Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ketah's Story

When I was 11 I met a 3 year old mare who would shape my world and the person I would become.  Ketah was smart, tough and scared.  In her short life she had already seen some of the worst in people.  She’d been bullied and beaten, but she would keep fighting and they never broke her spirit.  When we met I was still green, so I just didn’t know enough to recognize what she needed or how dangerous she really was.  Our first ride thrilled me, she’d bucked but I’d stayed on!  For an 11 year old with a horse obsession and more than a dash of crazy she seemed perfect.

Over the next several years I learned a great deal about horsemanship, but little that an instructor would’ve taught me in a ring.  I learned to never take my horse for granted, she may be standing quietly but she can still spin out from under me in a heartbeat.  I learned the thrill of racing through a field, but to always be prepared for a 90 degree turn towards home while running.  I learned that, while it’s not the best idea, if the only way your horse will stop in a dangerous run for the home barn that includes a dash across a busy street involves jumping off…then jump.

I also learned what it meant to have a goal.  I saved every penny of my allowance, babysitting money and anything else I could scrounge to buy her.  At 14, and for almost nothing, I did.  I know now that if I hadn’t this girl would’ve ended at the auction, probably destined for more abuse before ending up at the killers.  I saved her.  But she saved me too.  At the age where many kids discover sex, alcohol and drugs I had a horse I needed to work to keep, exercise and care for.  I spent most afternoons after school at the barn.  Sometimes having fun racing across the trails, sometimes chasing my clever mare around the field in a game she loved, but I hated.  And because my mother also loved horses and often rode with me, I had the chance to develop a good relationship with her during those difficult teen years.  

Ketah became my best friend.  I told her all my hopes, dreams and fears as I grew up.  With her I could escape into a world where I could go anywhere I could imagine.  The trails leading into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains were the perfect place to dream that we were truly free to travel as we liked.  Together Ketah and I were the perfect team.  Under the shadow of the Rockies and the big skies of the Plains I could imagine that it was just us. 

Of course eventually I had to discover boys.  But even then, Ketah took part.  I know now that her early abuse probably led her to develop a keen sense of which people were a danger to her.  Back then, I just knew that she liked and trusted few people and I learned quickly to trust that if she didn’t like them there was a reason.  But even when I didn’t introduce them to her I found she was a good filter.  She was the biggest part of my life, my other half, and no mere boy would change that.  But many tried, a few were as jealous as if I had another lover.  None of those lasted long if they ever got started. 

When I went to college we were parted more than we ever had been.  I was only an hour away, but between classes and a job I was lucky to get home and ride on weekends.  I tried to bring her with me, but maturity hadn’t changed her in some essential ways.  She had to be the boss in any herd, so after fighting with another mare, tearing down a fence (resulting in stitches) and being banished to a lonely pen I sent her back home to live with my mother’s horses.  I drove down for weekend visits and she seemed happy with the arrangement.  When I finished my degree and came back she was more than happy to return to ranging the foothill trails with me.

Then I got a job in a part of the country that was never meant to have horses.  I took her with me, and we explored new trails under tall trees, deep undergrowth and often grey skies.   Our speed slowed down as the trails were too narrow, winding and slippery for our usual runs.  But we were able to disappear again for many hours at a time.  We found some beautiful vistas, hidden waterfalls and even dark, scary trails with horse bones on the hillside.  Age was creeping up on her, but not slowing her down much.  We still covered more ground and explored more trails than most.  But these days, we did it with more care and less speed.

Despite the crazy things we did together, neither of us had ever gotten seriously injured.  I always wore a helmet and somehow I avoided broken bones.  It was moderately ironic that the first time I would had nothing to do with horses. I climbed in a small plane, and crashed.  I broke my back in multiple places, one severely enough to warrant concern about paralysis or at least nerve impairment.  The doctors told me I would ride again…eventually.  That was all I needed to know.  With Ketah waiting for me I worked hard in physical therapy to get myself well enough to climb on.  Nine months later I did, and I’m pretty sure it made her as happy as it made me.  Within days we were back on the trail and working up from 10 minutes just walking to a couple hours trotting and cantering up and down the hills.  Again, Ketah had given me a goal and all the encouragement I needed. 

