Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Last Ride of the Year

For some reason, I got it in my head that I wanted to go for a trail ride on the last day of the year.  In this area, New Year's Day is a big riding day.  Lots of groups plan rides formally and informally, although the weather is always iffy on the first day of the year.  Sometimes it is beautiful and other years, not so much.  I have yet to make it to any of them, although I did go for a ride with a friend on New Year's Day this year. 

There was an informal one being planned for tomorrow that I thought I might try to attend, but all the cold weather we've been getting for the past week kind of shut it down.  But that was OK, because I was planning my New Year's Eve Day ride instead.  The friend who had agreed to ride with me remarked that Saturday (yesterday) might be the best day of this weekend in terms of temperature, but the forecast called for light snow.  I'm not super crazy about driving in snow in this area because there tend to be a lot of people on the road who are not comfortable driving in bad weather, and it always seems worse earlier in the season.  Either people start remembering how to drive or the realize it's not for them and get off the road.  I'm even less crazy about driving with a loaded trailer in snow, even if it isn't that much, just because I don't have the maneuverability of a vehicle not towing a trailer and one of the beings I love most is in the trailer.

So, I convinced my friend that Sunday (today) would be better.  When I checked the forecast, it said it would be sunny and 27 degrees, so I suggested we meet at noon to take full advantage of the "heat."  We would be riding at Sky Meadows State Park, which is a fairly easy drive for both of us, so if there was any leftover snow, we would be on roads much more likely to have been treated and/or plowed.

The day dawned cold and not really sunny.  But that was OK, I told myself.  I will get warmer and sunny as the day goes on.  By the time I left the house at 10 am, my truck thermometer read 18 degrees.

That's OK, I told myself.  By the time I get to Sky Meadows, it will be almost 10 degrees warmer.  It will feel lovely!

As I drove out to the barn, the temperature rose all the way up to 21 degrees.  See! I told myself.  It's already getting warmer.

I hooked up the trailer and loaded my saddle before heading out to collect Nimo from his field.  He'd seen me pull up to the barn with the trailer and he was watching me from the middle of the field with skepticism.  I walked toward him and I could almost see his thoughts.  He was convinced that I was up to some kind of shenanigans that he wanted no part of (it's too cold to ride!), but he knew I had the good treats in my pocket.  He was torn.  Walk away to try to convince me that we should not do whatever it is that I thought I wanted to do or come get the treats, which he knew were awesome.  In the end, he opted for the treats, although I could tell he was retaining his skepticism as we walked toward the trailer.

I loaded him without incident and then we were off.  I was imagining how great it would be to ride today and then spend tomorrow making chili and sugar cookies instead of freezing with whatever idiots were out riding.  Invading my happy thoughts, however, was the ever decreasing number on my truck's thermometer.  When we'd left the barn, it read 21 degrees.  Yet, somehow it was 20, and then 19, and then 18, and then (gasp!) 17 degrees!

But, the forecast said 27 and sunny, I thought.  And I really truly believed that somehow, the temperature would rise to 27 by the time I got to Sky Meadows.  But, alas, it did not.  That became abundantly clear to me the second I set foot outside my truck and was nearly blown away by the icy wind that could only have come all the way from North Dakota.  My friends and family there had kept me up-to-date on the tortuous winter they are having.  "It's -25 degrees!  And that's WITHOUT the wind chill!" they said.  Because everyone who lives in North Dakota knows that the temperature is only part of the story.  The wind blows constantly and often strongly in North Dakota and it very much affects the "feels like" temperature.

In Virginia, on the other hand, we rarely talk about wind chill unless there is a winter storm, because it just isn't that windy very often here.  Regrettably, today was not a normal day.  I didn't remember much wind when I was at the barn, but the parking lot of Sky Meadows felt like a wind tunnel.  The wind was strong and cold enough to take my breath away.

But did that stop me?  No.  No, it did not.  Because I was going for a ride.  I smiled at my friend who was making the "you are crazy" gesture at me and we both piled on layers and unloaded our horses.  I don't think I've ever saddled Nimo so fast.  I had put a blanket on him at the barn because I worry that even though he is fine without a blanket in colder temperatures, the wind blowing through my stock trailer when we're on the highway is too much.  I hadn't brushed the dirt of of him before throwing the blanket on, thinking that I would do it at Sky Meadows.  But with that wind coming at us, I decided the dirt could stay where it was, and somehow managed to get a saddle on.

Before we got on the trail, I realized I needed to do something for head protection.  I briefly contemplated riding without a helmet so I could keep my warm hat on, but thankfully I found another hat in the truck that was a little thinner and had the pieces that drop down over my ears.  A friend got it for me years ago, and it is really a goofy looking hat that I don't wear much, but it was perfect for today.  It was thin enough that I could remove one of the filler pieces from my helmet and put the helmet on over the hat.  Seriously, that spur of the moment invention is the Best Ever.  I will never ride in the winter any other way.  My ears were warm, my head was warm, and my neck was warm.

So with one section of my body not feeling the wind, we headed out on the trail.  One great thing about Sky Meadows is the diversity of the trails.  There are some in the woods that involve climbing a mountain and others out in fields that are more open.  We headed straight for the ones in the woods, hoping that being out of the wind would help ease the cold.  And it did.  Quite a bit actually.  I'm not going to say that I was toasty (except for my head and ears - seriously, you have got to try the hat with ear pieces under the helmet!), but I wasn't uncomfortable either.

On the way to the woods, we had to cross a small stream (like 10 feet across, maybe).  It was frozen in one section, but I could see the ice was really thin in another, so I knew Nimo's feet would easily go through the ice.  Nimo did not see things that way and was quite reluctant.  My friend's horse tends to be the braver of the two, so she asked him to cross.  He made it part way and then turned around and came back.  So my friend asked him again and this time he crossed.  Nimo followed but I could basically hear him saying, "I knew I should have just walked away.  No treats are worth this nonsense!"

My friend was a bit concerned about how the horses would do on the mountain.  There was maybe a half inch to an inch of snow still on the trail, but it was cold snow.  The kind that can squeak and scrunch when you step on it, plus there were rocks and leaves to help with traction.  I figured it would be OK, but if the horses slipped around too much, we could always ride on different trails.

The horses didn't really seem to have much of an issue with snow, although both seemed to be moving a bit more slowly and placing their feet more carefully (never a bad thing!).  And Nimo actually led most of the way up and down the mountain.  Normally my friend's horse likes to lead, but today he wanted to follow.  Normally Nimo prefers to follow, but he actually did a good job leading the way and wasn't balky or too slow.

View from the ridge trail
After coming down the mountain, we rode along a ridge trail and then we got to the fields.  Initially I had thought that we might do the mountain loop twice just to stay out of the wind, but my friend's horse did not seem that excited to be out and about (and Nimo wasn't as energetic as I would have expected either), so we decided to do a loop around the fields and call it a day.

And riding in the fields meant riding in the wind.  There is no way to sugar coat it.  It was really miserable.  And it was kind of funny because I was looking at the ever-darkening sky (sun? what sun?) and thought to myself that it looked like a snow sky.  And a minute or two later, little flurries started coming down, or rather blowing straight sideways.  The snow never got too thick.  It was more of the tiny, anemic snowflakes that happen when the air is so dry and cold that the flakes can't seem to get very big.  A North Dakota snow, if you will.

Soon we turned and the wind was coming from the side, which was marginally better than when we were riding straight into it.  And then we had to cross another creek.  Nimo was in the lead and he stopped in front of the creek (which he has crossed dozens of times without incident) and clearly believed it was the Gateway to Hell.  I urged him forward and explained that this one wasn't even frozen.  He remained unconvinced. Finally he consented to putting one foot in the water.  "Oh, OK.  It's not frozen.  But it could still be the Gateway to Hell."  I signed and encouraged him a little more and bit by bit, he picked his way across a creek that was maybe 6-8 feed across and about 2-3 inches deep.  (Spoiler alert, we did not end up in Hell.)

After the creek crossing, the horses perked up a bit, knowing that we were less than a mile from the trailers.  We asked if they wanted to trot, and Nimo was happy to, but my friend's horse just really didn't want to, so we didn't push it and walked back to the trailers with the wind at our backs for the last bit.  (In hindsight, I kind of wonder it it wasn't the cold air.  I had expected the horses to act a little fresh because of the cold, but they never did, and I'm thinking it might be because they didn't want to breathe in cold air.  I know there is debate about whether horses should be ridden in colder temperatures, and I have maintained that as long as you are careful and don't push them into really exerting themselves for long periods that it should be fine.  After all, they are outside in it all the time and walk and run and play without a problem.  But, maybe there is something to the idea that the cold air bothers their lungs.  It's definitely something I am going to pay attention to and I'm glad that all we did was walk.)

