Oh, the Places You’ll Go—Where Horses Have Taken Me (so far…)

When I think back to many of the unique places I’ve had the opportunity to visit, more often than not it was a horse that led me there.

In anticipation of my upcoming Gobi Gallop ride in Mongolia (more on this later), I thought it would be fun to look back at a few other adventures I have experienced, all thanks to my love of the horse.

Delaware

Ok, I know what you are thinking… Delaware? The “Small Wonder” state? But hear me out.

When I was member of the US Pony Clubs, I was invited to be a Visiting Instructor at a Pony Club camp in Delaware. I was perhaps 20 at the time, and the short flight from Boston was the first one I ever took on my own. I hadn’t flown very much at that point in my life, and so that solo trip was a pretty big deal.

I am a life member of USPC, and a proud graduate H-A from Squamscott Pony Club here in seacoast New Hampshire. SPC has been in existence for over 50 years!

That first USPC Visiting Instructor experience led to others in subsequent years—Oklahoma and Kansas, even California and Hawaii. I don’t know if I’ll ever love flying, but I became more confident about it, and it was all thanks to these trips. In fact, these experiences are probably what made me brave enough to try bigger adventures, like a summer study abroad in Kenya, and later, solo trips to Morocco and the Galapagos Islands.

Some Pony Club adventures are not nearly so far afield– like helping these members obtain their certifications in NH last spring.

I have stayed involved with USPC, and through the various roles I have held with that organization (examiner, clinician, regional instruction coordinator, district commissioner), I’ve had the opportunity to travel quite literally from coast to coast. Over the years, Pony Club commitments have brought me to 25 of the 50 states! I am currently on a quest to visit all #50by50…and I only have a handful to go. If you happen to be in need of a clinician– and especially if you live in Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, or North Dakota—don’t hesitate to reach out!

Iceland

Early in my writing career, I produced quite a few breed spotlights. They’ve fallen a bit out of favor with most equestrian publishers these days, but in the late 90’s, I profiled everything from Spanish Normans to Friesians to miniature horses. One time, my editor asked me to pen a feature on the Icelandic Horse—and something about this hardy and unique breed simply captured my fancy. I wanted to ride one, and of course, the only logical place to do so was in Iceland.

I found a company online called Íshestar, and booked an all-inclusive riding tour package. After flying overnight into Keflavik International Airport, and catching a bus bound for Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, I arrived at my guesthouse to find the owner solidly sleeping off the previous evening’s celebrations. It took a bit of convincing to coax her out of bed to let me in at the ungodly hour of 9 AM—at which time jet lag caught up and I also promptly took a nap.

Stjarna, “Star” in English, my first mount.

To ride an Icelandic Horse, one must essentially unlearn every skill one has ever practiced on horseback. To slow down, you tip forward. To go faster, you lean back and hold the reins more firmly. One afternoon early in the tour, me and my new Swiss friend Gabi were run off with across a lava field. It took every conscious brain cell I had to not revert to instinct in order to regain control of my rogue mount (who I would later learn had only been “lightly backed”).

Here I am holding Mokollur (Blonde-Top, in English) and a friend at a rest stop. Mokollur was actually Gabi’s mount during the “run-away” incident; I rode him the day after and enjoyed him so much I rode him in the afternoons for the rest of the trip. Another fun fact is that every piece of gear I am wearing is borrowed– Iceland has no native horse diseases, and any riding equipment brought to the country must be brand new, with tags still on.

Iceland is not a large country, and its people are both friendly and worldly, despite what might seem like a relatively isolated existence on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Our riding tour left from a farm called Saltvík, which is situated on the north side of the island near the city of Akureyri. On the domestic flight up there, we met two young men who knew exactly where we were going and who we would be riding with once we arrived. They wrote their names and phone numbers on an anti-nausea bag, so we could look them up later (we didn’t take them up on that, I’m afraid).

After riding with a loose herd of spare animals over miles of jaw-dropping terrain—including sweeping meadows and volcanic detritus—I have immense respect for the ruggedness of the Icelandic Horse. More than one time, I looked at the trail ahead and thought, “We can’t possibly be headed that way” …and then off we went. They are truly amazing creatures.

Mokollur and I hitting our stride. We each rode two horses per day, one in the morning and another after lunch. The extras traveled as a loose herd, with about half our riders leading the way, and the other half “sweeping” behind. Here, you can see the loose herd behind us, with other raincoat-clad riders driving the group in the rear. If you enjoy this sort of experience, you can visit Iceland during the annual sheep round up, which is also done on horseback!

If you should ever find yourself in Iceland, one tip—never call them ponies (although strictly speaking, most are well below the 14.2 hand threshold). The reason is, and I quote—“Men do not ride ponies.”

The Mustangs of the High Sierra (California)

At some point, one of my email addresses became subscribed to the University of California-Davis extension course catalogue, and every year, one of their offerings caught my eye. “Mustangs: a Living Legacy” was a four day horse-packing course, co-led by veterinarian/professional horsepacker Dr. Craig London, and extension veterinarian/professor, Dr. Janet Roser. Participants would ride and camp in the Montgomery Pass Wild Horse Range on the Nevada/California border, enjoy lectures and readings on mustangs and the region’s ecology, and hopefully, view the local mustang herd from horseback. It sounded utterly appealing—but with just one annual offering, logistically tricky.

But then one year, the stars aligned. I had a meeting to attend in Las Vegas, Nevada, that was scheduled to conclude just a few days before the start of the annual “Living Legacy” course. I rented a car and drove five hours from Las Vegas to join my fellow mustang enthusiasts in Benton Hot Springs, California (population 279, and that might include the quail).

Partnered with a former county sheriff’s horse named Thunder, I had an amazing experience riding in the high desert of late spring. As I had in Iceland, I gained new appreciation for how well horses handle even some of the most rugged terrain. Additionally, every equine on Dr. London’s horsepacking string tied, and tied well (if they don’t–they don’t last long on his string). We rode for several hours at a time; when we needed a break, the horses simply tied to the nearest tree. Thunder knew the drill and would almost immediately close his eyes and take a nap.

Thunder and I, with the White Mountains as a backdrop.

The Montgomery Pass mustang herd was, at least at that time, beloved by the local community, who seemed proud to have them living nearby. The herd was also famous for being one of the only naturally managed mustang populations, thanks to the area’s resident mountain lions. However, as their name implies, mountain lions tend to stay in the higher elevations, and the horses had gotten wise. With ample food and water available on the lower elevation Adobe Flats during the spring, herds could avoid predation.

The photo quality is not amazing, but this is just one snapshot of the massive herd of mustangs (comprised of many smaller bands) hanging out on the Adobe Flats.

According to local residents, the mustang population was growing every year; I estimate there were at least one hundred animals, perhaps more, when I visited in 2012. Early June in the high desert is still a time of abundance, but it was clear to me that the animals rate of consumption would quickly exceed the vegetation’s capacity to grow. It seemed clear to me that this herd was no longer being “naturally managed”, at least not by the mountain lions. (As a sidenote, in preparing this blog, I reviewed a 2021 article stating that the Montgomery Pass herd population has grown so tremendously that they are now pushing westward, into Mono Lake, California, where they are damaging fragile and unique habitats in their constant quest for food and water.)

As a native northeasterner, studying the dynamic issues surrounding the mustang populations of the west was eye opening, and witnessing firsthand the power of a massive herd as it turned as one unit to flee, emotionally inspiring. Thanks to the influence of UC-Davis, we benefited from peer-reviewed information and objective analysis of the situation; the inclusion of local ranchers and other residents in our conversations helped put a human face on the people impacted (both positively and negatively) by the mustangs’ presence.

The aridity simply dries out the bones left behind. Note the incisors– this skull belonged to a youngster.

In 2012, the Montgomery Pass herd looked to be fairly healthy and in good weight; seeing mustangs in this condition could easily make one skeptical of arguments that many of these animals lead a marginal existence. But after the program was over, and I was heading back toward Las Vegas, a small band of five mustangs (including one scrawny foal) crossed the road in front of me. These animals were painfully thin, and moved with care and deliberation over the flat, rock-strewn terrain.  As far as I could see in any direction, the area was fairly barren, the only vegetation small clumps of sagebrush. They seemed oblivious of me and my rental car; as I watched them move away, single file, the shimmering heat made their image begin to dance and wave, until they simply disappeared from view.

The Gobi Gallop—Mongolia

And now, for my newest adventure— the world’s longest charity horseback ride, Mongolia’s Gobi Gallop! If all goes according to plan, I will travel to Asia in late May to join intrepid equestrians from around the world for this ride’s 10th anniversary, all in support of the work of the Veloo Foundation.

The following sentiment, excerpted from the ride’s Facebook page, summarizes one of my main motivations for wanting to participate:

“[The Gobi Gallop is] a chance to see Mongolian horsemen and women from the oldest unbroken horse culture on the planet managing the horses to go 700+km in 11 days…10 days of riding and a rest day. It’s like stepping back to when horses were the only means of transportation, and covering ground like our forefathers.”

But equally important is that my participation in this ride will directly benefit some of Mongolia’s most vulnerable citizens—the children of impoverished families living in Ulaanbaatar, the country’s capital. For generations, many of these families herded livestock on the Mongolian steppe, but modern day challenges combined with an increasingly harsh climate have made this traditional lifestyle more and more untenable. In Ulaanbaatar, these families eke out an existence rummaging through the local dump. The Veloo Foundation’s Children of the Peak Project runs a kindergarten to offer their children a safe place to learn, to grow, and to be mentored. It gives hope for a better future.

Mongolia is the land that gave rise to Genghis Khan (Chinggis to the locals), whose small population of mounted soldiers eschewed hand-to-hand combat and still managed to conquer lands covering modern-day China and Russia, as well as most of the Middle East, the Indian peninsula and as far west as Hungary and Poland. Later, his descendants would cause China’s Ming Dynasty emperors so much worry they would erect a structure now known as the Great Wall. Mongolians were and are master horsemen; their children learn to ride as toddlers, and the horse is fully entwined in the fabric of their nomadic history. It would be safe to say that without horses, Mongolia wouldn’t be…Mongolia.

This map image has been “borrowed” from the website of the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse. If you want to learn about these unique animals and the worldwide effort to save them– this is a great source!

While there, I also plan to make a quick trip to Khustain National Park, home of the wild takhi. The story of the takhi could fill its own blog, but suffice it to say they are the only remaining truly wild species of horse in the world. You might know them better as Przewalski’s Horse (named for the Polish explorer who “discovered” them in 1878), and for many years they were essentially extinct in the wild. But thanks to a captive breeding program located two continents away, the animals were successfully reintroduced, and now thrive on their native steppe.

As an additional fundraising project, I have been selling these super warm Mongolian yak wool socks– and I still have some left! The medium reindeer is sold out, but I have limited quantities available in all other sizes and styles. The reviews have been outstanding– please reach out if you think a pair or two will be just the thing next winter!

I am covering all my personal ride expenses out of pocket, and am still actively working to meet my ambitious fundraising goal of $10,000—100% of which benefits the work of the Veloo Foundation. I am just over halfway there, with only weeks left to go—if you are so inclined, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to my ride! Truly, every little bit helps.

Ok, it’s your turn now—where have horses taken YOU? Or where would you like them to? Drop a comment here! Perhaps you will inspire me for my next adventure….