While I hadn’t had any injuries from our riding she made up for it, including a leg wound that barely missed slicing tendons in her hind leg, taking the skin off her stifle (in a fall where she could have crushed me but didn’t), and all the usual little things horses do to themselves.   And, while she never collicked, she managed to get sick enough from infections to scare me.  Early on Ketah got “bastard” strangles, the vet was surprised she lived.  A few years later she became ill again, miscarrying a 9 month foal from another infection.  Many years after that a mysterious illness came and went.  Through the years I had nightmares of losing her, waking up in a panic and tears for no reason.  I knew eventually she would go, but I kept believing it would be years into the future.

Those years passed as they always do.  At almost 26 years old Ketah developed a neurological condition that left her unsteady and unsure where her feet were.  I am convinced now that she had been declining from this for many years, but coped with her usual stoicism.  I am also convinced that her “mysterious illness” a few years ago presaged the beginning of this one.  I will never know for sure.  Even with a definite cause, osteoarthritis in her neck, a tumor near her skull, or a disk pressing on her spine, there was nothing the vet could do.  She would continue to decline and become more and more depressed and fearful as she found herself unable to balance.  This would be difficult and scary enough in a person who knew what was happening.  For her it would be terrifying.

I made the hardest decision of my life to allow my best friend, my other half, to go in peace before that happened.  We got lucky.  After a couple of bad weeks where she was depressed and uncomfortable, she had a couple of days where she was feeling just good enough to kick up her heels a bit.  I could see in her the vinegar and spice that had made us what we were.  Her last day was sunny and beautiful, a last day of fall before the grey, dreary winter that she had always hated closed in.  She was her pushy, bossy self that day.  I’m glad she could go before it got worse.  I know I did my best for her, I know it was right.  But I miss her very much.

Someone once told me that everyone you love takes a piece of you with them when they go.  Ketah took the better part of me, but she left me with a wealth of experiences and memories.  She had a huge role in the person I have become.  I will always love her.  She was my first horse, my first love and my best friend. 

Goodbye Ketah, the ride was a great one.

January 21, 1985 - October 17, 2011

Monday, January 10, 2011

Searching for a saddle

Arabians are gorgeous, sweet, smart, sometimes mischevious and just generally really awesome animals. They are not, however, easy to buy tack for.

I've been riding for 20-some odd years now. I have lots of tack. A few bridles, a couple of saddles, saddle pads, a saddle stand, all the grooming tools, longing equipment and a few pieces of tack I'll never use too. I've added new things over the years such as Easyboots to protect Ketah's feet since shoes weren't doing the job in this wet environment. But I pretty much have collected what I need and replace things only as they wear out. More than anything though, I love my trail saddle.

Years ago I sold my motorcycle to buy a brand new Wintec Pro Endurance Saddle. Honda CBR Hurricane
Wintec Pro Endurance

The trade. I miss the Hurricane sometimes, but I really love this saddle!

I have ridden in this saddle for about ten years now and I still love it. I have finally discovered a fatal flaw however. It won't fit Sati. Switching it to the widest gullet (this saddle lets you change the width of the gullet which is the front part of the saddle which will sit behind the shoulders) might work, but the "bars" of the saddle won't fit. Her back is just too wide and flat.

I thought I could get a western saddle that would fit her better.  It did too, for about 3 months, and then her shoulders filled out more and it started pinching.  Great...
Too bad, it's a comfy western saddle too (and I really don't
usually care for them).  Now I can't decide if I should get rid of it
though.  Good tack can be hard to find..
I gave in and started looking at the expensive saddles that I could get specially ordered for her.  Took quite a bit of effort too.  Had to take lots of pictures, make very specific measurements and finally talk with someone who knew a hell of a lot more than me.  I did my homework and found that many Arab folks use Trumbull Mountain Tack as they carry many different makes of saddle.  I talked to someone there, told her I wanted to trail ride and maybe endurance ride someday.  She set me up with the best saddle I have ever sat in.  It also fit Sati perfectly and immediately helped a number of balance issues we had been having.  It wasn't cheap, but it was totally worth it.
Black Country Celeste endurance saddle.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A new direction

The past year and a half has been eventful, but I haven't really been clear on how to write about it. Training a young horse from the ground up seems so prosaic. I have a whole lot of opinions, but somehow have thought that I lacked the educational background to express them.

