So I wrote a book… and a few other updates

I wrote a book?!

Actually it’s a novella, but it’s got my name on it, and I’m thrilled! It’s been so humbling to receive positive feedback from my friends, their parents, their parents’ friends… and each one is just as flattering and embarrassing as the next. Thank you to all who have supported me on this journey–you know who you are!

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Photo by Mark Olencki

This novella was published because it won the Ben Wofford Prize for Fiction–a contest held every two years at Wofford. It is not being sold in stores, but you can find it on campus at Wofford or if you contact me directly. I’m currently working on turning it into a full-fledged novel and THEN you can buy it in stores. Stay tuned!

The Office of Marketing and Communications (more specifically, my friend Kelsey) wrote a beautiful release about the novella that you can read here.

 

I also graduated, and I’m not sure how that happened, to be honest. I was just moving in for my freshman year like two weeks ago. Dear old Wofford, hail. Photos by Laura McDermott.

Postgrad and “Single Mom” Life:

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Sometimes I have to remind myself that I actually work here…

I took an internship as prep for a full-time job with Tryon Resort and I absolutely LOVE working in advertising and marketing for the Tryon International Equestrian Center. Every day is different, and I never want to leave! I am loving every minute I get to spend in the Carolina foothills region. Plus, when I need to escape to another city for a yoga class held at a brewery, or swing home for dinner with my family or former roommate who’s now kicking butt at med school, I totally can.

I’m close to my horse, amazing outdoor attractions (some of which I haven’t even had time to check out yet!), incredible food (that I can’t yet afford), and I also get to work towards growing equestrian sports every day! For instance, have you heard about Gladiator Polo yet?!?!

Gladiator Polo is a new form of arena polo that combines the fast-paced, arena style of hockey with the finesse, agility, and horse-human teamwork that we equestrians love to watch in the show jumping arena or on the polo field. It’s fast, exciting, and it demands a rowdy crowd! Gladiator Polo debuted at TIEC on June 24th to a crowd of more than 10,000 spectators, and it will be coming back in September (1st, 9th, and 30th)! Check out some of the pictures/videos here.

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One of the more memorable rides of my life: riding Tortilla, a talented polo pony, in the George Morris Arena! Y’all check out the polo school at Tryon Resort–I highly recommend it!

My days include interviewing riders, writing press releases and drafting copy for other projects, making deliveries, coordinating ad inquiries and sales for our print publications, canvassing the property to promote special events, tracking media impressions, helping run events, driving golf carts… and whatever else needs doing! I’m thankful to be working, learning and growing with great coworkers and at a crazy fast pace that I love. The next year will be a marathon–at a sprint. The first few miles have been great!

WEG 2018

Even more exciting than Gladiator Polo is the chance to help plan and host the FEI World Equestrian Games Tryon 2018 in September of next year–we call it WEG, and it’s coming up fast! Around half a million people from all over the world will converge at TIEC to celebrate and compete in eight different disciplines, and I can’t wait to watch it all unfold. The event, which occurs every four years and travels to different host countries much like the Olympics, will bring an estimated $400 million dollars in economic impact to the area, and I’m thrilled to be impacting my community of the past four years in this way. Personally, I’m super excited to watch the driving, para dressage and vaulting competitions! Tickets will go on sale in September… stay tuned! (Horsey friends–get housing now!!)

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My “kid”

Two eye surgeries later, Dancer’s right eye looks drastically different than what you might’ve seen in the past seven years! Her bilateral orbital fat prolapse was [re]confirmed as benign by the vets at Tryon Equine Hospital, and they have been so great helping us ensure Dancer’s eyes continue to stay healthy. We decided to operate on the most prolific eye first to investigate the tissue and determine whether further action needed to be taken. A second procedure was necessary because Dancer developed some proud flesh in her third eyelid, but based on pathology results I’ll hold off on any procedures for the left eyeball until I’ve got a stable financial situation… pun intended.

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In the meantime, since I’m only working one job and not four these days, I’ve been able to spend a lot more time with my girl, and it’s one of my favorite parts of postgrad life! After-work trail rides or walks are my favorite way to spend time with her while building her confidence, and it seems to be paying off recently. Two hour trail ride and obstacle course with our barn family? No problem! Dancer is really starting to relax, pay attention to her feet, think her way through obstacles, and carry herself more correctly since we’ve been trail riding, and I’m so glad to see it paying off.

