Priorities.

When I was young (and even not-so-young), showing was everything to me. I didn’t understand why anyone would put in all the hard work we do with our horses, all the blood, sweat and tears, as they say, not to show it all off in front of a judge. How would you know how you were doing if you didn’t get a score? How would you know where you stood?

So when Stella came along, getting her ready to show became my top priority. She was green broke and very lightly started at that point, and I needed to get her going. I needed to get her to my coach’s barn and get training, I needed to get her ready to show. I was driven. I was motivated. I was also setting my sweet new pony up to fail, because it was about that time when her first bout of gastric ulcers reared its ugly head (in fact, you can read all about that here).

Fast forward three years. Stella lives in my back yard with her “sister”, Sunny. Their life is idyllic. They spend their days lounging about in their little shedrow stable, choosing whether to be indoors or out, grazing in their perfectly-managed and meticulously cared-for paddocks, or filling their bellies with the best quality free-choice hay around. They’re fussed over. They’re coddled. Their life is everything I’ve ever hoped it would be. They’re happy.

evening paddocks july 2017

It’s summer, so all of my horsey friends are out at the shows, getting lovely scores and even lovelier ribbons, telling stories of challenges accepted, goals reached, and horse-show friendships forged. I love reading their updates and seeing their pictures and I applaud them for getting out there and doing it.

For me? I’m just not that into you anymore, horse shows. Little by little, day by day, my priorities seem to have changed. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still very excited to see how far my sweet little Stella can go in her training. I just seem to be happier to explore that in my own back yard. How she performs in front of a judge seems to have taken a back seat to other things. Things like, “how does her mind feel today? Is she settled and happy and ready to work?”, or “how brave am I this ride? Brave enough to go out into the back field all by ourselves?”, or “how are Stella’s manners this week? Should I do a little ground work?”. Some days I don’t even end up riding at all. Some days we work on things like self-parking at the mounting block, or turn on the haunches in hand. Some days I brush out her tail, or pull her mane. Some days I sit on an upturned bucket in the middle of the paddock and watch them graze.

stella trot

I think that riders need to do what makes them happy. I think they need to do what makes their horses happy. For some people, that’s showing. For some people, that’s clinics. For some people, like me, right now, that’s working quietly away at your goals, challenging yourself every ride, and looking around every day at the beautiful little life you’ve made for your horses. And that’s okay.

Green as grass.

From the moment we bought our little farm, we’ve been puzzling over one of the toughest challenges horsekeepers face – how to ensure that our charges would have delicious, nutritious grass to eat all throughout the summer and fall. There are a few reasons, of course, for working so hard to make this happen. One is Sunny’s weight (or lack thereof). Since I’ve owned her, she’s tended toward the skinnie-minnie side, and I knew that the longer she could have good grass, the better chance we’d have of starting off next winter with her in good condition. The other driving force behind our ambitious pasture-management plan was that we did not want to feed (and therefore pay for) hay all summer if we didn’t have to.

We started out with about six acres of hay fields on the property, pre-barn-building. We wanted to try to get some of our own hay off the fields this year, so we’ve left the three-acre back field and the one-acre side field alone. Our next door neighbour/farmer-extraordinaire fertilized those fields for us in the spring, and he’ll hay them this month.

The two and a half acre front field has become a little horsey haven for Sunny and Stella. It houses their shedrow barn with in/out stalls, the winter (sacrifice) paddock with mud-proof pad, the riding ring, and the septic field. The rest of it we divided into five grass paddocks, with permanent fencing all around the outside, a corridor down the middle, and step-in temporary fencing for divisions. In the fall, once the grass has stopped growing, we’ll take out the step-ins to make one large pasture for them to play in until the snow flies. Thanks to the corridor, and strategically placed gates, the horses can get from any paddock back to their shelter whenever they like.

19225079_1931806217102031_1296944434591295170_n

 

We started turning Sunny and Stella out on grass mid-May. We began with just fifteen minutes, and added an additional fifteen minutes a day to ensure we gave their digestive systems plenty of time to accustom themselves to their new food source. Then, at the end of May, the big day arrived. The horses began full time turnout on grass.

Since then, they’ve been spending anywhere from four to ten days on each paddock (depending on the size of the paddock as well as their grazing habits and how much rain we’re having). As soon as we notice that they’re eating the grass down below three inches, or when the paddock starts to look “weedy”, we close it off and move them to the next. Then we mow the recently-vacated paddock down to an even level. This keeps the weeds under control and allows the grass to grow in a little thicker and more lush for next time. Each paddock ends up getting about 4 weeks of growing time between uses, so unless we have an unusually dry summer, we should have lovely grass right through to the fall.

