Saturday, August 30, 2008

The foul fiend Flibbertigibbet

One of the things I continue to enjoy about Pat's class is that she pushes us to try things we're not sure we can do. This week, the horse list tossed up a trifecta of ponies, only one of whom I'd ridden before. I don't mind working with Grayson and would have pushed for him, but we had a new student who none of us had seen ride. Since Grayson's not a wild card, Pat put them together.

Leaving me with a choice between Lear, who is very tall for someone with a single neuron, and Lady, who is unpredictable. I waffled; I have seen Lear be extremely squirrelly, spooking at corners and invisible birds, he's still mentally a teenager, and only very calm riders seem to be able to work well with him. But faint heart ne'er won fair chance at concussion, so I told Pat I'd stop if he scared me. "He's mouthy," she advised. "Not malicious, but, you know. Very much a boy." (New student El Bandito looked amused and aggravated: "Is this going to be one of those classes?" We laughed and assured him that it wasn't; although we haven't had guys in the class before, there hasn't been any single-sex griefing. But it's trufax that boy ponies are more likely to be nippy.) I hiked up my courage and went in.

True to his rep, Lear was very mouthy, to the point where I would consider wearing tacked gloves next time, but he didn't ever quite get me. Here, as in so many areas, my time with Grayson proved a boon; at least I know where to look for teeth. Once I climbed into the saddle (way way up: 16.2 hands, at a guess, and maybe a smidge more), the biting problem receded and I was left with just my nerves about being knocked off by an ill-timed spaz attack. Pat cautioned me to keep my leg on to keep his attention. Lear tends to zone out and wiggle if he's not kept constantly focused with leg, and when he's thinking nonwork thoughts he's much more likely to spook at invisible beasts. We managed surprisingly well, once I figured out how much leg was enough: he shied only twice, both times barely more than a hiccup, and by the end of class he was on the bit more often than not. He then started rooting, dropping his head low low low even on the bit, so we worked on correcting that as well. Turns out that the key is core muscles, and again, to everyone who says that riding isn't exercise for the rider, HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Ahem, hee. Anyway, I didn't try the canter, settling for a swinging walk and a pretty suspended trot. Once he settles into his groove, his trot is springy and comfortable; it's slower and higher than Cappi's and a lot less effort than Grayson's. He's also the king-hell champeen of turns on the forehand, giving me hope for the current bugbear, the haunches-in (status: continued fail).

All in all, it went better than I'd expected: Pretty horse, nice gaits, slight foxing, would ride again. One of the senior barn staff has been working with Lear all summer, much to his benefit, and he'd force me to quiet my hands and bring my seat more to bear. Pat clearly has an eye toward having us work together more often, now that I've found out that he's not a complete terror to ride, and while I will not agree to be gnawed on as part of his entertainment, I think we can reach a detente.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Insightful commentary

I am all sleepy this morning on account of Denver being several unnecessary hours behind the East Coast, but last night was history in the making, so I stayed up. Everyone else has said the smart stuff already—emotion, smack, epic levels of win, the right combination of policy specifics and calls to the heart—but I do want to point out that one of the PBS commentators was pretty clearly ready for his own nap: He felt that America needed to notice that this was an especially unusual nomination acceptance, because there were no balloons dropped when Obama's speech concluded. This was, he explained (and follow the logic here, it's good stuff), because the stadium has no roof. His partner, perhaps trying to save him from further embarrassment on national TV, pointed out that there was already a lot going on, what with the fireworks going off, confetti cannons exploding all over, attendees going bazoo, the Obama girls being adorable while their parents waved to the crowd, viewers at home wiping their eyes and cheering, et cetera, which is when my new hero mumbled, "Well, I still don't know where the balloons would fall from."

