Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Postscript: Caring Into The Void

I felt compelled to write an e-mail to John Burns, the author of the article in the New York Times, just after I had read it the other day.

"Thank you for your heartbreaking article about the horses  of Ireland. I can't help but wonder what moved you to write it, when there are so many other points of darkness you might have chosen to illuminate with your words."

And yes, Virginia, it seems reporters sometimes care what readers think, even when they happen to be the London Bureau Chief. He wrote back:

"I saw the horses on that hill from a distance, against that twilight sky, and thought that it was a tragic metaphor for all that has gone in Ireland, for the people AND the horses. And, like all the normal, well-adjusted people I know, I am an animal lover, and feel that we humans owe, before God or Providence, a duty to look after them. I thought writing about them was the least I could do. I shall never forget the skewbald nuzzling her nose against my side in the Arctic wind, as if looking to me as the last court of appeal."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Caring Into the Void

The world is the world. I follow as much of it as I can. Because I was born in England, the concept of journeying to foreign shores was real to me. We arrived in America for the duration, but even as a child I never stopped looking back and looking out, to countries beyond my reach. Grown now, I follow stories of other places from the smallness of my own because the world is still the whole world to me. Within it, there is the horse as touchstone, as a common symbol that helps me feel connected even when I never will be. There's more power in that small commonality than I can find in We Are The World or Imagine.

Here's a Palestinian boy riding in beautiful balance alongside Israel's West Bank barrier. Lives still have to be lived.

Here, mounted policewomen patrol Stockholm astride big, beautiful warmbloods after the recent bombing.

I see horses present and useful in places affected by the consequences of seeming irreparable human conflict.

And then they're not. The New York Times published a heartbreaking article today, Hardships of a Nation Push Horses Out to Die. The piece, written by John F. Burns, describes what is happening to horses in Ireland as the country fights to prevent total economic collapse. It may be better not to know when there's nothing I can do, but I can't help dreaming of an airlift to pick these horses off the former landfill where they now wander. This is Ireland: horses run in the blood, they run deep as history.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Backblogged, and Another First

Carharts, circa 2007

My boots, beloved to me, recently underwent professional restoration. These everyday shitkicker boots are things of perfection. I got them in the autumn of 2007, during a road trip with D. We stopped at a farm supply shop somewhere near the eastern edge of the Ozarks because I always like to see what kind of tack is sold where. There wasn't much; it was the kind of place where horses are considered livestock. But there were these Carharts, men's size nine, roomy enough for both summer swelling and double-sock winters. I hugged them close, bargaining with myself, as I wandered around the store with D. She's a chiseler from birth; her mere presence compelled me to think cheap. The Carharts were on sale, but still expensive for me. But these could be them, I thought, the footwear of a lifetime. I wore them out of the store. Since then, they've logged hundreds and hundreds of miles. When the sole on the right one began to separate a couple of months ago, I resisted the decline, hating to lose my perfect Carharts. Instead, I found an old-school cobbler. "That's a decent boot," he grizzled at me, handing me a pickup ticket. The beauty of his work proves he meant it.

Another Winter, A Better Winter

This morning brought 15 degrees and a breeze. The sun was out and the snow squeaked like styrofoam underfoot. It's the kind of weather that makes me want to kill myself, always has. Something about the brutality of the cold, coupled with the blinding sun, drives me inward, away from the assaultive insistence of nature. I take it personally.

Let's go riding, K said to me the other day. I love her. I didn't want to chicken out, but I pretty much assumed I would. Turns out I didn't. It was the first winter ride, first snow ride of my life. I loved it. K took Scout and I rode Gambler, fuzzy as a seal, white-like-snow Gambler. The trail was untouched save for deer tracks here and there. The naked trees, branches woven close, blocked the breeze and checked the sun. We rode under a canopy of quiet and stillness, the horses' hooves cutting softly through the snowcrust. I felt happiness drifting up in me, an unexpected warmth hard to put into words. When we finally turned for home, Scout started jigging, so K and I decided to work. Back and forth we serpentined along the trail, schooling like minnows one behind the other. "Leave her out of it, K," I said. "We're just working on our aids together. Remember, outside rein, inside leg, switch, outside rein, inside leg." Behind me and Gambler, I felt Scout coming back down into peace.

