Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What They Taught Me: Gracia (Part 1)

I've had a lot of trainers, but my favorite ones, the ones that teach me the most, are the horses. I wanted to write about a few that made me the rider I am today. By the time I rode these horses they owed me nothing. They had already done more than their fair share for other riders before me. But somehow they came into my life and had even more to give. I'm thankful for these few horses every day, especially now that Runkle and I are embarking on our own journey together.

The first horse I want to write about is probably the reason I love mares so much. She's the one who made me stop considering my riding a hobby and showed me that it's a career.


At least once in every rider's life, and usually many more times than once, a rider will find themselves horseless.

He was really stiff to bend to the left. And right.

If you're used to riding constantly it's hard to orient yourself without a horse. I honestly don't understand what non-horse people do on the weekends. They don't have tack to clean? Or a horse to train? Or work to do at the barn? They don't have to schedule riding lessons, prepare for a show, get up at 5AM and drive two hours for a $3 ribbon. They must sleep. A lot.

When I was sixteen I found myself horseless for the first time. I had been leasing an incredibly nice 'big eq' horse named Buster who was a consummate professional. I had no friendly relation with this horse; in fact he terrified me on the ground. By his own sheer willpower he pulled me into the top of many classes as I did absolutely nothing to aid him.

But a few months into our partnership he blew his suspensory - again - meaning jumping was no longer on the table for us. I ended the lease and he went to a dressage home to be rehabbed and semi-retired.

I imagine him to be more of a bourbon than wine guy.

So that left me, at the beginning of the show season, with nothing to ride.

I had really struggled with riding up to this point. I could never seem to build momentum. I went through really bad barns, tough winters, injuries, and just being downright scared. Buster did well despite my fear but he didn't do anything to dissipate it. I mostly clutched onto the back of this gorgeous animal and prayed he'd do it for me.

Here's a cliche: his injury was the best thing that happened to my riding career.

Cliches on cliches!

I spent the summer horseless. A few of the owners at my barn were incredibly generous and let me ride their fantastic animals. I rode a retired grand prix jumper named Sambucca and an incredibly trained large pony named Sneakers. I rode them once or twice a week, not jumping, just trotting and cantering around, reminding myself I was a rider and this is what I did. The barn was empty most of the summer as everyone else was out at the big venues: HITS, Lake Placid, Monmouth.

One weekend everyone was back for a bit of a break in the middle of the summer. I showed up at the barn to ride Sambucca and my trainer at the time, Max, stopped me at the door of the barn.

"Turn around," he told me. "We're going to the other farm. They have a horse."

I hadn't jumped in months. I was out of shape. I wasn't ready. Excuse after excuse but I found myself walking back to the car and heading over to the other farm. When we got there, there was a horse in the crossties (who was 90% ears) looking at me. Her name was Gracia.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Baby's First Cut

I was prepared for a lot of different contingencies when I got Runkle. I was getting a four year old horse off the track. I figured he'd have less than desirable ground manners, wouldn't stand to mount, wouldn't like to be brushed, and wouldn't have any brakes. My first few rides on him I buckled up in my eventing vest, always made sure there was someone at the barn, left my next of kin and bade farewell in case my baby Thoroughbred realized he was a baby Thoroughbred. He never did, which is probably why he's no longer a racehorse.

But I'm not all-knowing, and while I was prepared for all those scenarios there was one I wasn't QUITE prepared for.

Kick to the chest. I've seen him in the field,
even as his mother he MAY have deserved it...

Baby thoroughbreds are either pathologically suicidal, or love to give their owners heart attacks. I swear Runkle got on the trailer the first day and thought "This girl really seems to love me. LET'S SEE HOW FAR WE CAN PUSH THAT."

The very first week I had him we had an emergency vet call. It wasn't even a week, it was two days. I'm not sure exactly what happened, because I was at work (I don't think I could handle being a single working mother) but my trainer called me and started the call with "Don't freak out, but..." Apparently his stifle locked. I didn't know what this meant, but my trainer was pretty concerned and asked if she could call the vet. I said yes and, after hanging up, Googled it to see what it meant.

Googling horse maladies is like going on WebMD; no matter what you type in it's going to tell you you have cancer and you're going to maybe have a panic attack in the stairwell. Better to leave the vetting to the vets.

This is what being a working horse mom is.

