Saturday, January 30, 2010

High Winter

Bitter, bitter cold. The horses' lives go on, zero degrees or not. I watch them picking their way over the frozen footing, browsing in their blankets, sleepy in the hard-edged air. Dar and Keely squeal, nibbling each other through the fence.

Yesterday's cold was breathtaking. Nature balances everything, though. The days are getting longer. I had the stalls picked and rebedded before dark.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Those Horse Jam Sessions

On Saturday, three of us sat down, rolled up our sleeves, and got into it about the horses. Five hours of what-ifs, how-comes, they-mights, if-not-fors, etc. Jam sessions like that can do a world of good when you don't know where to begin. Especially when you're with friends who all have huge horse hopes and tiny financial resources.

With Scout a week back in turnout and no worse for the wear, I can dial down my vigilance over her. She's done with her sedatives and it will be a month before our next milestone, letting her rip out in the big pasture. That frees up my Figure-It-Out radar to zoom in on Dar. Decisions I think may have been made:

  • Move him at the end of February, to a facility with an indoor arena. So we found one and went over to meet the owner and see the barn. There's one spot open. Mares and geldings are kept in separate paddocks and pastures. Oddly enough, I would be one of the youngest boarders there. Ha! How novel.
  • Set up our training program, and begin it in March. I think I have four months to see what Dar is capable of. Not to train him all the way up, of course, but to discover how easily, or not, he can be trained and whether he responds positively to steady work. His precocious attitude, if left unchanged, will win him enemies and cost him friends. I want to believe consistent attention and hard work will settle him down.
  • There was a pending question about running another testosterone test. Dr. B called today to say it wasn't necessary. The test that was done in September produced valid results. He's got nothing. If he has an issue with sex, it's happening between his ears, not his legs. (I guess that's true of many of us, horses or not.)
  • I have to remember to keep reminding myself I have Dar on trial. I can't keep him if it doesn't make sense. I'm looking for the last horse of my life, the one I can ride from now until I'm 70. I need to keep him at arm's length to avoid a broken heart.
  • I'm not afraid of Dar, and I don't have to assume that I ever will be. That means I have a chance to start clean with him. If I do choke, then I hope I will be able to understand why I did. For now, I don't need to bring my anxiety to him; there's no reason to. I have Red Death for that, if I absolutely have to scratch that itch.
Good horse jam sessions are rare, but vital. I'm out of the horrid feeling of being overwhelmed by bad accidents and stupid choices.

Go, New Orleans Saints. Scout's my Saints horse, Dar's my Steelers horse.

Friday, January 22, 2010

How the NFL Pertains, Part III

In 1997, his first season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kordell Stewart led the team all the way to the AFC Championship game, the last stop before the Superbowl. In 2001, he was named the Steelers' MVP. The team had changed head coaches during the fours years since Kordell Stewart had been signed, but he continued on with his wild, spontaneous style of play. Instinct compelled him to pass or run the ball for touchdowns, but sometimes his radical efforts blew back on him, resulting in interceptions or fumbles. He was becoming a controversial quarterback: fans loved him when he scored and hated him when he didn't.

After the Steelers narrowly missed making it to the 2001 Superbowl, the coaching staff decided it was time to take a closer look at Kordell Stewart. He was talented, and they knew that, but too unpredictable. There was no guarantee he could take them to the top. If he could be trained to play like a more classic quarterback, they reasoned, then he should only get better. But that's where they were wrong.
Some people should never be taught in words what they already know in their body. At the moment that knowledge is defined from the outside and handed back to them in a rule book, a disconnect can happen, and sometimes it is irreversible.

I can't say that Kordell Stewart didn't understand -- internally, in words -- how he played the game of football; I don't know that. But I can talk about what I saw with my own eyes and what I sensed as I watched him play during the next season, after the coaches tried to reshape him. I doubt they ever told him, first, that they completely understood his natural way of playing; I'm not sure they did understand it. I know they told him, though, how NFL quarterbacks are expected to play. In the end, they analyzed and redirected Kordell Stewart in terms of what they needed him to be, not what he was, to make him into a different quarterback. One thing they did was tell him to stay in the pocket, from where he could either throw the ball or hand it off to a running back. The net effect of that was to sideline a huge part of Kordell Stewart -- the instinct that told him, "Run the the ball to the end zone now! Go!" It was against his nature to be contained; it was counter-intuitive and bewildering. You could see that as he struggled to play within the new guidelines that had been given to him. Sometimes I cringed, seeing so plainly on his face his desire to bust out of the pocket and watching his awkward efforts to just stay put.