When we got to the trailers, it seemed like the wind was even worse, so we untacked and got blankets back on the horses as quickly as we could, which was kind of an exercise in futility for me.  I kept trying to throw the blanket over Nimo's back and it kept blowing back over me.  And once I got it on, the wind literally billowed under the blanket and puffed it out.  It was crazy!

Normally, my friend and I would have lunch after our ride and enjoy the view from a picnic table, but that was not happening today.  I had brought some soup in a thermos that I was anxious to sip while driving back to the barn, but before I could leave, I had to pick up some poop that Nimo had deposited as we were headed out on our ride.  No big deal, right?  I'll just use my handy-dandy manure fork to scoop it up and put it in the manure bucket I keep in the trailer for just such occurrences.  Yeah, well remember I said the temperature was 17 degrees?  It turns out that manure freezes to pavement in that temperature.  We'd been riding for about an hour and 45 minutes, so this stuff was STUCK to the ground.  I finally ended up kicking at it with my boots to dislodge the major chunks and at least get those cleaned up.  (I'm hoping the park rangers will understand that I did the best I could...)

Finally, I was able to settle my now frozen body into the truck and get the heater going.  I really had felt reasonably warm until we rode in the wind, but by the time I got in the truck, I had lost feeling in both feet, most of my thighs, and part of my fingers.  And I was chilled.  It took the hour back to the barn for me to have complete feeling in my fingers and thighs and it took another half hour to get from the barn to my house for my feet to feel normal again.  And that was with the heater running full blast and aimed at my feet and hands.

Anyway, I got my ride in on the last day of the year.  The weather definitely was not optimal, but it did allow me to test out my cold-weather riding gear and determine that down to 17 degrees (out of the wind), it is probably doing OK, but I could use a serious ramp up for higher winds/colder temps.  (I do have a little purchase coming next week that I think will be extremely useful for improving my cold weather riding happiness, so I'll share after I've had a chance to check it out...)  And now I need feel no guilt whatsoever about staying home tomorrow:)

Happy New Year everyone!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

These ears...

Several months ago, lytha remarked that she loved Nimo's ears and requested more pictures of them.  I have been thinking about it ever since, and finally got around to fulfilling her request this afternoon.  I'm not really sure how one goes about doing an ear photo shoot, but I gave it a shot:)

What are you doing all the way down there?
How do you like my ear profile?  (Also the piece of hay in my forelock?)
My tongue is even curter than my ears!
OK, one last profile shot and then I'm done!
Hey, check out how I can lick this gate! I should do this more often in the freezing cold weather!
The curvature to Friesian ears is typical for the breed, although I'm not sure why (Google and my horse library failed me), but if you love curved ears, check out these other breeds:

The Kathiawari from India.  Photo source:
The Marwari is also from India.  Photo source:

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Danger of Elitism

In a way, this post is a follow-up to this one that I wrote last year.  My previous post talked about how the cult mentality affects learning and can chill communication and even motivation for people new to the "cult."

Since then, I've been thinking a lot about how negative some of the stuff on Facebook is, but I think it goes beyond that.  I just couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was that seemed to cross disciplines and topics and demographics.  It wasn't only the cult mentality; there was something else too.

Well, today I think I may have had an epiphany about what the problem is.  Elitism.  (Please humor me if you already came to that conclusion and wondered why it took me so long or even if you disagree...)  It's a word that means, among other things, "consciousness of being or belonging to an elite."  Except that maybe people think they belong to something that is elite, when it really isn't.  For example, supporting a particular political party and the platform for which it stands is not being elite.  There are only two major ones and based on some very close elections, about half of the people who vote belong to one and half to the other.  There is nothing specific about either party that indicates it is better than the other.  (I'm very sorry if that offends you, but if it makes you feel better, I tend to be critical of both parties, less because of the beliefs many members have and more because of the way they go about trying to accomplish an agenda.)

Here's another example.  When I was in high school, there was no doubt in any of my teachers' minds that I was a special, smart student.  I mostly paid attention in class and when I didn't, they knew it was because I was bored out of my mind, and usually gave me a pass.  (Except in Geometry and that one time in German class...but I digress.)  I knew I was smart.  I hung out with a few other kids who were smart.  And we fancied ourselves as quite a bit above the masses because we were smart.  And not just smart, but we were "going places" (i.e. anywhere that wasn't North Dakota).  We didn't drink.  We didn't do drugs.  We didn't have indiscriminate sex.  We didn't go around breaking the law or cruising main street because we were too good to do those things.  We played games (not involving drinking) and read high level books and watched deep movies.  We were in Speech Team and Student Congress and we thought we were cooler for it.  

Looking back on those days, I cringe sometimes because of what an obnoxious know-it-all I must have been (Hermione Granger, anyone?).  Simply put, I thought I was better than everyone else except my closest friends.  Thankfully, life has thrown more than a few challenges my way, and I think I'm slowly getting over how awesome I thought I was (although I do still amaze myself sometimes with my brilliance, but then I put my keys in the fridge or my cell phone in the linen closet and reality strikes).

Or how about this?  Today I was lurking in one of the horse-related Facebook forums that I belong to, and I could not believe how many times I saw someone call a person who did not have the same level of commitment or knowledge stupid or dumb.  I chimed in to the conversation in what I hoped was a gentle way to redirect some of the negative comments, but it didn't work.  And I am so revolted.

I am revolted when anyone who doesn't believe the same thing (whether it is about the Hot Topics like abortion, gun control, racism, immigration, etc. or dressage, endurance, or horse care) is basically attacked because they ask a question or express an opinion that opposes someone else.  I've seen my friends write the most horrible things about Trump voters on Facebook and seen equally horrible things about Clinton supporters.  I've seen posts on keeping betta fish degenerate into name calling of the poor soul who dared ask if it was OK to keep the fish in a one-gallon bowl (it isn't, but that doesn't mean you go after the person with a verbal knife - you provide educational information and then walk away to let the person make their own decision because Facebook isn't a dictatorship).

At first all this polarization of issues and lack of consideration for other view points seemed like it was a product of poorly educated people.  Or maybe people who were just chronically sleep-deprived or over-worked or worried about whether they would have a job next year.  But today as I watched the conversation on the Facebook horse forum, I realized it was about elitism.  It is this idea that if you believe something, you are part of an elite group in society (even if half the country believes the same thing).  People who don't believe as you do are automatically and easily dismissed as stupid or intolerant or racist or bigoted, or whatever other name you can call someone because they don't belong to your group.  While I will acknowledge that there are some beliefs that are pretty horrible no matter how you look at them, the majority of beliefs are not.  Seriously.  This world would be a much better place if we could start with the assumption that the other person is not stupid and believes what they believe for a legitimate reason. 

But I don't think this sense of elitism stops with beliefs about political, religious, or social issues.  It has permeated our lives to the point where we believe if we keep our horses barefoot or ride in a hackamore (or a double bridle) or use a treeless saddle (or a treed saddle) or practice dressage or complete endurance rides or jump cross country that we are somehow better than other people who don't do those things or even people who do do those things but dare to ask a question that allows us to conclude they don't know as much as we do (regardless of our actual experience level).

I'm sure that I've been guilty of an elitist attitude more than just when I was in high school.  But now that I think I have a better understanding of what is going on, I am making a commitment to not only recognize it and work to eliminate it from my own communication but to try to gently bring awareness when I see it happening with someone else.  (I'm probably the last person who should be attempting diplomacy, so be prepared for a swath of offended people...possibly starting with this post...)

Because when I see the elitist attitude taking over a conversation (or comment thread), I see the chill it has on creative thought.  Some of the very things that are so entrenched in America today are things that were revolutionary and even scary at the time they originated.  I mean, we are a country founded by people who committed treason.  (According to a friend of mine who is actually a legitimate legal scholar, that is why a lot of things that you think might be treason really are not - it was a pretty sensitive issue at the time the Constitution was written!)

But elitism doesn't just chill creative thought.  It shuts down any kind of communication unless it is with people who purport to share your beliefs and ideas.  Because if I know all you are going to do is mock me or say bad things to or about me, I will never express my real thoughts around you.  And then you never get exposed to anything else.  And if you never have to question what you believe or thoughtfully defend your position, how can you be certain that your belief is really what you should be believing?  And maybe even worse, is it so critical for your own sense of self-worth that you must put someone else down because they haven't reached the same conclusion that you have?

