dressage, natalie perry dressage, Tina Steward

The Quiet Inspiration of Mary & Dante

Soft-spoken and small in size, Mary Cuevas is one of those riders you might overlook as you stride through the barn, busy with the demands of your own life. Mary quietly goes about the business of setting goals and working to achieve them without calling attention to herself. Should you compliment her on a show score or well-executed movement, she’ll break into a smile and most likely credit her horse and trainer with each success.

Mary & Dante’s 16-year partnership ended far too soon

I was aware that Mary was working her way up the levels with her horse, Dante, but like most people, I only knew parts of the story. I learned a bit more when we attended Adult Rider Camp together. But what solidified our relationship was when we began working together on a Pas De Deux. Our hours in the saddle turned into a true friendship.

And so, I was honored when Mary confided that she’d finally written up the story of her journey with her beloved Dante. Dante’s loss had been so painful, it had taken Mary a year to put pen to paper. What resulted was a six-page, account that Mary handwrote in a single sitting.

“Would you consider publishing it in your blog?” Mary asked. “If it’s good enough?”

“Of course, I would,” I said. I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into … but had a sense that it would be worthwhile.

I took Mary’s story home, read, it, and found myself in tears. Mary’s love for her horse came through loud and clear and her dedication to her goals was impressive.

“This is definitely worth publishing,” I told Mary. “But I want it to reach a larger audience than my blog. I’m going to see if Flying Changes magazine will publish it.”

“Really?” Mary said. She was thrilled.

I emailed Kim Curzi, the magazine’s owner, and gave her a brief synopsis of the story. I felt sure the story, with its Northwest focus, would be a good fit.

“I’d be happy to look at it,” Kim said.

Now came the hard part: I was tasked with editing Mary’s 2,600 words down to something closer to 1,200 words — a standard length for most magazines. I had to shorten the story while preserving Mary’s tone and intention — not an easy task. With each edit, I’d find myself in tears over Mary’s loss — which, while draining, told me that the story had what it took to touch hearts.

To round out the story, I asked Mary’s trainer, Natalie Perry of Alliance Equestrian Center and clinician Tina Steward DVM to sum up their impressions of Mary and Dante. Their words were perfect. And, although the story exceeded or goal of 1,200 words, Kim included the quotes in their entirety. She also used my favorite suggestion for a title, “In it for the Long Haul,” which came to me at the last minute and really summed up Mary’s commitment.

Mary has inspired me to raise my expectations of what I can do with my riding. For a bit of quiet inspiration, please read Mary and Dante’s story in the April issue of Flying Changes magazine. I think you’ll appreciate the journey.

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colic, bend equine, dressage, horses, natalie perry dressage

Love in a Time of Colic & Chaos

That these are Wild Times is an understatement. Like 9/11, most of us will remember this as a turning point in history. 

An unexpected snowstorm makes life all the more exciting

On March 11, 2020 Covid-19 had just been declared a pandemic. The first case had been reported locally, here in Deschutes County, Oregon. As the seriousness of the situation became all too clear, my husband and I decided to invite my mother to move from her independent living facility and into our home. We felt she’d be less isolated during a quarantine and more likely to remain healthy. 

While mom’s out of the country right now — and the need to move her things isn’t immediate, I feel a sense of urgency, as the rules about entering her facility become more stringent.

As I’m heading out the door, my head spinning with stories of cancellations and closures, my phone lights up: Natalie Perry. (That’s my trainer.) 

Natalie texts. A call means trouble.

“Skipper is colicking,” she says. Her voice is calm. That’s one of her superpowers. Colic can range from mild to life-threatening, it’s not a thing to take lightly.

“On my way,” I say.

I make a 10-minute stop at mom’s, pack some clothes and a few essentials, then head to the barn, trying not to freak out. 

Natalie’s given Skipper a double dose of Banamine and it should be kicking in by the time I get to the barn. En route, I text Claudia, because she’s the kind of friend you want in an emergency. 

When I arrive, Natalie’s walking Skipper and he looks like crap. He’d gotten all sweaty and is now shivering despite two layers of blankets. Is it pain? Cold? Anxiety? Whatever it is, I don’t like it.

As the Banamine kicks in, Skipper looks brighter and the shivering lessens but it’s still not good. He licks at a bucket of water (flavored with Equine Senior) but isn’t really interested. When Skipper misses a meal, it’s an apocalypse. 

We can keep walking and hope Skipper improves (and poops) but I can’t stand the not knowing. I also don’t want to wait until midnight to call the vet. It’s just after 5 p.m., of course, so I’ll be paying an emergency fee, regardless.