It's hard to say this simply.
Some people freely and un-self-consciously use the abilities they have until people around them begin to comment on those abilities. It hasn't necessarily occurred to the person, one way or the other, to view themselves through a frame of talent or no talent, but when people start talking about their talent, suddenly the perspective shifts. It's in that moment that they can be separated from what they've known all along and find it nearly impossible to get back to what they were before someone told them what they were. I think that's why some people can actually ride horses better before they begin to take lessons. They may not ride correctly, in terms of form and communication, but they can stay on a horse and even ride kindly. Part of working with an instructor, then, is to retain and improve what you already do fairly well naturally and eliminate everything you do incorrectly. In the best case, that's what happens. In the worst case, you worry that you never knew how to ride at all, even when you just went out and did it, and you become lost in trying make what you are being taught fit with what your body has known.

The day Kordell Stewart learned that he wasn't to play from instinct any more was the day he began to choke. He could not make the transition from gut-level play to mind-level play, which is essentially what the coaches had asked him to do. As a result, his confidence crumbled before the eyes of thousands of Steelers fans. During the third game of the 2002 season, he was benched, and he was cut by the team when the season ended. Over the next few years, he drifted from one team to another, but he was never the same. When the Chicago Bears signed him, it was Slash that they wanted, but the Steelers' attempt to reshape him away from his instinct separated him from Slash and he never found his way back.

I said in the first part of this series that I thought of Kordell Stewart the first time that I realized I was intimidated by Scout, and it's true. I had no fear of Scout when I got her. I fell off her just six weeks later, sliding off her during a bareback ride when she suddenly stepped sideways. I landed standing beside her and laughed then, charmed at being reminded that yes, we do fall off our horses, especially when we are daydreaming, and that doesn't change just because 25 years have gone by since we last owned one. I'd fallen so many times when I was younger, riding my crazy first horse, and just accepted it as part of the package. I always got back on, immediately if I was able. I think I fell off Scout twice more before I began working with a trainer. I didn't hire a trainer because of fear, not at all. I didn't feel this fear then. I rode Scout a lot the first six months I had her, both saddled and bareback. I just realized that I was rusty as a rider and I wanted a solid refresher course. I also knew that Scout needed help. She was very heavy on the forehand, poorly balanced, and anxious at the canter. Ridden from the face, as many joust horses are, she was green to everything else. I didn't have the skills to retrain her, so it was time to take us into training.

It was during a session with my first (bad) instructor that fear entered the equation. I was cantering Scout to the left on a 30-meter circle, hard work because of her tendency to fall in. It went well enough. "Now stop and change directions," said the instructor. "Then pick up the canter again." My instinct said, "No, let's call it good for today." I didn't listen. I heard the voice of my instinct loud and clear, but my mind overruled it, saying, "You have to get back in the swing of taking lessons. Do what she says." We picked up the canter, and Scout panicked, speeding up and then lurching as we curved into the circle. She went one way and I went the other, landing hard, face down. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the broken reins dragging behind Scout; I remember being terrified that she'd step on them and take a savage jerk on her mouth.

There is a (darkly, jaundiced) funny irony about that moment, too. Just weeks earlier, my (dumb) instructor had taken an ugly, ugly fall off Scout. I was right there, I could see it coming, and I warned her that Scout was getting tense, building toward an explosion. She didn't listen to me, and ended up with badly bruised ribs and a critically wounded ego. I had an instinct about my horse, even an instinct about riding, but I abandoned it when I picked up the canter to the right, heading unwittingly toward what would become such a big problem.

Was it a scary fall? Yes. Was it a major fall? No. But it was a fall that happened because I separated myself from my instinct. In that instant, things changed, and I have yet to find my way back to how I was with Scout before that fall. It's hard to explain how I felt. I'd known my horse longer than the instructor had, and I knew her well. Nevertheless, I let myself do something that I knew wasn't going to go well. I just remember now that when I got to my feet and went to Scout, the connection between us was broken. I hadn't known there was a connection before that -- I just had her, rode her, groomed her, didn't think about it -- but I saw it immediately in its absence. Suddenly, she was something that could hurt me, and I was something that could hurt her. Everything was different. I was outside of myself, displaced as a rider, displaced as Scout's person. Once my head got involved, my body checked out, taking with it the confidence and skill I had freely and un-self-consciously used all those years go. In that way, I think of Kordell Stewart and remember him.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sheesh, It's Not Even January 24th Yet

British scientists determined, a few years ago, that January 24th is the worst day of the year. I don't know what science they used to arrive at that date, but it rang true to me the moment I heard it.

