Rather than keeping this sticky post floating at the top of the page, we now have a dedicated Events Page. Check back often to see what’s happening and follow the farm with the seasons.
If I don’t use this snow day to update the blog, I can no longer call myself a writer. Despite the weather, there’s been so many exciting things happening around the farm and I can’t wait to tell you all about them.
You probably knew this already, but we have a remarkable herd of horses at Bramblewood. Just as winter and the holidays hit in earnest, we welcomed a new school horse named Penny. This big grey mare spent the first years of her life as an Amish cart horse in Ohio and then she made her way down to the Landrum area where we discovered her through Erin Gambrell. Geldings have always made sense to me with their steady, constant reserve and tendency to sigh at my high energy. I’m pretty sure I’ve witnessed a few geldings rolling their eyes, either at me or in response to a rider trying to get it right. Not so much with mares.
I’d been trapped into the myth that mares and I were too similar and consequently, that chemistry was a recipe for disaster. But starting with the arrival of the little black Trakhener, Sheba, last winter — I’ve learned that nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a mare convert. Mares ebb and flow. They use their brains. They remember — oh, goodness, they remember — and because they remember, mares remind me to be mindful of my every move, mood and reaction. Mares take us back to the essence of horse, which is why we do this thing, slogging buckets of warm water back and forth to the barn every morning, afternoon and night when the faucets are frozen. They’re the reason we break up the ice in their buckets and watch their every move for a change in habit or appearance or any small detail that warns that something is not right with these fragile, huge beasts. Mares keep us mindful and thankful.
Many welcomes to Penny with her huge hears and constant, alert demeanor.
Penny handled her immediate initiation into the lesson program with good grace as we geared up for the Wofford College Interim riders in January. We had a great group this year with many beginners and a couple riders who had shown in the A’s and the Finals. Our theme for the month was: Forget everything you thought you knew about horses. Riders worked with their instructors to devise a small training goal for the month and explored the theme through five mounted and one unmounted lessons.
We said goodbye to a wonderful friend as Emily Isles made her way back to the UK mid-January. Emily lived and worked at the farm for several months in preparation for taking her British Horse Society teaching exams when she arrived home. We’ve heard that Emily just secured a post at a stable in her region near Wales.
While Bramblewood has always offered apprenticeships, we’re getting ready to take that concept one step further. Sarah Boudreaux and I have been utilizing all of these freezing cold off-days to develop a program of extended horsemanship studies for existing and future students. Without Sarah’s permission, I’m calling the program Horse University until we develop a better working title. Our inaugural Horse U. meeting will be Saturday February 15th from 4:00-6:00. Any current student is welcome to attend. See your instructor for more details.
Here is what Horse U. is all about in Sarah’s words:
This program is designed to give both adult and young students a solid base of knowledge that will allow them to talk intelligently about their passion as well as help increase awareness and help with critical thinking and problem solving. It is designed to give students a sense of accomplishment and growth outside of the riding arena and, no matter their ability, it will give more tools to every rider.
In our ongoing, singular goal of farm life being a haven that riders carry with them as they venture out into real life, real universities, and careers of all sorts keep in mind that this program and many others at Bramblewood can be utilized on resumes and applications. We’re always eager to write recommendations for engaged students and I have edited more college entrance essays than I can count. We want you to use the farm to build life skills. Horses are so much more than an activity or passing passion. We want you to think outside the box and allow the farm to fire your creativity.
Because that’s what it does for me. While I’m longing for spring with every fiber of my being, this southern introduction into actual winter has gifted me with time to make some serious headway into the first draft of a novel. The concept is still a jumbled mess, but every frozen pipe and tardy hay delivery and broken fence and truck that fails to start, every lame horse and icy bucket, every day when the rings are too frozen to ride, teaches me that solutions come with time and patience. The farm has taught me, time and time again, to not give up, to take a very small concept and nurture it like a seedling until it grows into something bigger than myself.
