Monthly Archives: January 2015

How Do I Make My Horse Love Me?

I was chatting with a teenage girl at a conference some time ago. She told me about a horse that she really liked, but doubted the sentiment was even remotely mutual. I could tell from the discussion that she had been putting effort into the horse and it wasn’t turning out the way she wanted. She ended her tale of woe by stating, I just don’t know what to do to make my horse love me.  Of course she asked this with a pleading look in her eye, waiting for me to give a one-liner answer, Oh, that’s easy. To make your horse love you, you simply follow these two quick steps.  Of course, I didn’t answer that– sarcasm was not called for. She was serious about her dilemma; however she truly did expect a short answer.

horse love

Relaxed and Content

So the short answer is: You can’t. Lets put it into perspective – a teenage perspective – to answer her question. Lets say that you’re in grade 11. There is a boy or girl in your class that that you have your eye on. How do you make this person love you? If there is a way, I certainly missed out on something in my high school years! To the best of my knowledge, it’s not possible short of turning the scenario into a science fiction movie and adding a love potion. Or in high school, owning the fanciest truck.

There are, however, things you can do to set the situation up to offer your horse the opportunity to change his perspective of you. Keep in mind this will not happen overnight. First of all, if hes clearly not into you, why is that? Is he simply so used to you trying to force some commitment from him, that he doesn’t even want to be around you? This could fit well with our teenage love story…

Just what is love, anyway?

Before we get into that, just what is love, anyway? Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t that a Howard Jones song from the 80???s? Maybe I’m thinking too much of my high school days here. Sigh…..back to the present. Love is defined as an intense feeling of deep affection; a deep romantic attachment.

As humans we naturally tend to personify animals, and we sure like to add the romantic factor. I haven’t met many people that don’tt do this. We do this so we can elevate the animal to a human mental status on some level, in order to explain it’s actions and assume we understand it better. That said, be very cognizant of how you are evaluating the mental status (love, anger, hate, fear, jealousy, etc.) of a horse. As soon as you start evaluating the horse using human psychological and emotional terms, you’ve already put up a barrier between you and your horse: you’re seeing what you want to see, not what the horse is presenting.

Instead, and to begin with, be very simplistic about what a horse can feel. For clarity and the purpose of this discussion lets make two simple postulations:

1) Horses absolutely require 2 things from you:
a. Clarity, and
b. Peace in your space.

2) Horses only have only 4 mental states:
a. Fear,
b. Challenge,
c. Stress (hunger or injury) and
d. Peace.

You’ll notice that love isn’t in there. The human emotion of love, although the definition is simply worded, can be a very complex emotion. Described differently by everyone, the emotion is likely much more complex than the horse is capable of. A horse however, IS capable of feeling peace, trust, and comfort. A horse can both emote this and feel this from you, the same as he can feel your fear or challenge. It is entirely possible in fact I attempt this whenever I am working with a horse to create a space of peace.

The Mental States

scared horse

This horse is not in a place of peace.

Fear is a physiological response to danger, either real or perceived. If a mountain lion jumps out of the bush at your horse he will experience fear. His instinctual reaction to his fear will be to flee. Agreed? It is no secret that we can teach a horse to change his response to fear. Consider a simplistic example: a horse will follow his leader. If one horse spooks at something and the leader runs, the rest will run. If the leader ignores it and puts his head back in the grass, the rest will resume eating. It’s a communication method that is thousands of times faster than a human could ever pull off (humans would schedule a meeting to talk about whether the lion was, in fact, dangerous). It works and is an essential survival skill for a prey animal. What does that tell us? It tells us that the leader can communicate to the rest of the herd a state of mind: fear, challenge or peace. If the other horses feel peace from the leader they will relax.

Challenge: If a horse in the herd decided to challenge the horse above them, they will have their little scrap, the question of who is above who will be answered, and they go back to doing what they do. A horse will also challenge you in the same way. If your answer is different every time, he will continue to challenge you until the question is answered. For example, from his viewpoint sometimes you act like a leader and other times you respond as if you were below him in the herd. A crucial question is not being answered:  Just who is above who here????

