Wednesday, April 30, 2008

My first lesson on my own horse

Today I had my first lesson on my own horse. My trainer has given me several lessons before, but always on one of her horses, because Panama was still in training himself. He's improved a lot, though, so on Monday I asked if I could start taking my lessons on Panama.

Our lesson today went very well. Leslie put Panama on a lunge line so that I didn't have to focus as much on steering, and could concentrate more on rhythm and balance. It worked! By the end of the lesson, I was doing a much better job of posting, and had even managed to steer a little at the same time.

(Part of what is difficult about riding a horse is how many different things you have to think about and do at the same time. Each part of your body has to function independently of the rest. It's like the old trick of rubbing your belly while patting the top of your head, except times 10!)

I'm going to try to practice a few times on my own before the next lesson. Finding time might be difficult — we're supposed to have some nasty weather tomorrow, and then I'll have some scheduling conflicts for the rest of the week and into next week. As they say, though, where there's a will there's a way. I definitely have the will, so with any luck I'll be able to squeeze in a ride or two!

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Horseback riding without supervision

Although my trainer had Panama under saddle five or six months ago, I have always made sure someone was there with me when I rode him, just in case — usually Michael, but sometimes my mom, sister, or a friend.

Yesterday after Michael got home from work, I decided to go to the stables to visit and ride Panama. Since Michael wanted to go for a bike ride, I went alone.

My goal was to practice my trotting, and I did get a little practice in. However, I spent just as much time working on training issues. Apparently, Panama was acutely aware of the fact that he and I were alone in the pasture — no other horses, and no other people. He wasn't completely unmanageable, but his nervousness made it difficult to focus on trotting and posting the entire time.

Hopefully my lesson with my trainer will go a bit better.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Plans for our next training session

I rode Panama a little bit today after my trainer. She had me practice keeping him on the rail as she had been doing, and then had me practice trotting again.

Horseback riding

I'm having a hard time trotting in the new saddle. Just over a week ago, I was so proud of myself for posting the trot. The new saddle feels different, though, and it's throwing me off. I'm just not experienced enough to ride well in any saddle and any situation.

I've taken a handful of lessons on my trainer's horses, and during several lessons I rode bareback and learned to balance while trotting. Unfortunately Panama is much narrower than the horse I was practicing on, so I don't feel as balanced on him. Therefore I decided to ask Leslie if I can start doing lessons on Panama, so that I learn to ride with a feel for him rather than for another horse.

So that's the plan for our next training session: We're going to focus on training me instead of my horse. I'm also going to try to ride once more before then, to get a little more practice under my belt.

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A training session with my horse

I had my trainer over to the barn today to work with my horse. We rode him out in the front pasture, because it was empty and because it's close to the street. We're hoping riding in a pasture next to the street will help him become accustomed to hearing traffic sounds while he's being ridden.

The only other time I've ever ridden him in the front pasture was on the weekend, without Leslie. It was a difficult ride: Panama refused to turn to the left, and every time he made a right-hand turn he headed for home. In order to get him to go to the end of the pasture closest to the street, I had to literally dismount, lead him down there, and mount back up.

Of course, he listens to his trainer better than me, so Leslie was able to get all the little "bugs" out of him today. She practiced getting him to "stay on the rail" (i.e. stay near the fence and walk or trot parallel to it), which we haven't been able to do much of without an arena to practice in. She also made him push through several various fears, such as a branch that had fallen from a tree and a broken board in the fence.

Here's a short video of Leslie teaching my horse to stay near the fence, and forcing him to keep going past the broken board (which he had stopped to look at half a dozen times already).



Look at how easily Leslie posts the trot (that gentle up and down motion she does, instead of bouncing with every step). She makes it look so effortless! I can't wait until I have that much control while posting.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

My horse is scared of manhole covers

Last weekend, my horse jumped into oncoming traffic because he was scared to walk over a manhole cover. Judging by some events that happened on today's trail ride, I think we have need of some manhole cover desensitization training.

We encountered manhole covers twice during our ride today, both times in grassy areas alongside the trail. The first time, Panama slammed on the brakes and started backing up rapidly, throwing me forward in the saddle (but not causing me to fall off this time, thankfully). Then he went around the manhole cover, giving it a wide berth.

After that, I asked Karen to walk her horse directly over the next manhole cover she saw. We saw one a few minutes later, so she walked Lily over it. Panama almost walked over it this time, but he did pull up short at the last minute, and danced nervously around it.

I can see that my trainer is going to have to work with him on his fear of manhole covers!

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Birthday horseback ride

My biggest goal for my birthday, which was Saturday, was that I wanted to get a ride in. Unfortunately, my birthday horseback ride ended up being a little belated — thanks to a freak snowstorm and a few other things, I didn't get my ride in yesterday.

I did, however, get to ride today: I went on a 90-minute trail ride with Karen and her horse. All in all it went really well — Panama seems to enjoy trail rides, and settles in nicely once we're on the trail.

We had something of a rough start, though not the near-death experience of last weekend. My horse spooked himself pretty badly while in the cross ties by knocking over a tool box that the sprinkler guys had left. He remained pretty jumpy for a little while after that.

We also had some difficulty crossing the road. I led him across on foot this time, and when we were almost across Panama decided to plant his feet and refuse to go any further. Luckily there was no traffic at the time, because he was right in the middle of the lane! After a few nerve wracking seconds, he relented and followed me the rest of the way — dancing and prancing nervously the entire time.

Once we got on the trail, though, Panama settled in and enjoyed himself, just like our first trail ride last weekend (post accident). He still seems to be scared of manhole covers, but is getting noticeably better about the dogs and cyclists that we encounter on the trail. I think the more trail rides we go on, the better he'll get!

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My horse's very first saddle

I bought my horse his very first saddle today.