With my ability to kill mint plants (I’m serious) I probably should use a better metaphor. But I’ll keep growing the mint until I get it right. I’ll keep a better hold on my frustrations until I can hear what mares are telling me. I’ll keep writing the same chapter over and over until the characters speak for themselves. I’ll learn how to not end my sentences in prepositions (though I’ve filed that more or less with the mint). I’ll keep learning the rules so I can break them and relearning the rules again to keep them intact.
I’ve never forgotten that teaching a beginner rider is a task that is intrinsically filled with more responsibility than putting an advanced rider through their paces. Armed with this knowledge my goal for 2014 is to approach everything like a beginner. I want to see a horse for the first time and forget the past and future while I focus on the now. I want to see where the characters take me.
Join me on this journey.
What things have you seen with beginner eyes? What things do you long to see?
When my friend Erika Conklin, a Bramblewood instructor at the time, suggested we host a Schooling Show at the farm I looked at her with that combination of skepticism and shock that usually accompanies bad, yet unavoidable, news. She might as well have told me, “The owner of that puppy you found wants their dog back.” Instead she said, “Don’t worry, I’ll do all the work. All you have to do is show up.”
And that’s what I did our first show — I showed up and I walked around and I marveled at the transformation of our usually peaceful lesson barn. Horses were everywhere, riders were everywhere, parents were everywhere. There were tears and frustration and joy and expectation and underneath it all that particular tired haze of early mornings and horse sweat. There’s really no feeling on earth like a horse show day. My fondest childhood memories are the pre-dawn drives to Tryon and the roiling nerves and excitement of performing with my best four-footed friends.
When I was growing up, horse shows were often a time of excitement and deep anxiety. I rarely knew what I was doing and the adults around me were often too busy to be bothered with questions. I was lucky to own my own horses and have the ability to travel to shows, but while I craved the environment surrounding shows, my experiences as a junior rider went a long way to mold me into the stressed out, control freak of an adult who continued to show through college and into my twenties. When I started teaching full-time, I swapped roles, traveling with students to shows. That stressed out, perfectionist of a rider was then directing traffic from the ground, a recipe for either greatness or anxiety depending on the day.
When I opened my own farm, I started asking myself how the average rider could experience horse showing without a massive financial commitment or horse ownership. There was no easy answer. No matter what level, horses are an expensive sport. Leasing is an option, but often the problem for most riders is time and availability; their families cannot transport them to the barn four or five times a week.
It’s silly to ask how showing can be a level playing field — the nature of showing is about competition and ranking. Competition is good and everyone does NOT need to be a winner on any given day. That said, there has to be a similarity between the gene that produces a horse crazy kid and the desire to cover every available wall with horse show ribbons. I still have my ribbons from when I was twelve and there’s no way I’m ever throwing them out (I’ll confess most of my early ones were still being used as valances in my bedroom window until I recently moved out to the farm full time).
I was interested to discover that even in the safe environment of the farm, riders experienced the same nervous energy and doubts that usually arise at any type of horse show. We realized that we had an excellent opportunity to use those feelings to our advantage rather than having anxiety take over and ruin the day.
As our series of Schooling Shows continued at the farm, we started to ask ourselves how could we make this experience better. How could we make it OURS?
The answer is — the same as we do in lessons. Just because you can canter and jump doesn’t mean that you always need to. We moved the focus from high performance to basics. Can you safely trot on the rail with a ring full of riders? No? Then you shouldn’t feel obligated to canter jumps, but you can still enjoy a great day of showing. Start with what you know. For what you don’t know, there’s always someone around that is ready to give you an answer. If we have to pause a class for twenty minutes to address a rider’s question or remedy a potentially unsafe pattern, our schooling shows give us the ability to do so.
But the secret ingredient — the one thing that truly transforms our shows at the farm — is our riders’ genuine care for the success and comfort of their barn friends, both two-legged and four. If something doesn’t go according to plan why let it ruin your experience? Whether we’re at a home show or on the road, our riders continually amaze me with their sense of humor, maturity and true concern for the others around them. This attitude makes showing a pleasure rather than a chore.
