Wednesday, March 26, 2003

"Quiet Horse? What Quiet Horse?"
Good morning, I am still awake for reasons unknown. You'd think riding a horse bareback for awhile would tire oneself out enough to sleep.

Yep, I thought I was living the American (Quarter Horse) Dream. I had me a fine-lookin' sorrel hoss, a nice Circle Y trail saddle, my very own tack box and saddle rack in a BARN full of HORSES, livin breathin snortin poopin horses--and miles of wooded trails just waiting to be explored. I had mah hat, mah boots, and mah swagger was progressing nicely. Course I didn't have a clue what to actually DO with this beast.

It was already dark when we arrived at the boarding barn and there was only one light above the barn but lots of cars in the lot. Bob from the trader's barn trailered Cheerios out there and unloaded him for me. My parents came along for the ride. Bob slid open the enormous red door and flicked on the lights. A long row of stalls became filled with just-awoken noses poking out--what looked like a football field's length of horses, blinking eyes turned our way. I stopped and stared in awe, inhaling the mixture of manure, hay and horsehair. It was intoxicating. We got Cheerios settled into his new stall and Bob said Good Luck and drove away. My Dad stayed for a short bit to make sure I was ok, then left as well. He thought we'd better all leave since it was nighttime, the horses were "in bed" and it was cold... but I wanted to stay. I couldn't very well just go off and leave my baby alone in a strange place. So they left, and I stayed.

And there I was. Alone, in a barn, with my new horse and an equine audience of 40. I very carefully stepped into his stall and closed the door. I had no idea what to do, so I just talked to him. He moved--to turn and look at me. I was so apprehensive that I was paralyzed. The barn door rolled open. Footsteps. I was talking to my horse and didn't really register the sound. A female voice said tentatively, "Uh, is someone in here? Can I help you?" I opened Cheerios' door. Nearly spooked her off her feet. She was petite, blonde, attractive. I introduced myself and my horse. She smiled and walked up to him and greeted him. Then she showed me her horses and introduced herself as Nicole. I admitted that I had no idea how to get acquainted with him--it's my first horse ever. She showed me what I later discovered were the Friendly and Porcupine games from PNH. We got to know each other a bit then she said that everyone was inside watching a horse training video and eating pizza--you're welcome to join us.

I was thrilled! Hadn't been there 15 minutes and already I felt like part of the Saddle Club. I was introduced to a group of about 12, squeezed into a tiny living room in the caretaker's house. The video was "One Day with Pat Parelli". How interesting that within only a few hours I became a horse owner and was introduced to Parelli. The video was amazing--I could not believe that people were doing such things with their horses: jumping them over picnic tables without anything on the horse at all, riding an obstacle course with a lead rope and halter, dancing with their horses ("At Liberty")... it was so beautiful, so poetic, everything I'd ever dreamed of having with my horse. I left the barn that night filled with visions of sugar cubes and pretty ponies laughing with me.

Of course, I soon found out that horses would much rather laugh AT you than with you, until they are convinced that you know what you're doing. ;-/

Despite a horridly frigid Ohio winter, I was out at the barn every chance I got, regardless of whether it was a 10-below wind chill or not. I worked diligently in the ring on my riding abilities. My modus operandi was to arrive, plod through the snowy pasture, get my horse, lead him through the pasture, let him sail over the creek (he loves to jump it and I loved watching him do it), bring him in, brush him, tack him up, drag him into the arena, hop on, and walk trot canter around the arena while practicing getting my seat, positioning my legs, turning, stopping. Mind you, I'm of the Western discipline, the "hop on and go" crowd; seeing people in those ridiculously indecent "britches" (breeches) with a whip in one hand and a long line attached to their horse just made my face screw up. Too much trouble! What were they doing? After I got too cold, I'd untack him, brush him and pick out his feet, then feed him some cookies and send him back out to pasture. This went on for a few weeks until Spring hit and people started coming to the barn in droves to ride the trails. I hooked up with some of the more avid riders and began my adventure.