Like all the best horses, Dancer is complex and challenging and not alway easy, but I know persistence will pay off, and I wouldn’t trade one good day for all of our bad ones. I can’t wait to get more miles together in the future… we’ve got some goals in mind, but I won’t share them here just yet. Stay tuned 😉

If you don’t like pictures of eyeballs, don’t click on the pictures below. Nothing gory, but everybody’s different, so be advised. Here’s Dancer’s eye before the first surgery, before the second re-touch, and a few weeks ago. Huge difference!

 

 

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I have lots and lots of friends to thank for making me feel loved this summer, whether in person or in spirit. It feels good to be surrounded by such support. Below are some pictures from the weekend before my birthday…. which, coincidentally, also included a bear in a tree in downtown Landrum, just a few miles from my house. But I missed that shot. You’ll have to read about it here. Outtakes from that weekend that didn’t end up on the news:

 

That’s pretty much all that I’ve got to write home about… for now. Stay tuned, friends.

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Mountain fresh and plastic free

I had a cute postgrad blog post planned, but today I have something more important–and something more urgent–to say instead. This post is inspired by a Facebook post I saw from multiple people in the past week, three-hour drives to and from Winston Salem, and lots of coffee.

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“Great Barrier Reef dead at 25 Million” reads a New York Post headline from Oct. 2016. 

Snopes says it’s not true… yet. That doesn’t mean that the world’s largest coral reef system isn’t about to flatline in the next few years, especially since 2016 was an especially devastating year for the GBR:

A survey of the extent and severity of coral bleaching between March and June 2016 conducted by the Australian Government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and released on 13 October 2016 found that:

22 percent of coral on the Reef died due to the worst mass bleaching event on record. Eighty-five percent of this mortality occurred in the 600 kilometer stretch between the tip of Cape York and just north of Lizard Island (Snopes).

Also according to Snopes: “The latest surveys indicate that 93% of the individual reefs in the GBR have suffered some degree of bleaching, with reefs in the north the most severely affected. Australia’s marine biodiversity, and the jobs and economic prosperity that the reef supports, is under grave threat.”

I have three things to say about this situation and one multi-faceted response:

Firstly, prematurely declaring the GBR dead could impact efforts to save it… doomsday thinking is usually more harmful than helpful to environmentalists, as much as we love to talk about thresholds from which we cannot return. I’m reminded of Christian rhetoric in particular that calls us to “fill the earth and subdue it,” a phrase which holds a very different connotation than stewardship, and implies very little respect for the earth. This is specially true when combined with end-times doctrine that perpetuates greedy usage of what’s here now instead of preserving for the future. Understanding the dire nature of a problem is important. But we cannot declare something impossible to save if there’s something left to try (Like, I don’t know…. supporting the Paris Agreement, or recognizing that CO2 is definitely a huge contributor to climate change, or allowing scientists to study climate without censoring them or cutting their programs entirely. Just a few ideas.)

 

Secondly, the visibility of this issue matters… and it should move people to action. I grew up learning about the Great Barrier Reef in school, hearing that coral bleaching was becoming a problem and that an increase in global temperatures was changing the acidity of ocean waters and creating a nearly irreversible trend in bleaching. But many people don’t know about coral reef bleaching at all, much less that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger of succumbing to it. On the one hand, it’s a great thing that so many people are now concerned about the GBR, whether or not they’ve been there. I’m hopeful that the attention it’s getting moves people to make a change, now that they’ve seen what we’re in danger of losing. This is a serious, visible result of climate change… maybe some people will finally be convinced that human actions do have consequences, and that climate change is something to pay attention to instead of ignoring it.

With our current administration denouncing the Paris Agreement (despite more than 343 cities, more than 900 businesses and almost 200 colleges and universities and three states pledging to uphold it anyway), the GBR is seriously threatened. And climate change will have much more direct impacts on our lives than anything that happens to the GBR: coastal cities around the world are more likely to be submerged under rising sea levels… directly impacting more than 40% of the world’s population (40% of the world’s population lives within 100km of the coast as of 2010, and that number has only increased).

 

Thirdly, we have got to stop believing that actions do not have consequences. I don’t understand how the same people who:

  • appreciate mankind’s ability to level mountains and blast through them,
  • clear entire landscapes for development,
  • know what an oil rig looks like and/or enjoy the use of electricity,
  • marvel at engineering achievements such as dams and bridges and highways and industrial agriculture, as well as countless other examples of anthropogenic forces on our globe,
  • fly in airplanes and look down on enormous cities–especially at night–and see how significant they are on the landscape,
  • or understand how rapidly our country has been developed compared to others, and how significantly different our lives have become in the digital age

are the same people who deny that all these actions could possibly have negative impacts somewhere outside the financial statement. Climate change might not have the same, immediate effect on an individual as touching a hot stove, but its larger systemic symptoms are overwhelmingly supported by scientists, and our impact on the globe is worth considering simply due to its rapid (and rapid increase in) pace in the last few centuries alone. We are transforming our planet, and we at once seem to believe that our impact is possible and also not provable. I’m baffled.

