Friday, January 31, 2014

Superbowl Fun with Courage!!

Broncos? Seahawks? It's hotly contested on the west coast, even among horse folk. Here's one thing we all agree on: the Budweiser Clydesdales are the best. Because Courage also loves being the best, here is his audition to join the hitch!
Showing the trademark white feathers and bob tail

Already a superstar with a great personality

Fancy Clydesdale trot

Plus sweet moves

Work at liberty
Courage for Budweiser Clydesdale in 2014!! Not only is he wicked handsome and athletic, he is a versatile horse with a solid brain and he'll match with the existing color scheme.

Go team! Yay football food!

Vote Courage.

PS many thanks to RedHeadLins for taking pictures!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Year of the Horse

The brightest spot
2013 was an immensely shitty year with a few bright spots.

I don't know how else to describe it.

Instead of celebrating New Years on January first, I'm taking the Chinese calendar this year. I'm just lumping all of January's awfulness in with the shit-fest that was 2013. I guess I'm proactively claiming some of 2013's bright spots as 2014 material, but let's not get nitpicky.

So here's to moving forward and new experiences and fun adventures. I have a lot of ideas. I'm working on a list of goals.

I am taking advantage of every day to learn and grow with Courage. I'm tackling rider fitness (again) and eating habits (the worst). What Cuna gave me must be proactively maintained--that happiness, that fearlessness--and I want to get out there and do it.

I'm embracing 2014 and going on. It's not all joy all the time, and I try to be honest about my struggles, but I'm ready to move into a new era.

Aimee and Courage, moving forward.

Monday, January 27, 2014


Finding new ways to pose dramatically
And now the little man finds himself in the unenviable position of taking over the role of a horse so completely irreplaceable.

He's been the back up all along, making do with the leftover scraps of energy and attention that I had. I was never able to fully appreciate who he is, because nearly every time I saw him, I'd say "Courage, I'm having a rough day and I can't take much more. I need you to step it up."

I know it wasn't really fair to him, but it was all I had.

That precious winter sun
But every time, he'd respond. He'd try his giant heart out and make me laugh with his constant quest to be the best at everything he does.

I call Courage a midget and I know he's never going to fit into the size three easyboots that Cuna left behind. They are both remarkable in their own way and in order to appreciate that, I need to let the little bay horse come into his own.

Hands in the air, feet on the dash
The good news is that he really wasn't waiting for me to be ready. Early last week we had a couple days of 40f and sun, so we bummed around the arena with friends. He was so quiet and chill that I called him my western pleasure horse.

When it's too cold for breeches
The world is frozen solid again, but I wanted to try a saddle out on him. The neighbor launched a remote control helicopter, a big dog started running around, a firetruck rolled down the road, and he and I just walked around calmly. 

 He is the best at January.

Cuna brought me here. Because of the old man horse, I am absolutely ok with swinging my leg over the little bay horse and walking off into the fog. I'm not afraid when I plan our sun-soaked summer adventures. I'm ready to ride forward and jump all the things.  Cuna brought me to Courage, and now Courage is taking me on.

Courage and I have had six months together, but I really feel like our journey is just beginning.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Christmas 2013
I'm still here. Thank you for all your kind words. I feel lost. The whole thing is just so unreal. Cuna was supposed to be with me forever--or at least another ten years or so.

I know I did the right thing for him and I'm glad he's not in pain any more.

It's a grim solace, but it's all I've got.

I'm left with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. That old red man changed my life in so many ways. It wasn't just that he let me learn to ride again. Everything about him, my Cuna Matata, everything made me a stronger, better person than I was the day before he paddled his way into my heart.

Badass at 17
Every time I think about the last two years, I just shake my head. I couldn't write this as fiction because it's just too sappy and serendipitous and unreal for anyone to ever believe it, even in some crazy teenage horse story. I was terrified and miserable and ready to walk away from horses.

And then he came. Not only was he huge and handsome and perfect for me, but his silly name was Hakuna Matata. No worries. For the rest of our days.

I can tell that we are gonna be friends
He was standoffish at first, but I wanted to be friends. I bought him a giant bag of peppermints. At first, he'd only take one a day from me. He was closed off and distant.