Through this blog, I try to explore subjects that are difficult for me.  Over the time I have owned horses, I've had some pretty concrete beliefs about what was best for my horse.  As it turns out, I probably didn't know what I was thinking.  But if I still hold the belief today (e.g. horses should spend most of their time turned out and have constant access to hay or grass), then it is because I've spent some time questioning it and researching it before deciding to keep it.  And that belief and everything else is still on the table.  It has to be or I will not grow as a horse person.

Obviously, it is too much to ask that a person constantly questions everything all the time.  We'd all be lunatics if we couldn't form our belief system.  But I am advocating the idea that if you post something on Facebook or (God forbid!) have a live conversation with someone and that person asks you a question about what you are saying that leads you to believe they don't agree with you or know less than you do, imagine that as an opportunity to learn more about why you believe the way you do and why the other person might believe differently.  Even on issues like abortion and gun control (or blanketing and shoeing), there is room in the middle.  Not every issue must be black and white.  And not every question has an answer that is most certainly right or most certainly wrong.

When I look back on what I've been doing with Nimo since I started this blog, I can see that nothing happened the way I thought it would (I mean, if I can just have a 45 minute ride in the arena without a surprise, it's a miracle!).  But what I don't see are "right" and "wrong" choices.  They are just choices.  Sometimes I made a mistake, but even the mistakes aren't really wrong.  Mistakes happen because we aren't omniscient.  Making them doesn't mean we are stupid (nor does it give us the right to lecture everyone else because we "know" something is true).

And all of those choices and all of those mistakes are slowly leading me to the conclusion that the more I learn about horses, the less I really know.  There was a time when I think I actually did write that I would never put another bit in Nimo's mouth.  Now I put two of them in there as an experiment.  There was a time that I said I would never use a treeless saddle.  And now I ride in one exclusively (although I haven't sold my treed saddles because I might want to use them again).  If I had taken the bitless or the treeless step and then only hung out with or communicated with people who supported bitless or treeless riding, where would I be if I had an issue?  I would have frozen out my other options because of a belief that to-date does not have the scientific support needed to shut down riding with bits or treed saddles.  And while I don't think you have to have scientific proof obtained through a double-blind study and published in a peer-reviewed journal in order to believe something is true or even the best choice, I think that we need to be cautious about our conclusions when there isn't science available.  And we need to be cautious even when there is science available, because how many times has science overturned a previously-held conclusion?

But most importantly, we need to allow reasonably unconstrained debate and questions and disagreement on all sorts of issues.  We need to practice the way we disagree with someone and defend our view point so that we can better educate ourselves or maybe, just maybe, realize that we aren't that right after all.

And so it will be my continued goal to continue to question and debate and think and write about all sorts of horse-related issues here on my blog - and I may occasionally poke the bear on Facebook when it comes to other sorts of things:)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The importance of planning

Over the years, I've tried an assortment of journals and planners, but I've never been able to find a system that works for me.  I use the planners intermittently or maybe for a few months, but then lose track.  This year, though, I was bound and determined to document my year in a planner.

I really liked the Happy Planner planners, but I felt like I wanted to customize a bit more.  Mostly, I wanted to add my own colors and washi tape to the pages as well as create a monthly place for a real scrapbook page.  So I used a Happy Planner cover that I already had, borrowed the format of the pages from the Happy Planner, designed my page in Photoshop, and printed A LOT of pages.  Then I had to buy huge (I think they are 3") rings to put the whole thing in.

And it worked.  There are still a few things in terms of pictures that I would like to add in, but I used that planner to write down what I did each day, create to-do lists that I mostly got done, put pictures and journaling in, store cards and letters from friends and family, and even create some art.  I love it!  It's so awesome to finally have a system that I can use.  I think it ended up working for me for three reasons:
  1. I really wanted to do it and made a commitment to doing it.
  2. I kept the planner out on the dining room table so I had constant access to it and it was always visible and accessible (except possibly during the great October explosion of scrapbooking).
  3. The format worked for me, especially because I could see my to-do list, check things off of it, and write down all the things I was accomplishing.  So at the end of the week, I could feel like I did get things done, even when it didn't feel like it sometimes.
Here are some snapshots of the planner:

This layout is my favorite from the year.

I used the Currently pages to put pictures for things that were sort of on-going during the month as well as stuff like what I watched and read and even little memes off of Facebook that spoke to me.
I used the monthly layouts to use some scrapbook paper that I liked and to write down appointments or major events.
As the year progressed, I found myself not just including photos, but also writing a bit of journaling to go with them.
This is a bit of "art" that I did with Gemma as part of homeschooling, and it didn't turn out half bad:)  I got the idea from one of Gina Rossi Armfield's books - either No Excuses Watercolor or No Excuses Art Journaling.
I used the weekly layout to keep track of my work schedule, errands, stuff I did.
This thing is HUGE!
What I did find, though, was that some things took time and didn't really give me a huge benefit.  I also wanted to be able to scrap, or at least better document more than one thing a month.  I played around with a bunch of ideas in my head, but when I found this journal on Etsy, I knew I would use it as my foundation.

I adore the "blood" spatters, the claw marks, and the medieval-looking binding.  And that it is leather.  And that it has 500 pages.
There are two issues with the journal that took some working around.  The pages are A5 size (which means about 5.5" wide by 8.5" tall), so they are smaller than the 7" by 9.25" pages that I came to love in my Happy Planner.  With only 500 pages made of regular printer paper, I had to think about how to manage space and how I would decorate it without getting too chunky.  I really wanted to be able to have one page for a picture/journaling each day, but I also wanted the planner aspect.  I toyed with trying to fit a daily planner layout plus space for a small photo on a single page, but I just wasn't feeling it, and there weren't enough pages to have a daily layout page plus a page for a photo.  Plus I thought I might miss the weekly layout that I had gotten used to.  But I knew the Currently page, the monthly scrapbook page, and the monthly layout from my current planner could go because they were more trouble than they were worth (although I do enjoy looking at them, they were often a challenge to create).

Eventually, I ended up coming up with a list of pages that I wanted to include at the beginning to help me better track things like all the animals I have to manage, my riding, fitness (yes, seriously!), weather (I'm a junkie), books I read, and movies I watch.  Then, I designed a weekly layout in Photoshop, and I calculated that I have enough pages for me to have one page a day for the year through the end of November.  That is not a problem because I'll do my December in a separate journal (a habit I started this year that I love).

So here is my new weekly layout:

I'll be printing these layouts on nice (but thin) paper and adding them to the journal.  To minimize bulk, I will actually cut out the blank page from the journal, but leave a half inch strip in the middle.  I'll use the strip to mount new pages to. 

And while I don't have all the individual pages for animals, movies, books, etc. done, they are all in the rough concept stage, so it shouldn't take me too long to put them together.  I do have the cover page done, though, and it makes me happy. 

I used some thin scrapbook paper from Michaels (Recollections brand that was on clearance) and inserted using the method I described above.  Then I used a stencil and a marker on a piece of burlap-type fabric to create the 2018, and I used a lined stamp from Studio Calico to give me a place to put my contact info in the event that I lose the journal.  I'm so looking forward to trying the new format in 2018!

Feel free to let me know if you have a favorite journal or planner, so I can check it out for next year!:)

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Blanketing and Equine Communication

It seems like every year at about this time, the controversy of "To Blanket or Not to Blanket" rears its head.  Advocates on either side staunchly defend their positions and sometimes the dialogue can get downright rude.  I'm a big fan of doing what is best for your horse based on his preferences rather than your own perceptions.  But I think that can be hard to determine for most horse people.  That is why I really liked this study, which taught horses clear communication symbols specifically for blanketing.  The researchers discovered that horses could communicate whether they wanted a blanket to be put on, taken off, or for there to be no change (in other words, if the blanket was on, it stayed on; if the blanket was off, it stayed off).

I really like this idea and I decided to try something with Nimo tonight when I went out to see him.  I have not taught him any communication symbols, but I am pretty familiar with his communication signals after over 14 years of seeing them!:)  In general, he does not like to wear a blanket, and he communicates his dislike by pinning his ears and doing the nose swing at me when I put it on.  However, he does always stand quietly for putting it on and taking if off, regardless of his opinion about the blanket itself.

