Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Postscript: Caring Into The Void

I felt compelled to write an e-mail to John Burns, the author of the article in the New York Times, just after I had read it the other day.

"Thank you for your heartbreaking article about the horses  of Ireland. I can't help but wonder what moved you to write it, when there are so many other points of darkness you might have chosen to illuminate with your words."

And yes, Virginia, it seems reporters sometimes care what readers think, even when they happen to be the London Bureau Chief. He wrote back:

"I saw the horses on that hill from a distance, against that twilight sky, and thought that it was a tragic metaphor for all that has gone in Ireland, for the people AND the horses. And, like all the normal, well-adjusted people I know, I am an animal lover, and feel that we humans owe, before God or Providence, a duty to look after them. I thought writing about them was the least I could do. I shall never forget the skewbald nuzzling her nose against my side in the Arctic wind, as if looking to me as the last court of appeal."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Caring Into the Void

The world is the world. I follow as much of it as I can. Because I was born in England, the concept of journeying to foreign shores was real to me. We arrived in America for the duration, but even as a child I never stopped looking back and looking out, to countries beyond my reach. Grown now, I follow stories of other places from the smallness of my own because the world is still the whole world to me. Within it, there is the horse as touchstone, as a common symbol that helps me feel connected even when I never will be. There's more power in that small commonality than I can find in We Are The World or Imagine.

Here's a Palestinian boy riding in beautiful balance alongside Israel's West Bank barrier. Lives still have to be lived.

Here, mounted policewomen patrol Stockholm astride big, beautiful warmbloods after the recent bombing.

I see horses present and useful in places affected by the consequences of seeming irreparable human conflict.

And then they're not. The New York Times published a heartbreaking article today, Hardships of a Nation Push Horses Out to Die. The piece, written by John F. Burns, describes what is happening to horses in Ireland as the country fights to prevent total economic collapse. It may be better not to know when there's nothing I can do, but I can't help dreaming of an airlift to pick these horses off the former landfill where they now wander. This is Ireland: horses run in the blood, they run deep as history.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Backblogged, and Another First

Carharts, circa 2007

My boots, beloved to me, recently underwent professional restoration. These everyday shitkicker boots are things of perfection. I got them in the autumn of 2007, during a road trip with D. We stopped at a farm supply shop somewhere near the eastern edge of the Ozarks because I always like to see what kind of tack is sold where. There wasn't much; it was the kind of place where horses are considered livestock. But there were these Carharts, men's size nine, roomy enough for both summer swelling and double-sock winters. I hugged them close, bargaining with myself, as I wandered around the store with D. She's a chiseler from birth; her mere presence compelled me to think cheap. The Carharts were on sale, but still expensive for me. But these could be them, I thought, the footwear of a lifetime. I wore them out of the store. Since then, they've logged hundreds and hundreds of miles. When the sole on the right one began to separate a couple of months ago, I resisted the decline, hating to lose my perfect Carharts. Instead, I found an old-school cobbler. "That's a decent boot," he grizzled at me, handing me a pickup ticket. The beauty of his work proves he meant it.

Another Winter, A Better Winter

This morning brought 15 degrees and a breeze. The sun was out and the snow squeaked like styrofoam underfoot. It's the kind of weather that makes me want to kill myself, always has. Something about the brutality of the cold, coupled with the blinding sun, drives me inward, away from the assaultive insistence of nature. I take it personally.

Let's go riding, K said to me the other day. I love her. I didn't want to chicken out, but I pretty much assumed I would. Turns out I didn't. It was the first winter ride, first snow ride of my life. I loved it. K took Scout and I rode Gambler, fuzzy as a seal, white-like-snow Gambler. The trail was untouched save for deer tracks here and there. The naked trees, branches woven close, blocked the breeze and checked the sun. We rode under a canopy of quiet and stillness, the horses' hooves cutting softly through the snowcrust. I felt happiness drifting up in me, an unexpected warmth hard to put into words. When we finally turned for home, Scout started jigging, so K and I decided to work. Back and forth we serpentined along the trail, schooling like minnows one behind the other. "Leave her out of it, K," I said. "We're just working on our aids together. Remember, outside rein, inside leg, switch, outside rein, inside leg." Behind me and Gambler, I felt Scout coming back down into peace.

H.G. picked me up, and as we drove away from the barn, I pointed out for him the hoof prints we'd left in the snow. Just then, it felt like Christmas to me. Thank you, K.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Horse as Self Portrait - Saxony

Saxony, the horse I probably should be:

Here she is wearing my favorite old scarf the other day.

In her excellent post Are You Like Your Horse, Kate over at A Year With Horses used the phrase "aspirational horses" to describe horses chosen by their owners for qualities they wish they had themselves. Maybe Saxony is that for me. I think I bought her for what she could help me become. For once, I'm the project.

I've only had her for three months, so if there's a self-portrait to be found in her, it can only be revealed with time. Right now, she's like me only because I chose her, a mare of the right size, the right age, the right temperament. It was a rational choice, one made from the head rather than the heart, and I had to exert some nearly dormant muscles of self-discipline to make that choice. It would have been easier for me to get swept up in another quasi-rescue, more romantic, less immediate.

This mare is so kind. She expresses affection. She is trusting. She is willing, calm and steady-minded. She seems self-assured and doesn't generate drama. These are things worth aspiring to.

Her apparent fearlessness leaves me almost worried. Not that there's a dark secret lurking somewhere in her, but that I don't actually have a lot of experience owning a horse I can just get on and ride. Dealing with the drama of a "project" horse has become part of what I expect. I can't help but wonder whether I will miss it, as idiotic as that sounds. No, it's not idiotic, it's irrational. I know very well that what I'll miss is the "safety" I found in prep work and ground work and this thing and that thing, the many tasks I piled up that kept me from riding.

