Thursday, December 24, 2009

How the NFL Pertains, Part I

It's strange how stories wind from the past, into the future. The future you don't know you'll come to one day, I mean.

My brother and I grew up in a wretched family. That we survived it all to be able to speak to each other was something neither of us expected, or even cared about, for that matter. Like anybody who comes out of a past of violence and destruction, we both have our fears. They're different between us, and they made it hard for us to communicate. For my brother, his path to himself came first through football, and then through the military. Football was a game I just could not understand; I couldn't grasp the rules. I tried for a little while, but the concept of a "down" was beyond me.

People speak through metaphor and analogy all the time. For years my brother was sending me signals while talking about football. "I know you don't care about football," he'd say. "But..." Before long, I'd tune out.

"Football is poetry in motion,"
my brother often said. I just laughed at that. Something like 15 years ago, I decided to try watching a game. With help from H.G., my partner -- (What a stupid word, "partner." He's the man I love, the man I live with, the man I've been with for nearly 20 years.) -- I slowly began to understand. Offense, defense, interceptions, kick-off returns, running backs, quarterbacks, I began to absorb it all. But I didn't care about it, not like my brother, so I stayed outside of the nuance of the game, its surprising subtleties. One Sunday I watched a Pittsburgh Steelers game. I don't even remember who they were playing. The Steelers had a young new quarterback named Kordell Stewart. I didn't know it then, but he held the key that would bring me all the way into the game of football. And I didn't know it then, but what happened to him is something I would remember the first time I realized that I was intimidated by my horse.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The NFL Pertains

On Thursday, Scout's stitches were removed by Dr. B. I was strangely elated, almost giddy with relief. Maybe I put margins around her surgery, X-ray results on the left, removal of stitches on the right. No more bandaging after the weekend, no more meds. Except for the sedatives, a scoop twice a day. Scout is stoned, mild and slow motion in her stall, contented if not happy. When I scratch her belly or withers, it feels like she goes cross-eyed with delight. She doesn't know why she feels good, but the store-bought calm has helped her heal the leg well.

All week I've been thinking about what comes next, the long-term next, not tomorrow. I hold my breath about Dar, but Scout pends before me like a moment of reckoning that will have to come.
"Ride the horse you are on," my trainer has often reminded me. "Not the horse she was yesterday, not the horse you want her to be tomorrow." As if, for a minute, I could be that present and just ride. I can look at our history of anxiety like an object now, because I am disconnected from it by time. But when I remember some rides we've had, I can re-animate my fear and imagine how I felt. I tell myself I have a rare chance to get a grip on me before coming back to Scout. I tell myself there must be a way to forget all the crap and start clean, to unlearn what I should never have learned in the first place.

So I've been thinking about the NFL, how I came to it, and why, and what for. It's a story that pertains at odd times in my life, but never accidentally.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Upside of Turds

I love barn chores, I do. Simple work of the hands with a beginning, middle, and end. Doing the PM clean and feed halts the hamster-wheeling of my thoughts for a while. And speaking of rodents, I was forking near-frozen piles out of Molly's stall tonight. The turds were like marbles in the bitter cold. I sifted 10 or 12 of them on to the rake and swung it to the muck bucket. Then one turd rolled off the rake and took off, defying gravity by rolling high up into the straw. But no, it was a little black vole. How wonderful.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Now What, Number 2

Meanwhile, Dar has languished in the background, pushed aside by Scout. After a month at the farm, he's 50 pounds from goal weight, parasite-free, and vital with unreleased energy. There wasn't the time to introduce him to a paddock buddy once Scout was injured, so he stayed in paddock 3 by himself, next to the other horses, but separate. Finally, last weekend, we decided to try turning him out with Keely. She's the only one bitchy and tough enough to teach him herd manners. The others are too old, too small, or too new to pair with him.

