Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

No Witnesses

Far be it from me to ignore a challenge.  Well, okay.  I do occasionally ignore challenges … only so many hours in the day, and I’m edging towards an advanced state of decrepitude, after all, and I’m way behind on blog posts about the Toronto Pan Am Games already, and besides, you think all these excuses just spring from the firmament fully formed?  This kind of carefully crafted obfuscation takes time and effort, people.

mbc-blog-hop-badge2But my good friend (and far, far more consistent blogger than I), Katherine Walcott, over at Rodney’s Saga, tossed out a request to describe the best class I ever had at a horse show.  So I’m going to reach a bit into the pre-Cambrian era (or, at least, pre-Spike) and tell you what I remember, rose-tinted though it may be.  Cuz apparently, it’s a thing to do if you blog.  Creates traffic and all that.

So. Once upon a time.  I had a big lanky chestnut Thoroughbred gelding who was an obstreperous bastard and my horse of a lifetime.  That his show name was Sweeney Todd ought to tell you a little about him … he went through life with his ears permanently pinned, but OMFG, he had more run and jump in him than I ever knew what to do with.  Transforming him from a malcontent racehorse into an event horse took every ounce of persuasive ability I could muster, a willful ignorance of the peril he semi-regularly put me in, and the approximate weight of a Buick Skylark in bulk-food-store Scotch mints, but we did forge a productive partnership eventually — and he was a nice enough horse that several Big Name Riders noticed him.  (And went out of their way to tell me I was wasting a talented animal and ought to pass him over to someone who could do him justice, but whatever.)

Please can I have just a little peril?

Toddy had a highly developed sense of self-preservation and that “fifth leg” (no innuendo intended) that a really intelligent and athletic horse has; I trusted him implicitly on cross-country, and he got me around some Preliminary-sized courses I probably had no business getting around.  He remains the only horse I’ve ever had who probably could have gone Advanced — had I had more money, more time, and the talent to match his.  But as it was, with a limited supply of all of the above, we did reasonably well at the Preliminary level in Ontario in the early 1990s.  And then I took a job managing a riding school in Bermuda for a year, and leased Toddy out at the height of his eventing career.  (Looking back, not sure that was the smartest thing to do …)

So.  The job turned out to be a bit of a trainwreck, and I returned to Ontario pretty much penniless and had to regroup for a while.  The resumption of Toddy’s career took more time than I would have liked.  He was 15 before I managed to get backtoddy in a position to show again.  I’d realized by then that an upgrade to Intermediate was probably not in the cards, but I did have another bucket list item on the agenda:  doing a full-on three-day event.  We’d never managed to fit one in prior to my semi-tropical hiatus, and I knew if I dithered too much longer, it wasn’t gonna happen.

This was shortly before the “long format” three-day event became extinct, and the Ontario Horse Trials Association used to make a point of offering a Training level three-day event each year as a sort of gentle introduction to dealing with a real three-day (as opposed to the simpler, one-day horse trials format that most amateurs are accustomed to).  “Real” three-days began at the Preliminary level and were FEI-sanctioned, so the Training level three-days were run as clinics, with BNRs talking you through the extra steps:  the two veterinary inspections, the various Phases of cross-country day (does anyone still remember Roads and Tracks and Steeplechase?), the dreaded 10-minute vet box, dressage done wrongthe demands of caring for and cooling out your horse after that sort of intensity.

So Toddy did his first — and only, as it turned out — three-day event at the age of 16, passing the jog despite his super-fancy track jewellery, and delivering a mediocre dressage test in the rain the next day.  (He often delivered mediocre dressage tests, not because he couldn’t do the flatwork, but because he held it in disdain and far preferred to embarrass me than to wow the judges. He was the old-fashioned type of event horse who wanted to get on with the running and jumping as soon as possible, please.)

That’s not the “best class” part.  That came the next day, when Toddy trotted around Phase A — the first Roads Toddy training3day steeplechase20001and Tracks section — and then came out of the start box on Phase B (steeplechase) monumentally confused.  Ordinarily, one gets a few warm-up cross-country fences before one goes out on course, but at a long-format three-day, you book it straight down to the (substantial) brush fences on steeplechase with no heads-up for your poor beast.  Toddy, three-day virgin that he was, launched himself about five feet in the air over that first 3’3″ brush, with his eyes out on stalks. (Please note my bravery in providing you with photographic evidence of this:  I was not exactly at my slimmest at the time, and between his helicopter effort and my thunder thighs, it ain’t a pretty picture!)  We landed in a bit of a heap, and (with my heart in my throat) I chirped to him to gallop on … and suddenly there were tears streaming from my eyes as the pretty-good-allowance-turf-horse inside my teenaged beast asserted himself, and he realized that pelting like a bat Toddy training3day steeplechase0001outta hell at big brush fences was just about.  The BEST. Thing. Ever. EV.  ER.

To this day I don’t think my heart-rate has ever gotten higher; I’m lucky I didn’t stroke out, but I suspect that Toddy would have continued to pack me around even if I had been as limp as a bag of hammers at that point.  I had galloped plenty of racehorses in my youth, but nothing ever felt faster or more terrifying or more fantastic than that two minutes and change on steeplechase, on the most athletic damn horse I ever sat on.  The finish flags were a blur, and it took me one helluva long time to pull him up, but eventually we completed the second Roads and Tracks section and came into the 10-minute box on time and unscathed.  (Good thing they weren’t checking my heartrate in there — it was still pounding like a bunch of demented Kodo drummers, but my shiny metallic chestnut dude was good to go despite the heat.)

The actual cross-country, Phase D, was almost anti-climactic after steeplechase, considering it was a Training level course and thus not all that challenging for Toddy, who’d been running Prelim for years.  My brain stalled out at one point and I wasted a good 20 seconds circling in a field before I remembered where my next jump was, so we ended up with time faults, but I really didn’t give a rat’s ass.  We were clean, Toddy had come through all of it beautifully (especially for an old warrior with osselets and a minor heart murmur), and his legs were cold and as tight as they ever were the next day.  He hadn’t even managed to pull a shoe, which for Toddy, was saying something.

We capped the whole experience the next day with possibly the most perfect stadium round I have ever jumped.  I freely high_diveconfess to being a bit of a ‘seat of the pants’ rider.  My eye for a distance is not the greatest, and I’ll routinely flub at least one fence by second-guessing my horse — but on that day, we absolutely nailed it.  I remember cantering down to the final vertical on the course thinking, okay, I’ve managed to get a perfect spot to every fence so far, which never, ever happens … surely I’m going to come down to this last one and fuck it all up.  Instead, I saw the distance, and the distance was good.  It felt amazing.  And I — and maybe the stadium judge, maybe not — was the only one who saw that round.  Because the rain was coming down in absolute sheets, and pretty much everyone else had abandoned ship and was huddled in the indoor arena, some distance away.

