death

Fergus died a week ago.

He colicked acutely and severely in the early hours of the morning. When surgeons opened him up a few hours later, they discovered that most of his small intestine was necrotic and entrapped. They euthanized on the table.

always happy to loan a hand while you were peeing in his stall

I didn’t write about Fergus as much as I could have. A combination of time and the weirdness of writing about a horse that isn’t your own. Thankfully, that is my only regret.

enthusiastic

Fergus made it easy to love him. He was so genuine and honest, there wasn’t a deceitful bone in his body. You had treats? He wanted treats! You could be his new best friend.

He was just particular enough to make it feel special when it was apparent that he really liked you. TrJ topped the list, then me, then his real mommy, A. And I only came before A because I was a much more plentiful treat dispenser, and she was the Evil Needle Poker of Adequan Times.

when you get distracted partway through adjusting cheekpieces

But he was just fussy and zippy enough under saddle that it was really apparent when he was working with you or was doing his own thing, and you could tell from the rail who he appreciated riding him.

Fergus was the first horse I’ve known who really did enjoy a good cuddle. He wasn’t much of one for wither scratches — I only found a good itchy spot on him once — but he would happily stand there, resting his head on your shoulder, even taking a little nap if you’d allow it.

pinnacle of two goals: ground tying + standing on balance pads

He was always tolerant of stupid human games. Go for a walk in the early morning with a coffee mug? Into it. Play unmounted games and fling yourself off his body? Into it. Canter bareback on the track and nearly fall off the side? Confused, but into it.

bizarrely remedial at standing with his legs straight and hips-width apart

He was fun, and talented, and an excellent teacher. I could have enjoyed learning from Fergus for years to come.

shared my sentiment about the gross wet we’ve had lately

I am so grateful that this little horse let me be his person. That he made me laugh and groan and smile and sigh exasperatedly and think and wonder and dream.

slow and steady survived 2020

Through some kind of prophetic wisdom, I was really gentle with myself in terms of goals this year. Seriously, I could not believe it when I couldn’t find a “2020 goals” post on the blog today, and had to literally go back and back (okay not that far back, not deluding myself about how much I wrote this year) to find “slow and steady wins 2020“.

Despite the fact that 2020 was an absolute shitshow for the world at large and for many people personally, I was lucky enough to have a good year. I did not get sick, and nobody in my friends and family circle was significantly affected by illness — pandemically or otherwise. My partner didn’t lose his job, so even when I wasn’t getting paid, we were fine. There was plenty to do on the farm and we live in the country, so got to spend tons of time outside and never felt trapped or cramped. My barn stayed open and safe, and Fergola stayed magnificent.

And the biggest thing: horse shows getting shut down literally saved the farm this year. It may sound melodramatic but in March I was getting ready to drive to California to scribe for Megan’s L program (I was so excited!) and start ramping up for the horse trails, despite the utterly massive to-do list I had for our orchard in the spring (pruning and fertilizing, but when you’re one person with 8000 trees, the list is a biggie). Then California was like “no, don’t do that” and USEF was like “nope, none of that either!” about all horse shows. And suddenly I had the time I needed to get those orchard tasks done. More than that, I was forced to step back, slow down, and tidy up all the “high priority” things in my life that always seemed to get bumped by “emergency” things.

I was really very, very lucky. For which I am grateful.

My biggest goal for 2020 was to journal every ride. And holy shit, I did that. I have a small moleskine notebook that I was journaling in personally, and Ferg’s owner and I shared a notebook in her trunk to keep notes and let one another know what was going on. The sight of my very full journal pages gave me so much joy as I filled them out, and looking at it again I’m excited to read back on our rides!

I also had pretty good success with “shut up and just do what my trainer tells me to.” I’m not perfect, by any means. But I took my own advice to heart and listened to TrJ, even when my gut was like “no! GRAB THAT RIGHT REIN NICOLE!” If I was confused or her instructions felt counter-intuitive, I made a point to get a better understanding of the why, so I could better enact the what.

I completely forgot about 12 months of position fixes. I had some great success with position fixes this year! My hands and position over fences are wildly improved, as is my body-awareness generally. But I did not tackle this in a month-by-month fashion, and probably didn’t dedicate as much time to them as I could have.

In terms of horse plans, I was absolutely successful: I kept leasing and I did not buy a horse! I also rode way more horses! Not in the semi-regular way I had been hoping (since everyone being home made it so that many fewer catch rides were needed at the barn, plus there’s a literal bevy of teenagers for me to compete with), but I tried six horses this fall and got to rid several friends’ horses. This helped to give me a way better idea of what I want in a horse. And, as an added bonus, I managed to save a goodly sum for New Horse as well! I don’t think I’ve ever been so successful with my horse goals before. This is amazing.

As a very brief update, the horse search is super weird and borderline insane right now. I didn’t go to California over the holidays, I haven’t seen any more horses, and I’ve basically stopped looking seriously at ads lately. After coming to terms with the fact that I probably can’t afford ($$ or time) the horse I really want to compete and grow on and meeting the perfect hony candidate for fun, games, and learning, my MIL floated the idea of helping me get that horse. In Germany.

So now we’re exploring how realistic that idea is. (It may very well not happen, but for now, that’s the post-vaccine plan.)

On the other hand, I had wild failure on the blog front: I did not, anywhere near it, blog once per week. I wrote 15 blogs this year, which comes out to about one every four weeks. Oops. In my defense, it turns out it’s super weird to blog about not-your-horse. So hopefully I can solve this own-horse problem sooner rather than later and alleviate that block.

Personally, I wanted to have no zero days; i.e. to chip away at the long and delightful to-do list that comes with being a grownup and living in a 70s farm house. This one’s hard to quantify, but I’d consider it successful. For a while I wrote down my no zero days activity in my planner in lavender after I did it each day so I could see my progress. But holy shit, once you get to cleaning the cabinets and the inside of the fridge and behind the oven you realize HOW MUCH that stuff needs to get done on a regular basis and just ugh.