Stress. Consider how stress is relative in the human world. We adapt to a certain level of pressures in our lives and this becomes the norm. Additional pressures which are not planned or expected cause us stress. This is why something you consider irrelevant can cause great stress in someone else. Stress plays an important role in the actions of a prey animal like a horse; hunger or injury can mean death. In the domestic horse world, our horses have all their needs taken care of: they suffer an injury and we take care of it. They’re hungry and we feed them. They learn and expect that we are going to do those things. Just like a person, you can’t expect a sore or hungry horse to perform and act like one who is healthy.

Peace.  Just what is peace to a horse? Peace is freedom from fear, stress and challenge. In that place of peace they can utilize their bodies without brace and move in freedom. Be it working a cow, jumping or simply standing in the sun relaxing.

In the context of this article, if we assume our definition of love – for a horse – is a state of peace free from fear, stress or challenge, then for the horse to love you, as a leader you must provide that state. And you truly need to feel it, because that is what the horse senses. If you act without feel, for example, you run up and throw your arms around his neck expecting he’ll hug you back, he is most likely going to think fear or challenge.  He may think that you are simply playing; you will likely annoy him or encourage a reciprocal play response. Regardless, your actions are not providing him peace.

In order to progress to the point where a horse will seek your space as a place of peace you will have be very clear and consistent about every action, reaction and feel you present to your horse. Horses are very forgiving, but repeated unclear presentation is going to cause them to disregard or distrust you.

An example

I recently worked with an older horse that, for all intent, was just being started. My initial thoughts were that he may have been subjected to repetitious, unclear, no-purpose presentation. I suspected this because of his reaction when asked to move in any way; he simply tuned me out, like he was thinking, “Here we go again.  I will just ignore this, go through the moves, and wait until it’s over.” The human term we apply to this: stubborn. We ask a horse to do something, he doesn’t, and therefore he is stubborn. Our gut reaction, as wrong as it may be: increase the pressure.

stubborn horseStubborn, like the term behavior issue and a plethora of others, are human-only words that do not apply to a horse. A horse is not capable of being stubborn. A horse cannot have a behaviour issue. A horse can only be a horse. A horse can only act like a horse. The use of those terms is simply our way of attempting to understand the horse by personifying his actions and reactions. If you take anything from this article, remember that. It just might open your mind up to considering another possibility when you are frustrated or unsure of what to do with your horse.

It became clear that his ignoring me was a layer. Underneath that layer was outright fear. His response to something scary or unknown was to turn into a rigid statue, to mentally exit the stage. The potential mistake that many people might make is to consider this horse stubborn. They would apply more pressure in order to elicit a response. In this case, that course of action would have been exactly what he expected and only reinforced that his response was correct.

We spent some time working through this outer layer. His fear response is now this: he shows his fear, becomes alert but looks to me to see what I’m going to do about it. I achieved this through repetition: introduce a pressure, show him that the response is to relax. I had to start at an incredibly simplistic level because pressures that were initiated by me – even as simple as the weight of my finger on his halter – caused him to leave me mentally. For him, I had to begin with very simple pressures: natural things in his environment that distracted him such as snow falling off a tree branch, another horse calling or walking nearby. I’m being very clear on what I ask and rewarding his consistency in try with peace in my space. Over and over and over. ??His simple mind puts these things together:

1) When Scott asks something and I try, it feels good.

2) Pressure can mean anything: go toward Scott, change my thought, move away from Scott, whatever…but it is always is preceded by: relax and think. ??At any time, any place and any gait.

3) If I challenge Scott, he consistently, but fairly and without any anger or force, lets me know that he is the leader.

Ultimately these pieces come together like this:

Scott has demonstrated by his actions that he is the leader. Therefore I don’t have to worry about that anymore. That burning question of who is above who is below is gone.  When there is pressure or something scary, I normally resort to fear and flee, but my leader is demonstrating how to respond when pressure is applied.  I’m learning that pressure means relax and listen to Scott.  And when I do, he provides a peaceful place for me.

