Archive for the ‘The Post of Don Sam Incognito’ Category

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

September 21, 2011

Looking back at last year’s blog entries, I see that I have slacked off quite a bit on writing here.  Tonight, recovering from a sore throat that ended with laryngitis, I’ve got a bit of unencumbered time.  Normally, I’d be in adult ballet class, sweating away, but my voice is still gone, my throat still a bit sore, and I decided to stay home.

The leaves have passed the peak gold—I think the best day was Sunday, when Alayne Blickle of Horses for Clean Water was here for a workshop organized by my horse club, University Equestrian Network, with the help of Interior Horse Council, Interior Horsemen’s Association, the UAF Office of Sustainability, the UAF Alumni Association, and Camp LiWa, where the workshop was held.  I’m adding their links so all seven of my readers can check them out.  It was a gratifying collaboration.   Alayne had lots to offer us: ideas for dealing with run-off, ideas for incorporating native plants into a horse property, solutions to manure and mud issues, barn and facility design.  She had the impressive ability to listen to our complaints and excuses about our situations without sounding critical—there are limits to what we can do depending on budget, time, availability of help, but I think we all came away seeing that our horses can be a part of a larger network of growing things.  Here at Mattie’s Pillow, I sometimes look at Mattie and Sam as manure producers—a valuable commodity among my gardening friends.  I can’t always keep enough manure here for my greenhouse and raised beds—especially once spring rolls around.

I took Alayne to see several horse properties while she was here and the blue sky and gold leaves set off the day and the good conversation.  I look forward to following up on the ideas she inspired.

The summer’s riding is pretty much over, though the days are nice enough for trail rides—if only I weren’t sick or so busy at the beginning of the semester.  I’m looking forward to groundwork again this winter, polishing up those areas that have gotten rusty in the rush of summer’s saddle up and go pace.  Sam is looking better now than he did a few weeks ago, now that I’m adding Vitamin E to his diet.  I’ll still have him tested for Cushings—and I’m reading up on all that will involve for him and for me.  It would be nice if his shaggy patchy coat this year could be attributed to a vitamin deficiency, but it hardly seems likely with the fancy supplement he gets (Platinum) and the fact that he’s done so well on it till now.  We’ll see.  An older horse has special nutritional needs, and at the last tooth floating, it seemed like he might not ever be rid of his wave—he’s getting short in the tooth, which is what horses get after getting long in the tooth, since they have a finite length of tooth that grows out and grinds down over a lifetime.

So, I’m shifting the way I think of Sam.  He will probably not ever go back to his youthful glory, but he needs to have a job or purpose for these later years.  He’s too much of a scaredy cat for much trail riding, and he continues to be the trickster in all things.  I may try teaching him actual tricks, now that I have a better understanding of what that takes.  Perhaps learning more about clicker training this winter will help.

As for Mattie, she had a good summer’s training at the Intro A, B, C level.  She’s 15 now, and gradually developing a twist in her stifle at the walk that may be a problem down the road.   She’s mellowed out lots, though still has her ears-back style.  Ground work is in order for her, too, this winter.  I’ll try to take her out on the road a few times before the dust settles and we are in full winter.  It all goes by so fast.

The moon is half full, now, fuzzy behind some low clouds.  A neighbor’s dog has adopted us—she was up on the deck with Jeter when I came home this afternoon, her creamy Lab head peeking below the deck benches beside his curly chocolate head.  She’s young and goofy—I put out a sign on the road and called the shelter to leave my number.  I expect someone is looking for her, but we walked her around the neighborhood, and she doesn’t seem to have a clue where she belongs.  The leaves are spinning down from the trees—there’s gold above and gold below.  It’s a dizzy time, full of smells and motion, brilliant light and deepening darkness.  We’re teetering on the edge of the season.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

June 28, 2011

Summer seems to be rushing past.  Though it’s still June for a few more days, we’ve turned past the solstice and the weather has also turned from the hot dry days we had in May and early June to the gray rainy days we typically get in August.  In fact, all spring and summer, we’ve seemed to be at least a month ahead of our typical weather: May seemed like June, June like July, and now late June like August.  If this were truly a seasonal shift, the next step would be yellow leaves, dark nights, and impending frost.  But it is still June and we have all of July to go before August’s slow descent to fall.


Today it rained again, and I came home in drizzle to find Sam standing at the fence, gray from rolling and from kneeling in the dirt at the edge of the fence to get at the grass beyond.  His forelock hung in strings, plastered on his face, and his coat was thoroughly wet.  From the run-in shed, Mattie peeked her dark head out to see if I was bringing hay.  She had been hanging out in the back of the shed all day and her coat was dry.   Sam, on the other hand, seemed like a kid who likes nothing better than to splash in mud puddles.


