New Views and a New Look!

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As promised a couple of weeks ago, Urban Equestrian now has a new look! The blog just turned four years old this November (which also marks four years back in the saddle for me), and I thought it was about time for an updated design.

Last weekend, Dunnie and I also got a new look at the world as we went on our first trail ride together. My trainer brought us, along with six other girls that I ride with and their horses, out to 7IL Ranch to practice riding on trail and see if we’re interested in doing some competitive trail riding.

A new view between the ears as Dunnie and I head out to the trails at 7IL Ranch.
A new view between the ears as Dunnie and I head out to the trails at 7IL Ranch.

Dunnie and I did a trail class at the SHOT show we went to in September, but that was different; it was trail obstacles laid out in a ring. Back in college, I did one competitive trail ride that was actually on outdoor trails on a lark (in an English saddle) and really enjoyed it, so I’m interested in doing it again.

Competitive trail riding is a set of obstacles spread out along trails, maybe about a mile apart. They can include elements such as riding over a bridge or through a stream; opening, going through, and closing a gate; riding up to a mailbox and taking something out or putting something in; or riding up a hill without letting your horse break into a faster gait than a walk. The competitors ride through the trails and are judged at each obstacle; there are three levels of difficulty available at each stop, with more points awarded for the higher difficulty skills.

This weekend on the ride, we didn’t encounter any man-made obstacles, but we did find some of the ones that crop up naturally on trails: fallen trees to jump over, ditches that make the trail narrow and steep, branches to avoid (or to barrel through, oblivious to the fact that you have a rider on top of you, whichever).

I was interested to see how Dunnie would react to being out in the open. During the SHOT show, he had reacted poorly to the trail class and the ranch pleasure class being outside near a wooded area, but I had to chalk some of his being so keyed up to all the excitement of being at a show as well as my own contribution in the form of performance anxiety. I predicted that he would be excited to be out on the trails and might be a bit alert, but I also knew that since I had no goals other than to relax and enjoy the ride, I was confident I could keep him calm enough for that.

Right off the bat when we got the horses out of the trailer on the open field in the picture above, he was super alert — but that was because next to that field was a pasture full of his favorite thing in the world, cows. As I trotted him around trying to get a feel of how the open space would affect him, he kept craning his head back around to look at them like a dog that wants to chase a squirrel. He cracks me up.

Once we got away from the cows and out onto the trails, he was able to focus a bit more. At first, all the tall grass along the side of the trail was a potential threat that required his complete vigilance. Aware that when he does shy away from scary things, it’s a lightening-fast move where he drops his shoulder — the speed and the sudden imbalance being a tricky combination to stick with as a rider — I had to consciously work to remove anticipatory tension from my body. Once we left the more open trails for the narrower, wooded ones, he relaxed a bit of that vigilance. I think that was mostly because there he had something to think about, being forced to negotiate the footing more attentively.

treecrossing

His main concern for the rest of the ride was whether the lead horses in front of us were getting too far ahead for his liking. My tendency in a trail ride is to want to be in either the front or the back. If my horse isn’t a leader, I like to ride all the way at the back so I can keep track of everyone (this is probably a holdover from hiking with a bunch of kids in my camp counselor days). Dunnie would certainly have enjoyed being the leader, but would have quickly gotten out of hand had I let him. He would not tolerate being towards the back, and even when he was comfortable in the middle of the pack, we had to be cognizant of train getting too spread out or he’d start to get charged up.

Overall, we spent pretty much the whole six-mile ride in an energized, but contained, trot. At first I kept trying to bring him down to a walk, but I quickly realized that this small release of energy would keep him happy, whereas trying to tamp it down completely might result in an explosion later on. Luckily, his trot is very easy to sit. And even more luckily, he was willing to communicate with me.

Often when we start our ride in the ring, I have to take a few minutes to get his attention. He’s excited or distracted by other horses, by the wind, or some birds, and I need to say, “Hey, listen to me now. We’re gonna do stuff.” Since we’re in a ring and in familiar surroundings, the distracting things quickly recede and after a few minutes, he’s ready to give me his attention and get to work.

The big question for me in taking him out on this trail ride was whether I’d be able to get his attention in a more chaotic, more interesting, potentially scary out-in-the-open situation. I remembered the helplessness I felt at the SHOT show when it seemed that I just couldn’t get through to him. Ultimately, he came back to me for the afternoon classes, but those had been back inside the arena, not outdoors like the morning ones. But since then I’ve continued to develop as a rider and every day I feel more confidence. And so much of the detailed work we’ve been doing — especially on flexion — has focused and refined our communication. I was extremely pleased to see that even though he clearly just wanted to run amok through those trails — to charge ahead of everyone else, freak out about figmentary predators in the grass, and probably charge back to the trailhead as quickly as possible to bite some cows on his way out — that he was willing to listen to me when I said that we weren’t going to do any of those things.

I was excited to go on that trail ride because being out in nature is restorative and calming for me. I love hiking and it can only be made better by being on horseback. I didn’t exactly get the relaxing ramble I was hoping for, but what I got was much, much better. I got to see that Dunnie trusts me and that I can trust him.