I have almost 3 weeks into this horse now. He has made huge progress and sticks with me, physically and mentally. As a horse, he is seeking the absence of challenge and fear that he knows that I as a leader have demonstrated that I can provide. When I create that peaceful space for him he will lower his head, relax and sometimes yawn. If he is in motion, it’s fluid and relaxed, not stiff and jerky.

To a horse, that peace may just be the human equivalent of love. It’s very honest.

For sure, a horse might like to be around you because you scratch him or feed him treats or in some way make him feel physically good. Your horse might be comfortable in your presence, but that might be the extent of it: if something disturbs him, what does he do? Run to the herd? Or look to you for your response and guidance? How are you addressing his mental needs? Your perception of his love might be like the wrapping on a present. What is underneath?

The goal of the horseman is to create and shape what is underneath. And you must start by creating it in yourself.

Lets be honest. You can’t force anyone or any horse to love you. What someone even a horse – feels about you is a choice that you can’t make for them. For a horse, you can influence that decision by proving clarity and peace (aka leadership) for him. When your horse buys into that, you’re well on your way to setting up a true connection with him. When he begins to seek you out as a provider of his mental needs, well, you could probably then say he loves you.

After all that theory, I’ll end this on a personal note. When I am truly honest and open to a horse, I can feel the emotion that he is projecting. I can also see it in his eye, posture and muscle. When one of my horses walks up to me, puts his nose on my shoulder, sighs a huge sigh and completely relaxes…well the feeling I have for that horse is nothing but love, my human response. I’ve been around horses long enough to know that they can pick up on any state of emotion or energy I put out. A horse will feel my response, but how they interpret it is something I’ll never know, because I’m not a horse. I can however, judge from their reaction: sincere peace, comfort in my space, honesty, willingness, trust and commitment.

And just maybe, after all, that’s what love is.

Scott Phillips

January 2015

Being Prepared – Survival in the Back Country

Throughout my years of working in the back country, it has always amazed me how many people go into the back country thinking, it’s only a few hours, I don’t need much. Survival in the back country depends on being prepared.

I’ve seen a lot of changes in the back country over the years.  Now more than ever, there is easy road access to the outdoors for weekend warriors and top of the line equipment is easily accessible.  Manuals are written for just about everything, GPS navigation is inexpensive and the list goes on. The problem is: everything seems accessible and instant, but in the back country a very simple problem can quickly become significant. That’s when the dominoes start to fall.

Consider the following scenario:

It’s a beautiful day to head out to the mountains for some playtime. You grab your horse and tack and decide to head out for the afternoon for a quick ride to your favorite spot. You don’t see a cloud in the sky and its 28C. You grab a light windbreaker just in case, get on your horse and soon are enjoying the peaceful sights, sounds and smells of the forest.

A few hours later and a few extra trails – because you are enjoying yourself so much – you come across a mucky section of trail with lots of deadfall around you. Normally this is not a big deal, but today a moose comes out from nowhere on the trail in front of you. Your horse spins and bolts, knocks you off with the aid of a low hanging branch and gashes its front leg open while running through the deadfall.  You land on a fallen log and twisted your knee from your foot not clearing the stirrup.  To top it all off, your horse is gone.

Back Country Essential Items

Essential items to have on your person at all times.

Your horse might not have gone far. He may come back, but he knows where the trailer is and might be waiting for you at the trail head.

The problem is that you are15km from the parking lot. At a normal persons walking rate, the walk of shame back to the parking lot would take about four hours, plus you need to hike back up through the mountain pass you had previously been enjoying the view from, so add another hour (*) But you can hardly walk.  Now that the adrenaline is settling down you realize your mouth is pasted shut from thirst.

You double check your cell phone for service bars, which are not there, so you grab yourself a stick and slowly start heading back to safety.

