Thursday, December 27, 2012

Following the Path

It's time for me to formalize putting my horse journal on hiatus. Why? Maybe because it's a strange thing about human beings the tendency not to dwell on what is good.

August 2010 Mare, I called this photo taken the day we met.

Saxony will carry me home to where I've always dreamed to be with a horse, just one horse. She already is, already has. Looking at her has made me see me, and it's not all bad.

We Are Just Right Together October 2012 I call this one.

Looking at her has made me understand how it has been that I have always been looking at horses, all my life, even when I was away from them. She was a big part of me asking myself why, asking what it is it still after all of this time? And that brought up in me an idea that was then sparked through conversation with a cherished friend, an idea that turned out to be All Horse Vintage, my shop on Etsy. There I'm plumbing the depths of the history of the horse and the human/horse interaction, exploring, studying, learning. I'm loving it with a passion because history draws me, writing heartens me, and horses help me. I'm committed to the journey, so that's where I'll be for a while, recording vintage horse discoveries and mysteries in another blog until I have hold of the reins well enough to return to this one.

Despite the fact that I've maintained A Fearsome Beauty as primarily a private journal, I set it to public view and somehow 68 of you found it and became regular readers. I appreciate very much the things you've said (and haven't said) and feel honored that you've spent the time. I read many horse blogs myself and understand how hours can vanish into thin air when we're reading the thoughts of others bound by the love of horses. I'll keep reading, and if you'd like to see my second blog, just leave a comment and I'll let you know when it goes live via a visit to your own blog soon after the first of the New Year.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Horse as Emotional Signifier

I'm always fascinated by pop culture turning to horses when in need of emotional shorthand. Last year I wrote about the film Michael Clayton and its deliberate use of horses to convey the pain of someone finally facing the harsh, damaging reality of their circumstances. This morning I saw Rihanna's new music video, promoting the first single, Diamonds, to be released from her forthcoming record.

In this frame, Rihanna is turning in the vastness of an (inevitable) desert plain toward the vision of a shining black horse galloping over an open road toward another horse stretched flat out on the ground. The Diamonds video is broken into motifs, in a way, and the horses might be considered motif number two, with the other two being post-apocalyptic flamey and quiet bedroom pensive. Because I'm a cynic, I'm pretty sure Rihanna and the horses were never in the same place at the same time. She conveys her pathos screen right and the horses, they do their horse things screen left, signifying her emotion, enacting its essence.

I like Rihanna. I think she has talent bigger than her choices and may grow to be an astonishingly good singer eventually. She's devoted her last couple of albums to, in part, grinding over the controversial stories that have dogged her through the last few years. It's easy to watch any of her videos in that context, and Diamonds is no different. But in the end, it's just a love song, and it's the horses that gave me pause. Somehow, they often seem to be an easy choice when emotional resonance is what's on tap. But what does that say about them, especially to people that have never been next to one, patted one, sat on one?

I think of the crew in the L.A. editing room, too, cutting back and forth between Rihanna and the black horses for maximum effect. Because they could cut it like that, and did, as though images of horses are a powerful formula that always works well when applied by skilled hands. Do I have to assume, though, that the editors knew the thing that is horses and that they shivered at the beauty of the one running, his muscles literally rippling back in the light, or thrilled at the strength of the one rising up from the ground, dust encircling like smoke?

That's what I don't know. What if what they saw had nothing to do with them knowing horses at all? What is that, then? Whatever it is, it's what makes horses inherently compelling whether we know them or not. It's why some of us have to have them in our lives and why others cannily turn to them to express emotions otherwise elusive of words.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Portable Education

Saxony and I left the training barn on October 15th. That was a Monday. I gave her six days to settle back in at the old barn, which was easy to do because I'm readying to leave the festival site and return to the city. I was busy and dragging my feet at the same time. So much of the festival season for me was about my mare being just across the state line and both of us being in school. I wondered in the back of my mind did some of it, any of it, really take? I was hesitant to test us, because all of it seemed more real with our trainer right there, as though it were flowing from her, encircling us in just an illusion of skill.

I had it wrong. What we learned during our six weeks there, the progress we made, cured and set, hardening into actual knowledge on Sunday morning at the barn when I went through a schooling session with Saxony. Just her and me. In-hand work. Warm-up walk/trot. Shoulder in, haunches in, half pass. Oh, she knows it, and I kind of do too. The education we received proved to be completely portable. Maybe there can be no better endorsement of a trainer than that. I'm sure we lacked finesse, but we didn't lack focus, direction, or recollection. Understanding that is just one of what I'm sure will be many dividends to come out of our costly six weeks. It was a sound investment.

We have a basic curriculum to work on until we go back, me to lighten and quiet all my aids, her to grow stronger, rounder, rhythmic, better balanced. Trot, trot, trot, forward walk, trot, trot. B said to me, "I'll be able to tell if you've been working on your sitting trot."

But I have to back up. The week before we left, I stacked up lessons on Saxony, trying to cram it in with our departure  imminent. I had a lesson on Monday, another on Thursday, and then another on Friday. Between the Thursday and Friday lessons, I rode a different horse. This one.

He's a Lusitano stallion, "finished," so to speak. I'd never ridden a horse of his caliber, but the offer was made to enable me to feel the difference between my evolving mare and a horse who is all the way there. I'll write about him next. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Necking With My Mare

We had a session yesterday, so I went looking for Saxony, camera in hand, as her round pen had been moved to fresh grass. There she was, beside one wing of the barn, watching me approach.

