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Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Awesomeness of Enormous Equines

Big boy.
I have a confession to make. I love big horses. The bigger the better. In my mind, a horse ought to be substantially larger than a person. Maybe it's from seeing pictures of tiny jockeys on racehorses, but I think the scale looks all wrong when you see adults mounted on the larger pony breeds. Heck, anything under 16 hands (that's 5'4" at the withers) looks off to me! Of course, part of this prejudice no doubt stems from the fact that three of the four horses at the stable where I ride are over 16 hands and the fourth is just under. I love leading big ol' Drifter, who is larger than your average Quarter Horse, out of his stall, a massive animal willingly following my lead. So I guess it's about power, too. And then there's Syd. From the moment I arrived at Sage Meadows, I've had a crush on the huge, handsome, Hanoverian cross. He's gorgeous and glossy, with a thick, black, wavy tail more than five feet long that cascades nearly to the ground, a rather delicate face for his bulk, an alert and inquisitive expression, and a outgoing, friendly personality. And he's over 17 hands. Imagine my delight, then, when I arrived for my lesson two weeks ago to find that Drifter was on stall rest with an injury and my mount for the day was none other than the horse more formally known as Syndicate! I'd thought that, since he's a youngster who is still in training himself, I would have to be much more skilled before hopping on his back (well, with a back that high, you don't hop, you heave and climb), but apparently Drifter has taught me well and I was equal to the task of handling Syd for a day.

Note the height of his withers (the point where his neck meets his back) relative to my head. I'm 5'7" and can't see over him!

Isn't his glossy, brown-black coat beautiful?
Because he's not a reliable old plug like Drifter, I did have to take a more active role in making Syd stay on the rail while we rode around the arena, but it was a grand feeling to be riding on top of something so tall. He had a lot of pep to his step and while his bouncy, speedy trot was rather beyond my current posting abilities, I had a blast traipsing around the arena in my elevated position as if I were Queen of the World. I'm very happy that Drifter has recovered and that he was eager to get to work this week because he is a very special horse with a lot yet to teach me (like how to get skilled enough at posting that I could easily ride Syd), but it was incredibly fun to ride my massive horse crush at last and for it to be even more delightful than I imagined. I know that saddle horses over 17 hands are hardly a dime a dozen and that there are wonderful horses of more diminutive stature out there, but I gotta say, I'm spoiled. I want to go big or go home!

My instructor hopped on Syd after my lesson to give him some schooling. It was delightful watching him practice both collected and extended canters and flying lead changes as she put him through the paces necessary for him to become a higher-level dressage horse.

So, given my penchant for horses of considerable size, it should be no surprise that I loved the "Horse Sense" story in the August 4th edition of the Seattle Times' Pacific NW Magazine about a rural community's long-standing love affair with draft horses. It talked about the friendliness and docility of these massive animals and the successive generations that have nurtured them. Draft horses require lots of space and consume prodigious quantities of (costly) food, so it's unusual enough for private citizens to keep entire herds, and more unusual still that there would be half a dozen herds concentrated around a single area. Unlike their fathers or grandfathers, most of the draft horse owners are no longer farmers themselves, but the bonds that were built back when the horses were indispensable aids to farm work have endured. It doesn't hurt that the scenario presented in a certain Budweiser commercial that may have left a few of us misty-eyed isn't that far from the truth: the affectionate beasts have long memories when it comes to people they love. When we learned that the highlight of the year for the horses, their owners, and their fans was the daily displays of the horses hauling wagons in teams of six at the Northwest County Fair in Lynden, Washington, just south of the Canadian border, my family resolved to go see them for ourselves.

Snow-covered Mount Baker rises over the fertile farmland outside Lynden.

My parents took the day off from work just for the occasion, so it was on a beautiful, sunny Tuesday that we made the hour and a half drive north to the little town best known for being populated by Dutch immigrants and growing lots of raspberries. The fair itself was a rural community celebration at its best: the usual carnival rides and fried food vendors, craft displays and cover bands, and barn after spotless barn filled with white-clad youth showing their carefully groomed livestock in 4-H competitions. It was a pleasure just to watch these kids primping their cows or standing proudly by their prize-winning pigs, but we had draft horses to see.

Teenage girls show off their heifers. 4-H is clearly still a very big deal in Whatcom County!

And my goodness, did they ever deliver.

This was the official draft horse "greeter," a Clydesdale so mellow and friendly that it tolerated the endless barrage of strangers reaching through the bars to pet him.

