Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Equine Photographer's Network Advocacy Project

Back to the blogging, after last week's whirlwind of reaquainting myself with all the relevant responsibilities that I had so happily shirked in favor of riding across the backcountry of Southern Spain.

With all of the emphasis that this blog puts on welfare issues in the equine industry, I wanted to highlight an unique initiative underway through the Equine Photographer's Network. I have often thrilled to find delivered to my inbox the latest installment of EPN's Image of the Week, as their photographers regularly create compelling, emotional and evocative images that truly capture our equine companions at their stunning best.

The EPN's most recent call to action however, was the 2009 Horses in Need Documentary Project. For this image assignment, the photographers "found beauty in places most people would avoid looking. They found beauty in places where it was difficult to hope. The circumstances that brought each horse to a point of needing rescue varied...These are stories born of sorrow, however many of these horses now have hope due to kind intervention...The photographers who participated in this project helped raise awareness of suffering and neglect."

I applaud all of the photographers who took part in this unique and heartfelt project to support the horses who needed their advocation the most.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dios cinco y il finito!

Day five!

Our last day on the trail, and one of our most adventurous. We headed out this morning at an almost leisurely nine AM, and spent our first two hours trekking deep into dense, cool Spanish forests, whose thick foliage and proliferation of hanging vines reminded one of being in the heart of Brazil or Costa Rica. No monkeys to be seen unfortunately, but we did pass by several stone ruins, including that of an eighteenth century mill, which fueled our sense that the area had been untouched by humans for quite some time. When lunchtime came we tied and fed our horses, and then picked up our saddlebags (packed ahead of time with our picnic goodies) and hiked down a thickly wooded hillside into a hidden grotto. The grotto held a cool, green pool and behind it existed several caves and rock formations. Us humans got a taste of our own medicine as we climbed down to picnic next to the pool, as the slippery terrain and dense undergrowth made for somewhat treacherous going. I had a new appreciation for our sure-footed steeds as I picked my way slowly down the hillside, dodging brambles and trying to avoid strangulation by vine. Our lunch at the bottom was well worth the effort however, and we munched fresh bread, cheese and olives to the sound of a small waterfall trickling into the pool.

After lunch, we climbed back out, resaddled the horses, and continued our climb through the forest. Some stunning scenery awaited us, from ivy-covered rock walls, to archways formed out of vines and hanging moss. A wide river flowed alongside us for much of the trip, its sound immense and yet soothing, its sight obscured in most places by a tall canopy of trees.

Our horses have been a steady lot for the most part, with relatively few spooks, and only a snort or two upon encountering most potentially horse-eating objects. Their mettle was tested today, however, as three dirt bikes began zooming their way up the very same path we were coming down. That noise coming through the trees must have sounded like a Tyrannosarus to our poor horses, and had our guide Niki not flagged the bikers to stop in time, they would very likely have jumped for the trees. Even my generally unflappable pony became tense enough that I got off and held him to reassure him and be out of harm's way in the event of a bike induced stampede.

After we passed the bikers we got another taste of adventure on the climb up a nearly vertical hill. Niki advised us to "just grab their manes and let them go" and when we did, our horses charged up the steeply angled incline with their hapless humans clinging for dear life. Much of the afternoon passed in climbs throughout the wooded hills, and we came upon several places where the endless rolling greenery was reminiscent of the mountain forests of Kentucky, West Virginia, or Canada.

Today was also one of our most pastoral, and as we neared the trip's end we crested out on top of a hillside that was home to one of the most beautiful farms we had yet seen. Tall pines lining the entry road, cows mooing peacefully in the back, and a view out the front window of wide open fields planted with early corn, rimmed in the distance by the blue haze of the great Pyrenees. A garden lay alongside the farm house, but it was unlike any I had ever seen back home. It may come as no surprise, but fruits and vegetables appear to love the temperate, sunny expanses of southern Spain, and I saw bean plants taller than I was, pears hanging ripe and heavy, large as two human fists, huge red tomatoes, and golden melons growing freely along a small hill. The rolling farmland was a lovely surprise after our day spent deep in the forest, as refreshing for its settledness as the jungle had been for its wild.

Such is the magic of this region of Spain; jungle abuts field, abuts orchard, mountain, beach. One can never become too accustomed to one's surroundings, because they tend to change in a heartbeat, revealing a new breathtaking vista around nearly every turn. And even for all of my bruises, stings, scratches and saddle sores, I can't think of any better way to have taken it in than from the back of my big Spanish horse. There was something freeing and organic about our trip, and it invoked a carefree disinhibition amongst all of us that we humans usually have to work for. We are rarely so free, and open, and vulnerable, while at once also full of heart and try and strength of will. Spend a week in the company of horses however, and such things can all be learned.

