Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Seren Hanita - The Miracle Filly

Tuesday August 31 2010

It was a dark and stormy night...

...Unusually cold, wet, and windy - wretched weather for June on the fells of Cumbria.

A mountain rescue group was camping at High House, and Dom had brought the mares and foals into the barn for the people to see and visit with. He had just turned the horses back out, when from a nearby field, the pregnant mare Dominita came up from across the way to say hi to Dom. He said hi, and as she turned away to walk off, he got a glimpse of her tail, and something else - an amniotic sac.

The mare wasn't due to foal for 3 more weeks.

On shaky legs, Dom followed the mare to the very bottom of the field where he found a ghastly sight - a foal, who had just been born further up-slope, had rolled or fallen down the hill, and landed in the freezing cold water of a marsh in this frigid weather.

In the dark and the storm, Dom managed to drag the foal out of the water, "but the foal was all wrong, dreadful."

He ran back to the house and got Jan, and on the way out grabbed a large empty gunny sack (that large loads of gravel are delivered in), halter and lead rope, and they grabbed the mountain rescue leader and another woman, "We have an emergency - we need you now!"

The four ran back outside and down the hill to the mare and foal, where the men scooped up the foal and shoved it in the big sack and carried it up the hill, while Jan caught the mare and led her up to the barn and Laura opened the gates on the way.

They didn't have any stalls ready for foaling since none was expected yet, so they put the foal on bare rubber mats and rushed to scatter straw around it. They looked at the foal, and "It was a nightmare," said Dom and Jan. "She was convulsing from no oxygen, she had no hair, couldn't blink, had no reflexes, couldn't suck, could barely coordinate any movements, and she was freezing cold."

As an understatement, Dom says, "She just wasn't all that good!" They dried the foal off and covered it in straw and immediately called their veterinarian Jane, who promptly came out in the storm.

Jane gave the foal steroids to get its lungs working right, while Jan milked the mare Dominita. That in itself was a miracle because for one thing, Dominita had been a somewhat unbroke and difficult mare to deal with when she arrived a few months earlier, and Jan says, "I had never milked anything before!"

"But the mare was good as gold, totally calm and trusting," and Jan got enough milk from her for Jane to tube it into the foal.

From then on, the fight for the filly's life took on epic commitment. As former mountain search and rescuers themselves, Jan and Dom were used to dealing with emergencies and first aid, but all this was far beyond what they'd ever seen or done. They took hourly shifts for 2 days to attend to the foal. "It was a hellish experience."

The worst part was the convulsions, and trying to keep the foal from hurting herself. "I had bruises on my face and arms," Jan recalls, "from laying on her and trying to keep her head still." The convulsing lasted hours - a day - it's hard to recall how long it went on.

They dressed the foal in dog clothes - from the Atkinsons' dog search days - and hourly took her temperature, then either took clothes off or added more. The foal couldn't stand up to nurse - her skeleton was soft and bending so she couldn't support herself, so she was always laying down. Dom and Jan had to continue milking the mare, then squirt milk down the foal's throat while she laid in the straw.

After a few days, the foal got to where she could stand up if someone lifted her up, so Dom or Jan had to lift her up every hour or so to nurse. After a few nights, Jan found her up on her feet on her own nursing, and that night at 2 AM, the filly wouldn't let Dom take her temperature. "That was great! I knew she'd get better from there."

By the end of the week, the filly was looking pretty good - standing and nursing on her own, and getting stronger every day.

One might wonder why they took a chance on putting so much effort into saving a foal that had been absolutely on the limit of any chance of survival, but the reasons were obvious. "Where there's life, there's hope," says Dom, "and she wasn't suffering. As long as we could stop her from injuring herself, she had a chance."

"And mum was being so good," Jan added, always staying calm, and letting herself be milked by humans, letting her baby be handled.

Hanita's a big strong 2-year-old now, not showing any signs of her traumatic entry into the world. "She's very sensible and isn't defective at all."

She is, in short, a miracle filly.

Seren Hanita, by Hanson out of Dominita

Monday, August 30, 2010

Cumbria Challenge

Monday August 30 2010

Cumbria Challenge

There just happened to be a local endurance ride this weekend near Seren Arabians - the Cumbria Challenge, and it just happened to be one of the most gorgeous locales one could imagine. Dom and Jan Atkinson took me on Sunday to the ride venue in a large green field overlooking a wide valley, and some terrically scenic points out on the trail.

The ride was held over Saturday and Sunday, combining an 80 km Cumbria Challenge Endurance Ride, a 100 km Cumbria Cup Endurance Ride, various distances of Competitive Rides, and pleasure rides.

Novice Competitive Rides run from 32 - 48 km (20 - 30 miles) to be completed between 8 - 12 km/h (5 - 7.5 mph). Penalties are given depending on the horse's final heart rate, and riding faster than 12 km/h means elimination at the Novice level. The speeds and distances increase until at Advanced Level you can compete in the Endurance rides, 80 - 160 km.

Around 50 riders showed up on Sunday for all the distances and categories, and the last of the rain showers blew through right around start time, 8 AM, for the 80 and 100 km rides. It was mighty windy and chilly the rest of the day - and always with that gorgeous light that falls on the fells and valleys, the heather and green grass of Cumbria in northwest England.

The trails followed mostly Bridle Paths or Bridleways - the old pack trails between villages, now legal rights of way and recreation trails for hikers, riders, and bikers. Many of these trails are bordered by drystone walls - some 70,000 miles of them are used as boundary fences, the use of which dates as far back as the Iron Age (1200 BC to 400 AD), and the earliest remains of which may date back to the Medieval period (5th to the 15th centuries).

On horseback in Cumbria you've also got a good chance of riding by monoliths and ancient stone circles (which could possibly date back to 3700 BC), old Roman roads, old rock cairns . Hadrian's Wall runs across Cumbria, and don't forget that King Arthur's Round Table, a Neolithic Stone Age earthwork (that actually predates King Arthur by 2500 years - but it brings in the tourists) can be seen in nearby Penrith. So if you squint your eyes and the light is just right... you never know what you might see riding along the next ridge...

