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, 100% Crabbet filly by Hanson out of Dominita

Monday, August 30, 2010

Cumbria Challenge

Monday August 30 2010

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.

(Many more photos can be seen at www.endurance.net/international/GreatBritain/2010CumbriaChallenge/ )

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

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.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Five Stars

Monday August 23 2010

"That black shape that you thought you saw whirling through the Edinburgh night sky at the weekend was probably the roof of the [Edinburgh] Playhouse, blown off by the glorious eruption that is The Gospel at Colonus and by the stomping, cheering response from 3,000 theatregoers who could scarcely believe their eyes and ears."

So begins the London Times review of our show in Edinburgh.

Of course you can let great reviews go to your head, and then the negative reviews nag and eat away at you. It's what you feel inside what matters. It's a terrific show and I'm still humbled to be a part of it. (And we'll just take this 5 out of 5 stars review and enjoy it.)

It's half an hour after our show lifted the roof off the Playhouse for the 4th and last time in the Edinburgh International Festival... and already the walls of Colonus are coming down. In another hour or so, the stage will be nearly empty of all evidence that we were there, and another show will take over the theatre.

Colonus fades away again, and life goes on for everybody again - drifting back home or elsewhere to act, sing, teach... or jump back in the horses.

I'm on to horse stuff tomorrow - Seren Arabians in England. Back to fresh air, dirt between my toes, real stars in the sky, and the sweet smell of horses.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Sunday August 22 2010

We are in love.

With our Scottish in-house Edinburgh Playhouse crew. We want to take them home with us.

Opening night of The Gospel at Colonus on Saturday was a smash hit. 3056 seats sold out. The performance was awesome. The performers on fire and contagious. The crowd was great.

We had two shows today; tomorrow is our last one here.

"Until the next time," JD said.

We never know when it is really our last show - the last time this crazy, diverse family will get together... but the show has been going for 28 years in various incarnations (with 3 original cast members still in the show) - and Lord willing it will continue for another 28 years, give or take.

There are rumors of Australia, London, maybe a few other places in the works. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, we'll try to pack our lovely Scottish theatre friends back home with us. They've been the best.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Thursday August 19 2010

A busy schedule in the world's biggest music festival means fast turnovers in a theatre such as the 3056 seat Edinburgh Playhouse. One show ends on a Tuesday night, is struck on Wednesday until everything is gone and an empty stage is left, and load in for the next show - the Gospel at Colonus - starts Thursday at 9 AM.

Throughout the 14-hour day, an empty stage grows into an ancient Roman amphitheatre. The pre-built wall designed by Alison is pieced together and raised,

the risers are built, the floors are painted, and the wall touched up with accents.

The lights are hung and focus begins according to the lighting designer Jason's plot.

The costumes are unpacked by Jesse.

The sound equipment is set up by Ron the designer and Pete the house sound guy - on stage (wireless microphone receivers, monitors, speakers, band gear, amps, cables) and in the house where I'll be mixing (mixing boards).

And in a rehearsal space, the actors are working through the show,

honing the art that will bring magic to life to the ancient Roman theatre.

Flowering of the Human Spirit

Thursday August 19 2010

Created in 1947 after the chaos of World War II, the Edinburgh International Festival was created with the mission of providing 'a platform for the flowering of the human spirit' - to transforming lives with the power of the arts. It was the first of its kind and is one of the largest art festivals in the world.

And even larger than that is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that has grown up around it - for artists who weren't and aren't invited to participate in the EIF.

For three weeks, the city of Edinburgh is alive and deluged with arts - theatre, dance, operas, music, musicals, street performers, on stages, in homes, in the streets.

Together they form the biggest arts festival in the world, and that's why I'm here - The Gospel at Colonus has come to the EIF as one of the main acts! We're doing 4 shows at the Edinburgh Playhouse - the largest theatre in Scotland, with 3000 seats.

More to come...

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.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

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.