Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Knot of the Year

I didn't say much in my journal about the difficulties of this year with the horses; not in particular details, at any rate. When I did mention barn moves and poor standards of care, I always added that the horses got through it, I got through it, my friends got through it, etc. People told me we'd get through it, and they were right. It's true: everybody got through it.

There are hidden side effects of squeezing through a bad pass, though, and I think I'm being impacted by one of them now. The difference between rushing to my horse because she's my refuge and rushing to my horse because I am worried about her is vast. That change of focus can be subtle, but it ends up being very consequential. I lost track of its silent encroachment into my consciousness somewhere near the end of the events, as we worked our way home to a good, steady, reliable barn. It wasn't until after we had settled and some other chapters were concluded that it all came to bear and I realized how disconnected I feel from my mare right now.

Such good things happened, too, this year, but there's that raw-deal thing about how fleeting is their power. Somehow it's not easy to hang onto the lift of them and let oneself be carried for a while. Instead, I have to list them from memory. Scout and Special K came together. I released Scout to K with full openness, acceptance and peace. Dar's been gone for over a year and I have no way of tracking him, so he's subsided to just an occasional daydream. Late in the summer I found an instructor I understand and respond to with sublime, practical ease. All these things help resolve and reshape my horse life for the better, I know they do.

...and I realized how disconnected I feel from my mare right now. But I don't know that it's her. I think it could be horses in general. And I'm struggling with it, very much so.

Here's how it went. Everything with the horses settled and then I moved home, but my job asked much more of me much later into the post-season than it ever had. I could not wait until the holiday break; I felt myself leaning hard against the gate, wanting so badly to burst into my own free space. An immense sense of pressure was building that left me on edge and preoccupied.

Now I am in that time I was awaiting with such need. Alone at home, holidays done, typing on a grey afternoon, cats asleep, the phone silent, I expected finally to exhale into calm, but that's not what's happened. Instead, I realize that I'm filled with aftereffects of the year and they are spilling out with a vengeance. I feel distant from my horse, as though something has changed. It's like a taint, a lingering pall cast over us by trouble, even though it's past. She's got nothing to do with it, and I know that, but I'm stuck here in this thing, stuck in a knot I don't think I tied. Or, I feel like I'm looking down at a bruise that just won't fade when I should be looking up at my horse. Why?

I don't know what else to say about it right now.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Finding Home, Concluded

I could have hope for Scout's future, perhaps, but not expectation. You can't have expectation when it comes to horses themselves. They are separate beings, living their own lives. As much as they must adapt to us, who possess them, so must we adapt to them. I'd adapted to not riding Scout and she'd adapted to not being ridden. There was a balance, but not a very useful one, with waste on both sides.

I get so busy in the summers, five months are wiped right out of my year. I told Special K she could ride Scout anytime she wanted and left it at that. It's not that I was indifferent, it's that my future with Scout only meant keeping her with me so she'd have the good, safe life she deserved. I remember how I'd get an email here and there from Special K in which she detailed some ride she'd had with Scout. She rode her out alone, in groups, for hours on trails. One day she told me she'd been putting all those miles on Scout just for me, so I'd feel less intimidated about riding her. Such a good, good friend. I shook my head no. Scout wasn't that for me, was never going to be that. There was a diamond in the rough in her, but I wasn't going to be the one to find it.

In July of 2010, I returned Dar to the jousters, and in September Saxony fell out of the sky and I bought her. I remember having a window of time there where I had just one horse. I thought hard about keeping it that way. But... I had Scout, yet I didn't have her. I needed a horse I could have in all three dimensions, one I could manage and grow with. That fall, our vet let Special K knew that her aging Arab needed to move to semi-retirement. No more four-hour rides for little Gambler. After her shock wore off, Special K proposed taking a half-lease on Scout. Of course I said yes, and together they rode out into the coming winter.

Then we went through a horrible year. The climate at our little-bit-of-paradise barn changed and the standard of care dropped rapidly. In May we moved our horses to another place, just before I was grabbed away by the festival. I  brought Saxony over from her barn to make us complete. The way I saw it, even if the summer claimed all my time, our horses would finally be together in one place, we'd have left barn drama behind, and we could start clean in the fall. It was not to be. The new place was a joke. Special K had to go there every day to care for our horses.

I worked and worried, but for Special K it was different. Her Arab had reached retirement; he was fit for light riding only. She was at the barn every day and I was gone, so she turned herself loose on Scout as though she were her own. I'd get these dispatches about where they'd trailered, which shooting range they'd ridden by, what group ride Scout had aced. Sometimes I'd get a quick call right in the middle of a show day at the festival. Amidst the churning crowds, I'd press the phone tight to my ear to Special K. Breathless, she'd squeal, "Scout is the bomb! She was perfect." Then, in a hushed tone, she'd say,"She's a trail goddess." The joy in her voice made my heart lift, just had to. It was like the C.W. Anderson novels I read as a kid, that simple, that magical.

We left the second place in August and moved everybody to the steady, reliable barn where I'd bought Saxony. What a hard, stressful summer it had been. But I remember following behind on Saxony, watching Special K handling Scout on a loose rein during our ride to the new barn, and feeling the first sense of calm I'd experienced in months. The ease, the rapport, the familiarity of each with the other, their confident sense of purpose. They were lovely together.

I don't know the precise moment when it happened. It might have been the moment when Scout bucked her off and made her so mad, or it might have been the moment when Special K realized she had the one horse on a long group ride who wasn't going to wig out. It doesn't matter for me to know; it really is between them. What matters is that at some point, Special K fell in love with Scout. And then she fought it, thinking there might be one last chance left in me for Scout. And then she quit fighting it. When she called me, asking could she buy her, I said yes, yes of course, because all I'd wanted was for Scout to find her true home. Now she has. They both have. How lucky am I?

