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Thursday, January 20, 2011

But Wait, She DOES Have Horses In Her Backyard!

What?? Yes, it's true! I couldn't resist digressing further to explain...

I live in a lovely home on about 1/2 an acre, smack-dab in the middle of quintessential suburbia. Our house is on a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood that's about 18 years old. Fortunately, the homes are not nearly as packed in as you'll find in many modern suburbs, and there is no model exactly like ours anywhere in sight. It's really very, very nice and I'm fortunate indeed to live here.

But the biggest selling point for me was the fact that there is a real, live, functioning HORSE BARN abutting our property! This would not be everyone's cup of tea but of course it was an automatic plus in my book. (It helped that I walked into the real estate office that day wearing riding clothes. The realtor knew she'd hit the jackpot with this customer, alright.). Here is the view from my kitchen window, on this extremely snowy day. We got almost 10," a blizzard by our standards:

The place must have started life as a dairy barn since that is a disused silo on the left. There's an outdoor ring in front, and a stall row between it and the taller building to the right, which is the indoor arena. Between the trees and the barn complex is their parking lot. A dressage ring lies off to the left; in the summer I can hear the trainer shouting at students.

Yes, I get to hear neighs and smell good barnyard smells every day in the summer, and at least get to see equines on a daily basis. How lucky is that... even if none of them actually belongs to me. Given its proximity, you'd think I would have taken lessons at this barn when I was doing that. Nope - they're mostly dressage. A few hardy souls actually jump, but the majority of the clientele are dressage folks (with a good proportion of divas). I am just not ready to pack it in and relegate myself to purely dressage. Futhermore, the owner of the barn is a right royal bee-yotch and I want nothing to do with her, other than being super-friendly when my dog happens to chase a cat into the barnyard. Such is her charming personality that I'm always scared she'll break out the .22 (dog's only done that a couple times in eight years, thank goodness).

You may wonder, how does this barn exist in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, anyway? I have been told it was grandfathered in since it was built many years ago, and the city fathers allowed to remain since our little burg started life being billed as a "resort community." (We have two gorgeous man-made lakes.) They could boast of having riding stables available, though trail rides were never offered, believe me. Around 50 horses are kept there on a total of five acres. Accordingly, turn out for most consists of a short sojourn in a dirt enclosure that's maybe 15' square. Woo-hoo, time to kick up your heels, guys! A lucky few get put in a couple of dinky grass pastures. Horse paradise, it is not... One time my dog startled a horse that was being hand-grazed. The owner shouted at me, "It's okay, he doesn't get out much." No, REALLY???

Ironically, the city rules governing my property specifically prohibit animal husbandry of any type. No cattle, goats, sheep, hogs, poultry, etc. or equines of any type are allowed. Are you surprised I have checked? We're not even allowed to have a fence unless there's a swimming pool (dog's is electric). So no home horse-keeping for me, no matter what (although I do have a very, very big garage...hmmm).

I also wanted to tell you about some of our neighbors when I was a kid. You know how I thought a horse would fit nicely in our backyard? Well, that's debatable, but guess what - these people nearby actually kept not one, but TWO equines in their yard, the same size as ours! I am not kidding. The poor things inhabited a small dirt paddock with a run-in shed. The neighbors had a trailer, so they loaded up the horse and the pony and took them to a stable where they rode the horse and the pony pulled a cart. What's really funny, is sometimes they would stake out the pony on their front yard so it could eat actual grass. We had a few visitors who pulled up at our house saying, "Gee, your neighbors sure do have an awfully big dog..."

As you can imagine, this just about killed yours truly. It did not help one bit that the equine's owner was a girl exactly my age. "But Daddy, Sandra has a horse and a pony in there. Why can't *I* have one??" I had to walk by this place every single day on the way home from the bus stop. Torture. It's too bad that said girl and I mutually despised each other (dating back to well before the horses arrived, but massive jealousy on my part did nothing to improve the situation), or I could have really been on to a good thing. You will learn more about this girl and I in a later post. Hint: It has something to do with that treasured blue ribbon displayed in my room...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Good Question

I was going to talk about the Tricorne ponies/horses, which is a topic very dear to me, but first I want to discuss something a few people have wondered about. Namely, why haven't I ever owned my own horse, if I'm so into riding and horses? And since I wished for one on every single shooting star and birthday cake for more years than I care to count?

