Saturday, November 28, 2009

An extreme sport

What do you call it? I call it an extreme sport.

No, it’s not rock climbing or sky diving or heli-skiing. But horse packing in the back country is nothing less than… extreme. Think of what you’re up against: unpredictable elements and untamed nature, trails unmanaged and/or unknown, solitude and/or stuck working with some less than ideal companions, managing horses who may have their own mind and agenda, the wilds and the wilderness, within us as well as about us. At best, you return cold and sore. You give up comforts for... for... for what, you might ask?

For a sunrise over the magnificent mountains while sipping hot coffee and watching contented horses graze. Meals which taste so much better cooked over the open fire. A view you become a part of, something no photos could possibly capture. A bonding with our horses which does not come from a little ride in the arena. Lying snuggled in a tent between my family, there together safe and warm, hearing the gentle snorting of the nearby horses. I am wanting for nothing more.

It all creates a picture that for those of us who long for it, makes it all worth while.

Back country riding is not to be taken lightly. And consequences are possible. We do all we can do minimize risk and maximize enjoyment. It’s an awesome experience. That’s why we’re out there. But no matter how careful we are, accidents may happen.

And yet, I love it. I imagine most folks who do it, love it. We’re out there for that feeling of adventure, of life, of living, of such an intense reality that only comes when we are ever so slightly out of our element an into a factor of the unknown. We become more alert, more alive, more attuned to our environment, to ourselves. It’s a Zen state. We live each moment in the here and now.

Be here now.

That’s about the best advice I read recently for preventing accidents, or if you find yourself in the middle of one, getting through it and helping others through to the best of our abilities.

Riding is risky. Back country riding adds a whole new element to the risk of riding known as environment. Slipping, sliding, falling, getting hit by branches or caught out in the elements… or lost. These are just a few of the risks. All accidents can not be prevented, of course. Not everything in life is within our control. But quite a bit is. And those things that are, we should know how to control. How? Knowledge. That and remaining here and now, so that our knowledge doesn’t fail us when we need it most.

We do our best to go out there with knowledge.

Know your horse. I trust my horses. They are not perfect. None of us are. But I understand them, and they trust me. We work together. If we are training and working with an inexperienced horse, we know it is best not to go alone, or at least, are certain someone back home knows our route and is looking out for our return. The return of a horse without a rider is never a good sign. Neither is the return of a rider without a horse.

Know your environment. Where are you going and what could you possibly encounter? Are you prepared? Will you be warm enough? Dry? Have shelter? Find food for your horses? Do your horses know how to walk on granite slopes and slide down steep muddy trails with a rider or pack? Will they keep their cool when surprised by the unknown – because there is simply no way to prepare a horse for everything that they might encounter? All we can do is prepare them to safely react to the unknown.

Know your survival skills, including wilderness or back country survival skills and a basic knowledge of first aid. Up here one of the most useful skills is that of building a fire. Hypothermia happens. Don’t let it happen to you. Go out there prepared.

So at the end of the riding season, when I reflect back on my wounds and injuries and the worst of it was a split on the bridge of my nose, I consider myself lucky. I’m hoping it’s more than dumb luck. I’d like to say it’s because I was careful. I paid attention to my horses, my environment, my skills, the weather, the route, what was going on around me at all times… but no, I’m not always here and now. My mind wanders faster than my horses’ footprints. I daydream. I get scared. I get excited. I learn too often how little I still know, how much more I need and want to learn. I’m afraid I am just plain lucky. At least I was this year. And I’m mighty glad for that.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On comments

My apologies, friends and visitors. After receiving several e-mails mentioning the difficulty in posting comments on this site, I had switched my settings around to make it easier. However, turns out, I made it harder. So hard, in fact, that it couldn’t be done at all. Looks like I removed the link to comment…

Blogs are all about comments. We want to hear from you. That’s why we write; that’s why we share. Blogs are a conversation (though some of us do manage to talk more than others!).

