Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the category “horses”

Second Class Citizen, or, Why I Wasn’t at the Royal Winter Fair This Year

citizenSo there’s this big indoor horse show in Toronto every November (for the past 95 years, anyway).  I haven’t been covering it for the past 95 years, obviously, but every year from somewhere around 1989 or 1990, I’ve been there with my media accreditation, providing coverage of the Royal Winter Fair for one (or more) magazine or newspaper or website or another.

That’s a long time to feel like a second class citizen, but every year, this giant, hulking dinosaur that is the culmination of the horse show season manages to find a way to do that to the media faithful which, frankly, bust their asses to drive ticket sales to this monolith.

I think I’ve mentioned before that we swamp-dwelling freelancers don’t expect an avalanche of perks when we attend an event. We’re sure as hell not in it for the swag, and our expectations are exceedingly modest.  I can’t speak for everyone, but in recent years I’ve been attending events like this with the knowledge that I’m more than likely going to lose money on the whole deal, what with assignments having become as common as unicorns farting rainbows, and pay rates plummeting to the level of “exposure” or “we’ll pay you if your article gets shared more than 10000 times”.

We expect — in the case of the Royal Winter Fair, anyway — that we will drive insane distances, several nights in a row, in Toronto rush-hour traffic (second only to Los Angeles on the list of hellish rush-hour scenarios in North America, we’re ever so proud to say), fight tooth and nail for a parking spot, brutalize our feet hiking across kilometres of concrete, get our shins bashed by entitled breeders with double-wide strollers the size of a ’53 Buick Skylark, endure endless line-ups for overpriced food, be harassed by security every time we try to access or leave our designated media seating to line up for the washrooms, and file our stories well past midnight in a room yonks away from the show ring which doesn’t really have any work stations set up to accommodate us (and that’s if some bright spark hasn’t locked the frigging place up while we were getting our quotes in the after-class press conference).

But we at least hope to come away with something worth writing about, and a modicum of respect and appreciation for what we do.

Unfortunately, of all the horse shows I have covered over the past few decades — and there have been a few — I can recall none which treats the media with such utter contempt as does the Royal.  Overall, the show has gotten progressively meaner, cheaper, and less and less welcoming to the public over the past 20-odd years, enough so that most of us who’ve been around that long can wax nostalgic about the good old days, when there used to be comfy couches and (gasp) coffee and snacks in the media centre, when there were tables in the media seating at the show so we could write without having to hunch over laptops on our laps, when there was a media coordinator assigned to assist us in lining up interviews, not obstruct us and treat us as if we were constantly trying to rip off the show.

Of course, those were also the days when there used to be a hella good party going on at the end of most of the show evenings, sometimes with a live band, or at least a pretty good DJ — and since this was the pre-internet age, we generally didn’t have to file on the same night, so we had the luxury of staying for a drink and a dance.  I have partied with some pretty Big Name Riders at the Royal.  A friend of mine once hit Nick Skelton in the eye with a champagne cork.  And I even (ahem) did the Walk of Shame across the lobby of the Harbour Castle Westin early one morning, feeling like a total cliche, after an encounter with a yummy French showjumper.  There, the secret’s out.  (It was many, many years ago, folks …)

Once upon a time, the Royal used to kick off with a media breakfast, wherein we penniless scribes would gather for omelets and mimosas and a little preview of what to expect from the fair that year.  It was all very pleasant and civilized.  These days we can’t even get a cup of coffee … not that I drink the stuff, but sheesh.  (Full disclosure:  I think there might have been a few bottles of water in the media centre, hidden under a table, at one point — be still, my heart.  Not that I was offered any.) 

One of my perpetual pet peeves over the years has been the total lack of regard for the media’s struggles with parking.  There’s an underground parking garage at the Exhibition grounds, which for the duration of the fair has a large designated VIP area which is typically three-quarters empty.  Yet the Powers That Be on the RWF board can’t find it in their parsimonious hearts to offer up half a dozen lousy parking spaces for the media??  I have brought this up on a number of occasions, and have been told every time that it was out of the question.  Instead we fork out $17 (last I was there — it’s probably more now) each night for the privilege of going round and round the outer reaches of the garage, sucking in carbon monoxide and searching in vain for a safe place to leave the truck.  More than once I have ended up missing the class I was supposed to cover.  