Sam is showing his age a bit this year.  His back seems to have dropped slightly. His prominent withers seem even more so and the saddle that fit him well a couple of years ago, now puts pressure at the back of his withers, where they gradually slope into his back.  He’s now using Mattie’s saddle, and I am preparing to measure her for a new saddle.  He also is growing in a longer coat in the spring than he used to.  I’m reading up on Cushing’s, though he seems OK in every other respect.  He’s already on an insulin resistance diet, since Mattie is.


After last fall’s spectacular bucking fit, which sent poor Trish flying, I am not letting other people ride Sam.  I started out the season longeing both horses quite a bit to bring up their fitness levels, and I have taken half of the summer lessons on Sam.


Sunday, we went out to Colleen’s new horse facility—her dream place.  It was raining and I took Casey and Mikeala from Horsemasters with me.  Casey rode Mattie, which was good for Mattie’s training, and I rode Sam.  With Colleen in the center of the indoor arena, Sam kept one ear cocked in her direction.  She’s their vet, and they both have a high level of respect for her, as do I.


We worked on flexing at the poll.  Sam has a rubber neck, so he can bend two ways at once, neither of which happen to be the direction his rider wants him to take.   But he knows what to do when I ask him correctly.  At one point, we practiced moving laterally into the trot, then asking him to move out.  He bent his neck into collection and engaged the bit just right and stepped out into a full working trot.  I couldn’t see it, but I could feel how his back was working and he was stepping under himself and moving with energy.  Casey told me later that he looked great.


I’m hoping for him to have a good summer and that he and I trust each other as horse and rider.  After such a long and varied life, I think Sam wants to just have one person to relate to, and I am honored that he is trusting me.


Now, it’s feeding time.  He’s standing watch for the approach of hay, his coat soggy with rain.  He’ll whinny if I take too long, a sweet contralto whistle.  He stretches and bows as I approach and waits with his head bowed while I bring the flakes of hay.   I’ll scratch him on the withers and neck, then head over to the other side of the corral to feed Mattie.


A few more June days, then July.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

January 20, 2011

Il Cannone

Since solstice, there’s been Christmas and the rush of baking and socializing, then collapse into flu, then travel to Florida to visit family, then a return sick with strep, and now here we are about to begin another semester.  We’ve passed through the darkest time of year, and now the afternoons are lengthening so that there is still some light in the sky at four in the afternoon, and there are longer and longer periods when Mattie and Sam can stand with their sides to the sunlight before the sun shifts behind the ridge.

Sam and Mattie are likely bored and waiting for it to be warm enough—above 10 below, that is—and light long enough for us to be back to our spring training routine.  So I’m not telling them about Ocala and Il Cannone.

We were visiting family in Orlando over the holiday and Ira called his friend, Allison, a former TV writer who loves the process of breeding racehorses—mixing bloodlines, finding a bargain mare at auction and breeding her to a stallion who just might have the right mix of qualities to produce a colt or filly who could run and take our breath away in the process.  It’s a kind of slow gamble fraught with the pleasure of choosing the mare, dreaming of the foal, then seeing it—long legs and all—grow into a two year old in training.

He now owns two mares and their two fillies and a colt, boarded at a brood farm in Ocala. We rented a car and drove north from the gated developments and malls of Orlando to the farm country around Ocala.  I was still a bit sick, maybe even a bit feverish, but when we got to Ocala, I noticed something unusual: there were horse trailers parked everywhere.  The land opened up into farmland—no more swampy areas, and no more palm trees, but slightly rolling pasture land and spreading live oaks and loblolly pines.  Under the trees: horses.

I needed to buy gear for summer riding and we found a tack shop where I found boots, helmet, breeches—all I need for this summer’s Intro A and B—and maybe C–dressage tests.  Then we went to a deli for lunch.  Standing by the cash register, a guy in breeches and boots; at the next table, the talk was horses; the images in the deli were of horses.  I felt much better, suddenly.  Out the window, I saw horse trailers zipping by every few minutes.

We used the GPS to find the horse farm.  As we came to the intersection, there were arrows with the names of farms lined up, pointing in each direction, rather than road signs.  Finally, we turned into a long sandy lane and pulled in under the live oaks where we were greeted by Elaine, on her golf cart loaded with alfalfa, feed buckets, and two Jack Russell terriers.  The air was softly moist, as it can be in Florida, and smelled of pine needles, sharp and sweet.  We followed Elaine to the paddock where a half-dozen brood mares stood, their attention divided between the feed buckets and Elaine and the two strangers.