Dr. Briggs of Bend Equine answers and says she’ll be to the barn within half an hour. Help is on the way!

Claudia arrives and, as always, is the voice of calm and reason.

Soon after, Dr. Briggs pulls up, looking dazed.

“The president just announced that all travel from Europe is banned,” she says. “Flights are canceled.” 

Both my mom and Natalie’s mom are out of the country. We stare, wide-eyed and horrified. Natalie starts trying to get details.

Dr. Briggs gets down to business, assessing Skipper’s condition. She’s methodical, thorough, and it seems like an eternity before she gives us a diagnosis, much of which is lost on me because my mind is reeling, wondering if my mother is going to make it home. Fortunately, it looks like a moderate case of gassy inflammation and surgery isn’t required. She gives Skipper fluids, an electrolyte, muscle relaxant, and advises me to lunge him (mobility/motility) and check him every two hours.

I set aside thoughts of my mother, knowing she’s in good hands, traveling with my brother and sister-in-law. They’ll figure it out. Plus, it’s about 3 a.m. in Nairobi, and there’s no need to wake them with the news.

Claudia immediately offers to let me stay at her place, which is close to the barn. (I live 30 minutes away.) My husband, Al, brings me extra clothes, love, and assurance that he’ll keep the dog from destroying the house while I’m gone. Their care and concern wrap me in a protective bubble.

Not only does Claudia lend me her cozy guest room, she comes with me in the oh-so-cold and dark hours of the night to take Skipper’s vitals and check his progress. He looks alert but still doesn’t poop. 

The next morning Claudia makes me coffee and we return to the barn, deliriously tired but delighted when Skipper poops in his stall. Since then, his progress is slow but steady. I learn that, like my husband, Skipper is cranky when hungry.

The whole episode is stressful and exhausting but the bottom line is that Skipper’s on the mend and I have been supported by some truly wonderful people. While the world swirls with anxiety, my barn family has been truly kind. 

In this time of chaos, every ounce of kindness counts. Virtual hugs to each and every one of you. Keep your loved ones safe and close.

p.s. Mom has a new flight back, bypassing Europe, and we look forward to welcoming her home. 

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Chiropractic, Dr. Taryn Yates, dressage, dressage training, natalie perry dressage, Tina Steward

Skipper Gets a Tune Up

Thirty years ago, at the Circle P Ranch in San Diego, I stopped to watch a horse receive chiropractic treatment. Before I saw the treatment, I thought,  “What a bunch of hooey.”
To my surprise, the horse relaxed and sighed into the work — better yet, he went from being stiff to sound after his adjustment. The difference was striking.

I began having my own horse adjusted after that on kind of an emergency basis — waiting for obvious signs of discomfort before calling in my local expert. I had a tight budget and it was the best I could do at the time.
Since then I still have a tight budget but I manage to make regular chiropractic care for my horse work. It means I don’t get massages for myself, drive a fancy car, or have the latest and greatest in equestrian apparel — but that’s ok. The benefits I’ve seen from regular chiropractic care are worth it.
Taryn Yates of Active Balance has been adjusting Skipper for years on an as-needed basis with his previous owner. Since he became my responsibility, we upped the program to every six weeks with wonderful results.
Skipper came to me after having several months off of work — fat and out of shape. He was weak in the left hind and stiff traveling to the right. I enlisted Taryn to help Skipper’s body adjust from vacation mode to regular riding, easing sore joints and sore muscles, helping to put his hips back into a more correct alignment. I think it helped Skipper maintain a willing attitude about his transition back to work.
Each month I’d gradually feel Skipper’s hips get out of whack, then Taryn would put him back together again. Month by month, Skipper lost weight, built muscle, and moved with more suppleness and swing.
This month, after nine months of regular adjustments, Skipper’s hips ‘held’ through a full seven weeks. I had felt it and Taryn confirmed it. As we move into Second Level work, asking Skipper to carry more weight on his hind end, this is terrific timing.
But we’re not done. Because horses move in diagonal pairs, Skipper’s right front end has been compensating for the left hind all along.
“He has legitimate reasons for finding the work to the right difficult,” Taryn said.
She adjusted his ribs, base of the neck, and base of the head. When the work was done, Skipper sighed with relief. As the hind end stabilizes we can make real progress with the front end.
As I took Skipper out to graze in hand for a bit, I thanked him for giving me his best, despite his physical limits. His unwillingness to bend wasn’t naughtiness … he was trying to avoid discomfort.
My trainer Natalie Perry and clinician Tina Steward, DVM have worked patiently with Skipper and I through all of this, letting Skipper’s muscles develop and our partnership grow. Less knowledgeable (and kind) trainers would have forced the issue.
As we make Skipper more comfortable, it will be easier for him to give me even more of his best self. And that makes my heart sing.

