Saturday, June 28, 2014

Trashumancia II

NB: The first half of this series is here if you missed it.

Sunday - After a long night of too-hot-too-cold sheet wrestling, I woke up ready to get back in the saddle. We had a lovely breakfast at the hotel with freshly baked madaleines and home-grown cherries (Gredos is a cherry-harvest hotspot) and then walked over to saddle up our horses who were calm and refreshed after their night of rest - not so much jigging this morning.  We hand-walked them into the middle of town to give them a drink at the fountain and to give them a little warmup before mounting up and starting our route back to La Parra.  On the way out of town we rode through some poplar trees, which I'm highly allergic to when they're snowing down that fluffy shit so my allergies started acting up and didn't stop until I got back to Mallorca two days later.

I went through four packs of kleenex and in the end had to resort to furtive sleeve wiping and donated wet wipes to blow my nose into.  By the end of the day I was pretty miserable and starting to wish people would stop talking to me, and even now the skin on my nose is chapped from blowing it so often.  What with the sinus blockage, the dust, dehydration, the endless slight hangover and the sun poisoning from the day before, I got a horrific headache at lunch and thought about giving up and asking for a (car) ride down the mountain until the ibuprophen kicked in.  After a few hours my knees were aching, since I had shortened my stirrups for more security over the more rugged terrain I knew was to come.  And I had to wrap the shirt I wore the day before around my neck like a pakistani prayer shawl to cover my poor burned cleavage.  Even so, I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Just on the other side of Barajas we went back through the same forest as the day before where we overtook cows grazing along a stream and passed areas marked for wild mushroom gathering, then started our slow ascent to the Puerto del Arenal mountain pass (the day before we had crossed the Puerto del Pico mountain pass) over moor-like cow and horse pastures.  The terrain was completely different from the day before, much more loamy and nearly swampy in some areas, littered with holes and streams which spread out in different tiny tributaries and meandered across fields and down hillsides.  Then we headed up a rocky hillside lined with broom bushes and rosemary till we reached more meadows, littered here and there with broom bushes and boulders.  We let our horses drink at a crystal clear stream, then tied them up to rest while we enjoyed a mid-morning snack of serrano ham, manchego cheese, homemade morcilla (cured blood sausage) and more wine from the wineskin.

On the other side of the stream we noticed a herd of horses running together way on the other side of the meadow from us and steered clear of them so as not to get in the middle of a stampede.  We picked our way through a rocky and treacherous streambed, slowly climbing higher and higher, until we came up on another meadow with horses grazing, and a few at the far end running and playing.  Some of the braver members of our group which also happened to have their own horses with them rode up to the herd to see them up close, but the rest of us stayed at a distance.  This is the one regret I have (aside from getting sunburned) - that I didn't ride up to this herd of horses.  It was a magical moment and I watched from afar with envy and admiration.

We noticed the vegetation getting sparser and the boulders getting more frequent and then suddenly saw the whole Tietar river valley spread out before us as we reached the top of the mountain pass.  And suddenly, right against the horizon, we saw an ibex run from one group of boulders to the next.  As we were lamenting the fact that none of us had our cameras out, another one followed him.  And another, and another... they just kept coming!  There must have been 30 or so of them - at any rate it was enough time to dig my camera out of my saddlebags and take a video (sorry for the shaky hands) of them.  Gaby's quip: "Most of what you pay for these rides goes to bribes for this kind of thing".

We were reminded of the fact that this was goat territory when we saw the path we'd be using to go down the mountain.  Less than a yard wide, steep, stony, in some spots downright invisible and with lots of switchbacks, it was a little menacing (not to mention the fact that two of the folks who had ridden with us the day before had gotten someone else to ride their horses on the second day in order to avoid this descent).  Gaby's son Álvaro saw the look on my face and said to me "just let Dali have his head and you'll be fine" and I listened to him.  Apart from a few checks on the rein when we got to an easy bit to keep him from ending up on top of the mare in front of us, I pretty much just tried to relax my seat, kept a loose hold on the reins and put my life in his hands (hooves).  And Álvaro was right - Dali's a pro.  He picked his way downhill with the agility and balance of a mustang, regaining his foothold easily when a loose stone slipped and even hopping over a very dangerously placed stream with grace and confidence.  When we got to a decent resting place where we could all dismount (which happened to be a state-run refuge for hikers and cattle and goat herders with a smallish cattle pen made of huge boulders pushed together) and give our horses a few minutes rest, I gave him a big rub and told him repeatedly what a fantastic horse he was.

