April 1 2014
I am truly hoping someone from Eagle Ranch this past weekend reads this post :)
We zipper-suited sun-gods, when not growing bullet-proof mustaches in March or slipping the surly bonds of earth on laughter-silvered wings, have a tendency to be rather critical of ourselves as a means to improve in our warfare trade. In the flying world (and the military as a whole) we have a robust system called "Lessons Learned", which, in reality, is a gentle way of saying, "Things we screwed up, things we should have done better, and things we were stupid for not seeing ahead of time. Let's write them down so the dolts following us have no excuse for performing the same screw ups."
So here are the top ten things I wish I had known as a first timer this past weekend that led to rookie mistakes and entertaining lessons learned: Keep in mind as well, these lessons were all learned on the back of a 4 y/o, 17h OTTB FRESH off the track who has never known anything but flat, open expanses and the safety of plenty of room to run.
1. Eagle Ranch is varsity level challenge. Moreover it is probably the last place a horse like mine or a rider like me should have made a debut. We heard there were "hills". We heard there were "rocks". We heard it was "technical ride". We were never told how oblivious we were. In less than a mile we had crossed a creek (a first) scaled a 40-degree, rocky slope (a first), descended an even rockier slope of equal grade (a first), battled a grueling war against the multiple new-found phobias of aforementioned TB the whole way, gave up on attempting to pony said horse out of frustration, crossed another creek, repeated a similar climb (twice), and scorched the trail at just under 2 mph the first mile. If this sort of adversity doesn't make you feel alive, nothing will.
2. Whatever you think you're going to need, bring more. If you think you'll need 5 bags of hay, bring 7. 6 pack of Mt. Dew? Bring 8. If you're certain you can get by with 2 syringes, bring 5. If you think you brought enough to the pot luck, you'll be embarrassed to find that horse people are fanatically fabulous cooks and will bring your taste buds to their knees... and in bulk. Fortunately, we packed just enough courage... and so did our horses.
3. Tip your farrier. We brought our TB to Eagle Ranch with regular steel shoes shod by a local K-State student. He was relatively cheap, but when we saw the result of his handiwork this weekend, we came home and wrote him a $50 tip. To be honest, the course was far more austere than we anticipated, and I fretted (when I had time to bring it forward off the back burner) the trek would be shortened by a thrown shoe. Like the quote goes: for want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost, etc. But the craftsmanship of this up-and-comer was so stellar (on a horse who goes through shoes like machinegun rounds), not a scratch was found, not a nail missing, and not a sore foot on the rookie TB.
4. Crazy horse ladies are not just crazy horse ladies. They are crazy horse ladies who have forgotten more about horses than I will ever know. I spent time sponging experience, insight, and advice from several of these fountainheads over the weekend and found myself nearly overwhelmed with perspective and education. I hope there are 400 crazy horse ladies at every ride that are willing to make a dumb flyboy smarter about his horse. Crazy cat ladies on the other hand... I may still maintain a safe distance. ;)
5. Patience comes in flavors. The military divides all functions into three stratifications: Strategic, Operational, and Tactical, big to small. I can proudly hang my hat on my strategic patience, that being the development of my horse, not pushing him too hard too soon and granting him the time and space required to shape him into a sound, proud competitor. I'm "pretty good" at operational patience, that being the patience required to negotiate an entire course. I can recognize that the course doesn't cater to his talents and will be more adversity and challenge than he can equal at this stage, and perhaps the goal should be simply finishing, rather than beating any clock or equine competitor. As for tactical patience, which would be considered negotiating singular obstacles or challenges like a down slope or HORSE-EATING CREEK WATER, I can slip to the wayside at inopportune moments and lose that strategic/operational perspective and find myself disappointed with a horse who is, in objective truth, giving me all his heart and courage. (to be discussed later). Patience comes in flavors, some more palatable than others. Pack a spoonful of sugar (see #2).
6. Marriage is a team. My wife is the MVP.
7. Creek water, as it turns out, does not eat horses. [Independent verification required, however]
8. John Wayne once said, "Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway." I genuinely hope someone reading this was actually at Eagle Ranch and saw us lunging our seemingly schizophrenic, bay-colored mammoth time-bomb in the round pen prior to the first day. I hope they watched the dangerously unsettled brown monster that bucked wildly and reared against the lunge as if it were a God-given talent, Truly, I hope someone here saw the fire spewing from his flared nostrils and the steam rising from every pore in his vascular skin.
I hope someone saw me get on him, and I hope that someone prayed.
