Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Riding Cross-Country in Ireland: "Not for the faint of heart!"

The unique beauty of Ireland.
(click on the pictures for a larger view of these images)

Heather Craig and her horse, Rosie,
competing in Tryon, NC.
I was really thrilled to get to talk today to Heather Craig (a fellow Knoxville eventer) who had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Ireland last month with a group of other riders from here at Penrose Farm. The trip was organized by Christen Khym, who is the equestrian team director at Maryville College, and the travelers included a collection of experienced riders, recreational riders, hunter-jumpers, eventers, and even Heather's mom (who has only ridden 2 or 3 times in the past 15 years).The group traveled to County Limerick to Clonshire Equestrian Centre where they spent one week riding everyday in the beautiful Irish countryside. 

Welcome to Ireland!

A group of girls from Tennessee
riding in Ireland!
As I chatted with Heather and picked her brain about every little detail of her trip, I was really interested to find out -- first of all -- what a typical riding session was like and how intense or directed the lessons were. I have never participated in a riding holiday, so I was curious as to whether it was like a casual group lesson, a freestyle "ride when you want," or if it leaned more towards an eventing or fox hunting clinic atmosphere. Heather assured me that, because of the range of experience and comfort-level of the various riders, it was very flexible and designed to provide interest and excitement for those who sought it, but just an enjoyable or pleasurable time for those who were strictly along for the ride.

Heather and her trusty mount, Nero, who
she rode all week. She really wanted
to bring him home!
I had imagined that riding cross-country in Ireland would be something akin to fox hunting and Heather agreed that it was much more "natural" and technical than what we typically find on a lower-level manufactured or built cross-country course in the U.S. The property where the Clonshire facility is located is owned by a local Limerick hunt and the territory is definitely a part of "hunt country." Heather said that a "hack" in Ireland isn't a trail ride or a "walk on the buckle through the back field for about 30 minutes," like we might do here at home. In Ireland, it is an exhilarating ride across the countryside and to "walk" is a luxury that comes about only to let you catch your breath. 

Narrow aisles in the old
barn at Clonshire.
On the days when they rode in a more formal lesson, Heather said that they would be split up according to skill while warming up in the arena, then they would all gather and ride out together in the fields. When it came to jumping, they were given the opportunity to jump what they wanted, when they wanted, or to just walk around what they didn't want to do. I had in mind a cross-country school and she said that it wasn't that structured and there was no real analysis or discussion of style, ability, or plan ; they simply cantered along and jumped whatever came up that they wanted to jump, or passed alongside anything they wanted to go around. She did admit that while most fences were pretty reasonable and straightforward, there were several times when she was jumping and didn't exactly know what was on the other side!

Heather's mother hacking out.
Hearing that things were less micro-managed and not as focused as a clinic or schooling here in the U.S., I asked Heather what she found she learned or gained by riding a horse that was not hers, and what knowledge was she able to bring home with her to carry over into her riding here. She said that her Irish horse was so experienced and enthusiastic that his intelligence, sure-footedness, and ridability was something that she could feel and internalize and that she had the chance to understand what it was like to ride a horse that was pulling her to the fences, was responsive on the front-end to her contact, and would take her over anything she pointed him at. Heather mentioned several times that she had forged an amazing relationship with Nero and that it gave her a "great feeling" to ride him and she now knows what she wants to look for in her next eventer. 

Hound puppies from the
local hunt.
Speaking of what to look for in an eventer, I asked Heather what the horses were like there at Clonshire and she said they were really fit, healthy, and just "looked really good." Most of the horses there are young and have been placed in the riding barns as either former eventing or hunting prospects that didn't work out for one reason or another. 

Heather and Nero leaping a stone wall.
Her particular horse, Nero, was about 8-years-old and he had been in the eventing training program there at Clonshire, but he'd acquired Strangles as a youngster and was better suited for recreational cross-country riding and not serious competitive eventing. I got the sense from Heather, as she talked fondly of Nero, that -- though she would love to have the chance to bring him home with her -- she felt that his life there in Ireland at Clonshire was a good one for a horse and, although he didn't belong to just one owner and wasn't doted on and pampered, he was happy, healthy, and got to do everyday what he loves best: gallop cross-country.

