Bareback Prescription

Winter has come on hard and fast, which is a bit of a bummer. I was hoping for a long, mild fall. Evidently the Iowa department of weather didn’t get that memo. It’s been unseasonably cold, wet, and snowy.

Worse than that, though, is Steen took a hard kick to the belly. This resulted in a big swollen lump that alarmed me enough I had a vet in to look at it.

This was the day I noticed the bump. I climbed on for a very brief ride just to gauge how he was moving and feeling.

Fortunately, it was probably just shy of being serious. Although it’s super tender and has resulted in a bunch of extra drainage accumulating lower down on his belly, he mostly has seemed like himself the whole time. The vet did recommend light rides to help encourage circulation and promote healing, but without a saddle since some of the swelling now extends under where the girth would sit.

One day later, things were a whole lot puffier. Seriously the photo does not even begin to accurately show how big this was.

After about four days, though, things began steadily moving in the right direction. We’ve done a number of light rides. The first few days, Steen didn’t really feel like himself. But about the time the swelling started to move in the right direction, he started to feel a little perkier.

It’s interesting with riding more bareback lately. Steen is 18 now, and I can feel that it’s harder on him. He has a relatively long back, and I can feel more flex and sag in it than he used to have.

A few weeks ago when the vet came out to do fall vaccinations and float teeth, I ended up hopping on Laredo bareback for a while we waited our turn. And wow that’s a different feeling back. He’s like a solid, short, broad shelf in comparison to Steen. Funny that our two geldings almost couldn’t be more different in all things. Temperament. Energy level. Conformation.

Ah well. Variety is the spice of life I suppose.


Nagging Legs

After Piper left us, we lapsed into a horse lull. Part of it was just the sheer relief of finding her a good home at last. So many years of worrying came so suddenly to an end, and we found ourselves just wanting to lay low for a bit.

There were other factors too. The weather in Iowa has been very, very bad. Work always gets busy this time of year. Steen has had his sunburn. But really, if I’m being honest, we were mostly just kind of out of energy for the horses for a little while.

To add to our lower-than-usual motivation levels, our recent struggle (if you can call it that) with Steen and Laredo is they are both super duper broke. They are broke to the point that any ride you don’t go into with some intention can start to feel rather rote. It’s perfectly possibly to have a perfectly enjoyable ride on either of them without needing to work on anything in particular.

We seem to be doing a lot of this (standing around) lately.

But being lazy doesn’t lead to good results

So our rides for a while had become a little bit … uninspired. This despite the fact that we all could stand to work to improve in plenty of areas. Particularly when we ride them less, Steen and Laredo both have their ways in which they backslide. For Laredo that often means lower-than-ideal energy levels and a bit a tendency to fall in during turns. For Steen it often means being a little too forward and trying to anticipate what I’m going to ask for before it’s time.

In our last few rides, Brian and I have been talking about how to work on these wildly different issues constructively. After all, our horses are rusty because we haven’t been putting in the time to keep them fine-tuned. So it’s hardly fair to fault them for that. At the same time, though, I can get in this mental rut with Steen where I can get him to do whatever I want, all the time, so if he’s out of shape and I’m feeling lazy, I can sometimes just let a few things slide if they are a teeny bit sloppy. This leads to more things becoming sloppy, of course. Which can eventually lead to rides that are like low-key frustrating for both of us but in which nothing goes actually wrong in the least.

We’re kind of like an old married couple

Basically we get to this dynamic: Steen does something a bit off. I correct him. He shapes up. We go on. Then the thing happens again. I correct him again. He shapes up. We go on. Rinse and repeat. The most common manifestation of this is when we’re walking or trotting a circle. There is often one spot on the circle where he’ll want to bulge out. So we get to that spot, and I block the bulge. Usually I can accomplish this with just a light squeeze with one calf. That’s enough to prevent him from deviating from the line.

But the thing is, if I didn’t block him there, he would deviate. Which means he’s not holding himself properly on the circle. And while this seems like a really minor thing, having to shore him up at one point of every circle is a form of nagging. It’s annoying for me. I don’t doubt it’s annoying for him too.

Laredo has similar things. So recently Brian and I were discussing this, and trying to find a fix. I can’t remember who said what, but we came to the realization that what both Steen and Laredo were doing in certain moments was essentially leaning into the light pressure of a leg correction.

More standing. We’re great at standing these days at least.