And you'll see a great variety of horses besides Arabians in the Cumbria rides. In the various sampling of riders I asked, I saw combinations of the Cob, appaloosa, pinto, clydesdale, shire, hanoverian, connemara pony, thoroughbred, and standardbred.

The vetting procedures looked mostly the same as in the US; in the photos you'll see a couple of interesting horse vans - actual vans turned into horse boxes. A few people camped out in tents and some in their horse boxes, and the horses were all kept in electric pens in the field right next to the venue - though I'm not sure where any stallions were kept.

I did see a barefoot trimmer, who said that people went wild here with Barefoot a while back, but then they didn't follow up on foot care, and they decided that barefoot didn't work. I did see several completely barefoot horses (no boots of any kind), and only one set of glue-ons.

It looked like a fun day for all, and even the riders that I saw whose horses were pulled for lameness looked like they'd enjoyed themselves. And who wouldn't, in a setting like this!

Many more photos at:

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Seren Arabians: The Boys

Sunday August 29 2010

I mentioned in my first article on Seren Arabians, somewhat in jest, that the Atkinsons have horses for sale... but they may not sell you a horse. They joked one evening about changing one of their ads from saying "Young stock to view" to "Young stock to view... but not for sale." They do want to make sure their horses go to good homes, but, well... they just have some good ones that they can't - quite - make themselves put on the sales list...


Winged Saint, a 100% Crabbet stallion, is currently the primary stud standing at Seren Arabians. His purchase in January 2009 was somewhat serendipitous because of the sudden death of Hanson - Seren's foundation stud - in July of 2009.

The 20-year-old stallion was bred by the Moulton Stud in 1990. By El Santo (a British National Champion) out of Silver Blue Wings (a successful show horse and sister to a dam of champions), he was inaccessible to breeders most of his life, never having been stood at stud by a stud farm. Nevertheless, among the few foals he did produce, he still managed to sire a British National Champion.

The moment he went up for sale in 2009, Jan and Dom Atkinson drove down to have a look at him. They knew right away they wanted him. "We didn't study him too closely to know he fit our criteria," says Dom. "He had an excellent temperament, conformation, movement, and he was 100% Crabbet and was a proven sire: he hadn't sired much, but he had sired (i.e. he wasn't sterile), and he had sired recently - including a National Champion, and a proven endurance daughter."

Now that he is officially standing at stud, he'll have a chance to prove what many people have though him capable of - being a successful sire and carrying on the Crabbet lines.


Three young colts have a paddock-with-a-view to themselves.

2-year-old Seren Hanag, 100% Crabbet, is by Hanson out of Silihah. He's a full brother to Hanos, the young stud colt that the Yosts bought last year and shipped home to Idaho.


The yearling Binley Winged Spirit, by Winged Saint out of Binley Silvern Grace was bought at 6 months of age by the Atkinsons. He's 100% Crabbet. Being very keen on his sire Winged Saint, they think 'Spirit' the younger will fit right in with their breeding program. When Spirit arrived at Seren Arabians earlier this year, he slotted right into the barn with Hanos and Perdu, and Hanos' dam Silihah.


The yearling Seren Perdaius (Perdu) is the last foal from Hanson and Blue Bandaila. He's 87.5% Crabbet, 12.5% Polish.

Perdu was 6 weeks old when his dam suddenly started losing weight. Within a week she had gone from being okay to desperate. She was diagnosed with lymphoma - a hopeless and very short prognosis. The Atkinsons set about to make the upcoming forced separation as least distressing as possible. They immediately set to weaning him off of his dam onto mare's milk replacer; and they separated Cally and Perdu and another mare Silihah and her foal Hanos, into their own small herd.

Perdu was 10 weeks old when Cally was put down. He spent one last time curled up with his mother, and then he went off with Silihah and Hanos, and never looked back. The Atkinsons successfully kept him a horse and not a pet foal, feeding by hand but keeping him in a herd situation.

Perdu - French for "lost" - got his name because he would wander off from the herd then start crying for his dam. He'd go up and check out all the chestnut mares and be chased away, and Silihah would come running up, bulling her way through the herd, and rescue him and take him away with her.

He's grown into a handsome yearling, one who hangs with his herd, but is not uncomfortable when he finds himself alone.

He's a full brother to the two geldings, Seren Vega and Seren Rigel, who last month took first and second in the Wessex Group C show.


In his own paddock, with a 'schoolmistress broodmare' is 2-year-old Seren Hanau, by Hanson out of Shadowed Gold. He's 100% Crabbet. He's a natural successor to Hansen because of his temperament - he's tremendously good-natured - and his size - the Atkinsons think he will reach at least 15.3 hands at maturity.

Jan and Dom laugh recalling his birth: "He was big when born, very mature. Within 15 minutes of birth he was cantering around his mother - he didn't go through that lying down phase at all, he was just phenomenal!"


Waiting in the wings, so to speak, is the foal Seren Winged Shadow, by Winged Saint out of Shadowed Gold. "He's a very nice boy, big, quite advanced for his age in physical and social attributes. He's got a lovely inquisitive, confident character."

Dom says, "I've got a horrible feeling he might be staying..."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Seren Arabians: The Foundation Horses

Hanson, photo by Jan Atkinson

Friday August 27 2010

A legend says:

Allah created the desert Arabian horse from the South Wind, "Men shall follow you wherever you go...Thou shalt fly without wings."

Another legend goes:

The Prophet Mohammed was wounded in battle. As he rode his treasured pregnant Arabian mare to safety, he dripped blood from his wound over his horse's shoulder as she bravely carried him away. When they reached his tribe, the blood on the mare's shoulder could not be washed off. When she foaled, the foal was marked with the same 'bloody shoulder.' Horses that thereafter carried this 'bloody shoulder' mark were prized and said to be blessed.

