Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dar Discovers the Joy of Being a Horse

A little bit of perfection today. Perfect weather, sparkling clean farm, happy horses, and a wonderful barn picnic. So much hard work and support goes into the farm that there's very little time left for simple fun like this. We put kids up on little Gambler, ate good food, laughed a lot and flowed easy with the day, unhurried, unharried. Perhaps none of us enjoyed it more than Dar, though. He loves people so much.

The secret decoder ring prize goes to S, who found a new scratches spot on my boy.

Oh no, does that feel good!

Work it, work it. I must smile!

How can I stand it?

I don't know about you, but I'd love a cigarette right now.

This was my last really free day for the next four months. The fair I work for opens in July, and I won't slow down until September 7th. The horses are my priority, though, and I will be with them as much as I can through the summer, but sleep is the only thing I have to play with. I'll gladly trade that to keep moving ahead with Dar and working to decide what comes next for Scout. What a lovely day.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Twin Peaks

Kate, over at A Year With Horses, wrote in her latest post about the mysterious and special powers of horses. Sometimes it seems thoughts are threads drifting and weaving in space, brushing against one person after another, like something is in the air. Because, watching the horses this afternoon, I discovered a new skill in Scout and came home wanting to write about her almost unique power.

Sometime soon, I want to write about Scout and Dar being in turnout together so I can think about how that has been going while I wait for the next step. Which is: when none of the mares are in heat, my two will join the other herd. D-day, I call it. Dar-don't-day. But for now, the horses are up to four hours of grass. Scout and Dar are getting along well, enjoying their private grazing in the outdoor riding arena. Yesterday I scrubbed out a water trough for them, leveled it in a corner of the arena, and filled it, bucket after bucket. Today I went up to the barn early to turn the horses out. I had a friend with me and a chance to just sit quietly for a while, talking and watching the horses on a beautiful afternoon.

Completely by accident, I discovered last week that both of my horses enjoy Tootsie Pops, so I brought two grape ones with me today.

Twin Peaks is a television series that is permanently enshrined in my little hall of life-changing, mind-deepening, glad-I-was-alive-to-see-it events. Among hundreds of memorable scenes in the show was one early in the series when a character named Audrey (a seemingly sullen, insolent, spoiled Daddy's girl) ate a cherry. Twin Peaks aired in the days before YouTube; otherwise, that scene would have been posted before the episode had even ended.

I unwrapped the Tootsie Pops, went to the fence, and called Dar and Scout over. Dar, all clumsy eagerness, crunched the candy cardboard stick and all. Scout hooked the Tootsie Pop in her mouth and stepped back from the fence. She worked her velvety lips for a few seconds, then stepped back to the rail and dropped the clean white stick into my hand. Just like Audrey, who put a cherry in her mouth, ate it, and then daintily handed back the cherry stem, tied in a perfect knot. Very different implications, but in terms of sheer scale, Scout's finesse was every bit as surprising, I think.

Something so small to see, so small to write about, but it's big how I love experiencing my horses at the life level, just as they are, how they intend to be. Even yesterday, I looked at them and thought, Horses. They're horses. So recognizable to me and yet so not like me. I never get over it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Millstones and Milestones

A day starts out well and then it says Not so fast. One of our Pathfinders croaked and is spending the night in a grocery store parking lot. They were great about letting us leave it there until it can be towed.

Money, and the never-enough of it, the pay-this, forget-that of it. Lately, I'm letting go of the worry of it all in favor of preserving my mental capital. I'll never get back to the days of my 20s when I shrugged off bills and paid them mostly when I felt like it, but I've come to understand things oscillate, no matter how tidy plans may be.

It wasn't enough to pull me away from Sunday School, which I had enjoyed so much only hours before.

Ground driving, second lesson. It was hot this morning, and Dar was moist here and there even before we began. It's always interesting to see how horses in training react to new variables, whether environmental or the task at hand. One thing that Dar seems to have realized is that school means school. He accepts that there is work to do and doesn't become distracted. Except, of course, for daydreaming his way into Whoa. Always working on that, now we say, "Dar. Dar. Dar. Whoa." He's not a forward horse, so his sluggish response is a little mystifying. My homework with Dar over the next two weeks is to work him on the lunge line, drilling the halt.

Maybe I'm wrong about this, but Dar is my second former joust horse, and I see a couple of critical similarities between him and Scout when it comes to training. They couldn't be more different in terms of temperament and nature, but they both display anxiety about learning, a sense of worry about figuring out what is being asked of them. Scout's reaction to that is to speed up and become incredibly tense. Dar reacts by checking with the trainer, asking Like this? Is this it? It isn't? Well, what is it, then? It's easy to know when to end a lesson with him. We stop before his brain fries.