I look at Saxony and she's right there in front of me like a Nike billboard: Just do it. That strips me back to the bone, to the place where words don't matter, reminding me that I just want to ride again without fear.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Horse as Self Portrait - Dar

(Note to self: you are still prone to magical thinking about him, despite having got past the worst of having to give him back.)

Dar, the horse I probably should never be.

I was in love with Dar. Not at first. At first, I just thought he was everything that Scout wasn't. A young gelding still finding himself, not too much bad training to undo, not hot or spooky. Kind of a bonehead compared to her snap-judgment mind. A slow, heavy mover compared to her stiff, steppy speediness. In him I saw an exciting potential to begin again. If there can be such a thing as a "rebound" horse, then he was that for me, I guess. Of course, I say that now, as though it were a wise insight. It isn't. It's what I say to justify giving him back, to help my heart keep on shrugging him off.

I believe I idealize what we had in common. I think I projected more onto him than any other horse I've had in my life. It's almost funny to me now, since I was so certain I wasn't choosing him from an emotional place, not after Scout. What I actually did might have been worse. I chose him from a place of longing.

Dar had a lot of inner anger. He often expressed it through a sullen attitude. Unfortunately, the same can be true of me. Still, he was very curious about the world around him, just like me. We could both satisfy our curiosity to the point of being pushy and intrusive, barging our way into whatever we wanted to investigate. Sometimes curiosity is little more than a way to measure the lay of the land if one is fearful. That's true for me, but not him. He was not fearful.

Dar had a big physicality, lacking in grace. He was oaf-like, but could occasionally produce an energy that made him thrilling to watch. I also lack physical grace, except maybe in my hands. I can have a mind energy, though, that friends have told me can be thrilling to watch.

Soon after I got Dar, I realized that he carried a hard attitude deep within himself. He reminded me of how I was during a time in my life when I struggled to stop being bitter. It took me years to escape from that place; it was a fight I had to wage with myself. I thought I could help Dar do the same thing. It's that old thing of fixing another thing to fix yourself, dangerous, alluring, and almost always doomed to fail. I thought "fixing" Dar would finally put my strength in my own hands, bring it out of the private place where I keep it. I thought we would be strong together, that one day I'd be able to say, I won this horse away from his inner demons and now he has carried me away from mine.

Next installment: Saxony

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Horse as Self-Portrait - Scout

Every now and then a strange sort of pulse beats through Hollywood and suddenly several major studios announce they are in pre-production on the same story, like a few years ago when we saw a couple films about Truman Capote writing In Cold Blood released back to back. Sometimes it's just cynicism (we've got to get a piece of that), sometimes it's just the Zeitgeist, and occasionally it might even be just coincidence.

I think it's all about the Zeitgeist in the horse world right now, however. Whether as a consequence of traumatic horse health issues, Denali, or getting a new horse after a painstaking search, Pie, or even just the coming winter keeping us on the ground with our horses, face to face, more than up on their backs, a good question has surfaced in some of my favorite blogs in the last day or two. It's a question about how like your horse you are, with a few variations.

I wish. I wish I was like any of the three horses that have been in my life since I came back to riding in 2004. Never mind. In fact, I am like them, just in not very practical or positive ways.

Scout, the horse I probably would be:

I'm way too much like Scout, who's the reason I started this journal in the first place. Back then, I'd just finished a year and half of agonizing over her before finally deciding to let her go. Putting her up for sale seemed somehow equivalent to giving up on myself too, though. It meant I might never face my fears about riding. But Scout and I were like two peas in a pod, and what kind of relationship can ever exist in one of those? We both carried too much tension, too much hyper-vigilance, and we fed off each other terribly. I could never fake it and she could never believe. She was an island unto herself when I got her, and while she let me in, it was her island, not mine. None of that matters now, because Scout came off the market as soon as she was injured and she'll be with me until I don't know when. I love her as a person more than as a horse, as odd as that may be. She's still too smart for her own good, and that's true of me sometimes, too. She doesn't take the time to savor every bite, and I also eat mindlessly. We're both a 7 on the fat-horse index. She knows me, and she knows I know her. We're best face to face with each other, and sometimes we're even great there.

Next installment: Dar.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Books I Love - No. 1, The Camerons

On my way to work the other day, I stole a few minutes and detoured to Saxony's barn to be introduced to a new farrier. The cold was raw, sweeping in on an assaulting wind. After talking to the farrier, I went looking for Saxony. She was standing in the turnout shed, shifting her weight on the semi-frozen ground. From behind her I heard the sounds of another horse moving nearby. It reminded me of something:

Then she heard the tump, tump of pit ponies nudging about in the garden to get out of the wind. The hollow sounds of the hoofs meant the ground was frozen.

Those sentences are from The Camerons, by Robert Crichton (cousin of the more famous Michael.) I've read the book dozens of times, pretty much every year since it was published. This is one of two books I would cut off my arm or leg to have written.

Books are so important to me. During my childhood, they offered escape, adventure and hope. Later, as I grew into life, certain books resonated profoundly in me. They were the ones which made me learn something about myself or compelled me to ask a question about life I'd never thought of. Eventually, I assembled what I came to call my "Death Row" library, the few books I would keep with me if I ever ended up -- well, you never know.

It turns out that horses appear in each of these books. None of them are about horses, but they all feature horses at pivotal moments in the story. In every instance, the authors had to have known horses; there isn't a false note in any of their stories.