What surprised us the most was how the horses (under) utilized the paddocks. They are very fussy about what they’ll eat and what they won’t, which is why allowing them to graze on the whole field at once wouldn’t have worked for us. Left to their own devices, they will eat the good grass right down to the roots, and studiously avoid the grass they don’t like. Our entire field would have ended up an ugly mix of overgrazed wasteland and patches of tall weeds. Containing them in smaller areas, and moving them frequently, is what allows the grass time to grow back up, since once it’s grazed down to the ground, it won’t grow again this season.

We have just completed our first full rotation of all paddocks. Yesterday, the horses went back into Paddock 1, which has grown right back up to where it was their first time out on it. Paddock 2 looks even better (we actually didn’t mow paddock 1 after its first round, and the difference between it and paddock 2, which did get mown after use, is quite remarkable). Paddock 3 is growing up nice and lush, with very few weeds, and paddock 4 is coming along nicely as well. And the added bonus? We haven’t had to feed a stitch of hay since the end of May, and skinnie-minnie-Sunny has been gaining weight, to the point that we’ve been able to eliminate almost all of her grain. Looks like our plan is working!

best-friends

 

Sunny & Stella Get a Round Bale Feeder

Since Sunny and Stella moved to our backyard, we’ve noticed them wasting a vast amount of hay. They love to stick their noses way into the middle of the round bale, pull the hay out, and then let it drop to the ground. Then they poop on it.

15727295_10158147832200438_6112375981669181660_n

After researching dozens of different types of hay feeders, including everything from slow-feed nets to Bale Buddys, my handy husband decided he would just go ahead and build one himself. I, for one, am glad he did.

Here’s how he did it:

Four six-foot long pressure treated 4X4s are beveled on each end to create skids.

1-img_4482

At each end, and two feet on center along one skid, notches are cut to half the thickness of the 4X4 and the width of a 4X4 to receive the vertical posts.

2-img_4483

The bottom of the vertical posts, which are not pressure treated, are notched to fit into the pressure treated 4X4 skid.

3-img_4484

The 32″ long vertical posts are set into the skid that forms the back wall of the feeder.

4-img_0198

Holes are drilled and 4″ galvanized carriage bolts are inserted through the skid and the post.

5-img_0200

The nut and washer are on the inside of the feeder beneath the floor so there is no chance a horse could scratch its nose on it!

6-img_0201

The remaining three skids are notched only on the ends, to receive the vertical posts.

7-img_0202

 

1X8 rough pine boards are nailed to the posts of the back wall with 3 1/2 inch galvanized nails. We wanted the space between the boards a little narrower than you typically see on hay feeders, so there would be no chance of my accident-prone horse somehow getting a hoof through.

9-img_0204

The floor is assembled with two full-length 1X8 boards on the sides, and eight 25″ boards on the back and the front portions of the floor. This leaves an almost two-foot wide gap in the middle of the floor for the round bale to settle into, so it centers itself in the feeder.

10-img_0205

Up to this point, all construction was done indoors, with boards cut to measure, but not yet assembled, except for the back wall. At this point, we moved the entire project out to Sunny & Stella’s paddock. Stella was extremely interested in the construction project, to the point that we had to pause until the hay became of even more interest. Now work could resume.

11-img_0206

Once all the pieces were assembled, the gate (which was pre-built in our basement) was attached using 8″ galvanized tee hinges. A 6″ barrel bolt secures the gate.

gate

 

After watching Sunny almost poke her eye out on the corner of the post (did I mention she’s accident-prone?), we decided to bevel the posts for safety.

14-img_8119

This would have been easier to do with a compound mitre saw in the basement before the boards were added to the posts, rather than a hand-held reciprocating saw out in the middle of the paddock, but we think they turned out just fine.

16-img_8124

The finished product, with a (partially eaten) round bale rolled in place.

17-img_8123

Sunny and Stella approve.

18-img_8115

 

Twenty-Five Days

Anyone who knows me, or has been following my blog, knows that I’ve been working for years toward having my horses at home with me. This has not been an easy task, and involved having to completely renovate and sell our city house (still not accomplished, but almost there), buy a suitable little farm close enough to the city that I could still commute to my job (not at all a simple proposition, as farm land in the area where we wanted to live rarely comes up for sale), and then build the perfect little barn for my two horses (who have never actually lived in the same place).