This was a good lesson. Not just about the rein aids, it was also about bending and moving toward a specific target. Dar was listening to E's voice and the long reins. He's learned the ground version of leg aids -- really, he has them down -- so in a week or two, E will be up on his back for a lead-around with me.

What will it feel like when I get to sit on him for the first time? Will I be able to tell the difference between simple nervous excitement and the fear I found with Scout?

I don't know the answer, but I so want to get up on him.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Scout, Version 2.0

The horses are being eased onto grass. Yesterday, I handled their 30-minute evening graze. The main herd went out to one of the pastures. My two went into the outdoor riding arena. I hand-walked Dar over first and quickly went back to fetch Scout, before she began freaking out at being alone in the paddock while everybody else munched eye-deep in clover and dandelions.
It's been a bewildering few days for my little Red Death. She been separated from her BFF, Keely monster (who doesn't seem terribly concerned, herself), and turned out with Dar, who seems to worry her a little bit. But it's been more bewildering for me, because I thought she would kill him.

I gave her a quick withers scratch, then led her to the arena. It seemed like a nice night for a fight. "Kick his ass," I whispered. She trotted off into the deep grass, intent on her target. Which was:

What? Her eyes are closed. You can practically hear the sigh. I got my man. I got some good eats. The sun is nice. Ahhhh... What happened to my mare, the one who drops her rump low before charging whichever unlucky horse doesn't get that she's boss? The one who took on a 16.2-hand quarter-horse gelding and gashed an ugly, deep slash across his shoulder that required some serious needlework?

Ahhhh, she said, lowering herself to the grass.

Life never felt this good. I stared at her, probably slack-jawed. She grazed near Dar, not close but near. He moved her around a little bit every now and then. She adjusted her position easily, with not so much as a flick of an ear, but still kept herself near him.

Really? Really? That's it?
Yeah. Yeah, it is. Because I'm a stelding, or a gallion, or whatever you call it, Dar said. Think she'll care if I'm shooting blanks? She's a cougar -- isn't that what you call it? And I'm jail bait.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The More They Stay the Same...

...the more they change. I got Scout in September of 2004. I was given bits and pieces of information about her, most of which proved to be inaccurate the more I came to know her. I was told she was a monster for vaccines. Not. I was told she was used on a ranch and her owner had no problem tying a rope to the saddle horn and dragging a gate behind her. No. That could never have been done with Scout. She would have lost her mind. Or maybe it did happen and she did lose her mind.

I was told she might be a little herd bound. I wish. She's a lot herd bound.

I was also told she was an alpha mare. There was no reason to doubt it, based on what I saw. Until now. I grew so used to seeing Scout in that role, I'm still stunned at how easily she surrendered it. Dar is boss. They've been on turnout together since Sunday. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I keep expecting Scout to take over. Maybe she will, but with each day that passes, it seems less likely. No blood has been drawn, no marks left by either of them. Scout pines for Keely, but otherwise there's no drama.

But Dar is boss. And that's another thing altogether.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

School of Work, School of Life

Dar accepted my gentle French-link snaffle bit and soon forgot about it as our groundwork continued. Weather permitting, we've been teaching him to move away from pressure on his sides, laying the proper foundation for leg aids. Though he had been ridden in his former life, it was always from the face, never from the seat or leg.

As always, we work to keep Dar present and attentive. As always, we work on Whoa, since that is where his daydreaming is most apparent. I've come to think of him as a cargo barge: it takes those ships miles to come to a stop. The call to port comes from the captain's bridge, winds its way down to the engine room, and then the brakes are applied. Dar always seems a bit surprised when he arrives at halt.

All of this has gone well. I've been so captivated by seeing my young horse beginning school, so thrilled to see his learning take hold, so relieved to see it working that I've written about it from that positive place. I've completely overlooked the difficult work that it can be and how that can be intimidating to someone who has never seen it.

Dar came to me with a poor, poor attitude. Early work with him last fall saw him responding resentfully, with pinned ears and a sullen demeanor. He turned to bucking as a way to threaten and escape at the same time. Balking or rushing were his preferred methods of evasion. His attitude created a question in the back of my mind, one that I kept wrapped at all times in a soft puff of hope. An unhappy, negative-minded horse bucking under pinned ears at the end of a longe line will make an impression on someone who is not completely confident. Someone like me.