Animals in Disaster: Preparing for the Worst to Create the Best Outcome

If you’re like me, when you hear the word “disaster”, you probably think in terms of Disasters with a capital “D”: once-in-a-lifetime events causing catastrophic damage and leaving lasting impacts on individuals and communities. While many times we think in terms of natural disasters, like floods, wildfires, or hurricanes, unfortunately, Disasters come in many other forms– infectious disease, transportation or chemical accidents, and even terrorism. When Disaster strikes, sometimes we have warning, and those in its likely path have time to prepare. But just as often, the Disaster is unexpected, sudden, or even insidious, its effects so subtle at first that no one pays much attention until it is too late.

When Hurricane Katrina demolished the city of New Orleans in 2005, officials knew it was coming, though they had no way to predict the catastrophic failure of the city’s levee system that was to come. Human evacuation orders were issued—but no plan was in place for the residents’ animals. This forced residents to make a horrible choice; flee the storm and leave their animals behind, or stay, threatening not only their own lives but those of first responders. One source claims that some 44% of at-risk New Orleans residents did not evacuate because they wouldn’t abandon their pets. Ultimately, nearly 2,000 people and as many as 150,000 non-human animals perished.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Two years later, a Harvard School of Public Health survey of residents living in high-risk hurricane areas found that more than 25% of respondents would not obey evacuation orders if they could not bring their pets with them. Later, an article in the September 2017 issue of the American Journal of Public Health detailed the significant physical and mental health risks associated with failing to plan for animals in disaster.

Clearly, making a plan to save animal lives in a Disaster is, in fact, a plan to save human lives.

It isn’t only traditional companion animals that need consideration in times of disaster. Photo by Ben Mater on Unsplash

As a direct result of public outcry in Katrina’s aftermath, in 2006, Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which requires local and state governments to accommodate pets and service animals in their emergency plans. Although the PETS Act was a huge step forward, it remains an unfunded mandate, meaning it is up to municipalities and states to figure out how to make it happen, financially. Further, the PETS Act specifically excludes livestock species and horses, even if said animals are essentially family pets.

Clearly, the PETS Act is a step in the right direction, but for livestock and horse owners, it is not enough. Frankly, state and federal governments should be much more concerned. Not only is there a personal impact when livestock is affected by a Disaster, but there is also an economic one. For a recent example, after Hurricane Ian slammed into the Ft. Meyers, Florida area in September 2022, researchers at the University of Florida estimated a loss of “$220 million worth of animals and animal products.” In the Florida Bar Journal’s March/April 2023 edition, author Mallory Lizana argues for stronger protections for all species:

“Domestic animals depend on us for shelter, food, and protection, especially during times of disaster. Not only are horses and cattle worth saving as sentient beings, but they also play critical roles for Florida’s economy. Furthermore, household pets are considered and treated more like members of the family with every growing year. These animals are worth protecting, not only for their own sake, but for ours as well.”

The bond between an equestrian and her horse is irrefutable and is put to the test during a disaster.
Photo by Kenny Webster on Unsplash

Recently, I had the opportunity to represent the New Hampshire Horse Council at a free training on the subject of preparedness for animals in disasters, sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This particular training was intended to “…introduce participants to the resources available during emergencies that will assist in the management of animals, to identify best practices for emergency response that involves animals, and to assist participants in understanding how animals are included in a disaster plan.” In attendance were firefighters, emergency medical technicians/paramedics, community planners, veterinarians (including two assistant state veterinarians), dairy promoters, county animal response team (CART) members, and concerned private citizens. Attendees represented agencies and organizations spanning at least three states.

Perhaps one of my biggest takeaways from the training is that when it comes to animal emergencies, it isn’t only Disasters that need to be planned for. Smaller scale incidents— like loose livestock in a roadway, a horse stuck in a bridge, or a collapsed barn with live animals trapped inside—can still require a coordinated local response from public servants who may lack animal experience, local residents, and animal specialists. This means community members and organizations with animal expertise, tools and/or other resources must both be included in response planning and be prepared to assist as needed.

Further, the impact of both natural and man-made disasters can be short or long-term. By their very nature, some disasters—like drought, or a disease outbreak—may require long-term strategies to mitigate the effects and move toward recovery.

Drought is one form of disaster with both short and long-term impacts.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Although the focus of this FEMA training was oriented toward “big picture” animals-in-disaster planning, it certainly got me thinking about more practical steps that we as animal owners and caretakers should take to be as prepared as possible if a “worst-case scenario” occurs. With the caveat that it is impossible to predict every emergency situation, by looking at historical events that have occurred in your area and applying a little common sense, you can make an educated guess as to the most likely types of incidents to expect. When it comes to increasing the chances of your animals surviving a Disaster, for sure the best defense is a good offense.

The following is my own personal brainstorm of actions animal owners can take to prepare for a Disaster (or disaster), ranging from everyday good management practices to broader-scale activities. Some ideas relate just to horses, but others include our small animal companions, too. Not all of these steps will apply to every situation; think about your own unique circumstances and adjust accordingly!

General Good Management

Practice good hygiene—isolate new horses and those that travel from the home herd. Do not share equipment or touch unknown horses. Ask guests to come to your facility in clean clothes and wash their hands before interacting with your animals.

Stay alert to animal-related health incidents in your area, and adjust your management plan accordingly.

Microchip all animals, and keep chip info up to date.

Maintain a stocked animal first aid kit(s). Ideally, have two: one to live in your barn, and one to live in your trailer.

Stock at least two weeks’ worth of animal feed and medications at any given time.

Ensure all animals are up-to-date on vaccinations and other routine tests, such as Coggins. Store relevant health paperwork in your tow vehicle, on your phone, and in at least one other location.

Maintain up-to-date identification photos of all animals (to prove ownership).

Ensure all animals have well-fitted handling equipment readily available (halters, leads, harnesses, leashes).

Keep aisles clear, and doors and gates operational (it should not be a struggle to get in and out quickly).

Routinely inspect and repair all fencing, particularly after strong weather.

Photos to identify horses should be taken from both sides, as well as front and rear, with additional close-ups of unique identifying marks, scars, or brands.

If You Need to Shelter in Place

Figure out a system to store extra water—at least 5 gallons per animal—before you need it in an emergency. Have a plan for water access if power is off for an extended period, or if local water sources are contaminated.

Consider installing a generator sufficient to meet basic facility needs.

Purchase livestock marking crayons to mark horses with your phone number. Sharpies can also work in a pinch. Consider your horses’ coat colors in terms of which form of identification will show up best. Both of these methods of marking are commonly used in endurance riding; they are non-toxic and water-resistant.

Label halters with heavy-duty tape and include contact info.

Do not overstock your facility. Ensure adequate, species-appropriate shelter for all animals in your care.

My late horse, Carmel, after the New England Blizzard of 2015.

If You Need to Evacuate

In this case, time may be of the essence—share your plan with staff, family members, and neighbors that may be involved in executing it, and consider doing a “practice run” annually or biannually.

Own enough carriers to safely accommodate all your small animals.

Create an evacuation plan—where will you go with horses? Small animals? Try to plan more than one option. Consider how various routes in your area could be impacted in times of strong weather or mass evacuation.

Keep trucks/trailers accessible (shoveled out in winter), in good repair, and fueled up.

If you do not have enough trailers to evacuate all animals on site, or you do not have enough time to remove them, what will you do for those left behind? Consider: marking animals, leaving them inside vs. outside, water sources, etc. In advance, decide which animals are a priority to evacuate, and which will stay.

It is important to practice trailering frequently enough that you can count on your horse to load, even in an emergency.

Be an Active Citizen

Become familiar with your community’s emergency response plan. Advocate that the needs of domestic animals, including livestock and horses, be included in this plan.

Study the types of natural or man-made disasters that might affect your area. Evaluate your property, or the facility where your horses are stabled, to assess how these types of incidents might impact these areas specifically, and work to mitigate these impacts in advance. Don’t forget to consider the impacts on access roads as well.

Support local and regional organizations specifically tasked with helping animals in disaster, such as state horse councils, the SPCA, Community Animal Response Teams (CART), and safety net organizations, whether as a volunteer or through donations.

Credit for cover image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/8113246@N02/26246210340, shared through Creative Commons license.

What does it mean to be a “Compassionate Equestrian”?

When I founded Cold Moon Farm LLC in 2015, I created the following Mission Statement:

                “Cold Moon Farm is a working horse farm dedicated to promoting the principles of sustainable living, conservation, and the highest standards of compassionate horsemanship.”

For me, compassionate horsemanship lives at the intersection of the following beliefs: the importance of using evidence-based and humane handling, care, and training techniques, whether mounted or unmounted; respecting the horse as an autonomous, sentient being who chooses to comply with human requests but is never obligated to do so; and a strong commitment to doing our best to ensure that every interaction with our horses is positive, respectful, and fair. In addition, compassionate horsemanship includes understanding how the physical and emotional well-being of the people in a horse’s orbit impacts the animal’s care and well-being.

At the time, I had never heard anyone else cite compassionate horsemanship as the bedrock foundation to their practice. What I didn’t know back then was that Allen M. Schoen, DVM, and Susan Gordon had just co-authored a book called The Compassionate Equestrian: 25 Principles to Live by When Caring for and Working With Horsehttps://www.horseandriderbooks.com/store/the-compassionate-equestrian.htmls, published by my friends at Trafalgar Square. In fact, this book wouldn’t cross my path until 2022, and when it finally did, I was pretty floored by the synergy between these authors’ ideas and my own.

As the title implies, The Compassionate Equestrian defines 25 principles underscoring how the act of compassion must affect every action or choice we make around horses and toward each other. Schoen and Gordon discuss ideas ranging from the highly specific (a good rider is a physically fit rider, and a fit rider knows how to slowly condition their horse for peak performance) to the highly esoteric (integrating concepts from Schoen’s Transpecies Field Theory and elements of quantum physics and neurobiology). They discuss individual accountability, and then ask how the collective face of the equine industry might change if everyone involved put compassion forward as our most important and essential concept.

In this blog, I hope to offer just a taste of where my own beliefs and those of the authors intersected. For organizational purposes, I have grouped them into “individual” actions and “collective” actions, but this is pretty simplistic. In reality, even just one individual choosing to begin her journey as a compassionate equestrian will positively impact the collective equestrian community, because she will send ripples of compassion through her every interaction.

After you have reviewed some of these ideas, I am interested to know whether you can recognize an area in which you might shift your thinking, behavior or inner beliefs to embrace “compassion” as the first and most essential quality. How could such a shift make a positive impact on your life? On equestrians in general? Or even on the world at large?


“Be the change you wish to see in the world” (attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, 1913)
Image in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Compassionate Equestrianism—Individual Actions

Ultimately, it is at the personal level where compassionate equestrianism resides. After all, despite our best efforts, we cannot control the behavior or actions of others; in fact, it is hard enough at times to navigate our own way in the world.

                Education The compassionate equestrian is on a personal quest to always know better, and to always do better—not because it will earn her better ribbons, or because her barn mates will look up to her more, but because it is the right thing to do for our horses. She understands that the horse’s welfare is of the highest importance at all times, and therefore asks questions when she does not understand, calls it a day when something doesn’t seem quite right, and constantly assesses whether what she is asking of the horse is reasonable and fair. Horses do express their physical or emotional discomfort, but often in ways that are not clear to humans. The compassionate equestrian seeks to become educated enough that she notices her horse’s sometimes subtle signals of distress. When something is off, the compassionate equestrian promptly secures the assistance of qualified, trained professionals to address the issue. In any situation, she decides for herself if what she is asking of her horse is truly in his best interest.

Anna and I attend a clinic in 2019.