But all good things do come to an end, and so, finally, with the sun moving lower behind our backs we crossed one final hillside to return to Mas Alba. We fed and brushed our horses, led them out to their field, and then watched them return to their natural selves after carrying us so far. We imagined what they must be saying amongst one another, and whether they were comparing notes about their humans' respective antics. I would not blame them one bit were they to do so, because we aren't always the most comprehensible of species.

Tomorrow, then, it's back to Barcelona to rejoin civilization and see Gaudi's legendary Sagrada Familia, and the Picasso Museum. Until then, adios and buenos noches!!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Les caballos de rosas

Aai!

A long day on the trail. It started gloriously however, well before sunrise and as we packed our saddle bags and headed out for the pastures to catch our horses, a sliver of moon still hung low in the sky. The first pinks of dawn were just cracking through as we brushed, fed and tacked up. The reason for our early rising? A vamos a playa por favor! And vamos we did, to la playa de rosas, the Beach of the Roses, located on Catalonia's Gulf of Roses.The horses swished and froliced as we marched to the water's edge, and then, with waves lapping the shore and the sun just cresting the horizon, it was "Vamos gallope!" once again! And gallope we did, along several miles of clean, white beaches. The horses enjoyed the race, blowing and tossing their heads as the surf sprayed up into their long grey manes.

After our invigorating ride we felt electrified and ready for our day. The neach ride was a perfect beginning to day four, and an equestrian dream come true for more than one of us. We left the beach and headed for the quaint town of la Sant Pere Pescador, a resort village turned sleepy hamlet for the off-season. After a stop for coffee in a quaint Viennese cafe it was back to the ponies, and we trekked the rest of the morning alongside a large nature preserve and up several dry river beds. A blue heron sighting was one of the many treats of the day.

Lunch came just in time, as the sun was beginning to bake, and the terrain was relatively unforgiving between the banks of the dry river. We tied our horses near a secluded lake, and picniced happily on salad with pine nuts, and a delicious pesto pasta with mozzarella and sundried tomatoes. Not entirely Spanish perhaps, but with the addition of a couple of bottles of cava, no one seemed to mind.

After lunch a short dip in the cool, clear green lake, and then, ahh, an afternoon siesta beneath a pine tree. Once we all finally roused ourselves it was back up and back on, and we headed out for the afternoon.

The afternoon's ride was admittedly tiring, and seemed to wind endlessly up hills, through very dense forests that required much ducking beneath low trees, and then trots and canters over long, hot expanses of land. It was arduous, I am not going to lie, but luckily by this day I had gotten into a rhythm with the faster work, and learned to really wrap my lower body deeply around the horse so as to avoid too much strain on my knees. I used a great deal of core strength and lower body muscle to stay balanced without taxing my joints. The knee pain on the trip has been pretty difficult to bear at times, and wasn't a side effect I expected to be so acute.

The afternoon moved on slowly, and I realized what a true test of stamina, fitness and riding skill this trip has been. There have been points, especially near the ends of the days, or when encountering unpleasant surprises such as the wasp that stung both me and my horse today, that it has been a bit of mind over matter. I have to remind myself that I am here as much to conquer the challenge of doing something this adventurous as I am to see Spain and experience all of the life and vibrancy of its towns and countryside. There have, of course, been many great and exhilarating moments, when my breath has been taken away by the sheer beauty or excitement of the places we've been. But it has been a challenge too, and one I will be happy to say that I met.

A final observation about the trip thus far is that it has really given me an up close and personal view of the horse herd mentality. All throughout our trip, our horses, who are very used to living amongst one another, continue to both assert their independance and hierarchical positioning on the trail (my horse Senega has been one of the most defensive in terms of keeping other group members from usurping his position in line), and act, when necessary, as a tighly knit unit. We've had a couple of gallops that turned into mass chaos as one or two horses got too spirited and others decided to follow suit. We also had a group spook on the trail today, that sent a previously dead calm group of ponies into a simultaneous flight. I am happy to report that my well mannered mount wheeled to spook with them, but parked himself when I asked him to ease down and relax.

But now we are here at the Las Palma manor house, about to enjoy an outdoor candlelit dinner. So until tomorrow, buenos noches!!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Buenos soleil!!

I am happy to report that we survived days Two and Three of our equestrian trek without a single droplet of rain. Tuesday was a shorter day of riding, and though the weather was a bit cooler and moody, we had ample sunshine to light our way as we wound our horses through acres of golden apple orchards and dense olive groves. We passed a delightful assortment of wild fruit trees on the journey, and saw both pomegranates and figs hanging ripe and ready for picking. Our day ended out with a long stretch of canter alongside a magnificent wheat field, with the wind whipping our faces and bending the amber waves.