I also planned on 12 months of personal improvements but, once again, I promptly forgot about that. Without some kind of journal-reminder, that’s going to be a hard one to stick to. (And I hardly ever look at my planner from June-August, so those months might get forked anyway.)

In the garden, my goal was to grow all the produce I needed for Thanksgiving (I had a couple of personal caveats like carrots and potatoes, since we have rodent problems that make those crops a bad idea right now). We didn’t really have Thanksgiving this year, so this turned out to be kinda a wash. But I did grow enough to host a fully functional Thanksgiving: winter squash, onions, celeriac, celery, and tons of corn! I somehow flunked out on the green beans though which is super embarrassing, since they are crazy easy to grow. A halfsie-success, and a great goal for this year also.

Sadly, I do not think I succeeded at my goal of reading 40 books. I could only list 30 when I tried just now, and though there may very well be some that didn’t make the list, I have a hard time believing it was a full 10 of them. In roughly reverse chronological order:

Words of Radiance, Fool’s Fate, Fool’s Errand, American Gods, Hidden Figures, Golden Fool, The Cooking Gene, Mythos, V for Vendetta, Guards! Guards!, Feet of Clay, The Shepherd’s Life***, Monstrous Regiment, Unorthodox, Ancillary Mercy, Ancillary Sword, Artemis, Elantris, Ancillary Justice, The Raven Tower, The Realms of the Gods, Emperor Mage, Wolf Speaker, Wild Magic, Ride With Your Mind, Ship of Destiny, Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, Wyrd Sisters, The Long Earth

*** Highly, highly, highly recommended if you take only one book of interest from this list

Finally, the horse show goals. The biggie. The multi-part-er. The goals that would make our shows better than ever before! Well, obviously, with pandemic we didn’t really do shows. We tested the waters toward the end of the year with a dressage show. It was great, and super relaxed compared to a full on HT. In terms of my personal goals for our team, I did manage to delegate more tasks to trusted team members and come in under budget, but we didn’t have a weekly social media presence.

This is definitely a “better luck in 21” situation. It didn’t make sense for us to run our HTs with all the weirdness of 2020, but we are all in for this year!

A few other highlights from this weirdo year:

We hatched a boatload of (20!) chicks.

Some were freaking napping champions.

The last one out was a slowpoke and I had to warm her up in a snood next to my neck. She grew up into the magnificent Becky with the Good Hair, and was the first of the new crop to lay.

We had a new family member join us.

I cleaned out the last bay of the tractor shed and found FIVE mummified opposums!

This magnificent tripawd and his parents came to visit for some quarantine-farm time.

Ferg and I got to go cross country schooling!

I went kayaking on one of our creeks, only got about 200 feet in either direction, and found a beaver dam!

We harvested >120 pounds of paste tomatoes, and a whole lot of other things.

Including 25 pounds of the most beautiful corn I’ve ever seen.

We cleaned up a huge part of our basement! I mean, it’s probably less than a quarter of the basement but compare it to before (and that’s after we removed a full 30yd dumpster of trash).

So. It wasn’t too awful of a year. Let’s do it again, but better.

tell me what I want (what I reallyreally want)

The horse search marches on. I’ve sat on five horses now, and am setting up trials to see four-ish more in California later this month (if they don’t, you know, sell before I get down there), and have some excellent leads on a few horses up here too. I’m not too stressed out about it just yet. Why? I’ve been insanely busy, and hardly even made my riding days on Fergus in the last few weeks. So while I can wish and hope for a horse of my own all I want, I have to face the harsh reality that I wouldn’t be spending all that much time with said horse anyway.

Working Jim Carrey GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

I wrote a few weeks ago about what I started out looking for, but to recap:

  • something to go Training on in the next 2ish years
  • a horse who wants to work with his rider, not somebody who has to be convinced to play every day
  • has to pass a comprehensive PPE (this is what I get for having a sports medicine vet as one of my best friends)
  • age/sex/breed not important — but small is great, love me something under 16 hands
  • please not grey

In accordance with #1, I’ve tried a couple of lovely schoolmaster types. Different from one another, but both sweet, kind, and fun to ride. Both horses that I could come out at Novice on next year and actively work toward Training level. And at the end of the day, I can’t commit to the frequency of riding, work, and training that either those horses needs to be their best. Sure, I could take on either of them and ride them 3-5 days a week and maybe 6 days on good weeks, and make intermittent progress forward and back and hammer away at Novice for a while next year. But I’m not sure that’s something I’d enjoy, and it sounds like it’s not something those horses would love either. Even sweet, kind, forgiving horses have limits.

When I was complaining to L about this, she (annoyingly accurately) asked “Do you have the time to keep any horse Training fit?”

Angry Star Trek GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Well shit.

L and I have talked a lot about what it takes to move horses up the levels. Even though we compete in different disciplines, the big move up gaps are pretty similar. And it takes time to keep up a horse’s confidence and a rider’s skills, not to mention the time it takes to prep for shows and go to shows and recover from shows. I’ve spent plenty of time looking over the Area VII calendar, and there aren’t a lot of weekends that I can give up for events. I could give a weekend by weekend accounting, but it’s not worth the characters — in short, there’s 3-4 weekends in Area VII that I could show. Am I going to try to move up from Novice to Training on four show weekends?

Is that even realistic?

Arrested Development No GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

So. We re-evaluate.

What do I love about riding and what horse will make it so that I have more of that in my life?

I love learning. I LOVE LEARNING. And I also love teaching. So I’m going to need a horse I can learn on, and something that enjoys learning from me. I’m going to throw all different types of teaching at Horse (clicker training, horsemanship, cowboys, pressure/release training), so they have to be game to learn.