The Camerons is just a story about a Scottish mining family struggling for a better life a century and a half ago. It contains all the ingredients of a great mini-series: love and hate, tribulation and triumph, sorrow and joy. The writing is straightforward, the characters drawn so clearly I'd know them all if I passed them on the street. I was 14 when I first read The Camerons, and then I read it over and over again because theirs was the family I wanted to belong to.

"Someone left the horse out after the long walk."
"I didn't know."
"No, of course not. It was exhausted, you know. You broke it with your barrels of snails."
He felt a surge of sorrow for the pony.
"Standing all night in the rain."
"Och, I'm sorry. That was bad."
"Very bad," she said. "He died."

That blunt exchange occurs at a moment of crisis in the book. The first time I read it, I was shocked into tears. All these years later, I still read toward this moment with dread, because the death of this horse, a "garron," they called it, also represented the death of another thing. Both were heartbreaking and both were things I could understand, even at 14.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What a Difference a Year Makes

A year ago tonight I sat awake late worrying about my little Red Death. Scout had undergone surgery that morning to remove a fractured splint bone in her left hind leg. I could only see to the next day, never mind the next week or month, let alone a year. I remember it was hard to leave the clinic that night. I'd been there all day. I remember walking away from her stall thinking You were for sale. After a year and half of agonizing, I put you up for sale. Now you're not. Because I love you.

It was that simple. I took a different kind of ownership of her that night; I became duty bound. I had to take responsibility for my love for her, and I did. She badgered me tonight like she does, whickering impatiently as I mixed feed. I doubt she remembers any of that day one long (yet fleeting) year ago, but I won't ever forget it. My Scout.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Blue (I think)

I wanted to write about what a difference a year makes, after having written earlier about what can happen in just one day. I was thinking about where I was a year ago with Scout, but... no. I kind of drifted into the day and a then a fair ways farther into it before I became aware of a sense of melancholy enveloping me. It's been a long time since I've had that feeling, a kind of almost benign sadness that might have been wifting through the air, invisible, until you just happened to bump into it. And anyone could have bumped into it, it's that random seeming.

I had stuff to do, and I did it, but I kept my mind's eye on the middle distance. Maybe I internalized a little too much worry. Lately it seems to me there are reminders everywhere about how vulnerable things are. I think sometimes it's the most natural thing in the world to want things to be just okay. There's no need to ask for the moon or the stars, but just let things be all right. I've lost count of the horses I'm reading about that are in trouble, injured, lame, suddenly unsound or worse. They all belong to fine, careful owners who see that they have the best care possible. Suddenly, everything changes. Are they really that vulnerable, these strong, amazing creatures? I guess they are.

And I guess the awareness of that must reside somewhere in us every time we are with our horses, but not so we'd know it up front at all times. It just comes as a cold shock when our horses are hurt, but we're rarely surprised. How could we be? The architecture of the horse seems a perfect example of Nature's reach exceeding her grasp. A pastern here, a stifle there, hocks, tendons, ligaments. Who would build such beauty upon such a risky foundation? Leaving us, who love them, trying to protect it. Yes, I guess I'm a little too worried and I need to get back to the place where you just live with it because not to live with it isn't an option at all.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

What a Difference a Day Makes

Round about Thanksgiving night, lots of people were thinking about Denali and her people, dreading the day to come. But, horses. Who ever knows? Denali threw a curve ball and got a bit  better, putting a heartbreaking moment on hold. Now we wait with our fingers crossed, hoping that her owners can keep their sea legs long enough to learn to live on ever-shifting terrain. In one day, so much changed. At least for that day, today, and maybe even tomorrow, Denali seems to have made other plans. In the vast disembodied ether that is the internet, a hundred and a half voices let out a collective sigh of relief. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Like others in the horse blogging world, I've been thinking of Denali and her people. There are things in their story to think about: love and commitment, love and struggle, love and letting go. There are things we'd want to say if only there really were words to end the pain. Words like that don't exist; we can only express our understanding and care, hoping it resonates enough to bring a little comfort.

Dear Denali ~

Standing frightened and confused at that auction yard, you were still a spitfire. We don't know why you ended up in that place, you who were bred to be a racehorse. But you were smart enough to cast your eye about, hoping someone would notice you and get you the hell out of there. Who knows how long you looked. Then you spotted someone who didn't even have a bidder's number. You made eye contact with her and flashed the little spark of your spirit not masked by the drugs you'd been given. Good job. You got her!

Little did she know, huh? But you did. You never won a race, but you won the lottery that day. You loaded like an angel and unloaded like the devil - there was a lot of stress to blow off. It was a risk; she could have turned that trailer right around. Somehow, you knew she wouldn't.

Little did you know, though, that your mom would start writing about you. You were that big, that beautiful, that impossible. You were that important.

One by one, people began to follow the story of you and your mom. Some could relate when she wrote about your craziness, others to reading about your spookiness. Some were inspired by your rides, others by your mom's bravery as she struggled to overcome her nerves. You were big, of course, and a hot-headed Thoroughbred mare bred for one thing and given little education for anything else. She had to take you back to the beginning. It was a journey to follow, and we did.

Some of us winced in recognition when you injured yourself or ran through walls or kicked inept would-be professionals. Always we kept our fingers crossed, because your mom had fallen so deeply in love with you. You knew that. You had long ago charmed her less-horsey husband just to seal the deal.

Many of us smiled at your slavish love of your red treat ball, your possessive nickering and your hammy temper tantrums when your mom didn't come straight to you at the barn. The bond between the two of you only deepened with time. Most of us recognized the power of that and how it helped both of you. It helped some of us, too.

But, Denali, when you reinjured yourself and the horse doctor gave your mom the news about what was really going on, we all understood. And we do. We horse lovers understand what your mom and dad are going through. We understand how they've fought for you, and we understand how they have listened to you. We understand how they care. From our distances, we do too. How could we not?

