Whistler’s Country a.k.a. Toby

This post is in honor of a very special horse my family lost exactly eight years ago today.  He was a big part of Grady’s early years with me and a central part of our family for 19 years.  The beginning picks up where my last post left off so click here if you need a refresher.

Riding Grady in that clinic with Jacquie Brooks was a huge confidence booster and a perfect stepping stone to the next phase in our training.  Over the next couple of years, we continued our lessons with Jayne at home and riding in clinics with Jacquie.  We still had our ups and downs, but the tougher rides didn’t upset me as much as they used to because I knew Grady always rose to the occasion when we did our lessons and clinics.  I continued to work on being mindful in our rides and deal with each day as it came.  Then, in the summer of 2014, everything changed….

At the time when Grady came into my life, there was another very special horse who had already been part of our family for 12 years.  Toby was purchased in 1995 at the age of 5 as our “family fun horse”.  We had been looking for a type like him to have around as an overall good guy who my dad could ride and who we could use for pony rides and guest rides.  The funny thing is that I was paid to ride him that first day we met.  I rode for a local professional who bought and sold horses and she had just acquired Toby.  The minute I saw him, I was in love and when I rode him, I knew for sure he was meant to be ours. 

“I think I found our family fun horse!” I exclaimed to my mom later that day.

She joined me the next day to video my ride on Toby. With his smooth gaits and quiet demeanor, I still believed Toby was the one and my mom agreed.  It didn’t hurt that he was also absolutely adorable!

After a trial period at our farm followed by a pre-purchase veterinary exam, Toby became a member of the family.  Over the next few months, as I worked with Toby and he got more fit, we realized that Toby was even more than a family pet.  He became quite adept at jumping and we had success at local shows.  He even won some year-end awards that still hang on the wall upstairs in our barn.

In order to keep things varied, I would trailer Toby to nearby fields and trails for outings.  He always perked up when we got to a new place and carried an energy that he lacked during ring work. It was a great opportunity to build on his fitness while allowing him to have a little extra fun.  We thoroughly enjoyed these adventures together.

My mom also enjoyed riding Toby.  After years of riding Thoroughbreds, a lazy Quarter Horse was a new experience, but she soon realized that he was more sensitive to subtle aids than she thought.  You just had to know how to ask.

When Grady came along, Toby was 17 years old.  He was a good buddy for Grady with his quiet confidence mixed with a goofiness that kept us all smiling.  Grady’s confidence would be years in the making but I know those early years with Toby have stayed with him. 

One of the most important jobs Toby had in his later years was taking care of my two nieces, Tess and Vida.  When Tess was born, Toby was 19.  When she was old enough for us to put her up on his back for the first time, he was 21 and she was just barely two years old. 

She loved the experience and got to do it quite often on her visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s.  I even wrote an article about Tess’s first ride on Toby which was published in Equus Magazine.

When Vida was born, Toby was 22.  Tess had gotten big enough to groom him and enjoyed showing her little sister all about how to take care of him and ride him. 

Over the years, Toby had some hoof issues, but one day in the summer of 2014, something was different.  The vet came out and took xrays and it did not look good.  Despite all the precautions we took over the years, our worst nightmare had come true….Toby had foundered.

The next few months were spent trying to nurse Toby back to health.  He was on stall rest, so I did my best to spend as much time as I could hanging out with him.  I would groom him and sit outside his stall and read to him. 

He seemed to enjoy the time we spent together but I knew he couldn’t go on like this forever.  There were times when it looked like things might be improving but, by late October, it was becoming clear that Toby was not going to recover.

In early November, after much discussion with our vets, we all agreed that the most humane thing to do would be to euthanize Toby.  The vets offered to come over in the morning and inject a nerve block that would numb his hoof which would allow us to walk him around and graze him comfortably.  His last hours were spent doing what he loved most….eating grass. 

Saying goodbye to Toby was gut-wrenching but we found solace in the fact that his last few hours were spent pain-free and surrounded by people who loved him.  The transition was peaceful and everything went as well as could be expected. 

After it was done, I brought Grady out to see Toby so he could process what had happened.  Grady took me right over to Toby’s lifeless body and gave it a sniff.  He suddenly jumped backward and snorted, looking at Toby with wide eyes.  Then, he stepped back up to him and gently started nibbling his shoulder, as if trying to wake him.  When that didn’t work, Grady simply started nibbling the nearby grass.  I think he was experiencing grief in his own way.

They told me what was going to be happening that day.  I don’t know why I got so surprised when I first sniffed Toby….I guess it was because he seemed so different.  But I could still feel him around me.  I could feel all the confidence he had given me, all the reassurance over the years when I was afraid and unsure of my place in the world.  That was something I knew I could always carry with me.  Toby was part of me even after he was gone.

Now that Grady was alone in the barn, we decided to move him to Jayne’s barn for the winter.  He had spent lots of time there at all the clinics so we knew he’d feel at home, and he’d have lots of buddies to help him through his loss.

That winter was very productive and Grady continued to progress. Having daily access to an indoor arena allowed him to stay in consistent work and having Jayne around all the time allowed us to have more lessons.  I always loved when we would be in the ring while Jayne was teaching someone else because I felt like Grady tried a little harder since she was there.  I got that feeling a lot when we rode in the ring with others – he gave me the sense that he wanted to impress his new buddies and show them what he could do. 

By the time spring rolled around, my mom and I discussed what the next step should be.  Do we bring Grady back home and figure out a new companion for him or do we keep him boarded?  Ultimately, we decided to stay put because he was thriving in his new surroundings. 

The property was huge and had lots of areas other than a ring to explore. I never thought I would ride Grady around in such wide open space but he really enjoyed it. 

As we rode around the hilly fields with vast views of the valley below, I thought of Toby and how much he would have enjoyed this place. I had the feeling that he was still close by and I knew he would always be with us…in the memories we shared and as we moved forward in our journey together.