When I think about this blog -- this journal -- and why I started it, I can't help but be rattled by how things have changed since then. Scout was up for sale, a decision which had taken me an agonizingly, stupidly long time to make. Dar was a sleepy-eared, crabby oaf who seemed calmer in his temperament and movement than Scout had ever been; it felt easy to take him home. I had faith in the moment, because I thought I was moving toward dealing with my fear by starting over with another horse. As they say, the best-laid plans of mice and... well, mice, because that's how I'm feeling. It's been a hard, unhappy, oppressive few days. I'm overwhelmed with the new circumstances, anxious and sad, and I can't think my way out of how I'm feeling. This picture captures some of my dilemma.

In the foreground, Scout snarfs her way through a flake of hay, happy outdoors as if nothing's changed. What was probably the hardest part for her is done, but she needs weeks of simple turnout before I can ride her. She's been the horse capturing most of my attention over the past few months. In the background stands silly Dar, not able to believe Scout's lack of interest in him. Five months ago, it seemed certain to me that I'd be deep in training with him by now. Scout might not have found a new home, but I was prepared to wait for the right person to take her. The picture should have been the other way around, but circumstance has reversed it. I'm not prepared for that, and I don't see what to do. Some of this is simple self pity, I know. But not all of it. Some of this is just the winter; I know that too. But not all of it.

I certainly didn't imagine that I would not ride a horse for five months. But I haven't. I didn't imagine that I'd have two horses. But I do. And neither of them are easy. Dar pushes hard at his gate and destroys tank heaters with his mouthiness. Scout's injury means everybody at the barn has to work harder. Yes, I've been a good farmhand and honest boarder, but I'm out of the flow for not riding, for not having a viable horse. I feel the absence of it terribly.

These are just some thin thoughts I've put down to try to sketch in where I'm feeling, if not what I'm feeling. It seems harder than it should be, but maybe it is just that hard. I have to accept that possibility if I am to say another word. The pressure of my hopes, wants and fears has settled, for now, on the question of the horses.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

5 of 5, Scout Goes Out

The end of her confinement, the end of her waiting. I don't think horses have a sense of time. Instead, now is always for them. Every day, she wanted something that she couldn't have. Every day, she waited. Now that's done, whatever it was to her, and forgotten as though it never happened.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Really? I can come out?

Hand walking was part of Scout's discharge instructions after the surgery, but ice and snow have made it impossible. Instead, two weeks ago I began to leave her stall door open while I was cleaning the barn. The first time I did that, Scout didn't want to leave her window. She came out for half a second and then whirled back in. Little by little, though, my mare's nosy nature pushed her to go exploring. Yesterday, I left her door open for more than half an hour. Despite her anxiety about losing sight of the other horses, she just had to know what I was doing. Before long, she swung her nose into my back. Because the belly always wins with her. She suspected I had cookies or carrots, and she was right.

Still, she had doubts about leaving that TV window, from which she's watched the My Very Own Crew of Horses I Boss Around show every day for six weeks. It's amazing to me how all living creatures can become habituated to unnatural circumstances as long as they can find some way to meet their needs. She'll forget what she's been through as soon as she's out of it, though. That's where she's different from me.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Verges and Other Cliffs

I am just breathing. I'm in a low tide of me, off my feed, reluctant to move, to think, to call, to write. As always, though, even when I have to drag myself out, time at the barn slows my head drama and brings me back to something basic. Fill the water buckets, clean the stalls, mix the grain, sweep the aisle: I never get tired of it.

I played with Dar today, running along the fence beside him. I have to smile at him, even when I'm feeling grim. And I was feeling grim. I haven't written the story about what happened to Scout, what really happened and how it all went down, but now it has taken an ugly turn. People tell me, "You've been lucky. Bad things happen at boarding stables all the time. This is the first time it involved one of your horses." I know what they mean, but it doesn't help right now. What I see is that Scout didn't matter, in the end, to the facility. I certainly didn't matter to them. They blew both of us off.

