"My Girls" Were Great

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Heather and I took six horses to an unrecognized combined test (dressage and show jumping) and cross-country schooling at Twin Rivers Ranch in Paso Robles, Calif., this past weekend, an event we go to annually because it's a great way to start the season and to give young horses (and riders) some experience. All six horses went as well as they possibly could on a lovely weekend, but it was an extra-special weekend for me because it was a milestone for two of ?my girls,? two mares who are extra-special to me. Twin Rivers was the first show ever (and second time off the farm) for our homebred 4-year-old filly Phoenix Amani, and she went better and was even better behaved than I dared hope she could be. SHe's a high-octane horse who was rather a princess as a baby, but I was optimistic as sHe's become ever more workmanlike since starting in work last April. I tell people she seems to like being a ?working girl,? and she didn't make a liar out of me this weekend. Amani?s deportment was excellent, and she performed willingly, but greenly, on Saturday in the dressage and show jumping. (She had one refusal in the show jumping round?an ADD moment because she wasn?t looking at the second fence, until two strides away she looked down and saw it had brush boxes in front of it and was very surprised. I turned her around for the second attempt, and she cleared the jump by about four feet!) But I was especially pleased about how well she schooled on Twin Rivers? excellent cross-country course, which has fences from beginner novice to advanced. It was the first time she?d ever jumped outside of our ring, and I could feel her figuring out the footing and correctly adjusting to it. And she went very willingly through the water complex, over a small ditch several times, and up and down two banks. Honestly, I could feel her growing up underneath me, growing in understanding of her job. Before and during last weekend, I found myself vividly recalling the night in mid-May 2007 that Amani was born and the look on her face when she came out. She had such a mischievous look that we were sure she was a colt and were surprised to discover that she was a filly. She was born about dusk, and after the birthing was over, her dam, Gussie, looked rather drained as Amani cavorted around the stall. We gave Gussie a hot bran mash and dried her off, and she seemed to have rallied by the time we left the barn about midnight, with Amani suckling. But as I opened the barn doors just after 6 o?clock the next morning, I could hear Gussie moaning and could see she was severely colicking as I ran down the barn aisle to her stall. Heather called for our veterinarian, but he vet on emergency duty got stuck in rush-hour traffic and didn't arrive until more than 90 minutes later. I'd been walking Gussie in front of the barn, and she threw herself down in death throes as he turned into our driveway. He rushed for the euthanasia fluid to be sure her agony was over, and now we had a beautiful orphan foal to take care of. We suspect Amani nicked a blood vessel in Gussie during the delivery, and we'll forever thank Gussie for living for those critical first 12 hours and getting Amani the colostrum and for teaching her how to nurse, because it's so much harder to bottle-feed foals if they've never nursed. As soon as Heather came home with the foal formula, a couple of hours later, the famished Amani started sucking bottles down as fast as she could. My god, how time does fly by. It seems like only yesterday we were feeding her every two to three hours, night and day. It seemed like that was all we did. We did get a nurse mare later on that first day, but she wasn?t lactating, and it would be about 60 days before the drug therapy induced her body to produce sufficient amounts of milk and we could stop bottle feeding Amani. By the way, Amani is by the Irish-bred (3/4 Thoroughbred) stallion Formula One (owned by my good friend Denny Emerson), and Gussie (Gussie Up) was a Thoroughbred by a stakes-winning son of the great Sadler's Wells and her dam's sire is by the influential sire Danzig. Amani means "peace" in Swahili. We named her that because we'd been on safari in Kenya and Tanzania the winter before she was born with Heather's mom, who was celebrating her 60th birthday by doing something she?d always wanted to do. If you want to see photos of Amani, sHe's the horse in my article on longeing that's in the current (January) issue of the Horse Journal, on newsstands now. Amani reminded me of why I really do like to ride young horses?it's an extremely rewarding feeling to give them the right early training and experiences and to see them grow and prosper. I'm extremely pleased with her, but my 9-year-old Quarter Horse mare Alba (whose show name is Firebolt, as in Harry Potter?s magic broom) made me very happy and proud too. Alba?s former owner basically left her here in October 2008 (and we legally took ownership for non-payment), and I've written about her a number of times before. SHe's an over-achiever who got fried by the ?20 seconds, fast as you can? of barrel racing. We've worked hard to develop patience, on the flat and over fences, and to trust me to give her the right directions. She showed strong signs of getting there in her last event, last August, before I got hurt, and this weekend was by far the best sHe's ever gone. She warmed up for dressage in a relaxed and soft manner, and only got slightly tense as I rode around the dressage ring waiting for the judge to ring the bell. Once in, she began with fabulous trot work, in which she was waiting and listening, moving softly and with suppleness. She didn't jig at the free walk, although when we picked up the canter, I could feel her tense her back with anticipation??OK, Here's the canter; it's time to gallop!!!? But she took a breath after two movements and then went very nicely. The judge gave her an unbelievable score of 19, which, when you factor out schooling-show inflation, is probably a very low-30s score, which would be her best score every by about 9 points. Then I rode her over to the show jumping arena, and she warmed up like a hunter, just cantering on a soft rein over the 3?6? oxer. I had to work rather hard to stifle concern?is something wrong with her!' No, I told myself, sHe's jumping fabulously; just try to enjoy it. Despite my misgivings, I just let her stand next to the ring and watch, and then we walked into the ring when it was our turn, telling myself not to try to wake her up, that I was sure she?d ?light up? in the ring. And she did, having a panic attack about halfway down the ring, trying to wheel and gallop off. So I picked up the trot and trotted two circles, talking to her and working her. Then I cantered two circles and felt her take a breath, so I turned her toward the first fence. From there, she jumped beautifully clean, waiting for me and feeling like a solid, confident preliminary horse. I taught Alba to jump (and Amani too), and no one else has ever competed her. She and Amani were stabled next to each at the show and they're turned out together, and I'm going to believe that Alba has been sharing her experiences with her young prot?g?.