Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

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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

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2015 Toronto Pan Am Games: Dressage

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Hey, it`s a Canadian blog, so you`re gonna get pix of the Canadians.  All of whom were legitimately excellent, and I don`t say that lightly — all four delivered tests that were the best I`d ever seen from them, especially Belinda Trussell`s Anton, who, frankly, had the best piaffe in the Games and wuz robbed of a medal, IMHO.

Dressage at the Pan Am Games has a complicated history.  The Pan Ams are qualifiers for upcoming Olympic Games, and as such are hotly contested, but for the past couple of decades at least, the level of competition has been at the Prix St. Georges/Intermediare level, not the Grand Prix level demanded at the Olympics.  Which means a country may qualify for the Olympics, but will probably not be sending the horses and riders who cinched the qualification, because it takes more than a year to take a ‘small tour’ horse and have him confirmed and solid at the ‘big tour’ level.

Recognizing that the standard of dressage has improved markedly in Central and South America and the Caribbean in recent years, the Powers That Be decided for the Toronto Games that countries with the resources to do so could bring up to two Grand Prix partnerships of their four that made up a team.  Riders who showed at the Grand Prix level were given more weight on their results (I think it was a coefficient of 1.5) than the Prix St. Georges horses.  The US, Canada, and Argentina all managed to scare up two Grand Prix horses to send to Toronto, and Mexico and Uruguay each had one GP horse.  The happy result was that spectators didn’t have to sit and watch the exact same test all day, but it did make the scoring, and the qualifications for the individual medals, confusing to say the least.

There was also considerable debate as to how many competitors from each nation were allowed to move forward to the individual round, after the US took the Team gold, Canada the silver, and Brazil the bronze.  The FEI issued a bunch of contradictory statements the night before, and apparently volatile Team meetings back in the barns went into the wee hours, before it was declared that each nation could send forward only three of its four qualified riders.  That meant both Canada and the US had to leave one horse in the barn despite qualifying scores.  Which kind of sucked, but it did ensure that spectators got to see more individual freestyles from more countries.

Have to say, the South Americans have the best music for freestyles.  The North American musical selections have all gotten to be much of a muchness, due in part, I think, to the fact that there are only two or three people writing and choreographing these things for the riders.  We could use a little more soca and samba and a fair bit less of the generic-movie-soundtrack type stuff.

And here’s the afore-mentioned Puerto Rican rider, Luis Denizard, and Royal Affair, in a probably-illicit snippet from their freestyle, embracing the Leonard Bernstein:

End result:  The US claimed individual gold (Steffen Peters and Legolas 92, 80.075%) and silver (Laura Graves and Verdades, 79.825%), and Canadian Chris Von Martels, who had put in a spectacular freestyle with Zilverstar, hung in for the bronze (79.50%).  The other two Canucks, Belinda Trussell and Brittany Fraser, tied for fourth with 76.80%.  Canada didn’t qualify for the Rio Olympics with their Team silver — there was only one spot going begging and we would have had to have won gold to get it.  There are still some opportunities to qualify individuals, but it’s going to take more expensive trips to Europe to do it, so may those with the deepest pockets, win.

Ten Things About the Toronto Pan Am Games

panam-horses-asideNow that it’s all over except for the continuing self-congratulatory smugness (Toronto’s, I mean, which might or might not be justified — the actual numbers rating its success have not yet been released) … I figured I’d better recount my experience at the 2015 Pan American Games for posterity.  This may, in fact, be practically the only place in which I do so, assignments from magazines and newspapers having been discouragingly thin on the ground.  So much for home court advantage.

Watch this space for some separate blog posts on each of the equestrian disciplines (dressage, eventing, and showjumping), which are the only three sports I got to see in the three-week run of the Games.  Yup.  Despite my best efforts, I completely failed to get to any of the other venues for which I had media access, much less any of the concerts and other entertainments.  The last Pan Am Games I attended was Winnipeg, in 1999, and I had a blast going to free concerts, jazz clubs, and outdoor theatre performances in the evenings while I was there (and favourably revised my opinion of Winnipeg in the process).  I guess the difference this time was that I was trying to fit the Pan Ams around all the regular demands of my life — teaching riding lessons, getting my own horses fed and worked, doctor’s appointments, truck breakdowns, and so forth.  Somehow, the hassle of making it all the way into downtown Toronto from my home base in the boonies, never quite seemed feasible.  I am bummed about having missed Colin James though.