The Seren story goes:

The gray mare Blue Bandaila (Cally), started it all in 1989 for Jan Atkinson. Cally was the first horse she'd ever bought - stumbling upon her when she went to the wrong farm to look at a horse for sale. Cally coincidentally happened to be over 75% Crabbet, though that was not a factor in Jan's choice at the time. Cally was a 3 year old at the time, and after Jan started riding her, they covered the fells and valleys around home, and they soon found the sport of endurance. The gentle mare was a dream horse, "fiercely competitive, tremendously brave and surefooted when on rough ground or the high fells of the Lake District. She changed my life."

And, you know how it goes, Jan says: "Once you buy one horse, then you seem to acquire more..."

That's how she ended up buying Hamatan, a mare who was 100% Crabbet. Because of her, Jan decided to buy a 100% Crabbet stallion, and start breeding that particular type of horse.

That's what led Hanson to Seren Arabians. All Jan knew was that her stallion had to be pure Crabbet, he had to be gray, and he had to be the right size (big).

Jan looked at a lot of colts and stallions, but for one reason or another, they never were quite right. At some stud farms, the groom would hand Jan a whip or a stick to brandish at the stud while handling him. At one farm, the groom made sure he always stood between her and the stallion. She came to add one more item to that list of requirements: her stallion had to be kind and easy to handle.

Jan spent two years searching before she found him, in 1994. She made her way to Geoffrey Plaister's Imperial Stud, to look at 6 colts and stallions, nearly all of them full brothers... and Hanson was It.

"I immediately felt comfortable in a stable with him. I'd have never found another horse anywhere near what he was. You know how you just know when you've found something? Hanson was The One."

And he was. He was 6 years old, gray and big - 15.2, a classic looking 100% Crabbet horse, and powerful, but with a very gentle disposition. And Hanson was not just Crabbet breeding, but his parents (Hanif* x Sherilla) were bred at Crabbet Park. This helped Jan and Dom decide to not only breed Crabbet bloodlines, but to narrow their focus and to stay as few generations from horses foaled at Crabbet Park as possible.

Hanson was a delight to ride, and a pleasure to be with. Perhaps prophetically, when he was around 12 years of age, he began to develop the 'bloody shoulder' mark - and by the time he was 20, the mark had grown, and he had 'drops of blood' trickling down his foreleg.

Together, these two special horses Hanson and Blue Bandaila produced 4 foals: Seren Arcturus in 1988, Seren Vega in 2000 (in August this year, he won the Crabbet geldings 4yo and over class, Wessex Group C show), Seren Rigel in 2006 (alongside his brother Vega, he finished second in the Crabbet geldings 4yo and over class, Wessex Group C show), and Seren Perdaius (Perdu), in 2009.

Tragically, Hanson died suddenly last year, at age 21, after being collected for the assessment of his semen. And in a double blow, Cally suddenly died a month later from lymphoma, after having foaled Perdu.

Perhaps Hanson had been specially chosen to be blessed by Allah, or by the South Wind, or by the Horse Gods. And while he obviously was lucky to have a home at Seren Arabians, it's the Atkinsons who feel blessed by his presence.

"I've been very lucky, very privileged to have had him."

Cally (Blue Bandaila), photo by Jan Atkinson

More Seren Arabian stories, and photos at:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Crabbet Stud - A Brief History

Mesaoud, a foundation sire of the Crabbet Arabian stud, imported from Egypt to England in 1891

Thursday August 26 2010

The story of the English Crabbet Park Stud and the lines of pure-blooded desert Arabian horses produced there since 1878, has all the ingredients of an epic soap opera. It is a tale of ambition, riches, success, blue-blooded horses, mismanagement, survival of the fittest, scandal (for the humans) and tragedy (for some of the horses).

Wilfred Scawen Blunt and Lady Anne Blunt decided to import to England and start breeding Arabian horses after their travels around the Middle East, where they encountered some of the world's finest Arabian horses. Their Crabbet Park estate in Sussex, England, was the birthplace of their line of Crabbet Arabians.

Their stud farms - Crabbet Park in England and Sheykh Obeyd in Egypt - produced exceptional horses throughout the decades - though some of the horses suffered (and died) from neglect, mismanagement, and ignorance - and eventually human scandal and self importance interfered with and undermined the horse breeding program.

Mistresses, "tyranny and spirit of discord", temper tantrums, and apparent drug abuse led to a physical separation between Wilfred and Lady Anne, and a split of the Stud farm and horses. What followed was more discord, lawsuits, feuding, shot horses, neglected horses, injunctions, and, eventually, gradual recovery and rebuilding of the horse program as the Stud passed on to the Blunts' daughter, Lady (Baroness) Wentworth.

Pure Crabbet horses occasionally trickled out into the world during times of family feuding and economic necessity (necessary even for rich royalty!) - including to America, namely to the Maynesboro stud in 1917, and the Kellogg Arabian Ranch in California in 1920 and 1936. This is where the Crabbet-Maynesborough-Kellogg - CMK - lines in America eventually came from.

The Crabbet stud was once again flourishing when Lady Wentworth died in 1957. The estate and horses passed on to Cecil Covey, the son of Lady Wentworth's stud manager. To pay the 80% death taxes on the estate, Covey had to sell almost half of the stud's 75 horses. The American breeder Bazy Tankersley and her Al Marah stud ended up with 32 of these purebred Crabbet horses.

The Crabbet Park Stud continued to run successfully once again for 12 years, until Covey found out that the government was going to build a highway from London straight through his property. It was too much for Covey at his age to start all over - and one of the saddest of all tragedies in the horse world occurred: after 93 years of selective breeding and history, the Crabbet herd was totally dispersed into the world in 1971.

The Crabbet horses didn't disappear, and though the carefully selected breeding program dissolved, and many Crabbet lines were subsequently lost or diluted, a few breeders continued to carry on the pure Crabbet tradition. Seren Arabians is one of these in the United Kingdom. Over 90% of today's Arabian horses in America has at least one ancestor that traces to Crabbet horses.

