Friday, November 17, 2017

Grids and Gymnastics

Every year I try to use winter as a time to hone and polish skills and build strength. With shorter days, it's hard to fit in or commit to any sort of lengthy ride. To get the most bang for my buck in less time, I've spent the past couple winters focusing on exercises that not only get the horses thinking, but also working their bodies. Most of our workouts end up being 20-40 minutes.

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Bootcamp? Say it ain't so!

This year I'm easing up on myself so far as "goals" go with winter riding. I always think I'll be able to do a lot more than I actually can and then feel guilt when I can't reach my goals. This year I want to work each Q and Grif 2x/week for > 20 minutes and I want to work Stan 1x/week. It may be lunging inside with or without ground poles or heading to the back field where I have various ground pole exercises and gymnastic grids setup.

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Ground tying champion when I need to reset our jumps/poles

Griffin helped me set up and test the first of many exercises once we got back to Elkins as I never moved my jumps and poles to Canaan.

After seeing the zig zag poles exercise (exercise 3 here) make its rounds on numerous blogs, opted to set that one up first:

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As my poles aren't exactly the same as what the original exercise calls for, figuring out the pole placing is still a work in progress. I need to remember to bring a measuring tape!

I've ridden the exercise at both a walk and trot on Griffin and a walk on Q so far. Both horses took to it easily. Trotting shows exactly where my eyeballed measurements are off, so I haven't trotted it too much yet as a result!

Not wanting to throw any horse directly into the zig zag exercise - and really not knowing what to do with the surplus of odd length poles I've amassed - I opted to throw 3 of my 3½ poles together as trot poles. 

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It's simple and easy, but they are quite narrow, so the horses do need to be paying attention to what is asked or we'll miss our mark. Grif has no issue with this though and locks easily onto them at the walk and trot. 

Finally, for the moment, I have a small gymnastic grid setup with 3 cavaletti bounces ending with a one stride vertical.

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I worked Grif through this grid several times both the day I set it up and in days after. He compressed himself to a very awkward 2 strides our first go through, but we nailed it afterward.

Since then, I opted to see how he may handle a 4 bounce grid with the 3 cavaletti leading to the vertical; the cavaletti are set at 18" and the vertical is 2'6". Griffin is no stranger to bounce work over those cavaletti - but the cavaletti bounces ending with a higher vertical? I wasn't sure how that would go.

Apparently, Griffin wasn't so certain either as he refused the first go through! I put my leg on for our next round though and we got through it with room to spare. Subsequent passes were even better and I loved feeling him really use his hind end through the exercise. I've never really felt him bundle himself up so carefully before - it was awesome! I foresee a lot more jump grids with more height in his future...

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Listening ears. Always. 

I've got several of the Horse Physio ground pole exercises printed off for the future to pair with exercises from my 101 Dressage and Jumping Exercises books and various other exercises that have been in Practical Horseman over the years. With any luck, I won't run out of things to do this winter! From a riding standpoint, I'd love to come through winter thinking, "Wow, that flew by!" though the skier in me is certainly rooting for a long snowy winter.

How about you - Does the winter weather and shorter daylight hours limit your riding also? What do you do to combat it? What are some of your favorite ground pole exercises to work through?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

History on Horseback

Boy, life moves quickly, and time escapes me. I've got much to catch up on in the next few days!

Before moving the horses back to Elkins for the winter, Chuck and I ventured out for one final trail ride. On this venture, I opted to take Q. The ride promised to be pretty low-key, just what the mare needs right now.

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She self-loaded on the trailer with zero issues, unloaded quietly at our meeting spot, and stood like an old pro to be tacked and mounted while Chuck's 25 year old gelding acted a total fool. How refreshing to have the "good horse" and for that horse to be this mare!

Chuck's been in Canaan for decades and he's been involved with horses since he was a child. Originally in the fox hunting scene in Fairfax County, VA, during his childhood/teenage years, he later organized multiple endurance rides in WV - the now-defunct Canaan 50 being one which I hear about most often. I never tire of all of his stories.

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On this ride, we traversed across multiple private properties in the center of the valley floor that I doubt I'd ever have access to without him.