Disaster, I guess. A month of accumulating energy made Dar over-excited and idiotic. I'd only known him to be a low-ranking lackey in his previous herds, but that belly full of parasites might have kept him depressed. Suddenly,
va-voom. A steppy, arched-necked fool trotted into the paddock, displaying dominance and spirit. All the horses keyed up instantly, not least of whom, Scout. Dar trotted right up to her window bars. Scout spun and pinned her ears. She bared her teeth. Dar didn't back down, he just kept close. Enough of that, E decided, and we moved Dar into paddock 2, alone with Keely, who seems to be in an eternal heat. It makes her even more crabby. Kick his ass, I thought. Let him have it.

Everyone was watching, waiting on some kind of a drama. Dar and Keely ran in circles. Then they went to separate hay piles. Ran some more. Ate a bit more hay. I began to relax, just a breath or two. Then, catastrophe. Dar mounted Keely. E ran to them, shouting his name. He came down as quickly as he went up, and his useless schlong never appeared, but... This. Is. Not. Good. My heart sank. Baseline zero, the testosterone test had reported. Before I got him, someone mentioned he might be "proud cut." I went right for the test. It was going to be the deal breaker for me, proof of a studdy gelding. But, Testosterone, 0 +/- 5%. I was elated when that result came over the fax.

Fuck. What now?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Accidents of Circumstance Mean Now What?

With this, everything has changed, no matter how well I thought I had it all worked out. The urgency of the moment created in me a relentless energy that I tapped to get Scout through her surgery and into recovery. Putting her needs first pushed me into the background, pushed my reactions down. She's been home for a week now, and a routine, of sorts, has been crafted. In that week, I found the time to write my long, hard letter to the barn where she was injured. When I dropped it in the mail, it seemed to put a frame around all of it, containing it as one long event. That's when I began to see how hard all of this is going to be.

It took me so, so long to decide to give up Scout. For two years I listened to a loop in my head, a festering chatter of questions and answers, delusions and bravado. I always got hung up on the same few things.

1) In the right person's hands, she could be a wonderful, athletic little horse. Then I would regret giving her up, forgetting that I decided the right person wasn't me.
2) She's so herdbound, I can never just take her out for a ride alone. Then I have to change my life so I can work with her more.
3) She intimidates me too much.
Really. Then I'm validating my fear by walking away from her.
4) I must have brought the fear with me, Scout didn't cause it. Then no horse can fix it.

The trouble with these themes that I obsessed over? I can't tell whether they came from my head or my heart. I only know that I felt relief when I finally decided to let her go. But now she's back. The fierceness of my love for her surged in the face of her injury. She awed me with her ability to go through things she didn't understand. The needles, the surgery, all the strangers around her. Through all of it, she looked for me. Don't I have to try again? Shouldn't I?

As I knew she would, Scout hates the separation from the herd. The first few days were so hard for her that we raised the sedative dose from once daily to twice, but she still paws the floor in frustration and sometimes spins.

I stood with her in her stall yesterday.
It was stupidly cold. For an hour, we both stared out the window, watching the other horses wandering in their paddocks. I talked to her, as I have since the first day I got her. She rested her head on my shoulder. I could feel the warmth of her body beside mine. I know I calm her. On the ground, our relationship can be sublime. Once I'm up, though, things change for me. I ride with an anxious anticipation and contaminate my skill with the tension I feel. That changes Scout. She absorbs my tension, and then we're pulled into a cycle of mutual mistrust that I don't know how to ride through, don't believe I can ride through.

Maybe nothing I think today will matter in a month or two, but I'm worried and sad. Scout's not for sale now; I don't think she ever will be. Winter has come; the cold feels sudden and shocking. Soon Dr. B will come and look at Scout's leg, maybe remove the stitches, and, above all, tell me when she can go out, and how she can go out.

I have too many thoughts and reactions to organize. For now, I'm left with the feeling of having suffered a blunt-force trauma. The story has changed too abruptly. Now I have two horses, one who is injured and another who is gaining energy, impatience and idiocy every day. I can't do much with either of them, preempted by the snow and ice.

