Running Wild retreat Day 1 (plus the rest of the journey here)

I started blogging about the journey here yesterday, but I only got as far as the second day, when I drove from Northern City to the Lake region where I was born and raised (mostly), and where I graduated from high school, and where both of my two older children were born. It’s an area that holds a lot of my history — both family history long past & more recent, and my individual history as a girl and young woman. I love going back there. I love how much has changed, but how my memories allow me to navigate despite those changes. Since I pushed through and drove the entire 10-ish hour journey in one go, I arrived pretty late to the northern Lake region town where I was to meet my folks and hand off the kids. I found a nice dark spot on a residential street close to the Tim Hortons and set up the van, which required moving sleeping kids from car seats, moving car seats, and folding out the back bench into the bed. I’d had a late coffee to fuel my drive, so I didn’t sleep right away, but the kids went back to sleep pretty much immediately, and I savoured the night time cuddles knowing that they’d be my last for a while. In the morning we had some time to kill before meeting my folks at the shop where I left the van to get some love from our longtime VW mechanic, and after a brief and way too hot play at a nearby park, I decided to take the kids to my favourite beach to swim in the lake. It was a bit of a drive but so worth it to take them to this magical spot and jump in the cool refreshing water where ducks casually swam by looking for bread crumbs and families and boaters enjoyed the summer morning. I was both dreading the hand-off of the kids and at the same time just wanted to rip off the bandaid, so although I could have stayed there all day, we packed up and left fairly quickly, and after meeting my folks carried out operation hand-off very efficiently. My mom wanted me to stay the night but I knew it would just draw out the agony for me, so I kissed the kids goodbye in the late afternoon and headed to my cousin’s house close to the airport for the night before my 5am flight, then flew to Denver and did a bit of public transiting around to get to my couch for the night (which was actually a bed, offered by some very fine folks that had come for a horse ride with me in Mexico in May). The next day (yesterday) was an 8-hour train ride from Denver to Grand Junction (over 2 hours delayed, but WOW scenery) and then an hour and a half drive to Ridgway to the amazing place we’re staying, and meeting the small group of amazing women I’ll be spending the next two weeks working with and getting to know while we learn how to gentle wild mustangs without flooding or trauma.

Needless to say, I was a bit tired last night after arriving and having a super intense (but good) orientation and introduction. I watched a bit of Queer Eye because those guys are amazing and always make me happy, and then crashed but couldn’t quite come down enough to have a really settled or deep sleep. I think tonight will be better — I’m tired in a different kind of way, but I wanted to write before I lose the energy and will completely because there is way too much that I want to record. I’m not sure if I’ll have the energy to write every day, but I’m going to try mostly because I want to have a record that I can look back on to remind myself of this incredible experience.

Friends, I did not have huge expectations coming here but so far I’m pretty sure my mind would still have been blown even if I had. There is the location, for one. The place we’re staying is a super huge, posh house with some of the most incredible mountain views I’ve seen. It’s set up on a hillside facing the 14,150 feet (4,310 m) Mt. Sneffels, which no doubt should be called by its Indigenous name, whatever that might be — but regardless of the horrible colonized name, it is still full of the sacred magic the original people of this land honoured, and those vibrations still resonate through the landscape. From the expansive deck that stretches across the front of the house, one can see the valley below and through the trees it’s possible to catch glimpses of Maddy’s herds (one of which includes 3 zebras) in the fenced off pastures of her ranch just at the bottom of the hill.

We were matched with our mustangs last night. Unlike the first group, which spent two weeks working with the horses in late July and had drawn horses at random, Maddy & her crew decided to match us up with the horses after listening to each of our stories (there are 6 of us with very diverse levels of experience and types of background). So that in itself is pretty amazing. I was matched up with Mirror, who is one of the less shy/frightened and more outgoing. She’s VERY food motivated and energetic about the training, and also more receptive to touch than most of the other mustangs. Although we spent a lot of the day today going over the theory behind Maddy’s training methods, we each had a short session with our horses in the late afternoon, starting with Luwalla, who is the most wild of the group, and ending with Mirror, who is probably the most “advanced” in the gentling process.

Mirror this morning, wondering when she’s going to get some treats

Since we watched each horse and trainer in turn, Mirror had to watch all the other horses having their fun and games (positive reinforcement/clicker training) before we got to her at the very end. I had an easier time waiting — I learned a lot from watching everyone else! — but poor Mirror was just about going mad with anticipation by the time we got to her at the very end. I got to have a short 15 minute session with her getting used to using the target (a small bouy stuck on the end of a plastic stick) and rewarding her for following the target and for standing quiet and relaxed in treat receiving mode or TRM (head turned away to avoid mugging for treats). We also practiced targeting her forehead to my palm (so hard to NOT move my hand toward her but keep it still and let her touch me), and we used a traffic cone for the “start button,” which is a way of allowing the horse to have choice in the training process. When she targets the cone with her nose, that is the start button indicating that she’s ready for an activity/behaviour which today was giving her some “air pets” on her neck. We ended with an actual real pet on the neck which she didn’t shy away from at all.

Overall it was a pretty awesome, energizing experience, and I’m super excited for tomorrow when we’ll be working with the horses all day — and also to see how far we will be able to get in two weeks. I think she’s going to be the perfect match for me to give me the skills to go back and work with my super food-motivated mare and her crazy little 2-year old colt, who hasn’t quite clued into the positive reinforcement training quite as much as his mom, but will be my major project for this coming winter. I’m really excited to see how I can take what I’m learning back to my totally domesticated equines to build the trust and relationship I want with them. This way of approaching horses, with so much respect and understanding, but also with the clarity and communication of a robust yet flexible set of training principles allowing the horse to build necessary skills without flooding or trauma — it’s honestly kind of mind blowing, and I’m so grateful to have found Maddy and to actually be here learning from her in person.

Folks, friends, readers — I’m also grateful that you’re following along with me on this journey. I’m especially grateful for those of you who contributed to my Gofundme to help get me here, and most of all for one person who made the incredibly generous and decisive contribution that allowed me to put down the deposit early on in my fundraising efforts. Without that contribution, I would have had to figure out what to do with a failed fundraising campaign, which would have really sucked. I’m also really grateful for my Grannie, who passed away this spring at the age of 94 after a wonderful long and full life. Although I was well aware that she never much approved of me, she loved my kids and she was as kind to me as she was able to be. She also remembers each of her grandchildren in her will with a small inheritance — which happened to be exactly the amount I needed to pay the balance of the retreat fees. My parents were pivotal in making it all happen — they fronted the inheritance money (these things take time) and offered to take the kids for the two weeks I’m away. And of course, my love & gratitude for L grows daily. Although it’s usually a courtesy to at minimum inform your life partner of big things that inevitably affect them, I never sat him down to talk it over or ask his permission (not that I really need it, but), and despite that he’s been 100% supportive of me taking off and doing this thing that he only partly understands, and spending money that could have gone towards paying some debt or doing something for the family when we really still are just barely scraping by. If you knew how hard that man works every day to support our family, you’d understand what an enormous sacrifice he’s accepted to allow me to do this kind of illogical and strange thing entirely for myself, and without a wisp of resentment. I know exactly how lucky I am.

And with that, I’m going to lull myself to sleep in the company of my favourite gay TV celebrity quintet. Peace out, folks.

Post-Day-1 bliss: taking a minute to soak it alllllll in….

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