Chuck regaled me with stories about Canaan's logging history and how the landscape has changed as a result of the logging and post-logging days. He also shared so many details about how the ownership has changed hands, from which people, and why. Much of the State Park is what it is due to the very generous donation of ~2,100 acres of land from a landowner to the State.

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West Virginia has always been a state ravaged by industry. Long before the days of natural gas and coal, our primary industry was timber extraction which jointly supported the train industry. My favorite microbrewery in the whole state, Stumptown in Davis, is named such because Davis was a town surrounded by stumps as a result of huge logging operations. In the above photo, there was once a ~90-acre lake on the valley floor where timbered logs were put for transport downriver to Davis. A splashdam was constructed to hold and release the logs at key times for travel down the Blackwater to their next destination. Looking at it today, you'd never know!

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We walked most of the ride with a bit of trotting here and there. While I let Q follow for the majority, she was outstanding during the times she led. While she certainly considered some "monsters", she didn't spook once the entire 8 miles, opting instead to pause and think and calm herself instead of whirling away in terror! It was refreshing to ride a horse that thought about life a little bit more critically instead of acting a total fool.

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While I know this ride is only one small step in our process of getting to a better place, it was so good to have a relatively quiet ride with Q. My brain needed that bit of "success" to feel encouraged that we're on the right path.

Patience and time. Patience and time.

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Once back at the trailer, Chuck brought over an ancient cooler with one of the original Canaan 50 shirts sewed onto it for me to drape on Q for a few photos. That was about the coolest thing ever for me.

I've heard countless stories about that ride over the past few years. Dan has gotten me out on a lot of the original trails, but there are still more to tackle that Chuck promises we'll get to with time. He'd like to tackle them one loop at a time some weekend. Yes, please!

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While the return of my horses to Canaan is uncertain at best, this final ride was a great way to end this chapter of our time up there. Once winter passes, I look forward to many more explorations on horseback. Hopefully Q and I will be on a better page by spring so these rides are even more enjoyable.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Status Quo Flow

Life is just peachy lately.

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I'm back on a normal rhythm of balancing work with my personal life and oh man, it feels SO good.

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I'm surprisingly ready for winter this year. Not necessarily looking forward to the whipping winds and bitter cold that my mountaintop gets, but not wholly dreading it either.

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Which is good because we got our first 7" snowfall Sunday night!

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I saw the horses the evening prior to the dump and then not again until the day after.

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Their current BO in Canaan (we move back to our original barn this weekend for the winter months) informed me that Q took two "sledding" trips down one of the pasture hills.

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I know the little mare loves to roll on a hillside, so it didn't surprise me too much. Chuck says that she lay down on one side as if to roll, slid to the base of the hill on her side, then rose, walked to the top, and repeated on her other side. What a goober!

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The horses seem great though. All at perfect weights, in my opinion, to enter winter.

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Kenai is also super ready for winter. He has been an exceptional fool these past few days with the advent of so much snow.

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I love seeing him feel so fresh though. He's going to have a big winter and a new side job beginning at the end of the month, too. I can't wait to share the details with y'all.

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I fit in just over 20 miles of riding between two rides over the weekend.

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My boyfriend who is very Not A Horse Person went on a ride with me one day, and I joined my current BO for another ride; both were beautiful rides across rugged country.

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I rode Griffin and put Dave on Stan the first day. I wish I had video of Dave riding. He's a natural athlete with great body awareness and has ridden well before, but this was the first ride I really got to watch him. He and Stan galloped alongside Grif and I for several long stretches. Grif had a lot of "moments" due to too much exuberance, but Stan was cool as a cucumber throughout, slowing back to a canter and then trot whenever Dave requested. Such a good horse!!

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After a 12 mile ride with Dave, Stan and I joined Chuck for a 9 mile ride the following day. No surprise, Stan was just as much of a saint on this day!

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Chuck, who used to run multiple endurance rides a few decades ago and also was very big into fox hunting in Fairfax County, VA >50 years ago, took us across some truly crazy terrain. It was a pleasure to ride with such a skilled horseman. His 25 year old QH was absolutely FULL of himself while Stan was absolutely chill. I was so proud of my guy for not only keeping his cool, but also tackling some of the gnarliest fucking terrain I've ever traveled on a horse. He was absolutely foot perfect through some really hair-raising sections.

