Thunder's Departure

(Click here to go to the beginning of Thunder's story)

I never rode Thunder (my first horse after almost 40 years out of the saddle) again after our final ride, the one that left me unconscious beside the trail for two-and-a-half hours while the horse galloped home (details here).

I didn't want to risk getting hurt again, but life as a pasture ornament didn't seem to suit Thunder. He was grumpy with other members of the herd (especially toward Penny, the rescue horse I foster) and he became increasingly jumpy. I contacted an animal communicator who conducted a reading on him (read it here). One morning when I was getting ready to trim his hooves, he spooked while I was holding his halter. My fingers got wrenched painfully.

I wasn't riding this horse at all and yet I was still getting hurt. Something needed to change. I couldn't sell him because he wasn't sound and never would be. I couldn't give him away because I couldn't abide passing a problem horse on to someone else, someone who might take the risk of riding him. My alternatives crystallized with an almost audible snap between my ears. The painful but honorable thing to do was to put him down.

Thunder left this world in 2013. He went peacefully, without violence, without fear.

Thunder and the Leo horse (Leo is the herd leader) were close. Leo was usually by Thunder's side, nibbling on Thunder's withers. I thought Leo would miss his buddy, but it seems the only one who held regrets about Thunder's departure was me.

Leo never called or looked for Thunder; Leo simply continued his mostly thoughtful and gentle oversight of the two mares, Mia and Penny, who both moved up a hierarchical level into the space left by Thunder. A sense of relief and peace came over the little herd.

Many months later, I met a horse trainer who worked with Thunder when the then-four-year-old horse first came to New Mexico from the east coast. The trainer expressed great affection for Thunder, saying he was one of the finest horses he had ever trained. The trainer told me something that revealed—at least to me—what went wrong for that big black horse.

The trainer was riding Thunder on a mountain trail. Thunder's left hind leg slipped off the trail's outside edge and the horse went down, his back end rotated to the left and his front end twisted to the right. While Thunder struggled to keep himself from tumbling down the slope, the trainer scrambled off to the inside edge and wasn't hurt. Thunder sustained a laceration on his left quarter (I had noticed the ragged scar there and wondered what happened). The trainer dutifully had the laceration stitched up, but nobody considered potential injury to Thunder's spine from the torsion he experienced in the fall.

Twelve years later, as I tried to help the horse through chiropractic treatments, I learned that Thunder's sacroiliac (SI) joint was rotated forward and to the left and that torn SI ligaments had eventually healed, but the joint remained subluxated. Thunder learned how to move without pain in the pasture and with light work under saddle, but when he bore the tugging motion from a ponied packhorse, he was in pain. Once I started ponying Leo from Thunder, the more we worked, the worse he felt. Arthritic changes didn't help.

At the end, Thunder was in constant pain, which would make anybody spooky and grumpy.

Here's the lesson for all of us who ride horses. Keep an eye on their backs. If you notice any irregularity—a protruding vertebra, a deviation from a straight spine, a low hip or shoulder—those signs mean something. If your horse falls, have him examined ASAP by your veterinarian or equine chiropractor. Don't take the chance that he might have pain for the rest of his life. If he hurts, you'll probably end up hurt as well.

Additional reading: Identify and Treat Equine Sacroiliac Problems.pdf

Beginning with Thunder

A Thunder ShakerLadies and gentlemen, meet A Thunder Shaker. He is a Tennessee Walking Horse I bought at the end of June 2011.

He occupies just about all my time these days, which is ironic since I've had him three months and I haven't ridden him yet. Lots of people think I'm crazy, but I have my reasons.

I bought Thunder from a friend who bought him from some folks across town who took very good care of him, but hadn't worked with him or ridden him in four years. (July 2016 Hindsight:  red flag?)

My friend sold Thunder to me three months after she purchased him because she discovered a quarter horse suits her purposes better than a Tennessee Walker. Thunder was just beginning to settle in to his new life with my friend and her other horses when he had to up and move to a new place, get to know new horses, a new owner, a new routine, new everything. He also needed to put on some weight. His coat was dull and rough and the four years of inactivity didn't do anything for his muscle tone. He had been unshod until Louise bought him. She put shoes on him. I promptly had them pulled off when he became my horse. That's a lot of change in a short time for a horse.

For my part, I haven't owned a horse in nearly 40 years and I must relearn how to be around them; how to keep myself safe, how to appeal to Thunder, how to feed him, what his personality is like, how to buy hay, how to position and move my arms, legs, and hips, which are still flexible, but a little older now. Furthermore, the advent of natural horsemanship contributes new knowledge about how to treat horses so they work as our partners instead of just another pet, or a possession that we might treat like a machine. I have to learn everything all over again and a whole bunch of new stuff as well.

My biggest challenge is to learn how to care for his bare feet (riding is the easy part). This is the wild west and things like natural horsemanship and unshod feet are ridiculed, vilified, disregarded, disdained, scoffed at, pooh-poohed, and evocative of all other kinds of derisive behavior from the locals. It's safe to say there aren't many barefoot trimmers out here who know what they're doing. There are only three people in all of Silver City (at least that I know of) who have barefoot horses that they ride or intend to ride. I'm one of them. All three of us are a little uneasy about our ability to treat bare feet, but we all believe (as firmly as the locals don't believe it) that it's the right thing to do. We study and ask questions and learn from every available source.

Thanks to Pete Ramey, Paige Poss, Elena, Becky (my farrier-turned-trimmer sister), and my own farrier, Glenn Geesaman, who still shoes but who also supports the barefoot endeavor and tells me I'm doing just fine. Also (as my friend Kendell says) thanks to Al Gore for inventing the internet, which abounds with information about barefoot horses.

It takes time to build a hoof that can withstand the terrain around here without nailed-on steel shoes. During the transition, though, you can still work a horse by putting boots on him. I've been experimenting with various kinds of boots for the last two months. They really do make a difference and I'll use them as long as Thunder needs them.

Here are the latest ones, and probably the best ones--Renegades. Each of Thunder's feet is a different size, so I have four different colors to help me remember which boot goes on which foot. Thunder doesn't notice, but it sure does look like he's wearing clown shoes. The locals are going to scream with laughter when they see him.

This is not Michael JacksonThis morning I brushed the dust out of Thunder's thick black coat, then saddled him up and led him over to the round pen. From the ground there I sent him over cavalettis, asked him to perform figure 8s around a couple of barrels, asked for vertical and lateral flexion, and sent him around the pen at the walk, trot, and canter, with numerous changes of direction. He was OK with all that.

At the end, instead of taking him out of the round pen and allowing him to graze in Laurie's front yard, I hopped up on a mounting block and swung my leg over his back. Then we went through all the exercises again. He performed well and calmly. I am very happy.

The horse shown at right is neither Thunder nor Michael Jackson.

10/29/11 - If you live in a part of the world where grazing isn't a particularly reliable source of food for your horse, you have to provide something else, like hay. Because the weather has been so dry in the southwest this year, hay is scarce. When you have a chance to buy it, you snap it right up. The hay stacked on Ted's ATV trailer and in the back of the Subaru was imported from Colorado. This load of 25 bales is the maximum the Subaru can handle. It won't last the winter.

11/12/11 - Thunder is a willing soul who wants little more than lots of good hay. In return he gives one Cadillac of a Tennessee Walker smooth ride. I've been working him with gradually increasing levels of intensity and riding him for longer periods, usually every other day. The theory is that when you're building muscle on a horse, you give 'em a day of rest after a workout because that's when the muscle tissue gets developed. The theory is also that barefoot horses need to move a lot to keep their feet healthy.

Ripe juniper berriesSo day before yesterday, intending that Thunder could get some supplemental movement on his own during a rest day, I dressed him up in his boots and turned him out in Laurie's pasture. At least we call it a pasture. It's actually a rocky slope with juniper and piñon trees and native grasses that are way past their summer prime. Thunder wasn't interested in the native grasses. He wanted juniper berries. The horses are crazy about them. One of Laurie's horses (Indy) subluxes his neck stretching up into the branches to get the berries before they drop to the ground. Laurie's other horse (Pepe) will spend all day under the trees, smooching the soft dirt for berries. Thunder doesn't get to go out into the trees much because, in addition to juniper berries, he likes to eat the bark off the pine trees.

Yesterday Thunder wanted juniper berries. I let him at them for about 15 minutes and then decided he'd had enough. The berries aren't the pretty frosted blueberry-like orbs that they were last month. They've developed a hard shell that's more like bark than berry.

Laurie alerted me that Thunder wouldn't eat his forage yesterday. I'd fed him his morning ration of beet pulp, flax seed oil, feed pellets, and some herbs that make the whole thing smell like pizza. He ate that up fine, but was picking at his hay and acting grumpy at Indy. We speculated that he had a bellyache from the juniper berries.

I wanted to ride yesterday, but yes indeed, Thunder wasn't quite himself. He reminded me of a five-year-old who needs a nap. Still, he was drinking water and didn't exhibit signs of a serious problem. What had gone in earlier at the front end was coming out the back end in a normal way.

So we did some gentle work in the round pen and he perked up a little. He let me massage his neck, belly, and hips, which is something he is usually wary about. (How ironic is that? I travel thousands of miles and pay thousands of dollars to learn how to massage horses, and my very own horse doesn't like it!)

I didn't ride yesterday. I was looking forward to riding today.

Alas, as I was putting on his boots, I found an abrasion on the back of one of his heels. Looked like some grit had gotten into the padding on the heel strap. It was just a tiny little scrape, but I've had shoes that rubbed my heel and made it painful to walk. I didn't like it and I don't suppose Thunder would either.

We did some bootless ground work, stepping over poles and doing figure 8s around barrels. That's fun and kind of cute, because if I hop over the poles and weave around the barrels, Thunder follows me around like a puppy and does whatever I do. We both get some exercise that way.

Thunder will need a day or two for the abrasion to heal until I can put boots back on him and ride again. Meanwhile, I'll call the boot manufacturer and find out what I did wrong to let grit get into the strap. Poor Thunder!

11/28/11 - Update on Thunder's sore heel: It's no longer sore. The grit on the strap wasn't dirt after all. It was material sloughing off Thunder's heel (that's a normal thing). The strap chafed because the hoof needed trimming. Four days to heal the abrasion and a little rasping did the trick and he can wear boots again.

A natural lifestyle is something to which many of us aspire. We have personal and varying definitions of "natural" and given sufficient awareness and resources, we can achieve something that satisfies us, even though it might not satisfy somebody else, and we're pretty sure we benefit from the choices we make.

One difference between us and horses is choice. Horses can also benefit from a "natural" lifestyle, but the domestic ones can't make the choice to have one. They take what we give 'em. For all the veterinary care, regular meals, safety from predation, and TLC that domesticated horses might receive, domestication isn't necessarily a good thing for them. They suffer from maladies similar to ours—metabolic disorders, for example--and for similar reasons; our horses mostly stand around waiting to be fed. They don't get enough of the right kind of exercise and they get too much of the wrong kind of food.

Among horse people these days are those who aspire to a natural lifestyle for their animals. Hundreds of inspired souls are setting out to let horses live the way nature intended, using the wild horse model, which is based upon the lives of the wild, free-roaming horses in the U.S. Great Basin. So what then? We all turn our horses loose like Sonny Steele did in The Electric Horseman? Nosiree. There's a way to simulate a wild horse environment and it works because, well, as Pete Ramey says, horses are smart about many things, but "gloriously stupid" about others.

A paddock paradiseThunder is already barefoot, a central facet of the wild horse model. What he needs now is a paddock paradise, and I'm gonna build one. After all, we have the real estate and we have a horse. We'll invite Laurie's horses to keep Thunder company.

The idea underlying the paddock paradise is that horses need to do something other than stand around waiting to be fed. So you build a track for them around the perimeter of your paddock, or field, or whatever you have. They then spend most of their time moving around the track, same as they would in the wild, searching for food (which you make available around the track to motivate them to travel) and doing all the other things horses do when they have the opportunity.

This is gonna be fun.

12/11/11 - Everybody knows that endeavors involving horses are risky. It's possible to get hurt while working and playing with them. Around here, horse people (not to be confused with centaurs) put up signs that warn a visitor about the potential for injury. In my case, the warning represents more than a possibility. I fall down a lot. I blame that on my skinny feet.

In October, after I took a spill off Thunder when he shied at a jack rabbit or some other hideous threat, my cousin Pidge clued me in to the availability of safety vests for equestrians. Knowing my propensity to get hurt (several times each summer when I was a kid, I would stub my toe so bad it required stitches), I took Pidge's suggestion to heart and ordered one that boasted of a top-notch safety rating. The manufacturer guaranteed a perfect fit and required precise measurements of my battered torso. My vest would be custom made from those dimensions; delivery would take from four-to-six weeks.

This is not a life jacketThe vest arrived yesterday. My first thought was how much it looks like a life jacket. When Ted and I plied the Chesapeake Bay in a sailboat, our foul weather and man-overboard gear was always bright yellow because yellow would be relatively easy for rescuers to differentiate from whitecaps. I ordered this vest in yellow for similar, but drier reasons and I didn't know it would end up looking like water-skiing equipment.

My second thought was the geeky picture I'll be part of, with Thunder wearing his clown boots and a western saddle, and me decked out in a helmet, fringed leather chinks, packer boots, and this vest.

My third thought, once I tried the thing on and couldn't get it zipped up, was that I'd have to send it back. My fourth thought was to read the fitting instructions. When I did that, the problem represented by my third thought took care of itself.

The vest fits snugly enough that it mashes my frontal appendages firmly into my chest, but it's still comfortable. It's stiff enough to stand upright on its own in a gale. Laurie, a law-enforcement officer in a previous life, mused that it looks like body armor and will probably be disagreeable in hot weather.

It was quite agreeable the first day I wore it. Thunder spooked sideways again and vaulted indelicately onto the ground. I felt something sharp push against my middle back when I landed, but the push was all I felt. The vest absorbed the impact, just like it's supposed to do. No broken ribs, punctured lungs, or knocked-out wind. Quite satisfactory.

thunderxmas0112/21/11 - Thunder did not stand patiently for this photo, out of which has been airbrushed not only the background, but also the snack bag clip I used to keep the hat on his head. Can't even tell it was ever there, can you! Where would we be without image editors?

Speaking of images, the one on page 5 of the so-called paddock paradise represents only the concept. I borrowed it from the Internet; I didn't create it myself and it doesn't look like the facility I want to develop.

The development effort benefits greatly from image editing software--and also from GPS and Google Earth. Observe:

GPS pathThe image at right is a map from my GPS unit. The GPS recorded my steps as I walked the perimeter of Thunder's trail and superimposed the path on its built-in map.

The software that came with the unit let me straighten out the raggedy path lines, then measure each leg and note the length on the image to produce the image below:


The measurements are essential for estimating the fencing materials needed--and it's way easier to pull them from the GPS than to traipse around the hillside with a tape measure, pencil, and paper.

Of course, it also requires that I learn to use the software, which behaves in a more or less familiar way, but which also has a supply of difficult methods for doing things that are supposed to be easy. (That's something I notice more and more in software these days. Grumble, grumble.)

In the 1980s, Microsoft and Apple went to a lot of trouble to establish standards for software user interfaces. Software developers howled about it, but the programs that adhered to the standards were easier to use than software was back when software was engineered by godforsaken geeks who thought that the way THEY did things was the correct, most efficient, and only way things should be done. The result was that every piece of software, even those that did the same thing (like word processors), looked and behaved differently. A user felt like she had just gotten off the spaceship to Mars whenever she opened up a new program. Although it's not so bad today, even Microsoft software engineers seem to be ignoring the standards in critical ways.

Thanks for tolerating that deviation from the topic at hand. The GPS image is useful in a primitive sort of way, but there's still more to GPS capabilities than showing a path on a map and calculating distances. Embedded in the path are latitude and longitude coordinates for points along the way. It's really easy to transfer those coordinates onto satellite imagery in Google Earth to get a good idea of how something's going to fit into its surroundings:

Thunder's trail

In the image above, the pink line shows part of the fenceline that separates our property from the neighbors' and serves as part of the perimeter for the track. The white line shows perimeter fence that I'll have to build. The brown lines inside represent fencing that surrounds the exclusion zones--areas to which the horses don't have access.