There were lots of them. Horses tend to spook at imaginary things; one of my fellow boarders had a horse who jumped ten feet if a chipmunk ran under his feet. A chipmunk! I'd been hearing all the stories for weeks; I was quite surprised that Cheerios wasn't spooky and actually wanted to chase the Forest Cows (deer). I thought "what a perfect horse I have" and "I must be a kick a** rider". Especially after the Day of the Big Jump.

"I Thought For SURE You'd Bite It!!!"
I was on the trail with Jenny and Sue. We'd been going for rides for a few weeks. Jenny's horse Redbird is a senior by horse terms--she was 17 then (19 today) and quiet as they come. Sue had Breezy, who had nervous fits sometimes but Sue was able to handle her. We took a long ride that day, about 3 hours. We were getting tired, ready to go home. Jenny suggested a shortcut. Being a newbie, I had no idea that that shortcut could have cost us each $75 if the rangers had caught us because it went through unchartered territory, off the trails. But I merrily followed along. It took us over a creek that runs through the park. There was a rickety "bridge" over it, about four feet long and half as wide--to me it looked more like someone stuck an old loading palette across the creek as an afterthought. The horses seemed to share my opinion.

Breezy wanted no part of it and clattered across with her legs tripping over each other. Redbird crow-hopped across. Then it was my turn. Cheerios looked at the bridge, looked at the creek, back at the bridge. I took a deep relaxing breath and tried desperately to think "waaaaallllk". Remember. He loves to jump creeks. For some reason this did not occur to me until that very moment, that my pasture routine had taught him "it's ok to JUMP creeks". I gave him the slightest nudge to move forward. He took a step. He turned toward the creek. I said "uh-uh", backed him, redirected him to the bridge. Same thing. Nudge, step, turn, uh-uh. Jenny and Sue are ahead, watching. Jenny yells "just make him do it!" I'm like, "I'm trying, just give me a minute". Every instinct said stay with it until he does it my way. But I was so unsure of myself I thought maybe I ought to just give up and go. A couple more nudge step almost over the creek attempts and I just sighed. I said this time we're doing it, we're getting across that bridge one way or another.

Nudge. Step. I sank deep into my seat, wrapped one hand firmly around the horn just in case, gave him his head, focused my gaze ahead of the bridge where I wanted him to go, and let out a deep breath. Cheerios glanced back at me as if to say, "you ready?" I gave him a nudge. He stepped. I heard his legs snap up as he launched himself over the bridge--and we were sailing, flying!!! We landed with an ooof safely on the other side (Jenny said, "all you said was 'uh!'")--Cheerios' feet picked up momentum and we did a mini steeplechase under a group of low trees and jumped a couple of clumps and then shot out and slammed to a sliding stop on the trail ahead of Jenny and Sue. Five jaws had dropped. Cheerios was too busy smirking. I was speechless. Exhilirated. Terrified. Could not believe I'd just done that, let alone survived it! Jenny said "I thought for SURE you were gonna bite it but you didn't! You stayed on! Good girl! My god I wish I had a video tape of that!" Nobody could believe he could jump like that. I still wish I could have seen it from their point of view.

I was the talk of the barn for days after. Cheerios was made out to be the next Olympic hopeful. I was beaming. I thought I was the SHIT.

But all that changed within a couple of weeks. What I hadn't realized was that by letting Cheerios call the shots, I'd given up my right to ask for respect, and he became the leader in the relationship. It resulted in my almost giving up horses out of a newly-developed and paralyzing fear caused by his having had enough of that green rider on his back.

It was Mother's Day. My buddy Bruce and I took Weapon and Cheerios out for a quick jaunt before I went to visit my mother. Well, it was supposed to be a quick jaunt, anyway. Quick, uneventful. But I'd woken up with a nagging feeling that something wasn't right. But then, I wake up with those all the time. I live under a cloud of impending doom... but that can be saved for a different blog.