I've long had the sense that winter time is when life withdraws into itself. I know how I shut down and go quiet then. That will still be true for me this year, but I won't be able to hide from the decisions that have to be made. Right now, I don't want to make them. What could be hard seems too hard, and my reactive, jaundiced eye often overlooks what could be simple. "It is what it is," they say. But I always want to
know what it is; that's my vigilance and my handicap. It's easy to say that fate has thrown me a do-over. What if it has?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

She's Not the Only One in My Life Short a Bit of Anatomy

4 of 4, A Language All Their Own - Scout Comes Home

We've all kept close to Scout this week, those of us who love her, those who provide care to her, even some who have never met her. But are any of us as close to Scout as these two are? No. We can't be, because we don't speak the same language. At best, we are middle men. Between what they are and what we want them to be, between what they do and what we want them to do. As a human being, I was on the outside of this reunion, exactly where I should have been. But it was a privileged place to be.

Wait! I know this place! She was full of excitement. Scout had been at another barn for one month, but this small farm had been her home for two years. Half a second was all she needed to recognize where she was.

They knew her, too. The air was electric with chill and the first light winter snow.

Someone told me once, years ago,
"Oh, your mare is a killer. She should never be turned out with other mares." Tell it to Keely, who missed Scout terribly. What happened? Where were you? Why are you in there? Come outside. (But those are just my words; they have nothing to do with what was going on between them.)

They crowded around Scout's window. But poor little Gambler couldn't see her.

Scout soon realized something had changed. Everybody was out in the paddocks. There was someone new out there, too. I think she started to feel it in her gut. It was one thing to be on stall rest at a strange barn and then at the clinic. It might be too hard at home.

Keely agreed. Together, they began to work at the window.

When Keely finally drifted back to her hay, Gam got his chance.
Scout wasn't terribly interested in visitors by then. The reality of her dilemma was becoming clear to her.

Bringing her home was the fourth of the hurdles I worried how we'd cross. Now I see, though, that every day that Scout must stay in her stall will be another hurdle. She can't change her nature, I only hope that she can change how she relates to it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Thousand Words, Part II

What the hell happened!? I don't feel good at all... I think my tongue is dead.

Her right side was wet from levage, the constant flushing and rinsing of the surgical incision, wound and debris. Later, the surgeon handed me a large plastic vial containing the remains of her splint bone.

She is a vacuum cleaner. No bit of hay escapes her trawling muzzle. She didn't even look at it.

She almost looks normal here, but her head had simply sunk to the floor. The remnants of the general anesthetic had to wear off, but she barely moved. Two sensations ebbed and flowed in her: as the cloud of anesthesia lifted, the heat of pain took its place. I groomed her for two hours then, until her right side was dry. The simple act of grooming was a thing that brought us close. It helped to know I could do something good for her

She did not know how to stand on the leg, but she was too tired to hold it off the ground for more than a few seconds. Occasionally she twisted her neck around to look back there.

Little by little, she began to come back. I just wanted her to sleep, to be away from it all. She couldn't understand it anyway, so why have to feel it?

How can she be so pretty?

When she was finally clear eyed, I went home to H.G. and the cats. I had to. Every time I stepped away to take a picture, she moved to follow me. She stayed within a foot of me all afternoon, into the evening. I needed her to forget me, forget everything, start eating and go to sleep.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Thousand Words, Part I

Remember? I don't want to see those needles! I can't.

Sedation changes everything. She began to slip past noticing.

They taped the edges of her hooves to protect the foam padding in the sedation and recovery room. A French manicure is not quite the right look for Scout, I don't think.

They wouldn't let me watch her going under general anesthesia. But later, they brought me into the operating room.

 the moment when finally everything turns real.

I went outside for a cigarette. I was jittery. Not at the blood or the wound, but at the complete vulnerability of my mare. That only got worse for me. I wanted to lie down with her.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

2, 3 of 4

Scout was so good, so strong. I hope she is asleep. It was such a long day, one that ended in pain and exhaustion for her.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

1 of 4

There's four hurdles to cross before I can tuck Scout in for her recovery. Hurdle 1, taking her to the clinic tonight.