Well, as you might imagine, when I was little it was just not feasible from both a responsibility and money standpoint. As I've mentioned, my mom had a horse when she was a kid and knew full well just how much expense and commitment they entailed. She was far too smart to run out and buy an equine, only to find out that sometimes they *SURPRISE!* went lame, needed the vet and had to spend six months doing nothing but eating their head off. Just keeping a horse at Tricorne was expensive and there wasn't any place else nearby where we would have wanted to board. While we did have "green space" in our town, nobody offered pasture boarding, either; it was a H/J barn or nothing. That was what I wanted to do, anyway - jump. I also very much enjoyed the camaraderie of being with other horse nuts at the barn.

Just taking lessons was costly, not to mention the equipment I needed as a constantly-growing kid. Thank goodness one of the moms at Tricorne had a "tack swap" area in her house, where I could be outfitted with gently-worn boots/helmets/jodphurs. That was fine with me; I also remember being taken to the store to get a brand-new pair of jodphurs and suffering through breaking them in. Those suckers were STIFF!

  I don't think I ever looked quite as spiffy as that young lady, unfortunately. That's the British for you!

Riding was not the only activity I participated in, either. I was in the Girl Scouts (more clothes - you had to wear full uniform to every meeting), I took piano lessons and I played soccer. More importantly, I had two younger brothers who also had many activities: sailing, rowing, soccer, baseball, karate, Boy Scouts, etc. Footing the bill for a pony/horse for me would have consumed all the "extracurricular" funds and obviously not have been fair to my brothers.

As a child, I'm afraid I did not fully appreciate all of the above. I felt rather hard done by. "Who needs a barn, anyway?" I thought. "What's wrong with that nice big patch of grass right here? (Our backyard, about 1/4 acre) The garage would make a SWELL stall!" In fact, I would have been delirously happy with this arrangement:

Although I like to think I would have come up with a classier water container than a kiddie pool...

[Note: That, my friends, was some idiot's idea of a good Christmas present for four little girls. A 3-year-old 16 hh. OTTB with a knee the size of a basketball. The idiot at least admitted that this might have been a mistake while listing the poor guy for sale on Craig's List a couple weeks ago, stating that "he limps and the kids refuse to ride it anyway because he is so tall." Smart kids, huh? Of course, one must also realize that a total arsehole of a racetracker, or dealer, sold this person the horse straight off the track and even dropped him off  in the "backyard stabling" - of COURSE the family doesn't own a trailer! - without giving one thought to the inevitable outcome. Nice.]

As a teenager, I had several jobs, and some of my earnings did go to pay for equestrian activities, such as showing. But I never made enough to support a horse at a barn. I know a lot of kids earn lessons and even boarding by working at barns, but I needed cash to pay for other things, like a H.S. trip to Europe. Daily transport would also have been an issue. So I continued taking lessons, and was lucky enough to have a trainer who allowed me free horse rental and coaching for 4-H and C-rated shows, as long as I paid entry fees and trailering. And lucky to have parents who still supported the horse habit with lessons, gear and endless round trips to the barn!

When I was in my mid-twenties, I was taking weekly lessons at a mostly dressage barn. Someone offered me a free horse. You can all stop rolling around on the floor right now...what a joke! There ain't no such thing as a free horse, that's FOR SURE! Fortunately, my sensible side prevailed, and I knew that I was barely making enough money to keep myself alive, never mind a horse. Here's the mantra:


Same thing applies today, especially in today's crummy economy with horses being given away all over the place. I like to torture myself by looking at "horsey porn," a.k.a. Thoroughbred race horse adoption sites. For as little as $500 or in some cases, nothing, I could scoop up the OTTB of my dreams. The thing is, I would probably want to keep it at my old barn, where I would have access to a great trainer (very important with an OTTB), an indoor ring, jumps, lots of friends and oh yeah - someone else to feed every day at 6:00 AM and muck stalls (not that I mind the latter). The cost for all those goodies would run at least a thousand dollars a month. And whose fault is it that I don't have that kind of extra cash? Mine, of course. Not my kids who still need to go to college, either! :-) There are less expensive boarding options around here, but I am knowledgeable enough to realize I'd need professional help, at least for a while.

So the horse dream is on hold for now. I may not get one until I'm old and grey and might only be able to do dressage or driving instead of jumping (don't bounce as well as I used to already), but I'm a long way from giving up. I know of a local lady who was fox hunting and jumping well into her 80s, so there's still hope for me yet!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Tricorne Farm Riding School (TFRS)

My parents must have known this place was the right one to really begin my equestrian career, because my initials were "TF." It was my OWN riding school! :-)  My mom tells me they found it through an acquaintance of hers, whose daughter rode there and liked it. I sure was lucky my folks were willing to put me in lessons at all, because I've heard from a lot of women that they simply weren't allowed.

