‘Why do you ride horses?’

To ride is to be thrown in the dirt, in the snow, in the raspberry bushes and to get up, and get back on your horse

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‘Why do you ride horses?’

That’s probably the most common question I get asked, a close second being, ‘How much do they cost you?”.

Quite literally growing up on the back of a horse, it’s hard to imagine not riding or at least being around a horse. Owning horses, you sacrifice a lot but most would agree, it’s almost always worth it.

Because of horses, I’ve given up sleeping in. I have given up tropical vacations and new vehicles. I’ve given up an impressive social life and I have given up friends that just don’t ‘get it’.

But speaking of a social life, horses are social creatures just like humans. Being able to communicate and interact with an animal has already been shown to have a positive impact on people’s mental and physical health and well-being. On top of that, communicating with horses is non-verbal and and connecting with one in that way is simply an amazing experience.

Horseback riding is a lifelong sport- you are continually learning skills that promote coordination, timing, rhythm, balance, core strength and so much more. Riding gives our body the movement it relishes and needs.

Riding horses brings us out into the fresh air and closer to nature. Our culture spends so much time indoors now. We should take every opportunity we can to get outside for some exercise and fresh air with one of the world’s most beautiful animals. Although conditions might not always be the best, you learn to work with the weather and appreciate Mother Nature.

This sport has challenged me; it has made me proud and equally as embarrassed. It has broken me physically and emotionally and made me mad and frustrated. But that has never deterred me.

I have given my heart to a few img_5678horses and suffered losses that should have turned me away for life. But, they didn’t. Horses and riding taught me resilience and patience that everything will work out as it should.

To ride is to be thrown in the dirt, in the snow, in the raspberry bushes and to get up, and get back on your horse. Riding is a sport filled with passion and precision where companionship is the ultimate key to success. How amazing is that?

I am so grateful that I can share this love and passion with many kids that don’t have their own horses.

Meet them where they are

Could I truly change who he was? Nope. But maybe I could meet him where he was. Where he was, was a young and very smart horse. Was he also lazy with an attitude? Perhaps, but labels are for jars.

Here’s a photo of my handsome horse.

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Last spring we officially set out on our journey together. I quickly realized that he much prefers life on his own terms and most importantly, being in charge. Under saddle, he gave what he had to and not a gear more.

Some sweltering summer days + his laid back personality lead to some pretty big arguments. Arguments which he won every time given that he was bigger and stronger and probably, smarter.  Not really the fun filled summer I had imagined.

Dealing with his misbeahvior brought back unsettled self-pity at the loss of my previous horse. It uncovered old confidence issues in my riding abilities. And it only escalated with every ride.

Could I truly change who he was? Nope. But maybe I could meet him where he was and where he was, was a young and very smart horse. Was he also lazy with an attitude? Perhaps, but labels are for jars.

I had a couple choices: I could sell him or I could accept who he was and find the middle ground to live together amicably. As they say in the business world, you have to be flexible to be effective. So, I surrendered. I asked for guidance and it came fast, as it always does. I saw a quote by Clinton Anderson on my precious Pinterest, ‘Frustration begins when your knowledge ends’.

Clinton Anderson = Natural horsemanship (Google it if you don’t know) = something I had dabbled in years ago. It fell away as I got more involved in dressage and carriage driving but here I was out of tricks and it was back on the table.

I tore it up on YouTube, researched many trainers and pulled out old books and put it into action. He took to it immediately and combined with weekly lessons with my wonderful riding coach, we made amazing gains over the last months of the riding season.

Meeting people and things where they are is about giving others what they need, when they need it.  My horse needed a leader which I couldn’t be without more knowledge and experience.

Once I asked for help and stepped up to be the teacher and the rider he needed, I learned that he actually loved to be working – mentally and physically. The more fun we had together, the more we trusted each other and the more he tried to succeed at the boring and difficult things I asked of him like circles, roundness and thoroughness and impulsion.

And as they often do, my animals teach me about people as well.

As I was riding one night, I had a light bulb moment as I thought about friends and my frustrations – people, too, are where they are, and this is despite our desire for them to be different. Despite our wanting them to be further along, more evolved, more fun, more intelligent, more compassionate, less intimidating, and more reliable and on and on.