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Wild Horses: Native or Invasive Species?

wild-mustangs-gardner-ranch-californiaFor the past few months, I’ve been involved in a training course to become certified as a Texas Master Naturalist. It’s a program whose mission is to train a corps of well-informed volunteers to provide education, outreach, and service to help with the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within their communities for the state of Texas. It has been a great experience, and I’m looking forward to starting my volunteer service — likely for the Katy Prairie Conservancy — now that the training portion is drawing to an end. Tuesday was our last class, and each of my class members was expected to give a 5-minute presentation on the topic of their choice.

Shockingly, I chose to talk about horses. I’ve been reading about and learning about the U.S. wild horse population for years now, ever since I went to the horse exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History many years ago and saw information about adopting a wild horse. I lived in NYC at the time, and I mistakenly believed this was the kind of “adoption” where you send some money and you get a picture to put on your fridge. It was the closest I could imagine getting to one of these creatures at the time, as when I learned that it meant really actually taking a horse home with you, I doubted the BLM would deem a one-bedroom in Brooklyn a suitable living space for a horse, wild or otherwise. Later, I learned about the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge from watching the movie “Wild Horse, Wild Ride,” which I still dream of participating in one day. I’ve even taken a course on how to gentle a wild mustang.

Clearly I have a lot of background in this topic. But the learning I’ve done in my Master Naturalist program has framed the issue in a new light for me, one I hadn’t considered before I started putting together this presentation. A huge part of what we’ve been taught in our training is about the role of native species and non-native invasive species in ecosystem management. Often this relates to plants, but it can refer to animals as well. (A really common example is European starlings, which were introduced by a man who was part of a society in New York in the late 1800s that decided we should import all of the species ever mentioned in Shakespeare. Starlings are all over the place now, and giving a lot of grief to Eastern Bluebird populations.) The problem with situations wherein a new species that not native to the area is introduced is that they compete with the natives for resources, and can choke them out. The native species are integral to the ecosystem, like plants that provide food for pollinators such as bees and birds, and if they are diminished, it can throw everything out of balance. If a food source for pollinators is decimated by an invasive species taking over, it can disrupt every level of the food chain.

When it comes to wild horses, almost all of them in the U.S. are under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), based on the Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burros Act of 1971, which covers the management, protection, and study of horses on public lands. The BLM currently manages horse populations in ten states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming), where it manages herd numbers by rounding up horses in excess of what the land can bear (to prevent overgrazing, and all its attendant problems for long-term rangeland health, as well as so there is enough food for the horses remaining loose.) Currently, there are over 44,000 horses in BLM holding pens throughout these states, most of whom have never interacted with humans (and if they have, the experience has likely been unpleasant.) The cost to keep these horses is about $50 million a year — which is 2/3 of the BLM’s entire budget (they do a lot of other stuff besides manage horses). The Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burros Act prohibits the sale of these animals for profit (meant to prevent their sale for slaughter), and some of these horses are able to be adopted, but that’s not enough. The Bureau is now considering drastic measures, including wide scale euthanasia, to deal with the problem.

What I hadn’t realized, prior to working on this presentation, is that the BLM classifies the horses as a non-native species, and this classification frames its management decisions. Their mission is to protect native species from non-natives that would harm the land. If the horses are non-native, then they are viewed as part of the problem, not a valuable form of wildlife (not to mention an enormously symbolic one in American heritage) to be protected.

But are the horses really non-native? We all know that horses were brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1500s. The mustangs now roaming on BLM-managed public lands are the descendants of those horses, and are therefore technically “feral” — the term for animals from a domesticated species that have gone back to living in the wild — rather than truly “wild.”

However, fossil evidence has shown that horses did once reside in North America; in fact, it was a center of horse evolution. An excellent read on this topic is The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion by Wendy Williams, which chronicles the fossil evidence showing the North American horse’s evolution through millions of years as it adapted to drastic changes in climate and the subsequent rise of the grasslands, and evolved from a four-toed creature to the one-toed creature we ride today.

For reasons not entirely understood, after millions of years of evolution and adaptation, the fossil record indicates that the North American horse became extinct here around 13,000 to 11,000 years ago. Luckily, animals from the genus Equus had already migrated, via land bridges, to other parts of the globe: Asia, Africa, and Europe — making them available to the Europeans, who reintroduced them to North America in the 1500s.

And herein lies the crux of the debate into whether these animals can be considered native or non-native: Is the species that was brought by Europeans to the Americas (Equus caballus; the horse as we know it today) the same species that was present in North America 13,000 – 11,000 years ago and became extinct?

