To the Old Dominion Pony of the Americas Club:

dump truck kids july 07

ODPOAC, you aren’t always perfect.

You occasionally have meetings where people snap at each other, or shows with jumps that are too small (or too big), or where the footing is too hard or too deep or too rocky.

You have broke ponies and silly ponies and quite a few really good, honest, hard-working ponies.

You have old show facilities and weird show facilities and the occasional big, fancy show facility. You sometimes have really good breakfast.

Most of all, though, ODPOAC, you have people. You have a wide variety of really good, kind, hardworking people.

Those people helped me get from here:

SMoon

to here:

GS

to here:

now

Those people told me that I did a good job when really all I had done was improve a little. They smiled and told me to try again when I did poorly. When I was truly successful, there was no comparison to the enthusiasm of those ODPOAC people. They made me feel like a returning hero when I got back from the 2006 international with a 4th place ribbon.

I shared one of my greatest successes with three of my ODPOAC friends. There are few kids with whom I’d rather have gotten Supreme Champion awards.

ODPOAC youth news picture october 08

More important than successes, though, were the the friends I made at ODPOAC shows (above and below!).

costume

It was ODPOAC people who made those shows happen–ODPOAC people who made those friendships happen. They ran (and still run!) show after show, for little thanks.

I remember that at my very first POA international show (in TN in 2005), I had just had multiple refusals in my equitation over fences class, on a fairly honest pony. I knew that they were my fault and I was feeling pretty terrible about myself. I went out to the outdoor ring to jump the warm-up fence. My mare refused a couple of times and I was mad at her, mad at myself, probably crying. Neither my mom nor my trainer/second mom were out there with me. Someone else’s mom (I still don’t know who it was) set up two extra rails to make a chute to the fence and schooled me over it until my mare and I were confident we could jump it. I went in my last jumping class, open jumping, and had a really good course (with the insignificant exception of a combination that even gave the most experienced kids in the class trouble). That anonymous mom really helped me have a positive experience at my first international show and I do not think that I ever even thanked her.

There are many, many people in POA like this woman. Everyone in the ODPOAC would do what she did for a kid who was having trouble.

Never mind the imperfections. POA people, especially ODPOAC people, are some of the best people you will find. Thank you.

ODPOAC, it’s been 10 years since this kid went to her very first POA show, on the late great Innkeepers Sailor Moon, at Farmingdale in Blacksburg, and she wants to thank you, from the very bottom of her heart. You helped her grow up.

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And to the rest of you, I hope you got just a little bit of a sense of what another one of my dearly beloved communities is like.

Defining Success, or “Camilla, why is your best friend a horse?”

Yesterday, at 5:30, I had to go take an exam on which I expected I had very little chance of doing well. I had been working for days to study all the material for the exam, and yet there was still information I didn’t know. At about 4 pm, when I was feeling quite beaten down and hopeless, I realized that there was quite a bit of value simply in attempting to do the impossible, in facing down the unbeatable foe, in going to take the exam.

In recent years, my only measure of success has been achievement (Camilla, are your grades perfect? No? Then you cannot be happy with yourself). I have applied no value to trying, only to achieving. Strangely, if I go back in time eight (EIGHT!) years, to 2005, my outlook was very much the same. However, in the years between then and now, my opinions on success have been very different, and I hope, gradually, to return to those opinions.

I believed, when I was 14, that the only measure of my success–showing horses in this case, not taking classes–was my placing. I had been showing horses for a couple of years, but hadn’t consistently showed one horse. However, that year, I started showing Innkeepers Goldseeker–not only a very fine animal, but also the best friend and teacher I’ve ever had.

It was Goldseeker who changed my definition of success. She changed it in two ways.

The first was a sort of trial by fire. Goldseeker was not a good pony when I started showing her, and we often had abysmally poor performances at shows. I never did well, so I had to define success by my own standards: Had I improved? Had I done my best? Had I completed the pattern in the class? Success and failure were no longer externally determined–I knew whether I had succeeded or failed and could be happy with that knowledge.

