Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Let it Rain, Let it Snow!

My student's husband said it best when he quietly murmured "you guys are insane" before climbing back into his warm truck and pulling away from the arena. We, meanwhile, watched him drive down the road to a warm office somewhere as we stood in a combination of rain/snow, wind/hail, and frigid temperatures. I had come to this small isolated town to give a day of instruction to local dressage enthusiasts, who actually showed up with horses in frozen trailers for the occasion.

We all stood for one brief moment looking at each other, or what little we saw of each other under layers of waterproof bundling. My feet froze to the insoles of my boots. My fingers throbbed, my eyes teared. We looked at each other with the storm swirling around our ears and questioned silently if we should cancel or proceed with the day. And just as silently, it was made clear that of course we would proceed as normal. A series of invisible gestures and gumption led us through our motions as if each of us said to ourselves "we're horse people, for God's sake, this is what we do, now let's get on with it." That "what we do" part could be translated as: routinely suffer extremes of weather.

You see, my student's husband calling us insane had some truth. Horse people do activities with or for their horses in weather miserable enough to cancel any other event. Horse people will postpone weddings, cancel reunions and graduations for torrential downpours but they will still go to a horse show, clinic, or group ride. They'd never imagine joining friends for soccer or a hike or anything else outside when the wind whistles against their doors. But a horse event? Sure. When the weather is so inclement they can barely see their hands in front of their faces, they will hesitate only a fractional second before saddling up.
This is just another illogical thing about life with horses. It's almost as if we all solemnly assume that foul weather is part of the deal with horses, whereas elsewhere in our lives we have more sense. A lot more.

I, for one, am an avid cyclist, yet I'd never dream of pedaling down the road for a long spell in rain, hail, or mud. The notion strikes me as impossibly unbearable. Given the same rain, hail, and mud, though, you'll likely find me out on horseback. I can't explain it. I recall recently riding a horse for a client while big chunks of icy hail bounced off my face and collected along the horse's crest. In the same conditions, you would never find me on my bike, out for a walk, or for that matter doing anything other than huddling under a comforter in front of the fire.

And next time a hail storm pushes through, I'll probably once again be out on a horse. I'm a horse gal. It's what we do.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What Are YOU Looking At?

At some point, every rider has endured a hair-raising, nail-biting moment of time when one's life flashes before one's eyes due to a wildlife critter that would under normal circumstances seem adorable and charming. In these moments, though, wildlife seems like one of life's great cruelties.

I had one such ride this morning, which got me thinking about this. Afterwards, I felt like I needed to go to the local ASPCA chapter or wildlife protection agency and apologize for the 15 minutes I spent cursing profanely at a majestic male deer that nearly ended my life. Normally, a six-point buck perched atop a foggy cliff would incite a flutter in my heart and even inspire a verse or two of haiku poetry. But he's the last thing I want to see when I am on my horse, who instantly turns into a fear-crazed, runaway lunatic.

Let me give a disclaimer here before going any further that I personally love wildlife. I am a dues-paying member of Sierra Club, I mountain bike and hike regularly, and I take time every day to stop and ponder the sheer wonder of mother nature. However, when I am on a horse, I often curse the fuzzy and furry members of the forest. It is fair to say I even shout and sometimes think about throwing things at them. Were it the case that my horse did not gallop away and jeopardize my mortal existence, I would definitely view them otherwise. Yes, the leaping jackrabbits, startling deer, and darting birds would be met with a friendly "aw, aren't you cute?" rather than a "shoo! Get the heck outta here, go, go, go!"

Anyway, back to this morning's ride. I was precariously convincing a feisty three-year old mare that even though everyone else was eating their breakfasts and she was grumpy, we still needed to get some work done. I had a hard time selling her on this. After a few good revolutions around the arena, she was looking to convince me that here grumpiness was going nowhere and I should take her back to the barn. She pinned her ears, swished her tail, spooked at a few things here and there. Basically, she made my job of riding her a whole lot of work.

About 20 minutes later, though, she began to come around. She started to go through her paces rather nicely in fact, so I asked her to pick up a brisk ground-covering canter (a risky move with a young horse on a chilly morning!), which she did promptly. I began to smile like a proud teacher. And then I glanced up the hill outside our arena. There in the mist stood a very large buck looking straight down at us. I gritted my teeth. The mare hadn't seen him yet; she was still performing beautifully, although I knew the second she saw him, it would be over for me. She would take the opportunity to bolt wildly and throw some wretched antics at me, re-starting her campaign to be done with riding for the day. Shoot! We were already in a rather speedy canter. Once she laid eyes on that muscular fellow with the antlers, she would hit the speed of light. And I would either be in the dirt or saying prayers.

So I started to do the only thing I could do. "GET OUTTA HERE!" I snarled. No movement. In fact, the big guy seemed more interested in us now. My mare kept cantering along, miraculously not yet noticing him. In fact, she kept things far cooler than I in that moment as I launched into a verbal tirade.

"Go ON! Git! Go away! Get outta here you blasted fool... do you want me killed? Don't you have some deer harem you need to get back to? Why are you looking at me? WHAT? Get outta here. Why are you just STANDING there?" My screams echoed off rocks and down canyons. It lifted up into tree tops and skimmed across mud puddles. I admitted to myself that I probably appeared like someone recently escaped from an asylum and not meant to be on horseback. But I didn't mind if anyone standing nearby wanted to label me a crazy person. I just plain didn't care because I was determined to finish this ride still on the back of my horse, not in the dirt.

Finally, the giant antlers turned the other direction and trotted off to pester something else. I felt myself start breathing again. My mare kept cantering and I smiled at her. What a delightful ride we were having. And that was what mattered, right? Who cared if I momentarily became a crazy person who shouted at furry adorable forest animals?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Merry Christmas

Even today, a scene of Christmas music and holiday ornaments ignites a feeling of magic in my chest. It’s as though I am instantly six years old again, filled with wonder and excitement and raw bubbling joy. And the belief that at exactly midnight on Christmas Eve the horses would speak in human voices.

My mom planted this idea in my head when I was four years old, whispering it to me in the barn aisle and stooping low so nobody else—especially the horses—overheard this little-known secret. She shared it with such conviction that I assumed it might be an accepted truth amongst grown-ups. Naturally, I felt jealous that they’d had so many more years than my tender four to talk to their horses with real voices just like in the movies. So, I vowed on that chilly afternoon of Mom’s revelation to do my best to catch up. Every year on Christmas Eve from then on, I would sleep in the barn waiting for my beloved four-legged friends to speak out loud!

Nearly thirty years later, I’ll admit that I have never once heard a horse speak out loud at midnight. It took only until I was ten to realize that Mom dreamed up the story as a way of getting me out of the house so that she and Dad could stuff stockings and set out gifts in secrecy. Her plan worked. I departed the house with my blankets at 9pm and didn’t return until 3am, leaving her and Dad uninterrupted.

Frostbite aside, I never regretted waiting in the barn every year. After yet another year passing without our horses speaking out loud, I never felt the disappointment I expected. I suspect Mom knew this would be the outcome when revealing her ‘secret’ to me. You see, anyone who’s spent time in a stable after nightfall knows the magic it embodies. When the doors are slid shut to the frost outside, the only sounds in that little haven are quiet, peaceful—horses munching hay, a rustle of shavings, barn cats skittering in the rafters. It is impossible, especially as a child, to sit in that space and not feel the magic of the animal kingdom.

After wrapping my blankets around me mummy-style, I sat on the barn aisle floor outside Equinox Black Silk’s stall. ‘Black Silk’ was my mom’s cherished black stallion, a dramatic beast who acted like king of our farm. For hours, I sat cross-legged leaning against the front of his stall, waiting for him, Sunnybrook, Charlotte, and Trinket to speak out loud. Occasionally, he poked his coal black nose through the stall bars and rumpled my hair, warming my ears with his nostrils. Then, he went back to his hay, contemplating what he’d tell me at midnight, I assumed.

Some years, I dozed off until the early hours of dawn, awakened by our barn cat trying to snuggle inside my blankets. Other years, I stayed awake by talking to the animals. Even if they weren’t going to speak, they could listen to my musings. They could bend a compassionate ear to my worries that Santa’s sleigh might get stuck in the snow or that Mom wouldn’t like her slippers that I made by hand from sheepskin and duct tape. The horses listened to it all—without saying a word in return.

Every year, as I walked back up the driveway, I pondered how delightful those creatures were. How peaceful and majestic. How much like the perfect best friend. A glance in our living room revealed that Santa had come and gone, without getting stuck in the snow, during my barn-sit. Several small packages peeked out from under the tree awaiting our little family to gather around in a few hours for a festive period of ribbon-tearing, sharing, and chatter before barn chores, snow shoveling and other duties called. How wonderful, I smiled on my way to bed, how divinely magical…

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

En Vogue?

One of my students arrived last week wearing breeches that defied the normally dismal fashions of English riding apparel so thoroughly that I went momentarily speechless. Not only were they electric eggplant colored but they had a five-inch tassel dangling from the left side of the rider's buttocks.

