Category Archives: Horse life

Happy 15th Gotcha Day, Miss Mocha

Fifteen years ago, the American Quarter Horse Association registered the transfer of ownership of one five-year-old chestnut mare, Miss Olena Chic, from Gregg Shrake to me. I was preparing to start my second year of teaching, and my spouse had suggested that maybe it was time for me to become a horse owner again, instead of continuing to be a lesson rider and dealing with the frustrations of juggling special education teaching with the riding lessons that kept me sane. I’d been riding with Gregg for eight years by this point, and had learned just how one goes about finding a good horse that had a decent temperament and wasn’t a dangerous and poorly trained puke–i.e., enlist a trainer you trust. I showed Gregg several local prospects I’d found on Dreamhorse. Gregg waved them away.

“How about Mocha?” he suggested.

I boggled. I’d known Mocha from a baby. In utero, no less. She was the daughter of Gregg’s prized reining mare, Annie (Miss Lorena Wood) and a young stallion, Chocolate Chic Olena, who had been in training with Darren Stancik, a friend of Gregg’s. Mocha was intended to be Gregg’s personal horse, but he’d been having some health issues. I knew she was for sale. I’d handled her, brought her in from turnout, and even said to her at one point once I knew she was for sale about a year earlier, “I wonder whose horse you’re supposed to be?”

“Um, well…how much?” I asked. Honestly, I expected the price tag to be out of my budget.

Gregg named a figure within my budget. “Want to try her tomorrow?”


That night I hit the internet, pricing out five-year-old daughters of Chocolate Chic Olena. First of all, I found there weren’t many for sale. Second, I saw a lot higher price tags. But they were in Texas, and a couple were in foal. All the same, this was an opportunity for me to buy a nicely bred mare with a decent temperament.

The trial ride the next day confirmed the deal. I knew Mocha’s half-siblings, by Jac Daniels Neat. I’d lusted after Mocha’s older sister, a dun named Miss Neat Amerika (Erika, after a granddaughter). I’d ridden Mocha’s brother, Tyler. He and I didn’t click because he was the sort of gelding who occasionally needed a clue-by-four applied. Pushy and opinionated, and occasionally bucked. After the Sparkle mare of my youth, I didn’t worry about the possibility of being able to sit any buck, and Tyler’s bucking was nothing like Sparkle’s. But. There had been a day when I watched Tyler in turnout. He’d just come back from reining training. On his own, he went out about 30 feet from the barn wall, ran as hard as he could toward it, then stopped hard. Paused, then jogged back to his starting place and did it all over again. I think I watched him do this for about five minutes.

(What Tyler was doing was copying a reining training technique known as “fencing,” where the trainer uses a fence as visual reinforcement of the whoa cue to get a good, hard stop. He clearly enjoyed it. Over the years, I’ve seen Mocha do the same thing, although her preference is to run hard at the fence, stop hard, then roll back over her haunches and gallop off. When she was turned out to run in Gregg’s arena, she’d gallop around to get up a head of steam, then run on the diagonal as hard as she could to a corner, stop at the last minute, then roll back, sending dirt flying. Tyler loved the hard stop. Mocha loves the rollback.)

But when I got up on Mocha, I could tell the difference between her and Tyler. The first time I breathed a soft “whoa” and Mocha stopped, I was sold. I felt the difference between her stop and Tyler’s stop. Not that I had any money to go show a horse like Mocha, but the ability to own and ride a horse like her? It was everything I’d dreamed about in the eight years that I’d been a lesson rider both at Shrake’s and at Lake Oswego Hunt.

And so the saga began. Mocha was opinionated, like her mother and siblings. Training had its interesting moments. Not because she was mean, or a bucker. But Mocha had firm opinions about what patterns should be. She needed schooling under saddle to soften up a rough trot and canter. She needed to learn flying changes. She had the foundation to be a reiner, but needed more training.

Gregg and I spent the next few years putting that foundation on her. I didn’t have the time or money to show, much less travel to where I could find a reining competition in that era. Nonetheless, in lessons I learned how to make a reiner.

Eventually we showed in a few reining classes.

By the time of this picture, I’d learned not to wear my Western hat in reining competition. The first time we took off in a large fast circle, even though the tan felt was jammed down hard on my head, the brim was flapping as Mocha galloped harder than she ever had in her home arena. I flicked it off as we passed the gate, for ease in picking it up later. Gregg told me that when I did that, he knew I was going for it. We didn’t do all that well due to pilot error–I had problems remembering just how many spins we had done. But there was no question in my mind that Mocha liked those reining classes…along with trail classes as well.

We did show in other classes, but I learned quickly that unless it was a trail class, we were unlikely to place high. Oh, it happened, but it was not common. Classes on the rail favor a slower-moving horse. That’s not Mocha. But she enjoyed the puzzles that trail class presented, and her mental discipline meant that she could easily make the quick transitions of gaits that are part of an arena trail class. We got good enough at it that we ended up finishing second to a professional in a complicated timed trail class, and beat pros. All the same, Mocha was a real pleasure to show. At her first show (a huge one at Mt. Hood Equestrian Center), I parked her where she could watch the other horses. She found it interesting. I worked at making shows feel like fun to her, and she took to the show life–not that we did a lot of showing.

