Friday, November 23, 2018


Best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. And awry they went!

Remember my lovely winter board setup? Yeah. It didn't work out. Which is a huge bummer in some regards, but I'm at peace with my decision to leave. It's what is best for me and my horses right now.

Back to familiar stomping grounds

Stan will have the winter completely off most likely. Q and Griffin will be worked minimally between now and the new year with hope to ramp up a little more as the day length grows. Between daylight wasting, my work schedule, my side hustle winter jobs, and my commute, minimal horse time is just my reality. Not the reality I'd hoped for, but c'est la vie!

I could set the bar higher, hope to ride more, lesson once a month, do all the things, but I've learned to be a lot easier and kinder on myself this year. Part of that is introducing more flexibility to my hopes/plans and trusting the process/journey and not creating so much of a to-do list or discrete goal list for myself. I'm certain I'll fit in some lovely rides and a lesson here and there, but it's best I don't plan for it from the get-go.

Matching game

I'm happy the horses will have 24/7 turnout in a huge pasture with free choice hay for the winter months. They are very happy and will maintain a fair level of fitness just from having so much turnout and playtime. And when I do work with them this winter, it will be on foundational strength-building and suppling exercises, nothing earth-shattering!

Super dirty grey horse season has arrived. No hot water = stains galore. 

Reflecting back on this summer with the horses in Canaan makes me smile though. It was amazing. I enjoyed so many wonderful rides solo and with friends across beautiful landscapes. In fact, sharing the horses with friends was one of the best parts! There are several horse ladies who are adept riders but simply don't have the time and/or finances to have their own horses. This sets the stage for the perfect mutualistic relationship: they get horse-time and I have help keeping all horses fit!

But this field tho... So ready for a winter of ground pole exercises and gallops.

Beyond the riding and the friendship, my favorite part about this past summer was finally getting to take a more active role in my horses' care. Prior to this, their turnout situation was such (and is such again) that they don't require much human intervention. They're on 28 acres of some of the best pasture in the area complete with a stream that has enough flow to never freeze over and free-choice hay in the wintertime. I've never had to worry about them having enough to eat!

This summer though, with much smaller turnout areas and poor grass, I finally had to figure out a good recipe for proper nutrition to keep weight on them. It was a bit of a learning curve at first finagling things, but they're easy-keepers all things considered and once I got it right it was easy enough. Seeing them and caring for them daily in this way was so good for all of us. The three of them are closer than ever and the relationship I share with each of them has grown stronger. There is nothing better than seeing them march across the field to greet me, even after a hard ride the day before. (Sure, they know I feed them, but knowing that in the past hasn't stopped them from ignoring me following a big workout.)

Griffin wasn't on board with selfies

While winter plans weren't what I hoped, I'm grateful the horses are in a place they will be happy and well cared for. With any luck, it will be their last winter in Elkins as big changes are afoot! 😉

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Magic of the West Virginia Highlands

Alternate titles: Recognizing Childhood Dreams; Griffin and Q Drive Cattle; The West Virginia Tundra

A new girlfriend, Emma, asked a week or so ago if I'd be interested in riding the horses in the Sinks of Gandy in the near future. Her family owns quite a bit of land up there, and she'd always dreamed of traversing it on horseback. Familiar with the area because my family has held a lease nearby her family's land for decades and I have visited the area she wanted to ride for various conservation efforts as a part of my current and past jobs, I didn't have to think about my response, "YES!"

Heading in through private property inholdings past lots of gorgeous red spruce

The Sinks aren't far from Canaan Valley where I live. The area harbors a lot of similar climate to Canaan and has always been a favorite place of mine as a result. Something about these high elevation areas with red spruce forests and completely bizarre plant life compared to what you'd expect at this latitude just makes my soul happy. Both Canaan and the Sinks area a sanctuary for plant life more akin to what one may find in the tundra and the Arctic Circle, not the temperate Appalachian forests found between 38-39°N latitude!

Where the forest ends and the open pastureland begins

Part of the land Emma's family owns is one of the most unique ecotypes in the world. So unique that only a handful of places like it exist anywhere on the planet. Balsam fir and red spruce litter the landscape surrounding a high elevation swamp that harbors plant life known to the Arctic circle. Karst (limestone) outcroppings litter the hillsides of the knobs, and the headwaters of several rivers begin right on the property! 