Only you know what race lies before you now, whether you'll run side by side with your great forebears, Secretariat and Seattle Slew, or you'll happily chase that red treat ball forever. What we know, though, Denali, is what you gave your mom. You gave her strength. You gave her humor. You gave her a community. We hope that one day the memory of you will give her peace.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Breathing Her In

I haven't ridden Saxony since last Thursday (a dear friend came to stay for the weekend, etc.), but, more than that, I find that I miss being with her after even a day or two away. After yesterday's ride on Scout and Gambler, my friend and I stopped by to give Sax some garden-fresh apples and carrots. Note to self: Have Saxony's teeth checked soon. She grinds apples into applesauce, much of which dribbles to the ground.

I think Saxony either touches a place of peace in me or creates it all by herself. Whichever it is, I just go calm, almost tranquil, whenever I am with her. Over and over again, I am struck by the kindness in her face.

After Thursday's ride, I had a chance to take some pictures, the kind of pictures that show how I look at her, not so much pictures of her, if that makes sense. We'd had a nice ride and I'd felt another bump of heart warmth. My attachment to her is growing.

There's champagne left on her lips from our conversation through the reins, but I don't think she's sure about the French-link snaffle bit yet. Note to self: Have Saxony's teeth checked soon. She might be fretting over this bit for a reason.

She watched me step back, trying to capture a full shot of her in her tack. I couldn't get back that far. My Patrick Keane dressage saddle fits her well, especially with the half pad.

This face does something to me. I trust it. I stood there looking at her, forgetting pretty much everything else. I was just breathing her in. I think I will do this a lot. I feel like I have a new friend.

Snap out of it already, why don't you!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Crossing Another Bridge (Behind Me)

The fleeting lucky days before winter's assault... I went out to the barn this morning with a friend visiting from out of state. The still air was soft with mist, the sky low and grey. It seemed a waste not to ride; I could count in my mind's eye the few remaining days like this.

We saddled Gambler and Scout, the only horses we had to ride. My friend is just learning horses, so I relied upon Gambler to take care of her. Saxony boards at another barn, so it would have to be Scout for me. My Scout, my little Red Death, the mare I don't ride anymore. I'd mostly crossed that bridge and not looked back, and hadn't been on her since early summer. K had been riding her since then, and she found keys to Scout that I never had. I experienced some of the changes in Scout as she stood quietly for the grooming and tack-up. No screaming, no stepping against the cross-ties, no wild eyes. That's the result of time under the hands of a rider whose confidences and fears are opposite those of Scout instead of exactly the same, like mine.

I just wanted to ride with my friend. There wasn't time to hoist my baggage up onto Scout. We led the horses to the grass arena, mounted and rode. It was peaceful, quiet, and immensely enjoyable. No matter all the things that I decided long ago are irreconcilable between me and Scout, there is always the familiarity that springs up between us. It was there today, along with something new. I wasn't tense on her. She spooked at some figment or other and I went with her instead of fighting her from my usual position of fearful lockdown. K's hard work with her has made her a better horse, a safer horse, and I could feel it. I also wasn't asking about any of that, though, while I rode. The anticipations I used to carry into every ride with Scout just weren't there. I think it's because of Saxony, I think it's because of Dar, I think it's because of barn chores, I think it's because of standing in the dark with an injured horse. A crust of experience has begun to accumulate after untold hours spent in the company of horses, and maybe my psychic skin just isn't as thin anymore.

My friend rode little Gambler all around the arena as I took Scout through some gymnastics, bending and stretching her through relaxed figures. I had to think when was it that I last rode her, but even then, it didn't matter. Ride the horse you have today. Today, for me, that horse was Scout. It was small, it was brief, it was simple, and I loved it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Couple of Little Dreams Realized

My feral cat, Harlotta, has accepted her new home at the barn. This tough old girl is as smart as I thought she might be. She'll never forgive me for having had her spayed and ear-tipped, but she does respect my ability to feed her. She grudgingly eats kibbles from the automatic feeder I set in the hayloft, next to the watering station, but she lives for and feels entitled to cans of wet food too. I give her wet food every few days or so, just to help her fortify for the coming winter. "Puss-puss," I bark out when I arrive at the barn.

And there she comes, each time filling me with a sense of pride and joy at having saved her. I don't have to dream of it anymore because now it is.

And then there's another little thing: the elusive ear cam. Would I ever have a horse that I could ride with such a sense of security that I could bring a camera along? Not Scout - the click of a camera would have sent her skyward. Not Dar - both hands would have been occupied managing him and his strong-like-bull neck.

So this made me silly happy. Here's Saxony pondering the ground poles I used during our mounting-block work the other day. She stood so well yesterday that I did not need to lead her over the ground poles and back to the mounting block. I like the blue-black shading along her mane and neck that appears in this picture taken during the grey light of prewinter that I love so much. She has an amazing whorl there on the right that I like to smooth just so with my fine body brush. Ahhh...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tiny Work, Bigger Gains

And... I've met many horse owners who talk about all the training their horse needs, the work on this, work on that...

Sometimes it's easier to recite the list than actually get around to doing any of it, especially if the work seems mundane or repetitive, never mind both. One thing I aim to do with Saxony is actually do the work, stay disciplined and committed about it.

As a horse who knew only one owner for the five years before I got her, and who before that was a backyard pet who was taught to lie down so her owner could stretch out on her and read a book (really!), working with Saxony means introducing her to me, deliberately and slowly easing her into the changes I'm bringing to her life. Whenever I'm with her, I'm mindful of the ancient concept that you are training your horse every second you are together. I try to keep that belief present in my thoughts during our encounters.