 

How will I respond? On one level, by redefining what Christians call “filling and subduing the earth,” and on another level, by “keeping” the Paris Agreement in my own ways. Here are some springboards for action from various aspects of life:

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I saw this on Pinterest once, but today I pulled it from here 

Plastic Free July: In case you missed it, plastic is incredibly hazardous to aquatic ecosystems and there’s actually a trash gyre the size of Texas floating in the Pacific as we speak. Plastic bioaccumulates up the food chain, causing carcasses to be found with stomachs clogged with trash. Plastic Free July is an initiative started in Western Australia, and its goal is to highlight just how much single-use plastic we consume and see how much we can reduce it. The objective? Don’t use any single-use plastic for all of July (or forever, if you get attached to saving the planet). Cut out plastic straws, utensils and flatware, plastic water bottles, shopping bags and cling wrap, and you’ll find that you use a lot more plastic than you thought you did. It’s difficult sometimes, and I’m not great at it, but I’m enjoying the learning experience.

Packaging can throw some kinks in plastic-free shopping for groceries or household products, but the benefit of initiatives like these is they expose how prevalent plastic is in our lives, and the more mindfully we consume, the better. Plus, there’s always recycling. Plastic Free July–and all environmentalism, for that matter–is about participating as able. There’s a really cool list of ways to live plastic free, which you can find here.

One of the cool ways I’m ditching plastic wrap and plastic bags is by using Bee’s Wrap, a plastic free way to package bread, veggies, snacks and food products for storage or transport. I just purchased some and I love it already! I’m also participating in Plastic Free July by bringing cloth bags to the grocery store (especially when buying veggies!) and carrying a reusable water bottle with me instead of purchasing bottled water or sodas in plastic containers. This goes for coffee, too–I can bring my own thermos, or I can do without. Regardless, I can do without plastic straws! I carry my own, reusable utensils around, too–something I started doing during my senior year of college. It feels good to imagine how many times I’ve been able to opt out of plastic since I started!

 

Meat… Less: I love meat, but I don’t eat it every day, and I much prefer to know exactly where it came from. Industrial agriculture has developed a system that relies heavily on corn-fed cattle pumped with antibiotics–an unnatural and water-intensive, highly polluting process that also emit about two billion metric tons of CO2-equivalents per year–more than the entire transportation sector. The less meat we eat, the better off the environment… If you don’t believe me, this list from The Natural Resources Defense Council of the most environmentally destructive foods starts and ends with meat-based products, and to the credit of my vegan friends, contains only one non-animal product. While my personal life choices might not offset the entire American culture of meat at every meal, cultural shifts happen in increments, and I’ll be one of them.

Check out this startling infographic below from CulinarySchools.org, then keep scrolling for more ways I’m combatting climate change in my everyday life.

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Boxed wine: I can hear some of my friends groaning across the internet, but as a person who loves to drink a glass of wine at dinner when I get home from work, it is much more environmentally friendly and economically feasible to drink boxed wine… and I think it’s great. Unfortunately, the wine does live in a plastic bag, but cardboard and plastic are way easier to recycle than glass around here, so I’d say it’s a step in the right direction. And with some boxed wines, there is no bag–it’s like buying a carton of milk, or a juice box… An adult juice box. I’ll drink to that.

 

Coffee: This deserves its own category because I’m a writer and I can’t write without coffee–and whether I’m buying it in a plastic/paper cup at a shop or using a Keurig at home, I’m creating a lot of waste. So when I graduated college I transitioned to making coffee in a French press every morning, eliminating any paper or plastic waste, and using a thermos to keep my coffee hot all day, so I never need to buy an afternoon pick-me-up that comes in a plastic cup or bottle. If I do run out of coffee, I show up to the barista’s counter with my own container. Some places even offer a discount for bringing your own mug–the intern on an intern’s salary loves that!

 

Cosmetics and feminine products: Uh oh… she just went there. Yup, I did. But ladies, there’s a LOT of plastic floating around in our bathroom cabinets, and there are alternatives for everything we currently own, including makeup and cosmetics. Make sure your habits aren’t preventing you from exploring new options, like applicator-less tampons, period panties or diva cups. I’ve also learned to be aware that cosmetics, shampoos and exfoliating scrubs might contain microbeads: tiny pieces of plastic that accumulate in waterways and can bioaccumulate in the seafood we eat later (!!).