So the vet came out, did a very extensive lameness examination (two days after my extensive prepurchase, this horse is a flexing god) and one of the toughest vets in the area couldn't find a thing wrong with him. Apparently when horses are growing into themselves and don't have good butt muscles yet they can occasionally lock their stifles. Even if it is chronic it is easily solvable. All is well. I paid for that peace of mind, but didn't have to pay a grand for it, thankfully.

Not even two weeks later someone got frisky in the field. I suspect he did it to himself but as I have yet to install security cameras in his field, I don't know the exact culprit. He had a large cut, right on the joint of his hock.

I can't even.

Despite the impressive swelling and the fact that it was right on the joint he didn't flinch when we palpated it and he was sound when we jogged him. Happy as a little, dumb baby Thoroughbred can be.

The day of the cut and then about four days later. Runkle, do you even like me?

We texted pictures to the vet, and I was expecting her to go cool, he's sound? Just scrub and put Alushield on it.

Instead she said she'd be out in forty five minutes.

I went through my flash cards for my exam while I waited for her to arrive but instead of memorizing formulas I contemplated my situation. I had owned this horse not even two weeks and we were having our second emergency vet call. I was worried about him in general anyway, adjusting to the his new life not being a racehorse, and he seemed hell bent on making sure my anti-anxiety techniques were fresh in my mind. What if he had done irreparable damage to the joint? What if it got infected? I flipped through the cards, and instead of definitions I felt like each one was a scenario for how this would end badly. 


Before the vet arrived I decided it didn't really matter what happened. This would all just be part of our impressive backstory when we finally get to... wherever we're going in the future. And the more frustrated I was the more I looked around and realized I still had it relatively easy. One horse in the barn had bad cuts at his throatlatch from playing in the field. Another is on a long recovery from surgery. The other baby Thoroughbred at the farm is going through his own trials and tribulations.

If I didn't think I could handle this aspect of being a horse owner, I should not have bought a horse.

So the vet arrived, did an examination, told me he'd be fine and he was. A few days later when we were comfortable with how the cut had healed we threw him back out with his friends in the pasture. I fought the urge to text every single barn worker the morning after the first night he was back out because if I heard nothing, he was fine. This is why I board at a really nice barn with people I trust. No point in worrying. There's no bubble wrap for horses, no crystal ball that says it'll be okay. But today it's okay.

Although yesterday I forgot my phone at home, and when I got back from work I had a missed call and several texts from my trainer. Apparently Runkle got stung by a bug and it was a bit swollen so he needed some treatment.


Bring it on baby horse. I can't love you any less.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Trip to Bartville Harness

There is a fabled place in Amish country, Pennsylvania that all eventers must travel to at least once in their lives. It is the mecca of the three day rider. A right of passage and test of determination and thriftiness.

That place is Bartville Harness.

95%* of eventers use Nunn Finer tack. Maybe you bought it online. Maybe you went to the Bit o' Britain store in Pennsylvania. Or perhaps you saw the truck loaded with goodies at one of the various horseshows in Area II. My first Nunn Finer purchase was a pair of ostentatious purple reins which, besides owning a horse, was my number one dream.

*heavy breathing*

But Nunn Finer has a dark secret.

Actually, it's not really a secret at all. Nunn Finer tack that's made in America is made in Amish country, at Bartville Harness.

Since I had a new horse, and needed All New Shiny Things, I decided to make a trek out one beautiful morning to buy Runkle all the gear he would need to make us look like REAL eventers.

5 Tips about Bartville Harness
1. It is run by the Amish for the Amish, and thusly will keep Amish-type hours. It is open from 7am to 4pm most days, and closed on Sunday. I kind of liked getting there at 7:30am on a Saturday, I had ample time to browse the store, spend way too much money, and still get to the barn to ride at 10am! When I pulled up there was a horse and buggy tied up outside. Next to my car. And when I went in they were speaking Pennsylvania Dutch! (Can you tell I don't get out much? I was fascinated.)
2. You'll save money... but you'll also spend a lot. I spent a lot. I'll admit it. But I needed a lot of things, okay?? Besides, according to my calculations I saved almost $200. That's a lot when you've got to basically outfit a horse from nothing. Well, I didn't exactly have nothing I had a tack trunk full of shit but I needed different things. Anyway, Bartville doesn't just have tack. They have everything from brushing boots to basic first aid to ulcer guard and then some.
3. I paid for my tack bounty with a check. They don't take debit or credit cards because, y'know, Amish.
4.  They are super helpful and will do custom anything if you need it. Do you have an abomination of a horse whose head only a mother could love? They have the bridle parts to fit it.  You can also mix and match pieces really affordably. Runkle has cob everything but could really use a horse noseband. Done. Horse breastplate with cob running attachment? No problem. And you can literally see where they make it; the shop is attached to the leather working area. The guy let me dig through a pile of leather lead ropes which made me happier than it should have.
5. If you are going to Bartville Harness, tell everyone in the world you are going. Because no one wants to drive out there. But everyone needs a breastplate, a new set of reins, etc etc. And if you come back with shiny new tack and didn't tell them you were going you will hear about it, because your shiny new tack is rubbing it in their face. You're welcome, I'm making the mistakes so you don't have to.