Thunder's trailThe idea is to keep them circulating around the track outside the fenced-off areas, which saves the areas inside from over-grazing and other damage that horses can do to a landscape. The track is then equipped with stuff that interests horses (food mostly) and supports their well-being, such as rocky terrain, shade, shelter (red rectangle at left), and a pond (blue ellipse at left).

The paddock will be positioned close to the well so I can run water to a trough or two at the shelter. The pond will evolve from building a small dam across an arroyo, lining an area behind the dam with heavy-duty EPDM rubber, and filling it with water that runs down the arroyo during heavy rain. Sometimes it will be dry and the horses will have to travel up to the shelter for water, but since the concept is to keep them moving, as they would have to do if they were wild, a dry pond fits into the scheme.

Electricity infrastructure is located close to our well, which makes it possible to power the paddock's electric fences.

Since the trail will have little in the way of significant forage, the shelter will also have storage for hay, which gets scattered along the track every day to simulate the conditions that wild horses encounter--they are on the move constantly, eating their way from place to place.

There's one thing I wonder about. If this system intends to replicate the wild horse environment, after Thunder and his cronies adapt to it, will Thunder be hard to catch when I want to ride? In his current situation, he's bored most of the time. I think he's grateful for my company and the diversion and activity I impose on him. When he's out on his trail, what's he need me for?

1/31/12 - Last summer and fall Thunder and I did a lot of hiking together. We walked up and down the road, and over some of my trails up on the nearby Flury Mountain. I wasn't riding him; rather, we were walking together and having a pretty good time. The idea was to build up his muscles, since he'd been standing around in a dry lot for four years, cared for, but not worked at all.

He built up muscles just fine--so well, in fact, that his Tennessee Walker's rapid stride began to outpace my own. I was pleased at that. For the first several weeks of this exercise, he huffed and puffed when we climbed up hills and I noticed I had better cardiovascular fitness than he did. Thunder achieved a level of fitness that I could begin to ride him.

We started out riding in the round pen, within sight of the other two horses of his herd. The riding went very well. He's a cooperative, willing, responsive, and agile guy and he's got some good training under his girth. He knows more about this stuff than I do.

Trouble began when we left the round pen and rode out of Thunder's comfort zone. I recognized his anxiety, but I failed to respond to it properly. I took a couple of nasty falls when he took a lateral lurch and dumped me. The last of these knocked me out and put me on crutches for a month

My friend and chiropractor, Louise, advised that I might want to send Thunder to a trainer we know, somebody who could help him overcome his herd-bound mentality and who could help me learn how to be a trustworthy leader for him.

So off he went to Mackie Redd's ranch today for a month of training. I'll go over a couple of times a week to learn what Thunder has learned and practice our skills.

Meanwhile, Thunder's track is moving into high gear. Garcia Fence Company installed over 200 t-posts, onto which I'll affix electric fencing. A tree guy is going to clear out the oak trees from the track and remove tree limbs that overhang the fence line. The plumber is coming in this Friday to install a water line to the planned barn. The following Friday, a concrete guy will pour the pad for said barn, and shortly thereafter, the barn people will come in from Gallup to build it. Ted will wire the barn for lights and power to the electric fence.

By the time Thunder returns in March, presumably no longer herd-sour, he'll have his very own paddock paradise. We'll see how that goes.

Love that Victor Hugo2/5/12 - Victor Hugo said (among a thousand other things): Nothing else in the world...not all the so powerful as an idea whose time has come. Or as Werner Erhard (remember est?) paraphrased--omitting the reference to armies, in the spirit of the peace-loving 1970s--Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come. I'm fond of saying that.

Whenever an endeavor proceeds smoothly, on time, and within budget, it must be an idea whose time has come. If it weren't, surely it wouldn't be easy.

Barn floor planApparently Thunder's new residence is such an idea. The fence lines for the paddock paradise turned out the way I wanted them to. The fence contractor showed up when he said he would and did what he said he would do. What he did met my expectations. Horse Guard, a supplier of electric fencing materials, held a 10-percent-off sale at the precise time I placed my order. The supplier of the steel loafing shed called two days after I ordered it to schedule installation. The concrete guy and the tree guy have a couple of days between big jobs and can fit my little jobs into their schedules. Even the plumber showed up on time (at least for him) and got a water line and hydrant installed. Mackie Redd had an opening in his training schedule and so is able to take Thunder off my hands--and away from Laurie's barn a few seconds before Thunder drove her to murder him over various behaviors that she doesn't like much. It's spooky how quickly this is coming together.

Concrete forms for the barnThe concrete pour is scheduled for tomorrow and the tree guy will be out here with a crew to trim the trees away from the fence line.

Thunder is doing well under Mackie's guidance. I sent him out there because he exhibited unconfident behavior that is dangerous to me and that I don't know how to fix. Mackie's strategy is to show Thunder what's what, and then to show me--and make me demonstrate that I get it and can sustain the momentum.

I'm going out to Mackie's ranch again on Tuesday. I'm looking forward to the work, which surprises me. I rarely look forward to experiences involving learning and demonstrating new skills. Maybe this is the benefit of living backward.


Curing concrete2/7/12 - Sr. Terrazas and his crew poured the concrete for the pad under Thunder's loafing shed yesterday. Looks very sophisticated, all hosed down to keep it from curing too fast, like the night-time streets in every movie you ever saw.

The section on the left that has only a footing around it is Thunder's stall, 12x15'. I expect him to use it only when he wants to get out of the sun, wind, or rain because (that's the theory anyway) his paddock tracks will give him plenty else to do besides stand around--and there'll be no way to lock him in the stall anyway. The pipe on the far left is the hydrant and the pipe in the middle left is part of a drain for a deep sink that will be installed in the tack room.

The naked t-postI'm learning the terrifying new skills involved in building an electric fence, something I have never done before, have never thought about doing, have never even seen done. I'm proceeding as follows:

  • Start with a metal t-post.
  • Compare it with its neighbors for height and number of nubs, just to see if all t-posts are created and pounded into the ground equal, which they mostly seem to be.
  • Notice if it's a corner post (and therefore in need of additional support) and ignore it for now if it is, because corner posts require parts that are on backorder and I must deal with them later.
  • Determine if it's a perimeter post or an exclusion zone post. The acreage is a porcupine of naked t-posts, some of which are close to the perimeter. All I want to work on right now is the perimeter.
  • Measure the post and determine if I can divide it equally into 18.75" centers. If I can, yaaaay. If I can't, go ask Ted what he thinks about it. What Ted thinks is that if the difference is only a couple of inches, it probably won't matter, but in point of fact, Ted doesn't know any more about this than I do.
  • Mark the post with chalk on 18.75" centers or as close to that as the height of the post allows.
  • tpostcapRealize that 18.75" has to include the post cap and scratch out the first chalk marks.
  • Figure out how the cap is supposed to go on, given the two slots inside, the two offset holes outside, and the structure of the top of a t-post, which--epiphany!--looks like a T. Then put the cap on.
  • Remember that I don't have enough strength to open the outside hole with the screw-on insulator designed for the cap, so remove the cap from the t-post and punch open the hole by way of a gentle tap with a hammer on a screwdriver. Leave the chad hanging because otherwise I'll have to pick up and dispose of 220 niggling plastic bits, then put the cap back on.
  • Figure out how the insulators--the plastic parts that hold the electric fence tape to the t-post--are supposed to fit against the posts, centered on the chalk marks.
  • Since each insulator doesn't seem to fit the same way centered exactly over the chalk marks, go ask Ted if he thinks a variation of a half-inch or so off the mark will matter. Ted doesn't think so, but he's never built an electric fence either.
  • Go down and eyeball a section of Laurie's electric fence. She's built lots of them. Her insulators vary a little from post-to-post, so her tapes aren't perfectly parallel, but they aren't off by much. Looks like a half-inch off the mark doesn't matter.
  • Wire two insulators to the post and move to the next post.
  • Realize that I forgot to screw in the cap insulator on the previous post and return to do that.
  • Repeat for all half-a-billion t-posts on the perimeter fence.

The task got easier as I went along and it only took an hour or so to insulate all the posts on the west side of the perimeter. The north and east sides use an existing four-wire (not barbed) fence and will have only one tape (at the top), so all that's required there is to put the cap and its insulator on.

Or so I hope. The existing fence has been there since the dawn of time and its t-posts have been out in the elements a while. At least one is bent and needs to be replaced, but that's a matter of digging out the old post, banging in a new one, and wiring the post to the already-stretched fence wire. Interspersed with the t-posts on the existing fence are more-or-less straight tree branches woven into the four wires, a strategy used in this part of the country to lend strength to the fence without the expense of purchasing t-posts. Some of these branches extend above the height of the t-posts, so I'll have to cut them down to size.

Insulators on west perimeter t-postsInsulators on south perimeter t-posts2/12/12 - Stretching off into the distance in these two photos are the t-posts of the Thunder's perimeter fence on the west and south sides. All the insulators are installed on the entire perimeter.

I'm waiting on shipment of fence parts for corner posts--called tensioners--for which I think I must be a guinea pig. The HorseGuard people are marketing new tensioners designed especially for t-posts (their usual tensioners go on wooden posts). HorseGuard delayed shipment because the new tensioners were "too hard to thread the electric tape through and needed a redesign." HorseGuard is supposed to ship them in the coming week.

In the interim, I have plenty else to do. The corner posts on the exclosure fences need to be stabilized. When t-post installation is easy because a contractor does the work, there's often undone work and I'm the one who gets to do it. Not that I mind, mind you. I get to drive the ATV and trailer all through the tracks and pick up loose rocks. These I'll pile up around the base of the corner posts, which not only stabilizes the posts, but gets the stones out of the tracks for easier footing for me when I eventually get to spread Thunder's hay around.

Thunder's barn2/23/12 - This, my children, is a loafing shed, on which construction was completed today. "Why do they call it a loafing shed?" Ted asks. I don't know. Maybe because horses loaf in it, as opposed to what they do at the office.

It's a loafing shed on steroids, I suppose, because it has hay storage and a tack room, features usually absent on a loafing shed. It's more like a cheap metal half-barn, with undersized doors (only 6' tall--watch your head!) for hay and humans, and a commodious stall where a horse can take refuge from sun or wind (cold, rain, and snow don't seem to bother horses much). Look close and you can see Bob the cat, who thinks this is a mighty fine new place where squeakers might reside after the dust settles. Bob has never seen and doesn't know about the horse, who is still off at boarding school for another week or two. Won't he be surprised!

Thunder at Mackie's3/4/12 - Thunder's getting straight A's at boarding school and making me look like I know what I'm doing when I work with him. It's a 200 mile round-trip to the spread where Mackie is training Thunder to be calm and still and to do what he's told. I've been going over twice a week since the first of February so Mackie can train ME to be calm and still and tell Thunder what to do in a way Thunder can understand.

Both Thunder and I are re-learning things we have learned before, but this time we're actually getting it. I'm enjoying the experience. Each time I go over the mountain to work with Thunder, I come away refreshed, confident, elated, happy, and satisfied that I'll be able to sustain the skills we're synthesizing. It's something I look forward to doing.

Water for the barnI'm also looking forward to having Thunder back on his own ranch. I planned to bring him home this Wednesday, but his new digs aren't quite ready. Work, of which there is plenty to do, has been progressing, but that's mostly with the stuff I can do. The work that relies on others, like the plumber (who'd a-thought) is holding up other work that must be completed before Thunder can move in. The plumber is supposed to show up today to run a water line into the tack room, plumb and install a deep sink, and complete the drain system. He sort-of said he would be here when I spoke with him this morning, but we all know anything he says or sort-of says doesn't necessarily mean anything. The electric lines--that's the grey conduit you can see at right--run through the same trench as the water line. Ted doesn't want to wire the barn until the plumber is finished.

The work I can do is the heavy lifting stuff. I dig trenches so the electric fence can span gates. I break rocks in the hot sun to dig holes for posts that support stock panels and gates for an enclosure right in front of the barn. This 36x36' space, enclosed by stock panels on two sides and the electric fence on a third side, will keep Thunder close by while he acclimates to the unfamiliar accommodations and during the presumably rare times in the future when he might need to be penned up. The posts are 8' long and set in holes 2' deep. Two feet is a deceptively deep hole in this part of the world. Even with help from Laurie, it still took two days to dig the holes needed for the pen.


Posts for stock panels

My original plan was to set eight posts, but I scaled the plan back to five (one post is not shown in the photo above). Don't need to attach the panels to posts next to the barn when they can be attached directly to the barn frame. All they need for support there is something to hold them upright; they sit directly on the ground. That eliminated two holes. In a stroke of weary genius, I noticed that a pine tree sits exactly 12 feet from one corner of the barn. If I'm willing to accept a small assymetry in the shape of the pen, I can use the tree to support a panel. Thunder won't care about the assymetry and I certainly don't if it saves me digging a hole.

Stock panels and gatesThe stock panels were to be delivered from Las Cruces tomorrow, but they arrived today, even before the concrete for the posts has cured. Here they sit up-side-down, four panels and two gates, still glossy and unscathed (that won't last long), awaiting installation in a day or two.

The fence tensioners arrived last week, but weren't accompanied by the nuts and bolts they require. The nuts and bolts arrived today, so I'm headed out right now to install them.

Once the tensioners are in place, I can run the fence tape. Once the plumber shows up (and finishes), Ted can wire the barn and the fence connectors, hang up the charger, plug it in, and (if I haven't screwed something up), turn on the fence.

It's coming along, but not fast enough that Thunder can come home on Wednesday. I have two more trenches to dig for fence conduit, and then the hard labor is done.

Since in my adult life I worked as a technical writer, I feel obliged to satisfy the curiosity I know you must have about tensioners. Tensioners are devices that mount on fence posts at gates and corners, as well as at the beginnings and ends of fence lines. They carry the wire-laced electric tape around sharp bends in the fence line and they allow an installer (me, for instance) to stretch the tape sufficiently taut so it can withstand wind and bumps from livestock with a minimum of fluttering and sagging.

HorseGuard tensioner for t-postsHorseGuard's tensioners for t-posts, of which I believe I am the distinguished first user on the planet, look like this (although the illustration shows a tensioner mounted on a wooden post, not a t-post):

3/10/12 - Grumble, grumble, whine and snivel. Now you know what the tone of this post is, so if you're not in the mood for it, bail now.

Collaboration is a useful technique for getting something done, especially if you're the advisor part of the team and somebody else is doing the work. Ted, as we all know, is a most useful fellow for organizing a job. Laurie has experience with horses and the stupid things they do that tear apart the containment strategies we set up for them. I get an idea, run it by Ted and Laurie, amend it according to their observations, and get to work. While I'm working, Ted and Laurie are busy getting better ideas for how the finished product should be.

After I've moved beyond the point where their ideas are easy to incorporate, they tell me about the revision. I get to do all the backtracking, new preparation, reworking, installation, and testing. In a most irritating way, this is a sordid reminder of the software design work I did before I retired. Trouble is--even with software development--the new ideas are good ones; indeed, they are the way the project should have preceded in the first place. If only we had all THOUGHT about it in the first place.

In the current case, we DID think about it in the first place, but decided not to do it that way. (Never change an answer on a test.) The latest from the Ted and Laurie gallery is that it's not a good idea after all to attach the electric fence tensioners to the barn itself. The tensioners need posts, just like the original design specified. Ted and Laurie are right of course, but they aren't digging the post holes. Moreover, they now believe using electric fence for one end of Thunder's enclosure isn't secure enough. That third side needs to be spanned by stock panels. Gaaaaaah! More post holes!

"Calm down," Ted says. "Laurie says you can support the additional stock panels with t-posts." Oh. Well that's not so bad. Most of the time the only hole one must dig for a t-post is smallish, a hole from which to extract a rock that keeps the post from pounding into the soil deep enough. Sometimes the stone is too big to dig out, but then I just move the t-post to a more suitable location. A few inches generally does the trick. T-posts are easy.