150919135201-microbeads-exlarge-169.jpgMicrobeads are almost impossible to clean up, but many cosmetic companies use them in their products because they’re cheap. Skip the microbeads by checking labels for words like Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) or Nylon… or by using the Beat the Microbead app to scan labels and know what you’re up against.

 

Clothing: Thrift shopping is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to buy clothes, as the clothing industry is notoriously heavy on both natural resource usage and worker exploitation (think sweatshops, which are still totally a thing). Turns out the majority of our clothes are created in developing countries and transported across the globe before reaching retailers–an environmentally negative system in and of itself–but the processes are also less regulated for environmental hazards or workforce welfare. Like most systems in an industrialized world, it’s a non-knowledge system that the consumer isn’t supposed to pay attention to. But buying or donating used clothing and extending its life by even a few months saves precious natural resources, among other environmental benefits. Check out five reasons to thrift shop more often here.

When I do buy clothes new, I try to know as much about the company as possible. Try looking at RankaBrand.org and see where your favorite clothing lines stand on sustainability, including climate change and carbon emissions, environmental policy, working conditions and fair trade. This website can be useful for almost any brand, from technology to food, but I find it particularly helpful when I’m shopping.  If a brand isn’t on the site, you can suggest it, and you can “nudge” companies to better their scores with an easy-to-use pre-formatted email. Capitalism at its finest! 😉

Some companies are even learning how to recycle clothes, such as H&M’s clothing recycling program. If they bring in clothing to be recycled, customers can receive a discount on their purchase. Not only is this a good deal for a young person on a budget like me, but it could spread throughout the entire clothing industry over time, and that’s something I want to support. Any clothes that I don’t want at the end of each season and that wouldn’t sell at thrift shops, I’ll be bringing with me when I go shopping for more work attire. While H&M doesn’t have the best rating on RankaBrand, it’s definitely made improvements in recent years and it’s certainly important to me that these kinds of programs become the norm!

 

Travel: This one is tough for me. I live close to work and my horse, but living in a semi-rural area means there’s no public transportation system I can use, and I end up driving hours at a time when I deliver promotional materials for work. On the bright side, I still drive a minivan instead of a truck, so my MPG is pretty decent and I’m able to carpool with friends whenever possible–and usually I can fit everybody. But it’s something that I’m learning to be more conscious of as I settle into routines and explore my new home.

 

Equestrian activities and products: I did an entire capstone on environmental horsekeeping, and I still find it difficult to make a dent in my habits as a horsewoman. Almost every product I buy for my horse comes in a plastic bottle, box, or bag, and some are even dangerous to aquatic life. Recycling is key, but there are other things I can do, too: I can limit how much water I use by only hosing down my horse when necessary, or using a sponge and bucket instead of a hose; I can sell or donate used equipment instead of trashing them; I can “carpool” when trailering my horse or choose destinations nearby to limit vehicle emissions; I incorporate barn visits with other errands so that I limit my own traveling time; and I purchase environmentally conscious products whenever possible. Equine science is a little behind some other fields, and environmentally focused equine science is even farther behind, so I’m excited to see what products develop in the next few years. In the meantime, the practice of horsekeeping is mostly about mindfulness and intentionality with recycling.

Another challenge in the area of horsekeeping is the fact that I do not manage my own facility and have limited influence of larger-scale practices impacting the landscape, such as manure management, pasture rotation and pest management. In that way, I am somewhat limited. But again, it’s enough to do the best I can with what I’ve got.

 

Recreation: Supporting National Parks is a great way to promote environmentalism, and luckily I’m surrounded by state parks, national parks and outdoor attractions. Plus, hiking does great things for the mind. It’s not just about working out, fighting boredom, or getting a sweet pic for the Insta!

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Photo of Chimney Rock State Park from https://www.visitnc.com/forests-parks-seashores 

That’s all I’ve got in me for this season of my life… or at least until you all give me more ideas! Please please please leave thoughts below if I’ve missed anything you know about. Don’t worry, fam… I’ll post that cutesy, postgrad life blog post another day.

Do you own or manage an equestrian boarding facility near TIEC? Take my survey!

For my senior capstone as an environmental studies major at Wofford, I’m studying ecological horsekeeping. I’m interested in discovering what equestrian management trends are specific to the Tryon/Landrum/Campobello/Columbus area. If you own or manage a barn in the area or commute to the Tryon International Equestrian Center regularly for shows, I’d love to have your feedback! The survey takes about 10-15 minutes to complete.