A huge part of the learning/teaching relationship is the bond and the process. I am hesitant to say “I LOVE THE BOND” because it’s not just about having a Precious Ponii who I can pet upon and fawn over and love on. I want to do those things too. But part of what I value is the teacher/student bond, where both me and Horse are teacher and student at different times.

Season 8 Teacher GIF by Friends - Find & Share on GIPHY

I love horsie adventures. I’m a kid at heart and since I didn’t get to have horses as a kid, I want to make up for lost time here. Trails (there will be trails ON MY PROPERTY soon it’s going to be magical), beach rides, XC schooling, bareback rides, games, fox hunting maybe? I need a horse game for adventures and some shenanigans.

I love a personality. I’M JUST GONNA SAY IT OKAY. I love a horse who has a sense of humor, who is independent, who can take a joke, who can make a joke. I LOVE WEIRDOS OKAY.

i just loves it okay

I enjoy showing. I want a horse I can get out to a couple of shows on and have a good time — no need to be perfect (standards are low thanks to showing a Murray for five years), but Horse can’t need weeks of prep just to get out and show. I already have to pay for a veritable shitton of active, full memberships for show management (USEA, USEF, USDF), so heading to one rated show is pretty affordable to me.

I love not sharing. I have a weird schedule, I need flexibility. Leasing has been great, and I would absolutely consider a full-time care lease. But I don’t want to be beholden to anyone else’s schedule any longer.

Finding Nemo Seagulls GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

I love not cleaning up other peoples’ messes. Let me put this the real way: I don’t want to have to clean up other peoples’ training messes. Maybe I’m overly judgmental, but there are a lot of horses out there who don’t have great learning skills and I think a big part of it is how they were trained early on. I don’t want or need to spend time fixing that.

I love a horse who “matches” my mechanics. This is part a horse-intrinsic thing (I think) and part a training thing. But when you can get on a horse and steer it and move it around, it’s more than just “well trained”. Maybe it’s that “feels right” thing people often talk about. I’ve felt it a few times in horsey trials, and I like it.

That’s a few things, and a good place to narrow down my search. It’s stupid for me to pay Training-packer money for a horse I’m going to ride Beginner-Novice-level often. I don’t need that much horse. But I do need to figure out what I want in a horse and how I can maximize my chances of getting that.

a year of noticing

There came a point in this last year-ish of leasing Ferda when I realized he was not the (forever) horse for me. He is sweet, kind, a lot of fun, and a pretty good learner, especially when treats are involved. But he has limitations that hold him back — a touch of hock arthritis, some funny conformation, and being… well, really not a very talented jumper.

It’s only like 2′ high homie….

For a second, that realization had me annoyed. I want to move up. I want to put in the miles at 3′ and beyond. I want to kill it at First level and Second level and beyond. And I know beggars can’t be choosers, but man it felt like a bummer that I was “wasting” my time on endless circles and straight lines trying — again — to work toward a better understanding of connection and alignment.

But I am nothing if not an optimist, and it would be truly unfair of me to characterize my time with Ferg as “wasted”. What he has given me is an incredible opportunity to practice and hone skills that (my trainers assure me) will be important with every horse I move forward on. There’s no such thing as a horse that comes pre-installed with a perfect connection (and I bet if there is, I can ruin it). And every horse and rider is crooked in some way or another, so knowing how to work through and improve alignment is key.

his approach to down banks tho….

More over, riding a horse while practicing skills I’m relatively familiar with has given me the chance to really focus in on noticing my riding and what I’m doing. Is the horse doing something funny? What am I doing to create that? What am I not doing to fix it? I tend to suck my right leg up and my right seatbone away from the saddle — can I anchor those back down and make myself sit deeper through my right side? What about fixing the left twist to my hips — are my hips even? Do I need to draw my right hip back a little more to even out? Will that help Fergus keep his right shoulder underneath him a bit better?

Toward the end of Saturday’s ride, the canter got a little quick. Ferg likes to move his legs real fast, push his neck back at you and duck behind the bit, and then motorcycle around those turns. I could feel myself about to grab a bit more of his mouth but then I paused — could I slow his feet down with my seat instead? I slowed down my canter mechanic and added a ton of thigh, and Fergus came back to a trot. I reminded him that we were working in canter and did the same thing again and what do you know — slower feet, less tension through the neck, and even a little bit of reaching for the bit.

cantering through the water will always be the funnest

Working on “movements” that I’m super familiar with has been so much more beneficial to my riding than working on movements I’m pushing for or struggling to learn. I think this year was probably even better for me than riding a true schoolmaster. I didn’t have to worry about undoing training, sitting massive gaits, pressing buttons I didn’t know existed and didn’t want to access. I really got a chance to focus on myself and change some of my own riding patterns for the better. Which is absolutely not a waste of time at all.

self discovery through… horse shopping?

Well, it’s happening. I’m horse shopping. I’ve already been to see two horses, and with any luck will see two more this week. It’s insane. Now that I’ve started arranging to try horses, I can’t seem to stop.

I wish I’d written more about my journey with Fergus this year, but it turns out that farm life — even in the quarantimes — is demanding. Luckily, I invested in a cute little Moleskine notebook (but, in classic Nicole fashion I somehow bought a 2019 one so had to start changing days/dates after Feb 29 this year, which is when I noticed) so a lot of what I learned and discovered is preserved. I’ve spent plenty of time poring over the blog archives and comparing them to my journal and headdesking repeatedly.

If you’d asked me even ten days ago what I am shopping for, you would have gotten some version of the following bullet points:

  • something to go Training on in the next 2ish years
  • a horse who wants to work with his rider, not somebody who has to be convinced to play every day
  • has to pass a comprehensive PPE (this is what I get for having a sports medicine vet as one of my best friends)
  • age/sex/breed not important — but small is great, love me something under 16 hands
  • please not grey

What have I tried so far?

this, I tried one grey this

A green 6yo and a track broke 7yo.