Tonight, temperatures are dropping to 12 degrees, which is unusually cold for December in this area and definitely the coldest it has been so far this winter.  While I don't normally blanket Nimo in the winter, he still has remnants of the trace clip I gave him in October, so my tentative "rule" is to put a sheet on when the temperature is below 20 degrees.  I use a sheet instead of a blanket due to some past observations that he generates a pretty good amount of heat under just a sheet, so a blanket would probably be overkill.  And I picked 20 degrees because that is the coldest the temperature has been when I've been at the barn and have seen Nimo in his unblanketed state, so I know he's not shivering or hunched with cold at that temperature.  I may revise it downward later in the winter, but for now, that is my baseline.

When I went out to the barn tonight to put his sheet on, I decided that instead of bringing him in from his field and tying him up while I put the sheet on, I would try to put the sheet on in his field with no halter on.  Kind of my way of "asking" if he wants the sheet on.  He would be free to leave if he didn't want the sheet, and I fully expected to respect his wishes if he walked away.

I love how Nimo always greets me at the gate.  I know it's mostly because of the treats he gets, but it's still nice that I don't have to wander all over looking for him:)
He met me at the gate, as usual, and I gave him his usual treats.  I didn't save any in my pocket or give him anything out of the ordinary.  Then I carried the sheet into his field, stood next to him for a moment, and proceeded to haphazardly fling it over top of him (I try to do it gracefully, but it never works - it's always either wadded up at the withers or mostly hanging off of one side).  He stood still as a statue while I adjusted the sheet and fastened all the surcingles and snaps. 

Meanwhile, a fairly new horse in his herd was standing right behind him, very much in his space.  Particularly when I'm around, the new horse tends to get too close and appears to ignore Nimo's clear (even to me, a non-horse entity) signals to MOVE AWAY NOW.  So Nimo ends up chasing or making physical contact (more with his body than kicking or biting) to make his signals even clearer.

Normally, I would be really apprehensive in a situation like that, but Nimo has a perfect track record of never going after another horse when I'm in the middle or even nearby.  He is very careful to wait until I'm clear before he moves.  Still, I wasn't sure how it would play out because I didn't have a halter or lead rope on him, and I had to move around his whole body to get the sheet on.  I kept a close eye on both horses and was ready to move quickly if I needed to, and I also made sure I strategically fastened the sheet so that I did the neck, then the surcingles, and then the leg straps, so that if Nimo did end up moving, the sheet was less likely to get tangled up.

I decided to take Nimo's stillness and lack of response to the other too-close horse as his acceptance of the sheet for the night.  I should note too that the temperature was 28 degrees at the time, and Nimo did not necessarily know how cold it would be getting (although my sense is that animals who live outside do know when the weather is changing, at least to a certain degree).

Ideally, I could repeat this experiment several times during both similar and different circumstances to see if this was a case of Nimo behaving and doing what he normally would do in the barn because the act of blanketing has created a generalized response or if it is truly indicative of Nimo communicating that he wanted to wear the sheet (or at least didn't not want to wear it).  I have definitely "asked" him if he wanted to stay in the barn or be turned out when there is bad weather, and there have been a couple of times when he chose to stay in and others when he chose to go out.  (I ask by putting him in his stall for a few minutes with hay and then opening the door and literally asking if he wants to go out.  If he turns and stays in his stall, I assume he wants to stay in, but if he moves toward me and walks out willingly, I assume he wants to go out.)

It's an interesting idea to further explore and I'd love to hear if anyone else "asks" their horse before putting a blanket on!:)

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Gymnastic Tuesday

If you've been following my blog for a while, you may remember Gymnastic Sundays from a couple of years ago.  The instructor I was working with at the time offered these amazing cavaletti/ground pole lessons every Sunday during the winter months, and I was able to take quite a few of those lessons.  They were a ton of fun, in part because of the instructor's personality, in part because of how challenging they were, and in part because I watched Nimo's confidence really improve during the time that we did them.

Unfortunately, my current instructor does not do work over cavaletti because it isn't really part of the Science of Motion methodology, but the trainer that works out at the barn where I board Nimo does often set exercises up.  They are simpler than what I did with my last instructor, but still fun and Nimo will actually seek them out in the arena so he can go over the poles:)

The barn instructor is on break for the holiday, but before she left, she set up a cavaletti/ground pole pattern, along with a few jumps and a small dressage arena so her students could continue to work on their skills in between lessons.  I thought I would share the cavaletti pattern because I've had a ton of fun doing it with Nimo, and it's easy enough that even beginners can do it, but there is enough to it that more advanced horses could enjoy it as well.

Note: The x's denote cavaletti  and the straight lines are for ground poles.  But you could easily adjust the height to match your horse's capability.
The red and blue sets of poles are set at trot distance while the yellow poles are set for canter.  However, if your horse isn't up to cantering the yellow poles, you can still set them at canter distance and trot them (the horse will just do a stride of trot in between each set of two poles instead of the "bounce" effect you get if you canter them).  According to Ingrid and Reiner Klimke's Cavaletti book, trot distance is 4 feet 2 inches to 5 feet, while the canter distance is 11 feet.  However, depending on your horse's stride, you may need to adjust.  I've actually been able to trot Nimo over canter poles as if they were trot poles, which means instead of doing a stride in the middle of each set of poles, he did them in stride.  I'm not sure that every horse would be capable of that, but Nimo is big and trotting is really his thing.

Anyway, if you're like me and looking for ways to add variety to your schooling sessions this winter, this exercise hopefully gives you some ideas:)  Happy schooling!

Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas!

This is how I imagined Christmas in my head:

7:00-ish: Wake up and watch Gemma open her presents while wearing super cute winter pj's that we bought for her and gave her on Christmas Eve.  Take lots of great pictures for the scrapbook.

8:30-ish: Eat healthy and quick breakfast of oatmeal with banana.

9:00-ish: Make the three layers needed for the carrot cake I am making for Christmas dinner.

10:00-ish: Take a break and work on scrapbook or watch TV or otherwise engage in a fun and relaxing activity.

11:00-ish: Start making Christmas dinner and frost carrot cake.

12:30-ish: Serve Christmas dinner.  Eat too much and enjoy carrot cake with coffee.

1:30-ish: Head to the family room and enjoy a Christmas movie or take a nap.

3:00-ish: Take a shower, put on clean and coordinating clothing, and style hair.

4:00-ish: Head out to barn to have husband take a few nice pictures of Nimo and me for the blog.

6:00-ish: Warm up left-overs for dinner and watch a Christmas movie or just hang out and relax.

8:00-ish: Quickly post cute picture of Nimo and me on the blog.

8:15-ish: Read a new book.

9:30-ish: Go to bed.

Here's what actually happened:

1:30 am: Gemma wakes up not feeling well and starts vomiting.  (Possibly because she ate way too much at dinner, didn't go to bed until after 10:15, and wore herself out with all the excitement about Christmas.)

2:00 am: Gemma still not well and still vomiting.

2:30 am: Gemma vomits all over the bed.  Change sheets and put the dirty ones in the wash.

3:00 - 5:00: Gemma still vomiting periodically, so no sleep for either of us.  By 5, Gemma is so exhausted that she can't get out of bed to vomit in the bathroom, so she throws up on the floor.  Clean floor then sacrifice a mixing bowl for her convenience.

5:30: Vomiting is finally over and we get some sleep.

8:00: Wake up and realize that even coffee may not be sufficient to get me through the day.  Lay in bed and wish I could fall asleep again and that is was any day except for Christmas.

8:30: Husband comes to check on us to find out why we are still in bed.  Apparently, he did not notice the vomiting, dry-heaving, toilet-flushing, sheet changing, washing machine, and kitchen noises, so had no clue that we had been up much of the night.

8:32: Gemma wakes up and decides she is ready to face the day and open presents.  Get up and put on yesterday's clothes, make coffee, and settle in for opening presents.

10:30: Realize that we might have to have a discussion next year with a certain Grandmother about the number of gifts she sends.  Also realize that we might have to have a discussion with Gemma about her habit of wrapping random possessions and putting them under the tree.  (She would open each one and exclaim in excitement the same as if it was a gift from someone else...over and over and over...)

10:53: Sigh with relief when all presents are opened.

11:00: Start making Christmas dinner.

12:00: Serve Christmas dinner.

Ham, green bean casserole, sour cream mashed potatoes, dinner rolls
1:00: Start making carrot cake.  Wonder why there is a burning smell coming from the oven.  Discover that one of the three cake pans got a little overcooked.  Ignore the burnt part and proceed onward with the recipe.  Make frosting and realize that frosting a three-layer cake is harder than it looks, especially if one's oven is not level, which produces lop-sided cakes.  Note to self: Stick to one-layer cakes in the future!

While it is true that you have to cut the bottom off the cake because it is totally burned a bit crispy, it otherwise turned out pretty good!