Well, somehow, we managed to make almost everything happen (like I said, city house is still not on the market, but that’s our next goal)! On Saturday, December tenth, Sunny and Stella came home. The process of preparing the site, building the barn and fencing off the winter paddock was long, arduous, roller-coaster ride of a process. My husband, my father-in-law, and my step-father built it from the ground up with their own hands, and were hampered the entire time by relentless rain, high winds, and a water problem that just wouldn’t go away. There were days when I felt it would never be finished, and days when I started to question whether we’d made the right choices. But on that day, twenty-five days after the first post went in the ground, when my horses got to enjoy their new home together for the first time, I knew that it had all been worth it.

Day 1:

day-1

 

 

Day 25:

day-25

 

The struggle isn’t over. In fact it has just begun, of course. Currently there is no water or electricity in the barn, and the tack room hasn’t been built yet, so everything needs to be shuttled by hand (including feed and water) from the house. Sunny is a hard-to-keep senior with what I can only describe as early stage dementia some days, and Stella is a saucy pony who gets fat on air but still feels she’s entitled to every scrap of food in existence, so even their day-to-day feeding arrangements are a challenge. We’re at the beginning of the worst time of year in Nova Scotia (temperatures can go from twenty below to ten above in a matter of hours, leading to a freeze-thaw cycle that just won’t quit), and currently Sunny has an absolute hissy-fit if I even think about taking Stella 30 feet outside the paddock to the riding ring.

And despite all of these things, I cannot even begin to express how absolutely blessed I feel to have this farm, and these horses in my back yard. Even the worst day, with them at home, is better than the best day with them somewhere else.

at-the-bale

 

I have so many plans and hopes for the upcoming year, but my only real resolution is to remember, no matter what, that my dream has come true, and that everything else is just the sugar on top.

Happy 2017 to all of my followers. May you keep dreaming big, and may all of those dreams come true.

sunrise

 

 

The Sensible Rider’s Guide to No Stirrups November

According to equestrian lore,  “No Stirrups November” refers to that wonderful time of year when we take our leathers off our saddles and go stirrup free… for a whole month… of torture.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love no-stirrups work. Actually, let me rephrase that. I love the results of no-stirrups work. I find that when I work without stirrups regularly, my leg feels longer, more relaxed, my seat more independent, and my whole body taller and stronger. This is, indeed, the desired effect, along with a sense of feeling more secure in the saddle and more a part of your horse. Oh, and it’s a wicked core workout.

So when No Stirrups November rolls around, I don’t cringe. I look at it as the inevitable culmination of a season spent working on my seat and position, and working on my horse’s softness, roundness, and the building up of her own core. Having said that, I don’t go sans stirrups for the whole of every ride. For a few reasons. The main one being that I don’t think it’s fair to warm a horse up in stirrup-less sitting trot (and doing too much posting trot without stirrups can encourage you to grip with your knee).

So for me, the goal is usually 20 minutes of no-stirrups per ride. I warm up in my usual way, then drop & cross my stirrups, and work in all three gaits. Walk work without stirrups is very beneficial, allowing you to really focus on feeling the horse’s back underneath you, and cantering stirrupless can give you a deeper feel than you’ll ever get with stirrups. For the last 20 minutes of my ride I take my stirrups back, and try to get the same feel with them as I had without them. It’s not easy, and usually involves me letting them down a hole.

Not all riders are ready for trot or canter work without stirrups (and not all horses are ready either), so, as with all good fitness programs, I would suggest modifying. If you aren’t yet able to sit the trot without without relying on the reins for balance, then you’re probably not going to get a benefit from doing twenty minutes of trot without stirrups. Does that mean you can’t partake in No Stirrups November festivities? Of course not! Walking (heck, even work at the halt) with your leg hanging down long is a great way to get that no-stirrups feeling without fear of bouncing on around on your poor horse’s back, hanging onto his mouth to keep your balance.

Another way to pay your no-stirrups dues is work on the lunge line, assuming yours is a safe lunge horse (if not, ask your coach if you can get in some saddle time on a reliable school horse). Always make sure, of course, that the person lungeing you is well qualified. A fun instructor will even find ways to make lunge lessons without stirrups seem like a good time, and will know what exercises will be beneficial for you.

Are you a complete beginner? Have your instructor lead you around while you practice dropping your stirrups then getting them back without looking down. Play fun games at halt like touching your horses ears and tail, or doing around the world.

No stirrups work should not be reserved only for one month of the year either. Ask your instructor if you can do a little bit every lesson. If you ride mainly on your own, make yourself do it. Set up a video camera or your smart phone ring-side and video your progression. That way, when November rolls around, you’re all set to up the ante and challenge yourself even more.

