Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Last week the seasons officially changed. Around here fall often begins in August, the weather completely ignoring the calendar and my begging and pleading for just one more week of warmth. But this year was different--heat like I've never seen in the Pacific Northwest and an Indian summer to go down on record. It's been heaven.

Yesterday, while waiting for my son to get out of classes, I studied an Oak tree of some kind, growing in the parking lot. Only a few leaves near the center of the tree were blushed with red. It was as if the tree waited as long as possible before giving into fall and cooler weather. I know how it feels.

A sun worshipper to the core, I still favor Fall above all other seasons. I love the way the fog floats in ribbons across the valley with late breaking sun up above burning off the chill. I love the way the sunflowers bow to the earth and become a bird buffet. I love the first fire, the first pot of soup, the harvest displayed in every road side stand. I love the tradition of making applesauce with my extended family. Most of all I love the feeling of hunkering down and gathering precious things close. Fall is a time of turning inward and nurturing ideas and dreams cocooning inside. I feel protective in the Fall.

This Fall is especially bittersweet, and not because the Indian Summer officially lost the battle to the Rainy Season. Last week I drove Tango to his new home and bid a one-time dream farewell. This is a horse I thought I would never sell. But seasons change; plans evolve; needs arise. Most obvious is that my daughter does not have a horse she can use for her dreams--western games, going to fair, trail riding. Chance may never be ridden again and though we love and care for him he is a pasture ornament these days. We do not have room, time, or resources for more than three horses so somebody needed a new home. Tango became that somebody.

Raising and training Tango was a dream come true. He was first for so many things--first gift of a horse from my husband (no doubt a "mistake" he'll never repeat); first foal; first horse I started under saddle by myself. He was the horse that jump started me back into the equestrian lifestyle (and it is a lifestyle, not a hobby). Now he is a dream for another person and I can't help thinking that there are seasons for dreams and always something new to learn when change inevitably comes. In so many ways raising the naughty colt Tango was prepared me for a new challenge--stallion ownership. I am a much better horsewoman because of Tango.

There is much debate and many books written about the subject of animal personality and "soul." Of the ability animals have to communicate and touch us in unique ways. I can't say I believe horses have a soul but I do know that without doubt they touch mine. In honor of Tango I share some favorite memories of him.
Leading Lessons: You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. Heck, sometimes you can't even make him lead. I remember well the days of walking to the neighbors where Tango was pastured the first few months after buying him. I'd be anxious for some "me" time; some horse bonding moments away from my two young children. I'd escape the demands of one toddler--my daughter--only to confront the tantrums of another toddler. A 600 pound toddler. Oh was he naughty. I shouldn't have been surprised. The day I went to see the "Beautiful Arabian Colt For Sale" I squatted by the fuzzy faced weanling with the extremely pointed ears and exclaimed, "You are so adorable!" Tango responded by biting me on the knee. I knew I had to have him. A bit of training and in time I felt sure we'd gallop off into the sunset together. I thought nothing of the frustration, the tears, the unbelievable patience that would be required of me first. The dream--true partnership--was a long time in coming.
Trailering Traumas: You can definitely lead a horse to a trailer but you can't force them in. Trust me, I've tried. It took an entire summer, every shred of self-control and every last nerve to teach Tango to load properly. He was adamantly, belligerently, opposed to the idea from day one. Looking back I can see clearly what I could have done differently to accomplish the goal faster but I'm glad I was forced to take my time because I learned a lot in the process. My patience was rewarded in a horse that was finally, completely, trained to load in any trailer, at any time, anywhere. This was confirmed the day a friend brought over her small, dark, circa 1970's straight load trailer. At the time Tango had never seen such a frightening contraption. When I lead him up to it he paused and looked at me with an expression that clearly said, "Are you sure about this?"
"Go ahead Pal, it's okay." I patted his rump and he walked right in. A training desire fulfilled is sweetness to the soul.
Anthropomorphism: As much as I try to be rational, its hard not to ascribe human emotions to my horses. Animals can be almost human at times (there is a great book by that name, by the way). Unlike Eli, Tango is a very expressive horse. You never wonder what he is thinking, its written all over his beautiful face. Still, there were times that I wondered if he had any feelings for me. Feelings beyond that of simply being glad I showed up twice a day with the groceries. Did he enjoy my company? Look forward to spending time with me? Sorry, I'm a girl and these things are important.
I got an answer to that question two years ago when I put Tango in a neighbor's pasture to work as lawn mower. The grass was tall, lush, and green. Horse Heaven. There were horses across the street and a buffet beneath his feet. What more could any equine require? After about a week I decided to visit my horse; see if he was still living or if he'd turned into a great bay blimp and floated away on warm summer breezes. A friend who was visiting came with. When I turned down the driveway Tango immediately nickered and walked to the gate. I entered and looked him over, taking note of the generous layer of fat now covering his ribs. He was the picture of health and glistened like a newly minted penny.
"Aren't you a sight?" I rubbed Tango's chest and he responded by pushing his head against me and lipping the sleeve of my shirt. He reminded me of a big brother, happy to see his little sister so he can pick on her.
"You big oaf, get off me!" I tried to sound stern but couldn't help leaning into his shiny neck and breathing in that good horsey scent--Eau du Summer Horse. It ranks right up there with other wholesome smells--sheets dried in the sun and newly baled hay. I bet I could market that scent.
"I gotta go, see you Pal." I patted Tango's neck and walked back down the road. Instead of returning to his own personal buffet, Tango did a curious thing. He began to trot, then gallop the fence line calling after me.
"How cute; he doesn't want you to go," my friend remarked.
"Silly horse," I said, feeling foolish as tears pricked my eyes. Even after I turned the corner I could still hear Tango's husky calls and the sound of pounding hooves. Anthropomorphism? Maybe....but I don't think so.
Tango, you've been a worthy teacher and a cherished friend. May you bless the life of your new person (congratulations Kasey) the way you have blessed mine. I will miss you.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Today I am going to a reining horse show. A friend and trainer will be showing and I'd like to watch his classes. Reining, for those that don't know, is a western discipline. It is a pattern (multiple possible patterns) meant to showcase the skills a cow horse would have. Minus the cow. Fewer and fewer horses actually spend their lives working cattle but the spins, roll backs, flying changes, and spins of a reining horse mimic some of the maneuvers used in a real life ranch setting. A good reining horse is athletic, responsive, and graceful; completely in tune with its rider. Things that spoil a nice pattern include jerky communication between horse and rider, over anticipation on the part of the horse (leading to mistakes), and a cranky attitude. Though not always faulted, a horse that runs a perfect pattern with pinned ears and swishing tail (signs of irritation and/or ill temper) will lose in a tie with a horse of equal ability that appears willing. A good reining horse should appear, "willfully guided."

