on hard decisions

We euthanized Murray on Wednesday.

sorry, it’s gonna be a media-heavy post

After Murray retired in 2018, he went to live at MIL’s house (where Speedy spent his first three months, I made them meet) in an irrigated pasture with an older retired horse buddy to keep him company. He was pretty delighted by the lottery he had won, and it was quite clear he was in heaven. Whenever I was home to visit I would bring him in, give him a good groom, brush all the tangles out of his mane and tail, and cry a little bit before he went back out.

in retirement

After a while, Murray decided that continued human management would not be for him. It started with refusing to stand for the farrier without drugs. Then he said no to the vet. Eventually, nobody at the ranch was allowed to catch him.

I could still get him, without deception or difficulty. More often than not, Murray would come sauntering up to me for a good scratch and let me put a little swat on his midline or pick out his feet without a halter on. But it did get harder and slower over time, and the last time I was home he galloped away from me. He came back later, but it was the first time he had viewed me with that much suspicion.

As you might imagine, a horse who can’t be caught is a horse who can’t be managed. And there is only so long a horse, even a Murray, can go without seeing a veterinarian or farrier. While I wish I could point at his rotating club foot or a clear and growing lameness or colic or a disease process, it was nothing so simple. Watching him become more and more feral — and not in the “fat happy retired horse” way — I knew that Murray’s time would be limited.

This year MIL renewed her efforts to halter Murray, so he could be brought in for a trim. About a month ago he kicked her as he fled. And so she called me and said she thought it might be time. His behavior was clearly deteriorating, and even if we couldn’t see head-bobbing lameness from the outside, we both suspected that was pain related. Rather than let Murray get so painful that he couldn’t run from us — or hurt himself more trying to do so — we decided it was best to euthanize him.

working on our camel act

Why am I writing so many words about the decision to euthanize my retired horse? Because it was hard. And I hope that other people who might be struggling with the decision or who may have to cross this road in the future might see this option and know that it is a decision to be made with love and kindness. There’s a lot of pushback in our culture about euthanizing apparently healthy animals. Apparently being the key word there, because there’s a lot of vectors that make up “healthy,” much more than just “alive and breathing”.

Murray was 13 and physically sound-adjacent. I “could have” found a retirement or rescue situation for him that would have understood his very, very special needs better and been able to manage him and impoverished myself paying for the rest of his life. I could have built $10k in fencing on the 6 acres behind my house, converted a lean-to into a barn, found a pasture-buddy, and turned my life inside out to bring him home to retire in Oregon. (If we could have gotten him onto a trailer. Also a pretty hard Murray-No.) It would have trashed my life. I would probably have needed to sell Speedy. It would probably have caused a divorce. I could have done that. But I wouldn’t.

In the end, the people who knew Murray and me best agreed that this was the right call. Murray was making it clear that he couldn’t be around people any more. It would not be kind to force him to be around new, different people just for the sake of a few thousand more heartbeats. It would not be kind to stuff him on a trailer to live in the mud for the sake of a few thousand more breaths. And if, as we suspect, his behavior change was caused by increasing pain in his body — though we won’t know, as I didn’t get a necropsy — it would not be kind to insist he keep living in that shell.

Murray was, to be direct (and he was always direct), a pain in the ass. He hated almost everyone, and his distrust of humanity ran deep. Pretty much none of those “good horse manners” came easily to him, nor did they stick around the second things got rough. He was uniquely confident in his own judgment, and intensely unpredictable in whether that judgment would line up with reality or not. He was persistent beyond all mortal ken, a riddle wrapped inside a mystery stuffed into an enigmatically-cute horse suit.

He was my first horse, and I loved him fiercely.

What is there to say about this horse who was so formative in my life? That nothing for us came easy at first, that all our lessons were hard-won, that he was never good for a cuddle?

I think more about the sense of humor, the laughter, the ridiculousness. Murray did not let me take myself too seriously. Which was probably desperately needed.

I think about the way we thought out of the box, got creative, and stuck to our guns.

I think about the times he showed up for me, all the adventures we had with our friends, and the memories we made.

I think about his bangin’ forelock, his incredible shiny body, his baby-forever face.