Take the survey HERE.

Know anybody else that should take the survey? Please share it with them! If you’re interested in my work and would like more information, please contact me at maddensc@email.wofford.edu. I’d love to talk to you!

Thanks so much.

 

“Camp Ladybug” and the horses that run Tryon

For the past five weeks I’ve been living in Columbus, NC, hosting two teens from Boston as they competed in horse shows at the Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC). It’s been a blast introducing them to Bojangles, queso, Krispy Kreme, Cookout, boiled peanuts, grits, and other wonderful foods like sourdough bread… and they’ve introduced me to all kinds of foods, too.

This is not an area with which I am unfamiliar: I attend Wofford College just thirty minutes away and I have kept my horse in Campobello/Landrum for two years now. I ride at Clear View Farm in Landrum with the Wofford equestrian team, and I have loved attending Saturday Night Lights grand prix events at TIEC since its opening. I love the area.

Every day I drive between three counties and two states: Polk (NC), Spartanburg (SC), and Greenville (SC). Whether the drive is half a mile or twenty minutes, I almost always pass a truck piled high with logs. It seems that cutting down trees is a daily occurrence in the foothills. I’d be willing to bet that TIEC has a great deal to do with the rapid development of the area as farmland. I have to swerve to avoid a wide truckload of timber 9 out of 10 times I leave the house. This makes me sad–the clay-filled patches of cleared land will take years to become beautiful again, wooded or not. The topsoil lost will never really replenish, or at least not in my lifetime.

At the same time, I love the farmland. I love seeing horses, cattle, bison, donkeys and other animals grazing on rolling hills of lush grass. I love the hay fields and the rows of corn. But I love the trees, too. There’s got to be a balance. How does one keep a farm in a way that doesn’t destroy the area’s natural beauty?

The capstone I’m working on this summer involves studying trends in horsekeeping and land management in the area, especially since TIEC’s opening in the summer of 2014. I’m hoping to see how the development of TIEC as a major hub for equestrians has impacted the land around it.

My summer job is easy proof: I’m living on a ten acre horse farm, freshly carved from a wooded lot. The pastures have taken months to establish–runoff was a major hurdle in both construction and landscaping. The family is based in Boston, and will be until they permanently move here in about nine years. They built their retirement farm ten years in advance, sending their thirteen year-old daughter, her friend, and two horses here for the summer in order to compete at TIEC. Obviously, this area revolves around horses and is beginning to revolve around the equestrian center.

I’ve met many people from the area through our equestrian connection: waitresses that comment on our riding breeches, feed store and tack store employees that love to swap stories, or families in the grocery store whose giant bag of carrots we notice and ask, “Do you have horses?” The answer is almost always yes. We’ve met many area people by asking to pet their dogs as they walk around TIEC.

Everyone has a different opinion about how TIEC is impacting the area.

“It has done almost nothing for the community,” a woman says as we stand outside a Landrum restaurant. “It is so self-contained. Everything is right there–the food, the housing. You can’t even bring your own shavings, you have to use theirs. It doesn’t help the community tack stores, restaurants, nothing.”

I point out that TIEC has most certainly added a great deal of jobs to the area and has most certainly added business to area real estate–two of TIEC’s most significant contributions to the area. In my head, I also consider that if all TIEC competitors were required to find shavings and hay on their own in the area, there would be a severe shortage of both, and prices would be exponentially driven up for locals. But I don’t say that aloud… the economic implications of an establishment this large are expansive and complex, beyond my own understanding. The woman didn’t know that TIEC had done so much for real estate and jobs–“That’s good to know,” she says.

She’s also not wrong, though. The center has been understaffed and incredibly busy this summer, and I’ve heard complaints of slow running shows, un-emptied trashcans and bathroom facilities without toilet paper. When the US Pony Club East Championships were held at TIEC this summer, at one point TIEC ran out of food and water, according to one of the coaches we met. I believe that TIEC has grown so fast that they have outgrown their own staff–they are not quite as organized as they need to be. I also believe, though, that they will get there.

TIEC is a fabulous facility and is a wonderful place to compete. The center is intentionally available and free for the community to come explore–even people who know nothing about horses are welcome at TIEC, and I admire that. The restaurants are super tasty, and though they may be slow at times, the food is worth it. One local trainer told me that TIEC has really improved the quality of eating out in Tryon, diversifying the options and increasing the overall quality of restaurants in the area. Restaurants in Landrum, Tryon and Campobello have seen some increased business, too. Not everybody wants sushi or diner food, however good, every single day for two weeks.