Stupidly, I asked if she realized she had a fringe swinging from her seat. Of course she realized; it was an identifying feature of the brand. This particular apparel manufacturer also made styles in various other show-stopping colors with tassels attached almost anywhere someone could imagine.

After moving past how bizarre I found them, I had to admit that I found the new brand of slightly wild pants pretty cool and imagined myself in a pair of hot yellow ones with tassels swinging from my knees. And then, sinking, I admitted that I am probably too uptight to sport such fashions. It would be such a break from my stiff-upper-lip English riding upbringing that I feared a total identity crisis. After all, dull-colored unflattering breeches have been a mainstay of my entire equestrian life.

A client of mine recently summed up how unfashionable English breeches are with perfection. She used to ride Western and back then, she and her friends referred to English breeches as 'Dork pants." It's a pretty accurate description, I think. I mean, let's put it this way: I don't know a single person who reaches for her riding pants when she's looking for something really cool to wear. Now, if those breeches had tassels swinging from them, it just might be a different story.

For years, dressage riders have been begging for a rule change regarding competition dress code. How about another option besides white breeches and a black jacket? Any other colors, we begged. And finally a few years ago, the higher powers of dressage regulations announced new flexibility in the choice of riders' outfits. The news was met with cautious excitement. After decades of wearing only black and white, what colors were now allowed?

The answer we got resembled the moment last week when I admitted that my stiff-upper-lip English upbringing wouldn't allow me to fully break from the mold of the world of Dork pants. In addition to white and black, dressage riders could now also wear navy blue and grey. While this was indeed a change, I wouldn't call it a wild break from the norm.

As loud as we dressage riders begged for change, I guess we weren't really ready. We're too serious or fashion-inhibited or something like that. Maybe we just can't see ourselves in electric eggplant colored pants or pants with funky patterns and fringes.

I'm not sure what it does take to wear these oddities, but I'm working on it. In fact, I'm trying my best at amnesia for the last 30 years of dark colored synthetic fabric breeches that never fit quite right. I'm close. I think it's just a matter of time until I'm in those hot yellow pants with tassels. And I'm pretty sure the rest of the dressage world it close behind me.

Food Wars

Some days, it seems like the mere act of surviving life with horses mandates a person to form fiery and tightly held beliefs about anything and everything, and to verbalize them assertively at any opportunity, lest you become confused or led astray by others' tightly held beliefs.

Either people without a tendency to form firm convictions stay away from the industry to begin with or they're kicked out. I haven't determined which.

This struck me recently while teaching at a new barn when one of the boarders had an episode after discovering some blades of alfalfa hay in her horse's stall. This then drew everyone around her into a heated argument about whether horses were meant to eat alfalfa, and how her horse might likely colic from the offending scraps she found in his stall.

A woman nearby quickly countered, "No, no, you're mistaken. Alfalfa maintains the correct calcium-phosphorous ratio in the gut. Grass hay doesn't. You have to feed alfalfa."

Another gal cut in, "Well, no, you're only partially right. It depends on the breed of horse. Stockier breeds risk becoming laminitic on alfalfa."

Yet another shot in with "No, all breeds can eat alfalfa. It's sugar ya wanna be careful about, but there aint sugar in alfalfa so it's okay."

All told, the debate about alfalfa lasted 20 minutes, everyone offering well-researched and eloquent, albeit opposing, opinions. Absolutely nobody agreed or was indifferent about the topic.
Then somehow the bickering about hay types segued straight into a debate about beet pulp. Again, a dozen fiery convictions flew. Beet pulp was good for digestion. Nah, beet pulp was indigestible. It should be purchased in shredded form and then soaked. No, the pelleted form was better and needed no soaking. Etc.

I listened within earshot, withholding my own speculations about beet pulp, alfalfa, or any other feed. It was a classic example of too many cooks in the kitchen. I knew that in a matter of minutes, the conversation would switch to training methods, giving the cluster of equestrians another issue on which to weigh their opinions. And again, no two of them would share the same one.

I chuckled under my breath, gaining insight into the drama or 'barn politics' that vexes most boarding facilities. Barn politics could be best described as frequent outbursts, tantrums, and personality clashes amongst boarders.

In a sport filled with such opinionated participants, I reflected, it's a small miracle we can co-exist at all.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Greener Pastures, Part II

I visited my hometown in Vermont last week and was immediately reminded that traveling to the Northeast from California means boarding a plane in flip-flops and shorts and then six hours later trying while deplaning to stuff myself into five sweaters... at once. By the time I left the airport terminal, I was wearing everything I packed in my suitcase. And I was wishing for one more scarf to cover the drafty parts on my neck not yet fully mummified.

My father, meanwhile, pointed out that it was a lovely Autumn day with "balmy" temperatures well into the 40's. I begged him to roll up his window and stop trying to tell me that the biting air outside was "warm" by any one's definition. It has been only six years since I left Vermont for California, but apparently one can soften up quickly. I used to laugh at Californians during January wearing their Ugg boots and woolen scarves as if it were actually 'winter' outside rather than a mid-60 degree day with light breezes. But now I have become one of them. I wrap scarves around myself as soon as the temperature dips below the high 60's, I use the word "storm" to describe a light rain shower, and I talk about winter as if it's actually a season here (which it isn't).

While visiting Vermont, I realized just how soft I've become. Back when I lived in New England, I often taught riding lessons until I was frozen solid. Then I would call it a day, rubbing icicles out of my eyelashes. One year, I got frostbite in all ten toes and instated a policy that from then on, I would teach only in temperatures above 10-degrees Fahrenheit. The following year, though, I got frostbite in all ten fingers, and I raised the temperature minimum to 20-degrees. However, a horse trainer in Vermont cannot survive with such a policy as I soon found out. You see, during the months of January and February, the temperature sometimes sits below 20-degrees for weeks at a time. This meant my prospective income-earning days reduced from 30 per month to zero. Thus, I moved to California.

Last week's visit home coincided with my birthday, and so my friend Sarah took me to her favorite tack and saddle shop. The idea was to buy me a gift. Not being a great shopper, I asked Sarah to help me choose a pair of riding pants. Next thing I know, she's holding up something that looks like a uniform for ski patrol in Alaska.

"What about these?" she asked, obviously pleased with whatever it was that she found.

"Um... well what are those, exactly?" I asked as politely as possible.

Her brow pushed together. She looked at me like a stranger, or someone who had gravely disappointed her.

"What? You don't remember these?" she finally mumbled, looking off into space now. I could sense an odd tension in the room, as if she'd asked me if I remembered my own father's name. I tried to ease the growing alienation I sensed between us. Clearly, I should have recognized whatever she held in her hands. And honestly, to me, it looked like a cross between a bathrobe and a sleeping bag.

"Fleece riding pants? Don't you remember? Do people in California not wear these?" asked Sarah, trying to fathom how anyone could survive in winter without insulating herself in four inches of unflattering fabrics.

Upon closer inspection, and a very chilly recollection of my former life, I did remember the fleece riding pants. I remember owning an entire drawer of them. They were thick and fuzzy and added at least three inches of bulk to each thigh. Well, I should say they would have added three inches of bulk...if worn alone. But a rider would perish in Vermont's winter trying to wear only fleece pants. One also needed 1.) silk long underwear 2.) thermal undergarments 3.) heated socks and 4.) an external waterproof shell of some sort. In that order. All told, when I got dressed to ride in Vermont, I inflated from a size four to a size 10.

With so many layers of clothes, it's almost impossible to ride a horse. I mean, you are so padded and insulated that you can barely move, let alone feel anything like a horse moving under you. Giving lessons always highlighted this challenge. Riders would ask me about their form, their position in the saddle, etc. "Is my leg in the right place?" they would ask. "Is my back straight?" And I would stand in the middle of the arena staring at them, trying to see them through all those layers. Sometimes, I had to admit, "You know, I can't even see your back." A person could be entirely slouched over or slumped down in the saddle, and I would never be able to tell under all the jackets and flannel.

But the beauty of life in the Northeast is that riders there assume that equestrians across the country suffer through the same winter experiences. They think the sunny portrayals of California are just a fabrication of Hollywood. Shivering with their frostbitten fingers frozen around a pair of reins, they believe we Californians are donning fleece riding pants and sniffling through riding lessons, too. Not so, dear New Englanders! I will always remain a Vermont native at heart and I do harbor a fierce pride in that frigid northeastern United States. But I have to admit that I don't miss fleece riding pants, no matter how sexy this year's color selection might be. I'll stick to riding in shirt sleeves and everyday breeches.

For now, I need to get going. Tomorrow is forecast for light rain showers and I need to go prepare the barn for a "storm."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Greener Pastures, Part I

Call me an idealist, but generally when I think of horses, I simultaneously think of rolling green pastures in which to keep them. This is one of the reasons I'm often told I have a chip on my shoulder. You see, originally I'm from the East Coast, where pastures are as common as rodents. Almost any homeowner outside major metropolitan areas has one... or five. With this much land, a person can happily accumulate horses to her heart's content and the horses will lead a happy grass-grazing life out there under the sky.