Today, as then, Crabbet horses are known for their even temperaments, hardiness, and athletic ability, carrying on the characteristics that were cultivated and refined over 100 years ago.

Lady Anne Blunt and Kasida

Today's photos from Seren Arabians here on Endurance.net

The Light Fantastic

Wednesday August 25 2010

The views, and the light from on top of the hill at Upper High House, are staggering. Every five minutes the light changes and alters the landscape and the views so that it constantly looks different. Add a few storm clouds, or a couple of horses galloping along the hill, and it could be a fantasy world.

Seren Arabians sits just inside the Lake District National Park, in Cumbria in northwest England. It's the largest national park in England, and includes England's highest mountain - Scafell Pike, and its deepest lake - Wastwater. You can see Scafell Pike from Upper High House.

The National Park has 3500 kilometers of rights of way and 12 of the largest lakes in England, for boating, hiking, climbing, and riding, along lakeshore wetlands, upland heaths, coastal dunes and arctic-alpine screes. Jan and Dom can take off on any number of trails and ride on 30 or 40 or 50 mile loops.

Here, a day spent outside sitting and watching the fantastic light and beautiful horses sculpt ever-changing pictures in the landscape, is a day well spent.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Seren Arabians

Wednesday August 25 2010

I've landed at Seren Arabians ("Seren" means "Star" in Welsh) in the Lake District of Cumbria, England - home of Jan and Dom Atkinson and Crabbet Arabian horses. They are carrying on very selective bloodlines from the original Crabbet stud (established in the 1870's) that ultimately dispersed in 1973.

Endurance riding friends Chris and Kara Yost of southern Idaho stumbled on Seren Arabians last year when visiting England. Ultimately they brought a Seren Crabbet stud colt home - one of the lucky few people to do so! Jan and Dom are very protective of their Crabbet offspring and won't sell to just anybody - you have to prove the horse will get a good home and will be used properly.

The Seren horses are lovely, sturdy, and allowed to be horses. They're known for their even temperaments and friendliness. They're brought up barefoot on steep hills where they develop good muscle and bone naturally, and they live in herd situations so they mature mentally and naturally - like horses.

The Atkinsons don't show (though 2 of their homebred geldings just won first and second place in the Wessex Arabian Horse Group Summer C Show, and one of their 3-year-olds just got the highest score this year, and the highest score ever for a 3-year-old and for a purebred Arabian, and the second highest score of all time, in the British Equestrian Federation Futurity Grading for endurance), and they have been too busy to do endurance lately.

But their horses - and their 'unconventionl' method (in Great Britain, and Europe, anyway) of turning stallions out with the mares and colts in herds and bringing them up this way - are speaking for themselves.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Sunday August 15 2010

Dusk comes to Owyhee, and the great horned owls are out, crying, (not hooting), restless, agitated, silhouetted against the sky, flying up and down the creek. That as-yet-unidentified owl (great horned? long-eared? I think it's a screech) is making its odd high-pitched yell nearby.

The horses are spooked down the pasture and they swirl in circles, kicking up dust, stopping to turn and face the creek, heads up, ears forward, alert; then they come running back to the house.

The neighbor's herd is sprinting through their pastures, clattering across the rocky creek. Something is setting them all off.

Night falls. The horses are staying close to the house, eating hay in the back pen... which is a bit odd. They are spooked again and bolt around the hay feeders, snorting, whirling around to stop and stare at the creek thirty yards away.

Then the yelling starts. One time, two times - I think it's the screech owl. The wailing gets louder and longer - it's definitely not an owl. A rabbit dying? The screaming is moving through the trees along the creek, 30 yards away. An owl got a rabbit and is flying with it? But the screaming gets louder. More chilling.

I grab a flashlight and sprint outside. I run to within 10 feet of the trees and brush along the creek and scan with my flashlight, but now the screaming has stopped.

But the movement in the brush/trees/creek has not.

Something is moving in there, on the ground. It's not an owl. It's something heavy. Possibly something dragging something. The victim is not a rabbit. The heavy thing is not a coyote.

I so wish I could see in the dark, like so many creatures, but I see nothing. Austin the dog has come out with me. He's not visibly scared, no raised hackles, and he's not barking... but he's not going forward into the trees like he normally would. He's got his nose up in the air sniffing.

My hackles are raised.

But I can't stop looking. I want to see.

I walk to our creek crossing 30 feet away so I can cross to the other side. Austin follows. I walk through the creek, swinging the flashlight somewhat nervously, trying to penetrate into the blackness, listening fiercely for anything - but it is now dynamically silent, and I know that something is in there.

I start to climb the other bank. Austin stops. Normally he would follow me. Normally he would shoot past me in search of rabbits, day or night. But Austin's not going a step further.

I shine my light all around. The silence is electric. The atmosphere is charged. The hair on my arms and neck are standing straight up. My flashlight falls upon two eyes up the trail, looking my way. My heart stops a moment and adrenaline shoots through me even as I identify it as a deer. The female deer is seemingly wandering aimlessly - though maybe I'm anthropomorphizing and jumping to conclusions.

My heart is pounding from the adrenaline now, and if I hear a crack of a twig from the creek I will jump into orbit. The deer takes off into the brush. I look back at Austin, who looks back at me, You go right on ahead, if you like, I'll wait for you right here.

I contemplate moving up along the creek to peer down in it exactly where I heard the... heavy thing dragging something heavy, but a chill wave of goosebumps washes over me, and my feet are sort of stuck where they are. They don't want to move forward. I decide I don't quite have the nerve.

I turn back toward the creek (keeping the light shining toward the Black Hole) - Austin bolts out of the creek ahead of me, happy to lead the way back toward shelter.

I go back inside, bursting with curiosity and the sad knowledge that we humans are so helplessly clueless about what goes on around us.

Half an hour later, the horses run around their pen again, and I hear snorting.

Perhaps a meal had just been finished and the predator was passing by.

