Friday, June 25, 2010

One for the Road

Barn chores have been hard this week, but they have also saved me. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, outrageous heat and humidity, storms rolling in, the ripeness of the barn, all of it. That moment when you realize you just have to yield to the sweat and let it flow through your eyes and into every part of your body. Then you keep working while the crazy, happy barn swallows swoop, duck and chatter.

I was more than grateful for it. Unbelievable crap has been happening where I work, some of which has a direct impact on my life. So the motion of our small existence -- me, H.G., the cats and horses -- all seemed to stop, to just pend. Even as you sleep, wake, step out the door, move through the day, then return to sleep. The stress of waiting chews at and exhausts the mind.

I arrived at the barn each evening mentally done. Being mentally exhausted has a way of stripping me back to my foundation, and that's a good place for me to be. I can't really lie to myself when I'm there; I don't have the energy. Raw and tired, what's left? Just me, in my body. And that's all that's required for barn chores. I did them, and they were simple and corrective for me.

Two of the rails came down in the fence around the grass arena, finally separating from a rotten post, so Dar's been in a dry lot 1 all week, next to the barn. It's been hard for him. He's aware of the herd way out in the pasture, but can't get near them. He's bored and unhappy.

I went into the dry lot to spend time with him all three evenings. He nickered as soon as he saw me drive in, then watched, his head held high over the fence, until I vanished around the corner to walk into the barn. Then he pressed himself against the sliding door, waiting, listening for me. I slid back the door and asked him to back up, which he did easily, despite his excitement and relief to have a diversion from his boredom. These encounters were each interesting and moving to me. We're both unhappy right now, Dar and I, and neither of us have the energy to hide it. Me being set back and reduced to just me includes only being to interact with Dar at a basic, creature-to-creature level. And while I happen to be reduced, I feel that Dar has finally fully revealed himself. And I see it. I saw it most clearly, and cleanly, I think, on Tuesday night.

I have to write about it when the time is right.

Last night, Dar and I shared a bottle of SoBe Lifewater, Agave Lemonade. "Grey water," I call it. He drank most of it, having, proportionately, a much larger mouth. I let him carry the drained plastic bottle around for a while and took a picture with only the camera of my memory.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sunday School In Spite of Everything Else

Dar bucked E off today during his session. It came out of nowhere, not buried in a spook, not part of a leap into flight, not telegraphed with a pinched, swishing tail. He just bucked her off, from what looked like a place of total disrespect. "Get off me! I don't want you on me. Get off!"

She wasn't hurt in the fall, though her helmet is done.

This was her fifth or sixth ride on him. The only new thing was the dressage whip she carried, and I saw no sign at all that he cared about it. He's at that point in his training where he needs to learn to be more immediately responsive to her cues, not continue to be the sluggish turkey who arrives at the trot well after she's asked for it.

She didn't let go of Dar through the fall. She collected herself, led him out of the grass arena and back to the mounting block. In a few seconds she was back on him. A 15-minute ride proceeded with little incident, but he was irritated and she had to keep the reins high to keep him from ducking his head. Lots of bends and turns wore him out and stopped him from humping his back, and she dismounted only when she felt he was completely responsive.

I write this journal to capture and hold things that are important to me; in this instance, the horses. It's not a journal about my life except when I filter how I see myself through my involvement with them. In the scheme of things, though, Dar could not have picked a better moment to pull this move. My heart closed on him instantly, and hard, because I was already shocky in the wake of too many absurd, hurtful and frustrating events that have occurred during the previous week. I might never write about them, but they set me back to such a raw, fearful place that Dar's stunt today seemed the least of it. In an act of self-preservation, I dismissed him from my future.

"This is Dar," E said. "He's an asshole."

It wasn't until now, hours later, that I asked H.G., "What happens to a horse like Dar without a person like me?" I was thinking then of Dar afterward, as he stood silent and still in the cross ties while I untacked him. I have too many years of involvement with animals to not recognize anthropomorphising in myself and others; I know how easy it is to project my own hopes and fears onto the seemingly expressive face of an animal. Nevertheless, I could see that Dar was sober, mopey and down. He was tired, and the look on his face seemed to ask "Why is everybody mad at me?"