One of the old homes and rocky karst outcroppings

In the 1800s when the economy was booming with the timber industry, the area was extensively clear cut and used to graze cattle. Trains carried the timber away, dropped the cattle off, and then picked them up before the harsh winter weather settled in. Emma's great-great-something grandfather was known as the cattle king thanks to the thousands of head of cattle he ran over these lands. With the advent of the automobile, the steel industry, and the coal industry, the booming timber and associated train industries died away from this area by the 1920s allowing the land to rehab and forests to regrow around much of it.

Beautiful clear skies!

Today, cattle grazing is a still key component to keeping the environment intact. The sensitive swamp has been fenced off to exclude them from that area, but a small herd still grazes the surrounding area through the summer months.

Finally on her family's property

Emma and I opted to park the trailer out on the main USFS road and ride into the property. It gave us more mileage and helped guarantee I wouldn't booger the trailer trying to turn it around in an area I'm not as intimately familiar with.

The headwaters of the Gandy come out of the hillside behind Emma & Q

Following the initial keyed gate to the property, we had to pass through many gates on our way to her family's property. Multiple private properties exist on the road, all surrounded by the national forest. After 5 or so gates, we were finally on her property!

Climbing up to enjoy gorgeous vistas

I immediately demonstrated to Griffin, who hasn't had close encounters with cattle before, that the cows would run from him with little effort on his part. We would walk/trot toward them and as soon as they turned tail away from us, I'd stop and turn Grif back around. He understood and released the little bit of tension he was holding onto from initially seeing the cows. Q watched bemusedly the whole time.

All smiles in our happy place. Aside: the cattle behind us would be the first we would drive later!

Emma wanted to climb up both knobs on the property to enjoy the views. I was game for absolutely anything, completely overjoyed to have the opportunity to ride in the area at all!

Looking toward Blister Swamp with the Gandy headwaters (yes, that tiny trickle) below us

We marched up Big Momma and did a circuit around the top, enjoying the views in every direction. Emma shared stories of her family and childhood the whole way while I ate up both the history and the scenery.

Haystack behind, homestead below, Blister Swamp just out of frame to the right

As we completed our circuit, looking toward Haystack, the second knob we would climb and ride around, I took the opportunity to leg Griffin into a hand gallop across the wide open space at the top of the knob. Emma and Q followed close behind.

Enjoying the views...and the cows

Both of us giggled at the complete joy of running on horseback with 360° views of our most favorite area in all the world. I even dropped my reins and spread my arms wide for a few strides, smiling and laughing at the amazingness of the moment. As Emma and I both noted, "This definitely doesn't suck!"

WV Highland vista <3
The rock outcroppings in every photo are karst, or limestone, which is indicative of caves! Many caves litter this area and county.

As we descended back down, we observed Emma's parents and family friend had arrived to sort the cattle for travel back to their lower winter pastures.

And again

Emma called out to her mom to see if they'd like us to move the closest group of yearlings toward the gate. She answered in the affirmative. Emma told me to head low and push them toward the gate while she stayed high to prevent them from breaking.

Ahhhh such a happy place!

Neither I nor the horses have ever driven cattle! Emma has done it on foot for years though, and I've read enough books, seen enough movies and documentaries, and been around enough livestock to have a pretty good idea of how to accomplish it all. Honestly, much of it is similar to the liberty work I've done with the horses on the ground so far as body language cues go!

And so Emma on Q and I on Griffin set to driving cattle for the next 45 minutes or so!

Really cool karst boulders on the opposite hillside - biggest I've ever seen!

First, we drove the yearlings through the gate into the smaller field where they would be sorted and loaded onto the trailers. Next we helped keep the larger herd from breaking away as we pushed them through the opposite gate. Then Emma sent me back up Big Momma to turn a stray cow down the mountain while she went to try to usher in an old cow who hadn't come in with the main herd.

Happy hearts

From there, I headed back out toward the main field to help encourage another old cow who had a limp before helping Emma escort one final big girl out of the field and into the sorting area.


Calm down, Q. Calm down.

Nothing crazy, no running or crazy breaks from the herd, but totally satisfying to get to truly WORK cattle from horseback. With the two men on 4-wheelers, her mom on foot, and us on horseback, the large majority of the herd was where they needed to be in no time at all. 

I so wish I had more photos! But I had to stay ON it.