There is a fifth hurdle for Scout. Her post-op X-rays showed well-healed bone. The surgeon was pleased, so on Saturday we'll try turning Scout out, after six weeks of stall rest. It's not a moment too soon for my pony, who swings unpredictably between the warm cocoon of sedation and an anxious fury at being apart from her friends.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

How the NFL Pertains, Part II

They called Kordell Stewart "Slash" after his first season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. At the time, there were very few black quarterbacks in the NFL, and there were even fewer that could run with the ball if they had to. Most quarterbacks preferred to throw the ball or hand it off to a running back from the safety of the pocket of space created by the protecting offensive line. Kordell Stewart brought something completely different to the game. He could throw the ball, sure, and he did. He could catch the ball, and sometimes the Steelers would call a trick play that would send him to a wide receiver slot, where he would catch a ball thrown by a running back. "Slash" was born of Kordell Stewart's ability to run with the ball, though. In the scant seconds a quarterback has to make the decision most likely to advance the ball toward the end zone, a crazy array of choices present themselves. Sometimes none of them are good, and sometimes one or two of them need waiting on. Stewart was sometimes overwhelmed by the options and impatient for the outcome. That's when he would take matters into his own hands, despite what play had been called, and just run with the ball. He had an amazing ability to explode into a run, and there was no way to predict when he might do it, so it was hard to defend against. He could simply slash his way through the defense, running back and forth, diagonally, even backwards, eluding one player after another. Time after time, he ran the ball in for a touchdown. The inventive way he played was thrilling to watch, it just was, even for someone, like me, who was just coming to the game.

The thing is, it took me a while to understand what it was about Kordell Stewart. I tried to figure him out. His wild plays were exciting, all the more because they were so unpredictable. The commentators would say things like, "The Cowboys need to be ready here on third and long. This looks like an opportunity for Slash to break out!" Stewart either would or wouldn't pull off an amazing play, but the anticipation that he might was just as much fun as seeing him score a touchdown.

I tried to never take my eyes off Kordell Stewart, and I paid particular attention to him when he was on the sideline, waiting while the other team had the ball. When he'd botched a play, he'd be surrounded by chiding coaching staff; when one of his "Slash" plays had ended in a touchdown, he'd be surrounded by celebrating teammates. There were times, though, when he was standing or sitting apart from everybody else.
He often had a distant look in his eyes, but he would watch the game and I would watch him watch the game. I had the feeling that he was somehow disconnected from it. And he was, intellectually. He played purely from instinct. Once I understood that, I realized that Kordell Stewart was a natural athlete, one who just happened to end up playing football. Drawing on his instinct, he played the game in a way that forced me to understand the defensive side of the game, because defending against him was so hard. Of course, I never wanted any opposing team to be able to shut Kordell Stewart down. Once I recognized what he was, a player who responded fearlessly to his instinct instead of his playbook, I couldn't get enough of watching him.

But I was just a fan. NFL coaches want something more from their players than instinct, unless the team wins every time they step on the field. Instinct isn't quantifiable, measurable; it can't be shaped or replicated. The day the Steelers' coaching staff begin to try to define and shape Kordell Stewart is the day he began to slip away.

That's what I'm going to describe next.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


One month ago today, Scout had her surgery. She's been bandage free for a week. Other than Dr. B having to dig a bit to remove a couple of ingrown stitches, the leg has healed well. On Monday we'll have post-surgery X-rays done to get a look at how the internal healing has gone. I want to talk with Dr. B about Scout's next step, turnout in a confined space. Right now, I'm not sure putting her in a 12 by 12 pen will work. I'm worried that she'll try to thrash her way out if something happens with the other horses that she wants to be in the middle of. I'm wondering whether it's better to keep her in until she can really go out.

Without the twice-daily dose of sedatives, though, my pony would have lost her mind. It's not that she's dying to get outside, not really. She's cool with munching from the hay net hanging beside her window; it's like watching TV all day without feeling an ounce of guilt. She loves the carrots, the cookies, the apples, the cookies, the cookies, the cookies. But she hates, hates being separated from the other horses, especially those she considers to be her personal crew: Keely monster, tiny Gambler, and steadfast JR. This morning, those three were turned out in zero-degree air to stretch in the huge, frozen pasture, far from Scout's window. Sedation, ha! She put up a classic spazz attack, screaming, spinning, bucking and rushing in her stall. E had to move her across the aisle to Dar's double wide stall so she could finish cleaning Scout's. "It's like I wasn't there," E told me on the phone. I knew exactly what she meant. That's Scout forgetting everything and everybody except herself and her emotions. Wish I'd been there, because I could use a reminder. It's easy to romanticize my feelings about Scout when I experience them through this frame of injury, recovery and rehabilitation. One day that will all be done, though, and Scout will be standing there in front of me. How can I be ready, and ready for what?