Murray delivered experience in spades. Not carefully or thoughtfully or delicately, but shoveling it onto you so you had no choice but to adapt lest you drown in chaos.

I will always remember what we learned together. Laugh always. Find the itchy spots. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Get creative. Scream as needed. Fight for what you believe in.

Content warning — euthanasia details below.

If you want to know how you euthanize a horse who can’t be touched, it’s with a bullet. MIL found a cowboy confident in and comfortable with the process. Cowboy grained Murray at the gate for a while to habituate him. The morning they pulled the trigger, Murray dropped instantly, mouth full of grain. I know it’s a controversial method. I feel that if it is kind enough for me to use on my food animals, it is kind enough for me to use with my horse. As much as I wish we could have filled Murray with enough sedatives and painkillers to render him insensate, the process of being caught and injected would have been incredibly stressful to him, and he was a heavyweight at the best of times. I felt this would be swiftest, which is kindest.

remedial learner

When I first started doing groundwork with Speedy, I noticed that he made a lot of mistakes with the direction the human was sending him. When it was me sending him, I assumed the mistakes were because of a lack of clarity in my newbish directions. When it was MIL and Sheryl, I figured it was Speedy’s inexperience. And one day after it persisted for months, I thought “it’s like he’s just guessing.” I never took data (curse past Nicole), but I’m sure if I had I would have seen that Speedy’s hit rate on which direction to travel when sent was no better than guessing.

“wait did you say left or right?”

That was probably the first inkling I had that Speedy wasn’t learning well from traditional pressure/release training. Looking back on it, I maybe should have seen pieces of it in his work with Sheryl, where he offered the same response (go forward — not forward? go up — not up? go forward — not forward????) over and over and over and over again, and didn’t seem to iterate based on previous releases. Even Murray, Hater of All Things and King of Evasions, responded quickly and precisely to the clarity of pressure/release training by Cowboy Dave. Or in our lesson with the local H/J trainer where Speedy pretty much never offered to soften into the connection or move sideways off my leg.

Once Speedy moved here, I immediately started clicker training with him and immediately thought “why isn’t this working better?” I started with basic manners training, but quickly moved to husbandry behaviors that needed brushing up. For example, Speedy had never really picked up his hind feet with ease when asked. I know several horses who have never been clicker trained and dutifully pick up each foot in order as you travel around their body. But I’d practically have to drag the hony’s back feet out from under him every time I wanted to clean them. And I knew he could pick up his feet. I’d seen him walk. And I knew he’d had his feet cleaned before and shoes put on. I’d seen it! I’d paid for it!

But lo and goddamn behold no matter how much clicking and treating I did for picking up his feet, he didn’t get better about picking them up when asked. He actually got worse about it the second day I tackled it. And he never offered the behavior just to get a cookie. That’s what (food motivated) conditioned animals do. They offer the rewarded behavior to get the cookie. The horse was food motivated, no doubt about it. He just…. hadn’t actually registered the conditioning?

accurate representation of Speedy’s thoughts on picking up feet

Then there was a moment when I realized Speedy didn’t really yield to pressure at all. At some point in this, Speedy put his head way up in the air — I was probably messing with his face — and I thought “great, what an opportunity to ask him to bring his head down for me”. After a while I was basically putting my entire weight onto the lead rope and he was just standing there with over a hundred pounds hanging off his poll in his rope halter looking at me with a slightly confused expression. I don’t actually remember how that one ended.

I also got a pretty healthy dose of hmmm dumped into my brain over our first three lessons with TrJ. During our flat lesson, we started to tackle leg yields. I could get a few solid steps off my right leg, but off the left leg Speedy was jackknifing through his withers. When I would half halt on the right to realign him, we lost the sideways movement, and when my left leg came back on he’d scoot forward instead of sideways. No amount of gentle tapping with the dressage whip got him to step over with his left hind. When I tackled this later on the ground it was the same story — there was a fair bit of whip boinging around on Speedy’s hock before he thought to step over and I had a chance to click and treat.