(Don’t) lean on me

One of the things I love about the hackamore is the challenge of using it well. It’s super important to never let the horse lean on the bosal. I have paid a lot of attention to that for a lot of years, and I feel like I’m decently accomplished at never holding pressure. But suddenly I realized I was nevertheless giving  Steen something to lean on. It was just my leg instead of my hand.

So what’s the easiest way to keep a horse from leaning on pressure? Take the pressure away.

Brian and I set out to test our new theory. Steen and I returned to our circle.  I put him in the bend I wanted using my hips, supported him with a light drape of my legs like always. And we walked. Then we got to our bulge point. As expected, he began to drift off the line. I did not increase the pressure of the leg that could have blocked him. Instead I let him bust through the passive barrier, and then I gave him a solid bump with that calf to send him back onto the proper line. Before, his lean and my block were invisible. This time, both his departure and my correction were obvious.

 

Consequences are important

Steen loves knowing where my legs are. He will yield to a wiggle or a light tap of toe or heel or calf. But he hates being kicked. Hate hate hates it. He’s an extremely sensitive and emotional horse. So one light bump was enough to upset him a little. But a bump happens once, and then it’s over. A horse can’t lean on a bump. So we got back on our circle and kept going.

Then we got to the bulge point again. Again, he left the line my hips were telling him to take. Again, I bumped him. Again, he did not like that.

But the third time around the circle, lo and behold, no bulge.

This is how Steen looks when he suspects I might be about to kick him.

Time to break the habit

Brian was having similar results with Laredo. So we spread the realization to other things. Over the last few rides we’ve both stopped using our lower legs for steering entirely, leaving that to the hips. Lower legs and hands we are using for correction only. Everything else comes from the seat.

It’s an adjustment. I’m surprised to note how often I find myself tempted to squeeze a bit here and block a bit there: to micromanage Steen with little nags of my legs. But as I give Steen less to lean on, the more he has to hold himself where he should be.

It’s early days. We’re still experimenting with the idea. But I feel like this is a seemingly small realization that could prove to have been holding us back on a lot of things for a good long while.

 

Rides are nicer without nagging.


Sunburn Season: aka Paint Horse Problems

The first time Steen got a really terrible sunburn was in 2012. It was a surprise to me at that point that a horse could even get a sunburn in areas where they actually had hair. Although I grew up in Tucson, Arizona and my sister’s Appaloosa has always had a tendency to burn the pink skin around his eyes and on his sheath, it wasn’t until owning a Paint in Iowa that I learned how serious a sunburn can be.

Steen is a tobiano. According to my highly unscientific measurements, he is 46%* white. The white hair is pure white. Underneath the white hair is pink skin. Although those white markings are literally part of what he was bred for, they’re also surprisingly problematic. Steen has more skin issues than any of our other horses.

Turns out, white skin is vulnerable

The year he first burned, it was bad. First there was the burn itself, which was across both sides of his neck and withers. After the initial burn, the burn got infected. The vet told me to use a fly sheet to protect him from the sun. The only one I could find locally was a bad design. Between that and a mistake on my part putting it on, I set off a series of terrible events that ended with Steen tangled in both the fly sheet and the wire fence. He ripped open one hind leg and was laid up for months.

It’s his right shoulder that always burns the worst. This is how it looks when it has enough hair.

Since then, I’ve learned to manage things a bit better. Every year in the late summer, there is this weird window where Steen’s summer coat gets super thin but his winter coat has not yet started to grow in. During this window, he always burns.

Fortunately, I have learned to recognize the early signs of a burn. I keep a fly sheet that is well-designed and fits him out at the barn so I can throw it on as soon as he first starts to get crispy.

Poor scalded Steen

Unfortunately, this year a few things went wrong. First, Steen started his shedding cycle early. Second, it was unusually sunny for a block of days in July. Third, we were out of town for longer than intended on our summer road trip due to an accident that delayed us getting home.

These things combined into the unfortunate circumstance that Steen got pretty well burned. Between the fly sheet and some topical meds, I’ve been able to keep it from progressing to the infected nightmare it was once before. Still, it’s obvious the saddle makes him uncomfortable. While neither the pad or saddle actually touch where he’s burned, I think simply the way the skin moves with the saddle feels bad when he’s really scalded.

Bareback though, is fine. Though I do sit about half on white skin, he never seems to actually burn on his back—only on his neck and shoulders. So after trying a couple of rides with a saddle, I decided to just return to my roots for a while and go commando.

See the pink? It is real.

Bareback it is, then!