Ah, but three additional stock panels! They have to be delivered from Las Cruces, where the supplier won't make any promises about a delivery date beyond "next week." If I leave Thunder at boot camp for another week, it'll cost me nearly two bills more. Anyway, I want to bring him home on Monday. So how about if we take the Subaru and the trailer to Las Cruces and pick up the panels? Then we have them where I want them when I want them to be there. Done.

Smoking volcanoesAnd the two additional post holes? Not done. Near the surface, the lava left over from a volcanic cataclysm a couple of million years ago is relatively friable. A pick and shovel can go a long way down in some holes. If the lava layer is thick enough and hasn't been exposed to the elements, it's hard as granite, but it will yield to severe blows from a pick. A pick, however, requires room to swing. A post hole is a narrow affair--the better to use less Sackrete when you go to set the post. When a posthole gets more than six inches deep, I don't have enough swing room for a pick, so the rock bar comes out of the shed. That means pounding--banging on the granite with the pointy end of the bar around the circumference of the bottom of the hole. A posthole digger removes the rubble, then more pounding. When I'm completely worn out with the routine, I fill the hole with water to soften the hard stuff and call it a day. Next morning, the pounding is easier. I pound until sparks fly from the rock bar, which means I've removed all the softened stuff. Then I fill the hole with water again and hope for a hard freeze.

The postholes are supposed to be two feet deep. On one of them I got down 14 inches and hit rock. I banged with the rock bar and fractured a weirdly square hole in the middle, just about big enough for a 4x4 fence post. I achieved 20 inches before the blisters on my woeful violinist's hands began to bleed. Phooey. That one will simply have to be deep enough at 20 inches. Anyway, I can always make up the difference at the top, since the posthole's location is below the bottom of the barn's concrete pad and has to be backfilled anyway. The same rock layer blocked progress on the second posthole at about the same 14-inch depth. The rock in this location didn't fracture. When Ted came out to see what was taking so long, he informed me the hole was in the wrong place anyway. Oh God.

Three days later, this very morning, in fact, the new hole (in the proper location) reached 24 inches. I threw the rock bar down with a gleeful clang and mixed up two bags of concrete to set the posts. Here they are, set in stone and concrete inside to of the most belligerent holes a woman ever dug:

The last fence posts

Ted helped with the concrete and a good thing, too for the time it saved. Within minutes after we finished, the snow, which had been toying with us all morning, began falling in big, wet, sticky clumps. We went inside for hot chocolate. Tomorrow, when the sun returns, we'll set the gates and stock panels and I'll resume hanging fence tensioners.

The electric fences won't be ready by the time Thunder returns on Monday, but no problem. He needs to be penned up for a couple of days to get used to his new barn.

3/12/12 - On the drive over the mountain to fetch Thunder home, my friend Donna reminded me that there'll probably be a period when he melts down and comes completely unglued and untrained. Her own horse, who shared the barracks with Thunder for a couple of weeks, did exactly that and Donna's a good woman to warn me about it.

Mackie led us on one last ride over the ranch this morning. The object was to test my skills in handling any acting out the horse might demonstrate. There was always the possibility Thunder wouldn't act out, but it was an unlikely one. When I saddled him up, I could tell he was working on a nice case of knuckleheadedness (Mackie's favorite term to describe the way horses often behave). The ride was a pleasant one over the rocky hills, winding our way around cactus, yucca, and something shrubby that resembles mormon tea.

Sure enough, once we were headed back toward the barn, Thunder got all fidgity and I had several opportunities to bring him under control. He calmed down, but I had the impression he was only humoring me. Whatever. I got the result I was after, which was to get back to the barn alive and aboard, after a pleasant ride over the rocky hills.

Thunder loaded into the trailer with a minimum of trouble and bore the twisty trip on the road through the Black Range with reasonable patience. When we unloaded him at home, he knew instantly where he was and got himself all worked up over the proximity of his buddies down at Laurie's.

Horses standingPart of the program for horses out here in the west is to let them stand around tied up in a safe place for several hours. From this, they learn a couple of important things: how to stand still, how to figure out what their job at the moment is (standing still), how to relax while standing still, and that dancing around, pawing, snorting, and such is a lot of work, so they might as well stand still. Standing still is a useful skill for horses to have when they're around people. I invite you to consider all the reasons why.

Before we left the ranch, Mackie urged me to tie Thunder up when we got home. I didn't pay all that money for six weeks of boot camp to ignore advice that produced good results, so I put Thunder into the pen in front of his barn and tied him up. He wasn't happy, but the most damage he could accomplish, given the short lead this standing around exercise requires, was to paw indignantly. He was tied over a hump in the ground--a hump I wanted to remove anyway--so I just ignored him while he made the hump disappear. Three hours later, when I went out to untie and feed him, he was still pawing away. Dug a nice hole right there, with now-soft dirt all around it, and all I have to do is rake it out. You go, Thunder!

After I turned him loose, he threw a fit. Yelled out to Laurie's horses (they ignored him) while he danced, trotted, paced, walked, and snorted around the pen. Yawn. Nobody cares, Thunder. I'm keeping an eye on him to make sure he doesn't knock down the stock panels. Four hours later, he's still at it, but he's going a lot slower now. I'm going to bed. It's been a big day.

Thunder's pen3/20/12 - Yesterday afternoon, just before a short-lived snowfall set in, I switched on the current to the perimeter fence for Thunder's paddock paradise, checked the voltage at the beginning and end of the circuit, and opened the gates to the pen.

Thunder's been cooped up in the 36x36' pen in front of the barn since he returned from Mackie's a week ago. Oh, he goes out for a couple of hours every day, but that's to do my bidding--to run trotted circles, follow me on a lead at a respectful distance, practice various desensitizing games involving plastic bags, perform flexion exercises, submit to grooming, saddling, bitting, and other tasks. It's not leisure.

(In case any of us think he's a black horse, he's actually a bay, as the afternoon sun on his winter coat attests.)

The barn and pen lie inside the perimeter fence. There's a gate on both the east and west sides of the pen, so Thunder can move freely from the pen into the larger area enclosed by the perimeter fence. After I opened the gates, he ambled out the west gate, then turned around and ambled across the pen to go out the open east gate. He turned back into the pen by way of the east gate and went out the west gate. He completed this maneuver several times, as though he couldn't quite believe it was possible. Then he kicked up his hind legs while pivoting on his forelegs, farted, and loped off into the wind and snow. He appreciates the freedom, I think.

He spent the night out (at least I guess he did--the gates were open all night) and spent all of today wandering from one tree to another, munching juniper berries and whickering softly the way he does when he's especially pleased. It was too cold and windy to work with him today, and besides, I wanted to work on insulators and tensioners for the three exclosure fences, so he got the day off. Tomorrow we ride.

3/29/12 - My hands are stiff and callused. My fingertips are rough as sandpaper. I've worn out two pairs of jeans and my lips are permanently sunburned. I have newly defined muscles in my sore arms and although 50 pounds isn't so heavy as it used to be, I still struggle to lift an 80 lb. bag of Sakrete from the ground. The certainty that the plumber wouldn't show up when he said he would is a distant bad memory.

The odious trenchIt seems like months since I started building a paddock paradise for Thunder. Oh. Wait. It HAS been months. Heck, Thunder's been living in the construction site for a month. The project has been defined by a trench dug at the same time the concrete pad for the barn was poured. The trench holds a water line and electrical conduit to provide these amenities to the barn. It also holds a French drain to carry away the small amount of wastewater that will come from the sink in the tack room. I've been stumbling over these piles of dirt and trying not to fall into the trench to the barn for six weeks. Why it had to be out there for so long is the plumber's doing, of course.

trenchfilledToday, glorious happy today, I finished backfilling the trench.

Since the plumber finished, Ted has been able to get started on the electrical infrastructure. I've been filling the drain part of the trench with three cubic yards of 1" gravel, one spadeful at a time. That was the easy part. The hard part was backfilling over the gravel with the cloddy soil and the ever-present rocks that came out of the trench in the first place.

I finished the perimeter and exclosure fencing last week. Now Thunder can wander around the tracks and discover the interesting things along them. Ironically, he hasn't taken to the concept readily. He's been hanging out under two juniper trees, munching the berries. One of the trees is near the barn. The other tree is close to the fence his paddock shares with Laurie's. There's no evidence he's been anywhere else, so to entice him to explore, I've been dropping hay in a trail of breadcrumbs that leads from the barn toward sections he hasn't investigated. The strategy works. When I left the barn this afternoon, I saw him wander over to an intersection and head down a track he'd never been in on his own before. Most gratifying!

I'm wandering around the tracks myself every day, digging up noxious plants (locoweed, rattleweed) and moving rocks to create pathways that make walking out there a little easier (for me--the rocks are good for Thunder). These are laborious endeavors and involve significant amounts of bending over. Thunder follows me around when I work in the track where his hay is spread. I imagine he thinks I'm grazing, but he wonders why I eat rocks.

The only jobs that remain are easy and pleasant ones. Hooks, counters, and shelving in the tack room, wiring and light fixtures, and the daily routines of owning a horse.

Perhaps you can imagine how thrilled I am to have this project FINISHED!

My horse fantasy4/1/12 - When I was about six years old, I spent a lot of time playing horse. I would lope around the yard, find things to jump over, imagining that I was riding a horse, or pretending to BE a horse. When we went camping, I would take off on the campground trails and do the same thing, except it was even more fun because the mountain campgrounds of Colorado and Utah always had a clear, cold, rocky stream nearby to jump over and splash in. In my imagination, I was independent and wild. Nobody told me what to do. There was nobody around to fight or bicker or criticize or use me as a pawn in a power struggle. My horse and I together were all we needed.

My horse never stumbled because I let him find his way to dance over the rough patches of trail. He could climb mountains without tiring and he protected me from bears and wolves. As we ran, the wind rushed over our faces and blew his mane and tail straight out behind. It was the best fantasy a kid could have. It still is.

Now that the barn and paddock are finished, I can devote a lot of time to catching up with the horsewomanship I've missed over the past 40 years. Thunder and I work together almost every day on the skills we learned at Mackie's boot camp.

I'm learning fast how to help Thunder when he becomes fearful or wants to return to the safety of home. He occasionally still tries his lateral evasive lurch, designed to launch me into the air and get me off his back so he can run back to the barn, but the maneuver no longer works. I stay aboard and, although it might take a long time to get there, he ends up doing what I want him to and neither of us gets hurt.

I'm learning what it means to let the horse move me as we travel. I've discovered how to sit deep in the saddle and how to balance close over Thunder's neck when he advances up a steep arroyo bank or hops over a ditch. Every day I ride with better balance. The mysteries of the sitting trot are unfolding. I can feel Thunder's movement smooth out when I hold the reins just so. If I miss a turn on the way back down the trail toward home, Thunder stops and looks at me quizzically. He charges up the flanks of Flury Mountain and does not tire easily--his cardiovascular fitness has come a long way since last summer when I led him up hills and he huffed and puffed while I charged ahead. He picks his way carefully among the rocks on the trail or off. He weaves down the trails and is learning to pay meticulous attention to what he's doing. Over difficult terrain, of which there is plenty around, all I have to do is stay out of his way and direct him only with my legs. He's learning to take care of me.

The reality is as good as the fantasy. Well, sometimes it is.

4/5/12 - Thunder and I have been doing so delightfully well since he came back from boot camp that I believed he would do just fine on a trail-clearing ride up Allie Canyon with the Back Country Horsemen. I proofed Thunder for lopping high branches from the saddle and he stood patiently while I wiggled and chopped with heavy loppers over both our heads. He didn't flinch when the branches fell down onto his neck. He's been a trooper on steep slopes and is learning to pick his way carefully among the rocks both up and down really steep trails. He goes along for the ride when we're with other horses and doesn't bother anybody. These are skills he learned at boot camp, along with loading himself into a trailer.

I didn't think to proof him on trailer loading. Sure enough, the morning of the ride he refused to load. It's a common problem horse owners have. I even allowed extra time for loading before we had to leave just in case Thunder was a butthead about it. I didn't know how big a butthead he could be, or for how long, but I think I understand even better what Mackie meant when he described Thunder as "a lot of horse." It means stamina, which means Thunder can keep something up for a long time, whether it's something I want him to do or not.

The program for getting a reluctant steed to load is to lunge him at the trot until he figures out he's working too hard and that all he has to do is hop on board and he'll get left alone, which is what he really wants.

I ran Thunder around in trotted circles for several minutes after his first refusal, and his second, and third, ad infinitum. I didn't allow enough time for him to figure out the solution to our dilemma. With great disappointment in him and me over the fact that I would miss the chance to show off his superb trail skills and behavior, I sent Laurie and Pepe off without Thunder and me. On a crest of rising frustration that I haven't experienced since the last time I had to solve somebody's inexplicable software problem before I retired, I tied Thunder up in Laurie's round pen and walked up to her gate so I could stomp myself back down to a state of relative calm while I formed a strategy for what to do next.

The strategy for the day involved going on a many-hour ride at Ft. Bayard. It was a good, strenuous trip and by the time it was over, Thunder wasn't particularly tired, but I was. He lost a couple of tension straps from his boots (the straps were worn out anyway) and fussed mightily when we headed up Twin Sisters Creek and passed the spot where he thought we should turn to go home. I had actually intended to go home, but when he sets up a fuss, I can't let him get away with it, so we rode for another two hours. When I got myself back to the house, I had that residual surfing feeling one gets after a day of downwind sailing. I never quite got over being frustrated and mad at Thunder--if a horse doesn't do right, it's because his operator didn't do right--and by bedtime I was full of anguish for being mad. It felt like the end of the world and I just knew that I'd ruined everything with this horse and he would never forgive me for being mad.

By morning, my perspective returned. I hadn't beaten Thunder or even yelled at him. I just stomped around on my own, in a bad mood for the rest of the day and it seemed more heinous than it really was because I'm so out of practice at being in a bad mood.

Laurie dropped off her trailer so I can practice loading. The Baja could never pull a horse trailer, but I hitched it up anyway for stability at Laurie's suggestion. After I finished some chores, the fun began.

This is not my trailer

I had all the time in the world to work with Thunder until he figured out what he needed to do. I knew he would go in eventually and I thought it might take as long as an hour, him bein' a lot of horse and all. We walked to the open doors of the trailer and I asked him to go in. He had two choices. He could either go forward, into the trailer, or try to escape. His path to the right was blocked by a trailer door. It didn't occur to him to move backward. His way to the left was blocked by me. His eyes took on a look of terror and he stepped on my foot as he charged over me, the barrier of least magnitude. He got a good smack for that and we immediately started trotting a circle to the left.

Not us, but this is what we didFive circles at the trot and I offered him the opportunity to go in. He tried to go around the outside of the right-hand trailer door. Five more circles to the left, then five circles to the right, and I offered again to let him go in. He stopped at the entrance and moved his hips to the right and didn't even consider the possibility of stepping in. Ten circles to the left, then ten to the right. Another offer and another refusal. Fifteen circles, right and left. Then 20 circles. Then 30 circles. After a while I didn't even get dizzy anymore.

Thunder's face took on a look of worry, then of annoyance as the number of circles following refusals grew to the point where I quit counting. Then Thunder started to sweat. Soon after when given an opportunity to hop on, instead of moving his hips to the right, he just stood at the doorway and seemed to think about the matter for several seconds. Then he decided on his own that he would rather trot some more than set one hoof inside that awful trailer and circled away to the left without any request from me. I laughed. He looked perplexed. He repeated the pause at the door a few more times and then just stood without moving. I tapped him on the butt with my lunge stick. He refused to enter and we trotted some more.

Then, after 42 minutes of this (he's a lot of horse, you know) when I asked him to enter the trailer, he stopped at the door and clomped in when I tapped him on the butt. Just like that. Just like Mackie said he would. Just like I knew he would if I had time to see it through, which I did.

