Never Give Up

Judith & Latte

Judith & Latte

Sometimes I lay off blogging because I feel like I don’t have enough time to get my words right. The thought of doing what I’m doing now…just going commando in the post window freaks me out. Even just this second, I almost backed up to take out those … because I read a post elsewhere about how annoying and lazy it is to use …

So, yeah. I’m trying to be brave and nekked.

Originally, and probably still for a lot or maybe even most bloggers, I think blogging was like that. Just an organic recording of thoughts, impressions, and ideas. But, I’ve never blogged like that without at least the safety net of enough time to re-order, revise, and re-think. So here we go. Yah, boy!

Sometimes people ask me: What’s with the horses? Continue reading

Angel, Sent from Above


Oh, hi, Angel!

I like looking at this pretty girl’s face – both sides! Even if just in photos on my phone’s camera roll. She’s the pony I wrote about in Wonderponies, earlier this year. In that post, I was still shaking in my chaps from a freaky trail ride where she was so awesome. In that post, I mistakenly called her ‘Saved by an Angel.’ Which I was that day.

Her real-true whole name is: Angel, Sent from Above. And, she is.

I’ve been riding Angel weekly since January. When Albert was still with us, whenever I went to get Angel from the mare field, I could see his old, white face leaning out his stall door up the little hill. Then, after my lesson, I would go up to the south barn to hangout with Buddy himself and try to help him shed out. [The Cushing’s made him a Curlylocks all year round.]

Anyway, Angel’s such a friendly mare. But, I wouldn’t call her needy, you know? With me, anyway, she’s not real snuggly, though she always comes walking up to greet me in the field or her stall. She’ll trade exhales with me – my favorite way to greet a horse. She’s solid as the earth. In the ring, the wash stall, or on the trail, you can rely on Angel.

Still, I would never call her a babysitter, either. What I mean is that I can’t not do my job and just let her carry me around. With Angel, I do have to work and think and act consistently.

She’s a good listener, and I can tell that sometimes I talk too fast or too slow with my aids. I tend to be a chatterbox with my hands, a space cadet with my legs. So, there’s some accountability there between us. She will let me do all the work if I really insist, ha!

Angel again.

Same Angel face. Other side.

All my life, since I first started riding about 15 years ago, I’ve noticed a pit in my stomach every time before getting on a horse. Usually, the feeling would go away and, sometimes, not.

It’s just that my brain is, well, I think it runs with a dull processor in some areas. I don’t right away get the mechanics of certain things – movements, shapes, procedures – until they’ve imprinted in my mind. Really.

It’s no exaggeration that I learned to put a saddle pad on a horse by looking at the pad and saying to myself, “I think it goes this way, so it must go the opposite way.” For years I did this every time.

Now, after so long of repeating the process, I see the way the pad should fit. Halters? Same story. I STILL, sometimes have to hold the halter out and let my eyes find the shape in order to get it right. Same story with posting on the diagonal. For years, my eyes just couldn’t detect, couldn’t isolate the movement of the horse’s outside shoulder that I was supposed to rise with at the trot. But, now I can see it, so that helps me feel it.

So, I’m thinking that maybe I’ve always started out feeling kind of scared or unsure because I know there is so much about horses and riding that my brain struggles to translate. Because I know so much of the technical, mechanical parts of riding, I just don’t recognize or can’t easily replicate.

You know what, though?

Never have I felt a pit in my stomach near or on Angel. We’ve become friends at a good time in my riding life. I’ve worked through some of my spatial-mechanical challenges. My yoga practice, which I started the year I cracked my sacrum in a riding accident [THAT horse’s name was Achy Breaky, no-lie], is helping me now even more than I could have imagined. Especially, with releasing my calves, opening my hips, breathing in and breathing out.

The absence of a scary stomach lately is partly due to this deeper awareness of my own body and breath, I think. And, I’ve figured out how a few things operate by now.

But really, I credit Angel, Sent from Above, who is very likely really truly sent from above.

Angel last winter.

Angel last winter.