“When they see strangers,” Elaine told us, “they think it’s either the vet with shots or the farrier.”

We walked into the paddock with her as she dumped the contents of the feed buckets into the feeders in the plank-sided pens at the near end of the paddock.  Each mare knew where her feed pen was and walked into hers as her feed was dropped in.  Elaine closed the pen gates behind each mare and we stood talking about them as they ate.  Allison’s horse, Fiddle, is a small dark chestnut mare, well-built and sweet-faced.  Her colt is Il Cannone, a gentle chestnut yearling, named after a famous violin.

Elaine took us to see the yearlings—a rowdy bunch of colts and one filly–in the next paddock over.  The filly, whose name I’ve forgotten, had a wide blaze and a high-headed alertness—she was already the boss mare.  The yearlings came over to see us and let us scratch their wide foreheads and brushed our hands with their muzzles. Il Cannone sniffed my curled fingers—curled to resemble a horse’s nose.  He was curious and gentle; all the potential of a yearling is in the personality and conformation before humans get much of a hand in.  This bunch seemed playful and energetic and very interested in people.  But Elaine had the buckets. They each went to their feeding pens and waited until Elaine fed them.

All seemed peaceful on the place—the arching live oaks, the tall pines.  We bumped around the farm, three in a golf cart plus two small dogs, and visited some coming two-year olds and some older yearlings.  As we rattled around, Elaine told us about her life in the racing business and how, when she went college, she made sure not to go anywhere more than two hours away from a race track. She dropped out half way through college to make her life with racehorses—the farm is her retirement.  She made the life of a breeder seem so simple, but, as I thought about it, I realized that it seemed simple because of her years with racehorses—on the track, in the breeding shed, on the brood farm, training—a life’s worth of experience.

We stayed as long as we could under the trees, talking, breathing in the pine scent, listening to the horses eating and moving about.  While we were there, a truck and trailer pulled in with a dapple gray filly, just off the track, coming home to the farm to rest up and “just be a horse” for a while.  Elaine went into the stall to greet her and, though the filly had been away on the track for more than a year, it was clear that she knew her as she turned her head towards Elaine in the dark stall.  If I were a racehorse, I could think of no better place to come home to to recover from a stressful season on the track.

Finally we left and made the drive back to Orlando.  We didn’t make it back to Ocala again during that short visit, but now, here in the Interior where it’s hitting 30 below on a full-moon night, I go back to that spot in my mind.  Mattie and Sam don’t know that place exists, and I’m not telling them till spring.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

December 5, 2010

A quick update before I head to the Nutcracker.

A fellow writer, Sue Ann Bowling, has been running a series of posts on her blog Homecoming on the genetics of horse color.   She recently posted on the palomino and the genetics of a black coat–and used a photo of Mattie to illustrate a black horse who gets brown in her coat in summer.  I’m still not clear on Mattie’s color.  It’s more romantic for her to be a black, but there’s less cultural baggage in how humans view her if she’s a dark bay–a bit more ordinary and less of a diva, in her case.

As for Sam–the flea-bitten gray whose winter coat is completely white–I’m still waiting to see what she has to say about that color pattern.

Sue’s a scientist–a meteorologist by profession–who has dedicated a lot of her life to training border collies and has a life-long love of horses.  Though she can no longer ride, she faithfully comes to the fair to watch the dressage–part of a small crowd of dedicated dressage fans in the interior.  In past years, I was in that crowd; this year, Mattie and I were in the arena.  Still fans, but taking the next step.

Sue is also a “speculative fiction” novelist–writing in the genre that crosses the line between science fiction and fantasy.  Her book, Homecoming, was released this year–I read early drafts years ago–and is getting some nice reviews.  She has a new book in the works, too.

We’ve gone from freezing rain, to deep cold, to normal temperatures around ten below.  Mattie and Sam are bored, but doing the horsey things they do in winter–positioning themselves to catch the sunlight as it slants into the corral for a brief hour or so each day, flipping the tires in their corral to see if any bits of hay are still inside, and standing at the fence, staring at the hay barn, hoping some passing human will take the hint.  We’re about two weeks out from solstice now–the dark time, the quiet, inward time of year.  In a month, the light will be returning, and on days of zero or above when I can get home before dark, I’ll begin the slow process of longeing and ground work to get them fit for summer.

Till then, it’s fun to read Sue’s detailed writing on horse colors–enjoy!