I know something went on out there. It wasn't a coyote. Coyotes are a dime a dozen around here. I've seen one near the herd at times, and they ignore it. I've actually seen Finneas chase one. The horses don't act like that because of a coyote. That dying scream was from a fawn, and that Something Heavy that dragged it was not a coyote.

It was a cougar.

Owyhee Drill Team

Saturday August 14 2010

9 AM rolls around, and we're heading out for our Owyhee Social ride. Good horses, good trails, good country, good chats, good times.

We've started up an Owyhee drill team.

Note that we've got the right color scheme (white horse, brown horse, white horse, black horse), and we're working on fine-tuning the choreography for our dangerous stunts:

Synchronized rein biting.

Neck vaulting (the camera missed my handstand on Jose's neck).

Soon we'll be performing on an Owyhee cliff near you!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Desert Storm Ride

Friday August 13 2010

The dawn is clear. The sky an empty blue slate.

But the thought of a thunderstorm begins with a whisp of cloud over the Owyhees. It swiftly escalates in potency, building brawn, gathering momentum. As we saddle up, it signals its intentions with murmurs of thunder.

We move out on the trail and the sky behind us darkens and grows... and the storm tracks us. Thunder rumbles loudly enough that even I can hear it clearly. Behind us sheets of rain begin to fall and leading sentries of lightning strike along the advancing edge of the wall of clouds, as the once-clear sky is consumed.

We cut our loop short as the storm is getting serious. Thunder cracks. Sheets of lightning illuminate the fierce clouds ahead of the surging wall. We stick to the washes down low as long as we can, but soon we must climb back up onto a ridge - and head back, toward the storm.

Lightning bolts hurl to the ground on the next ridge, as we pick up a canter, so exposed up on the flats, moving with urgency into the storm, toward home.

It is frightening... but it is mesmerizing and thrilling and beautiful.

We get to the barn and jump off and unsaddle just as a hail storm sweeps over us, small white stones kicking up dust so that it looks like a fog floating above the ground. For ten minutes we shelter under the tackroom roof and the horse herd turns their butts to the consuming storm, their heads to the ground, as hail and rain pounds down.

The intensity of the hail lets up; the thunder fades; the storm moves onward, carrying its force with it, leaving in its wake fading clouds, and shimmering sunlight.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mustang Lady!

Wednesday August 11 2010

Naomi Preston is a sucker for a lame horse. "I had NO intention of buying a mustang. I was only going there to look," she says, of that fall day in 1982 when she was just looking at the BLM mustang herd in Boise.

As a kid growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, she'd read all the horse books - The Black Stallion series, the books by Marguerite Henry, including 'Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West' - but she could never have a horse. Ten years later, one day the newspaper in Boise, Idaho, where Naomi was living, had an article and pictures on the BLM mustangs rounded up from the Owyhee range. She'd been to see the wild horses a few times, just to look.

But that one day, she made the fateful mistake of asking the BLM wrangler how hard it was to train a mustang. Naomi rode endurance, but she'd never broken a horse in. It was just an innocent question out of curiosity. The wrangler answered that if you separated a mustang from the herd it was easier to deal with, "like this filly here," he showed Naomi, who was injured, so was being kept apart from the herd for her protection.

"This skinny bay, lame two-year-old filly (who'd also aborted a foal) looked at me and took a couple of steps toward me and I was smitten - I felt sorry for her." And Naomi suddenly owned a mustang.

It was the start of 28 years of true companionship and partnership, and an extraordinary adventure in the world of endurance riding with a symbol of the old Wild West - a wild horse.

That one day long ago, Naomi had to borrow a truck and trailer to fetch her new horse. Mustang Lady was loaded onto the trailer via a squeeze chute, and Naomi drove her to her new home. Naomi wasn't quite sure what would happen when they got home; she backed the trailer up to a pen and opened up the trailer door. The half wild mustang hung out in the trailer for 20 minutes until she must have figured it was safe enough, and she hopped out into her new pen, and in true mustang fashion started eating the tumbleweeds that Naomi's other horses wouldn't touch.

Naomi wasn't in any hurry to break her new horse in, as she was busy riding other endurance horses, and working full time. And she knew it was best to let Mustang Lady bond with her. "She would stick her nose through the fence when I was working near her pen, not touch me, but get near me. She started shadowing me around, and getting to know me, and eventually I could touch her."

In fact, it took Naomi a week just to get a halter on her horse. "I started with the grain idea - mustangs don't know about grain - I got her eating grain out of a bucket, then I'd put her halter in the bucket, then I'd slip it up onto her nose, doing it day after day - and I finally got the halter on her with no problem." She was so excited that she ran into work telling everybody, "I got a halter on my wild horse!"

The first time Naomi got on Mustang Lady was after she'd turned 4, and by then, it was really easy. The filly never was a problem to ride, although she was a bit willful at times. On one ride, Naomi figured out that some of her antics were just a mustang's innate ways of avoiding possible danger - like scrambling up a hill (much to Naomi's chagrin) through a rocky section instead of following a narrow trail with high sides. Once they were riding along a hill when Mustang Lady suddenly hauled to a stop, and Naomi couldn't get her to move. "She FROZE, alert, ears up, and she let out this blood curdling scream," as if the terrain suddenly reminded of her home or some past experience. "I've never heard that again. It gave me goosebumps. But it was way cool!"

Their first endurance ride, in 1986, was appropriately named the Owyhee Wild Horse ride; that was one of 8 rides that Naomi and Mustang Lady successfully completed that year. Despite that, however, Naomi didn't think at first that Mustang Lady was going to amount to much of an endurance horse. When she was stubborn, Naomi says, she'd get really stubborn. "She had quite the Attitude. She used to drive me crazy, the first 3 years I rode her. But as we started going longer distances, she got better, and she got better as she got older."

Those longer distances included - in their second season of 15 starts and 15 completions - two 75 mile rides (5th place, and a 1st place and Best Condition), and two 100 mile rides (9th place and 2nd place).