Anyway.  For what it’s worth, here are some random bits of snark about the Toronto Pan Am Games.  In no particular order.

argentine boots-06851. OVERBLING:  The medal for sheer overbling has to go to the South American dressage riders, especially the women.  If there was a location where they could legally place Swarovski crystals, they did so, unreservedly.  From their hair bows to their helmets to the tops of their shiny black patent boots, to their gloves, their horses’ braids and flyveils and browbands and, yep, even the cantles of their saddles, there was really no such thing as too much bling.  The places where the press were allowed to photograph were too far from the ring to tell for sure, but I strongly suspect that those who had experience with Rio-style carnival makeup may even have had bling on their eyelids.  In general, the South Americans put the Northern hemisphere riders to shame in the stylin’ department — the Argentinian eventers, for example, had the most drool-worthy boots (or maybe they were half-chaps) in their flag’s sky-blue-and-white colours.  (They also had way better music for their dressage freestyles.)

(Thought I might as well share the Spanish version!)

2. EMBRACING THE CLICHES:  I had to love the Puerto Rican dressage rider who rode his freestyle to selections from “West Side Story”.  I confess, I can never hear an announcer say the words “Puerto Rico” without a little echo of Rita Moreno in my head … but you have to figure that they’re sick to death of it in the actual country.  Took chutzpah, then (or cojones) to say, fukkit, I’m not going to cringe about it … I’m just going to go there, goddammit.  

Also, there was a Venezuelan showjumper named La Bamba.

beavers-0694Canada, however, was not to be outdone when it came to cliches.  From the moment I heard that the cross-country course for the eventing competition was going to feature, um, Canadiana … and that it was going to be built by Americans and shipped up on flatbeds from South Carolina … I dreaded the outcome.  The end result was not quite as bad as I’d feared, but it did have carved beavers, Canada geese, something that was supposed to be a keg of maple syrup, and a water jump that seemed to be a mishmash of every overworked Canuck icon the designers could toss together in a single obstacle.  It had one jump bristling with lobster pots, another with a stylized Toronto skyline on it, and a rather regrettable wooden grizzly with a salmon in its mouth … positioned at the base of a water trickle that I was reliably informed was supposed to represent Niagara grizzly-0691Falls.  WTF? doesn’t really cover it …

And then there was the showjumping course, which was slightly less horrifying, cliche-wise, though there was a plank jump emblazoned with an image of Mounties galloping straight at the observer with their lances in attack mode, something adorned with oversized cowboy boots and saloon doors (presumably representing Calgary), and another which mimicked a mountain pass in the Rockies with a railroad bridge spanning it.  The blocks on the top were little rail cars, so I guess when the blocks were knocked down (which was only a couple of times), it was (groan) a trainwreck.

3. THE MUSKOKA CHAIR DEBATE:  One of the more popular bits of decor in the showjumping ring was a pair of giant green Muskoka chairs, which every rider and groom on Facebook apparently felt compelled to climb up into for a selfie.  The Amalonso valdez PER muskoka chairs-2272ericans, however, kept erroneously referring to them as “Adirondack chairs”, and couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be Canadian about them.  Sources on the infallible interwebz disagree, of course, on the provenance of the Muskoka chair vs. the Adirondack, but at least some of them will tell you that the Muskoka chair is subtly different in its design and the curve of its back.  But both of them are bloody difficult to lever yourself out of, fuglyparticularly the eight-foot kind.

4. FUGLY:  Is it just me, or is this sculpture, which was squatting in the Caledon Equestrian Park, fugly as hell?  Maybe not, since people seemed compelled to pose in front of it on a daily basis for even more selfies.

Much more egregious were the outfits inflicted upon the hapless presenters-of-medals-and-stuffed-toys.  Can you say, “shapeless beach cover-up”?  I think back to the presenters at the Beijing Olympics, who looked utterly stunning, and I try to imagine what the Pan Am people were thinking when they approved these horrid, droopy, waist-less, sweatpants-gray monstrosities.  Seriously, who looks good in this fabric?  One out of 10,000 supermodels, that’s who.  And to top it off, each dress was cut at exactly the right length to flatter no-one in this universe.  These girls were fugly dresses-9907putting on a brave face, but personally I would have been mortified to have turned up in public in one of these.  Hashtag fashion fugliness.

5. FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE:  By most ratings, Canada is not a Third World country.  But we do have an alarming predilection for re-inventing perfectly good wheels.  In the instance of the Pan Am Games, that meant that procedures which have been in place for major sports events around the world for years or even decades, were not necessarily in place here in Toronto.  Felt a little like we were either deliberately trying to represent as a provincial backwater, or we were stuck in some wormhole taking us back to 1985.

The official broadcaster for the Pan Am Games was the venerable CBC, which has long been of the opinion that showjumping is the only equestrian sport with any merit whatsoever.  (It’s a bit of a circular argument:  if North American spectators never get to see eventing or dressage or combined driving, how is it supposed to develop a following?  Numbers for broadcasts of Badminton or Burghley, in the UK, would seem to suggest there’s massive untapped appeal.  Ugh.)  So in its infinite wisdom, the Ceeb — which had sewn up exclusive video rights to absolutely everything — declined to show up for most of the equestrian events.  Which meant that we didn’t even have a video feed in the press tent, thus rendering the luxurious air conditioning in there useless because we had to be outside in order to see what was going on.  There was also no live scoring for the dressage, something that has been available for yonks at most major venues and should have been a no-brainer.

There were also all the usual communications fuck-ups that go with most major Games.  Nothing disastrous, just a lot of Orwellian, “you were allowed to walk past the warm-up rings yesterday, but today you were never allowed to do that and whoever told you that you were didn’t have the authority to do so and you should have known that” type stuff.  The rules for the media seemed to change on a daily basis, which inevitably led to a lot of bitching and frustration from those of us who were trying like hell to comply but couldn’t tell which rules were the real ones.  I’m willing to bet it was the same for the riders and grooms and assorted Team hangers-on from the various nations.

There was a concerted effort made to make these Games more accessible to various types of ‘new’ media (podcasters, bloggers, vloggers, web publications, and basically anyone who wasn’t the host broadcaster) and we were all told in no uncertain terms that we should not fuck it up because Toronto was being closely watched and that it would set a precedent for next year’s Rio Olympics and beyond.  But a lot of the attempts to make media access to the athletes more ‘casual’ just didn’t work.  At the Caledon Equestrian Park, they decided to forego the standard end-of-day press conferences with the top three riders, in favour of just having everyone swarm the poor souls in a noisy corner of the tent.  Later, when that turned out to be unsatisfactory, they tried to set up the athletes in the press seating at one end of the stands — next to the VIP seating, which at the end of each day was cranking up for another deafening party.  Most of what I got on my digital tape recorder was unintelligible, even when I had managed to elbow my way near the front.  But at least the poor riders had chairs to sit in.  Note to the Pan Am organizers:  if it ain’t broke …

6. PECULIAR PORCUPINE:  How a stylized porcupine in a baseball cap came to be the mascot of the Toronto Pan Am Games is another one of those inexplicable Dafuq? decisions.  If I were selecting a species of wildlife to represent Toronto, I’d think the obvious choice would be a raccoon.  (For the uninitiated, Toronto is overrun with urban raccoons, who hang out on people’s fire escapes and can finagle their way into any variety of garbage can ever pachi-2033designed by humans.  They are fearless, intimidatingly intelligent, and absolutely huge.)  I also have no idea where the name “Pachi” for the mascot originated.  I’d like to think perhaps it’s Ojibwe for porcupine or something, but that’s not bloody likely.  In any event, I was told that the strangely multi-coloured pointy bits on Pachi’s back numbered 41, to represent each of the countries involved in the Pan Am Games (is that countries eligible to compete, or actual number of countries which sent at least an athlete or two?  No clue there either).  Certainly there were fewer than 41 ‘quills’ on the little stuffed-toy versions of the mascot that medal-winning athletes were given in lieu of flowers.  (The looks on the faces of some of the South American guys who received them was priceless, though.)

