Friday, January 25, 2013

Horse Friends Forever!

This is a tribute to horse friends.

Not the barn full of friends in furry coats, ears eagerly pricked forward as I approach; no, this is to the legion of friends I've made because of, or through, or on the backs of horses.  It's a difficult post to write, because if I tried to properly acknowledge each of the hundreds of friends I've got thanks to our shared love of horses, it would be nothing  more than a list of credits rolling slowly across your screen -- so I must be cruel and select just a few to make my point.

That point is that horse friends seem to "stick" where other friends -- work friends, high school friends, neighbors -- seem to fall away as soon as you no longer work where they do, and have long since graduated, or have moved away.  Unless, however, there was also horsiness in common.  Those friends  seem to be as faithful as flies are to a barnyard -- but in a much nicer way, of course.

I'm well into middle age right now -- and many of my horse friends have ridden there with me.  My dear friend Cindy has done so for the past 38 years.  If our friendship was a horse event, it would be an endurance ride.   I still recall meeting Cindy in grade school and learning that she, too, was horse crazy.  Before long we were riding together, and not much longer still before we were doing crazy things on horseback -- meeting boys among them.  For every story I could tell on Cindy, though, she can tell one right back on me, so I'll avoid them (for now).  One thing I will say about Cindy is this:  somehow we still find new ways to sustain our horsey interests.  Recently Cindy joined us for an afternoon of ranch sorting.  I was amazed at the recognition that we were, once again, sharing a new riding adventure together -- decades after our first childhood rides.  It was Cindy I was riding with on the day that Elvis died; that thought always puts it into perspective for me -- our horsey friendship has marked many such historical, and personal, milestones.

Cindy is not only my horse friend of the longest duration, she's the horse friend who shared all the adventures of horse ownership with me -- the fun times and the challenging ones alike.  She's the friend who could be counted on to do "mare watch" with me (or for me, on the many nights I was working when a mare was due).  Many a night she spent in the barn with me, sprawled out on bales of straw with a flashlight in hand.  Many was the time she'd leave me that message, "No wax yet, Marce."

Through all of our thousands of hours side by side in the saddle, Cindy has greeted it all with her trademark good nature, sense of humor, and amused-but-pained expression at the predicaments I get her into.

When I was 17, I had the combined good fortune and misfortune of working at one of the premier Arabian ranches in the nation.  At the time, the "Arabian Industry," as it was called, was at its most lavish and opulent peak.  Not everyone I encountered was friend-worthy; there were definitely some co-workers at the ranch who weren't keepers.  But the ones I did keep are among the best friends imaginable:  Merrie and Denise.  Merrie has long been one of the nation's top riders and trainers; Denise has returned to horses again after a bit of an absence (just proving that horses aren't something you just give up -- they always seem to come back into your life one way or another).  

Merrie and Denise have long since left Arizona, and all our lives took dramatically different paths -- yet our friendships have endured.  They are the sort of amazing women that populate the horse world.  I could write chapters on the nooks and crannies of our unique, but interrelated, experiences with horses.

One interesting thing about horse friends is that they are often long-distance friends, but close in spirit.  There's Jim, in Oklahoma, whom I've loved talking horses with for years.  I'm thankful not just for his dear friendship across the miles, but for entrusting me with his very special horse Buck when it came time to sell him.  Horses bring great friends into our lives; horse friends often bring great horses into our lives as well.  Jerri, in Arkansas, became a friend when she saw a photo of my mare, Hollywood Royal Lady, on the internet -- and thought there was a striking resemblance to her own palomino gelding.  As it turned out, our horses are closely related, and our interests are, as well.  

Sometimes it seems each horse has brought a special person into my life with them:  after all, Chica brought me Sue.  Chica is a beautiful stinker of a horse; she's gorgeous and powerful, but she's a handful of a mare, and she was not an ideal family horse for Sue's family.  When I bought her, I was fortunate enough to not only acquire a mare that I love but a friend I adore.  Chica, for all your challenging ways, I will always owe you for that gift of friendship.

Horse friends are multigenerational, too.  Sue's daughter, Kelsey, is one of my younger horse friends.  Emily and Krissy are much-adored friends who were once my riding students when they were children.  Horses bridge the years.  One wondrous thing about them is that they give us the chance to ride with people outside our immediate sociodemographic niche.  I'm not much of a kid person, but the contact I do have with them is usually in the saddle or leaning on a rail.  

Not all my horse friends are female, of course.  One of my favorites happens to be my now-husband, Russ.  I met him on horseback.  We met on a 150-mile trail ride in New Mexico.  Who'd have thought a knight in shining armor would ride up on a horse named Chuck?  