ain't nobodyLast year, my fed-up-ness all came to a head.  The previous media coordinator for the horse show, a lovely woman who is a friend of mine and did all she could to accommodate my needs, within the constraints (shackles?) applied by the fair board, was let go under somewhat mysterious circumstances, possibly to do with an excess of honesty … and replaced with a woman who has her own public relations agency and clearly was more interested in advancing her own agenda than the show’s.  We’ve known each other for a couple of decades, at least, and she’s well aware that I freelance for many different outlets.  Yet she re-structured the media accreditation procedures so that, in essence, you had to re-apply for it every evening of the show, with no guarantee that it would be granted, nor that anyone would actually be available to hand it to you when you arrived.  (I spent well over an hour and a half chasing people around the trade fair outside the horse show coliseum on the first night I attended last year, in order to finally secure my pass 40 minutes after the class I was there to cover had concluded.  Fanfuckingtastic.)   In addition to just being a giant pain in the ass, this has the effect of making it very difficult to promise an editor you’re going to be able to deliver anything.

In addition to that, she sent me an email, three days after the show began, to inform me that she had ‘checked’ and that I actually didn’t work for the Chronicle of the Horse, the magazine for which I was writing last year, and that as a result my accreditation had been summarily revoked.

I stared at this email for a while, I admit, before I fired off an indignant reply that said, “Um, you do understand what a FREELANCER does?”  Of course I don’t work for the fucking Chronicle.  I never have.  Frankly, I was absolutely furious:  my entire raison d’etre last year was to find stories the Chronicle thought were worth publishing, and instead of facilitating that, they were playing insulting head games with an established journalist who had been helping get bums in seats for literally decades.  Are. You.  Fucking.  Kidding me??

Eventually they backed down — and at the close of the press conference for the big World Cup class that night, one of the Royal’s minions slunk up to me and asked, semi-apologetically, “We all okay?”  Well, that’s a big honking NO, honey.  We are not.

And here’s the rub:  I didn’t actually find anything last year, in the end, that the Chronicle wanted to publish … because the Royal has become massively irrelevant.  Where once they wanted reports on at least all the major showjumping classes (two Grands Prix, the now-defunct Nations’ Cup and Puissance classes, the Canadian showjumping championship, and various and sundry Table As and Table Cs), the dressage night (once a World Cup qualifier, now nothing more than an invitational demo night for local riders), and the indoor eventing, the interest on the part of American editors has shriveled down to a request for a short (600 words, max) report on just the Wednesday night Grand Prix (which McLain Ward tends to win with frightening frequency) in 2015, and nothing whatsoever on the final night Big Ben Grand Prix or anything else.  In 2016, I was told that the ‘timing wasn’t right’ (the Chronicle is a weekly) but that they would like me to attend and see what sort of feature stories might come out of the fair.  Okay, it was enough of an excuse for me to show up on a couple of nights.

But the thing is:  there really wasn’t much with which to titillate my editor.  I sent her three ideas, and was told: meh, meh, and ‘interesting but we just did something similar to that’.  And that has been more or less the response of all of the other editors, whether Canadian, American, or European, with whom I’ve been in contact over the past couple of years:  the Royal is irrelevant.  

And no wonder, given the choices the fair board continues to make.  For instance, here’s one of the big features of the fair this year:  Goat Yoga.  

FFS.  Really?

Last year, it was bunny jumping.  As in, little courses of verticals and oxers that children (mostly unsuccessfully) tried to persuade their pet rabbits to hop over.  Christ on a cracker.

If there’s something good happening at the Royal, you can pretty much guarantee that the fair board will squash it in favour of something monumentally stupid.  It’s a pattern I’ve observed for over 20 years.  The ‘fair’ portion of the show — you know, the agricultural part, the “once a year, country comes to the city” part, where you give prizes for sheafs of wheat, homemade preserves, butter tarts, and the fanciest Red Island Rock

butter turkey

This is a turkey sculpted from butter.  Pretty much says it all about the Royal.

hen?  Now relegated to a forlorn, far-off corner somewhere near Scarborough, and consisting basically of two misshapen giant pumpkins and an extra-long corn stalk.  The butter sculptures done every year by students from the Ontario College of Art and Design?  Tucked away in a temperature-controlled trailer somewhere beyond the cattle barn where few fear to tread.  They don’t display prize-winning sides of beef or lamb anymore, either — city peeps be squeamish about that sort of thing.  But hey, you can get six fake pashmina scarves for $45 in the trade fair, not to mention an idiotic wooden walking stick with a Psalm burnt into it, (ideal for whacking your fellow pedestrians in the shins) from some insipid, ever-present gang of proselytizing pseudo-Christians.  

