Monday, January 28, 2019

Dreams Become Reality: Part I - Convincing My HOA

I have alluded in previous posts about big changes afoot. Huge, life-changing, dream-attaining changes.

Drum roll please....

By next winter, my horses will be home with me for good. My barn commute will be zero. My life-long dreams of having my horses outside my window and 100% in my care will be achieved. 

I am the very embodiment of the word "excited".

But let's rewind. Because this whole thing didn't happen quickly or easily, and I want nothing more than to document the story for myself to have in years to come. Over the next month or two, I'll publish a series of posts that include everything that went into the planning and preparation phase for this dream to become reality. Then, once we roll into the warmer months and I begin implementing this dream, I'll document all of the pieces involved in the land prep and construction.

A Seemingly Far-Fetched Idea

I live in a homeowner's association (HOA) in an area that serves as a vacation destination and second-home to many folks from the DC area and beyond. My HOA is comprised of 14 residences and, of those, we are the only 100% full-time residents. One other gentleman is here 80-90% of the time. All others are only here for multiple long weekends and/or extended summer stays. 

We're situated on top of a big flat ridge that was formerly a farm. I can run a 1.1 mile loop from my house and only gain something like 75 feet in elevation. It's pleasant to have both remarkable mountain views from a high vantage point and also have flat land. As such, the very large majority of the homes in the HOA are positioned so that they can enjoy 180-270° views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

With a view like this (and this is only one third of the view!), it's understandable why people want to have homes up there!

The lots are large, folks tend to own several, and the homes are really spaced out. There are limitations on buliding size,  what materials you can build and side your home with, and other limitations on how the appearance of your yard etc. must be kept. Most folks mow their lots immediately around their homes and a local fellow comes up to hay the unmowed areas for his cattle. In the grand scheme of HOAs, it's pretty nice and relatively relaxed. 

Since moving up here full time in 2017, I've dreamed of bringing the horses home to one of the vacant lots. But the cost of land in this area coupled with the HOA rules forbidding horses (and cattle, goats, sheep, chickens, etc. - it's quite a long and inclusive list!) kept my dreaming at bay. Even if the HOA adjusted the rules, I couldn't imagine dropping that kind of money on such a small parcel of land.

After Dave and I married and I began exploring boarding options in earnest, I realized that every option in our local area was going to be expensive because it's a vacation destination. And so I decided that before I pursued other options for land in the surrounding area, I would at least ask a friend (a past HOA president) if the option for horses in the development even seemed feasible. I knew it would very, very likely be a quick "no", but I also knew if I didn't at least ask I would always wonder "what could have been".

Standing at the far edge of the lots looking toward the house. Gonna have my work cut out for me getting rid of golden rod!

And so when I saw my friend out and about one day this past summer while Dave and I were walking, I popped the question.

"Hey. I've got a kind of crazy question for you. I'm pretty sure I know what the answer will be, but I've got to ask or I'll always wonder. Do you think the HOA would ever make an exception to allow horses?"

He pondered it for a second before replying, "Well, I love horses. I think having horses up here would be wonderful. I'd be your biggest supporter - my grandkids would love it! I think others would probably be up for it, too. But we'll have to be strategic about how you approach it and ask..."

Cue: a shocked expression on my part!

After I recovered from my initial shock at not receiving what I was certain would be a "no", a smile slowly spread across my face and my mind began whirring with possibilities.

20181223 Snowy Sunrise Light_44
Standing below our house looking toward the end of the lots. Barn will be just left of center nestled in the trees. 

Following that initial conversation, I put pen to paper and drew out the first draft of my plans to share with my friend. I met with him and we discussed my idea and how best to move forward. With his expert guidance and understanding of the HOA, its residents, and history, I put together a proposal for the executive committee to review and consider.

In a shorter time than I imagined, I received a reply from the executive committee. They were in favor of my proposal. The next step I needed to take was to prepare a presentation for the annual HOA meeting on October 28.

I had a solid 2-2½ months to prepare my presentation. It was both a gift and a curse to have that much time! I had plenty of time to prepare, certainly, but I also had ample time for my mind to run amok wondering will they/won't they be in favor and will this/won't this dream actually happen?

