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.)

Monday, September 3, 2018

What's In A (Trail) Name? Part III

September 4 2018

Mankind has named roads and trails since the beginning of time, to indicate where you're coming from and where you're going to, and to give you a kind of invested ownership in a place. Same thing here in Owyhee with the trails we ride. Yet even more examples:

Dudley Antler Loop
So named because, you got it, Dudley found, you guessed it, a deer antler when we were bushwhacking around the hills and washes back here. Part of it is the start of Merri's Trail (in Part I), but instead of heading right for Hart Creek, you turn off left into a wash downhill, then loop around to another steep uphill wash, climb a hill and find your way back to Spring Ranch road. This 'find your way back' part was where Dudley found his deer antler, and we returned and rode it enough times it's now a nice trail. You make a loop out of it, returning up Blonde Cow Wash - either on the trail alongside the wash, or in the wash. It's a perfect 5.5 mile training loop that you can make a hard or easy ride out of, depending on how much of the sand you trot in.

The Plane Crash
OK, it's not really a plane crash site, but you might not know it for all the metal sheets and pieces scattered along this trail. 'Plane crash trail' sounds better and more entertaining and light-hearted (?) than 'You'll be riding along this trail where Some dumba$$e$ mistook this for an actual trash dump, and dumped loads of metal - washer, drier, god-knows-what-all that will never degrade in my desert, thanks a lot, jerkweeds.'

I tell whatever horse I'm riding that, I know, it looks like a plane crash, but it's really just trash, nobody was hurt, and there's nothing to worry about, so just keep trotting onward.

The Dead Car
Not sure what the story is behind this one… maybe long ago somebody ran out of gas way out here and had to crawl out for help, or maybe it was a romantic date gone awry, but it's a very old rusted car (from the 20's? 30's? 40's? 50's? I don't know my cars) that drove off a little hill and is now half buried in the desert sand. It sort of pops right up on you as you crest the hill, so be ready for your horse to spook!

Commando Hill
Now renamed Toilet Paper Hill (in Part II), it was originally named Commando Hill when, riding up this hill, Diana's underwear were just not cooperating, and she stopped, got off her horse, and ripped them off, and went commando the rest of the ride. Or so the story goes. The toilet paper later came into play on this same hill, and "Toilet Paper Hill" just stuck. (Pun intended.)

Steph's Trail
If you don't have a lot of time, and you just want to get a horse out, like, say, a fat horse, like, say, Dudley who always needs exercise, on a short ride, you can trot or canter a good non-stop 1 1/2 miles of Steph's trail up on the SE flats, then either turn around and take it right back, or make a loop of it back along the Tower Trail.

Tower Trail
This trail houses the internet tower, the means by which all my brought-to-you-by-me stories are sent out into the enet-osphere. The last part is a steepish pay-attention-and-watch-your-footing kind of scenic trail back down into the canyon. You can trot or canter most of this mile-plus trail to the tower, with a bird's eye view all along and down into Pickett Crick. 

Dudley likes to stop up here by this tower and observe the canyon below him. He has even fallen asleep on his feet up here, with me on his back, for like 5 or 10 whole minutes, until I finally wake him up to ride back home because I'm getting bored or cold.

Rye Patch
Is a nice good-footing, fairly easy 18-ish mile loop, if you want to get a long one in with a lot of steady trotting. It goes out to and across the highway by the Plane Crash and the Dead Car and on the Bones Trail (in Part I). It's out to the NE. It's called Rye Patch because there's an actual dirt road we cross named Rye Patch. Because why, I don't know. What is a rye patch anyway?

Brown's Creek
It's out to the SW, also around 18 miles, and it has some good sand washes to work down, and some good hill climbing on the way back, including the second most scenic half of the Hart Creek Loop.

Hart Creek Loop
If we want to impress a riding visitor, we take him/her on this loop. You take Merri's trail (Part I) to and along the Hart Creek drainage, ride along the creek for a while and right up to the Little Hart Creek Canyon notch, (that's the top photo), then make a big climb back out of the drainage, along a knife(ish) edge ridge back up onto the flats. It is often part of our endurance rides, but we do only take visitors we like on this trail.

Rim Trail
This is often part of our endurance rides, the 2-track rim trail overlooking the Hart Creek drainage and the distant tiny 'burb of Oreana. It's pretty spectacular. Both Jose and Dudley love to stop along here and just look at the scenery.

Carol's Gate
Somebody, who shall be left nameless, cut the fence wires and put this easy-open horse-back gate in the fence. I don't know who did it, but it's a safe gate in a Public Lands fence line that gives us easy access onto Our Public Lands, whereas we and everybody else was just going through the wash where the barbed wire had originally been washed and torn out.