I've learned so much with Scout, and in some ways I learned even more during the nine months that was Dar. Those experiences gave me more than I imagined and prepared me well for Saxony. Not only can I see the work she needs, I also see that I'm capable of doing lots of it myself. That's a thrilling feeling for me.

Sax walks off at the mounting block. She doesn't do it all the time, but enough to attract my attention. Standing quietly for mounting is something I want in my horses. After two weeks of introductory rides, I felt ready to take Saxony back to basics at the mounting block.

I saw an opportunity to deal with two tasks at one time, so I placed five ground poles near the mounting block. Because Saxony needs work on picking up her feet, ground poles are a regular part of our arena rides.

I stepped up on the mounting block, gathered the reins, and Saxony moved off. I led her then over the ground poles before circling back to the mounting block. Round 2. I stepped up and just leaned into her. She walked off. Again we walked over the ground poles. At Round 3, I weighted the near stirrup heavily. Sax walked on, and I led her over the ground poles. Round 4 saw me settle into the saddle, but Sax was already moving out. I dismounted and quietly led her through the ground poles. Round 5 was the keeper. She stood statue-like and listening. It's a small thing, but I could feel her paying attention, figuring it. We then had a half-hour walk/trot schooling ride, relaxing for both of us. At the end, I dismounted, walked her around the ring a couple of times and then got back on. She stood. I'll begin our rides with variations of this kindergarten lesson until Saxony understands it completely.

It's tiny work, but it creates a sense of accomplishment in me. Teaching Saxony is one thing, but that she will accept me teaching her and even learn what I'm teaching, that's wonderful.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Playing the Work

I've met many horse owners who talk about all the training their horse needs, the work on this, work on that...

(I love this runaway frosting slipping down Saxony's left front leg. I keep finding more Oreo goodness in my mare.)

So lately I've been thinking about whether the "problem-solvingness" part of having a horse consciously (or not) factors into our decision to own one. I think it might play more of a role than we realize, since working with the horse, training the horse, striving to better the horse consists of interacting with the horse, or "communicating." Communication is a primary tool that enables humans to feel connected to others. It's also a two-way street. After infancy, humans quickly learn to speak, but horses don't have that particular tool. I sometimes wonder if, given a chance to hang out and chat with my mares, I'd be able to handle what they said. From my perspective, I'm a good horse owner committed to providing my horses with the best care I can afford. I expect myself to be fair with them at all times. I ride kindly and quietly, despite my nerves. But what about their perspective? Do they know me? Do they think I know them? Do they even care, beyond the comfort they find in routine and familiarity? No matter what I do with them, no matter how much they bloom, they are still separate beings. And what if they were perfect? What would our relationship be then, with nothing left to teach? I suspect the horse can just "be," but that skill often eludes humans.

One of the things I have always made a point to do with my horses is play with them, just go and play together. I don't include riding in that, though I think a nice ride can be fun for both horse and rider. Scout and I devised a chase game early on. I'd stand in the center of the indoor arena, turn Scout loose and challenge her to get past me on the rail, positioning my body as if to cut her off. She delighted in the race every time, blowing by, tail flagged high, snorting. After a few minutes of this, I'd pretend to "lose" her, and go wandering around the arena calling her name. I honestly think she loved sneaking up behind me to bump her nose into my back. Playing seemed to bond us quickly, and I wonder if it was because we enjoyed playing together so much. I know I completely lost myself in playing with her.

Dar had a deep curiosity about tools, vehicles, objects of all kinds. I played with him by offering him things. I'd be using a strainer to sift out hay bits and leaves from the water troughs and I'd splash a little water on his face. He became silly with glee over this. Sometimes I'd lift the dripping strainer and cup his muzzle in it; other times I'd rub it up and down his face. I did a lot of laughing because his responses were so comical and eager. Just like with Scout, I'd forget myself and become completely engaged with Dar and our playing.

I also give nose baths to my horses, and this is the first way I've begun to play with Saxony. My nose bath consists of deep-cleaning the nostrils with non-toxic baby wipes. I add massage along the way, wringing out the edges of the nostrils between my fingers (something along the lines of Linda Tellington's TTouch.) I don't think Saxony ever had a nose bath before I began doing it with her, but now she almost whores herself in pursuit of it. She's ticklish, and what she seeks from the nose bath is the moment when I start to tickle her. She just craves that tickling. It's ridiculous how much time can pass while we do this.

I file this under being with the horse and hoping the horse will be with me. Not to take away from the beautiful achievements that result from harmony between horse and rider, but to remind myself that what exists between us before and after the "work" is what led me to horses in the first place.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Building The Curriculum

I rode out on Saxony for another three hours today. We crossed the bridge of terror again, but we also crossed other kinds of bridges. We did more road riding, going two miles to the barn where Scout boards. We encountered yard dogs, glittering debris in ditches, other horses, oddly-shaped mailboxes, people on bikes, people using leaf blowers, trucks hauling tarp-covered trailers, and who knows what else. Every now and then, Saxony was looky, nothing more. She's not a spooky mare. I'm a spooky rider.

You make the strides you can make. I drove to Sax's barn determined to meet K riding out on my own instead of waiting for her to come hold my hand. I was hamster-wheeling it in my head during the drive and arrived at the barn dry-mouthed. That's what I can do with my anxiety: let it get just too real in its effects even as I know it's unreal in its discourse. I took half a Valium to turn the dial down on myself half a notch. It's strange how a choice like that can convince me - which is why no doctor should ever waste real meds on me. The sugar pill will always work. Still, if I'd had five minutes more to groom and tack Saxony, I might have chickened out and waited for K. Instead, my focus drifted to taking just one chance. I didn't even take Saxony into the ring to warm up. We set off and met K as she left the road, turning north for our barn.