A horse that was trotting around perfectly the day before a show will choose his moment in the spotlight to act as if he’s never seen a corner of the ring before. One of the greatest lessons of showing is learning how to tap into your inner reserves of patience and acceptance — even when everything seems to be going the opposite of what we’ve expected. These notes apply to parents of riders just as much as they do to the riders themselves. Ribbons and placings are nothing compared to sportsmanship and lasting life skills — those hard lessons that rarely come to the surface when everything is going according to plan. Horse showing is all about self control and stress management.
No matter what level you’re riding at, the decision to show on any given day comes down to two questions: 1. Are you comfortable with your basics and 2. Is your horse comfortable with what you’re asking. If you can answer yes to both those questions . . . there’s still no guarantee that you’ll win the class, but you’ve done more than earn a blue, you’re riding like a pro.
I ceremonially cleaned my saddle today and rode Sheba for the first time. I’d been on her back several times before, but it was all about work — what is this mare about? what are her limits? her triggers? Today was all about pleasure. It’s completely different riding a horse after spending some time developing a mutual relationship. I know that she likes to guzzle water with deep, contented gulps after I’ve cleaned her bucket and the hose is refilling that dark corner of her stall with sweet, clean water. She makes me crave water.
With all the rain we’ve had in 2013, some parents have asked why we stress taking a barn lesson rather than taking the week off or rescheduling. As someone who has dedicated their life to the care of horses, your instructor has a unique perspective on the invaluable benefit of taking time to learn the care and management of a horse. Rainy days give us an hour of uninterrupted time to learn the countless tasks that allow a horse to actually be ridable. Modern life has made the horse solely dependent on our care, a clockwork routine that does not allow breaks or holidays.
In advanced work under saddle, the rider cannot progress up the ranks without first learning where the hock is located in the legs or where the horse’s neck is flexed: is it at the poll? If so, how much? Barn lessons lead to the advanced work under saddle that so many riders strive for over the years. Within the regular weekly lesson slots, rainy days give us a perfect opportunity to prepare for more advanced work in the saddle. That preparation occurs, of all places, on the ground.
Do we ever doubt a veterinarian’s knowledge or skill because they don’t ride a horse during diagnosis? Nope, it all takes place on the ground. Barn lessons are like feeding your inner vet for a fraction of the cost of vet school.
Those who don’t personally own a horse seldom realize that 95 percent of the rider’s time is spent … not riding, but taking care of their horse. Care can mean many things: grooming, medical problem shooting, feeding, leading out to the paddock and back in, grazing, quiet time spent simply building a relationship with a horse, countless hours spent taking care of the tack and equipment. When Rachel Neese rode for Virginia Intermont College, she was expected to spend at least three hours in preparation for, participating, and finishing up for every one-hour ride.
Thinking of a lesson horse as a simply a riding horse is like, to use a human example, an employee who is never allowed to take a break or vacation unless they are sleeping. Think of how much your working life is improved by the relationships you’ve built with the people in your workplace and by the hours you have with your family when you’re not on the job. Think of all the hours you spent studying in college or learning your trade. Horses are a lot like us. No one likes working for the manager, the thankless task master, who fails to take our needs into consideration. Barn lessons allow the rider, by a minimal investment of time and resources, to understand what it is they’re managing when they’re back in the saddle. Hours on the ground are the surest path to more value for the lesson hours we spend riding.
When Sarah Boudreaux first started teaching at Bramblewood, she asked if she could sign up for a day of feeding and cleaning stalls. To understand the school horses and to better serve her students in the ring, she wanted to know the farm from the inside out. Her days routinely started at 6am with morning feeding and went straight through to 8 or 9pm when she was teaching a full schedule in the evenings. Whether it was raining or snowing, she had 24 stalls to clean and a wealth of new information to pass along to her students.
Here is Sarah’s perspective on unmounted lessons, straight from the experience of a rider who was once a weekly lesson student before buying her own horse, selling that horse, taking on a training project and organically becoming the valued equine professional that she now is:
I imagine that even most instructors don’t want to teach barn lessons. We know most students would ‘rather be riding’ and it’s hard to build enthusiasm to teach people who are half listening as they gaze at the sky, searching for any sign that the weather might break. Then the duct tape, tack soap and sponges come out, maybe someone brings a snack to share. There’s laughter as kids meet and talk to students who ride with other instructors. They ask good questions and help each other figure things out. Barn lessons are actually fun. Heightening the social experience of barn life.
