Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why struggle at all?

The past year has been among the most difficult times Deli and I have ever had together. I won’t say the most difficult, because at least we have a fully-formed trust relationship at this point. Though in some respects having that closer relationship with her has made the past year more difficult, because for every bad situation we have gotten into, I felt crushed by guilt and anxiety for not having made the better choice. Deli deserves the best of everything, and sometimes it’s not within my power to give that. Deli, like most of our domesticated animals, is at the whim of the people around her. I make choices, and if they don’t work out, she’s the one that suffers most.

Last week I moved her again. That makes six moves in one year. Horses are beings that thrive on routine. Deli does well with routine more than most, since she tends towards having an anxious personality all things equal.

Throughout this year, (non-equestrian) friends and family have asked me “why do it? Why put yourself through this?” when they saw how crippled I was by anxiety, unable to sleep as I feverishly searched for that elusive “better barn.” My old injuries re-surfaced from spending too much time in the car – time I did not have – driving back and forth to tend to and comfort my horse. My health has certainly suffered this year. I haven’t been able to focus on school and work like I should have.

It does irritate me that I know that people wouldn’t ask why I “put myself through” the stress if Deli was a human family member. I have to ignore this issue, because my relationship with Deli is far deeper and more important to me than my relationships with many others. I prefer not to anthropomorphize her because she’s actually much more real to me, and more deserving of my love, as just a horse. But she’s also not just a horse. I’ve worked with and ridden lots of horses. They are all individuals, with distinct personalities. I don’t tend to “click” easily with horse personalities in general (of all domesticated animals, my personality seems to mesh with a greater number of cats). Even though I’d say I enjoy horses as a species, it’s the individual bond that interests me and keeps me coming back for more.

It’s the click of everything being in the right place at the right time.

 Many people do not get this concept. I can only tell these people you don’t understand.
I get that “click” with Deli. The connection I have with her, even though it’s not constant, is occasionally the strongest connection I have to any other individual living being.

Attempting to put the feeling into words is difficult. 

It happens sometimes when I have been schooling dressage and everything fits together. My body is in the perfect place in conjunction with her body, and suddenly we are one being. I can feel every fiber of her muscle, tendon, and bone, and I can feel every part of my own body, joined in symphony. You could describe it as an out of body sensation, but the reality is that it feels like, through the connection with her, I become more real, more than I could ever be by myself.

It’s like when you look into the starry Milky Way in the middle of the wilderness and feel the vastness of the universe. But instead of feeling small, you feel like you are part of it all. It’s a kind of joy that I almost never feel – with so much of my life being dedicated to fighting the things I hate, and the things I hate always surrounding me.

And then there are those times where I’m not even riding her. Quiet moments when I feel Deli focus on me with an intensity that seems unique to her. With her intellect being so alien to me, that connection frees me from the burden of my own thoughts. It unburdens me from my humanity, which I so often despise. 

Again –  click.

I remember the first time I galloped with her. She had been under saddle for about six months and we had been going out back in the farm roads to ride around the fields to get her used to life outside the arena. It was a cool spring day, and she was happy and willing to trot out, ears pricked, body firm with calm energy. A long stretch of farm road invited us to canter, and even though her canter cue was still somewhat unrefined, I only had to think it and she stretched forward. The dull thud of her feet on the ground quickened at the same pace as my heartbeat.

I felt the click, our bodies becoming one being, knitting together in a flash of pure feeling. When I thought faster our combined beings responded at the same time. Three beats became four. The ground blurred. Everything but us blurred. Nothing else mattered.

My first ride on Deli - ever.
I was aware I was still a separate being such that I knew I was shifting more weight into the stirrups and off her back. Her mane lashed and stung against my cheeks. My eyes watered in the cool spring air. I could feel the powerful surge of her neck under my hands as she took up the loose reins.
But at the same time I was hyper aware of how she-and-I fit. Mind and body; raw unrestricted feeling. 


And even though it’s not every day I feel that kind of connection. When we are stressed or anxious that feeling draws further away. But with Deli, I can always feel the gravitational pull in the background, tugging us back to pure feeling. Pure existence. Pure connection. I’m not even sure you can call it joy. It’s greater than that. It’s being right. It’s being unburdened. It’s being more powerful than I could imagine being on my own.