I've written about Dar's remarkable return to good health and goal weight. I've written about working to bond with him, even as Scout demanded so much of my attention while she recovered from surgery. Since early March, I've been writing about how Dar's training is going, and I think it looks like it has been easy. And it has been easy. Only, I realized yesterday that I've said very little about how Dar's attitude is changing. Training a horse means training everything. Stand in cross ties. Lower your head. Come through gates quietly. Whoa. Pick up your feet. Don't think about biting. Stay in your own space. Change your attitude.

Change your attitude. Yesterday, Dar was ready to learn about steering. It was hard work for him. He made great progress. He made more progress than I did. I need to work on being quicker on releasing when he responds to the rein aid. I had a chance to take some pictures while E was working with him. In them, Dar faces his attitude as much as he faces the new task being asked of him. He is winning that battle.

School of work, school of life. After training, we turned Dar out with Scout. His second testosterone test came back negative. Time to introduce him to Red Death.

Friday, May 14, 2010

This Boy is a Ham Boy

I have thoughts building somewhere in back of my brain, but maybe it's nothing more than the bloat that comes from horse constipation, that irritating condition that results from having the itch but no opportunity to scratch. Yes, I was at the barn Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, but the absurd weather meant we worked with Dar only on Monday. I could have joined him for a good, stretching wallow in the rich, ooogy mud last night, but, well, who has the time?

Nevertheless, something has become clear to me. Men like my doofus. They seem to be drawn to his silly, earnest need for attention, his compact, cloddy bulk, and his demanding friendliness. And I think he likes it.

K's husband took these pictures last Sunday.

Here I am.

I am Dar.

I am very cute.

Lay it on with a trowel, buddy.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Manager in the Mist

Today was filled with a most penetrating, gravity-defying sort of rain. Water hung in the air, condensing into swollen drops that seemed to resist falling to earth. Cleaning stalls late this afternoon, every time I dumped the muck buckets I returned to the barn wetter, without ever actually being rained on. I was raking new shavings into Dar's stall when I heard squealing. I pulled the muck cart up to the dumpster and then opened the passenger door of the Pathfinder. I sat sideways on the seat, my feet on the ground. Somewhat sheltered, but surrounded by an unsubtle, oozing mist, I watched the horses.

Those guys were in a bad mood today. Perhaps they were fussy in their sheets, or maybe just tired of two days of rain and wind, but high action unfolded before my eyes. Keely monster reared high, menacing girlish Molly on the other side of the fence. Sam snaked his cribby nose at Dar. Dar pinned his ears and pawed his gate, shivering it in metallic blows.

Through the murk, I made out Scout standing quiet, her head high, her face watchful. Bored of Molly, Keely backed her rump into Dar's gate. He began to nibble at her sheet. Keely bucked and squealed, then rocked her rump into the gate again. Dar paced and pawed. Sullen, Keely cranked him up more. Boom, boom. She pressed her rump into the gate. Dar pushed back. The squeals intensified. Sam and Molly had words of their own, adding drama to the scene.

All done now. I could see the decision happen in Scout. Firmly, with purpose in her stride, she crossed the paddock and sent Keely to stand in a corner. All it took was one look. Then she settled herself next to Dar's gate, standing just out of reach of him. She looked anywhere but at him, waiting. He tried pressing toward her while she stood seemingly oblivious to his efforts. Finally, he relaxed into futility, and began to turn away. Scout's a canny, calculating mare. She chose precisely that moment to stun Dar with a well-timed lunge, snapping her teeth with a ferocity that truly surprised him. Game over.

Things you see, witness, that can be described so briefly, but reveal so much. Horses.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Their Own Lives

The other day I was driving to the barn, listening to Madonna's latest concert CD. It's a country drive, the route to the barn, past farms and McMansion developments. I know all the places where I'll see horses, and I always look for them, whether I know I'm doing it or not. The way you did when you were in high school, dating a boy who drove a blue Camaro. Suddenly, it seemed those cars were everywhere.

When I happened upon these guys, my heart paused for just a second. Right?

This recently-turned-out threesome hangs out in a pasture so remote, all I can see in the distance is the lane back to whatever barn they belong to. I pulled a U-turn on the two-lane and stopped on the shoulder. Through the lens of my camera, and with a silly sense of relief, I caught the flicking ear of the chestnut in the foreground.

The complete abandonment with which they slept, the nearness they kept to one another. The simplicity of their own lives, apart from us

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sunday School

In pictures. It's hard to describe how I feel. A soft French-link snaffle and my old Wintec 2000 Pro.

Responsive and willing. This is not the horse who pinned his ears, waiting for opportunities to evade.

This is my horse. I'm part of who he is today.