Quiet Hands

Bridging your reins
Bridging your reins helps keep you from fussing. A horse like Zelda doesn’t like the “noise” of busy hands. She basically wants me to shut up and leave her alone.

Last week I had a lesson. I really should take more of those because those bad habits creep in and before you know it, you’re creating more problems than you’re solving. You’d think after the hundreds — no, probably thousands — of lessons I’ve had in my life that more of it would stick.

The challenge of the day was jumping stadium fences. Sounds easy, right? Not always. I’ve never had a problem jumping cross country fences with Zelda. She’s pretty much a point and shoot horse. Ditches? No problem! Banks? No problem! She’s a hoot to take and jump natural fences.

We had a few bad experiences with stadium jumps at the beginning of our relationship. There was some bucking, some over jumping and a general anxiety about them that made her flatten and quicken toward them. The more I asked her to balance, the faster she wanted to go.

This summer, since it was too buggy to ride out on the trails, I’ve been working on trot poles, cross rails and small verticals. My strategy was to do them often and slowly and make them so boring that it would stop being an issue. This certainly helped, but I still felt that Zelda got a bit anxious trotting or cantering toward a fence.

Enter the eyes on the ground. The problem, it seems, is me. Zelda is a horse that likes quiet hands. Very quiet hands. She really wants you to leave her mouth alone and ride off your seat. I wasn’t leaving her alone as we came toward the fence. I was  half halting. Now, with Freedom, he takes that to mean, “rebalance a bit and listen to me.” Zelda, not so much. She must have been a hunter princess in a previous life because she really wants me to loop my reins and stay out of her way.

I compromised by bridging my reins so that the contact would be ultra steady. Problem fixed! Apparently I don’t half halt going to cross country fences.


What Zelda and I Learned in Vermont


It’s been a long time since I’ve had a vacation that included riding. I am grateful that my family put up with me disappearing for hours at a time to commune with my horse, my horse friends and the great outdoors. Zelda and I had a lot of fun and we came back with a few important lessons.

Green Fields
Riding with one of our new friends. After a scorcher of a summer in Massachusetts, we both enjoyed seeing all the green. It would take a long time to get tired of the views.

It is just as hard to come down a hill as it is to go up. Sometimes harder. Zelda and I are not very good at going down technical hills. I hiked with my families in the afternoons and I completely understood her reluctance. We did get better during the course of the week.

Miles are longer in Vermont. That’s because you have to factor in the vertical rise.

Every day you get a little fitter. I noticed that Zelda found it easier to climb the hills pretty quickly. I guess my fitness level also improved but I still found the hiking to be tough.

Riding doesn’t get old. Everyone I rode with last week had a big smile on their face. Every day. I know it amazes my family that I can go out and ride every day and not get tired of it. I’m just lucky like that.

The horse community is incredibly welcoming. I rode with old friends and new friends. It’s wonderful to have something in common that you all feel passionate about. There is an easy camaraderie. After all, who doesn’t want to talk about horses?

Horses make friends easily, too. There’s nothing like a three hour ride (or trailer ride) to help horses bond. Zelda made a lot of new friends on the trip, as evidenced by the whinnying and carrying on when we left one new herd for another. The Morgans at her barn, particularly the one in the stall next to her, were very vocal in their welcome.

Riding is not the most dangerous thing we do. On the last day of our vacation, I missed a stair carrying stuff to the car. I went sprawling, broke a glass coffee pot and ended up bruised and bleeding. I had survived countless hours in the saddle and a few hikes. Next time I’ll make my kids carry all the stuff.

It’s good to push the envelope. Every so often it’s good to get out of your comfort zone and try the things that make you nervous. Personally, I hate trailering long distances. Lucky me, I got to drive the trailer to Vermont in torrential rains (more on that later). And I asked Zelda to tackle some trails (on her own) that probably didn’t seem like a smart choice to her. It made us both a little bit braver.




Quail, cows and pigs, oh my!

9 mile ride
This ride had a few surprises on it — some good (beautiful trails) and some a bit scary (a few new animals).

Years ago, there was a woman at our barn who said she couldn’t ride her horse on trails she didn’t know because he got too nervous. I’ve never really understood that because a good part of the fun of trail riding is moseying around and exploring. To always know where you’re going would defeat the purpose!

Private tour
Riding with someone who knows the local trails is a treat. This cute little Morgan has just ended a show career and this was his second time out on the trails. Zelda is so much bigger than he is — we looked like Mutt and Jeff.

