Thursday, April 29, 2010

Baby Can't Handle His Dope

I wish it were a better picture, but just 30 seconds after the needle went in, Dar's head swooped to the ground and I couldn't get the shot fast enough. Doc B gave him only a quarter dose. Poor thing. He needed his teeth done. Man, the sedation hit him quick and hard.
I never tire of learning about horses, especially my horses. Doc B told me that draft crosses are coldbloods, and coldbloods have a different metabolism than warmbloods. As such, they metabolize drugs differently and it's not uncommon for them to require less sedation.

Here began an epic work of saliva artistry as the sedation took complete hold. I love his velvet nose.

Lights on, nobody home.
I love his XL ears and his lethally cute eyelashes. If I sound drunk, it's because I can't handle a high either. And I am high. We had a training session tonight that revealed Dar's progress and I am, well, feeling elated. Somebody needs to scrape me off the ceiling, actually. What if, I'm now wondering, he turns out to be exactly the right horse for me? The stuff of the last six months so consumed my thoughts, emotions and time, I never asked that question. I maybe didn't even dare.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

And...Exhale Again

Scout passed her soundness exam yesterday. E moved her out while I stood with Dr. B. Scout was high as a kite. We had brought Gambler to the outdoor arena to keep her company, but Scout called over and over again to the other horses. They were all in their stalls, waiting for vaccines.

Oh, her scream can be deafening. She was jiggy and pissed off. E wrangled her on the longe line as if she were hauling in a swordfish. At one point, Dr. B went to Scout and spent a few moments flexing her at the neck to bring her back down to earth. I watched all of this silently, thinking, "There's the horse I know. Mm-hmm." Eventually, Scout settled enough to circle on the longe. Then she was comical, torn between moving forward, calling to her herd, and snaking her nose down to grab a bite of the new grass. Trying to handle all of those competing needs, she displayed astonishing flexibility.

Dr. B asked for canter. Oh, Scout took off. She exploded into a canter, dropping low to push off. She's a fast horse, and I often imagine there's a spoiler mounted over her rump to create better aerodynamics, like some gear head souped her up. Whoosh.

It took half an hour to get through the exam. There's a shortness of stride lingering in the left hind, but nothing else. Dr. B tracked the shortness of stride to Scout's hip. That problem first appeared in March 2009, and Scout subsequently received bilateral hock injections. It was a chicken and egg kind of thing: did the hip cause the hock or the hock cause the hip. We could see yesterday that the splint bone fracture and surgery had no impact on that. Doc B felt Scout was moving better now than she had since the subtle hip hitch first appeared.

I really had no expectations, and maybe not even any hopes either way. "She looks really good," said Dr. B, smiling. "Put her back to work." I was flooded with relief, I think. Relief for Scout. I felt the particular happiness of knowing that this animal that I love is all right. For the next few days, that's all I want to feel about her.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Stop Your Face

That's what I think when I look at Spud, because he's just too ridiculous. Someone dumped him out of a car two years ago and he ended up with us. He's a treasure.

"And stop your face too," I tell Mouse from time to time. She was found newly born, her tiny sister beside her, their mother dead in the road. Mouse is so pretty I can rarely walk past her without stopping to look. That box she's parked in measures 7 x 9 inches.

But really, today it's me who needs to stop my face. I was on the phone at work, involved in epic conversations, every day, all day, this week. Long, long conversations. Hours and hours of talking, listening, and talking some more. It's hard work. My face does not want to move, it just wants to hang around. I'm aware of my ears. Now would be the time to let them flop sideways, horselike. So for now, I'm not talking, but I am thinking.

This upcoming Tuesday, Scout will have a soundness exam. On May 2nd, it will be six months since her surgery. I shut down the endless loop in my head about Scout and me a couple of months ago, when the pressure of having to decide anything at all about either her or Dar began to grind at me in a way that tainted how I saw them both. I just had to stop the obsessive one-way dialog to wait for the next piece of information. That's what I'll get on Tuesday. So that day is coming, that moment when I'll have to think of Scout, about Scout, all over again.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Tonight E was tired, so I did the longe line work with Dar while she provided running commentary and tips. I loved it, because Dar and I were training together, working at a pace that was perfect for both of us. First, I put him through walk-halts. My daydreamy doofus needs fewer reminders now; I think he's gotten the hang of whoa. We moved on to walk-trot transitions. We're looking for quicker responses from Dar, wanting to keep him attentive, not wandering off to some greener pasture in his mind. I mixed things up, throwing in a surprise halt here and there and changing directions. Then I worked him in trot for several minutes, up and down the soft, shallow slope at the west end of the grass outdoor arena.