Symbol of His Service

Cornell Lab of O Red-headed Woodpecker
Photo: All About Birds, Red-headed Woodpecker

I’m avoiding writing about Albert. Oh, there’s a lot to say. A lot of ruminating to come on questions of health and injury, beliefs and fairness. Some wisdom, I hope, will come from Albert, our family, and our vet. He has survived a medical crisis. Right now, it seems like he has.

And, one of the questions for us is how many more medical crises will we ask him to face? Like many animals I’ve known, if you ask him to accept pain and fight through something, he will do it. Silent and stoic, he surely will.

He’s getting older. That’s probably the real bottom line. He is getting older, and his good, easeful days fewer.

So, I took my coffee and newspaper out to the barn this morning. Just to see him and sit with him.

Something else has been on my mind at the barn. Where is the red-headed woodpecker?

I used to see one all the time when I’d first turn down the drive. After all, this medium-sized woodpecker lives in Virginia year-round. Lately and to no avail, I’ve been scouting for it at the edge of the road, in the fields, and on the trail.

What makes this bird a thrill to watch is its crimson hood. Red-hooded woodpecker seems like a better name to me, really. While the bird is not on the threatened list, its habitat is shrinking fast.

When I first pulled up to the barn today, I heard a bird in one of the two old oaks by the gate. Sort of a cherr-ah or kirr-ah. I made a mental note to try to research that call. But, I didn’t look up because I wanted to look in on Albert first. I nearly wept from joy when I first saw him today. Calmer than yesterday by an ocean. Steadier, too. And he nickered.

So, I pulled up a chair beside his stall door. He poked his over the gate and stood near me while I read him headlines. I didn’t read to him about Boston. I read good stuff: about the history of the James River Park System. I read book reviews to him. We looked at the grocery coupons and perused the open houses, too.

I heard the kirr-ah or cheerr-ah again. “What is that bird, Albert?” I asked him. A few minutes later we heard a dull drumming of a woodpecker against a tree in the woods. I’m horrible at identifying woodpeckers by their drill.

Finally, after fussing over Albert – grooming him good, spreading out his shavings, doing my best to repel flies – I headed home. I sat for a minute in the car, thinking about my horse. One or two of those big questions that need attention sallied out into the open meadow of my cleared mind. Cleared like it always is when I’m out there.

And like these birds just do, sometimes, right then a red-headed woodpecker came around a limb of the oak. Went back up, came back down, went back up. I watched one then two red-headed woodpeckers forage the tree for insects. They didn’t drum or cry, just let me see them.

In The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow tells that a woodpecker helped Hiawatha in battle and in thanks for his service, Hiawatha gave the red-headed woodpecker its scarlet hood. Here’s moment from Chapter 9 Hiawatha and the Pearl-Feather:

“Then the grateful Hiawatha
Called the Mama, the woodpecker,
From his perch among the branches
Of the melancholy pine-tree,
And, in honor of his service,
Stained with blood the tuft of feathers
On the little head of Mama;
Even to this day he wears it,
Wears the tuft of crimson feathers,
As a symbol of his service.”

Red-headed Woodpecker Western Soundscape Archive
Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Even the red-headed woodpecker helps me consider Albert and his life. How will I thank this horse for his service?

Reading On Yoga and Riding

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One of my first riding instructors always started our lessons with yoga stretches in the ring at the walk. Pigeon, half-camel, mountain – all versions of yoga postures, modified for the saddle. This routine not only prepared our muscles for the tough work of up-up down, down-down up (you know what I’m talking about!), and excruciatingly long periods of holding our two point, but also brought us closer to our horses and more aware of our own breath. The more I learn about riding and about yoga, the more I see how the two can inform and support each other. Here are some of my favorite books on yoga and riding:

Yogafor Equestrians
Yoga for Equestrians: A New Path for Achieving Union with the Horse by Linda Benedik & Veronica Wirth
Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2004 edition
ISBN: 5706-136-1

Riding draws upon physical strength, balance, and flexibility. Breath serves as a powerful communication aid with the horse, and concentration is an essential practice in the saddle, the field, or the barn. This book includes a great section on breathing as the bridge between body, mind, and horse and guidance for a yoga practice in the saddle and on the ground. There are super explanations about visualizing your power center and a yogic approach to horseback riding. What I love most about Yoga for Equestrians is its practical guidance in Chapter Nine Establishing Your Practice. The entire book gives specific routines and sequences; Chapter Nine breaks the postures down into little packages for warm up, transitioning, at the stable, at a show, and after riding.  I almost always practice the Yoga at the Stable sequence found on page 149 right before my lessons. When I don’t, I notice a difference in how my body feels immediately when I start to post.