We timed our arrival at the fair so we'd have a chance to poke around and watch the horses being hitched to the wagons before the noon show. We made our way to the draft horse barn just as the first harnessed horses were being led out. Right there, just on the other side of the rope, was a towering Clydesdale of mammoth proportions, wearing 150 pounds of silver-embellished tack, having ribbons attached to his mane by a woman on a step stool. I marveled at the massive, spreading hooves, the arching necks, the gargantuan hindquarters, and watched with hungry awe as the horses clip-clopped with surprising elegance to their places in front of the wagons. There was a friendly Clydesdale in a pen just outside the barn for eager fairgoers to touch and I obliged him by rubbing the hollows above his eyes, but I longed to run my hands over the flanks of the beauties in the hitches!

A Clydesdale in full regalia is led out of the barn.

Even with the assistance of a step stool, this woman still had to stretch to add a few more decorations to his mane.

With bows in place, this horse is ready to get hitched!

This Belgian lifts his freshly-polished hooves high as he is led out to the wagons. The grace and elegance with which these huge animals moved was astonishing.

A woman holds a pair of somewhat bored Belgians in place while the complex task of linking the horses together begins.

We found seats in the shaded grandstand just prior to the start of the show, which was more than just an exhibition of the draft horses. There were equine drill teams, trick riders, mutton bustin', chariot races, and eight-pony teams hauling wagons helter-skelter in an event known as the "crazy eights."

Young women put their well-trained horses through complex maneuvers.

Trick riders show off the prowess of their mounts in competitive heats.

Teams of ponies raced around a course as their drivers, middle-aged men wearing capes and helmets, their faces grim with concentration, braced against the reins in their chariots.

Four pony teams took part in the Crazy Eights: a team of blacks, a team of palominos, a team of paints, and this handsome hitch of sorrels taking a sprightly turn around the arena with the fair rides rising in the background.

It was all good fun, but the draft horses did not disappoint. Team after team of huge and handsome horses--Clydesdales, Belgians, and Percherons--in jingling harnesses paraded into the arena pulling brightly painted wagons. When all eight teams had made the requisite circuit of the arena, the "free drive" began, the horses shifting into high gear and thundering about with their wagons in tow, their drivers guiding them into deliberate near misses with other teams as the sun shown down and the sound of heavy hoofbeats and ringing tack lifted to the heavens. It was as grand a spectacle as you'll ever see.

I thought these dappled grays were simply stunning.

The blacks were the most beautiful movers, lifting their hooves high in perfect unison.

Glorious draft horse chaos!

After the showcase was over, we fortified ourselves with fair food and then toured the horse barns where the draft horses and pony teams were enjoying a post-performance lunch. I once again longed to touch those massive, rounded rumps!

Butts don't get bigger or more beautiful than this!

The show has not one but TWO teams of sorrel Belgians, a genetically rare coat color for the breed.

Those high-stepping blacks eat up--they have another showcase coming up in the evening!

I don't think I've ever seen a sight so fine as these dappled rumps all in a row.

Clydesdales Miles and Ranger look up from their mangers in anticipation of the arriving water buckets.

Sorrel Belgian Roy, his team colors braided into his mane, impatiently waits for his lunch. While draft horses are known for their pleasant dispositions, when a 2,000 lb. animal has an opinion about something, it becomes, by default, a very large opinion! 

Splendid Syd
It was a glorious day. After four hours of exploring the fair, I ran out of steam and was sick for much of the rest of the week because of the energy I expended there, but it was so worth it. The horses were magnificent and reinforced my belief that big horses are better! I told my mom that I definitely wanted to see them again--perhaps next summer, or maybe as soon as October, when the draft horses make an appearance at the Lynden Horse Show and Draft Horse Spectacular. In the meantime, I'll make do with Drifter, my taller-than-average Quarter Horse, and his outsize stablemate, Syd, no small (ha!) consolation prize, as, unlike those delectable but untouchable Clydesdales and Belgians and Percherons, I am free to caress and lean into "my" boys' big bodies as much as I like.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Drifter 'n' Me

It's hard to believe it, but nearly a year and a half has passed since I first started my horse-riding experiment and that I've been either leasing or taking lessons at Sage Meadows for 15 months! As is to be expected with my health in general and the trials--foot/back injury, stomach woes--of the last year in particular, I was only able to be with the horses about half of the time, but the horses have proved to be powerful medicine even on a part-time basis.

I was at the park where I took my first lessons the other day and spied Lacey, the horse who gave me my first lessons, on the far right. Drifter is both much larger and a much better teacher, but she did help me figure out that riding and being with horses was something that I wanted to do.