Rest in Peace, Toby

April 21, 1990 – November 7, 2014

What we have once enjoyed we can never lose.  All that we love deeply becomes part of us – Helen Keller

Grady’s Excellent Adventure

Hello readers! I’m pleased to share with you the continuation of our story. For a reminder of where we left off, please click here.

By late summer of 2012, Grady had shown tremendous improvement and I was more confident than ever.  In September, Jayne’s trainer, a Canadian Olympian named Jacqueline Brooks, was planning a clinic at Jayne’s barn on her way down to compete at Dressage at Devon.  I decided to go audit the clinic and it really got me motivated.  Jacquie was so upbeat and positive and, even though she was a well-known rider and trainer, you didn’t have to have a fancy horse or be an upper-level dressage rider to ride in her clinic.  Her method was all about helping the horse be the best athlete he can be and her attention to each individual horse and rider was unique to that pair.  I began to think “I would like to do this with Grady” and it actually didn’t sound crazy.

During a break in the clinic sessions, Jacquie rode her horse, D Niro (aka Goose), rehearsing the musical freestyle that she was going to ride at Devon.  Seeing the partnership between Jacquie and Goose so close up was an incredible experience, especially since they were fresh off the heels of the London Olympics.  I felt so lucky to have this inside peek at her preparation for another big competition.  Watching her ride that same freestyle later in the week at Devon via live stream and her winning the class was icing on the cake!  “Ok, I’m definitely riding Grady in the next clinic.” I thought out loud.

Jacquie’s next clinic was scheduled for November and I signed up to do a private lesson the first day and then a semi-private for day two.  I also planned to bring Grady up to Jayne’s barn a couple of days earlier to have a lesson with Jayne and then another day in between to allow Grady more time to settle in.  He hadn’t been off the property in a few years so this was going to be a big deal for him.

A few weeks before the clinic, it occurred to me that I should make sure that my 1993 Kingston horse trailer was up to the task of transporting Grady.  It hadn’t been used in quite a while and it was almost 20 years old after all.  I brought the trailer home for my mechanically inclined husband, Gary, to look over.  While Gary was underneath the trailer checking the stability of the frame, I heard some unfortunate words.

“Um…. you can’t put a horse in here.” He said reluctantly. 

“What?? Why??” I exclaimed.

With that, I got down on the ground and looked at what Gary wanted to show me.  The rust that had developed underneath the trailer was too far gone and the frame would likely need to be replaced.  Kicking myself for not checking out the trailer sooner, I began the search for an alternative method of transportation.  Luckily, I found someone who was available to drop us off and pick us up on the requested days.  We booked it and he got us where we needed to go.

When we first arrived, I spent a lot of time walking Grady around his new surroundings, allowing him to take in the scenery.  He enjoyed looking around and he especially liked seeing his reflection in the big mirror at the end of the indoor arena.

Having spent my whole riding career in the hunter/jumper world, I was a complete unknown in the dressage world, so this was a big deal for me too.  We weren’t in the backyard anymore so it was a little intimidating being there, but Jayne was very reassuring and our lesson on day one went quite well. 

The next day, I walked Grady around the property again, starting in the indoor arena and then venturing outside to let him graze.  At one point something spooked him and he started to run backwards down the hill we were grazing on.  I was able to hang onto him until he stopped and assumed the pose of a statue, staring off in the direction of the scary boogie monster.  After a moment, he resumed grazing.  Phew! 

Later that day I rode him, reviewing what we had worked on the day before but not doing too much since we had two big days ahead of us.  As I tucked Grady in for the night, I couldn’t help but think how far we had come in a little less than a year.  Only a couple of months earlier, the thought of bringing Grady to the next clinic was just that…. a thought…. yet, here we were.

On the first day of the clinic, I worked hard to keep the butterflies in my stomach a secret from Grady.  A lot of people trailered in so there were new horses, new people and a whole new energy but Grady was handling it well.  It was definitely a good thing that we shipped in early –  by the time all this new activity began, Grady had settled in and was more relaxed.  I even got the feeling that he felt important because he was already there. 

Some of the people there were big-time dressage riders and trainers with a whole entourage of people and upper-level dressage horses.  Again, pretty intimidating for little ol’ me and my off the track Thoroughbred with a tendency to fly off the handle without warning.  Oh well, we were here to learn and learn was what we were going to do.  I knew Jayne had our backs and I had seen Jacquie teach enough to know that she would be cool with whatever happened.

When our turn was finally approaching, I spent lots of time grooming Grady and doing our ritual of pre-ride stretches he had come to count on as I tacked him up.  I led him into the arena and let him watch the other horses going around.  I didn’t want to mount up too early since I had no idea how he was going to behave and I didn’t want to ruin anyone else’s ride.

When the previous session was finishing up, I led Grady to the mounting block and got on. (I have to say, with all of Grady’s little issues, standing at the mounting block was something I could always count on him being good about.)  We walked around outside the dressage arena that was set up in the huge indoor arena.  Then, once the other horses had left the arena, Grady and I stepped in and we were officially introduced to Jacquie.

I had signed up for a private session the first day so that Grady would have an easier time concentrating without the distraction of another horse in the arena.  He did really well and only spooked once toward the end of the session – the horse being led into the arena for the next session mouthed the two bits of his double bridle causing a clackety-clack noise that sent Grady into his signature bolt sideways to the right.  Within half a circle, we got back to work and finished nicely.  Tears of pride began welling up and the lump forming in my throat practically choked me.  I was so proud of my boy!

The next day, Grady came out even more relaxed and he picked up right where we left off the day before.  This time, we were in a semi-private with a big, fancy warmblood who was obviously an upper-level dressage horse.  Grady probably took four trot strides for each of the other horse’s one, but I just focused on us and tried to stay out of the other rider’s way. 

While I was warming up at the trot, Jacquie looked over from her conversation with the other student and said “well, I guess you don’t need me anymore!” with a chuckle.  It was fun that she was joking around with me and thought Grady looked that good right at the beginning of the ride.  That set the stage for an even better ride than the previous day and by the time we were done I was on cloud nine!  Thinking back to all those difficult, frustrating rides and all the times I thought I’d never get on Grady again made this accomplishment that much sweeter.  It felt better than any blue ribbon I had won in the past because of what we went through together to get to this point.  And our relationship was that much stronger for it.