She dispatched the clublike carrot I offered. I love the crazy mess there at the end of her blaze, like white paint that ran thin through the canyon of her nostril and then pooled along her upper lip.

We had such a good lesson. My trainer sat in the bleachers of the indoor arena and gave instructions. We're leaving on October 15th, so she's setting us up with a sort of working curriculum until next July, when I hope to bring Saxony back to her for the festival summer.

Does it make any sense to say I rode my horse? That's how it felt. Forward walk, really big forward walk, then in to shoulders in, both directions. Don't drive her with my leg or seat. An extended segment of sitting trot. Sit, sit, sit. Trotting on a big circle, working on contact, keeping the bend. Our circles are drunken, but we were working. One, two, one, two. I can count the beats of the trot out loud if I need to. Then haunches in, which we'd never done. B just called it out, with plain directions. We did it; there wasn't time not to because we were just moving, flowing. Ending the hour with a forward walk on the buckle. I'm becoming able to think Saxony into changing directions during our stretching walks on the buckle. Her walk is different now, wavelike to ride, soothing and carrying. I didn't want to get off.

Back at the round pen, I saw that my mare has discovered her neck, now grown strong and shapely through her five-times-a-week training regimen (not including my own rides on her.) 

She likes to lift her head high over the round pen panels and sometimes rest her jaw up high as if to stretch. And maybe she is stretching. It's another thing she's learned to do, stretch down and sigh out during work. Just as she's learned to present her face for the bridle and stay quiet at the mounting block. She seems to like having a job, seems to like school. I've loved my mare all along, but I've discovered more in her than I ever knew was there. 

Leaving, I turned back, certain she'd be watching me. She likes people; she's a people horse. But I've finally realized that she's bonded most to me, which is the one thing I never expected to come of this time.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I'm Learning

I don't give my instructor enough credit. I know she's an excellent teacher: methodical, patient, encouraging, quiet. I see how Saxony is responding and I thought I saw how I was responding, too. But not quite. Some of my problems are bigger than I think they are. Because I'm used to festering about them, I think I know them and how they manifest, but I learned today that I can't really see that. Hard to admit.

I'm struggling with the in-hand work of late. It's strange, because I had it there for a while, or at least I was finding a flow with it. Today it feels like I'm starting all over again. Part of it is that Saxony is ahead of me now. She trains five days a week, but I have lessons with her only twice a week. Stepping into the in-hand work, she knows what's supposed to happen and she's used to working with someone who quietly and efficiently moves her along. I fumbled with the reins and the whip like my motor control skills were impaired. Once I'm fumbling, I do stupid things like push into her neck with my whip hand, push her to get her moving, not even aware that I'm doing it. I ended up standing there stalled this afternoon, snared by my own frustration.

In short, the fact that I go up into my head so quickly when challenged isn't invisible. That's what I learned today. I realized it when I saw B adjusting the course of our lesson to factor in my being tense and upset, and it's difficult to confess that. She kept me on the longe line for most of the lesson today until releasing me to ride shoulders in. 

But it wasn't all doom and gloom. Yesterday I rode a sustained and comfortable sitting trot on Saxony in both directions, all the while working on keeping her on the bit, light and round. B told me we have to experiment every step of the way to discover what aids make sense to Saxony when we want her to round and bend. One thing I learned just today is that she looks for help from the outside rein to keep from over bending her neck. Hands low at the saddle and fingers opening and closing from time to time bring her quickly to the bit. Especially when I remember to breathe.

After the lesson ended, I stayed up on Saxony to continue riding in the outdoor dressage arena. We'll be leaving this barn, with its lovely indoor arena, on October 15th, so I need to remind myself what it's like to ride outdoors. But really, I stayed on Saxony because I wanted to see if I could ride her myself, just the two of us alone, the way I ride her during our lessons. And we did okay. We circled, with changes of direction, and I worked to maintain her impulsion and roundness at the walk. The roundness was easier than the impulsion. As B walked to her car, she called back, "I can see you driving her with your legs." I'm glad she caught it, but I'd been trying so hard not to use my legs, just keep them quietly draped against Saxony's sides, that I couldn't help but feel disappointed in myself. It's been really eye opening to discover just how heavy I can be, have been, with the aids. Yikes.

I'm learning. Days like this are the hard work of it, lessons like these good for me as a rider, better for me as a person.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Myself In The Way

It was a hard lesson today. I had to work against myself to be able to work with Saxony. I'd like to know what had me uptight, but all that really matters is that I didn't let myself off the hook. Nothing bad happened. Saxony is learning, and I am learning. It just didn't flow, and I didn't kid myself about it. It felt like a roll-up-your-sleeves, suck-it-up-and-get-to-work moment. After a bit of consternation and embarrassment, that's what I did.

One thing that's new for me is Saxony setting off into a canter as soon as I unfurl the longe line. She does it without any prompting from me, which leaves me feeling not in control, or at least disconnected from her. I asked B and she explained that we're working to help Saxony find her natural comfort zone cantering on the correct lead in both directions and that once Saxony gets there, then we can work to shape and guide her. She reminded me to send Saxony cantering forward with real energy until she self-corrects to the proper lead, or start her again from the trot. I'm glad of the repetition from this instructor.

So I had this black dervish of a mare cantering to the left with gusto, but often on the wrong lead or cross cantering. Both of those are hard things for me to see because I've never had that eye for the movements of a horse that so many people seem to have been born with. Even so, I have gotten to the point where I can now recognize Saxony going on the wrong lead with her front legs. Cross cantering, though, is a challenge for me to detect. I went up into my head to chew myself out for not being able to see it instantly and there I got a sudden glimpse of me being a jerk to myself for no practical gain at all.