Years ago, before I discovered the glory of the Wade saddle and pre-turned stirrups, I had a hard time riding in a saddle. I have some issues with my joints that has led to various difficulties throughout my life, and one of them is to do with my right knee. From the age of about 15 to roughly 31, I never owned a saddle that didn’t hurt to ride in. For most of that time, I simply rode bareback.

Then I found a saddle that didn’t hurt my knees but was deficient in other ways. Then, finally, I got my current saddle. Which is crazy comfy.

Since then, I’ve ridden bareback a lot less. Sometimes I think I should do it more often. And then I don’t. So when I tried to ride Steen a few weeks ago and he just felt fussy when I asked him to move, it felt nice to just pull the saddle and put it back in our locker. The next couple of rides I didn’t bother to get it out in the first place.

The only one in the herd with a sheet on.

All the same things, but different

When I rode bareback in the past, I mostly just pointed a horse somewhere and said, “Go.” Now I’m a lot more interested in precision. And what I’m finding these last few rides is it’s actually very physically demanding to hold myself in proper balance while working in circles and also using my legs and seat to steer.

Fortunately, Steen is mostly up for anything. One thing we’ve worked on the last few years is having him pick me up off of things, so mounting is easy. He’ll come over to anything I climb up on and put himself in place for me to hop onto. He’s very steady and predictable these days, so light work at all three gaits isn’t a problem. Our canter was the roughest thing. His upwards transitions were great, but then he’d want to either stop or speed up.

And while I’ve done loads of bareback canters in the past, I’m a bit rusty. I’ve also had three very recent wrecks mountain biking and really didn’t want to hit the ground again coming off of anything. So we’ve mostly been focused on the trot. And it’s fun. We haven’t been riding long or hard. But somehow the bareback rides feel more relaxed and intimate. So that’s been nice.

From this angle he almost looks like a regular bay.

I’m probably not going to revert to riding primarily bareback any time in the near future, but it’s certainly a fun thing to play with sometimes. Maybe I’ll do it again before the next time a sunburn forces the issue.

*This is a joke. I have no idea what percent white he is.


Piper Goes Home

It goes without saying that we get attached to our horses. In the past, when we’ve taken in projects with the intention of giving a horse a tune-up or filling in some gaps in their education, we’ve always managed to complete that process in a year or less. That’s a short enough time that while we would become quite fond of those horses, they never felt integrated in our lives the way our ‘keepers’ do.

“Hi I’m Piper and I have the mane of envy.”

That was supposed to happen with Piper. She was supposed to be a horse we kept only briefly—just long enough to lay a foundation of groundwork and the basics of work under saddle. I liked her quite a bit from the start and was impressed how well she took to all the work. Still, until she came up lame, everything went exactly according to plan. We had no intention of keeping her long term. We were just about ready to list her. She could walk, trot, and canter, stop, soften, and turn, all in or outside of an arena. I thought it was time, and finding her a new home with a doting owner who would love her forever would be a piece of cake.

Just before everything fell apart.

But then her navicular happened. And all our plans went out the window.

It’s been well over two years since Piper’s diagnosis. And of course she was lame for many months before we had a name for what was happening. As we’ve gone through the process of trying to treat her, it’s been periods of hope surrounded by extended phases of frustration and helplessness.  Add the fact that Piper has been such a little trooper through all we’ve done—the shoes, the injections, the exams—and well. Yeah. Despite the expense and the trouble, we just got more and more attached. Which, of course,  made the prospect of giving her up harder and harder to bear.

And yet, the inconvenient reality of horses is that they are expensive. While we can afford to keep four, it’s a stretch for us to do so. Supporting four when one of the four comes with many extra expenses has meant tightening our belts in some pretty noticeable ways.

“You gonna come over here and give me pets or what?”

The trouble with a lame horse that you love despite everything is this: the thought of giving that horse up feels impossible. I had all these different nightmare scenarios I would worry about. Piper taken in as a pasture companion but with her feet neglected, limping around in constant pain for the rest of her days. Piper being forced to carry a rider even though she’s not sound. Piper shipped off to slaughter. Piper turned into a broodmare despite all the reasons that would be a terrible idea. The few times we tried to put the word out about her we got such weird, disheartening responses. People asking if they could make payments on the $400 price we attached to her ad to discourage kill buyers. People asking if they thought she’d be up for, “Just trail riding.” People who didn’t seem to even understand what the word “lame” means.

Professional horse model prospect.