To say I was proud of my Grinch that day is a huge, huge understatement.  On top of all of his other little successes that weekend, he was normally a horse who loathed having to compete in the rain.  He’d flatten his ears to his skull and grind his teeth and make it clear that I deserved to burn in hell…. but that day, he put away the ‘tude and pulled out the stops for me.  Never mind that it wasn’t a ‘real’ three-day and it didn’t count for anything of any significance, and never mind that I don’t even remember where we placed.  (Eighth or ninth, I think, thanks to that dressage score and the time faults on Phase D.) It still sticks in my mind as the most awesome show we ever had.

But you’re really going to have to take my word for it.

A-Hunting We Have Went

hunting_scene_largeSeveral months after the fact, I’m finally getting around to sharing this little factoid:  Young Master Spike can now add foxhunting to his resume of experiences.

Hunting and eventing are a fairly easy fit together.  An event horse is usually already a) fit enough to cope with being out with the hunt for three to five hours, b) accustomed to galloping over open ground and uneven footing, c) trained to jump pretty much anything in his path, and d) won’t lose his marbles over the prospect of being (gasp) outdoors in nasty weather.  The traditional approach is that hunting teaches all these things which later translate well to eventing competition, but with Spike, I needed to take the opposite approach.  Only when he was eventing fairly successfully did I start to feel like perhaps he was capable of going out in the hunt field and not getting us both killed.

See, in his youth Spike was a bit of a space cadet.  Not in a bad way, exactly.  He just tended to be a smidge inattentive.  Didn’t always register where he was putting his feet.  Blundered in, cheerfully oblivious, where angels feared to tread.  It’s taken him ages to hone his attention span, but lots of hacking, some actual eventing, and a dash of endurance riding last summer (that’s a tale for another blog post) finally convinced me that he was ready to cope with riding to hounds.  And that’s rather a nice thing, because I hadn’t been hunting since, oh, sometime in the early 1990s, and while it’s never been the main focus of my riding (cough) career, such as it is, I do enjoy hunting’s unique set of challenges:  riding in company (a test of your horse’s manners, and, I suppose, your own), handling whatever sort of terrain is thrown at you, potentially getting the adrenaline rush of foxhunting bridgeactually galloping after quarry.  Even observing all of hunting’s rather quaint and arcane rules:  it’s fun to wallow in that tradition, as generations of riders around the world before me have done.

Also, the pageantry of the whole thing is honest-to-gawd stirring.  In my humble opinion, there are few things as gorgeous in this world as a field of bays and grays and chestnuts, the hunt staff in their scarlet, and sleek foxhounds spreading out over a fall landscape.  Seriously, it’s just a stunning thing to witness (which is probably why every fake English pub in North America is adorned with fake Victorian hunting prints), and even more so when you’re playing your part in the panto.

I guess here is where the paragraph defending the barbarism of foxhunting needs to go.  Or maybe we could take it as read, gentle readers??  Here’s my take on the moral turpitude, unspeakable-in-pursuit-of-uneatable, argument (short version):  the Canadian brand of foxhunting is either drag-hunting (as in, only the fake scent of a fox’s urine was harmed in the making of this sport), or, if it’s “live”, the intent is to have a merry chase and then call the hounds off so we can chase the critter — whether fox or coyote — again the following week.  We’re not so well supplied with foxes, in particular, in Ontario that we can afford to do them in on a regular basis, and the business is more about sport these days here than about exterminating vermin on behalf of the local landowners.  Not that I don’t agree that said vermin probably has the flaming christ on a cracker scared out of itself while fleeing a pack of baying foxhounds, but unless it’s terminally stupid and gets itself cornered, it’s going to live to see dinner, and thus my conscience is fairly clear, cruelty-wise.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Should you disagree, please feel free to tell me I’m morally and ethically bankrupt, utterly revolting, and probably in favour of poisoning the earth with GMO crops and chemtrails, in the comments below. Because, you know, she with the most comments wins.

Besides, she added not at all defensively, many a time when foxhunting, you encounter no quarry at all.  It ends up being several hours of trotting from cornfield to cornfield, standing around a while in each while the hounds are cast and then reeled in by the huntsman, with a certain amount of passing the flask around.  Followed by a big potluck meal.  And really, what’s to complain about there?

The last horse I hunted was my big chestnut gelding, Sweeney Todd, who had been a reasonably successful racehorse yonks ago, before I introduced him to eventing.  He had more gallop and jump in him than I ever knew what to do with, thought the coops in the hunt field were childsplay (to be fair, Canadian foxhunters rarely encounter anything bigger than a metre tall; it’s not the death-defying version of hunting they have in Ireland, with those five-foot blind hedges and stone walls all over the damn place), and never quite understood the concept of guests staying conservatively and politely at the back of the field.  One of the cardinal sins of foxhunting is to pass the Master of Foxhounds (MFH), He or She Who Controls the Field (the “field” being the average schmoes following the hounds for a fee, as opposed to those employed to do so).  Passing the Master is simply Not Done.  And Toddy and I never did it … but only by virtue of my cramming Toddy`s firebreathing nostrils up the Master’s horse’s passing the masterass on a number of occasions.  The bit has not yet been designed that would have made a difference once the field got galloping.  As far as Toddy was concerned, the whole experience was a track flashback, avec canines … but in his defence, he was otherwise wonderful out there.  He was one of the most intelligent critters I’ve ever had the privilege of sitting on, and remarkably focused on self-preservation.  That, combined with extraordinary balance and nimbleness for his size, made him sure-footed and safe out there and I trusted him with my life.

I knew built-for-comfort-not-for-speed Spike would be a horse of a different colour.  He is a Thoroughbred, all appearances to the contrary, but never having gone to the track, he has no competitive instinct to speak of.  Getting to the front of the field is not something that would ever cross his mind, and he’s never needed anything stronger than a Dr. Bristol snaffle on cross-country. Spike is probably not Toddy’s intellectual equal, but he’s also not the obstreperous bastard that Toddy could be, and his congeniality, I figured, would be an asset when it came to standing around in cornfields with a bunch of other horses he’d never met before.  He’s reasonably good at handling his feet now, is pretty unflappable, and he’s solid as a brick shithouse, which is a useful quality for a hunt horse (horses with matchsticks for legs aren’t typically the best choice in questionable, mucky terrain, which it’s very likely you will encounter in late fall in Ontario).

The biggest question, really, was how Spike would react to the sight and sound of hounds.  This isn’t really something you can prepare a horse for ahead of time.  Sure, you can ask your neighbour to let her Schnauzerdoodle loose, I guess, but 12 couple of foxhounds is another matter entirely.  (Um, for the uninitiated, one always describes the hounds as “hounds”, horse vs. dognever never never as dogs, and they are always counted in pairs.  Twelve couple is 24 hounds; some hunts use more, some less, depending on the day — it’s the huntsman’s call.  Not sure why the couple thing; it is Written, as they say.)  Anyway, when hound music (um, that’s when they all start baying and howling at the same time, as when they find a scent) starts up, it can be unnerving for some horses, as can the sudden appearance of a working hound from out of the brush and right under their legs, which happens regularly.  And if there’s one Cardinal Sin worse than passing the Master, it’s your horse kicking or stepping on a hound.  That, my friend, will force you to hang your head in utter disgrace forevermore.