                Being Present When we interact with a horse, we expect him to pay attention to us—so it is only fair that we do the same in return. To borrow a concept from my years of yoga practice, the troubles, worries and stresses of our “real lives” will all be waiting for us when we leave the barn. If we do not release them before entering the stable, those distractions will not only impact how we communicate with our horses, they color the interactions we have with everyone in our orbit. They shape our behavior and our responses to challenge. When we arrive at the barn, we need to take time to pause—for however long is necessary—to center our hearts and minds. The compassionate equestrian enters the barn community with the intention of having an open heart and tolerance for those around her.

                Controlling our Ego One concept I especially loved from The Compassionate Equestrian (and I will paraphrase here) is that there are two beings living inside each of us—our ego, and our “inner wise-guide”. All of our actions and choices will be driven by one being or the other. Ideally, we learn to follow the energy of our “wise-guide” more than our ego. When we ask our horse to do something for us, we need to know that what we are asking is within his skill set, his fitness level, and is in his best interest. If we are asking for something outside of those parameters, it is likely to satisfy our ego—and this is not the action of a compassionate equestrian. There will be times we make mistakes when it comes to our horses; after all, we are only human. When we follow our egos instead of our wise-guide, causing stress or pain to our horse, or to others around us—we forgive ourselves, and actively work to change as we move forward. Just as it takes a body’s systems years to adapt to the physical demands of increasing levels of performance, it will take time to train our mind to prioritize the wisdom of our wise-guide over the ego’s desire for quick results, rewards, and recognition.

Horses do not act from ego. They do not care what they do or do not achieve, but they do care that they feel safe, which includes having the company of other horses (Lee and Anna at a benefit ride in 2020).

Only when we are able to let go of our own ego can we fully embrace the practice of compassion. For most of us, it will take concerted attention to notice where our motivation is coming from, and to shift away from the demands of our greedy ego. In fact, Gordon writes, “Decreasing the destructive impact of egoic tendencies in a very ego-based business will be one of the biggest challenges to unifying a global community of horse people” (pg. 368).

Compassionate Equestrianism—Collective Actions

Practicing compassion is both a habit and a skill; just like other habits or skills, we get better at it the more we do it. It is most difficult to practice compassion when circumstances are challenging, so it is important to cultivate compassion during routine occurrences every day, until it becomes a comfortable and familiar way of navigating the world.  

What would this look like in practice? For starters, we can celebrate everyone’s victories, whether or not they seem significant to us. Smile and say to them, with genuine positive energy, “I am happy for you.” Do the best you can, to the best of your ability, in every action you undertake. If someone offers unsolicited feedback, assume their good intent.

For professional equestrians especially, the horse industry can test a commitment to compassion. When clients are making demands, or bills are coming due, or a top horse has had to be sold, the unrelenting pressures can make even the kindest human turn hard. These challenges can lead to burnout and unhealthy coping mechanisms, or even cause equestrians to question why they got involved in the industry in the first place.

And so, I will argue here that it is perhaps toward these most stressed, challenged or embittered equestrians that individuals must attempt to direct the greatest amount of compassionate energy. For our own protection, being compassionate doesn’t mean that we must keep ourselves or our horses within their orbit. But we can still project toward them, in Schoen’s words, “loving-kindness” and the sentiment, “I wish you well.”

Additionally, we must remember that no one is at their best, all of the time. When an equestrian is scared, or angry, she will behave in a self-protective way toward her horse and others around her.  When she is naïve, inexperienced, or uneducated (as we all are at some point in our equestrian journey), there is an overload of information available at her fingertips, and she may not know whose wisdom to turn to. We all must hold the belief that the majority of equestrians want what’s best for their horse. As professionals, it is our duty to present them with the most current, evidence-based information, and help them to determine the best path forward, for them. Further, we have a duty to work to prevent harm, when it is within our power to do so—essentially an equestrian version of the Hippocratic Oath.  To quote directly from The Compassionate Equestrian, we ask, “What is the most compassionate way to meet the needs of the horse and the capabilities of the rider?”

We must learn to share in the joyful moments of being around our horses, and to celebrate every victory, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

Finally, as a compassionate equestrian community, we must commit to collectively caring for all equines, at all stages of their lives. This would look like an industry committed to ensuring there is a home for every animal it produces; that every equine is provided with humane care and living conditions that allow them to thrive at all stages of life; that every equine, from an early age, is handled and trained so that a lifetime of safe interactions with humans are possible. When the quality of an animal’s life has declined to a point where they are always in pain, or are at risk of causing harm to themselves or others, or are otherwise not able to express the natural qualities inherent to being a horse, a compassionate equestrian community will ensure their humane transition. In a compassionate equestrian community, these actions are the expectation, not the experience only of those horses lucky enough to “fall into the right hands”. A compassionate equestrian community holds its own members accountable, whether they are a backyard hobbyist or top competitor.

With compassion at the core of all equestrian activities and pursuits, we can expect to evolve into a community that shows respect for its members, honors individual responsibility, and unifies the diverse interests of equestrians across disciplines, breeds, and skill levels.

Is it time to rethink the “Traditional Boarding Stable” model?

In my work as a freelance clinician, coach, and judge, I have had the opportunity to visit facilities of all shapes and sizes, all across the country. And increasingly, I am hearing a common refrain among the managers at nearly every barn—boarding horses is a money-losing business, and they don’t know how much longer they can go on.

Now, anyone who has been involved in the equine industry for more than five minutes knows that “equestrian” is a costly sport. Long gone are the days when horses were an essential commodity and even urban homes included space for the family’s horse. Today, horses are a luxury, and nearly every resource required to keep horses well comes at a premium price. Correctly zoned, open land is also attractive to developers, driving up rental or purchase price; feeds including hay and grain are grown and shipped from a distance at great expense; essential farm structures, from run-in sheds to barns to covered or indoor arenas, are taxed per unit. Trucks, trailers, and tractors can all cost more than a down payment on an average home. Add in a dose of worldwide pandemic with its associated shutdowns, and the rippling effects of climate change—perhaps never before have horse keepers seen the costs of so many essential equine expenditures skyrocket.

For several winters, I kept Anna at a local boarding stable with an indoor. Boarding, no matter the facility, requires adjustment and compromise for all involved.

Frankly, the physical resources required to keep horses are just the beginning. Caring for horses well also requires educated caregivers willing to show up reliably and do hard, unrelenting physical tasks in all weather conditions. It requires skilled professionals like farriers, veterinarians, body workers, trainers and more to advocate for the animals’ best interests.

Professional equestrians are often motivated to dedicate their lives to this industry because they are passionate about horses. They genuinely want to see horses happy and well-cared for, and to play a role in their clients’ success. To stay in the equine industry long term requires that these myriad professionals are treated fairly and make enough money to live more than just a marginal existence. Long, grueling hours, demanding clients, and constant money woes lead to burnout and worse.

There are many tasks relevant to maintaining horses beyond just the essentials– such as weed whacking your fence lines to ensure the electric stays working! Izzy is clearly not impressed (the machine was also not on anywhere near where she was grazing).

Over the past three years here in northern New England, facilities that used to charge $600 per month for full-care have needed to increase their rates to $1000 or more—and despite this, some are still not breaking even. Some have had to adopt new fee structures, adding surcharges for what many owners consider essential services—blanketing, fly spray, even soaking grain or storing a trailer. Others are scheduling additional time-and-labor intensive activities—things like schooling shows, clinics, or camps—in an attempt to simply cover expenses. No one seems to be fully staffed, and right now, hiring workers with prior equine experience is a true luxury that comes at a premium cost.

Simply put, the path we are on is not sustainable. Not for facility managers, who are essentially barely treading water, and not for horse owners, particularly those who have already made some significant adjustments in their budgets to make their (or their child’s) involvement in the sport possible. For many horse owners of average means, the traditional boarding stable model is going to price them out of the sport. And if this happens, we all lose—the professionals, the client, and the horses themselves.

So what, if anything, can be done?

It is my opinion that we need to re-think the model upon which the traditional boarding stable is based. By “traditional boarding stable”, I am talking about the sort of place where there is one owner/lessee/manager, who accepts horses for boarding at a set price per month in exchange for a stated list of services. That manager is responsible for acquiring all of the required resources necessary for these animals’ well-being, maintaining the facility, and facilitating the day-to-day care. At such facilities, it is typically assumed by the paying client that their fee includes all of the above, as well as access to the amenities of the farm. The client usually expects to be able to arrive, visit and engage with their horse, and leave without assuming any duties beyond cleaning up after themselves (and frankly, sometimes they even fail to do that).

As I have visited programs around the country, the ones that seem to be doing the best job at keeping costs down, maintaining healthy horses, and preventing burn out among the caretakers are those based upon a cooperative boarding model. In a cooperative boarding situation, “members” (called boarders or clients at a traditional stable) commit to not only caring for their own horse, but to contribute to the overall care of everyone’s animals on a routine, coordinated schedule.

There is nothing better than seeing your horses happy and thriving.

There are many models of successful cooperative boarding stables. Most seem to be coordinated by an elected or volunteer committee, who are collectively responsible for ensuring bills are paid, applications reviewed, insurance secured and shifts staffed. Others operate under the direction of one individual whose role is similar to the manager of a traditional stable—the critical difference being that this person is not personally responsible for being on-site full time, or providing all of the care. Yet another model is one where the members join a co-op overseen by a trainer, who uses the co-op design to keep costs down for her students and to ease the burden for herself. I’m sure there are other co-op models I have not yet encountered.

Members at a boarding co-op typically must commit more time to their equestrian habit than someone paying for full-care at a traditional facility. They are usually personally responsible for daily tasks like cleaning their own horse’s stall or paddock, cleaning and refilling their water, and setting up their horse’s feed, or for coordinating with another member to do so on their behalf. They also typically cover a certain number of “shifts” per week, during which they attend to routine duties for everyone’s horses such as feeding, turn in/turn out, or night check, depending on the set up. And co-op members must be of a mindset that even if it isn’t “their turn” to provide care to the rest of the herd, if they see a problem—a horse’s blanket has come undone, or they passed manure in their water, or a horse seems “off”—it is still their responsibility to address it.

Though laying down isn’t usually a cause for concern, I have learned to always take an extra moment to assess the horse just to be sure it isn’t a sign of trouble brewing–especially if they are laying down at feeding time. I would rather a million times bring up something to an owner that ends up being nothing than ignore it and miss a problem when it is still fixable.

For many horse owners—especially folks who have never been responsible for their horse’s daily care—transitioning to a cooperative boarding situation likely will be a big shock. Taking care of horses is a lot of work, and there is no way to sugar coat that. But unlike keeping your horses at home or renting a dry stall somewhere, at a co-op, that work is shared by the group, meaning it is actually possible to take a day off or even coordinate a vacation. And the rewards are significant—first, the financial costs of keeping your horse will almost certainly reduce, and when expenses are incurred, you will have a better understanding of where they are coming from. But even more importantly, through providing your horse’s daily care, you will acquire a deeper connection with your horse, and it will (force) you to become a better horse person.

Equestrians–bringing glamour to the day-to-day.

I appreciate that a cooperative boarding model isn’t for everyone, and they aren’t without their challenges. In particular, most successful co-ops have some type of screening process, and ask members to adhere to a written code of ethics or list of expectations. Members of a co-op need to be on the same page, philosophically, about how they will care for their herd. There need to be clear procedures in place for members who don’t follow the rules. But none of this is truly that different than at a traditional boarding stable—it is just that the members become responsible for policing themselves, instead of running to a beleaguered manager with every little complaint or irritation. As in so many things, good communication is critical for success.