And now we’ll skip around in time for a second — I promise it’s relevant — to talk about the last monthish in Oregon.

We had fires. I grew up in Australia (it’s flammable) and California (also flammable) and I have never experienced fires like these fires. The fires started overnight on September 6th in Oregon with a huge wind storm. On September 7th I worked in the orchard and felt the smoke come in throughout the afternoon. September 8th, I met with a fellow farmer in the morning and he showed me some apocalyptic pictures of smoke-darkened skies in Jefferson. September 9th, I woke up to this.

no filter, not a joke

On September 10th we moved the horses from TrJ’s barn to a lovely barn in Washington (really just over the border). It was a precaution and not needed, but it was very much a “better safe than sorry” situation since there is one road that services 3 large barns, many private homes, and an entire golf course subdivision. Imagining the traffic if we had all tried to evacuate at the same time is the stuff of nightmares.

no no, this is fine, this is definitely not the apocalypse, don’t trip

Anyway, as with all of us affected by significant smoke, Ferda took some time off after the fires. We got lucky and a nice rainstorm cleared out the smoke on September 18thish. So since then we’ve been walking. And ground poles-ing. And playing with the stability pads. And stretching. And calisthenics-ing. And walking.

Yesterday I finally popped on for a bit of a trot. I didn’t like it.

I have enjoyed Ferda for months now. He’s sweet. He’s fun. He’s small. He’s relatively easy to influence with my seat and biomechanics. But it took all of one ride on a horse that matched my biomechanics a bit better to realize that I don’t like it that much.

So I mulled over it for some days and talked to my people. Horses with training typically come with training and musculoskeletal patterns that are hard to break them out of. Maybe those are patterns I’m totally down with. Maybe the aren’t. I’ve been working on overriding mediocre action patterns with better action patterns in Fergus for nine months now and it feels like hitting my head against a wall. The second he got a month off he popped right back in to the old patterns — hard. And those patterns are…. not patterns I chose or love.

one more of greyhorse because it’s what i’ve got that’s not apocalyptic

So now I’m questioning everything — EVERYTHING — about what I’m looking for in a horse. And honestly, it’s made me think deeply about what I really want in my next horse. Here, in this area, for me, it seems like finding a horse who can bop me around training in the next 2ish years might be a stepping-stone horse. Those horses are great. They are worth their weight in gold. Do I want that horse? DO I want the quirks that comes with that horse in my budget?

I’m not sure.

Do I want to deal with movement patterns I didn’t create? What is it worth for me to jump around 3’3″ cross country? Am I willing to play by that horse’s rules (and maybe that trainer’s?) just to do that?

So. Bizarrely. After saying I was looking for and wanted something for months, I find myself thinking I maybe want something else. I’m not sure. Maybe one of the more educated horses I try will be the right biomechanical and body fit for me. But I just don’t know.

kinda what I want is now-me to ride 2014-Murray and make fewer mistakes

For now, I’m keeping an open mind and being probably the world’s most annoying horse shopper. TrJ has for sure given up on me, though — bless her — she still shares videos of promising creatures with me despite the fact that I veto 70% of them on sight. And I’m just… messaging sellers who have horses that interest me that I think I might get along with.

karibu wazungu

Welcome, white people.

I don’t think I ever expected to live in such amazing, terrifying, and humbling times in my life. A global pandemic that we still can’t see the end of and a global social movement against police brutality and the systemic racism that has oppressed people of color for so long.

On the one hand, I can chalk this up to optimism. I was obsessed with infectious disease in high school and wrote my senior literature project on how the world would handle the outbreak of a novel virus (I modeled mine after Ebola, so less infectious but more lethal than COVID) and came to the conclusion that while we probably don’t have the surveillance and rapid-response systems in place to handle an outbreak well, the likelihood of one was relatively low. (So uh, 50% right there I guess?)

On the other hand, my lack of expectation for a movement to eliminate systemic racism comes from ignorance and my own privilege. Because I did not see the extent and severity of how systemic racism oppresses people. Because I did not expect society would be willing to back people of colour and make a change. I’ve never been more delighted to be wrong, though my ignorance is painful to me as well.

From 2011 to 2013 I was lucky enough to live in Kenya and Republic of Congo for 9 months and 7 months respectively, conducting research for my dissertation (hashtagblessed). Living there I was obviously in the minority, and exposed to levels of racism and privilege beyond my wildest nightmares. From watching white tourists discuss how disgusting they found aspects of Kenyan culture while in the car with their Kenyan tour guide and driver to seeing the management of the conservancy fail to train and promote a single black Kenyan beyond middle management and the wild tenfold salary disparities that went with that to having dogs that were, moments before, friendly to me approach my black friends with a “kill first, ask questions later” attitude encouraged by their owners.

still a moment from my research life that melts my heart

One day I went to a local 3-day event in the town of Nanyuki, near the conservancy I was living and working in. The wives and daughters of several C-level execs were riders and competing at the event, and when they heard that I and another researcher also rode, they invited us along. At the event, one of the wives was coaching her black Kenyan groom through his warm up, and we all watched and cheered as he ran cross country. He had started as their stable hand, did a good job, expressed an interest in riding, and so his boss offered him what was functionally a working student position in her barn. She furnished him with a trained horse, gave him excellent coaching, helped pay for his equipment and tack, and provided him with opportunities far beyond what he would have been able to achieve on his own. She was, to all outward appearances, and probably to her white friends, an exceedingly generous and anti-racist white woman who was helping her staff in one of the ways she could.

Back at the conservancy, this woman was a nightmare. She took over the management of the research center, a facility that was previously managed by a black Kenyan who was head of research, and during my time there somehow the Kenyan-run research projects that were present at the conservancy drastically dwindled. She bullied the research center staff to work longer hours and provide food and a menu that we never asked for with no pay increase. She was one of the most openly racist people I encountered on the conservancy — and if she behaved that way around the researchers, all of whom were her paying “customers” and literal strangers to her — I can only imagine what her behavior was like in private.