But things happen. One cold January day I showed up at the barn after work to find Mocha lame in her left fore and right hind. Gregg had to take her by the tail to help me guide her out of her stall. She was going to turn fourteen in March, and hubby and I were in the process of buying a retirement home in Wallowa County. I planned to take Mocha there. But what I saw that night left me in tears. I’d had her left unshod for four years. When I picked up her left fore, I saw a huge hole between the sole and the hoof wall.

White line disease. Never did figure out what was wrong with that right hind. She’d already been getting hock injections to ease the pain of joint fusion. But that damned white line disease. Kenny, her farrier at the time, was grim.

“This killed her mother,” he said flatly, before resecting her hoof, putting on a bar shoe, and issuing strict instructions to me about her care. Mocha was stallbound. She was not to leave that stall unless she was attached to a human. She could be ridden at a walk, bareback. No saddle. No excess weight.

That regime went on for six months. And after that, it was like playing whack-a-mole with that damned white line disease. I’d think we’d have it beat, then bam! Back it came again.

And then we moved her to Wallowa County and a drastic life change. From life in the barn she’d been in since birth, she went to living outdoors in a pen. Not just around other horses, including a breeding stallion, but PIGS. That first summer was rough and hard. Mocha lost weight to a scary degree. She was clearly in pain of some sort. She colicked. She developed monster abscesses in both forefeet–which led to x-rays, and the discovery that shoeing her according to her exterior angles (which is common) was not correct for her. She’d lost the tip of the coffin bone in both forefeet, and in her current shoeing angles, that tip was pointed straight down at the ground.

Fortunately, we had access to a good corrective farrier. It took a year, but the angle issue got fixed and in the drier climate of Wallowa County, the white line disease went away. All the same, to keep her sound and pain-free, she has to live in front shoes year-round.

But things got better. Mocha learned to be a road horse and a trail horse–both of which she enjoys. As she regained weight, I realized that she had indeed been underweight for some time, most likely due to the pain. She took to the life of a 24/7 pasture horse, objecting to being stalled (one time when the ranch owner called to suggest we stall her because she was slipping and sliding on the ice, she had other ideas. At Gregg’s, she’d stay politely in her stall even with the door open. Not so at the ranch. While hubby got hay, I got her grain. We left the gate unlatched. She pushed it open and was on her way back to the field. Did I say she had opinions? Oh yeah, she has Opinions).

Now she is twenty years old. She’s in good weight. She still has her quirks–one winter she adopted a yearling elk as her baby (when the ranch owner sent me the video, because it happened when we were doing business in Portland, I groaned because I knew it would be a problem. It was). When the cows are in the pasture with the herd, she’s one of the horses who will occasionally round them up (I heard that the first time the cows were in the field, Mocha rounded them up, then took them down the fence in fine reined cowhorse mode). We’ve had fifteen good years together, and I spoil the heck out of her in hopes that we’ll have many more.

Happy fifteenth Gotcha Day, Miss Olena Chic. Best damned horse I’ve ever owned.

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Thoughts on a life with horses

(Mocha in one of her occasional hitching rail test moods)

Some mindful Facebook posts this morning about horses, turnout, and training made me think about my horse life and just how I’ve learned and grown as a horsewoman. One thing in common with teaching and horse life is that the learning never stops. Even if you own the same horse over fifteen years (Mocha and I hit our fifteenth year together in August), you still learn more and more about how that horse works and thinks as the years go by. Especially if you do what I did with Mocha, and put the horse through a dramatic change in management in an attempt to break an injury/illness cycle (from 24/7 stall life in a wet climate to 24/7 pasture life in a herd in a dry climate). I went into her current circumstances well aware that it might not work, and if it didn’t…well, I don’t think she would have lasted more than another year or two of life in a stall. But pasture life agrees with her, even though she is horribly needy and forms tight bonds with pasture companions. She will leave her friends easily, but frets if they are taken away from her. She’s healthy and is in good condition, and we could conceivably have another five to eight active years together if managed correctly. The me of fifty-some years ago would be boggled by the thought of what I’m now doing with a 20-year-old mare. And that is a reflection of how things have changed in that period for horse management.

I’ve never particularly thought that doing everything like I did when I was a kid with horses was particularly a good idea. For one thing, horse management these days, even with rough pasture boarding, is entirely different from what I grew up with. Regular dental work, corrective farriery, deworming products, fly management products are very different from what I had access to in the late 60s-early 70s (not so much vaccination protocols. The biggest changes in vax from then have been the addition of rabies and West Nile to the vax regime. I was an early adopter of the Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis vaccine when it first came out, in addition to the Eastern and Western variants as well as tetanus. Can’t remember if rhinovirus was also part of the mix then–but the point is, vax was something we just plain did and isn’t that different from today). The closest I came to corrective farriery was putting front shoes on a foundered horse to support her feet, and noticing that hey–the stumbling horse stopped stumbling (I suspect that she may have foundered after foaling before we bought her, therefore the stumbling. She grass foundered one spring with me years later and needed careful management after that). Dental work wasn’t in the cards, and deworming product (unless the vet came out and tubed the horse) was a powder added to grain that the Sparkle mare would manage to separate out and leave in a nice neat little pile in the middle of her grain box instead of a paste syringe. Horses were also considered old by their mid-teens in those days, especially for a non-showing, backyard owner. Grass founder was poorly understood in my area, and I dealt with it in a pony and a horse.

