A better day for everyone except The Spotted Ass

The house I own now I really do like. It’s a cute little cottage on a quiet street near shopping and transit. I have a quarter-acre lot, but it feels bigger because the neighbors behind me jointly own about three undeveloped acres between their back fences and mine. I have room for chickens (10), ducks (2), gardens (large), dogs (3, plus an auxiliary dog belonging to the housemate) and cat (1).

What I don’t have room for are horses, and that’s how I came to buy a fixer with no functional septic system or appliances. Rancho Buena Fe´ will one day be wonderful, but the reason I bought it was not because of the house but because of the residential agricultural zoning, the barn and the 1.17 acres.

No surprise, then, that the one thing that’s keeping me somewhat sane these days is … my horses.

They’re both in training with Alana Courville at the Sunfire Eventing Center while I get the place ready for them. Patrick, the spotted saddle horse, hurt his back a few months ago and is now being retrained as a hunter-jumper. Haggin, the thoroughbred, was the foster horse who stole my heart. His racing career was ended by a injury severe enough to threaten his life. A year later, he’ll never be fully normal and never will jump, but he’s sound enough for light riding, so he’s getting some lessons on how not to be a racehorse.

While all that is going on for them, I’m also taking lessons from Alana to improve my riding.

Alana, as I’ve mentioned before, has helped me so much. She’s a smart, talented and kind-hearted woman who knows horses and riders through and through, and has a gift about getting the best from them all.

This morning, she met me with a smile and wince. “I am so sore,” she said. “Your horse threw a major fit yesterday.”

The horse in question was The Spotted Ass. It’s not easy to switch careers in mid-life, and he had been building up his resentment of my decision for weeks. Yesterday, he had had enough. He refused to do everything Alana asked of him,  which meant she kept asking.

“He’s not athletic enough to try to buck me off,” she said, “but he did everything short of falling on the ground.”

She kept patiently asking, and asking again. And again. And again. No whip. No spurs. Just leg, hands … and time. Finally, he relented and walked where she asked him to. Victorious, she texted a message from the arena to one of her assistants. “Come get Patrick before one of us kills the other,” she typed.

Having come over the crest of Unhappiness Mountain, Patrick will probably be more amenable to his new future now. But the look he gave Alana from his pasture this morning … not pretty. Not that she cares. She’s a trainer. He’s a horse. He’s not going to win, and he seems smart enough that once he realizes it he’ll be fine.

It was cold and windy this morning, and I didn’t really feel like riding Mighty, the very patient lesson horse who’s the kind of animal every trainer dreams of having: He’s patient and plodding with beginners, but a cross-country monster of a jumper with her advanced students. He’d rather sleep than work any day, though, and since I wasn’t in the mood either, Alana suggested letting me watch her train my other horse, Haggin.

Haggin has been in her barn for a couple of weeks, and he has settled in just fine. She was planning to start training him on the first, but Dr. Bravos floated his teeth and so Alana waited a couple days. This morning was the first time he’d had tack on him since late September, and he was clearly and surprisingly delighted at the prospect of working again.

He also looked great. One of the many veterinary students and veterinarians at the barn (the Sunfire Eventing Center is near Davis, home of the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine) designs and sells fancy bridles, and she made one for both my horses. Haggin’s is black leather, with red-beaded bling on the browband. With a red saddle cloth and Alana’s black saddle, he looked every bit the grandson of the top racing sire in recent history.

We walked over to the arena and Alana lunged him to take the edge off his excitement. And then, she got on and asked him to walk. He worked with her happily and willingly, easing from the walk to the trot and back, relaxing his neck and chewing happily at his bit.

Alana’s own trainer, a veterinarian, chiropractor and dressage master, walked into the arena then, having come down from Oregon to give a seminar. She said Haggin was beautiful, and obviously a sweetheart. And then while noting the choppymotion on his front legs, she said something surprising, at least to me.