This place was heaven. It smelled great. It was well organized. Even the handwritten tags were really cute. If I could change one thing I would move it closer. But it's probably better it's farther away, because until I get that money tree I can't afford it to be any closer. I already want to buy three more nosebands and another bridle. What could I possibly do with all that. What is with riders and bridles? WHY DO WE NEED SO MANY.

Runkle modeling our first of many bridles. 

I feel like it's worth mentioning that I accidentally bought the wrong color bridle (well, the bridle was the right color, but the buckles weren't. Trust me it's important). So I had to drive back after getting a half hour away and I saw a guy mowing his lawn but the lawn mower was being pulled by a horse and I really wanted to take a picture of it because it amazed me. However, I almost got in an accident trying to take a picture of a man plowing his field with five mules and I was too shy to pull over so I missed it. Guess I have to go back!

*This is a rough estimate. It's probably closer to 98.67%

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Baby's First Jump Lesson

First of all, I want to apologize for not having a single picture or video of this event. At this point in my blogging I don't have a photographer following me around capturing every brilliant moment Runkle and I have, but someday when we make our Big Break I'll just steal our pictures off of Eventing Nation.

Until then, you'll have to deal with me coercing my father or kids from the barn (psst, any takers?), or re-enacting with stock images available on the internet. Today will consist mostly of the latter.

Jump size not to scale.

Runkle was a steeplechase horse, so he knows what a jump is. He knows that he has to run over as fast as he can, hurl himself over, and upon landing gallop off to the next one as quick as his little legs can carry him. Given that's all he knows, he's naturally great at balancing himself.

I wasn't really sure how our first jump lesson would go. His first week at the farm I introduced him to the jumps in the ring, expecting him to blow and snort at them like he did at the watering can the first night he came to Bit O Woods.

Absolutely terrifying.

He didn't, though. He rubbed his nose all over the roll top like it was his best friend. He inspected the chevron and wasn't too impressed by it. My favorite was when I introduced the liverpool. I was sure this would be our bogie. Horses hate tarps; the color, the sound it makes when you kick sand on it, the inevitable pit of snakes its covering. I directed him to it and he shuffled over absolutely spraying it with dirt. I definitely flinched and grabbed the neck strap, waiting for him to explode at the noise. Instead he snuffled the hard wooden edge and picked it up with his mouth!

I was so surprised it wasn't until I heard the sound of the tarp starting to give way that I said "HEY, DROP IT!" And like a dog with a slipper he sheepishly dropped it right at his feet. He had moved it about a foot.

Okay, so he knows jumps aren't scary. Cool. Walking around them and picking them up in his mouth are one thing but he has to learn to go over them as well.

Not pictured: viper pit.

The warm up for our first real jump lesson went well enough. I have to constantly work on his softness and not letting him get tucked behind the bridle but go into it. We trotted our first jump, a teeny tiny little crossrail, and he hopped over it no big deal. We went back and forth over it a few more times. Every time he got more confident, and as he got more confident he tried to go faster. Instinctively, I clutched his face to try and slow him down at which point he tucked his nose to his chest and took away almost all of my control.

My trainer spent the rest of the lesson teaching me to let go. He was leaning on the bridle, and that's a problem that has to be corrected for sure, but he can't lean unless I give him something to lean on. It went against all my instincts but I had to give my four year old off the track thoroughbred his head and use only my seat and legs to tell him where to go and how fast to go at it. 

I think it's a testament to how much I trust my trainer that I didn't laugh in her face and dismount when she told me to do this. I've been working with her for a long time and she really 'gets' me so I know she wouldn't ever ask me to do something she didn't think I could do. Pro tip: if you're going to push yourself that far outside your comfort zone you need someone like that in your corner.

To help my cause she set up a small gymnastic exercise. She put trot poles on either side of the crossrail and then a tiny oxer four strides away from that. 