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

August 27, 2010

Trickster Horse and Trickster Season

Today Trish and I went on a late afternoon trail ride.  It’s late summer—early fall, actually, but who wants to mention that—and the weather is changing.  We’re having cooler nights now that it’s getting dark, not just dusky, and the light has a bit more of a slant to it.  There’s less heat in the sun, though mid-day can get up to the 70s if it’s a cloudless day.   But the light shifts quickly in the sky now.  When we began grooming and tacking up, there was sun across the length of the corral.  By the time we were on the horses, the sun had slipped behind the crest of the ridge above us and we were in shadow and in cooler air.  We could see the sun bright on the valley below, even on the houses and treetops down the road.  We decided to follow the sun to see if we could catch up to it.

In other places, the location of the sun is easy to judge if you know the time of day.  Noon equals straight overhead.  Morning means sun in the east.  Evening, sun in the west.  But here in the northern interior, the sun is on a circular path.  In midsummer, it circles from northeast to northwest—roughly rising and setting in the north with a long swing around to the south.  In winter it blips over the horizon from south-southeast to south-southwest.   On any day between those two extremes, it can rise on any degree of the circle between those summer and winter rising points, depending on the progress of the seasons.  It’s orderly, but constantly shifting along the horizon.  It can be confusing to anyone not used to the place, and it makes any temperate zone understanding of the path of the sun useless.

So on our ride, we took a turn up a hill and were in bright sun again.  And there Sam decided to turn around.

Trish has been riding Sam most of the summer and they have become good partners.  Casey, who rode Sam last summer, has been riding other horses, looking for greater challenges and hoping to get some jumping in.  But Trish and Sam have come a long way—or had until she needed to take a break to travel and then move.  Now she’s back and Sam is testing her all over again to see if she is a rider he can trust.

When the light hit us face on, Sam stopped.  Mattie, the good trail horse, kept walking on, though she cocked an ear back to keep track of what her corral buddy was up to.  Sam had been pushing it—walking close to the edge of the ditch by the road or turning about suddenly as if he had decided to head back—the way I do when I suddenly realize, driving to school, that I’ve left my glasses on the kitchen table.  Trish had maneuvered him out of it.  She had the riding bat, after all, and Sam usually respects its mere presence in her hand.

This time he refused to go up the sunny road, and in their maneuvering back and forth—Trish trying to back him and he refusing to go—they ended up working their way up the road we had turned off of.   I turned Mattie to join them and we walked to the end of the road to the ridge road, as if it were our intention all along.  Sam walked peacefully along and kept pretty calm as we turned around and headed for the road we had tried to turn up.  We turned, he seemed OK, and then he stopped again, and backed precariously close to the edge of a steep hill that sloped sharply down from the side of the road.   Finally, I suggested that Trish get off and lead Sam for a ways—she showing him that there’s nothing to be afraid of and he complying by going in the direction he was trying to avoid.  It seemed to work.  He calmed down and walked along till she got back on again.  We did this once or twice more, Trish staying calm with him and not letting him go the way he wanted.

It’s frustrating to work with a horse as smart and as world-weary as Sam.  He knows so much and much of it is not productive to a smooth partnership with humans.  We have been trail riding many times before, but two rides ago, Trish moved him to the side of the road as a car was passing and his foot slipped a little on the loose gravel under some tall grass and he could feel the edge of the hill behind him.  It was scary for both of them and he refused to go where Trish told him immediately after that.  That’s when we finally resorted to leading him back past the spot then mounting to ride him back again.  It seemed to work, and Trish speculated that Sam had lost confidence in her at the moment his foot slipped.

It seems possible to me.   Sam has known a lot of good and bad riders and, while he respects the good and fair riders, he has no time for bad ones.  My reading of Sam is that he’s taking our measure all the time—measuring us against some ideal human of his past, and measuring us without much faith that we will live up to that ideal.  When he first came to us, his eye was dull, untrusting, doubtful.  Now, mostly, it’s humorous, mischievous, and soft.  He doesn’t mean us any harm, but he can’t help playing his tricks on us. In my imagined inner world of Sam, he’s testing Trish all over again to see how she’ll deal with him.  Can he count on her not to lead him off the cliff?  If he decides that he can, she’ll be able to ride him however she wants to.  Till then, he’s going to challenge her every step of the way.

When we finally rode back down our road, the sun was gone, but, in the way of light here in the north, we were just at the beginning of a few hours of gradual lingering dusk and twilight.  In the birches and aspens, we spotted a few yellow leaves, clearly yellow, not the result of disease or leaf miners.  The F word that no one wants to say.  Late summer, that is.