My guy.
The benefits of hanging around equines in general and Drifter in particular have been numerous. One of the most valuable has been that my weekly horse fix has given me something to look forward to. Weeks or sometimes even months will go by when I do not leave the house except for medical appointments--or to be with the horses. When I'm at the stable, I cease to feel like I have any kind of disability. I get to exist in the moment, whether it is brushing Drifter in a meditative state on a winter afternoon or trying to perfect my posture while riding him around the arena on a sunny spring day. I love the act of grooming itself, so the winter months when I was leasing and not riding were no hardship. I love the solidity of Drifter's massive warm bulk and the pleasure he gets from a thorough grooming. One of my favorite things is when he stands in the cross-ties, nose against my chest, and descends into a drowsy, trancelike state of pleasure as I brush and caress his face. I know that Drifter has taught hundreds of students during his 20-odd years as a school horse and that there are several other students currently riding him, but Drifter feels like MY horse. I like to think that I am the very best groomer of all the students and that therefore he likes me best!

The tree-lined arena is a beautiful place to be on a sunny day.

Bear, one of the other school horses, looks up to see who is interrupting his grazing session.

Drifter's grooming tools.
This is rather silly, but I was delighted to learn that Drifter and I have something unusual in common: we both turned 32 in June! Yes, good ol' Drifter really is OLD. The average lifespan for a horse is 25-30 years, but Drifter is still plugging away and I think the good care he receives and the fact that he's still working (part-time) at a job he loves helps keep him young. He's been switched, much to his pleasure, to a pure alfalfa diet to help him keep weight on his old bones. I intend to keep learning from him and giving him excellent grooming session for as long as he's around.

So when I looked like this...

....Drifter must have looked like this!

(These are not actual pictures of Drifter as a baby, but I searched for images of a sorrel quarter
horse foal with a white face, so they are probably pretty close to how he looked in June of 1981!)

The two of us looking good together at 32.

Halters hung on pasture
Other benefits from my association with the horses include building up my strength and a sense of mastery. As someone who can no longer do many activities that I once excelled at and whose life is such that even the ability to do chores or run errands is a luxury, it's nice to get a sense of accomplishment from something! It turns out that I'm good at riding a horse. Missing lessons due to not feeling well and fatigue often limiting what I can do when I can show up has slowed my progress, but even so, I have something of a feel for it. By the end of each lesson, I always feel that I'm a little bit more skilled than when I began. The progress may be small, but I have so little progress elsewhere in my life that it makes a big difference. I also like the sense of mastery I get from making a large animal ten times my weight do as I say. Drifter, of course, is as obliging as they come, but he is a little bit fussy about having his feet picked sometimes and, like with dogs, it's important with horses that the animal listens to you. That means if I say we are going to clean hooves, I can't give up until all the hooves are cleaned. The last thing you need is a giant animal who thinks he can walk all over you--especially when there's the possibility that he could do so literally as well as figuratively! So having the gumption and stubbornness not to give up on those days when Drifter is feeling lazy during lessons or fussy about his feet is very rewarding for me, especially given the size of the payoff. I also like that working with Drifter helps me build up my physical strength. My spindly arms now have muscles in them from all that intensive grooming and my legs have been regaining the strength they lost during those months when I was on crutches and then going through physical therapy to get my back stabilized. I also love that riding well requires using exactly the same core muscles that I was working on strengthening in physical therapy. It also demands a certain looseness that is beneficial to my hips and my shoulders when I'm out of the saddle, too. Riding has turned out to be a natural extension of what I was striving to accomplish in physical therapy and now that I've been discharged from PT, I'm pleased that I'll continue building on what I learned there, resulting, as I continue to ride, in a strong, stable, but flexible core that provides equally strong signals to both of my legs. Talk about a bonus!

Syd, another Sage Meadows horses, heads off for a lesson with an advanced student.

Now that I have some mastery of the basics of riding a horse, my growing skills are being channeled into the discipline of dressage. It makes sense for me to go this direction because a) I'm not going to be riding Western for anything other than pleasure and b) Drifter is the only horse at Sage Meadows trained in Western riding, so switching to the English disciplines in general and dressage in particular creates a framework for perfecting my control even after Drifter passes away or I grow skilled enough to graduate to a more advanced horse. Dressage is best known at its highest level, where the rider guides the horse through a series of dance-like steps, but entry-level dressage is quite different. It involves riding the horse in a variety of formations at different paces. The most important part is for the rider to maintain steady speed at each pace during the maneuvers. The other important skill is riding in perfect circles. Horses naturally slow down while being ridden in a circle, making the task of maintaining a constant speed more of a challenge. I'm pretty good at executing circles, but Drifter and I are still working on the steady pace aspect.