I hope I’ve set things back so you can leave comments once again. And please do! We love to hear from you, to receive your feedback, ideas, stories, support and suggestions.

And for those of you still experiencing difficulties posting a comment, please feel free to write me directly. Your comments do matter!


Monday, November 23, 2009

Insulated Water Trough

I don’t know how many folks reading this have to deal with morning temperatures which regularly read anywhere from an even zero down to “off” – that’s what happens on my digital thermometer when the temperature sinks lower than 22 degrees below zero. And it does here.

The challenge of providing the horses with winter water has always been an issue for us. We do not have open waters or a creek we can keep flowing or break into the surface ice each morning. The Rio Grande crosses our ranch, but the only way horses drop down the bluff to the river is when we ride them, and for better or for worse, we are not out there riding in the several feet of packed snow that winter brings. And anyway, the river gets about a foot or so of solid ice on its surface. Trying to fight the ice to keep the water flowing would be a loosing battle. In addition, our ranch is completely off-grid, and our solar electricity was not designed to keep a stock water heater going all night long every night for half the year. As a result, we’ve been dealing with smaller water buckets filled several times a day, and the habit of dumping out solid buckets of ice hours later.

Looks like we finally came up with a great solution. It does not take a constant flow of water, nor any power for heat or water movement, so it is extremely economical. We simply fill the large water trough every other day, close the lid at night, and open it during the day. Voila! Horse water without the ice!

The trick is that we insulated the water trough really well, and even built an insulated lid that is kept shut at night. So far we’ve made it to zero (yes, that’s Fahrenheit, so about -18 Celsius) without so much as a film of ice on the surface of the water in the morning when I open the lid.

Cost to us? $0. We started with an old black plastic stock tank we had been using for years but which would freeze solid each night in the past. Then we dug a hole about 18 inches deep and wider and longer than the tank. (A backhoe helps for this part of the job.) We set down several layers of sheet foam insulation that we had lying around below the tank, set in the tank just below the ground level keeping in mind that the horses can only lower their heads to drink to about the level of the front hooves. Then we built a box around the tank with an old panel of foam core insulation from a neighbors building project scrap pile. Around this, we nailed an external layer of 1”x4” scrap lumber, then back filled the dirt, piling extra around the back and sides, leaving the front as an easy ramp to the water for the horses. Next, we built a lid out of plywood, and glued on several layers of that sheet foam insulation. Neat thing here is that is silvery on the surface, so it reflects the sunlight back onto the water if we angle it just right, thereby helping to heat the water during sunlight hours. My son came up with a good simple rope and pulley system so that I can open and close the lid with one hand, and tie the lid up by hooking a loop around a nail so that it hangs closed just enough to direct the sunlight down onto the water, but not enough to be in the horses’ way.

Like so many things on this ranch, with our learning to adjust to the altitude and harsh climate, this is an experiment, but so far, so good. It’s working! We’ll see what happens when that thermometer drops to “off.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A personal story

I was not a horse kid. In fact, I barely knew what a horse was as a child. I couldn’t even convince my folks to get me a cat. Though I did catch mice from time to time and kept them in a fish tank with a screen over it. Mice can jump out.

As a youngster, I never saw a horse up close, never touched one, never smelled one. Don’t remember seeing a Western, and certainly never went to a horse show. Didn’t know anyone who rode, let anyone who actually owned a horse. The closest I got to a horse was the big gentle giants that pulled the fancy buggies around Central Park. We’d walk by them on the crowded city streets when we’d go down town to look at the Christmas lights, all bundled up and still cold in the damp winter air. I remember being little, holding a big person’s hand so I wouldn’t get lost in the push and crunch of the crowd, and trying to see those horses as they clip clopped past us on the frozen pavement. Peaceful dragons, with smoke billowing from their nostrils. They looked tired, but wise, and deep. I don’t know if that’s the right word for it, but that’s rather how I felt about them. Deep.