Merry Christmas, with all my heart, to my two favorite redheads.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Finding Home, Continued

The thing is, when I put Scout up for sale, I was already drunk on another horse, a cranky youngster who the jousters couldn't bring around, wouldn't bring around. It was Dar, a six-year-old Percheron Morab cross, of all things. He was slow, lumpen; he seemed so much less complicated than Scout, though just as remote as she had been in the joust herd. I took him with me on trial, confident that I'd re-home Scout and have a horse more suited to my own re-education.

Circumstances derailed that, and, while Scout tolled her days of stall confinement, it really began to weigh on me that I now owned two horses, one I'd sort of already given up and the other one I'd yet to fully embrace. I wrote about it in a heart-heavy funk that winter of 2009/2010 and spent countless moments feeling pretty sure I'd been a fool through most of my return to the world of horses. It was a dilemma I spoke often of with friends, including Special K.

That mysterious thing of having a great friend who's right there, nearby, but never quite in the spotlight. That's what we were to each other before we ever knew it. Unlike me, she never really left horses, but like me, she had fears. Where I loved riding in an indoor arena, she was phobic about it. Instead, she was in full, thrilling bloom out on the trails, where I was anxious and clamped down. I remember one day, when Scout was throwing a screamy alpha tantrum about being separated from her herd, Special K exclaiming to me, "You ride her?"

Sometimes, and Kind of, is what I said to her. By the time we began to grow close as friends, I was already in my own conversation about letting Scout go. I was embarrassed about it, too, because I saw Special K as fearless when I rode out with her. Her way of laughing off her little Arab's rare spooks and startles left me awestruck. She would never part with a horse because of something like nerves, is how I imagined it. No need for embarrassment, though. Special K never minded dealing with me announcing my fears whenever they erupted in me. She'd just calmly lead us onward or homeward.

Of course, she's the kind of person who will ride any horse. Any horse. She's just that curious about them, that passionate about riding. It had to be inevitable that eventually she'd want to try Scout, have to try her, just to see what she was like. One warm, springtime day in 2010, we brought up the subject with each other in a spontaneous burble of coincidental thought. Dar was in training while Scout lay fallow, recovered and happy to be left grazing the days away. A voice somewhere deep in me whispered hope.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Finding Home

Having left my summer home, I haven't yet found my way into my winter home. I've moved back, yes, and everyone else has settled, but it's as if I'm on the outside looking in. I don't know where my head is, but it's neither here nor there. I have nothing sensible to say about me or my life right now, but I do have a story it's time to tell. 

This story is about Scout, the little red mare who gave rise to my journal. It's called Finding Home.

Part I

This is what she was the day I got her, a seven-year-old scrub mare with a name so unlike her, I won't even say it. Sound, strong, unattended, she was an island unto herself. Pretty, curious and unkempt. A jouster who'd quit her job. She drew me in, brought me back to horses after 25 years away. I had all of her to love.

I cleaned her up and built her up. Lots of hands on, hours and hours. It was easy for me, not so easy for her. She was used to indifference. It took her a while to develop a taste for attention, but she did, she did. Along the way, she re-learned ground manners and played at trusting me. I was deeply invested in winning her affection. I didn't ride her very much, just dawdles here and there around the indoor.

A couple of years in, I began to see she was too much for me. A little too hot, a little too fast, with real rawness around the edges from erratic training and a rough-road career that I didn't have the experience or skill to handle. I could do some reshaping, and I did, but not where it was really important. She challenged my confidence and fired up my doubt and soon those things ran away with me. We needed help.

I went through one trainer before finding another who worked with us for a while. The trainer rode, then I rode, but I couldn't ever convince myself that Scout and I were the right team. My anxiety ramped her up, and we quickly found our way into a dance of mutual tension-building during most rides. I loved her more on the ground than I did on her back, felt more able there, more present and equal. Five years after I got her, I put her up for sale, doubtful but resigned.

I abruptly pulled my ads less than month later, when she was kicked at a barn I'd moved her to where she might be seen by prospective buyers. She underwent surgery to remove a shattered splint bone. Her fierce strength through the operation and subsequent nine weeks of stall confinement made me know I could never leave her in the hands of someone else. I was lovestuck.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Liner Notes Inside (Me)

I have been away from lessons for two weeks for moving back to the city and it will be a few more weeks before I resume them, but they have left an expected echo that could sustain me until I can get back.

Lesson Notes
After my sixth lesson, I realized I hadn't ridden Saxony since beginning the lessons. To be fair, she'd been recovering from an ulcer in her left eye, but that had healed by mid-October. It occurred to me that I was putting off taking her out because I felt so changed as a rider. What an odd thought, coming unbidden into my mind just when I felt exhilarated to be standing at a new verge as a rider.

Typical disarmament, I thought to myself. The old check-rein of nerves insinuating its way into a galvanized me. I thought, You can't ride her like you ride that schoolmaster. There, the conditions are artificial and rigged for success, aren't they? Don't test it by riding in the real world.

But the Saturday after Lesson 6 was beautiful and I just had to know, so I went to the barn. The first thing I did when I tacked Saxony was remove the knee blocks from my dressage saddle. The saddle I've been using during the lessons rides like a close-contact saddle and I love how my leg and seat respond to it. Liner note: Where practical, minimize the middleman between horse and rider as much as possible.

At the mounting block, she stood motionless. I've worked on training her not to walk off, but it hasn't quite reached Golden Rule status in her mind. But she stood like a statue there because that's what the schoolmaster does, so I wasn't expecting anything else. Liner note: Where possible, believe in and expect the desired outcome.