So I’m pleased to report that while Young Master Spike did, indeed, find hounds darting under his nose and his heels rather unnerving at first — and at one point raised a front foot as if he were considering teaching the cheeky buggers a lesson — he was very obedient about putting down said hoof when I growled at him, and subsequently earned himself a gold star for rookie hound manners.  He stood politely at the checks (okay, I had to circle him a bit at first), pulled my arms out of their sockets only occasionally (and stopped when I reminded him of his balance and his manners by asking for a few steps of shoulder-in), and dutifully put his head down and kept trotting when we were hit by periodic bouts of (ugh) sleet.  At one point, we were even encouraged by the hunt secretary to keep up with the field a little more closely!  Now that’s something that never would have happened with Toddy …

Alas, the territory we were hunting that day in November was a new one for the hunt club, and there was not a single coop to jump.  So I can’t really report on Spike’s manners in that situation (past experience tells me that you often have to line up, single file, to jump such obstacles in the hunt field, which can lead to a certain amount of hysteria with some horses).  He did, however, comport himself with honour when we found ourselves booking it across an open field in pursuit of a lone coyote and a lone hound (not sure where the rest of the pack had buggered off to!).  Viewing the quarry is considered something of a rare bit of luck, and we indeed had a lovely view as we plunged across a hayfield, more or less keeping up with the field, though to be honest I was more concerned with scanning the ground for groundhog holes (of which there were several) than admiring the critter’s retreating fur.

The coyote gave us the slip, the sleet got heavier (though hunting does at least convince you that wearing a black wool sidesaddle huntingriding jacket isn’t always utterly impractical), and when the majority of the field said, “Want. Hot. Beverage.”, Spike and I concurred and headed back for my trailer, while the hunt staff turned the other direction to gather up the scattered hounds.  

We didn’t stay for the hunt breakfast, as I wasn’t confident about leaving Spike alone in the trailer in a parking lot … that’s something that we’ll have to practice, aided considerably by the fact that I managed over the winter to acquire a larger trailer with a box stall arrangement in front for his comfort and convenience.  Next year, we’ll partake. But overall, we didn’t disgrace ourselves.  Spike didn’t set the world on fire, but he was Mr. Congeniality and that, in my humble opinion, makes him worth his weight in gold.

Many thanks to the Toronto and North York Hunt (the second-oldest hunt in North America, by the by) for the invitation to hunt as a guest; I look forward to joining you again.  Now that I have a bonafide hunt horse.

Parker’s Progress

Glen Oro Fall HT 2014Progress with Parker has never been exactly linear.

He’s my second, and likely last, homebred, by Rather Well out of my gray El Prado mare, Roxy (aka Great Lady, a name of stunning shortage of imagination — but do click the link to find out more on El Prado’s influence in the sport horse world).  That makes him a half-brother to Spike, whose modest eventing exploits I mentioned last year in this post:  Project Mojo.  Though they’re seven years apart and have different sires, in some respects Parker and Spike are peas in a pod:  both registered Thoroughbreds, both dark bays, both with Roxy’s broad chest and well-sprung barrel, and front-end conformation that’s maybe a smidge more hunter-y than I had hoped (not downhill, but not exactly uphill either).  Good feet.  Easy keepers.  Both with a bit of a cheeky swagger in their walks.  (It’s possible that comes from being homebreds who’ve never had any real grief in their lives, apart from being gelded … they are just way more secure in themselves than most of the shattered-confidence, off-the-track horses I’ve worked with over the years.  They are still turned out with their dam, and I’ve been their Primary Human their whole lives. They have zero trust issues.)

Glen Oro Fall HT 2014But while Spike is a solid 16 hands, and has more than once been mistaken for a draft cross, Young Master Parker aspired to be the Mini-Me version:  he topped out at 15:1 hh.  It’s not a tragedy, as I’m only 5’2″ myself, but it would limit his saleability should I ever decide to inflict him on someone else.  Temperament-wise, too, my boys are not a match:  Spike is Mr. Honesty, with no ‘tude to speak of.  Straightforward, willing, and a touch on the lazy side, Spike is never going to set the world on fire, but if you ask, he will cheerfully give it a go and never complain.

Parker, on the other hand …

Having compared notes with some other owners of Rather Well babies, I can at least conclude that it’s not just me.  These horses are bred to event (Rather Well competed at the three-star level and earned his Gold Premium status in the Canadian Sport Horse Association studbook) and they are nimble, agile, and fearless jumpers.  But — putting it delicately — they don’t necessarily have the easiest minds in the world.

In the case of Young Master Parker, some of his obstreperousness might easily come from the dam side; Roxy is a Glen Oro Fall HT 2014peculiar mixture of Alpha Mare and total neurotic, and while Spike didn’t inherit her tendency to be wound a little tight, she does seem to have passed it on to Son Number Two, to some degree. In addition, Parker has a “fuck you, not doin’ that” button that other owners of Rather Well offspring have recognized in his facial expression.   They seem to be horses who will do things in their own good time, or not at all, and what a fucking shame if that doesn’t work for you.

‘Not quite according to plan’ began with Parker’s entrance into this world and has continued in that vein ever since.   Given that Roxy’s nether regions got quite badly shredded in the process of giving birth to Spike, seven years earlier, Glen Oro Fall HT 2014I wanted to micro-manage Parker’s delivery to minimize the chances her scar tissue would tear.  I was going to ship her to foal out at a repro vet’s farm, and we were going to induce her.  But Roxy, in her infinite contrariness, opted instead to give birth in an open field, in the middle of the night, while turned out with my geldings.  (I should point out here that if I had had even a 1% inkling that she was ready to foal, she would not have been turned out that evening.  By all the usual signs, she was still weeks away from going into labour.)  I came out on a late June morning to find Young Master Parker already dry and on his feet.  One of my geldings had appointed himself protector and was anxiously patrolling the paddock to ward off intruders; I had to put him in a stall before I could get anywhere near mom and baby.

Shortly thereafter, it became clear that while Parker had achieved quadrupedality, he had not yet managed to nurse.  Getting colostrum into a foal in the first hours of his life is a pretty crucial thing … but Roxy’s udder was so petite that he hadn’t succeeded in latching on.  There was a frantic call to the repro vet.  Young Parker was on the verge of giving up by the time we resorted to milking out the mare with a jury-rigged jumbo-sized syringe; luckily, he accepted a milk bottle and nipple hastily acquired from the local pharmacy.  Between myself, my squeeze, and a good friend who responded to my SOS call, we took turns milking Roxy on the hour and getting small amounts of colostrum into Parker, all the while continuing to nudge him towards her udder in the hopes he would figure it out and latch on.  It took all day, but finally, using the subterfuge of positioning the baby bottle right by Roxy’s teats, he engaged…. and we all started to breathe again.

Despite the rocky start, Nosey Parker was fearless to a fault (unlike his older brother Spike, who hid behind Roxy for the first two weeks of his life, peeking out at me under her belly).  At 24 hours old, being led back outside for the first time, I foolishly assumed a foal so young would stick close to his mother.  Nuh-uh.  Before I knew it, the little bugger had zinged away from Roxy and me and was a good 100 metres away, cheerfully investigating his new world while his mother went ballistic on the end of the leadshank.  That pretty much set the tone.  He was, and remains, a brat and a peckerhead, despite all my efforts to civilize him.