It only takes about 1 km of walking in cowboy boots on a rocky or uneven trail for your ankles to feel like putty. Soon blisters start forming on your feet, sending shards of sharp pain with every step you take. You see some water, but it’s the local summer cattle watering hole with lots of manure visible in and around it, so you pass it up, waiting for a cleaner source of water. The sun is now baking your head, and your thirst is so bad you can hardly swallow. You have not even started up the mountain yet. As you work your way back up to the mountain pass in the heat, a massive headache kicks in, and suddenly you feel nauseous and everything starts spinning from heat exhaustion and dehydration setting in. You find a small tree with a sliver of shade and decide to take a rest. Time passes quickly in your weakened state and the hot sun drops behind the mountain. There may be hours of daylight left, but the chill quickly sets in as you sit there resting. You realize you’re not going to make it back before dark.

There are many possible outcomes to this scenario: your horse comes back and you manage to limp your way out, another rider/hiker/mountain biker finds you or you stumble upon a crystal clear mountain creek. Then again it could get worse: rain or snow may set in. Snow and freezing temperatures can occur in the mountains any time of year, even the middle of July.

While you don’t have to pack tons of gear with you, you do need to consider the what if possibilities that this example poses.  With some basic survival items most of the life draining scenarios can be avoided.

horn bag contents

Important survival items don’t take up much space.

You need to have a minimum of a knife or multi-tool and a lighter or waterproof matches on your person in case you get separated from your horse. In the summer, consider using a hydration camel water pack and water purification tablets. At a minimum with these items you can build a fire, make a shelter if needed, collect and purify water for hydration.

Your gear doesn’t have to take up a lot of space. Consider this for your saddle horn bags:

On one side: a small equine first aid kit with containing vet wrap(2), cotton padded wrap, a hoof pick, and duct tape (which triples as a temporary boot or an aid to help keep your shelter together).

On the other side: a survival kit containing survival blanket wraps(2), fire starter kit, H2O water purification tablets, toilet paper, triangular bandage, high absorbency trauma dressing and a small human first aid kit. In one of the outside pockets with easy access I carry a pen flare kit with bear bangers and multi colored flares.

camel water pack

A great way to carry water.

I personally never leave home without my trusty Gore-tex jacket, a toque and some gloves – even when it’s hot. It doesn’t take long for the weather to turn nasty in our beloved Rocky Mountains. That said, take extra precautions to keep your gear dry as most saddle bags are water resistant at best. Heavy duty zip lock bags work great, and for those really important items (like toilet paper or your fire starter kit) – double bag it. Trust me on this one: there is no worse feeling when you desperately need an item and it’s soaked!

If your packing won’t pass while standing in the shower, then it won’t pass Mother Nature’s worst weather nor submersion in the water. Also keep your tack in good repair and constantly check important leather straps for cracking or wear.

Your survival in the back country is possible in this scenario, but only if you have properly prepared yourself and your equipment. Always tell someone where you are going and your expected return time. If you are going for longer than a day also leave a brief itinerary on the dashboard of your truck, visible through the windshield. Riding with others provides safety in numbers, however that is not always possible with our busy schedules these days.

Most rides will go off without a hitch, but what about the one that doesn’t go so well? As a professional guide I would always say, It’s not a question of if, but when !

(* Nay Smiths rule of travel for the human is 4km per hour, adding 1 hour for every 1000ft elevation gain).

Introduction to Equine Thermography

As an equine thermographer, I tend to draw a bit of a crowd during an imaging session while people peek over my shoulder to get a look at the array of colours on my camera screen. Most people think equine thermography is a new modality in the equine industry, but it has been around since the early 70’s – used mainly as a screening tool at racetracks. However, when it came to the expensive yet basic cameras and the knowledge in how to correctly image and interpret those images, equine thermography was soon pushed aside by veterinarians.

Beginning stages of a bowed tendon, showing a break in the thermal pattern.

Beginning stages of a bowed tendon, showing a break in the thermal pattern.

So what is Equine Thermography?