Heather and Nero tackle a
ditch combination.
As I heard more and more about what daily life was like there at Clonshire during the week of Heather's trip, she mentioned that the center didn't just cater to private boarders, training prospects, or vacation groups. Apparently, there are riders there known as "weekly riders" who come to Clonshire once a week for a social outing. Now, this isn't social riding like we may know over here where a group of riders get together and just ride for fun. These are more of your typical "civilians" from the local area who come and ride a horse once a week, but they do not compete or hone an equestrian lifestyle that is accomplished or polished. Heather said that on more than a few occasions (when the "weekly riders" were out on horseback) they would see them warming up on the flat and she would think "Whoa, surely that person is not going to try and jump!" But, sure enough, he/she would go out and scramble over some show jumps or cross-country fences and just have the time of his/her life! 

Stone walls on foundations that are thousands of years old.
Typical Irish riding country around Clonshire.
For a life-long rider, competitor, and trained equestrian, these "weekly riders" might seem dangerous or ludicrous, but in Ireland everybody rides at some point or another, so the casual riders get out-and-about just like their more practiced counterparts!

A 6,000-year-old tomb in the
Irish countryside.
While considering the many different skill levels and experience levels of the Clonshire regulars and the visiting vacationers, I asked Heather what the efforts were like that they experienced in their cross-country outings and she said that, although they may have only jumped up to 2'9" in the arena, some of the cross-country fences might have been more like 3' or 3'3". There were no parallel comparisons to U.S. eventing levels (there was no set height or level designation), but she emphasized again that no matter what everyone else was doing, many people just hacked around and chatted and did not jump the same questions as every rider in the group. 

No, not a jump. Heather wasn't sure
what this was....but it is different!
To Heather's best estimation, she felt like they jumped lots of different fences, but topped out around "hard Training or soft Prelim." What she said was really challenging about riding in Ireland wasn't necessarily the build or the height of the jumps, but rather the terrain and the presentation of the elements that made for either a serious ride or a happy jaunt. She said there were tons of natural elements: banks, banks, and more banks; lots of bank combinations and water banks; banks with ditches; banks and streams, etc. She also said that a small bank or wall could be made much more daunting with a ditch just before or a big drop on landing. 

Heather mentioned that they used the natural surroundings to such a great advantage: ditch and bank combinations, ditch and stream combos, bank and stream combos, bank to bank combos, and that in places where a stream had branched off, there might be ditch-to-ditch efforts, with a bank or wall thrown in for good measure. To me, this sounds like the quintessential Irish hunting setting and would make for a bracing cross-country experience, to be sure!

For someone who has not travelled across the Atlantic, I got the chance to live vicariously this afternoon through Heather as I listened to her talk about her week in Ireland and the things she learned there. She had never been before (although she had spent a semester in England while in college), but I bet it will be an experience that stays with her forever. The opportunity to engage in something you do on a regular basis here at home (ride horseback) while at the same time seeing things, doing things, and observing things you would never see in your own backyard is the type of fascinating activity that we live for. 

It has certainly made me anxious to do something similar very soon and I will be buying an "Ireland cross-country holiday" piggy bank and saving my pennies!

Not Photoshopped! A real, Irish rainbow.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Monday Sillies

Now you see him.......

.....now you don't!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

That's the Night that the Lights Went Out in Knoxville....

"It was a dark and stormy night........"

I am sitting here on my laptop at a reading desk in the local library branch trying to get caught up on Facebook my teaching/grading work, as I am still in the dark at home right now. We're on day 2 of no electricity here in Knoxville, due to a freak storm that blew down trees over the power lines on almost every street in town. The storm only lasted about 10 minutes, but it has been almost 48 hours of chaos for the utilities crews to try and get things under control. Fortunately, there was no real catastrophe (no flooding, no tornado, no hail). Just lots of trees and lines down EVERYWHERE. As I type, the guys from Pike are working away on the wires just outside my house, so I feel confident I'll have light, water, AC, and cable restored when I return home later today. I feel confident in this....yes....I really do.

Ambiance has its place and time, but this is
just getting to be a little too much.

I've come to realize a few things in this time without power. Some of these things include: candlelight is nostalgic and romantic.....when you don't actually need to see by it; sitting in the cushioned glider on the front porch reading a good book by daylight is seriously underrated (it's not a Treasure Quest marathon, but it is an inexpensive and enjoyable way to spend 2 hours); you can utilize a brimming-full fountain/water feature in your yard for many things in an emergency.....things like filling the toilet tank so you can flush, washing your hands and shaving your legs, topping off the dog's water buckets -- since the well pump requires electricity to run -- and I was just about to find out how effective it also was for bathing when the Pike crew showed up on my street this morning. I was getting a bit frantic last night when I realized that not one utility vehicle had thus far visited the downed lines in my neighbor's yard in all this and I really felt pretty neglected. In fact, a KUB truck slowed in front of my house after dinner yesterday, then sped up and went on down the road. I ran out in the yard and did my best Kate-Winslet-at-the-end-of-Titanic impression (delirious, despondent, near-death), grabbing a steward's whistle and croaking out "Come back! Come back!" to the red taillights disappearing around the corner.