The second is more noble, more heartbreaking. During the last year I showed Goldseeker, 2008, she was developing ringbone, an arthritis of the lowest joint in her front right leg. By that time, she was a good pony, gave a solid performance in most classes, and often placed well. Initially, we didn’t even realize that she was developing ringbone–in the face of pain and lameness, she just tried harder. Her performances barely changed, though gradually we started noticing unevenness: she balked in the middle of gymkana (or speed) classes (usually her favorite thing), missed lead changes, and came out of her hunter (jumping) classes limping. However, when she was working, she barely showed signs of lameness. She wanted to work. The pain in her pastern (ankle) increased, and she tried harder. Eventually we had to admit (for her sake) that she was truly unsound. She couldn’t be ridden anymore. However, the courage and the heart that she (an animal, without human consciousness and logical thought) showed in the face of increasing pain and unsoundness, taught me more about trying and working hard than anything else ever has.

Recently (since I’ve been a college student), my definition of success has returned to the old one: achievement. My grades have to be awesome, in my eyes, for me to be happy with myself. However, yesterday, when I had to go take my biochemistry exam, I reminded myself that there is great value in doing something difficult, even if I don’t succeed. Trying hard in the face of great adversity is, in itself, success. I recalled why my best friend is a horse and why I so admire her courage.

 

My girls

…by which I mean, of course, my mares.

Mac is making tremendous amounts of progress. She is my favorite little horse.

I would love to see her (which here means: ride her) in English tack, with this trot. It’s going to have to happen soon  (just as soon as I’m brave enough to deal with her occasional pre-canter crow-hop in an English saddle). 

She also has a pretty solid jog. Here’s her lope! It’s not solid, but it is now on the correct lead, which is progress.

Here’s my quarter horse, Sirius, pretending that she is a well-broke western pleasure horse (she isn’t. She aspires to run barrels in the future). I really love this girl. This is after about 1.5 months off (I’ve been busy and putting all of my time in to Mac and my school work).

I like her because she can do that (above) and then turn around and do this:

And here I am with my very favorite girl (this is when we went to Kentucky together last year).

 

In which Mac and I take an adventure

This Friday I decided to take my little Mac, a three-year-old quarter horse, on her first trail ride. I’ve been riding her (irregularly) for several months and she walks, trots, stops, backs, and steers pretty reliably and has cantered under saddle. That is all you really need to attempt trail riding for the first time. You’ll only be walking on the ride anyway. Solid whoa and steering are invaluable and knowing that your horse can jog and lope under saddle (in case of an emergency) is also helpful.

We didn’t go on a real trail ride, but just rode on the 125 acre pasture where Mac lives. Riding in Mac’s home pasture was easier in that she wasn’t encountering any new things that she hadn’t seen before, but added the complexity that she could have worried about one of the 50 or so other horses living in that pasture.

Here we are. We had a ball.

Mac behaved herself excellently well and seemed not upset about anything. We went uphill and downhill, navigated some weird terrain, saw other horses, and crossed the (mostly dry) creek. We had a wonderful adventure. Next time, we may go out on real trails.

 

PS. I know I am skipping ahead and not discussing further steps in horse breaking. I understand that this is cheating, and that I am failing to give a nice chronological explanation of how to break out a horse, but also I can do whatever I want with my blog.

How to break out a horse and not die, part 2

In my last horse training post, I wrote about what huntseat riders call “backing” a horse–basically just getting on for the very first time. This takes some courage on the part of the trainer and quite a bit of judgement and commitment, but not a whole lot of skill. Today, I’m going to tell about the first few rides. These should be brief–no more than 10 minutes each–but after each one, the horse will have vastly more knowledge and experience than he had previously, so their importance should not be underestimated. These rides do require skill on the part of the rider, most important is perfect timing. When pressure is applied and when it is released makes all the difference.

As this point, you have a horse that is used to having a person on his back. However, he has absolutely no idea how to respond to any of the cues that are typically used.

