Friday, January 11, 2019

Story Behind the Photo: Borcan in Egypt

January 11 2019

Yes. That view #BetweenTheEars of my mount, the magnificent blustery white stallion Borcan, is in Egypt - the Step Pyramid in Saqqara. He was the puffiest beautifulest blowhardiest windbag, whose biggest worry was to look magnificent for the fillies who weren't looking at him.

Those ride in the desert among Pyramids on my equine companions were simply magical. I've had the pleasure of visiting Maryanne in Egypt twice.

I'll have a book coming out later this year on one of those trips.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Story Behind the Photo: Rabbit Brush

January 6 2019

This is my horse Stormy, The Most Beautiful Horse on the Planet, hanging out in blooming rabbit brush in the Sierra Nevadas in California. 

A Thoroughbred former racehorse, he’s now 27 years old. I was his groom on the racetrack in Washington where he earned his keep: six wins in 42 lifetime starts, $45,000 in earnings. My housemate kept saying I was going to own him one day. No, no, no, I said; though I loved Stormy, I had no money and no place for a horse. 

But things that are meant to be eventually happen. He’s given me joy now for almost 20 years. Stormy is profiled in my book, Soul Deep In Horses.

Note: this photo was taken around the year 2000, when Stormy was a young buck!

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Exploring Owyhee's Perjue Canyon

November 24 2018

This Owyhee sagebrush flat and canyon had just a bit of a…. cougar-y feel. Not an imminent we're-going-to-get-jumped-on feeling, but… thick brush along the crick, a single path along the bottom of the high-walled canyon, rock shelters and lairs and mini-caves above, the cool stillness of a fall day, pregnant with the feeling of possibility and opportunity springing forth.

And that was before, about 20 minutes into our ride, Karen said, "Did I tell you last time we came here to hike this trail I saw a cougar print?"

Dudley and I had hitched a ride with Leah and her mustang Bear, and Karen and her former endurance horse Rusty, to explore Perjue Canyon in the Little Jacks Creek Wilderness. Rusty charged eagerly ahead on the trail, unafraid of anything (his only nemesis is cows), and Bear followed, completely unflappable (I expect if he ran into a cougar, he'd Stink-eye it away), followed by Dudley. The Dude wasn't nervous, but one time in the canyon he did stop and whip his head around behind him and he studied the brush along the crick a while. Dudley always sees wildlife before I do so I always wait to see what he's spotted; this time he didn't actually see anything. But Dudley knew that here it didn't hurt to check. 

I wasn't nervous, but I've learned over the years, if it feels like cougar country, it is cougar country. Doesn't hurt to keep your eyes peeled at the brush, the rock outcroppings you're riding under, and glance behind you now and then. Cougars aren't particularly numerous out here, but they are here.

While the canyons in the Owyhee country don't have the flair and grandeur of Utah's red canyon country, ours can still be a little bit spectacular, much less traveled, and intriguing to explore, particularly on foot. If there aren't trails down in all of them, there are usually plenty of old two-track roads to get you cross-country and at least above those canyons.

Closer to the cities, the red rhyolite-walled Sinker Canyon can certainly be called spectacular; it's a popular place for ATVs (so if you're going horseback, you want to go mid-week, and preferably when schools are in session), and a side trip on your way to Silver City.

Perjue is further out - a good hour further out, on a good-but-washboard Mud Flat dirt road that is part of a scenic Owyhee Uplands Backcountry Byway over the Owyhee mountains that eventually dumps you out at Jordan Valley, Oregon.

The canyon is named after Frank Perjue, whose old cabin walls still stand near the approach to the canyon. He probably homesteaded cattle (or sheep?) here in the early 1900's, and it was probably his livestock that originally laid the trail that we rode on. Perjue Canyon follows the West Fork of Shoofly Creek.