7. JOURNALISTS BEHAVING BADLY:  As noted above, the CBC was the only body officially allowed to take video of the ‘field of play’ (ie. athletes actually competing in anything).  Other media outlets could take video interviews of athletes in the ‘mixed zone’ or outside the venue, and they could send out still photos of the action with a 30-minute embargo, but that was it.  At the beginning of the Games, that meant there were volunteers patrolling the stands trying to confiscate people’s iPads — though eventually that was given up as a lost cause.  The more people were told they couldn’t take video, the more affronted everyone got when it became apparent that the CBC had zero intention of even providing livestreaming or posting anything on-line after the fact.  YouTube became the place to go …

Still, I was unimpressed when I heard that two of the accredited Canadian journalists in our midst were blatantly taking video and posting it on their magazine’s website.  I can understand when paying spectators want to preserve a video clip of their nation’s representative(s) for their own enjoyment, but this was another deal entirely. Guess they missed that little (mandatory with your accreditation) lecture about spoiling it for the rest of us?  They very nearly got their accreditations yanked, and I would not have been the only one to tell them not to let the door hit them in the ass on the way out.

8. ALL THE FAKENESS:  These giant mutant daisy things sprouted like triffids all over the dressage arena at the triffid-9051Caledon Equestrian Park.  They were at least five feet tall.  I told a couple of American journalists who asked that they were trilliums, the provincial flower of Ontario.  (There was actually a rather nice showjump which had real representations of trilliums; it showed up later.)

Another headscratcher:  the cross-country course, at nearby Will O’ Wind Farm, was decorated throughout with huge volumes of fake, plastic flowers.  And they looked really …. fake.  I dunno, you’re in Ontario, in July, in the middle of some of the richest waylon trilliums-1649farmland in North America … you couldn’t scare up some real flowers and foliage maybe?

9. THE SOUND OF SILENCE:  Did no-one tell the American fans that Canada is right next door?  As in, within driving distance for many?  At most events of this size, Canadian cheering sections are accustomed to being drowned out by loud and persistent, “USA! USA! USA!” chants and lots of screaming.  The American brand of patriotism can be a little oppressive, to be sure, but you have to admire their enthusiasm.  Maybe the Pan Am Games are just not on the American radar (though any event in which Murkans have this good a shot at lots of gold medals, you’d think would be very popular)?  Speculation aside, the Canadian riders were greeted by roars from the crowd and lots of flag-waving (it’s worth fans in stands-0281noting that the vast majority of the Canadian competitors, in all three disciplines, live within an hour of the Caledon Equestrian Park — it’s a very horsey neighbourhood).  But the Americans got mostly crickets, or polite smatterings of applause at best, and it was actually kinda sad.  They must have felt rather lost without their usual wall of noise.

10. KICKSTARTER?:  The next Pan Am Games is in Lima, Peru, in 2019.  Always wanted to go to Peru.  Send money, please?

(Please note:  pretty much all the images in this post, and the next few, are Copyright (c) Karen Briggs, 2015. pachi finish-2288 Using them anywhere else without my express permission, and fair payment, will quite possibly result in my hunting you down like a dog and making your life squeamishly unpleasant.  Thank you.)

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

This is Why Faith is a Bad Thing …

Back in February of this year, I blogged about a PWAC (Professional Writers Association of Canada), Toronto chapter, seminar I’d attended, about journalistic opportunities in “new media“.

Among the speakers was Wilf Dinnick, who presented to a room full of freelancers in various stages of bewilderment, desperation, and angst about the state of their careers, a strong and irrepressibly optimistic case for embracing markets such as OpenFile, which he founded and edited.

In late September, OpenFile ceased publication.  (If you click the above link, you’ll see the most recent stories were posted September 28, at least as of the moment I posted this.)

And guess what?  A whole bunch of freelancers haven’t been paid, and Wilf has stopped communicating with them.

I wonder if it’s too late to apprentice as a ditch-digger or something.

Here are the gory details, including  the open letter written to OpenFile by six Montreal-based contributors who would really like some answers, please:

http://www.thestoryboard.ca/openfile-freelancers-post-open-letter-to-wilf-dinnick/

http://journomel.com/2012/11/12/freelancers-write-open-letter-to-openfile-for-payment-dinnick-responds/

http://reopenfile.tumblr.com/

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And Then It Happened

I always knew it would, someday.   Not that it makes it any less humiliating.

I have one brother.  He is very Busy and Important and has a nuclear family which elicits him no end of sympathy and babysitting from our collective parental units.