When Dar was examined by the vet before I got him, she told me "Ride this horse up and down hills and slopes at walk and trot for the first year. He needs to build muscle strength; he has very little right now." She was right. It worried me how his hind legs looked back then. From hip to hoof, they wobbled and undulated like thick noodles. His hooves seemed to roll on their outside edges. All that's gone now -- the consistent good care has built him up -- but now it's time to begin to shape and strengthen the muscle that he's recovered.

Trotting the slopes is hard work for Dar, but exactly what the doctor ordered. Leaning on the line would be an easy cheat, but he didn't do that tonight. He settled into a steady pace and I kept the line light in my hand. It was quiet and still, just the sound of Dar's hooves, one-two, one-two, thudding softly on the grass. Reverie, that's what they call it. I watched him trotting, watched him passing between me and the sunset each time around.
For a second, I was guilty of daydreaming myself, struck by his beauty, imagining what it will be like to ride him. I snapped back into the moment when he lowered his head and blew out, releasing that wonderful snorting exhalation that means a horse has relaxed, feels safe, and is content in his work. Music to my ears.

We are training this young horse. Part of me can't even believe it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tension Releases in the Supple Horse

I went to the Midwest Horse Fair on Saturday, where K, E and I watched a Steffen Peters clinic together. Peters is an Olympic-winning Grand Prix dressage rider. I think clinics are always fun to watch, but for me they can flow by and leave very little practical information behind. Peters worked with two women riding lovely Oldenburgs. Both riders were good, but they were heavy with the aids, particularly the spurs. Peters addressed that issue with subtle language. He said something that I won't forget. It's a truly useful piece of advice that I can bring into every interaction I have with a horse.

Tension has nowhere to go in an un-supple horse. (Or an un-supple human being, for that matter.)

I thought about it during Monday School with Dar. He's a young horse who lacks balance and self-carriage. He also carries some baggage from what little training he received before I got him. Particularly, he gets tense, rushy and aggressively defensive when asked to canter. That's something I think is endemic to joust horses, especially those who aren't cut out for that hard profession.

I think these photos show a nice, simple progression through tension to relaxation. I don't expect suppleness from Dar yet, but I can look for the classic signs of release: tightness and leaning, then a listening ear, then giving way into the long, low, easy profile of a calm, willing horse.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Lather, Rinse and Repeat

There's a fine line between youthful exuberance and insolence. Dar, just beginning school, is not yet balanced enough to walk that line. He tries juvenile things, sometimes to entertain himself, sometimes to assert himself, sometimes to pat his inner jerk. He came to me with mouthiness, and we've made good progress dialing that down. He stands quietly in cross ties where before it was hard for him. As for his studdiness, only time will tell.

Lately, Dar's begun barging out of his paddock when it's time to come in to the barn for food time. He doesn't run through the gate; what he does is blow by when the gate swings open, and sometimes he accents his barging with a swift buck, the kind that lets you hear his hooves whistling by.

Despite doing PM feed three nights a week, Dar's barging was something I hadn't seen. E mentioned it to me a couple of weeks ago. In hand and on the longe line, Dar isn't pushy or bargy, just clingy sometimes, so his gate capers had to be coming from somewhere else. On Tuesday night, I saw the barging firsthand. One look was all I needed. Rude, dangerous behavior has to be addressed quickly. Since I was scheduled for PM feeding yesterday, I went to the barn prepared to give Dar a reality check. Another boarder was there, so I enlisted his help.

Dar was pressing at the gate. That's something he's done off and on, especially when he's in solitary turnout. He'll back on command, so I backed him. I made him stand off while I unchained the gate. Then I swung the gate partially open, creating a six-foot-wide lane. T, the boarder, held the gate steady. Uninvited, Dar moved forward. I backed him by voice, pointing my dressage whip at his chest. After he stood quietly for a few moments and I felt I had his attention, I stepped aside. He barged right through, flying past me, tossing a buck in my direction.

No. I went to Dar and haltered him. I backed him across Lot 1, into his paddock, Lot 3. I left him standing, stepped out and closed the gate. Lather, rinse and repeat.

Dar stood off from the gate. Again, I opened the gate to a six-foot-wide lane. T held it steady. Dar thought about moving forward. I puffed up like a blowfish, lifting my arms and standing tall. I held him in place with simple dominant intention. I moved into the six-foot space, a dozen feet out in front of Dar. I had his attention. I walked quietly to him and patted his neck, then moved back into the lane. Dar stayed where he was. He lowered his head, chewing softly. A minute or two passed. Finally, I stepped aside. "Come forward, Dar," I said. "Dar, come." He hesitated, then quietly walked out his paddock, past me, and into Lot 1.