Here in California, it's another story entirely. In order to have a pasture, you would need to be a multi-multi-millionaire. In fact, in the town where I live, even if you were a multi-multi-millionaire, you would likely end up with only a quarter acre on the side of a steep cliff that will either disappear in the next mud slide or burn up in a major wildfire mid-summer. This is usually when I start saying things like; "Well, back East a quarter acre isn't considered enough land for a horse, anyway. Our pastures back there are at least 20 acres..." Most folks in California haven't owned 20 acres of raw land since the Gold Rush. And when I start sentences with "Well, back East..." people tend to roll their eyes. Frankly, they're sick of me talking about greener pastures.

So, recently I've been trying to stifle my comparisons about horse-keeping on both coasts and fully embrace my current surroundings. For instance, I've begun talking to myself when retrieving horses from stables the size of shoe boxes, saying things like "Yes, Jec, this is perfectly normal. Horses adapt to their living environments. Never mind this horses doesn't have enough space to comfortably lie down; he's just fine." I've become more at ease referring to a 12' x 16' area being defined as 'turnout' where a horse can romp and kick up his heels. I've convinced myself that it is in fact possible for horses to be raised in sand lots without ever seeing or tasting a blade of fresh green grass. In fact, I've spent so much time trying to shed my previous paradigm about horse-keeping that some days I feel like I'm repeating a mantra in my new state: "This is normal. This is fine. This is just fine. Yes, normal."

Sometimes, however, I totally fail at convincing myself. Maybe this does equate to me having a chip on my shoulder, and so be it. At certain points during my day, I just can't help yearning for endless miles of open land for my horses and I to romp and roll in the dirt and relax. I can't help pining for the peace and quiet that comes from riding across 80 open acres without a sound except birds and breezes. Luckily, I'm able to snap out of these nostalgic longings quickly and get on with my day.

Last week, however, my mantra "This is just fine" suffered a prolonged blow. I was riding a client's horse at her property, which borders a very busy highway near out coastal town. Sometimes, the din of utility trucks, zooming sport scars, and Harley Davidson motorcycles can make it impossible to form a complete thought. I've often thought it might be more peaceful inside a food blender. Just to hold a normal conversation with my client, I am forced to yell at a level that actually hurts my neck. The horses, though, have adapted to highway life just fine and go about their workouts without being distracted at all by the nearby traffic mayhem. Truthfully, it's me that suffers more. So, I was repeating my mantra while putting this particular horse through his paces. And it was working.

Then a giant speeding SUV passed the arena and slowed down to watch us for a moment. The very second it slowed down, a ferocious bout of growling and barking erupted from its interior. The sheer volume startled me so much I dropped my reins. Confused, my horse trotted to the center of the arena awaiting a cue from me to do otherwise. I regained my composure enough to look over in the direction of the giant SUV in time to see an entire herd of Chihuahuas crawling out the driver's window snapping and yowling at me and the horse. Let me tell you, they may be tiny, but these little guys were out for blood.

Meanwhile, the driver tried to get them under control by rolling up his window which only agitated them more. They barked and scratched and yapped, all half dozen of them swarming around the driver, who obviously could no longer see enough to drive and was now blocking the road. Along came a Honda Civic pouncing up and down with rap music and piloted by a teenager in a beanie and hooded sweatshirt. The rollicking Civic slammed to a stop but continued to bounce up and down from the sheer volume of music pumping through its speakers. The teenager leaned on his horn. This, of course, startled the carload of Chihuahuas, spurring them into more mania.

It was right about then that my mantra completely failed. This was not normal or fine or even fun for that matter. Here I was trying to school this horse in the majestic and graceful maneuvers of dressage, all while under siege of yapping dogs and an angst-ridden teenager with a car that bounced like a basketball. No, this was not normal horse-keeping. Call me prejudice, but I'll trade the carload of barking dogs for a silent arena any day...

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Value Added

I left the post office today having nearly filled the recycling bin with catalogues offering pages of nutritional products promising to make my horses sounder, healthier, more athletic, happier, and in some ways more talented. As I walked out into the late afternoon sun, I pondered how horses from days bygone seemed to live to a ripe old age just fine without all that stuff. No joint formulas or intestinal toners. No herbal mood remedies or hoof builders. At what point did we decide that they needed scoopfuls of powders, potions, and pills, lest they not be suited to see the light of another day?

When I was growing up my parents maintained a 12-stall barn of performance horses. These were serious athletes, horses that competed only in rigorous sports like combined driving and long distance trail riding. And I don’t remember a single one of them ever being unsound or having some malaise that left us standing around scratching our heads saying “gosh, if only there were a supplement we could add to his feed….” Our horses got three things every day: a pile of hay, a clean bucket of water, and a coffee can full of sweet feed laced with corn kernels and molasses. Period.

But some time around the mid-1990’s, equine nutritional companies decided that modern horses weren’t as functional as they seemed. Which is another way of saying they saw an opportunity to create a profitable market. In no time at all, they convinced horse owners that their steeds were compromised; they needed supplements. Thus began the burgeoning business of manufacturing products that promised to do everything from make a horse’s coat shinier to settling him emotions. In fact, some supplements promise to do everything but clean a horse’s stall for you.

Recently, a client of mine handed me a brochure for a supplement she had begun feeding her horse. The impressively glossy brochure promised the following for horses that ate it: improve digestion, create mental focus, tone muscles and ligaments, boost energy and stamina, reduce anxiety, etc. That’s an abbreviated synopsis of what the product promised. In fact, if I recall correctly, the yellowish powder was supposed to take care of every need your horse might have except for daily training. Maybe if you fed two scoops a day, it handled the training, too.

“What’s in this?” I asked, noting that nowhere did the manufacturer list any ingredients.

“Who cares? Did you see what it does for your horse?” asked my client in a tone that indicated she might be thinking I was illiterate.

“Well, no, I’m not sure it DOES do those things for my horses, since I don’t know what’s in here,” I pointed out. And, you see, this is why I’m often labeled a cynic. Before I plunk down $50 on a bucket full of granules promising my horse a better life, I want to know what’s in there. What’s more, I want some sales guy or gal to prove there’s some real science behind the product. You know, like it’s actually been tested and PROVEN to create the results it promises to. And by proven, I mean tested on more than one horse, one pony, and one donkey.

By this point, I was raining on my client’s parade as she had been quite excited to discover this new product and I was obviously failing to take on the level of enthusiasm she had hoped for.

“Have you noticed any difference in your horse since you started feeding him this stuff?” I asked, trying to be upbeat.

“Well, no, not really. But it’s just a matter of time,” she smiled, conveying utter faith in the prophetic label on the supplement bucket.

“Uh-huh,” I mumbled. “Well, was there any particular reason you started feeding it to him? Was something deficient or was he lacking health?”

No, she said. But things could always be better, right? Her horse had always been healthy and fit, but now with this new supplement, he would apparently be even better than healthy and fit.

“Let me ask you this,” I said. “If I developed a fancy label and packaged Twinkies with this label promising that the contents would make you more focused, fitter, energetic and so on, would you automatically start supplementing yourself with Twinkies every day?”

After a moment, she understood my analogy. But that doesn’t change the fact that horse people hate logic. My client—like all of us—did not want the holes pointed out in her decision to purchase and start feeding this unproven magical supplement. At the end of the day, it made her feel good, regardless of whether it had any scientifically substantiated effect on her horse. It made her feel good to go out and buy something for him that was supposed to improve his life. And that’s what counted. When she feels good, her horse feels good.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Monkey See Monkey Do

I’ve often heard that people choose pets that look like them. And while I’ve never actually decided whether my friends’ dogs look like them, I can attest that their pets do eventually act like them. With enough time, a pet will take on the characteristics of its owner, for better or for worse. Horses have proven this repeatedly to me over the years.

I’ve seen perfectly well-mannered horses under everyday circumstances turn into basket cases the moment they hear their owner’s car in the driveway. Suddenly, they’re pawing at the wall, pacing circles, chewing the wood from their stall doors. It’s as if the presence of their owner unleashes a spoiled personality that is otherwise dormant.

Likewise, I’ve witnessed stolid and steadfast mounts turn into spooky freaks once their owners mount up for a ride. It never fails to amaze me, though I should have become quite used to it by now. Like it or not, our animals mirror us. They take on our neuroses, our strengths, our weaknesses, and everything in between.

And sometimes it’s uncanny how little we want to admit that. I recall a few years ago riding a client’s young mare and having a productive schooling session when the client raced in the driveway, kicking up clouds of dust behind her sports car. She spilled out of the car, eyes bulging from a day of stress at the office, clutching a cell phone in one hand and a large extra-caffeinated mocha from Starbucks in the other.

She was using the speaker function of her phone to have a conversation with her ex-husband that used volumes of profanity I hadn’t heard since high school.

Anyway, before I knew it, she was in the arena with me (having put the ex-husband on mute) and wanted to ride her horse. Mentally, I came up with a dozen immediate reasons that amounted to a bad idea. Against my better judgment, I told her that would be fine if she could take five minutes and settle herself down. To her, that meant finishing her mocha and setting down her keys.

Before I knew it, I was giving this stressed-out, hyped-up woman a leg up on her young unsuspecting horse. Needless to say, within moments, the horse mirrored the woman, even without the ingestion of a 16-ounce mocha. It began darting around the arena, jumping out of its skin, and—I’m not kidding—its eyes bulged, just like its owner’s.