Then down the hill to a pine wood where Gaby's wife had prepared a fabulous picnic lunch - more "thrashed potatos", a cold cream of zucchini soup, a tuna and veggie terrine, braised turkey cutlets and her fabulous lemon mousse for dessert.  My horse had thrown a shoe on the way down, so while I held him and metabolized the ibuprophen Gaby shoed him.  The way down was beautiful but tiring - we were now far enough down the mountain for it to be hot, and as we were back on the south face the terrain was much dryer and with 15 horses, a lot of dust was kicked up.  But the views were amazing - it was great to see the mountain pass we had come over, and the little towns way down in the valley with their white wall, red tile roof houses and stone churches and even a castle or two.  Down and down we went along dusty roads, with a few more hair-raising descents (steeper, but not so rocky or vertiginous) before we finally walked through a fairy tale-like fern grove before entering the forest that Gaby's ranch is just on the other side of.  The land has obviously been recently parcelled off and sold, because there were a fair number of newly built cabins and some still under construction.  Then we arrived to the olive groves interspersed with vinyards and fruit (quince, fig, pomegranate, almond and cherry) trees which mark the entrance to Gaby's ranch, and with a mix of regret at having ended our adventure and relief at being able to rest dismounted, unsaddled the horses and returned them to their paddocks for their well-deserved dinner and rest.

We ended the day with crusty loaves of bread, more home-cured chorizo and salchichón along with fresh local cheeses eaten with homemade quince jelly on top, a selection of locally made herb and fruit liqueurs with homegrown cherries for dessert.  Another, short-lived singalong accompanied the inevitable hugs and kisses as we said goodbye until the next time.  Hopefully it'll be soon.

Once again, if this sounds like something you'd be interested in doing, please look up Gredos Ecuestre and tell Gaby I sent you, or drop me a line and I can give you more details.  He organizes very reasonably priced routes from 1 1/2 hours to 7 days long over a range of different terrains and parts of Spain (Gredos, Castilla Leon, Andalucía and Galicia so far with more to come) with some of the best horses (they've got spirit and initiative but are very well behaved and not phased by anything) I've ever ridden.  Oh yeah and the food is fabulous ;)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Trashumancia I

Well, I was trying to go for short on this one but I didn't want to leave too much out, so I've decided to split it into two chapters - one for the first day and another for the second one - and try to "stick to the facts" rather than going into my feelings.  Anyhow here's the intro - last weekend I flew to the Peninsula to go on a two-day trail ride with Gredos Ecuestre.  I've been on several long routes like this with Gaby (Gredos Ecuestre owner/operator) before and enjoyed them all thoroughly, and since it'd been a couple of years since I was last able to come along, I'd been looking forward to this one for months.  So here's the first half, I'll try to write and publish the second in a couple of days and if you want to see more photos you can check them out here.

Friday - After catching up in Madrid with some friends from previous routes who weren't able to make it to this one, we arrived in La Parra in time for a Ribera del Duero-feuled flamenco singalong.  Ill-advised gin and tonics in the town plaza before heading off to bed.

Saturday - Saddled up and rode off bright and early.  I was a little uneasy about them giving me a new horse, Dali, which I'd never ridden before (and who came with the caveat "he does fine as long as you know how to ride pretty well") but decided that at the worst, it would be a learning experience and a challenge.  Gaby's horses are always eager to get going so there was a little jigging at first, but a few checks of the rein to show him I was serious about walking, not trotting, as well as me relaxing my seat had us going smooth as silk in no time.  I recognized the first part of the ride as one I've ridden several times before, by a few farmhouses through a lovely pine forest and down a broom-bush covered mountainside.  But soon we were meandering along a mountain stream which was new to me and shortly thereafter we started to find the first tell-tale signs of the "Trashumancia" in the form of cow patties and cloven hoof prints.

Wikipedia defines transhumance as "the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures", and that definition pretty much works for me.  In the Sierra de Gredos, which still had a few snow-covered peaks in late June, shepherds and goatherds and cowmen move their herds from the southern side of of the mountains in early summer using the 1st century AD roman road which is still in excellent repair, to take advantage of the lusher pastures and more abundant streams and watering holes on the north face.