We'd been out for about an hour and a half and it was great. I was working on posting to the trot and trying to figure out which lead was the one I should rise on. Weapon and Bruce were lagging behind. I posted to one lead. That felt bumpy; I switched rather awkwardly to the other. Hmm. Still not... let me just look down and try to see which leg is going first... all of a sudden, sideways spook, spin: I slide almost out of the saddle to the left, hook my ovaries up on the saddle horn, horse's head goes down toward the ground everything's off balance I'm falling forward I'm trying to right myself horse's head comes back up SMACKS me in the face and blam. I'm on the ground. On my back. Blur of hooves. Get up, get up, get out of the way of the hooves but all I can manage is to roll over onto my hands and knees I can't breathe why can't I breathe oh god is this how I'm gonna die? Bruce rounds the corner with Weapon, screeches to a halt, jumps off his horse to help me up. can'tbreathecan'tbreathecan't-- UUUUAAAGGGGHHH!!! thank GOD I can BREATHE again!!!

Cheerios is a few feet up the trail eating grass like nothing happened. Bruce is white as a ghost. His reputation for dumping girls is firmly in place now; every newbie he takes on the trail with him winds up eating dirt, usually through no fault of his. One had a separated shoulder, another broke something small, and Nicole had an encounter with a tree that put pins in her knee after it shattered. Here I was, in a heap. (Bruce, are you cursed?) We assessed that I was ok, now that I'd recovered my breathing ability, nothing was broken but I'd likely be awfully sore tomorrow from the impact. He retrieved my horse and helped me back on. Broken or not, we had to get back to the barn and it was either gonna be a long walk or a long ride. I opted to ride. It was ok, but I was shaken. The longer we went, the more my back started to hurt. Every little motion became agony. I began to worry that I had broken something.

By the time we had minced our way back to the barn, an hour and a half later, I was almost in tears but true to cowgirl form, hiding it well. Then I tried to dismount. My right leg was not obeying my orders. It refused to swing up over the saddle. I tried and tried. I thought my god I'm paralyzed--well, no, I can still move it just not where I want it to go--did I break my back? How the F*** am I gonna get down I wanna get down I want OFF this horse NOW OH my god I'm going to be trapped on top of this horse forever!!!! (Rational thought was leaving me)

Bruce had to come rescue me, which had to have been comical to watch since I'm somewhat taller than he is. Somehow I got off that darned beast and was finally touching solid grou--OWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWNNNNDDDDD! Ow ow oowowowowow. No. Don't wanna stand. No. Left leg no good. Ouch. No god please let me just lie down here. Ouch. Bruce ran and got me his lawn chair and I lowered myself into it. Kind of. Cheerios was looking at me. I know he was thinking "Whattheheck's wrong with YOU?" I sat for a moment then used the hitching post to haul myself back up. I tried to cowboy up and untack him but lifting the saddle even a millimeter sent agony screaming down my back. Bruce took care of my horse for me. The enjoyment was not over yet. I still had a half hour's drive to my parents' house, in a manual transmission. Everyone was concerned that I'd be able to drive; my feeling was, if I could ride the damned horse back to the barn, dismount, and hobble to the car, I could last long enough to drive to where someone could take care of me.

So I did. It was the most painful drive I've ever made. I wasn't home for 15 minutes before my parents insisted I go to the ER. But I was STARVING so I waited until after dinner. Again, I rode the horse, I can walk, I drove to the house, I can at least eat some food, I'm not in danger of dying and I'll feel less bad if I'm sitting in the waiting room for three hours with a full stomach rather than an empty one. Sure enough, three hours of waiting and several excruciating xrays later (along with lots of curious staffers quizzing me about my horseback activities, I was the entertainment of the night and secretly relishing my Rodeo Star role), they sent me home with a note for work, a bottle of Darvocet and a sprained back. When I asked the doctor how long before I can ride again, he snorted in disbelief. "Two weeks at the very least! But I doubt you'll feel ready for about six."

SIX WEEKS!!! But it was May! Riding season had just started! In six weeks it would be summer and too hot to ride. I said whatever, I'm riding in two.