Oh, and apple dumplings and potato rosti, which I do legitimately miss.

On the whole, the show is a shadow of its former self.  So much so that the ‘mink and manure’ set doesn’t much bother with the formal wear that used to be de rigueur for the evening classes.  (I think I was one of the only members of the media left who made some effort to observe the ‘black tie’ requirement for the press in the evenings — mostly because it’s a novelty for me to be able to break out the girl clothes and the sparkly heels.  My feet always regretted it acutely, but I do like swishing around in taffeta every now and again.  The few journos from the Toronto dailies who still show up tend to settle for scruffy cords and pilled sweaters.)  

royal people

Royal people.  One of the little joys was always watching for the fashion gaffes … of which there were many.

 

Most telling, however, is the fact that this year, the Royal Winter Fair was scheduled at the same time as the National Horse Show in the US (once held in New York, but moved a few years ago to Lexington, Kentucky).  Back in the day, there was an end-of-season indoor circuit, starting with the International show in Washington, DC, then the National, and culminating with the Royal — and all three had Nations’ Cup classes, which made it attractive for European showjumping teams to fly over and do the three shows.  In 2017, the Royal is such an anachronism that even the American riders (never mind Europeans) don’t care about it enough to schedule around it.  That has to have a serious impact on entries, and not only in the jumper divisions.

The end result is that none of my former markets have any interest in coverage of the

Something about these lumpy pumpkins is stressing this kid out to the point where he/she is undressing ...

Something about these lumpy pumpkins is so profoundly disturbing that children are disrobing.  I don’t profess to understand it.

Royal Winter Fair anymore.  And that makes my attendance there not worth my while, given that (contrary to the belief of the fair’s Powers That Be, which continue to insist I am ripping them off by my mere presence) I stopped having fun at the fair about 15 years ago.  Apart from bargain turn-out halters from the trade fair (which I can now get just as easily on-line, without coughing up $50 in gas, $17 in parking and $27.50 for admission, if I were to pay admission without a press pass), there’s little incentive … and to be treated as dismissively and insultingly as I was last year was the icing on the sagging cake.  

So no thanks to the Royal.  It can circle the drain without me.

 

 

 

 

 

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2015 Toronto Pan Am Games: Eventing

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As far as I was concerned, this was the Main Event (I make no bones about my bias).  It was lovely to share it with two houseguests, who endured my rather cramped and unglamourous quarters with exceptional grace, utterly failed to complain about the cat hair, rode my horses with aplomb, and made the whole thing way fun.  One was an old friend returning to Toronto (though not, to her disappointment, to downtown — there just wasn’t time), and the other was one of those great friends you’ve never actually been in the same room with before!  Amber and Ellen, we need to do that again.

colleen loach jog-0700So.  Eventing started out with the first veterinary inspection (aka “the jog”), which was somewhat less entertaining than these things sometimes are because everyone was decked out in official team uniform.  Therefore, no real fashion risks.  The Canadian women looked sleek and smart in red jersey dresses with white jackets, while male teammate Waylon Roberts made do with jeans which were more burgundy than red.  The Americans, sad to say, looked slightly rumpled and casual in khakis, and many ofguillermo garin ubago CHI uniform-0758 the South and Central American riders were decked out in full cavalry uniform.  (I hate to say it, but some of the military garb had a decidedly … Nazi-ish … twist, which I’m sure was not what they were going for.  But then again, the uniforms were one of the only things not viscerally, gut-clenchingly objectionable about the Nazis.  Do not send death threats for my having said that.  Unless they’re amusingly creative and you have no intention of following through.)