Saxony was uppity for the in-hand work, then, and I quickly became tangled in the dressage whip, inside rein and outside rein. It was that kind of thing. She wouldn't halt cleanly when I wanted to gather myself up and start again. When I did persuade her to halt, she swung around to face me. Awkward. It all felt awkward.

We rode the whole lesson off the longe line, beginning with a forward walk on a large circle, encouraging Saxony to carry herself with bend, roundness and impulsion. I felt like I was sawing on her mouth trying to bring her onto the bit. There'd she'd come and the next instant her jaw would turn to wood and go heavy against the reins. Yikes. It was hard work, seeming to require more from my hands than I've ever used as a rider. Maybe right now I have to do more in order to end up doing less. The contrast between her being on the bit, softly chewing into my hands, and off it, gone away into a leaning daydream, is big. It ends up being the difference between balance and imbalance, something I can really feel.

"No courtesy circles," B said as I struggled with our right shoulder-in. Saxony had stopped and I didn't know how to send her forward. That's right, no courtesy circles. Crap. I can't just turn her around and ride right back into shoulders in. I'm sure it wasn't pretty, but eventually I got her under way from that standstill.

Trotting, trotting, working on the same roundness and contact, I wondered whether I'd wanted it to be easy all along. No. No is the authentic answer. There is an old quitter in me, left over from my adolescence, who had no voice today. She could only wave self-pityingly from some dim, long ago high-school bleachers. I saw her, but I did not hear her. It was a hard lesson, hard work, in front of spectators, even, and I did all of it. Saxony's worth it. My love of having a horse is worth it. I've grown up that much, at least.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Riding Her

The wind is shredding acorns from the old oaks as I write, flinging them down like bullets to the metal shed roofs backstage at the festival grounds. They've been falling for days, broken loose by squirrels and birds, but this wind will finish it and all will be quiet tomorrow.

I had my fourth ride on Saxony today, the first where we were off the longe line for most of the lesson. I wanted to keep a meticulous log of our progress as it unfolded, or at least hers, but it's been hard because leaps and bounds have left me scrambling to absorb it all into my body, make it a knowing in my (aching) muscles not easily forgotten.
The details are important to me because they so often get left behind along the way. I tell myself now that if my body will remember everything, I can describe it later.

This was Saxony on Sunday. I had to sneak the shot from behind a tree because she always turns to look at me when I'm near. The owner of the farm turns her out in a round pen since we're only staying for a short time. The barn hands move the pen from spot to spot so Saxony has fresh lawn grass to munch along with her hay. Down at the right, sleeping on the job, are her three irksome footmen, some kind of geese or swans acquired as kids by the farm owner, who has a thing for birds in general.

I was there on Sunday with a friend to watch a clinic at an ungodly hour of the morning. It was a clinic for advanced riders and horses, but in it I saw all that we are learning, just done with a mastery that Saxony and I both lack, but which is not unattainable for either of us with work. I know this because on Thursday, after I'd done Saxony's ground work and in-hand work, my trainer decided to ride her before I did to show me what they'd been working on. I cried. It's not that shoulders-in or half pass are so elegant, or that a horse looks so different when balanced. It's not how willing and ably Saxony worked. I cried because I finally have a horse I am doing something with and I am understanding what we are doing. That has seemed such an elusive thing to me through the past few years; it was just something I imagined. I cried with relief and some pride, too.

Over our first three joint lessons, Saxony and I spent most of the lesson attached to B via the longe line. I understood why from the first ride. Saxony is forward, much more forward than I've experienced her to be. She's also unbalanced, and I am being taught how to help her move into balance with my seat, leg and rein aids. I'm also being taught how to dial all those aids way down. It's hard work. I always considered myself to be a quiet rider, but as my mare finds her way, her sensitivity is emerging. I'm not so quiet anymore, at least not relative to her. This is a wonderful thing to realize, that I am being tasked with finding subtlety along with everything else.

Today we were off the longe line and trotting on a big circle, working to stay round and rhythmic. When I keep my eyes up, I can feel Saxony go on the bit. If I try to sneak a glance down, she comes off it, responding to my distraction and change in position. Meanwhile, I circle at the rising trot not even thinking about how odd it feels to have my legs that straight, that long, that far under me. That's one thing my body is recognizing as the new norm, at least.

Self-consciousness is the enemy of accomplishment, someone once said. Boy, they were right. Ever so slightly, mine is starting fade, at least in this realm, with this horse.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Joint Lesson No. 2

I skipped writing about joint lesson No. 1 because I thought chances were pretty good that I made the whole thing up. I had that lesson last Thursday. My mare had been at the barn eight days, and the growth in her could not possibly have been real. That's what I thought as I drove away. I thought I needed so badly for it to go swimmingly that I had succumbed to magical thinking.

But it did go swimmingly. It had gone swimmingly then, and it did today. My horse, Saxony. She's a blackish, 15.3, kindhearted Appendix mare. Since I bought her, I guess I've been riding the Quarter Horse in her. That would be the strength and calm, long and low. Now I've met the Thoroughbred in her. That's the lift and forward, contact and collection. It feels amazing to ride the horse that is rising up in her.

When I went to that Thursday lesson, I wasn't expecting to ride Saxony, so I was surprised when B told me I'd be having all my lessons on her as long as I had her at the barn. I understand why, now. If I'd stayed on a school horse, I wouldn't know how to ride Saxony in keeping with her training. She felt so different under me in that lesson that I quickly realized I'd have to work hard to stay with her.