So there we have it. An historic nomination, because there were NO BALLOONS. I look for this to be a serious talking point in future debates.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Angels on Aerials in leather and chrome

The barn has acquired a new kitten, a little adolescent tortoiseshell charmer with gold eyes and the tentative name of Calamari, to go with the current lads, Ratatouille and Vermi(n)celli. She's on house arrest until her vet appointment later this week, but in the meantime the boys have stepped up their mousing game, bringing her two almost-but-not-quite-dead mice. Chewie and Celli are neutered but still chivalrous, and of course how could they be otherwise in a barn? Calamari is personable enough, and she's very fond of chasing the furry end of a dressage whip, but she's less interested in cuddling with people than the boy cats are, possibly because she's a rescue case. The barn is a sweet gig for any cat, what with the freedom to roam about and the prospect of epic numbers of mice on which to prey, and doubly so for one who was in danger of being abandoned to the mercies of the elements.

Apropos of her story, the New York Times just ran an article on Rescue Ink, a band of tattooed do-gooders who focus on helping dogs and cats in bad situations. I defy anyone to go through the accompanying slide show of big scary-looking biker guys cuddling small pets without being stricken with awwww. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, these guys aren't bad—they're just drawn that way.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Volume 3 of the whine list

Why is it that, two weeks in from a vacation that was physically exhausting but otherwise like a major press of the reset button, I already want another break? That would be a longish boring story, and bless all the people who have already harkened to the bitching and not told me to put a sock in it. Them's friends, y'all. I cope with stress by having fits, and now I will cope with the post-fit letdown by having a vodka tonic. Mm, quinineolicious. Aroint ye, Anopheles, I'm enough for you and your plasmodial baggage.

ANYWAY. Rambling. I got back together with Cappi this week for the first time in almost two weeks. Boy howdy did it show. He is usually so forward that I need to wear gloves if I don't want rein blisters, but this week just getting him moving took some solid oomph, and he continued sluggish for most of the lesson. Between the past few weeks with Smouti and Grayson, I've gotten all used to having a big horse to fill out my leg, and as mentioned many many times, Cappi is more petite (in a manly way, of course), and size makes a difference when you want to squeeze a horse forward. Then, too, we were working on haunches in, which plays hard to my weak spots and which he has no idea of how to do. He'll leg yield a treat, all, "oh we know how this one goes," but once he's bent in he has no idea what to do in response to outside leg pressure except go faster. Wethinks he needs some private lesson work, because as soon as he figures it out it'll only be a trick to stop him doing it—proud to show off is he—but for now I get an aching SI joint out of it and not much else. To be honest, though, this new trick of not sinking into the slough of despond when we don't get something right is in itself an accomplishment. It's been just over a year since I started dressage, chock full o' dubes and self-consciousness; the mental change is a huge tribute to the quality of instruction.

Pat is planning her new home, which will also have a barn nearby. Her husband spotted the designs and pointed out that it seemed excessive to have stabling for five horses when she only owns one. He's doomed.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Geekly knitters created a collaborative Terry Pratchett quilt, patching together squares that vary from the simple to the astonishing, all imbued with obvious affection for the Discworld, and managed to give Terry the quilt in person. Big ooks to all of them.

H/T BoingBoing.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

First installment from the trip

"Nineteen feet of snow," I remind myself. "Nineteen feet of snow." It's a mental mantra. The sun is shining and the fireweed is in bloom around the glass-clear lakes, and I'm surging up a green hill on a strong 16-hand bay. "Nineteen feet of snow." I'm trying very hard to convince myself. It isn't working.

The Gaspé riding trip is billed as five days of hard riding, 107 miles through the rolling hills. I've done enough horseback trips to expect a certain amount of soreness—okay, a LOT of soreness, which is why half my baggage is pills, braces, and heat packs—but so help me I have yet to figure out the magic potion that will keep me from getting almost sick nervous before the riding starts. It's a strange fear but a persistent one, a conviction that I will somehow lose all my ability to ride when I get into the saddle of a new horse. Doing that on a vacation? Priceless.

I'm somewhat reassured when I meet Pierre Guerard, CinC and guide extraordinaire, before dinner the first night. He asks me where I've ridden and what style I prefer, and he grins when I tell him I'd rather not use English tack. Pierre uses mainly Western endurance saddles, which don't have a horn but otherwise could be the doubles of the saddles at my barn. I'm the only person to arrive on time; the rest of the group, a team of five riders from Texas, suffer the agonies of Newark airport and don't roll into Les Boules until 3 AM.

