Monday, May 31, 2010

Hock Knot

As noted earlier in a post, one of our horses, Journey, had a mysterious lump on his right rear hock. The military vet cut it open about two months ago to see what it was and take a biopsy sample. She contemplated trying to cut it out but wisely decided not to and closed the wound up again. The biopsy revealed that the lump was some kind of scar tissue. Unfortunately, the wound would not heal and the lump continued to get bigger. Alarmed by this we decided to take Journey in for surgery at Arizona Equine in Gilbert last Monday. It is a three hour drive to get up there and we had to make it twice since we had to leave Journey overnight. Getting the funding took some effort too. The clinic, knowing that we don't have much money, agreed to do the surgery for no more than $2,000. I didn't have that much in our budget so I asked our military vet clinic to pay $500, took $500 out of our own budget, and asked the Army to give me an additional $1,000. Everybody paid up, so I didn't have to go to the Fort Huachuca Cavalry Association for more money. Having just spent $1,400 of FHCA money on Charlie and Bob, I didn't want to hit them up for more. The surgery seems to have been a complete success and Journey is recovering nicely. We kept the mysterious lump (pictured here--yuck) so we could have another biopsy done. The lump was about the size of half an apple. The dark oblong circle at the top of it is where the previous surgery had taken place and obviously a slice was taken out of the middle for the biopsy. It is big, ugly, hard, and had hair growing on it. Until the biopsy is done we won't know what caused it and we may never know. Our current theory is that Journey had a thorn stuck in the joint from years ago when his trooper at the time rode him into a cactus at Picacho Peak. The thorn may have been encapsulated but became irritated during a subsequent injury to the hock--most likely a kick from another horse--and then began to grow. All we know for sure is that the lump was caused by some previous injury. Hopefully the biopsy will solve the mystery. Meanwhile, Journey will be down for at least a month for post op care and reconditioning.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Graduation Ceremony

Photos by Ty Holland

After four months of hard work our three new riding school students had their graduation ceremony. We had two troopers and one lady graduate. The ceremony was held last Thursday on Brown Parade Field. The parade field is the same place where Captain Henry Lawton and B Troop, 4th U.S. Cavalry left from to pursue Geronimo in May 1886--124 years ago. The ceremony is simple and short but well attended. Major General Custer was there and the ceremony was hosted by the Garrison Commander, Colonel Tim Faulkner. The new graduates were escorted on horseback by the Troop Commander, executive officer, guidon bearer, and our lady instructor. I narrated the ceremony and was assisted on the ground by the rest of the troopers and ladies.
After an invocation and the National Anthem, I made a few introductory remarks about the history of the Troop and Fort Huachuca and introduced the graduates. The Troop Commander than requested permission from Colonel Faulkner to conduct a charge.
As part of their graduation, the new troopers must successfully complete their first open field charge. While they charged a bugler sounded the charge and our cannon crew fired a volley. After the charge, the troopers dismounted and assisted their fellow lady graduate down from her horse (she was riding sidesaddle) and then lined up in front of the audience.
The Colonel then made a few remarks about the graduates and then came forward to present spurs to the troopers and a riding crop to the lady graduate. After everyone came forward to congratulate the graduates, I hustled back to the stables to set up the barbecue. The ceremony went very well and we made the front page of the local paper the next day. It was a good time but I'm glad it's all over until the next class starts in October.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Horse Assignments

At the end of the riding school we, of course, have to assign the new guys horses. We have three categories of horses based on their ride ability. Category 1 horses can be ridden by anyone and these horses are used in the riding school. This category also includes what we call "Cat 1 plus" meaning they are easy to ride but very fast. Category 2 horses are those that require an advanced rider because they can get away from an inexperienced rider or require special handling. My beloved Wonder Horse is a Cat 2 horse. Category 3 horses are dangerous for anyone to ride and require professional training to be made safe. We do not have any Cat 3 horses at the moment and hopefully never will. I have eliminated all of the Cat 3 horses over the years and am careful not to acquire any more.

After a trooper has ridden with us for a year, we usually reassign him a new horse with a little more spirit. Their horses, in turn, go to the new guys. We try to only assign the Cat 2 horses to troopers who have been with us for at least three years but sometimes you have to make exceptions. We currently have two Cat 1 horses on long-term injured status so now we have to temporarily assign Cat 2 horses to people who don't have the three years of experience. It's not the ideal situation as I like to bring new riders up slowly. However, these are brave men and women and wouldn't be in the Troop if they weren't able to handle the challenge.