Students who only come to the barn to ride can become fabulous riders but will never achieve true horsemanship. True horsemanship demands awareness. Awareness of the horse as a living breathing animal that needs time and attention, gets sick, hungry, worries, has friends, dies. Awareness of how your tack functions, how it is put together, how it’s use can help or hurt your riding experience. Awareness of the barn itself. The barn requires constant care. Boards must be replaced to prevent injury, water buckets and feed pans must be scrubbed; the list is endless.
The rider who comes ‘just to ride’ will be a functional rider but remain ignorant of all that is required to make that ride possible. They may never fully understand why the horses behave as they do or why certain choices are made for them. They are at greater risk of seeing the horse as machine and riding without understanding or empathy towards their partner.
Students who fully engage in barn lessons begin to become true partners with the barn and the horses. The heightened awareness creates a more observant rider. No longer do they grab a horse and march it to the cross ties for a quick brush but they walk with the horse and groom quickly but carefully, looking for signs of lameness, scratches or anything out of the ordinary. They know and understand the signs of illness as they walk through the barn. They might even take the initiative to empty and scrub a water bucket that doesn’t look quite right. The things that we discuss and do during a barn lesson helps the rider to become more confident and independent in their choices. They simply know better how and why things work.
To sum it all up, before you make the decision to stay home and cozy on a rainy afternoon, understand that your rider might be missing out on some important life lessons and team building opportunities that can only really be gained through broadening their knowledge and skill on the ground with their horse. Your tires might get a little muddy down the driveway, but the horses are waiting in the barn to reveal their secrets.
Please know, we are always ready to reschedule in dangerous conditions or when a rider’s health would be negatively impacted by being out in the elements. For all the other days, have some grocery bags on hands to slip over muddy shoes as your rider gets into the car and chances are that rider will be beaming and filled with information to share that will go a long way toward helping them realize their goals in the saddle.
The sun rises in the front of the house and sets in the back. I notice these things now that I’m living at the farm full-time.
We’ve had such a long/short year of sick and broken things. My annual State of the Farm address in years past noted how long we’d gone without a colic (knock wood) or a lameness or a wound, but things were only fine on the surface. The façade was intact, but there was so little that was real or true. Life isn’t about things not being wrong – it’s about how we deal with the lot we’ve been given. (I think I just copied an eCard). Having walked through some pretty intense illnesses this year, both with the horses and the humans, I am more connected to the heart of things than I ever was in the past. I’ve witnessed the incredible spirit of our barn family first hand and I know I am surrounded by some rare and genuine people. The answer always comes. It might have four feet or two; it might blow in on a gust of wind, but it comes, quietly, without any herald or fanfare.
I’d emailed a friend in one of those moments of desperation, up at dawn with a sick horse. I asked her what our string of bad luck meant. She offered some words of wisdom that kept the question with me. I needed to turn my attention to the things that truly mattered.
I have time now to relish tiny, vastly important things that used to be a headache when I lived across town and was always trying to hurry up and close up the barn and head home.
Matilda has a habit of getting her feet stuck in buckets. This draft cross mare is HUGE and her ability to stand in a full water bucket hanging from the wall as she craned her neck to watch for the feed cart passing is the stuff of legends, and a vice that forced me to keep her in a paddock for several years. She’s older now and has been back in a stall at night for a while, but twice we’ve altered the hanging of her buckets after finding her standing, quietly, with a foot raised out in front of her in salute, stuck in a bucket. She doesn’t panic. I have a lot to learn from Matilda about how to manage stress. But if she panicked she would be able to release herself by breaking the hay string our last fete of bucket engineering brought us. We’ve tried hanging them low; we’ve tried hanging them high. Matilda just stands there – on three legs — waiting for someone to feed her and possibly free her as an afterthought. She’s in it for the food.