So one month after another passed with a steadily increasing list of failed treatments behind us. Finally our vet recommended a $1200 nerving surgery. This came at a moment when we’d just pushed through a number of unexpected and costly life events. Brian and I both came to the same realization. It was just not an option. We simply couldn’t swing either the cash or the justification. And I’m not even sure if I feel that kind of surgery is ethical.

Which cast the situation in a new light. Basically, if we felt we’d done all we could for Piper, we needed to find her a new home.

“Ohai. We gonna do the riding again?”

Still, I agonized, dragging my heels for weeks, always putting off the moment when we began to try in earnest. There was always an excuse. She would need new shoes soon. It was too cold. It was too hot. We had our big road trip coming up.

But finally, it could not be put off any longer.

I changed Piper’s ad, upping the price to $1100 in hopes of discouraging the sorts of inquiries we got last time but giving all the details of her diagnosis and stating that we were ‘highly negotiable’ when it came to offers from someone willing to continue to treat her. We took some more photos, removing most shots of her carrying a rider. We put it out there and we waited.

Happy in the pasture.

And it’s as if the stars aligned for this little mare. Because a few days later I got a phone call. The woman introduced herself as a small animal vet who lives in a nearby Iowa town. She already has one horse with navicular whom she has successfully treated and is able to ride but who she recently moved to her own land. He was alone. He needed a friend. She’d seen Piper’s ad and thought maybe. Maybe she could help Piper and give her gelding a companion at the same time.

Long story short, it is the perfect match. It is literally as if the universe designed the ideal home for Piper and manifested it into reality a mere hour away.

Ah the dapples.

Weekend before last, Piper’s new owner came to meet her. And then last Saturday, I led Piper onto a trailer. We followed it to this lovely little farm surrounded by cornfields and quiet. Piper met Roger, her new pasture-mate, and there wasn’t so much as a single squeal or pinned ear. Yesterday I got a text saying they were standing out there grooming each other.

It’s surreal, to have her gone. And not only gone, but in better hands than ours. Her new owner can get all the meds she needs at cost, can better control her diet and environment, and can provide routine care herself. She’s optimistic she can treat Piper’s symptoms and maybe even ride her again someday. But if that doesn’t work, she’s fine with just having her there being a friend for her gelding. She’s a very kind person and has even ridden with Kip Fladland, Jeff Griffith, and Barb Gerbitz—all trainers we too have learned from and who teach the same founding principles we used to train Piper.

The sad part, of course, is that we miss her. Steen and Piper had developed a particular bond. It’s a bit heartbreaking to think of him without his best friend.

And then there’s us, of course. Going out into the pasture without her there—it’s going to feel like something is missing for a while.

But mostly, this is a good thing. The building sense of relief these last few days has been palpable. Knowing she’s in a good place—that there are no more difficult decisions we must make on her behalf—is pretty wonderful.

Nope. Still just Iowa.


Our Bit vs Bitless Philosophy

Somewhat regularly, people comment on our hackamores in the context of the bit vs bitless debate. These comments range from curious to mystified to laudatory. They usually boil down to, “I can’t believe you can / are you sure you’re safe doing? / it’s so nice you can accomplish … X, Y, or Z without a bit.”

These comments always surprise me. They surprise me because they remind me how much the way I think about the tools I use to communicate with my horses has changed over the years.

Because I, too, used to look at people riding, notice a piece of equipment, and think that tool had something to do with the way the horse was moving or behaving. I fell into that wormhole myself plenty of times: the one where I thought this bit could solve that problem.

It’s true, I love the hackamore

It can’t be denied we mostly ride our horses in the hackamore these days. The hackamore is a band of woven rawhide that loops around the horse’s nose. The reins are a single rope of woven mane-hair that’s 22 feet long. The texture of the reins, the movement of heel knot, the balance of the hackamore on the nose—these are factors in the thing I like most about the hackamore. It’s a signal device. Used properly, it can lead to subtle, nearly invisible communication between horse and rider. I love the simplicity of the tool and the quality of the connection it facilitates between me and my horses.

But it’s not about the bit

To be clear, though, I have nothing against bits. Just a couple weeks ago, I forgot to bring a spare hackamore to the barn when I was teaching a lesson. So my student rode Steen in a snaffle. Of course, he’s perfectly fine with that. He goes just as nicely with a bit as he does without one. All our horses do.

That’s the first misconception I sometimes find myself trying to correct. We don’t ride our horses in the hackamore because they can’t accept a bit. We don’t ride in the hackamore because we think bits are cruel or inhumane. A bit cannot be cruel. A bit is an inanimate object. It’s not capable of causing pain except in the hands of  a human.

