One woman. One horse. One goal: 48 states for Domestic Violence Awareness

Check back often for the latest updates and stories from Meredith and Apollo as they journey 10,000 miles on a four year ride around the USA.






Until next time, Oregon!


My second of 48 states has been crossed.... I'm now in Washington - State #3!  But I'll be back in eastern Oregon in a few months as I head towards state #4 and beyond. 

Oregon has been a beautiful state.  You've probably heard of what a scenic place the south coast is, with its rocky vistas and nice beaches.  The coastal mountains, too, are breathtaking with their rushing rivers and tall pines.  The Willamette Valley is lovely with its green fields and vineyards. And in the last but certainly not least part of our ride through the state, we did our part to "keep Portland weird."

As much as I enjoy moss-covered trees and babbling brooks, these only exist thanks to the amazing amount of rain this region gets.  While this winter has been wetter than average, rain is so typical here that the locals refer to dry moments as "sun breaks."  Most days we rode in some kind of wet weather: fog to drizzle, hail to downpour, with an occasional snowflake for variety. But there was always a friendly host with a warm, dry place waiting for us at the end of each day, which makes the wet going easier to bear.  Actually, most of the time I enjoyed the experience of being out in this raw, wild, passionate nature!

We rode into Oregon on highway 101, with a break in the rain and views of the coastline.

 The southern and central Oregon coastline is beautiful and rugged. And wet.
 

 My first fan art! Portrait of me and Apollo by Cleo, age 6. 

A typical view from the saddle as we rode north along the coast.  Beautiful views, wet horse.


 Of the many exciting forms of weather - a huge hailstorm hit while we were in Corvallis.  Almost a half inch accumulation, as seen here on my saddle.

 Some of the best roads for horseback riding were in the mountains near Roseburg.


Oregon has lots and lots of rivers.  And lots and lots of bridges.  This is the Rogue River, which Apollo and I crossed using this the 101 freeway bridge.

Another (literally) big road challenge in Oregon - logging trucks.  Sometimes with little to no shoulder for us to move over for them.

The Willamette Valley is chock full of pastoral scenes such as this. Fluffy sheep and fluffy rain clouds to match. 

 
Spring has arrived to the Pacific Northwest, and I had a front row seat to the changing of the seasons, as winter rain gave way to spring rain.

As we made our way to the northern edge of Oregon, we hit our 1000 mile mark (and Apollo and I are now officially a long rider team!) when we rode through downtown Portland (our first metropolis).

Conversations with Apollo


Remember when The Horse Whisperer was trending? Although I think "trending" was not yet a word then... Since that time, natural horsemanship has become mainstream.  Everyone wants to develop a partnership with their horse, where they can ride bridle-less like a Tolkien elf, send commands to their horse using their minds like a Jedi master, and have their horse adore them and follow them around like a Golden Retriever. 

While there is nothing wrong with this goal, and this blog post is certainly not meant to speak against such training, there is one major aspect of this - and all kinds - of horse training that I've been ruminating on which, as a long rider, I've had to rethink...

Whispering to horses is one-sided.  Your words into their ears. 

Now I'm not an expert trainer or rider by any stretch of the definition, but my own goal as a horsewoman is conversation.  To both be able to gently and effectively communicate my needs to Apollo, and he back to me.  This to me is a real partnership.

 I don't whisper.  I talk. And I listen.

Yes, many training techniques require you listen to the horse to some degree.  Some more than others.  But to use Pat Parelli's lesson (very good in most situations) as an example to what I'm talking about, the usual approach to training is that when there is a problem "You're either asking the wrong question, or asking the question wrong."

I love this quote, because it puts the responsibility of communication on the person.  As it should be.  If it were up to horses, they'd be out in pasture not dealing with our antics at all! And would be perfectly content not doing sliding stops or piaffes, wearing a saddle, or what have you.

However, when you move away from the arena and start working with your horse to get from point A to point B all day, every day, there is a shift in communication.  In the above quote, as with both normal and natural training systems, the person asks or tells the horse what to do and the onus is on the horse to comply.  Natural systems are typically more likely to use commands and cues that are similar to the ways horses communicate (more "natural") and thus the horse will in theory be a more willing participant. 

This makes sense in arena work, on your typical trail ride, in horse shows, and so forth, because you need your horse to do what you want, no questions asked.  You say jump, they jump - literally.  A refusal is either because the horseperson asked wrong, or because the horse is misbehaving and needs to be corrected, better trained, or perhaps vet inspected (if the refusal is due to pain for example).