Infra-red thermography is the science of acquisition and analysis of thermal information from non-invasive imaging equipment and software to detect minute differences in the horses thermal and neural condition. When an injury is in the acute stages of inflammation, thermal imaging works by detecting the heat generated from inflammation which allows direct visualization and measurement of areas of concern allowing thermographers to quickly and efficiently identify trauma in an injured animal.

How is Equine Thermography different from other diagnostic modalities?

The major difference between traditional diagnostics like ultrasound and thermal imaging is that one is anatomic and the other is physiologic.

  • An anatomic diagnostic modality will show a specific lesion or problem in anatomic structure. For example, an ultrasound will show the degree of damage in a tendon or ligament injury.
  • A physiologic modality such as thermal imaging cannot show a specific anatomic lesion, but down show a physiologic change in blood flow that helps localize a lesion and more easily shows changes over time. For example, showing whether the tendon or ligament injury is causing inflammation.

What makes Equine Thermography unique compared to the other modalities?

Thermography is the most effective preventative diagnostic modality due to its ability to identify asymmetrical thermal patterns of heat in the horse’s body indicative of inflammation.

Nerve impingement

Nerve impingement

Thermography has proven to detect damage to structures up to three weeks before a horse will show clinical signs of lameness. Before a structure, such as a tendon or ligament “breaks down” it goes through a degree of accumulative damage. This weakens the structure without the horse being active lame and while training with this micro damage they are much more susceptible to serious injury.  In fact, changes greater than 1C – 2C are considered significant.

Infra-red cameras have come a long way since the 70’s and the sensitivity of the camera for detecting temperature changes related to disease makes thermal imaging a valuable tool and it is just that, another valuable tool in the tool box of diagnostic modalities.

What should you look for in an Equine Thermographer?

When looking to hire an Equine Thermographer you should be asking the similar questions as you would when looking for a equine therapist:

  • How long have you been an Equine Thermographer?
  • What sort of training did you acquire to become an Equine Thermographer? Are you certified?
  • Do you belong to any professional associations?  The benefits of belonging to a professional association can include things like continuing education requirements, and thermographers carrying liability insurance, although these are not available everywhere yet.
  • What type of camera do you use? This is an important one as the two main companies that supply infra-red cameras are Fluke and Flir. These two companies offer a wide range of infra-red cameras available to the public. In order to have the quality of image required for veterinary diagnostics the camera your thermographer uses should have 320 x 240 IR resolution and at least a 60Hz which is the rate at which the image is captured. If the thermographer pulls out a cell phone or says they use an app to do their thermal imaging, they are wasting your time and money.
  • Do you have standardized patient preparation and imaging series? Standardization and patient preparation are crucial to successful equine imaging and the interpretation of the scan.
  • Are you willing to work with other professionals? Your horse can only benefit when you have a team of professionals working together. If the thermographer is hesitant to working with other professionals, be it a therapist or a veterinarian, you might want to keep searching.

What is required for successful??imaging and interpretation?

Standardization and correct patient preparation are crucial to accurate and successful imaging. The emphasis of environmental control when imaging is essential. Horses should be imaged indoors sheltered from the elements outside. Sunlight, wind, radiant heat from surrounding buildings, and sometimes even flooring in a barn can alter what the infra-red camera captures.

Soft tissue damage, vertebrae trauma, as well as the coxal tuber along the nearside of the horse.

Soft tissue damage, vertebrae trauma, as well as the coxal tuber along the nearside of the horse.

The patient should be clean, free of artifacts such as, moisture, dirt, liniments, blankets, bandages and has been indoors acclimatizing to their environment for a minimum of 45 minutes, tied to minimize movement, and minimal feed offered. Legally, thermographers cannot diagnose. Our job is to provide the horse owner and the veterinarian the opportunity to identify and focus on the exact area for further investigation. Interpretation must be done by a licensed veterinarian, preferably one that is experienced with equine thermography.

Equine Thermography is not about taking pretty pictures. It is a technical process that requires the technician to thoroughly understand the processes required and to apply them consistently for successful imaging. Having a clean, dry patient in an environment free of drafts, direct sunlight, or moisture, and a certified thermographer with an appropriate infra-red camera are fundamental to the success of your horses thermal imaging scan.