When Grady unloaded from the trailer back at home, he had a swagger I had never seen before.  He knew what a big deal this had been, and I could feel that he was proud of himself.  I was proud of myself too, for having the perseverance to get us to this point. 

Perseverance

Hello readers!  I have once again let too much time pass since my last blog post but life has been keeping me busy.  At least that busy life gives me more to write about!  Now I just have to get it done.  I hope you remember where I left off but in case you need a refresher, here is a link to my last post.

And here is where we went from there….

After our second lesson with Jayne, I planned to work on what she had us doing in the lessons throughout the winter as the weather allowed.  My attitude was definitely more positive and I tried to begin each ride with no expectations and just see what the day brought.  Some days were easier than others and my positivity still ebbed and flowed from time to time.  I had spent so long on the Grady rollercoaster and I was getting worn out by it.  But, just as in the past, something made me keep coming out and trying again. 

In between riding, one thing I had begun to dabble with was groundwork.  Grady seemed to gain more confidence with me next to him rather than on his back.  I learned as much as I could through research from good sources, but I also went with what felt right.  I had done some desensitization work with him even before this point because when he began to be so spooky, my gut told me that I needed to expose him to things that made him nervous and help him face his fears. 

I brought out a big green tarp and laid it out in the ring, asking him to walk over it.  When he hesitated, I would toss a treat on the tarp and encourage him to get it, which he usually did.  As he learned this game, the slight hesitation that was present at the beginning disappeared and he marched right over the tarp. 

I also went to the Dollar Store and looked for fun things to use such as windsocks, pinwheels and various holiday decorations.  (Pool noodles would come later).  He was pretty tolerant of these things and I always focused on keeping the sessions fun. 

In order to simulate trailer loading which could sometimes be an issue, I set up two jumps parallel to each other a few feet apart.  I hung a folded tarp on each jump and encouraged Grady to walk through with me.  We would walk in and halt.  Sometimes I would ask him to back out, sometimes we would walk forward.  The goal was to have him stay with me and wait to see what I would ask next.  Unloading him from the trailer was often a challenge because he would want to bolt out backwards so I thought this would be good practice. 

Another exercise I tried with Grady was long reining.  I had never done it before but again, I did some research and then I decided to give it a try.  I’m not quite sure what made me think of trying long reining but I’m glad I did because Grady really took to it.  Sometimes I had a harder time figuring out how to hold all those lines in my hands than he had figuring out what I wanted him to do.  He would often do things right even when I messed up.  Most of the time our sessions went very well but there was one day when things didn’t go quite according to plan.

The session started out normally and Grady was being a good boy.  I was having him do some canter work and I had the outside line behind his hindquarters (as opposed to over his back which is another way I often used it).  Things were going along fine until Grady started to get a little strong and I accidentally let the outside line get too high which he then clamped under his strong tailbone.  This only caused him to get stronger and I was unable to release the tension.  I tried keeping up with his increasing pace but eventually, I was pulled off my feet falling forward in a complete face plant in the dirt.  With this, I let the reins go and Grady was off and running to the end of the ring.  Luckily I was able to get right back on my feet and go catch Grady without too much trouble.  We finished up by doing a little more work at the walk and trot and called it a day.  That experience taught me to be extra aware of the outside line when using it behind the hindquarters but it didn’t deter me from continuing to practice.  Years later, I had the opportunity to take some long reining lessons with Karen, another great trainer who worked with Jayne, and I learned a lot.  I eventually got much better at it and even incorporated it into my work with clients’ horses in the future.

In April 2012, Jayne returned from Florida and we resumed our lessons.  I was looking forward to continuing what we had started and being consistent now that it was spring.  Our work with Jayne involved teaching Grady to understand specific aids from my leg, seat and hands to help influence certain parts of his body.  This also required me to make some subtle changes to my own position in the saddle.  Learning to sit deeper in the saddle, with a longer leg and more vertical upper body would help Grady differentiate the work he was doing now compared to the work he did as a youngster at the racetrack.  Even though his racing days were long behind him, those were his earliest memories of carrying a rider and racing was what he was bred to do.

Grady would sometimes get frustrated when he was learning new things but Jayne always stayed calm and patient and that was invaluable to us.  Over time, Grady found comfort in the new aids he was learning and really began to progress. 

One thing I noticed as time went on was that our lessons were always great, but my rides on my own were still touch and go.  Some days were good and some not great.  Grady seemed to really enjoy our time with Jayne and it helped focus me as well.  As much as I tried to be mindful and focused during our rides on our own, I just wasn’t always able to replicate the amazing feelings I would get out of Grady in our lessons.  We were progressing though, and we were having fun.

Even though it was still difficult, I found that I was looking forward to riding Grady again, rather than dreading it.  Grady was gaining confidence in all that he was learning and his body was getting stronger.  He began to look bigger and I got the feeling that he was happy to be working consistently again.  The groundwork I had done continued to be a part of our program and I felt like he enjoyed the variety in the things we did together.

May 2012
October 2012
April 2012 – starting out a bit tense…
April 2012 – more relaxed by the end of the lesson
July 2012 – showing improvement
September 2012 – sorry for the poor quality, but you can see how we have both changed over the months
October 2012

The spring, summer and fall of 2012 was a time of growth for Grady and me and we both evolved quite a bit.  By November, we were ready for an outing.  We were going to spend a few days at Jayne’s farm and ride in a clinic with an Olympic dressage rider.  What a difference a year makes!

Changing Perspective

By Becky Adler Fagan

Hi readers!  I hope you’re all doing well.  It’s been a long time since my last post but I’m happy to finally publish this next chapter of our story.  It was a tough one to work on, but it also represents a huge turning point in my journey with Grady. 

If you’ve been following the story, you’ll remember that Jayne was recommended to me by my friend, James. {Click Here to read the previous post}  That recommendation turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened for Grady and me, and Jayne is still a huge part of our life to this day.