The next day we warmed up for a cavaletti lesson with more leg yields and they were actually worse than the day before. To utterly anthropomorphize it, it was like Speedy had spent the night thinking about how he could help me compensate for this bizarre leg thing I was doing and the best way to do that would be to double down on doing nothing when I put just one leg on him as a cue. And if the cue got really big, he could always just go forward. Faster.

you see, I know he knows how to learn because he has now repeatedly snuck out under his stall guard to go eat Bridget’s alfalfa when unattended

The metaphorical shit really hit the proverbial wall the next week, during Speedy’s fourth trainer ride/lesson in one week. After a good ride with TrJ on Monday and lessons on Tuesday and Wednesday with me where he was pretty much on board with the connection agreement, things unraveled quickly on Thursday. There were a couple of distractions (haul in horses) in the arena, and Speedy Just Could Not. He Could Not put his head down, he Could Not hold my hand in the connection, he Could Not canter around the short end of the arena, and he Most Certainly Could Not canter around the short end of the arena and hold the connection and put his head down. TrJ suggested that I exit and come back later, and I gladly left the arena, where I promptly discovered that Speedy also Absolutely Could Not stay out of my personal space. When I made a point of it he backed into the muck tub, scared himself, and ran over the top of me. The horse was clearly not okay. But I couldn’t really understand why.

I was frustrated. Not because I couldn’t jump or because Speedy couldn’t turn the corner. There were lots of good reasons he might not have been able to turn left that day: being sore from a week of heavy work, the slightly bad setup for the turn with the jumps placed as they were, having a minor identity crisis as Derek Zoolander instead of Speedy Gonzales. I was frustrated because I kept having to say no, no, no to this horse and I had so few opportunities to say yes. And when he did get yesses, Speedy didn’t seem to care about getting them again.

throwback to sunshiney trail rides

I didn’t get it. Speedy likes people. He wants to be with people. He likes food. He wants to eat all the food. But he couldn’t seem to put it all together into doing things that got him more food or made things easier under saddle. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he wasn’t hearing what we were saying. More that it was like every time he heard it was the first time he heard it, so he never had the chance to learn from it.

Because obviously the horse can learn things, right? He goes, he stops (mostly), he jumps, he goes faster (mostly), he wears tack, he leads politely, he he knows that “good boy” probably means a down transition is coming. He knows that if nobody is looking and Bridget’s stall is empty he can slither out under the stall guard and go snack on some alfalfa. He’s clearly capable of learning. I just hadn’t figured out how to tap into that.

highs in the 30s last week was the perfect excuse to fulfill my childhood dream of giving my horse lukewarm mash

Maybe there’s such a gulf between how Germans teach horses things and how I teach horses things that it really was Greek to him (doubt it). Or maybe, for whatever reason, Speedy never learned how to problem solve. A lot of his life was a greatest hits show of the things he did best — run fast (XC), jump big (Bundeschampionate), put it in his mouth (his reward cookies obvs) — and skipping over the things that he didn’t do so great (dressage).

Not a lot of time on the “hard things” means not a lot of time trying to figure out how to make those things easier on yourself. Not a lot of time building the learning and reward system in your brain that says “well, when I put my nose down everything got easier last time, so maybe I’ll try that again”. And if you’re perseverative — and cleverative — enough, just enough time being ridden by children helps you realize “when the small one rides, I can almost certainly outlast any attempts at doing the hard things”. This could definitely explain big pieces of it.

when in doubt (due to crane) just go fast and jump big, and don’t forget to put nose in air

Speedy was offering me what he knew how to do. It’s just that all he thought he knew was to go fast, jump big, and put his nose in the air (also put it in his mouth, but that was less of an under-saddle thing). And when those things didn’t work, he just tried, tried again — at those same three things.

My current and best theory is that the remedial learning is a combination a few related things: one, Speedy’s deep reliance on the 3 behaviors he is very comfortable with offering (pretty simple: go fast, jump big, put it in your mouth/put your nose in the air); two (related to one), some rather intense creative constipation preventing him from trialing any new behaviors; three, not understanding that his behavior controls the treat/reward delivery system.

So to get better learning? Break up the creative constipation and help Speedy learn that his behavior can control his treat-laden environment. Next, we break out the x-lax.

absurd toys and outfits required for mission x-lax

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.