Tricorne was located about two miles from my home in suburban Holmdel, New Jersey. Yes, that's right, the land of oil refineries, strip malls and Mafia dons with itchy trigger fingers - funny that we also boasted the largest number of horses outside of the state of Texas (or so I was always told). Just to really make my point, within a five mile radius of my home were at least two other riding establishments, and once a couple of backyard horses got out and wound up running wild in our own yard. That is a great story in itself. My poor dad was doing dishes at 2:00 AM after a dinner party where spirits had been liberally poured. He thought he'd really gone 'round the bend when he heard thundering hooves and looked out the window to see equines dodging the swingset. I myself was furious when I got up the next morning and saw actual hoofprints in the yard; as far as I was concerned, it should have been "finders keepers," and I was beside myself thinking Dad could have played cowboy, lassoed one of the runaways, and I would have awoken to my personal dream of my Very Own Horse tied to a tree outside my window. ARGH!

Anyway, Tricorne was set on about 10 hilly acres. A secondary road ran across the front of the property, by the main riding arena and a couple of pastures. There was a long dirt driveway uphill to the parking area in front of the barn complex. The original barn was a huge old thing; it basically was a gigantic hayloft, on top of stalls for boarder's horses underneath it (I wish I knew when it had been built, because I bet it was historically significant). There were wings of stabling off to the left and the right. The right side was all boarders, and the left was where the school horses lived, aka "my" domain. I think there was probably room for around 35 horses altogether.

We had a really interesting indoor arena in addition to the outdoor ring. It was quite large, around 150' by 50', and constructed of cinderblocks with a "real" roof (albeit draped with thousands of dirty cobwebs). It probably would have withstood hurricane-force winds. The footing was tanbark or some other kind of brown dirt. I wound up eating plenty of it, so I know how it tasted, but I'm not sure what it was. Needless to say, there was no sprinkler system, so a bunch of horses churning around in there meant the air was absolutely FULL of dust. That's what I meant by eating it - although yes, I also hit the deck quite a few times! And forget about blowing your nose afterwards (gross).

There were pastures on all sides of the barn complex, and the large one behind the school horse barn that was their pasture also had a riding track that ran around the inside. When it was time for the schoolies to go out, they simply opened the back door and went down the aisle unclipping chains from the standing stalls. The horses would back out and crowd down the aisle to freedom. When the horses would come back in, the process would be reversed, and we all knew we'd better be out of the way when they came charging back in the barn to get to their feed. What amazed me was every one of those horses knew exactly where his stall was and would head straight for it.

If you caught that - yes, I'm afraid almost all of the school horses lived in standing stalls. There were a couple of "special" ones that were accorded box stalls, but the majority spent their indoor time in a narrow space, haltered and chained to their mangers, with another chain behind their butts. I can't remember if there were windows; if there were, I'm sure they were covered in dust and cobwebs, like everything else. Once in a while someone would slip his halter (all geldings) and we'd find him turned around, quite excited to see what was going on for a change. Now I would be shocked to find standing stalls in a barn but I guess back then it was not unusual.

Everyone at Tricorne rode Hunter/Jumper. Even if I'd wanted to ride Western, I have no idea where that would have been possible in NJ at that time. George Morris and Hunterdon up in Hunterdon County were held up as the ultimate pinnacle of hunter excellence, and even the rich kids at my barn spoke in hushed tones about the privileged youth and horses that rode/resided there. "You don't even tack up your own horse..." Nowadays, that's commonplace, but to a kid who thoroughly enjoyed her hours grooming and tacking school horses it actually didn't sound like too much fun - except when it was boiling hot or freezing cold. To this day, of course, many of the top Jr. H/J riders come out of New Jersey barns and trainers... Beacon Hill, Quiet Winter, etc. Those establishments are all in the nearby area of Colts Neck, NJ. 

Tricorne enjoyed a good reputation, but I don't think it was ever viewed as a "top-notch" stable. We had our share of wealthy boarders, but it wasn't a fancy place, and their focus was evenly divided between the boarders and the academy students. It was reasonably safe, the horses were well-fed, the facility was nice enough, and the trainers were good. They held twice-yearly academy shows. This suited me and my family just fine. I will be forever grateful for the opportunities provided to me there to ride and show without having to own my own pony or horse, and I am also forever grateful that my parents were willing to put up with and finance the "horse habit."