After James suggested that I contact Jayne, I was relieved and excited to have someone to call who might be able to help me with Grady.  I had known of Jayne from the horse show world but didn’t know her well.  I sent her an email explaining the situation and she got back to me the next morning.   She said she would be able to help me, however, she was leaving to train in Florida for the winter just after Christmas, so we only had a couple of weeks.  We set up a lesson for the beginning of the following week. 

Since I hadn’t been riding Grady that much, I thought it would be a good idea to get on him a couple of times before the lesson even though I really didn’t want to.  I had come to hate the feeling of frustration that came over me when things weren’t going well during our rides. The emotions that our unsuccessful rides brought to the surface caused an underlying feeling of dread when it came time to ride Grady.  I knew it wasn’t good to let my emotions get the best of me, but for some reason that was a really hard thing to overcome when it came to this horse.  Despite that feeling, something made me keep trying.

I didn’t plan to do much during these rides and I kept my expectations low, but I just wanted Grady to get used to having weight on his back again.  Even though he was pretty tense and would still try to bolt off to the right sometimes (this had become his signature move), we managed to get a little bit done.  I was really looking forward to seeing what Jayne thought. 

Jayne has an amazing ability to see the most minute things from the ground and her input was invaluable.  She counted on the fact that I was already a successful and tactful rider with a lot of education and experience.  Despite all that experience, I had never endured so much failure with so much sincere effort so I was open to trying new things.  Some adjustments to my position helped me start to teach Grady a new set of aids.  By learning how Grady responded to each aid, I could develop a system with sequences that he would come to understand.  This helped me change the perspective on my process.  Jayne never viewed Grady’s outbursts as a bad thing and always stayed calm and positive.  Instead, his reactions provided information that helped us further develop the process.  In time, Grady would come to find comfort in the aids that he learned.  Since our first session was so positive, we agreed that we should fit in one more before Jayne left for Florida. 

Jayne came back for another lesson a little over a week later.  It was late December and the days were short.  The light was waning, but we got started and Grady was trying his heart out.  He was listening well and, even though he would still act up once in a while, Jayne really helped me stay focused on clear aids, leaving the emotion out of it. 

December 2011 – please excuse the grainy photos – 10 year old technology is a bit obsolete
Grady would sometimes act out when he was having difficulty but things improved as we had some great, breakthrough moments.

As Grady was really getting into the zone, he started whinnying as if he was saying “I’m getting it!”. (I had never experienced this with a horse before. We later learned that he would do that when he was having a particularly strong “A-ha moment”, because he continued to do it over the next few years). He still acted up once in a while but we kept at it.  As the lesson progressed, Grady relaxed and started to feel really nice.  Jayne had me ask for more trot and Grady gave it to me.  I couldn’t believe how great he felt.  What a confidence boost! 

After some solid work at the trot in both directions, Jayne had me dismount and give Grady a treat.  I was so proud of him and he seemed pleased with himself. I felt like this was a huge breakthrough for us.  I actually could ride him.  I simply needed to be brave about my influence.  For two years, every time Grady would misbehave, I would worry about him and wonder what was wrong.  Now that we had explored all possible health issues, I felt comfortable pushing ahead and asking him to work. 

Jayne and I discussed that it was time to let all the past stuff go and simply start from the beginning again.  It didn’t matter what he did before – I had to learn how to ride Grady the way that worked for him now.  Over time, I would realize that what seemed like Pandora’s box was actually a treasure chest. 

My plan was to spend the winter practicing what we worked on and take it one day at a time.  Even if Grady ended up having some time off over the winter, I looked forward to continuing with Jayne in the spring.  It was the most hopeful I had felt in a long time.

A New Direction

By Becky Adler Fagan

Hi everyone!  Sorry it has been so long since I have written.  Life has been very busy so writing had to take a back seat for a while but I am really excited to finally share the next part of our story with you.

Because it’s been so long since the last post, below is a link to the story if you need a refresher.  This post picks up where that one left off.  If you’re new to the blog, you’ll definitely want to start from the beginning.  Thanks for reading!

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The visit with Francie that day in October 2010 was a very pivotal day in my journey with Grady.  It didn’t fix everything, but it started me on a search for what to do next. I didn’t know it at the time, but as I was looking for answers about how to help him, I was finding the path to future training concepts that not only helped him but other horses as well.   

During the time when Grady had become unrideable, something in my gut was telling me to try working with him from the ground.  My life of showing horses always consisted of just getting on and riding but as I researched articles and videos about groundwork, I was fascinated.  I tried methods of desensitization to help Grady with his fears and spent time teaching him to stay present with me while we worked together.  This is when I really started to learn the importance of thinking like a horse and the understanding of my sense of empathy with horses began to evolve.

One day, Francie and I were talking about what I had been doing with Grady and she had a thought.  “You should call my friend James.  He might really be able to help,” she told me.  I had known James socially and knew that he rode, but I had no idea that he was a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.  In his practice, he incorporated work with horses to help clients gain awareness of issues they might be having.  Horses are mirrors and very often we can learn a lot about ourselves by paying close attention to their behavior. 

James came to the farm and I filled him in on what had been going on with Grady.  During a few sessions together over that winter, we explored some of the more spiritual aspects of the horse-human relationship.  I learned about the different chakras (energy centers) of the body and how Reiki (energy healing) can be used to enhance the flow of energy throughout the body.   Once again, not one specific thing was a quick fix, but what I realized through the time spent with James was that I was embarking on a new journey with Grady.  For the first time in a long time, rather than feeling exasperated by the fact that I was having so much trouble riding him, I was excited about the all the new things I was discovering and where it was going to take us. 

A big emotional breakthrough occurred after attending two workshops that James was holding in the spring of 2011.  These workshops focused on mindfulness, compassion and learning to listen to our intuition. The group discussed how authenticity and intention are crucial in helping us achieve our goals in life.  During individual sessions with horses in a round pen, we were given the opportunity to observe the horse’s behavior which often helped bring feelings to the surface, allowing us to examine them and come to realizations about what we were experiencing. 

