April 22, 2024

Deam Lake Trail Ride

I realized yesterday that I've taken trail riding for granted. Both my access to good trails, and my solid little trail pony. But it crossed my mind as I cheerfully rode along in the sunshine on the buckle for two hours yesterday with friends on beautiful trails, and I was so grateful.

And this made me giggle too.

Yesterday FIVE of us (wow!) got together to do a 6 mile ride around Deam Lake State Park, which is about an hour away from the farm. Our haul-in endurance friend Barb offered to give the folks without trailers a ride and to be our guide since none of us had been to Deam before. 

Part of the reason we chose this place and this trail is that there's an endurance benefit ride there at the beginning of June that (according to Barb) is a perfect introduction to the sport for those of us who have never done it before. They have a 6 mile intro ride that is not timed, so you can walk it if you really feel like it, but you still get to do the vet checks and go out with everyone. If you know anything about endurance, you know 6 miles is laughably short, which makes it perfect for a first ride IMO - the distance won't be an issue so we can focus on learning everything else we need to learn about the sport.

This, but make it a sport

We ended up covering the 6 miles yesterday in about two hours, and that was with about 90% walking and 10% trotting. The horses were outstanding, including Ivan the Wonder Pony who went out with Mary partially because his owner was out of town and partially because I wanted to see how he was on trails with Mary before Deb took him out.

Turns out this was Mary's first proper trail ride EVER (which I didn't know) but she trusts me enough that when I was like "Hey, you're going to ride the new guy without a bit and in a treeless, flapless saddle on trails we've never been on before and I don't really know how he'll be but I'm pretty sure he'll be fine" she signed right up, lol.

Mary: "Okay, I never liked knee blocks before going down a steep hill on a horse for the first time but now I get it."

He was amazing, like a trail professor, gently guiding Mary to just the right spots on the trail and never putting a foot wrong. Can't stop being grateful to have him in my barn.

For my part, I was looking to just get Connor out, assess his fitness and do some minor gear tests. Everything passed with flying colors, including my saddle bag held onto my saddle with twine and his Scoot Boots.

Never been here before, couldn't care less

Connor is out of shape, but still covered the 6 miles no problem. He's just so good on the trails. This was the first trail ride I've ever not managed him at all, quite literally rode him on the buckle nearly the entire time, and he just...goes. Straight through creeks and puddles and mud, carefully picking his way around to find the best and safest footing on hills. Happy to lead, follow or be in the middle, not affected by what the other horses are doing. He's just...fun.

Pony in the lead

And pony not in the lead

So I'm excited for June. Excited to try a sport I've always been curious about. Excited to have friends to do it with. And excited to check another sport off of Connor's bingo card.

April 17, 2024

How We Run Our Co-op Boarding Arrangement

It seems hard to believe, but we are coming up on the co-op's third anniversary.

"You know," my barn owner said on the second anniversary, "I didn't say this at the time, but I had some real doubts about whether this arrangement would work or not. To my surprise, it really has worked out well for everyone."


He wasn't the only one with doubts. For a panicked month that year after my trainer announced she was getting out of the business, I wracked my brain for a solution - we had a facility, we had a non-horsey BO, we had a group of ladies who had only ever full boarded, we had no trainer, and we didn't have enough economy of scale (or money) to hire help at only 7 stalls.

Eventually I fought through the lizard brain panic and created a chore-sharing model that has worked incredibly well, and one that I think more barns around the country could adopt rather than paying criminally low wages to staff or closing entirely. 

In three years, we have had no missed shifts and no drama, both of which I am quite proud of. And it's in large part due to how well that model has worked that I finally gained the confidence to buy the place, so in that respect, the co-op has been life-changing for me. 

I could never run a 20 acre/7 stall/2 ring facility by myself, but with this group of women around me and with no one person being overloaded by chores, it feels sustainable in a way even full boarding never did, with its constant dance to find and keep good help.

So I want to (finally) share the details of how our co-op works in the hopes that maybe it will help some other desperate, lizard-brain-panicked googler someday. I am going to write this out in as much detail as possible, so it will look like a lot, but keep in mind that in effect it makes for about 10 minutes of chores for each person each day, and 30 minutes of chores per person 3-4 times per week.

Note: this post is so long, you may need to click "Read More" below to see the full post.