This being a Team and Individual competition rolled into one, one day of dressage was all that was required. Wet and chilly wasn’t exactly what spectators had been looking forward to, but if I’d been wearing a shadbelly and boots I would have been quite content with the temperature.  First-time Canadian Team member, Kathryn Robinson, knocked it out of the park, scoring 39.8 penalty points for second overall on her lovely Let It Bee, and Jessica Phoenix and Colleen Loach also laid down really solid tests.  Waylon Roberts’s Bill Owen, unfortunately, struggled to handle the atmosphere in the big ring and did his impression of a giraffe for most of the test  — but we all figured that was the drop score (Teams keep the top three scores from their four competitors and drop the worst of the bunch) so it was fine. At the end of the day, only Brazil’s Ruy Fonseca, with his longtime partner Tom Bombadill Too, had managed to trump Robinson’s score, with 38.9 pp. America’s Marilyn Little, who’s a relatively recent convert to eventing from the showjumping world, dropped into third with 40.30 pp.

Cross-country day was held not at the Caledon Equestrian Park, but at Geoff and Ann Morgan’s Will O’ Wind Farm, about 20 minutes away.  Will O’ Wind has hosted bunches of Ontario Horse Trials Association events over the years, and has been the site of the provincial championships on a number of occasions, but being selected to host the Pan Ams was another level of, well, everything. As in, pain-in-the-ass level 37, between the tearing up of much of the existing cross-country course (and the manicured grass dressage rings, which became a stabling area), losing the hay crop for the year, a truly paranoid level of security, and the Morgans being told they could no longer make decisions about their own land. The payoff was supposed to be a ‘legacy’ cross-country course at the two-star (Intermediate) level for Ontario riders to enjoy for years to come.  Unfortunately, that’s not really what Will O’ Wind got.  Because the Powers That Be accepted a low-ball bid for the design and construction of the course, rather than go with a bid from any of the local, extremely qualified course builders who understand Ontario conditions … they got jumps built in the southern US and shipped northward this spring on flatbed trucks.  Many of these fences were built of southern softwoods which won’t withstand a single Canadian winter, and the construction that happened locally was also substandard in a lot of ways, meaning that (among other things) the Morgans are going to have to re-do what was once a perfectly serviceable water jump in order to make it serviceable once more, post-Pan Ams.  Can you say, “clusterfuck”?

At least they did get it all finished for Pan Am cross-country day, if only by the skin of their teeth, and the weather and the footing on the big day turned out to be ideal.  Someone had decided, in an utterly typical bit of short-sightedness, that the venue could only accommodate about 5000 people, due mostly to the parking challenges, so that was the cut-off for tickets.  The event could easily have handled five times that, if only some bright spark had had the presence of mind to arrange shuttles from the expansive Orangeville Agricultural Society fairgrounds, a mere 10 minutes away, but of course that never happened.  (Overall, ticket availability for the equestrian events was all kinds of stupid, as tends to happen at major Games.  Online sales portals said the events were sold out, while the stands turned out to be half empty.  I’m told what often happens is that huge blocks of seats are held back for corporate use.  Said tickets are handed out to sponsors and other affiliated organizations which then never use them.  Meanwhile, actual interested people bang their heads against walls and take their frustrations out on their children and dogs.)

kyle carter VEN-0825Admittedly, it’s been a few years since I last saw Central and South American event riders competing in any significant numbers (we’re talking the Winnipeg Pan Am Games, in 1999), but it was fantastic to see how much the standard of cross-country riding has improved in these nations since the last century.  Let’s just say there used to be a lot of scary, kamikaze riding out there, but I didn’t see any of that this year at Will O’ Wind.  Granted, the Pan Am Games is run at the two-star level, which is nowhere near as demanding as, say, the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, or even a three-star like Fair Hill or Jersey Fresh.  But everymark todd BRA-0814 rider and every horse looked like he/she/they belonged there, and there were very few falls or other incidents.  Part of the equation might have been that many of the up-and-coming teams forked out the big bucks to hire world-class coaches, leading into the Games.  Brazil, which ended up with Team silver and an individual bronze for Ruy Fonseca, clearly reaped the benefits of having Mark Todd on board — and they’re keeping him for the foreseeable future.  Mexico had Karen O’Connor coaching them, Venezuela had Kyle Carter, and Guatemala had assistance from Peter Gray.  (Neither of the last two countries managed to finish as a Team, sadly, but they looked a lot more solid in their attempts than they might have otherwise.)

(It’s Sir Mark Todd, looking a bit grim and wearing a jacket with “Brazil” on it!  We’re not worthy!)