Whoa-Ga! Eight Limbed Yoga for Horse/Rider Harmony by Cathy Kan’dala Reynolds
Publishing Works, 2006
ISBN: 933002-30-1

Of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, I’m most engaged with three in my daily life: postures, breath, and meditation. Yet, the eightfold path offers insight and discipline in riding as in life. I love that Who-Ga! is organized in eight sections corresponding with the eight limbs of yoga: Yama (Internal Ethical Disciplines), Niyama (External Ethical Disciplines), Asanas (Physical Poses), Pranayama (Breathing), Pratyahara (Sensory Control/Withdrawal), Dharana (Concentration), Dhyana (Meditation), and Samadi (Blissful Absorption).   Studying on the first limb (Yama) includes five disciplines non-violence, honesty, non-stealing, study/training, and love toward all. Chapter Six, which covers Dharana/Concentration, addresses ways to improve the skill of concentration (ours and our horse’s) through arena exercises. The book includes a robust section covering postures on an exercise ball, on the floor, and standing postures, too. And, Who-ga! not only explains postures on the horse but yoga FOR the horse, too. Who-Ga! encourages riders to embrace the eight limbs of yoga as a basis for a leadership philosophy with horses.

Yoga on Horseback
Yoga on Horseback: A Guide to Mounted Yoga Exercises for Riders by Nicole C. Cuomo & Marty Whittle
Alpine Publishing, 2006
ISBN: 978-1577790808

I’m so sad I’ve misplaced this book, and it’s out-of-print right now. Usually, ABE Books is a good source for hard-to-find titles, but no luck. Yoga on Horseback is a brief but thorough introduction to balance, breath, and postures on horseback for riders of all levels. Even though I can’t find my copy, I’m including this one here in case you ever see it at a rare book store or Friends of the Library sale. Here’s a good interview with the book’s co-author, Marty Whittle, on her system of Equi-Yoga.

Zen and Horseback Riding
Zen and Horseback Riding: Applying the Principles of Posture, Breath and Awareness to Riding Horses by Tom Nagel
Ko-gen Publications, 3rd ed, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-9749213-2-7
Tom Nagel opens this little spiral bound book with an explanation that it’s neither a book about horses nor Zen meditation. Zen and Horseback riding, Nagel explains, “is about seeing horses and riding as a Way, becoming an activity of self-development and spiritual training. It’s about improving one’s life as well as one’s riding.” In addition to explaining techniques for improving the relationship to the horse through posture, breathing, and awareness, the author really educates riders on the location, use, and health of the all-important, oft-ignored psoas muscles (pronounced so-az). The writing is logical, straightforward, and easy-to-understand. It’s not a book to plow through but to integrate. Take this for example, from page 94: “If a rider focuses on a particular object, his horse will respond in kind. If a rider holds his breath, tension in his body will be communicated to his horse. A tense body cannot move freely and will interfere with the movement of the horse. When horse’s response isn’t desired, it is important for a rider to look to his own posture, breathing and awareness first, before looking to this horse.” Words worth reflecting on.

Zen Mind Zen Horse by Allan J. Hamilton, MD
Zen Mind Zen Horse: The Science and Spirituality of Working with Horses by Allan J. Hamilton, MD
Storey Publishing, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-69342-565-0

A practical guide and an inspiring work, I’m tagging Zen Mind Zen Horse as a yoga book because of its exploration of breath, self-awareness, and suggestions for physical exercises connected to breath. It’s also a useful handbook for grooming, tacking up, trailering, and basic horse care. I’ve been reading this book for months and trying to also become more aware of myself around Angel (the mare I ride in lessons) and Albert. The idea of breath awareness always seems so simple that you might wonder why we even talk about breathing right or noticing our breath.