Below is an article I wrote for James’ newsletter almost a year after attending the workshops describing what I learned about myself and my relationship with Grady.

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Accepting Fear and Finding Compassion

by Becky Adler Fagan

 Just shy of a year ago, I had the privilege of working with Apple Jack in a round pen session during my first Equine Energetix workshop, Finding Your Path. After learning of his passing, I pulled out my workbooks from that weekend and the next one I attended, Seeing With The Heart. When you experience something as powerful as these workshops, it can be difficult to remember the details when you return to your busy day-to-day life.

Over the course of Finding Your Path and Seeing With The Heart, two themes seemed to come up for me: fear and compassion. As a trainer for both horse and rider, I contend with these two emotions quite a bit. I sometimes have to deal with a nervous horse or a fearful student and I do my best to handle these situations with compassion. It’s a delicate balance between empathizing and knowing when to push.

In the round pen with A.J., the idea of my own fear had emerged but I wasn’t sure where it was coming from. I didn’t feel scared of anything in particular, but when James pointed out that it could also show up as being afraid of failure or as worry about not being good enough, it began to make more sense.

I had come to these workshops looking for possible answers to the issues I had been having with my own horse, Grady, an off-the-track Thoroughbred, purchased for me to re-train at my family farm and eventually sell. Things started off really well but began to go downhill after about the first year. We explored every physical issue we could think of but there was nothing that completely solved the problem. After some improvement, the issues seemed to eventually return and each time they did, they were worse. The issue of fear spoke to me, not because I was afraid of Grady and what he might do when acting out during our rides, but because there was a lot of emotion that went along with it.

I worried about what would happen if we couldn’t “fix” him. I was okay with the idea that he might not be able to be ridden anymore, but he was only 10 years old and the question of what we would do with him for the rest of his life weighed heavily on my mind. He was a wonderful companion for my older horse, Toby, but my parents were getting on in years and who knew how much longer they would keep the farm going. How would I afford to keep him at a retirement facility for the rest of his life? In addition to these questions, the simple fact was that even if someone wanted him, our connection was strong and I had to admit that I no longer wanted to sell him. Could Grady have been feeling the effects of all this uncertainty?

As I read through my workbooks and reflected on my experiences at the workshops, I saw a connection with fear, compassion and my relationship with Grady. I realized how overprotective I had become of him, always worrying that something was wrong.   Of course, we needed to rule out physical issues but it was as if trying to figure out what was wrong with him became what was wrong with him. It was time to stop looking for reasons and just start over, one day at a time.

I needed to find a balance between being overly concerned about Grady and being frustrated and angry with him. I was completely at a loss for what to do, but every time I felt like giving up on him, something made me come back out the next day and try again. I started to wonder if the frustration and anger I was feeling was really directed at myself for not being able to figure out the problem, for sometimes feeling like giving up, for being frustrated and angry.

James helped me see that I had to learn to have compassion for myself. I needed to acknowledge my fears about the future and accept them, rather than try to suppress them. Bringing those feelings to the surface and accepting them would allow me to be in the moment with Grady and approach his issues from a truly compassionate, mindful place.

Finding that acceptance allowed me to see that Grady is with me for a reason. It may not be the one that I originally thought, but he has taken me in a new direction. I had gone through some changes in my life not long before Grady came along and his presence has led me on a journey of self-discovery that I never could have imagined. He led me to James, who has joined us on our journey and introduced us to new opportunities. It hasn’t been an easy road, but as I begin to embrace this experience, I’m finding comfort in the belief that Grady and I are right where we’re supposed to be.

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It was during the second workshop I attended that I began to explore the idea of taking my career with horses in a different direction.  In the round pen with a beautiful bay horse named Astaire, I tried to figure out what that direction was.  Then I had a thought that I shared with James.  “What if Grady is trying to tell me it’s not just about the riding anymore?” I asked James.  He was floored by this revelation and Astaire, who had been meandering around the round pen, came over, stood quietly and listened.  I was on to something. 

After the workshops, I continued to do the groundwork exercises I had been doing with Grady, but I wanted to continue riding him as well.  I hoped that the groundwork would help the riding issues I had been having but the frustration began to creep back in when the riding didn’t improve.  I felt like I wanted to have someone else ride Grady to see what they thought.  Maybe I was just too emotionally involved.  After years of riding hundreds of horses as a professional, I couldn’t ride my own horse! 

Over lunch in December 2011, James and I discussed the issues I continued to have with Grady.  That is when James made a suggestion that would turn out to be a life changer for Grady and me.  That is the day he suggested I give Jayne a call. 

Best. Move. Ever.

March 20, 2020 – Adjusting to a Different World

As I sat on my living room couch this morning sipping my coffee, some movement outside caught my attention.  A little brown puffy bird was flitting around and landed on a post just outside the window.  There was a lot of other activity including squirrels and other birds but this little bird seemed to want me to notice him.  He sat on that post for a few seconds and then he chirped his beautiful song.  Just a few short, high-pitched notes.  He continued to sit there and every few seconds he sang the same song.  As I watched him, I felt a wave of emotion come over me and before I knew it there were tears in my eyes.  It felt as though the bird was singing to me; as if he was trying to lighten the somber air that was surrounding me as I watched the morning news.

Some of you may think this sounds corny but I believe in signs from animals.  I feel that if we pay attention, we can get some pretty important messages from what would otherwise go unnoticed…like a little bird singing a song on a post.  I took a picture of the bird, and after some research I discovered that it was a Carolina Wren.  Then I looked it up in my book, Animal Speak, and although it only had one page for “wren”, here is what the last paragraph stated :

“If wrens have come into your life, it is time to ask yourself some important questions.  Are you using the resources available to you?  Are others?  Are you not displaying enough confidence?  Are you so wrapped up in daily worries that you are forgetting to sing?  Are you not staying grounded?  Are you not seeing the forest because of the trees?  Are you not attacking your life with enough gusto?  Wren holds the medicine for using what is available, and it can teach you the most effective means to build within your own environment.”