Me?  Single with cats and horses.  Only two cats, I hasten to add.  I have not yet veered off the rails into Crazy Cat Lady territory, and besides, my place is too small to accommodate any more.  There would be squabbles.  The current two are littermates and thus get on rather well.

And four horses.  All of whom, for one reason or another, have rendered themselves virtually unsellable.

There’s a damaged-goods broodmare, who is very well bred but got herself badly torn up delivering Son #1 and had to endure four surgeries at the U of Guelph, to put her back together.  (My bank balance also had to endure it.  And so did a lot of vet students whom Roxy tried to murder in cold blood prior to, and during, the aforementioned surgeries.)  My vet has now forbidden me to breed her again, and besides, she’s 16 and as a riding horse she is a hard mare to love.  Though I do.  If she were my only rideable beast, she would drive me fucking nuts because she’s a peculiar combo pack of Alpha Mare and total neurotic, which is rather like tossing random acids together to see just how noxious a green cloud you can manufacture.  Yup, I love her.

Then there’s the laminitic pony, Trouble; she’s a Hackney/Shetland cross whose main function ’round here is to be a babysitter.  She is the world’s least evil pony, which is to her credit.  Trouble foundered despite all my best efforts, a number of years ago, and my farrier tries to console me by saying, “There are only two types of ponies — the ones who are foundered and the ones who are going to founder.”  Most of the year, she does just fine, but she does experience episodes of foot pain for a few weeks at a time and requires nursing and coddling … hence, unsellable.

Spike, who is Son #1 out of Roxy, would probably be the most marketable of the bunch except that he decided, inexplicably, to become a headshaker this past spring.  Headshaking is a neurological thing which seems to involve the trigeminal nerve in the face; it makes horses toss their heads up and down uncontrollably, or rub their muzzles on any available object, and it also makes them a pain in the ass to ride.  Spike’s symptoms seem to come and go, and they’ve abated for the moment, which is great, but I couldn’t in good conscience sell him, which is my excuse for keeping him till he expires.

And finally, there’s Parker, second and last issue of Roxy, who has just turned three and is like a shiny little loonie of potential.  Except for two things.  One (I sincerely hope) is temporary:  back in February he did something to his left hind leg, and he has been gimpy ever since.  All attempts at diagnosis have thus far, failed miserably in the way that only expensive but utterly unproductive vet bills can, but I have faith that he will come sound in his own good time, whether it’s a bone bruise, or some wee weird little ligament tear that evaded the ultrasound wand, or something even more exotic.  For the moment, though, he’s benched, with the launch of his under-saddle career on hold.  The other thing appears to be more permanent, though I could be wrong:  he’s beautifully put together, as handsome a picture of athletic Thoroughbred conformation as you could want to see, but he’s … well, petite.  Barely 15 hands right now.  Butt-high, so there may still be some growing to do (horses don’t tend to shoot up evenly when they’re maturing — they get taller in their hindquarters first and then their front ends catch up, or at least you pray to Epona that they do).  But on the whole, disappointingly petite, which is not likely to make him appeal to the current market either.

So, four horses, an income which is erratic, at best, and a part-time boyfriend who lives two hours down the highway.  Maybe it’s no wonder it happened.

I’m obsfucating, you say, gentle reader?  Okay.  Um …

My parents are getting older.  No way, yours too?  The hell you say.

Also, my parents live in a place where I do not wish to live.  It’s a city that feels like a huge, irrevocable 16-tonne-weight dead end to me (and the stats bear me out — it currently holds the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment levels in the province).

Of course, it’s not like my proximity to Toronto has really paid off in terms of employment, either.  I’m going on three years now without anything resembling a full-time, non-contract, non-short-term, job, in my field or out of it.  But at least with the largest metropolis in Canada in commutable territory, one can fantasize that there might be a spine-tingling opportunity justttttt …. around the corner.

(Re:  the above — What the hell is up with the subtitles?  What, are Sondheim’s lyrics not clear?)

Mind you, this sort of thinking immediately reminds me of the ex-boyfriend who got himself brainwashed by the Amway zombies (“We’re not selling the products, we’re selling the opportunity“).  That tantalizing, magic moment where all the money he was shoveling into a bottomless pit was suddenly going to come shooting back up to him in ejaculatory wonder was always dangling just out of reach, OMFG he could almost taste it, and his upline — formerly his Xerox-repair guy — kept promising he was doing so well, he’d be Going Diamond and walking the beaches of the world in a week, maybe two …. well, in a word, feh.