Day Three, today, was an aggressive day of riding and I anticipate feeling the effects in my hindquarters well into the weekend. We were richly rewarded, however, for our perseverance through Monday's wind and rain, as today's trek took us from the base of Mont Gris and up through glimmering pine forests, with views of the ocean below us and glimpses of the coastal town of L'Estratit, whose brightly colored and richly appointed summer homes overlook a huge swath of Mediterranean Sea.

Our horses climbed for a good hour, and once atop the mountain we rode through a nature preserve and out into very arid, rocky flatland, dotted with cacti and olive bushes. The sun blazed overhead but the breezes off the Mediterranean below were plentiful and kept the region perfectly temperate. It was here that we experienced one of the true highlights of the trip, a picnic lunch on top of a hidden rock outcropping, that revealed an almost unbelievable vista of the Mediterranean Sea. The water, almost too blue to be real, shined and shimmered as we munched on tuna and cheese sandwiches, dried nuts, and of course loads of Spanish olives. We paused after lunch to take brief siestas beneath the olive bushes shading the cliff, and I found it almost painful to think of leaving such a pristinely beautiful place to head back to the crush of New York City.

But leave we did, and wound our way back down the mountain until we hit a beautiful open ridge. We galloped almost the full length of the ridge, delighting in the sheer exhilarating speed and strength of our Spanish steeds. I couldn't help the smile that spread over my face as we truly felt as wild and free as our horses. "Though shalt fly without wings," was God's legendary command to the horse, and on top of Mont Gris we all did just that.That experience, of riding my horse with the wind in my face, the sun at my back, and the mountain dropping away on both sides into wide, tree covered ravines, was one of the high points of my entire life.

After our ridge gallop we entered into dense forests of both pine and deciduous trees, and I took deep breaths of the open mountain air and watched the Spanish sun sparkle through the canopy. Amongst those trees I felt completely at one with the natural world, a feeling I am kept almost entirely away from by my city bound existence. That my spirit sang as we stamped down those trails, and bent low beneath pine branches, forced me to philosophize on whether I am truly meant to be a city dweller.

We spent the rest of our day mostly on the flat as we approached the town of l'Escala. L'Escala's charming coastal houses were all painted bright colors, from pink and peach, to yellow, gold, and even royal blue. After quite literally riding through the center of town, and eliciting some wide eyed stares from attendant children, we finished our day by crossing wide fields at a canter and climbing several rolling hills.

At the trail's end we found waiting a beautiful Spanish manor house, to which we happily retired after bedding down our hardworking ponies for the night. Today's ride required a lot of muscle power and energy to keep up over the long distances, and both me and my horse Senega will likely sleep well. Assuming I can peel out of bed for tomorrow's six am wake up call, a beach gallop awaits, and I will finally get to realize a life long dream.

But more on that tomorrow. Buenos noches!!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Vamos Gallope!

The rain in Spain falls mainly on...my birthday? Our first day on the trail Monday started out gloriously, Spanish sun high and bright. It welcomed us as we saddled up at Mas Alba, a ranch located about an hour outside of Girona, Spain. We arrived the night before, and after our riding group had assembled from five different countries, we enjoyed a hearty meal at Mas Alba of rural Catalonian cuisine and rich Spanish wine. The accommodations there were delightful and quintessentially Spanish, with blue tiled bathrooms and bright striped bedding. The arched ceilings reminded one of living within a winery, or perhaps even a quaint hobbit swelling in middle earth.

Monday morning we awoke to find a string of fine Spanish horses tied and waiting for our acquaintance. Our guide matched me with a cute rose grey Andalusian, whose unique color came by virtue of his adolescent age, as he had yet to mature enough for his true silvery grey color to come in. We tacked up and headed out over waves of Spanish hills and past quaint haciendas, all brightly yellow golden in true Spanish style. Our horses were all Spanish speaking, and with a hearty shout of "Vamos gallope!" we would take off for long hand gallops through the open countryside. As midday approached we found ourselves winding through a quiet forest of white ash trees, all of them hand planted years before in neat symmetrical rows. The effect was almost Alice in Wonderland-ish, the trees almost too perfect to seem real.