One thing about Scout, she knows me. She can tell the difference between my worry and my fear. She parked her chin on my shoulder and breathed into my ear, standing stock still, just waiting. Erin wrapped all four of her legs for the ride, and then Scout followed me right into the trailer. It was a long ride, but still so much shorter than those she routinely experienced as a joust horse. She crapped a tall mound of excita-poop, but hauled steady as ever.

They went right to work at the clinic, taking her temp and drawing blood for a workup. "Oh no, don't show me the needles! I can't look at the needles!" But her ears show anxiety, not hostility.

Questions to answer, phone numbers to check, a quick tour of the anesthesia, operating and recovery rooms. Then we stood near Scout's stall and talked through the first part of tomorrow. Scout sampled the hay, but she kept her eyes on me. Finally she whinnied stridently. "What the hell is there to talk about when you could all be paying attention to me?" I went in the stall and broke up a carrot for her.

We cleared this first hurdle easily. Scout was solid, willing, and, for the most part, calm. I can feel the tension beginning to build in me, though. Tomorrow I will worry about her from the moment she steps into the anesthesia room until the moment I step into her recovery stall.

I know how hard it is to surrender all control, because I've never done it. That's one of the reasons I couldn't just let go and ride her. I don't know if Scout has ever been unconscious before, but I know she won't like it.

What? I Have to Stay in For How Long?

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Vulnerability of Her

As they say, that Monday night, just last week, seems an eternity ago.

My vet came to the barn the next day. I walked Scout in from her paddock. Dr. B palpated the leg. We moved to the indoor arena. Scout trotted willingly next to me, once out, then back. No more was necessary. Four X-rays. Between each one, Scout called to the horses, all of them outside, quiet in their paddocks. She has a deafening scream, the kind that moves her whole body. She means it when she speaks.

But even then, I had a sick feeling. It wasn't a matter of what if an injury, only a matter of what kind of injury. You begin to prepare, even though you don't know for what. I felt I was beginning to ready myself, but maybe I was only bracing myself. Maybe I was only kidding myself.

It was 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday when Dr. B called and told me that Scout had multiple fractures of her splint bone. By then, I had convinced myself that it was going to be nothing more than a bad bone bruise.

I managed to listen and scratch some notes on the back of a phone bill, but I was shocked. There would be a surgical consult, but Scout was to be put in a standing wrap and confined to stall rest, 24-7, immediately. "Mm-hmm, mm-hmm," I said, but -- 24-7 confinement? No way. Scout grew up living outdoors, no matter wind, rain, heat, ice. I had to train her to understand that coming into a well-bedded box stall every night was a wonderful thing. That took some time, and she accepted it only when she realized that all the other horses came in at night too.

On Wednesday night, E, my trainer, taught me how to do a standing wrap. I took a picture of the first wrap I did by myself, last Friday night. I need a little more practice, but Scout is making it easy. She stands still, and occasionally arches her neck around to watch me fumbling at her feet.

Thanksgiving happened in a kind of suspended reality, and then came Friday night and the results of the surgical consult.

There are multiple fractures of the upper half of the splint bone and a clean break in the lower half. Most of the bone must be removed. An ultrasound could determine whether the suspensory ligament ( a principal component of that architecture of the leg that so amazes me) has been damaged, but surgery will also reveal that.

"When I look at the X-rays, I think your mare has an incredible tolerance for pain," said Dr. B, remarking on how difficult it had been to elicit any signs of discomfort in Scout.

"Pardon my language, Doc," I said. "Scout is one tough bitch." And she is. She's always been an easy keeper and a quick healer. It's not her physical recovery that I worry about, but her mental ability to withstand the constraints of the recovery process.

Tomorrow night, E and I will trailer her to the clinic. She'll have surgery on Wednesday morning. We'll bring her home Thursday afternoon. Every step of the process is new to Scout and new to me. I want to manage my anxiety and anger -- and yes, there is anger -- by throwing myself into learning as much as I can about everything that will happen, as it happens, over the next few days.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Vulnerability of Them

I was ready to ride Scout tonight, for the first time since September something. Yesterday, while I was watching football, I did a complete tear-down and deep clean of her bridle. She looks beautiful in her black tack.