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I don't have huge plans for the horses over the next 2 months beyond moving them back to their home. With the clocks changing this weekend (*sob*) and my vacation to Mexico on the horizon, and holidays fast approaching, a few lazy months will be good for all. The daylight becomes a bit more bearable by the second week in January, so I'll probably begin to set more concrete goals for that time.

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Until then, we're just going to float along and enjoy settling into this new season. It feels pretty good.

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How about you - are you flowing with things lately or has life been more topsy turvy? Are you settling in for winter or driving ahead full-force?

Friday, October 27, 2017

On the Trail Again

Friday the 13th, Q and I trailered out to hit up some nearby trails. It was a beautiful day, the colors were just past peak, and it was high time to get the mare off-property.

I didn't really have a plan on where to go - the options are endless! I could cruise the ski trails nearby or the ski trails a little further away, ride Dolly Sods wilderness area or other trails on National Forest elsewhere, or even a few trails on the wildlife refuge, or maybe the State-owned wildlife management area. Too many trail options is the best dilemma to have!

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I ultimately decided to go with the closest option a whopping 4 mile all-uphill-drive from the barn, just past my house.

Q unloaded, looked about, and then stood calmly as if saying, "Oh, this again." I freaking love this mare away from home!

I stashed my keys, helmeted my head, and Q and I set off.

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I kept the majority of the ride to a walk, just wanting to get Q out to see the world on trail solo again since we hadn't been out on trail since August 2016.  We did a lot of stopping to look and consider as we made our way up the mountain on pristine footing - nary a rock in sight!

The first third of our ride was straight up climbing. We gained several hundred feet in very short order, weaving our way through hawthorne trees and downed logs as we waded through goldenrod and wingstem that was as tall as Q's back (she's 14.1hh).

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After awhile, we emerged from the wooded portion onto the partially mowed/maintained ski slope. Q hesitated a bit at this change in scenery, but eventually gave a big exhale and we marched onward at a nice 4.5 mph walk, enjoying the 100-foot bench that gave a short break in our power climb up the mountain.

Surprisingly enough, she didn't balk at all at any of the man-made objects in and around the ski slope. Blue barrels, fluorescent orange tape, snowmaking nozzles and guns and sticks - none of it bugged her.

As we climbed higher and I saw that the scenic chair lift was indeed operating, I opted to turn back down the mountain. I had zero desire to field tourist questions.

We wound down one slope, up another parallel one, and then down a third before traversing back to our original path. We trotted in very short spurts along pieces of the trails, but mostly kept to a nice marching walk.

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Back on our original trail, I opted to follow a newly mowed section to the bottom instead of bushwacking the tall vegetation as we'd done on our way up. I knew about where the mowed section would end, but had never traveled this exact path between the two points. I suspected I would veer away from the mowed path at the bottom to complete my circuit back to the trailer, though I didn't anticipate just how high and overgrown the area would be!

Nonetheless, I legged Q forward, off the mowed path and into the sea of tall vegetation topped with glistening seeds waiting to be disturbed and released airborne.

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Different from the vegetation we wound through on our way up, these stalks were as high as Q's pricked ears! As we disturbed the vegetation, the seeds stuck to us and swirled about in the air.

It was absolutely comical to watch Q navigate through. She wavered back and forth from putting her head/nose low below the top of the vegetation and then way up above as she tried to gain a better vantage point on the seed swirling chaos around us.

I giggled endlessly, laughing harder when she finally started sneezing every 8 to 10 steps from the seeds in her nose. We were absolutely COVERED in the things!

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With time, we emerged from the chaos, crossed the road, and enjoyed trotting a nicely mowed trail back to the trailer.

All-in-all, we tackled 3.75 miles in an hours time, climbing somewhere around 900 feet during our venture. Q was hesitant at times, balked twice, but was otherwise a very good girl for the whole outing.

It wasn't much to write home about, but it was really nice to finally get back behind those dark ears on trail after so much time off. Hopefully we'll luck into more such ventures in the next few weeks before the snow really starts blowing.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Plot Twist

Horses will be horses.

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They saw me arrive and promptly went to hide in a remote corner of their field. Spoiler alert: it didn't work.
All I wanted to do was groom them and grain them on this day. The next day they were waiting in the barn for me
when my car pulled up!

And life is ever busy.