Then, in their third season, came the Tevis Cup. Naomi didn't know much about the ride - she'd just heard about it and it sounded like something she wanted to try. "During the ride, Mustang Lady was fine, but I got heat stroke at Francisco's [at 85 miles], and stayed there an extra hour recovering. We still finished 16th. I vowed not to be the weak link the next time we did it - after that, we trained in the heat. I'd been avoiding it before."

That was the first of four straight Tevis Cup finishes for Mustang Lady. They finished second in 1990. It was "an amazing year," Naomi says. Mustang Lady completed all 13 of her starts - finishing 11 of them in the top five, with 1 win, four seconds, three thirds, and two Best Conditions. Mustang Lady was the National Champion that year. In those days, horses and riders had to do three 100-mile rides, two in their own regions, then the National Championship which was a 2-day 150 mile ride; and the horse with the most points won it. It was Mustang Lady that year.

1991 was something of a phenomenal year, also. After finishing in the top ten in a 75, and four 100s, Tevis was coming up again. "I couldn't decide if I wanted to do Tevis again for the third time, or the Race of Champions. The ROC would be 160 miles over 3 days in Montana, basecamp at 6000 feet, a really tough ride, and I figured Mustang Lady would do well. I really wanted to ride her solo with no crewing help."

And so she decided on the ROC. A film crew followed Naomi and her mustang during the ride - in which they placed 9th - and they followed her home. "Two days later they wanted to film us some more on our home trails. I didn't want to do it; I told them Mustang Lady would be tired, but in the end I agreed to go out and do some easy little training shots" for the filming.

Mustang Lady had apparently forgotten all about the ROC. "She was PULLING ON ME - I said, 'We're going to Tevis!'" Tevis was 2 weeks later - they finished 4th. "Mustang Lady was a great downhill horse - she was known as the Queen of the Downhills. That's why she was so good at Tevis."

And there was more to come - 4 weeks after that was the North American Championshipss FEI ride in Carson City, "a really tough ride, trails around Carson then some of the Virginia City 100 tough trails." Naomi and Mustang Lady ultimately finished third behind Darla Westlake and World Champions Becky Hart and her phenomenal horse Rio. On the podium getting her bronze medal, Naomi told Becky, "It's an honor to be up here with you!" Becky told her, "We thought you were gonna catch us!"

That year Mustang Lady was dubbed the 'Triple Crown' winner - no other horse had done all three rides - the Race of Champions, Tevis, and the North American Championships.

That was followed by yet another great endurance year in 1992, and an unparalleled honor for Naomi - Mustang Lady and Naomi made the US team for the World Endurance Championship in Barcelona, Spain.

In the final 100-mile tune-up for the WEC, in Kananaskis, Alberta, Canada, coming into the first vet check, Mustang Lady finally wanted to drink water. They stopped at a little pond, Mustang Lady took a drink, her hoof sank a little bit - then she went down in quicksand. "All of a sudden we had sunk in to over my knees!" Naomi jumped off and got to the bank, and she stood there in shock, thinking "I'm going to lose my horse!"

While she was deciding what to do - try to get back in the quicksand to Lady to try and pull her out, or run to the vet check for help, Lady lunged three times and managed to get herself out. "She was dripping mud... and blood on her hind legs. I thought, 'that's it, we're done.'" Naomi walked her horse into the vet check and got her cleaned up - and she vetted through fine.

Naomi decided to go on, thinking Lady must be alright, "but she wasn't fine for long. At the next vet check, she was lame - amazing what adrenaline will do for a horse." Mustang Lady had ripped her hind tendon (so badly she was put in a cast). "And that was the end of Barcelona."

However, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Because a wave of African Sleeping Sickness was going around, the US horses had to quarantine in France for 3 months - and there they got piroplasmosis from ticks, and all had to go through chemotherapy (one gal sold her horse there, instead of putting the horse through treatment to get it back to the US). "I never would have left Mustang Lady in Europe for 3 months. We would have had to move there!

"But, we had made the squad, and that's something I'm quite proud of."

Mustang Lady had a year off after her injury, then successfully returned to competition in May of 1993, finishing in the top ten in a 50 mile ride.

It was then Naomi decided she wanted to ride in Europe. "I thought it would be cool to ride an international European ride, so I went to an FEI ride in Sherwood Forest to ride a borrowed horse... and I got the Horse From Hell." During the ride, they got buzzed by a model airplane on the trail, and her horse went crazy. "He went Mach 10 into a field, got to this big ditch and jumped it, kept going and came to another big ditch, and I think I bailed on that one. I woke up wth a concussion, had lost two teeth..." It resulted a few months later in neck surgery for 2 herniated discs - two weeks before Tevis, that she'd planned to do again with Mustang Lady.

Instead, her friend Lori Stewart rode Mustang Lady to her fourth consecutive Tevis finish. And, because Naomi was having too many complications after her injury, and she was doubting she'd be able to ride much, she decided to breed Mustang Lady. After Tevis, Naomi dropped Lady off with the outstanding endurance stallion, Wazirs Karahty.

The result was Karlady - which turned out to be Mustang Lady's only foal. "Lady had colic surgery when she was 20, and the vet advised that she not be bred again... so I never did."

Naomi's injuries persisted, and she rode Mustang Lady only a few more times over the next two years. Though Mustang Lady's AERC online record is missing a few rides, it shows in impressive 11 seasons of competition, 5255 miles, 72 of 73 rides, 25 of 26 100's, 6 Best Conditions. Her career was exceptional. She even had two Breyer models made after her. She was inducted into the AERC Hall of Fame in 2001.

Mustang Lady loved her job. "Ahhh - she was a DREAM to ride!" recalls Naomi. "Smoother than smooth. My God! She was really sure footed, amazing. I never came off of her. She was 100% rock solid." And she could skip over Cougar Rock in Tevis. "If you've seen videos of horses going over Cougar Rock, you'll see a lot of them slipping, stumbling, tripping - Mustang Lady just waltzed over it like it was a walk in the park, no anxiety, nothing to it. I trusted her, she was totally solid."