So we installed a Rubbermaid container as a makeshift trough in her stall. I figure the worse she could do is flood her floor or stand in the container. You can read more about Matilda’s bucket antics at Sarah Boudreaux’s Matilda Project blog.
Last night as I was giving hay and closing up, I realized her bucket was filthy, so she might have been standing in it, or some bedding was thrown around when her stall was being cleaned. Having nowhere else to be, I didn’t have to wait until the morning for weekly water scrubbing, so I bailed the trough out bucket by bucket as Matilda munched hay and watched me like a movie or a sports show — Human Moves Buckets. I rinsed the trough out and waited for it to fill. She curved her head around and stared at me.
So I pressed my ear against her side and listened to her stomach. She breathed and I breathed and pressed closer into the thick, giant, warmth of her. Having the time, finally, to think and to press close, I became acutely aware of the creature’s whole sixteen hundred pounds, amazed that she’s fine with me being there with her, sharing hay and water.
I’m more conscious of water use in the house now that I’m off city water in my normal, doing dishes/laundry, human-time. We’re vastly conservative in our water use at the farm, being on a well. It makes me think of all the sacred wells I’ve visited in Turkey, Russia, Portugal. Blessed water that was hauled bucket by bucket for normal, human-things: washing dishes, doing laundry, drinking. Living at the farm, drinking from this well, reminds me to turn the water off when I’m brushing my teeth, to soap dishes up and rinse them, separately, together. The horses and I share the same water for living now and that communion makes every drop of it a prayer.
When I was at one my lowest points a few years ago, another friend offered the best advice, “Take some time to pet dogs every day.” As we head into a new year and new adventures, I wish all of you the time to do tiny, vastly important things. Look for something thirsty and give it water.
Or as Neil Gaiman says much better in his children’s book, Instructions:
if any creature tells you that it hungers,
If it tells you that it is dirty,
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.
From the back garden you will be able to see the wild wood.
A couple months back I asked our Bramblewood regulars to send me their thoughts on what the barn means to them. We’re in the process of completely revamping our website and logo (many thanks to Cyberfluent, a local business that took on that challenge) – essentially, putting the Bramblewood vibe into words. This should be an easy undertaking for a bunch of writers, but there’s so much of what we do that doesn’t have words. There’s so much of what we do that’s different from what we did three years ago. We’ve arrived at the place we’ve always needed to be and I can say, with certainty, what we are and what we do, finally, comes with no apologies. I’ve lived the other side of the horse world the better part of my life, and how peaceful the horses are now without a training agenda that’s dictated by show results. We might travel out occasionally, but we can now make the choice to do it because we truly enjoy being with each other, with our horses, and we go armed with the knowledge that we’re fully prepared for the job.
Laura Paradis bought her horse Demetrias thinking she was getting a field hunter who would jump the rest of his gorgeous, old-style, Roman-nosed, thoroughbred life. She did her homework. She splurged on an extensive pre-purchase exam after an extended trial period. She’d done everything by the book before she signed the purchase agreement. Demetrias had been Laura’s companion for less than a year when she noticed his eyes — they’d changed, appearing cloudy. She treated him for allergies and flushed his nasal passages. She kept jumping him even when one of those fences ended sideways with her underneath him in the sand. It took a random cut that needed stitching and a visit from a vet who was on call for the weekend to discover that the changes in Demetrias’ eyes were the first-stages of degenerative blindness. You can read all about Laura’s journey with Demetrias at her blog Unseen Paths: Riding Blind.
A very long story short: Laura chose to treat Demetrias’ moonblindness and by doing so, she had to change her agenda for her riding and for her life. We know so very little about this disease, though it’s the oldest recorded in human or animal history, because most people choose to walk away from their horses when they’ve reached the end of their planned use. Laura chose, instead, to change her plans. Demetrias trots poles by voice command these days. He’s fully blind, but he can walk/trot/canter and ride a Training Level test with the best of them. He’s still a thoroughbred. He still has days when his energy level does not mesh with his lack of sight, but when that occurs, Laura takes a step back and gives him a little canter on the lunge or simply allows him to walk with her in the saddle.