H.G. picked me up, and as we drove away from the barn, I pointed out for him the hoof prints we'd left in the snow. Just then, it felt like Christmas to me. Thank you, K.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Horse as Self Portrait - Saxony

Saxony, the horse I probably should be:

Here she is wearing my favorite old scarf the other day.

In her excellent post Are You Like Your Horse, Kate over at A Year With Horses used the phrase "aspirational horses" to describe horses chosen by their owners for qualities they wish they had themselves. Maybe Saxony is that for me. I think I bought her for what she could help me become. For once, I'm the project.

I've only had her for three months, so if there's a self-portrait to be found in her, it can only be revealed with time. Right now, she's like me only because I chose her, a mare of the right size, the right age, the right temperament. It was a rational choice, one made from the head rather than the heart, and I had to exert some nearly dormant muscles of self-discipline to make that choice. It would have been easier for me to get swept up in another quasi-rescue, more romantic, less immediate.

This mare is so kind. She expresses affection. She is trusting. She is willing, calm and steady-minded. She seems self-assured and doesn't generate drama. These are things worth aspiring to.

Her apparent fearlessness leaves me almost worried. Not that there's a dark secret lurking somewhere in her, but that I don't actually have a lot of experience owning a horse I can just get on and ride. Dealing with the drama of a "project" horse has become part of what I expect. I can't help but wonder whether I will miss it, as idiotic as that sounds. No, it's not idiotic, it's irrational. I know very well that what I'll miss is the "safety" I found in prep work and ground work and this thing and that thing, the many tasks I piled up that kept me from riding.

I look at Saxony and she's right there in front of me like a Nike billboard: Just do it. That strips me back to the bone, to the place where words don't matter, reminding me that I just want to ride again without fear.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Horse as Self Portrait - Dar

(Note to self: you are still prone to magical thinking about him, despite having got past the worst of having to give him back.)

Dar, the horse I probably should never be.

I was in love with Dar. Not at first. At first, I just thought he was everything that Scout wasn't. A young gelding still finding himself, not too much bad training to undo, not hot or spooky. Kind of a bonehead compared to her snap-judgment mind. A slow, heavy mover compared to her stiff, steppy speediness. In him I saw an exciting potential to begin again. If there can be such a thing as a "rebound" horse, then he was that for me, I guess. Of course, I say that now, as though it were a wise insight. It isn't. It's what I say to justify giving him back, to help my heart keep on shrugging him off.

I believe I idealize what we had in common. I think I projected more onto him than any other horse I've had in my life. It's almost funny to me now, since I was so certain I wasn't choosing him from an emotional place, not after Scout. What I actually did might have been worse. I chose him from a place of longing.

Dar had a lot of inner anger. He often expressed it through a sullen attitude. Unfortunately, the same can be true of me. Still, he was very curious about the world around him, just like me. We could both satisfy our curiosity to the point of being pushy and intrusive, barging our way into whatever we wanted to investigate. Sometimes curiosity is little more than a way to measure the lay of the land if one is fearful. That's true for me, but not him. He was not fearful.

Dar had a big physicality, lacking in grace. He was oaf-like, but could occasionally produce an energy that made him thrilling to watch. I also lack physical grace, except maybe in my hands. I can have a mind energy, though, that friends have told me can be thrilling to watch.

Soon after I got Dar, I realized that he carried a hard attitude deep within himself. He reminded me of how I was during a time in my life when I struggled to stop being bitter. It took me years to escape from that place; it was a fight I had to wage with myself. I thought I could help Dar do the same thing. It's that old thing of fixing another thing to fix yourself, dangerous, alluring, and almost always doomed to fail. I thought "fixing" Dar would finally put my strength in my own hands, bring it out of the private place where I keep it. I thought we would be strong together, that one day I'd be able to say, I won this horse away from his inner demons and now he has carried me away from mine.

Next installment: Saxony

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Horse as Self-Portrait - Scout

Every now and then a strange sort of pulse beats through Hollywood and suddenly several major studios announce they are in pre-production on the same story, like a few years ago when we saw a couple films about Truman Capote writing In Cold Blood released back to back. Sometimes it's just cynicism (we've got to get a piece of that), sometimes it's just the Zeitgeist, and occasionally it might even be just coincidence.