The cutest face
That lasted maybe a week. I took his picture with me on a big horse show trip to California, and I knew he was the face I wanted to come back to. He was the one for me. It wasn't that I needed a schoolmaster. I needed that schoolmaster. I needed him.

Jumping a house
He taught me about that ridiculous crazy love that makes every moment apart seem unreasonable. He taught me just how much fun we could have together. I could (and did!) ride him everywhere. It wasn't just the riding and jumping. It was the day to day existence, that tacit understanding that everything was ok, because no matter what, we were together.

Just hang on

I faced all kinds of struggles because I had to for him. I dealt with difficult personal situations. I dealt with uncomfortable work situations. I had to push myself, grow as an individual, and become stronger inside and out. It was never easy, but I can look back at the changes I've made and know that today, I am a better, stronger, wiser, and more compassionate human being because that old man horse just patiently waited for me to figure it out.

Conquering water
Not to paint him as something he wasn't--Cuna would never suffer the fools. He demanded a strong ride with the softest hands. He absolutely required steady legs and a still upper body. He only approved a very few riders and I was lucky to be on that list.

Always the tongue
He was noble and he was incredibly goofy. I'll never forget the day he fell in love with the new mare--his head straight up in the air, his silly whinny every time he paddled his way out of his stall to assure the mare that he was still there. And then of course, when I put him in the cross ties and he kicked out to impress her... and his shoe went flying through the air.

Even now, I laugh.

The best view
I treasure the memories of our long solo trail rides through the mountains. We explored everywhere. No matter what, I knew I was safe with Cuna. Big loose dogs would run up to us barking, and he'd just stand his ground and wait. As they got close, he'd lower his head down below his withers and look at them. It never failed. No matter how big the dog, when they got close to the sheer enormity that was Cuna, they quieted down and backed right up.

Reins flying in the wind
There was nothing like the feeling of our early morning gallops. When prepping for our season at Beginner Novice, I probably had him fit to run training. At least. We hacked up the trails until our favorite gallop stretch and then let loose. I never had to ask him to go--I just had to let him know it was an option. The wind whipped my face and made my eyes run, but nothing could wipe the smile off my face. He'd gallop all the way to our finish line, a sagebrush at the top of the long stretch. Then I'd drop the reins and he'd drop to the walk, and we'd hack home on the buckle.

The bravest horse
We chased coyotes and watched deer. We laughed as the young horses spooked and galloped around us. My favorite was when the training horse behind us bolted and bucked past us. Cuna would never lose a race, but he didn't even flick an ear as the horse galloped by. He knew it was trouble and far be it from him to participate in that kind of shenanigan.

Just starting to put the sticks up
And we jumped. Little things at first--he let me just sit there while he packed my butt over tiny fences again and again. I didn't even have to put any leg on as long as I didn't pull on his face. When I finally got myself sorted out, we moved the jumps up like it was no big thing. I jumped higher and rode better than I had in my entire life. He demanded that I ride well once the fences went up, but he was more than fair.

Things we never forget
He was so big and inflexible anyways that I knew that if I had him pointed in the right direction three strides out, we were going to the fence. He might stop, but there was no way he could turn the whole Cuna in time to run out. Some people thought that was a drawback--I always saw it as an advantage.

Unless it was lengthenings. Everyone likes those.

Both of us hated dressage. Who wants to play in the sandbox when there are trails to explore? I do love ribbons though, so we took a few lessons and got sort of good. He gave me everything he had, but he was such a big fellow that sitting down on his hocks required a hell of a lot of expensive maintenance.

So Cuna
He was worth it. In our last six months under saddle together, he kept pace with a prelim event horse in the hills, hacked quietly down busy roads, put in a solid jumping effort in a fancy clinic, and won ribbons at a dressage show. He really did it all.

Retirement shots
Even when he retired, he kept me grounded. It was under his watchful brown eyes that I extricated myself from some unpleasant personal situations and made decisions about my career. He'd look at me and somehow, he just knew. And because he knew, I knew it was ok. He made the hard things simple. Hakuna Matata. Life will go on.

I didn't go to the racetrack to get a horse--I went because I still loved horses, but it hurt too much to hang out at Cuna's old barn and watch everybody else jump. The racetrack was a haven for me, a place to have fun and connect with the old man's past a little bit.