It was the longest time I'd been away from my horse since buying him. Sure enough, two weeks to the day, I went out to the barn. Yes, I was still on crutches. Yes, I still hurt like the devil. But I was beginning to wonder if I'd be able to get back on if I waited longer than two weeks. So Jenny got him for me, tacked him up, and lead him to the arena. My dad was there... they both were exchanging looks. Mounting him hurt. I couldn't do it without the block and felt like a greenhorn. Sitting in the saddle woke up traumatized muscles but I held fast to my resolve. The huge bruise from the saddle horn was changing colors and by some miracle my face had come away without even so much as a fat lip, despite kissing my horse on the neck. I sat there, a ball of nerves. Cheerios shifted his weight. I clenched in pain. His ears pricked up. He shifted again. I winced and tightened up and tried to relax, but even relaxing was difficult and painful because it involved altering the tension state of the muscle. Cheerios took a couple steps. I pulled back on the reins and winced in pain. He paused, then continued walking. Didn't take him long to figure out I wasn't going to be able to stop him effectively because every movement brought on more pain. The terror was rising inside. God, please don't let him run, I can't stop him and I don't know if I can hold on.

He was heading toward the mare's pasture; the gate was open. I smelled immediate disaster because the mares don't like the geldings much and vice versa and I had visions of being powerless to stop him when they took after each other, kicking and biting. Jenny saw I was in trouble and ran over to collect us. She lead us back to my crutches and I dismounted, discouraged and afraid.

Too afraid to get back on him again. It was a very long painful summer.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Well, Howdy!

I'm Jeanne. I have two horses: Wildflower, an 11-year-old bay mare, and Cheerios, a 6-year-old sorrel gelding. My experience with them is rather new; I only became a horse-owner two years and one month ago. But it was something I'd always dreamed of doing, and it's been an interesting two years. I spose I ought to tell you how it all started, then get right into the blog. So bear with...

It's Grandpa's Fault

My father's father is the primary reason for my interest in all things equine. Walter S. Berry was a college student in the early 1900's when he contracted TB. Back then, wasn't much they could do about it other than prescribe fresh air, sunshine, and physical fitness; so my Granddad left school for a while, packed up, headed out West and found work as a stage coach driver for starters. Didn't stick with that too long after he saw what the daily manipulation of a handful of reins did to your fingers (it mangled them). He did plenty of wrangling, and became an honest-to-gosh cowboy, in New Mexico, before it had even achieved statehood. He won his spurs riding a bucking bronco--I'd guess he was pretty good!

Well, eventually he got well, and decided it was time to head back to school. Along the way he met my grandmother (Irma), they married and moved to Wyoming to homestead a ranch. They gave it five years before two factors made them quit it and move to Cincinnati and get "real" jobs: 1) there was no money in it; and 2) Grandma just had a baby, my uncle Carl. They settled in to academic careers and produced another son, my father, Stewart. When they moved East to Connecticut while my Dad was still a baby, my grandfather indulged in his lifelong passion for horses and raised a handful of Arabians and Kentucky Saddlebreds. Odd combination, yes, but that was what Grandpa liked.

So my Dad and his brother grew up on the backs of two gentle, kid-friendly Arabian ponies, Slipper and Snip, and my Dad became an expert horseman with a love of Arabians as well. Sadly, times got tough when Dad was a teenager, and one day Grandpa up and sold all the horses and the farm and they all moved back to Cincinnati. My Dad was heartbroken; he never quite got over losing his beloved Slipper, and never had another horse again.

How then, did I acquire horse-fever? Maybe it's just in my blood. Although I grew up in the suburbs, I started begging Dad to buy a farm and buy me a horse from about age 6 on. The most he would agree to was to take me on the occasional trail ride, or up the road from my other Grandma's house to the farm where they raised harness horses (some wonderful man hitched up his training buggy to a horse and gave an ecstatic youngster a ride--I wanted to flyyyyyyy!), but he never would buy me a horse. I didn't even realize until a few years ago (in my thirties) that horses were available to LEASE!!! All this time, and I could have been renting a horse and taking lessons.

Every time we flew out to Tucson to visit my Dad's parents, I would grill Grandpa for horse stories. He gladly indulged me; I think he found it perplexing that I would want to listen to a grouchy old man spout off about his horse glory days. I was all ears. Hung on every word. Pored over his old copies of Arabian Horse World and Western Horseman until they were 'bout worn out. Learned all about how to read pedigrees; what every piece of tack was called and what it did; being somewhat artistic, this translated to sketching and doodling horses day in and day out in all my notebooks until my teachers were driven to distraction. Oh, I was an "A" student; but when I got bored waiting for everyone to catch up, I'd daydream about horses. Horses, horses, horses.