I had been borrowing a couple of saddles from my trainer: a Western saddle that was very worn and slippery (the one we trained him in initially), and a child-sized English saddle that we switched to a little while back. Neither of them were all that comfortable, which is why I was riding bareback so much.

A week or two ago, though, I decided it was time for Panama to have his very own saddle. I measured his withers and picked out a used English saddle at my favorite tack shop, and today we tried it for the first time. I'm very happy to report that it worked, and I promptly went back and bought it. I now have my own saddle!

The best part was that the saddle was very wallet-friendly: I got out of there having spent under $250 for the saddle, stirrup leathers, and stirrup irons. (My trainer gave me a girth and a saddle pad.) This is $100-$200 less than I had expected to spend, partly because my favorite saddle happened to be the least expensive one, and partly because I bought everything else used, too.

My trainer took some pictures of me in the new saddle today. We didn't use stirrups because she didn't want the leathers to scratch the saddle, in case it didn't work and I didn't want to buy it. (The leather looks practically new.)

I think my horse and I look pretty good in our new saddle. What do you think?

My horse's new saddle

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The barn is my refuge

I've found that having a horse helps me deal with the stress in my life. Last night, I started getting frustrated with my family, and suddenly what I wanted more than anything (even though it was 11 o'clock at night and I was getting ready for bed) was to go to the barn and hang out with my horse.

Spending time at the barn tends to refresh my mood and help me put everything into perspective. There is something so simple and pleasant and soothing about spending time with my horse: smelling his horsey smell, hearing his little nickers, and basking in his affection.

It's like time stops and the rest of the world disappears when I'm at the barn. Life is suddenly made up entirely of sun and pasture and horses.

It is pure happiness: my refuge.

Horses in a pasture

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A difference in my horse's behavior

I've noticed some different behavior in my horse since our accident Sunday, when Panama spooked and caused me to fall off in the middle of the road. He's always been vocal about certain things (like getting fed and, sometimes, greeting me), but suddenly he seems to be much more so.

The first time I noticed it was after our trail ride. I put him in the cross ties after we got back, so that I could take the tack off and brush him down. A couple of times when I walked away, he nickered to me as soon as I started back — something he has always done periodically, just usually when I stay away a little longer.

Yesterday the difference was even more obvious. While he stood in the cross ties so my trainer and I could get him ready for his ride, we walked to my car — no more than 10 feet from the cross ties, and within Panama's sight — to get the new saddle we were trying out. As soon as we shut the car door and started back, Panama whinnied to me very loudly.

Later, after the session, I left Panama in cross ties while I talked to Leslie at her truck. Here I wasn't visible to Panama, but I do this pretty much every time we have a training session, so it's nothing unusual. What was unusual was that Panama whinnied to me three times while I stood talking to Leslie. Each time, I popped my head around the cab and called back to him, "I'm still here, Panama."

(Technically, answering the whinnies reinforced them and encouraged him to do it again, but hey — I'm not going to discourage it. It's cute!)

Maybe after our little accident on Sunday, he's a little anxious about me leaving him. After all, to him it probably seemed like I "left" him in the middle of the road. I can't imagine how terrifying it had to be for him, to realize he suddenly had no one with him in an unfamiliar, and clearly very dangerous, place.

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Almost back to normal

I feel even better today than I did yesterday. I'm surprised how quickly I've recovered from falling off my horse on Sunday.

Something I've noticed: The first time I fell off my horse, it was into snow, which should have cushioned the impact somewhat. Even so, I was horribly stiff and sore the next day. This time, I fell onto pavement, but I've recovered more quickly and experienced less pain. I discussed some of my theories about that in yesterday's post.

I've also noticed that the injuries seem to be different this time. The first time I ever fell off Panama, the soreness and stiffness felt like it was in the muscles. This time, I've actually had very little muscle pain. I feel more bruised than anything — a section of my lower back is tender to the touch, and I'm expecting a bruise to show up in a few days.

I don't know why I'm not experiencing the same muscle soreness and stiffness. I suppose it could actually be that my muscles are stronger from the riding I've done since the first time I fell, but personally I think it's more likely that riding afterward helped to loosen up muscles that would otherwise have been sore and stiff.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Horses look so cute when they roll

I saw my horse roll for the first time today.

It was after Panama's session with the trainer, and he was pretty sweaty — he got a good workout today. After I gave him a little snack (carrots and a couple of handfuls of hay), I turned him back out into the pasture. He was still a little damp.

I put my tack away and then peeked out into the pasture one more time before leaving. I didn't see him at first, but then I spotted him — on the ground in the herd's favorite sunbathing corner, rolling around with his feet in the air.

It was funny to watch. He kept rolling back and forth on the same side, and then finally pushed himself over onto the other. Then he moved his head and neck around in the dust, kind of like our dog does when she rolls and rubs her face in the grass.

I knew he had gotten into rolling since coming to this barn around Christmas, but this is the first time I'd had the pleasure of seeing it. Horses look pretty cute when they roll, and seeing my own horse roll cracked me up. I think he was doing it to get rid of the sweaty sensation (horses often roll when they're wet).

I laughed and called to him, "Panama, do you feel better now?" He hadn't realized I was watching, apparently, because when he heard my voice he picked his head up, looked at me, and then scrambled to his feet — as if I'd caught him doing something private or prohibited.

Horses are such funny creatures!

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Recovering from falling off my horse

Surprisingly, after falling off my horse yesterday, I feel almost normal this morning.

I was expecting to be quite stiff and sore when I woke up. I've found that injuries and sore muscles are usually worse the second day. So I was quite surprised when I got up this morning and realized I had no pain, and only a little stiffness.

When I fell off my horse the first time, I was extremely stiff and sore the next day — and I had only fallen on snow. Since this time I fell on pavement, I was expecting today to be even worse.

I'm not sure what the difference is, but I have my theories. My number one theory is that riding my horse afterward helped to reduce the tension and swelling in my back. As we rode, I could actually feel the pain from the fall going away. It felt like the rhythmic rocking motion of the horse's rump was loosening everything up.