Around mid-morning we came up behind our first herd of about 60 cows, a mixed group of all ages, sexes and colors which hardly batted an eye as we rode past in single file so as to not spook them or inadvertently drive them in a different direction.  The cow herders were on foot and horseback, and there was a saddled but not bridled paint horse completely untied to anything at all, being herded along with the cows.  A while afterwards we got to a charming little village which we rode straight through, clip-clopping down the main street which was lined with charming little whitewashed houses, each with a wooden second story balcony and most adorned with roses and geraniums, and waving at little old ladies, children and housewives hanging out their laundry as we passed by.

On the way out of the village we took our first recognizable steps on the roman road (we had apparently been on it earlier but hadn't noticed) and stopped at a fountain for a snack (chorizo and salchichón mixed and cured by Gaby's wife washed down with wine we squirted into our mouths from a wineskin) while the horses took a drink and a well deserved breather.  The cows caught up with us here and we admired how well behaved they were - no straying away from the group, no visible piques between rival bovine factions and only the calves showing any tendency to playfulness.  Then back up the roman road, and up, and up... we passed a few more cattle herds on the way up, helped shoo a disoriented calf who had gotten left behind back to her mother, and had to stop for a few thrown horseshoes (Gaby is a licensed farrier and always carries extra shoes and nails so no problem), but mostly it was just climbing the mountain and admiring the views for the next couple of hours.  Then finally we got to the top, where a pretty sizeable crowd had gathered to witness and cheer on the Transhumancia, along with all the cows who were grazing in the meadow at the top of the mountain while their herders took a break.

Unsaddled the horses in a nearby wood and had lunch at the restaurant which is conveniently located on top of the mountain - "thrashed potatos" which are potatos mashed with garlic and paprika and garnished with fried pork skins, scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms, cream-and-spinach filled fried crepes and salad followed by a nice bloody steak from the cousins of the cows we could see grazing in the pasture.  After a long, relaxing "sobremesa" where we chatted and sipped at coffee and herb liqueurs we saddled our horses up and walked them to another fountain.  While the horses were drinking, a huge vulture (pretty sure it was a Griffon Vulture) landed just about 250 yards away from us.  Of course, I just had to see how close I could get, which wasn't much before it majestically spread its wings and flew off into the valley below.  Then we headed down the other, greener side of the mountain through lush meadows and mixed deciduous and pine forests to Barajas, the village we spent the night in.

Now if I had to choose a tiny little town smack in the middle of nowhere, Barajas is the one I'd choose.  The roman road runs through it, there's a lovely romanesque looking church as well as lots of more recent but still charming stone buildings, its mountain backdrop is stunning and best of all?  It's literally surrounded by horse pastures.  There are even pastures owned by the town hall which are subsidized so even if you don't have much money, you have somewhere to keep your horse.  And of course with the amount of lush green grass growing, you don't have to worry much about feed.  We separated the horses (there were 15 of them after all) into three different pastures - one for Gaby's horses, another for the horses owned by other people who live in Gaby's stable and the last one for two mares who had come with their owners from Alicante to do this route - and walked around the corner to our hotel, where each room instead of having a number had the name of a horse.  Ours was Faraón (Pharoah), a flashy white Iberian.

While showering, I realized that I had gotten pretty badly sunburned on my chest - I very cleverly brought a light cotton long-sleeved shirt to protect my arms and back form the sun but forgot that it was a little low-cut :S  Not sure if it was sun poisoning, dehydration, a slight hangover or a combination of the three, but I barely made it through the excellent dinner (Iberian ham, local aged sheep cheese, veggie terrine and fresh cod with a tomato sauce) before I had to turn in for the night.

Well, I think that's enough for the first chapter.  More another day :)  Needless to say it was fabulous, and I got along so well with my horse that riding him just came naturally.  No drama at all, which I think says a lot about my own personal development.

Oh, and if you're interested in going on an amazing trail ride like this one (anywhere from 1 1/2 hours to 7 days, very reasonable rates) with Gaby's fabulous horses through some of the most beautiful and authentic countryside in Spain, check out his website.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

...and Nervous Nellie

This is an old photo btw

Can I eat my words please?  Nervous Nelly was back with a vengeance yesterday at our lesson in Sa Fita.  My instructor over there had asked me to wear spurs for yesterday's lesson and boy am I glad I decided to ignore him.  He had never seen her like this and was completely blown away, and I had to keep reassuring him that she's just like that every now and then.  Spooks all over the arena, gallops I could just barely get under control, freaking out at every sound or movement, rodeo bucks... it was Spooky Starbuck's Greatest Hits and then some.