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.

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

leasing: the struggle is… medium

The last year of leasing has been an interesting one. And, to be totally honest, when I first started thinking about this post two weeks ago, my outlook was¬†much less positive. So far, things have pretty much worked out for me — but things could absolutely not have swung my way, and I’d almost certainly be a bit more mopey right now.

When I first started leasing, I was just looking for something to sit on. Hence, #reboundpony. I’m not the sort to just kinda plod along, plus I was getting a lot of encouragement about the wei√üwurst from the sidelines, so of course I immediately started working on transforming the pony into something a little more sport-pony-y. But I also thought I would probably only be leasing in the short-term, and so I wasn’t¬†looking for anything in my lease. If that makes sense. I wasn’t trying to find a horse I could progress with, necessarily, just one to help keep me in shape. Samwell was perfect.


I am very cute, now give me cookies

Then Timer literally fell into my lap. Big, fancy, a ton of fun to ride, and opinionated as shit. After working one another out through many lessons and lots of long, romantic walks where I thought deeply about what I was doing, we really started making progress. For sure, I had to do thing on Timer’s terms, but since he was pretty knowledgeable, it wasn’t always a bad thing. I started to think about showing T¬† at Novice in 2020, and tentatively leveraging his athletic ability and confidence to move up to Training when we were ready. Then in October, T’s owner told me that she would be taking him back at the end of the year. He’d been going so well that she wanted to think about moving him up to Prelim in 2020, and wanted to have more personal control over his jumping schedule.

I was both devastated and completely understood her decision process and needs. If he were my horse, I wouldn’t be sharing him! After taking a minute to wallow and think about impulsively buying something for myself, I put my head to thinking about a solution to my problem. I truly became a schooled-horse convert while riding T. It was the classically simple opportunity to work on¬†myself. And I realized that I’d do a lot more for myself and my riding and my goals to keep riding horses with a higher baseline than I have so I can more easily and effectively level up my skills.

And this is not to minimize or reduce all the lessons that my green horse, and many green horses, have taught me. But I’m not going to get better at coursing 3′-3’3″ by teaching another OTTB how to jump cross rails and trot around the ring with a bit of connection.


this is totally fun, and I want to keep doing it. but I need to develop my own skills, too!

The problem with this plan? I don’t have the money to buy something going, and I don’t have the money to pay for a lease. I was pretty much looking for a care lease of some kind. Even more specifically, a super-flexible-and-or-half-time one — because my schedule is crazy and dumb at times.

Luckily for me, there was another horse at my barn who was almost exactly what I was looking for. Harry: a former Training level horse who didn’t really like jumping Big. So I checked in with the owner and TrJ and we all thought it might work. Harry’s current leaser was backing down to a half lease, so it was a great opportunity for me to slot right in there and pick up the other days in his work week. I took a lesson on him and he was fun!¬†Not super easy on the flat and a bit of a tricker in an oh-I’m-really-quite-poky kind of way, but enthusiastic and happy about jumping. A weird additional perk was that I would be the more knowledgeable of his two leasers, so I felt like I’d be able to really make some progress with his dressage without feeling like I was messing up what his owner had carefully tuned to herself.

speaking of carefully tuned
(now I’m just going back through all my favourite pictures)

When I got back to the barn in January though, things with Harry had changed. His other leaser wanted to up her days on him again, and a teenager moving up from a pony had been taking lessons on him on his other days. And so Harry’s work week was accounted for, and suddenly I found myself up in the air about what I would ride again.

How could I complain? I’m not going to demand that people bend their leases or lessons around my riding desires, especially when I’m not in a position to pay for what I really right now. I’m in the position of begging and being unable to choose, and I’m not the type of person to complain about how unfair that is. I mean, not endlessly anyway. I reserve the right to complain about it once or twice when feeling sorry for myself.