Saxony isn't herd bound, but she does look for the company of other horses. When we arrived at Scout's barn, we had to wait while K switched horses. Saxony called a few times when we were alone. Then, since four of us were going to ride together, she had to be introduced to the horses. I make the stakes too high on every new thing we do. I didn't know how she would behave, but I mostly managed to stay out of the way. Her neck was beautiful as she arched it during her nose-to-nose with Scout. All of that went fine.

Getting to the trail system was uneventful, but I didn't relax into it until we were in the woods. I had to remind myself to take deep breaths and look up. Despite myself, I recognize that Saxony is a good trail horse, she really is. Since this was only our second time out, I can't jump to conclusions, but it seems to me that she's content to bring up the rear. Where possible, I rode beside someone, but it was easy to fall back. 

Saxony doesn't understand lengthening of stride or change of tempo. Asked to quicken her walk, she steps into a jog or trot. And though she seems comfortable behind, it changes when horses in front of her move out. She wants to catch up and makes the decision on her own. That caused me to use the reins more strongly than I wanted, bailing out on my seat, but one thing at a time.

We did some trotting, which gave me a chance to feel how fast Saxony can be. Part of that is the difference in her build and breeding. Scout, a Quarter/Paint/Arab cross, is short-backed, compact and fat, but she's what I've been used to (sort of.) Saxony is a hand taller, longer through the back, and half Thoroughbred. She covers ground. It will take me a while to get used to that. On the other hand, I have a much better awareness of her movement than I have ever had with Scout. It's been a weakness of mine as a rider that I struggle to feel the proper diagonal or know which hind leg is swinging forward. I think riding Saxony will help me develop those skills.

Throughout the trail ride, I made a point of walking Saxony over downed branches, etc., wherever possible because she needs lots of work on picking up her feet. She saw something different in one log, though, and launched herself at it like it was a wide oxer, soaring high and wide in a major overjump. I flew up onto her neck, caught by surprise. I don't know why it didn't frighten me, but it absolutely didn't. Instead, I was delighted silly by the power of her body and the scope of her effort.

I am building the curriculum for us. It will be more of the same for me and Saxony. I need to bring her up into herself and she needs to bring me down into my body. I think we can do it; I think we have already begun.

Postscript Molly

Molly comes home tomorrow. This sweet, sensitive mare, always bonded to whatever boy is nearby, always  maintaining her girlish figure, got lucky. The DMSO treatment has worked wonders to speed the healing of her injured nerve(s), the full-leg splint has been removed, and now we wait to learn what her home care will consist of. Everyone wants to help her recover fully before winter arrives. We're all so relieved and eager to have her back.

This was the first time I was the person to discover an injured horse. I think I handled it all right for a first-timer, but it was hard for me to stand the pain she was feeling; I wanted help to come faster than it could. I felt desperate to help her, and it took some time to accept that nearness and touch were all I had to give her in that distant pasture.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Longest Walk I've Ever Seen

That instant of realization last night when Molly didn't come in for dinner. She's always the first one to the barn, the flat, willowy length of her pressed against the door. She would not separate herself from the other horses, never. Molly, who we work so hard to keep weight on, an old OTTB from Canada, pin fired long ago, whose knees buckle when she sleeps, causing her to fall, even as she wakes, down to the ground, from which she instantly springs up. I called E: Molly didn't come in. I'm going out to look for her. I'll be right there, she said.

Throwing a hasty flake to the other horses, grabbing the dim flashlight, Molly's halter and lead rope, and heading to the pasture, dark with night. I moved toward where I'd last seen her, calling her name, swinging the flashlight at eye-level in wide arcs before me. Finally the beam reflected off her eyes. There she was, standing, not moving. She was in trouble; I could see it before ever I got close to her. I went to her and slipped her halter on, then looked at her leg, left front, hanging awkwardly from the shoulder to the tip of the hoof.

Molly was shivering and shaking. Again and again she curled her upper lip. E materialized out of the darkness and felt the leg. It was easy to fear the worst; it looked like the worst. She asked Molly for a step, but it didn't happen. She could not move. E ran to call Molly's owner and get blankets. I called K, just had to. I'm standing out in the north pasture with Molly. She's injured. I'm on my way, she said. Click. Just like that. I called H.G. and told him the same thing, adding don't wait up for me.

Molly and I stood there, connected helplessly. There was nothing I could do but be with her. The wind kicked up. Then there was rain, chilly and brief. More wind, then just fast- dropping temperatures until harsh cold settled in. I worried she was going into shock and scrubbed the length of her neck hard with my fingers, trying to keep her warm, keep her distracted. She began to lean on me, lean so hard I thought she might fall with both of us.

E returned in her truck, bringing blankets and Bute. Two grams, the vet had said. Molly accepted the tube listlessly. We double blanketed her. It helped, having a couple of things to do. Molly's owner arrived, and then K arrived. She and E hurried to the barn to give the horses their grain - I'd postponed that to go find Molly.

We waited 90 minutes for the vet. It seemed to take forever. The four of us stood out there with Molly, paying attention to her, trying to steady her with our presence. She called to the barn every now and then, answers ringing back each time. It was so cold, and the barn looked too far away. She ate a little hay, fed by hand. She swayed more and more as the minutes passed, her other legs growing sore from bearing all of her weight and being immobile at the same time. We were vigilant that she not fall.