After walking a few strides, I dismounted and lowered my stirrups two holes. Oh, they'd felt awkwardly short to my newly-lengthened leg. Statue-like again, Saxony waited for me to remount. We walked the fence line of the ring. The stirrups were still too short. I had to question whether it mattered that much, but I dismounted and lowered them another hole. That's when I knew my laziness wouldn't trump my desire to learn, to better myself in my relationship with my mare. Liner note: Best to go to school when you're ready and willing to let yourself learn.

Riding her offered a kind of multi-tiered revelation. My long leg let me feel her in ways I hadn't so far - hadn't felt her or any other horse, for that matter. I felt how unbalanced she is, how right-handed she goes, her bracing when moving to the left. I put her on a straight line right through the middle of the ring and she rippled her way across, warping each stride just a hair under me. I was aware of that happening. I felt my mare and she felt me. This is what my lessons have given me.  Liner note: Lots of good forward walking will do wonders for both of us.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Archaeologist in the Interval

I'm one of the people who returned to horses after a long time away. It wasn't even a One day I'll have my life in hand, be steady and settled, and then I'll get another horse kind of thing. Life just carried me off and, one by one, the four horses I owned in my twenties fell away. Then, I always missed them. I missed it, that indescribable thing of having a horse in my life, right there in my life. It was an absence I experienced as an ache, a mostly silent but real longing that would pull me into myself. Sometimes I forgot the cause; often I didn't even think of the cause. I could call it melancholy, call it phases of life. And those things could be true, but I missed horses.

You know, you turn quickly at the sound of hoof beats, glance and then glance again at riders on the road, hunch toward the screen whenever horses move through the frame. That kind of absence. They were something my being recognized, auto-alerted to, before my mind got involved. Like a kind of training just in case, keeping me adding a teaspoon of fuel to the tank, storing up a bit in anticipation of that one-day drive. There were horses at the festival and familiar pastured horses I could look for during my daily commute. Like many who've put horses aside but can't forget the life, I even watched the few annual televised horse races, until the death of Eight Belles ended that for me.

No more Derbys for me after her.

Somewhere in the past year, though, I've come to realize that I never really did put horses away during that long interval. Not really. I collected things emblematic of them all the while. A framed print, an old lithograph, a statue, a notebook horse-themed in broken Korean English. Once I bought a brand-new double bridle for who knows why, and later a fine leather halter and lead. I had a ridiculous, trendy pair of haute couture "jodphurs" from Gianni Versace that I never had the nerve to wear, but that's not why I bought them in the first place. An ashtray, a horseshoe, a worn riding crop; artifacts piled up, findings, evidence of the thing that I missed. It's like I was an archaeologist, discovering horses over and over again through the years.

Some of my indeliberate excavations unearthed items that speak, I think, to and of the evolution of the horse/human interaction, a subject of enduring fascination to me and one I will revisit in this journal.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Strange Integrity of Fear

Lesson Notes
(When it lives in the body and not in the mind.)

I had my eighth lesson the other day. Unlike before, the arena was frenetic with activity on Friday. Air compressors hissed at the near end of the arena, interrupted by the abrupt thunk of pneumatic nail guns. Some carpenters were building a set of bleachers, pushing against a deadline. Two riders were practicing a Pas de deux on their horses, intertwining in the middle space of the arena, while the owner of the barn trained a horse at the far end.

These lessons are expensive, so I approach them with an almost military mindset, a stance of silent dedication and resolve that's unusual in the history of me and horses. Still, I felt I was leading the schoolmaster into bedlam when I brought her into the ring.

We begin each lesson with longe line work in full tack, a few minutes in each direction to warm the mare up, and then a short bit of in-hand work to stretch and bend her. The coordinating of several pieces of equipment in my hands has been awkward for me, but each time I get a little better, a little more fluid, a little neater in managing side reins, whips and lines. Usually the schoolmaster will relax and blow out during that work, but not this day. She was tense, and blamelessly so, I thought.

The space left to us in the arena felt pinched and tight on the ground, but it was worse when I was in the saddle. Most of the time we were working on a 10-meter circle. It felt a little daunting to me, riding a strong working trot on a circle no more than 35 feet in diameter.

The brilliant schoolmaster was off somewhere in her body on Friday, and she displayed her displeasure by kicking out one hind leg or the other as we circled our instructor on the line. The thought I had, after several of these moves, is that a year or two ago just one of them would have been cause enough for me to dismount. My head would have dictated that course of action before I even had a chance to wonder.

The schoolmaster became increasingly tense, her ears pinning flat when other riders passed near. She crow hopped once, and then again. Sometimes she tipped me forward, sometimes not. I felt as though a two-by-four were lodged beneath the saddle, right under my left seat bone. My body felt her tension and stiffness. My body felt it, felt the lack of balance and flow between us. I know I have never felt that, and understood it, not in that way, before that instant. My body recognized it and then adjusted to help her. It just did. I moved to help her find my flow since she had lost hers. That's the only way I can think to say it. Where on earth did that confidence come from?

She blew out and snorted, releasing through her topline and settling into the easy, swingy trot that I have come to expect from her. In part, I did that for her. Maybe I did most of it. 

What I think I've realized now is that some of my anxiety has come from riding with a disconnected, uneducated body, that not all of my fears reside in my mind. The body can't lie. A natural thing, it has an integrity built into its functioning. Because I didn't know in my body how to really sit on a horse, I felt ill at ease sitting on a horse. My mind picked up on that doubt and spun it into fear. On Friday, exactly the opposite thing happened. Because my body knew what to do, my mind wasn't even consulted for a second opinion.

These lessons are fantastic, they are giving me the rider inside, and I will grub for every nickel to keep on taking them.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Season's End

Late at the fair, I see Montana-like skies. I see things that happen in nature during the ordinary course of a humanless day. I can look at them like I am not there. Watching, I feel I have all the time I need.