A tiny part of me felt butthurt that TrJ hadn’t prioritized my riding development as much as the teen’s or Harry’s leaser. But I knew logically that TrJ was absolutely not trying to leave me out with her decision. And that’s the rub with leasing, isn’t it? So much of it¬†isn’t your decision as the leaser. You aren’t just negotiating with the horse, you’re negotiating with the owner and any other riders hopping in on the horse. Which, I’ve learned, can totally suck — like if the horse is used to being ridden *just so* by his very talented owner, it’s going to be hard for you to get the same results from him as she does because you aren’t her. Or if the kid wants to take the pony to a show on your lease day and it happens to be the only day that week you can ride and you can’t change your schedule to change that…. what you gonna do? Be a dick and smash the kid’s opportunity to take the pony out? I guess maybe. I’m just not that big of a dick though. *shrug*

remember when I could kinda ride? (wow this fence looks small. how? I’m not jumping bigger than this right now.)

Oh, and the time period before you’ve figured out how to balance and ride the new horse after coming off something you could ride pretty well and you feel like the most incompetent rider in the world? Duuuude I’ve felt it hard this year. On a pony who I totally thought was going to be a breeze to ride. On a horse whose owner makes him look so straightforward. On a horse who has packed his leaser around from her first show to being the 4th placing adult rider in her division for 2019. I couldn’t ride any¬†of those horses satisfactorily when I first got on them.

In short, leasing kinda sucks.

But it’s also amazing! Because as much as I couldn’t ride those horses in the beginning of my lease (or the middle, at times), I gained a ton of skills from them. Both specific skills for that horse, and more generalizable skills that I could bring to other horses. I stopped being so entrained in just one way of going or balancing or weight in the reins, and learned even more about problem solving.

And luckily for me, TrJ pulled through with a fantastic new lease plan for me. So I don’t need to wallow in the frustrating things about leasing and maybe not getting my riding needs-desires met this year. It doesn’t change the fact that leasing can still absolutely be a struggle, it just skews my outlook to the positive.

Enter: Fergus. I already totally adore him.

cooling off

When Murray first decided I first realized that Murray needed to be retired, I was interested in getting a new horse¬†right away. Interested doesn’t even cover it, really. I was desperate. It was like I didn’t know what I would do without a horsey project to call my own. When I went to see that horse back in December (who ultimately didn’t work out) I had spent plenty of time stalking him online and was already imagining what my life would be like with his fabulous show name. I found all of his old sale videos, watched his current sale videos relentlessly, and when he didn’t work out, I was back to scouring the internet, looking for a good deal.


a certain extremely cute pony’s begging behavior is so firmly ingrained that he even begs for treats in the field

It’s a good thing that horse didn’t work out, because the reality is that I didn’t have the money for another horse just then — not the cash up front, and not the cash flow to pay for all the horsey expenses. And I’m still not in the financial or work position where I’d feel comfortable taking on a full-time horse — owned or otherwise.

In January when I posted about my thoughts on future horsey-dom, I had come to terms with the fact that I didn’t really have the money for a new horse yet, but I was still medium-key bummed about it. Sure, pony lessons were fun, but I couldn’t help but think about how much progress I could be making with my new horse in that time. And also heavily window shopping for said horse in the mean time. If a great deal had fallen into my lap in March, I don’t think I would have turned it down.


Murray was never into selfies pre-retirement

More than six months down the line, I’ve no longer got my-own-horse FOMO and I’m very glad I didn’t rush into anything with a new horse. Completely ignoring the money issue — I think we can all take that limitation to its logical conclusion — there are¬†so many things about my current life that make horse ownership impractical. Especially green horse ownership! The glaring issue is the time. All that time I spent driving back and forth to California would not be doing my new (inevitably green) horse any favors. Even when I’m home, the farm isn’t exactly a low-key and undemanding job. I’ve spent more than a few days sitting in the truck or on the tractor for eight hours at a time, doing water runs, prepping fields, checking trees. And those are absolutely not things that I can just ditch to go riding (unlike constantly skipping out on writing up my thesis, lollll).