Never mind the stupid Wayne’s World videos, I hear you cry.  How did the bloody Canadians do???  Well, three out of the four smoked around, adding nothing to their dressage scores.  Admittedly, one of those was the individual gold medalist at the last Pan Am Games, but considering that she was riding with a very-recently-repaired collarbone and kathryn robinson let it bee dressage2-1093liver (along with various other injuries suffered in a fall at Jersey Fresh at the beginning of June), it was pretty damn encouraging.  Unfortunately, however, Kathryn Robinson and Let It Bee had a tough day at the office.  Not sure how it happened, considering this combination has four-star mileage, but somehow they came a cropper at the second fence, an impressive but straightforward table.  Rider fall = elimination, and they hadn’t even gotten going properly.  I had been looking forward to seeing them go — they’re based in the UK so no-one in Canada had much familiarity with them, and I suspect Robinson was given a Pan Am team slot largely as a consolation prize for having been named to the World Equestrian Games team for 2014, then being told she hadn’t gotten her paperwork in on time and was ineligible (despite an Equine Canada high-muckity-muck having assured her that all was kosher).  To have flown your horse across the pond to finally wear that Team jacket, and then crash and burn that early, must have really blown.

With Robinson picking up the Big E, Canada no longer had her stellar dressage score to call its own, and was forced to count Waylon Roberts’s somewhat-less-than-stellar result (65.1 pp).  Michel Vaillancourt’s stadium course did not prove all that influential (there were lots of clear rounds), and the end result was Team bronze, which was rather less than we’d been hoping for.  Luckily, thanks to an error of judgement on the part of a French rider a year ago, which belatedly resulted in a positive drug test and France being disqualified after the fact from the 2014 WEG, Canada had retroactively moved up one placing at the WEG and had already secured a berth for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, which was really all we cared about.  The US eventing team, which had an even worse time in Normandy than we did, clinched its eligibility for Rio with its Pan Am gold, and Brazil … well, being the host country they were already invited to Rio, but the pleasure they got out of landing the Team silver and an individual bronze was infectious, and I think everyone was rooting for them.

Many people — including the riders — were anticipating a second stadium round to determine the individual gold silver and bronze-1930medals,since that’s a format which has been used at the Pan Am Games before.  Not this time, apparently.  The math was done based on the completed single stadium round, and Jessica Phoenix and Pavarotti, the reigning Pan Am individual champions, missed the repeat by less than a single rail (42.10 pp).  They settled for silver this time, behind American Marilyn Little and her mare RF Scandalous (40.30 pp).

Out of 43 competitors, 10 were eliminated on cross-country, either for a fall or for too many refusals, and there was one Guatemalan entry who withdrew at the jog.  The top 17 competitors made it round the cross-country with no time penalties, a reflection of the slightly more generous time allowed at the two-star level (time is generally more influential once you get to three- and four-star competition).  Eight nations managed to brazil silver celebrate-1825finish in the Team competition (at least three out of four riders completed):  USA, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, and Colombia.  Argentina, Venezuela, and Guatemala failed to finish in the team competition, but two of the Argentinian riders and one from Venezuela got around.  So, you know, progress.

Here’s another photo gallery, of stadium and dressage and medals and shit.

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(Also — I really, really should shut up about it, but I have to say my uniform comments came about because this image popped up in my mind.  Oh, the adolescent hotness!)star trek nazis

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.  

 

 

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.

Project Mojo

austin mojoBeen trying to get my mojo back.

Turning 50 is one of those things that messes with your head.  It’s not that the body is actually significantly more decrepit than it was at 49.  But that number, man.  It feels like a 16 tonne weight.

Truth be told, my mojo has been a bit elusive for a few years now.  In my case, what I mean is that I’ve become something of a chickenshit in the saddle.  Oh, I still break and ride silly young horses, and I still go out hacking, and I don’t need a fence around me to feel secure when I’m schooling, and I frequently ride by myself (cel phone in pocket) because if I always waited for someone else to turn up I’d never bloody ride at all ….

And I still feel like I’ve got a secure galloping position, and I still jump.  But when you’ve been out of the competitive world for a few years, and decrepitude is creeping up on you, and you mostly ride on your own, and there’s often no-one around to move the jumps around for you (and you get seriously fed up with mounting and dismounting and mounting and dismounting to do it yourself) … well, both the frequency and the quality of the schooling over fences begins to suffer a bit.