As an aside — I’ve just recently gotten a cast removed from my arm, the result of being kicked by a weanling filly.  She’d been totally unhandled up till the point where her mother was unceremoniously peeled away from her, and I’d DSC_9652 Parker nursing June 28 09been asked to try to get her used to being handled.  Poor frightened thing took exception to being touched and double-barreled me, breaking a bone in my hand.  Not fun, but it could’ve been worse — and it got me thinking about just how horribly wrong it all could have turned out had I not handled Parker every.  Single. Day.  With the specific intention of hammering some manners into that bloody-minded wee skull of his.

Even so, when Parker injured his left hind ankle somehow in February of his three-year-old year, and ended up on stall rest for nearly six months, he was not what you’d call a treat to handle.  Hand-walking him according to the vet’s prescription was taking my life into my hands; I took to wearing both a helmet and a back-protector vest to do it.  I caved and started turning him out in a small round pen, against medical advice, by the four-month mark, because I could see that neither of us was going to survive otherwise.  Luckily, the rearing and plunging and bucking and airs above the ground that were on display the first few days (while I cringed from the sidelines) didn’t re-injure the ankle and he made a full recovery.

His manners, on the other hand, remained a one-step-forwards, two-steps-back work in progress.  Parker has always preferred to push the envelope, and he is utterly unfazed by most forms of correction.  There’s never been any actual malice in him, I hasten to add … he’s just incorrigible.

His introduction to under-saddle work resumed the fall after his injury, only mildly delayed.  To my amazement he Parker's first ride -- October  2012.  He looks a little sceptical ... accepted me on his back with far fewer fireworks than I’d been bracing myself for.  I had actually considered sending him out to someone younger and less decrepit to be backed, expecting that he’d be a tough one — but given my more-or-less constant state of poverty, I ended up doing it myself, and he was absolutely fine, because he trusted me.

Not to say that his progress has been seamless, or that there haven’t been plenty of hissy fits and non-linear thinking involved in coercing him into doing stuff for me, but to his credit, he has never actually tried to kill me.  (Don’t give him any ideas.)

Fast-forward to this past summer.  Parker was five this year, and I really felt it was time to finally get him out to a real show or two.  Why else had I bred him?  Of course, first he had to actually learn to jump.  I’d introduced him to trotting poles and a couple of tiny cross-rails towards the end of the previous year, but we hadn’t gotten as far as proper jumping.  We had a cold, wet, nasty spring, so we were late getting started, but once again the little bugger surprised me:  he loved, loved, loved jumping, and while the rideability between the fences was still often in question, I soon discovered that if I managed to deliver him roughly between the standards in sort of a straight line, he would fling himself into the air without hesitation.

The sequence of photos above is from Parker’s first real event, the Glen Oro horse trials in September (shared with permission of the photographer, the incomparable Andrew Bailini).  Granted, it was Pre-Entry level, where the fences are barely visible to the naked eye.  The point was to introduce him to the routine of a horse trials, navigate a dressage ring, jump a whole course of fancy-coloured stadium fences with decorations and gewgaws on them, and canter politely around a little cross-country course without dropping me on my elderly head.  He looks deceptively innocent and honest in the pix, doesn’t he?  We’ll go Entry level next year, I promise … and I won’t rule out finishing out the season at Pre-Training.  Because frankly, though it’s early days, Young Master Parker already feels like he has wicked talent out there, despite his being vertically challenged and despite his less-than-straightforward outlook on life.  If I can continue to channel him to use his powers for good instead of evil, I think I might have one helluva nice little event horse on my hands.

At the moment, of course, the rest of his coat resembles the ridiculously long forelock which earned him the nickname Fabio, and he’s not doing a whole lot.  Stay tuned.  Spring will be here in, oh, four short months or so.

Ten Habits of Highly Effective Riders, for Dummies

Over at this blog (the subtitle for which rather confusingly defines it as being about “politics, men, Detroit, horses, and prayer” — um, okay), author Nancy Kotting has written a post defining the “Ten Habits of Highly Effective Dressage Riders”.  Being an inveterate Facebook-link-follower, I read through it.  It’s a wellypretty good list.  There’s a lot I like about it.  But in the usual manner of those devoted to dress-AHHHGGE (soft g, please, peasants), it’s … well, a little stuffy.  An eensy bit wordy and idealistic and brimming with the supposed nobility of the Classical Art of Dressage Which Is Always Capitalized.  All of which can get a smidge tiresome when you are a no-bullshit, “Give It Some Wellie” A-type eventer who’s aware that the vast majority of people calling themselves dress-AHHHGGE riders are total wannabes on an unending Quest For the Perfect Twenty Metre Circle.

(Is that harsh?  It’s probably harsh.  But then again this is a snarky blog.  Here be dragons.  Sorry.)

Because I’m forever and ever an editor at heart, regardless of my current shortage of employment in this area, I decided to re-write the post for the real world (and all riders as opposed to just those OCD and flatwork-obsessed), make it all a little more succinct and practical and easy to remember.  So without further ado, here’s the For Dummies version:

10.  There are no failures, only Teachable Moments.  AKA:  Every horse will teach you something.

9.  Leave your baggage in the car.  Your job blows?  Your boyfriend is bumping uglies with your yoga instructor?  Your parents won the lottery grumpycat1and absconded for Argentina, leaving you a diabetic Himalayan cat and 43 Murder, She Wrote VHS tapes?  Your horse is supposed to be your escape from all things wretched.  Don’t take it out on him.  Nothing productive is going to come of broadcasting your frustration, your rage, or your fear while in the saddle.  Admittedly, it’s a tall order, but one of the most valuable skills a rider can learn is the ability to let it go (or at least stuff it all into a remote broom-closet in a back corner of your medulla oblongata and slam the door).  When you put a foot in a stirrup, you have to Live in the Now, at least until you dismount.  (Or as an instructor of mine once told me, “The Pope has just come by in his Popemobile?  Doesn’t matter; carry on.”)  Essentially:  leave the tension in your skull and don’t let it reach your muscles.

8.  Be the boss mare.  Horses like a nice, clear hierarchical structure.  They like having a calm, confident leader to follow.  Be that leader, be firm but kind and not a pyschopath, and your horse will trust you to the ends of the earth.

7.  Corollary:  Don’t be a pussy.  It’s oft observed that the trouble with parents today is that they want to be a friend to their kids instead of a leader and a role model.  Similarly, an animal who outweighs you by 1100 lbs or so can easily lean towards taking advantage of popemobilethat little disparity if you prove to have the constitution of last week’s Yorkshire pudding.  I do not confuse horse ownership with parenting, and I hate the “fur kids” mindset, but the Boss Mare job description is accurate.  It means that you don’t let your horse use you as his personal scratching post, you don’t let him run all over you because he doesn’t like those horrid, restricting cross-ties, and you don’t let him abuse your farrier or your vet, either.  By all means, spoil your beastie within reason (I do not subscribe, for example, to the notion that hand-feeding treats is an appalling breach of discipline — horses are enormously food-motivated and I, for one, am not going to give up that powerful a training tool), but set firm boundaries on safe behaviour and be consistent about those rules.  As my own critters hear repeatedly, well-mannered horses live long and happy lives.  Nasty, dangerous ones, not so much.

