Thursday, July 28, 2011

Massachusetts Horse Magazine

The August/September issue of Massachusetts Horse magazine is online! Check it out at:

This issue spotlights Quarter Horses...

Monday, July 25, 2011

Aha Moments

I had a great ride on Secret Saturday. Seriously, one of the best rides I have had on her in the last two years. Its no secret (haha) that this mare can challenge me in ways the other two don't. She is incredibly athletic, with a ton of potential. But she is also a diva with a lazy streak. We've butted heads on more than one occasion, and I will be the first to tell you that she has taught me a lot.

So, what changed?

I rode her in the ring on Saturday for the first time in weeks. Truth be told, we've spent two hours total in the ring all spring and summer. We've been doing a lot of trail riding (where a fair share of training goes on - she's not a natural trail horse) and she has had several breaks while I have been busy with work, running, or kayaking in Montana.

I rode John first on Saturday, a quick half hour trail ride to see if the new bit worked better with the LaSalle bridle. It did. I'm going to need to find a biothane bridle the same size as the LaSalle. Who would have thought that I would grow so attached to biothane tack?

The 1/2 hour trail loop needs to be trimmed again. Several branches had me ducking low, they had not been a problem before this. If I was ducking that low on John, I knew I was going to have some interesting times on Secret.

Because we were in the midst of a heat wave, I decided to just spend 1/2 an hour in the ring, rather than trimming trees and then going riding.

We walked both ways, no problem. I asked for the trot to the left first - this is her stronger direction. From the first step she was soft, supple, bent and on the bit. The voice in my head, "Wow, this is really nice. Who are you and what have you done with my horse?"

We changed directions and went to the right. She needed a bit more support, but I got the same results - soft, supple, bent and on the bit. I was thoroughly impressed.

I haven't cantered Secret under saddle at all yet this year. This has been her achilles tendon in the past, she gets all flustered and their are legs going in every direction. She requires a strong inside leg and an outside hand for support. I asked for the canter a few times when I was longing her in bitting tack. It was ugly. That was part of the reasoning behind doing more trail riding, "lets see if we can develop the muscles some other way."

She had a tough time transitioning to the left lead canter. When she got it, she would hold her frame for a few strides and then want to trot. I let her trot before asking again, having learned from our marathon canter training sessions last year to take small victories with her. We did several sets to the left and then I worked her back into a relaxed trot.

As we changed direction, I wondered, "If the left took that much work, the right lead could be really scary..."

We picked up a trot and I made sure she was balanced and in a good frame before I asked for the canter. Boom. Right lead canter, bent and in her frame. Again, the voice in my head said, "Who are you and what have you done with my horse."

I got off after 25 minutes. For Secret, this was a huge day. I don't know if the trail riding helped, or the heat wave aided (although she was barely sweating when I was done), but what a cool ride!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Coffee Break

In the midst of a busy schedule last week, I took John out for an evening trail ride (before the heat wave began). Call it a coffee break or a brain recharge, but it worked. And of course, took more "ears" shots. To me, this is one of the best views in the world.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Couple Pictures from First Descents

A view of the North Fork of the Flathead River - we paddled this.

My brother from another mother and me, goofing off before we headed to the river.

Boa, one of the other campers, goofing off at the airport.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Recharging The Soul - A Week with First Descents

For the third summer in a row, I attended one of First Descents whitewater kayaking camps for young adult cancer survivors in Montana. This year, as in the past, I came close to canceling the trip.

I won’t pretend that the last year has been easy. I have had some incredibly great opportunities, along with huge losses, and a hectic schedule. As I waded through grief over the winter, the application process opened up for First Descents camps and I applied. A few months later I bought a non-refundable plane ticket, knowing that I might later feel the urge to stay home.

As the date for camp drew nearer, I wondered why I was going for a third year. I am two years out of chemotherapy, busy with work and an all-consuming equestrian hobby.