I've changed my mind. In the last year or so two "trainers" have come and gone from my barn. People who get paid to train horses, and supposedly have years of experience. Neither was any older than me, and while they may have had more formal experience, I wasn't impressed with either.

One used mechanical aids to force her horse into a position that superficially appeared to be correct -- but was in reality completely wrong. Mechanical aids such as draw-reins, martingales and tight side reins serve only to teach the horse bad habits. Being forced to hold his head at some angle does nothing to teach them to use their bodies (abdominal, butt and back muscles) correctly.  I suspect that it probably can lead to atrophy of the proper muscles as well.  Not a lot different from me using a corset to hold myself upright, the muscles would quit doing the work.

The other "trainer" was downright abusive. She also used mechanical aids, this time to tie the horses head around to teach him to "give" to the bit. He's not "giving" at all and in fact could be seriously injured if left with his head tied around for very long or if he spooked in such a position. Her horses also all had severe sores on their mouths from her method of teaching them to "give". If you have to sore his mouth to make him listen you need to try something else.

I believed my experience to be far less, and in terms of the number of horses trained, it is. But, I retrained Ketah, who was horribly abused and turned her into a horse that is not only gorgeous under saddle (I once got an offer to buy her for dressage), but regularly gets petted at the barn and told how sweet she is by those who didn't know what a hellion she was! I helped to train her son from birth on, and he's a really great horse too (and a big goofball). Sati has been a whole different experience. But I've worked her from the ground up and I get complimented on her now too.

While I don't think I'll be offering training services any time soon (I rather enjoy my day job) I will quit second-guessing myself from lack of education.  I have a whole shelf of training books and a good stock of common sense that seems to be doing allright.

Once upon a time Ketah really was a hellion.  Plenty of "cowboys"
were scared of her.  Now she's the barn pet.  Of course the other
is so clearly a "crazy Arab".  Quick, someone wake them both up!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Going bare

I'm about to try this blogging thing again. After having several months off due to the injury I will be doing several things at once (yes I know, take it easy girl...). Ketah will be out of shape, she is now 24. I will be out of shape, and Sati will still be green. Until then I found some posts I never posted (no idea why). Maybe I will throw some other stuff in as well. We shall see.

More than two years ago I had my shoer take Ketah's steel shoes off. We had been riding trails and her feet were tender. So tender in fact that the final straw was that she stepped on a small rock and cut the back of her frog. This led to an abscess throughout the frog.

This had just been the tail end of 4 years of stone bruises and hoof abscesses. If your horse has never had one let me tell you that you think something truly awful has happened. They suddenly are three legged! The first time Ketah had one I was sure she had broken her leg!! Anyhow, after this final incident (about two years ago) I went out and got a set of Easy Boot Epic's. Suddenly she was willing to walk over rocks again, and by the way I don't mean big huge rocks. Mostly this is gravel. Then I started learning a bit more about having a barefoot horse. I honestly used to think this was a silly, hippy sort of thing to do. After all, we've used horseshoes for...well a few hundred years. I assumed that adding my weight to the weight of the horse somehow required thin steel bits nailed to their feet.

Examine that assumption for a moment and it suddenly sounds pretty damn silly.  Certainly not every horse can go barefoot.  We have been breeding them for thousands of years now, and as with every other domesticated animal we have created unintended phenotypes while breeding for that perfect head, butt or color.  Some just have weaker feet and need the extra support.

Ketah and Sati are not among those however.  Ketah's feet had always been tough back in Colorado.  Sure, years wearing shoes can't be erased in one trimming but I wasn't going to ride her without the boots.  Clearly that just won't work for her in the northwest climate.  Sati had never had shoes, she had also never had a good trimming though.  She has the classic "clubfoot" confirmation and her lower foot was well along the way into running the heels all the way out.  This explained a lot of her resistance to moving in a particular direction.  Most horses are right/left sided just like people, and she greatly overused one side.