When I was in high school, my nieces, Kim and Renee (2.5 and 5 years younger than I), were blessed with horses of their very own. The family had moved to an old farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania and their father had the notion to become a gentleman farmer. I won't go into why that is such an eye-rolling notion; the importance here is that they GOT exactly what I'd always wanted. I was unbelieveably jealous for a long time! They had horses in their backyard! They could ride any time they wanted for FREE, anywhere, for as long as they wanted!!! ARRRRGH! No paying $15 for an hour nose-to-tail and never going much above a walk--no, Kim and Renee could gallop across fields and over hills to their heart's content. It tore me up. Until I realized on my first post-horse-acquisition visit that they had to get up at the crack of dawn EVERY morning to clean stalls, feed and water them, turn them out, do other farm chores before they could even eat breakfast. Oh. OK, maybe they aren't that lucky... I was seriously into my teenage sleep-all-day phase and the idea of arising before noon was unbearable, even for horses.

But because my summers were free, Mom and Dad gladly dumped me off and left me there for a good long visit, several weeks every summer. Naturally, all I wanted to do besides sleep and suntan and swim was to ride. So ride we did. I had my share of wild experiences then, too. Eventually Kim and Renee grew up and went to college and the horses were redistributed to other homes. I had graduated to my wild rock star phase and was more interested in guitars and big hair than horses and manure; my other passion is music, and I guess my parents thought a guitar was a good substitute for a horse. They were more than willing to buy me guitars instead of horses, probably because you don't have to feed or shovel out the guitar.

My game plan was: become a rich and famous rock star, then retire a multi-millionaire and raise horses for the rest of my life. I'm still waiting for the rock star thing to take effect. Well, to touch on that subject, I paid my dues in cover and original bands for many years, lived in Hollywood for a little over a year and ran right back home because it's too darned expensive to survive out there without compromising your morals, which I wasn't willing to do. So I wound up in college, pursued a degree in graphic design, and got trapped on the wheel for a few years. I did the usual: buy a house, settle in, adjust to living according to society's standards. But I was bored. Absolutely bored silly. Work all day, come home, feed the cats, watch tv, do household chores. Fall asleep, wake up, do it all again. YAWWWWWN.

Restless, bored, in need of direction, I became inspired to try an experiment outlined in a magazine: pick a day, say Sunday, and every Sunday for four weeks, ask yourself "if I could do any five things today, money etc being no object, what would they be?" Then off the top of your head, write down the first five things that come to mind, no matter how silly. At the end of the month, compare the lists and see how many times certain themes come up. Those are the things you REALLY want to do. So I tried it. I noticed that gardening came up about three times, music about the same, but was blown away to find horseback riding every single time! Well. I didn't have a horse, so that was moot, but intriguing.

One fine summer day, I looked outside wistfully and said to myself, "I've GOT to ride a horse today." So I got out the phone book, called around until I found a stable that had trail rides, and went up to go for a ride. It was so much fun I went back the next day. It became an addiction. Every weekend I was up there riding. Some days I'd ride two or three times; the owners let me help with turn out and grooming in exchange for a few rides. Then I started taking lessons, until the weather got bad in November. I was in a tack store daydreaming about saddles when I saw a flyer advertising team roping practice; surprise--the facility was about 10 minutes from my house! I spent the winter months watching team roping and taking lessons indoors. I envied the cowboys, how they melded into their horses no matter what move the horse made. It was poetic. I'd also become a rodeo fan, and seeing these guys in action was enthralling.

Fast-forward to January, 2001
I figured the horse obsession was real because it outlasted the typical 6-week phase with me--it was January and it had been over 6 months now since my first ride in years. I wanted a horse in the worst way. I had been shopping for months, only coming across misfits and half-broke mounts that were unsuitable for a green rider. Plus I didn't want some ancient bag of bones that might drop dead in a year or two--I was determined to have a young, healthy horse I could grow up with. OK, I said I was green! In the process I fearlessly jumped on everything from a 5-year-old mustang who hadn't been ridden in a year to a 2-year-old who barely could stand being saddled. Somehow I survived. But the Right Horse hadn't come along yet. My Dad was steering me toward Arabians, but I wanted a quarter horse. Nothing against Arabs, they are beautiful delicate friendly creatures, but I wanted the American Cowboy horse.