But in these situations, no matter how much the horse loves their rider, or thinks of them as herd boss, or otherwise has a good "partnership," the mindset is to get the horse to follow commands and not to communicate back about their thoughts and feelings on the jump course, trail, lunging, etc.

When I started on this ride, this was also my mindset.  Apollo was supposed to go and stop, when and where I said to.  He was supposed to eat and drink when I checked my watch and it said "meal time!"  He was supposed to carry me and our gear, like it or not.  And if he stopped when he was supposed to be walking, or went around a puddle he was supposed to go through, or got hungry mid-way between breaks, that was naughty and I needed to correct it.


Now, though, I see it differently.  Now I spend all day in conversation with him, not talking to him.  I spend most of my time paying attention to his eyes, posture, breathing, ears, and other signs of what he is thinking and feeling in response to me and to the environment.  If he refuses to go somewhere, or stops suddenly, or otherwise doesn't do exactly what I had intended, I don't assume it's me asking wrong or him misbehaving.  More often than not, it is him trying to tell me something.  And now we understand each other better to communicate these things.

He gets a say in when it is break time - he knows better than me when he is tired or hungry, and we've established an understanding that he can ask to graze or drink or simply stop and rest.  Since he enjoys walking and accepts his job is to go forward (and knows there is grain and a good rest at the end), he is good at regulating himself to only take breaks when he actually needs them, and will not dawdle along the trail all day. And by "ask" to graze, I mean he lets me know with a look and a change of pace that he would like some tasty looking patch of grass, and waits for me to say okay first.

If I am riding, he will tell me when he would appreciate me walking.  If I am walking, he will let me know (if I ask) whether he is comfortable carrying me, or if he would like me to walk a little longer.  This is not a "refusal" as I would have seen it before, but an honest conversation we have about how he is feeling so he stays strong and healthy.

When a scary truck goes by, or the weather is atrocious, or the day's ride is long, he will tell me that he is worried, wet, or tired.  And I will listen, and help him be brave, and get him safely to the night's stop. 

 

A Day in the Saddle

Life was good. It had a pleasant pattern.
                  --Marguerite Henry, "Album of Horses"


Breaking out of your everyday routine and riding a horse around the country sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Well, yes it is… but even this unusual lifestyle has a routine too.  Which is a good thing! Routines help Apollo stay calm and comfortable in new and potentially frightening situations.  They help me make sure I remembered to pack everything, every morning.  They allow me to enjoy the good moments and get through the hard ones.  

It took about a month for both Apollo and myself to really get the hang of the routine, and to feel like it was our new normal.  Once the routine clicked, life in the saddle became easier and more fun for both of us.

I start my day at sunrise.  Up with the light, I quickly throw on my riding clothes and go out to check on Apollo.  I make sure he’s healthy and happy, and has plenty of food to eat while I get everything else ready to go.  Then I can also eat my breakfast, chat with our hosts, and pack up all our stuff.

Packing is a project.  First I have to get everything back in the bags.  There is no wasted space, so that means it all goes back in the same way every day.  However, some items such as Apollo’s feed get used daily and refilled as needed, so the packs need carefully loaded for even balance each morning.  Otherwise, they’ll make him sore or even cause the whole saddle to pull sideways.

Next I have to pack everything onto the both of us.  My boots, spurs, half chaps, vest, and layers.  Apollo’s boots, saddle, and all the packs loaded and secured.  At this point, I’ve warmed up and have to remove some layers before we start walking!  So the bag with the jacket always gets attached last.

Three hours after waking, we’re finally ready to hit the road.  We begin with me leading Apollo.  This gives us both time to stretch and warm up our muscles, and for Apollo to settle into the day’s work (no lunging for this horse! He gets enough work without having to trot circles in the morning).  It also allows time for the packs to settle and shift if they’re going to, so I can adjust them before they become a problem. 

Once I’ve determined everything looks good and Apollo tells me he’s ready, I will begin riding.  Depending on the weather, the day’s distance, the terrain, and the traffic, I may ride most of the day or none at all.  I walk more when it’s cold, so I can stay warm and because the cold already is hard enough on Apollo’s “mpg” (miles per grain) without him carrying me too.  I walk more when there is fast traffic, when he’s nervous, when there are tall bridges, and really just as much as I can physically handle, so I can make it easier on my horse.  Even when it’s a good time to ride, I dismount hourly so Apollo can rest his back, and I can stretch my legs.  His comfort comes first, regardless of how many blisters I’ve got on my feet.