The woman wanted to know what was wrong. I gently pointed out that the horse had picked up on her frenzied state and was absorbing that energy, causing it to be unsettled. Of course this made no sense to Ms. Starbucks. Horses are horses, she said. As if they are completely dead to sensory input. No, I reminded her, horses are like their owners.

Fortunately, this can work favorably. My trainer friend Mark Schuerman is one of the calmest, unflappable people I’ve ever met. After two months in his barn, any horse takes on his quiet nature. It’s like a magical transformation, an osmosis of sorts. I was deeply grateful for this fact six years ago when I had just moved to California.

I shared a barn with Mark, who trained exclusively Arabians at the time. For some reason he had a fondness for these otherwise high-strung animals that became docile puppies under his hand. Being reputable in the Arabian world, he was invited to give a short riding performance at the Western States Horse Expo, the largest horse exposition on the West Coast that regularly attracts 65,000 or more spectators over one weekend in June. Mark was honored. He would ride one of his most prancing, gorgeous, bay Arabs under spotlights in the late-night ticketed show. He agreed to it with enthusiasm.

Then he got a hot date for that same night. But he didn’t want to let down his fans from the Arabian community, so he held his commitment to do the Expo gig by recruiting yours truly to ride his horse. I agreed without further thought because, first of all, I had no idea what I had gotten into and secondly, I knew Mark really wanted to go out with this attractive blonde woman. So, there you have it.

A few weeks later, I found myself mounted atop an increasingly nervous Arabian gelding squeezed into a crowd of roughly 100 other demonstration riders on equally nervous horses in the pitch black scrambling around on pavement while we each awaited our turn to blast into the main arena for five minutes of glory.

There’s much I don’t remember about that evening. What I do remember is that the act preceding my ride was a mounted shooting demonstration, which meant that while I waited with my snorting Arabian outside the arena’s main gate, a dozen or more out-of-control riders galloped around inside shooting pistols at balloons until they all popped. I’m not sure if it was the gunfire, my sudden nausea, or all the yelling and screaming, but my horse was quickly coming unglued.

I tried dialing Mark on my cell phone to tell him not only was I not going into that arena, but this night marked the end of our friendship, too. Before the call went through, though, a rearing giant Friesian stallion streaked across the pavement towards me, slid on his shoes, and rammed into my horse’s backside. That itself would have been startling enough. But the horse and his rider, a wanna-be—eighteenth century knight, were entirely decked out in chain mail armor. The more the horse reared, the more his armor clanked and rattled, which added further mayhem to the gunfire in the arena.

It was at this point that I realized I’d not ever drawn up a will. It became clear that I would not survive the evening alive and I was chanting to myself “huh, so this is how it ends…” when I remembered that the only thing in my favor was the fact that I was on top of a horse Mark had trained.

This meant that even with the Friesian stallion attacking us from behind and gunfire in front of us that things might turn out fine if I just acted like Mark. So, in spite of my chattering teeth and trembling bones, I did just that. And my horse reflected it. Albeit a little nervous, the horse kept himself composed. Someone swung open the arena gait, and we cantered in under huge spotlights in front of a crowd of a couple thousand people. We floated as if on air, as if my life hadn’t just passed before me moments earlier.

Part of me thanked Mark for being such an exceptional horseman. The other part wanted to hunt him down on his date and tell him I would never again ride at an event with both gunfire and horses.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Do You Want a Baseball Bat With That?

My father claims that he was pouring out his heart the other day when my cell phone cut out and he realized he was talking to himself. I find this hard to believe for two reasons.

The first is that my father’s version of ‘pouring out his heart’ includes either reminding me why female drivers should not be allowed on the highways or describing why our government is full of phonies. The second is that, being a horse trainer himself, my father knows that we equine professionals are nearly always in areas with spotty cell phone coverage. Therefore, one should never pour out one’s heart to a trainer on a cell phone.

The cell phone issue has amused me for several years now, mainly because these little technological devices present an anomaly for we horse folks. You see, the average horse trainer is eccentric, introverted, and socially isolated. That’s part of the reason we train horses; we don’t really fit into any other type of employment. Days full of non-verbal connection with four-legged animals suit us perfectly.

Then along came cell phones. Suddenly, our days of talking only to ourselves, our dogs, or our horses now included a ringing telephone with real live people on the other end! Our social isolation went out the door. Our introverted ways were being challenged. We now conducted conversations with prospective clients while sitting on a hay bale or bathing horses. We called in feed deliveries while mucking stalls.

In essence, we were no different than corporate executives who never seemed to take the time to do nothing but swat flies and contemplate what sized saddle to put on the new Arabian in the barn. Next thing we knew, we’d be resembling corporate Americans in other ways, like running to Starbucks at 4pm every day and talking too fast and putting more thought into how we dressed.

For most of us, the transition has been a little awkward. It has presented the opportunity for us to become bona fide businesspeople, a venture we trainers have been reticent to embrace for centuries. Moreover, technological concepts like “cell coverage,” “bandwidth,” or “phone web browsing” all seem terribly advanced and tedious in the face of issues like whether Timothy of alfalfa hay is better. Personally, I’d rather determine if the brand of fly spray I’m currently using on my steeds is actually working than try to figure out what key on my cell phone will create a question mark symbol in a text message.

Until recently, I’ve regarded the cell phone a bit skeptically. Was it a business tool? A means of being more connected to family and friends? An emergency device? Last week, my good buddy Mark provided me the answer we trainers have been seeking for years. We were at a horse show when he excitedly pulled out his new cell phone to show me. It looked like a hockey puck.

“Watch this!,” he said and promptly hurled it against the side of a metal barn. It bounced off and flew into a pile of sawdust. Mark then ran over and jumped up and down on top of it. The new phone, he explained, was guaranteed to be more or less indestructible. It was allegedly waterproof, weather-proof, and vehicle-proof, meaning that Mark could drive over it with his big diesel truck, which he had of course already tried repeatedly. He had also verified its claims by submerging it in water troughs and leaving it in his horse trailer to endure extreme heat. So far, it had been indestructible. The following day, he intended to test its survival under a set of tractor tires, he told me like a giddy child with a new toy.

And in that moment, I came to terms with these little technological devices called cell phones that never seem to work in the areas I desperately need them to. I now understood why they had become such an integral part of we trainers’ lives. We all needed a little amusement, a little something to see if we could crush under our tractors

Sunday, September 7, 2008

If I Only Had a Bran Mash

I just got home from a horse show and all I want to do it eat. You see, if you’ve been to many shows, you quickly realize that it’s a darn good thing we don’t feed our horses what people stuff down themselves at shows.

After all these years, I still cannot understand this irony. I mean, a show involves at least three or more days of grueling labor, sun exposure, often extreme weather, long hours, and performance. You would assume that equestrians would feed themselves in the nutritional ways of an athlete. Nah, quite the opposite.

I pondered this fact yesterday morning as I wandered the show grounds in a desperate search for something to eat that resembled real food. My options included: sugary over-processed muffin from Costco being re-sold at the show’s only food vendor, the sugary complimentary glazed donuts and coffee tasting like jet fuel given out by show management, or a sugary baked good from the nearby Starbucks. So, basically, the only ‘choice’ I had was in what form I wanted my sugar. I decided it was better to starve another day until I could get my hands on a piece of fruit or something without mass quantities of corn syrup.

What really amused me was that when I arrived at the show four days ago, people were carefully administering bran mashes and electrolytes to their horses, ensuring their fine steeds would drink ample water and handle the miserably hot weather in good health. Meanwhile, they themselves stuffed down glazed donuts, ice cream sandwiches and whatever else was more or less guaranteed to make them dizzy, red-faced, and worn-out in 100-degree heat. By the third day, competitors were seriously wilting… and I was dreaming about things like bananas and whole grain toast. The horses, on the other hand, fared just fine. Luckily they don’t have to suffer the offerings of show food vendors.

I think somewhere around the mid-1990s, with a plethora of processed and imitation food products at their disposal, food vendors caught on to the very sage capitalistic knowledge that horse show competitors are a captive market. Usually, the nearest supermarket is a 20-minute drive from any showgrounds and competitors are tight on time. So, their one option for food is the show vendor. Much like in the case of movie theater prices, this has resulted in things like $3 bottles of water and $8 hamburgers. It has also resulted in offering items that marginally resemble real food but cost as much as a restaurant entrée. After all, why prepare a fresh-made sandwich when a horse show competitor will shell out $7 for a corn dog nuked in the microwave for 30 seconds? Never mind that the competitor will suffer digestive duress for the remainder of the afternoon.

What is sadly missing from most shows today is a staple from my childhood spent at horse competitions all over the East Coast. The mighty fried egg sandwich. Back in the day, almost every competitor downed an egg sandwich in the morning, because then they were bolstered for the day with strength and stamina. In fact, fried egg sandwiches become synonymous for me with horse shows. And I do not mean a pre-made plastic-sealed sandwich with imitation eggs and bright orange cheese. I mean the real deal. They were always fried up fresh by a slightly grumpy gentleman in a white aluminum trailer. They were served piping hot on toasted English Muffins with a slice of cheese. With one of those in your belly, you could tackle the stress of competition and inclement weather all day long and wake up bright eyed the next day.