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Never too busy for doggy hikes though!

And thus, my plans to attend the final starter trial at Loch Moy have come crashing down.

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Lurking while I mucked stalls.

I harbored grief over it for about one minute, then bounded forward with new plans. Water under the bridge and all.

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So shiny - even in his ungroomed state. Super pleased with the weight he's been gaining this month.

See, Grif has been on again, off again with mild lameness since October began. Our unseasonably warm weather (70s-80s °F) coupled with periodic bursts of seasonal (30s-40s °F) weather has been the perfect recipe for abscesses and he's had at least two. The first was more major resulting in a nice quarter-sized blow out on his heel near the coronet band, the second was much more mild and in the opposite front foot. He's still ever so slightly off when he's on gravel on the foot with the most recent abscess, so whether that's to blame or perhaps he's garnered a stone bruise is yet to be determined. Farrier will be out for second opinion this weekend. He's had zero swelling and his legs look great, so I'm not really freaking out about anything at this point - no point looking for a zebra in a herd of horses. It is what it is and we'll get 'er figured.

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I think he totally rocks the leopard print and hot pink, yes?

Due to the abscesses, especially that first pesky one that lasted a good 10-14 days (just like last year's), we really haven't been riding much. Haven't even jumped a gahdamn thing since our last HT.

Well, kind of.

Our current temporary boarding situation closer to my house has this sweet field to ride in. It's in a bit of a bowl on the landscape - flat in the bottom with steady upward rise on three sides. As it rises upward to the ridge above, there are a few limestone rock outcroppings that are perfect natural banks! So, while we haven't jumped colorful sticks or solid obstacles, we HAVE practiced up and down banks. Skinny AF banks at that because these rocks aren't much more than 3-4 feet wide. Yay?

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The bowl mentioned above is pictured here. Some outcroppings are present above Q's ears.

The limited riding - especially jumping - had me feeling not-so-awesome about the final HT anyway, as I'd originally planned to compete at BN instead of elementary. Limited jumping since our last outing made that plan sound quite unfair to Grif and myself. My contingency plan was to just repeat what we'd done last time: compete at the elementary level and school the BN XC course after. This would give us show miles and would be well within our abilities.

I was ready to pull the trigger on this plan when I returned from my vacation and found Griffin to be 100% when ridden on good footing. I pulled up the website to register the following morning to find, oops, I'd done a dumb and forgotten that the sign-ups closed the day before. D'oh!

I could have gotten on the wait list, certainly. But you know what? I'm really blissfully NOT stressed out about a damn thing at the moment, and the thought of sitting around waiting to hear will I/won't I get to go just wasn't a game I felt like playing at the moment. There WILL BE other shows and we WILL make it to them. Of that, I am certain.

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Evening wanderings on remote roads.

So for now, we're gonna settle into winter plans. It's a bummer to not fulfill this goal, but that's just life sometimes, y'know? I'm excited to have some pressure-free months to fine-tune my riding and the fitness of myself and the horses.

We've got some fun, easy-going plans the next couple of weeks - trail riding and the like. Then we'll all enjoy a vacation for the better part of November 'cause I'm leaving the country to head to warmer latitudes for one last hurrah before settling into winter (first snowflakes last night! first snow predicted for Sunday!).

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Two weeks after the photo above - definitely winning the weight gain game!
Ready for winter...

Anyone else recently have a plan fall through and/or their backup/contingency plan fall through? Did it feel right in the moment or was it harder to swallow the loss?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

New Goals

Last week was my annual raptor banding trip in Cape May, NJ.

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Second year female peregrine falcon

It was a fantastic week because not only did I get to see my best friend who lives in California and interact with raptors, I was truly at peace mentally for the first time in MONTHS. Two huge things came to resolution right before my trip and I was thus able to completely check-out mentally.

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Hatch year female northern harrier

I feel so incredibly revived (mentally) as a result! Such a great place to be knowing that I still have a lot of tough work projects coming up in my near future. They're not going to be easy, but they're not going to be anywhere as stressful as what I just tackled!

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After second year male kestrel

During my week of vacation, I had a lot of time to think about things I haven't thought about in ages. I pondered future goals and other dreams that I haven't been able to focus on with any sort of gusto in a long time.