That said, I’ve seen some bits I believe should never have been created, much less used on a living being. And it’s definitely far easier to harm a horse with a bit than a hackamore.

Still, every trainer I most admire uses  some type of bit in one way or another. Some of them ride young horses in a snaffle. Some don’t use a bit until a horse is ready to carry a spade. As with everything, there’s nuance here. I don’t believe there is only one correct way to train or ride. I do believe bits cause a lot of unnecessary pain and fear. Again, though, this is not the fault of bit. It’s the fault of the person using it.

Is the hackamore safe?

People ask me this sometimes. I think it comes from the misconception that a bit can somehow prevent a horse that’s out of control from becoming dangerous.

A few weeks ago, one of the pasture horses needed to be brought in for some extra feed. As our barn’s owner was busy and the herd was way out on the hill, I offered to ride out and bring the horse in.

The horse was a mare, and she was in heat. One of geldings in the pasture herd had recently become super possessive of her. The two of them were caught in the throes of full-on spring fever. I rode out with a halter, dismounted, and tried to approach the horse. She ran away and the gelding went with her. They were kicking up their heels and flagging their tails. So I got back on Steen and we worked the mare, cutting her from the herd, driving her towards the gate, turning her back when she tried to escape up the fence.

It took some time. The gelding mostly went with her, complicating matters. Steen and I had to stop on a dime, turn quickly,  and open up to a dead run many times. All the while we had to work around the rest of the herd, keep to safe footing on the hillside, and avoid the electric fence.

At last, the mare had enough. She stopped and turned to face me. I was able to ride up, give her some rubs on the neck, and finally put the halter on.

Was I in control?

From a distance, it probably looked like a chaotic scene. But all throughout our merry chase, Steen went where I wanted, at the speed I wanted. The whole thing was a good deal of fun. After galloping all over the pasture for 20 minutes, when Steen needed to dial it back and calmly side-pass up to the mare so I could pet her, he could do that too. Though I did all this while riding in the hackamore, never once did it cross my mind that I might be safer if Steen had a bit in his mouth. Because Steen is not kept in line because he’s afraid of something that might cause him pain if he makes a mistake. Steen is trained to respond to my seat and my legs. And yes, my hands. But it’s the boundary set by my hands that he respects, not the tool that sets it.

Could Steen have gotten caught up in the excitement and run off with me? Yes, I suppose he could have. But Steen is trained to listen to me no matter what is going on around us. We’re a decade into this process, and our partnership is solid. I trust him. He trusts me. The hackamore is not how I keep him from running away with other galloping horses. I do that with our relationship.

It’s not about force, it’s about communication

No human is strong enough to pull a horse to a stop. Pain won’t stop a horse that’s in a panic. A horse that’s motivated to do so can run through the harshest bit in the world. So while it’s undeniable that a human can more easily inflict more pain on a horse with a bit than a hackamore, in my opinion, that does not make riding in a bit a safer way to ride.

Still, when people approach me  and tell me they are thinking of going bitless to solve a problem, it seems to surprise them when I offer the perspective that the bit might not be at the root of their trouble. As with so many things to do with horses, there’s no silver bullet. Anxiety about bits is a common problem in horses manifest by rooting, head-tossing, prancing, and all sorts of other common symptoms. Unfortunately, the anxiety behind these behaviors is almost always caused by habits in the rider, not the equipment the rider is using.

So bit vs bitless isn’t the right question in most cases. If there is a communication problem between horse and rider, ditching the bit won’t fix anything. A change might temporarily alleviate the symptoms due to the novelty of the new tool. But until the rider changes, a horse that’s fussy and frustrated in a bit will end up fussy and frustrated in a hackamore as well.

You can’t learn if you don’t try

That said, riding horses is about nothing if not learning. I most definitely wasn’t ‘ready’ to use the hackamore properly the first time I climbed on Steen with one. Did I make mistakes in the beginning? Oh my goodness. Yes I did. Do I still make mistakes sometimes? Yes. Yes I do.

But all these years later, I  have learned so many important things from riding in a hackamore. I have learned other important things from riding in a bit. The most important thing I have learned is about learning, and that it never stops. Not in me. Not in my horses.

Sometimes changing a tool can reset a situation. The horse can let go of anxiety while the human learns better habits. The important thing is to listen to the feedback from the horse and focus always on learning how best to support the horse with the tools you choose.

It’s a process that lasts a lifetime.

Scene from 2011 – Steen’s first time in the hackamore, my first time using one.