Today we had joint lesson No. 2. Here's our drill. I groom and tack her in her stall, attach side reins and longe line, and come to the arena ready for groundwork. We step right into the longe line work, just a few laps in either direction of trot and canter. Saxony has difficulty finding the left lead, so my options are to keep her cantering (big canter) until she self-corrects or bring her back to trot and start again. It doesn't matter which option I choose, the important thing is for Saxony to become comfortable cantering on the correct lead in both directions.

Adding the inside side rein comes next. The intent is to encourage Saxony to lower her head and seek contact with the bit. (Sidebar: she's going well in the Baucher, fussing all but vanished.) From time to time today I became distracted, almost mesmerized, by watching Saxony bend, round and stretch into her big working trot, but I'll get better at keeping my focus.

We end the groundwork with a short session of in-hand work, shoulders-in for now, encouraging Saxony to cross her legs under. That work is hard for me because it feels unnatural to use a whip. I have to struggle through self-consciousness and remind myself that the dressage whip is a training aid, nothing more. I hold the inside rein just at the bit ring to bend Saxony toward me while moving her in a straight line along the rail, keeping her working in the space defined by the one hand at the bit and the other pointing the whip. She's a quick, quick study, and I can see that the stretching inherent in shoulders-in is something that already feels good to her.

All of this was amazing to participate in today, and I haven't even come to our work under saddle.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Right to School

While the festival was winding down and I was wrangling my way through thousands of sunwashed, sometimes quite drunken revelers, my trainer continued to work with Saxony. She'd made one adjustment the same day I brought Saxony to the barn, sending me to buy a Baucher (bow-SHAY, at least that's my version) bit to replace the simple snaffle I'd been riding her in. I'm very curious to see how Saxony will go in the Baucher.

I'd told B pretty much everything I could think of about Saxony in the weeks prior to the move. It was an interesting recitation of facts and gaps. One of the things I told her about is how fussy Saxony is with her mouth during the bridling process. She offers much tonguing, yawning and rubbing as she settles the bit where she wants it, coupled then with producing sometimes copious amounts of drool during our rides. And I mean drool. It's not champagne, the fine white froth that sometimes results from the conversation between the hands of the rider and the mouth of the horse; it's just plain, clear drool. After having her examined by an equine dental specialist to rule out physical causes for her drooly fretfulness, I elected to wait until we were in training to make any changes to her tack. I don't know enough about bits and bitting to feel comfortable experimenting on my horse.

Because I trust my trainer, I went and bought the AlBaCon 5-1/4-inch Baucher she'd prescribed. This bit is made of German silver, with some copper added. B likes the Baucher for its steadiness in the horse's mouth. I'll see her ride Saxony in it on Thursday.

Meanwhile, B sent me a brief update during the weekend about what she was doing with Saxony, and it gave me a simple confidence boost in echoing some of what I already knew about her: "I rode her on Friday. She did very well. I can tell she's had some previous training. She was able to do both a shoulder in and haunches in at the walk. Her balance in the trot needs improvement, but I expect that to come quickly. She is weak in the canter, and needs to build her strength in the groundwork before we try cantering under saddle."

Naturally, I can't wait to get to the barn. Yes, I believe we'll come together, Saxony and I, and riding her will be wonderful, but right now nothing pleases me more to be learning about her. It's thrilling, completely thrilling.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Just Add Water

That's really how it felt yesterday, taking Saxony to our trainer's barn. I've never had her trailered anywhere. Would she load? Yes, she would, and she did. During the hour-long drive, she plucked at her hay net and stayed balanced and steady. She backed out of the trailer calmly.

Somehow, I swelled with pride walking her into the big, double-sided barn, even as she was offering all sorts of vocal stylings. For a grown mare, she has a baby-girlish voice full of squeals, squees and trills.

The barn is intimidating to me because it is so moneyed. Still, I've quashed that anxiety in myself for what my lessons give me. Last week I was invited to do a little trunk show of things from my Etsy shop, and the money was out in dining, deco and bling. Unless I was talking with someone about some fascinating old photograph or bit of equine ephemera, I blanched and hung back with the friends who'd come along to help. But having Saxony there at the barn changed that shyness for me. She's my peeps, I guess; I breathed easier. 

After we settled her in a stall, I sat down to watch B ride her own horse, listening down the aisle all the while for sounds from Saxony. She'd paw the floor from time to time, but was mostly silent, sampling the new hay. At some point, though, my instructor calmly remarked that Saxony had gotten out of her stall. She calmly remarked that. And yes, Saxony, unused to stall guards, had simply pushed through hers and wandered in search of my voice. I started to my feet and there she was, looking at me almost longingly. I took her back to her stall and closed the door behind us to linger with her for a while. She snuffled her hay and I just stood there stroking her shoulders and back.

After my friend S had her lesson and I'd finished mine, B surprised me by suggesting we start Saxony right then. Saxony was quite startled, herself. It's not a very good picture - I was too engaged and excited to pay attention to my camera.

It's not a day spa? Really?

And I felt, driving away from the barn at the end of a long day, many things. One, that it was the first all-horse day I've had in a such a long time. How wonderful they are, those days. Two, one chapter has ended completely and another has begun, a new chapter, fresh and only just hinting at what it contains. Three, the third, that I never rushed, never hurried, never commented in my own head about every step along the way. I took my horse where we will be for a while and all of it was good.

(I'm going to write my way through this big, new experience of taking a horse for training, but I can't begin in earnest until the festival where I work wraps up its season. I won't see Saxony for six days now, which means I'll miss five of her training sessions, but I'll be writing about all of it after that.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It's Only an Ocean When There Isn't a Bridge

Or, How I Mythologized the Canter.