The Presentation AKA The Day of Reckoning

Finally, the day of my presentation arrived. An agenda had been set out prior to all HOA members, and item 6a read, "Permission to allow horses on 2 or more lots as requested by Liz Stout..."

All through the start of the meeting, I was nervous. I knew the executive committee was in favor and the path forward sounded straight forward enough, but if anyone had a strong objection to my plan, the whole thing could come crashing down.

Finally, it was my turn to present.

Ever-prepared, I had brought a laptop, projector, and had prepared a well-practiced presentation. I don't think any of them expected this! I laughed and made a joke about my nature to be well-prepared and overly-organized, and then went right into my presentation.


I set the stage by sharing my background as an equestrian, a biologist, and a West Virginia native. I briefly shared the type of riding I do and noted my years of experience working at other barns and my copious visits and observations of other barns local and abroad. From there, I noted that my ideas of a good horse farm revolved around not only providing safe fencing, adequate food, water, shelter, and care for the horses, but to do this in a manner that conserved the resource (land), was aesthetically pleasing, and mindful of the viewshed.

To support these claims, I then proceeded through slides that:
  • provided a first-draft of ideas for fencing and barn placement/design and noted that any barn design would, of course, be subject to review by the architectural committee
  • shared that fencing options would be visually appealing and that the barn would be situated on the landscape in such a way that other residents wouldn't see it unless they were on the edge of our property
  • shared my plans for pasture rotation and a dry lot in order to preserve and promote healthy pastures 
  • noted that I would have a manure management plan and would position the composting bins in such a way that prevailing winds would push any smell away from the other homes
Farm Draft
A rough sketch of my current plan. I drew the barn per measurements in Google Earth and it looks mighty small if that's
 supposed to be accurate! In reality, the roof will probably be similar in dimensions to the garage (left of the house).
  • included a simple viewshed analysis with photos of my hopeful property from various vantage points to prove my claim that the change wouldn't have a large visual impact to the HOA
  • included a short list of benefits that would result from my proposal, keyly keeping spaces open so houses wouldn't be on top of one another and lessening the burden on our spring-fed water system by preventing future home development (oh, and horses use infinitely less water than a human would - especially with my plans to have a rain-fed trough for the rainy parts of the year)
Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly because it was a damn well thought out presentation, the few questions I received were clarifying questions that I more than had the ability to answer. Largely, I received a wealth of compliments - from nearly every single person in the room! - for my well thought out presentation, attention to detail, and conscientious consideration of my plans and land management.

20170908 Grif Goldenrod
Running through future pasture 1 on Griffin in 2017.

A few other small matters were addressed on the agenda following my presentation before the vote was put forward. While these other items were discussed, a sense of calm settled over me. I'd done all I possibly could. The praise was nice to receive. I was even more cautiously optimistic than I'd been, but my mind still halted any sense of jubilation or excitement. It just seemed crazy to think that this whole thing could actually happen. 

Ten to fifteen minutes later, it was time for everyone to vote. I locked eyes with my friend who had helped so much to this point. Ever the master of the pokerface, he cracked the tiniest of smiles at me, a twinkle in his eyes. 

The HOA president announced my request to the room for a vote. Every single person raised their hand in the affirmative to accept the exception and allow horses. It was official.

I smiled, shyly, still in disbelief that this thing was going to really happen. My friend caught my eyes again, grinning in earnest now. I returned the smile and then glanced back down at my notes simply shocked at the reality of everything. 

The meeting adjourned shortly after the vote. I thanked my friend copiously, answered a few general horse questions for others, and told the lady who currently owns the lots I would be purchasing that I would reach out after the HOA paperwork for the exception was finalized. 

Once in my car and back in range of cell service, I stopped and sent out a couple texts to those closest to me, whom I knew were waiting to hear how it went. "UNANIMOUS YES!" I declared. Victorious excitement filled me after that. I turned up the music in my car and grinned all the way home.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Progress in the New Year

So far, so good in this new year. In fact, everything is pretty par for the course for January. Well, minus the whole shutdown debacle. I am fortunately one of the lucky exempt employees who is still working and bringing home a paycheck. Working without colleagues and without a lot of resources I need to do my job severely limits my abilities. I very much miss my coworkers, and I know they miss their jobs. It's interesting to say the least, but it is giving me time to catch up on things I never seem to have time to do in the usual hustle and bustle.  Hopefully things will be resolved soon, though I'm not holding my breath.