And then I met a horse named Courage.

It was too much. Too sappy, too silly. Hakuna Matata brought me to Courage. At the time, I thought it was sort of symbolic--Courage to overcome the obstacles of the past, courage to become the person I needed to be.

Over the last month, I've realized that there was more. Courage from the past, yes, but courage for the future. Courage to make the hard decisions. Courage to do the right thing. Courage going forward.

Courage is Cuna's legacy in my life. Courage to breathe, to live, to love. Courage that I can overcome.

Courage. The little bay face in the barn.

The handsomest horse
It's too serendipitous and sappy and poetic to be fiction. No one would believe it, except that it's true. I miss the old man horse. I want to believe that I'll see him again. But I know that whatever happens, the hoof prints he left on my heart have made me a better, stronger person and I'll forever be grateful to him for that.

Hakuna Matata

The one and only

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Moments in Time

6pm, January 15th
Showing up at Cuna's barn. He hobbles over to the fence to see me, but I know I can't do that to him any more

9am, January 16th
Choking out his name on the phone with the vet, sobbing as I realize it's his last day

Wanting to stop at the grocery store and buy every carrot, apple, and peppermint they have on their shelves, but knowing I'd rather spend the time with him

 Hoping against hope that everything will be ok. Seeing him standing in his drylot, in too much pain to walk over to the fence

Stroking his baby-soft coat, laughing and crying as he is his goofy self one more time

Loading him up for his last trailer ride

Waiting for the vet to come out as we stand together in the parking lot. If I pretend we're just here for another round of hock injections, it almost feels normal

Walking him back to his stall, my hand on his neck as he steps calmly beside me

Feeding him his last peppermints and watching him dig in to a flake of alfalfa, his favorite thing. Sobbing my eyes out. One more time, his big brown eyes tell me he's at peace and everything is going to be ok

Crying in Courage's mane. Thankful for everything and everyone that the old man brought into my life.

Friday, January 17, 2014


A guest post from my good friend Ellie. I'm wide awake at 3am, but I can't put words together.


Today, the world lost the best giant red horse that ever existed. The best horse I never owned. The unshakeable, unstoppable force that was--that is--Hakuna Matata. 

 Oh, Cuna. What can I say about him? There aren’t enough adjectives.

I have been on Team Cuna since the beginning, when my good friend Aimee first started riding him and I somehow ended up as their biggest fan and personal photographer. I’m not going to pretend that I can articulate, or even know what he meant to her. But for me, watching them evolve into the incredible team they became made me believe that hard work and teamwork could make anything possible. He changed my mind about Thoroughbreds, OTTBs in particular. He inspired me to want to ride again. He helped me learn how to take the perfect dramatic headshot. He put up with all our silly photo shoot ideas... as long as enough peppermints were involved.

 The universe is a funny place. At the time, it seemed like fate that Aimee and Cuna found each other in the first place. I watched as my friend rediscovered her confidence and love of jumping. I watched Cuna blossom from a cranky, nondescript old red Thoroughbred into a shiny, sculpted show jumping machine. No, he never really liked dressage, but he was willing to try his hardest for her. It was something intangibly special to watch them get better and braver and more connected over the course of their time together. It felt like a privilege.

 It is a sad fact that the universe can be as cruel as it is kind. Of course, good things can’t last forever, but I wish with all my heart that Aimee and Cuna could have had a little longer together. They still had shit to do. Last May, Cuna came up lame. Then he came up REALLY lame. It became apparent over the following months that he wasn’t going to get better. The best case scenario would be to keep him as comfortable as possible. Aimee did everything she could. In the beginning, Cuna took care of her. Now it was her turn. Unfortunately, it has become clear that the kindest thing to do for him is to end his suffering. Rationally, I know that is true. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less.


Even though I’ve come to terms with it, it feels wrong. I shouldn’t have to talk about this horse in past tense. If anyone could have kicked laminitis and Cushings in the ass, it was him. I guess sometimes, life has other plans. It doesn’t feel right. It’s not fair. It can’t be, but it is. I can hardly wrap my mind around it. My heart is in pieces. I am thankful to have been able to see him one more time this past November, and finally get to be with him on the other side of the camera. I will treasure those photos forever.