Thunder stuck his schnoz into the manger at the front of the trailer and started munching on the hay I put there for just this blessed event. I hooked up the chain at the door so he couldn't get out and went up to the outside window, full of love and good boys. Then got some water for him and lubed my own parched throat as well. I don't mind so much that Thunder wants to do all that work, but it's an irony of horsemanship, I suppose, that Thunder makes me work as hard as he does.

We're taking an early evening ride later today, after which we'll work on entering the trailer. Might take 42 minutes or more. We'll see.

5/18/12 - Thunder took only five minutes to load into Laurie's trailer after that grueling 42 minutes the first time we tried (see previous page). These days he either hops right in or needs just the impetus of a lunged circle or two, then he hops right in. He behaves better in every respect. He stands still when I mount. He doesn't panic as easily now and if he does panic, he gets over it quickly. He doesn't fuss much about going back to the barn--he fusses a little now and then and he's always eager to go home, but he's not out of control at all. He's calm and easy when we go riding alone. He's OK around other horses, too. I am a lucky woman indeed.

I've been riding him nearly every other day and it's paying off. I've been on two trail maintenance rides with the Backcountry Horsemen. On Thunder's first experience with this group he was a little jumpy, but he settled down well enough to move up the trail. He kept running up on the horse in front, so I had to keep backing him off, but he didn't make anybody mad. The second ride he behaved like a perfect gentleman and--without my having to rein him in--consistently stayed well back from the horse ahead. It was a long ride, 16 miles of steep terrain, at the end of which I was more tired than Thunder was. I've stopped feeling sorry for him that he has to work so hard to carry my big ass around. He is well compensated for his effort and it doesn't look to me like it's much effort for him.

Beat-up ThunderI was out of town over the weekend and I didn't ride Thunder for the day before I left and two days after I got back. Thunder was rested and feisty, so the first day we did some ground work in Laurie's round pen to take the edge off. He was all saddled up and we were lungeing at liberty. I asked him to trot. He turned his butt toward me, kicked out at me, and promptly fell down. He slid into and along one of the round pen's panels and scraped up his face. He was quite subdued after that.

I don't feel sorry for him. That's what he gets for being a wiseacre.

6/2/12 - The day is windy on the leading edge of a cold front. Thunder is jittery. We are taking an uneasy ride past the coyote tank, a currently dry stock pond that we pass when we take the ranch road up to the bowling alley. We've been past it hundreds of times and that's the problem. Never before has a large and terrifying hay bale been deposited in the coyote tank.

A neighbor who runs cattle on the open range around here is feeding hay to his herd because the drought has mostly eliminated their customary forage. All that remains for them is last year's dry grass and the bovines are looking haggard. A dry stock tank is a suitable place for a 500 lb. hay bale to lie until they discover it and make it vanish. Cows are not afraid of hay.

Thunder sees the bale and snorts, then shies, then backs up, then turns tail to run from it. The bale is unimpressed and just sits there. Thunder fights the bit, stiffens his neck, jigs and paws, twists and turns. Horses do not multitask, so when they have a fit about something, a rider needs to make them think about something else. I go into control mode, during which I execute various maneuvers designed to give him alternative to ponder. He relaxes a little and we move forward. He sees the hay bale again and panics again. He tries, he really does, to get past it, but he can't get his head around it.

You're not supposed to let horses get away with stuff like this, but I can tell he will only get more upset if we proceed past the perceived threat. I compromise with him. There's no inherent need for us to travel to our destination by way of the coyote tank, so we turn off the road and head calmly cross-country away from the hay bale. That makes us both happy.

The bowling alleyWe make our way down the bowling alley, the easement alongside a neighbor's ranch that provides access to the forest. I want to investigate a trail off the Sawmill Wagon Road. Thunder brushes his nose against foliage we pass. We ride into the trail, which looks to be the remains of a logging road from the 1800s when the U.S. Army troops at Ft. Bayard clear-cut the forest. The trail peters out a half-mile from its origin, so we head back the way we came. That makes Thunder happy.

Back on the Sawmill Wagon Road, he stops suddenly, head up, alert to something off to our left that I cannot see. I urge him forward and he refuses, so whatever he sees is not a mule deer; if it were, he'd figure that out quickly and move ahead. He suggests we take an alternative path through the trees to the right and I agree. We make a big half-circle around the scary place and then return to the road. I look carefully as we go and I still see nothing, but I've seen both bear and lion tracks up here, so I trust Thunder's cautious instincts.

Thunder's pace picks up as we ride down Twin Sisters Creek. He knows the way and can take us home reliably without much help from me. He brushes his nose on the same foliage he brushed against on the way up, maybe to keep track of where he is and who else has passed by.

A Moody Blues song, In the Eyes of a Child, plays in my head. Our trip is calm and pleasant. Thunder's rhythmic rocking gait feels like a downwind sail. The breeze shoos the flies away and offers the scent of something spicy and familiar from childhood forays in the western wilderness. I'm full of joy and wonder at the magic of this fine animal, who puts up with a girth around his belly to hold the saddle snug, which I think must feel like wearing a bra that's too tight on a hot day.

Cindy Martinez's cowsWe return to the bowling alley. A quarter mile from its exit onto the ranch road, I see Cindy Martinez's black cow and calf standing on their side of the fence (the fence that has barbed wire) by the bowling alley gate. Thunder doesn't see them. I think "this oughta be interesting." Thunder is uneasy about cows and he's never seen them in this particular place before.

This particular place is 10' wide with four-strand barbed wire on the Martinez side, straight wire electric fence on Gail's side, and a closed gate on the end. It's not the best place to take a horse who's about to get a big surprise. I draw his attention to the animals ahead. He finally sees them and refuses to go another step forward. He stiffens, twists, jigs, turns, sees the barbed wire, turns away from it, sees the electric fence, decides he is trapped, and begins to melt down. I consider dismounting, but figure I'm safer on Thunder's back. There's no room to maneuver here, so we turn away to return to the forest gate, adjacent to which is a gate onto Gail's ranch, from which we can get back to the ranch road without directly encountering the cattle.

Thunder is beside himself for the entire 10 minutes it takes to get to Gail's gate. Fortunately, much of the footing in the bowling alley is tricky, so he has to occupy his tiny little brain with the fine points of staying upright. I dismount to open the gate. As soon as we get through, Thunder begins to melt down again. With some difficulty, I mount up and we head for the open pasture where we can ride circles, flex, back up, yield shoulders and hindquarters, any intense work that will give Thunder something else to do besides panic. He is calmer when we get back to the ranch road, but he's still jumpy. He looks where the cows were and sees that they are gone, but isn't comforted by their absence. We cross the road and head up the flank of Flury Mountain, where the slope will make him huff and puff and the footing will force him to pay attention. An hour of hard riding on Flury helps and we head home.

As we stop to open the gate at home, I see Thunder is still trembling. Having experienced anxiety all my life, I know this is hard work for him and I know his neck and shoulders will be in spasm, requiring laser and massage treatment.

We won't ride tomorrow. He'll need an interval in a place he knows is safe so he can get his feet back on the ground.

6/11/12 - Not too smokey, not to windy, not too hot yesterday. A good day for a ride from one side of Ft. Bayard (where I live) to the other (where my friend Donna lives).

badNMroadDonna hates our ranch road, 3.5 miles of ruts, rocks, gravelly slopes, and (worst of all) washboarding, which she really hates because it beats up her rig.

An alternative to having Donna drive up here is for Thunder and me to ride over to her place, where we can load up the horses and hop right on the paved road that's about 100 yards from her barn.

The road to Donna'sAs the crow flies, the distance to Donna's is about 4-1/3 miles. Since horses don't fly, the riding distance is closer to seven miles.

It's a nice ride, though. Once the trail makes a sharp turn to the northeast , it's relatively rock-free and not too steep. The Forest Service has thoughtfully placed a trough with a more-or-less reliable water supply at the Badlands corral about halfway along. You wouldn't want to drink it yourself, but the horses are thirsty by then and go right for it. Cloudy green water! Yum!

The route through the roasting countryside has just enough shade to keep a rider from hallucinating. The unshaded open country, where the sun pounds with tympannic resonance, offers expansive views of, well, more open space and the mountains that form the edges of what at this droughty moment is the searing bottom of a skillet on a fired-up woodstove. It's a tolerable thing, though, as long as you're wearing a hat and have water you don't have to share with the horses.

Once we got to Donna's, we tethered the horses, loosened their girths, took off their bridles, and left 'em to their own devices while we went to the house for ice water and other comforts. After a while in the shade on Donna's back porch, chatting with David and laughing about the time he stood in line for two hours to ask John Lyons, "Are those your real teeth?" A very funny guy, David is, giving the business to a horse industry High Poobah who takes himself too seriously.

Donna and I fetched the horses and headed back out onto Ft. Bayard. Donna's horse had been acting like a stinker about following Thunder on the way over, so she wanted to try a different bit on him and see if it would make him a little more compliant. Thunder, who had been mostly compliant on the way over, was the stinker on the way back. He was bucking and fussing in a way I've never seen him do before, and acted up every time the trail bent sharply or topped a crest.

Thunder's latest injuryHe settled down presently, as he always does, but when I got home and removed his boots, I wondered why he settled down at all. I found an abrasion and a laceration on the heel bulb of one of his front feet, and crumpled padding on the corresponding location of the corresponding boot. When Thunder is frustrated or bored, he crosses one foot over the other and tries to peel off his boots. He was apparently doing that and snagged the heel of the boot, dislodging the padding so that the plastic boot was rubbing directly on his heel. Poor guy! No wonder he was being a stinker.

If one can draw a conclusion from the quantity of horse first aid supplies on the market (pages and pages in the catalogs), horses sustain a lot of injuries. In my case it's usually because I did something thoughtless that allowed an injury to occur. Thunder's patience and dispensation are his gifts to me. They are generous gifts, given the dumb mistakes I make. Next time Thunder has to stand around, I'll take his boots off. He's off the trail until the laceration heals (with help from a gentle rinse and Vetericyn four times a day); the boot won't go back on until it does.

Roping saddle6/25/12 - In my immediate world exist western saddles and English saddles. When I learned a little bit about horses and riding back in 1974, I had one of each. The English saddle required poise and balance to ride in. It was lightweight and elegant. The western saddle was a minimalist roping saddle, sort of like the one shown at right. It was comfortable, but I still liked the English saddle more.

Thunder and I have been riding in a vintage Circle Y western saddle that fits us both superbly. It's bulky and heavy though, and I had in mind that a lighter-weight saddle would be better. Why carry around 30 lbs. of leather when you can get a saddle that weighs significantly less? Also, there's the matter of the saddle horn. Ever take a horn in the ribs when your horse decides to lie down in a cool stream and you can't get him under control before he does?

Tucker equitation endurance saddleSince my last encounter with saddles in the 1970s, the market now offers the endurance saddle. Endurance saddles appear to me to be a hybrid of English, western, and Australian saddles. They are hornless (a positive feature) and lightweight (another plus).

Tucker Saddles makes an endurance saddle that has English billets and stirrup leathers, allowing a rider to assume a balanced seat and to post the trot gracefully. It weighs only 21 lbs.

Tucker markets the saddle as ideal for riders crossing over from English tack. Yippee! That's for me!

I took careful measurements on Thunder according to instructions from Tucker and sent them in to the vendor ( along with lateral photographs of my handsome steed. The Horse Saddle Shop called me back and advised that the measurements indicated Thunder would need an extra-wide tree (a tree is the frame on which all that saddle leather sits). They didn't have one in stock, but Tucker would make one up and drop ship it to me.

I questioned the need for an extra-wide tree. Thunder doesn't seem to be particularly wide (he's a Tennessee Walker, not a draft horse), but I checked and re-checked the measurements and I know they were correct. The vendor assured me the saddle would fit.

A rotating TuckerThe saddle arrived about six weeks later. It was gorgeous. It seemed to fit just fine. It left a complete and uniform sweat pattern on Thunder, which meant that it sat evenly on his back and didn't apply pressure unevenly. The only problem was what happened when I mounted or dismounted. The saddle rotated laterally in an alarming way.

"That's no good," advised Donna, the retired saddle maker with whom I ride. "You can't fix that with padding or a tighter girth. You can't fix it at all. It means the tree is too wide."

Donna was puzzled, though, because the saddle seemed to fit Thunder perfectly in every other respect. She analyzed the various mechanisms that would make a saddle do this and decided that the extra-wide tree caused the bars of the tree to sit at the wrong angle to Thunder's sides. That allowed the tree to break contact with Thunder's back when lateral force, such as that of mounting and dismounting, was applied. "Send it back," she said, and then apologized profusely for being a know-it-all. Geez, a know-it-all is exactly what I need, being a know-essentially-nothing myself.

I called the Horse Saddle Shop and told 'em what happened. They were wonderful about it. Told me to send it back and they would exchange it for the same saddle with a wide tree (instead of extra-wide). It will be here some time next week.

7/13/12 - First there were other people's horses. "I don't need a horse of my own," I intoned. "I can ride all those horses out there whose owners don't have the time or energy to do it themselves." That lasted about seven months. Then I bought my own horse, who needed feed and tack and a barn to store them in, as well as a paddock. The barn needed water and electricity. The paddock needed fencing. With all that in place, the horse needed a trailer. The trailer needed a truck. So here I am, a horse owner with all the bells and whistles. "I told you not to swallow that fly," says my sister.

Thunder's trailerWhen I looked at the used 2004 Trails West two-horse slant-load, it looked great. The seller has a reputation for taking care of her stuff and the trailer showed it. Here it is, sitting wide open to dry out after I spent three days cleaning and disinfecting the interior. Sigh. The trailer is in good mechanical condition, but by the time I brought it home, it didn't look so great. Before I picked it up from the seller, she asked me if she could use it to transport a horse a mile down the road. Naturally, I said "Sure."

Why the heck not?

Why the heck not is because it never occurred to me that the seller would leave the trailer with all the stuff that accumulates during a horse transport. It looked pretty bad and smelled worse. The seller was out of town when I drove out to her ranch to get the trailer, so I couldn't confront her with the mess. I probably wouldn't have anyway, being the nice lady that I am, and I would have just sucked it up instead of confronting her. When something like this takes me by surprise, I revert to my pre-rescue-squad wussiness. Aw, nuts. It's clean now, but the clothes I was wearing don't smell so great. Ted suggests that we burn them instead of contaminating the washing machine with them.

The delay in picking up the trailer occurred because I didn't have a vehicle to tow it with. I have one now, though, and the car payments to go with it. Grumble, grumble. In addition to saying I didn't need a horse of my own, I also made the big fat statement that I would never buy a General Motors vehicle because they threw Saturn under the bus. We've owned three Saturns. Darn fine cars, outstanding service, no haggling over the price. At the dawn of Saturn, GM said, "Well, ok. You can have your little experiment with radical thinking, marketing, service, design. We'll even give you some engineers to help you out. But don't tell anybody. If you fail, we don't want to be associated with you. You're on your own."

Saturn didn't fail, of course, so GM decided to meddle (GM motto: Competence=failure). GM poured a billion or so bucks into Saturn to grow the brand. I'm not sure where the money went; in our third Saturn, we noticed that the seats had been cheapied out and the vehicle had transmission problems from the start. Way to go, GM. Take a viable business model and see how fast you can destroy it. Grumble, grumble.

Everybody in the horse business in southern New Mexico said "Ya gotta have a diesel and a 3/4 ton 4x4 truck," and then enumerated the many valid reasons. I listened politely and asked Ted, who's been a diesel mechanic, and my neighbor, Laurie, who hauls her horses all over southern New Mexico with a 1/2 ton 4x4 Toyota, for their opinions. Ted didn't think I needed a diesel, if only for the reason that a diesel engine adds eight thousand smackers to the price of the vehicle. Laurie says she hates the odor of diesel, and she doesn't have any trouble with her gasoline-powered rig. I've driven it loaded with horses. Laurie's truck does just fine. So I went a-hunting for a gas-engine truck.

Thunder's truckI found one in Las Cruces and two days later brought it home. It has an 8' bed (looks like a bowling alley lane when you view it from the rear with the tailgate down), heavy-duty towing package, towing capacity of 6,500 lbs., transmission cooling system, a tow-haul mode that automatically lets the transmission assist in braking on down-grades. It's well-designed and comfortable. And fertheluvamike, it's a GM product, a Chevy Silverado. The things I said I'd never do!