I obviously never asked (it may not surprise you to learn that I avoided that bitch like a death adder), but I’m sure that woman would insist that she was not a racist. And a big part of that belief would probably be based in moral self-licensing. Moral self-licensing is a contradiction in human behavior: after we do something good, we give ourselves mental license to do something “bad” later. This can be everything from “I had a salad for lunch, I deserve a splurge for dinner” to “I bought organic produce today, fuck that homeless guy asking me for change”.

another magnificent, altruistic chimp girl to break up this text

I’m telling you this not only to describe a fascinating behavioral effect, but to encourage people not to fall into this trap. As we work through bettering this crazy world, we have to remember that wearing a mask and protecting your community doesn’t mean we can give up on other elements of being a good citizen — kindness, caring, and staying the fuck at home (if we are lucky enough to do so). As I learn about and leverage my own power to help remove discrimination and educate those around me on being anti-racist, I must not silently allow my older relatives to maintain racist attitudes and behaviors just because “they are old” and changing their behavior is hard. They still vote, and they still interact with the world, they should not be racist.

This is not to say that anyone should be going all out all the time. We all need time to rest, recharge, and relax. But I want to challenge all of us to be aware of and careful about moral self licensing in our own behavior, and to see if we can push towards doing good without allowing ourselves to “do bad” on occasion as well.

Kenya is where I learned the term “wazungu”, a broad term that refers most strictly to “white people” but is often used more generally to refer to anyone who is not a black African. It’s not particularly derogatory, though it obviously can be. And it is where I learned that I, too, am mzungu (mzungu is singular, wazungu plural). Even though I am half Chinese, I am in the most privileged class of people of colour: I am white-presenting from a class that is not largely discriminated against in the western world (let’s tackle Asian-on-Asian discrimination in China another time).

I have always thought of myself as someone who has worked hard against racism. In Kenya and Congo I worked with my friends and staff to give them new skills they could leverage in their positions within the conservancy, and I have always pushed within the conservation organizations I have been involved with to encourage the hiring of local staff instead of a reliance on white staff or volunteers. I see now that I was morally licensing myself — seeing myself in the light of my past behavior and not thinking about how I could and should continue to work against racism in my life here at home.

You can count on me to keep challenging my family members, shoving the data in peoples’ faces (also this data, because COVID isn’t gone yet), pushing for police reform, voting, demanding better within the organizations I work with, using my privilege as a witness and — if needed — a shield, promoting the work and voices of BIPOC,  and particularly supporting BIPOC farmers*.

So I say this to myself as well as others: Karibu wazungu. We have work to do.

* If you’re in the triangle between Baltimore, Charlottesville, and Chesapeake, you need to check out Sylvanaqua Farms. Chris Newman is an incredible farmer, thinker, writer, and human being who is revolutionizing the food system of the DC Metro Area to promote regenerative agriculture, BIPOC farmers and land holders, and good food. He doesn’t want successful small landholders to be the exception — he wants them to be the rule — and he has a plan to get them there.

Poetry Month: The Man from Snowy River

Amanda kindly pointed out that it’s poetry month, and suggested we share our favourite poem about a horse, or one that brings us joy. As an Australian I’d be utterly remiss to skip this poem. But more importantly, I LOVE this piece. It always gives me chills.

The Man From Snowy River
A.B. “Banjo” Paterson

There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses – he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.
All the tried and noted riders from the stations near and far
Had mustered at the homestead overnight,
For the bushmen love hard riding where the wild bush horses are,
And the stockhorse snuffs the battle with delight.

There was Harrison, who made his pile when Pardon won the cup,
The old man with his hair as white as snow;
But few could ride beside him when his blood was fairly up –
He would go wherever horse and man could go.
And Clancy of the Overflow came down to lend a hand,
No better horseman ever held the reins;
For never horse could throw him while the saddle girths would stand,
He learnt to ride while droving on the plains.

And one was there, a stripling on a small and weedy beast,
He was something like a racehorse undersized,
With a touch of Timor pony – three parts thoroughbred at least –
And such as are by mountain horsemen prized.
He was hard and tough and wiry – just the sort that won’t say die –
There was courage in his quick impatient tread;
And he bore the badge of gameness in his bright and fiery eye,
And the proud and lofty carriage of his head.

But still so slight and weedy, one would doubt his power to stay,
And the old man said, “That horse will never do
For a long a tiring gallop – lad, you’d better stop away,
Those hills are far too rough for such as you.”
So he waited sad and wistful – only Clancy stood his friend –
“I think we ought to let him come,” he said;
“I warrant he’ll be with us when he’s wanted at the end,
For both his horse and he are mountain bred.

“He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough.
And the Snowy River riders on the mountains make their home,
Where the river runs those giant hills between;
I have seen full many horsemen since I first commenced to roam,
But nowhere yet such horsemen have I seen.”

So he went – they found the horses by the big mimosa clump –
They raced away towards the mountain’s brow,
And the old man gave his orders, “Boys, go at them from the jump,
No use to try for fancy riding now.
And, Clancy, you must wheel them, try and wheel them to the right.
Ride boldly, lad, and never fear the spills,
For never yet was rider that could keep the mob in sight,
If once they gain the shelter of those hills.”

So Clancy rode to wheel them – he was racing on the wing
Where the best and boldest riders take their place,
And he raced his stockhorse past them, and he made the ranges ring
With the stockwhip, as he met them face to face.
Then they halted for a moment, while he swung the dreaded lash,
But they saw their well-loved mountain full in view,
And they charged beneath the stockwhip with a sharp and sudden dash,
And off into the mountain scrub they flew.