There will always be a place in our industry for the traditional boarding model, but it is my opinion that cooperative boarding may help keep horse ownership within reach for a wider swath of our equestrian community. Additionally, I frequently hear professionals bemoan a reduction in basic horsemanship skills, across disciplines. With cooperative boarding, instead of further distancing ourselves from a past that put true horsemanship front and center, we would embrace it as the most fundamental core value of our equestrian practice.

                –

My Equine Bucket List—the 2023 Update

For me, the shortened, colder days of winter, combined with the ending of a calendar year, bring a logical opportunity to pause and reflect. Although I long ago abandoned any illusion of setting an annual New Year’s resolution, I remain a goal-oriented person. The duality of thinking back to what I have accomplished in the past year, while also looking forward to where I might go next, helps me get through what can be a somewhat boring few weeks of winter.

Goals come in different flavors. They can be short, medium, or long-term. They can be an end in themselves, or a stepping stone to accomplishing something bigger, broader or more complex. They are not static; in fact, quite the opposite. Short and medium-term goals shift to suit immediate circumstances; long-term goals change based on these results, and also as we ourselves evolve through increased wisdom, life experience, and changing priorities.

Back in January 2015, I posted a blog in which I named 13 experiences on my equine “bucket list”. In that post, I commented:

“In preparing my goals for the 2015 season, I realized that it would be a huge help to step back and really evaluate the Big Picture—to think about those goals which seem so outlandish and so far out there as to be almost unattainable.  Because the reality is, if you don’t think about those kinds of goals in a Big Picture way, you almost certainly won’t backtrack and make the changes or seek the opportunities necessary to try to take them from being a dream to a certainty.  And then someday you are likely to reflect upon your career and say, gee I had always wanted to [fill in the blank]…but it is too late now.”

I still feel this way, and so I thought it might be fun to take another look at the 2015 list—and then update it with my 2023 perspective.

Eight years later, of those 13 experiences, I can now “check off” four items: 1) Keep my horses at home (2015), 2) Complete a 100 mile ride (2015 and 2016) 3) Ride a reiner (2018) and 4) Trail ride in Acadia National Park (2018). And I really do believe that creating this list was what set plans in motion to actually take actions that would make these goals become reality.

Lee and I enjoyed the miles of carriage roads at Acadia National Park. Thanks Mr. Rockefeller!

As I mentioned above, long-term goals change, for a myriad of reasons. There are two 2015 items I can definitively say are no longer figuring into my future plans: completing a classic three-day event, and raising a foal. Let me explain.

Back then, I still described myself as an eventer, but even in the 2015 blog I noted that after some significant time away from the sport, my bravado and enthusiasm for cross country were not what they once were. In the intervening years, I have left the eventing world altogether, I don’t miss it a bit, and I do not foresee a return.

Anna and I competed at the Area I Championships at both beginner novice and novice. This was the last jump on course, and it looked much larger from the take off side!

In regards to raising a foal, I can perhaps give this objective a “partial completion” award. I acquired my 2015 halfbred Connemara, DRF Isabela, at just under two years of age; my 2017 Morgan, Spring Hollow Or Noir, was even younger when she arrived in October 2018. Although neither one was a foal per se, I have had the pleasure (and challenge) of developing these two lovely young mares almost from the very beginning, which was really my true desire.

And now, without further ado, may I present:

Christina’s Equine Bucket List (2023 edition)

Items carried over from the 2015 list are designated with a *.      

  1. Save a horse.* I moved this Bucket List Item to # 1 to emphasize its importance, even though it is more of a commitment than it is a specific action item. Our industry is still plagued by the fact that we produce more horses than there are suitable homes; additionally, fewer equestrians are able to keep their horses at home, and this can preclude them from being able to provide a safe haven for older or retired animals. In 2015, I noted that to “save a horse” could be quite direct, in the context of getting a horse out of a dangerous or inhumane situation, or indirect, in terms of providing continued education to horse lovers and support for rescues. In continuing to embody this Bucket List Item, I strive to practice and promote the principles of compassionate equestrianism through my writing, teaching, and judging. Cold Moon Farm’s Poo for You Aged Compost Program promotes sustainable equestrian facility management, and proceeds from compost sales have been donated to local equine non-profit organizations including Hidden Pond Farm Equine Rescue, Becky’s Gift, Home-At-Last Farm Mini Horse and Pony Rescue and Sanctuary, and the New Hampshire Horse Council’s Support Where the Hooves Go Fund. And in 2015, I adopted Spring Hollow Marquesa from a local collegiate equestrian program, who was retiring after an 18 year career there. Although she was in no danger of ending up in a bad situation, I made a conscious commitment to be the human responsible for caring for this special animal for the remainder of her days.
DRF Isabela working at home as a 5 year old.

2. Train my own horses.* Like Bucket List Item #1, this objective is less tangible, and will likely remain on the list indefinitely. When I set this intention in 2015, my two principal mounts were Liatris and JEF Anna Rose, both of whom I acquired as green 6-year-olds. Although I am responsible for the majority of their training, both came into my life previously started under saddle. With the additions of Izzy in 2017 and Nori in 2018, I have had the opportunity to start not one but two youngsters from scratch, including being the first (and so far, only) person to ride each horse. I am the rider I am today, at least in part, thanks to several wonderful schoolmasters who gave me the opportunity to learn feel, timing, and other hard to describe qualities of riding.   But at this point in my equestrian journey, I take a great deal of pride (and humility) in knowing that the horses I ride and work with are the product of my own effort and time.  For me, it is more meaningful to develop the relationship with each individual horse along the way than it would be to get on an already trained animal in pursuit of a specific competitive result.

3. Drive a big hitch.*  This goal was inspired by the 2014 Equine Affaire in Springfield, MA, where I was blown away by the six horse Belgian hitch presented by the Morrisville College Foundation during the evening Fantasia show. From my 2015 blog: “The quiet power of each of these amazing animals combined into one suddenly small arena was just awe-inspiring.  The metal fittings on the harnesses gleamed, and the air hung heavy with the sound of their powerful feet rhythmically striking the soft footing.  I probably should start with a refresher on how to drive just one horse.  But boy, it would really be amazing to be directing that much power.” I have made zero progress toward achieving this goal, but I am still 100% interested in figuring out how to make this happen.

JEF Anna Rose competing at Third Level. Fun fact– if I had not previously earned my USDF Bronze Medal (which recognizes rider performance at First, Second and Third Levels), I would have earned it with scores on Anna. Photo courtesy of Mily K. Creative.

4. Earn my USDF Gold Medal.* Interestingly, the USDF Rider Medal program has been the subject of recent debate. Several prominent leaders of the sport believe that, with improved coaching and educational opportunities, and better access to high-quality, purpose-bred horses, earning Rider Medals has become too easy. But for those of us riding “average” movers, where every single point counts, earning the minimum required score of 60% or higher, especially at the FEI levels, is still a pretty ambitious accomplishment. Fortunately, a middle ground was reached; this year, the USDF introduced a “medal with distinction” award for those riders capable of achieving scores of 67% or higher, and have retained the regular medal program for the rest of us. I completed my USDF Bronze back in 2005, and I have four of the six required scores toward the Bronze Bar for Musical Freestyle performance as well. I spent a good chunk of 2019 (unsuccessfully) chasing those last two bronze bar scores, and as I am just at the beginning of the journey with my current dressage mount (Izzy), it is going to be a long time before I will be competing at a level that might earn me bronze bar, silver, or gold medal scores. Could I lease a horse with the intention of earning these scores? Sure. But please refer back to Bucket List Item #2, and I think you will see why that would only be an absolute last resort.

DRF Isabela competing at Training Level summer 2022 at Sassy Strides Equestrian in Lisbon, Maine. Photo courtesy of Erik of Maine Photography.

5. Compete in a CDI.*  Before one can enter a CDI, one needs to be showing in the FEI classes at the national level. SO… this goal is another one that is just way, way out there. And truthfully, right now I am a little ambivalent about it. Although earning the opportunity to compete in an international dressage show would be a real thrill, I don’t know that it makes sense for me to invest the significant (financial, time, travel) resources required to do it. I am keeping it on the list, because if the variables were starting to trend in that direction, I would consider it. But the opportunity costs involved may make this one of those goals which falls away when I revisit this list in the future.

6.“Do the Florida thing”. * Now that I have my own farm, the logistics of making a winter trip to Florida with horses have become vastly more complicated than they were back in 2015. But I really enjoy visiting the Ocala region in winter, if for no other reason than New England horse keeping from December until mid-March is really just about survival, and it is nice to go somewhere that isn’t in total hibernation. Additionally, it has become increasingly common for large training barns in all disciplines to migrate south for the winter, creating condensed pockets of talent and educational opportunities for the dedicated equestrian. I suspect that for me, it would at least in part come down to finding someone I wanted to work with badly enough that I was willing to make the sacrifices required to make it happen.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to miss out on this?

7. Train in Europe.* I think I explained this perfectly well back in 2015: “I am not talking anything on the level of taking my own horses over and training like I am going to make a team or something like that.  However, the tradition of horsemanship in countries like England, Germany or even Portugal and Spain is rich, and I think it would be greatly informative to have the chance to see how horses are managed and trained and riders are coached.” I would love to visit Ingrid Klimke’s farm; I understand she hosts semi-regular open training sessions— in German. Ich spreche kein Deutsch.

8. Ride in Mongolia. To the nomadic herdsmen of Mongolia, horsemanship is a tradition hundreds of years in the making. At one time, mounted Mongolian warriors were among the most feared in Asia. During the pandemic, I read a few books that took a look at horses from a historical perspective, and Mongolia featured prominently. In The Age of the Horse: an Equine Journey Through History, author Susanna Forrest dedicates an entire chapter to the rise, fall, and reintroduction of the Mongolian takhi, better known to most of us as the Przewalski’s Horse, and correctly called the world’s only true wild horse. I was fascinated by this history, as well as her travels to see the animals themselves in Hustai National Park in Mongolia. Then I read The Horse: the Epic History of our Noble Companion, by Wendy Williams, and she also featured the takhi, and traveling to Mongolia. Finally, I read Lara Prior-Palmer’s account of her winning Mongol Derby ride (Rough Magic). Let’s see, we can take two things I love—horses and travel—and merge them into one epic adventure? AND… **fingers crossed** I will be checking this item off the list in 2023, when I tackle the 10th annual Gobi Gallop in June! This 700 km charity ride is held to benefit the Veloo Foundation’s Children of the Peak Project. Riders cover their own expenses out of pocket, and solicit donations which help to support a kindergarten for some of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s most vulnerable residents. I will now insert a totally shameless plug—if you wish to donate in support of my ride, you can do so here; every dollar helps, and donations are tax-deductible if you are a US or Canadian resident!

9. Complete a oneday 100 mile ride. To date, most of my distance riding career has been within the sport of competitive trail riding (CTR), which challenges a rider’s horsemanship as she endeavors to have her mount finish a long ride in as good as—or better—condition than he started. The 3 day 100 mile rides that Lee and I completed at GMHA in 2015 and 2016 were CTRs, with the distance broken up over three consecutive days. In the sport of endurance, the total distances covered in one day can be greater than in CTR, with a one-day 100 mile ride the crown jewel. Endurance rides are technically races, and the winner is the first horse to complete that is deemed “fit to continue”. But the slogan of the American Endurance Ride Conference, endurance riding’s national governing body, is “to finish is to win”, and I think this is the main goal for many endurance riders. I think the process of preparing for such an effort (which takes years) would be so rewarding, and the ability to actually complete it a true test of horsemanship. Spring Hollow Or Noir, better known as Nori, was purchased with an eye toward being a distance mount. Time will tell if she is up for the challenge of longer rides; I am hopeful that even if she isn’t, that she will remain a solid partner for years to come at shorter distances. For now, this Bucket List Item remains out on the far horizon—with many smaller peaks that will be fun to climb as we try to reach that pinnacle.