Tucker endurance saddle7/20/12 - You might remember where today's post first began, a couple of months ago when I ordered a beautiful new Tucker endurance saddle, which turned out to be designed for a medieval war horse instead of Thunder's Tennessee Walker frame. I returned the saddle to the vendor, who exchanged it for the next size down. My retired-saddle-maker friend, Donna, snorted that one size down probably wouldn't be enough, but it was worth a try.

The replacement arrived and I tried it out for a couple of days. It was comfortable for me, showed no signs of slippage, and the sweat pattern on Thunder's back indicated it fit him fine. I figured I would keep it.

On Tuesday Thunder and I trotted out for a ride, heading for the Twin Sisters. We travel through three gates along the way, each of which requires dismounting to open it and remounting after we get through. Mounting and dismounting caused the first iteration of the new saddle to rotate around Thunder's belly, but the second iteration didn't show any evidence of that malady.

Just beyond the elk preserve, I discovered that the Sawmill Wagon Road Trail, which leads up to the Continental Divide Trail (my ultimate destination), has been blocked with logs, brush, and slash as though the trail has been closed. I made a note to call the Forest Service and find out what the deal is, since that trail doesn't lead to and is dozens of miles from the wildfire area and also since I haven't read anything about trail closures up there. I'll call right now. Stand by.

Ok. Nobody knows anything. The Forest Service will investigate and call me back.

Since my intended trail was closed, Thunder and I took another trail that leads to what was a little stream the last time I was up there. I wondered how it was doing in the face of this extended drought; if it had water, Thunder might take advantage of it. We rode on up. No water. We turned around to go home.

A gate stands at the corner of the elk preserve, one of the three that Thunder and I passed through on our way up. I hopped off, opened it, and lead Thunder through. I stepped into the stirrup, threw my leg over Thunder's back, and the saddle lurched abruptly to the left. Thunder apparently thought he had a cougar on his back and bolted. I hit the ground and screeched with my customary declaration of bad words. By the time I got back on my feet, Thunder was out of sight and I couldn't even hear his hoofbeats.

Meh. Thunder knows this trail well and I knew I would find him waiting for me at the forest-end gate of the bowling alley, about two-and-a-half miles away. It was a nice day for a walk, but I worried about the condition in which I would find the saddle, which clearly had to be returned for a smaller size.

Panic snapAlong the path I came across the south-bound tracks of Thunder's booted feet and the lead rope that I attach to his saddle, in the manner of trail riders, so I can tether him with the halter he wears under his bridle when we stop for a rest or lead him if we hit a patch of trail that's too challenging to ride. The lead rope has a panic snap, equipped with a barrel that you twist to open. I don't know how they can call it a panic snap because I need two hands to open it. I've often wondered how I could possibly release fast in an emergency, but obviously Thunder knows how to get it off without any help from me. I was glad to find the lead rope. It's a nice one, silky and easy on the hands, and it doesn't pick up burrs and grit.

Waffle stomperA little farther down the trail I found the bottom half of Thunder's left-rear hoof boot, which I was also glad to find because it costs $45 to replace. Hoof boots make a distinctive print in the dirt, similar to that of hiking boots: boot-boot-boot-boot. After the spot where I picked up the boot, Thunder's prints went like this: boot-boot-boot-bare hoof. Made me laugh.

I didn't find any more debris along the trail and I found Thunder at the gate, just as I knew I would, standing with the saddle all akimbo on his left side, almost under his belly, and looking at me like "Please fix this! It scares me!"

I saw some damage on the saddle, but the damage didn't worry me as much as the thunderstorm that was coming over the hill on the east side of Twin Sisters Creek or the possibility of having it lurch sideways again if I tried to hop on. I set the saddle straight, removed Thunder's bridle, hooked up the lead line (another reason I was glad to find it), opened the gate, and walked through. Since I didn't want to take another chance on the saddle, so I resigned myself to getting hit by lightning or at least getting wet, and to the saddle's getting wet, and we walked the rest of the way home.

Damaged saddleBack in the barn, I dried off the saddle and examined the damage, which struck me as tragic. A beautiful, brand new saddle, now dinged up and battered as though it's no more than a stupid automobile. The vendor certainly isn't going to be happy about taking it back in this condition, so I could be stuck with a damaged saddle that doesn't fit my horse and which I don't feel safe using.

I also noticed that one of the stirrups is missing, lost out on the trail somewhere, getting rained on and if it rains hard enough, washed downstream clear to Mexico. Thunder and I rode out yesterday looking for it, but we didn't find it. Sigh. Maybe we'll try again tomorrow.

This morning I took the saddle to Andrews Custom Saddles. John Andrews is an honest gentleman. He said he could fix it, but that the repair probably wouldn't be up to the vendor's like-new standards, which the vendor requires to accept a saddle for exchange. We decided it should go back to the manufacturer, who has the machinery and tools to put it right.

So now I await further instructions from the vendor and I still don't have a feather-weight saddle. I'm so disappointed.

Saddle underpad9/10/12 - The vendor's instructions were to return the saddle to the manufacturer if I wanted it repaired, but judging from the photos I sent of the damage, the vendor wouldn't be able to take the merchandise back. Sigh. So I dropped the saddle off at UPS and discussed with my friend, the ex-saddlemaker, Donna, the possibilities for making it work on Thunder when the manufacturer returns it to me. Donna suggested a thicker saddlepad and/or a thicker underpad might do the trick. I went with the thicker underpad because it's cheaper than a new saddlepad. Here it is at left, looking beat-up and dirty, which it is, in fact, after Thunder ground it into the dirt when he stepped on it while we were untacking. It's easy to clean, though. Just shake off the horsehair and dust and throw it into the washing machine on the delicate cycle. No detergent needed.

The pad has two layers of that foamy stuff they use to keep a person from banana-peeling onto his rear end when he slide-steps onto a rug. I have another pad similar to this one, but it has only one layer, which wasn't enough to stick tight to Thunder, hence the ensuing debacle and its remedy that I am describing in presumably sufficient detail.

Endurance saddlepadHow saddlery has changed in the 40 years since I didn't know very much more about it than I do now! Time was I purchased a cotton rag rug, folded it in half, slapped it on the horse, and threw a saddle over it. Didn't give any thought to whether the saddle actually fit the horse and it's probably a good thing I didn't have that horse for more than a couple of months before he kicked my butt, stepped on my hand, and help with the incentive to keep me away from horses for a very long time.

The underpad sits beneath the saddle pad, which is a 3/4-inch-thick affair made from what looks to be tough felted carpet padding, memory foam, and ballistic nylon.

The pad is designed specifically for endurance saddles, which (so far as I know) didn't exist way back in the late-middle phase of the previous century when I was last paying attention. The memory foam in the pad (same stuff as in the mattress in my bed) protects the horse by filling in gaps formed by the difference in shape between the saddletree and the horse's back.

Repaired saddleThe saddle came back a couple of weeks ago. The shredded cantle leather has been repaired and the missing stirrup replaced. Actually, both stirrups were replaced because the manufacturer wouldn't sell me just one, so now I have an extra stirrup. Maybe it'll come in handy some day. Anyway, the saddle is good-as-new enough for me.

I've ridden out with it several times with the new underpad and it sticks just where it should on Thunder's back. No rotating or shifting even after multiple dismounts and remounts to deal with gates along the trail.

I believe I'll keep it, although it feels different under me from the way my western saddle does and I have to learn how to stick tight in it.

So the saddle saga arrives at a satisfactory conclusion.

10/10/12 - Antonio, who lives in the bunkhouse at what's left of the XYZ Ranch, wrangles a diminishing remuda. When we moved to New Mexico, the herd consisted of three mules and three quarter horses. Two of the mules have crossed the great divide and their sunbleached bones rest out in the open below a stock tank dam off a nearby road. I told my friend Donna about the bones. She wanted a skull. So Thunder and I went over today to fetch one for her.

I found a skull and a mandible, brushed off the dirt, and placed them in a stuff sack that I thought would be way bigger than necessary, but was actually just the right size; equids have huge heads. I thought to tie the bag onto the back of the saddle and ride home, but Thunder didn't think it was a good idea. While he freaked out and ran in circles, the bone-loaded stuff sack flew off and hit the ground. When I picked it up, I heard several teeth rattling in the bag and I wondered if the bones would survive the ordeal.

Equid skullTurns out they did all right. The once-intact mandible is now in two pieces and lots of teeth are beyond repair, but I think Donna will be satisfied, especially since I did the legwork for her. When it became clear that Thunder had no interest in hauling that terrifying package, I slung it over my shoulder and hand walked us back to Black Dog Road. The bones got heavier and heavier, but at least Thunder was agreeable.

I called Ted to drive the Subaru down to pick up the bag of bones. Then Thunder and I had a nice gait up and down the road while we waited for Ted to arrive. After I loaded the bones into the Subaru and Ted drove off, I hopped back on Thunder and we had a pleasant ride home.

Jodie and Vermillion10/28/12 - I have a friend, Jodie, who likes horses, camping, learning, reading, being outdoors, laughing, and all the other things that really matter in life. She is a dancer (ballet companies in Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia) in one former life, an acupuncturist in another, and now teaches classes for a weird-but-effective little stool, Balimo. She's married to a guy who teaches English and drama in the public high school down in Lordsburg.

I like Jodie very much, especially her sense of humor and her sense of adventure. She renders gentle observations and delivers unassuming advice about horses, from which I benefit greatly.

She's been eager all summer to take the horses for a camping trip. A year ago, she bought a camper ("The Turtle") for the back of her truck. At the time, Jodie said she missed her tent, but now she admits she doesn't miss it as much as she used to.

Jodie and I hauled our horses to the Upper Gallinas campground, where the Gila Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen built six corrals with the blessing of the Forest Service. The campground is primitive. There's a unisex toilet and one picnic table. There's a stream that bisects the campground, but no potable water. If conditions are droughty, there's no water at all. Back Country Horsemen are resourceful, though, and Jodie has a 50-gallon water barrel in her horse trailer, as well as an ample potable water supply in the camper.

Black Range Crest Trail, looking northBlack Range Crest Trail, looking southThis is the kind of camping I swore I would never do--that which provides all the essential comforts of home--but I confess that it makes darn pleasant sleeping. Our first day out we rode the horses up Railroad Canyon. (This is the location of a bizarre incident last spring in which one Margaret Page and her cat had been reported missing for a month before the officials thought to look for her.) The trail climbs the mountain for a bit over 4 km up to the crest of the Black Range. From there, you can ride the ridge and commune with eternity to the north and infinity to the south. Well worth the strenuous hike to get there, but oh-so-much easier to ride a horse than to hike (another oath of youth crumbles like a day-old cake in a New Mexico kitchen.)

Campfire and Cindi's feetThere's no rule that says just because you have a camper you have to spend all your time in it. Back at the campground Jodie built a fire and I made Cindiritas (equal parts Triple Sec, Roses lime juice, tequilla over ice and mixed with ginger ale).

Next day we rode back up the canyon, but not so far. The horses weren't as vigorous as they should have been, so it seemed appropriate to give them some slack. Also, we were smokey and sooty and thinking about a shower back home.

Thunder and CindiWe rode to a delightful spot where oaks and pines fill a bowl at the intersection of the Railroad Canyon trail and the East Railroad Trail. I've never figured out why the trail names refer to railroads. There's no railroads on either one. Never was. 

Probably never will be.

After the rideWe returned to the campground. Jodie repaired to the camper for a nap.

The horses relaxed.


VermillionI had some fun with Jodie's horse.

10/31/12 - I like to do something that doesn't involve goblins on Halloween. Back east, Ted and I usually took a late season sail out on the bay. You who still live in the Mid-Atlantic region know how ambrosial the late October weather is, especially after a summer of muggy air that makes asthmatics wheeze. The early fall weather is tasty here, too, and begs one to head outside and do something remarkable.


Bear Canyon LakeThis year my friend Donna and I rode from the trailhead parking lot in nearby Ft. Bayard over the mountain into Bear Canyon. This was Thunder's and my third ride in Bear Canyon. A week earlier, I rode up there with another riding buddy, Marty, who lives near the canyon's mouth in Mimbres. Nobody ever talks about riding in Bear Canyon and I wanted to see what was up there. Marty had never ridden there and she was curious too.

We parked the trailers at the end of Bear Canyon Lake, saddled up, and rode over the hot, dry, rocky, bur-infested, cattle-humiliated Bear Canyon, where a couple of algae-beset concrete stock tanks failed to tempt our presumably thirsty horses. We went up the canyon for a couple of hours, then turned around and vowed we'll never do THAT again. No wonder nobody ever talks about it.

The upper reaches of Bear Canyon connect to several National Recreation Trails that originate at Ft. Bayard. I hiked up one of them a couple of years ago--the Wood Haul Wagon Road trail, which connects to the canyon on the cool, ponderosa-studded north face of the Piños Altos range. I've wanted to go back ever since. Marty said she'd come along for the ride and suggested we ask Donna.

Donna was enthusiastic. She says it's beautiful up there, but she always gets lost and she likes to go back to pin down the trails. The three of us rode up from Ft. Bayard the next Sunday and, sure enough, we lost the trail. We ended up in Bear Canyon, but not where Donna wanted to go. Marty and I were fine with that, however, having never been up there and finding it an adventure. Anyway, if ever I lose my bearings, Thunder has an unerring sense of where home is. All I have to do is turn him loose, sit back in the saddle, and let him take us there, which he will do with dispatch and determination.

The following Wednesday, Donna and I rode up there again. This time Donna found her trail and was a happy rider. Here's a map of the three trips:


And here are some photos:

View from the Wood Haul Wagon Road trailThis is a view of Flury Mountain in the mid-ground. (The mountain is adjacent to our house. I've described my frequent hikes there; look in the Hiking section under the Fitness tab on this blog if you're curious.)

If you tumble off the cliff in the foreground, you end up in Cameron Creek, which has precious little water this year. Cameron Creek is fed from an aqueous lode known as Commanche Springs, which supplies water--and plenty of it--to Ft. Bayard.

Ft. Bayard is the reason there's no water in Cameron Creek, a painful irony since the fort hasn't been active for over a century. It housed a hospital for many years, but the hospital shut down recently, replaced by a sparkling new facility outside the fort boundary. Nobody except the Forest Service and recreational users pays any attention to Ft. Bayard these days. Only the Forest Service has access to the water. The public must supply its own, unless you know where the stock tanks are.

Donna's trail

This is the trail into Bear Canyon that Donna has such a hard time with. No wonder! The path is used by so few people that you have to know exactly what to look for even to SEE it.

The Forest Service has blazed trees and built cairns along the way, but they are easy to miss when you're distracted by an October day, the fresh air, the scenery, and how cute you think your horse's ears are.

Donna strapped orange flagging tape around trees between the Forest Service blazes and cairns. She says she'll go back up soon and take down the flags, replacing them with cairns of her own.

She was delighted to find the trail, which she had found once before, but then couldn't find it when she tried the next time. I feel her pain. I've been trying to get back to Commanche Springs for some time now, and I've never been able to find the trail again.

In Bear Canyon

Down in Bear Canyon, scraggly drought-striken aspens pin down the rubble at the base of the canyon wall.

Donna rides in Bear CanyonDonna rides ahead under an oak tree at the creek bottom, while the afternoon wears on and the time to turn for home approaches.

The upper reaches of Bear Canyon are far more pleasant than the lower reaches.

We'll be going up there again.



11/4/12 - Remember the Sawmill Wagon Road trail that goes up Twin Sisters Creek? I spent about six months of our first year in New Mexico finding a way to get from my back door to the Continental Divide Trail so that I wouldn't have to drive to a trailhead. I did it the hard way, of course, using safety criteria that turned out to be more stringent than necessary. The primary criterion was the admonishment all hikers in the desert southwest must heed--stay out of the arroyos and creeks to avoid drowning by flash flood. I thought therefore that I should never venture into that kind of terrain, nor even get close to it. Yeah, well, "never" is too big a word for this particular application. I now know how infrequently flash floods occur there and that they do so during weather when I wouldn't be there in the first place. That's the theory, anyway.