Click, click, click. The images in my mind, the seconds captured. Every car that passed on the country road. The blinking signal light that lifted us because it could only be the vet. Her driving right into the pasture, headlights casting a pool of light that comforted us all. Her hands fleet on Molly's knee, her forearm, her elbow, her shoulder. The quick jab of the syringe into Molly's neck. The splint rapidly constructed along the whole length of her leg. The pressure her assistant exerted to straighten Molly's knee as the splint was taped in place.

A few moments to rest after the splinting, then time to begin the walk. I crept ahead in E's truck to light the way across the pasture. How it looked from the rear view mirror of the truck as Molly tripoded haltingly toward the barn, the vet lifting her splinted leg, moving it out, around to the front, and then planting the hoof, one step at a time while E pulled her forward and the others kept her from going down. I think it was something like 250 yards from there to the barn. I lost all sense of time. It might have been a half hour, it might have been more, but it seemed an eternity, knowing how she was suffering.

Once the rest of the way was obvious, I pulled the truck out of the pasture and ran down to prep the barn. The horses were agitated, keen with awareness that something was different in their world. I cleared the aisle and swept it clean, talking to the horses with words I don't remember. I could only think of Molly and her owner. He lost another horse just last year. Too much.

Somehow they made it all the way, Molly and her five-person transport team. In the barn, she sagged against the stalls on one side of the aisle. The splint was swiftly removed. Twenty or more X-rays, all the way around the elbow, a couple of the shoulder. We took turns holding Molly's ever heavier head, craning our necks to see each X-ray as it lit the laptop screen. No fractures. We'll never know how she did it, but she severely damaged nerves in the bundle under her armpit. There's massive swelling on the inside of the elbow and she will not use the leg.  She was re-splinted and trailered late to the clinic for treatment with DMSO and whatever else they can think of.

It was the longest walk I've ever seen. What did you do, Molly? What happened?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Learning Saxony No. 2

What did I learn about my kindhearted mare today?

That it is not easy to get a good picture of her, for one thing. Here, she appears to be wearing some other horse's neck and pretending to have a badly undershot jaw.

I had some strong hunches about Saxony from the moment I first touched her. They turned into pretty solid concepts with my first ride on her and since then have settled into things I think I just know about her. E came by to ride her tonight, which was exciting for me because I had been so keen to have her assessment. I'm ready to bust out of the gate with this mare, and I wanted to hear my trainer's thoughts.

Walk, trot, canter, go, stop. Saxony knows each of these at a blunt, basic level. It's the nuance and subtlety that she's missing. She stops from the mouth, not the seat, E said. Check.

Saxony is disorganized, doesn't know how to carry herself even and under, round and flexing. She's used to going long, straight and low. That's why she stumbles occasionally, said E, because she drags her feet. Yes! Check.

Kindhearted mare, I've said. She's a mother mare, E said, smiling, the sort of horse who takes care of the rider. She told me Sometimes that can come across as Mom knows best, so Mom will decide. Right now, could there be a more perfect horse for me? It's hard to think so. She needs to stop being a mom and I need to stop being a baby.

This trainer that I have worked with through a horse too hot for me and a horse too troubled for me looked at me from Saxony's back and said She's the perfect project horse for you. Check. I know she's right and I'm glad she's right. We will help each other get better as horse and rider, creating a creature partnership, and I just can't describe how good I feel about it. I have had a hard year with horses, between Scout's injury and having to give up Dar. It's hard to believe all of it brought me to her.

Monday, November 1, 2010

My Craziness

It's all wrapped up in animals. I flinch outside and cry inside whenever I see a dead animal in the road. We have 11 cats, and all but three of them are rescues, dumped at the festival or brought to us in a box. If I'd known such a thing existed when I was young, I might have wound up running an equine rescue. I've always had the impulse of kindness and care toward animals, sometimes to the point of, well, craziness.

So I've been caring for a feral cat for five years. She lives on the festival grounds. Three of her kids live in our house, and I've adopted out the rest of four litters over the years. In the summer of 2009, a friend and I decided to stop the madness of endless kittens. We trapped her and had her spayed and ear tipped.

I found out then that Harlot, as I called her, was about 10 years old. After her spaying, she eased right into a life free of one-night stands and became semi-attached to her gravy train -- namely, me. Harlot will never cross over to the dark side, where we humans live, though. She will always be wild.

I spend the winter months telecommuting to work, which is a nice thing, but I've never been able to relax into it because of Harlot. Even though I had an automatic feeder and a heated water bowl for her, I worried too much. I had bad dreams about her during the worst nights of winter and often ended up driving to the site to give her a warm meal and check her supplies.

This year, as the festival ran its course, I began to fret about Harlot. Arthritis has slowed her, and she's become insistently dependent on me to feed her. I worried about her ability to survive another winter of bitter cold, not to mention the coyotes and huge raccoons trolling for snacks. I stayed at my place on the site until the last possible day mostly so I could look after her. Then, during a trail ride a couple of weeks ago, my madness spurred me and I blurted out to E, "If I can catch her, could Harlot come here to the farm?" And she said yes. My heart just soared.

On Friday, I set the live trap for Harlot, but she's wise to it. The last time she got in it, she came back missing part of an ear and all of a uterus. She chose not to eat. The belly always wins, I reminded myself as I slowly drove away, leaving her without food for the weekend. The belly always does win. I got her today, not five minutes after baiting the trap. Tonight she's snug in the hayloft, her feeder and water set up in a dark corner. It always feels good, the will to care, especially when you can do something about it. Welcome home, Harlotta.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mortise & Tenon - Learning Saxony No. 1

A long-awaited day of firsts, anticipated and not. I prepared for it by riding Saxony yesterday at dusk, 40 minutes of transitions, bends and on the buckle in the simple, square outdoor arena at the stable where we board. It was an uplifting ride because it showed me that I could be ready to begin with her today. I have a childish tendency to enshrine big moments, so no matter that I began with Saxony even before I bought her, I marked today as the time we'd really start our journey together.