I think it's all about the Zeitgeist in the horse world right now, however. Whether as a consequence of traumatic horse health issues, Denali, or getting a new horse after a painstaking search, Pie, or even just the coming winter keeping us on the ground with our horses, face to face, more than up on their backs, a good question has surfaced in some of my favorite blogs in the last day or two. It's a question about how like your horse you are, with a few variations.

I wish. I wish I was like any of the three horses that have been in my life since I came back to riding in 2004. Never mind. In fact, I am like them, just in not very practical or positive ways.

Scout, the horse I probably would be:

I'm way too much like Scout, who's the reason I started this journal in the first place. Back then, I'd just finished a year and half of agonizing over her before finally deciding to let her go. Putting her up for sale seemed somehow equivalent to giving up on myself too, though. It meant I might never face my fears about riding. But Scout and I were like two peas in a pod, and what kind of relationship can ever exist in one of those? We both carried too much tension, too much hyper-vigilance, and we fed off each other terribly. I could never fake it and she could never believe. She was an island unto herself when I got her, and while she let me in, it was her island, not mine. None of that matters now, because Scout came off the market as soon as she was injured and she'll be with me until I don't know when. I love her as a person more than as a horse, as odd as that may be. She's still too smart for her own good, and that's true of me sometimes, too. She doesn't take the time to savor every bite, and I also eat mindlessly. We're both a 7 on the fat-horse index. She knows me, and she knows I know her. We're best face to face with each other, and sometimes we're even great there.

Next installment: Dar.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Books I Love - No. 1, The Camerons

On my way to work the other day, I stole a few minutes and detoured to Saxony's barn to be introduced to a new farrier. The cold was raw, sweeping in on an assaulting wind. After talking to the farrier, I went looking for Saxony. She was standing in the turnout shed, shifting her weight on the semi-frozen ground. From behind her I heard the sounds of another horse moving nearby. It reminded me of something:

Then she heard the tump, tump of pit ponies nudging about in the garden to get out of the wind. The hollow sounds of the hoofs meant the ground was frozen.

Those sentences are from The Camerons, by Robert Crichton (cousin of the more famous Michael.) I've read the book dozens of times, pretty much every year since it was published. This is one of two books I would cut off my arm or leg to have written.

Books are so important to me. During my childhood, they offered escape, adventure and hope. Later, as I grew into life, certain books resonated profoundly in me. They were the ones which made me learn something about myself or compelled me to ask a question about life I'd never thought of. Eventually, I assembled what I came to call my "Death Row" library, the few books I would keep with me if I ever ended up -- well, you never know.

It turns out that horses appear in each of these books. None of them are about horses, but they all feature horses at pivotal moments in the story. In every instance, the authors had to have known horses; there isn't a false note in any of their stories.

The Camerons is just a story about a Scottish mining family struggling for a better life a century and a half ago. It contains all the ingredients of a great mini-series: love and hate, tribulation and triumph, sorrow and joy. The writing is straightforward, the characters drawn so clearly I'd know them all if I passed them on the street. I was 14 when I first read The Camerons, and then I read it over and over again because theirs was the family I wanted to belong to.

"Someone left the horse out after the long walk."
"I didn't know."
"No, of course not. It was exhausted, you know. You broke it with your barrels of snails."
He felt a surge of sorrow for the pony.
"Standing all night in the rain."
"Och, I'm sorry. That was bad."
"Very bad," she said. "He died."

That blunt exchange occurs at a moment of crisis in the book. The first time I read it, I was shocked into tears. All these years later, I still read toward this moment with dread, because the death of this horse, a "garron," they called it, also represented the death of another thing. Both were heartbreaking and both were things I could understand, even at 14.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What a Difference a Year Makes

A year ago tonight I sat awake late worrying about my little Red Death. Scout had undergone surgery that morning to remove a fractured splint bone in her left hind leg. I could only see to the next day, never mind the next week or month, let alone a year. I remember it was hard to leave the clinic that night. I'd been there all day. I remember walking away from her stall thinking You were for sale. After a year and half of agonizing, I put you up for sale. Now you're not. Because I love you.

It was that simple. I took a different kind of ownership of her that night; I became duty bound. I had to take responsibility for my love for her, and I did. She badgered me tonight like she does, whickering impatiently as I mixed feed. I doubt she remembers any of that day one long (yet fleeting) year ago, but I won't ever forget it. My Scout.