I finally thought to look at my watch once we'd finished with the cattle and realized we had better start heading to the trailer if we wanted to be on the road before dark! Daylight wasting time is the worst.

So Emma bid her family farewell and we struck off.

See the cow? We drove her down off the knob shortly after this.

The cherry on the cake for the day was getting to see my first WV golden eagle as we left. The species has overwintered in the WV highlands for years now (they travel down from Quebec), and we have reason to believe some may even be persisting through the summers, breeding and nesting. I have seen ample trail cam footage from the State wildlife agency, but had yet to witness a GOEA of my own in WV. It was SO cool to finally check that off my list!

Long shadows, golden light, and spruce forests

I'm looking forward to a spring trip with Emma to continue exploring and enjoying the area with the horses. The early-winter landscape was gorgeous, but the late-spring landscape will display an entirely different facet of beauty Emma and I are both keen to appreciate from horseback.

My loves

The whole day was absolutely magical and I'm so grateful to Emma (and her family!) for the experience. Both of us agreed that our souls were happier and our mental health in a much better place than it had been at the start of the day. Something about horses and time in the mountains is so very healing and fulfilling. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

25 Questions

I've got a lot of Potentially Huge things brewing, so until I get those under wraps to a point where I can write about them, I'm going to [continue to] take advantage of some fun prefab blog content. Thanks, Amanda.

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This post brought to you by several month-old photos of one incredibly muddy Griffin

1. Why horses? Why not a sane sport, like soccer or softball or curling? 

The last sane sport I did was swimming. I'd still swim if it hadn't completely botched the soft tissue in my ankles. I miss it all the time. Horses, skiing, and swimming were my first loves. Two have carried forward into my adult life and along the way I decided to adopt some other not-sane sports like rock climbing and mountain biking. Nothing sane interests me much! And the lessons I've learned from horses are superior to any I've learned from any other activity in my life. Horses scratch an itch nothing else can quite reach.

2. What was your riding “career” like as a kid? 

I rode ponies and horses that a few of my parents' friends had for awhile. It was sporadic but quieted some of my persistence about wanting to ride. Eventually I would take once weekly lessons for many years before my friends all got their own horses and I could go ride with them.

Ancient photo of Stan and I at one of the very few horse shows I did as a teen.

3. If you could go back to your past and buy ONE horse, which would it be?

I have him. Stanley. And I didn't even have to buy him, his old owner gave him to me.

4. What disciplines have you participated in?

Barrels, cutting, western pleasure, English pleasure, endurance, eventing, dressage.

5. What disciplines do you want to participate in some day?

Polo and vaulting! But from a more realistic standpoint: I'd like to get Griffin on cattle for either cutting or penning and I foresee much more endurance, eventing, and dressage in my future.

6.  Have you ever bought a horse at auction or from a rescue?

I bought Q the weekend before she was heading to auction, but that's the closest I've come.

Demo! And 4th grade Liz. 

7. What was your FIRST favorite horse breed – the one you loved most as a kid?

Arabians. Demo was an Arabian cross and I was obsessed with him.

8. If you could live and ride in any country in the world, where would it be?

Honestly, I'm pretty damn happy right where I am. But if I were to take a sabbatical somewhere, maybe Chile or New Zealand. I want to see the country from horseback.

9. Do you have any horse-related regrets?

I wish I had developed patience and an understanding of how to communicate with horses sooner. I wish I'd had access to dressage-based training sooner, and I also wish I had understood how powerfully my emotions played into my interactions so that I could check them at the door earlier in life.

10. If you could ride with any trainer in the world, ASIDE from your current trainer, who would it be?

I'd really love to spend a concentrated amount of time with Mary Wanless and hammer out my rider biomechanics. I find it fascinating. Additionally, a focus on that type of work has really changed my riding the past few years and to be able to be drilled on it by one of the best would help me become the best I could be and enable me to troubleshoot future issues with more ease.

11. What is one item on your horse-related bucket list?

Ride at the Biltmore and/or Vermont 100. The Biltmore Estate is GORGEOUS and I'd love to spend hours riding on it, and I absolutely love the northern Appalachian range and would simply enjoy riding in that region.

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He thoroughly rolled on both sides...