6.  End each ride on a positive note.  Some days, that might mean you settle for a half-way obedient halt.  It’s good to have a plan for every ride — otherwise many people tend to just putter aimlessly around the arena for 15 minutes and then give up when ennui sets in — but when you’re dealing with horses, you can’t be rigid about said plan.  Maybe you began your ride hoping to work on your canter transitions, but your tom_corbett_space_cadet_comic_bookhorse is being such a space cadet that you realize you’re going to be lucky just to keep the shiny side up.  So throttle back, adjust your expectations, accept what your horse is able to offer mentally and physically on that day, and finish up with something you know he can do well, no matter how basic that might be.  Horses are short on rational thought, but aches and pains, opinions, and emotions, they have in abundance, and any of those plus whatever’s going on in the environment can influence your ride.  It’s okay.  Tomorrow is another day.

5.  There are no short-cuts.  It takes work to produce a horse properly, regardless of discipline.  Skimp on the basics and it will come back to bite you in the ass somewhere down the line.  Try not to get ahead of yourself and expect things from your horse that he has neither the strength nor the understanding to offer you yet.  Stop bitching and get your tender tush out the door every single day and do the work.  It’s amazing how horses respond to consistency.

4.  There’s more than one way to skin a cat.  It’s true that the basic principles of riding are the basic principles of riding because, by and large, they work.  They’ve done so for hundreds of years.  But horses are individuals, and not every critter responds to the old Training Pyramid exactly according to the equitation manuals of old.  Avoid the cliched definition of insanity, and be pyramid2prepared to change it up if something’s not working.  Horse just isn’t getting it when you ask for leg-yield down the long side of the arena?  Try asking on a circle instead.  Be flexible enough to approach some problems by the back door. If it’s true that the brilliant horses are always a little quirky, then why do we expect them all to be conformists?  You just have to keep your eyes on the prize (in other words, the end result has to be somewhere in the vicinity of correct).

3.  Don’t be your horse’s biggest handicap.  Be fit enough to do the work.  Gawd knows I’m nobody’s poster child for fitness, but I make an effort, on the theory that you really can’t ask your horse to give his athletic best if you are his biggest impediment.  See #5, No Short-Cuts.  If you can’t sit a trot, if your energy level fizzles before you ride that good downward transition, if your hands aren’t steady enough to allow your horse to trust that he’s not going to get whacked in the molars — in short, if you don’t spend enough time in the saddle to be solid and confident and have a truly independent seat, you really can’t expect Trigger to pick up the slack.  And the reality is, riding one horse once a day doesn’t cut it for most people.  Either find more horses to ride, or do some cross-training no stirrupsof your choice, both cardio and strength work.  (Oh, and it’s “No Stirrups November” — remember all that stuff you used to do in Pony Club, and don’t make yourself do anymore?)

2.  The cure for everything is forward.  I subscribe to this to the point where it’s on my business cards (the riding instructor ones, not the editing/writing ones).  When in doubt, close your leg and kick on!  If your horse is truly, truly working from your leg into your hand then his options for being naughty are minimized and productive things will likely start to happen.

1.  The horse comes first.  I was taught this from an early age:  feed your horse before you feed yourself, ensure his well-being before your own.  It’s not enough to be a competent rider.  You need to be a knowledgeable horseperson too.  Understand that your horse’s welfare thelwell icecreamtrumps all other considerations — like, say, ribbons, convenience, expense, and having a life.  If you didn’t sign up for that, I hear ATVs are sorta fun.

Well.  That really wasn’t any more succinct than the original post.  Thanks for the inspiration anyway, Nancy.  

 

 

The Yearling Whisperer

The search phrase that apparently brought someone to this blog last week was, “What is Karen Briggs doing now?”cheshire-cat-300x240

I can take a hint.

It’s possible, of course, that the searcher was desperately seeking info on my doppelgänger Karen Briggs, a jazz violinist of colour who toured with (yeek) Yanni.  Or perhaps Karen Briggs, the British judo champion who won numerous European championships in the 1990s.  All three of us were born in 1963, which probably multiplies the potential for Google to scramble us, and who knows how many others — my own occasional self-Googling, undertaken in a now-mostly-futile attempt to keep a lid on my copyrighted material, also turns up an uber-religious American military wife whose interests include crochet and semi-automatic weapons, the drug addict daughter of British actor Johnny Briggs (of Coronation Street fame), and a math professor at the University of Northern Georgia, and that’s just the first couple of search engine pages.  If you want to find me as opposed to them, the best approach is to add the word “horse” to my name, et voila.

2014-yearling-saleLast week, you could also have found me down at the back end of the backstretch of Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, in the barns adjoining the sales pavilion, where I was working the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society’s annual yearling sale.  It’s a once-a-year opportunity to put a little extra cash in one’s pocket, if one doesn’t mind 16 hour days that start at 3:30 in the morning, being barked at and condescended to, and being bashed against the walls by huge, hulking, terrified, and often testosterone-addled yearling Thoroughbreds.  By which I mean, it’s not for everyone.

This was not my first rodeo — I’d worked the sale previously for the well-regarded Park Stud, before I made a random, semi-complimentary remark about former Woodbine Entertainment Group CEO, David Willmot, which evidently rendered me persona non grata with the boss lady.  Teach me to say nice things about people.  Never mind — I hated their forest-green-and-pink polo shirts anyway.  Terrible colours on me.

This year, I’d been recruited, via the Interwebz, by a smaller operation called Willow Ridge Farm, which had 12 youngsters entered in the sale, half of whom they’d raised themselves, and half of whom they had prepped and were selling on behalf of other owners.  Five had been deemed worthy, by virtue of their pedigrees and conformation, of being included in Tuesday’s Select Sale, while the other seven entered the auction ring the following evening in the Open Sale session.  (Select Sale yearlings generally fetch higher prices, though that’s not always the case — two of Willow Ridge’s Open entries went for just about as much as the two Select yearlings they’d pinned their hopes on.)

The drill with working a yearling sale is this:  the horses ship in to the sales facility several days ahead of the actual auction.  Buyers, some serious, some tire-kickers, catalogues in hand (the catalogues having been published weeks in advance, which means the yearlings have been entered into the sale months ago), cruise up and down the shedrows behind the sales pavilion during those preview days and ask to view the babies whose pedigrees they like.  Farms consigning yearlings generally hire on extra hands to help show those yearlings to their best advantage.  The job description includes:

* enough confidence in horse-handling that you are not intimidated by surprisingly large, totally spun baby horses with raging hormones and tenuous (if any) manners

* the ability to muck a straw-bedded stall with ruthless efficiency in the pitch black of pre-dawn, onto a tarp which you then drag the length of the shedrow and tie up in a neat bow (which, depending on the age of the tarp and how torn the corners are, can be an art form in itself)

* an extensive knowledge of making horses pretty with hot towels, brushes, scissors, hoofpicks, sponges, peroxide, and enough silicon hairspray to lube an entire Pride parade

* really long arms, with which to gently but insistently insert Chifney bits (brass rings with halter clips, used for extra control) into the mouths This be a young horse wearing a chifney.  Getting one in said young horse's mouth is a Special Skill.of the afore-mentioned, neck-craning, spun babies, often dozens of times per day (a casual indifference towards having your thumbs chomped helps here too)

* a tolerant stomach which can function on greasy peameal sandwiches and bad tea for five days straight

* steel-toed boots and quick reflexes, the better not to get stepped on, kicked, bitten, squished, dragged, or otherwise humiliated

* a talent for cleaning up tolerably well — the standard uniform for showing yearlings being a polo shirt representing the farm or agency, and stupidly impractical khaki pants, which you change into after you’ve done all the before-dawn dirty work (this was not the first time I’ve used a mane comb to pull the tangles out of my own hair)

* the ability to run on three hours’ sleep for extended periods of time and stay polite about it

* and of course, the proverbial patience of the saints.