10. Compete at the National Dressage Small Horse/Pony Championships. The National Dressage Pony Cup is an organization founded by Jenny Carol with the objective of “showcasing the exceptional talent, training, and commitment of ponies and small horses, their owners, breeders, trainers, and riders in the art and sport of dressage” (lightly paraphrased). The group’s efforts have since expanded to include year-end awards for scores earned by registered ponies and small horses at USEF rated shows across the country, and a well-attended national championship held in the mid-west each year. I admittedly don’t compete at too many rated shows anymore (the cost is becoming prohibitive, particularly when there are high quality schooling shows available), but to be totally surrounded by talented small horses and their humans sounds like it could be an amazing and rewarding experience. If I were to make the trip, I would want it to be successful in the sense that Izzy was solid at the level entered and confident enough to do her best in a big environment.

    You may notice a theme here, that most of these goals are “way off” in the future, with many pre-requisite steps required before they are even possibilities. My dear friend Jen Verharen of Cadence Coaching always preaches “action precedes inspiration”. Often, we don’t make a move toward the thing we desire because we are waiting to feel ready, or for a sign from the universe, or for some other event to happen first. I now believe that we never feel ready, not for the really big stuff. It can be uncomfortable, even embarrassing, to admit to some of your deepest dreams, particularly when you know how much would need to happen to make them become reality. Putting these Bucket List ideas into words is one step toward taking bigger, broader steps; it sets the ball rolling.

    Now I challenge you to do the same—what is on your Equine Bucket List?

    Riding Along the Pony Express

    As I write this, a cold December rain is pelting the windows of my 1930’s farmhouse, escorted by vociferous wind gusts and soon to be followed by plummeting temperatures. It is the type of day best spent sequestered indoors, unless necessity or duty forces one out into the elements. And it is the sort of weather that recalls to mind the oft-repeated (though unofficial) creed of the US Postal Service: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

    Though the modern-day USPS certainly does (and should) delay deliveries in bad weather, between April 1860 and October 1861, the riders and horses of the Pony Express faced these hardships and more, with just a handful of routes left uncompleted. Mail was tucked into one of four locked cantinas on an ultra-lightweight, Spanish-style mochila slung over a simple wooden saddle, and riders faced weather, terrain, rough footing, and during the Paiute War, hostilities from Native Americans. Operated by the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, a freight company based in St. Joseph, Missouri, the Pony Express was, during its run, the most efficient mechanism of bringing news from coast to coast.

    Pony Express. (2022, December 13). In Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pony_Express

    The first west-bound rider, generally believed to be a young man named Johnny Frye, departed from the company’s offices in St. Joseph, Missouri on the evening of April 3, 1860; just a few hours later, an east-bound rider left the Alta Telegraph Company in San Francisco, California, boarded a ferry to Sacramento, and continued from there toward St. Joseph. Over the next weeks and months, this ritual continued; in an average of just 10 days, the mail was carried some 1,950 miles from one terminus to the other. Individual riders completed segments of as many as 100 miles, changing out mounts at relay stations along the way, each change occurring in just under two minutes flat.

    Pony Express mail included business and personal correspondence, newspapers, and even a transcript of President Lincoln’s inaugural address, all printed on special super thin, lightweight paper. By bringing important news from coast to coast faster than any other method available at the time, the Pony Express played a critical role in preserving unity when the country was on the precipice of the Civil War.

    Though a success in the sense that the Central Overland route taken by Pony Express riders had previously been considered impassable in winter, the Pony Express failed to ever recoup its expenses. Due to the need for speed, ponies were not allowed to carry more than twenty pounds of mail, and the cost of sending correspondence– as much as $5 an item (the equivalent of about $150 today)—meant that only the most important of messages were sent via pony. The Pony Express effectively bankrupted its founders—William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell, the principals of the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company —who ultimately had to use their personal fortunes to pay off creditors.

    The final Pony Express run was on October 28, 1861, two days after the first transcontinental telegraph line was completed.

    All stamps depicting the Pony Express riders and horses were issued after the Express had been terminated. This one commemorates the 80th anniversary, its issuance the result of the collaborative efforts of the St. Joseph (MO) Stamp Collector’s Club and the Chamber of Commerce. Previously, these organizations had requested a 75th anniversary stamp, which was declined. According to Loving in The Pony Express Rides On, the design of the stamp was deemed not historically accurate by experts in regards to the style of saddle and the manner of riding and dress of the rider.
    Pony Express. (2022, December 13). In Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pony_Express

    Despite running for just a year and a half, today the Pony Express carries a somewhat romantic legacy, perhaps because it embodies the rugged spirit associated with the Caucasian male of the American West. It has been the subject of television and film, as well as several historical novels; there have been commemorative stamps, parades, and dedicated statues erected as tribute at both ends. But despite the modern fascination with the Pony Express, many specific details—including the actual route travelled and the exact names of all the riders and locations of stations—have been lost to history. Those who study the Express and its legacy have had to sort truth from fiction, and even they don’t always agree.

    I will admit that I am no US history buff, and my knowledge of the Pony Express was marginal back in 2020 when I signed up for the 1900 Mile Pony Express Challenge, sponsored by Warhorse Endurance as a benefit for the Pony Express National Museum. Conceptualized by endurance rider/photographer/podcaster Christina Hyke of Wisconsin, the Pony Express Challenge is an honor-system based “virtual” ride, with participants logging the miles they spend hiking, bicycling, walking, or, in my case, horseback riding. When participants log their miles into the database, they can chart their progress along the Pony Express route; upon completion, they earn a patch, sticker, belt buckle and, I suppose, bragging rights. As an avid distance rider, the challenge appealed to me on many levels, and I saw it as the perfect “pandemic project” to start on while most other activities were shut down.

    I learned a lot about the Pony Express from this book, The Pony Express Rides On, by Mabel Loving. Mrs. Loving dedicated over forty years of her life toward collecting materials on the history of the Express, conducting her painstaking research via written correspondence, first- person interview (only rarely done on the phone), and through scouring library, newspaper, and company archives. Unfortunately, Mrs. Loving died in 1957 with the project unfinished. Mary L. Reichert, a friend of Mrs. Loving and a librarian at the St. Joseph Public Library, assisted in compiling her extensive notes and papers into this volume– although Chapters 26 and 29 were never found. As a writer who has easy access to online databases and search engines when completing research, I am truly humbled by Mrs. Loving’s dedication, perseverance, and cross-checking of details across sources, when every such action required such tremendous time and physical effort.

    On Warhorse Endurance Podcast Episode 53, Hyke states that her inspiration in launching the virtual challenge was because “we believe the Pony Express Museum is a unique part of equine history, and one that is deserving of preservation.” When the pandemic hit, the Pony Express National Museum, located in the building that originally housed the Pony Express Stables in St. Joseph, was forced to close for 75 days, losing its main source of revenue (ticket sales) during that time. Warhorse Endurance contributed $5 from every entry fee for the virtual challenge to the Museum, and in 2021, a commemorative plaque listing the first 500 participants was hung in the museum’s front entrance.

    For me, it has been fun to track my virtual journey, superimposed on a modern-day map; as of the end of 2022, I am just outside Eureka, Nevada, with 370.22 miles left to go. I have been working on the ride for three seasons, compared to the 10 days of the original Express– but back then, no single rider completed the entire Express route. Instead, each rider specialized in covering a particular segment, and when he reached his end point, he waited at that station a few days for the mail coming from the opposite direction before returning home. I am using four horses to log my miles, though the majority have been covered on my two veteran mares, Anna and Lee, and mostly at the walk; an actual Pony Express rider would change his mount every seven to fifteen miles, and travelled mostly at the gallop.

    Anna and I finished our last Pony Express miles of 2022 the day before our first major storm in December. It was definitely not a seven to fifteen mile ride sort of day.

    Despite the fact that many of the exact locations of the nearly 200 Pony Express stations have been lost to history, an approximation of the route was commemorated by Congress in August 1992, when it established the Pony Express National Historic Trail. This route travels through Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California, and tourists can visit the known locations of 50 stations along the way. Some sections of the trail are also still ride-able, if you are so inclined.

    Above: Quite by accident, we came upon a memorial on the site of the Big Sandy Pony Express Relay Station, in Wyoming. Big Sandy was about the 18th stop on the route after departing St. Joseph, Missouri.

    Earlier this year, I was returning east after an overland journey of my own, one that traversed many of the states included on the original Express. My partner and I decided to detour to St. Joseph to visit the Pony Express National Museum ourselves; on a sunny spring morning, we parked our camper in the lot behind the historic building. The construction of its brick exterior, with small, grilled windows and arched doorways, reminded me of the design of city mews stables, leaving little doubt as to the building’s original function.

    I found this image of the Museum on Google, attributed to Steve Long.

    Inside, the uninitiated can learn more about the people and times of the Pony Express than perhaps they ever cared to know. Mannequins depict critical moments in Express history; murals and other artwork of the era or inspired by the Express add color to the interpretation. A Conestoga wagon dominates the middle of one room; in another, visitors can review a short film re-enacting the first Express ride. I especially appreciated an exhibit that shared the stories of several known Express riders and station-keepers, the latter of whose existence was arguably even more difficult and dangerous than that of the riders themselves. And in the lobby, I found a certain plaque that bears the name of 500 people who felt that the story of the Pony Express was one worth remembering.

    I promise my name is on here!

    In the podcast episode, Cindy Daffron, director of the Museum, states that what she finds most important about the story of the Pony Express is honoring the “ingenuity, hard work and dedication” of a “wonderful collection of people” who decided in January of 1860 that they would launch this ambitious project in April, just a few months later.

    “It was a daring ride,” Daffron says with a laugh. She is talking about the trail itself, but she may as well also have been referring to the Pony Express as a whole.

    And perhaps this is the enduring legacy of the Pony Express, and why its achievement still matters today. It is yet another reminder that even the most impossible-sounding of goals can sometimes be accomplished through a combination of grit, money, networking and good luck. Even in the challenges historians have found in establishing truth versus fiction in telling the Pony Express story, we can learn lessons about the importance of perseverance as well as accepting that we will not always know the entire truth about a situation. Most of all, the Pony Express is yet another stunning example of how when partnered with a horse, humans are capable of far more than they ever imagined.

    On Maintaining Your Integrity and Authenticity in the Equine Industry

    Integrity (noun)

    1. Firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values; incorruptibility
    2. An unimpaired condition; soundness
    3. The quality or state of being complete or undivided

    Definition from Merriam-Webster

    Recently, I have had occasion to ponder what it truly means “to have integrity”—integrity as an equestrian, as a professional, as a human being. Integrity means living your values and acting in accordance with your most deeply held principles, even when no one is watching. It means speaking up when you witness a deed or an action that violates your core beliefs, and sometimes, it means leaving a situation in which those values are violated so consistently that you can no longer function.

    JEF Anna Rose on a recent morning.

    The equine community is fraught with situations in which one’s ability to act with integrity is put to the test. It is no secret that the horse world is more divisive than it is unified, and discord among professionals is common.  When it comes to minor details of management—the “best” way to wrap a bridle, the “right” material to use in a bandage—I hope that most of us have the perspective to realize that there are, in fact, many possible (correct) answers. But when it comes to the “big stuff”— issues that truly impact the care and long-term well-being of the animals themselves—it can be harder or impossible to compromise on divergent perspectives.