April 12, 2024

New Boarder #2

After a long winter of having three horses and just two of us in the co-op, Leah and I were certainly ready for some extra sets of hands. But that didn't mean we just wanted anyone off the street to join the co-op. This boarding model isn't for everyone, and we have to really know and trust those we entrust with our horses.

So I was delighted when within the span of two weeks, we suddenly found ourselves with five horses and four humans, which is a sweet spot for us. And not only that, they were humans we know and trust: Deb, and my college friend, Tricia.

She, uh, LOVES orange, lol.

Tricia and I have known each other for almost 20 years at this point, and last year she relocated back to the Midwest, specifically choosing to live close enough to my barn to join the co-op. But she temporarily left her 17 year old OTTB where he was on the other side of the country, working off his board by dutifully giving H/J lessons and great trips at shows to a bunch of barn rats.

He is kind of awesome.

He was arriving via a trailer too long to fit up my barn's winding, hilly driveway, so we had to meet him after his multi-day cross-country trip and hope he would walk onto my 1H in Walmart's parking lot. As I told his owner, I had Plan A, B, C, and D, with Plan D being her riding him the mile home down the shoulder of the state highway.

(Side note: COULD NOT be more impressed with CTS Equine Transport. The custom-built air-ride rig was immaculate, the owner/driver was a smart guy who absolutely loves his job, and he went well out of his way for the sake of the horse's welfare, even when he didn't need to. Will definitely give them a call when Disco comes home.)

But - bless a good OTTB - I needn't have worried, as he just walked right off one trailer and onto another without even stopping to sniff it. And his introduction to everyone else at my barn went just as smoothly. We are so blessed that the two newest guys at the barn might just be the best behaved out of everyone on the property, lol.

Magnum's first time seeing grass in 6 years! Our whole herd is acclimating slowly in 15 minute increments this month.

I couldn't be happier to have both horse and owner in the barn. He's sweet, easy to handle, and gets along with everyone without asserting himself. And Tricia has jumped right in on chores and picking up extra work when one of us was sick.

And with that, we are basically "full", with five stalls filled with horses, one stall being used for hay (and oh my goodness I am so loathe to put hay back up in the loft again, so I want to keep it that way!) and one stall that will be Disco's when he comes home late this year or early next year. "Full" barn, and full heart.

April 10, 2024

Ivan's Story, or Horse Bloggers are Awesome

On the one hand, I'm still not riding super regularly and life is crazy, so I think I have nothing to blog about.

On the other hand, I'm neck-deep in buying a horse facility and welcoming new boarders to the co-op, and that's almost a more interesting adventure than whatever Connor is up to these days.

Shedding. He's up to shedding.

So let's catch up, shall we? Meet Deb and Ivan. Ivan is only in my life because of this blog, and it's a beautiful story.

Deb has been a fixture at this barn for over 15 years, often being in sole charge of both her horse and the BO's horses for long stretches of time. After a couple of years off of owning horses due to life changes, she told me she was ready to come back, and was horse shopping. 

First look at each other on a soggy West Virginia morning

Her ideal horse would be an Arabian (she's always owned them), a grey (she's always liked them), something that is happy to putz around on the state park trails and maybe dip a toe into endurance with (she's always loved endurance), and something that is safe enough for a retired woman to ride alone when the rest of us are working during the day. 

But her budget was more OTTB territory, so that's what she was looking at until I put a call out to some bloggers to see if anyone knew of anything safe and quiet and cheap that was available, and lo and behold, Austen knew Liz knew someone who was trying to rehome a 12 year old grey Arabian gelding with lots of trail miles and a few endurance miles because they were retiring and getting out of horses. It could not have been more perfect.

Power sliding my truck and trailer around a switchback up a West Virginia driveway

For my part, as soon as Deb said yes, I knew I was going out to West Virginia to get him. Both because I wanted to see Liz, and because I've always had an irrational anxiety about hauling through the mountains, and I knew I just needed to DO it. This was the perfect opportunity.

Hello from the top of the world. The only mishap ended up being my truck throwing a CEL here that went away when we came back down closer to sea level.

So we road tripped. And conveniently got there about 15 minutes after Liz's new Corgi puppy got delivered:

"What year is it? Where am I?"

We spent a wonderful afternoon and night with Liz. Good food, good people, a wonderful Appalachian small town. And of course, a puppy to entertain us.

Little puppy, big world.

Side note: I think the bathroom stall latches at Liz's local microbrewery are secretly a sobriety test.