Believe me when I say, I learned this lesson through experience: pretty much, I am a ride or die friend. If I say I will do something, if I say I will be somewhere, if I commit to you somehow, I will show up 110%. BUT….not everyone is like this and quite simply, that is what makes the world go ‘round. I cannot tell you how many YEARS of frustrations my wishing people to be different has added up to. It’s a great feeling to let that go.

A moving quote by Iyanla Vanzant: “You have to meet people where they are, and sometimes you have to leave them there”.

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We’re all a little bit broken

Today would be Oakley’s 4th birthday. We treasure the wonderful memories and love she left us with…

Confessions from a farm girl

I don’t like things that are broken. I am a big fan of purging and am ALWAYS throwing things out or giving them away. Broken things I definitely do not have time for.

That was until I held something broken in my hands this past winter. I was at the vet clinic with a very special puppy from my first litter of German Shepherds. The litter was years in the making – waiting, planning, preparing. When people asked what I wanted for the pick of the litter I said, “A sable girl, like Annie”.

Ask and you shall receive – “Oakley” was the one and only girl in her family of 8. From the get-go I knew she was special. As I struggled to get her brothers to nurse Oaks wiggled right up to the milk bar like she had been doing it for months. She was the first to…

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Letting go, with grace.

Ultimately I think that letting go isn’t about loss or admitting defeat. To let go with grace is to cherish the memories, to overcome and to move on. Letting go gracefully is accepting and having confidence in the future.

I’ve decided my lesson for the past year has been letting go. Now if you had asked me before if I had a problem with this concept, the answer would have been a resounding no. Boy, was I wrong and boy, did I learn my lesson!

We are constantly letting go – of people, relationships, of our childhoods, grown children, our ideas of how things should be or how we expected.

There are lots of versions of letting go but likely the most painful is the death of a loved one. A year ago I made the incredibly heart-breaking decision of saying goodbye to of one of the kindest, most beautiful and honest horses I have ever known. Everyone wanted a horse like Claire. Quite simply put, she lived in grace – quiet, charming and full of love.  I trusted her implicitly, not only with myself but with my riding students, young and old. In turn, she trusted me and we brought out the best in each other. My incredible Claire had come to the end of her journey with cancer. In the prime of her life, at 12 years old, our time together was over.img_5593-copy

I often imagined our future together: her teaching countless kids to ride and me enjoying our peaceful drives in her beautiful Buckeye road cart until she settled into a well-deserved retirement. But, that’s not how it played out.
I think our natural reaction when faced with the possibility of losing something is to hold on even tighter. On our last night together, I prayed for the strength to say goodbye with grace when what I wanted to do was just scream and cry. Eventually, through the tears, I shared out loud all of our special memories in our time together and said thank you for each one. I took comfort in the fact that many people go their whole lives and never find a horse as special as she was.

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In the wake of her death, each day was a struggle – I stopped teaching riding lessons and swore off any future horses.  I prayed for wisdom to explain her death to sad children and to face my own unanswered questions, anger and loss. I prayed for acceptance that no one else could understand my pain and loss. Most of all, I prayed to find joy again.

And the thing that sucked most of all? LIFE WENT ON!

During the dead of winter,  I was asked by a good friend if I wanted to try out her young green broke gelding. My head said, ‘No way, this is not what you want!’, while my heart said ‘Okay, I’ll come try him out’.

tane-hackLong story short:  I went to ride Tane and we connected right away. The ‘coincidences’ added up – Tane and Claire share a well-known grand sire and are both named after their French heritage. Following my heart, he came home to live with us a few weeks later.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows – he is demanding and inexperienced with an attitude. But he also adores me and tries his heart out. He has made me grow as a horsewoman and forced me to step outside the box and stretch and fear and trust and love more than I ever thought possible.

Left: Tane on his first trail ride, a magical night!

The loss of Claire was book ended by goodbyes to my beautiful Collie, Erran, and German Shepherd, Abbi. They had lived full and long lives with lots of happy memories and accolades. To them, I was grateful for the years of companionship, traveling to dog shows and many lifelong friendships made. I said goodbye with grace and my heart full of love.