Consequently, jumps that used to look pretty do-able to you, start to look positively formidable.  You ‘lose your eye’, so to speak.

I’m not claiming I was ever a hero out there on a cross-country course.  I have friends who are utterly fearless … year after year, they’re competing at the highest levels and no fence seems to be too massive.  I admire and envy that, but recognize that my mojo, even at its common senseshiniest and most splendid, has limitations, and more importantly, so does my athleticism.  (I like to think that my common sense, on the other hand, runs pretty deep…. which is perhaps why Preliminary level, which is just a weensie bit death-defying, as opposed to utterly and insanely death-defying Advanced level, is as far as I’ve gotten in the sport.)

Eventing, after all, is a little more extreme than some of the other equestrian disciplines.  Not gonna claim it’s as mind-bogglingly extreme as, say, steeplechase racing (I’ve always maintained that the advantage of my sport over that one is there’s relatively little risk that you’ll collide with another 500 kg animal hurtling around at the same time you are), but still, on the hard-core side, and it tends to attract Type A adrenaline junkies who lean towards the ‘live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse’ philosophy of life.  Many before me have pointed out that it’s practically the only sport where you’re required to have your medical information strapped to your arm at all times.

If the corpse thing doesn’t come to pass, though, it’s generally acknowledged that, at some point, most eventers start to become dimly aware of their own mortality, and become DQs (dressage queens) or take up some other (ahem) gentler art, like (cough) combined driving.  Though lately, riders like Mark Todd (age 57) and Andrew Nicholson (age 52) are bucking that trend … something in the water in New Zealand, perhaps?

I’m not ready to become a DQ.  Much as I enjoy dressage (and seriously, I do — no, really), if it were the only thing I did on a horse, I would eventually go postal and take out a Wal-Mart with a semi-automatic something-or-other.  And so would my beasties.  (I can easily picture DSC_0799 driving marathon4Parker with an Uzi.)  One of the nicest things about eventing is that horses rarely get sour, because they always have something different to work on.  Flatwork one day, jump the next, gallop sets the third, go out on a hack the fourth, have a cross-country school the fifth, lather, rinse, repeat, not necessarily in that order.  It’s good for the brain.

So … not ready to give it up, but feeling the athletic equivalent of my biological clock ticking this spring (oddly, I never felt one when it came to my uterus, but that’s another tale), I cast my gaze upon Young Master Spike, grazing in radiant obliviousness (obliviosity?) in his field this spring, and declared, “Enough is enough.”

Spike, who is 11, hasn’t been to a show since he was five, and probably hasn’t missed it, helpfully raised his head and said, “Huh?”

For the past half-decade, one stupid thing or another has kept us from competing.  Injury to him, injury to me, work conflicts, and general destitution chief among them.  (The destitution hasn’t changed, but let’s face it, I’ve really never let that stop me before.)  But I’m sound at the moment (and have even lost some weight chasing around after clients and their ponies, so feeling slightly less lumpy and ungraceful than the last few springs — plus my show clothes actually fit again, or are even slightly loose, which is a bonus), Spike is sound but getting no younger, and I figured if I paid up all my memberships, I would feel a sense of obligation to actually compete.

Time to kick my mojo in the ass.

Honestly, I hadn’t jumped a cross-country fence in almost five years.  Even my knock-down fences at home had rarely inched above the 2’6″ level.  So the first order of business was to arrange a schooling session at a nearby farm.  A friend and fellow coach indulged me and my confession that I was feeling, ahem, rusty and ancient, and pointed me at some nicely inconsequential logs and ditches and things on a June afternoon, saying encouraging things, and pretty soon the muscle memory started to kick in.  Just a little.

It helps that Spike is a Steady Eddie sort of character.  Nowhere near as athletic or dynamic as my previous partner, Toddy, but at the same time not nearly the obstreperous bastard Toddy could be, either.  Despite his lack of mileage, Spike is dead honest … if you point him at an obstacle and halfway have your shit together, he will jump.  It might not be pretty, but he will go, bless his little cotton socks.  I was counting on that.