Also, if I’d bought a horse right after retiring Murray, you bet I would have rushed into it somewhat. Like, sure. I had a list and all that, but I’m also a sucker for a cute face and even more of a sucker for a good price. Emotionally/mentally compromised Nicole is not necessarily logical Nicole — and who knows how much TrJ would have been able to hold me back. That would very possibly have led to me being in a Murray-like position again because I think horses with a lot of “personality” are super funny and adorable. But it could also have led to a not-so-great fit between me and the horse, and then I’d be in the position of trying to sell a young, green horse. Which I know would suck. It absolutely would have led to me being back in the position of riding a green horse and trying to teach a green horse the basics of connection and dressage and jumping and not in the position to grow my skills where Murray and I left off. If I had my own horse, I wouldn’t have the lease on Timer right now.


me with every cute horse I see on the internet: I love you so much and you will be mine

Ultimately, this cooling off period was really good for me. I would never have asked for it at first, but I am so glad it happened. Time really was what I needed to chill out, but having great horses to ride in the interim certainly helped. At this point, I’m completely willing to wait on horse buying — for 6 more months, for a year, for two years — I’m no longer in a rush at all. My new dream situation is to pick up my second horse while maintaining my lease on Timer, so I can keep building my skills on T while new horse settles into the routine and gets with the program.

A few months ago, I was worried that not having my own horse would expedite losing my identity as a rider and someone who loves to learn about and improve my riding. But I’m not worried about that any more. Clearly I’m able to fit riding into my weird and wacky schedule given enough horsey enough flexibility. And even if riding isn’t my seven-day-a-week-all-day-at-the-barn-whenever-I-can-make-it-work hobby obsession of 2014/2015, that doesn’t make me any less able to work hard and grow in the time I¬†do get to spend there. I’d love to get back to riding every day or even multiple horses a day in the future, but it’s just not in the cards right now. And that’s way more okay than I realised back in December.


more idyllic trail rides in my future, please!

what comes next?

One of the reasons I pushed things along this fall when we were diagnosing Murray was my impending vacation. I spent three weeks in Australia in November/December. Once it became clear to me that there was something more serious going on with the horse, I knew I wanted it sorted¬†before I left. I did not need to spend my vacation trying to negotiate appointments and diagnostics with vets, or making big decisions about the future. I wanted things done and dusted — as much as possible — before I left.

For better or worse, that turned out to be a pretty simple request.

As of right now Murray is safely ensconced in his new pasture, making friends with all the geldings around him. He’s definitely gotten the memo that he’s retired, and has tested us several times with his semi-feral antics. Fortunately, my MIL is no fool. She knows the value of a good mannering halter¬†and a carroty bribe.

So. What comes next?

disorganized aubrey plaza GIF

I can’t deny that retiring Murray has made my life simpler financially. Moving took a bigger hit on my finances than I expected, especially with the added expense of vet bills and hauling to get Murray to and fro. From that perspective, I’m very okay with hitting pause on horse ownership for a minute.

I’m not interested in hitting pause forever (I guess that’s called “stop”), or indefinitely. My ideal situation would be a six-ish month break — long enough to allow me to recoup my finances, ride a bunch of different horses, unlearn some bad habits, and think deeply about what I want in a pony partner. Then I’d start shopping in early summer (lesbehonest — I’ll be window shopping the whole time), but without a firm timeline so I could really wait until the right horse comes along. (My budget isn’t going to be huge even if I do manage to save save save for the first half of the year).

But real life rarely fits into our plans, so I’m going to go look at a horse today.

The Good Place GIF

I KNOW, I know. That isn’t the plan¬†at all,¬†Nicole! But I got a hot tip from someone I really trust that this guy is pretty cool and needs a home like yesterday, which his price reflects. I talked to the trainer and didn’t get any red flags. He’s close. His history is pretty good. TrJ knows the trainer who is selling him, and she thinks he’s promising.

If he’s perfect and he vets, I’ll think about making an offer. (Quite legitimately not sure I’m ready to pony up for all the accessories that a new horse needs RIGHT AWAY — two blankets, saddle fitting, potential new saddle, shoes, chiro, supplements, massage, etc. etc. so and and so forth in perpetuity.)

So we only move forward there if he’s PERFECT.