Autumn rides in on wet, turbulent air. I hear it breaking around the walls of the building, pressing against the old barn-sash windows upstairs. I like the feeling of defending myself and the cats against the night cold. For a little while, anyway.

Possum works so hard to comprehend space heaters. Me and the cats, we live down here for months, always ending the season in a solitude so deep, it's as if our lives are bi-coastal, like there's an ocean of awayness between us and home. Yet sometimes I don't want to go back there, to the dirt of the city, the garage break-ins and 4 o'clock sirens.

They love it here too. How could they not? So much to see and hear and smell, so many ways to wear themselves out.

I've been doing this for eleven years and it's still hard to make the transition, no matter how I try to plan for it, no matter that, like the cats, within minutes I'll be happy to be back with H.G. in our winter's home. Here to there always seems too far, so I end up taking a bridge instead of the highway.

She lives right between my two homes, balanced perfectly between my hibernating and my living. They are such different lives, but they share her, they need her.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

I Know This Place

Finding the Wishbone Leg
Someone remarked to me today, "You know, they say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear."

She was right, except I didn't know how ready I was, am, have been, didn't really know how long I'd been waiting.

Four weeks ago, a key was laid in my palm. Somehow, despite the frantic crowding of work into my life, I had the sense to use it, and I swung the door wide to a place I recognized. It's very significant to me.

A good friend of mine bailed a scrub pony out of the joust herd this summer, another guy thrown in too fast with no clue of what was to come. He lasted a few weeks and then discovered that bucking was the easiest way to get fired. My friend saw something in him that nudged at her, so she put him in training with a person she trusted. Every week I said I'd come watch a session, and every week I had to cancel to stay on top of my job. It wasn't until a few days after the festival closed that I claimed a day and drove down to the barn with her.

So I guess it's who T gave me this gift, the inkling of coming home to a place I never lived. I saw the life of her little horse transformed, saw his blooming willingness, saw him working in partnership with his trainer. No spurs, no gadgets, no fighting. Patience, kindness and consistency. The kindest rider I've ever seen, balanced, even and light in the saddle, wishbone legs resting long and quiet, hands that asked, then listened.

There I found an instructor, one who I understand, I mean intuitively understand. With her I don't over think, I just listen and do. My body, freed of my ordinarily clamped-down mind, accepts her directions quickly, avidly and with thirst, as though it has always known this way. Five lessons in, I see the rider that I am and the rider I will become. I see myself getting out of my own way, realize that I am already releasing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Those Beautiful Peepers

It seemed that Saxony's tear ducts were becoming blocked again over the last week or 10 days, so I kept her in a fly mask and called the clinic when it became obvious that swelling was happening around her left eye. The eye-care specialist who came to examine Saxony today found altogether something else. Horses, just like people, have so many problems along the way; they just can't say much about them or whine about it. It would be easier if they could.


There, low in her left eye, lurked an indolent ulcer, a white, smokey cloud at the edge of her cornea. It might have been caused by her rubbing her face, but maybe not. There were no foreign bodies to be found, no bit of a burr, speck of dust or twisted eyelash, just the ugly ulcer itself. It hurt to look at it. I suddenly saw the pain she'd been in.

"Her eyes," I sometimes say to myself. "More human than human." Just like the eyes of the replicants in Bladerunner. In that brilliant film, the rogue artificial intelligence behind the robots' eyes always mirrors back a human gaze so perfect and deep, only a machine can detect it's false.

I don't mean to compare her to a robot - it's just that Saxony has such emotive eyes and she's a creature wholly different from me. I'm always arrested by her gaze, look twice and then look again. It's that very expressiveness in her gaze that has made me worry her eyes are vulnerable from the day I met her.

I want to learn as much as possible about anything involving the health of my animals, so I ask a lot of questions and take pictures, if possible, to study later. I didn't do much of either today, I just watched the vet attend to Saxony's eye. All I cared about was that the pain be eliminated. She administered a local anesthetic to immobilize the eyelids and then stained the cornea with the same fluorescein green dye that was used to diagnose Saxony's blocked tear ducts last winter. The dye adhered to the ulcer and revealed ragged edges at its rim.


I learned that protocol for an indolent ulcer is to remove the ragged matter around the rim of the ulcer. That actually increases the size of the ulcer, but it aids the healing process by eliminating the tiny tissue walls blocking the rim. My camera lens is not strong enough to have captured the blood vessels that had grown toward the ulcer in an effort to heal it, but our vet pointed them out to me.

It was a hard day for my girl. She'll receive Atropine once a day to keep her pupil dilated and free of spasm and triple antibiotic ointment three times a day to prevent infection.

I could feel her beautiful peepers fixed on me, even from behind the fly mask, when, after the sedation had worn off, I walked her slowly back to the pasture. I was hoping she knew we had helped her. German muffins? I gave her five.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

That Girl

Astride her today, sitting bareback and still, it seemed I could see 360 degrees around us, and if the 365-day year since I got her were also a circle, I felt I could see almost all of it too, with imperfect but practical vision. It was that kind of day, that kind of hour being back on my mare.

I could detail how it looked, my panoramic view of the year, but I don't think it matters. You live things, they upset you, and then you move on. In the end, you do. I've been through two crazy barns, some ripping heartache and some rage. Big deal. "Through" is the operative word. I can't mine much more from it than that. Only that it would help to know while you're in it that you'll always get through it, but that kind of wisdom proves elusive in times of crisis.

I know I lost moments, though. I could sense the empty spaces of them black and hollow at the periphery of the view from her back. My mare is a year older. I'm a year slower. Someone else had to protect her because I couldn't break free of work. The whole summer I worried, all the while freighting ever more gratitude upon the shoulders of my watchful friend. That was so hard. I can't say in words the toll of it, worrying about an animal you love, one you own. I felt I let her down. I have to say that.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Eating My Life

I miss this arena where I snap a longe line to my thoughts and try to move them out, pushing them past balking, bucking and distraction into some kind of steady, flexing rhythm. My mind needs that kind of work, lest it turn back on itself. It needs this place where I talk about what I long for when I can't be with it, plan the next thing for days that seem to never come. I have to say something when there's no time for me.