The idea that a horse's movement can be therapeutic is not a new one. Hippotherapy, which is physical therapy that uses the horse's movement in exercises, is a growing movement. I've known about it for a while, which may be why I made the connection between riding and the reduction of pain in my back.

It also may have helped that I iced my back for about 2 hours last night, followed by a moderately hot bath. I also took 2 Motrin in the evening (before the ice), because the stiffness and pain had gotten worse throughout the afternoon and early evening.

Unfortunately, it seems that working may undo some of these benefits. I am sitting on the couch with my laptop on my lap, because it's the most comfortable for my back and the easiest way to ice it; however, since I started writing this blog post, I've become considerably more aware of the fact that my neck is a little stiff, probably because I have to look down at my screen.

I guess when my laptop battery dies (in about half an hour), I'll plan on finding a more comfortable position in which to work. In the meantime, I'll just keep looking up and moving my head around periodically.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

My first trail ride on Panama

After falling off my horse, we all went back to the driveway to regroup.

This entire time is still somewhat of a blur in my memory, but I remember that everyone kept asking if I was okay. "I'm fine," I kept saying dismissively. I was more interested in soothing Panama: stroking his neck, hugging him, talking to him. I can't even tell you how relieved I was that he hadn't gotten hurt.

Pretty quickly, the conversation turned to whether we should still go on our trail ride. I remember telling them that I wanted to, but I don't recall who mentioned it first. We discussed how to go about crossing the road again, and decided it would be best for me to walk Panama across.

Panama was a little nervous walking across the road, and once we were across, he kept leaning his shoulder into me. I'm not sure if he was trying to lean on me for reassurance (something baby horses sometimes do), or if he was trying to shoulder me toward home. It could have been a little bit of both.

Anyway, I mounted up once we were about 30 feet down the hill from the road. From then on, Panama was a little nervous at times, but overall he did great. He seemed to be pretty secure following one or both of the other horses. Most of the time we rode with someone in front, someone in back, but there were also times when we brought up the rear.

On the trail today, Panama conquered almost all of his fears: He walked right by screaming kids, dogs, and bicycles, all without jumping or throwing me again. A couple of times a felt him tense up beneath me, but usually his frantically flicking ears were the only things that betrayed his nervousness. I talked to him the entire time, so they kept flicking back to listen to me, and I think that helped to keep him grounded.

The only fear that kept him a little jumpy was the wind. It picked up toward the end of our ride, and every time a strong gust blew past us, he pranced and trotted nervously. That happened about half a dozen times, and I'm honestly not sure whether he stopped because the wind died down, because he started to get over his fear, or just because he noticed the other horses were walking calmly.

When we got back to the barn, Susie and Karen decided to back out, having cut their ride a little short (and a little slow) for me and Panama. I took off all Panama's gear, brushed him, and put him in his stall with a little carrots and grain. He was back to acting like his usual affectionate self, nickering to me in greeting and to ask for his treats.

After that, I turned Panama back out into the pasture. Two of the other horses, his "girlfriend" and the other gelding who is interested in her (my horse is part of a love triangle!), came right up to him. The mare stood facing him so that their necks crossed, while the gelding sniffed him from nose to tail, like he was checking him over for injuries.

It was as if they knew about the accident, even though there was no way they could have seen.

Apparently satisfied that everything was okay, the three of them walked over to their favorite sunbathing corner. I stood watching them for several minutes before finally heading home to finally find out how badly I was hurt.

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My horse almost got me killed

I had quite a scare today... Or at least, it should have been a scare. It still feels unreal to think how close I came to getting really seriously injured.

Today was the day for my first trail ride. Panama was in a good mood, and our grooming session went well. He didn't act annoyed about the saddle, either. In fact, he seemed almost eager to go, somehow realizing that today he was going with the others (who trail ride regularly).

Karen, Susie, and I all mounted up and started off. We walked them down the driveway, turned, and followed the narrow sidewalk on the same side of the road as the barn. I had the fleeting thought that Panama hadn't been down that side of the road very far, as we always crossed the road almost immediately, but I was still fixated on the fact that Leslie said he did really well on Wednesday's trail ride. I was overconfident, so in a way this was partially my fault.

As we walked down the sidewalk, a couple of things happened that probably contributed to Panama being freaked out: A noisy motorcycle roared past us, another of the horses (Panama's mentor in the herd) spooked about something, and my hat started to blow off. Then we came across a manhole cover in the middle of the sidewalk, and that was the last straw for poor Panama.

He sidestepped closer to the road, trying to avoid having to step on the manhole. Then, with traffic coming, he stepped sideways right off the sidewalk and into the road.

I'm not sure entirely what happened next. I remember seeing oncoming traffic as he stepped off the sidewalk. Then I was on the ground with the sensation of just having flown through the air and landed on the pavement, and the vaguest perception of having heard tires squealing.

I think what happened was that Panama was so focused on the manhole that he hadn't noticed the oncoming car. He stepped out into the road and then noticed it. Karen and Susie said that he jumped completely sideways, and I just came off.

From the time I hit the ground, I didn't take my eyes off my horse. I knew that the oncoming car had stopped without hitting us (though this was a closer call than I realized — apparently his tire stopped a mere foot from my leg). I watched, feeling completely helpless, as Panama veered into the traffic heading the other way; thankfully, the car that was coming slowed down for him, and he came to his senses and headed home.

While I was watching all this, I had somehow gotten to my feet and was trying to catch up to Panama. (Again, no memory of actually getting to my feet.) Of course, there's no way a person on foot can catch up to a trotting horse, and I was probably moving a little slow anyway. In any case, Panama headed for home, where one of the other horse owners caught him.

As I was walking back toward the driveway, where Panama was, the poor driver who almost hit us pulled over next to me. "You gonna talk to me?" he asked.