Zelda is brave. It’s nice to have a horse that will hack out on strange trails and keep her senses. We started out our ride today with the woman who owns the barn where Zelda is staying. She took us on some lovely trails that are not marked on the map. It’s a real plus to ride with someone local because I would never dream of riding up someone’s driveway and it’s a treat to find a beautiful field at the end of it.

I’d planned on a shorter ride today, maybe around 6 miles but we ended up doing a bit over nine because it was such a beautiful day and Zelda seemed game. Her fitness level is already improving — not nearly so much huffing and puffing up the hills. Lots of walking is really getting her into shape.

After we left our tour guide (I wanted to ride a bit further), Zelda and I rode up some of the small dirt roads. Some of the trails I remembered from our vacations up here ten years ago are now closed off, reserved for special rides.

I can understand that land owners are reluctant to have people riding through their property all the time but it does mean more riding on the roads. And a few unexpected encounters with the local population of farm animals.

Another beautiful field
Another beautiful field! We had such great weather for ridingAnd that sometimes leads to unexpected encounters with the local wildlife.

On this ride, Zelda’s bravery was tested. First, we ran into a flock of pheasants or quails. There were about seven of them, scurrying to and fro across a very rustic road. I was glad I wasn’t riding Freedom as he has a fear of wild turkeys that is beyond reason (best I can guess, he thinks they are one large animal with multiple heads and many legs). Those little guys stopped Zelda in her tracks and we had to wait for them to disappear into the forest before she would proceed.

Then, there were the cows. Lots of cows. We’d managed to pass the cows on Wednesday without incident, but without her friends, Zelda balked. Even worse, the cows were on both sides of the road. As far as she was concerned, the safest route was backwards. And fast. I decided not to press the point as I wasn’t sure we were on the right route and I didn’t want to turn around and go by them again if I didn’t have to.

What neither of us had seen on the way out, however, were the pigs. Two of them. There is nothing like discovering your first pigs when riding down a very steep Vermont hill, but we survived. Luckily, the rest of the way back was uneventful!

After the ride
Zelda enjoyed a good roll after most of our rides. I was lucky that the barn was able to turn her out in their ring so she didn’t have to stay in her stall.


GMHA Loop #1

IMG_3306 (1)
This was the high point of the GMHA Loop #1 trail, where you can see the GMHA down in the valley.

When I went to catch Zelda on Thursday morning she actually ran away from me! She’s usually eager to come over for a pat, but she put on quite a show cantering and bucking around the ring. I couldn’t decide if she wasn’t tired enough or whether she didn’t want to get on the trailer again!

I boarded Zelda about 6 miles from the GMHA, over the mountain in Brownsville. Six miles doesn’t look like much on the map, but in person, those roads are steep! And not paved. I don’t mind driving them with just a car, but pulling a trailer is a bit more entertaining. Going up hill isn’t really the problem; it’s the long, twisty downhill bits that are challenging. Since I didn’t want to burn my brakes out on the way over, I discovered that four-wheel drive in a low gear keeps the momentum under control. I can’t imagine what they are like to drive in the winter. I wish I’d thought to take some pictures but I was gripping the wheel too hard.

This loop was about 6 3/4 miles — which felt pretty short compared to the ride the day before.

We got there in one piece and Zelda was glad to see her friends. Fortune, the bay, used to be at our barn and although she moved out two years ago, you could tell the horses recognized each other when we rode on Wednesday. Zelda slotted right back in to her new “herd” and we went off for a shorter ride — after riding 11.6 miles on Wednesday, none of us were up for a really long ride on Thursday, especially the horses.

We headed off on a loop ride that took us through the event course, then across Rte 106 and onto a dirt road and into the woods on some trails. Everywhere you ride in Vermont there are tubes running through the woods for maple syrup, kind of like a cat’s cradle between the trees or giant spider’s webs.

Of course, there were great views and a few spectacular mountain meadows. Nothing too steep today which the horses (and my knees) appreciated.


Riding down the meadow




Nick Skelton and Big Star win Individual Gold in Show Jumping

After seven Olympics and one team gold medal, Nick Skelton has won the individual gold in show jumping riding “the best horse that I’ve ever had or likely ever will,” Big Star. Skelton is the first British rider to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics and, at 58, is the oldest equestrian to win the gold.