The festival is eating my life this year. I miss my horses. Thinking of them is compressed between tasks, endless words, numbers, phone calls, repeat calls, walking the festival amid the blazing heat, lifting, bending, watering the screaming plants, phones in both hands, radio at my hip. Enforce this, create that, ask him, follow up with her -

And there go the jousters riding bareback across the parking lot. I twist to watch them from my window, stinging a little at the sight. The idyllic mood I imagine them to enjoy has nothing to do with reality, it's just a dream of my own longing.

In truth, joust horses rarely connect, mostly won't connect; they could be gone before the next show. They live a narrow life defined someplace between livestock and labor. The dull uncertainty in their faces shows, but they are used to it. As animals will, they live for the next meal. There, astride them, the joust boys look happy and relaxed, and they are. It's not a show day, there are no screaming crowds, no armor, no dust, just a morning ride to stretch the horses before the heat comes to choke the day. I watch, a little pained, knowing my mares are okay without me, enjoying  better care than the joust herd ever will, but still, but still...

I saw them two weeks ago when the farrier came to do trims and look at Scout's mysterious hoof hole. Her cave-in was the result of an impact of some sort. She struck it against a fence post, took a glancing kick, or experienced a blunt trauma that knocked out a chunk. He shaped it much as we would a broken fingernail, smoothing rough snags and rasping away the load-bearing edges around it to keep it from cracking. I marveled at him being down on his hands and knees, face inches from her hoof, studying the divot with true professional curiosity.

Arriving for a brief interval into the lives of the horses both helps and hurts. I've really let them become a kind of compass for me, a rudder, a bellwether. Bellwether. That's it. As if it's they who lead me toward what I want to become and I am falling behind.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Scout's Right Front Hoof

I'm trapped in another time, dizzy with the demands of opening the festival, but I'm sending out a call for help, readers. What could have happened to Scout's right front hoof? K called me yesterday, in the middle of the show day, and then sent me pictures from her phone:

I can see that there is a bruise above what looks to me like a caved-in wall filled with dry debris. There's no fluid at all. This little red mare has had wonderful, rock-hard feet since the day I got her. I can't see her until tomorrow afternoon, and I'm rattled. (Her next trim is set for the 19th.)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Our Prince

We lost our Malden today, our Maldini. There he sleeps in all his shaggy splendor on the summer bed, apart from the pack as always. His fat tail, his ridiculous pantaloons, his strange two-tone coat. What I thought might be a tooth going bad turned out to be oral cancer. I left the festival grounds to take him home to our vet never dreaming I would return without him. He was our Italianate Renaissance man, the smartest cat we've ever known, fluent in English and opera.

Shock and grief, sudden as a bandage torn away.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Best Breath of All

Lift-off is imminent. I've been prepping on the launch pad for two weeks. Tomorrow my life will be commanded entirely by the 10-day run-up to opening day of the event I work for. It's a ceaseless hurtling toward that moment, the home stretch still demanding and startling despite this being my 11th year doing it. I will work for 150 hours or more, frantically hacking off a bit of time here to spend another bit of time somewhere else. This is Hell week. Everything else becomes subordinate to it.

I went to the barn to see Saxony and Scout tonight knowing it would be my last chance. I had to hunt out the time, stalk it, isolate it, and then take it. I took S with me and we met K there. After picking our paddock, we each took a horse, speed-groomed, bridled, put on our helmets and then clambered on bareback.

Oh, that feeling of settling on your horse's back after days away, settling there along that impossibly strong, tensile spine. I can't believe the crap that melts away in me. Forty-five minutes idled past as we drifted up and down, around and through the long outdoor riding arena. We walked, letting gravity seduce our legs long, draping them against the horses' sides. Gambler, Saxony and Scout met each of us halfway; welcoming the easiness of it, they settled into well-strided, forward walks. They sighed and snorted contentedly. Together, we all walked and it was wonderful.

It was like I was buying time, in the best way, buying breath, energy and resolve. We were there for just two and a half hours, but I banked enough time for the next 150, all I need to carry me to opening day.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Comments on Respect

In writing this journal, I write forward, write out of me into space. I think, react, record and remember. I do it in a void because it's just my voice I'm listening to, trying to transcribe as accurately as possible my own thoughts. That makes it a closed system for the most part. 

Alone in a room, we can say whatever we want. Fictions can sneak in unannounced, scratching a twitching nerve. Over time, I've learned to hear most of the false notes when they occur. The way they scrape the ear and make me feel self-conscious lets me know I'm being gratuitous, lazy, or evasive. I just stop writing then. If I have a rule about this journal, it's to not write when I have nothing to say. But I can write when I don't yet know how to say what I'm thinking.

Thinking things into real words is something that matters to me. Dealing with a subject like fear, for example, becomes easier when I try to name it head on, even if I have to think a long way to get there. That's where I am with "respect" right now, trying to think toward an understanding of the concept  that I can accept. Some striking ideas appeared among the comments left in response to the Respect post I wrote the other day.