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In June, barely ready to accept another loss, I had to let my beautiful Oakley go (see her story here) . My scarcely mended heart broke again as my little fighter peacefully left us. I said thank you for three years of a high energy wild ride that was a roller coaster of loving and training and learning and the opportunity to educate anyone that would listen about mega-esophagus. I thanked Oakley for the lessons and the friendships and the strength she led me to find so I could raise a spirited, smart little dog who lived to scent track and be a farm girl.

020a8388-x2 Portagecreek’s Sure Shot RI, “Oakley”

And so after all that, I saw things unfold that made me realize I had to let go of some relationships too. I wrestled to hold on so tightly; thinking of all the memories and love and fun we had shared. It was hard to accept that it was over and I wondered if I’d ever find friendships like that again? This time was different; this time I had the choice to let go and it was scary!

I fought it all the way – I made excuses and gave countless apologies though I knew I did nothing wrong. Reluctantly I realized that even the strongest and most loving relationships can be touched by feelings of jealousy, inadequacy and insecurity at times in response to somebody’s growth or change.

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Walking away from a toxic relationship isn’t easy, but it is always brave and always strong. It is always okay. And it is always – always – worth it. Hidden in that mess is the beautiful learning and the growth.

And so with these sad losses, I’ve seen beautiful opportunities arrive. Old and new friendships have began or re-kindled, accompanied by even more laughter and joy. I get this sneaking suspicion that ‘everything’s gonna be OK’.

Ultimately I think that letting go isn’t about loss or admitting defeat. To let go with grace is to cherish the memories, to overcome and to move on. Letting go gracefully is accepting and having confidence in the future.

Letting go is about staying in grace and staying grateful for the experiences that made you laugh and cry and grow.

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We’re all a little bit broken

 

I don’t like things that are broken. I am a big fan of purging and am ALWAYS throwing things out or giving them away. Broken things I definitely do not have time for.

That was until I held something broken in my hands this past winter. I was at the vet clinic with a very special puppy from my first litter of German Shepherds. The litter was years in the making – waiting, planning, preparing. When people asked what I wanted for the pick of the litter I said, “A sable girl, like Annie”.

Ask and you shall receive – “Oakley” was the one and only girl in her family of 8. From the get-go I knew she was special. As I struggled to get her brothers to nurse Oaks wiggled right up to the milk bar like she had been doing it for months. She was the first to bark at me and while her brothers passed out next to their mom’s tummy Oakley would wriggle up and fall asleep on Annie’s paw. She loved to play with her brothers but never let them push her around – she had a sparkle, no doubt and I had big dreams – Oakley would be a perfect mixture of her beautiful parents and a show dog extraordinaire.

Where Annie was ultra serious and a worrier, Oakley exuded joy by running everywhere and giving enthusiastic kisses.download

A little history on Oakley’s name: Her beautiful mom is “Ch. Whispawillow’s Shotgun Annie” , named after the famous Annie Oakley of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. We named Oakley when she was one day old, carrying on the tradition of the American sharpshooting icon – Annie Oakley was only five feet tall and tough as nails.

At 4 weeks old, just newly started onto kibble, I knew something was wrong: Oakley’s breathing was labored and she didn’t want to eat so off we went to the clinic. I was shocked when she weighed in much lighter than her litter mates. How could she be so little? How could I not notice how small and weak she was? After a few x-rays, her fuzzy little body was given back to me with bad news: Oakley had megaesophagus: a congenital birth defect where the muscles of the esophagus fail and it cannot propel food or water into the stomach. Anything ingested sits in the esophagus within the chest cavity and never makes it to the stomach. The most serious complication is that fluid/food will at some point pool in the esophagus which generally results in aspiration pneumonia, which is what my tiny girl was fighting.

My perfect little puppy was broken.

I was overcome with self-pity: ‘Why did this happen to my sweet, sweet little girl? Why not her brothers? Why me?’

I took Oakley home that day to think about our new reality. My head told me euthanasia was the best decision so her suffering was no prolonged but even as I looked at her, curled up in my hands looking so weak, it just didn’t feel right. I searched the Internet until my eyes burned. I went back and forth between friends, mentors and other mega-E dog owners. I asked the question that I am sure every veterinarian dreads, “What would you do?”