Now that I've described the facility, I'll get to the good part in my next post - the HORSES.

(Sorry there are no photos with this post - I have none of just the farm. But there are plenty coming with me in them!)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Fooling Around With Fakes

Aside from the Shetland featured in the last post, this was the first horse I rode:

My mother commissioned this 2 hh. brown gelding from my grandpa, who was pretty good with his hands. To tell the truth, I'm not quite sure how he wound up in my possession, since lop-eared Mr. Rocky Horse saw a lot of hours in the saddle from all three of us children. I guess my brothers deeded him to me since I'm the sole rider in the family. I was the one who spent a lot of time trying to braid his scraggly rope tail nicely, too. I loved him very much, but I really should have been more appreciative of this fine mount. Unfortunately my head was constantly being turned by the giant, lifelike - real mane and tail! - rocking horses sold by toy retailer F.A.O. Schwartz. Every time one of those catalogs would arrive, I'd drool over the photo (Note: this isn't the actual one, but looks a lot like it. I think they cost something like $150, a veritable fortune in the 60s, and still a darned expensive toy. Not to mention, it's rather large!):

I could just feel that genuine leather saddle under my butt, and longed to put my feet in the metal stirrups. Since I didn't seem to be getting anywhere in my campaign for a real pony, this would definitely have been the next-best thing (I sincerely don't remember a time when I didn't want a pony/horse, so I assume even at the tender age of under five this was being brought up). A decent alternative to the zillion-dollar Schwartz Horse would have been a spring horse, but one of those never turned up, either. I think Mom was smart enough to realize the noise would drive her nuts. Fortunately, my neighbor did have one and I spent plenty of happy times boinging around on hers: SCREECHah - SCREECHah - SCREECHah. Her mother was a saint - thanks, Mrs. H and T for putting up with that!
(This is billed in an auction as a "vintage" horse from the 60s... at least it's not "antique," or I'd REALLY feel old)
At any rate, Grandpa's rocking horse was a bit too frail for use by my children - he needs to see an equine chiropractor for an extremely loose neck joint - and now lives in lofty splendor on the display ledge in my bedroom. There are many other horses up there to keep him company (as you'll see in a later post).

[Regarding the other items in the photo: The Breyer horse is Buck, "Wild Horse Annie's" special Mustang. The doll is a Breyer rider which was given to my daughter, as they didn't exist when I was a child (much to my disgust). The weird-looking grey thing to the left is a homemade horse mask constructed as part of a Halloween costume. The now faded-to-purple blue ribbon dangling from the rocking horse reins may not look like much, but it is one that carries a special memory for me. It basically represents the culmination of my childhood equestrian activities, and was acquired at a 4-H show. But I'm getting waaaay ahead of myself here...]

Let's dial back the clock to Florida again. I'm 4 years old. My parents had made a great leap and moved down there after college, following a job opportunity for my dad with General Electric's PR department. But both their families were back in New Jersey, and they decided after a 5-year stint in the South that it was time to migrate back to the land of relatives, four seasons and snow. Good thing they did, because otherwise I would have learned to ride in FL and stayed Western, or switched to English and competed at HITS Ocala and played polo in Palm Beach and rubbed shoulders with Prince Charles and, well, that would have just been a TRAGEDY. ;-)

All I remember of the big move is being allowed to pick out my bedroom in our new house and sleeping on the floor the first night.

What I don't remember is asking to take riding lessons.... but ask I did, because I am proud to inform you that I was accepted as the official Youngest Student Ever by Tricorne Farm Riding School, in Holmdel, New Jersey, right as I was turning five years old.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

It's All My Mother's Fault

How many times have you heard people say that? My brothers and I have certainly uttered that phrase quite a few times, mainly in front of our mother. Of course it never fails to get a rise out of her. Her stock response, however, is "And look how well you turned out!"

In this case, I really am telling the truth: my mother is the one who first planted me on a pony and started the horse obsession. That's me on the little Shetland, age about one and a half, and that's her standing by, pregnant with my sister and hair falling out of her bouffant. Given that we were in Florida and it was probably pretty warm out, the collapsed 60s hairdo is understandable. I'm just glad I'm wearing a shirt, because there are plenty of photos of me half-naked in the hot Florida sun (no, I'm not sharing any of those - this is a G-rated blog!).