I'm finding that horses will let me have their feet out of an innate desire to cooperate. (From June)

This is exactly what I was grappling with: "What right do I have to impose my will on this horse?" (From Smazourek)

I wonder if respect ... needs to have some basis in equality. (From Calm, Forward and Straight)

Respect, in my mind, is a combination of politeness, some level of braveness, acknowledgment and acceptance of uniqueness and appreciation of abilities. (From Wolfie)

I find myself often asking myself how my horse sees what we do and how I really fit into her life. (From Story)

They speak to each other in another language, and they accept different things from each other than they expect from us. (From horsemom)

I feel like a detective who's discovered a bit of folded paper hidden between the pages of a book. Do these highlights act as code or contain a secret formula? Are they clues? Yes, and I can think about all of them.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Still, Lives

I interrupt my regularly scheduled program of over-analyzing and hamster wheeling to acknowledge the presence of things that require nothing more of me than to get out of my head and notice them.

I'm an existentialist. I don't perceive that a godlike entity or higher consciousness created all living things and cast them as players in a divine plan. I guess, instead, that here is here, that it is now, and all the rest, no matter how compelling, is daydreams. But... I admit to imagining that some kind of natural blessing exists in animals. I take it as a positive thing to have the endorsement of their proximity.

My festival summer is about to begin, so I'm preparing to move my life out of the city and into another time. H.G. and I surveyed our shops lately and were happy to see several guest tenants making use of them.

I confess that I take things like these as signs, recognitions, even, of my place in a world where I'm not so different from anything or anyone.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


When it comes to horses, what does it mean? I looked it up, but it wasn't until I reached the fourth use of "respect" as a noun that I found anything remotely applicable:  ...deference to a right, privilege, privileged position, or someone or something considered to have certain rights or privileges; proper acceptance or courtesy; acknowledgment.

But what, really, does any of that mean for a horse? I'm asking because I'm thinking about it.

The horse must respect the handler, the rider, stand for the farrier, stand for the vet...
"Respect" is a human definition of a human value, something humans feel entitled to demand. I don't know if horses comprehend anything close to what we mean when we talk about respect. Perhaps they mirror something like respect in how they seem to manage herd dynamics. Perhaps it is "respect" that keeps one horse moving out of the way of another, but what if it is just fear? Perhaps it is "respect" that brings a horse to obey a rider, but what if it is just learned helplessness, the horse on auto-pilot, only and always seeking the path of least resistance?

The difference between fear and respect (and whether there is any) is what I'm chewing on right now. The topic of respect has recently appeared in some of the horse blogs I follow. It's also been a subject of sorts at the new barn and come up in regard to Scout. I don't have peace with this topic. That's because I haven't yet gripped it at a primal level, as though it were an impulse of instinct. Understanding things at the gut level is what makes them become bedrock for me, turns them into actual knowledge that I can apply. I'm not there with "respect" yet. Respect was nothing I grew up with, unless it lurked behind its heavier handed cousin, fear, so I don't have an inherent default setting in me that's about respect.

Stay out of my space, don't barge, don't bite, don't kick, stand quietly, lead calmly, listen to my aids, wait for my cues...
I understand what people mean when they are speaking about the need for respect from their horses. I mean I understand the word. I didn't really have to look it up. Still, a word is just where we park an idea, a concept, or a notion; that's all. Communication begins as accord is reached, when the speaker and listener more or less agree on the meaning of a particular word. Accord can't really happen that way between a horse and its handler, can it? Not in so many words.

People will say that it happens in other ways. And it does; I know that. But the fine line is what I'm wondering about now. If "respect," for humans, is just fear managed and done up right, with civility and social grace, how is it any different for horses? Both constructs are about consequences, the whole respect-me-or-else thing. Obey me or else. My way or the highway. Right now I'm wondering what choice the horse ever has.

Another blogger, June, asked me the other day, "Well, what does Scout want?" What a tough question. I addressed it once before, here, but it was a joking kind of thing, even if  accurate. When I began to think about June's question, blam! I ran right into this "respect" question.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Backblogged, Gazing into the Middle Distance

I went to the barn last night feeling low and on the edge of being nuts. Some kind of sense prevailed, though, and I found myself outside in the quiet, hand grazing Saxony and Scout side by side with a good friend who's come to stay for the summer. What kind of a metronome is perfect? The metronome that is a horse. They steady my breathing and decelerate my thought process. Beholding them, I have to slow down.

And I did, I slowed down. It's hard to say how horribly wound up I got about Scout's bucking caper this Saturday past. When I'm in the run-up to the opening of the summer festival I work for, everything bottlenecks to the same forward-leaning, hurtling place. My perception turns funnel-like and peripheries begin to vanish even though there are people, places and things living there. I can miss important things.

My friend, K, has a very different view about Scout and the bucking, but I didn't take the time to see it in the moment. Rushing and reacting, I didn't even ask. It's hard to admit that.

I've wanted to write the story of what's been going on between Scout and K for a long while now, and boy, I really wish I'd made the time to do it. Now I have to gist and compress it to acknowledge K's perspective. In one year she's ridden more miles on Scout than I have in all the years I've owned her. She's done things with her that are unimaginable to me - road riding, solo riding, galloping, pushing her to deal with life as a trail horse. K just has a handle on how to cope with this hot, anxious, nosy, distractible mare.

My knowledge of Scout presumes my own failures with her; she's defined as the horse I can't manage. When it's your failure, it's easy to make excuses even if you think you're over it. The hyperstimulation of a new stable, two days spent indoors during inclement weather, inadvertent feeding of oats by the barn owner, running out of the Mare Magic sample we tried on her, all these things auditioned in my mind until I settled on a girth sore being the root of her bucking K off. I don't even know why it mattered to me. But K doesn't have my baggage; she just sees a horse to ride. A horse she loves something fierce, but, all the same, a horse she insists does not respect her, a horse she will have to have it out with in the end. I never went to that place with Scout; I didn't have it in me. I don't have it in me. When K told me that Scout bucked her off out of piss and vinegar and sheer disrespect, I was shocked and wanted to defend her. But why? This is the very horse that broke my confidence. Be surprised, why? Maybe because I wouldn't know what to do about it, seeing what K has seen. I think it tells me a lot that I never even saw that place with Scout, the place where respect must happen.