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Other horse-related businesses have benefitted from the center, as well. After a particular weekend of showing in extra hot weather, one of the horses was not feeling great. He was anemic, and we needed to buy a certain supplement to help him feel better. I went to three different feed stores in order to get enough. “We had some gallon buckets yesterday, but someone from [TIEC] came and cleared us out yesterday,” said one woman at the register as I plunked the last three small bottles on the counter. When TIEC’s two tack stores do not fill the need–and they focus mostly on equipment and apparel–competitors will shop at local businesses.

So how do my observations fit in to my project? Well, the short answer is that they are my project. I’ve been working all summer on a survey to give to boarding operation owners in order to gather more information about how horse management in the area has been impacted by TIEC and the area’s environmental factors. I’m SO close to distributing this survey and I can’t wait to see what feedback I receive!*

In addition to surveys, I will be conducting interviews and site visits with several managers in order to continue what I’ve been doing all summer: engaging people in conversation about horsekeeping in the Tryon/Landrum/Campobello area. I want to know what narratives about land management, horsekeeping and TIEC are present here, and how I can blend these narratives together to paint a more complete picture for Tryon horsekeepers to use and learn from as they see fit.

I cannot wait to enjoy the remaining weeks I will spend here at Ladybug Farm, I cannot wait to continue my project work into the fall, and I cannot wait to watch TIEC grow and thrive in this already horse-obsessed community. After all, I’m practically a local, now.

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My girls and I love the weekends, when we get to hang out at Tryon International Equestrian Center and their families come to visit!

 

*If you are the owner or manager of an equestrian boarding operation within an hour’s drive of the Tryon International Equestrian Center and would like to help me with this project by taking my survey, please contact me by commenting below! Thanks so much.

The “Grazing Game”: stepping on the leadrope

My farrier recently told me she is sometimes unsure what to do when a client is talking, letting the horse graze behind and the horse steps forward onto its lead. Do I say something? Do I let it go? Will this horse freak out, or… Oh, it’s okay it moved off it anyway.

I know the feeling. Although innately confident and fairly dominant, my horse is incredibly claustrophobic—gates, cross country obstacles, trailers, aisles, wash stalls, cross-ties, creeks, and puddles can be a challenge for her to navigate. But Dancer also panics when she feels trapped around her head, which means that just asking her to lower her head a few inches can feel about as safe to her as me plopping a mountain lion on her neck.

I’ve taught Dancer to lower her head and relax, and she will drop her head all the way down to the ground with just a few ounces of pressure at her bridlepath. This “porcupine game” uses steady pressure to communicate what I want my horse to move (her hips, her face, her neck, etc.) but it also tells where: down, up, back, forward, left, right, etc.

I once assumed that the “where” of the porcupine game is always “away,” and… it is, technically. I want the horse to move off pressure, not against it. If I push my horse’s chest backwards, I expect her to step backwards. But it works the other way, too: if I use the lead to ask my horse forward, I expect her to step forward and off the pressure instead of leaning backwards or even rearing at my feel.

 

When I watched my horse almost step on her leadrope and cringed because I knew she would panic and hop off the ground and fling her head to release the pressure, I decided to use the porcupine game to address this issue. I could already lower her head with downward pressure from above (pushing on her bridlepath), and I could already ask her down with the leadrope under her chin (downward pressure from beneath her head), so why couldn’t I ask for her to stay down using the same kind of steady pressure?

Here’s the thing: Dancer doesn’t see it coming. She raises her head from grazing—or tries to—and all of a sudden the halter tightens around her, like something heavy landed on her. She can’t process the fact that she is standing on her own leadrope and tying her own head down. For a claustrophobic horse, it makes sense that the only option is to fling her head violently and rear up so that the pressure is released. For a while, it was her only answer—it was the only way for her to feel safe. So how do I create a repetitive practice of this, in a way that only releases the pressure when she does?

I’ve seen horses tied by the bridle to gigantic tires for hours, unable to lift their heads more than a few inches—this process usually ends in a bloody-mouthed horse that ran in circles for hours before giving up. While this method is certainly safe for the human, I strongly believe it is more traumatizing than helpful for a horse, especially one that is claustrophobic, unconfident or even super dominant. For a reactive horse like mine, flooding her and trapping her by force is absolutely not helpful. With that said, the message still has to go through: stepping on the lead rope is just another porcupine game… it’s no big deal. But what to do?