3:00: Sit down with a piece of cake and cup of coffee and relax for a bit.

4:30: Remember that I was supposed to shower and go out to the barn to take pictures with Nimo.  Give up on the shower and decide to just take a picture of Nimo.  Remember that I was supposed to bring a halter home to clean it.  Decide to take a wet rag out to the barn and clean it off there.

5:20: Arrive at the barn and attempt to clean the halter.  Realize that having a wet rag in one's bare hand when the temperature is 29 degrees results in a spreading numbness in said hand.  Decide that maybe the dirt on the halter won't be that noticeable.

5:30: Give Nimo his treats (and a carrot left over from the cake I made) and bring him into the barn for a picture.  Once he is in the light, realize that there is something all over his face.  Get a brush to scrub it off.  Realize that his head is covered in hundreds of tiny bits of hay, as if he literally has had his head inside a bale of hay.  Try to brush the tiny bits off.  But because of the cold and dry weather, they are full of static electricity and the brush just redistributes them.  Give up on tiny bits of hay and decide that a cute picture in front of a Christmas tree will distract viewers from the dirty halter and bits of hay.

5:45: Lead Nimo next to the beautifully-decorated Christmas tree in the barn.  Ask him to pose in front of it.  Remember that I was supposed to teach him to ground tie earlier in the year.

Hey mom, are there any treats left?  How about I lick your hand to find out?
Try to get Nimo to at least perk his ears up for the picture.

I can't believe you are making me do this.  I feel so stupid.  You should have brought more treats.
Give up on the perked ears and decided that a picture that is in focus with Nimo's head in it is good enough, and call it a night at the barn.

6:30: Arrive home and heat up left-overs for dinner.  Finally settle in for the night.

8:00: Start blog post about crazy day.  Talk to parents.  Get distracted by child.

10:15: Finally get post published and go to bed.

And so this year's Christmas didn't go quite like I planned, but it was good anyway.  I'm not quite ready to laugh at all the disasters from today, but I think after I get a good night's sleep, I will be:)  So here's to making it through the day and living to fight again tomorrow.

Merry Christmas from Nimo and me to all of you!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

'Twas the Night Before Christmas...

Our tree:)
'Twas the Night before Christmas and all through the house ran a five-year-old girl, so fast that no one could keep up with her, not even a mouse.  Her parents tried desperately to get her to sleep.  They read and they sang and they watched the TV, all in an attempt to get the girl's eyes to not see.

Alas, it was for naught, because the girl outlasted her parents, her excitement for Christmas too much to contain.  And so they gave up and watched Dinotrux and Mommy wrote bad poetry to keep herself awake...

I hope all of you are having (or had) a wonderful Christmas Eve.  We celebrated by starting out the day with french toast for breakfast and spent some time relaxing and watching National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (which isn't as child-friendly as we thought it was...oops!).  I worked on getting my SOLOSHOT3 updated and ready for shooting, only to discover that apparently there are regular SD cards and micro SD cards.  I bought the regular version when I apparently need the micro version.  I mean, really, do we need SD cards that are smaller than a square inch?  I imagine that I'll be buying about 87 of them because they will literally just disappear in our house, never to be seen again.

Late this afternoon, I headed out to see Nimo and give him some special treats and then we feasted on tuna casserole, peas, and rolls.  Afterward, we did a partial gift exchange.  (We'll open the bulk of the presents tomorrow.)  Then I read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (twice at Gemma's request) and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas before we watched The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (the old animated version).

And now, we are just waiting for the child to go to bed, because it's 9:40 and that is theoretically past her bedtime...And by we, I mean me, because my husband crashed half an hour ago...Gotta love this season!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Double Bridle, initial thoughts

If I remember correctly, the double bridle that I ordered for Nimo came in late October.  I already had a lesson scheduled for the first weekend in November, so I didn't do too much with the bridle except do an initial fitting to make sure it was in the ballpark, and it was.  I couldn't really figure out how the curb chain was supposed to work, though, and rather than risk fitting it improperly and potentially causing Nimo discomfort or pain, I decided to wait until my lesson so I could have my instructor take a look at it.

Before my lesson, she made a couple of minor adjustments, and everything seemed to fit well.  Here's what the contraption looks like:

That is a whole lot of stuff on my horse's head!  Note that my curb reins are black and thinner so I can tell them apart from the snaffle reins.
My expectation for the lesson was that Nimo would wear the full double bridle, but that there would be no reins on the curb bit so Nimo could get used to the bit before it was engaged.  My instructor felt that would not be helpful because without reins the bit would not be stable in his mouth (there is a huge focus on stability in the Science of Motion work).  Luckily, I had anticipated that possibility and had brought an extra set of reins with me.

The first thing we worked on, of course, was how to hold the reins.  I think there might be 101 ways to hold them and everyone is a strong advocate for whatever way they use.  But, my instructor actually had me hold them in such a way so that they felt as natural as possible.  I continued to hold the snaffle reins as I normally did (through my ring finger and pinkie) and then added the curb reins one slot up, so to speak, so that they ran between my second and ring fingers. 

Then we basically did our regular lesson, with me constantly checking to make sure I hadn't over-engaged the curb bit.  Nimo did well, but no angels sang.  The heavens did not open and shed Holy light on our ride.  And miraculous improvement in Nimo's way of going did not occur, either.  While I can't deny the theoretical possibility that changing a piece of tack could contribute to an immediate and significant improvement, I have never really seen it with Nimo.  Both of us are the same in the respect that we tend to withhold our assessment about new things or maybe even specifically don't like new things (even if they are better) until after we've gotten used to them.  So, I wasn't expecting miracles, one of the reasons I had been reluctant to try the double bridle is that I wasn't looking forward to the learning curve and the time for both of us to adjust to something new.

And I was definitely still skeptical that the double bridle would do anything for us that a snaffle (or hackamore) couldn't, but I also wanted to give the bridle a reasonable opportunity before judging it.  So, over the next six weeks, I used it when I could.  But I admit to actually not riding sometimes because I didn't want to deal with it.  After the first 2-3 rides with it, Nimo started being difficult about letting me put the bridle on, so I ended up having to separate the two headstalls and put the snaffle on first, then the curb, and then attach everything back together, which only takes 5 minutes, but was a pain as the days got shorter and I was mostly riding at night.

I am still not sure if Nimo's reluctance is/was because the bridle is causing discomfort or because it is just a lot going on.  When I started putting the bits in one at a time, he definitely improved and as long as I don't try to put both bits in at the same time, he's mostly good now.  Which makes me think it is less about the double bridle itself and more just about it being too much at once.  But the jury is still out...

After some particularly chilly days and nights earlier this month, I ended up switching back to a hackamore because I don't like the idea of putting one cold bit in Nimo's mouth, much less two.  And having to add Warming Up the Bits to the whole process of getting ready to ride was too much for me.  So I decided the hackamore was in order.

There are some people who are pretty emphatic that switching between the double bridle and a snaffle (or probably even worse, a double bridle and hackamore) is confusing for the horse and shouldn't be done.  Nimo is ridden in a hackamore so much for training rides, though, that I couldn't imagine he would be confused.  Also, I've heard Jean Luc Cornille (founder of Science of Motion) say over and over that SOM is not about the bit.  It's about the way a rider uses her body to communicate with the horse.  The bit is a part of that, of course, but it's not everything.  (Yet, I will say that the double bridle is so frequently touted as The Goal that I think there is some conflict on this point within the SOM methodology.  Either it is about the bit or it isn't, it can't be both...)

As it turned out, I had the best ride I've had in quite a while on Nimo with the hackamore the first time I used it.  He lifted his shoulders from the very beginning of the ride and gave me some really lovely trot work.  Prior to that ride, I'd noticed that he was engaging in the exact same evasions that he had used with the snaffle bit - moving too quickly and tucking his chin. 

The first few times I'd ridden him in the double bridle, he did not move too quickly or tuck his chin.  In fact, he moved so slowly at the walk, I was fearful that putting him in the double bridle had actually sent us backward.  In reality, though, I think it was just that at first, he was more focused on the newness of the bit and probably some different sensations in the way we were communicating, and once he connected those sensations to the same work we'd been doing, he went back to his usual evasions, although he also did lots of good work.  I don't mean to say that our rides were any more or less challenging than when we were using the snaffle alone.  I'm just trying to point out that it didn't seem to make much difference, and I have no way of knowing what, if any, contribution the double bridle may have made.

Anyway, the more I rode in the hackamore, the more Nimo went back to using quickness of stride as an evasion.  He does not typically tuck his chin in the hackamore, though.  Rather, he tends to pull downward a little. 