I'll be taking Saxony to my trainer in two weeks. We'll be there for four to six weeks. It's a first for me and I think it'll be a first for her too.

In my first horse life, after I graduated from wild summer-long bareback rides on a borrowed horse but found I hadn't left my love of horses behind, the options I saw were riding lessons or showing; I mean those were the milieus around me. People who wanted to learn to ride had riding instructors, and people who wanted to show had trainers. I would never show, didn't even have a horse, so I had a riding instructor. There was no middle ground; at least, I didn't know about any. I had some riding lessons and eventually I had a horse. She cost money, so I quit the lessons to pay her board. Several happy years passed during which I acquired two more horses. I became a better rider through miles and hours, but I didn't learn anything more about how to ride properly or well. Nothing, in fact.

When I came back to horses after 2o years off, I remembered the familiarity of them, the habitual nature of wanting them, the whole love of being able to touch them. I remembered all those things and it made it so easy to come back. What I overlooked was that I had never learned how to ride from beginning to end, through all three gaits, not to mention any of the other myriad nuances.

I returned to horses in the unexpected company of a fast, sturdy, opinionated mare who I eventually learned to be frightened of. I felt that I did not know how to ride her the way, perhaps, that she should be ridden. I didn't know what way that was, exactly, just that whatever it was, I didn't know it.  So I took riding lessons, the option I remembered from all those years ago. I hired someone to instruct me and "train" my mare. Fits and starts, fits and starts. There was never unity, never a unified course. I never "finished" those riding lessons and she never "finished" her training. (Understanding neither of those endeavors is ever finished, but I mean the basics roughed in.)

That's history and now is now. Before my lesson with B began today, I mentioned cantering. I was thinking that Saxony would be arriving at the barn in two weeks and those things felt connected, to me. "I'm not going to say never," B said to me, "but not until your sitting trot is there. You can't canter without it." I felt chastened and elated at the same time. Chastened like an eight-year-old, Oh, I'm not that good? Elated like an adult suddenly understanding something key, Oh, I can't canter without it? I get it. B went on to say that the canter is simpler to sit once a rider has command of the sitting trot.

It feels lame to write this, because I've had so much experience with horses, done real time with them in my own relative way. But no, I didn't continue with my lessons back then, so I never made it to the sitting trot. All these years intervening and then to come back seated on a high-spirited, spooky mare and find myself wondering what comes between the trot and the canter? Hmm. I just couldn't get Scout into a canter without both of us wigging out. There was a void there, so I filled it with fear, simple as that, and began to broadcast it, too. The canter became huge in my mind, mythic.

It didn't help at all that I had a riding instructor that used to call it "the C word." Literally. She'd say something like, "Just another couple of lessons and we'll start work on 'the C word'." Oceanlike, my fear of the canter grew, spreading as a sea of impossibility in front of me. It also became, in the negative space around it, the zenith, the height of my ambition: Cannot be a rider without it.

My thighs are just burning as I write this, sore from so much rising trot, sitting trot, rising trot, sitting. I get it. Someone has told me. I am being taught the sitting trot. It is hard, hard work, and I would go back there in an hour if I could.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Where Have I Been?

The last time I experienced a real moment with my mare was in April, I think, though my mind turns back to January, really, in the way I am about connecting with horses. I had such a distracting, hard winter. It squeezed me from all sides, squeezed her out to the distance.

In part, I let that happen. Something in me said let it rest. But that voice was barely a whisper against the din of self-recrimination. We humans are so flawed in how we bargain with the days, with time, with meaning.  I am, anyway.

I just could not. Horse. 

My work caught me up then, the summer-long freight train of the festival. It's always the same journey to the same destination, always speeding, always hurtling by. Goes so fast, I can't take it in, but then I've been on that train so many times, what more is there to see? It feels like that, like I've seen it all.

But I haven't, of course. It's just finding the time to notice, or being in the right place at the right time. I watched a young new horse try on the joust, his eyes quick and shifting to take in the sweep of stimulus before him: color, sound, collision. I never took my eyes off his face, just couldn't because the process of his struggle to understand was so vividly expressed upon it. It looks like he'll make it, but he has a choice in the matter. That's the very thing that could make him a great joust horse, his having the choice.

Here at the festival I'm the unofficial Dr. Doolittle. People bring all manner of creatures to me, believing I'll know just what to do. I've tucked young bats back into trees, hosted stunned birds in my guest room until the crowds have gone, crawled belly first under old decking to recover baby wood ducks who'd fallen through. I understand the impulse of people who don't know what to do, but can't stand to worry.

I would go up to the barn from time to time and see her, check on her in the worst of the summer's heat, shine her up with an oily fly spray. She comes when I call her. Never once has she asked Where have you been? But I have. I am.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Midnight Handoff

In my years of working at the festival, I've met only one horse who seemed truly born to be a joust horse, seemed not only to understand his work but to thrive on it. That made him completely unique in my estimation. Rather than performing as a half-resigned automaton grinding through a changeless routine, K was a showman who knew how to reach the crowd every bit as dramatically as his dashing, theatrical rider did. He loved his work.

He turned 24 earlier this year. Over the horizon came the glimmer of retirement, perhaps at summer's end. At least a slowdown to smaller shows and school gigs. K's owner began searching for a second horse, a successor of sorts, who, with time, might learn to fill the shoes of big K. He found that horse yesterday, a seven-year-old Appendix gelding bright with potential, and trailered him to the fair. Turned loose in the big north pasture where K had been knee deep in grass, solitary and relaxing, the new horse set out across the hill to meet him. It seems they hit it off instantly, running, snorting, playing through dusk, their hoofbeats echoing long after dark.