But... (and you know me, there's always a but) it ended up being a very positive session for us.

After warming up, I wanted to keep doing some halt / walk / trot transitions in the "spooky spots" until she calmed down, but after a few minutes my instructor set up a jump and told me to take her over it.  I was pretty dubious about the wisdom of this but figured I could deal with any contingencies and so we went for it.  And to my surprise, she did fine -  there were still the same spooks, stampedes and bucks that I was getting in trot and even walk, but they didn't make any difference in our ability to take the jumps.  We went up and up to about 2 1/2 feet and then added some scary plywood panels painted with red and black spirals to make the obstacle look like a psychadelic, twilight zone wall.  She dodged it the first time, which both me and my instructor were expecting, but then I took her back around at a trot and after a little zig-zagging hesitation she jumped it.

So I learned two really important things yesterday which I think will really serve us both in the future, especially in stressful situations like a show or a particularly gnarly moment during a trail ride.  1.- Even though she's spooky and freaking out and barely under control, she still IS in fact under control, and 2.- Giving her a job to do, even a high adrenaline job like jumping doesn't make it worse, it makes it better.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Boring Bess

If you're one of the two to three people who read this blog regularly, you may recall that a while back I was a little worried about Starbuck's growing tendency to run off with me after a spook, ignoring all rein aids.  And you may also recall me saying that hopefully in a few weeks I'd be worrying about something else altogether.  Well, boy was I not wrong on that one.  And what, you may ask, am I worried about now?  Surprisingly enough (or not), our new problem is too much woah, not enough go.

Now I'm not sure whether this back-and-forth stuff is common to all mares, or all young horses, or all horses in general, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Starbuck and I are given to extremes.  Even my farrier the other day told me "I just don't understand - sometimes it's like she's an old lesson nag who's been getting shod for decades, then the next time I come out she just can't stand still".  And the same is true for our day-to-day rides - I never know what I'm gonna get.  One day she's Boring Bess, the next she's Nervous Nell.  There are trends, however, and her latest trend is way more in the Boring Bess direction.

Ever since my dressage lesson with my friend José I've been working on riding Starbuck with more rein contact.  Note that I'm in no way talking about pulling on her mouth or forcing her to bend her neck or even asking for flexion of the poll.  I'm simply talking about firm, steady yet flexible contact still allowing her to carry her head however and wherever she wants to.  But if she had a tendency to be sluggish using no rein contact at all, now she's downright Jabba-the-Huttish.  "More leg!", my friend José said in our dressage lesson.  "More leg!", Marina tells me every time I ride with her.  "More leg!", instructs Toni over at Sa Fita.  And I dutifully apply more leg, more leg, ever more leg...  Until I noticed grooming her the other day that she actually has spots on her side where her hair's worn down from me kicking and nudging her so often.  So "More leg"?  I don't think it's that simple.

I think the problem is not how much leg I'm giving her, but how often I'm giving it to her.  After reading around the internet for a while, I'm pretty much convinced that my problem is that I never let up.  And hey, if you keep getting kicked no matter what you do, sooner or later you'll stop trying so hard.  So I made a vow the other day - even though I know she won't respond to a squeeze of my calves, ALWAYS start my leg aid with only just that.  And then simply escalate until she does respond.  And then STOP - no more leg until she slows down noticeably.  No more squeezing each time I post, no more nudging with each stride just to get a decent walk.  And never, NEVER use the crop without using my leg first (sometimes I use them interchangeably).

So does this sound like basic riding skills that everyone should have, and that no one without them should ever attempt to start their own horse?  If so, you're probably right, and I make no excuses for myself except that I'm willing to change.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Sa Fita

A couple of months ago I bought a Groupon for classes at the stable down the road from mine with the idea of giving Starbuck and I some new experiences and perspectives on our progress.  I've been busy getting my Spanish driver's licence (yep, I even had to take lessons all over again) so I didn't start right away, but I finally passed my driving test and as a reward called up to see when I could have my first lesson.  So this past Sunday at 10:45 a.m. Starbuck and I set out for Club Hípico Sa Fita with butterflies in our stomachs and determination in our hearts for our first ever time riding at another stable.

