Saturday, September 30, 2017

Weekly Blog Roundup

Book Review: Training Strategies for Dressage Riders from Poor Woman Showing
I like the idea of this book and the positive review it got.

Shaping Energy from Zen and the Art of Baby Horse Management
I had a trainer who was very into the idea of energy use (and chakras!) while riding and I kind of hated it then, but this blog post makes a lot of sense.

Speedhumps: a baby horse story from Dotstream
I love baby horses. This was a well-told story about a training problem & solution.

Eugene's Eventful Acres - Cross Country from DIY Horse Ownership
I love Eugene, and any post with tons of photos of him jumping gets a +1 from me. It's also an all-around good show recap.

Millbrook Madness from Breeches and Boat Shoes

Levels of Pressure from A Enter Spooking
A+ for thoughtful, useful dressage content

Use This Easy Test to See if Your Knees Are Inhibiting Your Horse’s Forward Movement from Trafalgar Square Books not sure this is an easy test, but it is an intriguing one.

The Beauty of Big, Huge, Awkward Mistakes from Eventing Nation
Andrea is the actual BEST, and this is a terrific article.

Countdown to Congress, and the Impending Departure from Diary of an Overanxious Horse Owner
Quarter Horse showing is a world I know absolutely nothing about, so I found this fascinating.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Summer Series: The Black Stallion's Blood Bay Colt

The Black Stallion's Blood Bay Colt
by Walter Farley

Okay. Two things you need to know about why this review has taken so long.

1) It nearly broke me. Reading this book was not fun. It was not cracktastic or even occasionally thrilling, it was just mean.
2) Summer's over, so the series is on hiatus until next summer. Sorry!

So with that, I'm reasonably sure I can mock it anyway. Let's do this.

You may remember at the end of The Black Stallion and Satan, when Alec & Henry were driving to their farm upstate, Henry asked Alec if the Black's first stud service could go to his old friend, Jimmy Creech, who was a harness racer. Alec, displaying the same obliviousness that led to his blind spot about racing the Black and Satan as Thoroughbreds, thought that was a capital idea.

Instead of recapping this book chronologically, as with the others, I'm going to do some character summaries and then hit a few of the major themes. The plot of this book is a big nothingburger. Even more than usual. Colt is born. Colt grows up. Colt is trained. Colt races. Zero conflict. All the conflict is on the human side.

I'll insert some photos of harness racing at the Tunbridge World's Fair in Vermont that I took a few years ago so you have a) something to break up the wall of text and b) some actual context for the way this book wants to tell its story.

Let's introduce our cast of characters. I made a few conscious decisions about how to read this book that helped me get through it, and I'll share them each with you.

Tom Messenger. Tom is our Alec stand-in: he's a high school kid who inexplicably walks five miles (YES. FIVE MILES.) to and from the local harness track every day so he can hang around with one trainer and his two horses. Tom is somewhat endearing, if bland. My decision for Tom is that his family is black. The story reads way better that way, trust me. Tom's parents are nonexistent and have no objections to him spending waaaaaaaaaay too much time at the track. It's a step up from the Ramsays, I suppose. Tom is obsessed first with the mare Volo Queen and then with Bonfire, the colt, and Tom's only exposure to horses comes through the track and through Jimmy's teachings.

Jimmy Creech. Jimmy is an asshole. Jimmy has basically no redeeming qualities at all. Jimmy's assholery drives our plot. He owns Volo Queen and one other horse, Symbol. 1/3 of the way through the book he gives Symbol away for no reason at all. Jimmy is the kind of Trump-voting troglodyte who thinks things should stay the same (ie, the way they were when he was winning all the time) no matter what and who yells at and abuses the people around him for no good reason. Constantly. He blames everyone else for his problems. He is a shit friend who burns up good will and yet, inexplicably, people keep giving him second, third, and fourth chances. Everything in this book happens IN SPITE OF Jimmy. Also, he's never or rarely just "Jimmy." He's always "Jimmy Creech." Fuck him forever.

George Snedecker. Jimmy and George are longtime lovers and life partners. Yep. That's how I'm reading this book, and trust me, it makes it a better book. Sadly, it also makes George an abused spouse, because George spends the whole book being kind of cool. He's old-school but he understands changes, and welcomes them if they bring more people to the sport. He's actually kind to Tom. He does ALL of the actual work without, as far as I can tell, getting paid. But Jimmy treats him like absolute shit. Here's a very typical interaction.
[George] said with attempted lightness, "No need to work over Symbol, heh, Jimmy? He'll stir up enough wind to wipe him clean."
Jimmy Creech looked sullenly into George's grinning, tobacco-stained mouth. "Sure," he said. "Let's get the stuff on him now."
Fuuuuuuck you, Jimmy.