The crowd favorite won a six way jump off.  Peder Fredericson (Sweden) won the  and Eric Lamaze (Canada) the bronze.

Big star
Nick Skelton on Big Star won the individual gold at the Rio Olympics. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Skelton’s win today on Big Star is quite a comeback story — for both horse and rider. Skelton retired in 2000 after a fall that broke two his neck in two places and damaged a ligament. Doctors told him that another fall from a horse could be fatal. His retirement lasted a year, then he was back in the saddle. He started competing again two years after the accident.

He had a hip replacement in 2011, but that didn’t stop him either. In 2012, he and Big Star were part of the gold medal winning team at the London Olympics but only finished fifth in the individual standings.

Big Star, a 13-year old Dutch warmblood stallion has been sidelined with injuries since 2013 when he won his last Grand Prix event. Even Skelton described him as “rusty” when they came into the Olympics. For the past two years, Skelton has nursed the stallion back to health. So to ask the stallion to jump a course of this height and at such speed, was an act of faith.

“I always knew in the back of my mind, if we could get him right, he could do this.

“He’s an absolutely amazing horse. You can trust him. He wants to do it. He has all the right attributes. He’s the best horse that I’ve ever had.

“I’m so pleased for him. He has worked so hard. This is for him.”

Skelton, who is in chronic pain from his injuries, says Big Star is the only horse he still rides. He will retire when the stallion does, he says.

Hills, hills and more hills

The adventure begins
Take four foxhunting friends and add the trail system at GMHA and what do you get? Fun! And lots of hills.

It’s been about ten years since I’ve had the chance to ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA). The last time I was here, I’d just gotten Freedom and still had my Trakehner, Kroni. I remembered endless miles of beautiful trails with incredible views. And I remembered the hills.

Riding through the meadows.

Riding in Vermont is not like riding in Lincoln or Concord. Sure, I have some great loop rides that cover a reasonable amount of territory — six, eight, even ten miles. But those are flat miles! Six miles here is a completely different experience. And they are tough going up and coming down.

This year I brought Zelda. I don’t think she’d ever seen trails like these. She’s a pretty good sport about going up the hills, but going down has caused her some concern. I’ve tried to keep her off of the really steep hills until she learns to balance herself better. The first time I took Freedom down a pretty technical trail he got so flummoxed that he literally sat down and I had to get off and lead him. Poor boy, all he knew was racing and this just blew his mind. Zelda has questioned my wisdom a few times, but generally she’s been game. A few times she’s looked longingly at the barns we ride by, perhaps hoping that one of them has an empty stall or tried to turn around and go back — not realizing we are on a loop trail — but she’s been generally brave and willing. Even when we passed the cows yesterday (the horses were all fine until one of the calves stood up) she’s been a good girl. I am grateful to have a horse that I can take out alone or with a group and have her truck along in good humor and bring me home in one piece.

Great views
There are great views from these trails but you have to work for them.

I’ve tried to build the work up slowly. There’s no point in making her sore after the first rides. After all, I’m sore after the rides! My knees don’t work as well as they used to and I’ve felt quite stiff when I’ve gotten off. (Zelda says that stiff knees are nothing to complain about since she’s been hauling my butt up those hills).

Yesterday, we did quite a long ride  — it was 11.6 miles in total, although I forgot to turn my tracker on right away. The loop was mostly on the trails (very little road riding) and took us through some magical woods, lovely open meadows and up into the clouds.

11.6 mle loop
This was the loop we rode yesterday. I forgot to turn my tracker on at the beginning, but you can see we covered a good distance.
Taking a break
We gave the horses a break while we admired the view. My biggest question was weather my legs would work well enough to get back on!

The ride took us about three hours. We saw several endurance horse/rider teams out riding the trails and they probably could have covered that ground considerably faster,  but we were all smiling when we got back and the horses were in good shape. We were very lucky that it was a cool day. After the weeks of hot weather back at home, this was a relief.

I also love the fact that there are water troughs out along the different routes. If you’re out riding for a long time it’s really important to keep your horse hydrated. We came across one of the troughs about half way through our ride. After initially thinking the self-filling trough was too scary to approach, Zelda took the lead from her new trail friends and took a good long drink. She  drank another bucket full when we got back to GMHA. And when we got back to the barn where she’s staying she drank even more!

Zelda back at GMHA. She looks pretty chipper considering.
Zelda back at GMHA. She looks pretty chipper, considering.