In defense of my own over-caution, the trail I developed through the elk preserve effectively avoids the shoulder-high weeds that grow in some places along Twin Sisters Creek. The weeds don't bother Thunder, although they do crud-up his velcro boot straps with seeds and stickers, so they still bother me--I have to clear the debris to keep the velcro functional--but they don't hinder our travel. Being the wonder horse that Thunder is, if the water were to rise suddenly, he would know it was coming long before I did; nothing I could do would prevent him from taking evasive action. So the easy way to get to the gate at the Sawmill Wagon Road trail is to ride straight up Twin Sisters Creek (and pick out the Velcro after we get home). Ironically, the Forest Service put up a sign at the gate indicating the direction and distance to the Continental Divide Trail. I saw it for the first time today and wondered how much time it would have saved me if I'd seen it earlier.

Thunder wasn't enthusiastic about riding this morning. He plugged along like an old woman with a tennis ball missing from her walker. I got exasperated now and then and hopped off and led him over the rockiest parts of the trail because I can hike faster than he wanted to go. That didn't really help; it felt like I was pulling a dead tractor, locked in gear. Nevertheless, I suppose it was the right thing to do. I've been working Thunder with boots only on his fore feet, so on this trip his hind feet were bare. Maybe the rocky terrain was more than he was ready to handle, which would explain his slug-like movement. I'll give him the benefit of a doubt.

The trail has an interesting point near a spring that runs almost year 'round, even in the second season of this drought. The spring is at the confluence of three sizeable ravines, down which water periodically flows in abundant quantities. That action has formed a verdant meadow where one can graze a horse, pitch a tent, build a campfire in the fire ring someone thoughtfully constructed, and watch the stars before bedtime.

Above the meadow the merely rocky trail gets steep AND rocky for a short distance before the rocks give way to a pine-needle covered path. I climbed back aboard Thunder there and enjoyed the ride. We both saw something moving in the woods off the trail to our left. I couldn't tell what it was--probably deer, but I couldn't see them.

Then we detected movement toward the right, and ahead of us, and slightly behind us. Whatever it was, there was more than one.


coatiI saw something low to the ground moving through the shadows off to our left--a long tail, held in an erect, catlike way. Skunk? No, too long, too thin. When it passed into the sunshine, the tail revealed its attachment a rusty brown body. Then more movement up ahead caught my eye. A coatimundi clinging to a trunk peeked around the tree at us. Another skittered across the trail and two more darted away on the right. I noticed several more surrounding us as Thunder started to jig the way he does before he panics.

Aw nuts! Here was a photo opportunity I would never have again--not just one coati, but a dozen or more!--and I had to keep this fatuous horse under control. He gave it up (to my surprise) rather easily as the group dispersed, but he moved through the area hastily, the way he should have been moving all morning. Maybe if I carry a couple of coatis in my saddle bag, I can release one whenever Thunder gets pokey.

The remainder of the ride to the Continental Divide Trail was uneventful. We passed the spot where I camped a couple of years ago and where I stashed a couple of gallons of water. The water is probably still there, but its quantity is so inconsequential in light of the needs of a horse that I didn't bother to confirm its presence.

Thunder expresses an opinionWe paused for a while before heading back down the trail for home. Thunder considered the dry, dry forage available to him and expressed his opinion about the morning's events.


11/30/12 - The Forest Service opened up a new section of the Continental Divide Trail in the Burros Mountains a couple of weeks ago. My friend, Jodie, who lives in an inholding of private land surrounded by the Burros section of the Gila National Forest, invited me out to ride on it--provided we could find it. The trail section is open, but not finished, so the signage in a region laced by cow trails, dry arroyos, logging roads, fences, and ranch tracks might be hard to find. The USFS's Gila trail project manager distributed a large-scale map that didn't look too helpful to me, but since Jodie lives out there, it gave her a pretty good idea where to look.

Oh boy! An adventure! A chance to get lost on horseback in the mountains! I trailered Thunder across town out to Mangas Valley and up Redrock Road to Jodie's place. We saddled up, put our mounts in Jodie's trailer, and dieseled off to the trailhead.

Logo for the Continental Divide TrailWe rode up a gentle, sandy ranch road and through a couple of gates. Jodie kept an eye out for the signage promised by the Forest Service map--or at least a CDT emblem stuck on a tree to reassure us that we were on the right track. A traveler needs to be vigilant in the Burros. There are so many trails, tracks, game paths, and ATV roads that it's easy to get disoriented. We rode into a rocky canyon that seemed to match a spot on the map, but the trail petered out at a dry (aren't they all) stock tank at the top of a steep and stony wash. We hopped off the horses and led them down the wash. The farther we went, the more we were sure we didn't want to back track. The wash had cow trails that wound around the four-foot-high precipices (they must be spectacular waterfalls when the wash is flowing), but cow trails aren't exactly easy hiking for one (me) who rides in impossible packer boots that have a cowboy heel.

We pushed on, maneuvering ourselves and our horses through enroaching trees and the rocks, logs, dead weeds, live weeds, twigs, and stumps that litter the wash. It was rough going. Thinking back on the hike, I can't decide if it was fun or not. Since everybody survived, I guess it was.

Jodie was pretty sure that we hadn't found the CDT, but she understands the "follow the drainage" concept and figured the wash would come out at Saddle Rock Road. It didn't, but it was nevertheless a road Jodie knows, one that comes out closer to her house than to the truck and trailer we left at the trailhead. We rode back to her house, wondering where we went wrong.

A few cups of tea and laughter later as we watched the horses horse around in Jodie's paddock, we loaded Thunder into my rig and drove back up to get Jodie's. We made plans to try again to find the trail.

Give us a sign!Western moonscapeJodie subsequently hiked with a neighbor who knew how to find the trail and we set out again today.

We found the CDT and it was grand. A sparkly new trail, with fresh shovel marks on the hinge, soft, uneroded footing, all the tree branches trimmed back. As delicious a ride as new asphalt under bicycle wheels, with a view of New Mexico's finest moonscape scenery.

I made it home with my camera, but my cell phone jumped out of its pouch and lies somewhere along the trail. Have to go back up there to see if we can find it. Oh darn!

12/9/12 - The day I lost my cell phone while Jodie and I were trying to find the Continental Divide Trail in the Burros Mtns., Thunder stumbled hard while we were cantering up a hill. He almost went down, but recovered and roared forward, trying to catch Jodie's horse, Vermillion. The incident didn't seem to hurt him.

Thunder's cracked hoofYesterday I discovered this crack in his right rear hoof.

It's an unusual crack because it runs from the top of his hoof down. Most of them go the other way. Cracks like this one are usually caused by trauma to the coronary band, which lies at the hairline atop the hoof. If you look closely at the photo, you can see the hoof appears to be dented on the left side of the crack. It is indeed dented, much as one's toe could be after tripping hard over a rock. Those chips on either side of the crack suggest trauma as well.

Although the crack is stable and Thunder isn't experiencing any observable discomfort from it, it seems cause for concern. Both Becky and my farrier agree. We have an appointment on Tuesday so the farrier can take a look.

Update: The farrier wiped out the crack with a few swipes of his rasp. Thunder's foot is just fine.

Splayfoot Thunder1/26/13 - I came across this amusing photo today. Thunder needed an embarrassing procedure that he won't let me take care of and over which he raises a fuss if I try. So off to the veterinarian we went, where the good doc took care of the matter after giving my boy a sedative.

The horse was a bit unsteady, so I walked him around the parking lot, admonishing him to "breathe, Thunder, breathe," like the nurses tell you to do when you're in recovery after surgery.

We walked along the fenceline a bit, then turned left where the parking lot slopes downhill. Thunder stopped short and wouldn't move. He stood like this for a couple of minutes, while I laughed.

Clearly, he wasn't quite ready for the trip home.

Cameron Creek cottonwoods3/16/13 - Thunder and I rode over to Ft. Bayard this morning. I was seeking refreshment from the dry weather and figured we would find water in Cameron Creek. After all, Cameron Creek always has water. Except not today.

The cottonwoods that grow along the declivity next to the creek will begin to green up in a few weeks, even in the absence of surface water. Until then, they await the harsh or gentle treatment the climate has in store for them this year.

There seems to be no middle ground for them at the end of a desiccated winter that is transitioning to the customarily windy and dry spring. They are worthy trees, though, and resourceful. They will rely on the groundwater below the creekbed, so that whether conditions are wet or dry come summer, the cottonwoods will invite us into their shade to tell their stories in the rustling whispers that only cottonwoods can voice.

Stock hoof boot4/8/13 - Sometime about November last year, I embarked on a project to design an improved retention system for the straps on Thunder's hoof boots.

Renegade provides a durable and workable retention system for its boots. After studying the system and possible alternatives, I realized that Renegade has achieved a design that is as close as humanly possible to a perfect compromise. Their system consists of heavy-duty velcro straps, secured by two (or more if you want) O-rings intended to keep the strap ends in place so that the velcro won't work loose and cause a boot to go missing. The system mostly does the job. Except . . . .

Renegade O-rings. . . Except they're nasty to work with when your hands are cold. They are fiddly and futzy and sometimes difficult to thread the strap end through when you put the boots on. They are difficult to unthread the strap end through when you take the boots off. Sometimes they break. Sometimes the strap end works itself out of the O-rings, which amounts to an irony too painful to endure when you consider how mean they can be to thread.

I'm not disparaging Renegade about this approach. It's straightforward and lightweight. It's largely foolproof. If an O-ring breaks, it's cheap to replace. As long as you keep an eye on the system--keep the straps clean, replace them when they get worn, check the boots whenever you dismount to deal with a gate, keep a couple of extra O-rings on hand, and ignore the fussing--the Renegade system works fine. That doesn't stop me from trying to improve it, of course.

Pastern strap with extra strap for buckleThe first attempt was to add a plastic cam buckle to the pastern strap. The strap was too thick for the buckle, so I sewed a strap on the pastern strap to accommodate the cam buckle. That worked great, except after several rides, the cam buckle failed. Snags on the grabby brush around here tended to pry it open. Dirt made it difficult to close and wore out the contact points. Stones and torsion broke it altogether. Different buckle needed.

Pastern strap with center-release buckleNext I tried a plastic center-release buckle. I liked the result. It was absolutely secure, which is important for the pastern strap; if that strap gets loose enough to come open, you'll lose the boot. Nobody wants that.

Unfortunately, the plastic center-release buckle suffered a fate similar to the cam buckle. After a couple of rides the housing cracked. So sad. Fortunately, the market offers metal center-release buckles. They get scratched up, but stay put and don't break. So glad.

The pastern strap was satisfactorily resolved, but I still tusseled with O-rings on the hoof strap, which keeps the boot snug against the horse's foot. I experimented with plastic cam buckles on it, knowing they would likely fail, which they did, but what a joy not to mess with fussy O-rings! As it happens, the market also offers metal cam buckles. Yaaaay!

Metal strap bucklesThe cam buckles I selected are rather beefier than the application requires, but boy do they hold tight!

The two buckles provide industrial-strength quick-release straps, suitable for the rugged New Mexico terrain where I ride. I'm thinking that for the next iteration I'll downsize them and swap the center-release buckles on the pastern strap for cam buckles. For the time being, I'm a happy horsewoman.

CDT, New Mexico section5/17/13 - I'm obsessed with the section of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) that runs through the Gila National Forest. If you've been with A Life Lived Backward for a while, you might remember my compulsive search for a way to get there on foot from my back door. I found a way, but it took nearly a year. When I got there, I found I did it the hard way, bushwhacking across territory when there was a perfectly decent (but unmapped) trail just to the east of my path. No matter. I had fun.

Recently I found that my bushwhacking was useful. Thunder, ever the bonehead, has a thing about a couple of trail stretches that run along Twin Sisters Creek on Ft. Bayard. During my bushwhacking days, I found a logging road through a defunct New Mexico Game and Fish department wildlife study area. We end up where we need to be, but avoid the places where Thunder's boogeymen lurk.

One way to the CDT from here is by way of Twin Sisters Creek, where the remains of Ft. Bayard's Sawmill Wagon Road travel over difficult horse footing exposed by decades of erosion and lack of maintenance (the result of Forest Service underfunding). There are other ways to get up there, however. Old mining roads crisscross the Flury Mountain chain south of the Twin Sisters peaks. Some of the roads intersect the CDT and those roads are in better shape than the Twin Sisters trail. I discussed the route with my friend, Donna, who was willing to give it a try. We rode up that way last winter, but an icy spot on the way was a perhaps dangerous challenge for Donna's steel-shod horse, so we turned back. She commented that we'd have to ride clear to Piños Altos to reach the CDT that way anyway.

Twin Sisters Creek is certainly a shorter route, but I wanted to try a different approach for no other reason than that I can. So Thunder and I saddled up this morning and off we went.

The plan was to ride a short distance beyond the wildlife study area on the Sawmill Wagon Road trail to a trail fork--the eastern tine of which goes up Twin Sisters Creek and the western tine heads over the Flury Mountain chain--to take the western tine to the CDT, then north to the Sawmill Wagon Road intersection, then back down Twin Sisters Creek, where a fairly reliable spring would offer water for Thunder. We took the western fork and headed up and up and up.

Trash in the forestThe landscape hasn't always been under the control of the National Forest Service; former private holdings exist and two still bear the wreckage of unrealistic dreams of mining wealth--a rusted and bullet-pocked water tank, bed springs, the frame of a collapsable chair, a decomposing trailer, glass shards, and the inescapable duff of long-consumed canned goods. We passed by those sad places quickly. The refuse is too voluminous to pack out on a horse.

As we gained elevation, the trail twisted around the south side of the Twin Sisters peaks. The day grew hot, such that this is a trip I would not want to make any later in the season. I was grateful when the trail wound into a shady pocket on a north-facing declivity, but it felt too warm even the one holding ice last winter that encouraged Donna and me to turn back.

Eventually the trail led us within sight of Piños Altos. The trail branched again and neither path was signed. I took a guess and followed the path that led north toward the Twin Sisters. We bumped into another ruined mining camp, this one apparently of more recent vintage than the one up on the mountain. It was equipped with living quarters carved from a shipping container and sported among its nest of litter the carcass of a video tape recorder. (This location was close enough to the two-track road into Piños Altos that I could see the feasibility of hauling the shipping container into place and powering the VCR by a gas-powered generator, but I'm pretty sure that camping trailer we found earlier up the mountain would have required placement by helicopter today. The road to it is graced by ruts four-feet deep and the grade is steep enough to get Thunder huffing and puffing. Clearly that road was in better shape at one time.)

Continental Divide TrailThe track up to the ridge was inhospitable--hot and stony and dry and dusty. Unsigned trails clicked off to the right and left, but we stayed on course, heading north. We eventually found the well-marked CDT and gratefully turned onto it. Over a low rise, the trail meandered into the shade of ponderosa pines and gentle footing.

Along the trail is a spot where Donna and I tied the horses last fall on a crisp trip to the Twin Sisters from a trailhead northwest of Piños Altos. Thunder has a good sense of where he is and where he's been and I wondered how he would react when we got there. He gave a delightful snort and picked up his pace. He knew what the plan was and that the Sawmill Wagon Road intersection was within reach.

We got there and rode down Twin Sisters Creek to the spring. Thunder deigned to drink, being fussy about his water, but thought the bright green grass along the banks was just fine. We rode on home quietly. I was glad to have made that trip of 25 miles; relieved to see that Thunder had no problem the distance; and thoughtful that the next time I go to Piños Altos I'll probably drive there.

6/27/13 - Donna invited me to accompany her on a pack trip up the Sheep Corral Canyon Road to the confluence of the Gila River and Sapillo Creek. It's one of only two places that has enough water right now to keep the horses healthy overnight. It's also a relatively short ride over well-maintained and relatively easy trails. Donna's been coaching me for months about packing--grooming me for horse camping, a challenging endeavor, but not one that a sane person should undertake alone.