Two things are required to fix this sort of issue, training and proper foot care.  So I found a barefoot trimmer.  She willingly explained every angle that should be there and why she rolled the toe and rasped the quarters.  I'm in no way ready to do it myself, but I know a lot more now.

Ketah's foot after first trim.  Note that the quarters are not
flat and the toe has been rolled to allow for better breakover.
You can't see it in this picture, but she also leaves more heel
than Ketah used to have with shoes. 
I've been using this new trimmer for nearly a year now, and there are definite results.  Ketah used to be sore walking over any hard surface or in the arena without her boots for up to two weeks after getting her feet done.  These days (well, before I couldn't ride due to injuries) she barely flinches.  This is not to say I can stop using the boots.  I think due to the wet causing her soles to be soft I will always use them with her, but anything that helps her to be more comfortable is worth trying.  Sati doesn't care much, it is helping her to move a bit more balanced.  But she was rarely sore on rocks so I haven't noticed a change there.  The big thing is that her two front feet look a lot more similar than they did.

I think I will need to learn to do this myself eventually, but right now I'm quite happy with the results.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Beginning again

I haven't been able to do anything with the horses aside from visit over the fence or a little bit of brushing with a lot of help from Shane since the beginning of August.  Lately I had been starting to feel like maybe I just wouldn't get back on them again.  There's a lot going on in my life and a lot of new opportunities opening up, somehow I thought maybe I could do it without horses.  After all, grad school is going to take a lot of time and energy.

Well, yesterday (with Shane's help) I removed blankets, brushed, picked feet and handwalked them both outside their pasture for a bit.  Just that little bit of independence made me want to saddle up and take off badly.  I think better or more clearly I suppose, when I'm riding and I felt just a bit of that while playing with them.  I'll figure out how this grad school thing will work, and maybe it will mean I have to leave them for a couple years.  But obviously horses will continue to be part of my life.

I'm looking forward getting back to training Sati again.  We have miles and miles to explore!

Catch up

I'm about to try this blogging thing again. After having several months off due to the injury I will be doing several things at once (yes I know, take it easy girl...). Ketah will be out of shape, she is now 24. I will be out of shape, and Sati will still be green. Until then I found some posts I never posted (no idea why). Maybe I will throw some other stuff in as well. We shall see.

We had a gorgeous summer (in other words...dry) so I spent a lot of time on horseback. Poor boyfriend got left alone nearly every weekend for most of my waking hours. Good thing he knew this was coming.


Ketah and I explored a bunch of new trails using my favorite navigation method: get lost. Seriously, that's what I do. I can pretty much count on Ketah to tell me which way is home (and mostly I know). But in the northwest you can't always get through the thick underbrush. More than once we started to follow a deer trail that petered out in a tangle of bushes and trees that we couldn't push through.

This leaves many nice, long, bloody, scratches as everything that seems to grow around here has thorns (or stings...damn nettles).

In this process however, we found a number of nice new trails including a gorgeous long ride into some old growth groves with a waterfall! This one will even be accessible through the winter as the trails didn't seem to have any deep muddy areas.

I'm also learning more about how to take care of her feet. I've added pads to the inside of her EasyBoots to help her entire foot get used (gently) and she quite likes them! And while I'm sure you don't mind listening (reading?) to me go on and on about Ketah, the real question is...

How is Sati doing?

She's great! I have ridden her once or twice a week since we got back from our trip to Glacier. In return she has been rapidly improving her balance and response to me. So rapidly in fact that we've run into a bit of trouble.

See, as much as I love Ketah, her early abuse and our years of learning and relearning together has left her somewhat insensitive to my mistakes. Or perhaps she knows me so well that she does what I want even if I'm not asking 100% correctly. I'd like to think the latter, it says nice things about our level of communication after all.

But either way, this presents me with a small problem. Sati is VERY sensitive. I'm trying very hard to be aware of this. Maybe I'm trying too hard actually...What this means though, is that some things I ask for she does immediately. Some things...not so much. And it's not her, it's me. Somehow I'm asking wrong and she's getting confused.