It may not count as an actual revolution, but I’d like to start a movement that brings the fried egg sandwich back into style at horse shows. I say out with the glazed donuts and in with the English Muffin goodness. Until my revolution takes hold, though, I’ll be here in my kitchen stuffing my face until my next show….

Monday, August 11, 2008

Dollars and Sense

A few weeks ago, I found myself shopping for a new car. Apparently, this activity incites those around you to offer unsolicited advice. A client of mine, mid-lesson, lectured me about my endeavors to find the right new car for my needs (fuel-efficient, compact, nice color). Her reasoning: I should purchase a used car instead. New cars, after all, lose value the second you drive them off the lot.

I pondered her advice for a moment. Then, I asked if the brand new custom-made saddle she was riding in had lost value since she first put it on her horse. She looked at me puzzled. Wasn't it the same thing?, I asked. How was her new saddle any different in depreciation than my potential new car? Well, here's the thing. There is a rather significant disconnect when it comes to horse people and the money they spend on their furry friends as opposed to what they spend on themselves.

Yes, the saddle had lost value from the first moment my student sat in it. But these kinds of things don't seem to matter. Where the horse is concerned, most owners refuse to cut corners. I once worked for a very wealthy couple who used to spend heaps of money on special grain and vitamins for their horses but clipped coupons for Friday night pizza discounts for themselves. More recently, a client of mine skipped a few haircuts and dye job for her gray hair, which resulted in an entirely new frazzled, split-ended hairdo that was not completely flattering. I made a subtle comment about the lofty price she'd paid for a snazzy new curry comb for her horse (which would have covered two haircuts for her), and she replied simply, "Yeah, I know. But he likes it."

Equestrians' disparity between what they spend on themselves versus what they spend on their horses is so bizarre that even those outside the industry know about it. A friend of mine who knows very little about horses gently pointed this out a few days ago. I was reporting that so far the bad economy had not-- thankfully-- dented my business too much. She stopped twirling her hair around her finger long enough to roll her eyes and say, "Yeah, but isn't it common knowledge that horse people will pretty much sleep in the gutter before they sacrifice what they spend on their horses?"

Sheesh, are we that bad?, I wondered.

Within a second, I had answered my own question. I recalled a week earlier when I stopped at the health food store and didn't balk at purchasing several pounds of high-grade organic flax seeds (for my four-legged critters) but then opted to buy a pound of conventionally grown, rather than organic, bananas for myself in order to save something like 10 cents. I sort of knew there was no logic in spending more money on my horses' lunches than my own. But it just seemed like the right thing. Granted, it's still a long way from sleeping in the gutter (so far, anyway). At the end of the day, we horse people probably justify the disparity the same way. Speaking for myself, anyway, I'd like to think that if things got bad enough, and long before I curled up in the gutter, that one of my beloved horses would spare a little room in her stall and look upon me with gratitude for all the expenses I never complained about. This is what I tell myself when I'm writing all those checks. Oh, and buying that new car to drive... to the barn.

Friday, August 8, 2008

You want me to do... What?

There is no industry standard per se on lesson and training fees, although most equine professionals charge similar amounts with the exception of a few high rollers setting outrageous fees. But unlike environments like corporate America, there is no clear correlation between a trainer's experience, qualifications, and salary. It's all sort of random.

However, possession of one particular asset does seem to ensure a trainer's ability to charge-- and receive-- rather lofty figures. A foreign accent allows an instructor who might otherwise make $60 per lesson to charge over $100. It matters not whether the accent is Slovakian, Finnish, or German.

All that counts is that it hints of a person's roots being beyond U.S. soil. This fact alone gives the person a huge advantage in attracting equestrian clientele. His skills never need to be scrutinized; the foreign accent, along with a tidy riding outfit, leads to the assumption that he is in fact superior to domestic trainers. It's much like assuming that because someone is Japanese, he must be an expert of sushi. Riding and horsemanship have existed for so much longer overseas that we Americans tend to cling to foreigners as if their DNA is encoded with riding wisdom.

I myself was lured in by the centuries of dressage traditions in Europe and over the years have made not one, but twelve, pilgrimages to ride and train there. Honestly, I can't tell you that I learned any more there than I have from my domestic trainers here in the U.S., but I did come away with a feeling of storybook magic-- cobbled barn courtyards, well-groomed horses, charming little indoor arenas, and well, all those accented lessons.

Following an instructor's directives in a lesson is difficult enough. I can tell you that when you only marginally understand what he's saying, it's far worse.

One time in Portugal, my mother and I were being yelled at to "Sit cloze to zee wizards!" My mom tried to satisfy the instruction by riding her horse close to everything around-- the fence railing, spectators, chairs. Our trainer kept yelling. Finally, Mom trotted her horse up alongside mine and through clenched teeth asked me, "Where the hell is the wizard?"

I chuckled. "Withers, Mom. Sit close to the horse's withers...."

I figured I was owed a good chuckle because a month earlier, I suffered my own accent-induced embarrassment. In Germany, I convinced the revered trainer Egon von Neindorff, by then a very old and cynical man, to allow me the use of a translator for my lessons as I didn't speak German very well and old Neindorff refused to speak anything but his native tongue. An American journalist kindly sat in on my lesson, translating every comment Neindorff made to me, which wasn't much. His lesson went much like this:

Then, the translator got up to use the bathroom and the second she left the arena, Neindorff started spewing orders in rapid fire. Of course, I had no clue what the old codger was saying, so I just kept trotting my horse. This was obviously the wrong decision. Neindorff's voice escalated, he fired off instruction even faster, his arms waved. Panicked, I clenched by legs and held my breath, which must have been the cue for my mare to begin a lovely, if entirely unsolicited, piaffe.

There I sat atop this horse with legs moving wildly, and yet we were going nowhere. I poked with my spur, I clucked... and we went faster in place. She bounced up and down, working herself into a lather and I could not get her to move forward. I was horrified. But then I noticed Neindorff had stopped shouting at me. I looked across to arena to find that he was doubled over, holding his stomach in laughter, so heartily humored by my embarrassment that he was gasping for air.

More recently, my mentor-- a Spaniard living in Australia-- unleashed his own very strange dialect in an order that went something like: "Now, mike aye twanty meh-ter half curcle." Confused, I just kept trotting (obviously having learned nothing from my previously mentioned German adventures) while he stared at me. He repeated his instruction, giving me the benefit of being hearing deficient. Then he stared more. After I trotted another four times around the arena, he asked wearily "Why you no do what I tell you?"

If only I knew what he told me...

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Will Work for Free...

Someone asked me last week what I would do now that my groom was moving out of the area. I scoffed at the person because without giving it much thought, I reacted with a startled sense of "What do you mean? I'll be just fine, just like I always am!"

Then I gave it some thought. With my groom moving away, I was now solely in charge of the daily operations of my business, the horses, and myself. Whoa. The last part of that sentence hit me hard. I made a quick mental list of my groom's duties and stopped after the list exceeded several pages. Chief among her duties was keeping me in line. I now faced the grim reality of being an adult without a little helper to clean up my mistakes, answer my calls at midnight, drive me around, and in some cases remind me to change my clothes.

You see, we horse trainers are fragile folks. We like to pretend that we are plenty tough, emotionally devoid, and self-sufficient. But in reality, we need a lot of ego-stroking. We are emotionally volatile and most of the time, we get in our own way. We need someone there to remind us what day it is, what our clients' phone numbers are, where the horse drugs are stored. Stuff like this. On occasion, we also need someone to point out that our eyes are bloodshot from way too many cups of coffee or that we're getting crabby from too little rest. Imagine the strain put upon a marriage to expect this of a spouse. Most of us are wise enough to realize a smarter bet is to hire someone who needs to be polite to us but doesn't have to share a home with us. Someone who won't complain when her duties include not only horse care, but also Christmas shopping for our mothers, cooking for us, picking up our dry cleaning, washing our cars, etc.

My good friend Mark, with whom I shared a barn for a few years, always had a groom around and after watching me exhaust myself by caring for-- and training-- a whole lineup of horses alone, he recommended I follow his lead. Somewhat persnickety and possessing too much puritanical work ethic, I waved him off. I could do this all by myself, I assured him, dragging my weary limbs home at the end of the day. Then, one day I drove up to the barn and observed the scene in front of me.

Mark strolled around the arena on a handsome Arabian stallion while a U2 CD blared, telling his groom in a single sentence to 1.) remember to wax his truck after washing, 2.) answer his ringing cell phone, and 3.) switch the U2 CD with a Dave Mathews. The groom accomplished the orders within a blink, and happily. You see, the opportunity to work around horses and to get a foothold in the industry can be tough to come by. So, young women line up enthusiastically, hoping for a chance to work for pittance in exchange for learning the ropes. They are energetic, responsible, and flawless. In sum, we don't deserve them.