Otherwise,¬†I told TrJ that I’d like to get into lessons and possibly lease, if she has someone available. She hemmed a bit on that, since all of her horses are leased out. She mentioned that I might do alright with one of her lesson ponies, and when I was like “I¬†love ponies” she said, “Well, he’s actually a¬†very cool pony.”


cutest little mofo around

For the forseeable future, there will be pony rides. And I am SO excited.

get with the program, human

It seems like every time I scheduled my first lesson with Trainer J, Murray found some way to sabotage it. First, by being sore as hell after standing in a stall for 3 weeks. Next, by being insanely rude to the vet and requiring cowboy lessons first. Most recently, by freaking out when the new farrier tried to burn his feet during hot shoeing, and becoming pretty sore up front.


So clvr. So smrt.

The farrier and I made a plan to get Murray more on board with the idea of hot shoeing (slow, measured exposure) and TrJ and figured we’d just move forward with the lesson as best we could. It was short, but very informative.

I expected my first lesson with TrJ to start like a clinic. Tell me about your riding, tell me about your horse, tell me about your goals.  It did not start like this.

TrJ came in with a plan for me. I was trotting Murray around on a long rein to loosen him up a bit, and TrJ had me come back to a walk. She wanted to give Murray a bit more of a chance to stretch out, and make some position modifications to me that would help us. She said she has noticed that I tend to let my heels get out behind me — absolutely true, and something I haven’t actively thought about fixing in a while. She also pointed out my atrocious habit of shoving Murray in the walk with my seat. These were the first two things TrJ wanted me to fix.

So I dropped my stirrups, and thought specifically about NOT shoving. Unfortunately, this kinda ends up making me stiffen my seat, it doesn’t give me a following seat. TrJ also told me to sit back on my pockets more, and had me lift my knees up over the flaps and sit on one of my hands to feel my seat bones. She told me to bring my legs back down and really relax them around the saddle, letting gravity pull my heels down and not ramming my toes up. This struck me as a little bit counter to the “sucking yourself into the saddle” idea of biomechanics, which made me a titch uncomfortable, but I went with it.


because biomechanics are my lord and savior, clearly

We worked at the walk for a long time. When my seat got too shove-y, TrJ had me drop my chin to my chest, which had the side effect of stilling my shoving muscles and really letting my seat follow. Whenever I started shoving again, I could drop my chin down and rediscover the feeling of following, and then lift my head up to, you know, look where I was going again.

I was definitely a little skeptical about this approach to my riding. Like, I know that shoving with my seat is a really bad habit and I shouldn’t do it. But I was not sure that starting¬†there was really the best approach to creating a dressage horse who is more confident in the connection.

But lo, when I stopped shoving with my seat, Murray started taking bigger (albeit slower) steps and stretching down over his topline. At one point, he even jostled the bit lightly in my hands with his tongue — not in a grabby, rooting kind of way. But with his head on the vertical, just playing with the bit in my hands.¬†That was a cool new feeling.


I love magical connection feelings

As part of not shoving with my seat, TrJ told me to relax my lower back, and feel like someone was pulling my torso back by the belt and the bra strap. I should have clarified during the lesson, but it didn’t seem like she wanted me¬†leaning back. She wanted me resisting that feeling, I think. Regardless, when I stacked my torso up vertically (I have a habit of letting my cereal box fall forward from my hip) and became shorter and wider, TrJ was happy with the attempt.

Doing all of these things — relaxing my legs, following instead of shoving with my seat, “relaxing” aka squashing down my lower back, and keeping my torso vertical really¬†made my seat bones connect with the saddle more. It felt like each seat bone had more surface area on the saddle, maybe double or more than what they had at the start of the lesson.

And all of this was accomplished just at the WALK.


fave gait. we soooooo good at it.

I had some strange-not-amazing feelings about this lesson afterward. It was quite different from what I have worked on with a biomechanics-focused instructor (Alexis) and from the path I’d been taking to improve Murray’s connection and throughness this last summer. And, I will admit it, I’ve spent lots of time on the ground at this barn watching TrJ’s riders, and they aren’t necessarily bear-down riders. I’m very comfortable with the biomechanics stuff, and I liked the progress Murray and I made this year. All of these things, plus the fact that TrJ didn’t ask me about what I wanted felt¬†weird.