I grew up outside of, then inside of New York City. I never really fit in. As a kid, I was quiet and solitary. I’d play in the basement, alone with my Barbies or crayons or ballet. Alone down there, surrounded by cement and the Big Black Boiler which chugged and groaned and then suddenly let out a big clang every once in a while so I could never anticipate it coming and be prepared. Always a little spooky, but still safe and quiet and peaceful, because I was alone.

When I was 16, I remember jogging through a quiet section of the Park on the west side, lost in my own thoughts, unaware of my environment, just focusing on my breath and my rolling, rhythmic feet. Suddenly a beautiful and magical apparition appeared before me: a lovely fit woman clad in proper English attire atop a stunning horse with flowing tail, cantering down the soft trail. She passed me. I stopped. And I watched as she disappeared around the corner and into the trees.

I decided then and there that is what I had to do.

Clairmont Stables, I believe was the name of a real riding stable right there on the Upper West Side, just a couple of blocks from Central Park. By the time I was 17, I earned enough money that I could take lessons about once a month or so. In addition, I saved up enough to buy the right boots and hat and breeches so I wouldn’t look as silly as I felt around all those fancy ladies and the beautiful horses. I tried to be really inconspicuous, hoping to blend in with the wooden walls and sawdust as I had done in the cement of my basement.

I must have taken at least a couple of lessons. Funny, because I can’t remember them, can’t remember a teacher, can’t remember being inside the barn arena for very long, with all those people and horses and noises and smells. I just wanted to take the horse and go out and ride. And they let me.

I don’t know if they still do things like. I wouldn’t! But they did back then, 25 years ago. And it was, well, indescribable. I can’t really find the words to tell you how it felt to be a young woman, in the crisp and cold and early morning calm and soft that can be found in the still sleepy city; so strong and empowered riding her powerful steed across a couple quiet intersections and into the park, and then to run, to run, to run… I suppose most of you know. Most of you already knew. For me it was new. And it was wild and free.

I couldn’t afford to go very often. But I remember when I could, I’d be on the subway so early in the morning, long before the rush hour crowds, dressed in my proper English boots and pants, with my helmet under one arm, holding on to the overhead handle for balance with my other hand. And I would feel so proud. Oh… if they only knew where I was going, what I was doing… they wouldn’t look oddly at this skinny little girl!

Life takes us on our twisted and tangled journeys, and sometimes we have to just go along with whichever direction we find ourselves caught in the current. Other times, we find a goal, perhaps a vision, a direction so strong that we have to do whatever we can to follow that dream. Working and living with horses was that dream for me. It was so strong, so driving, I knew it was right.

I have been lucky at times and struggling more often, but managed to create a life with horses. I live far off in the mountains with my little family of two leggeds, and larger family of four leggeds. It is a wonderful journey every day working and living together, and has been an interesting journey to get here.

I have been lucky at times, finding mentors and opportunities and open doors. Other times, most times, I have worked very hard, staying up late studying and waking extra early in attempt to make the grade. But I have made it work. I have been able to live and work with my horses. I’m not a famous clinician, or big name trainer, or popular riding instructor. I’m just an outfitter. I ride in the mountains for a living. I don’t make much money, but I am so rich inside: I live the life my guests pay to participate in for just a few days, or even a few hours. I feel blessed every time I am out there on top of a mountain on one of these magnificent creatures, and sharing it with my husband, my son, or even with a group of friends or strangers who have hired me to safely guide them.

That twisted and tangled road is still continuing. I’m only half way there, wherever “there” is meant to be. I only know it is with the horse. Our outfitting business is dying. Folks just don’t come to ride in the back country this far away from “civilization” very often any more. My in-laws have been feuding and have divided the ranch. We no longer have the land to graze all my four leggeds. It is time to move on, time to get in the saddle and hit the high trail, to see where it leads. I will follow.