I immediately thought he was angry. "I'm sorry, sir, I was just trying to catch my horse."

"I think the horse is gonna be fine," he said. Of course, he was right — Panama was already heading down the driveway toward the barn. "But are you okay? Did I get you?"

Instantly I realized the poor guy was worried about me, not angry at me. "Oh, no, I'm fine," I reassured him. On impulse I grabbed his hand in both of mine (he was leaning across the armrest, gesturing toward me) and thanked him profusely for paying attention, for stopping, for not running over me. I actually am not sure exactly what I said, just that I said "Thank you so much" in at least three different ways.

That seemed to relieve the tension. The man smiled, we parted, and he drove off as I hurried to where my horse was being held.

I was starting to feel the effects of the fall, but in the end we went for our trail ride anyway — we just didn't do any more than walk the horses, and we didn't go for very long. And amazingly, Panama did very well. I'll tell that part of the story in my next post.

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Walk, trot, and post

Yesterday I rode my horse in my borrowed English saddle for the first time without my trainer present (and only the second time I've been in that saddle). I prefer riding bareback, in part because the English saddle I'm borrowing from my trainer is made for a child's butt — and I'm just not experienced enough yet to feel secure in any saddle. I feel like I'm perching on top of it rather than sitting in it — and I only weigh 125 pounds!

Unfortunately, I'm also not balanced enough to trot for very long on my horse's narrow back without falling off, and there was absolutely no way I was going to take him out on the trails bareback. So I decided yesterday would be a good day to practice with the saddle.

All in all, it went pretty well. Panama was slightly less well behaved with the saddle on, which makes me think he likes it when I ride bareback, too. I had to kick his shoulder a few times to make him go in the direction I wanted to, which I haven't had to do in a while. Also, he was reluctant to stop when I gave the command. We'll have to work on that one next time...

We trotted quite a bit (for me) though, and that was a complete success. The first few times Panama dropped to walk after only a handful of strides, as he is accustomed to me asking him to do so when I ride him bareback (because I frequently have to get him to slow down in order to avoid falling off). However, once I was able to convince him that I wanted him to keep going, I was able to practice posting — another thing I'm not very good at doing bareback.

Posting, in case you didn't know, is the half-time up-and-down rhythm you see some riders doing in Western movies. Rather than bouncing with each step the horse takes, you lift up slightly for one step, sit down on the next, over and over. It takes some of the jarring bounciness out of the trot.

You can't put your weight in the stirrups and stand in order to post, though — it's more of a subtle hip motion, achieved by having really good inner thigh muscles (you brace yourself by gripping with your thighs, rather than standing on your feet). That particularly subtlety has been difficult for me, as I was originally taught (by a family friend when I was a preteen) to just stand up a little in the stirrups. Yesterday, however, on the last few tries, I felt like I really got it.

My friend Cindy was there with me (since, remember, I am not comfortable riding without supervision yet — just in case), and she took some pictures. I'm not crazy about most of them, since I think my posture and technique looks pretty sloppy in most of them — hands held too high, shoulders slumped instead of straight, etc. (I did notice in the pictures, though, that I'm sitting back on my butt more now — something my trainer has been bugging me to do since the beginning.)

Anyway, here are a couple of pictures for you:

Horseback riding

Me and my horse

Today will be an even bigger day: I am scheduled to go on a trail ride with the stable owner and another boarder. I'll be sure to blog about it later!

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Colorado horse-drawn carriage in the news

Tonight I spotted this story about a health fair in a small Colorado town that used a horse-drawn carriage to shuttle visitors back and forth between the buildings.

It's a cute idea; the horses are beautiful, and the covered wagon is pretty cool — but I can't help but think of some of the ills of the horse carriage industry.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

More bareback riding and a relaxed evening at the barn

This evening my mom and I went to the barn to visit my horse. I wanted to ride a little, and since I still don't ride without someone there, I asked my mom to come along.

It was a perfect evening to hang out at the barn. It was beautiful today: sunny, with temperatures in the mid 60s today. We brushed Panama (who has gotten pretty dirty again since his bath), then put his bridle on and took him out back.

I rode bareback, as usual. I attempted trotting for the first time since falling off last weekend — although I did feel pretty unstable once, overall I did better. I guess I just need to get used to the fact that Panama is much narrower than the horse my trainer was giving me bareback lessons on earlier this year.

Several other owners arrived while we were there, but it still felt pretty laid back. We chatted with the newest owners to have moved to the barn, a woman who rescued two rather underfed, neglected horses. That's also when I took the video of Panama requesting a kiss.

I love sunny, relaxed evenings at the barn. I could easily hang out with my horse for hours — and I think he'd rather like that, too!

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My horse requests a kiss

Panama has the cutest habit of sticking his nose between the bars of his stall to get it kissed. Although I've been kissing my horse's nose all along, it was actually the stable owner who taught him this trick. (She is very affectionate with all the horses, which I love.)

I take full advantage of it, though, because I like kissing Panama's nose and because I think it's just too friggin' cute.

A little while back, I promised a fellow writer, Amy Derby, that I would get a video of this. So here it is!

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Who says horses aren't companions?

I posted this video on my writer's blog last year. It's pretty cute: Patches the horse goes for a ride in the car, eats a "cheeseburger" (most likely it's not really a burger), gets a beer out of the fridge, talks on the phone, and tucks himself into bed.




Horses are our friends, just like any dog or cat — except, in my opinion, that they are smarter and therefore capable of more satisfying relationships with their handlers.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pros and cons of Colorado weather

Colorado is a great place to own a horse. Although our winters aren't exactly mild, the weather fluctuates so much that we have warm, dry days alternating with the cold, snowy ones.

Case in point: the warm, mild weather that precluded today's snowstorm. Monday was in the mid-60s and sunny; and evidently, yesterday it got up to 82 degrees in some parts of town, despite strong winds. I took full advantage of the weather, spending several hours at the barn on Monday.