The Little Jacks Creek Wilderness (over 50,000 acres) is 1 of the 6 wilderness areas in Owyhee County, designated in 2009. BLM, Idaho Trails Association and other volunteer groups worked on developing this trail in Perjue Canyon. It's an out-and-back trail 4 miles down the West Fork of the Shoofly Crick, where it ends at private property (we were hoping for an obvious loop trail, but nothing obvious appeared, but with more exploring, there might be options), and 4 miles back.

At places, cottonwoods crowd the trail, and thick quail bush clusters along the narrowing canyon. We were past the time of golden autumn leaves, but during the height of color, the cottonwoods along the crick must be stunning yellow, and the quail bush deep maroon. And, at the right time of year, you can see bighorn sheep in and above the canyon.

We had a bit of water in the crick that we crossed several times (ice, actually), but the brush looks thick enough that there may be some water puddles year round.

It's an easy day hike for Owyhee hikers (and a BLM picnic area and vault toilet is about a mile down the road), and an easy exploring ride for trail riders. There was enough up and down, and a bit of scrambling over shale at a few places, and long enough to make Dudley sweat, even in the cold, though as endurance riders we wouldn't have minded another 10 miles or so, for the long trailer ride we took to get there.

But it was another cool new checkmark I can put on my Owyhee country map, and Dudley had a good time and a good workout!

Monday, October 22, 2018

Old Explorers*

October 22 2018

This is what endurance horses do between endurance rides

Riding the Rim Trail, we have a long, scenic view down into the Hart Creek drainage. Between the crumbly cliffs of the rim and the crick is a maze of hills and washes, what looks like an old travertine hot spring hill, and a hidden jumble of bentonite** sculptures, the leftovers from a long-ago eroded lake-bed sediment. I call the sculptures the Dragon's Backbone.

Carol and I hiked there once, from the top down. You've got to find the right ridge to climb down, or else you'll lose your footing and slide…. a very long hide-ripping, tumbling way down. 

Finding the Dragon from the bottom up is a game of hide and seek, because one cliff face looks like another, as does one hill from another, and who knows which hidden box canyon the Dragon hides behind?

We managed to catch just a glimpse of a bentonite outcrop on our regular Hart Crick trail, so we angled off cross country, bush-whacking our way to the hidden treasures. Hillbillie Willie was all for this new exploring adventure with his pal August, going places where (possibly) no horse has gone before.

Around behind a hill, the white monster appeared, growing out of the ground as we picked our way toward it, and Willie's eyes bulged in disbelief and wonder. What magic is this!?

We found names carved on one of the white mushroom rocks, some dating back to November of 18… was that really November of 1918???? Or someone modern but totally confused about the date? There were settlers living on this crick a hundred years and more ago; we ride regularly by one of the homesteads built into a hillside.

We ended up discovering deer trails leading us in a winding path (with some steep climbs!) back up onto the rim.

Willie still loves being an explorer, and he was so fascinated by the secret Dragon's Backbone that he decided he wants to be a geologist in his next life.

*Old Explorers is, by the way, a fabulous older movie, if you can get your hands on it

**Bentonite? I don't know for sure, I'm not a geologist. But Hillbillie Willie will be able to tell you for sure in his next life.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Playing Bird God

Sunday October 7 2018

Oh, $hit - I'm outside in the dark, holding a rescued squealing woodpecker in my hands, with 3 ninja kitties climbing up my legs and two screech owls waiting in a tree - NOW what am I supposed to do!?

Dark outside, and I hear some high pitched squealing of an animal in distress. I leap out the door, afraid it's one of the ninja kittens in trouble, but no, it's not a cat. Rabbit? Bird? Has to be a bird. I grab a headlamp and track down the high-pitched squealing. 

Or rather track it up - there it is - a screech owl has some kind of bird in its claw up in a cottonwood tree.

And that's when I should have turned and walked away.