Both fossil evidence and the emerging science of studying mitochondrial DNA seem to answer that yes, it was the same species. This article goes into great detail on the subject, and provides citations for the research being conducted, but the main points are these:

  • The fossil record indicates that Equus caballus is about 2 million years old, that it originated in North America, and that there is no evidence for its origination elsewhere.
  • While the genetic analyses of mitochondrial DNA do not indicate the origination of the Equus caballus species, it does indicate that it underwent genetic divergence around 200,000 to 300,000 years ago — from which we can extrapolate that if it was present that long ago, surely it originated earlier than the 11,000- to 13,000-year time frame given by the fossil record for North American horse extinction.
  • Furthermore, the study of many species’ genomes has led to the reconsideration of much of our taxonomy — showing that animals we believed to be related may not be, and showing that we have perhaps been overzealous in species splitting, creating subspecies based on observational differences that are not reflected on a genetic level. This seems to be the case with horses as well. Genetic analysis indicates that Equus caballus is genetically equivalent to Equus lambei, the horse that according to the fossil record was the most prevalent and recent species in North America prior to extinction.

Does this information make any difference to the 40,000+ horses now sitting in pens awaiting slaughter? Not likely. But this points to a serious gap between scientific research and the management decisions made by the governmental agencies in charge of the protection of our public lands. It is vital that this gap is closed, and that we begin using fact-based evidence to manage our lands and natural resources — not just the bottom line of a corporation, or the rhetoric of a politician, or the hysterical ranting of people on the Internet who think they are “raising awareness” but who are, in fact, fear mongering and spreading ignorance.

As a final thought, I’ll leave you with this quote from the Texas Master Naturalist curriculum textbook, by Gregory Bateson, an English anthropologist:

The major problems in the world today are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way people think.

As a naturalist, I am committed to continuing to form an understanding of how nature works and to educating others. I believe this is important in order for us to work in concert with nature to both further our goals as human beings and protect the land we live on for ourselves and its other inhabitants.

 

 

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New Tools

I am what one might call a “minimalist” rider, in that I like to ride with as little tack and as few extra tools as possible. It annoys me to carry a crop. I do not want to deal with an extra set of reins. I won’t ride with a martingale unless I absolutely have to. And for pretty much my whole life, I’ve managed to avoid spurs.

Much of this preference stems from just liking to keep things simple. Why add stuff on that you don’t need? But there was also an underlying feeling that if I couldn’t get the horse to do what I wanted on my own, using only the aides that come from my  body, then I didn’t deserve to call myself a real rider.

I realize now that this is dumb. It’s the same self-bullying nonsense that I was putting on myself when I came back to riding four years ago in Brooklyn, when I was fighting the anxiety of riding a horse through a traffic circle and into a city park and I thought that dismounting when I felt unsafe was admitting weakness that meant I’d never be strong enough to succeed.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working with Dunnie on some more subtle challenges — getting some more vertical and lateral flexion (making his head carriage more supple and soft), and making distinctions between responding to my leg asking him to move different parts of his body (his shoulder for a spin; his side for a side-pass; and his hip for loping off on the correct lead and getting flying changes). I’ve also been working on slowing him down at the lope so that we can really make a marked change between our big fast and our small slow circles.

One of the biggest challenges in the head carriage and the speed control endeavors has been that it requires me to use a lot more rein than I usually do. In keeping with my minimalist riding sensibilities, I also typically aim for using as little hand as possible. But that’s just not effective here. And unfortunately, when using enough rein to get Dunnie to do what I want him to do (hold his head correctly, or slow down at the lope), the side effect is that he breaks gait, or if we’re walking, just stops entirely. At the lope, that has required a tremendous amount of leg effort to keep him going, and finding the balance where we aren’t stop-and-go has been mostly elusive.

My trainer suggested spurs a while ago. I wasn’t as closed off to the idea as I would have been before, but I didn’t have the right kind.

Spur with rowel.
Spur with rowel.

When I started riding here my first trainer suggested that I get a pair — but the kind I got, while pretty minimal, still had a rowel, which is the spiky, revolving disk at the end that you see in all the cowboy movies. Mine had a dull edge, but nonetheless, the couple of times I’ve tried riding with them, Dunnie got pretty agitated. I didn’t feel comfortable with them.

But this week I finally got myself a different kind — a ball spur, without the rowel.

Ball spur.
Ball spur.

These have a rounded, dull end that is much gentler. It feels more like a thumb pushing into your side and doesn’t have the pinch potential that even the dull-edge rowels have.

Last night I rode with my new spurs for the first time. They take some getting used to. You don’t want to use the spur every time you put your leg on the horse, so I’m having to learn to feel where the spurs end in relation to my bootheel. I’m also really conscious of trying to use them as subtly as I can so Dunnie doesn’t become inured to the sensation.

But using this new tool led to a really great breakthrough. Before, using my reins effectively to get the right head set meant that my natural leg aides (my legs) were not enough of a counterbalance. Now, with a very very slight touch of the spur, I can tell Dunnie that even though I’m pulling on the reins, I don’t want him to stop — I just want him to round his back and push off with his back legs to keep going.

When you’ve been trying and trying and just not getting something right, it can certainly be frustrating. I’ve learned a lot of patience since starting this new discipline, realizing that the horse isn’t going to do something perfectly the first time you ask for it, just like it takes people a lot of practice to master a skill. So I don’t get wound up or upset about it being difficult, or taking longer than I expect it to. But I have to say, that moment when all of sudden you do the tiniest thing differently and it all magically comes together — where you get it, and you also can tell that your horse gets it — in that moment, all the work and all the frustration is completely worth it.