“He might be just fine with shoes,” she said. Honestly, thinking back to the crippled mess he was just a year ago, just watching his happy, pain-free work and hearing her assessment … it makes up for a lot of the hard stuff I’ve dealt with lately.

I love this horse.

Since I thought I was was riding, I didn’t bring my camera for Haggin’s return to the world of working horses. I got a bad picture, above, and a short, bad video of him lunging, below. Seeing him move so happily … I just can’t thank enough all the people who saved him. He’s just plain special.

  1. I have no knowledge of horses but having my westie just hurt his back jumping off the bed – I’m curious – if Patrick hurt his back, why would hunting jumping be a good idea? Wouldn’t that put more stress on it?


    1. Though I haven’t spoken to Gina about it, Patrick’s back injury is probably not the permanent sort. Because we ask horses to do so much with their backs — holding up riders and themselves — there are a lot of ways they can do that wrong. More likely than a serious injury, Patrick just sprained his back muscles a bit, and after rest and recuperation he should be just fine for jumping. Alana and Dr. Bravos would have advised Gina against the career change otherwise. Jumping can also help a horse develop correct use of his back, as it gets him out of the mindset of doing the same flat work constantly. Horses, like humans, develop a lot of ways to compensate for anything a little ouchie or off, but horses aren’t clever enough to figure out on their own that they could be causing major muscle problems down the road. That’s where we have to help them, so instead of letting a horse just “heal up” on their own, we like to ride them or lunge them to encourage them to use their muscles properly and make the healing process go in the right direction, and ultimately strengthen them in the process.

      I’m a student of Alana’s at Sunfire and occasionally help her put miles on horses in training. I’m by no means a horse expert, but I do have a bit of the knowledge that comes with trying to eatsleepbreathelive in the barn. :)

      Gina — I hope this wasn’t too forward. Delete at will if so.


      1. Not forward at all!

        I short-cut the story (getting long and getting late) and left it so it seemed that his back injury was the reason for his career change. That’s not the case. He had a minor muscle tear and was given a couple months of pasture rest. He’s fine now.

        His career change is about me. I like him, and I like a lot about him. Because of my age and the decades between the time I’d last ridden much and now, I had decided quite logically when I was looking to buy a horse that I needed to switch to trail riding on a horse with a smooth running walk. But then after I’d been taking lessons awhile, I found that I COULD canter and jump physically and mentally, and more importantly, that I WANTED to.

        But I had a problem: I owned two horses, neither hunter-jumpers. Can barely afford two horses, and surely can’t afford three. Haggin would have been fine at it, but his poor racetrack ankles denied him a full career change. He’s probably as rehabbed as he’s going to be, and that means light flat riding at best — no jumping ever. I love him, and I was prepared to keep him as pasture pet if I’d needed to. He was staying.

        Patrick? Gaited trail horse with a nice running walk. I could have sold him to someone who was looking for that, but in this economy I was really scared for him. People are having a hard time holding onto their horses, and had I sold him I would have worried forever about where he’d end up.

        So I made a decision I’m still not at all sure was the right one: I am having him trained to be a hunter-jumper.

        I discussed this with Alana, and she thought it was worth a go. Were I more practical about this, I would have indeed sold him and bought a horse working in my discipline and at my level of abilities. But … while I don’t yet LOVE Patrick the way I love Haggin — Patrick can be aloof and curmudgeonly, and really, he’d rather be around horses than people — there’s enough potential there all around to stick with him. I owe him this.

        Honestly, I wish I could sit down and explain everything to him. I know the change is stressful now, and I’m sorry for him. But I am honestly trying to do what’s best for him. He disagrees, at least right now.


      2. So great to hear that Haggin is happy to be back under saddle! He’s so lucky that you adopted him. … Patrick will have a better outing next time, I bet.


      3. I shall enjoy horse ownership vicariously through you. Much cheaper that way. Wouldn’t mind meeting them sometime, though.



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