The consignors and agents at the sale have a lot at stake — for many of them, the proceeds from the annual yearling sale represent their whole year’s earnings, or nearly so.  (There are two other sales, a Winter Mixed Sale closer to Xmas which offers weanlings, broodmares, stallions, and horses of racing age, and another in the spring for two-year-olds in training, but for most the yearlings are the money-makers.)  Therefore, they are stressed-out, even more so because the racing industry in Ontario took such a kick in the teeth from the provincial government back in 2012 and the last few sales have been, frankly, bloodbaths.  Hence, they are demanding, short-tempered, and also not paying anywhere near what they used to for the labours of the extra hands.  Once upon a time, or so I’ve been led to believe, $250 a day was the usual rate, with bonuses given to the handlers of any horse who sold for a particularly good price.  Hotel rooms close to the track were generally offered as well (not that that has ever been useful to me — since I have horses of my own at home to care for, too, I’ve always had to do the 60 minute drive back and forth).  This year, I was lucky to get $15 an hour, and the number of hours I expected to work, versus what I was actually offered, worked out to about half the earnings I was hoping for.  But in my current state of employment beggars cannot be choosers.

One of the toughest things for me personally at the yearling sale is the condescension.  I have more than 40 years of experience handling horses.  Old ones, young ones, baby ones, studdy ones, rude ones, dangerous ones.  I feel fairly confident in saying that I know my shit.  Now, I get that the Thoroughbred racing world is just slightly off-centre from the world of performance horses, showing and eventing, and I get that everyone has their own preferred way of doing things, from how to spray the Showsheen into a tail to how to attach a leadshank.  But I have played in the Thoroughbred sandbox as well as the Standardbred (ahem, not that that gets me any respect with the TB racing folks, but that’s another stupid story).  And I daresay I’ve made more horses pretty for show than the average backstretch worker.  So being treated as if I’m a newbie who doesn’t have a clue … it chaps my ass, a bit.  Why should I bother wearing khakis that are only going to get filthy, if you’re going to hide me in the back of the shedrow and not let me show the horses?  But hey.  For the space of five days I can bite my tongue and find another tangle-less tail to comb out.  Again.  Even though the poor beleaguered baby horse is just begging to be LEFT ALONE FOR FIVE MINUTES FOR THE LOVE OF GAWD.

"Hey Denise.  Look.  Humans coming.  Lots of them." "Oh, relax, Lorraine.  I'm sure it's fine.  They probably just want to feed us."The thing about the yearling sale is that I really, really feel sorry for the poor baby horses, so my priority is making their lives just a little bit less hellish, if I can, for the period of time that they are trapped in a stall in an unfamiliar environment, being poked and prodded and stressed to the max even before they enter the actual sales pavilion, which is noisy and crowded and a whole ‘nuther level of utterly terrifying, ulcer-inducing hell for them.  There are deep and abiding levels of stupid here in the way Thoroughbred yearlings are traditionally shown and sold, levels that make me think there must be a better way.  A couple of months ago, these poor kids were minding their own business in grassy fields somewhere.  Other than having been taught to lead and (sometimes) pick up their feet politely for the farrier, the demands made on them had been minimal, post-weaning.  Then suddenly they get whisked into the barn, confined for long periods of time, groomed and grained and transformed from semi-wild yaklings into some semblance of presentable … and after a few weeks of that, they’re all stuffed into trailers (almost invariably for the first time ever) and hauled into an urban environment where low-flying planes howl overhead about every 90 seconds (Woodbine being about a minute and a half from Toronto’s yearlings2Pearson International Airport and right on the flight path for take-off and landing).  Tragically, it only gets weirder and scarier for them after they leave the sales barn, post-auction.  They’ll move to somewhere new, with a whole host of unfamiliar people, and most will shortly begin their training in earnest:  girths and bits and someone on their backs well before they’ve turned two.

I am emphatically not one of those horsepeople who bemoans the cruelty of the racing industry.  I’m well aware of the economic necessity of things being done the way they are, that the performance horse industry in Ontario only exists in what health it does because the racing industry is there to anchor it, and that the majority of people involved in racing are compassionate horsepeople who love their animals and want to do right by them.  Furthermore, racing is a fantastic proving ground for the horses I myself want to buy and compete.  If they have survived the track with legs and brains intact, they are wonderful prospects for what I want to do.

But still.  For a yearling, it’s a lot.

Even the culture of showing the babies is a bit stupid.  The more popular yearlings in the catalogue might be dragged out of their stalls to be shown to potential buyers dozens of times a day.  Granted, they only have to walk up and down and stand quietly for inspection (the odds of either actually happening varying wildly depending on the colt or filly, what other stupid things might be happening in the vicinity at the time — like, say, an ill-timed garbage truck dumping its load 50 metres away — and the patience of the handler), but there’s this culture that says if you’ve requested to see a horse, you get to stare it on your own, and anyone else who might be interested has to wait his or her turn.  What harm it does to examine the horse at the same time as someone else who’s presumably making his/her own notes in his/her own catalogue, I can’t imagine, but it is somehow important to put the horse through more stress in order to cater to this fuckery.  It’s even worse when you’re asked to “show all” — which for me this year, meant dragging all 12 yearlings out of their stalls in order of their assigned hip numbers (and bloody quickly, too, doesn’t do to keep the client waiting), and then potentially doing it all over again three minutes after I’d finished.  Seems to me you could schedule shows of all the horses you’re offering at particular times, like, you know, a tour at the Ontario Science Centre:  viewings at 12:30, 3:00, and 5:30, and it’s show up then, or be SOL.  Not that the ideas of a lowly stall-mucker are likely to be given any currency.

Some of the yearlings handle it remarkably well.  Some, not so much.  The horses Willow Ridge had raised themselves were, for the most part, well-behaved, though a couple of the colts were typically testosterone-riddled, nippy and rude and one would be unwise to turn one’s back on either of them.  Par for the course.  One filly was sunshine and roses one minute, an ears-pinned banshee when she’d had enough of humanity; she was the one who crowded me up against the wall and tried to drill me in the head, only as I say, not my first rodeo and I got out from under her, amateur that she was.   Another elegant little chestnut filly I’d been warned about, turned out to be a sweetheart as long as you did everything in slow motion with her … a third, dark bay with chrome, just wanted to be cuddled and reassured, and out of the 12 was the one I’d have wanted to take home with me.