The first morning of the ride, after a spartan breakfast of strong coffee, toasted fresh bread, and strawberry crepes swimming in cream and maple syrup, we sit down with Pierre to review the rules. "Post or two-point for all trots," he tells us. "And switch diagonals every 15 steps. If you don't, the horses will get sore on one side, and I will see them limping." I swallow, picturing long miles of up-down-up-down-up-down, up-up, down-up-down-up. The horses may not get sore, but we will. "Canter, you should be always in two-point. When we water the horses, I want them all four hooves in the water. Always, when we are watering or grazing, they should be at least one horse-length apart. No making friends, no fighting—they are working. You will tell them, or you will ride with the luggage in the van. No racing, no switching places in the line; I don't want a bolt when we canter." My nerves are receding; this is a guy who knows horses and, more to the point, riders.

When we meet our horses, Pierre gives each of us a short biography of our assigned mount, complete with a list of any foibles. I get Smouti, a 10-year-old QH/Standardbred bay with a small white star, who is tall enough to fit me physically and calm enough to finish off the last of my jitters. Most of the other five riders get handsome chesty Canadian-bred horses, but Pierre's daughter, who will ride drag, turns out on a prancing white Arabian. We cram water bottles and rain kit into the saddle bags, along with the first-aid gear and shoeing equipment, and head out down the road, jingling quietly.

The first morning, under a gray sky, we trail down the roads looking at the incredibly green wheat fields, dark firs, and spikes of pink fireweed under the slow pinwheels of the wind turbines half a mile away. "Okay, we're gonna do a little trot," calls Pierre from the head of the line, raising his fist. "Pooh poooooh!" We'll come to know that high-pitched hoot well, and the horses move smoothly into a clipping trot. We post (with at least one of us counting diligently to 15 over and over inside her head) down the long road.

After a few hours of riding first on grey-graveled roads and then on trails that wind through maple forest and across the edges of wheat fields almost iridescently green, we stop for lunch at a maple cabin, where the bar and old posters show that the unpreposessing low-roofed house is home to epic parties in the syruping season. Mattieu, the innkeeper from the night before, delivers sandwiches, pasta salad, and juice, and we get a chance to sample and buy the house syrup and sugar, for delivery at the end of the week. None of us have the maple palate of Canadians, but we can tell that it's pretty tasty, and most of us spend a few bucks on take-home treats.

In the afternoon, we try a canter up the road, stopping only briefly to pull on rain jackets as a fast-moving storm breaks over us. I'm not used to riding in two-point, with my weight up off the saddle, but once I follow Pierre's suggestion and bridge my reins, my center of balance reappears, and I find an easy crouch over Smouti's neck. He's calm, but he's fast and responsive, and we switch effortlessly into a hand gallop to pound up the gleaming hills. When we try the first "roller coaster," a twisting path with slight hills and quick switchbacks, I have to bite back a whoop of glee.

Soggy and tired, we arrive at Lac Malcolm, a small resort area where the horses stay overnight in a barn and the rest of us tuck in at the lakeside auberge. There are options for kayaking and swimming, but with the storm clouds still overhead, we opt instead for hot showers, drinks on the patio (the staff don't speak much English, and my French is limited at best, but we manage to meet in a franglais patois), and an early dinner and bed. Anyone who thinks that riding isn't exercise has never been to Gaspé.

The next day, I learn why it's not wise to have two cups of coffee before long posting trots. Let's draw a curtain across the rest of that bit of empirical data. We follow the road for a few hours, watching out for the pestiferous ATVs that share the track with varying levels of courtesy. Pierre reminds us all that we shouldn't allow the horses to step around the puddles in the road, lest they run us into branches; he then tricksily has us do a long trot that allows him to see whether we follow his directions. Smouti doesn't mind having wet feet—he steps willingly into the rocky streams where we water—but he loathes mud, and it takes me a while to learn to steady him through the squashy footing. When the ground permits, we do long smooth canters: up and forward, reins bridged, and away to the races. Pierre tells me, when I ask, that he doesn't mind if the horses accelerate into a hand gallop: "To me, three beats or four, it's the same thing, as long as it's not a runaway." Okay then. Smouti approves.