This morning it was sunny and in the low 40s, but with snow predicted later in the day. Sure enough, while Panama was on his first trail ride it started snowing — for about 30 seconds at a time. It would snow briefly, clear up for five or ten minutes, then start all over again.

The weather held (just barely) until a little while after Panama returned from his trail ride. Shortly after I left the barn, it began snowing in earnest. For the rest of the afternoon, we were treated with a typical Colorado spring snowstorm: thick, wet, heavy snow that melted quickly on the roads and covered the grass with a slushy blanket of white.

Luckily, tomorrow morning is supposed to see the tail end of the storm. By Friday we're supposed to be back into the mid-60s, with the warmer temperatures staying for the rest of the weekend. I intend to get plenty of riding in while I can!

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My horse's first trail ride (without me!)

My horse went on his very first trail ride today — without me!

I was concerned that Panama would be too spooky for me to handle on the trail at first, so I had my trainer take him out with the stable owner and her horse. I would have liked to have gone too, but there wasn't a horse I could ride.

So since I didn't get to go, I made sure to take lots of pictures to mark the event. Here is Panama posing with my trainer, just before they left:

My horse and his trainer

And there they go, without me:

My horse's first trail ride - without me!

While they were gone, I sat in the car and pretended to work, looking up every minute or two to see if they were back yet. They were gone for probably 45 minutes, but when they got back my trainer had good news to report: Panama did fabulously!

She said he led part of the way, which is huge because I thought he was going to be really anxious about where his buddies were. They also trotted, crossed bridges, and waded through water that was more than knee-deep.

The stable owner already invited me to go with her and another boarder this weekend on their usual Sunday afternoon ride. I'm very seriously considering it!

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The view from my horse's back

I took this picture while riding Panama on Sunday. I was checking my camera battery, and the camera snapped this shot before shutting down.

The view from my horse's back

Yep, that's what it looks like to ride!

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

More on the Parelli bitless/bridleless approach

In researching the Parelli approach to horse training, I have found many YouTube videos advocating bareback, bitless horseback riding.

This video is one user's homemade propaganda against the use of bits and spurs:



And this video by the same user is a demonstration of riding a horse bareback and bitless:



I actually agree with the theory that using less force creates a better relationship between you and your horse. I just don't think you have to do it the Parelli way. The bit I use with Panama is nothing more than a flexible rubber bar — no metal goes in his mouth whatsoever. It is the gentlest bit I could use, and I intend to keep it that way.

I also don't believe in using spurs — at all. Panama responds to clucking or verbal commands to walk, trot, etc., so I often don't even bother using my legs at all. And if I do, a barely perceptible squeeze with my calves usually does it.

Personally, I like the idea of keeping the bit there for safety's sake. I can keep Panama's mouth from hurting by using as little pressure as possible on the bit, but if something happens and he panics, I'm going to need that bit in order to bring him back to reality. Maybe when he's older and more experienced, I'll be able to do away with the bit — but right now, he is still young and flighty.

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Talking about Parelli training approaches

One of the other horses at my barn, a mare the same age as Panama, has only been trained via natural horsemanship — specifically, the Parelli approach. Yesterday, however, her owner came to watch my trainer work with Panama. She was duly impressed, and scheduled several appointments for my trainer to come and work with her horse, too.

We all got to talking then about the training methods that had been used on her mare. I was astonished by how hokey some of it sounded. I definitely see the benefits of using less force and fostering more of a relationship with your horse — but I think you can achieve that while still using traditional techniques like voice commands.

For instance, the mare's owner said that her trainer at the other place told her that the signal for her horse to stop was to sit back and "let all her energy out." Now, I don't argue with the fact that your horse will learn to read subtle cues like that from you, but what exactly is the problem with a good, old-fashioned "Whoa"?

There are many examples of YouTube of trainers and riders working with their horses using the Parelli techniques. The demonstration I liked best was this one, but unfortunately it can't be embedded, so you'll have to go to the site to watch it.

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My horse stayed clean...

I mentioned on Sunday that I gave my horse a bath. Since I put him back in his stall when he was still a little damp, I thought he'd be filthy this morning.

Actually, though, he wasn't too dirty. He had a few little mud spots on him, but for the most part his white fur was still astonishingly white (especially after months of seeing him dirty).

Here's a picture that my friend Cindy (who was there yesterday) took of my horse in cross ties, before my trainer arrived:

My horse stayed clean!

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Horse training after a break

My trainer came today and worked with my horse for the first time in several weeks — we had skipped a week, and then last week we had to reschedule because of a snowstorm.

Panama did pretty good, considering that I've been the only person riding him for the last few weeks, and I'm not nearly as demanding as my trainer. (I mostly walk him, and work on steering and stopping — two areas where Panama likes to take advantage of me.)

One thing I noticed Panama has lost the feel for is dropping his head while my trainer is riding him. She says the profile of his nose should be nearly vertical, so that he uses the muscles in his back more. Unfortunately, I don't remember how to ask him to lower his head, so I haven't been practicing that.

Panama also seemed to have gotten rusty on picking up the correct lead when my trainer asks him for a canter (which I definitely don't do with him yet). However, she tried a flying lead change today for the very first time, and he did okay — he got it half-right the first time, and did it correctly the second time!

All in all, for having had a few weeks off, Panama didn't do too badly!

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

My horse's first bath of the year

Today I gave my horse his first bath of the year.

Panama has only had a handful of baths in his life, his first being late summer or early fall of last year. Plus, I moved to the new barn in the middle of winter, so until today he had never had a bath in cross ties.

I was a little worried that he wouldn't take it very well, but I was pleasantly surprised. He is still a little nervous about the hose, and not crazy about being sprayed with water, but he tolerated it all pretty well.

It was about 65 degrees today, so I bathed Panama as quickly as possible and then took him out into the sun to dry. The afternoon sun was quite warm, and he dried off pretty quickly. He also got a bucket full of hay to munch on while he dried, which (I'm hoping) made up for the indignity of the bath.

