Saturday, June 15, 2013


I chose my horses largely with the goal of endurance in the back of my mind. I've long been fascinated by the idea of riding hours and hours along rugged trails; exploring the backcountry from the back of a horse; challenging the limits of my patience, stamina, strength, and horsemanship skills; building an athletic equine partner. This wasn't the only reason I ended up with my mustangs, of course. Gypsy needed rescuing and I needed a project to help me heal from my surgery. Ranger and Brisa seemed like good prospects, but mostly I just liked them and wanted to see what we could accomplish.

My first mustang, Gypsy, was extremely difficult. I hadn't been aware of her whole history when I got her, and some key points had been concealed. (It wouldn't have changed my decision; I loved her from the moment I saw her. But I would have approached things with less self-doubt, especially at the beginning.) It took YEARS and YEARS of work, but I gentled her (after many, many trainers said it could never be done. Yes, I am proud of that). I halter-broke her, saddled her, rode her. Taught her to trust me, even though it hasn't translated to anyone else. She's a gorgeous mover, naturally balanced, savvy and quick. She learns fast, but she doubts everything and so sometimes needs reminders. She likes to explore, but she has such deep-rooted fear - helicopters, pickup trucks, men yelling will send her into a glassy-eyed, trembling panic a hair-trigger away from dangerous explosion. She is so athletic, but her issues around people and commotion and other horses make her unsuitable (I think) for organized competition. (For reference, her RHR at home, when it's just me and her and the sunshine, is around 28-32. If anyone else is around - even hundreds of feet away, just within her line of sight, it spikes to 44-50. Standing still.) She would HATE it. I've tried EVERYTHING I can think of to help her, to mitigate her fear, to desensitize her and train her, but she just. can't. get. over. it. She is my spirit horse, and so I have decided it isn't fair to ask for more. I've had dozens of people offer to buy her for breeding because she's so pretty, but she isn't (to me) a suitable broodmare. She will always be my Gypsy, and that's enough. 

I chose Ranger because he's deep-chested with a fairly narrow build. He has a short back, long legs, massive cannon bones, and perfect feet. He's nicely balanced, overall, though his neck is a little high and his short back makes saddle fitting problematic. He is a BEAUTIFUL mover. He has this INCREDIBLE floating trot, and I discovered one day that he also gaits when he feels like it. He has the look of a part-Arab and according to the BLM regional office guys I talked to, his herd was historically "improved" by the introduction of Spanish Barbs, Thoroughbreds, and Arabians. Ranger has incredible stamina and he can jump pretty much anything under 6'3." (I know this, because I've seen him do it.) He looks like my idea of a good endurance horse. The problem is, he is a spook. A whirling dervish kind of spook - the sort of horse who can teleport 180* and be five miles away before I've even adjusted my reins. He's resistant, distant, reserved, but he has this earnestness about him that is so appealing to me. 

And yet I feel like there is a key to Ranger that I'm missing. Still. He'll be so willing and cooperative, and then all of a sudden he's decided maybe it's not such a good idea to let me saddle him. Maybe he should run away and call for the rest of the herd. Maybe he shouldn't walk past the woods we've gone around a hundred times. Maybe he shouldn't ignore the birds in the trees or the deer at the edge of the pond or the frogs or the puddles or the butterflies or the dandelion fluff blowing in the wind. He is hard for me to handle, sometimes, because he's so strong and fast and - I will admit it - I am sometimes a chicken, too. But even when he's being his most ridiculous, he is SO careful not to hurt me. I've seen him spook and then twist in the air just so he wouldn't accidentally graze me with his shoulder. He once changed direction in the middle of a jump so he wouldn't kick me. He may be a spooky goofball, but in a weird way I trust him more than almost any other horse because he is so super conscious of where I am, and so careful not to hurt me. He could be a really wonderful endurance horse if I could get him over his fear. Maybe I can't, but to be honest, I haven't tried everything yet. I have some ideas still.