The consigned horses who came from elsewhere were all over the map, too.  There was a filly who’d received practically no handling, but plenty of sedatives, most of her life up till that point.  Sadly, she had to remain on chemical assistance during her time at the sale because she started to melt down in withdrawal otherwise; I hope whoever bought her gives her some downtime in a field to get clean before her education begins.  On the other end of the spectrum was a big, burly colt who clearly had been beautifully brought up.  He had lovely manners for his age, wasn’t aggressive in the slightest, took everything in stride, and was quickly nicknamed “the Dude”.  He might not be able to run his way out of a wet paper bag, but he’ll make an outstanding riding horse for someone someday.

Photo by Dave Landry.

Photo by Dave Landry.

Some youngsters learn fast in the pre-sale and sale environment, becoming more and more comfortable with the routine as the days pass, and easier to handle.  Others get, well, fried.  By the time the actual auction rolls around, the professionals take over to get them in the sales ring.  I found out a few years ago that there are actually professional handlers who do nothing but go from sale to sale, being hired to grapple with yearlings in the sales ring and make it look easy.  I had no idea, until then, that this was a thing, and I’m not enthusiastic enough about life on the road to do it myself, but if you like hotel rooms and being jerked around, then I gather you can make decent money doing it …

In the end, a couple of Willow Ridge’s horses sold for the kind of money they’d been hoping for, a few went for disappointingly less, two were pleasant surprises, and three who had reserves placed on them didn’t sell at all.  Overall, however, the sale was up about 50% from last year, which is outstanding news for the industry, even if no-one exactly feels like it can trust the provincial government’s current short-term commitment to the Ontario breeding program.  Once you’ve had the rug pulled out from you once, it’s rather difficult to expect the footing to remain stable ever again …

As for me?  Helped a couple of the new owners load their purchases onto trailers, wished all of the babies good homes and good luck and tried not to think too hard about the alternative — even after five days, I get invested (though it’s difficult to follow their careers when none of them exhausted-by-stupid-peoplehave names yet).  Pocketed my cheque, and staggered home to wash the khakis and sleep for a day and a half.  And I’ll probably do it again next year, because I’m told it’s kinda like childbirth:  if you really remembered what it was like, you’d never do it again, but a year from now the exhaustion and the abuse will have faded from my memory.  It’s possible.

 

 

 

 

Pining For the Fjords


ceased to be(S)he’s not pining, (s)he’s passed on!

Naw, naw, naw, (s)he’s restin’.  Remarkable bird, the Norwegian Blue.  Beautiful plumage.

And etc.  (Yes, I can regurgitate the entire thing.  Don’t get me started.)  I just wanted to register a complaint point out that assumptions of my demise, while entirely reasonable, are in fact erroneous.

'E's not pining, 'e's passed on. Ceased to be. Shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the bleedin' choir invisibule. If you hadn't nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies. This ... oh, you know the rest.

I have just had a truly colossal case of writer’s block.  The kind you can see from outer space.

But I figured I could at least share this, because it makes me positively giddy (dreadful tinny sort of word … bound, vole, recidivist … sorry, I’m digressing again).

When I tell you that my gelding Spike’s registered name is, in fact, Norwegian Blue, you will begin to fathom the depth of my appreciation for a 50 foot fibreglass parrot in Potter’s Fields in London.  Click the link already or I shall be forced to taunt you a second time.

it's a stiff

 

 

Gong Xi Fa Cai one more time!

This is it, New Year’s Day on the Chinese calendar.  Two more pretty images for you:

one more year of horse

one more again

(Yeah, the last one is an ad … but I liked the image enough to conveniently overlook that.  Maybe Horseware Ireland will show its appreciation by magically turning up and monetizing my blog.  The shameless link is for their benefit, really.)

Happiness and prosperity to all today and for the rest of the year.  Myself, I could use a little prosperity … 

More Year of the Horse …

More Year of the Horse ...

That 2014 will be the Year of the Horse according to the Chinese zodiac is apropos, since 2014 also brings us another World Equestrian Games — this time in Normandy. Not much hope of my getting there, but I’m exploring a few options (okay, one option) … meantime, here’s a greeting from the organizers, with a link to their promo video (click the image).

Gong Xi Fa Cai

… which is, near as I can tell from the Interwebz, the English spelling of what, phonetically, I’d learned as “gung hei fat choy” — Happy Chinese New Year.  This year, Chinese New Year falls on January 31st, and 2014 is the Year of the Horse.  Thought I’d share a few of the nicer images I’ve seen to celebrate the occasion.  (There are some even nicer ones that are copyrighted and/or not free, and I’m not sharing those … if any of the ones I am sharing are violating anyone’s rules, please just let me know and I’ll take them down with a big mea culpa.)

Also — if you have a nice one you’d like to share, send it hither and I’ll add it to the gallery!

Survival of the Stupidest

sleighGIFLast winter, we here in Ontario got off comparatively lightly.  It didn’t snow in any sort of serious way until after Xmas.

I knew we were gonna pay for that.

This year, my farm got hit with the first big snowstorm — completely un-forecast by The Weather Network and similar geniuses (just sayin’) — in mid-November.  Which is simply not kosher.  And I’m talking an honest-to-gawd 50 cm worth — over the tops of my boots and up to my knees in spots.  A week later, another 30 cm.

I’m sensing a trend.

As much as it’s part of the Canadian identity to pride oneself on one’s hardiness (and ability to steer out of a skid on black ice without ever having to put one’s double-double back in the cup holder) — and as much as we can’t help sniggering uncontrollably whenever we see news footage of civilization grinding to a halt as soon as there’s a dusting of white stuff on some American road (because pfffffttt, amateurs!) — the truth is that all the riders I know ’round here who can afford to, pack up house, horses, and hounds, and head to Aiken or Ocala for the winter months.

The rest of us poor sods? We tough it out.  And kvetch.  A lot.

four seasons 2Hey, it’s only four (cough) months of hellish horsekeeping.  How bad could it get?

(Truth be told, politics and religion have gotten so polarized and just plain creepy in the States that I wouldn’t set up shop there even if I could.  Fundamentalism weirds me out.  But I digress.)

Eight short weeks ago, Spike and I were competing at the fall Grandview Horse Trials, where we successfully upgraded to Pre-Training (go on, admit it, you’re impressed).  Considering it was accomplished in a biblical deluge, I was actually pretty impressed with us, especially Spike, who had never had to do a dressage test or jump in conditions like that.   The warm-up rings were literally under water, the competition areas no better, the heavens were just relentless, and while the cross-country course footing at Grandview is superlative, even it can only take so much.  Young Master Spike squelched around in his usual unflappable, good-natured way (my previous partner, Toddy, hated heavy rain with a passion and probably would have flattened his ears to his head jumpallthethingsand said, ‘Hell no, you crazy woman’), jumped clean in both stadium and cross-country despite the fences being a bit bigger than he’d been used to, and brought home a seventh-place ribbon, which under the circumstances was nothing to sneeze at.