I wised up to Mark's sense and got myself a groom. I've never looked back. Who else but some kind young woman who works for me, would put up with my rantings, my meltdowns, my pipe dreams for horses? Who else would listen to my grandiose plans and not dispel them? Who else would shop for barn supplies because she recognizes my phobias for retail stores? And who else would possibly share a hotel room with me and never complain about my snoring?

Grooms are priceless, I tell you, truly priceless. I can only hope these young girls get the footholds they seek, because the industry will surely benefit from them. Meanwhile, I want to assure them that their efforts do not go unappreciated. Now, they may not be valued as much for the horse skills as they eagerly hope, but we trainers sure are thankful for efforts in keeping us in line!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Walk Like Me, Talk Like Me

Anyone who has spent much time around a training barn or at horse shows recognizes quickly that a trainer's most valuable accessory is what I like to call his "groupies." These folks comprise the small cloud that follows him around, always close at his heels and aware of every move, much like the syncopated block of folks in a marching band.

When the trainer sits down, his groupies cluster around like baby hens and find their own seats near the nest. When the trainer acts busy, the swarm in turn flusters off in various directions to occupy themselves. And so it goes. They are like a loyal shadow, mirroring the trainer, propping up his ego, laughing at his less-than-funny jokes, and marveling at his unparalleled skill with horses. And they pay him for the opportunity to do this.

You see, groupies are important and worth cultivating because in large measure, they are an extension of us trainers and whatever impression they give the industry is-- sometimes unfortunately-- how the industry then sees us. This can obviously work in a trainer's favor, or to his detriment.

As a trainer, you hope for well-heeled groupies, not to mentioned well-behaved ones. At shows, you picture the cloud that follows you around as a fashionable ensemble of sophisticates tastes and articulate speech. You hope for a tidily groomed batch of grateful and polite women, eager to help each other out, encourage other competitors, and tell you that you're the best rider they've seen on the West Coast. When they stock your cooler with your favorite snacks and beverages, it's an added bonus.

Equating you with the quality of your groupies, fellow trainers and competitors immediately elevate you to a level that would take years to achieve by sheer hard work, good training, and a successful show record. Your colleagues and prospective clients automatically assume that, judging from the caliber of your groupies, you must surely ride only the best horses, collect top dollar for your services, and speak in a snooty nasally tone.

In fact, groupies are so pivotal in the status of trainers' careers that I've witnessed more shrewd trainers than I focus their efforts on cultivating groupies more than on training horses. Instead of riding horses all day, they put their efforts into shmoozing, photo-ops, and managing their image. They actually sometimes end up making far more money than the rest of us for the reasons I stated above. It's like the Enron business model applied to the horse world.

What the average trainer usually ends up with, however, is quite different than a uniformly well-heeled group of loyalists. There are generally at least a handful of questionable seeds in the mix. And as I've said, these characters do far more for your reputation than your talent, skill, or show record. For better or worse.

I recall an episode at a Regional Championship competition that all too clearly illustrated this fact for me. The loudspeaker paged me to the show office--a stereotypical nexus of paperwork run by over-worked grey-haired ladies and occupied by nervous competitors. Certain that I had handled every detail of my entry forms, stabling payments, etc., I couldn't immediately imagine what business I possibly needed to attend to in the office. So, I took my dear old time wandering over there.

By the time I arrived, not only was the loudspeaker paging me for a third time, but a small army of horse show officials in golf carts had been dispatched to come haul me in. I heard the commotion inside the office long before I got near the door. There was yelling and screaming. There was crying. There were boyfriends involved. Upset over-worked grey-haired ladies. It sounded bad, very bad. And I had a nagging suspicion that the source for the commotion, and the explanation for my being paged and the golf cart brigade, was one of my clients.

I swung open the door and, yes, there stood one of my own. Apparently, she had taken it upon herself to go straighten out some paperwork in the show office (ignoring strict instructions from me to never go anywhere on her own, lest she go off like a loose cannon as she was now), and nobody seemed to know what prompted it, but she was now in the midst of a full-blown hysterical breakdown. Perhaps it was the sheer stress of needing to put signatures on a few entry forms. Or deciding between entering her horse in a class on Saturday versus Sunday. Who knows. She was now choking and shuddering for breath, throwing papers around the office, her eyes were bloodshot.

The other competitors unfortunate enough to be in the show office with her had smeared themselves against the walls, much like at a high school dance where pimply teenagers try to blend into the furnishings. In this case, they tried to stay out of arm's reach from my now- crazed client. The ladies running the office stood aghast, like four helpless deer paralyzed by headlights. They had contemplated whether to call the police, the state mental hospital, or me. Obviously, they settled on me. They had decided this spasmodic emotional eruption was my problem, let me deal with it.

In the end, I did somewhat deal with it. With the help of my cowboy friend, we physically extracted the wailing woman in question from the office, restrained her in a horse stall, and outlined for her why she was never welcome to attend another show as my client. Given the extent of her distress and flailing, I considered our efforts heroic. However, they did nothing to smooth over the damage that had been done by the episode.

To this day, fellow competitors still talk about the "great horse show office meltdown." For years, I was known as the trainer "who has the crazy client," even though I never again had a repeat offender of that behavior. I was known as the trainer who could ride well, yes, but who could also sling a blathering adult woman over her shoulder and haul her from the office.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Does Anyone Know What Day It Is?

One day last week, I woke up in a strange bed and tried to recall what day it was. Aha! I remembered that I had to ride a young horse in the Materiale class at 3pm today and therefore today must be Saturday. Working my way back from that information, I determined that we were in the month of July, I must be in the town of Woodside (where the show was being held), and I was therefore in a bed at my friend's house in a nearby town. Whew!

Welcome to the life of a horse trainer. We equine professionals spend so much time on the road that entire weeks blur together. In fact, I don't even remember June of this year. I'm wondering if leap years ever eliminate whole months. Anyway, I sometimes think the life of a traveling circus performer may indeed bear more stability than what we horse trainers have.

I was giving a clinic recently somewhere on the coast of California after a five-day stretch of teaching and competing in different towns when a gentleman asked me where I live. I couldn't remember the last time I slept in my own bed.

"My car?" I feebly offered, thinking that might be the most accurate thing to say.

He had read on my web site that I live in Santa Cruz, Calif.

"Oh yeah. Well, yes, I have an address there," I answered.

He looked puzzled.

"I mean, in theory I do live there... if I were ever there, that is."

You see, the nice gentleman fell into the category of people who don't own horses and are unfamiliar with the vagabond lifestyle necessary to sustain oneself in this industry. I was at a party last night with several other such folks. Pleasant innocent folks who "ooh and ahh" when they hear I train horses for a living. Their eyes widen, their mouths turn up rapidly into giddy smiles. I know what they're thinking, these people who have to work in offices all day under fluorescent lights. They think I lead the most glamorous life on the planet.

Wow, they think, she works with horses all day! Of course, to them this means that I live in a world much like the one portrayed in National Velvet. I wear fancy hats with feathers in them. I drink mint juleps every day at 4pm. I have a stable boy who lives to polish my boots and wrap my horses' legs. I gallop like Lady Godiva through lush green countryside in the late mornings. All while collecting a paycheck.

"It sounds more glamorous than it is," I admitted to the party-goers, wondering if the goo on my right arm was dried horse slobber or fly spray. Little do they know I've never had a mint julep in my life and I think the last time I galloped through lush green countryside was in 1996. But I can live for weeks out of one suitcase, and like most horse people, I can sleep positively anywhere. I may not immediately know where I am when I wake up, but I can usually toggle together those details after a cup of coffee and a phone call to my groom!

A few weeks ago, I was driving down a highway somewhere here in California when my mother called. I was admittedly a bit groggy from shaking off the previous day's heat exhaustion, horse show fatigue, and general weariness. Nonetheless, I was leaving a horse event in one town for another event in a town a few hours away. Characteristically chipper, my mom asked where I was.

I looked at the road signs and then at the brown hillsides. Then, I looked at the other cars on the road with me. Embarassingly, an answer did not present itself immediately. I forgot for a moment if I were leaving a horse event or heading to another one, or both.

"You know, Mom, I'm not really sure," came my answer. "Hopefully, I'll figure it out by the time I get where I'm going."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

God Bless the Mares

My sanity as a trainer had been called into question numerous times. The reason is because I love mares. Most trainers-- perhaps possessing better judgement than myself-- prefer to work with geldings for the simple fact that they are easier to work with. Much easier.

With mares, you get unpredictable moods, sometimes erratic work ethics, alpha issues, etc. Basically, you need to spend twice as much time to accomplish the same thing with a mare that you do with a gelding. But as lacking in reason as it is, the fact remains that I love them.

I blame my affection for mares on my father. Put a bitchy mare in front of my dad and he goes all soft and mushy. He still denies it, but the doey look in his eye when a mare is trying to kick him or bite his arm off is indisputable.

My father belongs to the small percentage of the horse world that lacks enough self-preservation to compete in Combined Driving Events. To the unacquainted, these events include hurling a horse and carriage through death-defying obstacles at the speed of sound. For these competitions, my father was well-known for always driving an ornery mare that no other trainer in his right mind would hitch to a carriage.