Unfortunately, Panama was still slightly damp when it was time to leave, and he probably laid down in his run shortly after I left — he likes to nap in the late afternoon sun. I'm guessing that my horse will be dirty all over again tomorrow.

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My second time falling off my horse

Yesterday my friend Cindy and I went to the stables to visit my horse. We groomed Panama, and then I lunged him. He was behaving himself, so I decided to ride him.

I rode bareback again. I haven't been trotting him much, but again, he was behaving himself, so I decided to try a little more trotting than usual.

Unfortunately, Panama has a much narrower back than my trainer's horse, who I was riding bareback in my lessons. This means that there is much less room for error — I can't slip very far to the side before I'm falling off.

Predictably, I started slipping while Panama was trotting. This happened a few times, but the last time was the worst: I was literally falling off. I grabbed the handle on the bareback pad to try to haul myself back up. I think I also said, "Panama, Mommy's falling!"

Unfortunately, something about the way I said that or grabbed on caused Panama to panic. I felt him start to canter, and next thing I knew I was standing on the ground, watching the mud flying from my horse's feet as he ran off.

I honestly don't know how I managed to land on my feet, but it probably has something to do with the fact that my horse is short (about 14 hands), and that I was riding bareback: Because I was slipping down one side (without a saddle and stirrup to keep me square on his back), my foot wasn't far from the ground by the time I "fell."

What I'm still not sure about, though, is how my other leg followed me over without knocking me on my butt. In any case, Cindy and I were both laughing pretty hard.

Panama ran right over to the other horses in the pasture, and tried to hide behind his girlfriend (a mare in heat whom he has been hanging out with a lot lately). I think the other horses must have been giving him crap about it, because one of them bit his rump to chase him off, and his girlfriend kept moving off.

Panama looked rather harassed when I caught up to him, but he let me catch him without too much trouble. I mounted right back up, though I didn't try trotting again — I wanted to be sure I finished the ride off on a more positive note. He was well behaved for the rest of the ride, and it was almost like the incident had never happened.

I'm still laughing about the entire thing, though — I can't believe I fell off and landed on my feet!

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Does a girl on a horse sell lingerie?

Summer '08 Victoria's Secret catalogueThe most recent Victoria's Secret catalogue arrived today. (It's the summer catalogue, and it arrived on the same day as our first spring snowstorm, which seems ironic — but that's another story.) I was surprised to see that, for the first time that I can remember, the cover picture features a girl on a horse.

I'm not sure how exactly a girl on a horse is supposed to sell lingerie. I guess supposedly it's sexy because she's "riding" bareback. (Riding my a$$. She's just sitting there. She's not even holding the reins properly.)

Of course, like all things, the reality of it isn't sexy at all: Riding bareback actually does a number on a girl's, er, little "jewel." I am usually too bruised and friction-burned for at least a day after riding bareback to even think about being sexy.

I've been thinking a lot about why Vicky's Secret deviated from their usual windblown beach shots for this catalogue's cover. I guess in the photographer's and designer's minds, most little girls love horses. Some of those little girls grow up to be real horse owners (who aren't fooled by the wishful thinking in this picture), but for most, a picture like this just reminds them of a childhood dream.

The question is, though, does that childhood dream sell lingerie and sexy clothing? Not for more experienced horsewomen, I'm afraid — actually owning a horse has taught me the value of practical clothing. And really, can you imagine how uncomfortable trotting would be in either of these tops?

Victoria's Secret model on a horse

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Bringing a friend to the stables

Yesterday evening I brought a friend to the stables to meet my horse. I was good friends with Cindy several years ago, but we haven't been in touch for the last couple of years.

Cindy is a little afraid of horses, but she was still game to go with me to meet Panama. Unfortunately, he was being a little bit of a jerk at first: When we were standing next to him in his stall, he swung his head around and tried to bite my leg. He got a good smack for that, and you could almost see the wheels turning as he thought about why he was in trouble. After a moment, he turned around to look at my leg again, but he didn't try biting me again.

Panama was also moving his head all around as Cindy was trying to pet his nose, which made her nervous. She went and visited with the other horses over the fence and through the bars of their stalls (there are some pasture horses, some stabled horses). Meanwhile, I put Panama in cross ties.

When Cindy was done visiting, we brushed Panama for a bit. This was when she really blossomed. She loved brushing Panama, which enabled him to relax too (he is sensitive to when people are nervous around him). I think he actually enjoyed the brushing quite a bit.

In the end, I'd say the introduction was a success. Cindy wants to come with me more often to visit my horse, so that she can get over her fear of them, she says. Next time we're going to go during the day, so that she see him strut his stuff on the lunge line (and maybe with me riding him, too)!

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

My reason for visiting the horse rescue

I've already blogged about my visit to the horse rescue and the draft horses I saw there. What I didn't explain was my reason for going in the first place.

Since my own horse is a rescue in every sense of the word, I feel pretty strongly about the need for horse rescues. I've been thinking lately about volunteering at one, but something that happened recently helped me to decide which rescue and when.

Up until recently, there was a very sweet Mustang at the barn where I board Panama. Her right rear lower leg had been badly injured in a farrier accident, and it was beginning to appear she might never heal to the point of being rideable. About a month ago, her owner decided to get rid of Pocono in favor of a horse she could train and ride.

As it turned out, "finding Pocono a good home" turned out to be giving her to a horse rescue. I was already disappointed that her owner was giving her up, but I was even more disappointed that she sent her to a rescue. In my opinion, buying a horse is the same as making a commitment to that animal; Panama is my best friend, and I would never give him up in favor of a "better" horse, no matter what happened to him.

However, I do have to say that I think Pocono is better off at this horse rescue. They are getting her the medical attention she needs, and although it may not make her any more rideable, I feel good knowing she is well cared for. It almost makes up for the regret I felt that we couldn't afford to "save" her, too.

