Friday, July 31, 2009

Sasha: The Matriarch

I've posted about 'The Herd' before, but I've yet to touch on 'The Pack' much; they prefer to stay out of my horse life as much as possible. But, with Kachina gone off to school, I figured it was a good time to introduce the other side of my passion for four-legged critters.

I share my life with six dogs, and I love them all tons, but Sasha is the only one of my little pack that has ever felt truly and wholly mine. She runs the canine portion of our household -- from Anubis, the 125 lb. Pit Bull/Mastiff mix, to Capone, the 4 lb. long-haired Chihuahua -- and it's pretty much an understanding that the hierarchy goes: Humans > Sasha > Everyone Else. And even that line of command is situational (for example, if Sasha wants the couch, and my brother also wants the couch, you can pretty much bet that Sasha's getting that couch).

We found Sasha, along with her two siblings, in a dumpster when I was eleven or twelve. The lid was closed, and we only investigated it because I had to throw something away and heard whining and sounds of movement. I can't even say how old they were, but I'm certain that it was somewhere between 7-10 weeks. So young, and someone just tossed them in the trash to live or die.

The other two went home with friends, but I wanted to keep Sasha. The family already had two dogs -- Cirra: a huge, working stock German Shepherd who I still say was the best dog in the world, and Blossom: a black Labrador who acted nothing like the neurotic, spazzy labs I see now. My mom and I begged my great-grandmother if we could keep Sasha and, after some debate (although I think she only argued out of parental obligation; there's no way she would have turned away an animal in need), she agreed with the understanding that "if she destroys anything, she's sausage" -- hence the name "Sasha."

Sasha and I have been through a lot together: When I was twelve I was convinced that we, alone, would win the Iditarod, and began our "extensive" training (I even ordered an official Iditarod patch in preparation!). We've mourned together over the deaths of her mentors, Cirra and Blossom, my great-grandmother, my cousin and Buffy and Bootsie, her adoptive doggie "aunts." Even recently, when I lost my grandfather, I came to Sasha when I needed to cry. She saved Taco's life when he was attacked by a Blue Heeler/Dingo cross; she earned a very dashing scar across her nose from the fight, which she still wears proudly to this day.

Sasha was the reason I realized that I wanted to train dogs. Which is ironic, since I never had to "train" Sasha. Sasha didn't learn, she understood. It was more like having a partner than having a pet; you asked her to do something and she knew what you wanted (except for walking on a leash; she never did quite grasp the concept restraint, which I have to admit is another reason that I love her). She was immensely intelligent and patient with everyone (except she took no crap from other dogs), and still is.

Sasha's thirteen now. He body's a little more gray and a little frailer than it used to be. Her hips don't work quite as well, and she can't run quite as fast (though don't tell her that) or dash up the back steps, and she might be a little rounder and squatter than she was a few years ago. Still, she's got the same shinning, dark eyes she had when we were both younger, and the same contented, easy smile.

I've learned so much from Sasha, but probably the most important lesson is that love has no expiration date, and it never runs out. I know that she's old, and that we are very possibly reaching the twilight of our years together. However, no matter how tired Sasha's body has gotten, her heart and spirit and ability to love have never once weakened. She still nuzzles me now the same as she did when I climbed into a dumpster and gathered her into my arms for the first time.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Winters Clinic (in Summer!)

..ok, terrible pun.

But! I'm very excited, I'll be going to a Richard Winters clinic in Livermore, California in August! You may remember me posting a bit about meeting him at the HorseExpo this June, and how knowledgeable and (more importantly) friendly and likable he was. I can't wait to go to the clinic. I should find a way to take Maverick - maybe iron out some of his little issues.

Anyway, I was wondering: Is anyone else going to the Livermore clinic? Let me know! I'd love to meet some other bloggers.

If California is not your area, I'd still suggest checking out a clinic near you!

Monday, July 27, 2009

One Door Closes, Another Opens

Saturday was my second ride on Kachina. I was able to introduce some minor leg and rein cues (using the halter and lead rope) and, like the last time, she preformed perfectly. It's great to see how quickly and easily she's coming along. I know that that might change as she ages - I don't want to assume that it'll always be this easy - but, for now, I'm savoring it.

Yesterday was my grandfather's memorial. I was very surprised at the number of people, from all backgrounds and walks of life, who came to pay their respects to my grandfather and share their stories. Generations and generations of people who had known him. There were Drugstore Cowboys and Old Hands and people who had never been on a horse in their life, and they all said that they had learned something from my grandfather. One statement that I heard over and over, no matter what type of person said it, was that Granpa was a real cowboy and a real horsemen. In a time and place where that's swiftly becoming a rare breed, it made me proud to know that others saw him the way I did.

One speaker summed up Granpa pretty well: when asked why he didn't get surgery sooner, she said "Jewell wanted to live, not stay alive."