On the other hand, there were certain tips and tricks I learned then that I still use. Showmanship practice as a means to get the horse’s focus on me (shades of “playing horse show” with the green Shetland yearling under the supervision of my first horse mentor, plus learning that hey. The old Sparkle bitch mare started listening better to me when I practiced Showmanship with her in 4H). Ground driving/long-line work to condition and school without a rider at all three gaits in something other than a lunging circle. The use of the lunge as a schooling technique, not letting the horse careen wildly as a means to blow off energy. A habit of establishing a personal space bubble and enforcing it when working with horses in the stall or the field. How to assess a horse’s reliability to be ridden on a road, and how to safely train a reliable horse to be calm around cars and other vehicles. Asking a horse to respond to lighter and lighter cues while working in serpentines and circles. The well-trained muscle memory of how to stick on a horse blowing up under you, and the confidence to deal with challenging situations including knowing when and how to bail out safely. I’m an old, reasonably bold rider, but I have a lot of kid falls in my history that contributed to knowing my limits…mostly, in my sixties. But as I’ve discovered, I’m bolder than a lot of amateurs my age (well, excepting those who compete in jumping or eventing, but I don’t do those things).

All of these were sharpened by later experience with a well-regarded trainer, but the foundation was laid almost fifty years ago. 18 years with a professional supervising me who would also sit down and talk about training, showing, breeding, and the state of the horse industry put a polish on my understanding of work with horses. Those eighteen years with Gregg Shrake really challenged me, made me think about my process, and built on my early experiences. Before I bought Mocha, I spent a lot of time being one of the ammys who provided a reality check on a training horse’s progress as part of my lessons. I never was the first one up on a greenie, but several times I got in one of said greenie’s first 10 rides. I learned more about the nuances of show horse world, and played with it a little bit. Now I’m at a place where I’m learning about more sophisticated pasture and herd management techniques, as well as rodeo horse training and expectations, and mindful management of a small breeding operation focused on producing good-minded, good-tempered horses.

What I keep on learning with horses is that learning is always happening. And that even old horses and old women can learn how to do new things. My relationship with Mocha is not at all like the one I had with Sparkle–while with both mares we came to a position of mutual trust, Mocha is more standoffish and when we are done with working and attention, she is Done With People, while Sparkle was much more social. I’ve achieved more with Mocha than I ever did or could with Sparkle. Breeding and training counts, and Mocha has both. But both mares have taught me a lot, and the lessons are still coming.

Mocha makes sure of that.



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Happy 20th birthday, Miss Olena Chic (Mocha)!

Happy 20th birthday, Miss Olena Chic (Mocha)!

I met Mocha a few days after she was born. At the time I was just a lesson rider at the barn, and cautiously peered into the foaling stall to look at the little chestnut filly who was the much-anticipated result of breeding one of the barn owner’s well-bred mares to an up and coming young stallion, Chocolate Chic Olena. Mocha’s dam Annie had a show record of her own, but more importantly she was an extremely protective mother who would bellow at any horse led by her stall, so I had to limit my look to keep Annie from getting too agitated. I can’t remember if I helped lead Mocha in after Annie after a day’s turnout but I’m sure I did–she would not have been the only young one I did that with at that barn.

Memories of Mocha over the next few years are sketchy. I led her to and from turnout, but for the most part since she was supposed to be the barn owner’s personal horse, I didn’t handle her much. Then things changed slightly when Mocha was four. I realized she was up for sale, but wasn’t in the market. If I had been, I probably would have bought her older half-sister who was for sale at the time, Erika, a lovely dunskin mare who had gone through cutting and reining training down at Oregon State. But I was also just starting a teaching position, and wasn’t in a space where I could buy a horse. I do remember leading her in from turnout one day, and murmuring to her as I pulled off her halter “I wonder who you are for?”

A year later, the answer was ME. Circumstances changed. I went to the barn owner with a price range and told him I was looking to buy and what did he think about these possibilities I’d printed out from Dreamhorse? He offered me Mocha, with a price right smack in the middle of my range.

I’d forgotten she was for sale. So the next barn trip, we did the trial ride. I later found out that I was the first person up on her in ten months, ever since the last rider had dropped a rein and Mocha stepped on it, nearly cutting her tongue off. Nonetheless, she was docile, listened, and I enjoyed the ride. She was five and a half years old. Pretty green, but by this point I had been in lessons for a while and was actually looking forward to being able to leave my own impression on a horse rather than schooling rehabs or tuning up school horses.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that while she had strong opinions, she also enjoyed working under saddle and had a lot of energy. Her canter was erratic and I decided to spend some time working at her in walk and trot to build up her muscles–after all, she was coming off of a ten month layoff while her mouth healed. We started in a regular jointed snaffle, but I soon moved her to a French link and then later to a KK Ultra bridoon for snaffle riding. I bought a cheap Western saddle that fit me, figuring that I could buy a really nice new saddle later, once she’d had enough time under saddle for her back to muscle up. At some point, I bought a nice used Collegiate Senior Eventer saddle and started her going in English tack as well. Six months later, I bought the Crates Reiner I now use for her in Western.

One reason for buying the English saddle was that I decided it would work better for getting her into a better quality canter. We spent that first winter working on building up her hind end, and in the spring I started asking for lope. It got better. At the same time, we were in weekly lessons. Once I bought the reining saddle, we started working on reining work.

A few years later, things were such that I was ready to take her to a schooling show, and an opportunity opened when one of the other boarders wanted to take her horse too. The show was at a facility a few miles away from the barn. When we got there, we unloaded the other horse first. Mocha started trembling with excitement and I remember the other horse owner cautioning her husband to watch out as I turned Mocha and led her out, thinking that she would leap out.