Standing with my foot on the lead rope is ineffective because it is hard to keep the same amount of pressure on the rope when she flings her head, however slow, and it could be hazardous. When I first started working with Dancer on recreating her head claustrophobia, it was the first method I tried since I figured it would keep me safely standing near her and not crouching. Unfortunately, I was still teaching her to break through the pressure instead of yielding to it.

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Though I can now stand on the lead safely, this would have been impossible a few weeks ago, and it’s not a good way to teach a headshy or reactive horse.

Next, I created the “football pose.” I placed my fist around the rope—a few feet from her halter so that I was positioned next to her and not under her—and planted my fist on the ground. I watched her feet and her head to be aware of her movements… I could get out fast if I had to dodge a bad rear, but I could also stand up as she flung her head, still keeping the same amount of pressure on the rope.

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It may feel a bit awkward at first, but my “football pose” proved way more effective in teaching Dancer to respect the porcupine game while grazing.

I concentrated on keeping my fist on the ground and waited for her to bump into the end of the slack I’d given her. When she raised her head and her feet to avoid the pressure, I stood with her, still pushing my fist toward the ground with the same amount of pressure. When she landed on the ground and then dropped her head again, she won the round and got to graze uninterrupted again. After a few repetitions, she would bump into the pressure and just keep grazing, un-phased.

The second time I played this game with her, Dancer only got worried once. As we continue to practice this game, I’m able to put my fist closer and closer to her halter, and I can safely use my foot on the rope provided I leave enough slack. Soon, I’ll allow her to step on the rope herself, and I won’t cringe inside like I have before. It’s got to build, though. I believe this grazing game works well for Dancer because I’ve asked my horse to lower her head countless times from above and below, from the ground and from the saddle. I’ve thrown ropes around my horse’s head many, many times, and she’s still getting used to ropes hanging by her ear. This is certainly not the first thing I’d do with a headshy horse, but it’s what works for us right now. These things take time. And if we take the time it takes, one day it will take less time. One day, I’ll be talking to my farrier after our appointment, and my horse might step on her rope and nobody will even cringe.

 

Can you relate? Do you have a claustrophobic horse? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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Got a comment? Dancer and I are all ears!

Since I Last Wrote

I’ve done a lot of writing in the past four months – about 63,000 words, to be exact. It’s been a whirlwind! This semester was filled with many newspaper articles, a handful of personal essays and an as-of-yet unfinished novella. Don’t ask… I’m not ready to share yet! I will say, though, that I’ve learned a lot about myself during the creative writing process, and despite its messiness, I so appreciate what this semester has taught me. The Old Gold and Black garnered a record twelve awards from the South Carolina Press Association, including 1st place general excellence in our division! Personally, I was awarded the 1st place individual use of social media and 4th place feature story… I am so thankful and so proud to be a part of this newspaper and I can’t wait to spend one more year on staff. This spring, when I wasn’t writing, I was riding or teaching riding! Here’s the short version:

  • Dancer turned 10! We’ve been making what I’m calling mini-milestone victories in various areas of our relationship, from crossing water to accepting ropes around her head. I don’t get to ride her much, but each time I interact with her I’m reminded that I have to take the time it takes… the results are so rewarding! Going into the summer, I’m so excited to see what we can accomplish together, but I’m also just going to enjoy being with her… because that’s what I love the most.
  • One of my most versatile HALTER horses passed away, and for the first time in my career I had to tell my students that their equine partner wasn’t coming back. It was hard, it created all kinds of logistical problems and left me bitter that an incredibly healthy horse died so suddenly and left me struggling to fill the holes. It’s been challenging to navigate the rest of the session without him, and I sometimes forget that Beau isn’t available for Thursday afternoon classes when I need a horse that can do everything. I guess I’m learning to avoid making assumptions about the tools I’ll have at my disposal on any given day. But I still miss Beau.
  • The Wofford Equestrian team finished our second season, but we are still busy preparing for the fall! The Wofford administration has been so supportive of us this year and we are working closely with them to grow the team. If you don’t follow us on Twitter yet, you should! We are always reporting from shows and sharing pictures of our adventures. I’ll be working all summer to be ready for the novice over fences division!

What’s next?

I’ll be living, working, studying and riding in Tryon this summer – I’m so excited! I’ll be studying sustainable horse-keeping in one of the nation’s fastest-growing equestrian hubs… I can’t wait to share what I learn. More than learning, though, I’m hoping to live restfully – that’s the biggest and hardest lesson I learned this semester. I can’t do everything. So here goes… something.