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January 12, 2017
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June 29, 2016
dressage, dressage training, horses, natalie perry dressage

The Beauty of An Excellent Halt

A good halt looks deceptively easy — emphasis on deceptive. 

In fact, an excellent halt takes focus, coordination, and preparation. That’s why, when I achieved a prompt and balanced halt in last week’s riding lesson, I shouted, “Wow! That was the best halt of my life!”

Heading down centerline for a halt

Natalie and Mari were in the arena with me at the time. They laughed at my exuberence but understood exactly why I caused a commotion. An excellent halt is an achievement. 

I had worked hard for that halt and was especially pleased. So I couldn’t stop myself when, that evening, I tried to explain the beauty of the halt to some non-horse friends. It went like this. 

Confused looks and polite nodding, followed by: “What’s so hard about stopping?” 

Fueled by a glass of wine, I ventured into territory I should have circumvented.

“Imagine this,” I said. “You’re driving your car and, when the light turns red, you slam on the brakes. You weren’t paying attention and were caught off guard. Your passengers’ heads snap forward and the dog falls off the back seat onto the floor. That’s an ugly halt.”

“You can do a similar thing to your horse if you don’t prepare him. Instead of using your legs, core, and then hands to let him know a halt is coming, you simply haul back on the reins — which is equivalent to stomping on the brake. You throw your horse off balance, he tosses his head in the air trying to compensate, and –instead of being able to tuck his four legs neatly under him — he scatters his feet and gives you a dirty look. In competition, a judge would make comments like ‘abrupt,’ ‘unbalanced’, and ‘needs more preparation.’ You’ll get a crappy score.”

My dinner companions shifted in their seats, understanding the analogy but questioning where I was going with it. Deb stole a few french fries off my plate.

“At the other end of the spectrum is the overly cautious driver,” I explained. “Imagine you’re driving home a friend who’s just had back surgery. Not wanting to jolt your passenger, you creep to a stop five feet before the intersection, then inch up to the pedestrian crosswalk. This is a smoother stop but the drivers behind you wonder what you’ve been smoking.”

“When you’re riding, meandering into the halt is as much an error as is slamming into the halt. The judge wants to see the rider maintaining the gait, riding smoothly forward into a prompt, balanced halt at a very specific location. In short,” I said, “you’ll get dinged if you’re early, late, too abrupt, or too lackadaisical. Precision is important.”

My friend, Liz was regretting her decision to practice Dry January, because I wasn’t quite done. “The halt is so important in dressage that in competition, every test begins and ends with a halt. How you execute it speaks volumes about how well you and your horse are communicating.”

While I was having a grand time, I’m pretty sure the Dormouse fell asleep in his tea at that moment. And, because I love my non-horse friends, I changed the subject to skiing and suggested Deb eat the rest of my fries. 

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Love in a Time of Colic & Chaos
March 15, 2020
Skipper Gets a Tune Up
March 6, 2020
The Pre-Purchase Exam
October 26, 2019
Barn, dressage, dressage training, equestrian, horse/rider communication

Eyes Up, Looking Where You Want to Go

Through the darkest, most difficult times in my life, horses have been my safe haven — a source of joy and a reminder to live in the present moment. Your mind cannot, should not wander when you’re in the presence of a 1,000-pound animal, no matter how gentle and good-natured he or she may be.
Through this past year, as my mother and I held one another up, watching my father’s health decline, horses remained my reminder that life holds happiness even when sorrows are deep. While I sometimes arrive at the barn with a heavy heart, the familiar faces of my friends and their horses help me set my troubles aside for hours at a time. The barn is a world where priorities are clear and simple. A place where I define myself as a horse person, striving to meet the mind and spirit of another species. I find it deeply satisfying.
As I approach my horse in pasture, his halter in my hand, I bring my best self to him. I’m asking him to leave the leisure of his pasture to come with me, not simply for treats but to do a job that is my idea, not his.