Why I’m breaking up with Instagram

Instagram intrigued me from the very start. Long before I had a smartphone (or any desire for one) the one thing I felt I was missing was being able to see and share little square snapshots. When I finally caught up with the modern world and got a phone with a touchscreen, one of the first things I did was install Insta.

And for a long time, I really enjoyed it. I posted. I liked. I sought out people to follow. I quietly did not follow people who did not produce content I found interesting. My Instagram feed became something Twitter and Facebook could never be. It was beautiful. It was peaceful. It was full of stuff I actually cared about, and nothing more.

Well, that’s all over now. Instagram has  aggressively rolled out ads and a “feature” called Recommended for You. These two changes have hideously altered my Instagram experience. I feel like a horde of drunken frat boys has invaded my private art gallery. The ads are everywhere. They are not at all on target. Half the time, they are videos that are massively visually distracting and not at all aligned with the content around them. Where I used to scroll through Instagram and feel transported to other places, enjoying my glimpses at life through the lenses of strangers, now I just see red. I systematically hide the ads, often before I even see them. But it does no good. There are always more.

Slowly, I am coming to accept a sad truth. The Instagram I loved is dead.

So now what?

I am not surprised by this, really. Instagram is free. Which means my attention is the product. This day always seems to come. With our culture’s joint refusal to pay for things we value and be content with anything other than relentless, continuous growth, whenever someone does manage to build something lovely and intimate, it is only a matter of time before it gets wrecked. I always warn my clients not to invest too heavily in producing content for social media. Platforms come and go. They change how you can reach your own followers. They make decisions to please investors rather than users. I know this. And yet I essentially abandoned blogging in favor of Instagram. I have over 800 posts on the platform.

I don’t want to lose all that content I’ve created. So I’ve moved it here. And I’m not cutting ties with Instagram entirely. I will post there still, but all my posts will be mirrored here. And I can say for sure I’m going to be browsing and liking a whole lot less.

Because Amateur Vaquero has evolved!

As of this post’s publication, this one single website includes my blog, Brian’s blog, all my Instagram photos, and a little bit about my horsecentric love stories. If you’re not familiar with those, what began a few years ago as a story about a fictional ranch called the Tipped Z has grown into a trilogy of Jane Austenesque novels. (They just revolve around horses instead of the English aristocracy.) They are lighthearted and quick to read, and my emphasis is on inserting the horses in a realistic way actual horse people will appreciate. And actually they’ve been so well received I’ve decided to try to produce one a year as long as there is interest.

But don’t worry. This is still mostly going to be a place where I post updates (in pictures as well as words) about our little herd of horses in Iowa and what we are getting up to.

More soon

Having now spent more hours than I really care to count creating this new platform, I am hoping I will be motivated to use it. 🙂


Things to do
When it’s too hot to ride your horse

Summer is here! Here in Iowa, it felt pretty late in coming. Worse, the honeymoon is already over. The sun is out. Temps are rising. Some days it’s just too hot to consider climbing atop a warm, sweaty animal.

How hot is too hot to ride?

First things first. Generally speaking, you should be very careful with your horse if you add the temperature and humidity readings together and the total is 140 or higher. Also take into consideration your horse’s fitness level, how long you ride, and how hard you ride. Older and younger horses are more vulnerable and need more recovery time.

We’ve discovered that one of the most important factors is actually not the days, but the nights. Are temps dropping when the sun goes down? If so, your horse will cool down at night as well. Here in Iowa, we can get strings of days with no break in the heat. That’s when you have to be extra careful. If you ride several days in a row and your horse can’t cool down in between, you can do real harm.

Give your horse the spa treatment

Okay, so you’ve decided it’s too hot to ride. This doesn’t mean no horse time! There are many things you can do to help your horse feel more comfortable in the heat.

Beat the bugs

Summer comes with bugs! Bugs bite and pester and can cause irritation. Give your horse a thorough grooming, treat bites or raw areas with thuja zinc ointment, cover white skin that likes to burn with sunscreen, and keep a lookout for ticks. If you find any, don’t pull them off with your hands. Use a tick picker and dispose of them in a chemical bath. Use an oil based fly spray to keep the critters at bay a little longer.

Skip the bath

While cool water can offer relief for your horse in the short term, the moisture can actually stay in his coat and cause heat to build as the sun beats down. Especially if it’s humid or your horse doesn’t spend all his time in the shade, a bath can lead to cooling problems while also stripping the coat of the natural oils that help keep the bugs at bay. If you do use water to rinse off sweat, make sure you scrape your horse thoroughly afterwards to remove excess.