But I can't walk away. I have the screech owl in my headlamp, and I watch him. The prey-bird squeals very loudly and flaps, but it's pinned in the grip of the owl's talons… while below around my feet the 3 ninja kittens swarm around frantically, looking up, trying to track down the noise which is obviously an animal worthy of cat claws and jaws.

And the screech owl flies away with his prize... but the flapping bird flaps loose and flutters to the ground. The ninja kittens are on it instantly. I am on the kittens the next instantly. I grab the bird, which turns out to be a Downy woodpecker. 

As I gently cradle the bird, it grips my fingers tightly. Any time I speak, Easy birdie, it squeaks, loudly. Oooh, shut up bird! (They can be very loud.) The kittens are trying to crawl up my legs. (Me: "Ouch! Stop it!") (Downy: Shriek!) (Ninja kitties: "Meow!") I look up in the trees, and 4 screech owl eyeballs are staring down at me silently, reflecting my headlamp.

Now what do I do??? I should have left it to Mother Nature. Not my business to interfere. Mother Nature already had this all figured out before I stuck my human two cents in. The woodpecker may die anyway, and the screech owls will be out a meal. What if the screech owls die because of this meal I cheated them out of? What if all 3 birds die because of my interference? If I put the woodpecker back in a tree near the owls, am I sacrificing the woodpecker? Is it my decision to kill the woodpecker? I can't set the bird down anywhere anyway, because the cats will get it. The kittens are great mousers, but I don't want to encourage them as being great birders, too.

I have finally stopped talking, and the woodpecker is silent, but even though I open my hand, it's gripping my fingers tightly. Its heartbeat is slowing down from its adrenaline rush, but it's strong. I'm able to look at it in my headlamp, and it doesn't look torn up at all. The owls are still watching. The kittens are still prowling around my feet. I'm holding the bird out in my open palm, where it sits calmly while I'm still trying to decide what to do.

The kittens are still trying to crawl up my legs. I lead them to the house, entice them inside, and shut the door on them… and decide to head to some different trees away from the screech owls, to try to put the woodpecker on a branch.

Not 10 seconds later the ninja kittens are following me, having found a window through which they escaped back outside. They don't know I still carry the bird since it's silent now, but they always follow me hopefully around anyway.

As I try to set the woodpecker on a thick tree branch, it's still gripping my fingers tightly… and when I try to gently turn my hand so it steps onto the tree branch, it squeals again. Shut up! I whisper, Hurry!, and as he fumbles and stumbles onto the branch, one of the ninjas is up in the tree immediately.

In my headlamp, the woodpecker squeals again… but it sees the cat and in desperation flaps away, and the last I see of it is wings flapping upward out of my headlamp, as Ninja Silvester shoots after it across the grass, but he pulls up empty-clawed.

The woodpecker's gone into the dark. It may live; it might not. Cats are empty-pawed, and the screech owls are empty-taloned. 

And I'm left feeling discombobulated. I don't like playing Bird God because I don't know if I made the right decision and I should have left it alone.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Hillbillie Willie and the Dead Bunny

Wednesday September 26 2018

The jackrabbits took a big hit in the unprecedented heavy winter 2 years ago - pretty much the whole population around here wiped out. It's taken almost two years, but they've started to make a comeback. It's not too unusual now to see one on just about every ride, scooting out of the sagebrush or rabbit brush, their big ears swiveling like radar discs.

Most of the horses are not afraid of them, even when they pop out of a bush underfoot.

What *is* scary is a dead jackrabbit in your front yard!

Hillbillie Wille and I had a great ride this awesome fall morning, and I dismounted at the top of the driveway to lead him in. I noticed on the way in what I hadn't seen on the way out (was it actually there?? Or did it appear while we were out riding?): a dead jackrabbit with a hole eaten out of its back/neck. What's odd is that it was laying in the 'yard' by the driveway. Jackrabbits don't normally come out here into the grass-less front yard, and nor would I expect a coyote to snag a rabbit from out in the brush and bring it in here this close to eat. Maybe an owl or hawk was flying with it and dropped it?