Somewhere in the night, big K decided he'd found the heir it seems he'd been searching for, too, and handed off the gig. His family went out to the pasture this morning to feed the two and found him dead, fallen mid-stride, the new horse standing watch over him. Some of us thought instantly of the wisdom of horses, to know when it is time to go, to know they can lay down without the bonds of society tethering them to life when they are tired. Heartbroken, K's family faced their new horse in the intimacy of grief. He touched their shoulders and stayed close as they circled around K, curling low in the grass where he lay, the one in a million who made it look like anything but work. He was a star, a magician who breathed dynamic life into the myth of the warhorse, show after show after show. That was K, and he will be sorely missed.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mining the Dormant Seam

After too long an absence, I returned to my riding instructor several weeks ago, the one I found late last summer. Today I had my third lesson. I take these lessons at mid-morning, after I've awakened, but before I can begin to quicken with the day.

I am so willing to work and learn; I mean, I surrender nearly all self-consciousness in front of this very skilled rider/instructor. The only time I flush is during the in-hand work that begins each lesson. Time slows, seemingly hobbled by my fumbling with the longe line, side reins and whip. We start with a minute or two on the circle, the line threaded through the snaffle bit of the double bridle, then add a side rein, switching it all when we reverse direction. After the old schoolmaster is stretched out, I do close in-hand work, moving him around my outstretched arm, keeping him bent and crossing under. It feels awkward simply because it lacks the fluidity of routine, is all. I'll get better at it.

I wondered if we would have to go back to the beginning when I first returned. I wondered if I would realize that I had only imagined the seemingly instant connection between my instructor's ability to teach and my ability to learn. I hadn't imagined it, and we didn't have to go back to the beginning. Some rust cracked off, spiraling gently to the ground, when she moved my leg back three inches. That took two minutes. Since then, we picked up from where we left off.

Today she began to mine a dormant seam, activating muscles in me that I think I never used when riding, didn't know to use. They are muscles one needs to rely on for a deep and centered seat. I am thankful they were still there in me, forgotten but not gone. It made me realize that, for me, what this instructor will teach me is how to ride my mare with my body, not just my mind. There are some tools which only the body can provide. The mind, for all its self-importance, has little provenance when those tools are required. All my thoughts designed to reduce anxiety come to nothing without my body knowing itself in the saddle. I am excited to see it so plainly.

My mare is shining with good health and ready strength. I am going to take her to my instructor's barn for the month of August, and September too if I can manage it. There I sense we will emerge toward one another together, I feel it. Already, I'm counting the days.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bumping Up Against Her

Sometimes I think when I talk about Saxony or write about her, I make it sound like I think she is dumb. She isn't dumb. She taught me something big the other week, something I was way overdue on learning. It's simple what she taught me: that she is fully present when I am fully present. What's dumb is how hard it was for me to see that.

The Friday before last, I felt an urge to go out to the barn and see her. I drove there with no plan in mind, just gave myself the freedom to go. She came right to the fence line, as usual, when I pulled up. We did our looking at each other thing. In the barn, I groomed her, and I really sank into it. I felt I had that time, a perspective which has been rare for me during the last few months. And grooming her opened something in me, enough that I let things fall away from the foremost agitation in my mind. She sighed at some point, deeply, and sort of wrung her body out, like a clenching and releasing of all her muscles. After that, it felt right to tack her up, and that's what I did.

I've ridden her here and there through the past couple of months, mostly bareback, mostly contained wanders and idles in the ring. I haven't wanted us to go in full tack. It's me. I haven't wanted to go in full tack.

We did a ride of purpose and intention. I wasn't thinking about anything else. I finished transitions, up and down, rode her up into the walk from the trot and reverse, corrected myself when I began to drift away from my seat. I stay tuned to her, feeling how she was going. Whenever I felt I might float up into my hamster-wheel head, I picked one of the letters mounted on the top fence rail and rode to it. Then another, and another.

She's an inquisitive mare, likes to look, and wants to move to see better whatever has drawn her attention. I don't want that. She can look, but she doesn't need to head toward the thing. We worked on that. I rode her to a square halt in the center of the ring. We stood there and practiced just looking, together. I told her, "There are the horses across the street. That's that guy on his tractor. There's Gracie on the porch. Over there, they are trying to load Gambler into the trailer." We looked at all of it. After a few moments, she turned her head to touch my booted toe with her nose. That's when I understood that she was fully present, she was connected to me. She'd just been looking around, but not away.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Hands On

So, if my mind's not quite in the game, my body can still go there. Sloughing off the winter is close to being my favorite time of a horse-owning year. I dig in with my few simple tools and work at it until my shoulders burn. The horse loves it as much as I do, just differently. She loves the pressure of my raking through her coat over and over, leans into it, sighs. I love the feel of chasing a seam, like coal, finding the glitter gleam under lifeless shale.

The brittle strands sometimes levitate in the surrounding air - they cleave to my lips before long, line an eye. I pull and drag her contours, following her every small shift of position without thought. If only I could peel off my own shit like I can peel off what she's already cast away. But I don't think about things like that then, only notice sometimes the burning in my wrists, the sweat at my brow. It's satisfying, relieving, a little freeing.