We untacked the horses and gave them hay.  They were glad to eat, glad to be back in the corral.  Sam stood quietly while Trish untacked him, then she stood watching him while he munched his hay.  He’s a special horse, and all of us who spend time with him feel his tricksterish magic.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

June 12, 2010

Sam has been dusting off his hooves, preparing to type this post.  Sometimes I imagine that he’s smart enough that if I had a giant computer with hoof-sized keys and a Horse-English translator, he could write his life story.  And he might comment on what he really thinks of all of us.

We’ve been trailering out to Movin’ Free,  a local boarding stable where our Horsemasters group is taking lessons on Thursdays.   Last year, we got a beautiful ten-year-old slant-load trailer and an ugly clunker truck with issues.  This year, I’m getting over my anxiety about truck driving and learning to haul the horses.   Every week, it seems, I call my mechanic, Rick, the world’s best backyard mechanic, and we fix something else on the truck—pack the hubs, replace ball joints, trace down the short that blows out the turn signal fuses.  Next it will be the steering column.  Each week the truck gets better, and I get a bit more confident.  By the end of summer, I’ll have an ugly but workable truck, I hope.

And Mattie and Sam have been very patient with all the trailering.  Unlike some horse owners I’ve talked to, I give them plenty of hay in the trailer, so that they walk in eagerly and stand contentedly during the trip.  They are both experienced with trailers and it’s no big deal to them, it seems.  Sam is such a pro that he backs out of the trailer, even when I’ve swung the divider aside and he could turn and walk out head first.  It’s a funny sight, him carefully picking up each hind foot, feeling his way back to the step down at the back of the trailer.  At some point, he must have spent lots of time in trailers, I’m guessing.

This summer, Trish has been riding him, except for these three weeks when she is in the field (she’s a geologist) and Casey is riding him.  It’s been a steep learning curve for Trish.  She’s spent lots of time on horses in a camp situation, but this is her first time taking formal lessons on a horse as challenging as Sam can be.  Sam takes the measure of any rider who gets on him and will go just as far as he needs to to test the limits of their skills.  He’s not mean, just a trickster. Trish started out not being able to get him beyond a wandering walk until I got on him and showed her how firm she needed to be to convince him she knew enough that he should cooperate with a trot.  One day, I stood in the middle of the corral holding a driving whip pointed at his hip and he perked up and began to trot with her.  Now, riding with a bat, she’s able to get him to move out when she wants him to.

When an experienced rider like Casey gets on him, it raises the level of challenge.  At the lesson she rode the other day, he kept crow hopping when she tapped his hip with the bat.  He did settle into the exercise, but, in his Sam way, he seemed to be giving her a bit of payback for not having ridden him yet this summer.  I know this seems anthropomorphic, but Sam proves how smart he is over and over again.  And, from my perspective on Mattie’s back during the lesson, Sam looks great with his long mane and wavy tail, his neck curved into collection at the trot, his haunches providing the power of the gait.   He’s in better condition than he was last year this time, and it’s great to see.

Last weekend, the Horsemasters gathered for a weekend “camp” with Hannah Knaebel, a trainer from Vashon Island, WA.  During the weekend, an equine dentist who travels to Fairbanks from Arizona each summer, gave a talk on floating and aging a horse’s teeth.  She offered to look at our horses, so Trish and I brought Sam over, hoping she could give us something definite on his age.  She looked at the grooves in his teeth on one side and said, “This shows him as 18.”  The groove came down from the gumline but hadn’t disappeared from the top of the tooth yet.  This meant, however, that he had been 18 for the past five years, or, as I suspected, was getting younger each year.  Not likely.

Then she looked at the same tooth on the other side.  The groove had grown down the tooth leaving a smooth place at the top.  “Definitely over 20,” she said.

“That explains a lot,” I said.  He always seems younger than the age I’m guessing he must be.  She told us that sometimes the teeth wear irregularly so that the gum on one side came down over the top, smooth part, of the tooth, making it look younger.  The good news is that, except for the cracked tooth that we removed a couple of years ago, his teeth are in good shape.  She praised the floating job Colleen, my vet, had just done.  All good news for Sam.

It’s been interesting watching others ride Sam.  I’m careful who comes to work with him, knowing that he asks his riders to earn his trust.  He works better with consistent riding and, because I want to focus on Mattie, it’s better when I can count on someone to come bond with him and spend the summer learning what he has to teach.

In his Don Sam way, he condescends to offer us the challenges he spends all day in the corral dreaming up.  In our ignorant human way, we work through frustration to patience, to adjustment of our skills, to the ability to work together with him so we can tap into all that he really knows.