And that’s why I would never give up on her, no matter how hard things are. She is the reason for what I am today. She’s my best friend. She’s the person I trust above all others, and she gives me a reason to try and learn to love and trust myself.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

An unusal set of standards makes horse boarding difficult!

There are been times in Deli and my shared life where we have been surrounded by people, who, though they did not have the same approach to being an equestrian, were accepting and inclusive. We liked that. I think getting back to a barn like that would be the best I could hope for in a boarding barn.

On the other hand, I have boarded at, worked at, and taken lessons at a wide variety of barns. Since I truly got into horses I have spent significant time at 16 barns. These included western barns (of both the “pleasure” and “gaming” varieties), show barns, and training barns of various English riding disciplines. I’ve boarded and worked at barns that cater to children or beginners. This included lesson barns – one of which had nearly 50 school horses (a herd I helped care for!). I’ve also taught lessons, from raw beginners to getting students comfortable with cantering. I’ve also been at two small private farms, both of which take the prize for offering the best horse care for Deli.

What have I learned from all these different barns?

That my equestrian style does not particularly fit within the normal ranges of either "pleasure" or "show" riders. Recognizing that my horse and I don’t fit into the common equestrian groupings is another thing that makes boarding difficult for both of us. Now, as mentioned earlier, in some cases it does not matter. A good group of sane equestrians, as rare as they are, will not begrudge someone for having different goals than they do. People that wouldn’t care, as is often the case, that I’m too poor to have fancy tack or have the funds to have my horse in full training. 

I don’t fit because my standards for horse care and maintenance are (apparently) unusually high. Many horse owners are more hands-off, putting their trust in “professionals” or barn managers rather than investing the time to learn this care themselves. In the resent past I’ve had people tell me how “spoiled” Deli is because I put a cooler on her after a workout on a chilly day. Or worry about her weight. Or take an interest in hoof biomechanics. Or make sure her Calcium-phosphorus ratio in her diet is properly balanced. Not to mention the fact that when she is unsound I get her checked out by a professional if it’s not something that is obvious and within my skills to correct.

Deli lost a signifigant amount of weight at our last barn.
Okay, so some of these things relate to my type-A personality, but I’m more than a little disturbed when someone shrugs off a girth sore, or ignores signs of fever or physical distress in their horses or, in the case of barn workers, other peoples’ horses who they should feel some responsibility toward. I have often found myself calling an owner or vet when a clearly injured or colicy horse is in need of attention, and barn workers are aware of the problem but do not feel the need to act. What the hell are people paying you for if not to look after their animals?

Owners with poor standards of care are still the most common occurrence, however. There are just too many people who ride their horses when they are clearly in pain or injured. I do feel that we have a duty to our horses, as their guardians, to make sure they are comfortable, happy, well-fed, and mentally prepared for the work we ask them to do for us. While I believe most horse people would agree with this statement in general, they also seem to have far different standards than I do.

On the other hand, I also feel that anthropomorphizing horses overly much does them a great disservice. We should allow them to be horses. In their down time they should be able to exhibit their natural behaviors as much as possible. I’m also the kind of person who does not get into the “show world” and all its niceties. I'm not going to balk at walking my horse from her pen to the arena during a storm because "she might get wet". I’m not going to comb all the mud balls out of my horse’s mane on a day when we are doing a light hack. Guess what? It dosn't hurt her. Notice how everywhere her tack is touching is curried and brushed clean? Yeah, that's important. Not a whether my horses whiskers are trimmed or her feet polished.

And yet, here is still the other end of the spectrum where I get odd looks because I do make sure Deli's coat is cleaned where ever I'm putting her tack. You just can't win, it seems.

I’ve also been told my horse is “spoiled” because I pay close attention to her nutrition, make sure her teeth are floated and her hooves trimmed, and will not ride her when she is seriously underweight (especially when I'm overweight!). She’s also spoiled, apparently, by a lot of the other things I do that I would consider necessities. Like having my saddle fitted regularly. Or coming out on a rainy day to work her and groom her (this one is even more ridiculous because we live in northwest Oregon, where rain is commonplace).