We also stop frequently.  Whenever I find a good patch of grass, Apollo has the chance to eat it if he wants it.  Same if there is fresh water. This also gives me a chance to rest and snack – this is a workout for both of us!  We travel about 3 to 4 miles per hour when moving, but with the frequent stops some days we only average 2 mph.

When we are done for the day depends on whether I’ve been able to arrange in advance for a place to stay.  Typically I am able to network with previous hosts and strangers we meet along the road (and occasional Google searches) so that we reach our day’s destination by 3pm.  However, sometimes we have to go further or run later, and some days are short and easy.  I try to never ride at night, for safety (due to visibility on the road).

Once we stop for the day, Apollo is still first priority.  He gets to eat while I remove his packs and boots, and finally his saddle. A quick massage, and then he can move into his pasture or stall and enjoy his evening grain and all the hay and water he wants.  Then it’s my turn to settle in, bathe, eat, journal the day’s ride, and rest up to do it all over again the next day!

So long, California!

Last week Apollo and I bid farewell to the first of our 48 states.

Prior to this ride, I had seen a lot of California but not much of the North Coast.  Plus, traveling by horse is such a unique perspective that even towns I had been to before seemed all new to me.  California really is a magical state.  Where else can you find mountains, deserts, ski resorts, beaches, pristine forests and urban convenience all so close together?  I'm not sure what my favorite part of the California route was, because there was so much beauty.

The transition from day 1 to the Oregon border has been tremendous.  Apollo is stronger and more confident, having confronted just about everything you can imagine from paper bags to semi-trucks.  Although he was a fairly brave horse at the beginning, he had so many new things to learn about and fears to overcome, and is on his way to being a Super Horse.  Actually, he's already one, but I'm sure he'll get even better from here.

I also have become stronger and more confident.  Six hours on foot and in the saddle day after day are no longer daunting.  Apollo's packs no longer feel heavy to me when  heft them over my head onto his back.  I feel secure in my balance when he makes an unexpected movement while I'm riding.  And I can eat donuts any time I crave them, guilt free.

The best part of the ride (even before donuts), and the most surprising, has been the helpfulness of strangers.  Every day I have found someone who was willing to open their doors to me and their barn to Apollo, often going above and beyond offering shelter by also feeding us, helping with laundry, driving me around when I needed new supplies, hauling us around unsafe roads, checking on us during the ride, calling everyone they know (and some they don't) to plan ahead for stops... the list goes on.  I've started calling this the Ride of 1,000 Horse Moms because I feel like I'm getting a new one each day!

Day 1 - misplaced bells and packs that slipped, and just happy we made it to the first stop!

 We've had more rain than sun, and every day brings challenges of flooding and other road closures that even horses can't safely get through.

 After walking with Apollo for a week, it was finally time to ride!  The first week of leading him was excellent road training, where I used "groundwork" lessons he was used to doing to introduce him to and calm him during all the exciting things he was experiencing.


 Apollo likes meeting new friends each day too!  Here's his mini friend Rain...

 ... and his silly friend Laker.

 I had not found an opportunity to teach Apollo that it's safe to walk in water (a common fear for horses), so he got his first water crossing experience in Lake County.

 The Redwood Coast is gorgeous in every kind of weather!
 
Apollo had never been to the beach before this moment at Caspar Beach. 

 In the mountains above Ukiah.   I've seen so many breathtaking landscapes and sights already, and it's only the first state!

Everyone wants to meet Apollo, and he loves all his new fans.  He is sure that everyone needs a horse kiss and knows that it's every human's job to scratch his forehead.

On the road in Humboldt County.  Apollo is no longer afraid of most vehicles, and is always eager to walk on along.

What Meredith is Wearing

Although I am not nearly as fashionable as Apollo, my riding outfit also sometimes attracts notice for being rather unique to "normal" riding attire.  Most of what I wear is selected for comfort and compactness (for when I am not wearing those items of clothing).  It is a combination of English, Western, and endurance - as each riding discipline has useful and applicable design elements for the long ride. 