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After second year male Cooper's hawk

As I pondered what exactly I'd like to focus on for myself and the horses going into winter, I kept coming back to two main things. And as I thought more (and read a lot of equestrian books/magazines that were on the back-burner for the past 6 months), I realized the two things I kept coming back to fit rather seamlessly together: yoga for me & dressage for the horses.

Yoga

The advent of a primarily desk-job entering my life 6+ years ago has led to much more sitting than I've ever done. My hips and lower back have cried foul at this since the beginning. In an attempt to ease the pain, I don't sit in the traditional sense much these days: I have a vari-desk that adjusts from sitting to standing and everywhere in between, and I sit on a yoga ball or an adjustable saddle stool when I'm not standing. However, despite these wonderful mitigation measures, I'm still battling tight hip flexors and anterior pelvic tilt more than ever before!

Enter yoga. It's something I have pursued with intermittent regularity over the years. Like any human, I definitely have a weaker side and yoga is one of the few things that helps me build that weakness while stretching and adding flexibility to the strong side. I always feel better afterward and I love how my body awareness increases along with added strength to my weak areas.

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Second year female rough-legged hawk, a rarity for us

Yoga takes a lot of time and miles. It's akin to dressage in many aspects, you can't really cheat your way into the fancy "tricks" like handstands and other inversions. To truly execute those maneuvers, you've got to have a lot of body awareness and focused strength. If you've ever watched a skilled yogi flow through hand balances and inversions, you can't deny the raw strength present in their practice. The minutia behind the strength involved in such practices is both awe-inspiring and fascinating to me.

My two big goals for myself with yoga have always been splits and handstands. I know both are well within my realm of ability, I just have to take the time to pursue daily yoga to advance my flexibility and strength within poses. With a focus on splits first and handstands second, I will strengthen the weak aspects of my physique: hip flexors and lower abdominal muscles. The strength I'll gain along the journey will benefit my posture, my riding, my skiing, my rock climbing, and so many other aspects of my life.

Dressage

Since learning more about dressage, I have believed firmly that it will help my horses more than nearly any other pursuit. Teaching them how to build their bodies to be strong in the correct places and use that strength in the correct way will only help in the journey to pursue any other sport I choose to dive into.

Dressage is a journey though; it takes time and miles to build a horse up to be able to properly execute the proper steps through each level. Like with yoga, you can't cheat your way to the fancy trick-like maneuvers. If you do cheat your way there, you're bound to encounter other issues that will prohibit lasting success.

Riding dressage, being the partner your horse needs you to be, isn't easy. It takes a certain amount of "feel" along with proper body alignment and strength.

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The rough-legged hawk's namesake, feathered "rough" legs - and tiny feetsies!

As I dove into a lot of dressage-focused reading on my vacation, I was reminded of just how not easy it is to properly ride a horse. Keeping your sit bones properly aligned underneath you, maintaining proper leg position, and then independently delivering a variety of aids to cue the horse quickly becomes downright complicated. Add in body weaknesses like tight hip flexors and weak lower abdominals and, well, frankly, you're a bit screwed.

But you know what I kept noticing as I read about the minutia involved in proper riding? So many of the notes about how to achieve proper body alignment and involve the exact same things I'm pursuing with yoga in my quest for splits and handstands. "Zipping up" your abdominals and tucking your pelvis will not only help you sit in the saddle properly, it will also help you hold a handstand.

Touché, Universe, I see what you did there.

Goal Unity

And thus, my winter goals for both myself and the horses have collided into near-perfect unity.

I will be pursuing stronger lower abs and greater flexibility in my hip flexors among other added strength gains to my body through yoga and also ask the horses to carry themselves with more balance and precision through dressage-focused exercises. With any luck, we'll advance together through these pursuits, building strength and skill along the way.

It's my hope that putting these goals into writing in a public space will help increase my accountability toward their pursuit. Only time will tell!

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How amazing to have such a rare-for-us bird in hand! Sporting my Rolex hat, of course.

How about you - tell me about a time you pursued separate goals only to find that they benefited one another. Did you find it easier to pursue those goals because they supported one another? Or maybe you don't care one lick about goals and you just came here for the pictures of raptors 😉. Totally okay, if so, and know that I'm happy to field any questions you may have about them/the project - so ask away.