At least, that's what I keep telling myself.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Demo Riding

Now that our cavalry riding school is finished we can concentrate on our own training. We have gone back to Wednesday night musters and are concentrating on preparing for our cavalry riding demonstration next month. Fort Huachuca has an annual, week-long event in June during which they induct deserving people into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. It is a pretty big deal and, of course, B Troop performs its riding demonstration as part of it.

Those of us who've been riding for a number of years know the routine fairly well but we have to bring the new troopers up to speed as well as our new horses. I've never ridden the Wonder Horse in the demo so I've been riding him frequently to get him ready. Surprisingly, he is pretty good at it and really seems to enjoy it. He tends to rear up a little prior to a charge and is a regular juggernaut once we get started but, otherwise, very responsive to cues and precise in his movements.

In the first part of the demonstration we split our column into two files and double back and ride through each other's files. It is very important to maintain the correct speed and distance between the horses in order to avoid a collision. The distance between horses in the same file is supposed to be two horse lengths at the gallop but the more experienced riders typically cut that down to one and a half horse lengths--about eight feet. Tonight I was partnered up with one of our most experienced riders, Pete, who slowly reduced the distance on each pass until finally I was facing a five foot gap to ride through. I aimed Apache at the tail of the horse in front of Pete's horse and spurred Apache through the gap. Apache passed so closely behind the other horse that he had to lift his head to avoid contact.

We conduct a couple of charges at the end of the demonstration--one with pistols and one with sabers. The arena is 400 feet long so we can get up a pretty good head of steam. Apache loves this and gets very excited as we are forming up our skirmish line. He rears up slightly when the charge command is given and then, realizing he is a little behind the other horses, launches himself forward at warp speed. He isn't out of control though and holds his lane very well. The problem is that the commander's horse likes to buck during a charge which causes the commander to slow down. Apache moves at about 40 miles per hour in a charge and a sudden traffic jam in front can make things a little hairy during the rejoin. Fortunately, horses are as interested in avoiding a collision as we are and will usually find a way to avoid contact with another horse. You just kind of keep your weight centered, avoid harsh reins, and hope for the best. It almost always turns out okay.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Riding the Wonder Beast

We had a training session today for one of the riding school students who missed last Thursday's training due to work. Surprisingly we had five troopers and one of the other students show up even though it was Mother's Day. Everyone, both male and female, came out to try and get away from Mother's Day activities. Interesting.

The training at this point is learning our cavalry riding demonstration. It involves some precision riding and a few charges with weapons. It's fun to do but takes a lot of practice. I rode Apache the Wonder Beast as he needed the training too. In past weeks I've been riding him up front in the commander's position but since the real commander was there today, I slipped back into the end of the column to see what Apache would do. With his dislike of anything different or new, I half expected what of his psychotic episodes.

Apache was great, however. He was plenty excited and I had to strain to hold him back a few times but otherwise he hit his marks on time and with energy. He is a strong and fast horse and could easily blow the ears of most the other horses in the arena but I managed to keep him under control through the entire routine at the gallop. It was like flying an F-16 in a formation of A-10s. It was like his slowest speed was the top speed for the other horses doing the routine.

Apache has great potential as a cavalry horse but he has to be ridden every other day to keep his mind in the game. When he's bad he is awful, but when he's good, he is outstanding. Today, thankfully, was one of his good days.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Rugged Terrain and Outlaws

A friend and I rode up into the Whetstone Mountains today to see if we could find the location where Wyatt Earp allegedly killed Curly Bill Brocius. History says the fight took place at Iron Springs but later accounts gave the name of the place as Mescal Springs. The two springs are roughly in the same place but are in fact two different locations. Recent research indicates, however, that neither of these places was the site of the battle but the battle may have been in a place called Cottonwood Springs which is about a quarter mile further west.

Mescal and Iron Springs are in a pass in the Whetstones mountains and Cottonwood Springs is just to the west of the pass. We studied the pass where the three springs are located using Google Earth. You can adjust the view of the program so you can see the terrain features as if you were on the ground. Once we felt we had a good idea where everything was and could recognize major terrain features, we loaded up the horses into the trailer and headed to the mountains. We struck out along a ranch road heading in the general direction of the pass. After a while, though, the road veered off in a bad direction so we headed off across the desert. The terrain got rough really quick. On Google Earth the pass looks smooth and easy to ride but in reality it was full of ridges and ravines cut back and forth all the way through the pass. The ground was rocky and most of it was loose and broken rock. The horses hated it and struggled with their footing.