This paragraph really resonated with me, especially the question about being wrapped up in daily worries and forgetting to sing.  The last sentence was also poignant.  With much of the world practicing social distancing right now due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we are spending much more time at home and for some, alone.  Thank goodness we have technology on our side and can stay connected, but we’ve all had a sudden and significant change in our lifestyle and we’re having to adapt fast.  It’s hard not to be wrapped up in daily worries these days but I hope that people will remember to sing.  We need to keep the song in our hearts and remember to savor some of the more simple things that our otherwise busy lifestyle can rob us of.  It can be something as simple as paying more attention to the little signs of new life erupting from the ground and on the trees.  I’m grateful that spring has not been canceled.

During the past few days as people in my neighborhood have been home due to school and business closings, I have noticed neighbors spending time outdoors with their kids, people taking walks or jogging and I have even felt camaraderie among others for just knowing we’re all in the same boat and trying to get through a scary time.  I could have done without seeing multiple rubber gloves lying in the parking lot at the grocery store today – people it’s still not cool to litter!  But I digress….

My point is, that in between news briefings and home schooling our kids we need to make sure we are all taking time for our mental health and trying to focus on doing some things that we enjoy.  For me, that thing is writing.  I’ve been wanting to write my next blog post, but because life just kept getting in the way I wasn’t sitting down to do the work.  I decided that the little wren outside my window was trying to motivate me, because right after that experience I suddenly had this urge to write and I felt more creative than I had in a long time.  I realized that my next post didn’t necessarily have to be the chronological story of my journey with Grady, but it could be something in the present.  This huge thing we are all going through right now definitely seemed worthy. 

These days, the only place I am going regularly is to the barn to take care of Grady.  I haven’t been riding him that much lately, but we’re both enjoying lunging and long lining.  He is quite content.  I spent a bit of time today hand grazing him on the slowly greening grass in unusually warm temperatures for March which was enjoyable for us both.  There’s something very soothing about watching a horse eat grass….

On my drive home, while shuffling songs from my iPod through my car stereo, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” started to play.  “Wow,” I thought to myself.  I cranked the volume way up, opened my window to enjoy the warm air and I sang as loudly as I could….and it felt great.

They say this situation will most likely get worse before it gets better so I hope we can all be kind to each other, have patience and remember to feed our souls with as much good as we can find around us.  The world is depending on it.  We’re all in this together.

Thank you to all who are out on the front lines keeping the rest of us safe.

And thank you to the little wren outside my window who reminded me to sing.

If I Only Knew Then…

Grady stood like a gentleman at the mounting block as he always did.  I swung my leg over and settled gently into the saddle.  He continued to stand quietly until being asked to walk off.  After only a couple of steps, that sinking feeling that I had felt all too often lately resurfaced just from the energy that bubbled underneath me.  It is hard to describe but it’s like nothing I’ve ever felt in a horse before…and I’ve ridden over 500 horses in my life.  It was Autumn 2010 and I was at a complete loss.

To call it tension would be an understatement.  To call it freshness would be inaccurate because he wasn’t fresh or wild……he was terrified.  Of what, I had no idea but it was my mission to find out.

It would start with just that indescribable feeling but would often escalate quickly to what I began to call panic attacks.  Mind you, this was just at the walk at home in our ring in which he had been working successfully for the past couple of years. The panic attacks weren’t scary and he never felt like he was going to buck me off, but they were extremely frustrating because I didn’t know what was causing them and therefore could not prevent them or fix them.  They consisted of his tension building to such a level that he would bolt sideways, always to the right, like he was running away from something.  I was always able to stop him so it was never really a dangerous situation and we were in a controlled environment, but when he was like this our rides were never fun, never successful and often ended with me in tears because I didn’t know where my sweet little Grady had gone.

 

{Click here for a little video snippet of what I’m talking about…}

Even though I didn’t know what he was afraid of, I did know that to him, the fear was very real.  Of that, I was 100 percent sure.  If only he could talk…

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She’s right, you know.  I was terrified.  It used to be just an uneasy feeling that she was able to work me through.  But over time, it became this thing that consumed me.  This terror that overtook my entire being and I was no longer myself.  I hated that I was letting her down (even when she told me I wasn’t, I knew I was) but I couldn’t help it.  It was like I was trying to escape my own skin. 

It wasn’t always that way.  Things had started out pretty well and I liked the work we did together.  I even let other people with less experience ride me and I liked feeling that I had something to offer them. 

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Over the couple of years leading up to this time, Grady had been doing so well that I began putting some of my students on him for lessons in order to give him more experience with different riders.  He was always well behaved and everyone that rode him enjoyed him.  I took him on some off-property schooling sessions and, other than having some trailer loading issues, he did well.  We had started addressing nutrition and saddle fit concerns during these couple of years and it was always a little tough to get Grady to gain weight but he was coming along.  His level of relaxation during our rides varied but overall his training was progressing nicely.  Since the original goal had been to train and sell him, I decided it was time to advertise and see what happened.

It was August 2010 when I got a call from a woman who was looking for a project horse.  We set up an appointment for her to come to the farm and ride Grady.  She was not a professional but did not come with a trainer.  She said she had some experience with Thoroughbreds.  I rode Grady around for a few minutes so she could see him go and then she got on.  The walk and trot work started out very promising with Grady listening to everything she asked and keeping a nice rhythm.  I had been giving her some pointers here and there but then, out of nowhere, while heading down the long side of the ring toward the barn, she decided to ask him for a left lead canter.  He was obviously surprised by this and over-reacted, picking up the incorrect lead and gaining speed toward the gate.  She was able to make the turn and Grady changed leads out of self-preservation but he was not slowing down.  I told her to bring him onto a circle and then she was able to get him back to the trot.  After regrouping from that, she did a little more at the walk and trot and we even added in some short bits of canter on a circle and it ended well.  She didn’t seem scared by the experience and told me she would give it some thought and let me know.  She called back a couple of days later and had decided that she wanted something a little less green and I agreed that was a good idea.