Some time ago I read an article about western riding disciplines. They included reining, cutting, and working cow horse. According to this author, good reining horses do not anticipate. They are followers that wait for the rider's cue. In contrast, anticipation in cutting horses can be a good thing. The horse that is able to read the cows body language can anticipate its next movement and gain the upper hand. Horses like this are often described as "cowy" and possess a natural ability and interest in moving cattle.

I do not have working cow horses or even own the traditional stock type horses used for these particular disciplines. Though individual Arabians can excel at cutting and reining they are not the breed best suited for it.

My gelding, Tango, is a perfect example of a horse that anticipates. Because of his carriage and movement, I've often thought he would be a good reining horse. However, he abhors routine and boredom and is a clever pupil that enjoys anticipating rather than waiting for a cue. He has many ideas about training methods and frequently shares his "opinions." This does not make for the best reining horse but it does make for an amusing and creative partnership.

When we are doing rollbacks in the arena it only takes one time and Tango jumps into anticipation mode--I know what she's doing; I'll do it before she even asks. That's how clever I am. He is often arched for a turn before I've asked him for the specific direction. This is the time to switch things up on him, ask for something else, do a complete 360 when he was expecting a 180 or visa versa. It's important to mix things up to keep him guessing and, listening. The key word for this horse.

Another maneuver that shows Tango's tendency to anticipate is the counter canter. Counter canter is when a horse canters on the "wrong" leading leg. When going to the right, for instance, instead of leading with the right front leg, the horse leads with the left. Counter canter is used alot in dressage and is an excellent tool to teach the more advanced horse balance. When I began teaching Tango counter canter he immediately resisted. He was very solid on his canter cues and adamant that he stay in the "correct" lead in either direction. An expressive horse, he got down right cranky with my new request, pinning his ears, shaking his head, and, my favorite, pursing his lips. I could almost hear him saying, You are in error, my dim witted rider. When we canter to the right we use the right lead. I had to go very slowly and accept just a few strides at a time. A horse that automatically picks up correct leads is a beautiful thing, to be sure, but most beautiful is a horse that responds to the riders request, when they request it, no matter what the request is. This is the pinnacle of training and fluid communication.

When a horse anticipates they aren't really listening, even if they appear quiet and obedient. They've jumped ahead on their own agenda. I do love to see an intelligent horse's mind work but the best way to deal with a horse like this is to keep them guessing, cuing them in ways that say, Pay attention, I may ask for something/show you something you don't expect.

All these thoughts about anticipation have been especially meaningful to me as I consider my spiritual life and relationship to God these last 2 or 3 months. Websters defines Anticipate: To look forward to; to take care of or use in advance; to forestall; to be ahead of in doing .

So easy to be on my own agenda but God says, My ways are not your ways and my thoughts now your thoughts. I'm on a bit of counter canter training these days; pretty good for spiritual balance.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Time for a problem horse update.