Those are our three main characters; I'll introduce others later.

The primary conflict in this book is the evolution of the sport of harness racing. Jimmy wants to keep it a small-time sport, with daytime races at local county fairs. The sport at large is moving toward dedicated tracks with evening races under the lights. That's an interesting narrative, right? There's a lot to be mined there. The thing that kills me is that Walter Farley gets it. His descriptions of the world of harness racing are as good as - or even better than - anything in the flat racing books. But the entire narrative is presented as one of Good versus Evil, through the lens of Jimmy Creech's bitterness and anger.

George has some mild opinions on the changes, and Tom has no actual character (other than being a generally easygoing kid and having a natural feel for "the reins") so the conflict is driven entirely by Jimmy. Jimmy is so upset about the way things are going that he works himself into a bleeding ulcer that has to have surgery. He eats like crap. He has temper tantrums. He screams at the people around him. He sees anyone who has anything to do with the night tracks as a "traitor" and not in the haha-teasing way, in the "you and your kin are dead to me unto the seventh generation" kind of way. He hates drivers at the big tracks so much that he crashes his cart into one of them and gets into a fistfight on the training track with another. Everyone is so afraid of his temper that they tiptoe around him, hide things from him, cater to his every whim, and yes-sir his every statement. Jimmy checks every single damn box on the abusive relationship list.
Jimmy was as highly strung as any colt and his emotions would vary from day to day and from hour to hour.
That's just the kind of guy I want training horses and/or to be my friend, amirite?

The book has three main chunks: first, the colt's birth and early life. Second, the colt's training. Third, the colt's racing. The colt, by the way, is a blood bay (hence the title) named Bonfire and despite being half-Arabian, half-Standardbred, he is the fastest harness racing horse EVAH. Because of the Black. Or something. Whatever, Bonfire has literally zero personality. After the Black and Satan, he is a big blob of nothing on four legs. He's easy to train. He wins races. He's awfully pretty. The end.

Among Jimmy's more questionable decisions in the book is the decision to send Volo Queen, pregnant with the colt, with Tom for the summer to his aunt and uncle's house. Tom displays creditable anxiety about this decision, tries to get a vet on-call, and in general takes this responsibility far more seriously than any adults in the book. What do you mean, sending a pregnant mare several hours away to live with a high schooler with zero horse experience is a great plan? On top of everything, Tom is charged with starting the colt - teaching him to be handled, led, etc. Somehow this turns out fine, though damned if I know how. (There are a few screw-ups along the way, but nothing Tom can't overcome with the power of lurrrrrrve.)
And Tom, I've got full confidence in you. Use your own judgment if anything comes up. You've got a good head and, most important, the right feeling for horses, and that always pays off in the end.

The training is ok? I don't know. The horse gets trained. The whole middle bridge displays the fundamental flaw of this book. The training is actually suuuuuuper interesting. Jimmy clearly knows his stuff. I loved learning about harness racing from the ground up. (I have a soft spot a mile wide for harness racing, because all my earliest experiences with horse racing was at Scarborough Downs.)

But the whole middle bit is taken over by Jimmy's illness (he spends the whole book in denial that he has an ulcer until it ruptures; I'm pretty sure it's a long game for maximum attention) and by the burgeoning conflict with the night tracks. Two other horses that float in and out of the story are racing at fairs and night tracks, and they're set up to be Bonfire's big rivals, but they're not, really. But the middle bridge means it's time to talk about the best damn character in the whole book, and a top 5 for the entire Black Stallion series.

Miss Elsie. Miss Elsie is living the dream, you guys. She never married, and inherited her father's fortune when he died. She spends that money to maintain the training track, breed her own horses, and train all her own horses. She gives exactly zero shits about what anyone thinks of her. She is friendly, but laser-focused on her horses. She is compassionate but doesn't indulge anyone. She is in and out of the story and is absolutely perfect in every way. She has a filly named Princess Guy (which, ok, not the best name but whatever, she has a stallion named Mr. Guy that she loves and named her after) that is setting track records alongside Bonfire, and she has zero compunctions about going where the best races are - at fairs or at the night tracks.