Pardon the interruption--dinner is served. I shall return...

OK, I'm back. Man, this is a long blog! I promise to be more concise in the future; consider this my autobiographical background. :-)

The cows were active, and all the cowboys in attendance that night were concentrating on their runs. I was by myself outside the arena, watching intently. The standard practice was to run as many cows as possible on one horse, and when that horse got sweaty, trade off for a fresh mount and leave the winded blob of dripping, steaming equine in the cross-ties or out in their trailer. I'd arrived in the middle of practice. Hadn't been there for more than about 15 minutes when I noticed--couldn't help but--the antsy sorrel horse in the cross-ties. He was eyeballing me, tossing his head energetically. He'd obviously been at it for awhile, judging by how the halter was sitting. He'd managed to get it completely twisted around on his head and he looked pathetic. I felt sorry for him; he looked lonely and a little scared and nobody was paying him any attention. So I walked up to him and introduced myself by extending my hand for him to sniff.

He accepted me and I righted his halter. I began talking to him and petting him softly and he calmed down right away. He was an awfully cute horse--sorrel, with a huge white blaze, almost piebald, and while his left eye was the normal horse brown, his right was blue. I was so green that it was a surprise to me to see a blue eye. I'd never heard of a blue-eyed horse! He seemed friendly. Bob, the trainer, came by after his run to collect the horse and put him in his stall. Bob was my riding instructor and found my fascination with roping quite amusing. He saw my interest in the horse and said "y'know, he's for sale". Well, duh. The practice was held weekly at a horse trader's barn--EVERYTHING there had a price on its head. I nearly fell over when he told me the price--$3500. Well, he's a trained roping horse. He has a pedigree. Bob didn't know his name, so he dug out the papers. "Docalynx Cheerios". You're kidding... like the cereal? He was only four--and... a PAINT horse? Eh, scuse me, but I don't seem to see any color patches? Apparently there is such a thing as a "solid paint". They call those breeding stock.

I was discussing his heritage with Bob and scratching him absentmindedly (Cheerios, not Bob) when I felt pressure on my stomach. I looked down to see Cheerios' nose pressed firmly into my belly and he was blowing softly at me. My jaw dropped. I said "Is that a good sign?" Bob said it was a very good sign. My heart melted. That was it. I knew I was buying THIS horse.

Three weeks of stalling the trader (to keep him from selling Cheerios), test rides, and begging my Dad finally paid off. On February 2nd, I went to an Arabian farm with my Dad to appease his insistance that an Arab was better suited for me. The woman ushered us into an indoor arena, opened the gates and a herd of 30 Arabians whooshed in and swarmed around us. She thought it was wonderful; I was pressed flat against a wall praying that none of them decided to get too aggressive with my Dad, who is up there in age and has had a hip replacement that leaves him not completely trustworthy balance-wise. The lady snagged a mare that hadn't been ridden in a year, saddled her up and stuck me on her. She was a nice horse but the way she moved unsettled me. Too quick! A little too responsive. So energetic. Yes, she had a gait that was like floating on air; but the energy was too keyed up for me. It made my decision easy. Although Cheerios' trot was like a pogo-stick crossed with a jackhammer, he was calmer, quieter and less nervewracking. Plus I was already in love with him.

On February 5th, we brought Cheerios home to the boarding barn run conveniently by the trader. It is situated at the edge of a huge state park and full of bridle trails, and almost every one of the maximum 40 horses is owned by a pleasure trail rider. The fun was finally beginning!

Little did I know...

A little over a year from initially purchasing Cheerios, I finally committed to purchasing the Parelli Natural Horse-Man-Ship Level One kit. Tune in tomorrow for Part II of my autobiographical background, aka "Quiet Horse? What Quiet Horse?"