I put her in a cavesson and walked her to the indoor arena for a couple of minutes on the longe to watch her move. There were cavelletti laid out, barrels here and there, and lots of orange traffic cones. I gave her a couple of seconds for meet-and-greets with these foreign objects, then picked our circle and moved her out. Nope. That kick she took just below her left rear hock a couple of weeks ago has done its harm. She showed me a short, protected stride, and reluctance at the trot. Time for a vet call.

The architecture of the horse leg has always amazed me, amazed and frightened me. So much carried on so little. Last February, a boarder's new horse (of only four months) turned to launch himself into a gallop with the rest of the small herd. They had startled at a group of hikers emerging from the treeline. One of the hikers thought he had stepped on a fallen branch, cracking it and sending the horses running. But what he really heard was Lug's leg snapping as he twisted into his gallop. It was that simple, that quick. An ordinary winter day that ended with the death of a horse.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Silly Little Joys

So the other night I'm at the barn to do the PM clean and feed and after everything is done and the horses are munching their hay, I bring my boy out of his stall for a quick grooming. Remember to get your hands on him every time you are here, I remind myself. Young horses forget us when left to simple days of eating, sleeping, eating, and eating some more. Shedding block in one hand, brush in the other, I'm pulling out dead coat and smoothing new coat on his rump when suddenly I catch him turning his head to look for me. There's a beautiful bend in his neck and just there, at the crest of the curve, gleams a silvery shine. A silvery shine. Health.

That's one. Then today I took a friend to meet him. We walked to the fence. I called out and he came trotting over, covered in mud, happy for the attention, kid-like. Nose through the rails, then head high over the fence, lipping at our hands, eyes bright under those ridiculous white lashes. I felt myself smiling at him so broadly. Smile.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Don't you hate it when something as mundane and useless as the stomach flu keeps you from seeing your horses?

My alpha mare doesn't mind. She's still settling in at the pony club barn. Naturally, she picked a fight with her new paddock buddy 10 days ago and caught a kick on the left hock. Same old same old. But I am looking forward to getting back on her. It's been more than a month since I've ridden. When you love to ride, your body almost tells you when it's been too long. There's a kind of shadowy ache, like the horse is a phantom limb.

I was telling a friend last night how traveling back and forth between these two horses seems to lend me confidence with both. I forget the familiarity I have with her, but it comes back to me when I'm handling him. His youth casts her maturity in a calming light. She and I have our habits.

I take both of them out of their stalls, clip them in cross ties, and groom, talking, talking the whole time. Scout loves that drill, settles into it and sighs. Dar, on the other hand, is still a little unfamiliar with such direct attention. The first weeks, he kept his head high. Little by little, though, look. The draw bridge is lowering. It's true, you can begin to win a horse through simple touch.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Truth is Hard

A couple of years ago, I became involved with a story unfolding on a horse forum. I never forgot it, and I remembered it the night I began this journal.

A woman hesitantly brought up the subject of fear on a thread in the forum. She said her husband had given her a horse for her birthday and she was so happy, but it had been years since she'd ridden. She said she was anxious and nervous. She couched it in terms of being intimidated by the instructor who was giving her riding lessons. Little by little, she revealed more. People posted comments on the thread, offering thoughtful suggestions to this woman. Maybe she was encouraged to say more, not by the advice, but by the interest people showed, the claims of a common experience. Maybe she just needed to scream. But over the course of a few weeks, something happened. Her fear increased, or she began to tell the truth about it; I'm still not sure which. It got to the point that she began to miss lessons. She would log on to the forum, and post a guilty message. She said she knew she had cancelled a lesson because she was afraid. She described sitting in her car, shaking, as she tried to talk herself into going to the barn. Responses would pour in, mostly kind. Try a new instructor. Just groom your horse. Don't be so hard on yourself. Every now and then, someone would try tough love. The woman would disappear for a few days after that kind of post. Subplots unfolded in the thread, people comparing notes on bad falls, hot horses, bolters, buckers, biters, getting back on, how you always have to get back on.