What is it that I want to say? I think K is right. She faces Scout in ways I never did, has ridden her deeper than I ever could. I should have seen it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

When Reaction and Rushing Converge, It Hurts

I'm cranked up about some events at the barn, but before I write about it, I have to express my concern for Kate over at A Year With Horses, who fell from one of her horses today. I think of her as the Zen master of horse blogging, and although I know she'll most likely have enlightening things to say about her fall, I'd rather it hadn't happened at all and she'd be perfectly well. I hope she recovers quickly and that whichever horse she was on -- Dawn, Pie or Drift -- is fine.

~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~

Things went awry during Tim's lesson this morning. We ended up with a disjointed session broken into two segments. I'd invited K to join us with Scout in the round pen so Tim could spend a little time riding in the company of another horse and rider. I'd planned to take him up to trotting today. Saxony is in heat, so I warmed her up briefly to make sure she'd be steady. She was fine, and Tim was soon up and riding. Mounting has become fluid and natural for him; he settles lightly and quietly into the saddle. We were just walking side by side along the fence, talking through reminders about rein and leg aids, when K brought Scout in. Our barn owner came along and settled herself into a friendly lean against the fence. 

K led Scout to the mounting block. She casually mentioned that she'd hurried Scout into her tack and wasn't happy about how she'd placed the saddle pad. Then she stepped up and swung into the saddle. Scout promptly bucked her off. Walking beside Saxony, I didn't see the full event. K landed unharmed in the soft sand and was up in flash. I had Tim halt Saxony, and we stood by quietly.

K took Scout back to the mounting block, assuming this was an instance of pissiness best met head-on. Scout was high-headed, but stood still. As soon as Katie mounted and stepped off, Scout unloaded her again with a very simple move intended to get rid of the rider. I saw this buck. It was a move of precision and economy, a distinct reaction, not a choice. K felt it coming before it happened and began a voluntary dismount which enabled her to land standing.

Several things happened in rapid succession. First, the barn owner rushed into the round pen and grabbed Scout's reins, saying she needed to be free-longed, "chased around the pen until she's over this shit." My hackles rose instantly, and I stepped between her, K and Scout. My mind was working on what Scout was trying to tell us, but that process was swept aside by my need to immediately shut the barn owner out of the situation. She was releasing a cascade of assumptions about Scout that were piling up around us very fast.

I cut in and took the reins, reminding K that Scout is not a bucker. Like any horse, she can buck, but bucking is not in her personal arsenal as it was for Dar. K replied that Scout bucks all the time, but there was no time to resolve our semantics just then; I had to rush to reclaim my horse from the barn owner. I told K we would longe Scout in her tack, but on a line. She's never been free longed in tack, and this wasn't the moment to teach her.

I worked with Scout on the longe line. She wasn't lame, but she was bracing and tense. She offered no bucks, just inattentiveness and speed. Soon the barn owner lost interest and wandered off. It took 20 minutes to bring Scout down to stretching and blowing, and then she was back. We took a couple of minutes to adjust the saddle. K reset the pad and fastened the girth. I asked her to do what I call "bra stretches," lifting and extending each one of Scout's forelegs to settle the skin along the girth into comfort. In a moment, K was back up on Scout and they were schooling as though nothing were out of the ordinary.

I returned to working with Tim, but I was distracted and ill at ease, not able to focus solely on him because I was turning Scout's bucks over and over in my mind. I cut the lesson short, and I've learned today that I don't want to teach someone to ride if I can't be completely devoted to the task. It's not fair to the student. We rescheduled.

Rushing is an issue I've been struggling with this year. By the time I sent Tim home, I was running way behind and realizing I would have to rush to make up lost time. I'd had to rush to intercede between the barn owner and Scout, then stop time entirely to work with Scout, then rush to back into the lesson with Tim. I rushed through untacking Saxony and then rushed to look at Scout. She has rain rot on the front of her hind legs, something she gets every spring. I grabbed the M.T.G. and massaged it in quickly, and it was then that K and I noticed a saddle sore on Scout's right side, there at the girth line. It was probably a bug bite that had been rubbed raw by the girth. Bingo. I treated it in a flash, but I was seething with rage and upset and rushing to contain my emotions.

It wasn't until I was driving down the freeway, hurrying to meet my brother, that I understood my near hysteria. Because I'd had to rush to get in between the barn owner and Scout, then rush to bring K with me so she didn't drink any bad "training" Kool-Aid, I didn't take the time to listen to my own voice, even as it was insisting that Scout was reacting to something, not being an ass. Anyone who owns a horse knows to look first for a physical explanation for unexpected behavior. I really felt I'd let Scout down, possibly hurt her more by longeing her for 20 minutes, made Tim idle by for nothing, and disrupted the plans I'd made with others. For me, when rushing and reaction converge, it creates this kind of bad, intractable moment. What a lousy feeling.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Horse as Equal

I never feel equal with people, really never. Less than, more than, better than, worse than - all of that is around people. We hardly recognize that we start from the same place. That recognition has long since been displaced by countless things in life that distance us from ourselves.

It's not like that around horses, though. I feel my horse and I are equal in the moment, whatever that moment may be, whichever horse it may be. I think the species difference is what creates that sense for me. For their powers, the mares are advantaged over me; for mine, I am advantaged over them. Face to face, it all levels out on a being-to-being plane. We are present, and, because we cannot communicate in the same language, we are equalized by our limitations and left able to be only what we are. It's like we're in the same boat for our differences. From there, we interact. I like the bluntness of it, the inescapable immediacy of it. I just don't think you can lie to a horse without lying to yourself. Sometimes it seems I get a better measure of myself from horses than I ever do from humans, even those I love most in the world.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Finding Forward - Tim's Third Ride

Longer leg, straighter posture, loose shoulders - he's a quick study.