Having lived the first 18 months of her life in the wild, Pocono is extremely shy and sensitive to even the most subtle body language. We had gained her trust while she and Panama were neighbors, but I wasn't sure how she would react to us walking right up to her in the pasture.

Just as I feared, she was a little skittish — she sniffed us and seemed to remember us, but wouldn't let us get too close.

Pocono, a 4-year-old Mustang

It turned out the vet had been down the day before. It had been a difficult experience for her, and possibly made her even more wary of people.

Michael and I tried for a little bit to get her to warm up to us, but eventually gave up and started visiting with the other horses. Before leaving, though, we went back over to say goodbye to Pocono — and she came right up to us! I was even able to stand next to her shoulder and stroke her neck.

Here she is watching us leave — she had followed us back to the gate:

Mustang at a horse rescue

The entire visit to the horse rescue was extremely satisfying, and I fully intend to go back — both to visit Pocono, and to volunteer more at the facility.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Draft horses: Equine giants

There were more than half a dozen draft horses at the horse rescue I visited. These actually belonged to the woman who managed the rescue, but she invited us to visit with them as well as the rest of the horses.

I have seen some pretty large horses pulling carriages on the Sixteenth Street Mall in Denver, but I have never before been this close to — let alone handled — a horse this size. Draft horses are amazingly gentle, though, considering how big they are. I guess when you're that big, you don't have to be pushy or aggressive to get your way.

My favorite of the draft horses was a mare named Primrose. She was perhaps 16 hands — at least, that's what I'm guessing, because her withers were about even with the top of my head. Although that doesn't sound that big, draft horses are massively muscled, so they tend to appear much larger than a lighter horse of the same height.

Draft horse at a horse rescue

Primrose was extremely sweet and gentle. After my husband took these pictures and I finished brushing her, we started to walk away, and she walked along between us just like we had her on a lead rope. When we stopped, she put her head over my shoulder and her cheek against mine, and "snuggled" like that for a little while before moving away.

I wish we'd gotten a picture of that, but the next one is almost as good. In it you can see her most striking feature, long white eyelashes over her left eye:

Visiting with a big draft horse!

The biggest draft horse at the rescue stands 18 hands, 1 inch. His head was humongous! He was in a stall, so I didn't get a picture with him. However, my husband did get a picture of me with one almost as tall. The amazing thing is, this horse is only 2, so he's actually still growing:

Another great big draft horse

I brushed this horse too, and he was so tall that I had to stand on tiptoe to brush his back — not that I could see what I was doing! (His belly, on the other hand, was much easier to brush than Panama's, because I didn't have to bend down at all.)

Odin was sweet but very mouthy, being young still. It's a little disconcerting to have a mouth that big trying to nibble on you!

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My first visit to a horse rescue

Today I visited a horse rescue for the first time. Although I have many stories to relate (and therefore many different blog posts coming in the next few days), right now I want to describe what the experience was like.

But first, let me preface that by saying that I usually find animal shelters (i.e. cats and dogs) difficult to visit. I can't walk in and see all those animals in cages, barking or meowing pitifully, without wanting to take home at least one.

The horse rescue I visited was very different. It surprised me, but it felt like such a happy place, even though many of the horses came from kill auctions and neglectful owners. It wasn't overcrowded or anything — even full, there was plenty of room for all of the horses. All of the horses were turned out into pasture during the day, and were returned to their own stalls at night.

Some of the horses were recovering from injuries, but most were pretty healthy. The woman who manages the facility trains them and finds them homes, so rather than being a last refuge for them, it's more like a stopover while they wait for a new home.

For most of the horses, that is. Some of the horses belong to the manager, and others aren't likely to find a home any time soon. I'll blog about some of both in future posts.

My visit to a horse rescue

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I love the smell of horse sweat

I got into a discussion about horse smells the other day on a writing blog I frequent. I mentioned that I love the smell of horse sweat, and the blog's owner was really surprised — not just that horse sweat has a distinct smell, but that horses sweat at all. (Dogs don't sweat, so someone who doesn't know much about horses could logically assume that they're the same way.)

When Amy asked what horse sweat smells like, I didn't know how to answer. It's a very clean, earthy, almost primitive smell — much different than the smells of manure or dirty stalls, which people usually assume horses smell like.

Actually, horses that are pasture kept don't smell like manure or dirt at all. They smell like "sunshine and fields," as another commenter said.

When my horse was kept on the in-laws' pasture, I used to love to bury my nose in the warm fur on his neck, breathing in the horsey scent. I can't do that anymore, particularly now that he loves to roll in the dust, but I still get to enjoy the smell of his sweat after he's gotten a good workout.

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Busy day at a small barn

One of the things I like about a small barn is not having a lot of activity around when I'm there. Interacting with my horse is often a very private thing for me, and I don't like a lot of distraction. Besides, a lot of commotion makes Panama more nervous and fidgety.

Sometimes, though, even a small barn gets busy — particularly right now, when everyone wants to take advantage of the mild spring weather.

Today when my sister and I arrived at the barn so that I could ride my horse, there was a lot going on:

* One of the owners and her son was visiting with her horse in one of the private pastures.
* Another owner and his two kids were lunging and riding his horse in the big pasture.
* Three horses and their owners returned from a ride shortly after we arrived, and groomed their horses at the hitching posts in front of the barn.
* The owner of the stables got all the horses' grain ready.
* The cleaning crew came and cleaned the horses' stalls a little later during our visit.

During most of this, I had Panama in cross ties while I groomed him. The cross ties are in the entryway of the barn, though, so there was a lot of traffic: people walking back and forth, pushing wheelbarrows filled with manure or getting out/putting away tack, bringing horses through, etc.

On days like this, I am very glad to have Panama stabled at a small barn. At a big barn, such as the one my trainer works at, this would be considered quiet!