If Dar is all the difficult things he appears to be -- studdy, dominant, a bucker -- then what is the right future for him? If he is all the wonderful things he appears to be -- a lover of people, curious, unflappable -- does it matter? Where does a horse like Dar end up if someone like me gives him up? Where is such a horse meant to end up? I love him, from my gut. It's a solid, strong, simple love I feel for him, sprung from a strange understanding of what it must be like to be him. I can't possibly know that, I know, but something in me gets him.

I wrote this quickly to keep myself from shaping it into anything more or less than what it was. It's all I can do right now.

Monday, June 14, 2010


I took this picture in Seoul, South Korea a few years ago. It's a roof hanging over the courtyard of a shopping mall. Tonight, it captures the pervasive, seemingly inescapable presence of rain that is wearying me. Moisture hangs in the air, thick like a veil I can't ever completely brush aside.

Entropy came to visit us this weekend, moving toward us through the rain. I didn't see the horses for managing wreckage.

One of our cars died. The '91 Pathfinder so beloved to H.G. died on the eve of his 60th birthday. He's 60. How? We've been together 20 years, but I never dreamed one day he'd be 60. "Gold bullet, silver bullet," our mechanic said. "Which do you want?" I thought of a car I'd seen in London long years ago, way before it showed up in the States. Ah, well... After taking a few hours for the shock to settle, I found something to borrow so H.G. could use my decaying Pathfinder.

In other words.

A trend soon emerged. Our newish coffee maker went, followed moments later by my hated (despised, really) cell phone. We can always live without the cell phone -- oh, I prefer to, but coffee supplies core nutrients to our armature. Like junkies, we drove in a jittery panic to replace the coffee maker. Resentfully, I bought the cheapest cell phone I could find, reminding myself that really, the only reason I have it is so H.G. and I can talk to each other when he steps out of his office to take the requisite lunch break. Or when I call him to tell him I'll be home from the barn by, oh, 7:30. I'm always wrong. I always take longer with the horses than I mean to. I guess I take as long with them as I need to. They supply core nutrients to me.

I saw this picture in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, maybe in an archived review of Warhorse, a play that premiered in London a while ago to great critical acclaim. I think I see it inside out. It reminds me of how I puzzle over horses, try to figure them out, try to imagine what it must be to be one of them. But in the end, they are a thing that drives me, claims me. Their engineering keeps me going when things are breaking.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

And Also Moments of Bliss

File under introducing the wonder that is the horse to those who have never known them, never even touched them. One of my favorite parts of owning a horse, to have something so marvelous to share.

My Scout is a hussy. She has a thing for tall, dark men. It began with H.G., and she thought this friend was tasty, too.

Monday, June 7, 2010


I drove to the barn tonight having no idea what I would do. I felt nothing about having a training session with Dar; I was stopped about him. I thought about not even going, but wanting to check Scout's wounds pulled me there. She's healing quickly.

I left the pasture and walked toward the grass arena. There Dar stood.

We stared at each other. "Do you even like me?" I said. "Because I don't know if I like you right now." He stared at me. Something moved me forward. If I'm going to give him back to the jousters, then I mean to give them a horse much better than the one they gave me. I felt a distant objectivity as I led him down to the barn.

I still feel that distance now, but look at him carrying a rider. Willing, trying to understand. Which is just like me.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Far, and Few Beyond

That's how my brother long ago mangled the familiar phrase "Few and far between." I laughed about it then, but today, I feel he may have had it right all along.

The last thing I wrote in this journal described simple things: how my horses were doing together, my grooming Scout and feeling close to her, and the sound of the summer train passing in the distance. It was easy to write because things felt all right. I knew I was readying myself to ride Scout, and Dar's progress in school was good. Underlying it was the quiet certainty of how important the horses are to me, so important that I won't let life turn it upside down. I've been living the priority, even as my busy season looms.

So. I went to the barn on Saturday morning prepared to noodle around with Scout before having a training session with Dar. I had a friend with me, and I love to introduce people to horses. K was coming out to meet me, too. She hoped to ride Scout herself. This is something we have talked about for weeks. K has her fears; I have mine. I happen to think her fears don't apply to a horse like Scout, so I was really looking forward to us working with Scout together.

I walked up to the grass arena. Dar lifted his head at the sound of my voice. I instantly realized that Scout was not with him. Seconds later, I saw that she was out in the big pasture with all the other horses. My mind formulated the concept that E had put Scout out because she knew we would be working with Dar. I was wrong. My cell phone rang. It was E, on her way back to the barn after errands. She told me that Dar and Scout had fought in the dry lot they share for morning feeding and she had separated them. She told me they were out to kill each other. She told me breaking them apart was hard and they were lucky not to have sustained serious injuries.