After more thought, I realized that it just feels weird because it’s different. TrJ has a program, and lots of successful riders in that program. She watches people — she really¬†watches¬†them — even when they aren’t in lessons. TrJ also has a very specific way she wants people to ride, and she has a method of building those riders to get to that way.

Murray’s feet seem to feel better, and he’s back to his usual level of out-of-shape-not-using-himself-not-terribly-cute-mover-ness. I’m looking forward to making more lessons happen, and refusing to accept Murray’s attempts at sabotage.

get with the program

One huge, different thing about my new barn is that now Murray and I are in a¬†program. It’s not oppressive, but it’s there.

It’s not what I thought of when I (naiively) imagined a “program”. It’s not hallways of monogrammed trunks all in the same color and uniform saddle pads and a military requirement to buy that barn’s preferred brand of high end saddle. It’s not horses being fed up (or down) at the trainer’s discretion, without the option for preferred supplements or feed, or a requirement to be in training n-days per week or lessons m-days per month.

first day in blankies, with a new friend!

But there is a system. There are a few types of feed the barn gives to all horses there at least twice a day (a ration balancer), and they work with you to add in more calories or energy as necessary. They decide what pasture your horse is going to go in (with your input, if you have it) and make adjustments to smaller or bigger pastures as needed. The other day it was cold, drizzly, and foggy for the first time and when I got to the barn Murray was blankied up and happily out in pasture with his new friends. They didn’t ask, they just put on the turnout I’d provided and sent him out to do his thing. If someone needs the vet, they call the vet out and are there for the appointment. They’re there for you, but don’t necessarily force you into their mold.

One thing is absolutely true though: every horse at this barn is impeccably behaved.

with a couple of, uh, notable exceptions…

So after had the vet out to look at Murray’s strange lameness and he was about as tolerant of flexions as you’d expect (read: not very), Trainer J and I took a minute to chat about the plan moving forward. Murray flexed slightly positive on the right hind, and the vet thought that his hocks and joints were probably feeling crummy after standing in a stall for 3 weeks. Vet wanted me to get him back into work for a few weeks, then recheck and think about hock injections. Since I don’t have a billion dollars to throw at this problem, and my fall schedule is so spotty and strange, I wanted to develop a plan with Trainer J and get her thoughts.

What she said first surprised me. Trainer J wanted Murray to get into horsemanship lessons before we threw joint juice at him, and before we got into regular lessons.¬† She said that he’s spoiled, and that his current behavioral programming bordered on dangerous. The conversation went other places, and we covered all the bases I wanted to. Trainer J wasn’t mean or cruel about it, but she was pretty matter of fact: if I want to be in the program, Murray would have to get in it too. She said I needed to get her horsemanship guy, Cowboy Dave, out as soon as possible. Like the next morning, if he’d do it.

Murray is getting way better at walking past the Scary Hoop Houses, and loves being out in the field!

So we’re in trainer-mandated Cowboy therapy. I’m not going to pretend it didn’t hurt a bit to hear that Murray’s ground manners aren’t up to snuff. Even though it comes as absolutely no surprise¬†to me. Or anyone who has read this blog for any period of time. It’s just one of those things that always triggers a ton¬†of emotion in me.

I’m very open to change and learning new ways, so this isn’t a bad thing to me. But being in such a clear program is certainly different. At my old barn, all the horses were held to a much lower standard of behavior (basically: can you go in and out of pasture safely), and beyond that it was the owner’s problem to handle manners. For good or ill. I get the feeling that a lot of places are like that.

What do you prefer? More management hands on or more management hands off? Feeding and turnout only, or have them handle everything? If you’d asked me two months ago, I would have said¬†hands off!


don’t talk to me just gimme dem carrots

But… I like the way the horses are here. They’re¬†happy.¬†The cowboy teaches them super well and is a great human teacher also. It’s probably a really, really good thing that they have a dedicated person to go to, to help horses and people communicate. But I also feel like this could definitely go the wrong way…. if all the horses are required to work with a horsemanship person who isn’t so fair, talented, or gentle.

This program seems awesome. I’m super glad I found it, and I think it will help us both become better versions of ourselves.