Then there's Brisa, the pony. (Well, we call her the pony. She's 14.3 hands and smaller than Ranger and Gypsy.) She is the friendliest, most curious, most confident horse I've ever worked with. Took me a week to get her halter broken. A few days to saddle her. And once she realized she could wear a saddle without dying, she just accepted it. Consistently, reliably, steadily. She's a tiny bit headshy, though not outside (my) acceptable boundaries. She is not a super forward horse under saddle - she gets a little balky, a little sticky, a little stubborn now and then. She's sloooowwwww and lazy unless I find ways of making things challenging for her. She's a good mover, though not great. This summer I need to work on smoothing her transitions and improving the rhythm of her gaits, because she's kind of sloppy. She's not an athlete, but she's small and easy to ride and utterly practical when it comes to eating or drinking. Commotion doesn't faze her - she's cool and mellow and reminds me of the old-school cow ponies, before Quarter Horses were bred to look like bulls. 

I had plans, a couple of years ago, to take her on some LDs and then let my daughter ride her in CTR or LDs while I focused on Ranger. But Brisa chipped her fetlock, and then I got hurt, and then the weather caused ride cancellations all over the area, and then farm stuff interfered, and then I got worried about money, and... well, I decided endurance couldn't be my thing. I felt like here I had three horses I loved dearly, and no endurance contenders. I won't sell my mustangs, so I felt like I needed to change my focus.

I told myself I was a fool to treat endurance as a goal when some things are only ever dreams, you know?

So I've spent the last couple of years just... having horses. Enjoying them. Loving them. Caring for them. Admiring them. Riding them around the farm, slow and easy. I have, I'll admit with much embarrassment, ignored behaviors I should have taken more seriously, because I just wanted my horses to be polite and respectful and fun to be with, and they are and I love them.

But. Oh, but. I *miss* having horse-related goals. I *miss* thinking about endurance, and making plans, and learning, and analyzing diets and conditioning schedules, comparing tack and riding tights and biothane color combinations. :D I *miss* ride stories and camp stories and the camaraderie that only comes when you know you're all doing something most people wouldn't dare. I *miss* the soul-deep joy and peace I felt at Tevis, at the start of the ride when the fog and the dust and the early dawn cast silver clouds along the trail and all I could see were horses moving through the mist. I wasn't even riding at Tevis and yet it changed me, irrevocably.

I used to say I was not a competitive person, but it turns out? I am. I like competing against myself. I like setting goals and times and crossing them off. I like meeting challenges and then besting them. I like pushing myself.

I thought that running could maybe satisfy my competitive urges, but really? It only made them worse. There is a peace I feel when I'm running long miles - my mind goes quiet, falling into this meditative zone where tangled problems suddenly untwist. I like the rhythm of my feet on long roads, the way my breath and pulse and footfalls form a background beat that quiets my doubts and insecurities. I like experimenting with diet and hydration and shoes and gear and training. And I LOVED the rush I got when I finished my first half-marathon and felt the cool weight of my medal hanging from my neck. 

(*coughcough* We won't talk about the wreck I made of my ankle, m'kay?)

How much cooler would it be to experience all that with a horse?

So I am trying again. There are a couple of LDs within easy driving distance again, and I would like to do one next spring (assuming it will still be on the ride calendar). My plan, right now, is to take Brisa to a couple of rides, get my feet wet, and then see if I can do something off property with Ranger. Failing that, I'll look for the right person to lease him and I'll start shopping for an affordable, manageable Arab or part-Arab.

There are a lot of "ifs" in my plans, at this point, and maybe none of this will work out. Maybe my horses are nuts and maybe I am and maybe none of us should ever leave the farm. :P But I want to give this a try. A real, focused, honest-to-hay-and-carrots try.

From here, I need to first address some training holes. I need to build consistency, and then start conditioning for fitness. I still need to focus on my writing and my farm obligations and my kids, so I don't know if I can get done what I want in the time I have. But I'm not willing to pretend that endurance doesn't matter to me, because it *does* and I'm tired of telling myself I can be happy without goals.

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