my first time hanging out with Rafa as an adult myself and it was...fascinating. We took him to our favorite bar and had pizza and beer and laughed and talked way past the time I should have gone to bed in order to work the next day but it was well worth it. We talked about his kids growing up, my cousins. His eldest is 15 years younger than me and she is very much like I was at her age, so I gave him an insider's view on how to deal with that. We talked about the old house, the old magical house that my grandfather built and that we grew up in, that my uncle now owns.  The house doesn't like when my uncle leaves and consistently pranks him: every time he goes away for a trip, something happens. During this visit, a water pipe in one of the upstairs bathrooms broke and flooded part of a bedroom. We talked about the spirits that roam that property, including the dark beast that used to haunt my brother. My uncle sees them and his SO feels them. We talked about these things in the same manner anyone else would discuss the weather.

My uncle and Carlos sitting outside on our balcony, talking the night away.
It was interesting, to say the least. Not only to talk to him as equals but to confirm that really, our entire family is not quite what most people consider "normal". My entire family would have been accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake during a different era. The men, too.

Magical realism is a huge component of Spanish literature and by definition is: a literary or artistic genre in which realistic narrative and naturalistic technique are combined with surreal elements of dream or fantasy. You've seen elements of it if you watched Pan's Labyrinth or Amelie. If you read Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate (the original version of the book is in Spanish) or 100 Years of Solitude (also originally in Spanish) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you'll know what I'm talking about. Gabriel Garcia Marquez basically invented the genre.

The exception in this case is that magic realism, when it comes to my family, is not just a literary/artistic genre...it is our reality.

I've written about our scientific side, and mine especially since I work in veterinary medicine. Now I want to introduce you to the mysticism of being a Hispanic of Spanish and Caribbean origin, growing up surrounded by adults that basically had the equivalent of superpowers. And yes, it all ties into the horses.

And that leads me to this new series of posts that I am planning on doing every once in awhile, that I will be calling Bloodline, with the corresponding label. If you want to dive off of the deep end of reality with me, you're welcome to come along when I publish these. :)

More to follow.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

FINALLY an Update on the Mares!

 I love when they come to me when I go visit them after work.

Yes, that is Gracie's nostril in close-up.
"Can I eat that??"
No Gracie, it's my phone!
Lately she has been taking priority with me. Since Carlos has proven to be perfectly capable of riding Lily, I've been able to work on Gracie while in company AND moving at speed, a combination that I had never been able to do before. When I rode Gracie, I always rode alone because in company I was always the one on Lily!

The catalyst  for this was that, on a solo outing one day, G-Mare got into a HUGE argument with me over returning to the barn at the walk and I realized that it was time for me to dedicate a significant amount of one-on-one time to her so we could get her brain back in the right place. She has always been the horse I choose to ride when I don't want to have to think, and I wanted to keep her that way!

Ever since the dressage clinic with Stephen Birchall that I audited, I have been working with Gracie on general dressage concepts to get her back to using herself correctly. She is a pretty unique individual in that she is built downhill but naturally and effortlessly moves uphill at walk, gait and canter. The only gait at which she moves downhill is the trot, which is the gait that Carlos has been allowing her to get away with for the longest time. It is in the mare's best interest that she work at her special gaits so as to spare her right front with the ringbone.

So we took it to the arena for a couple of sessions, which she was initially quite pissed off and argumentative about. She did NOT want do as I said in terms of bend, engagement and collection, which resulted in a 10-minute hissy fit. Gracie hissy-fit = violent head tossing, bulging against my leg, moving sideways instead of straight (this part can be scary on trail because she does not pay attention to where she's going when she does this in an argument) and then coming to an abrupt halt. I'll usually let her stand there for a second so she can re-set her brain (if I try to push her to continue too soon it just prolongs the argument) and then verbally ask her to walk. And we start over. Sometimes she'll be willing to listen then, or we'll go through this cycle a couple more times before she realizes it's just easier to do as I say to begin with. It's her way of saying, "This is HARD! I don't wanna!" She gets heavy praise the second she does what I want. Usually once she gives in, she drops the argument entirely.