If there’s anything I loathe more than multi-level-marketing fucktards and their bags of batshit, I cannot for the life of me think what it might be.

But there I go, digressing again.

The thing is, I always knew that there would come a point where my parents would need one of their offspring to come home and pitch in on the things that had become difficult for them to do.  And that my brother, being Busy and Important and a Parent and all, would not be the one volunteered.  Nope.

I don’t think my parents are actually at that point yet, though their house — a split-split-split-level product of the 60’s — is now presenting some challenges since every damn room is connected to the next with a flight of stairs.  That’s a few too many stair chairs.

But last week, my father came out with it.

“I think you should consider moving back home.”

And he must’ve seen the colour just drain out of my face, but he forged ahead anyway because that’s what he does.  “You have no steady income, you’re having trouble meeting expenses, you could whittle the horses down to, maybe, two? ….”  and the piece de resistance, “… and your mother could use the help.”

And I know the latter is starting to be true, but at what point is the humiliation of one’s failed career so fulsome and complete that moving back into one’s parents’ house in suburbia, kissing any vestige of an adult lifestyle sayonara, preferable to, say, flinging oneself in front of a cattle truck or signing up to flog noni juice to your former friends?

“Just think about it,” he said.

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My Brain Hurts

Like I needed more reality checks in my life.

In my continuing career-re-invention quest (horse writer, bad; health writer, good), I signed up yesterday for a one-day workshop on epigenetics for journalists, hosted in downtown Toronto by the CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research).   I didn’t really have a clear plan as to where I was going to use the material from this seminar — but hey, they had assembled a crack team of speakers, the location was accessible enough, and it was free.  With lunch.

(See my previous post about feeding journalists, a can’t-miss strategy.  Seriously, you could live-trap and relocate the lot of us with a tray of sandwiches and some oversized cookies.)

Once upon a time, I was an undergrad biology major.  I spent eight to 10 hours a day in classes, scribbling reams of notes — I remember one botany class, in particular, which generated 15 to 20 pages of single-spaced foolscap per lecture — and it didn’t faze me in the least.  But admittedly, it has been a while.  (Shuddup.)

While I’m admitting things, I’ll also admit that genetics was never my strong suit.  Loved the microbiology, thought the invertebrate zoology was dandy, grooved on the afore-mentioned botany, liked doing the field studies in the ecology courses (there was some project which involved mapping out a square metre in an endangered grassland area and then counting the number of beetles, or seeds, or voles or something within that square), but found genetics a bit of a struggle, even though it was at a very, very basic, Mendelian level.  My usual luck prevailed:  My Drosophila tended to keel over before they could produce their F1 and F2 generations, and even when they didn’t, they didn’t really breed according to plan or produce the characteristics they were supposed to (big wings, vestigial wings, curly wings, red eyes, white eyes, googly eyes, and so forth).

Since those (ahem) hallowed university days, I have had to tackle the topic of genetics on a number of occasions in articles for horse magazines.  Lesson #1:  Very little in Real Life is Mendelian.  In other words, simple dominant, simple recessive, predictable percentages of traits in each generation:  hardly ever happens outside a lab full of fruitflies (and sometimes not even then).  Genetics is way complicated, with combos of genes all tag-teaming to cloud the picture and muck up your diagrams.  Which I guess explains why you can’t breed a palomino to a palomino and get little palominos, but doesn’t explain why anyone still maintains a breed registry for a colour which is not directly heritable.  Don’t get me started.

Still, the topic (genetics, in case I lost you somewhere there) has always been sort of heavy wading for me.  Okay, not as bad as organic chem, which I failed twice before I finally managed to squeak through  …  just never could wrap my head around the carbon-chain stuff (though, in looking back, I also have to credit a prof who would clearly have rather been disemboweling wombats than have been teaching this dreary second-year course in a windowless basement).  But something of a slog.

Nonetheless, the topic of epigenetics intrigues.  And that’s typical for me; lots of stuff I have no natural talent for, intrigues me anyway, contrary wench that I am.

For the uninitiated:  epigenetics is the study of how environmental factors influence the way genes do, or do not express themselves.  It’s fairly new stuff, though the term has been hanging around since the 1940s.  Maybe I should say its acceptance is fairly new stuff.