My point here is this: first of all, yes, maybe the end goal for No Stirrups November is to be able to spend a month without stirrups at all. But that’s just not reasonable for most of us. And to miss out on something beneficial just because you’re not an expert at it seems… well… wrong to me. So we make modifications. We set realistic goals. We do what’s best for our horses and our long-term riding aspirations while challenging ourselves just enough to get better.

no-stirrups

She’s a pro.

For a long time after Stella’s horrible ordeal with gastric ulcers, I firmly believed that she was going to be a “stay-at-home” pony. I didn’t think she would be able to deal with the stress of trailering, going to new places, and leaving her safe little haven at Slatehill.

Little by little, though, Stella started proving me wrong. And every time she checked another accomplishment off her list (loading calmly, visiting another barn for a lesson, trailering with another horse), I found myself thinking “well, that was good, but what’s going to happen when we do something really difficult?”

Now, don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I wasn’t proud of each milestone. It’s just that I never truly believed she was “cured”. I never really gave her full credit for her accomplishments. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Today we went on yet another new adventure. A trailer ride with her young pasture-mate, Kami, to a facility she’s never visited before. She loaded well, stood quietly on the trailer, and when we made a coffee stop part-way there and I opened the door to check on her, I was pretty happy with her level of “chill”. This pony was really figuring this whole road trip thing out!


We got to Five Fires, a wonderful local facility where you can trailer-in and make use of their fantastic indoor, and Stella calmly backed off the trailer and stood patiently while we sorted out Kami and kids and stabling arrangements. I remember wondering, in that moment, when the time would come that I was going to stop being surprised by Stella’s good behaviour.

Then in to the barn she went like a trouper. I put her in a stall (she really hasn’t been in a stall since moving to Slatehill), and she started eating her hay, taking time out to look out the window and down the aisle way now and then. I groomed, tacked up, and got ready to ride without so much as a whinny.


Off we went into the arena. Where she has never been before. Where she didn’t spook, didn’t fuss, didn’t even give things a second look. We started off with a little ground work (we’ve just started an online workshop with Tristan Tucker, so this gave us a chance to do a little homework), and then we lunged for a couple minutes (totally unnecessarily, since she was completely quiet and focused already). I led her over to the mounting block (where she stood like a dream) and hopped on. We spent the next half hour doing walk, trot and canter work all around that lovely arena (and Stella got her first taste of a really nice forward canter – I think she really liked having all that space)!

After our ride, we decided to let the two mares have a little play time in the arena. We were expecting a lot of farting around, but, as seemed to be the theme of the day, the girls were quiet and the endeavour was entirely uneventful (although the letter H seemed to raise an eyebrow for some reason)…


Then it was time to leave. Stella walked right on the trailer without so much as a moment’s hesitatation, and then we were off, headed back home to her pasture and friends. She trailered beautifully, and arrived at home dry and relaxed. Out she went into the field where she had a nice roll and started to graze.

(Yet another) day of firsts for Stella. First time trailering-in somewhere where she couldn’t step off the trailer and immediately start grazing. First time going into a strange stall in a strange barn. First time in that arena. First time being the “babysitter” for a younger horse. And that sweet, amazing pony hadn’t put a foot wrong all day. I guess now it’s time. Time for me to stop being surprised when she’s able to handle situations quietly. Time for me to stop waiting for that darn other shoe to drop.  This pony’s a pro.

This one’s mine.

This is my arena. No, it’s not a big fancy sand ring. And yes, it’s a smidge short of 40 meters long (but a perfect 20 meters wide). It doesn’t have a fence (yet), and it’s not exactly perfectly flat (but it’s really, really close).


It reminds me a lot of the riding ring I had when I was growing up. It was about the same size, a rectangle of grass in the middle of a field, and every week, my dad would haul the lawn mower up there and mow it for me. It wasn’t a big, fancy ring either, but it saw more than its fair share of clinics and pony club weekends and jump schools and dressage lessons. And if memory serves me correctly, I had an awful lot of ribbons hanging in my tack room that were a direct result of training that happened in that less-than-perfect ring.


I love my little grass ring. My husband helped me mow it today, and the whole time we were mowing and raking (and waving at the local farmers driving by scratching their heads good-naturedly at the crazy city kids out mowing a rectangle in the middle of a hay field), all I could think about was how I just can’t wait for my first ride in this ring.

I’ve ridden in a lot of nice arenas in my time. Arenas with amazing footing or gleaming white fences or lights so you can ride at night. But there’s one thing about this one that none of those arenas had. This one’s mine.