Then, this morning, I went to another lesson and put him back in the double bridle (the high was expected to be 65 degrees so no worries about cold bits!).  We had a lovely ride, although the quickness and chin-tucking came out a bit at the end, probably because he was starting to get tired.

My conclusion is that there may actually be a benefit for Nimo if I switch his headgear from hackamore to double bridle and back again.  It could be that mixing things up helps keep him focused more on the work because of the change whereas keeping things the same means he gets bored or complacent.  It's a conclusion that I'm going to test repeatedly over the next few months because even if he did work best in a double bridle, I'm absolutely not putting two cold bits in his mouth on days when the temperature is much below 40 when I ride.  And also because if SOM really isn't about the bit, then as long as I keep my body consistent, I should be able to communicate effectively regardless of what Nimo wears on his head.

That said, I really don't like the double bridle.  It is cumbersome and heavy on Nimo's head (the thing must weigh 8 pounds!).  I also don't like having to manage four reins.  While I do think I have more of an incentive to keep my hands still with so many reins, I don't feel any of the subtlety of contact that so many people have claimed comes from a double bridle.  I just feel awkward and like I either have too much contact with the snaffle or not enough.  The contact never feels "right" and I spend a huge amount of time fretting about the contact with the curb bit.

And I don't like the curb chain all.  In fact, one of my experiments is going to be taking two sets of pliers to the curb bit and removing the curb chain altogether.  I really feel like the chain engages too soon and too much, even with the lightest of contact because the chain has to be kept a little tighter than the usual two fingers length so it doesn't hang too low and pinch.  Plus, the metal clips that hold the curb chain on to the bit seem like they could rub or get caught on things.  I think it is a major design flaw (and not one that I can fix with duct tape!), so I'm going to explore either not using it at all or coming up with a different fastening method.

If you do ride in a double bridle, and like it (or not), please feel free to express your experience below.  I'm not trying to condemn the use of the double bridle, but I do think it is a fairly sophisticated piece of equipment that requires a well-educated rider and horse to see its full potential.  I also just don't see the cost-to-benefit ratio in a favorable light right now.  It's a lot more work to put on.  It's heavy and awkward.  It takes a lot more focus to ride with and even assuming that I am getting an improvement in Nimo's balance and coordination, I don't think it is enough to justify the Pain-in-the-Ass factor at this point.  But I am going to keep plugging away with it at least until I feel like I understand it and use it better or until Nimo tells me that it is too uncomfortable for him (e.g. he starts getting more reactive about bridling or fusses a lot under saddle).

One thing that I think will be particularly helpful for me is watching our rides and using both the double bridle and the hackamore.  To that end, I'm hoping to start filming rides next week.  Normally, the barn I board at has lessons until just after dark, so I either have to try to work around them to ride in the light or I have to wait until after dark to ride.    Either situation isn't that great for trying to film our rides, especially while I'm still learning how to do it, but I have a narrow window of opportunity next week while lessons are on break for the holidays to try out my SOLOSHOT3.  I will try to post at least some of what I capture so that those of you who are interested can make your own judgements:)

Friday, December 22, 2017

Rappahannock Hunter Pace 2017

The Rappahannock Hunter Pace was originally scheduled for the last Sunday in October.  Unfortunately, a fairly severe storm for the area was predicted that day, so it (along with many other equestrian events) was rescheduled for November 11.  I was actually glad about the rescheduling because I was feeling a bit run-down after all the stuff during October and I still had to get ready for Halloween!

Gemma combined last year's Little Mermaid costume with this year's witch hat and some athletic shoes to create a very mobile Mer-Witch...All the better for trick-or-treating, my dear!
Anyway, November 11th dawned quite chilly, with a temperature of 19 degrees, making me wish we had ridden in the storm instead because it would have been about 50 degrees warmer.  I waited for my partner to cancel on me (unbeknownst to me, she was desperately waiting for me to cancel), and I briefly thought about asking her if she wanted to ditch the hunter pace and go to breakfast instead, but in the end, I sucked it up and headed out to the barn to load Nimo.

I had never been to the location of the hunter pace before, although it seemed like it would be within a 45 minute drive.  The hunt had warned competitors that GPS apps frequently misrouted people, so directions were provided.  However, like most directions given by people in an area with a crazy road system, they did not immediately make sense to me.  So I used the app on my phone to see what I got, and it looked like it matched up with the directions.  I examined the route and it looked really easy, so the morning of the ride, I did not even bother to use the app to find my way, because, you know, I have a really great track record of accurately finding my way to places...ahem.

I happily proceeded down the road, turned where I thought I needed to turn and drove on my merry way down Route 229 south, looking for the turn off.  And looking and looking and looking.  Eventually, many miles after I expected it, I found the road I was looking for.  At that point, I pulled up a screen shot of the hunt club's directions and planned to follow them for the last couple of turns.

Except that I drove and drove and I didn't see anything resembling the final turns described.  I knew I was generally in the right area and I appeared to be on the right road, but something didn't make sense.  I attempted to start my phone's GPS app, and it absolutely routed me off to some mystical land instead of where I thought I needed to go.

As luck would have it, I saw a tiny gas station in the middle of nowhere that actually had a lot big enough for me to squeeze into so I could stop driving and try to figure out where I was.  I also sent my friend a message to let her know I would be late.  Or eaten by wolves.

Thankfully, now that I wasn't moving on the road, my phone's GPS app did work, and it told me I needed to make a u-turn and that I wasn't too far from the location.  I followed the directions in, but realized that somehow I was coming in from the opposite direction I had expected.  I later discovered that I had neglected to make one significant turn just because I forgot about it.  And the fact that I managed to find the right road anyway is probably a 1-in-a-million shot.  I assume that was the universe's way of repaying me for all the crappy times I ended up having to turn my trailer around using someone's mountain lodge driveway with a 60 degree grade and no visibility because a road sign was missing or the turn too sudden for me to make.

Despite being over 20 minutes late, I was still one of the first people there (I guess no one else wanted to ride in 19 degrees either...).  My partner and I got registered and tacked up our horses.  It is at this point that I should mention that because of the cold, I did not brush my muddy horse.  I did not clean my dirty tack.  I did not bring my sort-of coordinating saddle pad.  And I even forgot Nimo's biothane halter headstall that I attach my hackamore and reins to.  But I didn't think it was a big deal because it was just 5-7 miles in the countryside.  Little did I know there would be a photographer out on trail...sigh.  (Oh, universe, thou art so fickle!)

Here's a general view of the starting area - typical hunt country in Virginia.  Lots of steep, open fields with cute farms and much to Nimo's dismay, lots of cows.

Here we are waiting to start.  Try to avert your eyes from my muddy horse, mismatched saddle pad and regular halter to which I attached my hackamore. 

We were able to start within just a few minutes of checking in with the starter, and we began the ride going down a steep hill, through a creek, and then through a large herd of cattle.  The course was lovely.  It was mostly open fields with a little bit of woods, and as the morning wore on, the sun warmed things up to probably the mid-40s.  We really had a wonderful time and my partner and I chatted quite a bit.  So much so that we went pretty slow and near the end realized we needed to pick up the pace a bit.

And then we had to climb back up the steep hill that we'd started from, and Nimo was having none of my request for him to trot up it.  He slowed down to a walk and leisurely sauntered to the finish, much to everyone's laughter.

I think it took us an hour and 17 minutes to do the course.  I'm not sure how many miles it was - probably in the 5-6 mile range.  This particular hunt, though, tends to ride faster than some of the others, so we were much slower than the optimal pace. But that was OK.  We had a lovely ride and then a lovely lunch before heading back home (the RIGHT way this time!).

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Gingerbread cookies

Warning:  This post has nothing to do with horses, but I consider it part of "The Journey":) 

I set myself a goal of baking four different kinds of cookies this month (theoretically one kind each week, but I am a procrastinator...).  I remember when I was growing up that a friend's mom really outdid herself every December with tons of amazing cookies.  And then when I was in college, my supervisor at the college library invited me to her house for a full day of crazy Christmas baking.  I've always wanted to do something like that since then, but finding the time and motivation has been a challenge, for about 20 years.  This year, though, felt like the year to at least make an attempt.

I started the month out with snickerdoodles, which I've never made before, although I love them.  They ended up tasting OK, but something wasn't quite right.  They spread out a lot in the oven and the taste was...missing something.  So I definitely need to shop around for a different recipe to try next year.