I had a hangover, having had dinner at a friend's house where liberal amounts of amaretto were ingested with dessert, and had only slept about 5 hours (the irresponsability of this didn't occur to me until the morning after) and on top of everything it was even more blustery than usual, with enough wind to have to hold the numnah on her back until I got the saddle on top.  So I was really skeptical of how things would go.  But of course as my dad has commented more than once, when I have relaxed expectations often Starbuck performs much better than I expect her to, and this occasion was no exception.

On the walk over (it's about a third of a mile) she gave a little spook at some styrofoam panels the neighbors had put up to reinforce their fencing (classy!) which were creaking in the wind, and the last 300 yards were a little stop-snort-start-y.  Aside from that she behaved really well, with very little prancing and no rearing or other craziness, walking through puddles and giving the bikes, cars and roadside goats, chickens and dogs little more than a passing glance.

I used the rope halter and short longe line to lead her over, so when we got to the stable (right on time!) I took advantage of that to longe her a little bit in their arena, especially by the places she seemed worried about.  After about five minutes or so of that, I switched out the halter for her bridle, mounted up and started exploring their ring.  It's maybe 50 x 35 meters or a little less and has lots of brightly painted, interesting obstacles set up in different formations - there are some basic "traditional" jumps, some plastic traffic barriers, cavaletti stands, painted panels to keep the horse from dodging a jump sideways, some plastic "water obstacles", traffic cones... you get the picture.  There's also a big puddle in one corner thanks to the recent rains, and in the other corner right outside the arena there's a little wooden gazebo type thing with coke and snack machines, which makes creaking and cracking noises.  There's also a kind of warehouse on the far side of the arena where people load things into trucks noisily and then drive the trucks off.  She was a little jumpy with both the gazebo as well as with the trucks, but seemed to realize that we were there to work and got right into it.

My instructor is a young guy - maybe 20 years old - named Toni who obviously has lots of experience jumping but gave a few "quick fix" suggestions which raised some red flags for me - like using side reins while jumping so Starbuck would be more collected.   But he ended up giving me some really great advice about my posture and specifically about improving my release of the reins when Starbuck moves her head forward to jump, as well as pointing out that I could praise her more often.  And he gave me lots of compliments on how well muscled Starbuck is for her age, and how well behaved, etc... so of course I ended up absolutely loving him.  After a few minutes of walk and trot weaving in and out of the obstacles and getting closer and closer to the scary stuff, we did a couple of laps in canter to warm up and started jumping.  We started with a little cross-rails obstacle which he quickly changed to a vertical and then we just started going up and up... after 6 or 7 jumps to the left I could tell Starbuck was starting to get worn out (and me too!) and asked him if we could change to the other direction.

So we turned around, lowered the jump again, and did the same thing heading right.  At one point when it was pretty high, she struck the bars with her hind legs.  On the second try, she struck again but we just made the circle again with a little more energy, went into the jump superstraight and jumped the same height again and she cleared it nicely.  Since she had done so well and I wanted to make it very clear that she had done the right thing by giving her the best reward I can think of (stopping work), I told him that as far as I was concerned we were good to go on the jumping.  "OK", he said, "by the way, do you know how high that is?"  It was 95 centimeters - in other words three feet!  I'm fairly sure we've never jumped that high before, and it wasn't even a big deal until I knew about it.  So I gave Starbuck lots of scratching on her withers and neck which she loves since she's so itchy, cooled down and walked her back home with the biggest smile on my face in years.

I'm going to cut this off soon since I could probably keep writing about it for ages with how elated I am at this demonstration of our progress, but I just want to add a note that on Monday we had another lesson which is where the videos are from - she was obviously a little tired and we ended up hesitating a little before some of the jumps which we'll have to work on, but we did a course of 6 jumps at 80 cm height, twice!  The videos are from the end of the lesson when my friends Virginia and Belén came by to give us their support.  And to cool down we went for a walk in a huge field they have behind their stable with no other horses, and aside from a spook when a partridge burst out of the brush like 6 feet away from us she was very calm and centered.  It really felt like she was looking to me for reassurance that this was all OK, and getting it.

What a good little mare I have!