I went back to the Internet again….I worried….I cried…I snuggled my broken little puppy. I was so torn between taking up the challenge of caring for a life that held no guarantees or quietly letting her go. Why was I burdened with such a difficult choice?

Many encouraged me to put Oakley to sleep; to move on and put my time and energy into a dog that was healthy and wouldn’t complicate my life. I considered this, agreeing that life would be easier, but still it just didn’t feel right.

One day I was talking with my dog mentor about the decision that weighed over me. He said, “Forget what everyone else is telling you. What do you want Natalie?”. Without hesitation I said, “I want Oakley to grow up…… however and whenever it happens….. to be a beautiful show dog and a great German Shepherd. And I will tell everyone how she is a survivor and a fighter and how I always believed in her”.

But, I wavered. Owning a mega esophagus dog is a big commitment of careful daily management. Mega-E dogs have to eat and drink vertically and stay that way for at least 20 minutes for gravity to empty everything into their stomach. Could I do this? Could Oakley live a normal life like the rest of my dogs – running around the barn and playing with her family? I just had to trust the answer would come to me.

Not long after Oakley’s diagnosis my amazing friends, Ron & Gordie, showed up at my door with a custom built chair to hold her upright so she could digest her food. It took awhile for her to grow into her new furniture but I started the experiments with food and feeding methods……canned food, mashed kibble, meatballs, soupy concoctions, milkshakes and baby food combined with a lot of patience, tears, cuddles and angst. Every meal was a struggle but every day Oakley was ready to try again.

She fought back against the deadly pneumonia that should have killed her. She still played with her brothers, although she could only run up and down the hall a couple times before she had to rest. There was no doubt her spunky attitude was helping to keep her alive.

One morning as she yowled unhappily in her big chair, surrounded by pillows and winter jackets to keepdownload (1) her contained,  I searched the meaning of the name “Oakley”. It represents the oak tree, naturally. What I didn’t know is that oak trees are known for their strength and hardiness and their ability to thrive in undesirable conditions and poor soil. Just like my Oakley! I never questioned if this was a coincidence. That day I got my answer and going forward I was committed 100% to this journey. I stopped dwelling on the ‘whys’ and worrying about what might happen and started loving my spirited and joyful broken thing.

 

There have been many peaks and valleys but Oakley is officially an adult now and generally very healthy!

She is a very happy and smart dog – loving and intense like her mom and kind and goofy like her dad.  She floats when she trots and wakes up every morning with a loud yawn, announcing that she’s ready to tackle another day with a wagging tail and unbridled joy. Her registered name is “PortageCreek’s Sure Shot”, a nickname of the real-life Annie Oakley, who was little but mighty.

download (2) Oakley at her first conformation show with her best friend, “Bear” (nrCh Campeon’s Vaquero Too).

Which end are you in?

What end of life are you living in – the deep end or in the shallows?

I was enrolled in swimming lessons for as far back as I can remember, as are a lot of children. Although I don’t swim a lot these days, I am still fairly confident that once my feet can no longer touch the bottom that I could still keep my head above water. It’s like an ingrained survival mechanism. And the deep end of life…I have tread water there a few times as well.

The deep end of life is the one that harbours our hardships – things like death, divorce, job loss, emotional upheavals and all that is uncertain and frightening.

The deep end is also where amazing things happen! It’s where you take risks , unsure of the outcomes and where magic takes place.

We have all experienced the unexpected moments in life where we have lost our bearings, confidence and any sense of control. Sometimes it’s all about surviving , day by day, or adjusting to a new reality.

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What about our children – are they prepared for living life in the deep end? Could they swim in those parts of our living where the depths are unknown – where we are often pushed into quite literally by life. Would they have the skills to keep going when the waters get deep and rough? Are you shielding them too much from the harsh realities of the circle of life and finances and life’s roller coaster?

Don’t get me wrong, life is great in the shallows: it’s where you feel safe and can amble through the day without much conscious thought; practically on autopilot. The shallow end contains all that is predictable and routine. It’s where you can see the bottom of the pool and what lies beneath you. Where you can float in your comfort zone knowing all is well and reliable. Except one day….we begin to take it all for granted. Things that were once special and mysterious become old and familiar. That job that you always wanted seems tedious and the electricity that jumps forth with a flick of a switch are taken for granted.