This is a five-minute lesson that will have to be repeated several times, but yesterday, as I watched Dar walk submissively past me, I felt almost like a horse trainer. He needed to be corrected and I knew how to do it. That, and I had no fear; I just didn't feel anxiety at all. There is nothing about Dar that makes me uneasy, and I don't think I really understand why. Maybe I have to look at the question of fear from a different perspective, because when I discovered my anxiety with Scout, I essentially assumed (painfully) that I had become fearful of horses in general. What if that fear is just all about Scout? I guess I'll know more on the day I fall off Dar, but for now, it seems there is no place for fear to grow in me when it comes to him. I'm not saving it up for tomorrow.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Monday School

Dar had school yesterday, just a short session on the longe line followed by some quick in-hand work before the farrier arrived to trim his feet. My last lingering question about his health was answered when the farrier found no thrush and told me Dar has nice, solid not-so-draft-horse feet.

It was a Trinity afternoon, more jamming on the horses, the money, the horses. The three of us sat outside at the picnic table. The sun was perfect. That picnic table is near Dar's paddock. My doofus likes people and is in equal parts attention-seeking, nosy, friendly and hammy. He came again and again to the fence to stare at us and pine. Finally, though, he gave up, wandered away, laid down and dozed. I'd never seen him lying down before. In seconds, he was out, deeply asleep.

Back to school this evening. The wind shifted and brought a temperature drop and flicking rain. Dar was keyed up. He trotted in circles at the gate, impatient for me to come get him. Scout and I have our deep bond, yes, but Dar is the horse that comes quickly when I call his name. I opened the gate, slipped in and haltered him. We walked across the newly-lush lawn. He knows now not to graze when we're working.

We had an excellent surprise session of Monday School tonight. Dar was energized by the wind and wet. He didn't focus. In the background, Scout, Gambler and Keely bucked, reared and tore around their paddock, playful and squealing. They presented a strong distraction. E sent Dar forward on the longe. They had words. She sent him forward again, insisting in her patient, thorough way.

But why? They are playing! I can play too. I will play.

She sent him forward. It took time to tune him to her, but of course, she did. Then there was work. Slowly, he relaxed his neck. He began to chew and think. There was some walk-trot and lots of walk-halt. I could see him getting it. That's happening with our sessions now, that if I'm the one watching, I have the chance to see how he processes what is being asked of him.

So I'm standing there in the wind and pellety rain, and it comes to me: I can't wait to ride him. I just want to get on him. And that's the thrill of it, of him, for me. Once I got to the place where Scout frightened me, I never had that feeling, that unmistakable involuntary impulse to just get on and ride her.

Friday, April 9, 2010

My South Korean Treasure

In 2006, I went to Seoul, South Korea. It was the first time I'd been to an Asian country. The city, made of concrete, tile and glass, erupted suddenly, massively, out of the earth. Built on either side of a river, Seoul depends on a gridwork of four-lane boulevards and eight-lane freeways. The traffic is a living creature, so constant, so prevalent, that pedestrians cross major streets by passing underneath them through wide tunnels.

I love to travel, but not as a tourist. I like to just live in the place I'm visiting. Like any traveler, I absorb where I am and what I'm seeing through the only filter I know: me. I look for things that resonate with me, no matter how foreign the environment. Horses will always be one of those things.

Where were horses in South Korea? The only thing I knew was that there was an island, Jeju, off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, where horse-fighting was a cruel betting sport, like dog-fighting is in America. Nothing could have made me go there.

Animals are unbelievably scarce in Seoul. I was there for three days before I saw a squirrel. Cats are considered vermin; the few I saw had respiratory infections. They skittered through shadows, down narrow, neon-lit alleyways, canny and wise to dumpster diving.

My friend Diana, who was working in Seoul at the time, is stubbornly resourceful. "I'd like to see their idea of a tack shop," I told her during our 14-hour flight to South Korea. It took her a while to find one in the impenetrable phone book, but she did. One day we took the subway to an industrial district somewhere at the edge of the city. After walking blocks past factories and warehouses, we arrived at Sanda Saddlery. The store was locked and dark. Through a dust-dimmed bay window, I could make out a narrow, crowded space.

Diana found a doorbell and leaned on it. We waited. I looked at the display in the bay window. A sun-faded rain sheet hung from a hook, artfully draped behind a thirsty potted plant. A pair of riding boots, fallen over, lay beside a thin, dispirited display of mane combs and body brushes. Eventually, a small man emerged from a building next door. Smiling and nodding, he led us into the store, flipping on the lights. A horrid fluorescent glow aged all of us instantly.

I moved into the depths of the silent shop, past tall racks of saddles by Passier, Courbette, Stubben and Hermes. Kor-Steel bits gleamed harshly under the prison-like light. Headless mannequins wore expensive riding apparel. The store and its contents were preserved in a film of fine dust. Sanda Saddlery seemed frozen in time, a curio cabinet filled with pieces from a life long obsolete. The small Korean man smiled and nodded.