Willie didn't see it as we passed it, and I didn't think anything of it, but then I thought to lead him back and show it to him.

Live rabbit: no problem. Dead rabbit: DANGER!!!!!

I led Willie back to the small dead lump of fur, and when he laid eyes on it, he spooked back and stood there big-eyed and trembling. Dead rabbit, omg, dead rabbit, omg, not right, not right, was swirling through his Standardbred brain.

I told him it was OK, it had been a rabbit, but the rabbit died and went to Rabbit Heaven, and now it was just a furry carcass. Not a big deal, we all die and become carcasses at some point. 

Willie wasn't immediately convinced, because all rabbits he knows are hopping around with big floppy ears, and he stood at the end of his reins I was holding, and snorted and kept staring at the rabbit. I finally got him to step up, slowly, and put his head down and sniff the rabbit, but he stayed leaning back on his heels ready to bolt, as he wasn't sure there wasn't still great danger about.

After he stood calmly, we turned around and started back to the house, but Willie was walking slowly, and wanting to look back over his shoulder. He was still thinking about that dead rabbit, still had unfinished business with it. He wanted to go back and check it out again. 

So I led Willie back to the rabbit, and he looked at it a while, then put his head down and slowly walked forward and sniffed the rabbit again and touched it. I told him it was OK. And I could see the cogs turning in his brain, and he decided, If he's really in Rabbit Heaven, and this is just his carcass, I guess that's OK then.

And as we walked on toward the house, two Ravens called from a tree and a post, waiting to snack on the jackrabbit meal conveniently waiting for them.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Standardbred Lightness: The Shift

Wednesday September 19 2018

I committed back in April to the challenge of converting the endurance Standardbred Hillbillie Willie from a high-headed, upright forehand-heavy horse to a head-lowered, rounded, more balanced horse. (Connie got him started in the arena: The Incredible Lightness of Being Standardbred.)

Working up hills out on the trails has definitely helped develop a real horse butt, instead of a sloped flatlander giraffe butt like he had when Steph first got him off the track.

don't have a real picture when we first got him, darn it, but this cartoon is quite accurate!

And with consistent work at it while trail riding/conditioning him, with rare arena work, and with occasional work with the pessoa rig in the round pen (no more than 10-15 minutes at a time a couple days a week), it slowly started to make difference over time.

(video link:
Willie in the pessoa today… today it was windy, and the crick was spooky… he’s gone better

I could already tell a difference by the time Willie did his first 50 of the year at City of Rocks in June. He was really moving well, with his head lower, more relaxed, moving lighter; and on the downhill trotting at times he would shift off his front end onto his hind end. (I really work on getting Willie to respond to the shift in my weight/seat.)

And it was last month (August 7 to be exact, because I emailed Aarene Storms-with-a-Standie, at Haiku Farm, all excited about it), I felt a Shift.

It was out on one of our training rides, and this whole ride was almost magic, the lightness of moving, no Clop Clop Clop Clop, the absence of pulling and leaning forward on the bit, the dropping head and rounding up, all on a loose rein. Omg! That's the first time I could really say that I really felt the progress of the work I'm putting into him.

Granted, he doesn't do this the whole time in every training ride (nor do I ask him to, especially at the beginning), but now he does it right at least part of every ride. Now he moves properly more than he doesn't, and I can say that we have really turned a corner. He gets it.

To be sure it's still constant work - and it's harder work if he gets excited, like when the horses in front of him take off - and some rides are just harder than others and he takes more reminding (i.e. much more leg leg leg, less hands hands hands). And it still may take years. (And I am no dressage rider.) And he may never be extremely light and contained, what with his years of being a racehorse.

But we're progressing!

Can you tell a difference in his topline from the two pix? The top picture is from May, this one is from September.

Anyway, I still think he looks pretty magnificent. (So does he. Willie thinks he's hot $h*t.)