Epigenetics is a separate deal from mutation, which is an actual alteration/addition/deletion of base pairs on the DNA strand.  In epigenetics, the DNA sequence remains the same, but the environment influences whether the genes produce proteins which influence changes in the organism, or fail to produce them.  See?  I was paying attention.

But the workshop did prove to me one thing:  as far as paying attention goes, evidently I am not as good at it as I was when I was 20.  Okay, not exactly a fucking revelation.  But still, sobering.  Despite diligently caffeinating (something I am actually not in the habit of doing when I work at home), and despite finding the topic engaging, I really had to force my brain to focus on digesting this material.  It did not do it of its own accord.

And while my brain was wandering off down unexplored corridors for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that attention spans, in general, may not be what they used to was.  It’s Facebook‘s fault, of course.

I started thinking about my work habits, when I’m working from home, and realized that I seem to function best when multi-tasking.  Which might just be putting a polite spin on saying I allow myself to be easily distracted.

I generally have a couple dozen tabs open on my web browser.  Some of them directly related to whatever article I am currently writing. Some not so much.   So I’ll write a couple of paragraphs, then go check my Twitter feed.  Look up a definition or flip through my notes to see how I’m going to cobble in a quote from the Authority Du Jour … then open up Photoshop and edit a couple of photos I’ve had in the queue.  Go back to the article.  Get stuck on a phrase for a minute, and go see how many hits the damn blog has gotten today (ugh, biggest time-suck of all).  Go back to the article, but then think of something I have to add to the grocery list. Go back to the article.  Write six or seven paragraphs in a row and then play a game of solitaire as a reward.  And wash, rinse, repeat.

All of this has evolved fairly organically along with the options available on my computer (as in, I’m pretty sure I didn’t have that many distractions on my Atari or my 486).  And the thing is, it works for me.  It’s entirely possible I’m severely deluded, of course, but I believe with a certain amount of religious fervour that I’m actually more productive working in this manner, than I am when I force myself to be single-minded and concentrate on one thing at once.

It is not lost on me that this style of working doesn’t go over particularly well in the corporate world, where there’s a firewall on Facebook and to spend 30 seconds mindlessly moving Scrabble tiles around while your brain tries to pick the tangles out of some work-related problem, is tantamount to treason.  Despite all the lip-service acknowledging learning styles and celebrating individuality, there always seems to be someone who’s deeply offended if you’re not exhibiting exemplary drone behaviour.

And it didn’t serve me all that well when I was thrust back into a concentrated, lecture-style learning environment, as I was at this workshop.  As I say, I really had to work to stay focused and wrap my head around the concepts … and I was pretty much knackered by the end of it.

Still, I had enough neural activity at the end of the day to ponder the wisdom of the cohort of behaviourists who maintain that women are hard-wired to multi-task.  One fairly famous experiment (this is not something that came up in the workshop — it’s just something that I read, years ago, which has always stuck with me) had test groups of women and men listen to an audio recording of voices reading two (or was it three?) different stories, with the voices all overlapping.  Afterwards they were asked to reiterate the content.  The men, almost invariably, had ended up zooming in on only one of the stories.  They could recount that storyline, but had registered nothing of the others.  The women, OTOH, had gotten the gist of all of the stories.  The explanation, I guess, is that we’re designed to be able to forage for berries and beat the laundry on a rock, while simultaneously keeping one ear open so that our F1 generation doesn’t get eaten by a sabre-toothed whateverthefuck.

Sounds kinda epigenetic, don’t it.  I wonder what the methylation profile is.

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Professional Development Day

I’ve never been much of a joiner.

Mostly because when money’s tight, the association memberships are the first things to go.  So I am currently not a member of PWAC, which used to stand for “Periodical Writers Association of Canada” and now stands for “Professional Writers Association of Canada” (presumably, because the writing biz these days is almost more about online content than it is magazines and newspapers).

But I do keep tabs on what the Toronto chapter of PWAC is up to, and when the opportunity presents itself I try to attend some of their evening or weekend seminars, which they kindly open up to non-members who are willing to produce a $20 bill at the door.