Reasons I don't take many photos - they'd all look horribly like this because it's dark!
However, I took this photo on this night because it followed an amazing ride on this little mare that I wanted to remember.

On a lighter note, the horses are doing well and winter is here in full force! I know many hate winter, but I'm not one of those people. Snow makes me happy. Skiing makes me happy. And what makes me happier yet is when the mud is frozen and the ground is blanketed in pretty white. I hate mud and mud season with every fiber of my being.

I thought I was retired. What is this riding nonsense you're suggesting? - Stan, probably

I've been keeping a decent schedule for riding so far in January. I've logged over 8 hours in the saddle and have ridden at least 3x per week. All three horses have been out multiple times. I'm focusing on Griffin and Q, with whom I have competition hopes for this year, but I am making a concerted effort to try to ride Stan at least once a week to keep him moving. And to enjoy grinning like a fiend because he is such a pleasure to ride.

Snowing sideways in 21°F weather. Lovely!

I've been working on very similar things with Grif and Q: legging them back up, redeveloping their toplines, and focusing on the pieces of homework LC gave me back in December. And I'm seeing marked success in each of these categories! Both horses look better week to week. I squeal almost daily over small successes each one is making. They seem relatively happy in the work, too, both meeting me in the field almost daily, which is wonderful.

I'll admit, my toes were cold. And my riding skirt blew up around my waist twice from the gusts.

Success in itself is exciting. But more than that, I'm truly enjoying each step of the process. Maybe it's all the talk of process goals in bloglandia of late. Regardless, it's been awhile since I've found so much enjoyment from every piece of the journey. I find myself humming, singing, talking to the horses, laughing at the horses, and smiling constantly on every ride. 

On the rail trail.

Almost every ride so far has involved a lot of hill work at a marching walk. I march each horse up the big hill in riding field a minimum of 3x per ride, if not more. This week I have marched Griffin and Q up it 18x each, ponying one while riding another. I'm beginning to throw in a random trot or canter climb into the mix, but by and large I've been focusing on and honing each horse's marching walk. 

Hi Grif!

All of the hill work is doing wonders for their fitness in a way that prevents them from becoming too sweaty in the cold weather - perfect for my typical evening rides post-work. I love it. Even more, I love seeing the change in their appearance and abilities with each passing day. Both are really getting the hang of the faster marching walk and pushing through their hind end with a lot more power. The change is especially evident in Griffin whose fitness had been at an all-time low for the first time in years these past few months.

He's a happy little chunk. Lauren rode him beautifully on this day!

Last weekend, we were able to get out on a 12-mile conditioning ride on the rail trail. Lauren rode Grif, I rode Q, and Chelsey joined us on JL. The pace was a very moderate 5 mph average, but it was still a good ride. Q even led for the first half and was really wonderful, choosing a forward 7-8mph trot! I was going to continue letting Q lead for the return, but after a half-dozen "spooks" within the first mile of the return I resolved the situation and had Lauren put Griffin in front. 

I just missed capturing us all cantering in a single file line.
Too slow getting the phone out with my gloved hands.

I know my horses (and most horses) will strike out for home with more gusto than they traveled away from home. And Q definitely powered in the homeward direction with a lot more power than she did for the first half of the ride. But the problem arose when I began to rein her trot back to the more reasonable pace we'd kept for the first half instead of the 10-12mph trot she was offering.

Two-by with the mare behind. 

See, when Q has a difference of opinion from me about work - especially if my request makes the work "harder" - her MO is to first, rush and bull her way forward, and if she is unsuccessful with this she will then "spook". I've countered this behavior by simply slowing her down and/or ignoring her "spook" and continuing whatever we were doing as if it never happened.


Fortunately, her spooks are infinitely easier to ride than they once were because she's making some effort to pick me up and take me with her when she does it. Unfortunately, on the day of our conditioning ride she wound herself so tight in the process of spooking and evading the work that I knew I needed to change the situation before things became worse.