Something drew me back to the front of the store. At the back of the display window, partially hidden by the rain sheet, was a tiny saddle.
I pointed. Diana spoke to the man. The Korean language has no handles to grab on to for an English speaker. I stood by, listening to sounds I could make no sense of. The small man lifted the tiny saddle out of the window and handed it me. He seemed surprised, but he smiled and nodded.

This little handmade saddle weighs about two pounds. It measures 10 inches from the pommel to the bottom of the knee flap. It has billets, stirrup bars and flocking.

I wanted it. Diana told the small man. He shook his head. Diana persisted. They haggled, because that is her way. She translated for me. What I was buying was a promotional item, part of a saddle display that had been shipped from London years earlier. I don't remember what company's saddles this miniature was promoting.

I went halfway around the world, to Seoul, South Korea, and, instead of a T-shirt, this is what I brought home. H.G. made me a little saddle rack for it. One day I'll find a way to add leathers and stirrups.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Love of Caring for a Horse

This was Dar two weeks before I got him:
This is Dar today, six months later:
There was something on my camera lens that blurred focus here and there, but not enough to dampen the impact of the comparison, I don't think. I look at these pictures and feel proud. From an underweight, parasite-ridden sad sack has emerged an engaged, hammy and healthy 1,300-pound youngster who's just begun school.
We have so much to look forward to.

Friday, April 2, 2010

That Rarity: Purely Free Horse Day

There's no picture of today, but it was the kind of day that promotes lasting growth in horse people. I didn't have to work, and a planned visit from my brother was postponed. Among dozens of things I could have done -- laundry, cleaning, junk processing, etc. -- one called most loudly. Them. Those horses. I went to the barn at 1:30 and stayed until 6:00, peaceful in a flow of time unburdened by deadlines and demands.

Like I do, I stood leaning on the Pathfinder, watching the horses browsing in their paddocks. The wind lifted and riffled their manes. I thought I'd ride Gambler, but first I dropped hay and checked the paddock water troughs. Dar, curious child that he is, stood close by while I filled his trough. That tap releases a pitiable flow of water. I dipped all the wet hay and dead leaves out of the trough with my 50-cent pasta spoon. Dar was fascinated by that. I splashed water up his nose.

After prepping Gambler's tack and grabbing my grooming box, I went into Paddock 1, shared by Scout, the Keely monster and Gambler. I had my shedding block in one hand and my excellent, stiff, floor scrub brush in the other. Keely sauntered over. "
Shed my hinder at this time," she said, simply by backing into my face. The wind was just right for shedding, strong enough to carry the clumps away, not strong enough to force them into my mouth. I worked on her for half an hour or so, because she was there and because I could.

Scout watched this with some interest, lifting her nose from the hay from time to time. Keely's lower lip sagged with pleasure until the wind caught it like a sail.

I turned to go to Scout, but she was right there behind me. "
Shed my entire body at this time," she said. "Start with the crest of my neck." I complied. Shed. Shed, shed. Shed. Scout's lips were vibrating, her head sinking lower and lower.

K arrived at the barn. I was happy to see her, and we talked over the fence. Scout bumped me and lifted her head between us. "
My belly? My belly." Shed, shed. Shed.

There was more to this lovely free horse day. I'll write about it soon.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Sucker Punch

H.G. and I went to Los Angeles for the weekend, so I was away from the horses for five days, the longest absence I've had from them in months. K and her husband took these pictures of Dar while I was gone. On Tuesday night, I went to the barn to do the PM feed, knowing I would see Scout and Dar, but I was draggy from the trip. Wednesday, I went back out. It was a surprisingly beautiful day. I could have ridden Gambler, but I wanted to get my hands on horse bodies. I shedded Gambler instead, and then went out to get Dar.

His paddock borders one of the large pastures. I turned him loose, expecting him to tear around and be breathtaking, but instead he chose to follow me like a dog. I ran out ahead of him, but he only kept pace, stopping when I did. I walked him to the cross ties out under the eave of the barn. He settled in, tipping a lazy heel in the afternoon sun. After brushing out his mane and tail, I started shedding him. Dead grey hairs sifted down over the white carpet left by Gambler.

Dar isn't tall, but he is big. Shedding him is hard work. I have to do a section, clean the shedding block and brush,and then do another. I saw him in bits and angles, a haunch here, a shoulder there. His headset has changed so much since I got him, come from a drooping, heavy palm frond to something much more upright. It was 6:30 when I stopped and stepped back to look at my work. Instead, I looked at Dar. He stared back at me, and just then, I was slayed. In an instant, he got me, the rest of me, the one bit still holding back, clinging to rationality. Something about him, about his body, about his face. I love him. I love him.