Brush, don’t clip

You might consider the natural hair your horse grows in ears, on the muzzle, and on the fetlocks unsightly, but it’s there for a reason! These areas are particularly vulnerable to both sun and pests. Don’t deprive your horse of the protection this hair offers. Do use a flexible rubber curry and stiff brush to keep fetlock hair clean.

Set some groundwork goals

Groundwork can be a blast. This does not mean longing. Whatever you do this summer, do not chase your horse in endless circles without a plan. Effective groundwork can be accomplished entirely at the walk. It may not seem as romantic as galloping bareback through the dew-drenched fields, but it’s an important building block to build trust and communication. Need some ideas? Stay tuned. We’ve got a Getting Started with Groundwork How To coming soon.

Horsemanship via video binge

Okay, so your horse is as clean and happy as he can be in this weather. You’re ready to put your feet up and enjoy a glass of iced tea. Now’s the time to work on you! Fortunately you can steep yourself in horsemanship without even breaking a sweat. We recommend:

7 Clinics with Buck Brannaman

This DVD set is a bit pricey, but it’s worth every penny. With tons of useful information packed onto every disc, you’ll have to watch them more than once to absorb every tidbit. Also check your local library. Ours has these in their collection.

The Horseman’s Gazette

Anyone interested in improving their horsemanship can’t go wrong with The Eclectic Horseman’s video series. Each video contains a selection of short and digestible videos, each exploring an important aspect of riding and handling horses.

Giddy-Up Flix

So, the website needs a facelift, but we can personally vouch for the service. It’s like Netflix but for horses. When you subscribe, you get access to an entire library of horsemanship DVDs. We recommend anything with Martin Black, Bryan Neubert, Joe Wolter, Richard Caldwell, and Peter Campbell.

Horsemanship via fiction fix

Did you ever wish you could absorb some real, useful, horsemanship tips while  losing yourself in a feel-good love story set on a working ranch? Possibly in a bubble bath with a glass of wine for company? Well guess what? You can. The Tipped Z trilogy novels are works of fiction, but the horsemanship is real. Book 1, A Man Who Rides,  is available on Amazon and from all major booksellers. For a look at the whole series and a complete list of retailers where they are available, see stefaniwilder.com.

A Man Who Rides - Horsemanship Fiction

Whatever you do, take heart! Summer doesn’t last long. Soon we’ll all be back in our Carharts overalls and 17 layers of silk and wool…


Palate Cleanser

Between moving this  blog from Google’s servers onto my own WordPress install and (somewhat ironically, I suppose) working through the process of backing up thousands of my old photos in my Google account, lately I am inundated with photos of the past. It is weird to see old shots of myself on Steen where both of us look significantly younger than we do now. This is possible because I’ve had him for a decade now.  Like, literally, in just a few weeks Steen and I will celebrate our 10 year anniversary.

That is nuts. I don’t feel old enough to have owned a horse I purchased after college for that long. I don’t feel old enough to not actually look young anymore.

This shot was taken so long ago now that Brian was using a literal handheld digital camera that we used to carry with us and pass back and forth on our rides. Cuz yeah the cell phone in that schnazzy holster did not take photos.

Beyond that, seeing all these photos reminds me of our glory years with the horses. For a while there, we were riding and traveling and learning and training and teaching and just overall steeped up to our ears in horses in a way we just aren’t right now.

I’ve also been sick. For like a month now. Which is weird. I’m used to being mostly healthy all the time. But then I caught a cold and it would not quit. I’ve been struggling with fatigue that’s made it difficult to see to the needs of my business. As the weather stays relentlessly dismal, the horses are more an afterthought in our lives than ever right now. I mean, we still ride. We both still teach as well. We’re out there most weeks and every weekend.

Still, the feeling for me is more of treading water more than moving ahead.

However, I came across an idea the other day that was interesting. It was this article that talked about unhappiness as a palette cleanser.

The idea is that we humans are programmed to adapt very quickly to our circumstances. You walk from a dark room into a bright room; you blink a few times and then you forget the change ever happened.

Happiness can be the same way. If you get to a point where things are great, after a while you just adjust. And your sensation of being happy fades. You just are what you are. And while it might be good, it’s also normal.

So the function of less happy times can be to cleanse the emotional palate. If you push through a tough time and get somewhere better, you appreciate it more when you get there.