 No, he wasn’t my horse. But I loved him like he was. Thank you, Aimee, for letting me be a part of your journey together. I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there today. Go easy, red man, I was lucky to have known you.

 Team Cuna to the end.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Bridles Part 2: FUNCTION!!!

so many bridles!
Now that we've discussed bridle aesthetics (email your pictures!!), it's time to think about function. Some people do this the other way around and worry about function first... yeah, for most of us, that's overrated. Ha.

I am the one who took a horse to a clinic with an O'Connor-approved, very tack conscious clinician with my horse in a figure eight. When the clinician asked me what the figure eight did, I explained that it helps keep the horse's mouth closed and keeps them from crossing their jaw.

"But I didn't think your horse did any of those things," the clinician said.

"She doesn't. I think it looks cute and since it will have no action, it doesn't hurt anything."

So there you go. That's me in a nutshell.

THAT SAID. Look at the last part of the statement. I'm all for dressing your horse in pretty tack as long as the tack doesn't interfere with the way the horse goes. Let's look at some basic bridle designs and talk about why they're used and when they are or are not appropriate.

As modeled by Cuna

Plain cavessons:

This is about as basic as it gets. Some people get all nutty about never using a cavesson because they don't need one. I think that's silly if you're attempting to ride and show in an english discipline. They are required to show (most of the time) and they complete the look.

They are also super useful if you're out riding and a cheek piece breaks (been there) and they allow you to employ aids like a standing martingale or a flash.

The proper adjustment is to place the cavesson just below the cheek bone so that it doesn't rub, but is well clear of the airways. The picture has it just a hair high.

This is the correct design to use with a pelham or double bridle. A figure eight or flash can interfere with the action of the curb chain. As such, doubles don't come with flashes. It is trendy in the Eq ring to use a pelham with a figure eight, but it's also trendy to be an anorexic 17 year old there, so I wouldn't just blindly follow their lead.

plain cavesson with curb chain
Reasons to use them:
1) your horse hasn't demonstrated a need for anything else
2) your horse has a delicate face that would be overwhelmed by too many straps
3) you ride hunters and/or use a standing martingale
4) they are easy to find
5) you use a bit with a curb chain of any sort

Reasons not to use a plain cavesson:
1) your horse needs (or looks better in) something else

Interesting notes: If the cavesson has it's own hanger (as is standard on english bridles), we call it a cavesson. If the cavesson is on the same strap as the bit hang/cheek piece, we call it a noseband. This is more commonly seen on in-hand bridles for breed showing. Having it separate gives us a much greater ability to adjust it, while a noseband would be a cleaner look for a standard-size face. Trade offs.

Courage models the crank

Crank with a flash

The "crank" style is differentiated from the plain cavesson the strap under the jaw. Instead of a simple buckle, it's a long strap that's doubled back, allowing the horse's mouth to be "cranked" shut. This design is most commonly seen on dressage bridles, but it's showing up in other places as well.

Many people are opposed to cranks because they don't believe in forcing a horse to shut his mouth. However, like any tool, they are only as cruel as the hands that use them. A loosely-adjusted crank is no different than a loosely adjusted cavesson. A snug crank can support the jaw of a horse taking contact, just as the flash helps keep the bit stable in the horse's mouth.

A frequent misconception is that the flash serves to close the horse's mouth. Given the biomechanics of the horse's face, all the flash does is support the bit and keep the lips shut. Any closing action is done by the cavesson, which is much closer to the jaw.

A crank is frequently bigger and thicker than a cavesson. This isn't just styling--many cranks have a flash noseband attached. In order to work properly, the crank needs to be stable on the face so the flash doesn't pull it downward and allow it to interfere with the horse's breathing.

Courage in the flash--note his nostrils are unimpinged
The proper adjustment is the same as the cavesson--just below the cheek bones to prevent rubbing. This allows the flash to be in place without getting too low.