Then fast the horsemen followed, where the gorges deep and black
Resounded to the thunder of their tread,
And the stockwhips woke the echoes, and they fiercely answered back
From cliffs and crags that beetled overhead.
And upward, ever upward, the wild horses held their way,
Where mountain ash and kurrajong grew wide;
And the old man muttered fiercely, “We may bid the mob good day,
No man can hold them down the other side.”

When they reached the mountain’s summit, even Clancy took a pull,
It well might make the boldest hold their breath,
The wild hop scrub grew thickly, and the hidden ground was full
Of wombat holes, and any slip was death.
But the man from Snowy River let the pony have his head,
And he swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer,
And he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed,
While the others stood and watched in very fear.

He sent the flint stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,
He cleared the fallen timber in his stride,
And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat –
It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.
Through the stringybarks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,
Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;
And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound,
At the bottom of that terrible descent.

He was right among the horses as they climbed the further hill,
And the watchers on the mountain standing mute,
Saw him ply the stockwhip fiercely, he was right among them still,
As he raced across the clearing in pursuit.
Then they lost him for a moment, where two mountain gullies met
In the ranges, but a final glimpse reveals
On a dim and distant hillside the wild horses racing yet,
With the man from Snowy River at their heels.

And he ran them single-handed till their sides were white with foam.
He followed like a bloodhound on their track,
Till they halted cowed and beaten, then he turned their heads for home,
And alone and unassisted brought them back.
But his hardy mountain pony he could scarcely raise a trot,
He was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur;
But his pluck was still undaunted, and his courage fiery hot,
For never yet was mountain horse a cur.

And down by Kosciusko, where the pine-clad ridges raise
Their torn and rugged battlements on high,
Where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze
At midnight in the cold and frosty sky,
And where around The Overflow the reed beds sweep and sway
To the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide,
The man from Snowy River is a household word today,
And the stockmen tell the story of his ride.

a few more biomechanical snippets

There are still a few things I learned at Mary that I didn’t fit into a bigger post, but were still worth remembering. As if I don’t wish I could remember all of it.

the pelvis as a bowl

I had my pelvis-bowl completely incorrectly oriented. I’ve heard several times that the pelvis is a bowl, and in your neutral pelvis your bowl should be perfectly upright — no spillage of your chilli, gin and tonic, guts, or whatsoever else it pleases you to fill your pelvic bowl with.

I had always envisioned the bowl in the pelvis to be following the angle of the pelvis bones — a bit like I’ve shown in the image below.

And as you can see — with your pelvis like this, precious rice is falling out of the bowl!

To combat that and keep the bowl “upright” I tilted my pelvis back. Resulting in my riding on my ischial tuberosity, or where my ischial callosities would be were I an Old World Monkey. Turns out I had this all wrong. 

This is a great way to shrink your underneath, in case you’re wondering.

Instead, I had to reorient how I thought of the bowl inside the pelvis. The bowl sits upright in the neutral pelvis, even if that means that the sides of the bowl don’t nestle up against the angles of the pelvis quite perfectly.

This gives you a much bigger place to sit in the saddle, since you’re not trying to cram all of your weight back between your seat bones and your tail bone.

I’m still not great at feeling when my pelvis is neutral, but at least I’m not constantly trying to tilt it crazily backwards now!

resistance bands

During our neutral spine and realignments lab, I sat in the EQ Saddle Science saddle that we had out and Kate realigned me on the saddle. One of the experienced biomechanics instructors, Agi, was helping her with the more nuanced aspects of the realignment and exercise. After realigning me in the saddle, Agi grabbed some thin rubber resistance bands and popped them on my torso to test my strength in different parts of my torso.

Knowing how my middle is filled with a layer of shifting bullshit sand, I expected the resistances to just reveal how utterly, terribly weak I was in my upper body. Agi put the first band right under my arms but above my boobs and gentle pulled back, and astonishingly I actually managed to stay quite steady. I also felt my seatbones, especially my left one, go *thunk* into the saddle. When she moved the resistance band below my boobs on my ribs, I struggled not to bend in the middle. When she put the band just below my waistband I could hardly resist the pull at all.


a cute bay horse to break up all these words

Agi said that I should be able to generate and maintain the tone in my torso that I felt with the first resistance band all the time. ALL THE TIME?!?! I’m honestly not even sure I could turn all those muscles on if I wanted to, let alone without having someone pull on me to generate that pressure. I need to figure a way back to that feeling so I can start practicing it more!

physical therapy

During our second day’s rides, the workshop participants were paying special attention to my torso and asymmetry during the rising trot. Mary had me turn down the center away from the students a few times. People had already commented that I can slosh my hips to the left much better than I can to the right in the walk, and in the trot there was some interesting “hmmm, what could be going on here?” discussion of my torso. Anne, workshop host and physical therapist extraordinaire, suggested that people pay close attention to what part of my torso wasn’t moving, instead of what was.

What Anne was seeing was that there was a very still part of my torso right below my right ribs, and it was like the rest of my body was rotating and tilting around that still section. Which was a funny way to describe it, but I’ve often felt that my right hip falls away from me dorsally as much as my right shoulder slips away from me ventrally.

the wildest lean

Anne offered to do some quick and dirty physical therapy on me to see if we could even me out in the saddle afterward. So Flounder and I stepped to the side and Anne poked around my midsection for a bit. I’ve never had physical therapy done, but other than Murray-induced injuries, I’ve never really managed to hurt myself all that badly. (knock on wood!) Anne put pressure on a dorsal and ventral point right under my ribs and explained that she thought I had something like little “spot welds” in my torso that were restricting my movement, potentially from a cranial nerve injury in the past (but it’s unclear). She was going to release the pressure very quickly after a minute or two of holding it there to shock my system into letting go of the welds. While Anne was talking and holding pressure on my body I could feel my right shoulder blade settling downward, and felt a bit of a general “sinking” in the right side of my body. After she release the pressure quickly it was like all my guts were reorganizing themselves down and more into my pelvis.