Good drinking horses following our 12 mile ride.
PC: Chelsey

It was nice to have other people/horses along so I could simply give Q a break from leading to resolve the situation. But I definitely recognize that the problem isn't "fixed" by doing this. I will absolutely be heading back out solo with Q in the future to work through the issue slowly and systematically. Well, as systematic as one can be with a horses/an opinionated mare. It will inevitably involve a lot of walking every time she becomes rushy and rewarding her when she's relaxed and forward.

Ponying Q from Grif two nights ago.

Now that her confidence is up, it's a lot easier to work through these types of issues. I have a much better read on her and can tell when she's being contrary because she wants to be lazy and when she's genuinely scared. And, I can confidently say she's being contrary 95% of the time! Mares...

Happy relaxed expression!

All in all, I'm super pleased with how things are progressing for January. I've got another lesson scheduled for next week, and am excited to have new homework to fuel me forward for another 6ish weeks. This will get me through the brunt of the winter weather and firmly into longer daylight hours!

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

2019 Goals & Intentions

This year looks to be a continuation of the past year, more or less. Overall, I'd like to see myself and all of the animals continue to be happy and healthy. Beyond that, I've detailed some very attainable goals below for each of us as well as a few (+) stretch goals.

One big difference between past years and this year is that I've largely removed competition goals from my plate. Don't get me wrong, I'd really love to make it out to multiple competitions on both Q and Griffin, but I'm not naive about the financial push that I'm going to have this year to fulfill my dream of bringing the horses home. As a result, I do not want to commit to any kind of competition goals. The only one I'm really going to hunker down and focus hard on will be to get Q to a minimum of one AERC-sanctioned competition. I really miss endurance. I miss the eventing environment that I finally began to dabble in with gusto in 2017, but I recognize that a lot of my training goals with that can be achieved at home for now with the hope of returning to competitions with more gusto in 2020.

In many ways, this year looks to be a transition year for me with the horses. I'm completely okay with this because it means fulfilling my biggest life dream of bringing them home for good.

My first "hey I can see my house from here" winter 2018-19 photo.


- Hone dressage and school training and first level movements
- Take consistent lessons with LC
- Establish a very solid "forward" button so I don't have to nag
- Cement "long and low" stretching
- School over novice height jumps, both stadium and XC (probably at home)
+ Make it to a schooling show of some kind
+ Cutting

20181003 Muddy Horses_7
Throwing it back to summertime when the mud was easier to brush off and wash out!
He's just as disgusting now, but with a full winter coat.

Without a great place to school Griffin toward the end of last year, I let a lot of his dressage training wander to the wayside. In other words: we lollygagged hither and yon and didn't do anything with consistency. He's lost a lot of the strength he had and now I've got to put that back. It won't take anything miraculous, just consistency. Which, admittedly, is difficult currently with winter, the commute, and my two jobs.

After a chaotic last quarter of 2018 that left me little time for pleasure reading, I've been gobbling up all of the Practical Horseman issues I lapsed on reading. It's giving me so much motivation for things to work on with Griffin going forward. I have countless notes and exercises jotted down to work on through the winter that pair well with my homework from LC. In no time at all, I hope to have Grif's strength up. Once I get his strength back up, I'm looking forward to making progress and having check-ins during lessons with LC.

20181003 Muddy Horses_22
Wish he was so easily clean... I'm not sure the mud staining will ever disappear after this winter!

A lot of my goals for Griffin can be achieved without going to competitions. Schooling dressage movements, riding tests under watchful, knowledgeable eyes, schooling jumps and honing agility and fitness for various types of jumps can all be achieved at home. Even more so now that I've got LC nearby! Between her and two of my neighbors who are very into dressage, I'm hoping I can setup a couple "judged" tests where they all watch me ride some of the USDF tests and give me "scores". It's seems like a good way to get feedback and improve without breaking what little bank I'll have while I pursue bringing the horses home.