So day before yesteday, we towed our trailers, loaded with horses and packing gear, for my first pack trip. I've been practicing with my horses to get them ready and I felt confident all three of us could handle the job. For the most part, I was right.

Rocky roadNeither Donna nor I are very good morning people, so for us to be on the road by 8:30 on Tuesday morning illustrates our degree of motivation for this trip. We drove up to the dirt road that goes to the canyon and followed that road as far as our common sense allows. Shortly after a sign that admonishes "HIGH CLEARANCE VEHICLES RECOMMENDED," the road looks like this. (The photo doesn't do the road justice, so consider that the rock in the upper right center is about 12" high.) I've driven my truck, very slowly, over this spot. The stockmen who have grazing permits up there take trailers over it, but their trailers have twice the clearance of mine.

The Forest Service has thoughtfully carved out a primitive parking area before this stretch of highway and that's where Donna and I parked our rigs. The Snow Creek Trailhead is at the parking area, and we took the trail because it goes to the same place the road does, but gets there in a shorter distance and is more fun to ride.

The weather was sunny and the temperature was in the mid-80s, perfect for this trip. The distance we had to ride was less than 10 miles and we knew the trails were in good condition (it pays to belong to the Back Country Horsemen; Donna herself had been on a work crew in the area several weeks ago and had ridden the trail just last week).

Early in the ride, Thunder was cranky at Leo, who was following along quietly and with his usual decorum, carrying the packs that held our gear. Thunder settled, which he always does eventually. I was a little edgy myself, but I took heart that Thunder got down to business in 10 minutes instead of the 45 it took him two years ago. He's come a long way. Still, I had an anxious feeling that I had to keep reminding myself I didn't need. This is a technique I used when learning to sail scared the bejeezus out of me. "I don't need anxiety," I would tell myself. "I need to breathe deeply and enjoy this beautiful day." Sometimes I had to repeat the mantra every couple of minutes, but it always works after a while. I forgot my feeling of dread and let the sun and the scenery govern my mood.

Donna led the way down Forest Trail 4083T, which crosses a large expanse of prescribed-burn territory. Prescribed burns are intentionally set and carefully monitored fires the Forest Service sets to clear out dead and bark-beetle ravaged trees, as well as other fuels that can produce a conflagration like the Silver Fire that currently is roaring through the Black Range northeast of our house. The work clears the understory and allows the forest to receive more light for healthy trees; forbs and grasses can then sprout through the duff that remains on the forest floor. Wildlife has more browse and soil is improved. Future fires are less intense. As long as the prescribed burn doesn't get out of control, it's a superb forest management tactic.

This burn stayed in hand and we could see the residue everywhere--shallow holes containing the ashy remains of dead roots, from which charred, downed trees stretched out over the ground. The monsoon rains hadn't begun yet when Donna and I rode through, so the trail was dusty, the creek was dry, the grasses crackly, and the forbs unplentiful. The remaining trees provided cover, though, and the elevation gave us cooler air than we had at home.

Sapillo Trail to the Gila RiverWe rode onto the Sapillo Trail, which parallels the Sheep Corral Canyon Road. The road runs a couple of miles more and ends in a primitive parking area at the boundary between the Gila National Forest and the Gila Wilderness Area. From that parking area, The Sapillo Trail descends about 1400' over two miles and dozens of switchbacks. The slope is gradual, but steady.

Motor vehicles aren't allowed in the wilderness for any reason, so the trail doesn't have to accommodate them. It's rocky, but not terribly rugged by wilderness standards. There's plenty of space between the rocks for a horse or a hiker to put his feet. Best of all, the absence of autos results in a complete lack of litter.

Gila Wilderness Area from Sapillo Trail

This is the view from high up on the trail. It makes you sit your horse and stare at the dry emptiness, so big that your mind goes silent.

GateDonna and I rode and rode and rode until we came to a forest service gate that Donna thought didn't look wide enough for the pack horses to get through. I was concerned about the low overhead, which to me didn't look tall enough to ride through.

Gates like this are all over the place out here and it's not wise to assume anything about them. They differ in width and height. Some open in, some open out, some swing both ways. Some have only one latch. Some have a flip latch and a slide bar latch. The latches on some of them intrude into the gate space and you can snag a leg or a stirrup or a rein or a pack. Some you can open from the saddle and others require dismounting. You never know how one of them works until you've gone through it. We dismounted and led the horses through. There was plenty of lateral room, but we'd have had to duck to get under the arch while mounted.

Gila RiverAfter the gate, the trail comes to a T. Donna turned us left and we meandered along the mostly dry bed of Sapillo Creek, under huge and ghostly sycamore trees until there it is--the first flowing water we've seen in years--the Gila River. We rode the horses in to let them splash and drink while we searched the banks for a camp site.

A suitable camp site had some strict requirements for us. It must have enough trees of sufficient height, strength, and distance so we can put up two highlines to secure the four horses. It needs to be close enough to the river so we can water the horses easily. It needs to be far enough away from the river so we don't get soggy in the (unlikely at that moment) event of a flood.

The camp site needs to have level spots on soft ground, sheltered from vicious wind, but open to gentle breezes that mitigate the heat. Rocky sites need not apply. The trees for the highlines must not cross the trail.

We found a suitable spot, set up the highlines, secured the horses, and unsaddled the pack horses. We unpacked enough of our gear to enjoy lunch, then sat and discussed the important things--where to put our tents and which way to orient them to catch the breeze; the day was hot, even in the shade of the sycamores, and what to do with the rest of the day. Donna has an unending interest in archaeological sites and the Gila River basin is full of them. She had photographs of petroglyphs, pictographs, caves, and ancient foundations that exist in the area and she wanted to ride out and find some of them.

I had a sudden feeling of dread at the thought of leaving the camp site, but I attributed it to hunger and fatigue and I assumed it would go away as lunch worked its way into my bloodstream. We mounted up and ponied the packhorses up Sapillo Creek, where we found water again. We rode on the trail and splashed in the creek as they wound among shady bowers and deep shadows on the east walls of the canyon. We stopped at a deep waterhole in which minnows swam and let the horses drink. We came to a fenceline. Donna opened the gate from her saddle and we rode through. She led us back into the creek where we walked until the overhanging trees became so thick we couldn't get through.

It was almost hypnotic to experience so much greenery, cool shade, and running water in this third year of drought. I felt like I was doing something surreptitious. We didn't find any of the ancient sites Donna was looking for, but the ride itself was deeply satisfying. We turned back toward camp. Donna rode on one side of the creek and I rode on the other. I led Thunder and Leo around a log, then looked up to see Donna's saddle horse launch himself up a short bank that gave way under him. The dark dirt puffed up around his feet. He lost his footing and tumbled backward onto Donna. Donna landed in the creek, on big rocks. The horse struggled to get up, but fell again on Donna. He tried once more to get up and once more crushed Donna onto the rocks. He scrambled up again and fell on Donna again. I observed this happening in slow motion as I clambered off Thunder and jostled over the logs, rocks, and water that lay between us. As I approached, Donna's horse finally got his feet under him and trotted away, leaving Donna in the creek.

Donna sat up as best she could among the rocks, wet jeans and shirt getting stained with blood from the lacerations her glasses sliced into her face. I asked where she was hurt and what number from 1 to 10 she could assign to her pain. She answered that her leg and her sacrum hurt at an 8. My EMT senses screamed. A pain level of 8 on a scale of 10 is extreme for anybody, but seemed catastrophic for someone like Donna and within seconds of the traumatic insult.

Donna's airway was intact. She reported no pain in her chest or on inspiration. She could move everything and had no tingling in her fingers or toes. She said one of the horse's landings had crushed her leg over a rock and she suspected a greenstick fracture. The sacral pain she described made me suspect a pelvic fracture. Donna was worried about going into shock, but I told her unless she had internal bleeding, which was a possibility, the lacerations on her face weren't severe enough to cause shock. Still, whatever her injuries were--and the possible occult ones were the most frightening--we knew we needed to get her out of there and fast.

We discussed our options. I had my SPOT Communicator along and my first instinct was to transmit an SOS, but the cover was so thick I knew the signal wouldn't get out. Donna said she thought she could ride; given that we were two miles into the Gila Wilderness, riding out seemed like the thing to do. The afternoon was advancing and we wanted to get to Sheep Corral Road before night set in and made it too hard for anybody to find us. I helped Donna out of the creek as best I could and rounded up my horses. She was able to mount up and we headed back to camp.

When we got there, Donna loaded up her packs while I transmitted an SOS on the SPOT Communicator, supplemented by text messages from my GPS. The messages, which were horrible to create on the GPS's select-a-letter-and-press-Enter keyboard, described our situation and our intent to ride out of the canyon back to the parking area at the northern end of Sheep Corral Road. The GPS acknowledged that the SPOT had sent an SOS and began beeping every 10 seconds. Donna was packed up and mounted by the time I finished. I slapped the packsaddle on Leo, collected my horses, mounted up, and we hit the trail. I left all my other gear at the campsite, in the interest of getting on the trail ASAP. I rode behind Donna so I could keep an eye on her. We knew we had at least an hour before extreme pain set in. We also knew it would probably take more than an hour to get up to the parking area and that if Donna were to dismount, she wouldn't be able to get back on.

The ride back up the Sapillo Trail was a forced march of dread and fear, worse than anything I experienced in rough seas on the Chesapeake Bay while trying to stave off mal de mer. Nobody spoke. We rode as fast as the horses could go. About 15 minutes into the climb out, my GPS, hanging from a lanyard around my neck, swing forward and hit the pommel of my saddle. The beeping stopped. The message on the GPS screen said that the SOS had been cancelled. I immediately retransmitted an SOS from the SPOT Communicator and resent my SOS text messages, but the GPS advised that it couldn't transmit a new message while it was cancelling an SOS. It took the GPS an interminable interval--at least 20 minutes--to cancel the SOS. Then it let me resend the messages and confirmed that "emergency services will be notified." (Note to anybody who wants to try this at home. Do try it at home--as I did before we left--not while you're riding a horse and ponying another horse up a steep trail with the sun at your back, rendering the GPS screen impossible to read, and while you're trying to figure out why your injured friend is beginning to slump to the right in her saddle.)

I called out to Donna frequently, and each time she answered with a strong voice that she was ok. We reached the parking area. I tried to figure out what the SPOT Communicator was doing--nothing apparently. I retransmitted the SOS while we stood in one place--an open spot with a clear view of the sky. Still nothing. I tried again, and the GPS responded and resumed its every-10-seconds-beeping. We decided to keep moving, since we had no confirmation that help was on the way. Several minutes later, the GPS hit the pommel again and cancelled the SOS. I was dumbfounded that its external keys were so vulnerable that something as desperate as an SOS message could be invalidated so easily. I retransmitted the SOS, received no confirmation, and resent the SOS text messages, with the same results as before. I couldn't transmit an SOS message while an SOS message was being cancelled. I stopped trying. Either help was on the way or it wasn't. All we could do was keep riding.

We rode about six miles down Sheep Corral Canyon Road and came upon a campsite, equipped with two pickup trucks, a stock trailer, a camping trailer, and two large, well built corrals. I couldn't see anybody around, but then saw a curtain move in the camping trailer. I sent Donna on ahead, while I turned in. I was greeted by a rancher--Jim Greer--and his wrangler, Reyes. I told them about Donna's predicament. Mr. Greer said it sounded like she needed a ride to the hospital and that he'd be happy to give her one. I turned my packhorse over to Reyes and cantered off after Donna.

By the time we got back to the camp site, Reyes had unsaddled Leo, turned him out into one of the corrals, where he was gratefully partaking from the big water tank there. Mr. Greer had disconnected his pickup from the stock trailer. They helped Donna off her horse and into the waiting truck while I tied the horses to the stock trailer. Donna observed that she would be back in cell range soon and asked me whom she should call. I told her to call my neighbor Laurie, who would know exactly what to do and would get in touch with Ted. I stayed behind with Donna's gear and the horses. Reyes helped me unsaddle the horses and turn them out with Leo. He told me where I could find drinking water and invited me to share his dinner.

I rummaged through Donna's gear and found the alfalfa pellets she packed for her horses. They all needed something to eat, but I feed timothy pellets, which I had left down by the river. Thunder nearly colicked once on alfalfa pellets and I was reluctant to feed them to him again. I let the horses cool down, drink, and stand for an hour before I started feeding them handfuls of pellets, first from my palm, and then in separate little piles on the ground when they figured out what was going on and began to crowd me.

I knew Donna would probably be ok, but that her recovery would likely be long and painful and god almighty I was worried. I worried that I had no reliable way to communicate my needs to the outside world--provided I could figure out what they were--I worried about Donna's pain while Mr. Greer's pickup bounced down Sheep Corral Canyon Road--I worried about Thunder and the alfalfa pellets.

I found a big log that was out in the open and sent several more "help needed" messages to Laurie and Ted. Those messages were supposed to show up on their computers as emails and also on their telephones as text messages. One of the messages told them where I was spending the night, but I knew Donna would convey that information when she called Laurie. Each of the messages took nearly a half-hour to send before the GPS would let me send another one. I occupied myself digging through Donna's gear again to find her sleeping pad and sleeping bag and set them up next to my log to spend the night under the stars. Everything that could be done was done, so I set about trying to calm myself and enjoy the night sky.

The log apparently had some sort of mold spores in it because my sinuses clogged up and I couldn't breathe. I tossed. I turned. I twisted. I sneezed. I kept reminding myself that the object was to enjoy whatever elements of the situation I could since nobody was in any danger except me, and my danger was only that of possible extermination by worrying.

Mr. Greer drove into the camp around 10:30 and went directly into the trailer. He no doubt would have given me an update if he could have seen me, but I was tucked behind that fusty log . . .

Twenty minutes later, another vehicle came by. I knew it had to be Laurie. I heard Ted's voice and I lit up my small-but-powerful LED flashlight to signal them. They pulled into the camp. Laurie brought hay for the horses. She said they got a text message from me that told them where I was, but no other messages. She also said she had contacted the Grant County dispatch office, who reported that no message had come in from the SPOT Communicator dispatch center and that no crews had been dispatched to help Donna and me, and that they had no record of any incident going on in the part of the Gila where we were. So much for DeLorme's ballyhoo about how a SPOT Communicator paired with a GPS will summon help and definitive care.

We gave the hay to the horses, packed up Donna's gear and my saddles, and drove back to Silver City. Once back in cell range, I received a voice mail message from somebody at the National Dispatch Center. The baritone voice reported that they had received a cancellation message for an SOS and they wanted to make sure everything was ok. I called the number and reported the sad story. After discussing the matter, I decided that the failure had been with the DeLorme equipment and was not the fault of the system itself. My GPS has frequent bouts of locking up so tight that the only way to free it is to remove the batteries, but that problem seemed to have cleared up after I applied a firmware update. Apparently it has other kinds of transmission problems I hadn't experienced before. I vowed to take the matter up with DeLorme. The National Dispatch Center said they would also report it to DeLorme.

I went to bed and slept well.

Next morning involved a flurry of phone calls and conversations between Laurie, Donna's partner (David), and one of our friends, Gerry, whom David had notified that we needed to retrieve horses and gear. Donna had been released from the hospital at 5:00 a.m. Donna was brutally banged up and bruised, but had no head injury. She did have a vertebral fracture and enough pain to last a while. She would heal, but she wouldn't be riding for the next six weeks.

Laurie and I drove to Donna's to drop off her gear and pick up a bale of hay. Donna, a tall, fit, and robust woman, hobbled out to greet us. She looked tiny and frail. The lacerations on her face were sealed up with glue. Bruises were showing up everywhere like some sort of ghastly Halloween makeup. We exchanged a gentle hug.

Laurie and I trekked up to the trailhead where Donna and I had left our trailers. David planned to follow us to the same location with Gerry and his horses. Gerry would accompany me back to the river to get my stuff. Laurie thought we could simplify things if I could get my trailer up to Mr. Greer's corral--if that were possible, we could have both Gerry's and my trailer there and could then leave directly from the corral when we got back from the river. I was dubious, but I told her if anything were to get high-centered with that trailer, the jack would. She sent me on ahead with the hay and my saddles while she took the jack off my trailer and waited for David and Gerry to arrive.

