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.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


The event I work for is readying itself for winter's sleep. Autumn overtakes the park. Amid the shortening days, our tall trees shed their leaves in drifts across the grounds. This is a moment I come to every October as one of the last people still living here. For me, it always feels like the end of the year, and that's how it's been since I began working for the company. My sense of time has been trained season to season, not those of nature, but of the show. So I walked the park tonight to see this past one go.

Across the glass-like south pond, the ship already wears its winter lashing, held fast and anchored to survive the storms of another blizzard season. The light falls quicker than I can walk. Every trace of the 175,000 people who came to visit has been erased; it's as if they never were.

Except for the impossible golden light glowing through my apartment windows. Up there, all 11 cats are snoozing in the space-heater warmth, some curled inside-out, others fat in piles on the bed.

Over it all hangs the harvest moon. This is how each year ends for me. This, and with horses. The horses I've had in the past six years have come to me at the end of a season. I bought Scout from the jousters at the end of the 2004 season. Dar, another reject jouster, came home with me at the end of the 2009 season. I bought Saxony in September. She had nothing to do with the festival, but that doesn't matter. It's something about coming to the end of the season, the year as I know it, that finds me reaching for horses. I took Scout and Dar, both project horses, through fleeting autumns and straight into winter. Winter is the time I find most natural for bonding with horses, and it seems I set it up that way.

It will be no different with Saxony. I haven't said much about her, and that's because being sick has kept me holding back, trying to rest, even as I champ at the bit. She is a whole new story, one to begin at the beginning, and though she's mine, I don't feel I've begun with her yet, not at all. My tack is there, it fits, and I've been on her a couple of times, but it's not quite real. She waits.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

White Horse on the Hill

Watching the UK Telegraph's live video of the preparations to rescue the 33 Chilean miners trapped deep in the earth for 69 days , I saw the camera pan across the scene, over the family camp, past heavy cranes and sea containers, slowly pulling focus to the immense structure erected over the half-mile-deep rescue shaft.

Families and press alike watch the TV monitors. Helicopters circle low in the approaching dusk; dignitaries disembark. In that arid, desert mountain place, the soil looks dull brown, relieved only by rough bits of scrub.

But there, high on a slope, beneath a Chilean flag, sat an officer astride a white horse. The Telegraph's camera rested on that image for a long moment. I'm glad it did.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Why Do I Ride?

That question, in general, was raised in an excellent piece, found here, Grey Horse Matters: The Horse Gene, the other day. It's a good question, but for me it follows secondary to what I see as the first question: Why Do I Horse?

Because the simple, tangible reality of time spent with horses feels like precisely that to me: Real. Depending on your circumstances, perceptions of the actual, the present, the "real" can be elusive. "It's relative," people used to say, where today they might say, "Whatever."

But that reality is hard won; it was for me. I was born overseas to parents lashed tight together with cords spun from bitterness, deception and fear. It was a strangling life for them, let alone their accidental children. Trapped in just what "is" as a child, reality isn't even a concept until the first major thing happens, good or bad, that throws you out of yourself and then back in in a single involuntary instant. In my case, I would have been better off staying in "is." Reality, when I recognized it, trapped me between myself and my parents in the inexhaustible chokehold that exists between predator and prey. I became responsible for managing my own safety, or knowing that, anyway, but never understanding it. It was an oppressive climate of uncertainty and vigilant self-consciousness, one in which I was always struggling to stay invisible, desperate not be caught out by the din of terror clamoring in my head. There, I learned myself as a reactive creature, not a person, not an identity, not a being separate and apart from the forces threatening it. Trapped between the assaults wrought by one parent and the cool, unseeing facade erected by the other, I was never free.

Until the first time I stood near a horse. I don't even remember her name. She was a crazy pinto mare, a filly, really, who'd been ridden too young by the six-foot-tall farm boy who owned her. His farm was one of three on the long blacktop road where our little bi-level ranch house had been built, oddly out of place, and quickly sold to my parents. I don't know why my parents moved to the country. For me, it just meant there would be no place to run, no one to turn to. But I could get away with walks in "nature." My father approved of what he called the "American pastoral setting," so unlike what he had experienced in wartime Poland, while my mother preferred her dogs above all else and gave little care to absent children.

My walks took me again and again to that pinto filly. I would stretch my hands through the paddock fence, feeding her long grass from the roadside. There never seemed to be any people around, and she was alone. One day I climbed the fence and slipped onto her back. I can still remember the warmth of the sun on her sides. She trotted easily under a low-hanging branch and scraped me off, then went back to snuffling among the weeds.