The ride today is shorter, with a break for a cold lunch at a cabin near a blueberry farm, and we end the afternoon at Pierre's house, the Ranch des Collines Chic Chocs, where we will spend two nights. We meet the local critters, including several cats, a flock of chickens, the kids' spaniel, and the rest of the herd, and we spend the long sunny afternoon out on the lawn, reading, petting cats, and taking inventory of our aching bits. I hurt from neck to toes and privily resolve to go the gym for core and quad work when I get home; all that two-point is taking a huge toll on my lower abs.

To be continued!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I have to post the link to the Vancouver Sun piece about how dressage is putting Olympic spectators to sleep, because it makes exactly the same comparison some of Sunflake's friends and I made this weekend (in a Chelsea cafe, over carafes of wine and a plate of cheese, if you want to get particular): that the dressage portion of three-day eventing is the moral equivalent of compulsory figures in ice skating. Remember when figures were part of the scoring? You'd see some fantastic short routine from Midori Ito, and then the commentators would croon that it was just too bad, she'd done such a good job on her axels but since she'd switched edges in a figure 8 the day before, she couldn't do better than fifth, and people would howl with disgust. Likewise dressage, an engrossing sport to practice but, for most non-horse people and even a generous share of the equine-inclined, a deathly boring one to watch. It lacks the sex appeal of cross-country or stadium jumping, although of the three days you're least likely to do yourself an injury on the first.

The NYC weekend o' skiving, somewhat shortened by traffic around the beach, Delaware, and the Virgin Festival, was good fun. The weather permitted my favorite sport, the 12-hour aimless saunter, so we wandered about chatting and visiting cafes, markets, monuments, shops, stalls, and resto-bars. Pinkberry seems to have paved the way for yogurt-flavored gelato to make it big in the city, and our stop at Cones, an Argentine-style gelateria in the Village, balanced out my disappointment that Rocco's was closed for the week. Mixed-berry and yogurt gelatos (gelati?) mushed together for the late-night-snack win.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

What is this "skiving" of which you earthlings speak?

I promise that I'm working on the Canadian trip write-up and posting the other kersquillion photos thereof, but I have been hobbled by work and other lifestuff this week. Like a good lil slacker, I am now bailing to meet the elusive Sunflake for dinner up north while the weather is good. It's not clear exactly when all the hotels in New York decided that "oh you must be insane" was an appropriate price point year-round, but let's go the easy route and blame it on Giuliani. Stupid mayor, making it unholy expensive for me to jaunt up for a pignioli fix from Rocco's or some of the nectar-of-the-gods soup dumplings at Joe's Shanghai. I mean, at those prices I should stay home and eat healthy. But won't.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Me being a tease

No photos yet, on account of my luggage is heavy enough without that one tiny extra cord. One USB cord the less means one pound of sucre d'érable the more, right? [ETA: lots of links to Flickr photos, of which more to come.]

I've been keeping copious journal entries on the trip and trying to find a way into describing it to make clear how beautiful it was. Result: absolute writer's block. The basics are that my horse, a tall bay gelding, was a pure pleasure to ride; that my muscles and tendons took a serious beating but seem to have made it through without permanent injury; and that Gaspésie in summer is more beautiful than anywhere I have ever been. At one point we came flying up a ridge in a light rain, passing the slowly spinning windmills of the aeolian power project, and saw the gray sea opening out behind fields of wheat and flowering alfalfa. I had to wipe my eyes; that line from Tolkien about the shining curtain of rain rolling back to show a swift sunrise over a far green country was the only thing that seemed close.

The fact that all the food seemed to involve heavy cream, fresh produce, and/or maple syrup was just, as it were, icing on this particular cake.