And with my horses, my husband and son and I are going to move on together to build a new life, a new little world. I don’t know where, or when, or what I’ll do. But I know somehow it will be living and working with my horses. I have committed to them. I have committed to this goal. I believe it is right, somehow, yet so frightening too.

I try to be as brave as I was back when I was 17, when I bought my own proper gear and walked into a stable and a world I had never been a part of before. At times I look for the walls to hide along side of, but most of the time, I step up in the saddle and remember I need no walls. I ride, we run, we are free and strong and safe together. Where ever we may ride to. That is where I am meant to be.

Written by Gin Getz, originally posted on the site: Enlightened Horsemanship though Touch

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tricks of the trade: Tying to the highline

Out on a pack trip, the highline serves as the barn for the night for our horses. The longer we stay at any one given camp, the more the horses learn to find a comfort zone by the highline. Although riding or pastured during the day when at camp, even hobbled horses have been known to hop back up hill and stand in the trees under “their” place in the highline when frightened, for protection from a sudden rain or hail storm, or just to rest when their bellies are full.

The highline can be as simple as the lash rope when removed from around the pack saddle, stretched between two trees with the cinch used as a handy tree saver; or a specialty rope like we tend to use now which is plenty long, perhaps 70 or 75 feet long, with metal rings to tie to, woven into the rope at about 10 foot intervals for a safe distance between horses.

A simple option is a long 75’ or longer climbing rope that can be packed last – then unpacked first when at camp. Using old cinches or proper tree savers, secure the rope between two large, sturdy trees, a minimum of 10 inch diameter. The rope should hang high; at the lowest point in the center, it should be about as high as you can reach with your arms over your head. I usually have to jump up to catch the rings of the highline when tying up horses at night. My boys are much taller than I am…

Now, here’s a handy trick I read about years ago and have used from time to time throughout the years. Cut short sections of ¼ inch diameter rope (I use climbing or marine rope), each about two feet long. Burn the ends to seal, then tie the ends into a slip proof knot so that you have a loop about 10 inches long. Make several of these – one for each horse. Then when you’re at camp, each of these will be the “ring” onto which you tie the horses’ lead rope to the highline. If you loop these over the highline, then pull the backside through the itself (see the photo above – it’s really so simple) you’ll end up with a slip proof ring onto which you can tie your horse’s lead, and not worry about the lead rope (and the horse) zipping back and forth on the highline all night, and getting too close for comfort to the horse next door.

To tie the lead rope onto these or the metal rings of the highlines, fold over the last 2 feet of lead rope, pass this folded section through the ring on the highline, grab the folded end as it comes halfway through the ring. In the same hand, also grab the end of the lead rope which is hanging loose on the opposite side of the ring from the folded end. With your other hand, turn back a section of the lead rope coming down from the ring and attached to your horse (caution here to keep fingers out the way!) and make a little loop. Drop the folded end and the loose end through this loop. Adjust your slack and tighten from the length of rope leading back down to the horse. There should be enough slack in the line so that the horse’s head is not held up high, but not so much that he or she can take several steps to the side and possibly kick the neighbor.

The photo above has the white marine rope at the top representing the highline. The yellow striped rope shows the simple but secure "rings" attaching to the highline. Then the white marine rope at the bottom shows how the horse’s lead rope is attached to the highline ring.

This is a great knot because it is so quick and easy to tie up, only one of our horses knows how to untie this knot (he can untie most any knot), and no matter how the horse may pull back, it is a breeze to untie by simply pushing up with the section of rope which leads back to the horse, thereby relaxing the loop and allowing the folded end and loose end to slip out. We use this same knot to tie together our pack string – securing one pack horse’s lead rope to the pigging strings on the pack saddle of pack horse in front.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Peace Returns

In so many ways.
A warm spell, perhaps the last until the end of March.
Calm, a rest from work, a reprise in play, the pasture is melted out, gates open wide, spirits soar and simply run free. A letting loose across the mountain like a warm, fresh breeze. The horses pretend they are wild. They do not need me until feeding time. I let them enjoy their freedom, and watch them as if they were untamed and boundless.