I don't know what to do with all my legs.

The first time I came to the exercise Runkle was absolutely flummoxed by the amount of poles in front of him. I didn't quite press enough so he stopped at the first jump, clearly thinking Surely, this is some kind of mistake. There are about twelve rails here and they're all over the ground and everything!!

The second time I was a bit more insistent, and he jumped it. In the loosest sense of the word jump. I wish I had a video of this because the crossrail was about 18" and he managed to take down not only all the rails but both standards as well. I kept my leg on and he wobbled on down to the other jump and cleared it perfectly, although he did have his head down pretty far so he could stare at it.

Totally normal and fine.


Well, baby's first related distance!! Anything he does that is even remotely correct makes me so happy. And the more we ran through the exercise the more confident he felt. It was incredible to feel him figuring it out underneath me. He wasn't just sorting out the exercise, but he was figuring out who I was. His little black tipped ears would flick back to me on the way to the jump, double checking if I was sure, if I was sane, if I knew there were poles laying all over the ground. And when I put my leg on his ears went forward and he gave it his best shot.

The last time through the exercise he trotted through, jumping the crossrail easily, and landed cantering. He moved up fluidly to the oxer and gave me a fantastic jump where I actually felt his withers come up!

I made a huge fuss over him like we just completed Rolex and he got so cute. He put his head down and had a little romp to himself, he was so pleased. This horse is going to have the most inflated ego in the barn, and I'm totally okay with it.  

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Baby's First Sheath Cleaning

TRIGGER WARNING: If you can’t handle words like penis, dick, smeggy, wang, and schlong; OR if you don’t want to hear about me handling a horse penis you can skip right over this entry and I’ll see you next week.

During the pre purchase exam, Dr. Mark had his little flashlight and he peered up Runkle’s nostrils, into his mouth, around his bunghole, and finally at his sheath. Runkle was a little perturbed about this inspection of his orifices but managed to stay still while realization dawned on me.

“If this goes well, I’ll have to clean his sheath, won’t I,” I stated to those present.

The assistant trainer laughed. “Yup. Is that a dealbreaker?”

“Yes. Cancel the vetting.”


I was only kind of kidding.

I’ve ridden for a long time but every horse I’ve leased long term has been a mare. I’ve managed to navigate my entire riding career without sticking my hand up anyone’s business and the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind that it could change until it was too late.

While grooming Runkle on this particular day I noticed even the outside of his sheath looked cruddy and gross. I wasn’t sure how long it had been since he had last had it cleaned, and I had no idea how he handled it. Experimentally, I poked it, because I am a professional horsewoman and that is how things are done. He didn’t kick me, but he definitely fired a warning shot across my bow.

At least buy me a drink first lady!!

Using the safety of distance, I picked up a sweat scraper and rubbed it all over his body, starting with his shoulder and going over his back and rump and then to his belly. This time when he tried to let me know I was invading his personal space I gave him a quick smack. Sorry buddy, but I paid legal tender for you and supply all the carrots, your personal space is mine.

The second time I rubbed near his sheath he pinned his ears but otherwise didn’t move. I stuffed his face full of cookies for good behavior and continued the exercise on the right side. He was even better. I rubbed the outside of his sheath and he stood pretty well. I decided to take my chances.

Prep the OR for groping.

Armed with warm water, baby oil, and rubber gloves I started scooping out loads of smegma, dead skin and dirt. It was weirdly immensely satisfying and Runkle, bless him, just stood there and let me do it. At one point I had a hand around his dong and he even let me pull it out!!! I could not believe this horse was letting me do this! I try and kick my gynecologist in the face and I’m a human being that can be reasoned with.

My friend from the barn (and experienced sheath cleaner) Hillary helped me dig out the illusive bean which is the piece de resistance of sheath cleaning. This horse let us stick our fingers in the eye of his one eyed snake. And he didn’t care. Now Runkle’s got a squeaky clean love dart that every horse in the barn can be jealous of.

Now with less dirt!

I tried to explain to my non-horsey friends about this because I was so pleased with how great it went. But when you tell a non-horse person about grabbing your horse’s willy and how you were forearm deep in smeggy dead skin you just sound like a crazy, dirty horse molester. So I advise against even trying.

(Author’s Note: I googled ‘euphemisms for penis’ to write this and my favorite one was definitely ‘right honourable member for fuckinghamshire’. ‘Spurt Reynolds’ was a close second.)