There was a tone of growing desperation that somehow bled through this woman's posts -- desperation, shame, sorrow and resignation. Other people on the forum began to sense it, too. A chorus of cheerleaders sprang up, saying, "Don't give up, don't give up, we know you can do it." Their pleas of support created another sense of pressure in this woman, though they meant only the best. I could feel it building in her. One night, she came on and said, "I just can't do it. I am too afraid. I gave my horse away today. But thank you all for your kind words. I'm very sorry." Then she disappeared from the forum. It was heartbreaking.

I still think about her. Not that I think I'm like her; I don't. But I know how hard it is to tell the truth about fear. Fear is a stain, a force and a deceiver. It is the best conversationalist in the world, and seems to know your every thought.

I don't know who I'm writing to. Maybe her.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Peeling Like an Onion

Not even a week in his new home, and I think of the nameless one as an onion. You know, the kind you keep in the pantry, rolling around in a red net bag. That paper thin, outer skin cracks and loosens. Under it is another very thin, clear skin that will slough off with time, and under that, a layer of green flesh you might remove before chopping the onion into a salad or slow-cooking soup. He's shed the outermost skin now, left it behind in bits and pieces in his paddock. The second deworming seems to have cleaned him out; a bright energy is plain in his face. Suddenly he's anxious to be with the other horses, any one of them. He presses himself, head high, against the top rail of the fence. Old Molly, still girlish in her Thoroughbred, high-metabolism figure, wants nothing to do with him. JR, over 25 years old, has seen it all and could care less. Little 22-year-old Gambler, bombproof super Arab, noses up to the rail for a look, then turns back to browsing his hay. Sam, the Appendix quarter horse, is new to the barn too; he doesn't have time to make friends yet.

That leaves Keely. This Sunday, we'll turn them out together. My youngster will more than meet his match with her. A bright bay, Keely is big for an Arab. She's a bitch who will assign him his rank in the herd. And honestly, I'm pulling for a low rank. I don't need another alpha boss who can't handle being separated from the herd they run. But it's not that simple, either. The horses are paired by diet. My boy needs to gain weight -- I can still skip my knuckles over his ribs. Keely is fat. She doesn't need the same ten-dollar, all-you-can-eat buffet that he needs. But one smackdown from her is all it should take to teach him the farm's code of conduct. I'll take my camera.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


It was a beautiful day to trailer him 30 miles to his winter home. My reject jouster is used to being hauled in a slant livestock trailer, so a simple two-horse looks strange to him. But all it took was several tries, front hooves stepping up the ramp, then stepping back down.

He's barely vocal. He didn't call out. He never looked back at the spartan paddock pockmarked with deep, dry mudholes.

HG and I followed behind the trailer, and as we drove, I realized that I've decided to keep this horse. I could have given him back, because that's the arrangement that was made. I had nine months to decide, enough time to discover what in him isn't right for me, enough time to become intimidated by him. But the moment you start making choices for a horse -- what food, what vet, what stable -- you own him. When I backed him out of the trailer at the best horse bed & breakfast in the state, I felt...such a smile.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Two horses, one wallet

On Tuesday morning I moved my mare to a US Pony Club facility. Though she's for sale, right now she's the only horse I have to ride. We both need to get back in shape. I've more or less learned to ride her through my apprehension, but getting back on her is always tough when a couple of months have passed.

We loaded her in the trailer, easy as pie like always, and I followed behind. It was short drive, but Scout called and screamed throughout, boss mare taken from her herd. She has her own paddock for now, with neighbors on either side. Poor Scout, none of them were interested in her. She couldn't believe that, and played her Arab card to produce a floating prance and high, arched neck. Ho hum, they snuffled.

This fancy place has heated floors, a huge indoor arena, a year-round shower stall with a grooming stall beside it. With heat lamps hanging from the ceiling. A washing machine and dryer for blankets. Vending machines. Five hundred bucks a month. It will take some time to get used to it, I think.