Eventually, we came up against a fence that stopped further progress but we found a watering pen with a series of gates in it. On the other side of the pen was a dirt road that headed on up into the pass. We followed the road until it ended at an old well. The well had a pipe running out of it that ran about a mile back to where the watering pen had pen. Unfortunately, the road pretty much ended there and we struggled up through the wash that ran down out of the top of the pass.

We eventually came up upon Iron Springs and not further on, Mescal Springs. We did not ride up into the springs as the terrain was very rocky and would have been hard on the horses. We could have tied up the horses and walked up, but we wanted to get on to Cottonwood Springs and we had already been riding for an hour. The terrain got worse. There were plenty of cattle trails but they were not suitable for men on horseback. We finally had to dismount and lead the horses up through the brush and steep cattle trails to get out of the pass.

I was riding Duke, who didn't seem to grasp the concept of being led through the brush. He'd see the other horse disappearing into the trees ahead and he'd want to hurry up and join him. So it was like a bad Three Stooges movie where the stooges try to go through a doorway side by side. I'd be trying to squeeze myself through a hole in a thicket and Duke would try to squeeze through with me. Sometimes he'd get ahead of me on the trail and I'd be dragged along behind him. I eventually got him to understand that he had to wait for me to go first and walk behind me.

Finally, mercifully, we got out of the pass and onto a saddle before dropping down into Cottonwood Springs. Cottonwood Springs isn't as well defined as the other two. There is no obvious clump of trees to mark the springs just a series of tree lined washes that fork off in different directions. We couldn't really find the location of the gun battle as there were too many possibilities and we didn't have time to explore them all. We were an hour and a half into the ride and knew we had a rough ride to get back to the horse trailer.

Although we didn't find the site of the battle, we are pretty sure that it must have taken place at Cottonwood Springs as opposed to either of the other locations. No one in his right mind would have ridden a horse to either Mescal Springs or Iron Springs. The pass is just too rough. Also, the terrain described by Wyatt Earp at the battle didn't really match the terrain at Mescal or Iron Springs. Earp and his posse came upon the outlaws in their camp with both parties being surprised by the other. That would not have been possible at either of the springs in the pass but entirely possible in the Cottonwood Springs area.

All in all, it was a great ride but next time I think I'll ride to Cottonwood Springs from the west and avoid the pass altogether. Either that or hike through the pass on foot.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Riding to Relax

The weather in Arizona has been rough this year. Either it is raining or the winds are too high. As a result, I've only been able to ride the Wonder Horse about once per week. Today I endeavoured to take him out for a ride to work on his bouts of paranoia. He is fine when I ride him in situations he is familiar with. I typically take him into the dressage training area where we practice horsemanship. He is very comfortable with this and is relatively relaxed. However, the last time I took him out I took him to an area adjacent to the dressage area and worked on pole bending. He didn't like that at all and became very agitated and light on the front end. I have noticed this phenomenon several times in recent months whenever I introduce him to a new environment. He becomes so panicked that he is nearly unrideable. He is a good horse and wants to please but he just becomes so frightened that he can't focus. Conventional wisdom dictates that you take his mind off his fears by asking him to perform some well-trained task to take his mind off his fears but today I decided to take a different approach. I decided to take him out of his comfort zone and then ask him to face his fears without any distractions. I took him over to the jogging path where I like to gallop Duke for his conditioning training. Apache (the Wonder Horse) is not accustomed to riding there so I thought it would be a good "agitator". I was right, as soon as we rode past the dressage area, he became agitated. As we went around the oval the first time he became increasingly nervous and it felt like I was sitting on 1,200 lbs of dynamite ready to go off. I dismounted and spoke to him for a few minutes until he calmed down. I then walked him around the jogging path, stopping every few feet to pick up and remove rocks in the path. A couple times around the path and he was able to do it calmly. I then mounted and rode him around again. He did better but was still nervous. We worked though it though and eventually he was able to go around without increasing his gait or tossing his head. Once he was able to complete the oval calmly we called it a day. It only took about an hour. A small but important victory. The Wonder Horse learned to trust me a little bit.