If I knew who originally trained him, I would thank them for the opportunity Sam has given me and the other riders who’ve spent their summers with him.   I’d ask Sam, but he’s not telling.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

May 1, 2010

Standing in the rain with a glorious coat of gray mud on his white coat, Sam dreams of the Kentucky Derby and all those sleek, lean colts and one bold filly.  Agile Sam, who can curve and twist sideways in mid air on the end of the longe line, remembers being a colt and runs free in his dreams.

Wishing all the best to the horses in today’s race.  Run well, run well, run well; be strong and sturdy and fleet.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

April 9, 2010

Sam hasn’t posted for a while.  He’s been busy this winter growing a magnificent coat of white fur, which he is now in the process of shedding out.  But now, he’s ready for an update.

Sam, in spite of being an Andalusian gentleman whose ancestors are from a much warmer climate than Interior Alaska, grows a coat that is nearly four inches long by the time shedding season comes in April.  All winter, he looks like he’s half polar bear, and as the sun returns to the corral, the longer outer hairs gleam so that he looks haloed in the morning sun.  Mattie’s hair is not nearly as long or thick, though she seems to grow more of an undercoat.  Now that they are shedding, the corral is littered with clumps of their hair, especially in spots where they are standing to be groomed.

Today, Trish, from our horse club came over to see Sam.  She is considering being one of two riders (besides me) to ride him in lessons and clinics this summer.  We have an ambitious schedule planned and now that the ice is nearly melted from the corral, we can start getting the horses fit in earnest.  We stood for nearly a half hour in the sun grooming out his shedding coat with the shedding blade—a metal strip with a serrated side that rakes the loose hairs from his coat.  We were nearly ankle deep in white hair when we were done.  We tacked Sam up in the longeing cavesson and surcingle and got him going in circles at the trot and a bit of canter.

All the clicker training I’ve done—however sporadically—has paid off, it seems.  He stands to be groomed now—not as much inching back to the end of the lead rope then “panicking” at the feel of the halter pulling on his head.  He stood still as we worked on him, dozing in the last sun of the day.  He was—well mostly—polite as Trish walked him then sent him out to the end of the longe line to work.  He seemed happy to be working and comfortable with what we were asking of him.

Afterward, we went to work with Mattie, too.  After the last incident I reported a few weeks ago, I’ve been working with her on moving her shoulders away from me, tapping on her shoulders till she takes a step sideways away from me, then rewarding her by letting off the pressure, then trying again.  The idea (which I found on a John Lyons trainer’s blog) is to teach her to move away from the whip so that, eventually, I can just point the tip of the whip at her shoulder or hip and she will move out to the end of the line, instead of turning to face me.  Things have been better with Mattie, too.

It’s gratifying to have new people come up and see Mattie and Sam, for it gives me a better perspective on how far we all have come.  I’m less timid about pushing the horses a little now—though I always watch Mattie carefully for signs that she feels threatened—and they know more of what I expect: good behavior.  In all, it makes for pleasanter times with them, and I think of the behaviors I’m trying to shape in them as horse survival skills.  Just like teaching Jeter, the poodle, to sit at the side of the road when he hears a car coming rather than revving up to chase it, teaching Mattie and Sam to be calm and responsive to humans could save their lives if they ever have to be cared for by some other humans less crazy about them than I am.

In the book Black Beauty, Anna Sewell writes that horses’ lives are a story of changing hands, going from person to person.  Unlike dogs, who often live with one person for their shorter lives, horses move from owner to owner throughout their sometimes forty-year lives.  Girls grow up and go to college and their beloved horses are sold to a new owner, or a divorce or illness happens and the owner can’t keep the horse, or a rider is in a long search for the right horse for the purpose and goes through several in the span of years.  Recently, the endurance horse, Elmer Bandit, a half-Arab flea-bitten gray (like Sam) died at 38 with his life-long owner at his side.  He has the record for the most lifetime miles in competition of any horse in that sport—and he competed in his last race this past fall.  He is the exception, to have lived so long with one owner.  I hope to counter this trend with Mattie and Sam—but want them to have reasonable manners just in case.  Besides, they both have psychological and behavioral baggage from their pasts; I want them to feel secure with me.

The corral is mostly down to dirt, now.  This weekend, if the temperatures go back above freezing, we’ll get a crew together and rake and scoop as much of the manure as we can off the packed and frozen sand below.  By next weekend—if it doesn’t snow or rain and freeze (knock on wood)—we could be getting out the saddles.  I have two more lessons on Stormy in the indoor arena, then Mattie and Sam get my full attention, with the help of Trish and Casey.