The next morning, we all went out to get Ivan and head out. After an uneventful 8 hour trip, he was mildly colicky when we got home, but nothing some electrolytes, banamine and soupy chopped hay couldn't fix.

Meeting the natives the first morning

He has since settled in beautifully, cheerfully occupying the low man on the totem pole position in the herd and charming everyone he meets, including his new owner.

Ivan would get about two weeks of being the new guy before our other new resident showed up...

February 11, 2024

Pyro's Big Transformation, or, Kate Little is Amazing

I don't even know where to start with this post, but I have to start. I've been witnessing an incredible transformation in my barn and learning a lot about horsemanship through it, and it deserves to be written down.

A couple of weeks ago I was videoing my barnmate's virtual Dressage lesson, watching her futilely trying to pony kick her 5 year old around a big psuedo-turn on the forehand at our Dressage trainer's instruction, and I realized it looked a lot like a groundwork exercise Kate had me do with Connor. I asked my barnmate if I could borrow Pyro for a Kate lesson, and she agreed.

Pyro (foreground) and mom Missy (behind)

I need to pause here and give some background context on Pyro so that you'll understand how massive this change has been. My barnmate bred and raised him out of her heart horse, and despite doing everything right with him, he was never a horse you could let your guard down around. He had no sense of personal space and little respect or regard for humans. He is also a bit ADHD, constantly into everything, and sometimes nibbling or even biting. I never handled him without a whip, since even arm waving or throwing my gloves at him to get him out of my space was met with a blank stare.

So with that stage set, you will understand why this...

(We're doing a lot more than ground tying, but the ground tying is the only thing I can get a photo of while working alone.)

...feels so wildly unbelievable.

We are two weeks and two Kate groundwork lessons into handling Pyro in this new way, and he is a totally different horse. Our relationship with him, mine and my barnmate's both, in both directions, has profoundly changed.

In the first lesson, I was standing facing him and asking him to step sideways and turn around me in a big TOF. Following a prescribed and predictable escalation pattern that takes into account the speed at which horses' brains are able to process new information and take action based on that information, we arrived at maximum force "ask" with the whip, and he just stood there and flinched his skin in anticipation of the hit rather than moving his feet.

Pyro learning to Dressage, wearing, fun fact, former Blogger Carley's Bobby's Micklem


It was fascinating. He knew it was coming and simply did not care to respond to the ask - he didn't respect me as a leader, and had learned he could outlast humans if they asked him to do something he didn't want to do. So, Pyro reasoned, if he stood there and took it, it would end eventually, which made a lot of sense in the context of his day-to-day personal space issues - he didn't want to move, so he wouldn't.

But after one Kate lesson, I was able to move him in both directions with the lightest of taps, and after a week, I could move him simply by moving the whip toward him and "pushing the air" toward him. Which was far more a consequence of the relationship changing than it was him learning a new cue - clearly, he understood the ask before, he just didn't want to.

Week 2 - relaxed posture, staying out of my space, engaged with a soft eye waiting to see what I'll ask for next. This may as well be a different horse!

The general change since then has been jaw-dropping. He's happier and far more relaxed in all contexts. His posture has changed, and he stands around humans with his head down and his back relaxed. It occurs to me now that in the past, he was as tense around us as we were around him, although that body language was so subtle, I missed it until it wasn't there anymore. We are now, all of us, regarding each other with curiosity and respect instead of suspicion and guardedness.

Here is Pyro voluntarily giving me and my dogs a 10-15 foot bubble as I cleaned manure out of the drylot last week. I didn't park him there or ask for this, this is him seeing my relationship to him differently and making different choices than he would have in the past as a result.

As Kate said, horses don't WANT to be the leader. In the wild, the leader gets eaten. So, now that we have given him reasons to work with us and not against us and proven our trustworthiness as leaders, he IS able to relax - he doesn't have to look out for himself quite as much. He is willing to wait and see what we ask him to do, even as he is also enjoying the moments of personal "be responsible for yourself" we're giving him too within the work.

It's not all sunshine and roses - he still tries to get nibbly sometimes or challenge us, but now that we have mutual respect, a desire to work with and not against each other, and a common language, we have clear ways to communicate "you're out of line, brother", and even the nibbliness is slowing over time. 

After nearly 3 years of knowing this horse, to see this big of a change in two weeks is mind-boggling, and I'm finding myself looking forward to my next groundwork lesson with him. Who even am I?!