In all seriousness, I have remained pretty sensible about this, since 2 days/2 nights without electricity isn't that big of a deal, in the grand scheme of things. There was no tragic natural disaster, no widespread loss of life or homes, no harm done to my animals (other than my senior Beagle who is pissed that I have "turned off the AC" for some insane reason). But, it's amazing how dependent I am on things powered by electric and I have to say that I'm really glad that smart son-of-a-bitch, Thomas Edison, decided to invent electricity and not something else, like, eBay or the iPad.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


This is a total no-brainer. How could I NOT get sucked into a new show called The Nail Files? Love it! "Love the bag, love the shoes, love everything...." love it!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Comeback Kids....

I'm very excited for my friend, Kelly Wallace, and her eventing Perchie-pony, Stryder (aka "In Good Time"). After some heartbreaking personal losses and life changes over the past few years, Kelly is finally back on the scene this coming weekend at the Midsouth Pony Club Horse Trials in Lexington, KY. KHP is a "feel good" location for Kelly, so I'm really happy they will get to resume their eventing career at such a fun event. Plus, Middle TN friends will also be in attendance, so I think this is going to be a really great weekend for Kelly and Stryder. Now, the only thing missing will be......ME! Good luck, Kelly and Stryder, and HAVE FUN!!!!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Wee Horse goes Cross-Country.

Now THAT's a challenge! 

Timmy (Wee Horse) jumping a corner at Galway Downs.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

We Can Fly!

Fellow riders know why we ride. We love to run, we love to jump, and for those of us who do it....there's really nothing else like it. I've started reading a George R.R. Martin book that another eventer loaned to me and it is about a mythical world called Windhaven where they have "flyers" (mere humans who can put on wings and travel from island to island by floating on the air currents). They have laws, traditions, and an entire culture that involves flyers (and ONLY flyers). For those that have flown, they would rather die by lightening strike or falling into the ocean than to give up their wings. Then, there are the "land bound" mortals who know nothing of flying and just stand and admire the flyers as they soar overhead. I think I know a little bit about what it's like to be a flyer and no matter how good or bad I am at it, I wouldn't want to go on living any other way!

Buck Davidson galloping on air at Bromont.
Photo by Samantha L. Clark

Sharon White literally FLYING over that big table on Rafferty's Rules!
Photo by Samantha L. Clark

Monday, June 13, 2011

How to Save a Life

Jeremy needs a rescuer now!
UPDATE! I had a friend of mine here in Knoxville offer to foster/adopt Jeremy, but it turns out a foster in Pennsylvania (who is a regular foster for Saving Furry Friends) had offered as well. He will be pulled from the shelter tomorrow morning, vetted, then boarded until he leaves for his new home in a few weeks. I'm so grateful for my friend who had been willing to help out and, more than anything, I'm so glad he has been rescued! Wish we could save them all............
I'm posting this here on my blog in a desperate effort to try and find a foster or adopter for this sweet pointer mix at a shelter in Southwest VA. The rescue who pulls from this shelter is Saving Furry Friends. She has tried so hard for over a week now (getting 2 reprieves from euthanization for him already), but his time is up at 8:00am tomorrow, 6/14, without a foster offer or rescue. If I had thought about it, I would have posted him on here last week, so if he does die in the morning....I will have to take some of the blame. He has been shared on Facebook, several rescue pages, and Saving Furry Friends' web site since last week. And, yet, not ONE person has shown any interest. Even a temporary foster will give him some more time to find a permanent home. Will you be the one to help this guy out?

If you are interested, email savingfurryfriends@yahoo.com and put the name "Jeremy" in the subject line. There has been a veterinary donations fund started for him to cover all initial costs for an adopter or foster. Let's get Jeremy out of the shelter and into a new life!!!

Somebody save me, please!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I Brake for Cute Ponies!

This is my sister, quite a few years ago, on our pony, Beau Geste. In this picture, they were competing in a mini-jumper class at a show just outside of Abingdon, VA. I'm pretty sure they finished second that round. I always loved how neat and enthusiastically Beau jumped over everything. We were so lucky to have grown up with him.....he was such a super pony!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hangin' Tough

Eddie's first encounter with a rolltop in a schooling show, one week after I
got him. There go my stirrups, there go the reins, there goes the rolltop,
but because I maintained control of my seat and upper-body, I
stayed on.....that time. And, Eddie has never looked twice at a
rolltop since then. Once he's figured it out, he's got it!