    When I find myself in these situations, I always try to assume good intent. In other words, if I am in disagreement with a fellow professional, but I believe that we are both operating from a place that honors our personal integrity when it comes to the care and humane treatment of horses (drawn from our education, experience and intuition), it has often been possible to resolve the conflict. These are hard conversations to have, as are any that dig down into a person’s core values and beliefs. But what of those individuals who are simply unwilling to even enter into this dialogue, perhaps because such a conversation will expose their inability to listen to others, to seek appropriate help and/or to acknowledge their own lack of knowledge or understanding?

    This becomes a question of integrity.

    In 1965, in response to a government report on livestock husbandry, the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council released a document articulating the minimal requirements necessary to ethically care for any animal kept under human control. Known as the Five Freedoms, these tenets have been adopted by internationally known groups including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the World Organization for Animal Health.

    The Five Freedoms are:

    1) Freedom from Hunger and Thirst by ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.

    2) Freedom from Discomfort by providing appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area

    3) Freedom from Pain, Injury and Disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment

    4) Freedom to Express Normal Behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind

    5) Freedom from Fear and Distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

    Spring Hollow Or Noir and Snowford Barna B enjoy each other’s company on a snowy morning.

    These principles were first shared over fifty years ago; while progress has been made, it saddens me to know that as a whole, humankind still fails to meet even these minimal baselines in our custodianship of other species. When it comes to equines specifically, those of us who not only care for them on a daily basis but rely upon them for our livelihood perhaps should post these tenets on our fridge, on our laptop and on the mirror we look at every morning. In particular, we must ask ourselves—does my work with horses violate any of their Five Freedoms? If so, how can I, how must I, do better?

    To do better requires integrity. For me, professionally and personally, in order to live with authenticity (see below), I cannot and will not tolerate those who do not act with integrity toward the animals.

    Spring Hollow Marquesa shows off her”frosticles” as a winter sun rises behind her.

    Authenticity (noun)

    1. Undisputed credibility
    2. The quality of being genuine or real

    Definition from vocabulary.com

    Having integrity requires authenticity. Authenticity is living your talk, and that sometimes means speaking and acting on behalf of your conscience. Many humans do not behave in an authentic manner. They play games, play politics, and play roles. Some are addicted to power and will do whatever it takes to maintain it, acting in different ways depending on who is around, manipulating facts, and blaming others for their own shortcomings. Trying to maintain one’s own authenticity while others around you do not is a true test.

    JEF Anna Rose

    Horses, unlike humans, are always authentic. Their actions are the direct result of their biological needs or emotional state. Horses do not deliberately act in misleading ways, have an agenda, care about your goals for them or carry an ego about what they can or cannot do. Horses just are. If we are willing, horses can teach us to live in the present and to allow our inner and outer selves to come into authentic alignment.

    For humans, living with authenticity takes courage and strength. It may cost friendships, jobs or clients when living with authenticity requires you to take action. But the cost of not living with authenticity is even greater, because when we compromise on our core values, the dissonance this creates will manifest itself—physically, emotionally, psychically.

    In dedicating time and reflection to this subject over the past several weeks, I am reminded yet again that attempting to control the actions, beliefs or behavior of anyone besides ourself is a futile endeavor. Knowing that I have and will continue to do my best work to promote compassionate horsemanship—and that others will do what they do— is perhaps the only way I know to overcome the impacts of those who do not operate with integrity and authenticity within the industry.

    I will close today’s meanderings with one of my favorite quotes:

    “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” ~ Maya Angelou

    Reflections on Gratitude, Part IV: Blessed are the Older Horses

    As daylight grows shorter and we enter the holiday season, it is natural for our thoughts to turn inward. This year, I find myself filled with gratitude to be the caretaker for three special horses over the age of 20 who, though semi-retired, continue to enhance the quality of my life every day.

    Lee, currently 22 years old, out for a hack on a crisp late fall morning.

    The truth is, I think about older horses a lot, especially those who have ‘served’ their humans, whether as lesson horse, show horse, therapeutic horse or pleasure mount, and are then discarded by their caretakers upon reaching a certain age. I recognize that not all horse owners have the financial or emotional capacity to care for an aging animal, but I also am prescient enough to realize that safe homes for older horses are far fewer in number than the quantity of older animals in need. I personally know people who seem to believe that every older horse will be peacefully retired in a large grassy field somewhere, but most of us who are deeply connected to the equine world understand that not only is this hope unreasonable, it is naïve. I have come to believe that the best chance for an older horse to find a safe haven is to stay sound and be useful in some capacity. But that means as an industry, we need to get over “equestrian agism” and we also need to start planning for the later years of the horses in our care far earlier in their careers.

    Carmel, who was probably 18 or 19 years old here, evented at novice level until he was 20 and then spent 7 years teaching various Pony Clubbers until officially “retiring” at 27. I rode him on leisurely walks several times a week until just before his death at 34 years old.

    While the cliché “age is just a number” is as relevant to horses as it is to anyone else, in my experience horse folks get a little funny about aged horses, as though chronology alone is enough to determine an individual horse’s suitability for particular activities. It applies at both ends of the age spectrum; just as not all young horses are ready for the demands of performance at set ages (as is asked in racing, futurities, developing or young horse classes, materiale, etc.), not all older horses are ready to completely retire. Yet all too often, equestrians will discount an older equine simply because of their age—despite the fact that these animals are often the ones that are trained enough, experienced enough and mellowed out enough to be EXACTLY the type of teacher the average rider needs.

    Carmel happily taught many young riders the fundamentals of good horsemanship. Here, with his friend Molly.

    Not too long ago, I overheard someone say (in regards to a lesson horse in his early 20’s), “he’s ancient”, the speaker’s tone and affect making it abundantly clear that she felt a horse of his seniority should no longer be in work at all, never mind be used in a lesson program. Now, I have known this particular horse for at least a decade, and his current workload is a significant ‘step down’ from what he did in his glory days; additionally, he still shows up at the ring with enthusiasm and pep, occasionally runs off with a student, and is as sound as he has been his entire life. He is maintained with no medications, no special shoeing, no exceptional requirements, all of which indicate (to me) that the horse seems to be comfortable and content in his current role. I wanted to ask the speaker what alternative reality would be better for this horse, who currently receives top quality care and love and adoration from his riders in exchange for his daily participation in a non-physically demanding lesson or two. Frankly, there are older humans who do not have it so good.

    As bodies age, of course there is a change in what they can physically handle. Age-related disorders may require routine monitoring from a medical expert, life-long medication and/or dietary changes to regulate. Some beings encounter bad luck in their lives, and a previous history of illness, injury, poor nutrition or dental care or inappropriate/inconsistent/inadequate exercise can all accumulate to make the onset of decline begin earlier. But with proactive care, routine maintenance and attention to detail, none of these factors are necessarily career ending; each being must be evaluated as an individual, and their care adjusted accordingly. Note that nothing I have stated here is unique to horses—it applies to humans or dogs or any other species you would like to examine.

    Marquesa is frequently called upon to be a role model for younger horses. Above, she is ponying a young Izzy. Below, with Nori.

    I now believe that when it comes to horse ownership, there is a ‘point of no return’; if you maintain ownership of a horse beyond the time where they will have meaningful value to others, then you must also accept that you now have a moral obligation to see that animal through to their end of life. If you know that you will be financially or emotionally unfit to do so, then it is imperative that you find that animal an owner who can and will make that commitment, well before the time comes that the animal is unsound, unusable or unfit for work. I will say it bluntly; few quality homes exist for aged animals that cannot fill some kind of “use” unless those homes already were bonded to the animal before they became “unusable”.

    Marquesa, 25 years old in 2021, won the North America Online Championships Adult Amateur Introductory Level Championship this year with summer intern Tiger Lily. She scored in the upper 60’s, having never done much correct dressage work at all until after her “retirement” at age 20. Notice that she hacks in a hackamore now, as well!

    The best final home for a well-cared for, aging animal is likely the one they are already in. Posting your older equine “free to good home” or “suitable for companion only” is akin to dropping your aged dog off at the shelter. Most of the time, there is no good ending to these stories.

    But wait, you say. I only have a limited budget…how am I supposed to move forward with my own equestrian pursuits while maintaining this expensive, long-lived pet?

    Well, here are a few options:

    1. When it becomes clear you are outgrowing your horse (size wise, skill wise, or otherwise) sell them sooner rather than later. Don’t wait until the job gets too hard, they get hurt or they get sour from being asked to go past their limit.
    2. Rough board your horse(s). Depending on the region, there are likely a range of rough or co-op board options that can allow owners to significantly reduce the cost of horse ownership in exchange for providing goods and/or labor.
    3. Lease your horse to a less-experienced rider. While not without risk, a carefully vetted and supervised free-lease can be a win/win on both counts. Your horse becomes a schoolmaster for someone else while relieving you of the financial burden of maintaining the horse for a period of months or years. Further, a lease will leave you with oversight over decisions related to the horse’s long-term care. If your horse is quite experienced, charging a modest monthly lease fee (while the lessee pays for his upkeep) can give you money to put in the bank to help support him in the future. Sometimes, a lessee comes to love your horse as much as (or more than) you do, and they are willing to take on permanent responsibility for the animal’s care.
    4. Consider leasing your “move up” horse instead of buying (see suggestion #3, though this time you are the less-experienced rider). Overall, leasing a horse will cost less than an outright purchase, and if circumstances change, a leased horse can always be returned to his owner.
    5. Consider setting new goals. One of the best things about horses (and equestrian sports in general) is that there are many different ways to challenge you and your mount. In my career, I have tried new disciplines because they seemed well-suited to the horse I was riding at the time. Instead of moving up in your current discipline, consider trying something new with the horse you have. Perhaps your former show hunter would like to do low-level dressage; maybe your ring-soured lesson horse would enjoy hunter paces. Trying new things only deepens the bond between horse and rider.
    When Lee needed to “step down” from her final competitive career in long distance rides, I began doing 100 mile “virtual” challenges with her instead. So far, she has completed the 2020 Valkyrie 100 Mile, the 2021 Virtual Tevis and the 2021 Warhorse 100 Mile. She has added assorted additional miles to our cumulative 1900 Mile Pony Express Challenge as well.

    There are plenty of other ways that people have made it work, and if you are motivated, it is almost always possible to find a solution. It won’t necessarily be easy, and it may even require some hustle and sacrifice. But I think it is beyond time that we in the equine industry normalize planning for our older horse’s later years and honor those who fully commit to the on-going care of these animals—even if that means a comfortable (older) horse is kept in light work.

    Snowy may be 28 years old this year but he still enjoyed a recent trip to Hampton Beach, even spooking at the foamy surf as it “chased” him along the shore.

    Speaking for myself, watching my semi-retired horses teach other riders–allowing these riders the chance to jump their first cross country fences, to safely ride in the open, to experience what connection feels like– is almost as satisfying as it was to teach my horses these skills in the first place. It may sound trite, but seeing someone else truly enjoy your horse’s company and gain confidence and skills thanks to their wisdom is a reward beyond measure. And when I am having a tough time, or the weather is a little dicey, my “go-to” ride is not my talented youngster; it is the venerable veteran, who I can rely on to have my back when conditions are not the best. My older horses owe me nothing—yet they continue to give.

    Every morning that I am greeted by these special creatures is a gift. Whether it is watching Snowy roll in his favorite spot on the grass field, watching Marquesa boss young Izzy around or waiting for Lee to finish her grain, even the simplest and most every day of occurrences bring a smile. How lucky am I to be their steward, and how enriched has my life been for having them in it?