I sat there stunned for a couple of minutes, my friend sitting beside me. K arrived, and I told her the news. E was there a minute later. We all listened as she described what had happened and how hard she had worked to separate them. We all went together to examine both horses. Scout had swelling above her left knee, a scrape on the inside of her left hock, and a shallow, jagged cut across her vulva. Carefree, she stood calmly as I ran my hands over her, gazing at me. Dar had a clear hoof print embossed on the right side of his rump, a healthy patch of hair missing from the right side of his chest, and several scrapes caused by teeth raking down the right side of his neck. He showed less of the eagerness and curiosity he displays when people are with him. He didn't seem agitated to be alone in the grass arena.

I don't really remember the words, I just remember the sitting there, talking about the bad thing that had happened, the sober feeling of it, the heavy disappointment of it. The peculiar instant when I thought, I am so sick of bad things happening with my horses when I am not there to witness them. I never get to see it with my own eyes.

I really needed to see this thing happen. Because I didn't, I will never know what caused it. I will never know whether Scout was on the offensive or the defensive. The assumption defaults to Dar being the bad actor. He's the studdy, mouthy, pushy one. But what if Scout saw her chance to take him down a notch and went for it?

You think the worst. You do. I have no luck with horses. I'm not going to get there. I can't believe I have another horse that's not_____(fill in the blank.)

After that conversation ended, we decided to do the training session with Dar. As I led him out of the arena and down to the barn, Scout called after him. He answered back, but soon settled down in the cross ties. I tacked him up and returned to the arena. E began with a few minutes of in-hand work, then moved on to ground driving. I watched for signs of hostility, refusal, unwillingness or defiance in Dar. There were none. It would be easier for me if there had been. E removed the driving reins and led Dar to the mounting block. She got on him, and I led them back into the arena. I walked beside Dar, holding the lead rope loosely as E rode him in simple straight lines and wide circles. We'd done this on Thursday, her astride, me leading from the ground.

I walked with them until E told me to hand her the lead rope. She looped it over Dar's and moved him off at a walk. I followed about 15 feet to the side of them. There was my trainer riding my horse. She turned him, halted him, trotted him. He did just great.

So there was a huge fight and there was a great training session. Put them on the scales and they balance each other. They balance to zero. In two weeks, the jousters come back. I can hand him right back to them and say thanks for the tryout. I think I'm supposed to be smart enough to decide to do exactly that, but I don't know how to face it. I don't want to give him up, but I lack the knowledge to justify why I wouldn't.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Summer Train

Tonight, I paced myself through a full set of chores. After scrubbing several feed buckets, I carried water up to Dar and Scout in their grass paddock. I don't think I expected (or even thought about, for that matter) that my two horses would like each other, but they do. They have their own agendas, I think, Dar to be boss, Scout to glom on to someone, but they've arrived at a contentment with each other. Together, they trotted up from the far corner to watch me pour the water into their trough, then crowded up to the fence for scratches.

I'm happy to see them side by side, not one here and the other there. Because he's in training, Dar has been uppermost in my mind, while Scout settled into the background.

I picked out the paddocks, dropped flakes of hay in the stalls, and brought the horses in for what is predicted to be a stormy night. Everybody was quiet after food time, ready to doze. Scout whickered at me as I swept the aisle. It was a summons that I recognized. I carried my grooming supplies into her stall. Forty-five minutes passed while I skidded the shedding block over her, sweeping after with a soft body brush. She rested her head heavily on my shoulder when I curried the spot where her neck meets her chest, scabbed over now from the brief storm of black gnats that visited the farm last week. I picked her feet and trimmed her bridle path before smoothing her all over with a bar towel. It was a deep, thorough grooming, the kind that long ago became a language for me and Scout. She was soft eyed and still. I stood with my arms around her neck and inhaled the smell of her. In the distance, I heard the long whistle of a freight train, a summer sound I love like the ocean, so deeply does it resonate with me.

All this reminded me of how it was with me and Scout. I could feel her knowing me, sense her sleepy devotion. I think I saw, in recognizing that, that I have changed, gone on from who I was when I perceived Scout almost always through a scrim of fear. I'd like to believe I've grown. If I have, then getting back on Scout could be different. That's the next step for us. I just have to know if I can ride her.