But I have also felt constantly pulled in a million different directions over the past few months. I’m sure you all know that feeling, the to-do list keeps getting longer, but there is only so much of yourself to go around. In trying to keep up with myself, I often have days when I am overbooked from before sunrise to well after sunset. I have chosen this path, and it allows me to follow my dreams with my horses, but sometimes I wonder why I can’t be satisfied with less.

I arrived in Montana overtired, with a briefcase full of projects to be completed. I knew that we would only have power at camp for a few hours a day (Big Creek is still run on a generator), but wanted to at least catch up on a few things.

First Descents is best known for pushing young adult cancer survivors out of their comfort zone and teaching them how to live again after cancer has completely knocked “normal” out of our worlds. Whitewater kayaking was and still is outside of my comfort zone, but after two years of camps, I wasn’t as scared as I had been in the past.

Instead of looking to be pushed out of my comfort zone, I wanted to have fun with life again. I didn’t need First Descents to challenge me; I have challenged myself enough over the last six months to last quite awhile. I really needed First Descents to put the joy back into my life – to recharge my soul.

This camp was only for returning campers. We all “got” what First Descents was about, and although some campers had not kayaked before (they had attended a rock climbing camp), we were all ready for the week ahead.

I’m not sure if I was nervous about kayaking because it had been a year, or if my underwater gymnastics from last year were still haunting me a bit, but I was really nervous sitting in my kayak. Again I questioned why I wasn’t home, riding a horse, but the decision had been made.

We went up to Bowman Lake, a truly spectacular place and did our wet exits. The water was chilly. We paddled around the lake a bit, working on paddle strokes, and I finally started to relax. When it was time to practice our rolls, I didn’t want to do it. I hadn’t rolled a kayak in two years and the instructor’s explanation didn’t sound like the instruction I had on Lake Beseck in Middlefield. I paddled over to one of the safety boaters who has been at camp with me all three years. His explanation of eddy lines allowed me to finally grasp the concept and successfully eddy in and out without flipping over last year. I showed him what I had been taught; it was the same as the explanation the instructor had just given. My nerves were jumbling everything up. I rolled my kayak twice and called it good.

As the week wore on and I had uneventful days on the water, I started to loosen back up. While I avoided some of the heavier cancer conversations, I loved laughing and singing along to the IPods as we drove to and from rivers. Three of the campers had been at one or both of my previous two camps; the other 7 were strangers. They quickly became part of my FD family. Many of the staff are friends from previous camps and their presence is always welcome.

I found myself worrying less about the projects that were still sitting in my briefcase, the horses that weren’t getting worked and the various other trivial matters of my personal and professional life. I found myself living more in the moment and enjoying every moment with my fellow campers.

I started talking about cancer again, and its devastating effects on my friends over the past year. More importantly, I was listening the stories of my fellow campers. Again, I was reminded that although cancer sucks, my road to “survivorship” was relatively easy. And I found comraderie with two other Hodgkin lymphoma survivors, whose stories were eerily similar to my own.

By Friday, I was wondering where the week had gone, and wishing I did not have to go home in two days. The rivers had been high all week because of the heavy snowfall over the winter and the North Fork of the Flathead River was going to be the same. Nine campers were kayaking on Friday. We had two rafts and probably 15 experienced kayakers out there to keep us safe.

My safety boater for the day was “Junior”. At camp in 2009, I had adopted him as my “brother from another mother” and we had been joking around all week this year. We laughed and goofed off down the river. The water was high, the waves were fun, I didn’t take the hardest lines, but I didn’t skirt past the challenges or have any “underwater gymnastics” either.

It was exactly what I needed. When we took our kayaks off the river, I had a huge grin on my face.

At campfire that night, we had the candle ceremony where we remember friends and family who have lost their battle with cancer and honor their memories. I thought about Flash and Nickname, who were at my camp in 2009. I felt a wave of grief for the loss of Sue and Katrina. I cried again for the loss of all of them, but with my FD family right there – also crying for their losses.

And so it is, that First Descents is what we, the campers and staff, needed it to be. In my first two years I needed to be challenged to live life to the fullest again. This year, I needed a safe place to recharge my soul and have fun again. I returned to Connecticut with a greater sense of peace than I have felt in quite some time.