- Continue to build confidence
- Hone dressage and school training and first level movements
- Take consistent lessons with LC
- Complete at least one endurance competition
+ Ride 400 non-competition miles this year

20180709 Horses_7
Goals? What goals?

After a year + of building this little mare's confidence and arriving at a much better place with our relationship as a result, I am SO excited to start laying on the conditioning miles this year with purpose. I know how to get this mare fit for endurance, we've done it with lots of success in the past. But now I'd like to do it even better and with plenty of dressage thrown in. With help from LC, I know this will be achievable.

20180709 Horses_6
Look at that floppy lower lip!

My current aim is to compete at No Frills at the end of April. Ride camp is a short drive from where I live and I find the trails to be pretty friendly overall. If I have my druthers, I'd really like to also fit in our new WV ride in August and possibly Fort Valley in October. Whether we make multiple competitions or not, I will be fitting in lots of conditioning miles through the year. I'm excited to pursue training miles now that I have a much more confident partner.


- Rack up some trail miles and have a ton of fun
- Don't become a total asshole once moved home
+ Ride 150 miles this year

20180709 Horses_4
A year of ease? Okay!

No major goals for the big guy for now until forever beyond just getting out there and enjoying time on trail together. Whether I ride him or he treats my friends or husband to the joys of life on horseback, it doesn't matter. I'd just like to keep him moving and keep him fit.

It makes me giggle a little bit, but I'm also completely serious about him not becoming an asshole when I move him home. He's got a track record for being a dick about regimented feeding times. His habits reared their ugly head some this past summer and we had a lot of conversations about it. He gets tunnel vision where food is involved in a multiple-horse-regimented-feeding schedule. He'll go after other horses with gnashing teeth and flying hooves and will sometimes offer these behaviors to his human caretakers, as well. I've got a lot of ideas and plans for how to prevent him from being a complete asshole once home, but the proof is in the pudding! Time will tell.


- Train to the invisible fence
- Maintain mobility through lots of steady exercise

20181225 Sunset Dog Play_39
Heading into 2019 like...

Kenai is doing so very well lately. Hopefully he will maintain and make some small improvements this year! He may not go on every adventure Taiga goes on in order to preserve those gnarly stifles for years to come, but I still hope to get him out on many hikes and some smaller bike rides.

The biggest change in his life will be that I'm going to commit to training his sassy ass to the invisible fence. I got it for Taiga and intended to train him "later". It's now a year "later". The time is nigh. A young, fit husky ignoring me is one thing. An older husky who is quickly earning the title of Curmudgeon with a capital "C" is not as enjoyable. Time to initiate my plan and confine him to an acre of space only.


- Get out in crowded places more often to minimize her over-stimulation in these environments
+ Take local course to fulfill therapy training

20181225 Sunset Dog Play_44
#sorrynotsorry for using this photo in two consecutive posts. It's my new favorite.

This little girl is so fun and easy to be around. As with Kenai, I don't have anything huge slated for her this year beyond making more of an effort to get her out and about. That in and of itself will help fulfill a lot of the things she needs to know in order to pass the test to be a therapy dog. Hopefully time will allow for me to take her to a few classes preceding the test late next year.


- Bring the horses home
- Maintain fitness level
- Be financially cognizant throughout the year
- Purge, purge, purge
- Continue my yoga practice
- Complete GRUSK 53-mile bike race
- Climb more
- Bike often
- Maintain and build my photography side hustle

20181206 Headshots_4-2
New year, new headshot

My biggest goals for myself this year is to bring the horses home, watch my finances, and keep up with my fitness. The other goals listed here will help me achieve these things.

Bringing the horses home is the biggest goal I have this year. I'll be sharing more details in coming weeks!

With the above in mind, I know my finances are going to be tight this year. Thus, it is my intention to make the best of what I already have and purge everything I don't really use/need to make space and recoup a bit of extra money. Between that and my photography side hustle, things should work out!

I had a great year for fitness in 2018. Giving myself a solid goal to meet - GRUSK - really jump started my motivation to a much better place. I hope to maintain that this year and add climbing back into the mix, too. The financial stress of bringing the horses home won't enable me to take too many crazy climbing trips, but fortunately I live in an area with a wealth of local options. The trick will just be to get out more often.