I took friends to see my grey boy that afternoon, on the way to the airport. He knows my Pathfinder now, and walks to the gate to meet me. There is a whip laying on the ground there. That's how this place handles horses crowding to come in for the night. Yep, time to go. The plans are set, and he'll move into Scout's old stall tomorrow. A quiet winter of grooming, groundwork, handwalking and good food awaits him. He needs to put on weight more than anything else. That's good. He can put on weight, while Scout and I lose some.

I blew out my back later that night, though, and I haven't seen either of my horses for three days. That hurts.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Dar = To Give

They named this horse D'Artagnan. That's a great name for a joust horse or an adventurer, but not this boy. Who really is, I'm coming to understand, just a boy. "Dar," they called him, and so have I for the meantime. I looked it up tonight. It means "to give" in Spanish.

Names often come easily to me with animals. Cats have a way of announcing them. I hung my mare's name on her the day I met her; it was that plain to see.

Dar might be like a quasar, an energetic and distant galaxy. I see his energy coming up; I see his being holding back.

But we came far this week. As he begins to feel better, with steady food, regular deep grooming and necessary veterinary care, he's gaining strength. He has a long way to go, lots of muscle building, lots of flexing, lots of walking and trotting. But he's started. What feels as good as seeing an animal begin to bloom under good care?

Since the last post, we've advanced in our lunge work. Now Dar goes in a bridle and cavesson. Yesterday my wonderful trainer and I strapped a surcingle around his deep girth and suddenly my jouster transformed into a dappled circus pony. He likes the cavesson; it seems to make him feel secure. That's evident in his change of attitude. His ears stay active and often forward or swiveling toward me. He wears his mind, if not his heart, on his sleeve. He turns toward praise: "Who, me?" The cavesson keeps him light on his feet, light on the line. He works with less hesitancy, not so glum. He doesn't flee into a buck.

"Hello," he whiffles when I walk into the barn. "Hello, puppy," I say.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Best Defense is A Good Offense

"That's fine, but keep moving forward," I told my boy. I think he's been in my care for three weeks tonight. I want him to leave the joust ring behind. I need to separate him from his past so I can see what he brought out of it and what he took in to it. We've been working on the lunge line. Walk, trot, halt. Stay out on the line; don't swoop in toward me, it's okay to just stand out there. Last Thursday night he reared, ears pinned in the resistance of forward. "Uh-huh. Move on," I said. Ears pinned, he obeyed. I watched the stiffness of his top line: his spine rises and straightens. Before long, he bucked. "Yeah, I get it," I said. "Tuh-rot!" And he did. His body language says no, but he obeys. I wondered then whether he was in pain. On Friday morning he colicked, nothing bad, but enough to depress him. I don't know him well enough to connect the events.

Sunday night, we returned to the lunge line. He was better, more relaxed, but I could see in him the question. I don't know yet if this big kid hates to work or learned to hate to work.

Tonight I asked him for a canter. He offered a silly power trot. "CAN-ter," I repeated. Almost, and a miss. Again. "Easy, easy." I brought him down to a steady trot. "CAN-ter!" He leapt into it, and then stayed there, circling out at the end of the line, fast in it until he tuned in to my voice. As soon as he leveled out, I brought him back to a trot. "Good boy. See? You're okay."

He understands praise; I don't know if he believes it, though. But already I get that I have to persuade him, and that's how both of us will accept possibility.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Joust Horses

I work at a renaissance faire, one of the largest in the country, one of the best. Every longstanding fair offers its guests the opportunity to watch a joust, a quartet of armored knights squaring off on horseback in dust and sunlight. The horses pound toward one another, breakaway lances shivering into splinters. A rider falls heavily, the instant calculated to thrill the crowd.

A joust horse is trained to a simple, one-dimensional skill: pivot and run. Armored riders sit deep, lean back, control the horse through neck reining and a bit of balance. There's no space between man and horse for subtleties like leg aids and seat aids. Leg armor makes that nearly impossible.