The experiment worked. The stallion, Flying Crow (Fadjurz Ideal) has returned to his herd, and is getting along.

Good old ground work. All it takes is time and patience, but it works wonders. At least, that’s what I’m giving the credit to here. See, my hope was that if doing ground work with a horse improved their manners around me, perhaps my doing ground work with the stallion in and around his herd might remind him that he has to behave around the other horses as well.

For three days, I led him out of his separate pasture and into his herd and spent about fifteen minutes doing work in hand – moving front end, back end, backing up, longing, and leading. A subtle and simple dance under my lead, with his herd members flocking about him perhaps in curiosity, perhaps wishing it was they receiving my attentions.

On the forth day, I brought him out to the pasture with his herd, went through the lessons, then took off the halter and let him go. After standing there near me for a few minutes, he finally put his head down and began eating, then milling around his family. But not chasing them.

It was one of those things I kept looking out the window for, waiting for. I was sure I’d see it. I was expecting him to “remember” how badly he felt the need to run after his 2-year old, Tresjur, to boss his herd around, to give them all chase, cornering the mares and yearlings on one end, and keeping Tresjur far off on the other.

I never saw it. It never came. It never happened. Five days later, I have realized that something worked. I would like to hope I can take the credit for showing him the necessity of behaving around the herd. I would like to think it was all thanks to “ground work.”

What ever it was, something worked. I’m not the only one grateful for it. You can bet young Tresjur is mighty thankful. Was it the ground work? Maybe. I’m always amazed what it can do. Regardless, we’ve got a bunch a happier horses out there, and a happier person in here watching them all get along.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Winter's Warning

This time of year, the snow comes and goes. One day our world is white, the next a heavy mud, then followed by a day of warm and brown and open ground. But the warmth is deceiving. The ground is freezing. The frost digs in, buries its icy finger deep within the earth, and prepares to stay a while. Five feet under, for months on end, it is a permanent part of our life here, our roots like those of the Spruce and Aspen, lie dormant, awaiting.

We do not ride in winter. The land forewarns us. Between the sudden surprise of hidden ice and snow packed firmly several feet thick, our riding days are numbered.

In fact, they may be over for the season, but I resist admitting this yet.

The signs are all around us. The horses’ coats are growing as long and thick as a cow’s. Each morning they stand and watch and wait as I break the ice in their insulated water trough. I work the horses on frozen ground. The stallion slips and falls and looks up at me questioning. And for a moment, for a change, I am glad I am not riding.

And then noon comes, the relative heat of the day, and the piles of manure remain frozen to the core. When my shovel hits a hard center and will not budge, and I risk broken toes trying to kick a pile free… it is time to retire the manure fork for the season, hang it like a memory beside the bridles. Allow them both to gather dust through the long, cold, winter, a time when we live on memories and dreams, reflections and anticipations.

This feeling is captured so well a post entitled, “Bright vision of momentary pastures,” recently published by Julian on his site, White Horse Pilgrim.

I will strive to find the words to compliment his which so well and beautifully capture the essence of this season, but in the meanwhile, I hope you will enjoy his…

Monday, November 2, 2009

Graduation Day: The first ride

This is it. The big day. All the work with the newborn foal, the weanling and the yearling is paying off. We finally get to ride!

And because of our previous work together, this day is uneventful and a positive move forward. A giant step in my mind, but a natural progression in the horse’s.

Now, remember here, just like our Graduation Day, this doesn’t mean the horse will know it all, do it all, and have their Master’s. That’s up to us, to time, to training… but now it can be training under saddle, and a lot more fun. Take your time – allow the horse to understand and enjoy. Why not? I’d rather my horse want to be out there working with me, not tolerating another lesson, another task, another unpleasant day.