12. If you were never able to ride again, would you still have horses?

If I were in a situation where the horse would have to be boarded, probably not? There are so many other things in my life that I could put the money toward and time that I could spend doing other things. I would still love horses and seek interaction with them, but I think I could achieve that pretty easily without owning my own.

13. What is your “biggest fantasy” riding goal?

Riding my horse across the country from coast to coast. Linny Kenney really inspired me years ago when she rode Sojourner across the country. It's pretty crazy and I'll likely never do it, but that's why it's a fantasy.

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A not-quite-as-muddy Q, forever the horse who humbles and teaches me...

14. What horse do you feel like has taught you the most?

Hands down, Q. She's a challenge for me. A big challenge. But through the challenges she's presented, I've learned more about myself and my actions and reactions than ever before. The lessons I've taken away from my time with her so far have benefited every aspect of my life, especially my interactions with others.

15. If you could change one thing about your current horse/riding situation, what would it be?

I really wish more options for local competition venues and trainers existed. It takes me a good bit of foresight and planning to be able to make it to the events I go to currently. I would also love to audit more clinics and volunteer for more shows, but it's hard to do these things when the travel sometimes is more than the time I'd actually spend at the event.

16. If you could compete at any horse show/venue in your home country, where would it be?

I'mma stick with endurance on this one because it's more within my realm at the moment. I would really love to ride the Big Horn one day or any of the Pioneer rides.

17. If you could attend any competition in the world as a spectator, what would be your top choice?

I'd honestly love to see the Olympics.

18. Have you ever thought about quitting horses?

Ugh, several times. But it's usually just in dark times as an exasperated outburst/thought. There's never any real power behind the thought.

19. If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about the horse industry, what would it be?

I wish horse welfare was more of a priority at high-level events. In both eventing and endurance, there have been a slew of issues in recent years and I really wish the governing body would implement measures to avoid and minimize the likelihood of these things happening again.

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"Woman, how dare you ever refer to me as a 'dumb decision'!"

20. What’s the dumbest horse-related thing you’ve done that actually turned out pretty well?

Oh, goodness... I guess taking a chance on a VERY UGLY baby Griffin. NO ONE thought he'd amount to much and everyone is astounded at how very nice he's turned out. And, as I told the daughter of one of his soft landings before coming to me, "He didn't get this way overnight and he may not have become this with someone else. I put a ridiculous amount of time into this horse and that alone has resulted in what you see today."

21. As you get older, what are you becoming more and more afraid of?

Becoming seriously injured. My sense of mortality grows greater every year.

22. What horse-related book impacted you the most?

So many! But I'm going to go with the one that made the biggest difference early on - Monty Roberts' The Man Who Listens to Horses completely boggled my mind and changed the way I viewed and interacted with horses. Thanks to that book, I started to realize that a lot of the training methods I'd witnessed to date were quite abusive and unnecessary. There was a gentler way to do things that worked with the horse's natural instincts instead of forcing them to comply with our every whim and desire and causing them a lot of pain when they didn't. His way of explaining how horses observed and reacted to the most minute body language from a human helped me realize that I could stand to do a lot more listening instead of just expecting a horse to do as it was told. I was fortunate that I had only ridden "made" horses up until the point I read this book (early teen years), but it still made me feel bad about the ignorance I'd been living in up to that moment.

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Why does he only pose majestically when he's disgusting?

23. What personality trait do you value most in a horse and which do you dislike the most?

I really value a horse who is eager to show up for work and the day's adventures. Griffin has taught me how incredible it is to have this trait in a horse and I have so much fun with him as a result.

Upon pondering traits I dislike the most, I realize that they all revolve around having a distrust of people which leads to a lack of respect/confidence in people. And that isn't the horse's fault, that's the fault of the shit human who taught them that, directly or indirectly. So excluding those types of learned traits, I'd have to say a horse who is lazy by design. I hate a horse who is a push ride!

24. What do you love most about your discipline?

Endurance: it allows me time alone with my horse while enjoying some of the most gorgeous scenery. I love seeing SO MUCH of the land without having to watch my feet every step.

Eventing: I freaking love XC lol. Shocking, I know. Though equally, I really enjoy the minutia that is dressage because it is teaching me to be a better rider and it's so very fun to mold the horse into its best self.

25. What are you focused on improving the most, at the moment?

My rider biomechanics, my understanding of how they affect the horse, and my understanding of how to troubleshoot the communication between myself and the horse under saddle.