Lost Juniper RANCH
Not to be confused with Lost Juniper Trail (in Part II), it's the ranch next door. But the Lost Juniper stories are common. When neighbors first looked at the ranch, there was a tiny juniper growing near the creek cottonwoods. Next time they looked they couldn't find the juniper, until it grew a bit bigger. Now, you still can't find the juniper - because it's so big it blends right in with the cottonwoods. In fact, when my eyeballs were pointed toward this "lost juniper," they immediately focused on the little juniper-child next to it. Both the ranch and the trail junipers are lost, except to those of us who know where they are.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Book Review: ARKLE: The Story of the World's Greatest Steeplechaser

Wednesday August 8 2018

Can you name the world's greatest steeplechaser?

If you can't, you should know: ARKLE.

And when you read this book, there will be no doubt that this Irish steeplechaser who ran in the 1960's was transcendent among his kind.

What is it about the national hunt racing and steeplechasing in Great Britain and Ireland that gets to me? Chapter 2 in my book Soul Deep in Horses gives you a glimmer of the romance of working in an Irish yard, grooming and leading 'round the paddock the heroic grand Thoroughbreds who willingly (most of the time) hurl themselves over monster fences and ditches, and either stay on their feet or fall and get back up onto their feet. It got so it was hard for me to watch their races, but at the same time I couldn't not watch, gritting my teeth and cringing at the rough and tumble sport, but mesmerized at the magnificent power and heart and athleticism of the jump horses.

ARKLE: The Story of the World's Greatest Steeplechaser, by Sean Magee, brings to life this spectacular gelding who ran from 1961-1967 in England and Ireland, winning an astonishing 27 of his 35 races. He beat the best of the best, and became better than the best.

Part of the reason, I'm sure, that I have a special jumping spot in my horse for Arkle, is that he ran over some of the very tracks I led our racehorses around the paddocks and onto the turf: Navan, Naas, Fairyhouse, Leopardstown. Punchestown. In another day and time, like 30 years earlier, I might have been leading the God himself!

Yes, there was that 1964 season, March 7 to be exact, "the day Arkle became a God." That was the day he beat the reigning jumping great, Mill House, to win the first of his 3 consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups, the greatest steeplechase on earth (not to be confused with the Grand National - the other greatest steeplechase on earth, but one Arkle never ran in, as his owner, Anne, Duchess of Winchester, thought it too dangerous). He simply, and widely, was referred to as "Himself." Capital H, of course,

Then there was his '65-66 "Arkle for President" season - because he really was that incredibly amazing. (Someone had scribbled this phrase on a Dublin wall in 1965.)

That he was personable and loved people, and he loved to run and jump, and loved the adulation, just adds to his incredible story.

Himself is magnificent eye candy, no?

*By the way, I do have a couple of the Arkle 2020 bumperstickers.
Arkle for President in 2020? Why not! Is there anyone else more magnificent? (Read the book, and you'll agree.)

$5 includes mailing, PM me theequestrianvagabond at gmail dot com if you've got a sense of humor and you're interested.

**By the way, Spell Check likes to correct "Arkle" to "ankle". seriously??? Spell Check needs to learn the greatest steeplechaser of all time's name.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Nyssa Nite Rodeo Part III: The Art of the Rodeo

Thursday August 9 2018

Nyssa Nite Rodeo Part I: All the Pretty (Rodeo) Horses is here. 

Nyssa Nite Rodeo Part II: All the Pretty Cowgirls and Cowboys is here.

For the crowds in the stands, the events are all glitter and spectacle, dash and splash and crash.

It's the in-between-events and the behind-the-scenes context where I found the art. From the press box, and down in the hole where all the stock is prepped and the power is constrained and the electric nerves hum, I found some cool shots.

Exloding right out of the gate on a bronc, into the sunset of a wide-open arena

The myriad lariats the pickup men use. Depending on the event - bareback broncs, saddle broncs, or the most rankest of them all, ranch broncs - and often depending on the particular bronc - the lariats are carefully coiled and hung, and then before each horse (or bull) leaves the chute, each pickup man deftly and calculatingly chooses the right lariat like an artist chooses the right brush.

Delicately trying to get a halter on one of those rank ranch broncs without getting knocked out

The classic bucking pose

Making sure his saddle is firmly planted… or bowing his head in prayer

One of the heroes of the rodeo - one of the pickup men

These pickup men were, seriously, The Art of the Rodeo. Working wordlessly but cannily and seamlessly together, they rescued cowboys, delicately danced and rowdily roughhoused, foxtrotting and swirling, spinning and cajoling and dragging and shoving, flirting with disaster, to persuade these crazy broncs out of the arena. Watching them, I couldn't help being hypnotized by their skill and, just, art.