At one competition in Gladstone, New Jersey, my dad galloped out of an obstacle, his mare kicking apart his carriage until pieces began to fall off. The crowd gasped. The mare squealed and charged, champing on the bit. My Dad could be heard softly uttering "Adda girl, git up. Good girl." I think he may have actually been smiling as his carriage fell to pieces around him.

Somehow, he managed to finish the course in a record-setting time and win the competition. Afterwards, he sponged down his mare like a proud father. The rest of us wanted to kill her for any number of reasons: public humiliation, financial loss of broken harness and carriage, knowing the next competition would be a repeat of the same, etc. My father, though, gently patted her and went to collect his blue ribbon.

Over the years, he drove numerous feisty mares to unlikely victories. Once, a mare he was conditioning at home took off in a full gallop headed straight down a busy road. The fact that his life was in jeopardy seemed not to phase my Dad, who decided his best option was to stop fighting with her to slow down. Instead, he stood up in the cart and pronounced, "Okay, you wanna run, girl? Then, let's run!" We heard her thundering hooves against the road from miles away. Next thing we knew, she streaked past our farm like a race horse with my Dad standing upright in the carriage, chariot-style, holding on to the reins to keep from flying over the back of his seat.

When I began training professionally on my own, I quickly realized that I, too, was cursed with this affection for mares. While sane enough to avoid Combined Driving Events, I'm still askew enough to always have a far greater number of mares in my barn than geldings. And when their moodiness impedes my day, I blame not them but my father!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Face Only a Mother Can Love

Another foaling season has come and gone, and this means top breeders across the country have put a new crop of future champions on the ground. It also means that hundreds of 'backyard breeders' have put their own versions of good horse flesh on the ground.

Let's face it: we all know someone who has too much time on his or her hands and an old hay-bellied mare in the back field that they decide suddenly needs to procreate (as if there aren't already enough horses on the planet). Next thing we know, this person employs his or her entire equine reproductive knowledge, which amounts to having read one article in Equus magazine a few years ago, finds a stallion with a cheap stud fee, and puts the mare in foal.

A year later, the new "breeder" is standing back looking at the world's most poorly assembled, ugly baby horse deciding it is so exceptional that its mother must be bred again immediately to produce another such offspring. And so on and so forth. In the industry, we call this "barn blindness." It is defined as the sheer inability to see one's own horses for what they actually are.

Horse overpopulation aside, I find this trait somewhat charming. Lord knows I was an ugly duckling as a child and my parents had the audacity to shield me from that fact. So, when backyard breeders see their nonathletic and unattractive foals as future world champions, my heart patters a little. In fact, I like to keep abreast of the barn blindness epidemic by scanning the horses for sale classifieds.

I find folks "proudly" offering for sale a Quarter Horse-donkey-Warmblood cross that more reputable breeders would only consider a genetic mistake. I find promises of "highly talented" draft horse/Arabian mixes. I read captions to photos under a Neanderthal-looking head that say: gorgeous refined face. And see, that's the beauty of barn blindness. Where I see a prehistoric looking profile that's barely recognizable as belonging to a horse, the animal's backyard breeder sees a majestic representation of the Equus species.

After many jolly years of poking fun at those suffering from barn blindness, my father fell into the backyard breeding habit last year. A highly successful carriage driving trainer, my father is also a stubborn New Englander. This means that once he arrives at an opinion (after much hemming and hawing...), he absolutely cannot be talked out of it. So it went last year when he reported his plan to breed his Hackney mare to a Friesian stallion.

"Are you serious?" I asked him and then gave him a feverish explanation for why this was a poor idea. Neither mare or stallion had good temperaments nor conformation. Moreover, who on earth had ever heard of a Hackney-Friesian cross?

Well, Rosie (the Hackney) needed to do something since she'd only been standing in a field for the past three years and he had this Friesian stallion right here in his barn, so why not?, he said. And--voila-- my father evolved from trainer to 'breeder.' Foaling season came and went and I didn't hear from my father. Worried that something may have gone wrong for the mare, I called him to check in.

Don't worry, Rosie was fine, except for now being the mother of the world's least desirable offspring. My father hadn't called me because his foal experiment had yielded a baby animal that for the first week wasn't easily identified as a horse. Dad said it looked like something between a dinosaur and a Great Dane. Lovely. He admitted that the backyard breeding habit may not have been a good idea...

Then, within a few weeks, his barn blindness started to develop and he stopped seeing the Hackney-Friesian for what it was. Suddenly, he started speaking fondly of it, planning a future for it, speaking of its "remarkable" looks and so on and so forth. He started referring to 'hidden talents,' the way a parent talks themselves into agreeing to let their child with two left feet enter a dance contest. I asked him what he'd named the foal.

Bucket head.


"Well, yeah. I figured the name fit 'em, because if you put a bucket over his head, he's not a bad lookin' horse," Dad explained. And there you have it. A future world champion with a bucket on his head.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Me and the Weirdo(s)

This week, I want to give a shout-out to my favorite woman in the world: my mother.

Back in 1997, she wrote and published a somewhat esoteric book titled "Dressage in the Fourth Dimension" ( To say she was ahead of her time would be like describing the Great Wall of China as a sort-of-long fence.

I read the book with a Thesaurus close at hand, a dictionary, an encyclopedia, and a large glass of wine. It was heavy stuff. In a nutshell, the book takes a metaphysical look at the animal-human relationship. Admittedly, metaphysics does not come up often in the context of half-halts and shoulder-ins, but as I'm trying to get across, my mother is not your ordinary horse gal. She paints, plays music, climbs mountains, kayaks rivers, teaches philosophy, and rides horses like she is still 30 years old. Before I digress, let me celebrate (with her) that "Dressage in the Fourth Dimension" is being re-published this fall by New World Library and the horse world is finally ready for it!

Being raised by two horse trainers was undoubtedly the best childhood any kid could be blessed with. Even though my parents always lectured, "You don't know how lucky you are," I did know how blessed I was. I never took a day for granted on that darling little farm of ours. Alongside my parents, I broke horses, reassured horses, conditioned horses, and loved horses. And never once did I ever wish to be anywhere but out there in the country with them running their little training business. Anyway, one of the many reasons I admire my mom so much is that she put me on a horse at three-and-a-half years old. I have been astride ever since. And I can't imagine life any other way.

Mom and I used to ride together every day and somehow it forged an unshakable bond to each other. You see, my mother was incapable of simply riding a horse. What she could do was showboat. This is best described as turning any mediocre horse that she happened to be riding into a show-stopper the second a crowd formed. People stopped by our farm all the time. And when they did, my mother pulled a horse from the barn, hopped aboard and gave them a show they'd never forget.
Something happened in those moments when spectators clustered outside the arena door. Under my mom, a perfectly ordinary horse became charged with the desire to perform like an Olympic contender. Nags suddenly danced and pranced. Ill-tempered youngsters forgot their antics and went boldly through their movements, with Bach or Vivaldi blaring through the loudspeakers.

I remember this vividly because it was during a particular Bach fugue that my mother performed a rather brilliant extended trot across the diagonal upon a normally weedy Arabian to the sheer delight of six women gathered and gasping near the arena... and rammed straight into me at the end of the diagonal. She smashed into me so hard that we both undoubtedly suffered whiplash, my pony crashed into the wall, I flew over the front of my saddle, and my mother kept on riding by.
It was in that moment that I realized my mother was a little off kilter, but even though my leg throbbed, I couldn't help but idolize her. She imbibed passion, a rare spirit of leadership, and a remarkable knack for not caring when she slammed her horse into another rider during the extended trot.

Since then, we have ridden horses together all over Europe. We've gone in search of dressage in Vienna, Amsterdam, London, Lisbon, Seville. Instead, we've found pig farms, drunkards, bad food, snow, and a few good horses along the way. We have laughed so hard that we forgot what was funny in the first place. We have disagreed, argued, tried to out-ride each other, leaned on each other, and been perplexed together. Horses have been the glue that holds us together through life's journeys. My mom used horses to teach me about patience, kindness, and what she calls the "spiritual economy" in the universe. Basically, live life with an open heart and life will give you back the same. This is the stuff in her book.

All of us have had someone special in our lives who has helped or nurtured our obsessive love of horses, whether through encouragement, financial help, mentoring, a supportive spouse, etc. For me, it has been my mom. She has humbled me, humored me, and poured me a beer at the end of the day, reminding me not to take life too seriously. One day in Amsterdam, she put her feet up at the pub after our lesson, tipped back her chair and asked "Hey, did you see that hell-of-a-good extended trot of mine during our lesson?" I savor how her face is beaming, how delighted she is in her performance and whether or not a crowd of people noticed, too.

"No, Mom, I didn't, because for once you didn't smash into me."

This week, I raise my glass to you, Mom and say congratulations on the success of your book and for being the off-kilter woman that you are.

Does this Spandex Make me Look Fat?

Unfortunately, I've become an avid mountain biker in the past year. I say unfortunately because it's yet another activity that requires wearing a skin tight outfit.

It was already bad enough coming home from the barn every day in my riding clothes and mustering up the courage to stop at the supermarket where invariably, some mid-30 year old male asks "have you been out riding?" which he asks as a way of excusing himself from staring at my backside in ultra-tight breeches. What Mr. Supermarket fails to realize is that NOBODY wants attention drawn to them in their riding clothes. Terribly outdated in style, uncomfortable, and awkward, riding clothes definitely rank at the bottom of the fashion ladder within the sporting world.