Snickerdoodle fail
My next attempt was gingerbread cookies.  I think it was probably the first time I have ever made them (except maybe with my parents' help when I was growing up?).  I had to go looking for a recipe because the one in my usual go-to cookbook (The Joy of Cooking) was reduced fat.  I mean, seriously?  Anyway, Martha Stewart came through for me and filled the void with this recipe:
(Note that I only baked my cookies for 10 minutes because they were much smaller than the 6" gingerbread people called for by the recipe.)

I really liked the way the cookies tasted (the ground pepper surprised me as an ingredient, but somehow worked), but I did not use the Royal Icing, which, according to my Joy of Cooking cookbook is better for when you care more about how something looks than how it tastes.  Instead I used a super basic recipe of 2 cups powdered sugar mixed with 3 tablespoons of water.  And I also used the ziplock bag method of icing application, which involves spooning the icing into the bag, sealing it, and cutting a tiny notch out of the bottom corner of the bag so the icing will come out in a neat and controlled manner.  (Note that it is super important that you are careful when you put the icing into the bag, because if you aren't, it's possible that you won't be able to seal the bag, and that you'll decide it's not that big of a deal if you don't seal the bag, and then there will be a massive ooze of icing all over everything instead of in neat ribbons or buttons on your cookies, which is the opposite of neat and controlled.)

I forgot to get a picture of my best cookies before I sent them off to a party that Gemma was going to, but I did get a picture of the ones that mostly turned out OK (with respect to the icing, I mean):

Anyway, if you have a favorite holiday cookie recipe, please feel free to share in the comments.  I'd love to have some more great recipes to try!:)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Fort Valley 2017

I posted earlier about how I was hoping to take Nimo to the Fort Valley 30-mile ride in October.  But you may remember the Yellow Jacket Incident from September which basically took our primary conditioning trail out of commission for the rest of the season.  It also turns out that September and October are not great months for me to be conditioning because my daughter has a birthday, work is busy, temperature and humidity may still be high, and I somehow just have Stuff To Do.

By mid-September, it became clear to me that conditioning for a challenging 30-mile ride in the mountains was just not in the cards.  But I still really wanted to go.  And then I remembered running into a lady when I was out pretending to condition over the summer (it was hot and we went slow, but we rode!).  When she found out that Nimo and I dabbled in limited distance rides, she mentioned that the Old Dominion Endurance Rides organization has a special group that handles drag riding for No Frills, the OD, and Fort Valley and she wondered if I would be interested.  Apparently, there have been some issues in the past with people volunteering to drag ride using horses that really aren't fit enough to handle the more challenging terrain, so they are always on the lookout for riders with fit horses.  At the time, I was convinced I would be competing Nimo, but by September, drag riding started sounding pretty appealing.

A friend of mine also mentioned it to me as an alternative, and she pointed out that if we volunteered to drag ride, we would have to go.  Whereas if we signed up to ride, we could more easily back out if the weather didn't look good or we were just lazy and unmotivated.  I thought that was a pretty good point, and I decided that drag riding was the way to go.  It's been a while since I've volunteered at a ride, and this solution would allow me to still go to the ride, camp, ride one loop, and get to see familiar faces without the pressure of doing the whole 30 miles.

And in case you are wondering what drag riding is, it is a team of people riding (usually two) who follow reasonably closely behind the last competitor on the trail.  The main purpose of the drag riders is to carry a radio to communicate with base camp in the event of an emergency out on trail where medical attention for the horse or rider is necessary.  Drag riders can also help riders who are having trouble for whatever reason (horse misbehaving, equipment issues, need moral support, etc.) and pick up lost items on the trail.  (I personally have benefited from drag riders on more than one occasion, so I was excited at the prospect of being able to return the favor.)

Very few rides in this area have drag riders.  Usually the ride management uses spotters out on the trail to make sure competitors are moving along the trail, but because the OD-sponsored rides (No Frills, the OD, and Fort Valley) are so rugged, the ride managers use a combination of spotters, horse ambulances on the trail, and drag riders to help minimize the risk.

Anyway, a friend and I volunteered to be drag riders for the first loop (17 miles) of the Fort Valley 30-mile ride.  I thought it was interesting that each loop for each distance has its own team of drag riders, even though there is quite a bit of overlap between the loops.  So, a total of ten teams of drag riders are needed for Fort Valley because there are 30-mile and 50-mile rides over two days (the 50-mile ride has three loops and the 30-mile ride has two loops).

The biggest reason I picked that loop to volunteer for was temperature.  October can still be warm and the last time I'd been at the Fort Valley ride, it got into the mid-70s,which is not so great for big, black, unclipped horses with winter coats growing in.  I knew we would start our ride at around 8 or 8:30 and be done before noon, barring any emergency on the trail, which would mean I could probably get away with a trace clip for Nimo instead of a full body clip if the temperature was warm.

As the day of the ride approached, my strategy looked like it was going to pay off.  The temperature was indeed likely to be in the mid-70s again, so I did a basic trace clip for Nimo to help keep him cool.  To be honest, I figured he would be fine without the clip, given our ride would be done before noon, but to address the equine fitness of the drag riders' horses, the OD also insists that all drag horses vet in and vet out according to the same parameters as competitors' horses.  So the last thing I wanted was a big horse that was slow to pulse down because I know from experience that it really concerns vets for these rides, and I wanted to make sure there was no risk that Nimo would take a lot of time to pulse down due to heat.

On the morning of October 20th, we headed out for ride camp, in much the same way as we would have done had we been competing.

My friend and I caravaned to the ride and true to form, I missed a turn in Front Royal and ended up causing a minor traffic jam while I figured out a way to turn around.  (I consider it important to continue improving my skills for turning and backing up!)  We made it the rest of the way to the ride camp without any issues, though, and we got set up pretty quickly.  I'm still using cattle panels for Nimo's pen and still loving using the trailer as a camper, which is something new for this year for me.

Fort Valley ride camp - we are in the row closest to the bottom of the photo in the middle (see the brown trailer with the blue tarp).
After we got set up, we attempted to check in, but because we were drag riders, it seemed to create some confusion.  In the end, we got blank rider cards to use to vet in and both my friend and I were assigned the same number: a delta symbol with the number 31 inside.  The delta signified that we were drag riders and the 31 meant we were covering the first loop of the 30-mile ride.  We vetted in without incident and then hung out for a couple of hours until dinner time.

You can't imagine how hard it was for me not to turn this into my own variation of the Deathly Hallows symbol.  I may have to drag ride again solely for that reason!
In my past experience volunteering for rides, there have been a lot of instructions for the volunteers and usually a special ride briefing for them.  There is also a fair amount of organization in terms of where the volunteers should be, what they should do, and how they should do it.  So I wasn't prepared for the, shall we say, less definitive, directions for drag riders.  I sat through the whole ride meeting and waited until the end because there was a rumor that the drag riders would be getting a briefing then.  (OD ride meetings tend to be long-winded - I know it is because the organizers want to make sure we have lots of good information, but the crowd tends to be noisy, so it's hard to hear, plus it is cold and dark, so my attention wanders a bit, I'm afraid).

Anyway, we did finally get a very short meeting with the drag rider coordinator, which briefly covered how the radios we would carry worked and approximately when we could expect to ride out in the morning, but I still felt a bit rudderless about exactly how things would work in the morning.  When I'm doing something new, I definitely appreciate lots of details, but I know not everyone is that way, so I decided not to worry too much, and socialized a bit before tucking Nimo in and heading off to bed.

The next morning dawned crisp, although I knew it would warm up quickly.  I wandered around in search of horse water and while I was doing that, the loudspeaker crackled and requested that all drag riders report to the start line.  I wasn't sure why because we still had about half an hour before we were supposed to be ready to leave.  The plan was that we would start a few minutes after the last 30-mile competitor, but before the ride & tie competitors, so probably around 8:15, given that the start time for the 30-mile ride was 8:00 and the start time for the ride & tie was 8:20.  It was at that moment that I realized the start line wasn't where I thought it was.  Thankfully, I saw some familiar faces and asked the stupid question, so that I could discover it was literally 100 feet behind me...(Look, I hadn't had any coffee, OK?)

I reported as requested and it turned out that the call was really for the 50-mile drag riders who had not shown up yet.  I grumbled a bit in my head about the need for more specificity and headed back to the trailer to get Nimo ready.

At 8:10-ish, we reported to the start line and got our radio, and then we headed down the trail at 8:15-ish.  Nimo and I have ridden this loop twice before - once as part of an Intro ride and once as part of the full 30-mile ride.  But it wasn't until I got on the trail and we headed up the mountain that I realized I had been squishing down some fairly heavy anxiety about this ride.  If you've been a reader for a long time, you might remember that the Fort Valley 30-mile ride was our first limited distance ride.  And it did not go particularly well for the first 9 miles.  In fact, it was brutal and it easily ranks among the top five most miserable experiences of my life.  After the first nine miles, Nimo settled because we got a partner to ride with and the rest of the ride was fairly uneventful, albeit exhausting.