As they went over longer distances "she was great - she could keep up that moderate steady pace all day long. Some horses when they hit 80 miles in a hundred start to sag - Mustang Lady just got stronger. She was consistent and steady, and she LOVED it. We both loved riding in the dark. She got really strong at the end, and we'd pass riders. We both really liked that! I'd rather be steady and finish, than to go fast and win a few races."

Despite Mustang Lady being a dream to ride, however, she still had some Attitude. "She'd pin her ears going down the trail if someone wanted to pass her - she was very competitive on the trail - and she never trotted out pretty for the vet checks or for Best Condition judging. She thought, 'This is stupid!' I always had to work with her on trotting out."

At their bronze medal ride in the AERC National Championship, showing for Best Condition the next morning, Mustang Lady put on a show. "She looked so good, everybody's watching, all these FEI vets and officials were there; we started trotting out, and Lady reached over and bit me hard on the arm and I screamed!" When they finished their trot out, head veterinarian Mike Tomlinson said to Naomi, "They call her Mustang Lady - but I don't know where they get the 'Lady' from!"

Karlady has inherited a few of her dam's traits - namely the Attitude. Naomi has come off of Karlady in rides "a few times," she says, though she laughs about it.

Naomi didn't start riding Karlady in endurance until she was 11. Since then, they've begun compiling their own impressive partnership: 52 of 56 rides completed, including first place in the AERC Northwest region in 2009, and 3 times the winners of the 5-day, 260 mile Owyhee Canyonlands ride. And just last weekend, Karlady got her 3000 miles.

This July Naomi celebrated Mustang Lady's 30th birthday. No big fanfare, just her and Naomi and some treats, and, undoubtedly, some heartfelt hugs for the once in a lifetime mustang that changed her life. "She moves a little slower now, but she doesn't act old, and she doesn't have a sway back. She's teaching the grandchildren how to ride."

And there are still many more miles of endurance trails to see between Karlady's ears - to carry the legacy of her great mustang mother onward.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Problem Horses

This is one of a series of profiles of horses and riders on track for competing for 5 spots on the US Team for the World Endurance Championship, part of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, to be held on September 26th, in Lexington, Kentucky.

Saturday August 7 2010

Syrocco Reveille has a problem: she's very competitive.

Of course, that's not the worst problem in the world, especially if you're aiming for a slot on the US Team for the World Endurance Championship in the 2010 FEI Alltech World Equestrian Games. "If there's anything in front her, she will not quit till she passes them," says her rider, Meg Sleeper, 42, a veterinary cardiologist from French Town, New Jersey.

Reveille certainly did not quit in winning the March Fun in the Sun Pioneer 100 in Florida in a very competitive field in one of the fastest hundred miles recorded in the US: 7 hours 44 minutes. She and Meg Sleeper tied for first with Kathy Brunjes and Theatric, with Cici Butler-Stasiuk and DJB Montyonthespot, and Valerie Kanavy on King Ali Gold - all WEC-qualified horses and riders - third and fourth.

Syrocco Reveille is no stranger to international competition, either: the 10-year-old mare participated in the 2008 World Endurance Championship in Malaysia. She made it through the 5th loop before being pulled for lameness... and that just might have had something to do with the bolt of lightning that knocked both her and Golden Lightning (ridden by Jan Worthington) to the ground on the second loop.

Reveille's competitive attitude was something that had Meg worried about at the crazy starting line in the Malaysia WEC, where horses were acting up, bucking their riders off, and taking off at a gallop. "It took Reveille a couple of years to learn to be calm and focused at the start of a ride - but there she was [at the Malaysia start] grazing while the horses were running around her. I had no idea she'd ever get to that point!"

Reveille is a delight to ride: "She's a very light mover, very effortless, very comfortable. She skims along. She has excellent recoveries, usually under 2 minutes." Her impressive US record shows 16 completions of 17 starts (7 of them 100 milers), 2 Best Condition awards, and the AHA championship award in 2009.

Best of all - she's a homebred. "I've been lucky," says Meg. Since 2001 she's been able to compete internationally in endurance on her homebred horses. "It's just an amazing feeling. There's the whole thing about representing your region, your country - it's hard to describe if you haven't felt that. The people are just incredible - on a local and larger scale - you meet different people with different backgrounds, all trying to accomplish the same goal. The neat bottom line is you're all doing what you love."

Syrocco Reveille is in fact one of two homebred horses Meg has the pleasure of being qualified on for the WEC.

Though he's only 8 and lightly raced, Syrocco Harmony has shown Meg a lot. He's completed 8 of 9 rides, including 2 hundred milers - one of which was the pre-ride for the World Endurance Championship in Kentucky in the mud last year. 'Harmon' (named after one of Meg's mentors in veterinary cardiology) finished 6th individually and helped the US team win the gold medal. The gelding is bigger than Reveille, has more muscle and is more solid, and "he gives 110%, all the time. He could be phenomenal," says Meg.

Meg started riding when she was 11, after begging her parents for lessons. Since then she's done over 14,000 miles in CTR (Competitive Trail Riding) and endurance. She considers herself competitive; but for her it's more about the experience of riding. "It's about seeing parts of gorgeous countryside (even in the Northeast), that you'd never see otherwise. And that's just multiplied when it's in another country."

It's a huge commitment, bringing homebred horses along all the way to the level of international competition - but she loves it. Her husband David Augustine, a farrier, lives it and loves it too, helping Meg with the training, shoeing, and crewing of Reveille and Harmony, and the 13 other horses they have. "We've been striving toward this [the US WEC] for at least the last 2 years. When you bleed and sweat it for so long, you have to love it!"

And so Meg heads to the Selection trials in Illinois with two qualified, problem horses - one who won't stop till she passes all the horses in front of her, and the other who gives 110% all the time.

Sounds like good problems to have.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"Run Like the Wind, Bullseye!"