Deli's wieght is coming back slowly. Getting her back in shape is another story.
So what it comes down to is that I’m a pleasure rider with competitive-rider standards for horse care, but without the glitz and primping of show-horse life. I think this suits Deli as well as it suits me. But it's not common in the majority of the barns I have kept my horse at in the past couple years.

This reality does make talking with fellow boarders a trial. Every day at the barn means questions about why I am doing this or that. It gets quite annoying. Annoying to the point that I avoid interactions with other people at the barn whenever possible. For example, last time at the barn I was asked why Deli had her wool fleece cooler on while I was hand walking her in the covered arena, with the added comment that I must be one of those “fancy-pants” horse people. Nope. Actually I went out to the barn during the first real rain storm of the year and found Deli was being kept out of the shelter of some tight-knit trees by the rest of the herd she lives with. She was shivering quite badly and unhappy, so I immediately went to work getting her warmed up (luckily, I got to the barn at the right time and she probably hadn’t been uncomfortable for long).

Hey, maybe your horse does not get cold when they are soaked on a chilly day. Mine does. I hope that you at least know the signs of a cold horse and would react accordingly, even if you don’t own a “fancy pants” sheet like the one I bought in the bargain bin at the local feed store for 75% off.
I mourn the loss of top line and round bum muscles. Seriously.
All of this is just another reason, among the many, that I long to have a barn of my own. Deli would be happier, and so would I. This longing feels like a constant ache in my chest. I spend my time fantasizing about how I would build or fix up different types of properties. Or discussing the kind of feeding program I would have if I was able to purchase (or grow!) my own hay with my partner. I have farm-lust. Bad.

Maybe I should start buying lottery tickets.

In the meantime my radar is constantly open to finding a boarding situation that suits Deli and I better.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Boarding tribulations, take two.

I haven’t been posting on this blog because, well to be honest, things have been bad for my beloved horse and I this year. Very bad. At the beginning of my last blog entry I noted that “the past five months have been hell for Deli and I…” I’d now like to re-write that statement as, “The past nine months have been hell.” Truefact. Nine months, not five.

I elaborated on some of the problems with the various barns I’ve bounced around in my last post, which I wrote soon after I moved to yet another new barn. As it turned out, my previous new barn (which I had just moved to at the time of my last blog posting) turned out to be a very bad situation for us despite having all the outward appearances of being a great place.

As a reminder, the barn I was boarding Deli at, and liked (though could not afford), became a toxic place very suddenly in late December 2011, forcing me to leave. Since that time I have boarded at FOUR different barns, including the super-new one I moved to just last week. The first three had serious issues that threatened Deli’s health and safety, with the last barn cheating us out of hay we were paying for (and lying about it!), causing Deli to drop significant weight despite my efforts to feed her up. Whether the current barn will work out remains to be seen – so far so good, but as you can imagine, I’m particularly paranoid and jaded after the year we have had.

Deli tied and looking around at the 4th-Try-This-Year barn. The barn we moved to last week.
Given the lack of options in the Portland area for good boarding opportunities (that I can afford with my student loans!), I’ve now tried to keep Deli in a stall-with-turnout at several barns despite my general dislike for box stalls in general. And it does not work. Her body and mind cannot handle it. Right now she is in a large pasture 24/7, but she will be moved to a smaller area, an open stall-with-run style, when the winter rains come. While this situation isn’t ideal, there will be no more enclosed stalls for us, EVER AGAIN.

We've also dealt with injuries, infections (such as the cellulitis), and general issues related to being stall bound that have meant riding this year has been minimal. Another side effect of her being ill at one point and requiring daily medication – and the barn being over 50 minutes away – led to further weight gain on my part (on top of what my accident and injuries led to three years ago)  that I am still trying to remedy with focused exercise. It’s depressing for me to know that Deli and I were schooling upper training and first level dressage in December 2011. We were also doing solid work on her canter (which is historically her weakest gait) that had me excited to ride her even during the winter weather that kept us off the trails. Her top line and condition were the best in her life. Now she is scrawny, under-muscled, and thin. Her top line is non-existent, reminding me of when I first got her (when she was also thin and scrawny) as a more-than-green six year old, nearly seven years ago.

(If only I could give my extra weight to her – we would then both have near-perfect weights! If someone invents that technology, please let me know.)