It was totally weird and totally more woo-woo than I usually prescribe to. But I can’t deny that it felt very interesting. Anne held on to another pressure point for a bit and then dropped it, and I felt that sinking feeling again, though less intensely.

I got back to riding to many ooohs and aaaahs from the workshop attendees. I felt very even. And, importantly, like I didn’t have to think about twisting gently to the right, which I have to think about pretty much all the time anyway. Megan said that she suddenly noticed my right shoulderblade. Like she always knew I had one, but it wasn’t until that moment that she realized how solid and present it could be. I could also feel the muscle going up into my neck on the right side in a way I’d never quite felt it before — not painfully, but present-fully, if that makes sense.

It definitely made me want to pursue some more PT with someone of Anne’s caliber and training. Though it will probably get pushed to the backburner with the craziness of my year coming up.

canter Vs


need more back and down!

When we worked on the canter mechanic, I told Mary that it was really huge for me to learn that I could use the knee blocks of the saddle to help get me back and down into the saddle. She interrupted me and suggested that instead I think about the shape of the canter mechanic to be changing the V made by my legs and seat bone in the canter. The V should get longer and skinner in the back-and-down as my seatbones slide over my skin.

Since I’ve been thinking about the mechanic that way, I’ve had much better luck staying in the saddle — and when you stay in the saddle you really can influence the canter much more.

 

on words

The words won’t be forgotten, thought Granny. There’s a power to them. They’re damn good woods, as words go.

– Granny Weatherwax
in Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett

I still have a few things to write up about what I learned from this year’s Mary Wanless workshop, but I’ve realized through my explorations of the internet that Mary’s methods aren’t the most popular out there. Different people have different objections, but one of the ones I’ve seen is that people don’t seem to understand what she’s saying. That Mary’s words don’t always make sense. And I had some thoughts on that.

Some people might object to Mary because the words she says to higher-level-Mary riders can be pretty inaccessible. During the workshop Mary talked to Tanya about making a board from her 2-pack to the horse’s neck, passing over some cervical vertebrae and then into the neck and through to the poll, pushing the board longer to encourage the horse’s neck to move down and out. Weird, right? I’m happy to admit it. But Tanya is a super high level rider who clearly has abilities well beyond my own. But even to the mid-level demo riders, Mary said some things that might come across as strange if you haven’t been working in her world for a while. “Imagine strings connecting your hip flexors to your horse’s hocks, and draw his legs further under him with every rise as you post.”

What you aren’t seeing, when you just read or hear those words, is all of the reinforcement and awareness that Mary has developed with that rider. One of the parts of Mary’s program that she has emphasized at her workshops is developing greater bodily awareness within each rider. Sometimes it comes in the form of questions: can you feel your frontline all the way up your thighs? How about all the way up to your collarbone? Can you take a deep breath with your left lung? How about your right?

By connecting exercises about body awareness to words about body parts, Mary is creating riders who have a strong understanding of how what specific, discrete parts of their body are doing. Tanya’s awareness of her body is so high that when she thinks of that board from her 2-pack board she turns on a whole suite of muscles, a suite of muscles that are doing things that change the way the horse goes. She’s not just imagining this board. She is doing through imagery.

So yes. Those words are Martian.

When Murray had his amazing session with the cowboy, the cowboy said “I’m going to move his left hind foot by looking at it.” And I looked at the cowboy like he was stupid. But he looked at Murray, and Murray moved his damn left hind foot. And then he moved his right hind when the cowboy looked at that one too.

How. What the fuck?

Pressure, said the cowboy. Energy.

Those words were meaningless to me. About as meaningless as “imagine a board that goes from your 2-pack line into his cervical vertebrae”.

I also watched Kate’s cowboy work with one of her horses. It’s remarkable how all those highly effective cowboys are almost the same. He waved a flag at a horse and the horse did nothing, then he waved it a little differently and the horse yielded to the flag. “So,” said Kate, “you’re practicing changing intention.” “Exactly,” said the cowboy.


refractory to intention

“How do you change your intention?” I asked Kate.

“Well,” she stared at me, “I guess I change what I intend.”

The cowboy gave me the gift of elaborating a bit. It’s about the energy, he said. The energy with which the flag approached the horse, and the energy the flag had when he “released” it from the horse. So we were back to energy.

But what is energy? And how do I change it? When a cowboy hands me a rope, the only other tool I have is flapping my body around and metaphorically, or literally, yelling what I want at the horse. But working with my cowboy, and Kate’s cowboy, you can hone your skills until they are closer to those cowboy tools. Closer to “energy”.

People — including me, it should be noted — also think that natural horsemanship cowboys are speaking nonsense at first.

Think about what you hear some upper level dressage clinicians say.

Ride almost in a shoulder-fore.

Rounder. Flex him.

More. Less.

Half halt.

These words are all just as much Martian as “imagine you have a board from your 2-pack line” or “change your energy”. But they have a meaning in Dressage, a meaning that the people listening to that clinician might even have 1/3 of an understanding or comprehension of. I have maybe 4% the understanding of what “rounder” means to Charlotte Dujardin. I know that a half halt is a thing, even if I can’t execute one to save my life. More? Less? Those words have total mastery over me.

But that’s the thing. Lots of people watching that clinician won’t really know what those words mean, know their full meaning. If they are just a passing rider or auditor, they certainly won’t understand what those words mean to that clinician. But they think they know. They think they understand how to apply “rounder” and “more” to their own riding, and suddenly that clinician’s words become so much more “accessible” to the rider. And the clinician is therefore deemed worthwhile or a good teacher because the listener’s language comprehension skills approximated 1/12th of what they were saying.

Make no mistake. These high-level instructors are all speaking Martian. Some people think they understand Martian. The best of us are just working hard to understand their words.