“Therapeutic Horse-man-ship”

Natural horsemanship from the eyes of a therapeutic riding instructor

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Every Thursday afternoon, I leave campus straight from class – stopping for coffee on the way – and spend the rest of my day at HALTER. I teach twelve students every week, each as inspiring as the next.

I’m 20 now, but I was only 18 when I started the process of instructor certification through PATH Int’l. I’ve been working at HALTER since May of 2014, and I’ve learned more about horses in a year and a half than I had in ten years of previous horse experience. Before coming to HALTER I knew very little about natural horsemanship, and it was there that I was introduced to the Parelli program. Since then, my understanding of horsemanship has changed drastically and my skills have skyrocketed. I’m still learning, especially from my students: whether they know it or not, my Thursday kids teach me something new about life, horses or riding every week.

I became a therapeutic riding instructor because riding is my therapy, too, and I have a huge heart for sharing horses with people who would otherwise miss out on the joy of riding. Participating in most traditional sports is physically impossible for me, but riding has always been my passion and horses help me stay fit. From the moment I got my horse, Dancer, I wanted to share her with as many people as possible. When I found a therapeutic riding center near my barn in high school, I was hooked. This desire to share horses with others is what brought me to love therapeutic riding and natural horsemanship as one entity – “therapeutic horse-man-ship” is a big part of my life.

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Photo by Mark Olencki.

Here’s what I get to see from the middle of the arena:

Yes, it takes a special horse to be a therapy horse, but let me tell you: the horses these children ride are saints. They can handle almost anything, and they do their job every week even if they aren’t feeling their best that day. They form deep connections with their riders in ways that I rarely see in other lesson programs. They can adapt to various riders, from the most timid four year-old to the independent walk-trot rider. In all of this, they manage to maintain their quirks, opinions, and integrities – they are anything but machine-like, “broken down” horses. I credit this to our use of natural horsemanship.

Unlike most therapeutic riding programs I’ve encountered, at HALTER our riders spend time working with their horse both on the ground and on horseback. My students use groundwork games and challenges to prepare them for the lessons we are teaching them in the saddle: the touch-it game can get a rider thinking ahead and planning in a way that helps her follow a sequence of instructions, for instance. Knowing the friendly game allows us to have discussions about energy when the child is not being so friendly. Sending the horse to/over/around an obstacle changes the way the rider thinks about transitions, and riding becomes less about force or strength and more about energy and communication. Victories in these games say to each child: Yes! You can communicate complex ideas – maybe even without words.

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The results are phenomenal. I’ve seen my riders gain muscle tone and coordination, speak full sentences and communicate more clearly than ever before, dramatically increase confidence or learn how to follow a sequence of instructions.

One of my classes of three riders can all trot independently as of a few weeks ago, with no help from spotters. When I first started teaching, these riders were just learning to trot with lots of support and for short amounts of time – small circles on a lead line or a few steps along the rail with sidewalkers, for instance – and now they’re capable of changing their horses’ speeds, managing their spacing, balancing and steering all at once! They can use the zone 3 driving game to practice transitions on the ground and lateral flexion to practice their emergency stops or changing direction with an indirect rein. It’s beautiful to watch. Despite their various disabilities, they are learning skills from their horses that translate to their everyday lives.

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A student shows off her groundwork for a camera crew – they were so impressed with her relationship with her horse!

Still others are learning to walk unassisted by crutches and walkers, managing their emotions, increasing their capacity to focus, improving balance or any combination of the above. Not every day is perfect. If you are involved in therapeutic riding in any capacity you know that the work is hard and plans rarely go how we imagined they would. But the tiny miracles that keep us going are always happening.

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I get to see our volunteers learning skills and gaining confidence, too. I still remember the moment a child spoke his first full sentence while I served as his sidewalker four years ago. I still remember the smile of a rider that trotted for the first time as we ran along the fence. My time as a volunteer was incredibly impactful for me and I get to see this in the volunteers that serve with me at HALTER, as well. Learning to “think laterally” is good for anybody!

Finally, I get to see how proud the riders are of their accomplishments. When they run back to their parents and say (or sometimes, yell across the arena): “Look, mommy, I did it!!” – My heart melts. One of my favorite parts of teaching is to brief parents after a lesson… to tell them all the wonderful things their child(ren) can do.

At HALTER, there is no can’t, and I have yet to find the limit. These riders (and horses and volunteers) can do anything. I’m so grateful to be a small part of that, and to share in the magic that these horses give us.

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N. B.: Originally published in the HALTER e-newsletter in an abbreviated form. Pictures from HALTER Facebook page except when noted otherwise.