One thing I do know for sure (Sorry Oprah, I just had to steal that line from you!), is that not one single day is promised. This is a lesson that is often taught but not well-learned.

I don’t think anything surprises me anymore – not death, misfortune or natural disasters. And I think that’s a good thing – I am not taking anything for granted. Every sunrise/sunset, every healthy amazing meal, every day I spend with interesting, kind people and my loving devoted animals – I say thank you a hundred times over.

If barns could talk.

It has a dirt floor and a questionable field stone retaining wall which is more decorative than useful these days. It doesn’t take kindly to the wooden stall floors we have built, and anything with a latch becomes a nightmare when the frost arrives and leaves.

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Living in a rural community, I see a lot of barns, many of which are vacant or fallen down and I let my mind wander and imagine the stories that they hold within their weather-beaten boards.

Barns, if they could talk, would have much to say:

They witness birth and death and the never-ending struggle for survival. Their wisdom is the wisdom of life: a calf on unsteady legs.. struggling to its feet for the first time. A kitten catching its first mouse. The loads of fresh-baled hay that are piled high and slowly used up over the quiet winter months. These are the stories that are absorbed into the fading beams of each barn.

I think of my own barn and the dark mornings I have arrived, flicking on the lights as the cats blink to life and starting the daily routine. The cold, anxious nights where I have sat up with a sick animal or the flurry of excitement when a calf was born unexpectedly in the woods and was ushered into the safety of our barn for the night.

My barn is often filled with the noise of children as they excitedly move through their journey of working with horses. Each day they arrive with their stories and laughter, loud with enthusiasm and their voices echoing with questions and looking for direction.

When they leave, the barn returns to its quiet norm of routine and peace, waiting for the next feeding time. I have often said there is no place more peaceful than a barn – at feeding time the methodical sound of horses chewing accompanied by the tick-tock of the electric fence is a comfort. Nowhere else can one find the same air of security, feel the same atmosphere or find the same strong but comforting smell as in a barn.

Barns are an institution in themselves – they are places of business and livelihood, while offering solitude and friendship too. You can always find the local gossip at a dairy barn during milking time. The barn is an ever-present marker of farming, possibly the longest surviving occupation of man, at least in North America. There have been some forms of barns for thousands of years, and that they still exist today is evidence of their necessity to the farmer and life in general. No matter how large or small an operation or what kind of animal husbandry, everyone needs a barn!

I have a very, very old barn. It has been in my family for centuries and it shows it’s age. There is a definite lean to the right and snow drifts in the centre after every storm. It’s barn-board siding has been replaced a few times over with sheet metal but the main structure has survived through the 200 + years mostly in thanks to the fascinating “post and beam” construction.

(“Post and Beam” is a form of building with heavy timbers rather than “dimension lumber” such as 2″x 4″s. Heavy squared-off and carefully fitted and joined timbers with joints held together by large wooden pegs was how many wooden buildings from the 19th century and earlier were constructed. Since access to high-tech power tools and electrical tools was non-existent, this was a very popular and innovative way to quickly and safely create a barn).

My barn is now home to four (how did that happen?!), horses and a few barn cats but it was originally not built for animals. Back in ‘those days’, the livestock barn was attached to the house, like a breeze-way, for convenience and sharing the warmth.

More than likely, our barn housed farm equipment: ploughs, harrows, wagons, harnesses and other odds and ends.

It has a dirt floor and a questionable field stone retaining wall which is more decorative than useful these days. It doesn’t take kindly to the wooden stall floors we have built, and anything with a latch becomes a nightmare when the frost arrives and leaves.

We have a standard tour we give to people when they see it for the first time: we proudly explain how the beams and roof are held together without nails – just simple notches and wooden pegs and demonstrate the meat hanging apparatus which usually horrifies people but reminds us of how everything had a use centuries ago.

I think of how my barn must have been built. There were no tractors or heavy equipment back then. I can picture the group of neighbours, who surely helped each other out time after time, felling big trees and the draft horses pulling logs from the woods to be shaped into the structure that stands there today. It is certainly a far cry from the pre-fabricated barns and metal constructions that being advertised now but, I think that’s why I love it so much. It is a home to many memories and stories to come.