Reasons to use a crank/flash
1) your horse opens his mouth/plays with his lips and you want him to go through the phase without making it a training issue
2) you ride dressage and want "the look"
3) your horse has a plain face that needs some dressing up
4) you like buckles. lots and lots of buckles.
5) your trainer requested it

Reasons not to use a crank/flash
1) they are a PITA with a standing martingale
2) you ride hunters
3) your internet horse friends think it's mean and you're tired of explaining yourself

So cute 

 The Figure Eight

This style is primary seen on eventers and jumpers, but it's legal for all FEI disciplines including dressage (Sorry hunters. You guys have no fun.)

Much like the crank/flash combo, it can close the mouth while supporting the bit. Given the location that it acts on the horse's head, it is a little more effective than the crank flash. It's also a lot more distracting to look at.

Dressage riders prefer the crank/flash. Riding at speed usually calls for the most effective thing possible, hence the figure eight. Noted: Jimmy Wofford is known for saying that a flash is just an inefficient figure eight.

The design of the figure eight takes pressure off the side of the horse's face but still serves to hold the mouth shut and doesn't interfere with their breathing. If you've ever been run away with by a horse with it's mouth gaped open and it's head up in the air, you'll understand why this is a good idea. Noted: I absolutely agree that the mouth-gaping-run is a training problem. Jimmy Wofford will also point out that you have to live through the present in order to prove his point that every horse can be ridden in a cavesson with a snaffle.

30% crazier on Cuna
Also noted: until you've galloped XC on a horse that loves it (or ridden race horses or showjumped 3'6"+), don't bother getting snitty with me about training aids. The physics of speed have very little in common with the under-powered, unfit, behind-the leg-animal that we like to pretend our horses aren't. Tools are created for a reason. Use them as needed.

The proper adjustment of a figure eight is to have the ring ABOVE the cheek bone, but far enough below the eye that it doesn't interfere. This should allow the top of the figure eight to run over the facial bones without rubbing the cheek bones... if that makes any sense.

Reasons to use a figure eight:
1) you participate in a sport that requires quick reflexes or your horse isn't perfectly soft and on the bit all the time
2) your horse needs a little busyness to dress up a somewhat plain face
3) your trainer requested you use one
4) it's what you have available

Reasons not to use a figure eight:
1) your horse is for sale and you don't want him to look crazy
2) your horse has a busy face and needs less going on
3) you use a bit with a curb chain
4) you ride hunters

The Micklem Bridle

This funny piece showed up in the past couple of decades. It purports to be kinder to the horse by integrating the design of the horse's head and relieving pressure in common places.

A close look indicates that the pressure points are quite similar to a standard, well-fitted figure eight.


For some horses, this bridle works really, really well. It offers excellent bit stability and works well on certain faces. I've spent a bit of time with these bridles--it made no difference to my mare, but Courage was noticeably quieter in the contact with it than with his previous bridles. Coincidence? Maybe. It was enough of a difference to convince me to keep it around.

Fitting a micklem is a bit of a crap shoot. It's easy if your horse's head works well for the bridle. It's hard if it doesn't. Ultimately, you want the airways clear and the facial bones free of pressure. There are some youtube videos that are helpful, but horses' heads have a lot of variation and this bridle doesn't. Perhaps future models will address this? We'll see.

Reasons to use a micklem
1) your horse is very expressive with his face/itchy during/after riding or fussy about contact
2) you want to know what all the hype is about and they really aren't that expensive
3) you like being a little different (or a lot the same, depending on your barn)
4) you always want to try new things

Reasons not to use a Micklem
1) they are ugly as sin
2) the leather is nothing to write home about
3) your horse is fine in a normal bridle
4) you ride hunters

There's a basic rundown. I hope I've clarified the types of cavessons and bridles available and gone over their pros and cons in a way that makes sense to the average horse owner. This falls in to one of those things where if you're unsure and you ride in any sort of program, ask your trainer. They frequently have preferences and they generally have a very solid logic behind those preferences.

If you're a free wheeling ammy like me, then pick what's prettiest and have a ball!!

Please keep on emailing me your horse head/bridle photos to hakunamatata at gmail dot com! The reader input post will be lots of fun.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Less Wordy Wendesday

November 2013

January 2014
I was running through some old blog entries and caught this comparison. This first is a shot from the day I clipped Courage at the end of November. The second is taken mimd-January 2014. Check out what six weeks off did for my little man!
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