I like to use a bosal (a bitless bridle) or even a halter for the first few rides, because it reminds the horse of what he already can respond to–a halter and a handler on the ground. He knows to stop with pressure on the halter and to turn with pressure on the halter, when his handler is on the ground. This should translate to a stop and steering (to some extent) while he has a rider on his back. Thus, your first big concern is getting going forward.

Mac, my little Quarter Horse girl from the previous post, and I had a bit of a tricky time with this part. She really likes to stand still and hang out. She was happy to walk forward with me on her back if she had a buddy (my mom) on the ground with whom she could walk, but was really reluctant to walk on her own. I turned her to get her going (any sort of motion is better than none) and praised her enthusiastically whenever she moved forward. I also used my legs as a cue to go forward–even though it wasn’t a cue she recognised yet I squeezed or kicked gently to get her moving and released pressure immediately when she did more forward.

This phase of horse training is by far the most difficult to describe. I do it almost entirely by feel and based upon my previous experience. It isn’t an endeavor that can be described verbally in a complete way. You’ve got to learn to do it by DOING it. It is almost like art, in a way. An artist cannot describe how he paints so perfectly and I can’t describe how I get a three-year-old horse to go.

Here we are. I’m teaching Mac to turn and walk forwards by very gently applying some let pressure and pulling her face in one direction.

How to break out a horse and not die, part 1

In college, some people go to bars for fun. Some people join sororities or clubs. Some people just study all the time. Some people join bible studies, or dance, or row crew. Some people run charity events. I, however, really like breaking horses.

I guess I ought to begin by explaining the term: “to break a horse.” Non-horse people seem to believe that this has something to do with breaking the horse’s spirit or his will. I do not know where the term originated, but now it simply means to to the first part of his training. Once a horse walks, trots, canters, stops, and picks up leads (this is a reference to the asymmetry of the canter–the horse must canter left and right), he is typically said to be broke or green broke. The term is NOT “broken” (even though that sounds more grammatically correct), because nothing about him is broken, he just knows more stuff.

Here I’m going to tell about breaking out a 3-year-old quarter horse mare: Mac. She’s pretty much the cutest. She’s dun (tan/gold with black mane and tail) (I’m going to try to add a picture of her at the end of this) and she’s super smart and willing to do what I ask.

I started working with Mac at the beginning of January, about twice a week. I started by introducing her to the saddle and working her on the ground (leading at the walk and trot, stopping and backing up). I didn’t know her before I started this training, so I was also getting a feel for her personality. It’s really important, when training horses, to know what kind of individual you are working with: is she brave? is she smart? is she cooperative? If the horse is none of those things, you’ll have a long, difficult road ahead. If you’ve got one of the three, you’ll be OK. And if you’ve got two, or even better, all three, you’re set forever. Of course, there are other quirks and personality traits as well. But, when trying to explain horse personalities to a person who has never been personally acquainted with a horse, those traits are the first that come to mind.

After Mac was used to the saddle and I had taught her to trot and back quietly when when I was leading her from the ground, I started getting her used to weight on her back. I leaned over the saddle like a dead body (legs on one side of the horse on a step stool, arms on the other, torso draped over her back, gradually putting more of my weight on her and less on my feet.

After these steps have been completed (and, depending on the trainer, sometimes many other steps), it’s time to get on. Once you’re on, you’re committed. You have one leg on each side. It’s hard to bail if things start going wrong. You and your horse, in my case cute little Mac, have to be ready. I took a deep breath and got, very gradually, on. She didn’t care at all. I sat on her for about half a minute, just enough time for her to think about the fact that I was there, but not enough time for her to get worried about it. Then I got off, told her what a good horse she was, and quit for the day.

 

Poetry, pt 12.

Here’s a poem about horses.

 

Riding Lesson

By Henry Taylor

I learned two things
from an early riding teacher.
He held a nervous filly
in one hand and gestured
with the other, saying “Listen.
Keep one leg on one side,
the other leg on the other side,
and your mind in the middle.”