There are some things I’ve learned about boarding, surviving boarding barns (or knowing when to ditch them), and general truths about the horse community at large:
Deli's 24/7 pasture until the rains start in earnest.
  1.  Horses should not be forced to live in 12x12 boxes, even if it’s just for part of their day. Some horses can obviously handle it, but it's never a good idea.
  2.  The barn owner may be knowledgeable, but unless they are doing all the barn work and horse care, incompetent staff will negate any benefit of that knowledge. And then some. This has been one of the defining issues for my negative boarding experiences since I got Deli, but this year was particularly shocking. For example: barn staff who do not know what colic is!
  3. As a boarder I have much more knowledge about horse care, health, and nutrition than the average barn worker, barn owner, and horse owner. They may be better riders than me, but those kinds of skills are NOT something that you should use to judge how a person will care for your horse.
  4. Horse people and equestrians are, in general, crazy. They do not listen to reason. Often they are not willing to educate themselves or keep up with the new science on horse health and care. If you hand them a sheaf of papers with cited scientific articles on some horse health topic, they will probably choose to hate you rather than changing their mind about something they have an opinion on. I just know all you sane equestrians out there are nodding in agreement to this particular point…
  5. You won’t save money feeding your horse cheap hay. I already knew this one, but it does not seem to be common knowledge in my area. Or among boarding barn owners. For those who don’t know, hay should also be the main part of a horse’s diet (unless they are on grass pasture).
  6. When you find good, competent, sane equestrian friends, don’t be afraid to ask them for help! Quite a few people are willing to abandon their fellow boarders when drama arises. Horse people are deeply tribal and quick to form exclusionary cliques. So when you find those rare gems of people, hold onto those relationships even if you are not boarding together anymore.
  7. I hate boarding my horse (see #3!), and given my knowledge and experiences in general, I will never be truly happy until I have my OWN barn under my OWN care and direction. Call me a control freak, but the simple truth is that I can care for my horses better than anyone I have paid to do so. In fact, I would enjoy that work very much!
In-hand on the new trails.
Given these points, the conclusion I come to is that I really need to have my own farm someday. Of course, this has been a lifelong dream and goal of mine – but now I feel a certain sense of urgency to get to the point where I can keep Deli (and future horses) in my own “backyard barn.” I would be happy to give up amenities to have that luxury, that peace of mind, that ability to have my horse’s health and daily care within my control. She would be happier too, assuming I could provide for her basic needs (such as having a suitable buddy) – and I wouldn’t have her in my backyard until I could provide for her basic needs.

I’m crossing my fingers that the immediacy of our bad situation is helped by this move to our new barn. It’s not an ideal place, but it seems to be a step up so far. And a significant step up, as Deli is already gaining weight and looking sounder than he has in month (simply by moving her to 24/7 pasture from being stalled). And now I have backups – friends and friends of friends with their own property where I may be able to temporarily retire Deli until such time as I have my own place. I can’t continue without backups now considering what we have been through. Boarding my horse is pretty much waiting for the other shoe to drop and for something to go horribly wrong. Or for me to discover something is horribly wrong.

“So far, so good” only gives me some relief from the crushing anxiety of not being able to protect my soul mate from harm. While I hope this new barn works out for the time being, I know I will never be truly happy with boarding my horse. We both deserve better!

With time – and hopefully a good job after I graduate from law school in a few short months – I hope my dreams of having my own place can be realized. Even a temporary solution, such as renting a small farm, would be better than boarding Deli.

In the meantime I’m going to try and get back in the saddle and see where Deli and I are at after this hellish year. We’re taking it slow. Riding is no longer the most important thing for either of us. It can't be. We are wounded emotionally and physically.  Still, there are some good trails to explore at the new place. And new trails to explore in life.

Deli (on left) being herded away from me by her new bossy buddy.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Five months of hell.

In transition...
I’d like to attribute my lack of posting in this blog by directing the reader to the title: “the unfortunate horse and rider.” The past five months have been hell for Deli and I. This blog's tagline is more appropriate than ever before!

The start of the bad times was that the barn we had been at for nearly two years quite suddenly became an unsafe and toxic place to be (for both the horse and I) in late December, forcing me to move Deli suddenly into what may have not been the best situation even if it was a step up from the bad situation we were leaving. The new barn was a very temporary fix, as the turnout situation was not what I expected, making Deli incredibly sore in the hind end and back.