He also demonstrated to me some hitherto-undiscovered scope — otherwise known as HOLY SHIT! fences.  There were two obstacles on cross-country where he clearly didn’t much like the look of the chopped-up footing at the base, so he simply left out a stride (or, um, five) and launched himself skyward.  Now, while my cardiovascular system could do without that kind of excitement, it did indicate that Spike’s been hiding his light under a bushel to some extent, and that’s useful information for the future, when the fences actually begin to require that sort of power.  Spike’s the type of horse who always seems to be at the limit of his athletic abilities, and then surprises you by kicking it up a notch … my personal little Stealth Bomber.  So there was that.  Overall, it was as positive an experience as I could have asked for considering the rain never let up for two fricking minutes, and I’m feeling good about going out at Pre-Training in the spring and upgrading to Training before the end of the season.

So that was eight weeks ago.  Eight weeks.  And now my semi-sleek event horse looks like a yak, Parker has already shredded three blankets (not on himself, but on his filly friend, two-year-old Trixie, because he appears to get off on the sound of ripping fabric), my metabolism has bottomed out and is packing on the pounds just in case this is the next Ice Age, and it’s abundantly clear that this is going to be one long sunuvabitch of a winter.

There are some tricks of the trade, when it comes to winter horsekeeping in Ontario.  (Yeah, I know, I’m probably going to hear the fingerfrom some folks in Edmonton, or Yellowknife, telling me I’ve got it ridiculously easy.  Winter one-upmanship is also part and parcel of the Canadian identity.)  I’ve actually been compiling ideas about winter stable management for about a decade now, because there’s a half-formed idea in my head to write a book called Northern Horsekeeping.  If you gentle readers think you’d actually purchase such a book, leave me a comment to that effect and maybe I’ll get motivated to get off my ass and finally pull that proposal and sample chapters together and send it off to some publishers …

Given that this nebulous book concept is still floating around my cranium, I probably shouldn’t give away all the best ideas in a blog post, but here are some random survival strategies for getting through four (or more) months of frost-bitten misery:

1. Designate your biggest, ugliest, heaviest winter coat the Barn Coat.  By the middle of the season it will completely reek, so designate another the Being Seen in Public Coat and keep it away from the barn.

2. The layering thing:  pretty obvious.  The tricky part:  finding layers you can still move well enough in to a) muck stalls, drag hoses, schlep hay, and b) actually ride.  These two requirements are vastly different.  The boots and gloves you wear for chores will be way too bulky to ride in, and probably so will the coat, so have stuff to transition into when you get on a horse.  At which point it becomes a race to see whether your toes give out first, or  your fingers.

3.  Frozen leadshanks.  Leave ’em out hanging on the gate and you will inevitably have to deal with this.  You can thaw the snaps by sacrificing precious hand warmth, but ain’t nothing to be done about the fact that it’s going to be like leading your horse with a broom handle instead of a rope.

4.  Hot Shots:  those little chemical packets which are supposed to heat up when you shake them, and can be tucked inside your mitts and boots and pockets.  Buy many.  They’re useful — when they actually work (which is something of a crapshoot).

5. Snowmobile sleds are your friend.  These are like toboggans on steroids, with high sides, and they’re heavy and rather expensive, but sturdy and can hold a couple of bales of hay per trip.  Beats the hell out of trying to push a wheelbarrow through the drifts.  Canadian Tire puts them on sale at the beginning of the season.

6.  Absolutely no Canadian barn should be without a hot water heater.  They’re not that expensive to install, people, and you can’t even imagine the ways in which even a little hot water is useful from December to March (and often beyond).

7.  There has to be some fitness benefit to slogging through snowdrifts in 15 kg Frankenstein boots.  There just has to be.

8. Why doesn’t anyone sell (women’s) Frankenstein boots that are actually tall enough to slog through those snowdrifts in?

9.  As confirmed on another blog recently:  when filling troughs and buckets, you need at least three pairs of gloves on the go.  One waterproof pair for wrassling the hoses, a second pair to switch to when the first pair gets soaked and freezes solid, and a third pair of regular gloves to resort to after all that nastiness is (temporarily) taken care of.

10.  Four wheel drive.  Not optional.

11.  Ways to keep from freezing while in the saddle:  a) forego the metal stirrups and put cheap wooden Western ones on your leathers, or just ride a lot without stirrups (good for the circulation).  Thaw fingers by tucking them between nice fuzzy horse and saddlepad on a regular basis.  What’s a 1200 lb. beast good for if not sharing body heat?

12.  Also:  ride bareback.

13.  Beware the dismount.  OMFG it hurts when your feet are frozen.

hosers14.  Designate a cheap, washable scarf the barn scarf.  Its purpose is two-fold:  to keep your face from freezing as you bring horses in out of the latest blizzard, and to breathe through when you’re mucking stalls.  Frozen manure makes for simplified mucking, in a way (you can easily find the shitballs you’ve missed because they feel like hockey pucks under your feet, even through the Frankenstein boots and three pairs of socks), but also makes for very dusty bedding.  Scarf warning:  make sure the ends tuck safely into your jacket when riding or working around the beasties.  Parker tried to throttle me last year.

15.  You know you’re Canadian when you’ve mastered leading a horse while wearing snowshoes.  Bonus points if you can lead two.

16.  Hoses are from hell.  Frozen hoses, ninth circle of hell.

17.  Options for dealing with frozen water hydrants:  a) hair dryer; b) the hot water dump (see #6, above); c) the boiling water dump (best to have two working kettles on hand at all times);  and d) the little propane torch that once lived in your kitchen and had only one function, to caramelize the sugar on your creme brulee.   Like that’s ever gonna happen again.  Try not to set the barn on fire.

18.  Horses do not feel the cold as acutely as we do.  Duh.  They’re not nekkid.  And they originated on the frozen steppes, not in the desert.  So don’t judge their discomfort by your own.  And don’t get stupid about the number of blankets you pile on them.  They really would rather not be trussed up like the Christmas goose.

19.  Serving warm beet pulp makes you feel like Mother Teresa.

20.  Sometimes the only way to thaw out properly is to throw yourself into a scalding hot bath.  Though red wine and dark chocolate are also forces for good.

And here are a few of the notions that keep me in Ontario when it’s bleakest:

1. Frozen everything means no worms, and no need to deworm, for at least four months.

shaving2. Ditto mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases.  We don’t have to vaccinate for West Nile or EEE year-round.

3. No fire ants.

4. Virtually no sand colic.

5. No anhydrosis.

6.  Lots of good grazing (well, for six months of the year, anyway) and good hay the rest of the time.  Some places would kill for our hay.

7.  Fuzzy horses are kinda cute and Gund-like and pettable.

8.  Sometimes, it’s actually really nice and soul-restorative to go for a boogie in the snow.  Sometimes.

9. Is it bad that that’s all I can come up with?

Right now, I’m trying to focus on the upcoming winter solstice, after which the days start getting longer and I might start to enjoy enough daylight again to actually complete all the bloody barn chores that take six times as long to do in winter.  So in that spirit: Happy Solstice.  And cheers.

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