It was here that our group felt what were to be the first drops of a long and unseasonable rain. We donned our rain gear but our small jackets were little match for the ensuing two hour torrent. The rain broke just in time to stop for a lunch time picnic deep in the woods, and we unsaddled wet horses and peeled off wet boots, before settling in for wine, cheese, olive spread on rich bread, and, best of all, some sunshine. Our group, knowing it was my birthday, produced two bottles of Spanish sparkling Cava, and when we finally returned to tack up our horses, we were all a bit giddy in spite of the wet.

We thought that would be the end of the rain but no such luck; as we approached a small Spanish town and walked through its narrow cobblestone streets, the first drops of a second storm fell our way. We made the best of things however, enjoying a couple of long gallops through the storm, which was an invigorating experience the likes of which I had never before enjoyed. The rain slowed our pace, however, and so night fell as we finished our trek to "the city in the rocks" a Spanish walled town carved out a large hillside, and built entirely out of stones.

After putting our horses up for the night, we showed up to our hotel soaked, chilled, and ready for a warm meal. We were richly rewarded with piping hot Spanish soup, full of vegetables, plates of bread and cheese, meats, and of course that wonderful rich red wine. As I tucked into bed, safe and warm and well fed, I knew that sleep would come easily and well. I also knew I had gotten a true taste of what life would have been like when horses were the only mode of travel, and rain or shine, one had to get from place to place with only their sturdy caballo to rely on. Hopefully, however, better rain gear as well.

I did learn that lesson well on this first day: always bring a change of clothes on the trail, if you are not smart enough to bring full emergency rain gear. It did occur to me as well how irritating it can be to get rained on in new York, when the press of business demands you not encounter untoward inconveniences to slow to down your day, but out in the Spanish countryside, it somehow felt like a grand adventure.

Day two to follow tomorrow. Dinner time calls! Buenos noches!!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Mis deseos han sido siempre caballos

A final post before I head off for my Andalucian adventure traveling up Catalonia's Costa Brava on Spanish horseback. I will be spending a week stopping over in coastal haciendas, sampling local wine and cuisine, and galloping verdant hillsides atop los caballos espa├▒oles. I anticipate dreaming tonight of big-hipped white horses with lush silver manes cantering across the sunny southern Spanish coasts.

But first, a check into this week's goings on in the rest of the horseworld.

  • Good news for the racing industry this week, as the Associated Press reported that the number of equine deaths on tracks in 2008 diminished by an (albeit slight) 3% since 2007. This news comes as a positive indicator that the wide swath of reforms instituted by Thoroughbred track and racing authorities over this past year is starting to prove effective in saving equine lives. Unfortunately an astonishing 1247 horses were still lost to track related deaths during 2008. It's clear that work on the issue needs to continue.
  • The FEI issued a report last week recommending reforms necessary to curb the now widespread problem of medication and performance enhancing drug abuse in equine athletes competing under the governing body. As this article from Practical Horseman's Nancy Jaffer reports, among the recommendations suggested by the commission: "better stable security; an “integrity unit” geared to keeping things corruption-free; review [of] anti-doping protocols" and paying judges and stewards for their effort to promote professionalism in those ranks.
  • The National Reining Horse Association has signed a deal to sponsor next year's World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, KY. As a sponsor of the competition, the NRHA will promote reining's continuing expansion into the realm of accepted international horse sports, and will showcase it's unique set of talented competitors by hosting the WEG's first freestyle reining exhibition.
And with that, it's off to Barcelona to bask in the richness of Spain's legendary equine heritage.

¡Rastros felices!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Galloping With the Great

The day's biggest horse sporting news comes to us courtesy of the famed Rachel Alexandra, who took Saratoga's Woodward Stakes (G. 1) by a nose at the wire in front of Macho Again. The beautiful filly grabbed the lead early on and kept hold of it with her characteristic tenacity. While the rest of the field turned up to the finish covered in mud slung from hooves of those in the lead, Rachel came in clean and clear, never having had to suffer anyone's rear view. Jockey Calvin Borel piloted the super filly with his characteristic style, giving the crowd a nod and a wave as he pulled her up past the finish. Though the track was deep and a bit muddy, seeing Rachel come in safely across the finish line on a beautiful, clear summer day in Saratoga, made her conspicuous absence from the Travers an obviously good choice. She has proved her Alexandra the Greatness once again.

As for me, it's one week and counting until I take off for a six day horseback trek through the Catalan region of Spain. I haven't made the final assessment yet of what I'll bring, beyond riding tights, boots, a raincoat, my helmet, half chaps, and foam saddle cushion. Yes buying the cushion felt like cheating, but if it saves my own rear view from the bumps and lumps it will have to endure for five hours a day cross country, it will be well worth the investment. I'll post details of the trip after I get back, along with tips for enjoying such an adventure in the future.