This diagram shows steps involved in an entry-level test. After riding down the center of the arena, stopping at the exact center to salute the judges, the rider then turns to the left, executes a 20 m circle with the center point of the circle being the center point of the arena, continues around the outside of the arena and does another circle starting at the point opposite to the first, crosses the arena at a diagonal and repeats the maneuvers going in the opposite direction, and then rides down the center of the arena to the center point for a final salute to the judges.

The ears of Beacon, Drifter's stable buddy.

Drifter with an English saddle.
Since I was starting to work some dressage skills into my lessons, it was only right that I switch over to an English saddle. It just felt wrong to be saluting an imaginary dressage judge while wearing jeans and riding Western! I made the switch over to the English saddle about a month and a half ago and I love it! Because it is smaller, lighter, and less stiff, I've found that the English saddle gives me a better feel for what Drifter is doing. This has made posting (rising and falling with the rhythm of the trot) much easier! I really believe I'm going to make tons of progress this summer now that I'm in the different saddle.

It's always nice to have the right outfit for whatever your task at hand may be, so once I had switched saddles, I wasted little time in ditching the jeans. I now have full seat breeches, paddock boots, and half chaps! While it may seem slightly silly to have such an official get-up when my ambitions are minimal, the breeches and half chaps (what the rest of the world would call gaiters) do serve practical purposes. The breeches, in addition to being comfortable and flexible for riding, are lined inside the legs and on the seat for better grip on the smooth English saddle. And I quickly learned the benefit of half chaps when I wore breeches inside my Western boots: everything I picked out of Drifter's hooves dropped straight into my boots and pebbles jumped in as well as we did our warm-up walk around the arena. But the whole get-up--boots and breeches--looks so official and there's no harm to getting a psychological boost from your clothes when you're trying to make a thousand pound animal trot when you say so and stop when you say stop!

Decked out in breeches and half chaps, I guide Drifter around the arena on beautiful summer day.

Me and my guy. Look how big his head is in comparison to my torso! And yet, this good-natured horse does my bidding--as long as I ask him in the correct manner. This is why he's a great beginner's horse: he's just particular enough that you've got to get your signals mostly right, but not so particular that he'll refuse to obey unless you perform them perfectly.

There's always more to be done. On days when I'm feeling strong enough, I work on posting, but even on the days when I'm more tired, I'm always working on my form and I'm learning how to tell him what to do simply by changing how I sit in the saddle. Riding requires a subtle balance of looseness and control, so I'm always having to remind myself to keep the elbows bent at a particular angle but not rigid, to have my pelvis rotated just so, to have my heels down and my legs back, to pull my shoulders back but not too far or too stiffly, to be moving my hips with the horse but keep the shoulders still and even, to arch my back just so, to have my fingers closed on the reins, to not unconsciously pull up on the reins, to keep my hands down and forward when posting while keeping the elbows loose, to try to lift from the inner thighs when posting and not from the stirrups (I'm not quite strong enough to do this yet, but am working on it), to keep my eyes up and looking ahead (sometimes I forget to do this because I am admiring the passing scenery), etc., etc., not to mention all the particulars that go along with the tack. Of course, all of the riding works best when you're not thinking TOO hard about it, so until it becomes second nature, you have to figure out how to remind yourself of all the particulars at the same time as not thinking about them at all. I find that it works best if I concentrate 90% of my focus on getting my hands in the right place and letting my body naturally (more or less) follow the information I'm getting from Drifter. I love the challenge of it, though, and it's why even slight progress can feel like a satisfying accomplishment.

Getting better all the time! Best of all, I don't look or feel like a largely housebound chronic migraineur when I'm proudly mounted on a horse. 

I've made lots of progress on my posting in recent weeks.

It's been an amazing journey so far and I hope that Drifter, despite his advanced age, will remain in good health long enough to teach me everything he knows. I will forever be indebted to his calm, patient, and willing demeanor long after I have graduated to more advanced horses and he has departed from this life. I know that with him (and with my great instructor), I am laying a foundation to make me a competent horsewoman that will serve me well no matter where this newfound passion takes me. Dogs, photography, and maintaining a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world all play a role in helping me remain positive despite my significant health challenges, but adding horses to that mix has proved beneficial beyond my wildest dreams.

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