I met tons of people - some who knew me from my childhood, some who'd heard Granpa talk about me or had seen me with him, and some who had no idea who I was - and all of them were supportive of my commitment to horses. So many offered their advice, and invited me to events and were just genuinely good people. I even met a few who not only knew my grandfather, but are also followers of this blog! (Hey!!) How amazing is that?

They say that the horse community is dwindling, especially among African Americans. But yesterday, I saw it just as strong and diverse and tightly knit as I remembered from my childhood (and how amazing that Granpa was the catalyst for that!). I just wish that it didn't take his passing to make it all happen.

Monday, July 13, 2009

First Ride

Saturday, Kachina carried a rider for the first time!

Her lesson started with saddling. She took the saddle well, but she got a little pushy, so my trainer had to give her a couple of firm nose-bumps to settle her down. She's a nice, smart, friendly little mare, but I see that she has the attitude of a horse who'd be perfectly happy being in charge if she thought she could get away with it - I saw glimpses of this the first day I got her, when she tried to herd Gypsy around the arena! But, she's also perfectly happy not pushing the point if you make it clear that you're the boss. It's like "Let's see what I can get away with. No? Ok then."

My trainer let her pack the saddle for a bit, while we saddled our mounts for the day. My horse was Bandit, a black-and-white paint mare and one of the most gorgeous horses I have ever seen. She's won money in every penning she's been in, has great handle, and is incredibly sweet. She can be a little "woke," and I had a migraine and had never ridden her before, so I was expecting to have a bit of a battle, but she was perfectly calm and patient.

Kachina, however, was running around, bucking (with her nose tipped! I told my trainer that it was amazing to me that she could buck so high with her nose tipped off center and he smiled and replied: "Yeah, it's called agility, and all the best horses seem to have it")

She settled down after my trainer chased her around a bit, but she still followed us at a safe distance, ever curious. After our riding was over, and our mounts were tied and unsaddled, we went into the arena to untie Kachina and mess with her a bit. After a good rubdown, I did a lot of rubbing my knee on her side and belly, patting the saddle and moving it around. Then I leaned across her back, on both sides, while my trainer walked her forward a few steps; all of this without incident.

My trainer then stopped, regarded Kachina a moment, and said: "Well, I think she's ready. That's what she's telling me," and he asked me how I felt, and if I wanted to try it.

Of course I did!

Pat, my friend and fellow apprentice, gave me a leg up and I slowly eased into the saddle. I expected at least a little hop when I sat down, but Kachina only swiveled her ears back and tipped her head a little so she could see me. She didn't even look frightened, just curious! I patted the saddle, her rump, wiggled around a little and leaned -- everything I could think of, and she stood as still and as patient as a statue.

My trainer acted as the Leader, while Pat stayed at my right side as the Catcher (in case things went bad) and I, of course, was the Rider. My trainer lead Kachina up the arena, as I gently instructed her ("Waaaalk~"), stopped her ("Woooah~"), turned her and backed her up ("Baaaack~"). As we did this up and down the arena a few times, three thoughts were running through my mind:

I'm riding Kachina!

Wow, she's being really, really good..

..Man, he ears look huge from this angle!

Kachina was perfect through the whole thing; not a buck, hop, not even a balk! She did everything we asked and even stood still while I clumsily dismounted (clumsily on purpose mind you!).

I praised her bunches, took the saddle off, and turned her loose to run. But, really, all she wanted to do was stick close to me and be pet more, so we walked around the arena together and I talked to her, and pet her, and thanked her and told her how proud and excited I was.

Then I went over to the fence to talk to my trainer's wife, Kachina coming up at my side with her ears pricked, like she wanted to be part of the conversation too.

"It looks like you two are really bonded," she said as she stroked Kachina's nose, "all she does is watch you."

"Yeah," I replied, feeling pretty good, "I think we are."

My trainer gave Kachina a nice pat on the neck as I lead her to her stall and told me that she'd done very well. "I have a good feeling," he said.

So do I.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

So Far, So Good

It's felt too long since I've updated. Between the funeral and the holiday, I've been too physically, and mentally, drained to post. That, and there was nothing really to post about until now.

Kachina has started her training under saddle, and she's doing really well! My trainer really likes the way she moves both with and without the saddle, and how easily she took to it (I've never saddled her). But what really impressed him was how she carried her head. She drops it very low when working, something he calls "bird dogging." When she was younger, I showed him a short video of her doing it while herding Odin, and he liked it then but said that it may not be consistent once she's working under saddle.

Apparently it is.

He also said that he often let the rope drag when he lunged her, and every time she stepped on it she gave into the pressure on her halter. This may mean that she'll be very soft with the bit. We'll have to wait and see.

I like to think that he was as excited as I am about her potential, but maybe I'm just being an overly proud parent. I don't want to set my expectations too high. Still, he was impressed enough to ask me how much of this stuff I'd done with her before he got his hands on her, to which I assured him that I'd done nothing but sack her out, teach her to flex and disengage her hindquarters. She's just a natural.

Pictures soon, I promise!