I had her groomed and tacked at 10:30. K rode over to meet us. We would ride together off the property, deep into a nearby trail system. Not that nearby. There would be some road riding first. I wanted to do this ride, wanted to be bold, but only because I could depend on K to help us.

Saxony: absolutely unafraid of traffic, unfazed by roads.
Me: worried by roads, absolutely frightened of traffic. (I grew up at a time when cars slowed to an utter crawl if coming upon riders; now it seems drivers don't fathom that horses are animals, not ATVs.)
I could feel the tension enclosing me as we rode away from the barn. I ran through my tricks. Look up at the sky, settle deep in the saddle, lengthen my body. Stretch. Breathe. But it was hard not to be fixated on what lay ahead. Saxony suddenly began calling in her girlish, seemingly undeveloped voice. 

Me: knowing exactly where we were, comfortable that there would be a beginning, middle and end to this ride.
Saxony: not knowing where we were going, worried she might not see home again.

This bridge became a fulcrum for the ride. We couldn't go on without going over. I was afraid of it. There's no place to escape the traffic. Saxony stopped. I knew her previous owner dismounted and then led her across, remounting from the guardrail on the other side, a choice I completely respect. I know I could have turned that into an out for myself, but I really didn't want to give up on us like that. I have a horse now that I can ride. She doesn't know anything about my fear. She isn't my fear.

Saxony: Maybe I would respond to the aids and move forward, if you ask. 
Me: Maybe, if I trust myself enough, I can apply the aids and ask you to move forward. 

And we did. We crossed that bridge.

I learned other things today, during four hours of riding, but maybe nothing more important than that the two of us are interlocked in good ways. What's she worried by doesn't bother me; what I'm worried by doesn't bother her. One day maybe we will be solid as an old oak chest, held together by mortise and tenon jointwork, built by hand over time, with care, patience and love.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Madnesses In Common

 The wind. Today it feels vengeful, wrathful, intent on its goal.

I know I would have gone prairie mad on the frontier, back in the gold-rush days. I wouldn't have been crazed by the wide-open spaces reducing me to insignificance, though, or been beaten down by the hardness of the seasons. The inescapable wind would have done it, the relentless sound of it, the push of it in its own tide running through and over everything.

I hunker down against it tonight as if I've done it a hundred times before in former lives. The wind bothers me, makes me think (feel) like a horse. If I were a horse, I would spook and jig, flare my nostrils and step head high, discovering enemies in familiar things made newly strange by the wind. I can't keep tabs on the world for the roar of it; it interferes with my senses, picks me to the bone.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Seeing It Through Other Eyes

Someone I love, a really good friend who also rides, says to me from time to time, "If only I could see what you see in me, understand how you see it." If only she could.

I think my friend was taught to apologize for herself at what must have been an early age. Some life lessons -- mostly the bad ones -- when learned during childhood and youth prove almost impossible to shake off and discard. My friend's self-esteem withdrew to a safe distance, hidden behind the need to silence her own voice because someone, sometime, either didn't want to hear it or didn't care when it spoke. The particulars of that don't matter. Any time life asks us to erase a part of our identity, we are forced upstream against our nature and left to sort out the side effects even as we discover them. That's harder when you're young.

In spite of that, kicking around in my friend was a vital being hungry for expression and release. Some people would dial the volume down on that hunger, or console it with substitutes. Others might ascend to the shallowest level of themselves, choosing to live there in a deceptive kind of peace.

Passion is a force strong enough to pull us free if we are lucky enough to find it and brave enough to accept its calling. My friend found the voice of her passion in horses, and she had the drive to listen, the heart to listen to what that voice compelled.

I don't know all the facts, like how many years she rode before getting her first horse, how many horses she had before finding the treasure she's owned for more than a decade. But I know that all along the path, she battled against that deep-seated need to diminish herself by negotiating for her right to have horses in her life. In the end, she could only give herself what she needed. 

Recently, I have watched my friend discover her identity as a rider. The toughness with which she protected and nurtured her love of horses and riding is the same toughness that has brought her finally to the verge of self-acceptance. There, her skills will shine even brighter than they already do. 

It takes guts to have what you want when life has put you down. It takes wisdom to recognize that the very thing you want is also the one thing that can help you get it. It takes simple love to not see the one corrupted by the other. All this I see in my friend and in the horses who accept her voice as a trusted guide. How can I not stand in awe of her?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What Color is My New Girl?

Even though I'm still on the mend, it doesn't mean I'm not spending time with Saxony. Hands on no matter what. Today I snapped some pictures, hoping to really see her color.

See that bit of Oreo splooge right there on her neck? I discovered it when I can began to cut back her mane, removing the sun rust. Compare this picture with her blogshot up there in the right side of the page.

I love how her crazy blaze wraps deeps into her right nostril. And it is a crazy blaze, but it is a femur, or a wrench?

Black Bay? Dark seal brown? But wait. Check out those stifles.

Traced in white right there, the same on both sides. And more white hairs intermix thinly over her hips. It doesn't help that she is so shiny. Even the camera was sunstruck.

One white foot, buy 'em, two white feet, try 'em... but I can't remember the rest of that old cowboy saying.

And then there's her "Hidalgo" eye. Remember how they computer enhanced that horse's eyes to make them appear human like? No CGI special effects were required for Saxony's right eye.

More on that arresting eye later. I've never had a black horse. Is this what they look like?

It will be so much fun to peel her winter coat away in five months and discover what her next trend will be.