She didn’t.

It was a huge show. We got a stall, and Mocha started calling to other horses and fretting. Eventually she settled, but she was still pretty wound up. I took her into the warmup pen because the show was proceeding pretty slowly. We rode around the pen in the crowd until she settled, and then I parked her on the edge so that she could watch what was going on in the arena. Right away she showed a lot of interest in staring at the other horses. This big show even had a couple of saddle seat classes with some high-stepping Saddlebreds, which made her sharp and alert. But the show drug on forrreeeevvvver, and it was late when we finally got to warm up in the big arena. I can’t remember if we scratched without ever getting into the arena or if we made it into one class, but nonetheless it had been a good experience for a first show.

We went on to do 1-2 shows a year for the next few years. I didn’t have a trailer so going was dependent on what other people were doing. Mocha started needing hock injections at age nine–to be expected with the extreme sickle hocks she has which are great for reining competition, but not so great for potential arthritis. These went on for five years at about nine month intervals. Nonetheless, even with only 1-2 shows a year, by our last big show she had the show ring routine down to the point that we left a three-day show with mostly first and second place ribbons.

Then disaster struck, about the time that hubby and I decided to buy a retirement place in Wallowa County, in Mocha’s fourteenth year. I went to the barn one day to find Mocha barely able to move around her stall. It took me at her head and the barn owner supporting her hindquarters to get her out. Her right hind was sore (we never did figure out why), and there was a HUGE hole in her left front hoof. Not an abscess hole, but in the white line between sole and hoof wall. The farrier was due in a couple of days. When he came, he shook his head.

“White line disease. That’s what killed her mama.”

She ended up going through a hoof resection, and having nearly a third of her hoof wall cut off. Support was provided by an oval-shaped bar shoe. She had to wear a bell boot over that shoe at all times, and for six months she was unable to leave the stall unless she was attached to a person. I could ride her with a bareback pad, but only at a walk. Toward the end of the six months, I ended up riding her in a short shanked curb with double rings that I could rig up as a Pelham, with snaffle and curb reins. Riding her bareback at that point was like riding a coiled spring. When she was finally able to go into turnout, she went crazy that first day, bucking and kicking and running.

I thought it was over. But it wasn’t. For the next year and a half, until we moved her to Wallowa County, I played whack-a-mole with that damned white line disease. It would get better, only to erupt in another hoof. I ended up buying a special soak called White Lightning to fight it and reinforcing gallon freezer bags with duct tape because that was cheaper than buying the specialized bags. Mocha was patient, but it was also obvious that she was tired of all this stuff. At one point, the barn manager pulled me aside to tell me that I needed to know that Mocha was severely depressed when I wasn’t around, that she perked up and would show less pain when I came. I knew that she looked for my arrival. Her stall was right by the barn door and she clearly knew the sound of my car. Many times I would either get a nicker or see her standing in the middle of her stall, ears forward, looking at the door. At this time we stopped the hock injections because the inner joints had fused, and the outer joints were getting too tight to easily inject.

Then we moved her to Wallowa County. For fifteen years, she had lived in a stall with occasional turnout and regular riding. She went from that to living in an outdoor pen 24/7, with broodmares, stallions, foals, and PIGS around her. It initially did not go well. She fretted and fussed, pacing her pen. She didn’t eat well. She was distressed. She lost far too much weight, to the degree that the new barn owner and I feared we might get reported. She colicked once. She had a minor case of laminitis followed by huge abscesses in both front feet. But…the white line was retreating, even though everything else was problematic. And then we x-rayed her feet, to discover that she had old rotation (i.e., not from the laminitis), and that the angle that she had been shod and trimmed at for years was wrong. She’d lost about a quarter inch off the tip of both coffin bones in her forefeet.

Thank God for good farriers, vets, and barn owners. We tried pads on her feet, but she hated them and wouldn’t move. I got frustrated about her not moving in the pen and being sore as a result. Movement, and she was less stiff and sore. I’d get her moving good, then put her back in the pen…to come back to a sore horse. By this time, the hay pasture had a handful of horses as the barn owner was moving the herd back home slowly from the various pastures around the area where they’d been living. I asked the barn owner if she thought throwing Mocha out into the big field would hurt her–after all, she had a lot of experience being the rehabilitator of last resort for injured horses who might get better on pasture. She said “turn her out.”

For three days, at feeding time, Mocha would come to the gate and call for hay. Then something clicked, and she realized that she had food 24/7, and all the grass she could eat.

Things got better from there. We learned that Mocha developed intense attachments in a herd setting. That Mocha grew a very thick and warm coat, so she didn’t need blanketing. That this little stall princess THRIVED in pasture life 24/7. After a year of pasture life, she made it known that she did not, would not, happily stay in a stall any more, thank you very much.

And then she did things like adopting an elk yearling as her baby.

About a year ago I started noticing that the strength she had maintained up until the white line struck had returned. Over the course of the last year she’s gotten stronger and stronger. We’re able to do things we’ve not done for a while. And she came out of this winter fat and sassy–a tribute to the good management she experiences.

On April 30th she’ll have completed her fifth year in Wallowa County, in better shape than she was when she came here. And she made it to 20 years, when five years ago I wasn’t so certain she would last a year.

Happy birthday, Mocha. Here’s to another lovely year ahead.