So what does Jimmy think about Miss Elsie?
A month or so ago, Jimmy read on the back of [a newspaper clipping] you'd sent that Miss Elsie Topper had left the Ohio fairs and was racing her black filly, Princess Guy, a,t Maywood Park, the night raceway just outside of Chicago. I don't have to tell you how Jimmy feels about the night raceways. He bellowed for days that Miss Elsie had betrayed him, and I had all I could do to quiet him down.
Once again, in chorus: fuck you, Jimmy.

Jimmy gets himself so upset that his ulcer basically explodes (they're never more medically specific than that). He has to go on bed rest at home, and somehow a retired nurse comes to live with him but...doesn't charge any money? They explain that she just likes taking care of things, and now she has a nice place to live and people, I have been reading a lot about emotional labor lately and I am so filled with rage about this particular plot development I can't even see straight.

Whatever: Jimmy basically sits at home watching Fox News and getting taken care of (FOR FREE), and George and Tom take over Bonfire's training and then racing.

Then Jimmy has to have experimental surgery done by a doctor flow in from out of town to fix his ulcer, and suddenly they owe thousands upon thousands of dollars in medical bills. Jimmy is not in the picture at all to help fix this, when arguably he ignored every single shred of doctor's advice up to this point. (Free advice! Did I mention that? The doctor was also treating him for free because he liked Jimmy so much!) and is largely responsible for the dire straits he's in. (No, I'm not saying his entire illness is his fault, but nor do I have much sympathy either for the endgame exacerbation he brought on himself.)

Bonfire is good - he wins everything, except when Tom, who I feel I should remind you is still walking five miles to and from the track every day with zero parental input and is like 17, screws up the driving. Which is 10000% understandable! He's learning! But he has Jimmy breathing down his neck via letter and also thousands of dollars in medical bills to pay off. Because it's somehow HIS responsibility. Fuck you, Jimmy Creech.

Obviously, the conflict in this book was all headed in one direction. In order to win the kind of money they need, Tom and Bonfire are going to have to race at a night track. To scope it out ahead of time, Tom and George go visit.
"And although it isn't for me or Jimmy or maybe for you," George added sincerely, "it's good for our sport in a lot of ways. Raceways like this all 'round the country mean a lot more people are takin' to our sport, and in time they'll learn to love it the same as we do."

Tom and George enter Bonfire in the Big Race (I don't remember what it's called, but it's a Black Stallion book, of course it ends with a Big Race), pooling the last of their money to do so. It's a tight race, but please use your best surprised face when I tell you that Bonfire wins. (I snark because I love; Bonfire's races are arguably the most enjoyable scenes in the book, because they get back to what these books do best.)

They win a ton of money! They pay off all the medical bills, all the feed bills, all the travel bills, they buy ALL new equipment, and Bonfire sets a new record for the mile at 1:59. Happy ending, right?

lol. Remember how they have to go back to their abusive home?
Jimmy Creech stood at the other end of the shed, bellowing fiercely. He was holding the tall gold-plated trophy in his hands, reading the inscription on it. When he had finished he looke dup and saw them; then the trophy came hurling through the air as he hurled it at their feet. It rolled past them, striking with a sharp ring against the door. Bonfire shrilled at the sound of it, then moved uneasily back and forth in his stall. Quickly Tom went to him, going inside the stall to quiet the colt. He ran his hand up and down Bonfire's head while Jimmy Creech continued raging without making his words understandable.

George finally stands up for himself, though.
"You're here...and that's the way we wanted it to be. And I wanted you to see this colt race, Jimmy. You've never in your life seen a colt like this one...let alone owned one. He's a world's champion, Jimmy. He beat the best there is. He did one fifty-nine, Jimmy. Are you thinkin' of that at all? Or are your mind and body filled with so much hatred for the raceways that you can't even see a colt like this any more? He's yours, Jimmy. You bred him. You own him. All your life you hoped this would happen to you...never dreamin' it would come. But it has, Jimmy...and you're not even looking at him."
I wish I could say that either George breaks up with Jimmy and goes and lives his best life, or that Jimmy has some kind of amazing revelation and about-face, but the ending is much less satisfying than that. The only thing Jimmy says is to order Tom to take Bonfire's blanket off so he can look at the horse, because somehow that's supposed to be an apology AND a thanks for everything he put them through and they did for him?