He turned and mounted.
She took two steps, then left
the ground, I thought for good.
But she came down hard, humped
her back, swallowed her neck,
and threw her rider as you’d
throw a rock. He rose, brushed
his pants and caught his breath,
and said, “See that’s the way
to do it When you see
they’re gonna throw you, get off.”

Training Horses

Today, I was as proud of my horse training and my horses as I have ever been.

Just to put this story in context: I’ve won classes against 20 competitors and placed against 40 of the best riders in my breed in the country. I’ve jumped 3’6″, received national and state year end high point awards, and broke several horses to ride. This moment beats those ones.

When I started riding my mare, Goldseeker, in 2005, she was a bit of a wily, unpleasant critter. I loved her, but she wasn’t well trained and there were many things that she was unwilling to tolerate. I rode her 5+ days/week for four years and showed extensively. By the end of those 4 years she was as solid as she would ever be–good at many events, and fairly quiet and sweet. Mainly, though, she liked the fast and exciting: jumping, barrel racing, reining, pole bending.

Sadly, we retired her at the end of 2008 because she was developing arthritis in her pastern joint and wasn’t sound enough to show. Three years later, her arthritis has improved considerably. I can ride her a bit and she can pull her cart. However, she doesn’t work hard.

Today, a girl with Aspergers Syndrome came out to ride. She is a junior in high school and apparently is very quiet and shy and has a hard time connecting with her peer group (as least, this is what I was told). Kay (Goldseeker’s owner) and I helped this girl ride Goldseeker. Goldseeker was quiet, slow, and obedient for this girl. The girl successfully walked, trotted, stopped, backed up, and steered on horseback. The grin on her face made every bit of horse training I’ve ever done worthwhile.

The gelding I trained and showed in summer 2009 also packed a 10 year around like nobody’s business: head set, jogging quietly, acting like this is what he had always done.

That is why I train horses. I don’t do it for money (I don’t get money, either. Haha). I don’t do it for the glory I gain at horse shows. But, if my hard work can make an unhappy teenager cheer up or a young kid gain an interest in horses, then what I did was worth it.

 

PS. I got a HAIRCUT.

PPS. I am finally reading Vonnegut.

Impressive

I am enrolled in ALS 3104, Animal Breeding and Genetics, this semester, and so far it is my favorite class. I loved genetics when I took biology, and I am thrilled to get a whole semester of it.

Today, we talked about the quarter horse stallion, Impressive. Impressive was a champion halter horse, with very bulky muscling. He sired over 2000 foals in his lifetime, many of them Quarter Horse champions. He and his offspring were also out crossed to Paints, Appaloosas, and other stock horse breeds.

However, there have been many champion quarter horse sires, so why am I blogging about Impressive? He and his progeny have been linked to the fatal genetic disorder HYPP (Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis). HYPP causes problems with blood potassium levels and with sodium channels in muscle cells. Effectively, it makes muscle cells fire more than they should, and may eventually send the animal into a state of paralysis (and then death). All horses that suffer from HYPP can be traced back to Impressive. HYPP  is passed on by a single gene, and is partially dominant, meaning that homozygous individuals(H/H) are more profoundly affected by the disorder than heterozygous individuals (H/N).

Since the gene for HYPP is dominant, it would not be difficult to remove the gene from the population entirely. However, there are many Quarter horse breeders who do not want to get rid of the HYPP gene. Why?

Well, the hyperexcitability of muscle cells in HYPP H/H and HYPP N/H horses is what causes them to be so heavily muscled. They are beautiful, well-muscled animals BECAUSE they are HYPP H/H or N/H. Of course the H/H horses usually die, but the N/H horses often live long enough to reproduce and win at shows. Breeders intentionally do not completely remove a deleterious allele from the population. Now, breed associations are requiring blood tests for HYPP, but it has been a gradual process.

An interesting aside is that Impressive himself apparently never showed any symptoms of HYPP. I do not know (but would like to know) whether the HYPP blood test was available when he died, and whether he was tested. I would also like to know exactly how such a giant problem in the Quarter horse industry could have started with a single horse.

Can you tell that I think that horse breeding is basically the most interesting thing ever?

Nah.

I bet you can’t.