The photos below show my outfit with all layers on, as it was a cold wet day when they were taken. On warm sunny days I can wear just the base layer of Stickyseat pants and a tee-shirt, and add layers for warmth as needed.  The rain jacket and rain pants fit over the layers but under the half-chaps and vest.

The most unique and unusual part of my riding outfit is my vest.  It's a surveyor vest, with a multitude of pockets.  The bright colors make me highly visible on the road, and the sign on the back helps drivers get around me safely (since most people don't understand horses or how to drive around them without scaring them or putting horse and rider at unnecessary risk).  The pockets are filled with things I need the quickest access to: phone, knife, gloves, snacks, business cards, wallet, baling twine (so many uses, and always needed quickly!), flashlight, vet certificate, and gps.

A note about my spurs.  Spurs have a bad reputation in some circles, as they can be misused and some spurs are designed rather viciously.  My spurs are the "sidewinder" type.  They are gentle and humane (nearly impossible to hurt him with!), as well as ergonomic for myself to use (most spurs require you twist your leg to use them, these reduce that strain).  Basically, they provide a more firm command for a reluctant horse, as a safety tool - for example, if he balks at walking over something when we are crossing a busy road, I don't have time to slowly encourage him across.  Luckily, Apollo is rarely reluctant, and I have so far only touched his side lightly with my spurs once.  Most of the time, I just tell him with words what I want him to do!



photo credits: Melissa Fischbach

What Apollo Is Wearing



Sometimes, folks look at my gear and say "wow, that's a lot of stuff." Othertimes, it's "wow, that's hardly anything!"  And if someone sees my pile of bags and equipment without seeing the way they all attach, it's usually "how do you get it all on there and yourself too?"
 
Actually, its not complicated and not very much stuff considering the miles we're traveling and how many different situations we have to be prepared for.  The combined bag weight is about 50 lbs, plus around 25 for my saddle and other tack.  With myself added to the total, the max weight for Apollo to carry is 200 lbs.  This is not much for a horse his size, which is a good thing! It will allow him to travel easier, with less stress and strain on his back and legs, reducing the risk of injury and fatigue.
 



 
 
Here's how it all fits together: notice I do fit in the saddle too!  It takes almost an hour to groom, saddle and attach everything... plus the time it takes to repack my bags in the morning.  And longer when he's been rolling in mud (which is any chance he gets, and that's often with all the rain we've been having!). Curious about my outfit too? Read about it here!
 
 
 


The Best Thing About Horses




Every day that I travel with Apollo, or really any time that I am around horses or even watch a horse video on youtube, I am awed by the way that people and horses are able to interact.  How simply amazing is it that a half-ton creature would willingly – and oftentimes even lovingly – do the things its person asks of it? How strange our requests must seem: pick up each foot while I clean them of debris and perhaps insert some nails for a shoe, move this way or that, jump over this randomly placed obstacle, carry me upon your back. 

Some trainers teach people to “talk horse”… but not everything we do with horses has a counterpart in their herds.  And even if it did, why would they listen to us two-legged strangers in the first place?  Much less follow us into scary places like horse trailers, roads with traffic, wooden bridges, and anywhere else the trail takes us.

This goes beyond training and conditioning.  You can train a horse in an hour to not be afraid of wearing a saddle, but you could probably get any animal to accept such artificial situations once. It takes a special quality for them to them to stand quietly and allow us to repeat this day after day.  Even when the saddle is a poor fit, the rider or pack weighs too much, or other painful issues.

But it is the trust that they place in us that really blows my mind.  These last few weeks, for example, Apollo faced oncoming semi-trucks at 10 feet distance, metal rattling sidewalk grates and wooden bridges, a shooting range, trains, buses, shopping carts, flapping banners and flags (the worst!), motorcycles, angry dogs, bicycles, trailers (passing by and riding in them), llamas, cows (the white ones are the most frightening, by the way), paper bags (one almost ate him, it was a close call), honking drivers, and puddles (aka watery black holes). 

Through all of this, he’s mostly stayed calm or at least reasonably ok.  The worst was a highway underpass but we got past it without a disaster.  And his biggest “regular” fright, the semi-truck, is becoming less frightening every day. 

But to get back to my constant awe, he keeps following me all day every day,  through/over/under/around/past things that scare him.  When I turn him loose at night, he’ll follow me without the lead rope.  When we’re walking quietly down the road side by side, resting his back and my legs at the end of a long day, he puts his nose against my palm – just for the comfort of touch - and we walk along like lovers holding hands.