Image result for wyrd sistersthis book is 100% worth reading btw

(re)learning how to canter

A special focus on the canter mechanic was one of the selling points of this year’s workshop for me. I mean, I was going regardless, but it was timely. I know my canter mechanic needs work, so getting to workshop it was extra exciting. (The other feature of this year’s workshop, polyvagal theory, was a major hidden gem.)

baseline canter mechanic. lots to like in Murray, but several bad patterns
here, the worst of which is flapping my torso around like one of those air
wobbler creatures — you just can’t see it in the still. also my left thigh is the worst.

I’ve been adding puzzle pieces to my understanding of the canter mechanic for a couple of years now. Megan first introduced me to a new mechanic by telling me to think of grabbing the saddle in the “down” beat of the canter and pulling it back up with my thighs, to decrease the accent of the down beat and increase the air time in the canter. Lots of people try to half-halt in the down beat because that’s when you naturally have a bunch of weight in the reins and it’s the beat that feels the most downhill. But leaning back and pulling on your horse when they can’t do anything about it actually — surprise surprise — isn’t that effective.

I added another puzzle piece with Mary’s video about the canter mechanic through Dressage Training TV. There, they accentuate the hip tuck on the hind leg (beat one). In the video (you can see this in the free preview I think), Mary says “weight the back leg, weight the back leg,” with the words “back leg” falling on beat one. When Megan assigned me homework of pushing Murray out of the ground for most of a circle and then half halting him back to a more controlled canter I would say to me self, “on the back leg, on the back leg” to remind myself of how I wanted that weight to fall. (And when I was pushing him out I would say “over the ground, over the ground, over the ground,” and probably push him back onto the forehand, oh well. I talk to myself a lot when I ride, apparently.)

my not-particularly-effective mechanic on Atlas after the clinic (click to embiggen)
specifically note how far back I get in his moment of suspension – I should be folding in that moment

This year, we discussed the canter mechanic extensively after my first demo ride. During that first ride the clinic host, Anne, filmed me cantering in a circle on Floundy. Now, I know I’ve shit talked Floundy a fair bit here, but he really does have a tremendous canter (double entendre intended*), and Kate really has done a lovely job of training him to go on the bit if you just have the right rein length and some bear down. Horse will fucking tell on you if you’re a twiddler or aren’t really bearing down, though. I’m also starting in not the worst place, in terms of my mechanic. Mary commented that my mechanic wasn’t bad in my first day’s canter. I responded that this isn’t really how I canter at home (it wasn’t — Flounder has a nice canter). Mary asked what was I better at, trot or canter? I had to think for a moment, but I said canter. What did I liked more, trot or canter? Canter. Mary’s point: the rider usually prefers the gait they are good at.

* One mnemonic device Mary uses to help people understand different canter balances is the words “Canada,” “Mozambique,” and “tremendous”. Say each words (in your head or aloud) and hear which syllable is accentuated. A “Canada” canter is most desirable, as the most emphasis is on the first beat (beat one/outside hind). A “Mozambique” canter is much more common, probably the most common, and very not desirable: the emphasis is on the last beat (beat three/inside front). A “tremendous” canter is pretty good, and certainly not terrible. The emphasis is on the middle beat (beat two, diagonal pair). You can do something with any of these canters, and you can definitely watch a horse go from Canada to Mozambique depending on the biomechanics. Harder to go the other way, though!


a surefire way to make a Mozambique canter — way too much extension pattern

In our canter mechanic discussion, Mary brought up the fact that the canter mechanic isn’t just “back” on beat one (the back leg), it’s down. And I was like “down? What? Down where?” Anne said that it took her so long to understand this idea that she literally had to use the visual of falling backwards into an inner tube to get it. I prefer the image of sitting on a fence where your knees are holding you on to the rail and your butt is falling back behind you, because there is an element of “knees up” to this mechanic.

And the final piece of the puzzle came together for me when I had Kate realign me for practice on a saddle stand, with Agi looking on. My struggle with my left seatbone had already been revealed at that point, and after Kate got me lined up and neutral, Agi grabbed a resistance band to show Kate and Megan some resistances. She looped the elastic under my armpits but above my boobs and gently pulled back. I resisted, and as I did my knees came up slightly as my thighs pulled me down into the saddle. Agi then said some stuff about how I should feel like that all the time and how I should be able to replicate the feeling without the resistance band but that’s clearly UTTERLY IMPOSSIBLE, the laws of physics say so. (The laws of physics say no such thing, Agi is correct, I need to work harder and smarter.)


pleasantly surprised with my alignment here
should probably be preparing for the back and down at this point though.

Finally, in our third demo ride, we dug into the canter a bit. Mary gave me three things to think about: 1) the carousel pole behind my spine, that my torso is moving up and down on, 2) back on the hind, 3) down on the hind. So we got to cantering around and Mary would layer on the commands. “Carousel pole,” she would yell. After I had that for a few strides she’d add in, “back! back! back!” on the hind leg. And finally “up down, up down, up down” in the rhythm of the second and first beats of the canter respectively. I only got it twice, and it took multiple got-it-lost-its of the first two instructions before I could even get to “down”. But the second time I got it, Flounder’s canter utterly transformed. Not only did I feel like I was finally sitting with every single moment of the canter, but it felt he was one of those hippity-hoppity ball things, but giant, and we were bouncing along the ground.

I haven’t been able to replicate the canter mechanic at home yet, though fortunately Fergus has a very easy canter. Partially I’ve been trying not to sit down into him too much — he either stops or gets tense and zips away if you fall into the man trap, so I have to be careful — and partially I’ve not quite gotten the timing on my own without Mary yelling at me. But it’s very exciting to have a moment of knowing that feeling, and yet another solid pathway of how to get there.


unrelated, but this pony asked for a flaming hot cheeto (twice) so i fed them to her