Semi-Urban Trail Development on Vancouver Island

The Semi-Urban Trail

Or is it semi-rural? Whatever you call it, the Otter Point district near Sooke on Vancouver Island is one of the many areas in British Columbia where any notion of backcountry, is fast being swallowed up by development.

riding in william simmons park

William Simmons Memorial Community Park offers an easy 20 minute ride through forest to a meadow that offers grazing for horses and a picnic bench for riders. Be bear aware in all seasons.

For decades, locals have maintained trails through and around private acreages, crown land, forestry lands, and beaches. Increasingly, access to these informal trails is being cut off by residential subdivisions.

In the face of this challenge, equestrians in the area have realized that their best option is to join forces with hikers and cyclists to support the development of multi-use linear parks throughout the region. This is painstaking work that requires both a grand plan for the future and the patience to be satisfied with small gains as they come along. Sometimes it’s worth fighting for a piece as small as 1.4 hectares.

The Secret Park

Local riders all knew that you used to be able to follow a trail at the end of Eaglecrest Drive up to the forestry lands beyond. But blow-downs and washouts had over time made access impossible. Besides, the entrance was crazy-steep.

Half-hearted attempts to get the trail cleared again suddenly became quite focused in 2010 when the land behind it was slated for development. What would happen to the trail? A little research showed that in fact the 1.4 hectare area had been designated as park in an earlier subdivision. Ahah! A toehold to maintain public access. But how to go about it?

Fortunately, help was at hand in the Juan de Fuca Community Trails Society. Since 2005, this group of hikers, cyclists, and riders had been working with local government to identify and document historical trails and public rights-of-way in the region. The Trails Society readily jumped in with advice and contacts, and, as things progressed, manpower and tools.

Friends of Eaglecrest Park Society

Parks and trails in Otter Point come under the governance of the Juan de Fuca Electoral Area Parks and Recreation Commission of the Capital Regional District (JdF Parks). In 2010, JdF Parks was just starting up a stewardship program that would allow residents to participate in the development and maintenance of the community parks that are scattered throughout the area.

Riders and non-riders living near Eaglecrest Drive had previously formed the Friends of Eaglecrest Park Society (FEPS). This society was re-energized and applied to become park stewards. Because local residents showed an interest, Eaglecrest Park was allotted some funding.

Development and Maintenance

Our goal was to create an all-season trail through otherwise undeveloped forest a Natural Area Recreation Park. This JdF Parks designation is important because it means the park won’t ever be cleared for another use, such as a baseball diamond.

riding in eaglecrest

The Eaglecrest trail is a short, steep climb through coastal rainforest with a rest area at the top. There is a little side loop for variation. It???s especially popular with local riders as a leg-stretch after arena work. Be bear aware, even in winter.

Because we became park stewards, FEPS was fully involved when the trail was first cleared by JdF Parks in the summer of 2010. For example, our feedback resulted in the switch-back near the entrance being re-done to make it safer for horses. Since then, we have been responsible for maintenance. We have regular work parties to inspect the condition of the trail and do any tasks required, such as improving drainage or clipping back salal. We provide JdF Parks with quarterly reports that detail the condition of the trail and describe our work. We also comment on trail use, including photos, so that they know that the trail is being used by horses as well as walkers. JdF Parks is very supportive, and provides extra help and materials when required.

Rosemary Jorna and Howard Taylor

Rosemary Jorna from the JdF Community Trails Society and Howard Taylor from FEPS, clearing a drainage ditch on the Eaglecrest trail, December 2014. The two groups often work together on projects.

It’s only 1.4 hectares. What’s the point?

The point is that the Juan de Fuca Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission has, with community input, developed a vision for the area that involves linking together whatever land they can get to create a network of multi-use trails. Each time we secure a couple of hectares of land for equestrian use, it is another link in the network.