I moved her again around a month later, after spending many hours each day looking for a new barn. While the turnout was better at the new place, and the barn owner one of those rare gems of true kindness you find in the equestrian community, the barn help was not competent and the turnouts were infected with scratches. Deli was fine until her hind legs were cut up mysteriously in turnout – the only reasonable explanation (which fits for the location of the cuts) is that she was injured by her pasture-mate. Shortly after she got medication-resistant scratches, and then very bad cellulitis in her right-hind (which is the same leg as her old groin injury). A week after moving to this new barn I was on the hunt for someplace else to move Deli to, again. We continued to be unsettled and unhappy. And for those who don't know, moving a horse is a large stress for them. For Deli, it's even more stressful than it is for the typical horse. She had been dropping weight steadily since we made our first move, as she tends to do when constantly under low-level stress. And I had to travel out to the barn daily for over a month to give Deli her antibiotics and keep her inflamed and painful leg bandaged.

Sadly, the area where I live has no barns within what I like to think is reasonable driving distance. These two barns were nearly a two hour commute for me round trip, and with law school and a part time job, my days were torturous, and my back pain (made worse by so much driving) kept me awake at night. Given all the driving – since I needed to be out at the barn as often as possible – I literally had no time for honest exercise unless I wanted to fail my law classes or fail at my job. No brainer.

Hiking at the New Barn.
Finally, at the end of April I struck on some luck at last, finding a barn 15-20 minutes closer to where I lived with good turnout despite only having stall board, trail access, and a good arena with footing that didn’t make me cringe every time I mounted my mare.

Now, I’ve never had very good luck with barns. I know I will never be truly happy with boarding, and the ultimate goal I have as an equestrian is to have my horse(s) on my own property and under my own management and control all the time. However, this place finally feels like a place I can stay awhile to combat what is, in a sense, horse boarding PTSD. My horse’s health has been threatened by bad management and care at barns that came at high recommendation EIGHT times in the six years I have owned her. Several of these times I would consider outright abuse.

One of the trails at New Barn.
On top of the horse-drama I seem to attract like sugar to ants, my own injuries continue to confound me. As has the weight I’ve gained in large part because of those injuries (and the opiates I was taking to deal with the pain) sustained from being hit by a car. This summer I’m actively trying to lose that weight through exercise and watching my calories. Luckily, I’ve always eaten quite healthily, so I don’t need to change WHAT I’m eating. HOW I’m eating has needed to change though, as I tend to forget to eat when stressed (which is a common state these days) and then have a huge meal when I’m starving. That’s not healthy! Changing my eating patterns to grazing rather than gorging has helped already. But I still have quite a bit of poundage to lose and fitness to regain before I’m “me” again. I weight more than I ever have in my life. The combination of massive stress + sleeplessness + pain (and taking drugs) + not enough time are a deadly combination I hope to avoid like the plague. 

It’s going to be a difficult road to lose this weight and gain fitness because my sleep is still often interrupted by pain. I can’t push myself like I used to when exercising because it causes the old injuries to flare up and cripple me. After the doctors told me I would always hurt and never be as fit as I used to be, I became depressed. Luckily I tend not to trust doctors, so I soldier on despite the depression.

Deli, after a trail ride.
Deli helps. It hurts less when I hike with her in-hand. And it’s good for her too, because she has muscle issues (in her lower back and hindquarters), a minor bruised tendon (from the same source as those scrapes), and a knotty painful neck as complications of the past couple months of hell. I’m riding her lightly – focusing on long and low to stretch and renew her flexibility. Luckily a recent equine massage seems to have set her on the road to recovery. I hope she will begin to gain back lost weight. She is enjoying the large turnouts and the new trails we have access too. My short-term plans are to put her on free-choice hay (in a Nibblenet) when she is in her stall to give her weight and mental health that extra boost.

I really hate this weakness in my body and the lack of time in my daily routine to exercise 1- 2 hours a day like I used to. Moving to a closer barn will help somewhat, as my commute to the horse is only an hour round trip instead of nearly two hours, but I miss the days where my horse was only a mile away from where I lived and I’d often walk or bike to the barn as drive.

Right now we are in recovery-mode. Plans for the future are on standby while we heal and regroup from the tough times.