    Exploring Fundamental Horsemanship with Kip Fladland

    “A bad day with your horse is still better than a good day doing most anything else”~ Kip Fladland

                    During a heat wave in early June, I had the opportunity to participate in a three-day clinic focusing on groundwork and foundational horsemanship with Kip Fladland at Linden Woods Farm in Durham, New Hampshire. I first heard about the clinic during the depths of our New England winter and decided it sounded like the perfect opportunity to get my rising 6-year-old Connemara/Thoroughbred cross, DRF Isabela, off farm for an educational outing.

                    As the owner/trainer of two younger horses (Izzy and her stablemate, the 4-year-old Morgan mare Spring Hollow Or Noir), I have been increasingly interested in understanding how effective groundwork can play a role in giving green horses a solid foundation. I think what most attracts me to these techniques is seeing how horses properly trained through effective groundwork tend to be sensitive yet sane, confident and connected to their handler, yet also respectful of boundaries. The training becomes almost a series of puzzles for the horse to solve, and it engages them as a partner rather than forcing submission.

     Note that I said “properly trained”; when it comes to groundwork, most of the time what I actually see are (middle-aged) women with their rope halters waving around their arms ineffectually while their horses proceed to walk all over them. I am sure this behavior is not these owners’ intended outcome, but they as of yet lack the finesse, feel or practice to get the timing right with their body language, with the end result being a confused and slightly feral horse.

    JEF Anna Rose and I on day one. Note our elegant homemade flag and her non-matching bell boots. This is definitely the first time I have ever put her in a rope halter.

                    Lest you think I am being unnecessarily harsh toward middle-aged women and their rope halters, I now resemble that remark. Izzy’s rope halter arrived in the mail only about ten days before the clinic and my “flag” was made from an old dressage whip whose lash had broken off, a faded blue bandana, and a rubber band that came with my asparagus. And when I began trying to use said flag at the clinic to effect certain responses from my horse, while also maintaining particular body positioning, it felt like learning a new dance with the instructions coming in an unfamiliar language. I frequently felt awkward, overconfident, briefly successful, then full of questions.

                    Since returning home, I have continued to practice the techniques I learned over these three days. I am confident that I have forgotten more than I remember, despite my notes and application in practice. However, I do feel that playing with some of these basic techniques has resulted in positive changes, particularly with my young horses.

    DRF Isabela looking a little alert at the start of the clinic on day two.

                    With the pandemic curtailing our travel plans last year, I looked forward to taking Izzy out in public and start exposing her to the world beyond Cold Moon Farm at this clinic. As it goes with horses, circumstances dictated that I needed to bring my veteran halfbred Connemara, JEF Anna Rose, for day one, but Izzy was able to make the trip for days two and three.  

                    Here are a few of my top take-aways from this experience:

    1. Controlled flag handling is key. Learning to handle the flag effectively is probably one of the most important pieces in terms of communicating your intent and desire to the horse. The flag can be used to direct them forward, turn them and encourage more activity from the hindquarters, but it can also be used to reassure them and give them confidence. The horse has to become what I would call “positively de-sensitized” to the flag, much like they do with dressage wands or longe whips. In other words, your horse should respond to the flag, but not fear it.

    On day one, I had no further finished explaining that Anna tended to be rather dull and non-responsive to aids when she reacted to the flag as though I chased her with a flaming arrow. Kip watched as she spun around and around in an effort to get away from the flag’s presence near her haunches with a rather dry comment: “And you say you ride this one?”. I laughed and replied that if Anna were half as electric under saddle as she was toward that flag, we might have gotten a little further in our dressage work. By the end of the session, she tolerated the flag on her, near her and touching her pretty much anywhere.

    You will see that Anna fairly quickly acclimated to the flag and became her usual rather non-reactive self.

    On day two, a new horse joined our group who was rather impressively reactive to the flag. Leslie Ann McGowan, trainer at Double A Equestrians and a long time student of Kip’s, stepped in to handle the horse. Despite the horse’s honest fear and confusion, Leslie Ann remained calm and simply consistently exposed him to the flag until he started to settle. Throughout the clinic, horses had occasional big responses to the aids, or misunderstandings of the aids, to which Kip replied at one point, “She’s not a teacup and you aren’t gonna break her.” As with humans, sometimes for the horse to learn, they must make mistakes and express frustration and confusion before understanding what is expected of them. As trainers, we can’t be afraid of these messy moments if we hope to help our horse learn.

    The flag is held like a tennis racket, and there are four ways to change the flag from one hand to the other, each of which will achieve an increasing degree of engagement in the hocks. When your flag changes hands, the horse usually is also changing direction. One important note is that you should never switch the flag on the ground through the blind spot in front of the horse’s nose. If you do this, the movement can scare them and some horses will strike with their forelegs.

    It would appear that here I am attempting to send Izzy forward but have perhaps failed to open the forehand first. Sigh. So much to learn.

    The position of your opposite arm combines with the flag to direct the horse. If using the flag to send the horse forward, the hand should be in a leading position. If rubbing the horse with the flag to reassure them, your opposite hand should drop toward your thigh.

    • Reward the try but also don’t wait for perfection before you ask for more.

    Whatever you are asking the horse to do: move away, turn, yield in the poll, etc., it is important to recognize the smallest effort by releasing the pressure as soon as you sense the horse is yielding to what you have asked. One of the most common ways that trainers go wrong is they hold too long, or expect too much, and the horse begins to resist rather than try.

    At the same time, if we wait for every piece to be perfect before moving on, we will never get anywhere at all. As with most training, we must accept the try, and a result that is a little bit better than before, rather than nitpick doggedly until the horse is perfect.

    A nice scratch on the forehead for a good effort.

    One of our first tasks was to ask our horses to step out and away from us, leading with their outside foreleg. Kip called this “opening”; if you are “opening” to the left, the horse’s right fore will step out and the horse tracks left. To initiate the movement, we raised our hands toward the horse’s head and neck and without contact (at first), applied pressure to ask the horse to move. At first, in response, horses may raise their head, step into the handler, back up, move forward, or simply not move at all. The handler must hold her ground and not back up; the horse must learn to move out of the handler’s space. Through all of those little mistakes from the horse (‘do you want me to go this way? Or this way? How about this?) the handler must remain calm, clear in her mind of what she is looking for, and ready to release as soon as the hoof moved out.

    Our next task was to open the forehand and then, using the flag, send the horse out on a small circle around us. We were to keep the horse actively moving, slightly bent to the inside through their body and with the legs moving “united”; Kip describes this as when the left legs are on the same track as each other and the right legs on their own matching track. The flag can be used to create the energy, encourage the horse to step away, or to reassure them; if the horse has become too desensitized to it, the handler will need to use the flag assertively to once again elicit a positive response. Once the horse marched several circles united and with correct bend, we asked them to halt by stepping toward the hindquarter and raising the lead diagonally toward the withers. The horse’s hindquarters should step out (crossing over with inside hind) and their neck bend in. Kip called this “disengaging” the hind quarter, though he doesn’t love that term.

    Working on the active, bent circle.

    In doing some of these movements, I was struck (not for the first time) by how much overlap there is between some of these concepts and the fundamentals of dressage. My former coach, Verne Batchelder, had a movement he called “the circle of submission”, in which the rider actively executed a volte and asked the horse to step the hindquarters out for several strides while maintaining the inside bend and position of the neck. However you say it–asking the horse to yield their hips, engage their hocks, move their feet—ultimately requires that the horse be willing to allow their bodies to be manipulated and their toplines to begin to relax and stretch. It is simple biomechanics; a horse cannot reach further under his body with the hind legs if his back is tight.

    Kip taught a mounted session in the afternoons; I was able to make it back to observe a few hours of day two’s lesson. He emphasized that all of the flag exercises he does on the ground, he also does while mounted. Though I didn’t get to see much of how he incorporates the flag into mounted work, he mentioned that at the end of day one, he backed a leggy 2-year-old warmblood that was in our group; by the end of that first ride (which was a very low stress experience, from what I was told), he was riding with the flag.

    Each session, Kip worked with a horse with whom he could demo the various skills and techniques. I was floored to learn that this calm, elegant Quarter Horse mare of Karen Bishop’s was only 4 years old! She demoed in the morning set and then was ridden in the afternoon. Truly wise beyond her years!

    • I should ask my horses to back more often and with more intention.

    Kip introduced several ways of asking the horse to back in hand which can then be translated to work under saddle. The most basic option requires the horse to back to the end of the lead rope from a rather light flick of the line; we also played with asking the horse to back with poll flexion off of noseband pressure from the halter (from each side) as well as backing on a straight line off a short shank (also from each side). This last form of backing can easily be added onto a yield of the haunches.

    Practicing backing up in hand. Here, you should have your hand upside down on the knot of the halter, as opposed to right side up like I have it here. That way you can use your elbow to keep the horse’s head away from you if they swing it up! Kip had us apply side to side pressure on the noseband using the knot under the chin, with the goal of the horse softly flexing in the poll and smoothly stepping back.

    In later sessions, we also learned how to add neck flexion in time with the lift of the foreleg on the outside, which caused the horse to back onto an arc. We later played with backing parallel to the wall, then timing a flick of the flag with the “about to step” movement of any individual limb. This causes the horse to balance back and then push forward with more power. With four distinct limbs to focus on, there is plenty to practice.

    On days two and three, when Izzy was with me, we also played with backing under saddle. Until that day, I had never asked Izzy to back even a single step with me on board, and Kip wanted us to start with five steps on a soft feel, then add a bend in the horse’s neck and back on a quarter turn! I can’t say we were the most successful pair in the ring, but thinking about our work on the ground helped with the intention under saddle. When Izzy expressed confusion, Kip had me break down the movement so it became one step back, one step bend.

    Watching Kip demonstrate asking the horse to yield the neck in either direction at the halt. Depending on whether a leg aid is applied, the horse should either simply move their neck or also yield their haunches.

    One of Kip’s overall themes was to never waste an opportunity to move your horse’s feet with intention. This could be as simple as opening the forehand or yielding the haunches, or as elaborate as walking on a straight line of your choosing with the horse walking half circles in each direction in front of you.

    Despite three, three hour long sessions and the opportunity to audit two hours of a second group’s mounted lesson, I know that this clinic has only allowed me to scratch the surface of a skill set that Kip says has taken him twenty-five years of hard work to earn. Since the clinic, I have been playing with these tools fairly consistently with both Izzy and Nori, and in general most of the movements are starting to feel easier and better coordinated on my end. However, I do find myself wondering what I am doing wrong—because I am certain I have already forgotten about some important detail related to timing, posture or position—but I think Kip might say that it is better to try a little than not at all. You certainly don’t get any better at new skills by just daydreaming about them.

    Practicing is important but sometimes it is also necessary to stop and listen to the instructions!

    And in terms of my initial and main motivation—to take Izzy off farm for a positive outing—this clinic was a great success. She trailered on her own like a veteran, and upon arrival did nothing sassier than a few nervous whinnies. There were so many firsts for her—first time being ridden off farm, first time being ridden in a group, first time being ridden in an indoor, first time seeing mirrors—and I think in any other setting I would have been even more nervous than she was. But by the time we had finished an hour and a half of ground work each day, getting on board for the second half of each set was basically a non-event. Izzy came home from the clinic more confident and more mature than she went into it—which means the experience was a success, even if I still need more practice on the timing with my flag or position of my body when opening the forehand.