Skipper sees me coming

As I approach, Skipper hears my voice, lifts his head from grazing, and strolls up to me, knowing I’ll have a carrot in my coat pocket. His ears prick forward and he chooses to leave his herd. My heart lifts at the sight. He is saying, “Yes, I’ll come with you.”
Even on the most painful days, where my dad’s memory stings with loss, the simple steps of caring for my horse soothe my soul. I brush Skipper’s coat, admiring its bright chestnut color. I comb out the stubborn shavings that cling to his tail and tidy up his mane. With each grooming, I check to make sure he’s healthy,his shoes are secure, and there are no new lumps, bumps, or bites from pasture mates that need attention.
Before I saddle up, I rub Skipper’s forehead in the spot he’s taught me is his favorite — the white star at the base of his forelock. He nods his head in approval but stands stock still to tell me he appreciates the attention. Skipper likes having a person and I love having a horse. Like happiness itself, a horse is not a thing to take for granted.
As I swing my leg over Skipper’s back, settling gently into the saddle, I remember the words of my trainers … all of whom have reminded me to keep my eyes up, looking where I want to go. Don’t stare at the ground, unless you want to go there, they advised. These words ring true for any riding discipline you choose. And, after this tough, trying year, it strikes me that this is good advice for living, in general.
I chose to buy Skipper just months ago, when I realized that after losing dad, I couldn’t bear yet another loss. My little horse soothes my sorrow and gives me hope for the future. With each riding lesson, I make a plan for what I need to work on, looking for ways we can improve, with hopes for a strong show season. As my relationship with my horse blossoms, my heart heals. My eyes are up and I’m looking toward the future.

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Adult Rider Camp, Alliance Equestrian, dressage, horses, Pre-Purchase Exam

The Pre-Purchase Exam

It’s a bright October day and Dr. Wendy Krebs is doubled-over Skipper’s hoof, doing the flexion test countdown. Her assistant, Anne, is at Skipper’s head and I’m at the tail end, whip in hand.

Anne gives the five-second warning and Dr. Krebs lowers Skipper’s foot to the ground.

Three, two, one, and we’re off at the trot, watching Skipper’s reaction. Without meaning to, I hold my breath through each flexion and am gasping for air as I trot alongside Skipper, motivating him.

Dr. Wendy checks the stifles. Skipper thinks this is stupid.

My friends have reminded me, with varying degrees of smirking, that I’d been adamant that I’d never buy another horse.

How did I get here?

I went from liking Skipper to loving him back in August, when he was superstar at dressage camp — our first off the property adventure together. He handled the new setting and the two-lessons-a-day schedule graciously. When I turned him out in the round pen to romp, he followed me like a puppy. 

When I returned from camp, singing his praises to his owner, she said, “You should buy him.”

Yikes. Suzanne has four horses, was preparing for a knee replacement, and was ready to downsize.

“I’d love to, but I can’t afford it,” I said. 

My retirement plans didn’t include boarding a horse — I’d done some downsizing of my own.

I told myself not to panic, that it could easily take six months for Skipper to sell and that if I was really lucky, someone would keep him at our barn, letting me lease him. 

This strategy worked until his ad came out on dreamhorse.com and someone made an appointment to ride My Horse. My anxiety and imagination kicked into full gear. Picture this: me standing in the barn’s driveway as Skipper is hauled off in a trailer, kicking up a small cloud of dust as he exits my life forever. Ow.

“I only have so many years left of riding,” I told my husband, Al. “I don’t want to waste them.”

Trying to explain the horse/human connection to an engineer is next to impossible, but I tried. Ever practical, Al suggested I contact our financial planner. I’m pretty sure Al was hoping Ken would deliver a death blow to my dream, so he didn’t have to.

I delayed a few days, afraid to make the call. Finally, I worked up the numbers: Skipper’s monthly costs, including board, medical, lessons, etc. and sent Ken an email. An hour later, he replied, “Let’s talk.”

We set up a three-way call, with Al, Ken, and I —and I braced for the worst. But here’s what happened.

“That’s what money is for,” Ken said.

Tears started rolling down my cheeks. 

Sure, I can’t take lavish vacations or live more than 30 years without downsizing further (trailer park, here I come), but that’s ok. Skipper passed his pre-purchase with high marks and I’m telling everyone I meet, “I bought a horse!”

I’m not sure if I own him or he owns me.

Natalie catches Skipper & I en route from the pasture. I can’t resist hamming it up. Check out Skipper’s cute ears!

Thank you to Mari Valceschini of Alliance Equestrian for facilitating my co-lease of Skipper, back in June, when I was between horses — and for facilitating the sale. Mari put the training on Skipper, transforming him from trail horse to dressage star. She saw the potential for a match long before I did. 

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