Wednesday evening, driving out to meet Tim for our fifth lesson, I found myself deciding two specific goals for his ride. If he could achieve both of them, I thought another goal might be met as well, especially if it could sort of be ponied, or led, silently between the other two. Sometimes the concert of action and reaction, give and take, aid and response between horse and rider can become overwhelming. It's easy to get lost trying to coordinate all the movements into the seemingly effortless symphony they are meant to be; it's a kind of turbocharged multitasking, I think. Plus you have to leave room for fun, appreciation, and constant awareness of your surroundings. Huh. How come riding is still the most relaxing thing in the world?

My first decision was to conduct the lesson in the outdoor arena. Though its surface is a little rough, it's much bigger than the round pen and would provide Tim an opportunity to ride in long, straight lines. My second decision was to introduce the concept of forward through addressing the leg aids. What I wanted to leave unspoken between those two decisions was the work we'd be doing to bring Tim further along in his use of the reins.

I set Tim to riding Saxony the full depth and breadth of the arena, starting by keeping her steady along the fence line. The size of the arena, coupled with its slight incline, presented a useful new perspective for Tim. He quickly discovered how long Saxony's stride is compared to Gambler's. She covers ground. Walking alongside at a distance of 15 feet, I casually asked him to move her off the rail and toward me by opening the inside rein and laying on his outside leg. Saxony moved in. We settled into an exercise of serpentines, in to the rail, then out from the rail, six strides per change. Eventually I walked a much smaller oval at the center of the arena while Tim rode serpentines along the perimeter.

It was hot, and Saxony was sluggish in her walk. Poor thing, I exploited her laziness to teach my thespian student about finding forward. I asked Tim to take up the reins a little bit and lengthen his legs against Saxony's sides. Her ears tuned in right away. "Just think forward, Tim, and squeeze your calves against her. You're just picking her up and sending her on." We practiced it again and again until Tim could hold Saxony in a good working walk, even catching her before she started to settle back. It was a good, long lesson, culminating in Saxony chewing and blowing out. That right there, her chewing and sighing, spoke to how well Tim had used the reins. He'd kept a light, even contact with Saxony through most of the lesson because it's not what he'd been focused on, not at all. We weren't talking about the rein aids, we were using them. Just like that, he's begun to find the touch.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Tim's Second Ride - Reins For Conversation

Yesterday I opted to put Tim on Saxony, who's a better size for him and doesn't need the urging to move that Gambler sometimes requires, especially when a beginner is riding him. I didn't want my thespian student distracted by constantly having to push Gambler forward, and I was also curious to see how Saxony would do as a "school" horse.

One of the (embarrassing to confess) things I knew nothing about when I returned to riding was the indirect, or outside, rein. When taking English riding lessons in my late teens and early 20s, my instructors taught me plain steering by direct rein, simply bending the horse's head in the direction you wanted to go. It's a wonder my hands remained light.

Inside leg to outside rein to help contain, shape and direct the energy of the horse while moving forward, on a circle or not.  That's what I was thinking about while I warmed Saxony up, bending her through figure eights, turning her on the haunches, turning her on the forehand. I wanted Tim to learn about it if only because I hadn't.

I'd already explained to Tim that horses are ridden from the seat and the legs to the reins, not the other way around. The concept of "seat" is daunting for a newcomer, I think, and leg aids can be as well, but almost everybody has seen reins in use with a horse and it's natural to think their function is obvious. It's not, and that's why I elected to begin with the rein aids. "There are two reins and both are used to converse with the horse," I told Tim. It makes sense to say it in so few words, but teaching it in a way that enables a beginner to feel the actual mechanics of it takes some thought.

I won't, but I could stop walking, couldn't I?

This picture is not illustrative of what I'm talking about, I just love the sly look in Saxony's eye. She proved herself to be a perfectly adequate school horse for a beginner, with all that that entails, including making fun of her rider by feigning ignorance from time to time.

I know I'm lucky to be helping someone who is so willing and excited to learn about horses and riding. Because I'm not an advanced rider (I'm really thin on canter work), I can only give Tim what comes from my experience, and from the holes in it as well. My struggles with confidence keep me wanting him to always feel safe and open. That's why I put Tim in shorter stirrups, to give him a sense of security in our early going.

After Tim was aboard Saxony, we walked a couple laps of the round pen. As we walked, I asked him to tell me how he felt Saxony differed from Gambler. We talked about her height, her stride, her swinging back and long, low headset, all very different from what he'd experienced aboard Gambler, a shortbacked, upright little Arab, dawdler or not.

Then we spent a half hour working on the rein aids. We began with contact and how to find and maintain it softly, so softly, and consistently. To get there meant Tim learning to take up the reins and learning to release them, sometimes just in the fingertips, sometimes through the wrists and up fluid arms. Saxony likes to look at her environment, and the movement of her head and neck created a natural opportunity for Tim to learn about following hands. He did really well, and I enjoyed seeing him comprehend how little pressure is required to stay connected to the horse. 

Once I felt Tim had begun to find a sense of the reins, I asked him to bring Saxony in off the fence and cross to the other side of the round pen. I pointed out a specific route. Focused on following my instructions, he spoke to Saxony through the reins, and even with his body, but he didn't notice because he was concentrating so intently on the route. It's wonderful what can be taught when the student isn't looking.

We worked on simple changes of direction in wide, gentle turns. We worked on halting and walking, walking and halting, worked on opening the inside rein, worked on maintaining the outside rein. There's a light that comes into a person's eyes when suddenly they understand something in their own way, after just a little guidance and practice. That's what I saw happen for Tim when Saxony began gently chewing in the bridle. Their conversation had begun.