There are tiny tomato and cucumber plants under my shop light and in the window during the day.  I’m beginning to clear out the greenhouse to prepare it for this summer’s plants.  The ground is brown with dead grass and leaves; the trees are a web of bare twigs.  The Tanana below us is still white with a widening gray swath that shows where the ice is thinning, thawing, and refreezing.  Anything can happen—snow, forty below, a quick melt and breakup.  We’re holding our breath.  We have our Nenana Ice Classic tickets in the can.  One day we’ll see pale green like a haze in the hills.  Then, then, spring.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

January 24, 2010

Every day the sun moves a bit higher in its trajectory across the southern sky.  For weeks past solstice and the New Year, it would blip up over the horizon, then slip behind the spine of the ridge that slopes down to Rosie Creek to the southwest of us, so that the newly lingering light of afternoon would be slightly muted and colder than it might otherwise be.  But today, the sun hung high enough above the ridge that it seemed to be climbing an eddy along the ridgeline and light bleached the sky and gleamed off the snow and off Sam’s white coat.

Sam hasn’t had a post here in a while, partly because he and Mattie have been on their long winter break. Since Thanksgiving, it seemed that I never saw them in daylight except for weekends, and then it would be too cold to do much besides clean the corral and chat with them while throwing in an extra flake of hay.  But today the temperatures rose to nearly zero—warm enough that I could take my gloves off to groom or to do some clicker reinforcement with Sam, who really needs it.

The horses get a bit feral during their winter break.  They hesitate when I come out with a halter, thinking it over, even though they know I have beet pellets in my hand.  Once, this fall, when the temperatures were headed to thirty below and I wanted to blanket them while it was warm enough (twenty below) to move my fingers on the metal blanket hooks, Sam took one look at me and walked away, swishing his tail.  Today, though, he came up to me and let me halter him.  He seemed glad for the attention, though he wasn’t entirely cooperative.

We worked on basic stuff—things he’s known how to do his whole life: stand in place, take a treat graciously without tooth-to-hand contact, back up, come to me (I use the command, “step up”), keep his head out of my space (the hardest for him).  With Sam, because he’s so clever and has gotten away with such mischief before, it’s always good to review the basic groundwork before getting him back in shape for summer, oh so long away.

Sam has never been and will never be a sleepy cuddly gelding, like the ones I’ve been riding at a local facility.  A group of us in Horsemasters have rented an indoor arena and lesson horses from a local camp and we’ve started riding every Saturday night.  It’s good to work with Stormy, the reliable Quarter horse gelding I’ve been riding.  He stops if there’s any trouble in the arena; he’s never pushy; he seems resigned to a life where lots of people of varying abilities ride him; and he seems grateful for the attention I give him, grooming, talking to him in my horse voice—a kind of soft banter I learned from my riding instructor when I was a kid—mostly “Good boy, good boy.”  After working with Stormy, I feel ready for Sam.  For one thing, it’s clear that it’s not unreasonable to ask Sam to develop good horse manners, no matter what he thinks.  For another, it’s clear that I do know how to handle a reasonable horse.  Sam just has his own ideas about things.

It was still too cold to use the clicker today, so I did what I’ve read that others do—a soft ticking sound with my tongue, not to be confused with the cluck or “kissy” sound of encouragement.  He got that it was the same deal as the clicker, and after a few review tries, he stood when I said “stand,” with his face straight ahead.  Because he turns his head away when I say “wait,” something we developed early as an alternative gesture to diving at hay at feeding time, I’ve defined “stand” as with his head straight forward.  This also counteracts his tendency to want to mouth or nose-butt me while I’m grooming him.

After we worked on “stand” I had him stand while I moved to the end of the line, and we practiced “step up”—easy—from the front and both sides.  And always, we worked on “gentle” or taking a treat with no teeth, something he’s motivated to learn, since the treat goes away when he applies teeth.  Strangely, though, he doesn’t seem as talented as Mattie is at picking things up with his lips and drops the beet pellets sometimes.

Mattie and I worked some today, too, though not with the clicker.  With Mattie, it’s always a matter of reminding her once again that nothing I do will hurt her, a slow desensitization every spring.  I groomed her, picked the ice balls out of her feet with the ice hammer, and worked on small circles on the longe line.  She doesn’t like to work far from me, though she was doing better by the end of last summer.  After a few circles in both directions a couple of times and some “stand” and “step up,” we were done.   A good first day of preparation for spring.