But those nine miles...the memories from them have stuck with me and they all started coming to the surface.  The biggest issue had been that Nimo unexpectedly turned into a fire-breathing dragon, most likely because we got separated from the lady we were supposed to ride with in the crazed start, and Nimo ended up without a buddy.  He was hysterical about being "alone" and we got passed so much.  And each time, he got more and more frantic.  Holding him back took every ounce of strength that I had, and I even got off at one point because I thought he was behaving dangerously next to a drop-off on a very steep section of trail.  Luckily, we ended up being able to ride with another lady starting at about mile 9 and that solved the behavior issue, but I was so dehydrated and exhausted by that point that 21 more miles really sucked the life out of me (and Nimo, who was pretty tired at the end of the ride, when we came in 7 minutes overtime).

Anyway, I did the best I could to continue squashing the memories.  I knew Nimo was a different horse and I was a more experienced rider and we had a buddy, so there really wasn't any reason for this particular anxiety.

Photo by Becky Pearman.  We have just come up the mountain for the first time and turned onto a flat ridge.
But I did have another reason that was potentially more valid.  Hoof boots.  You may remember that we had several hoof boot issues at the OD ride in June and I was concerned they would return at the Fort Valley ride.  Even though I only had one issue each of the previous times we'd ridden at Fort Valley, I was still wondering how they would work.  I'm still using the Easyboot Epics, which seem to fit well, but have trouble staying on in more rugged terrain.

My memories of Fort Valley were that there were some really rocky bits, but that overwhelmingly the trail was not that bad.  But I hadn't remembered all the rocks at the OD either, so I was definitely questioning my memory.

The worst section of trail was the one on the backside of the mountain we climbed at the start of the ride.  Both previous boot issues had occurred on that section, so I was anxious for two reasons as we descended - one was the hoof boots coming off and the other was remembering how crazy Nimo had been.

Normally Nimo tends to go downhill at a pretty good clip, even at the walk, but with all the big rocks, he was picking his way through carefully (which I fully support, by the way).  Unfortunately, my friend's horse is gaited and moved a bit faster through that section, so Nimo started to jig a bit to keep up instead of just walking faster.  My heart rate was going up and I could not snap myself out of the anxiety.  Finally I realized all I had to do was to ask my friend to slow her horse a bit through that section.  So I did, and then we all slowed down a little and it was fine.

We made it down the mountain without incident.  Near the bottom, we came upon three ride & tie horses that were standing riderless and tied to trees next to the trail.  While we had been specifically told that we were not to stay behind the ride & tiers (I'm not sure why), I couldn't shake the feeling that we should wait for them, if for no other reason than to stay out of their way because they were trying to compete.  As luck would have it, all three riders were coming up behind us, so we pulled off the trail to wait for them to mount and head out.

The plan was to let the horses get a couple minutes ahead of us to avoid leapfrogging too much.  (I felt guilty if we impeded anyone's progress down the trail.)  So the three horses headed out down the trail while my friend and I asked our horses to wait.  My friend's horse was not super happy about this decision and he fussed a bit.  Nimo, on the other hand, stood still as a rock on a loose rein.  I mean, it was almost epic the way he never moved while he watched those horses leave him behind.  And I realized how very, very critical it is for him to have a buddy on the trail.  He is absolutely a different horse.  Even though his buddy was not acting the best, the security of knowing that horse was with him allowed him to focus on me and remain calm in away that was the polar opposite of the last time we'd been on this trail.

My anxiety definitely started to ebb at that point, but it surprised me that even though it had been three years since we'd been on that trail, I remembered it like it was yesterday.  Every turn, every straight section, the creek.  Every section of trail was imbued with the emotion I'd felt during our last ride.  I remembered where one of Nimo's hoof boots came loose.  I remembered where he tried to gallop to keep up with riders who passed us.  I remembered where we kept pace with a lady and her daughter for awhile but lost them when they speeded up in the woods.  I remembered where I'd gotten off because Nimo was losing his mind.  I remembered where I tried to get back on but couldn't because Nimo was losing his mind.  I remembered where the ride & tier came up behind me and asked if I needed help (yes!) and I remembered where the last competitor on the trail came up to us and we agreed to ride together.

And then finally, the intense memories were over after the first nine miles and I was able to start enjoying the ride.  Nimo was steady, as was my friend's horse, and we covered the trail at a trot for the most part, although we did some walking too just so we didn't go too fast and so we could look around for things like lost hoof boots and whips and cell phones.  (My goal was to try to stick to a 5 mph pace, so we would stay behind the competitors without catching up, so we didn't seem like we were pushing anyone.)

It seemed like such a short time and we were back at the base of the mountain, ready to climb it and then descend it back into camp.  We did end up holding for a bit at the base of the mountain because a group of Intro riders was coming down and a motorcycle/dirt bike was waiting to go up.  (The ride uses motorcyclists to place and pull trail markings.)  It was kind of funny because the motorcyclist asked if our horses would be OK when he started his bike and rode up the mountain.  There really wasn't a way to get much distance from him, so I told him that we'd find out:)  But both horses barely flinched when the motorcycle started and moved past them up the mountain.  We waited about 5 seconds and then headed up after him.

The climb was as difficult as I remember it being, but the horses did it pretty steadily.  We did stop in the middle for just a couple of minutes because my friend's horse looked like he needed a break.

It was hard to capture the view as we climbed because there was still foliage on the trees, but it was lovely in person.
And just when I thought I was going to make it without any hoof boot issues on that damn mountain, I felt Nimo stumble and slide on a rock about 20 feet from the top.  And that took out a front hoof boot.  Luckily, the gaiter held it on while we finished the climb and then we pulled over to a roomy space at the top of the mountain.  I got off to assess the damage and determined that I needed to replace it (I had brought one extra).

While I replaced the boot, I can't count how many people passed us in both directions.  It was like Grand Central Station as the 50-milers started their second loop and a few ride & tiers finished their first.  Nimo stood so still through the whole thing.  And I was able to use either a rock or a stump to get back on (I honestly can't remember, but there was almost like a mini-camp site there with stuff that was perfect for impromptu mounting blocks).

Then we followed the trail along the ridge and headed down the mountain.  Nimo was so ready to trot all the way down, just as he had during our last ride, but my friend thought that was nuts, so we walked quite a bit of it.  (The trail is a gravel road, so I think it is pretty inviting for trotting, but the grade is quite steep in a few places, which definitely intimidated me the first time I rode it.)

And by 11:30, we were done.  Nobody had lost anything of significance on the trail (that we saw anyway), no one had needed any medical help (thank goodness!), and all the riders that started made it back.  It took us 3 hours and 15 minutes to do 17 miles, which was pretty much the 5 mph pace I'd hoped for, although a little slower than we would have needed to do if we'd been competing.  We definitely putzed around in a few places, though, so it wouldn't have been hard to shave at least 15 minutes off.

We got our in times and then headed back to the trailer to untack and wait for a bit before vetting in.  A group of riders was at the vetting area when we arrived, and I didn't want to interfere with them.  So we fed the horses and made sure they had water and then did the same for ourselves before heading over to vet in.

Nimo was looking good and recovering well, so I didn't expect any problems during the vetting process.  I was pretty surprised, though, when the vet said, "He doesn't look like he worked very hard."  At first, I thought maybe he was kidding, and then I realized he was serious.  I am kicking myself for not requesting my rider card back, so I don't know what his CRI was, but it was low enough that along with all the A's he got on the other criteria (including good gut sounds in all 4 quadrants - yay!) the vet told me that he didn't think Nimo would have any trouble with the second loop of the ride.  Which was probably the best thing I could have heard.  I actually would not have attempted it because I don't think Nimo's conditioning was good enough to do the second loop in that temperature (if it had been 20 degrees cooler, though...), but it was still awesome to hear. 

And so ended my experience drag riding for the Fort Valley 30-mile ride, and I am so glad that I did it.  If I had tried to do the ride itself, I would likely have scratched because of the temperature or lack of conditioning, and that horrible last experience I had would still be hanging over my head for another year.  Now I can see that as long as Nimo has a buddy, we are good (just the same as any other ride, really).  And I'm hoping that the next time (yes, there will be a next time!) we go to Fort Valley, we will be able to get a completion:)