So, here we have the two year old. This is Tresjur of the Rio, a half Arabian/half Quarter Horse born here on the ranch out of our mare Tres and our stud Fadjurz Ideal (Flying Crow). He’s gone through his imprinting lessons, his weanling schooling, his yearling courses… he’s ready to ride. We start by refreshing all lessons we taught to him as a yearling. I am amazed how he remembers everything. Nothing is forgotten. No time was wasted. On the contrary, what was challenging for him to understand last year, he gets perfectly this year. He only requires a light touch, a gentle request. He leads politely; moves ahead at a walk or trot with a simple request; backs; moves his front end around his stationary back end; moves his back end around his front feet; gives lightly and easily to lateral flexion; turns into the feel of the rope halter; responds to voice and a gentle side pull for “whoa.” He has been saddled before, and is comfortable with us standing over him, leaning on him. He’s ready to ride.

I call on my secret weapon: my husband, Bob. With the horse under my lead, my husband slowly and kindly mounts, allowing Tresjur time to adjust to the added weight on his back, and become comfortable with one of us petting him… from up there. With Bob just sitting, I ask Tresjur to move. Slowly at first, allowing him time to adjust now to the added weight. His first step backwards is his only adjustment. You can tell it feels different. From there on, he handles it well. I have him do all his lessons again, quickly passing through the tasks of backing, moving front end, moving back end, flexing, stepping forward at a walk, moving out at a trot. Bob does nothing but sit. We leave the corral and step out on the ranch.

Next, I give Bob the lead rope. We work at this stage still only with a rope halter and marine rope lead without additional hardware or weight. It is what the horse is used to. He understands this communication. We do not need more. So, Bob in the saddle now asks Tresjur to go through the same paces – back, front end, hind end, flexion, walk, trot, canter, whoa… rest, relax… I walk beside Tresjur and reiterate Bob’s requests with the verbal cues and hand signals he is used to. This way, Tresjur not only has the commands he’s comfortable with coming from me, but is also understanding them from the new perspective of from the rider in the saddle. The whole time, Tresjur stares at me directly in the eyes, looking for the right answer. I smile, pet him, tell him he’s doing great. I want a confident horse. There’s a lot of scary stuff out there.

Finally, I step back, and Bob continues alone with Tresjur. Tresjur now understands. He is receiving the same requests, in the same language, for things he already knows how to do, but now they are coming from the saddle, not the ground. It is easy. It makes sense to him. He does wonderful.

We keep it short and sweet. Ending on a good note. Bob knows he can ride that horse out and could head up the trail. I have to encourage him off the horse – he’d rather stay on and ride. We’ve been working two years for this day. Every time, with every colt, it can be as rewarding, as exciting, as wonderful.

This same day, we take the first ride on Canella, a four year old who is late in receiving her first ride, though has all the ground work from day one that Tresjur had. We chose to postpone her first ride for two years to allow for a injury to heal. She had been tangled in barbed wire at two weeks old and twisted her leg. We were concerned she might never heal strong enough, and have used her as a broodmare while waiting. Time seems to have healed her. She may not be a performance horse, or capable of very many miles each day, but she’ll at least be able to be part of the team, and out there on the trail in small doses, with us instead of being left behind.

Now we can take them on short rides, exposing them to the trail, refining our lessons, working on new ones – opening gates, checking fences, up and down slopes, crossing ditches, roads, creeks. There will be obstacles to overcome every day. Challenges. Life lessons. Look at it as fun stuff. We try to help the horse learn and grow with every experience.

At this stage, there are no bad habits to overcome. Any bad habits from here on are those we teach. We try not to! We take responsibility for our horses’ education, and allow them to grow into the partner we wish them to be, know they would rather be, not a problem we settle for. The choice is ours, and the difference is in the amount of time we are willing to give to the horse, and in our leadership, lightness, direction, communication, consistency, and in the patience we are able to allow him or her.