It’s mostly about the networking for me.  Living in the boonies as I do, I’m disconnected from the urban writer’s community (where everybody knows your byline) and certainly disconnected from their reputed $1-a-word planet.  (There’s that Holy Grail AGAIN … and I notice it gets mentioned at least once in every PWAC seminar, like you are doing the world a disservice, or at least are remarkably stupid or can’t possibly be any good, if you write for less …)

Other than that, though, they’re generally positive experiences and an opportunity for me to play Urban Grown-Up and wear the nice shoes for a few hours.

Last night’s topic was “Digital Journalism for Pay”, and it was mildly encouraging.  There were three panelists:  Wilf Dinnick, of OpenFile , Bert Archer of Yonge Street Media (for you out-of-towners, Yonge St. is Toronto’s iconic main drag, as well as the world’s longest non-highway street — it goes up to Hudson Bay or something), and Navneet Alang, of the Toronto Standard.  All of these are paying, online-only markets.

Dinnick’s enthusiasm, in particular, was infectious; he insists that people not only want and expect solid, well-written journalism on the Interwebz, but that there are markets which are willing to pay for it.  OpenFile’s numbers would seem to bear that out; according to Dinnick, they have quadrupled their audience in the last three months, and the metrics are still going nuts.  What’s even more encouraging is OpenFile’s model.  While it uses a certain amount of the dreaded UGC (user-generated content, aka ‘citizen journalism’, aka the stuff that’s putting me out of business), what it does mostly is solicit story ideas from the public, then (and I will italicize this because it’s mildly mind-blowing) assign actual professional, paid journalists to write articles based on those story ideas.

In case you don’t know what the fuck I’m on about in this regard — the vast majority of online ‘news’ markets these days get their content from unpaid, unprofessional journalists whose content is usually worth exactly what they are paid for it.  See Huffington Post et al.  (And no, I’m not giving you a link to HuffPo, because I refuse to give it any gratuitous hits. Find it yourself if you must.)

Now, OpenFile isn’t Grailworthy … from what I understand, they pay a flat rate of $200 for stories.  But most of us are grateful for such crumbs these days.  And they aren’t even grabbing rights; they ask exclusivity of the content for a mere 48 hours, after which you are free to do what you will with your work (re-sell it, make giclee prints of it, give a copy to your mother).

A reasonably fair deal for writers?  In this day and age?  Well.  Whatever would Arianna Huffington say to that?

Archer backed up Dinnick, saying that journalism hasn’t really changed; if you have the chops, you’ll do just as well or better in the digital age, than you did selling to traditional print markets.   Furthermore, he thinks good journalists will

Thanks to Patrick Blower of the Telegraph, who would have been consulted had I been able to track him down.

be valued for those skills — if not now, then when the dust starts to settle on the whole changing-face-of-writing thing, in three to five years (est.) — and shouldn’t need to re-invent themselves as podcasters, videographers, and/or code-writers.

Hope that part’s true, because I really can’t afford to invest in video equipment and my hair looks funny on-camera.  Also, I hate the sound of my voice.  Dammit, I knew I should have taken that broadcast class in undergrad ….

All three agreed, “there’s never been a more exciting time to be a journalist”.  I presume they mean in that uber-fun, “please be the first to bungee off this bridge into the gorge … it hasn’t been tested but we’re sure it’s perfectly safe” way.  They’re certainly astute in pointing out that the ‘traditional’ print markets — venerable institutions like the Toronto Star, the Wall Street Journal, and Atlantic Monthly — have not yet really come to grips with the possibilities and pitfalls of online journalism.  “They’re casting about at the moment,” Archer said.  “They don’t really know what they’re doing.”

And when money starts to get tight, publications like this don’t respond by selling the printing press.  Nope.  They fire reporters.  That, says Dinnick, is an almost limitless talent pool that online markets can tap into.  True enough.  We’re here and we’re hungry.  And we’re in no position to hold out for $1 a word.

More than ever, it pays to be nimble.  It’s fatal to have all your eggs in one editorial basket these days.  Got to hustle, got to diversify.  Ten times $250 blurbs = one $2500 feature back in the day.  But here was where something of an elephant strolled into the room … when our three esteemed panellists were asked to think of some other online news outlets which paid (other than the three they themselves represented), well … they could only come up with one (The Tyee, a Vancouver-based and -focused online newspaper).

Not such a positive close to the session.

I’m sure it’s all going to sort itself out over the next few years … I’m just not confident I’m not going to starve to death waiting for it to happen.

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