... and I hope someone saw him finish hours later (with a 48 bpm heart rate) and thought he was a different horse. Because he was a different horse. Furthermore, the rider who had the courage to mount him was not the same rider he brought back. Courage is the delicate, infinitesimal line beset on either side by abject ignorance (wherein the absence of knowledge of the danger, courage cannot exist) , and utter stupidity (knowing full well the danger and not making a rational, adequate decision to mitigate it in interest of self-preservation). I nearly didn't ride him out of the overtly evident danger. Instead, I accepted the risk, slung my boot in the stirrup and we went. The first mile, like everything with this horse was brutal, but like everything with this horse... everything after... was unbelievable. Courage is a trustable virtue. Trust is a courageous virtue. A horse's brain, as I am learning, is an abstract, convoluted contraption of rapidly spinning gears, whirring gyroscopes, steam vents, and inconceivable logic that projects random flashes of tiger images onto the retina. Yet, a horse's heart is pretty simple, pretty-damn-simple. [it just doesn't come cheap.]
9. Endurance riding is called endurance riding because one must endure the ride. It's not an "endurance free-trot with owners in lawn chairs hoisting encouraging posters for their horses". 50% of the "endurance" comes courtesy of the rider, not solely the horse. Take care of yourself. I am in exceptional shape. Shape means something between nothing and nothing when you don't drink enough, eat enough, or remember to do so soon enough. Granted, if you're on a blazingly talented horse and can lope the Tevis, start to finish, you might sly your way across the finish before physical malady encroaches in on your demise, but for a rookie entrenched in an hour-long, Armageddon-like, epic duel to the death with a 3 foot-wide creek, those encroaching fatigue ninjas assault you out of the shadows (or presumably out of the creek). I of all people know this ad-nauseum and allowed myself to become preoccupied with tactical problems, therein creating operational problems. For want of a rider, the race was lost. You may depend on your horse to carry you across the finish, but he's depending on you to get him there. DRINK YOUR GATORADE TIM.
10. Lessons Learned are nothing but a bunch of sidebar crap.
Let's face it. I could critique my mistakes, misgivings, and shortcomings for days. I could chastise my horse's behavior at the beginning of the day and remark how he has a long, arduous journey ahead of him, insofar as reconciling his new job. I could bemoan how disappointed I was when we lost an hour because my cowardly horse didn't want to cross a not-even-flowing creek. I could whine about how my wife and I were horribly unprepared for... everything. We could complain that the trail bordered on dangerous to horses. I could meander for days about all the things I wish I had known, found out the hard way, and beat myself and my horse up over it.
That would be not only a waste of time, it would be asinine.
Because here is the bottom line. I brought a horse I knew to have exceptional character, but also knew he would be nearly impossible to simmer to a manageable temperature. I put him on a course he had never seen, in a job he had never done, in an environment he had never experienced, set against a canvas of austere, foreboding ground that threatened to devour the young TB at every turn in addition to all the excitement he was attempting to ingest. I put him on jagged, loose boulders on steep inclines over the distance of a marathon. I demanded he put one foot in front of the other, and try. I became angry at the horse-eating creek. I yelled at my horse: "Do you have any idea how much courage it took to get on your back this morning? It's a [expletive deleted] puddle of water!"
... it didn't hit me until we finished the second loop, and again when we went out to do the final loop the next morning. That sorrowful look in his eye at the impassable creek, that frustrated head bob at every rocky downhill slope, that furious/jubilant attack charging up rugged hills, those valiant, rocket-assisted creek-clearing jumps -- the answer to my question I spewed in anger, was "yes," and he was doing everything in his power to reciprocate. What I failed to see was how unfathomable what he had accomplished really was, and it was my own myopia that hung my mind on the one spot where it was just simply too much for him. I couldn't see it then, but I could recall it later. He tried. He tried with an urgency, but his mind engineered an un-scalable wall that his better efforts to climb proved futile . Certainly I was frustrated, but so was he. I was so caught up in the disappointment, I lost sight of the aggressive effort he was giving. This tore at my heartstrings harder than any of the amazing stories he had crafted prior in his life. For the first time, it wasn't I setting him up for success and spectating the amazing story, it was we, living it together, and he directly turning the favor... and I was a prideful, bungling fool for not seeing the majesty and purity of it in action.
A pretty-damn-simple thing. (bears repeating)
We came in that following morning after having completed the final loop (that we opted out of the previous day), and after driving the rookie at a seemingly grueling pace over 8 very austere miles, trotted into the vet check. Granted, I was no longer competing, but requested a heart-rate since no rush existed at the moment. 50 bpm.
What was the one genuine lesson learned? This:
There is only one greatest horse in the world, and every horse owner has him. ...and I have mine.