For our first dressagey ride, there were hissy fits every time I asked her to bend, every time I asked her to flex to loosen up, every time I asked her to sit back on her hocks and collect. She was incredibly stiff through the base of her neck and did not want to lift her withers. We had to go back to the walk and work on moving away from leg, bending and counter-bending, circles, baby leg yields and shoulder-in. We then worked a bit on all of these at the gait. (If anyone ever tries to tell you that gaited horses can't move laterally, they are lying. Just an fyi.) Lots of arguing throughout. But there came a moment when she was finally loose, when she was responsive to my requests, and she was doing gorgeous movements in every direction at her slow rack and I brought her to a halt, patted her profusely, and dismounted. We had worked for exactly 20 minutes.

Our next dressagey ride took place in the girls' field. Lily still had a bandage on her butt and I didn't want her freaking out over being alone in the field so I just rode Gracie in their field. (I personally think horses should be willing to work anywhere. I don't see why the field where they live in should be off limits as a work area. Sometimes you don't have anywhere else to ride or work your horse!) Gracie had two small fits initially over repeating the type of work but when she realized it was the same thing she had done before, she complied and we had a lovely ride. She held a correct, collected gait for a full 30 minutes and while she was covered head-to-toe in sweat, she did not feel tired at all.

After that we took it to the trail. I wasn't going to insist on her working in collection all the time on trail, but I wanted her to only gait (no trotting) and to put her through her spectrum of gait varieties: running walk, slow rack (aka singlefoot in KMS/RM horses), running walk, speed rack. And since a lot of people aren't familiar with those, go to this post I wrote two years ago explaining them all with both photos and video.

Jess then came out and I ultimately had her ride Lily while I rode Gracie and we put in a 10 mile ride where G-Mare only gaited...and I got her to do the speed rack on command for prolonged periods. Jess's jaw dropped. She had never seen Gracie perform this particular gait. The Blonde Beast was FLYING, her mane whipping back like flames. I literally just sat back in the saddle and laughed. Lily had to canter to keep up!

Things have been smoother with every ride, other than Gracie's persistent cross-cantering when on the left lead. My vet was due to come out for fall vaccines anyway so I asked to have G-Mare's hocks injected while we were at it.

Carlos and I had one more ride before the injections, where we hauled out to Little Bennett. It was my first time doing an extended trail ride on Gracie in company in over two years!

 Both mares rocked. There was a small incident with Lily that I'll go into below in her section of this post. Gracie was going through her variety of gaits on command.

"She's moving funny," Carlos said.

"Carlos, this is what it looks like when she GAITS!" I laughed. He'd never really seen her in action on trail because he was always on her.

We did 10 miles in an hour and a half. Gracie didn't even look tired afterwards, even though we maintained a consistent 7 mph pace, mostly gaiting!

Trimming her feet after the ride. She kept resting her nose on my shoulder.
Like so. And yeah: I was too lazy to be bothered to look for my farrier gloves and paid for it in the form of a sliced finger from the coarse side of the rasp. -_-
 The following Monday she had her hocks injected:

"I drool when I'm high." The wet spots on the floor near her lead rope are from her drool!
Starting to wake up a bit post-injections.
She had four days completely off, a day of mostly walking, and then Carlos came out with me to ride.

My ultimate reward? Carlos went to get the horses in the field. Lily let him catch her but G-Mare kept running away from him, staying just out of reach and he finally gave up. I took her rope halter from him as he walked out with Lily, and walked into the field by myself.

"Gray-cieeee!" I called.

She lifted her head, pricked her ears and broke into a GALLOP to come up to me! She came to a stop right in front of me and stood next to me so I could slip the rope halter over her head. I was thrilled that for once, I actually had treats to reward her with for the spectacular display of preference!

I turned around, gloating at Carlos who was over by the hitching post with Lily.

He had seen the whole thing. He gave me the middle finger. I roared with laughter.

Her cross-cantering is diminished since the hock injections, though she still does it occasionally. I plan to have her right front pastern (she has high ringbone in that leg) injected over the winter so I can give her a long break after...they require about 6 weeks of rest when you inject a high-motion joint.