Those long trail rides also brought me the treasure who is Beth.  Beth was one of those "friends at first sight" who soon became family.  Sometimes there's that immediate connection, just as there is with the horses we meet; it was also that way with Sharri.  Some friends are really sisters under the skin, and that's the only way to describe Beth and Sharri.  The afternoon I spent gathering cattle in Colorado with Sharri, and subsequent trail rides we've had here in Arizona, are highlights of recent years.  Beth and Sharri live in different states, but horse friendship knows no borders.

Our friend Tony visits us from Denmark, and we look forward to those annual rides together.  Horses are great ambassadors, and our big gelding Gus (above) enjoyed Tony's visit as much as we did.  

Not all of our horse-friends have ridden so many miles with us, though.  In the past year we were fortunate enough to meet Michael, Carolyn, Dale, and several other new friends through the cattle sorting events. Horse friends aren't limited editions; new, wonderful people continue to ride into our lives.  Times change, wrinkles accrue, and our horses come and go with lifespans all too short:  but horse friends are a constant.  In keeping with the text-speak of our time, I'll end with this:  HFF.  Horse Friends Forever.

Friday, January 18, 2013

What is it About Chasing Cows?

I don't know what it is about chasing cattle around that's so darned much fun.  Is it the speed?  (Not when I'm riding, it isn't.  My cow horses are pretty slow, actually.)  Is it the bovine psychology involved, and knowing exactly how to move them effectively?  Or is it something primal, visceral, in our DNA that hearkens back to a time when we had to pursue zebus around the cradle of civilization, stones and clubs in hand?

My husband and I are addicted to team sorting.  We're not particularly good at it -- we don't even compete.  We go to sorting practice most weekends, and we chase numbered cows from one pen to the adjacent pen.  Then we chase them back again.  Now, that might sound like a cowboy version of the old military exercise of digging a hole, then filling it in and digging another, but it's just darned FUN.  I really don't know why this activity, unlike any other team sport I've engaged in, has captured my interest so fully -- but it has me.

For those of you who don't know what team sorting is, but might have wondered why all those poor cows are running around with numbers on their backs, here's the scoop (or, since cattle are involved, we'll call it "the poop").  In team sorting (as opposed to single-person or single-man sorts) two riders enter a small round pen occupied by ten numbered cattle (0 - 9) and maybe an extra non-numbered cow or two.  In under a minute's time, the riders must bring each cow, one at a time and in order, from the first pen into an adjacent pen through an opening referred to as "the hole."  If a cow runs back into the first pen, or if they get out of order, the ride is disqualified.

I've always loved following a cow (or a herd of cattle) around on a horse.  I even had the wonderful opportunity to chase buffalo around on horseback one brief and shining summer when I was young.  Having the chance to do so weekly is making me feel like a kid all over again.  The horses love it; we don't push them to the point where they're angry and sour.  We want them to enjoy it, as we do.  We like that it makes them think, it challenges them, and that they look at is as a sort of game.

My good ol' girl, Hollywood Royal Lady, turns 26 in April.  From what I can tell, Holly had never seen a cow before the age of 25.    I had the brainstorm of taking her to the sorting.  She was apprehensive and unsure what those stinky critters were -- but suddenly she was lunging at the fence every time the cattle came by.  She loves chasing cows as much as I do -- and just as innately.  She pins her ears, trots along behind them, and moves sideways like a crab when necessary -- and it's instinctive.  Thanks to her breeding, she just knew how to work them.

Boot Scootin' Bandit, my beloved buckskin, was pretty burned out on anything having to do with cattle since his days as an arena roping horse.  Moving cattle from pen to pen, though, has restored his faith in bovine-dom.  Ol' Buck isn't as crazy about it as Holly, but he clearly is relaxed and happy when we're out there together.  Soon I hope all of our horses will be trained on cows -- just for the fun of it.  Standby when we take the half-draft half-gaited moose, Gus, for his first practice!  He's not exactly light on his feet.  At least he's big enough to cover the entire hole without moving.

If you're interested in teaching your horse how to sort, here's my article on horse-meet-cow to help you out:  Introducing Your Sorting Horse to Cattle.  If you live in the Phoenix area (or are looking for a great excuse to get away from the cold and enjoy our Arizona warmth), my friend Dale is hosting a cattle introduction clinic on February 17th, 2013, for sorting and penning horses.  It's aimed at those of you who've either never worked cattle, or who want to introduce your horse to cattle in a safe, slow, low-pressure environment, while having the benefit of some professional coaching and encouragement.  Here's Dale's email:  The clinic is a very affordable $100 for four hours of instruction, mounted work, and one-on-one coaching.  (Auditors may attend for $20.)

While I'm singing Dale's praises here, I'll add that Dale takes horses in for training, too.  Those of you who know me know I won't recommend a trainer unless I know them to be patient, kind, non-abusive, honest, competent, and just all-around-good people.

Hope to see you in the sorting pen!