There had been animals before, for me. My mother was a dog breeder, and we'd once had a cat. When whelping boxes had to be cleaned, the litters of puppies were brought to me for safekeeping. I loved those times, loved how it was to be with creatures just as vulnerable as me, but it was different with the filly. She was bigger than me, stronger than me, taller than me. She was a whole separate being who could react to me as she pleased. For the first time in my life, I wanted someone to like me. That someone just happened to be a horse. I wanted her approval, and I worked really hard to get it.

I think that is it with me and horses. Somehow, their self-awareness drew me in when I was a child, and it keeps me with them today. It's not a consciousness that we can know, I don't think, but we can sense it, just as they can sense ours. A dog will see you, a cat will regard you, but a horse will look at you. That pinto filly looked at me when I couldn't even see myself, and then I did.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Those Zany Horses

You just never know with those guys. Last week I did a lot of picking in the lots. It's work I never mind doing. I liken it to cleaning cat boxes, only easier. For one thing, I don't have to bend over my fat pud to sift up the poop. For another, I don't have to chisel hardened clumps of pee free from poorly designed corners.

Still, it is work, so I can't avoid indulging in a small sense of satisfaction when I tip the last muck bucket into the dumpster. Yes, the paddocks look pristine, don't they, I say, praising myself smugly.

I suspect the horses agreed. Look at the formation poopwork they left for me to admire the next day; behold its fearful symmetry. I don't have to believe that they colluded, dupah to dupah, but I want to.

Monday, October 4, 2010


This is my favorite picture of Mr. Tabby Man. Tab-Tab, a sweet, shlubby guy, died a few years ago. He was kneading me when I took this photo, which explains his stoned expression, but I also look this way tonight because somehow I came down with bronchial pneumonia during the summer and just got it diagnosed today. I only knew energy was draining out of me faster than I could store it and I was getting too good at hacking up chunks of blondish spackle. Ah, well.

None of that was enough to prevent me from going on a two-and-a-half-hour trail ride with K on Sunday morning. It was chilly, and rain spat through the wind from time to time, but it was so good to ride. I left Saxony alone over the weekend, not wanting to involve her with a less-than-present me, and rode Gambler while K rode Red Death. The ride didn't do my chest any good, but it did wonders for my head, so I broke even.

There I was practicing my sitting trot on little Gambler, whose peg-legged, steppy Arab trot demands a deep, relaxed seat and flexing, opening hips. I found my way to the elusive moment when those abstract concepts converged into a simple physical harmonic and I stayed there, again and again. You have that moment where you say I actually get it, I really actually understand it because you feel it.

It's a lifelong, ever-sustaining pursuit, riding, and rare for being one that's more fun along the way than not. That's how I feel about it, and that's what I talk about with friends who've never had horses in their lives. Then I gloat when I become an enabler.

Which is exactly what is happening here. A dear friend relaxes on Gambler, riding on the buckle, both of them enjoying a lovely stretch after a session on the lunge line. This was only the third time she'd ridden Gambler, but what seemed to have begun as a minor case of the 24-hour horse bug may have flared into ... full-blown horse pneumonia. Presenting symptoms include, but are not limited to, unrepentant grin, reluctance to dismount, and sudden use of the word "lease." I recognize the moment when someone discovers their love of riding, their love of horses, and I never tire of sharing it. I know what beginners don't yet realize, how that sense of discovery never leaves us when horses are in our lives, and how it can help us even in those parts of our lives that have nothing to do with horses.

Which makes me think of K and what's going on between her and Scout. I still had Dar when Scout passed her post-surgery-and-recovery soundness exam. With Dar in training then, and Scout long ago cast in the role of beloved nemesis, I could only nod silently when Dr. B said, smiling, "Put her back into regular work."

Dar played out as he did and then the high season of my job drew me into its four-month maw. Scout idled happily in the pasture and uneasily in the back of my mind. Until the day K asked to ride her. That was some 15 rides ago, and now I know "K" stands for Kismet.

Riding with them on Sunday, watching their growing connection, I continued to think about how they are matched, about how the right fears can sometimes dovetail with precisely the right horse in the best way imaginable for the horse and the rider. That's happening here, and I'll write about it when I've understood it well enough to explain what I mean. For now, it'll stay in my backblog, along with Saxony, thoughts about dressage, questions about endurance, and new steps to regaining confidence.