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.

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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.