As world famous horse trainer John Lyons says, "When you have horses, you keep having problems." So true. Of my three lovely boys, one is consistently more problematic than the others. I recently learned that much of the time, he truly can't help his behavior. This gives me much food for thought as I consider my fellow man and my own nature.

Some time ago I posted about Chance and our veterinary adventures. Chance was concerned about my "superfluous" spending money and decided to relieve me of this burden. So thoughtful of him; thanks, Pal. It took a mere $500 dollars this summer to assure us his lungs were in ship-shape; time to get back to exercise. I frequently remind Chance, Eli, and Tango that despite how it appears, they actually live here to work as riding horses.

One of the first excursions for Chance, after nearly two months off, was to a friend's outdoor arena. A place he's been many, many times. This means he knows what boogers exist on the property, the other horses that will be there, the routine we follow. I knew he'd be on the fresh side but felt he would soon settle into a, "been there, done that" frame of mind. When it appeared his little brain was still on vacation I told Haley to let me warm him up first. "First" quickly turned into, "I've got you Babe and you've got me until you quit acting like a fool." Haley rode Tango while I wrestled with 14 hands of foolishness. At least it appeared that way.

I'm sorry to say it did not take long to lose my temper. One of the things Chance decided to overreact to was a hose stretched across the lawn. After working him in the arena I worked him by the hose. Over and over again. Besides being worried and needy away from "the herd," he acted ridiculous about a simple hose, splaying his legs, jumping around, and spooking from the sight of it. Since he's had frequent baths and enjoys them more than any horse I've ever known, I found his behavior strange. And headshakingly stupid.

"You are an idiot," I told him, forcing him to stand with the hose between his legs. I'm pretty sure I said some other things involving his mother, breed, and short stature. After riding, I loaded him up and took him home in disgust. I'd worked so long and so hard with this animal. I tell you, I'd had the patience of Job (past tense)! He needed to knock it off and get over it. Change the ridiculous behavior and grow up horse.

Fast forward a few weeks: I come home one evening and see neighbors I do not know. They are parked in my driveway; they want to share their concern about watching "the spotted horse" fall in the pasture. Not fall while running around, fall while standing perfectly still with eyes open. After falling, they observed Chance for several seconds try to find his balance and get his feet under him. He, "looked drunk." I thanked them for taking the time to find me and share this concern. I was concerned, too. Later I paced in the house. Puzzling behaviors--things he's always had--came to my mind: His running into things, difficulty placing his legs, lack of coordination, stumbling, spooking at things he seems unable to see. Recently he'd also begun having trouble unloading from the horse trailer. While he is no longer afraid to load, he takes a long time to unload now, appearing as if he has to think hard how to back out. All these things, added together with his fall/seizure in the pasture add up to a neurological issue. Why didn't I take a serious look at his behaviors before now? Consider something was going on?

We are no longer riding Chance and do not know if he has a tumor, epilepsy, or some other sinister sounding ailment. DNA testing from UC Davis told us he is negative for the more rare neurological disorder, Cerebral Abiotrophy, though he displays nearly all the outward traits for this, including hypermetric action, lack of a blink response, falling/coordination problems, and obvious issues with judging distance and spatial relationships. Next step is blood testing and urinalysis. The future is uncertain.

I cried for a week after being confronted with this dilemma. My heart is heavily invested in this little horse; he has tested my faith from the beginning. Yes, I pray for and about my horses. If God sees a sparrow fall He sees a smallish pinto fall, too. If He cares for His creation to the detail of a sparrow's death I believe He cares now. There is a purpose in this situation; I am simply trying to remain open to whatever that is.

When I think back to that hot afternoon, wrestling with Chance and that dumb length of hose, I wonder now if he wasn't doing the best he could. If there is something hindering his ability to accurately process what his senses take in his behavior that day is no surprise. It actually makes perfect sense. A horse can operate only on the basis of what it knows and what it knows is not only the result of training--conditioned response--but it's natural ability to process that information. Or not.

This recent horse challenge reminds me of my attitude toward other people sometimes. I once was intensely critical of a person close to me and the way they repeatedly handled their life situations and interpersonal relationships. "You are an idiot," I'd say privately--change already and grow up! One night my husband shared with me the facts of this person's early life and inner demons. Things I did not know. Tears pricked my eyes as I thought of the hell this person had been through, the emotional handicaps that hindered their ability to react well to life challenges and maintain stability. Their behavior was a result of how well they could process information and situations. Period.

And so I thank God for grace; grace for all of His creatures in the midst of personal handicaps. Whatever they are. I believe Grace will shine through, somehow someway, in Chances life as it does in my own. May I have more grace for those who share my space in this life, for idiosyncrasies I am unable to understand.