It’s dark now.  In a few minutes, I’ll make up their dinner dishes: beet pellets, supplements, and a small scoop of flax seeds for their coats.  We’ll haul a few buckets of water out to the water tank while they’re munching the hay.  Jeter, who looks like a café au lait cub with his coat all grown out and flopping as he runs, will come with us, bounding around, picking up frozen horse “balls” and running with them, pulling up in front of me with a sliding sit for treats.

We’ve made it through the darkest time.  All’s well.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

August 21, 2009

It’s been rainy since I got back from New Jersey and yesterday was the first day the corral was dried out enough to ride in a small circle without danger of slipping. I went out to ride Sam, hoping to consolidate what I learned in New Jersey and to get Sam back in shape for horse camp in a week and a half.

While I was gone, I visited two dressage stables, Holly Tree Dressage, in Shamong, and Transitions Farms in Elmer. I’ve already written about my first visit to Holly Tree and my ride on Cindy the quarter horse. A few days later, on a Saturday, I headed south to visit Debbie Morrison at Transitions and ride her Hanoverian, Clovis. It was a hot day—in the upper 80s—but I left early in the morning for a 9AM ride. The traffic was light, and I only made two wrong turns, and caught them early enough that I was actually on time. As I drove south, away from the congestion of I-295, I saw a landscape I recognized from childhood—white barns with silos, flat-fronted houses facing the road, fields of corn and sorghum, vegetable stands. By the time I got to Debbie’s place, I could feel all the tension of the drive wash away. I could hear crickets.

Clovis is a 17-hand bay gelding, a silver medalist in USDF competition. When I first saw him, he was in cross-ties with his saddle on, looking gentlemanly and aloof. We walked him out to the covered arena and I got on the three-step mounting block, stepped in the stirrup and eased myself into the saddle. He began to walk and I could feel his long strides pushing me forward with each step. It’s hard to describe—it was as if every part of him were in motion, as if his joints were springs. Debbie talked to me about feeling the footfalls of the horse—I had them completely reversed; I imagined that his hind leg lifting raised my hip at the walk, but the hip lowers when the hoof comes off the ground.

We walked for a while, working on my asking for give in the neck, and then she asked me to trot. His trot was so big it threw me up off the saddle in a post. I couldn’t imagine sitting his trot. He grew a little frustrated at my signals. I’m left handed and riding Clovis really pointed out to me how left-sided I am. My right leg hardly made contact with his belly; my right arm drifted out from my side. And riding him was work—everything I didn’t do precisely caused him to do something else than what I thought I was asking. He shook his head as if I weren’t articulate enough, as if I were trying to talk with marbles in my mouth—I couldn’t speak his language or share his vocabulary. But it was worth the try.

I went out again the next day, and the trot went better, and we worked on canter cues. Finally, he began a rocking chair canter, and I sat right in the center of it. All that energy: the impulsion of the hind foot, the reach of the leading front foot, the rocking leap of the gait itself. It was hot, and both Clovis and I were sweating—as was Debbie, following us on the ground. The air was dense and damp, and dark clouds were rolling in. There were rumblings of thunder and the light dimmed. At one point, as we cantered near the open doorway of the indoor arena, thunder and a passing motorcycle sounded together, and Clovis did an unplanned sideways canter, then recovered and kept on going.

Finally, Debbie showed me the piaffe, impelling him on and half-halting him all at once, lifting each shoulder and hind leg in rhythm until he performed a stationary trot. I don’t know if I can remember it enough to try it on Sam, but I might someday.

Then the sky got dark with lightning scratching through it. The thunder rumbled and crashed and the rain began to fall so hard we thought it was hail. I dismounted, and Debbie led Clovis through he rain to the barn where we chatted as we untacked and hosed Clovis down. I gave him a few treats to remember me by , then, when the rain lifted, I drove back through the farmland to my brother’s suburban apartment.

So yesterday, I tried to apply what I had learned about seat and legs and hands, both from Debbie and from Cathy, when I rode Sam. Sam was a bit put out by being ridden after a long layoff—and through a muddy corral, at that. He didn’t seem to like riding in the small circle of dry ground, and, when I tried to keep nudging him into an energetic trot, he turned and gestured toward my foot, as if to confirm to himself that I really meant it. Clearly he was contemplating an annoyed nip, but thought better of it. After Clovis and wide-backed Cindy, Sam felt small and narrow. My legs could barely find his sides. It was a short ride, but we’ll do more tomorrow.

Today I rode Mattie, and she did respond well to the seat and leg aids. For the most part, she bent into collection easily and moved well. She’s wider, too, so that the leg aids made more sense. Her gaits are so smooth, a real contrast with Clovis. It felt good to be back riding both of them.

Next week, horse camp.

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