Afterward, lingering at the doorway, she seems to smile. That can be enough. It can be enough for what it was. She looks beautiful.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Closing The Weave

I really did step back from my mare, and it's been a strange kind of hard work to do it. I wrote about needing time to let a bad horse year go and begin another one fresh. Then I imagined an encircling winter, the kind that brings to mind weathering it out on an 1800s prairie, living the punishing days by rote until the thaw. For me, there's renewal in that kind of waiting. What I imagined isn't quite how it went, though. There have been too many days of mildness and the weather has disoriented me in my own thinking. It's like it's summer and I've already lost the spring, squandered the spring. At least, I have those shimmers of guilt.

Then I found this amazing picture. It's not possible to say all that I see in it, all that I think about it. I can say it really stirred me up. How she clutches that horse to her, how she hunches protectively, the tension plain to see. I felt like that a couple of times last year. Her fierceness - I felt that. The sweet compliance of her mare even reminds me of my own.

Once I had a horse, Scout, who was attuned to every tension in my body. It wasn't a good thing for us as a team under saddle, but it was oddly validating, a kind of direct proof that things were going on in me, in my life. She could remind me of how bad I felt, how wound up I was with the churning of things. She reflected it and that brought us close together. I don't have that with Saxony; she's not that kind of horse. I have to bring myself down to be with her, drop out of my head, come closer to simplicity. It's really hard. She wants her rubs, her dawdles, her German muffins, our gazing eye to eye. She doesn't know that I'm a mind-rooted existentialist and she doesn't feed off my auto-cues of anxiety and doubt, either unwitting or overt. It means she can never become part of my drama unless I drag her there. I know that is a good thing, but I also know that's why it's taking me so long to come back to her. I am trying to discard things in my life I don't need or want anymore, trying to discard those things from myself.

My mare may be unbalanced, but she travels easier in herself right now than I, who can walk a straight line effortlessly but still struggle to get out of my own way.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Life Lived Rough

She was a cat who lived, island-like, at the fair. She would not come anywhere near the human side of life. Over the years, she cranked out litter after litter. I stole and kept some of her kids, deceiving her away from them with daily food.

In 2008, I baited a live trap and caught her. I got her spayed and ear-tipped, knowing she would always be wild. In fact, she broke out of my office the night I locked her there to recover from the spay. But she came to expect the food. We worked out an understanding, of sorts. I wouldn't try to tame her, she wouldn't run from me.

Each autumn, I left the fair to move back to the city, knowing that I would worry about her making it through the winter. I left an automatic feeder, outdoor heating pad and a heated water bowl. It was never enough, though: I had to drive down and check. I think the moment I got her spayed, I had to assume responsibility for her.

So in 2010 I trapped her one more time - it took days because she was wise to me by then - and moved her to the farm where I kept my horses. Up in the hayloft, I released her from the trap. She darted to the wall opposite of where I crouched. "This is where you live now, Harlotta," I told her. "I can feed you every day and you can be master of all you survey. Please stay here."

And she did stay. Even when that farm blew apart and I had to leave, she stayed. It was impossible for me to catch her and take her with me. Instead, someone very kind there took over for me. I brought food out from time to time, and I knew she was all right, but it haunted me that I'd left her. It didn't matter to her, though, and why should it have? Her needs were met, and they continued to be met after I was gone.

She listened to me. She never left that farm, and that's where she died, in her sleep, on Sunday morning. Now I can let go of her in the only way I ever wanted to, with peace of mind and relief. Hers was a life lived so roughly, but still, it ended in a better place.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Deeper Why

There was a story in the news today about someone near Fresno, California, who won a fat lottery payout 10 years ago, setting him up for life (enough to set any ordinary person up for life, I'd guess.) So this winner went out and bought himself a ranch, like you do. He had 11 horses there. Yesterday eight of the horses, starving, were removed from the property. The other three will be removed today. Stories like this one are common, of course, regular as a kind of busted clockwork; just when you think it's stopped, the thing starts ticking again. Every story like this that I come across causes heart cringe in me, an unmistakable impulse of compassion, anger and sorrow. When you're wired that way, there's nothing that can be done to avoid the feeling.

Fresno Bee Photograph

But just once, I wish the reporters would investigate the deeper why. What is an animal to someone who isn't instinctively drawn to them? What is an animal to someone who is indifferent to them? How can they be less than living, be forgotten like an unwanted object? How does one disregard that they are there? These seem like silly, naive questions because the answers seem reflexively obvious, but the real answers aren't obvious to me at all.

I have a long commute to work. In the evening, driving back, I pass through a huge freeway interchange before exiting home. This mild winter I've seen two cats hunting on the high shoulder near my exit, inside the chain-link fence meant to keep them out. They're hardscrabble cats who seem wise to the traffic. I look for them with every drive. Sometimes I see them, sometimes not. When I don't see them, I look for them dead in the lanes. They're junk cats, abandoned strays or maybe urban ferals who've never known human contact. Still, I think about ways to catch them, can't help it. They're never not living to me. I have to take note of their welfare.

I want to understand what it's like to look at animals in need and feel nothing, not hate, not indifference, just nothing. I wonder what it is to see them from that perspective. What do such people know about themselves? How do they experience their sense of self? It's not the shocked How could they that I want to hear, it's the deeper Why do they. I want a reporter to explore that so I can check my judgment, because it is harsh and unforgiving.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Latitude Time, Longitude Horse

So I opened a vintage horse shop on Etsy shop in January because I like to dream it will pay for my sweet mare to have all that she needs, pay for me to continue with my riding instructor, pay for me to one day be looking out over verdant fields, musing over which of the three marvelous, suited-in-all-ways horses I shall ride just then, long freed from work I've lost the heart for and a place I've never ever thought of as home...