The pony ride took place at some establishment near Daytona Beach and as far as I know, I wound up there not because I asked, but because Mom thought I might like it. She was right (thanks, Mom!). Apparently I didn't want to get down off the pony. She was able to lead me around and I thought it was the best time I'd ever had. We went back a number of times, and there are more photos somewhere, but I treasure this one as evidence of my very earliest equestrian experiences. I just wish I remembered it. (Real earliest memory? Watching the neighbors wash dishes, through my bedroom window, or getting spanked for shoe-polishing the bedroom floor. Huh.)

Once the riding commenced, another thing Mom did to fuel the habit was find me some appropriate clothes. This may shock those who know me strictly as a "hunter princess" (HAH!), but she didn't get some naff little set of jods and a black velvet hard hat. Oh, no: a "cowgirl" outfit was purchased, complete with fringed blue suede chaps and vest, boots and a hat. I thought this outfit was just the bomb and wanted to wear it morning, noon and night. I even had a cowboy-themed birthday party. Obviously this Western phase was eventually outgrown, and aside from longing to model a red-hot sequined Slinky for my husband, I haven't looked back. The cowboy outfit went on to be worn by both my brothers, their boys and my son as well, so it was a good investment.
I am told my father also took me to the pony ride place one (1) time. The story is, the pony had the temerity to place its dainty little hoof upon my father's delicate foot. Dad was utterly convinced, then and forever, that all equines were "out to get him." His role in my horse activities thereafter consisted mainly of taking pictures, filming, and paying the bills (thanks, Dad!). He did consent to mount up a couple times for the Adult Leadline class at my childhood shows, but you'll have to read about that later.

Mom came up with the pony idea due to the fact that she herself rode and actually owned a horse as a child. "Blackie" (Mom's horse) and "Firefly" (my aunt's) lived in their father's coalyard in New Jersey, and were ridden around a makeshift ring there. They also went on vacation with the family to their lake house, where they drew a real "surrey with the fringe on top." They were much-loved and their loss was felt deeply when Mom's parents divorced and they had to be sold.

When I was old enough to understand that Mom had once had a horse of her own, two things happened. I threw a fit because I wanted to know WHY on earth those horses were not STILL around for me to enjoy, and I was insanely jealous. This wasn't just when I was little: the latter feeling at least lingered well into my teenage years. Of course I figured out eventually that poor Blackie and Firefly would have been rather long in tooth by the time I was a kid. Not that that would have bothered me... any equine was better than none, in my book.

So back to the little kid, moseying around under the pines in Florida on a long-suffering pony. I'm glad to see the little horse was in good weight and looked well-groomed. As you can see, I'm quite focused on the pony and not on my mom. Somewhere in my young brain, a few things must have registered:

1) This is FUN.
2) I feel right at home on this critter.
3) I can DO this.

And thus was born a Rider.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


I have thought about starting a blog for a very long time. I've been reading other people's blogs for almost four years now, and really enjoy them. Some are better than others, so I've gotten a pretty good idea of what I like and what I don't. An interesting topic? Perfect. Humor? Awesome. Photos? Good idea. Good grammar and spelling? Definitely. I am a huge reader and have no patience anymore with bad writing, much less bad grammar and spelling (I say that knowing that I undoubtedly will make my own mistakes here!).

Anyway, the right thing for me hadn't quite gelled - until today. I was driving down the road that I like to think of as my own personal "Highway to Heaven," because it's the road I take to my friend's little farm. It's a lovely, hilly country road, only a few miles from my own road and the true 'burbs, but the minute I turn on it something happens. I feel a weight lift, and my everyday thoughts and burdens begin to float away. "I'm going to RIDE now, and that is SO GOOD. I will be in the company of my dear friend, and get to touch and look at and be with and feel that marvelous creature known as HORSE. All is well."

Beyond that overriding "feel good" thought train, I had a few other things floating around in my head at the same time this morning. My friend's blog (Does she still have it? She's a writer, too.), the temperature (very cold), the book I'm currently reading ("The Help" - highly recommended!), and roads (as in how scary my "highway" actually is to navigate, with no shoulders). Hmmm.... let's see... reading....blogs.... roads.... horses... riding....

WHAM. It hit me. Why not write about my life, as a rider? The road I have followed to where I am now in my equestrian career? Riding is a thread that has been constant and woven throughout my life, and is a central part of who I am. My riding pal is probably tired of hearing all my stories but hopefully there are other people out there who might be interested, or have followed a similar path, or who might wonder why the heck a middle-aged lady can be transformed into a blubbering wreck by simply viewing a video of a red horse galloping in a field. (That would be Secretariat... sometimes I'm not too original.)

I'm going to start at the beginning, of course, with a memory that does not exist. Just a photograph...