Grady and I went back to the drawing board and I was pleased that he didn’t seem affected by the slightly scary experience…..right away anyway.  After about a week, I started feeling more tension in Grady.  He seemed very nervous and, over time, his tension and spookiness increased.  Ultimately, the panic attacks began and I could barely ride him anymore.  We investigated every aspect of his physical well being.  His eyes were fine and, although he did have some stomach and back issues, none of his practitioners felt that anything he was dealing with was severe enough to cause him to behave in such a crazy way and none of the treatments we did improved his behavior. To me, he felt like he had literally lost his mind and it broke my heart that I had no idea how to help him.

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Funny thing is, as she was trying to help me, I started to sense that I was on a mission to help her.  It’s something I began to feel deep down.  Maybe that’s what this fear was inside of me.  I knew her plans for me weren’t what was supposed to happen.  I wasn’t meant to go on to someone else and do whatever it was that person wanted me to do.  I was here for her; to change her life.  But she didn’t know that yet and I desperately wanted to tell her.

One day when Francie, the nice lady that came once a month to give me a massage, came to work on me, I felt like I had a chance to spill my guts.  Becky wasn’t there that day and, not that I couldn’t open up in front of her, but I thought it would be a good opportunity to speak up.  Francie had earned my trust and I thought she might be able to hear me……and she did.  I could tell when she put her hands on me that she felt it.  Strong emotions came over her and I could tell she knew this visit was different.  I told her I was not going anywhere and that I was here for a purpose.  I told her I needed to help Becky make changes in her life and show her a different way.  I knew it deep down in my bones.  I knew Francie heard me loud and clear and I knew she would tell Becky and that she would listen.

Watching Francie leave

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I can’t remember why I wasn’t at the barn that day in October 2010 when Grady “spoke” to Francie, but I got chills when Francie told me about what happened.  Although Francie is not a communicator, she has very deep connections with animals and is a very intuitive person so I felt there was complete merit in what she had experienced with Grady that day.  I knew it didn’t mean he was thinking “I have to misbehave so that she can’t sell me” but I knew it meant something.  Now all I had to do was figure out what to do with this information…

“Help me with what?” I wondered.

Looking back now, nine years later, it is all beginning to make sense but back then I just had to have faith and keep going.  It was time to start thinking outside the box and figure out what it was that Grady needed to get through this difficult stage in his life.  If I only knew then what an exciting journey was in store for me.

Stay tuned…

 

 

 

 

Remembering 9/11 – 18 Years Later

The view from Dylan today – 9/11/19

This is the same field in which I was riding on September 11, 2001 at 9:00 am.  The sky was just as blue and the grass just as green but little did I know that when I returned to the barn from that ride, our world as we knew it would be forever changed.  I was riding in this field today with thoughts of 9/11 on my mind when eerily, a plane flew by overhead and I couldn’t help but feel emotional as I thought about the events of that day.

Before heading out for the ride, I had heard something about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center but thought it was just an accident, as did many that day upon first hearing the news.  I was lucky enough to be at work, on a horse in a beautiful field enjoying peace and serenity when, unbeknownst to me, all hell was breaking loose less than 60 miles to my south.

Upon returning to the barn, I was told what was happening and couldn’t believe my ears.  The events of the day continued to unfold and we all know how it ended.  Almost 3,000 lives were lost and now, even more lives are being lost every day as a result of the toxic conditions that were present in the aftermath.

Even 18 years later, the tragedy of 9/11 is unfathomable.  It’s impossible to wrap our heads around it.  And now, we must teach our children about the day that has become a part of American History.  Children who don’t know a life before the towers fell but who have the task of growing up in a scary world that has become our new reality.

May we all take a moment to remember the lives that were lost, the heroes that gave all and the kindness that people showed each other that day as they faced the most ultimate evil.

God Bless America

A Very Special Dad

By Becky Adler Fagan

I was born on an American Army base in Landstuhl, Germany in 1971.  My father, a radiology resident at the time, was drafted in 1968 when my brother, David, was only 6 months old.  My parents made the move to Germany with little David in tow and Dad spent three years working as a radiologist at 2nd General Hospital, now Landstuhl Army Medical Center.  He started out as a Captain and was later promoted to Major.

Captain and Mrs. Jonathan Adler leaving for Germany

Captain Jonathan Adler

Dad in his dress blues

Now a family of four, we returned to the States and my dad finished his residency, continuing on to a successful medical career.  All the while he was very supportive of Mom’s horse activities and ultimately mine and David’s too.  He even managed to find time to ride once in a while (Mom had given him some lessons along the way).

Click here to read more about how my family’s life with horses started

Dad with Mom’s first horse, Ramada – 1974

Dad and Ramada in the ’80’s

Mom and Dad watching me compete at Madison Square Garden – 1988

After all the hard work I had put in over the years, Dad realized that riding was more than just a hobby for me and understood when I decided to pursue a career with horses after graduating high school.

When we brought our horses home, Dad became more involved with the daily horse routine, often after a long day at work and on weekends.  He even still enjoyed an occasional ride.  When we started a small boarding and lesson business, Dad’s help was indispensable – fence repair, stall cleaning, medical and moral support when horses were sick or lame. Watching his little girl practice backing up the horse trailer was a new challenge for Dad and he had to trust the great job he had done teaching me to drive.  A passion not originally his was becoming a way of life.

Dad riding Ramada at the family farm in the ’90s

Dad and Toby – 2012

After almost two decades of learning about and experiencing all the ups and downs involved in life with horses, the arrival of Grady on the farm added a whole new dimension.  On the day that Grady had broken loose with the crossties chasing him,  Dad was awakened from a nap by the sound of thundering hooves.  Looking out the window, he saw that he was not dreaming.

Click here to see last week’s post and read more about Grady’s breakout

Then there was the time that Dad was standing near the paddock when Grady leaned against the aging fence just enough to cause the top rail to snap.  Grady curiously tip-toed over the remaining lower rails to see if the grass really was greener on the other side.  Dad calmly walked in Grady’s direction raising his arms and Grady turned and stepped back into his paddock.  Another fence to fix!