Demetrias was diagnosed at a time when I had to take a long, hard look at what we were doing with the horses and what Bramblewood Stables was truly meant to be. In our old path, I would have advised Laura to farm Demetrias out as a pasture ornament, or encouraged her to put him down. But the new paradigm allowed me to think in an entirely different way — learning to work through our shortcomings, and the horses limitations, to design individual paths that might not follow the old models of living with, working with and showing horses.
Demetrias’ journey allowed me to create the Bramblewood we have today.
That was a very long story to lead into this excerpt Laura sent me about what Bramblewood means to her. Thank you so much for sharing your words with us, Laura. (And just so the rest of you know, the reason we crawled around in the loft with a meat thermometer — for weeks –was beacause the hay supplier at the time sent a batch of wet hay that was growing hotter by the minute as it cured):
I discovered Bramblewood Stables one chilly Wednesday night in late February of 2008. I had been away from a stable and regular riding for over a year after moving from Ohio and missing it sorely. My search in Greenville was a trying one because I wasn’t very familiar with the geography so I would find a stable online and get all excited and then realize it was over an hour away and re-start my search.
I visited stables in Greenville that were too fancy and some that were in the middle of a muddy field with no other place to ride. There were places that expected me to ride the one horse they had available that no one else would ride and to pay a pretty high price for it and not one of them had the “feel” that I was looking for.
My Internet search did not originally produce Bramblewood Stables but the trusty yellow pages did. By the time I made that phone call ultimately to Kim, I was kind of done. I was sick of searching and being disappointed and I didn’t have a huge budget or amount of time to work with. I was beginning to think my saddle would be a permanent living room ornament.
The night after I left what I am sure was a weird and convoluted message trying to describe what I was looking for I got this amazing phone message in response. Kim was running into a meeting but outlined what the stable was like briefly and sounded so inviting I played it for my roommate and couldn’t stop grinning. Already this place sounded promising and was not a million miles away.
So, back to that chilly night in February. I stopped out after school just to check the place out. It was around 6 but already fairly dark out but they were getting ready for the Wednesday night lesson. I know there were other riders but the only one I remember is Maggy. She was on a horse who I later learned to be Norman. I didn’t really ever get to know Maggy when she had Norman. Our friendship started when she had Bentley. There were several other riders and Kim was bundled up and ready to teach and so Mihran is the one who showed me the horses and talked about the lesson program. He is who I rode with in the beginning. Gail was a boarder and just looked at me with a smile and said, “You will love it here.” (more…)
Originally published on the Wofford College Re: Thinking Education alumni blog, I’m re-posting this here so I can keep track of it. The Re: Thinking Education initiative is a: ”…year-long conversation about the liberal arts, higher education, and Wofford College. During the 2012-13 academic year, Wofford will join the current national conversation about the crucial role of the liberal arts in American higher education.”
When Wofford queried alumni to send in their own stories about how a liberal arts education had shaped their lives, I knew this was the perfect chance for me to put the Bramblewood Stables story into words.
Here it is:
I often joke after staying up all night with a sick horse, after repairing freeze-damaged plumbing, after cleaning a stall: this is my Wofford diploma at work. But I’m really not kidding. A liberal arts education is, to me, a method of inquiry, of living, that allows me to assimilate knowledge, often from the most unlikely and disparate sources. Wofford taught me how to learn.
When I thought about opening a riding stable, I asked myself how I could re-create the intellectual atmosphere I discovered at Wofford. How could I make that atmosphere available to children who might not be able to attend college?
I founded Bramblewood Stables, Inc. under the premise that a liberal arts education does not begin in college. The close-knit community of the horse world is a type of secondary education that arrives, for many children, while they’re still in elementary school. The seed of my own philosophical inquiries began around a barn when I was a young girl striving to find communication with another species in riding lessons, cleaning stalls, or distributing grain and hay in early morning feedings to mitigate the cost of those lessons. (more…)