No, unfortunately, I cannot help but to hear the refrain of the classic New Kids on the Block song "Hangin' Tough" when I read the title of my post. If you can't help it now, either, then let that be my gift to you for this afternoon. 

My other gift to you is this link to the recent Chronicle of the Horse interview with George Morris about the importance of riding without stirrups in your lessons or schoolings at home. We all HATE TO DO IT, because it's, like, HARD. But, we all know how important it is, especially for eventers. Now, I'm not talking about learning to foster a rabble-scrabble riding style that means, "Wow, that person can stick in some pretty sketch instances," as part of an ongoing manner of tackling courses with grit. That is one major misconception about eventers that I wish could be universally disputed (no, eventers don't just point their horse and hang on....on the whole), and it would be nice to always ride with rhythm, consistency, poise, and grace. But, when the chips are down, it's nice to feel we have the tools to get us through so that we don't end up on the ground amidst those proverbial chips. 

I really appreciate that this Q&A with George starts off with the primary point that riding without stirrups develops a rider's SEAT.....not their LOWER LEG. How many times have we heard someone lament the state of their loose or weak lower leg and the inevitable advice is, "Oh, you need to ride more without stirrups"? Riding without stirrups should improve a rider's seat, balance, and position....not just the strength of the leg position. You can "sit and grip" with your calves all day long, but if you are off-balance in your seat or hips, then it just really does no good. So, how about riding without stirrups and focusing on what is happening in the saddle, and less about what is happening where the stirrups are not?

Watch Will Coleman through the water at Red Hills 2011 in this video, below (at about the 55 second mark). Notice that he doesn't just grip with his lower leg to hang on and get through; he ramps up his upper-body and seat motion in order to stay with his horse, and to remain with him, so that he doesn't get caught out riding with his hands to keep his balance and so as to not get left behind. It wouldn't work the same way if he had just grabbed the reins/mane and tightened his leg, but went stiff and immobile with his seat and upper body. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Owl[lets] and the [Scaredy]cat

I wouldn't say that I necessarily have a "fear" of heights (as in a serious phobia). With that being said, I don't rock climb, I don't BASE jump, and I pretty much use common sense and stay away from the edge of high structures (tall buildings, bridges, cliffs, rooftops, etc.). However, I am afraid of falling. Isn't that what clever people always say? "I'm not afraid of heights, I'm just afraid of falling from them." Perhaps my fear of falling is a result of the fact that I'm an equestrian (no explanation needed here). It most likely also stems from the fact that -- occasionally -- I am rather clumsy and could be considered my own-worst-enemy at the best of times. All of these considerations collect together on a daily basis to help me gauge situations and judge what is "best" for me to do/not do in order to pay respect to Darwin's "Theory of Natural Selection" and ward off unnecessary harm to myself. But, when given the chance to see a nest full of baby barn owls......why, yes, I did climb about 40 feet up a handmade wooden ladder nailed to the side of a barn into the rafters, then "tightrope" walk on a 2x4 to the center of the loft (over nothing but wide-open space straight to the ground below) to peek into an owl box. I've never seen baby barn owls before, so I figured I better take the chance when I had the opportunity. Plus, I just love baby birds, so of course I had to see them.

My hay guy, Buddy, is a real lover of wildlife and his hay barn is on about 50 acres at the base of House Mountain in East Knoxville. There are always deer, rabbits, hawks, bluebirds, etc., out and about when I go to his place to get a load of hay. He built 2 owl boxes in the top of his barn and this is the first time in several years that an owl has raised her little ones there. He has been checking on them regularly and charting their progress, as well as making plans to clean and maintain the boxes so another owl will be back for next spring. I have been getting hay from Buddy for about 4 or 5 years now, so I know him pretty well and I'm sure he knew I couldn't resist checking out the owl boxes. As his athletic and lithe 15-year-old son clamored up the ladder ahead of me, I'm sure that Buddy probably questioned his decision to encourage me to "climb up and see them, too," when I was looming about 20 feet over his head and clinging precariously to the side of the hay loft. It wasn't so much the going up that worried me.....as much as did the getting back down. But, all's well that ends well, I guess, and I have lived to climb (or not) another day. 

(You'll have to excuse the chatter in the video. I am always horrified to hear my voice in recordings. But, there's nothing I can do about the Southern accent. I am from Tennessee, y'all!)