In terms of the horses, I just keep telling myself I need perspective. Yes, we’re doing less with them than it feels like we should. We have some major major major stuckness in terms of Piper’s lameness and what exactly to do with Laredo.

However, ten years ago I didn’t even own a single horse. I had just moved to Iowa. I was a little lonely and unmoored, far away from family and friends, working a few part times jobs and barely scraping by.

Things are better now. Way better. Maybe in some ways they’re not quite as good as they were four years go, but in other ways they are just as good or even improved.

It’s easy to focus on the ways in which things have changed for the worse. But that’s not actually super productive. So for now I’m giving myself permission to embrace this phase of difficulty as setting me up for the greater happiness that’s hopefully waiting just around the corner.


The Great Outdoors

I definitely appreciate that having an indoor arena to ride in all winter is a luxury. But I have to say, for some reason, this year the indoor rides have been uninspiring. I think it’s partly just personal malaise, and partly that Steen is so broke by this point, but riding in small circles is hard to keep interesting.

It’s not always bad. A couple of weeks ago, Brian and I arrived to find the arena freshly groomed. We celebrated by looping our reins around our horns and laying down a circle each, one on either side of the arena. Then we started mirroring each other and doing figure-eights with both halves. It was kind of ridiculously fun to be able to see the exact tracks we put down and challenge ourselves to be precise.

But the arena is not usually freshly groomed. It’s sometimes crowded. Pretty much always cold. Which was why it was so exciting when we got to ride outside, twice(!) within the last few days.

And I have to say, it was so nice. More space means more things to do. Steen is a bit out of shape, and when it’s really cold I don’t ask him for a really crisp, precise canter departure anyway because he has his old leg injuries that get tight sometimes. It can hurt him if I force him into a gait on my terms. So when we’re inside and a bit rusty, I let him pick his stride (within a small window) to get going.

Outside, though, with warmer temps, we got to dial back in some really crisp transitions, work on finding our balance again with big trots, delazify our stops, and supple up for more softness. The footing is better outside. We have more space. And these last two rides, the sun was out. We were mostly just getting ourselves and our horses a little less rusty, but it was glorious.

Makes me look forward to all the upcoming time in the sun.


Please excuse our dust

I’ve been totally delinquent about blogging in recent years. I’m not sure why. One theory is that the way we’ve been learning has changed. It’s hard to describe, exactly, but it’s like we’ve left behind our period of beginner gains where it felt like every ride was revelatory in some way. We’re still learning. A ton. But the gains are harder to quantify and harder to write about. I had a period of time where I felt everything I tried to say was taken and twisted into something I never meant. And this eventually made me reluctant to even post.

Another theory is that blogging in general has become a bit old-school. Instagram and Facebook have largely replaced long-form style posting of personal content on a private domain.

Yet another possibility is life has been pretty steady lately. With less change, there’s less news. Posting about the same stuff over and over can start to feel redundant.

I’m not sure which of these is the primary reason. Most likely it’s a combination of all three. In any case, I’m getting frustrating with the aggressive ads on Instagram lately, I more or less quit Facebook over a year ago, and Twitter has never managed to feel like my style. With none of those platforms serving to connect me to anyone, I find myself missing the community of bloggers I once interacted with all the time.

When I got sick a few weeks ago, I decided the thing to do in my convalescence was tackle the massive project of moving my blog and Brian’s blog off of Blogger and into one comprehensive WordPress install. This meant combining over 1000 posts and multitudes of images onto one domain, and then finding a way to mesh them together along with an active feed of my Instagram gallery. I wanted to do this because it’s been bugging for a while that my posts and images were hosted on severs I had no direct access to or control over. Still, the reason I never did it before was because the project basically amounted to me laboring away for hours upon hours, while massively ill, to create a brand new platform for two blogs that have been mostly dormant for years.

So yeah. It wasn’t necessarily a rational move. It took a very long time. And I’m not done. What’s live now on amatuervaquero.com is the bones of the endeavor. I’m still planning to flesh out an area to make access to the archives easier, with navigation by date, category, tag, and author. I’m going to make it visually obvious which posts are mine and which are Brian’s. I’ve got some planned static content to add, plus lots and lots of details to clear up.

But there’s time for all that later. In the meantime, I’m hoping to return to posting with more regularity. My goal for the year is one post a month. Modest. But hopefully doable. 🙂

For now, old feeds and urls should pointing to new content. But here’s a little list of helpful links.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Here’s a photo from the weekend. Laredo was taking a long time to eat his post-ride snack, so I hopped on Steen to tool around bareback for a while.