Curious Grady

Perhaps the most memorable story is the time I was having a lesson on a late December day and it started to get dark.  Grady and I had been having issues and I had just started working with Jayne, a trainer that a friend had recommended.  During this lesson, as the sun lowered in the sky, Grady began to have a breakthrough and we were really into it.  We had to keep going and could still see perfectly fine.  However, it had gotten so dark that Mom had to stop recording because she could no longer see us.

As Grady was figuring out what we were asking of him, he began to whinny which he sometimes does even to this day when he is having a particularly poignant lightbulb moment.  Toby, our older quarter horse, began to answer him from the barn.  We took it as a good sign but poor Dad, hearing the commotion from inside the house, wondered what was happening and came out to check on us.  It was only my second lesson with Jayne so he had no idea what a wonderful and compassionate trainer she is and he couldn’t figure out why we were riding in the dark.  To say I was mortified is an understatement.  Here I was, 40 years old, riding with a new trainer and my daddy comes out to “save” me.  Fortunately, we were almost finished and Mom was able to explain to Dad that we were ok and that Grady was having a big moment.  Jayne, being the cool person that she is, totally understood my dad’s concerns and we still have a good chuckle about it all these years later.

There were often times that Dad was doing some yard work while I was riding, but Grady had become very sensitive to noise and Dad usually had to go off to do something else as Mom or I would call out “you’re spooking Grady!”.  Dad came to understand and knew to pick quiet chores if he saw us heading out to the ring.

Me riding Grady at our farm in 2009

That noise sensitivity eventually became a big problem for Grady along with some other issues, and he went through a period where I could barely ride him.  I’ll go into much more detail about this in later posts but needless to say, the original plan of selling Grady was becoming less likely.  And besides, in going through the process of working through his issues, our bond had grown and I just knew that he was meant to be with me.  Once again, Dad understood and the little bay Thoroughbred who stole his daughter’s heart became a member of the family.

Thank you, Dad…for everything.

 

A Descendant of Racing Royalty

By Becky Adler Fagan

It was a hot day in August and I had just finished a ride.  The training process over the last four months had been pretty basic – some days Grady would be more relaxed than others but overall the progress was good. On this day, I had been pleased with how Grady had gone especially because the delivery truck with our shavings and supplies had arrived and was being unloaded at the end of the aisle near the ring.

I brought Grady in through the door at the other end of the aisle to untack and put him on crossties facing the truck. Most of the time he was fine on the crossties but this was the day I learned that if something scared him, he would go backwards, feel the pressure and then go backwards some more until something broke.  On this day, that something was the crossties along with all the hardware from the wall.  Here’s what happened…

The delivery guys finished unloading the truck and slid the big door on the back of the truck down with a loud grinding to a thud sound.  Upon hearing this and seeing the big door slide down into its closed position, Grady began to panic and back up.  Once he felt the tension from the crossties, he panicked more and backed up harder.  The baling twine that was tied to the ring linking it to the crossties must have been really strong because instead of that breaking like it was supposed to, Grady managed to pull all the hardware out of the wall and take off running out of the barn with two crossties plus all their hardware flapping beside him.

Our barn had a fence around it with a gate opposite the barn door through with Grady had just made his exit.  A few minutes earlier, I had gone out of that gate for something without closing it behind me thinking “well, I’m going to take him through this gate to graze so no need to close it”.  In the time I had that thought and was walking back into the barn only feet away from the gate, I saw the whole scene unfold and Grady was now running past me and right out that gate onto the back lawn behind my parents’ house.  This was also the day that I was reminded of the all-important rule: ALWAYS CLOSE THE GATE!

Now completely terrified, Grady ran at top speed toward the back of the property but the pond at the end convinced him to turn back, still at top speed, still with crossties and hardware chasing him.  He was running towards me as I stood near the gate cursing my complacency for not having closed it.  Wondering if he had any plans to stop when he got closer to me, I watched helplessly in complete horror as he continued his panicked run.  Luckily, he then stepped on one of the crossties which caused his halter to break, freeing him from the monster that had been chasing him.  He finally slowed down and I was able to convince him to stop before he headed past me toward the street and beyond.  Thank goodness he was unharmed (physically at least).

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Grady’s ability to run at top speed was no surprise.  At the time of his purchase only four months earlier, we had been given Grady’s papers and were amazed at the fact that he had some royal bloodlines.  “Seattle Slew?” I exclaimed when I first saw the name listed as Grady’s grandfather on his father’s side.  My mom and I were not exactly avid racing fans and we think about his early days at the racetrack with concern as to what he must have experienced, but to think that our “little prince”, as we sometimes affectionately called him, was related to the great Seattle Slew, 1977 Triple Crown Winner, was pretty cool.

It wasn’t until a closer look at Grady’s papers that we saw the royalty went even deeper.  His great grandfather on his mother’s side is Secretariat, 1973 Triple Crown Winner.

copyright The Jockey Club Information Systems Inc.

I began researching Grady’s racing history through the Jockey Club website.  I was able to find some win photos (he won three races) and even one video of him coming from way behind to win by six lengths.  I was impressed with my new little buddy.  He had some chutzpah!

copyright Hoofprints, Inc.

copyright Hoofprints, Inc.

copyright Four Footed Fotos

I felt proud of him and sorry for him at the same time.  I was proud that he was successful but I still couldn’t help but feel bad for the fact that he was running races at age two and had fifteen different jockeys over the course of his career that ended just before he turned five.  But that’s a topic for a different blog.

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When I met Grady that day in February 2007, he had just turned six years old and was only a little over a year past his last race.  He had made a nice transition from racing and whoever started his retraining process did a great job because he enjoyed his work and didn’t seem to have any lasting scars from his early life of hard labor.  I was determined to see that through and continue his education to the best of my ability.  And I would definitely never leave the gate open again.

2015 Halloween Dressage Show at Mistover (Replica of Seattle Slew’s silks)