She is gaiting spectacularly though. I've pretty much entirely eliminated her trot, which was my goal. Why no trot? Because gaited horses use themselves so much better when they GAIT. And Gracie is no exception.

This one and the collage below were from an evening bareback ride. GMare was a gaiting machine! She was doing her speed rack in this photo!
Her legs were literally a blur! And I had no trouble sitting her because gaited! :D
A good friend of mine, Shanna, used to ride in her 20s and had to step away from it because $$$, as you guys all know. Since she had some experience, I invited her out and put her on Gracie to re-learn the ropes. They are doing beautifully together so far, and I hope to take her out on the trails soon!

Rack! First ride!
More rack. Second ride.
Speed rack! ZOOM!!
Running walk.
I have been tremendously pleased with Shanna's lessons because they have been proof that Gracie now ONLY gaits. She'll canter, but there is no trot whatsoever, not even for a less experienced rider! Now we'll need to train Carlos to keep this consistent with her...

Lilybird is doing fabulously but I have not ridden her in...a while. Not because I don't want to, but because I've been taking full advantage of the opportunity to work Gracie while someone else rides Lily. I know Lily misses me, as she keeps walking up to me in the field, "Are we riding today?" but my riding schedule has been so weird. Gracie needed the one-on-one time with me, though.

"So...if we're not riding, will you scratch my forehead then?"
Yes, Lily. Anything for you. <3
Jess and Carlos have been riding her and she has done spectacularly for them.

The day Carlos and I hauled to Little Bennet was only his second time riding her off-property. Lily had a weird freak-out when he got on and I'm still not sure why: he didn't touch her rump with his foot as he was swinging his leg over and there was nothing amiss about her tack. But right when she reacted, the clip on her left rein slipped off the bit and Carlos was left with only one rein. Lily was all, "I'm scared! I'm scared!" and doing her absolute best to try to contain herself so as to not unseat Carlos but still sort of going up-and-down. The flapping unclipped rein was not helping matters.

"Lily, ven aca," I said to her calmly. "Ven aca" = "Come here" in Spanish, which she is very responsive to.

I was still surprised when she immediately came over to me, still up-and-down, "Help! Help!" and stood still long enough to let me clip the rein back on and calm her down. Carlos sat all of that beautifully without issue, remaining calm himself. I checked her all over to make sure everything was okay and could not find anything wrong with her tack or Carlos's position, which gave her enough time to calm down.

I was very pleased with the fact that, despite being upset, she still tried to take care of Carlos and despite having another rider on her back, she still responded to me first. This mare has come SO FAR guys!! SO FAR!!!

There were no more problems throughout the rest of the ride. We had a great time, both horses and people!

Lily's happy ears!
Note also: her butt wound is completely healed! Barely a scar left. My vet was very, very impressed.

I think this was one of the rides I was most impressed with, though...it was our first real ride after G-Mare's hock injections so I was taking it easy with her, but I let Carlos do gallop sets with Lily so she at least could get her cardio in.

I mean, holy cow.
And here they are in motion:

Here they are doing hill sprints. 
He said that Lily feels like she has 4-wheel drive when compared to Gracie: he's not used to having to check a horse when galloping uphill! Gracie is a push ride uphill, Lily is a pull ride. She makes it seem effortless. His grin after galloping her was worth a million bucks!

It is SO HARD to believe that he has only been riding for two years and a half! I know experienced riders that would kill for that quiet of a seat and hands! Less than a handful of people have been entrusted with riding Lilybird during the five years I've owned her. It is a huge testament to his skill that he can ride her at all!

Jess and Lily just click. I know I'm Lily's #1, but she is happy with Jess as her plan B.

Hill sprints!
We finally had our first frost this morning, but it rapidly warmed up to the upper 60's by mid-morning. The trees are just starting to change color in Maryland, which I'm thankful for because the later those leaves change color, the longer they will be on the trees! I don't mind winter but I do mind the months and months of naked trees.

And that is kind of it on the equine front at the moment. Lots of other stuff happening too, and I hope at some point to have a new post for y'all about the new surgery adventures, but that might not happen until we're snowed in! ;)