This is one of a series of profiles of horses and riders on track for competing for 5 spots on the US Team for the World Endurance Championship, part of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, to be held on September 26th, in Lexington, Kentucky.

Wednesday August 4 2010

2010 WEG: Hot Desert Knight and Rider Farzad Faryadi - "Run Like the Wind, Bullseye!"

He dons a cowboy hat, and climbs aboard his mighty brown steed: he becomes Woody and his horse becomes Bullseye, from the Toy Story movies.

He cries, "Run like the wind Bullseye!"

And they do.

To a National Best Condition championship in 2008. To two Vermont 100 wins (2008, 2009). To a 20-year course record in the Vermont 100 (2009). And they still aren't done yet.

Now, they are running for a slot on the USA team in the 2010 FEI Alltech World Equestrian Games World Endurance Championship. He's almost giddy about it. "I'm just starting," says Farzad Faryadi, 50, of Oakboro, North Carolina, "I'm excited! This is a second birth in my career!"

Farzad had his eye on now 10-year-old Hot Desert Knight for a year before he was able to get his hands on him. A trainer friend of his had bought the horse because of his bloodlines (Desert Heat VF+ out of JA Flirtatious - he's a great grandson of Bey Shah+, Huckleberry Bey++, and Bask++). She wanted to turn him into a Western Pleasure show horse, and she worked on doing that with him for a year. But he was just too hot.

When she called Farzad to offer Hot Desert Knight for sale in 2004, he said, "I ran to her home!"

Farzad and 'Bullseye' - named after the characters by Farzad's children, when they watched the Toy Story movies together - got started on the trails right away. "He'd had a year of ring work, a good foundation, but he was green on the trails." Green, but obedient. And hot.

Hot Desert Knight was a handful at first. He's still powerful but he's a bit easier to control now (after 7 years on the trails). But he also still likes to go, "and he's really fast! He has an easy 13 mph trot that is fairly smooth and he can hold forever," Farzad says,"though if he extends his trot and goes faster, he's not so smooth."

They worked together about 6 months before they did their first Limited Distance ride together. "I took my time with Hot Desert Knight, because I'd made mistakes on my other horses!" The pair did two full seasons of LD's (30 miles and under) before they moved up to the longer distances. And it's paid off: Hot Desert Knight has completed 46 of 49 rides, including all 9 of the hundred milers he's been in. You could say the gelding excels at the longer distance: 8 of those finishes were top tens, 2 were wins, and in 2 he received the Best Condition award. He also received the 100 Mile High Point Award In the Arabian Horse Association Endurance High Point Award Program in 2008.

One could also say Farzad is obsessed with endurance. He'd always loved horses as a kid, but in Iran he always lived in the city. He moved to the United States 31 years ago, but it wasn't until 11 years later he bought a horse. His farrier's wife saw him out riding his quarter horse in 2001, and, as she was an endurance rider, she invited Farzad to come to an endurance ride. And that was the very beginning of the amazing wild ride he's had.

It's easy to see both Farzad and Hot Desert Knight are both having a great time in the world of endurance riding. "I love endurance, and you get to spend all day long on your horse. It's about great friends, great people, having a great time, and friendly competition."

He's also one of the most popular riders in the east. Fellow endurance rider Angie McGhee says, "I remember the first time I rode with him and we got to know each other a little going down the trail. He is the friendliest, kindest person you'd ever want to meet. Goes on mission trips to South America to help build churches, and just has a very sincere goodness about him that makes everyone like him; always smiling and happy."

He has a sense of humor, too. After finishing 2nd and getting BC in the 2008 100-mile AERC National Championship in Henryville, Indiana, Farzad thanked all the vets who had ever pulled him to teach him lessons and help him get better at the sport.

Hot Desert Knight is in the prime of his endurance career, and last year made it look easy when he slipped into the top ten finish in the muddy mess of the Kentucky Cup last October - the pre-ride for the World Endurance Championship.

'Woody' and 'Bullseye' are still running like the wind, taking aim at being on the USA Team in September, for the Championship. With Farzad's great attitude, and his exceptional Hot horse, they just might make it.

Photos by Angie McGehee

Monday, August 2, 2010

Changing Channels

Monday August 2 2010

The magic starts with an empty stage.

Chances are, you've been to the theatre at least once to see a play or musical. You walk into a classic old or a modern new theatre, sit down, watch the curtain come up on the actors on stage, see a good performance, clap at the end, and go home.

But you're missing the best part - the week of pure magic and creativity and conjuring and talent that brings the show all together.

The stage is a blank page when the signs go up on the billboards, and the posters plaster the pillars around town.

But in a day, the stage has been transformed into an old Roman theatre ruin... and around it lights are rigged and focused, the last hammers pound the last pieces of set into place; the sound gear is placed and patched together and cables laid; the lighting designer focuses the lights and the sound designer starts piecing together the puzzle of the microphones, cables, and mixing board: IPCs, parametrics, third otaves, matrices, banks, layers, subs, channels, VCAs... all the ingredients that will enhance the glorious sound that will emanate from the golden vocal chords of The Steeles, the Twin Cities' choir Triad:4Christ, the Soul Stirrers, and the Blind Boys of Alabama, and actors and actresses from around the country.

In my alter life, I'm a theatrical sound engineer. This week, the magic is transforming the stage at the Ordway Theatre in St Paul, Minnesota, into an old Roman theatre, for The Gospel at Colonus.

This fancy new digital soundboard, which I've never seen before is overwhelming and I don't understand but a smidgeon of it (I'm a horse person!!) - but somehow my fingers and ears will remember how to mix the show by Opening Night (Thursday).

We start rehearsals tomorrow. The sound will be fine-tuned and the lights fine-focused and the performances of the actors and singers fine-honed.

For these couple of weeks, there's no fresh Owyhee air, no sand between my toes, no manes to bury my nose in, no soft horse lips to smooch, or muscled necks to hug, but it's another spellbinding world I'm thrilled to have another foot in.