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A Sunday horseback ride

This afternoon my sister and I went out to the stables to visit my horse. My sister hadn't yet seen Panama lunged or ridden, so it was a big deal for her. I also hadn't been able to ride since last Sunday, since I don't like to ride when no one is there, just in case.

I lunged Panama first for 5 to 10 minutes in each direction. He was pretty well behaved, especially for not having been worked in a week. My sister was impressed at how easily he followed verbal cues and commands. She also kept commenting on how pretty he was when he trotted and cantered. (He is exceptionally graceful and smooth, perhaps because of the Arabian blood in him, or just because he is smaller and lighter than most horses.)

After lunging Panama, I rode him bareback for another 15 minutes or so. He followed my commands a little better than last time, so I didn't have to wrestle with him much. Maybe he was showing off for my sister, too!

Riding my horse bareback

Although I think I look kind of sloppy and slouched in this next picture, I like it anyway, because of the Rocky Mountains spread out behind me:

Horseback riding in Colorado

Colorado is the perfect backdrop for the horse owner's life!

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Friday, April 4, 2008

Getting rid of ear mites

I cleaned Panama's ears out again yesterday, and coated the insides with Vaseline for the second time.

He has gotten noticeably better about it since I first discovered he had ear mites. Just like last time, I tied him to the hitching post with some hay to distract him. He tried to shake me off a few times while I was scrubbing out the inside of his ears, but I actually think the warm, damp washcloth felt pretty good, because he didn't seem to mind it when I wasn't scrubbing.

Honestly, I think the biggest problem is that when I rub the ear mites, it makes his poor ears itch more. Sometimes it seems like he's trying to rub his head against me to scratch them, rather than to throw me off.

Even more surprising was how easily he submitted to the Vaseline. With the first ear, he didn't toss his head at all. He put up a bit more of a fuss with the other ear, but it was still a marked improvement over the last time!

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Pictures of my horse lying down

There is something about seeing a 1,000 pound animal lying down with his legs tucked up under him that is just SO cute.

Actually, with my horse it's more like 750 pounds (he's small, only 14 hands). But still, you get the point.

I visited today during the evening, when the horses like to bask in the last remaining sun for the day. When I arrived, Panama was lying in his run, soaking up the rays:

My horse lying down

Isn't he adorable?

This is the horses' lazy time — and when a 1,000- (or 750-) pound animal is determined not to get up or move, there's not all that much you can do about it. So Panama didn't get up for several minutes after I arrived. I squatted next to him and "snuggled" him, pet his neck and belly, checked out the wounds on his legs, etc., and he just stayed right there.

Of course, I had to take a bunch of pictures since I hadn't been able to take any the other time he did this:

My horse lying down

My horse lying down

I am so in love with my horse!

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New horse owners at the barn

Earlier this week, three new horses arrived at the barn where Panama is stabled. One is a mare only a month older than Panama. There is also a giant of a horse and his smaller companion, who is comically called Bacon.

When I was at the barn yesterday evening, all of the new owners were there. The young mare is owned by a woman who was there alone, and the "odd couple" (the big horse and the little horse) are owned by a husband and wife, both of whom were there.

I spent a long time chatting with the new horses' owners while our horses comingled. Even though it means I don't get as much done at the barn, I love talking to other horse owners. I particularly liked the young mare and her owner — and I think Panama did too.

The interactions between the young mare and Panama were funny to watch. She has attached herself to one of the other, larger geldings in the pasture — one of the two geldings who are competing for the boss position, in fact. When Panama tried to approach the two of them, both the other gelding and the young mare reached out to nip at him and chase him off.

Later, though, when the other gelding wasn't around, Panama and the young mare seemed to be flirting a little bit. He started out by smelling her mane, kind of like a dog would — by sticking his nose into it and snuffling visibly. She turned and nipped at him, but it wasn't hard, and he didn't run off. A short while later, when they were facing each other and Panama was checking her out, she nipped him on the neck — but again, not hard, and he didn't seem to mind.

Her owner was funny — she horrified, or perhaps embarrassed, that her little mare was being so assertive. She kept telling her, "Naughty!" I laughed and tried to tell her that I thought they were playing or flirting, that if her mare was being mean Panama would have run away, but I don't think she quite understood that.

Panama didn't get to interact much with the other horses while I was there — he just checked them out over the fence a couple of times. Honestly, he was more interested in their owners! But I guess all three horses have been around for a couple of days now, so he's already seen them quite a bit, even if this was my first time.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Epona shedding flower

Warm weather took me by surprise, and as a result my horse started shedding before I was ready for it. I hadn't brought him to Denver until last fall, so I hadn't needed to buy a shedding blade yet.

When I went to my favorite tack store to get a shedding blade, they didn't have the typical metal kind. All they had was the Epona shed flower, so that's what I got.

The shed flower gets rid of a lot more hair than the traditional metal shedding blades. It also does a fantastic job of getting dried mud out of my horse's fuzzy winter coat. You sure end up with a lot of hair and dirt on your hand, though!

My only complaint with the flower shedder is that it irritates my ticklish horse. He seems to have the thin skin often found in Arabians. I anticipate that as his winter coat gets thinner, the shedder will bother him even more — he is noticeably more ticklish when he has his short, thin summer coat.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Good soft rubber horse curries

My horse is kind of ticklish, so finding a curry he would tolerate was a battle from the very beginning. I think I must have gone through four or five different curries at my local tack store before finally locating a couple that I liked.

One of the ones I liked was the this soft rubber curry brush set. There are two different curries in the set, one with larger, more widely space rubber nubs, and the other with skinnier, more closely spaced rubber nubs.

They also have a shape that is easier to hold than most curries. The handles on most curries tire my hand out, so I like the finger-notches on these.

Panama definitely likes these curries better than the hard plastic variety. They are nice, inexpensive ($7 for a set of two) alternatives to the typical plastic or hard rubber curries!

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