I used to think dismal fashions applied only to my discipline of dressage. But after closer inspection, I concluded that, no, the horse world in general looks straight out of Vaudeville.

Whenever I start to really lament the necessity of tight breeches for English riding, I go and watch a Western class at a show. Now, those riders have some funny outfits. Shiny belt buckles the size of dinner plates, enormous hats, gaudy shirts, flapping fringes dangling off nearly every surface from saddle to pants to gloves. To me, they look like they belong more in a parade-- or circus-- than in an equestrian competition. And this does my heart good because my outfit seems a lot less strange.

Of course, Western apparel pales in comparison to the cabaret styles on display in a Saddle Seat class. Probably not since the 1940s have so many people under one roof donned derbies and tailcoats. Neon-colored tailcoats, I might add. However, those styles might seem positively modern compared to what carriage driving folks pull out of their closets. I grew up on the back of my father's carriage and I probably never stopped asking him the purpose of his lap robe or "apron" as drivers call them. Weren't aprons for kitchens? How did they contribute to one's driving skills? It's just part of the outfit, my Dad always replied. Also part of the outfit was a funny looking straw hat, a blazer, and thick leather gloves. Whoever introduced carriage driving to this country was obviously a huge fan of The Great Gatsby.

Equestrian apparel remains far beyond my mountain biking outfits in terms of absurdity. But it also has something really good going for it, in my opinion. Once you get past the discomfort of artificial fabric materials and the fact that they cling to you in all the wrong places, riding apparel forces us to give up being so self-conscious. You get past any shyness about wearing tight clothes or looking silly, because after all, you're wearing the threads necessary to do what you love.

So, when Mr. Supermarket asks me his ridiculous question "Have you been out riding?," I look him square in the eye with my best sarcastic tone and answer "Well, I sure didn't put on this outfit just to come to the store..."

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Are We Having Fun Yet?

It's horse show season, which means riders nationwide are cultivating ulcers, emptying their savings accounts, and dreaming up stories to explain the disappearance of said savings accounts to their husbands. All in the name of fun.

Horse shows are perplexing things. Mostly, I know riders find them fun in some way, which is why they choose to participate in the first place. But there are endless side effects to showing that most riders either overlook or, in a masochistic way, also must view as fun. These include: 1.) turning purple from holding their breath with nerves. 2.) Pacing around in circles talking to themselves anxiously. 3.) Suddenly being agitated by every judge, fellow competitor, and umbrella-toting spectator. Some riders opt to chug a beer before they compete to calm themselves down. Others let the effects of sleep deprivation render them delirious and therefore less stressed.

All the alleged fun aside, though, when you consider the sheer amount of money and time that goes into horse showing, it does come with a hefty dose of stress. In fact, if a job were to deplete someone so much emotionally, physically, and mentally, the employer would be called deplorable. Obviously, though, when a person self-inflicts the same stress, it's called a hobby.

As a trainer, I spend a lot of time at shows and I am always mesmerized by the scene of women in the throes of exhaustion, fretting, and jitters. Why do they put themselves through this? I wonder. I think I've found the answer: amnesia. Yes, I believe horse owners suffer amnesia which settles in approximately 10 days following a big competition. My conclusion draws from the scenario outlined below that plays out frequently at shows:

A rider will come to her senses briefly and realize that wearing a wool coat in 100-degree heat is somewhat miserable. Her head is fuzzy from lack of sleep and probably too much cheap wine at the show's 'welcome party' last night. Her horse's bucking antics in the warm-up arena this morning were actually terrifying rather than endearing. Her trainer is annoying her by pointing out things she already knows, like the fact she would have scored higher marks if her horse had not spooked and bolted for the gate during her dressage test. And in this moment of clarity, she vows never to show again. There just doesn't seem to be much point in it...

Then, a week passes and her horse is back to his normal angelic self at home. In fact, he seems more gorgeous than ever. And then, roughly 10 days after the competition where she vowed never to show again, she has forgotten her embarrassing performance, the heat exhaustion, and worrying how her thighs looked in white breeches. Totally forgotten. Next thing she knows, she's in her trainer's office signing up for the next show. And she's so excited about it that she cancels her previously planned weekend trip to the wine country with her husband for it. He, of course, will scratch his head and ask, "But, honey, didn't you say you were never showing again?"

Glancing up from the checkbook (while ordering new clothes for the next show), she replies.

"No, I never said that."

Monday, June 30, 2008

"Hold that Smile"

(me and my buddy 'Marcoe')

The scene: Dressage competition in Santa Rosa, CA

I was trying to take myself more seriously, because this being a dressage show, everyone was taking themselves too seriously. That's what you do at dressage shows, after all. In the following order, you:

1.) get nervous, causing horse to be excitable and jumpy
2.) blame everything not quite right (including weather) on groom, spouse, or show management
3.) transform features of your face into constipated-looking frown
4.) view the outcome of this competition with a level of intensity normally reserved for World Wars and global warming.

Anyway, there I was in the warm-up arena preparing my mount for his first dressage test of the day. After dodging two erratic riders wildly out of control (and completely unaware) who would have otherwise smashed into me, I reminded myself to sit up and assume the 'dressage position.' This might best be described as appearing that you sat down on a broomstick. I screwed my face into a stern frown, sat ramrod stiff, and conducted myself with an air of terrible importance.

This did not, however, disguise the fact that I was riding a Haflinger pony, which is akin to arriving at a Champ car race with my Mazda protoge. Or showing up at a figure skating competition on roller skates. But priding myself on being a little different and always giving underdogs a leg up, I found myself unabashedly competing my client's pony. The beauty of this scenario lies in the fact that this hairy, chunky, charming pony has no clue he is the most atypical dressage competitor in the state. He has the heart of a lion and loyalty of a best friend. He doesn't realize that our fellow riders in the warm-up arena stare at him not for his good looks but because they're pondering "What is that horse doing here?"

In fact, they stare at us without shame from under the brims of their top hats, as if their parents never taught them to not stare. They crane their necks, their mouths open, they look around confused, like maybe they and not me are the ones suddenly lost.

Part of them wants to look down on us for being such a counter-part to their stuffy over-priced competitive realm. But at the end of the day, it's hard to hate Marcoe and me. I'm always failing to take myself too seriously, dissolving to laughter whenever I can-- grinning, chatting, and waving at folks like my friend Pam who come to watch me ride. And Marcoe, well, that little guy is just darn cute. Impossibly cute, actually. He melts your heart... and he knows it.

So, I ride past my fellow competitors at only half their height and I flash them a toothy grin. This settled it. Their constipated show nerves dissipate. Not knowing what else to do, they actually smile back. They relax. They start to have some fun.

They can thank us later.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

You do... What?

My friend Karen asked me last week what exactly I do for a living. And it was in that moment that I realized how tricky it was to describe my industry to an outsider. Being a city girl, Karen held no fond pattering in her heart for animals or dirt, and trying to explain to her that an entire culture existed around these two things made for an interesting conversation to say the least.

"Well, I train horses." This, to me, seemed pretty straightforward until someone like Karen points out a fact that we horse-obsessed humans overlook: horses are a heck of a lot bigger than us and in many ways smarter. So, who's actually doing the training, horse or human?

"You do...what?" she asked again.

"I work with horses."

"Wait, you work with horses? Or the people who own the horses?" Leave it to a journalist to go for details.

"Um, both, I guess. Yeah, both."

"And what exactly are you trying to get them to do?" she asked.

Here is where things get strange for an outsider, because at this point I have to explain that I train "dressage," which might be most closely compared to something like human figure skating or ballet in terms of how the horse performs and then this usually leads to all kinds of confused questions about whether or not the horse wears a tu tu or dances around to music. Here I back-pedal, explaining that I was merely making an analogy, but no seriously, in "dressage" the horse learns to use his body a certain way and move his legs a certain way and--

"And they want to do this?" asks my friend.

A legitimate question indeed. They may not dream of it at night in their stalls, but yes some horses quite enjoy it. But maybe the more important thing is that their owners (who keep me in business) derive large sums of satisfaction and--

"So, you actually make a living doing this?" asks Karen.

This is the part of the conversation where answers start eluding me. Those of you reading this who work in reputable industries and make honest livings would be surprised how tricky it is to describe why you might choose to work in an industry where you did not make livable wages.

"Well, no, not exactly. I mean, yes, I pay my rent and all that, but, well, no.." Then, finally, I stop my stammering by making the broad pronouncement that "No, nobody in the horse industry actually makes any money, but...."

The confusion ensues. After a polite pause, Karen interrupts again--

"If nobody makes any money, why do people do it?" Another legitimate question.

In my entire lifetime with horses, I have not found an answer that satisfies outsiders like my city friend Karen. The best I can say is that we horse folks have a heck of a lot of love for those four-legged beasts and somehow we don't mind draining our wallets, working relentlessly for no pay, and falling asleep exhausted at the end of a day. I looked at Karen, smiled, and replied:

"We're all freaks. That's why."