Becoming involved with this project also means we are consulted when new developments come along. For example, FEPS was invited to meet with the developers of the 220 hectares beyond the park to discuss the trail they were offering as an amenity. Now the developers know that a horse-friendly trail would be well-received in any proposal they make.

One Thing Leads to Another

As a direct result of the success of the Eaglecrest project, JdF Parks contacted the Sooke Saddle Club about the possibility of including horse facilities at a new park they were developing in Otter Point, William Simmons Memorial Community Park. The Community Parks program doesn’t have a large budget, and was there any way to get funding? And if so, what facilities would be desired?

william simmons park

The park has shared trails, but some picnic areas are off-limits to horses. This kind of planning keeps everybody happy.

With the help of BC Horse Council funding (Recreation and Industry Grant), the Saddle Club ensured that William Simmons Park in Otter Point has trailer parking, a horse and rider rest area, hitch rail, and manure bin. These are convenient for riders, but are also permanent structures that state clearly horses belong here.  Road crossings are a major concern for semi-urban trails. So, the Saddle Club ensured that there is a Horse Crossing sign on the road that connects the park to trails through a nearby subdivision. The subdivision trails are also horse friendly, thanks to club input and monitoring.

The Saddle Club regularly inspects and reports on the condition of the trail and facilities. Recently, William Simmons Park was expanded, and the club was contacted again for input on the expansion.

Building the Network

rest area on equine trail

The hitch rail and other amenities in the rest area were built to rugged park standards.

William Simmons, like Eaglecrest, is a small park, only 6.6 hectares, but it is has been identified by the Juan de Fuca Community Trails Society and JdF Parks as the hub of a trail network for the region. The next piece is close to being in place. JdF Parks has a permit from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to develop a 1.6 km trail along an unused right of way that leads from William Simmons to another area with park potential. We can’t wait to see hoof prints on that trail!

Tips for Semi-Urban Trail Development

  • Get there first. Park development is often done on a first-come, first-served basis. If trails are being actively used by horses, then horse facilities are more likely to be provided.
  • Make maps. Work with local riders to identify current or historical informal trails on public or private land that have the potential for development. Also consider roads–which ones could easily incorporate riding paths?
  • Understand the politics. Find out how, when, and where trail-development decisions are made in your area. Find policies you can support, and work from there.
  • Create a voice for yourselves. Form a legal society so that you have an official place at the table, when development is being discussed.
  • Think multi-use. Hikers, riders, and cyclists have some different needs, but many more common interests. Cooperate and educate so that horses are welcome on your trails.
  • Find money. Look for grants and other sources of funding that will help make your projects possible and desirable.
  • Geocache. You want your trails to be used. Geocaching is a great incentive to use the trail, and provides evidence of use.

destroyed geocache

There are three Amazing Backcountry caches in the area: William Simmons, Butler Trail ??and Eaglecrest.

Riding in Costa Rica – By the Light of Fireflies

The late Costa Rican afternoon had cooled down enough for a trail ride – about 25 degrees Celsius. We finished up a full, yet relaxing, first day of reflection at the Horse-Empowered Retreat at Painted Pony Guest Ranch. Now we were excited to go for our first ride of the retreat, the first of a few planned for the coming week.

Criollo mares at the retreat

A special group of Criollo mares were our guides at the Horse-Empowered Retreat.

We were a small group of women from Canada and the U.S. with varying levels of horse experience – from beginner to expert – and all with a passion for horses and warm countries. We were all of a “certain age,” and ready to learn more about ourselves through immersion in a retreat setting on a working ranch.

I had been to this guest ranch before in the Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica and fell in love with the place. I had returned to facilitate my first Horse-Empowered Retreat here, a retreat combining equine-assisted learning, natural horsemanship, yoga and cultural activities.

It was not my first time riding in Costa Rica, but it was the first time anywhere that I had such a special night ride. It was special for it combined the cultural aspects of Costa Rica, the unique landscape and a unexpected treat at the end.

Sky and Esteban of Painted Pony Guest Ranch

Skye and Esteban of the Painted Pony Guest Ranch give me a natural horsemanship lesson.