Joust horses must be trusting and indifferent at the same time. No two shows are exactly the same, but the routine never varies. Gallop. Pull up. Pivot. Gallop. Stand. Banners wave, crowds cheer, the sound system crackles. The horses wear caparisons, long, flowing trappings; some wear face armor. The challenges might undo an ordinary horse, but the joust horse accepts his work because that's what it is, his work. It has nothing to do with him.

To train a horse away from the joust, off of the joust, is to train him to be what he has never been: an ordinary horse. For my boy, only two months off the joust, "ordinary" doesn't yet exist.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Coming Back to Zero

I have had him for nine days. In that brief time, he's had his feet done, his teeth floated, a wolf tooth pulled, his mane and tail detangled, his sheath cleaned, vaccines injected, and a five-day course of deworming started. I need to bring him back to zero before we move forward.

He leans hard into the brush, eyes half closed. The cross ties were new to him, but he's learned that grooming feels good. My hands touch every inch of him, lift his feet, run along his spine and across his chest. I rub his ears, wipe his nostrils, flick the shedding block in short arcs through his curves. White hairs rain to the ground, rain over my black sweatshirt. He whiffles at my neck, rests his chin on my shoulder. This is the sweet time of convincing him that I will see him often, touch him often, speak to him often.

His eyes light up, his ears tip forward when I approach, but he hasn't yet spoken to me. I know he will, though. They almost always do, given enough time.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Hurling Wind

We walked into the indoor arena tonight, the lead hanging loose in my hand, him with no name swinging his head softly from side to side. Another chance to inspect the corners, sniff the barrels, wonder about rolling.

Summer fell out of the sky overnight, leaving in its void wet wind and chill. The heavy mesh fly curtains heaved high in the doorways, lifting and slapping back: danger. He clenched his body, stiffening and staring. One step, another, and then another. He measured me and I measured him as we walked toward the wide doorway. A gust filled the fly curtain like a sail. He set his hooves and lifted in a single tremor, ears tipped, eyes wide, but he didn't leave the ground. I lost my breath for a second, seeing the drawn-up height of him in a flash: Can I really do this? We walked on, visiting each doorway, circling, stepping away, returning. Enough. Loose, big figure eights for ten minutes, a sigh, and back to the cross ties. Good boy.

It never occurred to him to wonder where the other horses were. That's a joy to me.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Before I can re-home Scout, I have to get her in shape. A fallow summer has rounded and softened her. She spent the long days running her herd, browsing grass, keeping one half-interested eye trained on the business of the little farm. There were times when I saddled her, a sense of hope quietly there in me. Other days, I never went to the tack room. To ride or not ride depended on the strength and velocity of my dialogue with fear. Sometimes it also depended on a certain swish of her tail, an impatience in her eye as she strained to catch a glimpse of the herd.

Today, I had the ride I needed to have. I looked up at the sky when the familiar finger of tension scraped the length of my spine. Scout leaned into my hands, picking rigid steps. Just feet from the paddock, Keely ran and bucked, in heat and fretting along the fenceline.

Walk, trot, walk, circle, bend, walk. The minutes calm me. Scout stretches and blows. I see finally the one last inch to heaven that is all that is needed to link us to each other. But the metal to forge that final link is rare and beyond my skill to mine. Now that I know why she's not my horse and I'm not her person, I'm released.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Just like the girl in To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout is smart and curious. She's alert to the world, but sometimes too quick to flee it. Like me. Our tensions dovetailed beautifully early on. The hard life of a traveling horse had taken its toll on Scout: she learned how to say no; she learned how to look after herself. She was made when I got her, made and alone. It took me months to win her affection.

We grew, and we grew together, but we could not grow all the trust we both needed.
Now, five years later, she still forgets me when she thinks of herself; that's just the way she's wired. Now, five years later, I see that I'm too old to be forgotten by the horse I'm riding. That's the way I'm wired.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bringing Him Home

The jousters couldn't convince him to run toward another horse. This big boy, half Percheron, half Morab, steely dappled grey, looked the part but wouldn't play the part. A week ago, I wandered down to the pasture to see him. Last night, I moved him into a barn across the street.

Because I have decided to let go of the ever-vigilant alpha mare who I love, but with whom I cannot breathe.