I don't know you guys. This was not a fun book to read. The good parts (training, racing, Tom being sweet if in over his head, Miss Elsie) were totally obscured by the rage that fueled the narrative conflict.

Have you read it recently, or not-so-recently? What did you think?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Helping Puerto Rico: A Giveaway

I know. I've been MIA. "Sorry I haven't blogged" is the most common phrase on the internet. In my defense, it has been a shit summer and my brain is barely staying on top of feeding & cleaning myself.

Like many of you, I have been heartbroken and horrified at the summer of natural disasters that have taken their toll around the world. There are so many awful things going on it's hard to know where to start. Lately, I've been trying to embrace the idea of starting with one thing at a time to just keep going.

So in that spirit, here's something I can do.

I'm giving away one of the handy bags I'm developing in exchange for donations to help Puerto Rico.

I hope you're following along with what's happening on Puerto Rico. It's part of the United States, and Hurricane Maria has totally devastated infrastructure on the island. Just under 3.5 million people (American citizens!) live there, and they're expected to be without power for six months. The entire island. They're not getting anything like the help they need to recover. (Don't think too hard about why. You know. It's America in 2017.)

Here's the deal. If you donate any sum of money to help Puerto Rico, you'll be entered to win a small embroidered bag that I will make. We'll work together on color & design.

Here's what they end up looking like.

Here's a list of organizations you can donate to, to get started. If you know of others, please mention them in the comments and I'll add them to this post.

Please let me know if/when you've donated using the Rafflecopter below, and please share this widely so people can donate more and enter.

Please note: it really is any sum of money. I'm asking how much in the widget below so I can keep track of how much we all raise together, not to try and shame you. We all have different budgets and abilities, and that's totally ok. If you donated supplies, just write that in or guesstimate how much they would have cost.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

How would you interpret this?

I am among the least superstitious people on the planet. I don't really do lucky things. I have things that I like, and things that I have imbued with meaning, but I don't think the world will go wrong if I don't have rituals, objects, or anything else that I feel blesses my endeavor. (My husband, on the other hand, has elaborate charts that he uses to keep track of what jerseys he was wearing when his sports teams win or lose so that he can make sure he gets it "right.")

I'm not in the slightest bit religious, either. I don't really care whether ghosts exist or not. I'm really kind of boringly pragmatic in a lot of ways. I like to work hard and figure things out and love the things that I love, and mysteries that can never be solved are kind of boring to me.

I tell you this mostly as context to the story I'm about to relate to you, so you can understand how weird it is.

Maybe a month ago, Tristan's pasture mate was euthanized. He was in his 30s, and he had the variety of health problems you'd expect from an ageing horse. He was exquisitely well cared-for and much loved, but he was getting increasingly neurological. Getting up and down the hills of the farm was hard for him, and getting harder.

I can't stress enough how hard everyone worked to keep him comfortable and how lovingly the final decision was made. The barn manager brought him out to handgraze with Tristan for a while so they could say goodbye. They've been turned out together reliably for a few years now, because they had similar needs for grass (type and/or lack of), because Tristan doesn't play hard, and because they were just calm and happy together. So it was lovely that they got to say goodbye.

Tristan rarely gets attached to other horses. He has some horses that he likes, especially longtime pasture buddies, but he's never been a horse to make instant best friends on a trailer, for example, and he's always been perfectly happy to be turned out alone when that ends up being his situation. For a horse that spent his formative years running wild in a herd, he has an awful lot of loner-like tendencies. I've always thought that if I did bring him home with me someday, he'd be content and happy alone for quite a while.

That's just more context for you.

On Monday, I took Tristan out for a long walk around the field. Nothing taxing at all; just a walk with some nice trots up hills. We've circled this field I don't even know how many dozens of times.

At the end of our ride, we were coming up the last bit of hill, and he was on a loose rein, and he scooted forward, hard and fast. It wasn't really a spook or a bolt. It was a short launch, a stride or two of energy and alertness. I didn't even have time to pick up the reins, just sat it with my seat, and he came back to a walk by himself. I thought that it was the new trailers that were parked at the top of the hill, though those had been quite visible for our entire walk up the hill and were no surprise.