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Fall ride and Mocha thoughts

Yesterday was one of those blazingly beautiful fall days here. While the tamarack needles haven’t turned yet, the various deciduous trees and bushes are starting to change color, some quite spectacularly. I saw some lovely early morning pix from Joseph with bright red street maples with the snow-covered mountains in the background. A stunning day.

I spent a good chunk of it inside sewing, making items for bazaars and online sales–hot pads and bowl cozies. Once I was done, though, it was gather up the tack and go to the ranch to take a little ride. Mocha had been grumpy the day before about schooling lateral work in the arena. Well, it was a cold day and the old lady is entitled to arthritis considerations. At least she is no longer going arena-lame (gimping in the arena, then fully sound once all four hooves are out). A little round pen work plus support boots (more for psychological support and warming of the lower legs and fetlocks than anything else) plus insisting on working in contact took care of that, I think. But today I thought we both needed a break from schooling so we went for a road ride. Still on contact, still not allowing the casual slop we had fallen into while rehabbing her from a couple of soundness issues and building up her strength.

She was eager to step out and do something different. Even with busy traffic and one person honking at us, she remained calm on the busy part of the ride. I think she’s the best road horse I’ve ever straddled; on the other hand, she’s also the most trained and best bred of the lot. Those things count.

Then we turned onto the gravel road and picked up a trot for about a quarter mile. I was watching the sun set over Ruby Peak and checking my phone for time, because this part of the valley goes through sunset an hour or so earlier than official sunset this time of year. It’s all about sun placement and the mountains. This year she has been a lot more comfortable trotting on the gravel roads and shown positive results (plus eagerly anticipating the stretches where I feel comfortable trotting her), so we’ve worked that into our sessions. I wanted to ride up a slight hill and I knew we’d have to hustle to get there and back before it got too dark–plus I was lightly dressed for the cold breeze off the mountains that starts once the sun’s behind them. She trotted those segments, ears forward, energetic, and even though I was working her on contact relaxed and looking at things. That was a big change from the summer, where the first few sessions started out with ears back and grumpy grunting mare because she Didn’t Like having to work like that. But after a week, she settled back into things and it’s been pleasant ever since.

When we reached the hilly road (always one of our favorites), she stepped up the hill nicely at walk and trot. Here was where I was hoping to see some nice colors, and my hopes were fulfilled. The brush by the road is halfway through turning bright red, the ditch and wetlands adjoining the road were full of cottonwoods and other trees/bushes turning. I half-wished for my big camera, but didn’t really want to stop. We did stop further along to talk to a couple in a car–he wanted to pet Mocha, and it was his 89th birthday. An old hand, he knew just what to do and wasn’t offended by her standoffish attitude (she takes a while to warm up to people she doesn’t know, especially under saddle where there’s no chance of a treat). We visited for a few minutes, and then went about our ways. Then I turned her, and got that stunning view of the snow-covered Seven Devils and Wallowas as we went back.

But I had some time both on the ride and driving back home to think about how far she’s come in the four years she’s lived here. When we moved her to Wallowa County, it was kind of a last-ditch thing. Her white line disease was not going away. She had lost muscling along her topline and just wasn’t right. Changing from stall life to pen life was traumatic for her, especially that first week or so when she was adjusting from being a Stall Princess to a penned horse living outside 24/7. She had and still can have issues with herd life–right now she’s sporting some bites on her right side because the gelding who has claimed her as part of his special group gets annoyed when she wants to hang close to the mare she was pastured with during the summer or when she doesn’t want to join up with the herd. Usually she wants to hang out with them, but sometimes she wants to do her own thing. Plus I’m not so sure but what she doesn’t provoke some of that behavior–I have seen her do it before when in turnout at the previous barn. She would annoy one big dominant gelding until he got frustrated and tried to chase her, and then she would run and turn quicker than he could to keep away from him. But yeah, she would come in with bite marks from him, too. This gelding is bred similarly to her, and he’s also pretty catty, so she can’t use her old tricks on him, plus he’s a bit younger than she is.

Still, she’s nineteen. These days, with good management, that’s not elderly as much as it is late middle age for a horse, especially here where it is not unusual to see horses in good shape and working well into their twenties (good grass and hay). She’s regained muscling along her topline and her haunches have filled out. Her neck has filled out again. Pasture life year-round agrees with her, but all the same, this is the year I’m starting to really notice signs of aging. Little things. More white around her blaze, especially the top part where it is a star (her papers read star, blaze, and snip for facial markings). Resting hind legs. Until I started emphasizing more contact and making her use herself, she had started stumbling a little on downhills. That went away with work on contact. She’s still a high-energy, sensitive, and reactive horse, and her teeth remain good, but there’s just those little changes which make me wonder how many more years we have.

The other thing I thought about were the years she has had dealing with pain issues. The hip injury during her breaking-in (minor, but I wonder if it led to other issues). The severe cut on her tongue ten months before I bought her. The hock fusion. The possible SI joint fusion. The white line disease. The non-laminitis coffin bone rotation and erosion. The WLD alone ate up a couple of years, and who knows how long that coffin bone problem had been going on?

All those have probably reduced the years she has left. I dream of still being able to ride her ten years from now, but I’m also well aware that things can change without warning, sometimes very quickly. For what it’s worth, I think it’s going to happen quickly when it does happen. So I savor these lovely ride days like today, and contemplate what I need to do to prolong those opportunities. Meanwhile, I have a pleasant saddle mare to enjoy, even if she’s a little stinker sometimes–like when she plants herself in front of the tractor carrying the big hay bale, clearly thinking it should be HERS. Yeah, she is turning into a crotchety old lady at times.