So, here’s an example of how the book is helping me. Recently, I was giving Albert a bath. He was really dirty, and I realized that this was going to take a lot longer than I planned. I started to rush. He started to dance around a little bit. I got nervous. I moved away from Albert, leaving a good bit of space between us, and stopped talking to him. He picked up his back right leg and held it there. Now, I noticed that foot hanging there, poised for SOMETHING and the thoughts jumped out: Whoa, what’s going on with him? Why would he want to kick me?  My mind returned to Zen Mind Zen Horse. And now I noticed that I was holding my breath. So, I stepped closer to Albert, placed my hand on his croup, and let out a big sigh. I returned to nice, even breaths. “You’re okay,” I said to him. What I probably really meant was, Hi buddy, I’m back. I’m okay. Not rushing you. And, he dropped his foot and we had an incredible afternoon just being together. The magic offered in this book results from the practice of being present to yourself and your horse. There are great illustrations also and a very comprehensive bibliography for further reading.

Blue Eyes


The weather on Sunday was just right for lingering at the corner stall. And for offering one, two, three peppermint treats and for letting my horse lick peppermint sprinkles from my palm. He was clean, still damp from his first spring bath, and with a belly full of clover, chickweed, and dandelion leaves. Thick crumbs of his white winter coat traced our path from the crossties to his corner stall.

The weather on Sunday was just right for facing the yard. Like always, I waited for him to turn away, nose put to corner. His way of good-bye. Only, he lingered, too, on Sunday. We watched the field, the woods, and the mares way down yonder, across the road nearly to the horizon. A yellow tiger swallowtail lit along the fence and all along the yard.

I leaned my back against his stall gate on the side of his good eye, his only eye. Good because it’s still in its socket, though the midnight blue iris lets nothing in. He only sees what he remembers or imagines. So, I stood there with him, and he tilted his good blind eye close to me. His only eye.

What did he see?

I saw my citrus shirt and my cheeks filled with joy and my eyes made small by my reflected grin. I stood, smiling in the light he remembered and imagined. My heart hurt. My chest hurt. Like when I held my newborn daughter and looked into her mountain blue eyes. Like when my dying grammy held me, and I looked into her radiant blue eyes. Like that time I held my pointer out to a dragonfly and said out loud, “Hop up here on my finger. Let me look into your turquoise eyes.” And that bug prayed on my finger for a long time.

So, we turned toward the butterflies and killdeer. While the sunlight shifted lemon to amber, we faced the mare field. My blind horse rested his head on my shoulder. And, he fell asleep there on me, for a good long time.

RVA Police Horses!


Look at these beauties!

At The Meadow last week, I caught up with the Richmond Mounted Squad. They have lots of great community events coming up, including a Police Stables Open Barn Day. If you’ve never met the officers and horses of the Richmond Mounted Squad, you are missing something special!

Here are scenes from a previous Richmond Ride:

Meet the mounted squad and their equine partners at one of the upcoming Friends of Richmond Mounted Squad’s events:

Saturday, May 18, Richmond Ride: Urban trail ride through the historic streets of Richmond. Departs near Barker Field at Dogwood Dell, 12 Noon

Sunday, June 9, Police Stables Open Barn: Meet the officers and horses of the Richmond Mounted Squad, 1-4 pm

Friday, December 13, Blessing of the Animals: Morgan Fountain in Shockoe Slip, recognizing working and companion animals, 12 Noon

Rags to Riches: Brittany and Chestnut

Rags to Riches: Brittany and Chestnut

Hooray for Brittany and Chestnut! As part of the Rags to Riches contest this weekend at the Equine Extravaganza in Richmond, 8-year old Brittany Bostic and her horse, Chestnut, will perform before judges. When the Bostic family bought Chestnut she had lost 250 pounds from neglect and underfeeding. Thanks to some TLC, Chestnut is gaining weight and rebuilding her confidence.

Rags to Riches honors horses owners, like the Bostic family, who have rescued abused or neglected equines. The contest also raises awareness of horse adoption.

Equine Extravaganza, East Coast horse expo, will be held Friday, November 2 – Sunday, November 4, 2012 at the Richmond International Raceway (old State Fairgrounds). Shows, clinics, pageantry, and exhibits! Tickets are $15 at the door. Check out the full schedule of events.