I walked him around the trailers a bit, and he was alert but not bratty. Then he stopped and let out a long, loud, neigh. Really long. Really loud. Then again. I was totally baffled - he's also not a vocal horse. Mustangs rarely are. There were no other horses in sight, no other people, no other animals. Nothing at all.

I was confused but shrugged, and we turned for home. As we were leaving the hill, he called out again, long and loud. This time, there was a horse in the outdoor, so I guessed he'd been calling to her. It's a mare that he's never actually "met," though they've been ridden in the ring together maybe two or three times. Still really weird for him to be calling for her, but I guessed that's what happened.

As I dismounted, a thought occurred to me, and I walked into the barn and poked my head into the tack room for the barn manager.

"Hey S," I said. "Where is Pari buried?"

I knew generally where the barn buried horses, but S. described to me a spot precisely where Tristan had had his first scoot.

I'm not sure what to think. S. was very close to Pari and thought that Tristan saw something. That's comforting for her, and it really is a lovely thought. But it's so far outside of how I usually interpret things that I'm just not sure. Most of my practical brain just thinks he smelled that other horse, or he just had a weird whim.

What do you think?

Monday, September 4, 2017

How do you price used tack?

I'm helping to organize a big used tack sale at the barn - we're selling table spots for anyone who wants to come to help benefit the equestrian team at the local university that rides out of our barn. At the end of the day, we'll collect any tack that people don't want to take home and donate it to some local horse rescues.

I'm looking forward to it. Organizing this sort of event is right in my wheelhouse, both by professional training and personal inclination, and I have spent some quality time cleaning out my own old tack to see what I can unload. I've also been making some horsey craft items that I hope will go over well.

I now have an entire tupperware filled with various things I am fine with selling, from breeches to tack to sheets and more. It ranges from fair (good quality & well-loved in decent condition) to brand new & never used. (I finally gave up on the open front leather boots I bought many years ago and have never even taken out of the packaging, much less put on Tristan's legs. sigh.)

Now I'm in a bit of a conundrum.

How do I price this? I have some gut sense of what I'd pay for it in a consignment shop, and a very vague sense of what I've seen similar items priced for online. But I'm pretty far from a savvy consumer of tack, and personally kind of a cheapskate. I'm still trying to pay down vet bills from Tristan and the dog's fun July, so I need to come away from this with some money. I want to assess a fair price on things but I also need to sell it.

Have you ever done anything like this? How do you decide how to price items - pure whim? actual research on comparatives? some combination of both?

Any advice appreciated!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Surprise Show Prep

Last week, I found out that a day off I had requested back in April would finally be ok for me to take - someone had volunteered to provide the coverage needed. I had honestly totally given up on the request and kept it on the list out of pure reflexive frustration.

Thankfully, I found out the day before closing for the barn schooling show! I emailed the show secretary immediately, and followed the next day with my entry for Training 1 and Training 2.

I haven't said anything on the blog because I was convinced it would fall through (part of me is still convinced something will go wrong) but I have been scrambling since then to get show prep done.

That includes:
- Finding all the various parts of my show kit. My white breeches and white show pad were AWOL for three days, and I finally had a brainstorm in the middle of the night of where I'd stashed them and thankfully, there they were. The breeches needed to be washed but that was easy enough.

I know my dressage coat is several years out of style and I don't care I LOVE IT.

- Actually trying to memorize my tests; haven't finished this one yet.
- Practicing that newfangled long mane button braid that people are talking about. It came out pretty darn well and I'm going to go with it on Saturday!

- Taking a lesson to tune up parts of the tests. Given how much of a shit he's been in the outdoor we've been drilling it HARD, working through gradually less huge bits, and this was my first time in the snaffle we'll have to use for the show. Bizarrely enough, he was well-behaved, soft, and suuuuuuuper behind the leg. Can't win 'em all. So now I've been focused on revving him back up in the snaffle which hopefully will not swing the pendulum the other way?

From the lesson: I need to round out my circles better, be more attentive about my marks. I need to ask for some left flexion down the center line and into my halts to keep him square & straight. I need to pay particular attention to my outside rein the canter circles coming off the rail because he's awfully sticky. I need to post quickly and stay relatively light in the reins to encourage him to go forward. I need to use my diagonals to build forward and then carry it through corners. I need to get more precise about my aids for the canter depart.

My times are 10:20 and 11:20 because this is some kind of cushy and luxurious schooling show, I do not even know. Good grief.

So, we'll see how this goes! Stay tuned for a recap next week.