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Happy belated birthday, Mocha

For some reason I was thinking that Mocha turned 17 today. No, it was last Saturday. Still, she’s doing quite well with herself and is the picture of a content horse living outside 24/7 in a herd.

Three years ago, I wasn’t sure she was going to make it this far. The white line disease had affected her mentally, and she really didn’t start bouncing back from that until the fall of 2015, when we finally figured out what was wrong with her feet (mild long-term rotation which meant that the way she had been shod and trimmed up to that point had contributed to a quarter inch erosion of the tip of the coffin bone in both her forefeet). Even with that, she was still hurting and not completely over it until late last fall. Some of that had to do with moving her toe back and raising her heel a little, which is resulting in her feet getting a little bit bigger so that she will soon be a genuine 0 front shoe instead of a 00 in a 0 shoe in order to give her support. Another factor had to do with something fusing in her rear end besides her hocks–SI joint, stifles, something–so that she naturally stands upright in her hind end and doesn’t walk by placing one hind foot in front of the other (ropewalking). I had noticed late last fall that she wasn’t ropewalking any more. Then we had two and a half months of cold and snowy weather. When the weather cleared, I noticed that she was moving better, lining out bigger and faster in a bold, strong walk, and while she wasn’t spinning like she did as a young horse, neither was she resisting it like she had been for a while.

More than that, she grew a thick hair coat this winter and is shedding it out. What little I can see of the spring coat underneath has me hoping that she’s going to be sleek and shiny this year. She’s also had almost two years of some of the best grass and hay in the region, and it shows. I also upped her grain ration (mostly forage-based with alfalfa, beet pulp, and hay fiber) to 3 pounds from 1 1/2 pounds. She’s filled out and calmed down quite a bit, while still having a bit of spark and sting about her. That said, I have to feed the grain before and after a ride in 1 1/2 pound increments because she stops wanting to eat it after 1 1/2 lbs. But she’s doing well on only grain while being ridden.

She’s getting to the point where crossing the ditch is no big deal. I point her at it, she negotiates her way down, then leaps up the bank on the other side.

Meanwhile, we’ve been having nice riding sessions in the big pasture with long straight lopes and trots. Today I asked for flying changes on the straightaway and there was no fuss or bother about it.

We’re coming to an end for the pasture season, though. Soon it will become a grain field and we’ll be back to arena and road riding until October. This summer, we’re planning to take her out hiking with us–husband wants to walk while I ride, probably us riding ahead for fifteen minutes, then riding back. Guess I’d better put the strings back on her Western saddle so we can tie things to it. Right now, though, I’ve been riding her in English tack. For the first time in ages, the saddle seems to fit her and it’s nice for this stage of her conditioning. It’s time to move toward reestablishing her proper muscling. Not that I plan to get too crazy about it–at age 17, especially after she had some rough times, she’s mostly a hacking horse. But that doesn’t mean we might not decide to hit a show or two, either….

I’m hoping to get another seven years or so out of her as a saddle horse. It seems like changing her life from stall horse to pasture horse has given her a new lease on life. At least this spring, it’s been awfully sweet to have my good little saddle mare back, feeling her energy and forwardness underneath me. I’m also daydreaming about the possibility of riding her from the barn to town, hanging out around the house for a couple of hours, then riding her back. We’ll have to see if that works. It is a fun idea, anyway….

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Horseblog 101–tack, guidance, and basics of the aids

One of my friends made a comment the other day about English vs Western riding that rocked me back on my haunches, so to speak–an observation that based on her experience, she felt that English riding was gentler on a horse than Western. A few questions, and I realized that this perception was based solely on how horses were guided at the beginner level, especially with the use of words such as yanking and tugging to describe rein effect. Now I know that many of my friends already know this stuff, or they’ve been reading horse information spread throughout the speculative fiction world–but the knowledge isn’t as wide as I thought it is. So I decided that perhaps I’d do a little refresher on reins, tack, guidance, and basics.

The first thing to consider is that while someone who is a beginning horseperson or has no experience at all looks at the reins as acting as a major means of controlling a horse, in reality, reins are merely a steering mechanism–and ideally, more of a backup method than the primary means of controlling a horse. A determined horse can and will run through the severest bit and tightest hold you can have on its mouth, if given sufficient motivation–whether anger, frustration, or fear. One of the goals in creating a fully-trained horse–what we call a “finished” horse–is to end up with a horse that will respond to almost telepathic levels of communication through seat, leg, and then hand. The ideal is that by shifting weight, you can change a horse’s direction, slow the horse, collect the horse into moving in balance, or stop it. Leg cues add more options, such as sharper turns, bends, body angle in relation to direction of movement, or gait changes. Hand cues aid with collection, provide guidance, and maintain a line of communication with a horse.

These goals work no matter what the tack is or isn’t on a horse. English or Western, the mark of a good rider is the degree to which you can’t see the cueing going on. That said, if you are working at speed, or things go weird, the ideal might not happen. But ideally, what you want to be able to do is shift weight, touch leg, squeeze a rein to communicate with a horse underneath you. Or even less. Turning your head can turn the horse, even with dropped reins and no leg or seat cues. It’s a shift of weight, and a sensitive, well-trained horse will respond to it.