I drove Laurie's truck up to the corral and fed the horses, who were glad to see me. I filled my water bottles and organized my gear. Mr. Greer came out to say howdy and get an update on the situation. I saddled up Thunder and Leo. Gerry, David, and Laurie arrived in Gerry's rig. Gerry unloaded and saddled up his horses while David loaded Donna's horses for the trip home.

Gerry and I rode onto the trail through Snow Canyon, which meets up with the Sapillo Trail, to retrieve my gear from the river. The trip was uneventful, which is exactly as it should be. Four or five hours later, we arrived at the river, fed the horses from my timothy pellets, watered them, packed up my gear, and rode back up.

Laurie had decided my trailer wouldn't make the trip to the corral, so David and she transferred Donna's horses to Donna's trailer and left Gerry's and my rigs at the trailhead. That was a good thing. The route from the river to the trailhead is shorter by trail than it is by Sheep Corral Canyon Road--about three miles shorter. That's a significant distance if you're an exhausted rider aboard a couple of tired horses.

A quarter-mile from the trailhead, Thunder had a fit and launched me off his back onto the scree, log, weed, tree, dirt, and boulder covered slope on the right side of the trail. I ended up with a couple of minor scrapes and bruises, a sprained wrist and two sore fingers, as well as two black eyes from my glasses. Gerry was aghast and furious at Thunder, who had no reason for the fit other than his desire to have the ride end. I'm furious with him too and I don't know exactly what I'm going to do with him.

On the up side, I did not break my neck or seriously damage my face because I always ride with a helmet. On the down side, my helmet is trashed. On the up side, my mobility is intact.

Cowboy empathyLater, I found this amusing cartoon on a calendar I picked up at the local western wear store. I'm going to email it to Donna:

Thundering Lessons - 9/19/13 - Sunday, August 25, late morning. Except for the clouds gathering over the mountains northeast of Ft. Bayard, clouds that might or might not bring rain, this looked like a good day for a ride.

After the disastrous performance of the DeLorme Spot Communicator on Donna's and my end-of-June wilderness adventure, I purchased a new communication device and I wanted to try it out. I attached the new device to the survival pack I always wear when I ride and attached my GPS to Thunder's saddle. That way I could compare my track on both devices to see how the new one measures up.

I don't remember much about the ride after that. I have a faint memory of sending an email to Donna from a location in Ft. Bayard. I didn't discover this until a day later, but that message showed up all over the place--on the communicator (DeLorme InReach SE), in Donna's email, on my email. The message said "Rain!" Donna responded to it and her response also showed up all over the place--so I guess the new device works, at least on Ft. Bayard's trails.

I also have a dim impression of an irregularity in Thunder's walking gait as we rode along a fenceline toward the water tank at the Badlands Corral. The rhythm of his hoofbeats was off--1, 2, 3, THUMP. 1, 2, 3, THUMP.

CT-ScannerThe next thing I remember is being on foot and speaking with a lone hiker on the trail. I don't know what we said, but apparently some part of me knew what had happened and was able to explain. I remember walking on the trail with the hiker and sitting in his car as he gave me a ride home. I remember arriving at the gate at the road to our house and that the hiker wouldn't let me get out to open it. I remember the hiker talking to Ted and Ted helping me out of my helmet, survival pack, and safety vest. I remember riding in Ted's car and understanding that we were headed for the hospital. I remember feeling pain in my right shoulder and noticing that my right hand and wrist were hot and swollen. I remember sitting in the waiting room and being escorted to a gurney. I remember kind voices and gentle hands. I remember asking if I could breathe when somebody slid me out of the CT scanner. I remember reaching for the cell phone on my belt and finding only the clip, broken from the case. No cell phone. Damn. I remember stinging tears when it occurred to me I would need to put Thunder down.

Riding Thunder has been pretty hard on me. I've gone off him several times since I bought him. Of those, many were due to my inexperience; these produced bruises and sore muscles. The others were Thunder's doing and produced some unnerving injuries. I chalked all the incidents up to the fact that everybody falls from a horse sooner or later. That's a fact, of course, but recent experience with my other horse, the polite and intelligent Leo, supplies a new perspective about Thunder.

Before the hospital cut me loose with a dose of percoset and my arm wrapped in elastic, I heard a nurse give the damage assessment to Ted." She has a closed head injury--concussion--CT scan shows no bleeding, but you need to follow this protocol for the next 24 hours. Nasty fracture in her right wrist--she needs to follow up with a surgeon--here's the phone number--and her clavical is fractured, about a centimeter toward her neck from what looks like a previous fracture, which must be how she knows about the cause of the pain she's having now in that shoulder."

It was after 2:00 a.m. when we returned to Ted's car. On the drive back, he laughed that he could tell I was coming around because I was conversant. Huh? "You kept asking me what happened, over and over. Same question again and again. It was like talking to my mother before they locked her up at Ginger Cove with an ankle bracelet to keep her from sneaking off in the elevator."

How embarrassing.

Next morning I gathered up the three-and-a-quarter wits that made it home with me and set about the interesting business of cutting through the fog. More questions for Ted. Where's Thunder? Laurie and Ken (another neighbor) found him waiting at the second gate on the bowling alley (the forest access right-of-way) and brought him home. Walt left his phone number and you should call him to say thanks. Who's Walt? The guy who brought you home. You should also call Ken and Laurie to thank them for bringing home Thunder, and call Harvey too. What did Harvey do? He rode along his fence line on his ATV to see if Thunder was there.

Did Thunder make it home with his saddle? Yes, but his bridle is in pieces. What about the bit? Laurie has a bag full of parts. Maybe it's there. Where's my cell phone? Nobody found it. Was the GPS still on the saddle? Yes. It's sitting on your desk along with the communicator I took off that bag you wear.

The logic section of my brain checked in as I was mourning the loss of yet another cell phone. "The case broke, most likely when you landed, and the phone's probably still out there. You can tell where you landed by comparing the GPS tracks. Your phone will be at the place where your track and Thunder's track deviate."

Ft. BayardOur tracks deviated just outside the Badlands Corral. We have been there many times, so I had a pretty good idea what happened. There's a stump several yards off the trail. I use the stump as a mounting block when I hop back up after walking the horse and me through the corral gate. Whatever transpired the day before happened between the stump and the trail. You can drive to within about a mile-and-a-half of the Badlands Corral, so I asked Ted to go for a little hike with me to look for my cell phone.

After we passed through the gate at the corral, Ted dialed my phone while I scanned the ground between my stump and the trail. Familiar sounds: Ding-ding-dingety-ding. Call 1. Ding-ding-dingety-ding. Yippee! My phone was lying on the ground off the trail. It was working, in spite of being slammed between a hard place and my about-to-be-battered body. From this, it was easy to figure out what happened. Thunder blew up just after I climbed aboard.

When I studied our GPS tracks, I found a disturbing bit of information. The point on my track where Thunder and I parted company showed no movement for over two hours. That seemed to indicate I was unconcious beside the trail for a long time. No stinkin' wonder I was so befuddled. I've had several concussions in my rough-and-tumble life, but this one was the worst. I hammered a mental nail into Thunder's coffin.

The following day, Laurie stopped by with a WalMart bag full of horse parts--hoof boots and pieces of hoof boots, a bridle, two stirrups and their leathers (I'd been looking for one of those stirrups since a similar incident over a year ago), but no reins or bit. I was concerned about the bit. It is new and expensive and Thunder's posture and gaits are improving under its influence. Even if I never ride him again, I hate to lose it.

Every step Thunder took that day was recorded on his GPS track, though, and that bit was lying somewhere along the route. I had merely to follow his route backward to our point of deviation and eventually I would come across the bit. I expressed a silent apology for all the times I've cursed technology.

Thunder's GPS Track

I found the bit--still attached to the reins--and a hoof boot as well--in a spot located just before Thunder must have wigged out big time when he encountered the stock fence gate. He ran back and forth along the fence line several times. He tried all kinds of ways to get through and eventually discovered that the fence has been breached where it crosses an intermittent stream. He plowed around it and beelined back up the trail toward the bowling alley along a route he knows well.

Having recovered all my property, the next job was to decide what to do with Thunder. This was one too many hurtful incidents. Horses throw riders all the time and do so for various reasons. One is that they are crazy. Another is that they want to get out of work, or want to get home and back to their buddies. Another reason is that the rider is. Regardless of Thunder's reasons, I was going to be laid up for a while--again--and I was annoyed. My friend Donna told me how it works to have a horse euthanized at the veterinary office in Arenas Valley. You take the horse to the office, pay the bill, and leave him. They load him into a trailer, drug him up, administer the lethal injection, and haul the carcass to the landfill. I called the office and got the details.

After I hung up the phone, I thought of another reason horses dump their riders. Uh-oh. The words of a former boss blazed across my addlepated brain. "Check your assumptions."

Horse deisgned to be riddenAnother reason horses misbehave to the detriment of their riders is probably the most common one and also the reason most overlooked--they are in pain. Nature designed horses to carry their own weight. She didn't necessarily have riders in mind, even though she gave them that long and inviting back. If horses were designed to carry weight on their backs, I guess they would look like this:

swaybacked horseI've never seen a horse that looks that way. Out here in the wild southwest I've seen a surprising number whose backs sag--some with an extreme catenary only a bridge architect could love. It's not considered a sign of soundness; you can imagine how it could make a horse's hips hurt.

Thunder's straight backThunder's back is nice and straight. That doesn't mean he's sound, though. The day I first saw him I was just out of equine massage school, where I learned that a horse's tail carried off to one side might indicate a problem. I didn't learn what kind of problem that might be and the class didn't hammer on the concept. I left the class without a full appreciation of the implications.

Thunder's tailOne of the first things I saw in Thunder was that characteristic. He holds his tail off to the left. I ignored the sign. I'll never do that again.

Eighteen months later (before the ride where I got knocked silly), when Thunder developed a minor problem in the body part known as the stifle (knee joint on a back leg), I took him to a Las Cruces chiropractor, Dr. Dave Mitchell.

Equine SI jointDoc wasn't too concerned about the stifle. He was concerned about Thunder's sacroiliac articulation.

Thunder's dropped left hip"See how his hip drops on the left side?" Doc said. (It's such a subtle assymetry that my brain couldn't reocgnize it then, but it shrieks out at me now.) "It means his pelvis is tipped down and forward on that side."

Doc adjusted Thunder's pelvis and what a difference! Thunder's tail hung dead center and straight. When I rode him the next day, he moved fluidly. He gaited (a smooth fast walk for which Tennessee Walking horses are bred) willingly and steadily. I was thrilled.

Thunder needed several more such adjustments. Doc was increasingly skeptical with each one about Thunder's ability to hold the adjustment. "I think we've done about all we can for him," he said. "He's certainly better than he was. His tail isn't perfect and maybe that's just a habit. He might always do that."

"Can I ride him without hurting him?" I asked. "Sure," Doc answered, "that's the best thing for him." Alas, I asked the wrong question. I should have asked if it's SAFE to ride him. The answer to that one isn't something that Doc could have given me--and it's still not the right question. The correct question is "Is riding Thunder worth the risk?"

A trainer who worked with Thunder and me answered the question this way: "Thunder never knows when his back is going to cause him such pain that he has to buck you off. Nobody knows when that will happen. If you can afford to keep him around, that's fine, but you must never ride him again. You can get another horse, but we can't get another Cindi." Doc Mitchell agreed. "Horses might be in pain," he observed, but they don't do THAT" (pointing at the orange cast on my right arm). "Thunder's a nice horse, but he's got a screw loose."

Well, yes, but . . .

Animal communicatorNot quite ready to accept reality, I decided to wander over to the dark side (here's where the woo-woo starts). I asked a friend who dabbles in the art of animal communication if she could have a talk with Thunder. When I told her I was considering euthenasia, she backed right off and referred me to a woman in Silver City who is a professional animal communicator. ("A what?" you ask? Read all about it here.)

I can't believe I could take stock in this. I can't justify it or explain it. It's embarrassing. I'm so left-brain dominant that such a dalliance is absurd for me. Blame it on the head injury.

Maybe the animal communicator just told me what she knew I wanted to hear, but Thunder should appreciate the result. I won't put him down. It cost only 35 bucks--cheap and interesting entertainment, if nothing else, with a house call too. Some background: I told the communicator only that Thunder had been bucking me off and that I wanted to know what the problem is. After the "reading" (seance?) the communicator sent me a transcript of her conversation with Thunder. Read it and judge for yourself.

I couldn't stop at that bit of weirdness. The woman who sold Thunder to me is a chiropractor of people, dogs, and horses. She's right here in town and was willing to come up and take a look at Thunder. (Doc is way over in Las Cruces and I wasn't up for hauling Thunder that far, what with me havin' only one arm and all.) The local chiropractor has a BS in veterinary science from Cornell and received her chiropractic education at New York Chiropractic College. She knows her stuff. Her approach to chiropractic and health care draws from just about every conceivable alternative health care discipline. Tibetian bells, acupressure, emotional balancing, reflexology, chakra balancing, floral essences, energy manipulation, cold laser, nutrition, and body mechanics are all among her repertoire, but she can also deliver a good old fashioned bone-cracking adjustment when indicated.

She gave Thunder an extensive laser treatment, after which he was considerably more relaxed. The next day she had me pick up a spritzer of floral essences that she blended especially for Thunder. "Feel free to use it for yourself," she advised. It contains these essences, all of which are just right for dealing with the nervous hurry of living beings like Thunder and me:


dog rose of the wild forces

fringed violet

I'm a continual worrier. I would certainly welcome emotional balance. Who doesn't want the removal of the effects of recent or old distressing events?

I'm a moral relativist, so I try (for better or worse) not to make judgments about this sort of thing. Is there an intuitive, sixth-sense validity at work here or is it a crock? I don't know. You'd have to ask Ted. He can tell you how it is with 100% certainty and 500% disdain for the very idea that floral essences could have any therapeutic effect. They are, after all, the product of one man's empirical knowledge and there's no scientific evidence to back up their efficacy. About the best science has to say about flower essences is that they're not harmful.

About all I can say is that the concoction tastes like diluted dish soap (and how do I know what dish soap tastes like?) and that Thunder doesn't care to have me squirt it into his mouth (but I do it anyway). What the heck? It can't hurt.

The chiropractor also recommended two homeopathic remedies for Thunder (Oh no! Not that too!)--rhus tox and ruta graveolens. Homeopathy is another scientifically disdained enterprise. I would disdain it too--it's so weird and counter-intuitive to the left brain--except that I've seen it work. Huh. Give the due credit to the placebo effect. "If a placebo fixes it, I'll take it every time," my friend Laurie says. So Thunder gets his homeopathic pellets twice a day. They taste sweet, so he likes them. I don't know if they'll help him, but they can't hurt. Anyway, there's not much science can do for his condition, at least not much that I can afford. Homeopathy is cheap.

Thunder gets to be a pasture pony, at least until I have the full use of my right arm back. After that, I think I'll take him hiking and use him as a backpack.

Fearful eyeWhat's in all this for me? Thunder gave me two warnings about this ride. First, as we were tacking up, he shot me that wide-eyed, worried look horses get when something alarms them. He did that once before and I ended up getting hurt during the ride. I promised myself if he ever did that again, I would cancel the ride. This time I saw the warning and ignored it. I got what I deserved for my indifference. Horses demand integrity.

Next, I heard the dysrythmia in his gait--1, 2, 3, THUMP. A more experienced rider would have dismounted immediately to investigate the cause. If she couldn't identify it, she would hand-walk her horse back to the barn. I kept riding. I paid a price for my ignorance. Thunder expects better of me. I let him down.

I have two challenges before me. The first is to stop ignoring my instincts, learn to trust them, and respond appropriately. Simple, right? Especially under the impetus of pain, embarrassment, anxiety, and guilt. The second challenge is to release myself from that context and move on, keeping in mind the first challenge.