We got ready to ride out on gorgeous Criollos -matched to our abilities. My mount was Skye, a mare I have ridden in the past.  She is smart and spunky, and the dominant mare in her field who has helped me in my journey to develop my leadership skills.

Our tack was comfortable and western that afternoon, though English saddles were available. The saddles were synthetic, a sensible choice for a country with an annual rainy season and the mold problems that entails. The horses know both neck and direct reining, and they are highly sensitive to leg and seat.

The Criollo breed are sensitive and sensible horses with stamina. They also have a special gait, which makes them a very smooth ride especially at the trot. It feels more like a glide than a trot. The gait is Paso Trotto – trotting on the front end, walking on the hind. They naturally go into this gait and I found it easy to keep them there.  As this was our first ride as a group, we took it at a walk.

After a final spray of bug repellent for horse and human, we headed out on our trusty steeds for supper in a small village. It was great fun to ride through pastures and trees, up and down some gentle slopes, across a creek then through the village itself. The fields were high with grass after the rainy season and some of the pathways were overhung with huge trees, their trunks and lower branches encased by giant philodendron vines. The creek was low-banked with a trickle of water and a bit of mud. It had nearly dried up after two months into the dry season.

On the trail

One of our guides, Esteban describes another trail for another day.

Our guides were the owners of the Painted Pony Guest Ranch and Casagua Horses Tours, Kay and Esteban Peraza. They pointed out novel things along the way, such as cashews growing on bushes, sloths resting high in Guanacaste trees – the national tree of Costa Rica – and howler monkeys leaping from branch to branch over our heads. A flock of bright parakeets streaked overhead like little green rockets.

Horseback riding in Costa Rica is common because of its ranching and cowboy culture, and i have seen people riding mules as well.  Riders are welcome everywhere so we received friendly waves and smiling faces as we rode through the village.

Pre-sunset in Costa Rica is a time for visiting and relaxing before the evening meal.  Adults and teens were gathering on porches or chatting in clusters on the roadside.  Children were riding bikes or playing soccer on the dirt roads.   Dogs sprawled in the dust on and by the roads or, feeling protective, dodged out of their yards to bark at us as we rode by.   A few small and acrid fires smouldered by the side of the roads as residents burned their trash for the day.

The horses were relaxed about monkeys moving suddenly in the trees, laundry on lines, pinwheels whirling in gardens, dogs of any size, chickens on the road, motor bikes and bicycles. They have done this ride before and their training prepares them mentally for all sorts of events.

Sunset arrives about 6 PM in Costa Rica and we arrived at the cantina as the light was fading. We tied our horses to the fence or the trees then strolled in to supper.

Breaking the pinata

Watch out, it’s pinata time!

The house special was pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven, delicious with a cold beer. There was a child’s birthday party there that evening, and we were included in the celebration. Dessert was birthday cake and watching the fun as the kids swung at the pinata, often to the peril of the adults. There was a lot of laughter, the universal language.

Time to mount up and go home.  There was no moon this night. There was nervousness about our return ride, but we were reassured that all would be well. “Trust your horse, ride with a loose rein and stay balanced.” Off we went with light horses staggered in between dark horses.

As we left the dim lights of the village and headed into the black, the warm night became magical with sound, instead of sight. The rustling of the warm breeze in the trees, the soft thuds of hooves, the relaxed blowing of horses and the sighs of riders.

It was spectacular crossing the last pasture before home because it seemed there were stars everywhere.The sky was filled and the air around us and the ground…Fireflies!  We were surrounded by thousands of pinpoints of flashing lights.

After our exclamations of wonder, we rode the rest of the way home in silence. We trusted our horses too, as that is the best way to ride by the light of fireflies.

The next morning over a typical country breakfast on the porch of the main ranch house, we talked about our special ride and what it meant to us.  It taught us that our horses will take care of us when we can’t see where we are going – figuratively and literally.   It opened our hearts to the rewards of embracing new experiences.

We were going to have a great week together.