My to-do list is just as long as it was when I left. The horses haven’t been worked in eight days and the briefcase is still full of projects. But all of that is okay, because the big picture is a whole lot clearer and the fun is back. Thank you First Descents!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Summer Solstice Trail Ride

This blog post appeared on -

One cancer survivor's efforts to raise money for the organization that taught her to live again

By Stacey Stearns

Diagnosis and First Descents

I was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, at the age of 28. To tell you the truth, I was somewhat relieved; I was in constant pain and had been through two years of misdiagnosis. I finally had answers but still took a healthy case of denial into chemotherapy.

I rode my Morgan gelding throughout my six months of chemotherapy treatments. Many times he babysat me as I played the role of the passenger, but I truly believe that riding helped me cope with chemotherapy.

A few months after treatment ended, I attended a whitewater kayaking camp for young adult cancer survivors in Montana with the organization, First Descents. First Descents is an organization that provides young adult cancer survivors the opportunity to “defy their cancer, reclaim their lives and connect with others doing the same” by participating in outdoor adventures “designed to enable them to climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis.”

The week I spent kayaking on the river with my fellow campers truly taught me to live again. Being surrounded by a group of people who had walked the same road, many of them a tougher road, changed me and gave me a network of people to depend on as I continue this journey.

Giving Back

I decided to fundraise for First Descents so that I could give something back to the organization that had given me so much. As I am not comfortable asking people for money, I instead decided to plan a benefit trail ride. The trail rides have since taken on a life of their own. I have learned a lot about organizing trail rides and have made some wonderful friends along the way. The support from the equestrian community – businesses that have donated prizes, riders who participate despite horrible weather, and dedicated volunteers - has been phenomenal. My first three rides raised a combined total of $2,355 for First Descents – money that will allow more young adult cancer survivors to have their own First Descent experience.

2011 Summer Solstice Ride - The Best Yet

Two weeks ago, I held my fourth benefit trail ride. I changed the format a bit and accepted an invitation from Fort Hill Farms in Thompson, Connecticut to hold the ride at their farm. Owners Peter and Kristin Orr have beautiful organic gardens, a dairy farm, and an ice cream stand. My trail ride coincided with their event, “Come to a Farm for the Health of it.” In the past I have held mileage rides with at least 10 miles of marked trail. I told riders ahead of time that the ride at Fort Hill Farms would instead be a destination ride.

Twenty-three riders arrived the morning of June 18, 2011 to ride the carriage roads and fields of Fort Hill Farms. The ride began by climbing to the top of a hill where the Federal Aviation Association has a tower. From this spot, the view extends to Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The carriage road then took riders through a maple grove, around the edges of cornfields and within the woods.

As riders finished the trail, they were met with a fresh lunch of chicken salad and fruit, generously sponsored by Nutrena. All riders received prizes from our sponsors in the equine community including: magazine subscriptions, a rope halter, gift certificates and the Equitrekking book and DVD set. At the end of the day, we tallied up the donations and had raised $2,550 for First Descents. I cannot thank my riders, sponsors, volunteers and friends at Fort Hill Farms enough for their support.

The trail rides began as a way to raise money for First Descents, but they have grown into so much more. I have made some incredible friends in the horse community while organizing these rides and those friendships are something that will last a lifetime.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Pine Tree

We went to the Pine Tree Endurance Ride on June 25th in North Waterford, Maine. I trailered up with my friend Megan and her two sons, it was the first endurance ride for all of us.

I guess the best way to sum up the two days in Maine is to call it a learning experience on many levels.

We were still in the middle of one of the multi-day rain spells when we arrived. Luckily there were some small stalls left in one of the cattle barns (ride camp was at the fairgrounds) so we took four of those. We built temporary gates for the horses with the electric fence we had brought, but didn't electrify John and Minnie because their stalls were on the opposite end of the barn from Dolly and Coco. John ducked under the gate and was loose within five minutes. There were some large round pen panels laying in the grass, so I borrowed one of them and made him a gate with that. Around 11:30 that night, I was very grateful for the stalls as there was a thunder and lightning storm with heavy downpours. I felt bad for the horses that were in temporary paddocks for the night, even though they had rain sheets on.