The problem comes when dealing with either green (minimal or no training) horses, green riders, or horses who have been desensitized to subtle cues by inexperienced or heavy-handed riders who yank, kick, and tug. Green horses need repeated, gentle, soft communication to teach them appropriate responses to cueing. Green riders need to learn how to stabilize their bodies and control them to provide the more subtle methods of cueing. Desensitized horses need repeated, soft, consistent work to bring them back to lighter response.

Ideally, happy horses and happy riders communicate with minimal force–and that all comes back to communicating in whispers, not shouts. Which means a light touch on the rein, balanced seat, and reading what the horse tells you through hand and seat. Yes, you can feel what the horse is doing through the tack–English or Western.

This isn’t the ideal post for this, but it’s what I’ve got for tonight.

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A Mocha update

I’ve been postng bits and pieces over on Facebook about how Mocha’s been handling this winter, but today’s ride has kicked me into actually musing for a bit longer than a Facebook post. Despite a very cold and snowy winter, the little mare is thriving out on pasture. She’s maintaining her weight, hanging out with the herd, and appears to be content for the most part. This year her movement was more confined than last year due to snow depth and a couple of freezing rain spells which turned the snow into crusty stuff she had to posthole through. The barn owner hasn’t been able to feed as widely in the pasture as usual due to snow depth, and they’ve had to tamp down part of the snow to give the horses a chance to move about without having to fight the snow too much.

December and most of January, it was simply too cold to ride. I’d go out to the barn and bring her up for grooming, check on how she’s doing, and a feed of grain. The “grain” is more of a forage supplement, a senior feed with more pelleted grass, beet pulp, and other stuff rather than sweet feed to make her hot. Unlike last year, she’s not the farthest horse out, but is generally close in or in the middle of the herd. I’ve still not gotten her to come up to the gate but some of that is her own wish not to go by other, more dominant horses in the field. Once the way to me is clear, she’ll usually walk up to me. A big improvement over last year. However, there just wasn’t much to do, and she radiated the attitude that if we weren’t going to ride, she’d just as soon be back out with the herd.

A lot has changed from last year. She is overall happier in how she relates to everything. I don’t think she’s in pain any more; not sure if that’s a result of monthly Adequan shots or if that means between her feet finally getting to where they should be and something more than her hocks fusing or what. Her fore feet are getting wider–non-horsey husband noticed this yesterday when he came out to administer her shot. His comment was that “her feet look like horse feet should look now.” Even on wet ice she moves more confidently. Today she was doing a better job of keeping her footing than I was.

She has become more confident and independent-thinking. I’ve noticed that in how she observes things around her. She notices different things, but doesn’t get as fazed as she has been in the past. Oh, Mocha is still a good equine citizen. She respects human space; she hasn’t turned into a reactive idiot. But she has learned to fend for herself without human support and has become more of a horse over this past winter.

The other piece is that she still likes to work under saddle, and has been chafing at the restrictions ever since I started riding again at the end of January. Until this week, we were limited to the spaces cleared for feeding and a couple of tractor tracks through the snow. The arena was buried under deep snow, and the road was just too iffy to try riding. Even with riding the tractor tracks, any chance she had where the footing was semi-decent, she wanted to move into a trot. I did try doing some ground driving with her in January but gave it up because she made it clear that she really wasn’t into it, and wanted to do more. Oh, she was compliant, but I got a lot of disapproving grunts and sighs as we worked in the barnyard. It wasn’t what she wanted to do and she was quite vocal in that disapproval, complete with longing gazes toward the road. Throw a saddle on her back, though, and even with our restrictions, there were no grunts or sighs.

So. Today. The weather was cloudy with a sunbreak that promised some decent riding conditions when I headed out to the barn. Um, well, the weather was moving in a different direction, and it started sprinkling when I got there. But I was determined to get some saddle time, and had put on rain clothes to stay dry. There wasn’t any deep snow left in the pasture, but there were slick icy spots and I decided that nope, pasture ride wasn’t going to work. Especially since the last time I rode, she kept trying to break into a trot where she could. The arena was snowbound and had melted icy spots. That left the road.

Once I got up on Mocha and turned her toward the road, she was up on her toes. Not like a spooky horse looking for an excuse to bolt, but a winter-fatigued horse eager to get out of the pasture rut and someplace where she had solid footing that wasn’t ice and snow. She marched down the road at a pretty good walk, with the only catch coming when we passed the house with the big German Shepherd. That made her want to turn back, so I dismounted and led her by, then remounted. We got to the little gravel lane that ties into the road network I like to ride, and the moment her hooves hit that gravel, she wanted to prance and trot. Of course, at that corner is where a dude and pack string lives, and they were winter fatigued, bored with winter pasture, and very happy to talk to a visiting horse. We minced by that herd, and then she wanted to line out in a serious long trot. That would be fine, except after about 20 yards she started to try to slip a lope into the mix. Um, no, not at this phase of getting back under saddle. We settled on a nice little working trot, though I did have to stop her every now and then to let her settle. Again, not running away…just exuberant energy at being able to move without ice and snow.

I did make her walk a little, worrying about her overdoing. At least she wasn’t overheating because about halfway through, the skies opened up and we got pelted with cold rain and wind. That was probably a good thing because she did want to GO, and she still has a long coat. Due to her energy, there were comments along the lines of “WHOA, DAMNIT.” “QUIT, DAMNIT.” “Silly mare, stop being an idiot.” But I was grinning the whole time, simply because she’s sound, she chose to round up under me and use herself, and she had all that energy but was still listening.