Ahh, dreams. That's a lot of freight to hang on a little cyber-commerce. But the shop is there, weaned off my wishing and moving on unsteady legs toward my wanting. What a magical thing it gave me yesterday.

In the evening, someone purchased this vintage photograph from my shop. I'd called the photo Shot In the Heart and written about all the details I'd noticed in it. I wrote about the kind hands of the rider and the strength of the well-built pony. I wrote about the Shriner at background right and the little girl at background left, whip-lashing her neck at the sight of the pony as her mother leads her by the hand. It was that very same girl, grown now and horse-fevered all her life, who bought the picture. She recognized herself and wrote me a wonderful note with her order; instantly we were bonded through years, space and time; we were bonded through horses.

Value of my time: nothing much. Value of the photograph: $7.50. Value of her finding it: Priceless.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Michael Clayton - Looking at Horses

Thinking about Cave of Forgotten Dreams reminded me of a movie that's really never left me since I saw it. It's not a movie about horses any more than Cave of Forgotten Dreams is about horses, but horses appear in Michael Clayton just as powerfully as they appeared in Herzog's documentary. And two years after seeing it, I still think of those horses.

Michael Clayton is an interesting and complex legal thriller starring George Clooney and Tilda Swinton. Among its plot points are a lawyer who may or may not have had a nervous breakdown, a defense attorney who may or may not be corrupt, a death that may or may not have been a suicide, and a car explosion that may or may not have been intentional. Clooney plays the title character, an attorney with a gambling problem who's been working as the "fixer" for a high-powered New York law firm. He's called in to clean up messes caused by clients or members of the firm. Because his own life is a wreck, he can hardly judge the lives of those he bails out of ugly situations, but it's wearying work.

Michael Clayton depends on a four-day flashback that makes up most of the film. That flashback begins during a scene with horses and we return to the same horses when the story has caught up to the present day. It's a simple scene. The tired, burned-out Michael Clayton pulls over on a country road and gets out of his car when his attention is drawn to a hillside. He walks up the hill. There, three haltered horses stand side by side at the corner of their pasture. He approaches them, lifting his arms a little, palm up as if to tell them he won't harm them, and then he just stands there, looking at them. They look at him (and they really do). The camera cuts to each horse's face, then pans across them as a group. There's an occasional cut back to Clayton, whose expression is that of a troubled man seeking solace, understanding, redemption, peace.

The thing is, I don't know if the horses were in the original script or they were added by the director. What I'm sure of, though, is that whoever included them knew something about horses. It's why they chose to use them rather than, say, deer. It seems to me they knew that looking eye to eye at horses can strip you back to yourself if you've added too many layers or bring you back to yourself if you've forgotten who you are.

Sometimes I just step back from my mare and I look at her. She looks at me. I look at her. I don't do it enough, but I do it. Each time, I get that subtle recalibration that reminds me who I am, whether I like it or not. That's exactly what happens in Michael Clayton, and that's why I'll always think of it as a horse movie.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

You know how there's that dinner list thing, where people talk about who they'd invite for dinner, anyone from any time? Werner Herzog, the director of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, has been on that list of mine for a long, long time. I see every film he makes, documentary or fiction. I believe he's an archivist by nature, profoundly interested in excavating human truths and preserving them for the future. Perhaps that's why he felt such a deep urge - and sense of urgency - to film the paintings discovered in the Chauvet Cave in southern France.

In a way, the modern mind can't quite relate to the drawings in the cave. Grasping that you are looking at images created some 32,000 years ago is akin to knowing in real senses what one billion dollars is. In the end, it's theoretical.


Except for these horses...

We can look at all of the images (but for those that are concealed behind stalactite and stalagmite formations) from Chauvet Cave because they are widely available on the Internet. We can see drawings of human figures, bears, big cats, water buffalo, bison, and some animal species that vanished thousands of years ago. They are all interesting to look at, even as the mind searches for any kind of foothold to know what kind of people created them. Because to know they weren't people like us tells us nothing, really.

But in his film, Werner Herzog returns again and again to these horses. (I wish I knew how to make and link in a sound file of his voice as he says "the horses" in that wonderful round, slightly thick German tone of his.) I don't know what pulled him back to the horses, but I know I couldn't wait for the camera to return to them. Because these horses stand apart from the rest of the drawings. Maybe it's how they were drawn, the complexity of the group of them, the four different colors and sizes of them, the clarity with which they were depicted. It's as if the artist meant to paint them in exacting, painstaking detail, meant exactly to capture the what-they-are-ness of them. I think that intention is there. But what does that mean, what does that say about horses, I wondered to myself, watching the film. Herzog mentions in his running commentary that horses were hunted as food, among other things. Yes, but still, I can't help but feel that the human being who painted these four horses saw something more in them, understood something more. And oh, to know what that might have been.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

If I Didn't Have Her...

Then I would not have felt the ocean-like rhythm of her rocking into me, who was leaning there against her while she grazed.

I would not have felt her choosing where to reach next as I accompanied her, lead line just loose in my hand. 

And I would not have felt the simple, deep lift and pull of her spine and shoulders when she leaned long and forward, too lazy to lift a hoof toward that tuft of grass.

If I didn't have her, I would not have been able to return her gaze when she turned to look back for me. 

I would not have been able to feel the delicious shiver that ran the length of her when she snorted in pleasure, nose deep in the last-gasp grass.

And I would not have been able to feel her lift herself back up to look at her world, nose skimming the breeze.

If I didn't have her, I would not have been able find my own silence, which I have been awaiting for some long months, or notice the lulling call of the winter train, whistling out our journeys to come.