Since it was an endurance ride, there was a 100 mile ride, a 50 mile ride and a 30 mile ride. We were entered in the 30 mile ride. The 100 milers left camp at 5 am, the 50 milers left camp at 6 am and we left camp at 7 am.

At 6:45 I had John tacked up and ready, and I wanted to head to the starting line to give them my number (there is a mass start for endurance ride versus the every two minutes for competitive trail rides). John doesn't do well if I "warm up," usually I mount up about one minute before its time to start the ride. I know this about him, but mounted up at 6:45 anyway. Mistake number one had been made.

I rode to the starting line and gave the starter my number. There were several horses down there and I decided to get him out of there. We headed back up towards the trailer area. I was standing still, trying to keep him calm when a horse came up the road (at a walk) behind us, out for its warmup. John reared straight up and leaped forward 10 feet. I wheeled him around when he landed so he could see that it was just another horse, luckily I had been prepared for it, but I took him up to the pulling ring to walk circles until it was time to go out. He calmed down doing this.

I waited until about 7:05, trying to give the other horses enough of a head start that we wouldn't run into them for awhile. Then I headed back to the starting line. Someone was shoveling out their aluminum trailer with an aluminum shovel, making a terrible scraping noise. John spun and tried running a few times before I just asked the person (who I couldn't see, I just yelled to them) to stop while we rode by.

Finally I got him out onto the trail and he was strong. Really strong. We passed 10 horses in the first 8 miles. I tried keeping him behind a few of the groups but it wasn't happening. The trail was rocky and slick from all the rain. This concerned me some because I couldn't always dictate speed or which side of the trail we were on.

They added French Hill to the first loop of this ride (its usually on the last loop). French Hill is a 600 foot elevation change over 1 1/2 miles. We walked most of it and it took the wind out of John's sails a bit. When one of the groups we passed caught up, I let them pass us and then kept them in sight for most of the time until the hold - I liked the pace they were going at.

After three hours we arrived at the hold. Tom did a courtesy pulse check for me and I was at 60, (the pulse you need to be at before your mandatory 40 minute hold begins) so I went straight to the vets. I ended up with Dr. King, he checked my pulse and it was at 52. I went to trot down the road and John didn't want to do it, but started trotting anyway. Slowly. I looked over at him and his head was bobbing up and down with every stride. Uh-oh. We turned around and trotted back to Dr. King, who said, "He's dead lame on his right front."

Our day was over after 17.5 miles. Dr. King could not find the source of lameness anywhere in his right hoof, leg or shoulder but it was definitely there. His pulse after trotting was 56. I left his tack on but pulled his bridle off so he could eat. And then we waited with Linda (whose horse was also lame) for the ambulance trailer. She'd been waiting two hours (she had entered the 50 mile ride). After another 2 1/2 hours, the ambulance came. A minor problem in that the trailer came unhooked from the trailer halfway back to ride camp (this freaked me out) and we were back safely at ride camp.

Before we went home a few hours later, I trotted John out again. He was slightly off, but only trotting downhill. Trotting uphill or on level ground he looked sound. Totally perplexing because he had been dead lame a few hours before.

The next day he was sound again.

I have a lot of theories. I think it was a hind end issue (the same one we had after the hilly Warren Tessier ride last October). I think part of the problem is in his stifles - I had been doing bodywork on them earlier in the season to good results but got busy and stopped. Another mistake.

So, this is my homework:
1. Get John on a joint supplement that doesn't have MSM (his current one does) so I don't have to take him on and off of it before and after every ride.
2. Start doing the bodywork again.
3. Start driving him again to build more hind end strength.
4. Work on his behavior - leaping and diving around ride camp at the beginning of the ride and then going as fast as he can, ignoring me for 8 miles didn't help his cause.
5. Add more hills to my training regimen.

He's still tired and not quite his sound self (I rode him Thursday). I'll let him rest a bit more and then we will begin our homework.