I set my sights on competing at Entry level (max height 2’9″), to begin with.  Which, yes, is mildly embarrassing for someone who’s been at it as long as I have.  But while Spike is getting to the point where he’s pretty broke on the flat, thanks to my reluctant-dragon-ness he was a little behind on his jumping skills and I didn’t want to overface him right off the top and damage that honesty of his … and also, he might be a Thoroughbred but he doesn’t have that baseline of fitness that a TB who has actually raced, always seems to maintain.  (This is my subtle way of saying he is built like a Sherman tank and is likely the most difficult TB in the world to get fit.)

So, Entry level.  Not because I was still feeling like a chickenshit.  No sir.

Our first attempt, I’m sad to report, was a non-starter.  I selected a horse trials at Wit’s End, a farm a mere two concessions over from mine,130818_831 thinking that would be a lovely place to start.  Spike disagreed.  I came home from teaching on Friday evening, ready to ride and then bathe and braid and hook up the trailer and do all that show-prep stuff that was as natural as breathing, once upon a time … and Spike was a gimp.

He hadn’t been bothered by his sticky left stifle in more than four years, but having developed an unerring instinct for detecting when a $200 entry fee has been mailed, he just couldn’t resist, I guess.  I ended up spending the day at Wit’s End helping with the timing in the stadium ring.  And Spike was sound by Monday.

Mercifully, he has held together just fine since then.  We re-routed to a ‘short course’ at nearby Equus 3D Farm the following week.  A short course is sort of a hybrid competition, more casual than a proper horse trials, and a nice way to ease in.  You ride a dressage test, as per usual, and then jump a few stadium fences, leave the ring, and jump a few cross-country fences.  Spike was nervous, a bit neurotic, screamed his head off throughout his dressage test and was momentarily startled at the transition between coloured poles and solid logs out in the hayfield … but his honesty kicked in and he improved as he went ’round.  We took home a sixth-place ribbon.  Yay us.

Mojo:  still a work in progress.

Since then we’ve done two more horse trials, two cross-country clinics, and a dressage lesson for good measure, and it’s starting to come together.  At Will O’Wind in July, I felt Spike looking for the next fence and taking me to it for the first time, instead of landing and going, “Now are we done?  No?  There’s another one?”, all stutters and starts.  That’s what a good event horse should do, what Toddy always did.  Woe betide you if you pointed Toddy at the wrong fence, because he would lock on the line like an electromagnet and it would take a herculean effort to pull him away.

It’s an amazing feeling when a green horse starts to understand the job and love it.  (Even if the green horse in question is 11.)

I got some pictures back from the first few competitions, and it convinced me of something:  them fences ain’t so intimidating after all.  Spike’s just stepping over them.  They’re …. little.

Why, mojo, that’s where you’ve been hiding, you slippery little bastard.

So it’s time to upgrade.  All the way from Entry level to Pre-Training (gasp).  Where the fences are max three foot.  But I had planned, if all went well, to do one event a month this summer (that being all my budget can withstand) and upgrade by the end of the season — so Spike 130818_834and I are on target.  Next year, we can start out at Pre-Training and finish up going Training level, at which point perhaps I will no longer be mortified.

There have been a number of little things to be proud of, thus far in Project Mojo.  Spike is becoming a horse show veteran.  A couple of months ago he was screaming and freaking out … now he gets off the trailer and says, “Where’s my hay net?” and is learning not to get his panties in a bunch.  My student-slash-groom, Sarah, is much relieved.

Our dressage scores are steadily improving — not that an Entry level test gives him anything much to do, but mentally, Spike has not been ready to show off his fancier moves in front of an audience just yet.  At the beginning of the summer it was all I could do just to keep him in the ring.  Now he’s over that and I’m starting to be able to really ride him through.

And I think that I’m more relaxed, and subsequently riding better, than I sometimes did in the past.  Being one of those A type personalities, I used to produce enough adrenaline at an event to light a small city, and that tended to make my legs creep up the saddle flaps and my lower back go rigid … and though admittedly, that was when I was showing at the Prelim level and there might have legitimately been a fence or two to be worried about at the time, now I’m finding that the absurdity of starting over at Entry level is allowing me to just laugh about it all.  I’m not getting nearly as wound up as I used to about the whole showing thing, and it feels good.

(I could have tossed the Rocky theme in here or something, i suppose, but I’d rather have some more Austin Powers.)

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