I’ve got my good saddle mare back. YAY.

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The difference a year makes in the horse’s life

Last year at this time we were two days into moving the horse from fifteen-some years of stall life in Western Oregon near Portland to outside life in far Northeastern Oregon. She was anxious, freaked out, and angry; pacing her pen, afraid of her tire feeder, and unwilling to drink from the ditch. In the arena she wouldn’t go anywhere near the pigs or their pen and she’d nearly run me over trying to get away from them. We had to stand with her to get her to eat and she was dropping weight. Not only that, she developed a short-term defiant streak where she challenged me on almost everything I asked her to do. It wasn’t until I tied her to the hitching rail and let her blow up that she finally got over that. Then we got hit with myriad health issues on top of the white line disease we’d been struggling with for a year and a half at that point.

This year, today, I rode her in the arena with bareback pad and Pelham (since it was the first time this spring with the pad, I wanted a little more authority). I didn’t need the Pelham because she worked in a very relaxed mode. And as for the pigs….


well, the image speaks for itself, doesn’t it? I took that shot from horseback. She accepts the pigs but doesn’t like them. They’ll always be an excuse for skittery behavior in that corner, but most of the time I can ride by them on a loose rein and (except perhaps on a cold and windy day) she’ll maybe tense up a little but now doesn’t even speed up.

But more than that has happened this year.

We discovered the cause for her intermittent front end lamenesses and, though we’ve still got X-rays to happen in June, it looks like the change in shoeing has addressed it.

Mocha learned not only how to live outside and drink from creeks, she learned about 24/7 herd life, surviving cold and snowy winters outside without blankets or shelters, and how to be a real horse. As well as about fences that aren’t pole fences.

Remediating her front end lamenesses and full-time turnout seems to have given her a lovely soft working jog. It used to be that riding her jog trot bareback was a tooth-rattling experience. No more. While she’s not slow enough to pass for a Western Pleasure horse, as far as a working jog goes, it’s nice to be able to sit it bareback and not get shaken to pieces. I hadn’t asked her for a slow jog all winter, but once we got back into the arena, my main reaction was WOW.

Full-sized stallions no longer frighten and worry her. Today she drowsed while tied to a hitching post near a young stallion penned nearby who was screaming at her. She’s observed breeding going on, and been part of a group of mares VERY INTERESTED in one of their own who just foaled in the pasture.

She’s gained weight.

Overall, things are good now. And that’s the way I like it in horse world.

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That moment of epic earcamness

So this happened today….


Ten feet away. We rode by him (from the size, I’d say it’s a male) twice. On approach, Mocha was all ears.


I had one thumb bare and my phone in my pocket, so I was juggling snaffle reins, doing everything on a touch screen with only a thumb, dealing with a Very Alert Horse who was suspicious of the eagle…and sidepassed by him the first time. I was sure he was going to take off but we never got closer than ten feet and he showed no real inclination to go. Just as well by me as a certain little mare was on her toes and ready to go.

After four trot lengths along the back fence, she was somewhat quieter but still energetic, and wasn’t at all thrilled about stopping. But we got within ten feet and I got that first pic–which was the last one I took. Then we headed back to the barnyard to beat the snow shower blowing in.

I don’t think I can top that earcam.

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Horse update

Holy cremoly. I think pasture life agrees with Miss Mocha. Granted, we’ve got brisk weather but even so…she was more energetic when I brought her in than she has been for AGES. Years, even. Since before the white line stuff started. Hacked her in the field and while living in the field has revealed Scary Horse-Eating Stuff (she was tracking the flight of a ring-neck pheasant as I mounted and was on the muscle as we rode by where he went to ground in a fence row; I know where she saw elk as well; neighbor horses came thundering up which set her off), she still had a lot of energy. We jogged a lot of the distance, working in small serpentines so that she didn’t decide to take off with the neighbor horses. When we were done, she wasn’t winded, either. Crossed the ditch with water–she sucked back once, then went ahead as I pushed her on. I needed to *ride* today which we’ve not had for a while.

However. I think she’s definitely arena sour. I took her to the arena and the same mare who was full of energy? While she walked better than she has before in the arena, all of the energy went away. She did not want to go faster than a slow, careful walk that could win a WP class. Ride her down the alleyway, which has big rocky sections? More energy. Ride her in the county right-of-way (there’s a big triangle patch created when the road was straightened)? More energy. She had more energy on the lead outside of the arena as well. I suspect this is the consequence of that fall in the show, and right now is probably not a good time to deal with it. We’ll do other stuff besides riding and cool her off there. We’ll see what she’s like in the springtime. There’s a lot of little stuff we can do in an arena that isn’t riding, and that may help her rebuild confidence in arena footing.

Overall, she just looks better. Her front end is filling up and looking like it should be. Her hind end is muscling up as well. Mentally, her affect is bright and a wee bit hard-headed with wanting to GO. Yeah, she’s rough and hairy. Her mane’s a bit sun-bleached. She’s got a few marks where she’s been negotiating herd position. She does not look like a pretty and shiny show horse any more. She looks like a ranch horse.

But when I turned her loose, instead of trying to follow me back to the gate or wander over to the barnyard to issue plaintative nickers begging for hay, she ambled off to join one of the other horses and fell to grazing. YAY. And the only place she gimped under the saddle was in the arena. I think we’ve finally made the transition.

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