    Kip Fladland grew up in Montana and worked on several cattle ranches before meeting legendary horseman Buck Brannaman. Inspired by Brannaman’s teachings, Fladland began working for him in 1996 and traveled with him for five years. Since 2004, he has conducted his own clinics across the country as well as started/re-started thousands of horses for clients. I found Fladland to be patient, firm, clear and consistent—exactly the type of temperament necessary for success with horses, or let’s be honest, people in general. To learn more, visit his website: https://www.kipfladlandhorsemanship.com/

    As always, gracious thanks to our clinic organizers, Karen Bishop and Leslie Ann McGowan of Linden Woods Farm. Thank you for continuing to bring top caliber clinicians to our area and for welcoming the local community to your lovely facility so that we all can expand our education.

    Ending the Pandemic Pause

    hi·ber·na·tion

    noun

    1. the condition or period of an animal or plant spending the winter in a dormant state.

    “grizzly bears gorge on seeds to prepare for hibernation”

    • an extended period of remaining inactive or indoors.

    “the fair-weather cyclists are emerging from winter hibernation”

    (all definitions from Oxford Languages)

    I look forward to the arrival of spring at Cold Moon Farm each year with eager anticipation. For me, the predictability of restoring the farm to a more active state after winter’s dormancy provides a sense of satisfaction; the requirement of annual chores marks the passage of time, affirms that even when snow comes in April (as it did this year), spring will prevail in the end.

    April 16, 2021. I didn’t actually cry but it was close.

    Step by step, the essential equipment of winter—bucket heaters, extension cords, heavyweight blankets, shovels—is cleaned and stowed away, replaced by hoses and fly masks and the onset of shedding season. Gardens are raked, the horse trailer pulled out of its winter parking spot, grooming tools and grain bins washed and aired out. Each task completed marks a satisfying check off the “to do” list and brings me one step closer to the best riding months of the year here in New England.

    The arrival of robins and eastern bluebirds and barn swallows marks the end of winter’s rest for the horses; in the past, I have called this period the “deferalization of spring”. It starts with a renewed commitment to deep grooming, shedding blades and sturdy curry combs erasing the feathery remains of winter coats while pulling combs and thinners shorten manes that have become unkempt. The farrier pulls winter shoes and snow pads, making feet seem cleaner and lighter. We start legging up the experienced horses with thirty minute walks, increasing to an hour, then adding light arena work. The green beans go on the longe line or work in the round pen, hopefully demonstrating some memory of lessons learned last season.

    Just another day of shedding season for this professional hair-grower. (JEF Anna Rose)

    This spring, it feels as though my personal equestrian hibernation has been longer than usual. This was the first winter in years I didn’t avail myself of an indoor, instead giving all of my horses three months off. Yet in some ways my “extended period of remaining inactive” began long before the winter solstice. I haven’t competed in person since 2019, took only two lessons in 2020 and otherwise hauled out just a handful of times for trail rides. Now, as both the calendar and world around me proclaim that it is time to resume activity, I find that I am struggling to emerge from my sheltered cocoon.

    There are so many reasons for this. The pandemic, of course, is a huge part of it; given the many uncertainties over the past year, it was logical to simply stay home, and I am out of practice. But the pandemic also became a wonderful excuse to simply remain within my comfort zone and avoid new challenges that might intimidate me—challenges that could also test my skills and inspire me to grow. Even though doing new or difficult things can produce anxiety, nerves and even a little fear, it is the successful completion of these small challenges that develops confidence. And having had little opportunity to achieve these small stepping stones in the past eighteen months has left me feeling less confident than before all of this started.

    Through Lee’s ears.

    I recently interviewed a top hunter/jumper coach and course designer on the subject of riding under pressure; he commented that humans in general tend to move away from pressure but the most successful riders instead continuously seek it, putting themselves and their equine partners into situations in which they must manage nerves, excitement, challenge and stress. Navigating pressure—whatever that looks like for you—is where growth occurs. Living within your comfort zone is safe but will not and cannot produce new growth.

    My extended hibernation was inspired by the pandemic but augmented by excuses and transitions such as horses needing to step down career wise and horses needing time to mature. It has left me feeling too familiar with my comfort zone and excessively rusty and out of practice with pushing my boundaries. Now, I have a rising 6-year-old ready to go out and see the world. Regionally, shows and clinics and other equestrian activity is on the upswing. All signals indicate that the time for hibernation is over—but after such a long period of inactivity, it is so tempting to stay within the security and familiarity of my comfort zone.

    re·new·al

    noun

    1. an instance of resuming an activity or state after an interruption.

    “a renewal of hostilities”

    • the action of extending the period of validity of a license, subscription, or contract.

    “the contracts came up for renewal”

    • the replacing or repair of something that is worn out, run-down, or broken.

    It is easy to feel inspired by spring. The annual process of nature’s renewal is manifested by drab fields rebounding lush and vibrant, buds on branches unfurling leaves with panache and perennial flowers and bushes bursting with color. As I complete morning chores, the air is filled with the trills and warbles of birds dividing territory and attracting mates. This natural cycle happens whether we will it or not, whether we notice it or not. The renewal is inevitable.

    Rabbit the Barn Cat poses with the posies.

    For me, the first true days of spring, when the sun is finally strong enough and warm enough to kiss the skin and warm the soil, are a tonic for the ache winter leaves behind. The smell of fresh earth, the feel of heat on your cheeks, the chirp and whistle of a vivacious cardinal, all demand to be experienced.

    Spring is a time of inspiration and action. I make promises to myself, set goals, make lists. I think about which projects need versus would be nice to complete on the farm. I make more lists and set timelines. On a separate page I write each horse’s name. I list activities for them, too. I am a planner, and these lists are a road map directing our progress through the weeks ahead.

    But even so, as imperceptibly as Mother Nature restores her environs from dormancy to activity, my inherent drive toward achieving my goals has changed. This year, I am finding the renewal offered by the change of season insufficient to fully offset my inertia.

    A winter rainbow.

    There was a time when each spring, I highlighted activity after activity on the print out of the West Newbury Riding and Driving Club’s calendar of equine events. I was out on the road with my horses to compete or clinic two or three times per month, borrowing trailers and occasionally entire rigs from generous friends (what amazing trust they had in me) or bartering rides. When I later acquired my own trailer, I became even more mobile. I shipped out for weekly jump lessons. We hauled to competitions all over New England and New York. I let little stand in my way in pursuit of participating in those activities I had set my mind to.

    For most of the early aughts, I kept two or three horses in full work year round, while also stabling two of them on rough board, finishing a Masters degree and holding down a full time job that often required evening or weekend commitments. My days started early and ran long. I had an internal drive that was impossible to ignore and compelled me to push through fatigue and frustration. I was motivated at least partially by catch phrases which are probably now memes, expressions like ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ or ‘shoot for the moon because even if you miss you will land among the stars’.

    I didn’t make this meme….but I could have.

    But what used to be a raging inner fire to ‘go out and do’ seems to have tempered to a gentler glow. Where I used to wring my hands over a missed ride or schooling set, now I sigh and think, ‘well, another day’. I see photos on social media of friends who have eagerly returned to competition after vaccination (as well as those who never hung it up to begin with) and think ‘good for them’.

    Yet my own calendar remains blank.

    I will admit that in some ways, I have had a discouraging few years. In 2019, I made the decision to retire my distance horse, Lee, from competition and have had to step back from a new sport I really enjoyed. In 2020, after pushing and pressuring Anna for several years, I finally had to admit that it is unlikely I will be able to finish my USDF Bronze Bar with her.

    But these minor disappointments cannot take away the many years of success and fun we have had together. I have partnered with each of these special mares since their 6-year-old year; in 2021, Lee will be 22 and Anna, 17. Looking back at all I have experienced with them is an amazing trove of memories and moments. They have each immeasurably shaped my journey as a horseman and trainer and I consider myself lucky to have them both living in my front yard, sound, happy and useful animals, albeit in different ways than before.

    The long partnerships I have enjoyed with Anna and Lee are perhaps why the thought of starting new journeys with Izzy and Nori is, at times, overwhelming. Each of these youngsters was less than two when they arrived here at Cold Moon Farm, and so of course there was much for them to learn. Izzy, now 6 years old, is at an age where she can be expected to manage more both mentally and physically. Nori, now 4, is also ready to build on the foundation laid in the past two years, which will hopefully include being backed this summer.

    Nori, during an early spring grooming session (after she was too sassy to manage her patience in the barn.)

    My younger self would have proceeded forward with a ‘just do it’ mentality, but today I hesitate and worry too much about the ‘what if’s’. And after over a year of easy excuses to avoid taking young horses out in the world, it is hard to be brave enough to tell my monkey brain to be quiet and take a seat.

    Someday, maybe someday soon, I will have no excuses left. And I will have to either decide to ‘just do it’… or out of fairness to these young horses’ future, hand the reins over to someone else who can.

    met·a·mor·pho·sis

    noun

    1. (in an insect or amphibian) the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages.

    “the persistence of the larval tail during metamorphosis”

    • a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one, by natural or supernatural means.

    “his metamorphosis from presidential candidate to talk-show host”

    There are many lessons humanity ought to take away from the experience of a global pandemic, and it seems impossible that any individual who is remotely connected to the mainstream can emerge from the past eighteen months truly unchanged. Personally, I struggle with the idea of a “return to normal,” as neither I nor the world around me are the same as before.

    In a March 2020 blog post, I wrote:

    “The coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic will change all of us in small and large ways. I fervently hope that for many Americans, this time of challenge will allow nearly everyone the opportunity to reset their compass and focus on those pieces of our lives that matter on a deep, fundamental level. I believe that most equestrians did not start riding to win ribbons; we started riding because we felt inexplicably drawn to these powerful and majestic animals. Those of us still lucky enough to have horses in our lives after the dust settles have a responsibility to remember that magic and to share it with others.”

    I’m not sure I fully recognized it then, but perhaps this sentiment was an early stage of what I can only call my equestrian metamorphosis. Increasingly, I am more interested in the positive impact that horses have on those they touch than I am in personally pursuing upper level sport. At whatever point in the future my own career comes to an end, I don’t want it to be defined only by my competitive success (or, let’s be honest, lack thereof). Instead, I hope that I will be recognized as a practitioner of compassionate horsemanship, as a model of affordable, sustainable horse management practices and as a teacher who took the time to truly listen to her students and their horses, celebrating the victory of establishing the correct foundation that makes a lifetime of enjoyment with horses possible.

    Spring Hollow Marquesa on an early spring ride.

    For a caterpillar to become a beautiful butterfly, it literally obliterates its original form, then rearranges cells and tissues into new patterns and connections. If the chrysalis is cracked open before the process is complete, the cycle may be irrevocably interrupted. Metamorphosis is messy and destructive of old forms and behaviors. But going through this process is essential for the caterpillar to become its highest evolved self– a butterfly able to offer its services as a pollinator, visiting spring flowers and perpetuating the cycle of renewal.

    Perhaps instead of considering the Pandemic Pause a set back to my continued evolution as an equestrian, I need to think of it as time spent in the chrysalis. As with the caterpillar, old models of doing things must be dismantled for new forms to emerge. Perhaps my slow return to full activity is more about testing new wings, recently unfurled, than it is about not living up to old, outdated expectations of myself. Perhaps this metamorphosis is about cementing that my horsemanship journey is and always has been about the relationship I enjoy with each horse specifically. It is about shedding the weight of expectation that I have been so accustomed to carrying so that I can instead move more freely from one beautiful moment to the next.

    Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian