Sunday, December 28, 2014


The holidays are a big deal in my house. Lots of family and gifts. This year we were unusually social and were delighted to have been invited to multiple holiday gatherings. I hosted a long involved Christmas dinner for 14 people. Almost all of whom I'm related to, resulting in the usual snarky loving encounters you would expect.

It was exhausting.

I went almost two weeks without seeing the barn, mostly due to the fact that my kids were out of school as of the third week of December and they are Not Horsey. It was pissing rain most of the time. By the time the weather got Beautiful for December (high 40's and into the 50's) I was full time Momming and Christmassing and my husband was still working. Getting to the barn was not happening.

I went a little bit nuts.

Between the lack of exercise (all kids all the time means no yoga either) and the extra sugar I began to resemble a smudged doughy version of my former self. My general positive attitude was filtered through a lens of general despair and groggy fatigue. I've been here before. It's what Winston Churchill described as his "Black Dog." 

Friday night after a Boxing Day visit to the town of Barn Stable (that's what the Google maps calls Barnstable on the Cape) to see my in laws, I announced to my sleeping husband that I was going to see Cassel the next morning. He grouched about it, not because he didn't want me to go, but because he was sleeping. I could have announced that I was going to the Pizza, Craft Beer and Football factory to bring home Mike Vrable and Teddy Bruschi to watch the Superbowl with us an it would probably have been met with some skepticism in his unconscious state. (Note: current Patriots excluded from my little fantasy for obvious reasons. Enough Football. Shut up Margaret, this is a horse blog, that's your OTHER hobby).

So around ten on Saturday morning I jumped in my car and actually made it to the barn where I found cookies and cards that had been left for me by my barn mates. My horse was shockingly clean. I just putzed around the barn for a good half hour and watched him and his pasture mate eat from the same hay bag before I moseyed into the paddock to get him. He strolled up to me breathing his sweet breath into my lungs and I slipped the halter over his ears. His pasture mate, Plosh, who is suddenly easy going in the pasture thanks to some ulcer meds and having Cassel to himself gently stepped out of the way of the gate and we clip clopped to the cross tie, Cassel, leaving a thick trail of manure all the way across the driveway in case we got lost on the way back.

Other than his feet that I hosed there was not a speck of mud anywhere on that horse. Weird. I groomed and scritched him in all his favorite places, popped on his dressage saddle and headed towards the arena and hopped on and all the holiday stress and emotion just fell off me in big sheets. Cassel made these great relaxing snorts, the sound horses make when they are blowing off tension. I dropped the reins and let him amble around the arena at the walk releasing his tension while I took deep breaths, circling my arms backwards to open my shoulders.

One of my favorite things about this horse is that you can give him two weeks off, and hop back on and he just goes right back to work. My last two horses needed to be ridden EVERY day or they would be NUTS. In retrospect, a lot of that has to do with their turnout situation. They didn't get nearly enough of it. Most of the time, they lived in a stall. Cassel lives outside, so I know if I can't get there for a couple of weeks he's never stuck in a box. He's always out moving, walking around with things to stimulate him and look at. He plays with his pasture mate when he feels like it. And when I get back on him after a long hiatus, other than him blowing through a couple of half halts because it takes us a couple of days to get completely back on the same page. He's never spooky or nutty. I can just drop my reins and think about my body alignment for a few minutes before going to work while we both breathe out our tension.

Because "The Most Wondeful Time of the Year" takes a lot of work and stress to create. But with a few minutes on the back of a good horse equilibrium is restored. This is my Bliss.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

I am not a poet

I think I took one poetry course in college. I love reading poetry, but I hate discussing it in any intellectual capacity. It completely ruins it for me. You read this poem that give you this instant visceral reaction. It's like you just had great sex, or ate the worlds best brownie and somebody wants you to write a paper about it with words like "didactic" and "epistimology" and "antidisestablishmentarianism" and you just want to sit and swoon and enjoy your brownie, or your partner.

There are a couple of horse poems out there that leave me in a state of wonder. The first is Credo by Maxine Kumin. Twenty Something years ago, she came to Sarah Lawrence College to read on a Thursday night. How do I know it was a Thursday night? Because I showed up in my riding clothes, because Thursday was the night I had my weekly lesson at the dreary Twin Lakes barn in Bronxville. There was no time to change. I parked my 1978 Datsun and went running for the auditorium. Of course all the sneaky seats in the back were taken so I had to sit in the front row in my stinky clothes. I didn't know much about Maxine Kumin. In fact, I'm not sure what even brought me to that room that night. Poetry wasn't really my thing. Somebody I respected must have told me to get my ass into that auditorium because I doubt "poetry reading" would have been high on my self proscribed to do list. So there I was in my ill fitting boots and cheap breeches in the front row losing myself in a world of the New Hampshire wilderness feeling vaguely homesick for Western Mass when she read this:

Credo - Maxine Kumin

I believe in magic. I believe in the rights
of animals to leap out of our skins
as recorded in the Kiowa legend:
Directly there was a bear where the boy had been

as I believe in the resurrected wake-robin,
first wet knob of trillium to knock
in April at the underside of earth's door
in central New Hampshire where bears are

though still denned up at that early greening.
I believe in living on grateful terms
with the earth, with the black crumbles
of ancient manure that sift through my fingers

when I topdress the garden for winter. I believe
in the wet strings of earthworms aroused out of season
and in the bear, asleep now in the rock cave
where my outermost pasture abuts the forest.

I cede him a swale of chokecherries in August.
I give the sow and her cub as much yardage
as they desire when our paths intersect
as does my horse shifting under me

respectful but not cowed by our encounter.
I believe in the gift of the horse, which is magic,
their deep fear-snorts in play when the wind comes up,
the ballet of nip and jostle, plunge and crow hop.

I trust them to run from me, necks arched in a full
swan's S, tails cocked up over their backs
like plumes on a Cavalier's hat. I trust them
to gallop back, skid to a stop, their nostrils

level with my mouth, asking for my human breath
that they may test its intent, taste the smell of it.
I believe in myself as their sanctuary
and the earth with its summer plumes of carrots,

its clamber peas, beans, masses of tendrils
as mine. I believe in the acrobatics of boy
into bear, the grace of animals
in my keeping, the thrust to go on.

Then she said she'd spare us any more horse poems and I shouted "NO!" and she looked me up and down with a conspiratorial appraisal and said "I see we have someone in the front row ready to ride!"

Maxine Kumin passed away earlier this year. I keep a few books of her poetry around the house. But this one (without too much analysis) shows my heart to the world. It's as if she reached into my soul and said, I'm going to explain how you feel about horses (and nature) in a REALLY beautiful concise way, that's going to make you cry? 'K bye! And by the way, you could never hope to articulate anything like this EVER.

And she did. And it is beautiful.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


We struggle with the canter. Cassel has the tendency to get a bit strung out and not really work from behind. He holds on his left side and likes to canter around with his head tilted, just a bit to the right when we are on the left lead.

I can fix this at the trot. I can wrap him around my inside leg and softly wiggle my inside rein, sit up, shoulders back and get him to release that inside rein and push my left hand forward at the right time and his nose stays in the same place. I feel his inside hind leg step under his body and voila! Lift off.

When dressage goes right, it feels like the instant your airplane takes off. Your horse's hind end engages and the front end lightens and all the weight shifts back like the first second an airplane's wheels leave the tarmac. From that position, anything is possible, because you are truly riding the horse back to front. Unfortunately for an amateur like me, with a horse that doesn't get a lot of "pro-rides" it's a hard feeling to maintain for an extended period of time. But I've got a map to that place in the trot and the walk. I know where it is what what it feels like and I have a toolkit to get me there.

When I was in my 20's I burned out on dressage. I could never get a horse in anything resembling a frame without an instructor guiding me through it inch by inch. I never had the "liftoff" feeling. Then I got horribly overhorsed and I stopped riding for 12 years. (During said 12 years I produced 2 fabulous children and got married to a nifty guy, so I was kinda busy).

When I started again two things happened. One of the weird things about women in my family is that we get thinner in our 40's. So, I was about 20 or 30 pounds lighter than I was in my 20's. I don't know if it was some freaky effect of childbirth or what, but my set point weight is around 155, which is a great weight for a solid 5'6" woman.

The other thing was, I discovered yoga. So my balance, core strength and body awareness was just at another level than it was back then.

When I started riding again, I could put a horse in a frame. Nobody had to tell me how to do it. I just could. It wasn't a deep, advanced frame, but I could get most horses to flex in their poll and engage a bit from behind. It was more of a hunter frame than a dressage frame, but it was a start.

My horse was a baby, so it would be a few years before I really tried it on him, but now he's six and ready for some more serious work. Now we have more and more strides of "Liftoff".

Today I trucked him to an indoor about 45 minutes away for a lesson with the always sanguine and creative Leslie Kornfeld. The trot work was easy and fun to do with the mirrors. By the end, I could see his inside hind coming under his body like it's supposed to, so it really carries the weight to get ready for more advanced movements.

To work on the canter we did a couple of things. First of all, I need to get my upper body WAY back during the canter. (Note to self, MORE YOGA --Need more core strength). It feels weird, but that's how you get Liftoff at the canter. Then after the downward transition, I immediately did a left to right leg yield to get him to let go on the left rein. Then we picked up the canter again. Voila, a stride here,  stride there of "Liftoff" AT THE CANTER. He still isn't quite straight but we're getting there.

I don't think I'll ever focus on dressage exclusively. We love to jump. People keep asking me if we're going to event. Maybe. The thing is, I just want to train and ride and maybe do little shows here and there. Every summer we go up to GMHA and do the Region 1 American Connemara Pony Society breed show where we can jump, do dressage, equitation, trail class and whatever we want. But that's enough showing for me for the most part. I love hunter paces and the elementary derby cross I did in October was exhilarating. So, I don't think I'll ever pick a single discipline again. And with this horse, I don't think I'll have to.