Roll Call

I doubt I could name five people in any of my classes from kindergarten through fourth grade, but I can tell you with certainty that once when I was about ten and we were visiting my grandmother, I went on a trail ride on a gelding named Gilbert while my sister rode a mare named Lucille. In fact, I have seen photos of even my fifth grade class and thought “Who ARE these people?” but I can look at ancient instamatic photos from the barn where I learned to ride and immediately identify the horses, whether I ever rode them or not: Parfait, Cherokee, Teddy, Ajax, Bits and Pieces, Hombre. I can fall asleep by listing the names of ponies from that first barn: Ace, Pickle, Tia Maria, Janice, Little Fat Pony, or horses from the next barn we moved to: Sea Dew, Splash, Confetti, Orion, Four on the Floor, and the chestnut Me Not trio (Catch Me Not, Kiss Me Not, Touch Me Not), or horses from camp: a big dapple gray gelding named Strictly, a sweet flea bitten gray mare named Nasha, and one of the most strikingly unattractive bay geldings I have ever seen whose name was Handsome. When I applied for my first job after college, as soon as I heard the woman’s voice on the phone I knew that she had been a boarder at the farm where I had worked before college. I had no recollection of her name but I knew her horse’s name was Happy, that his favorite snack was bananas, and which blankets he wore at what temperatures.

Horses from my past are sharing a lot of space in my heart right now, and none more than our own horses who moved to this property with us and who are buried here. It’s technically still winter but the early bulbs are pushing up their greenery and in some cases their flowers have started blooming, and there are crocuses, snowdrops, Carolina bluebells, or daffodils marking each horse’s grave. They each have a tree, too. We’ve planted a lot of trees here, but the horses’ trees all volunteered and grew from seedlings, marking the time as well as the horse.

When you drive up our driveway, you pass Wy’s grave. We buried him the year we moved here, not long after we finished the fence and barn and were able to bring the horses home. Wy was the third horse I bought and the last horse I sold, though he made his way back to me in the end. I was told by a dressage clinician who knew me hardly at all that I should not buy him because he would never make my dreams come true. There were a lot of reasons to argue that I had no business buying him, not the least of which was that I had neither the cash nor the income to do so, but the nature of my dreams and how this big bay horse fit into them was not even on the list. It’s been over twenty years since I got him back and I only just realized that the way that happened was in part because I had a dream that Wy told me to come get him, and when I woke up, I did just that.

Some people have stories about their lost love. Maybe it’s someone they let get away and only realized later they shouldn’t have. Maybe it’s someone they lost too soon. Mine is Trappe. I never intended to buy her – I was just planning a training lease where I would ride and train the horse until I sold her, and her owner and I would split the proceeds. It was not love at first sight, but it didn’t take too long to dawn on me that I’d been looking for this horse my whole life and I’d be a fool to let her go. There are no missed opportunities in our story. I didn’t let her get away. Technically speaking she didn’t die too soon – 24 isn’t young for a thoroughbred, and she survived an astonishing number of potentially fatal things (including colic, botulism, and lightning) in her lifetime. I just miss her. I’ve never had a horse partnership as deep as the one I had with her again, and I know that’s partly because I’ve never let myself get quite so close. A little more than half way through my time with Trappe I completely changed my approach to horses and I spent some time wanting to apologize to all of the horses, and especially her. A wise horseman friend said “You’ve got to let that go – your horses let it go a long time ago,” and while I know that’s true, I always kind of wanted a do-over with Trappe. For her sake, is what I thought, and while that is true, it’s also true that I’d like to have those (or any) nineteen years with her all over again.

Punkin was Rose’s baby, but she was mine in some ways, too. She was not the first young horse I started, but she was the first young horse I started and then got to keep working with long term. She was a master of energy conservation: always willing to do what we asked, always figuring out how to do it with the absolute minimum effort. At a log across the trail she would balance on her hind end while she chose her route – we could never accuse her of refusing – and then when she saw her spot she would hop gently to the other side and carry on up the trail. She was alternately grumpy and sweet with the other horses, but with humans she was sweetness itself. Punkin was the first horse we buried inside one of the pastures, and we never say “Punkin’s grave,” we just say things like “Niño and Tabby are napping by Punkin.” We do that with all the horses, come to think of it, but I particularly like to think of Punkin still out watching over her brother and her cousin.

Cookie was the very definition of motherhood. She made beautiful babies, passing on all of her best traits, and though she spent her first four years in a field with no human contact, she taught those babies to trust humans. She also taught our human babies to trust horses, and when she thought they needed it, she taught them lessons. I spent one fall “teaching” her how to canter (pro tip: horses know how to canter already), and I marvel at her patience as we (ok, I) learned just how small a cue was needed to get a nice lopey canter, instead of the leap-into-zoom I had been instigating. I’m not a fan of mass backyard breeding of horses, but if ever there was a horse I wish I had a whole herd from, it’s Cookie. She has a fountain of pink roses covering her grave. I’ve read that pink roses symbolize gratitude, grace, and joy, and that seems just about perfect. She was Rose’s heart horse the way Trappe was mine, and we each buried a big chunk of our hearts with those mares.

Trappe, Cookie, Punkin and Wy were our foundation horses, not in the breeding sense that horse people usually mean by that term – Cookie was the only one we ever bred – but these four horses were the foundation of us. Trappe and Cookie were how Rose and I met. Wy and Punkin were the horses we were learning our way with as we learned our way with each other in the first year of our relationship. We didn’t all stay together straight through, but we came back together when it mattered, and we grew and grew older together. From the horses we learned how to listen, how to learn, and maybe most important and most difficult, how to let go. I miss them and I feel their presence in equal measure, but not always at the same time. Today, this week, this month, I just miss them.

Let Go or Be Dragged

I have a long history of doing stupid things with horses. Usually I did the stupid things when I was alone, often while trying to get something done faster and more easily. I almost never got hurt back then, but I came back to the barn with a lot of interesting stories. There was the time didn’t shut the main gate before bringing the herd in for breakfast (spoiler alert: no horse story that begins with “I didn’t take the time to shut the gate” is going to end with all the horses going smoothly into their stalls) and ended up jogging down the middle of the road behind a trotting horse, as cars passed us in both directions, drivers apparently thinking this was an expected way for a person and a horse to get exercise at the same time. There was the time I hopped on one horse bareback to ride him in from the field while ponying another horse behind. Not a bad idea until the horse I was ponying slammed on the brakes, and I decided in that split second that if I had to hold onto either the inexpensive Apaloosa-Thoroughbred cross or the expensive Hanoverian it should be the Hanoverian. Perhaps not the wrong cost-benefit decision, but not such a good idea to let go of the horse I was riding and hang onto the horse I was leading but who wasn’t actually moving. Fastest unscheduled dismount I’ve ever done off the back end of a horse.

Sometimes it was a well intended but ill judged riding decision, as in the time I decided to get on a horse for the first time in an open field some distance from the barn. I was re-starting him after some very bad experiences and my theory was that he would be more comfortable away from the arena where the bad experiences had occurred. He stood like a rock as I put my foot in the stirrup, hopped a bit, and pulled myself up, and then he went from rock to rocket and bolted for the barn. I had the choice to throw myself off or throw myself the rest of the way on, and I chose on, trying to stay in the middle of his back while planning what I would say to my boss when we came screaming into the barn at 700 miles per hour. He wore himself down to a walk before I had to finish crafting my speech. There was the time I decided that it would be better for me to dismount and lead the green horse over the narrow, muddy creek instead of asking him to go across it with me on his back. I took the end of the reins, hopped across the creek, and turned back to encourage him only to find he was in mid-air on his way to landing in the exact spot I occupied. I turned away and he hit me square in the back with his chest, sending me from upright to face plant in a split second. Because I (of course) held on to the reins, I also caused him to step on me and push me further down into the mud. I ended up with mud covering every inch of the front of my body (face included), and some hoof-shaped bruises on my ass – perfect imprints including the shape of his frog, his shoe, even the nailheads.

My riding career got off to a fairly sedate start with a couple of black and white paint school ponies during two weeks of summer riding camp. Ace (Ace of Spades, for the black spade marking centered around his tail) had been packing new riders for so long I’m not fully convinced he ever knew little eight year old me was up there on his back, but he certainly never did anything to disturb me (or to expend any extra energy). Cherokee was smaller, prettier, and more sensitive, though I confess at the end-of-camp show she simply left the ring with me on her back and headed for her stall.

It wasn’t until a little later, but not much later, that I started getting placed on horses no one knew anything about and sent out for a trail ride or a lesson. This did not always go well, as in the time the horse in question was a mare with a foal by her side. The instructor shut the foal in the stall, put me up on the mare, and we headed out towards the trails. I say “towards” because we didn’t even make it all the way to the end of the barn before she turned around and ran back to her foal. It was a short ride. Slightly longer and more eventful was the time we were walking on a trail on a ridge above the creek , when the instructor started to trot and everyone behind him trotted also, until it came to the horse I was on. Instead of trotting, he stood up on his hind legs and started backing down the hill towards the creek. I threw my arms around his neck to try to stay on and keep him from flipping over while my sister, the only rider behind me, screamed for the instructor to stop. Like most of my stories from this period, this one ended uneventfully with the ride resuming after the instructor decided to walk the rest of the way.

Once I had a choice about what horses I would ride, I often chose the same kinds of horses I rode when I first started. Horses who were new at the barn and no one knew what to expect of them. Horses who people did know what to expect of, and it wasn’t anything good. Horses who people had decided weren’t worth the effort. I have always loved horses, but when I first started taking lessons I was afraid of riding them. I remained afraid until the first time I fell off and nothing bad happened. That fall happened because I was so tense I just bounced off the side of the horse when he started to trot. Afterwards I was able to at least loosen up enough to stay on. The next year when we moved to a different barn I had the added motivation of the requirement that any student who fell off in a lesson had to bring brownies to the next lesson. The shame of being seen carrying the brownies was sufficient to keep me on top during almost any situation. I learned to ride, but I also learned to hang on.

I am not sure if my lifelong habit of choosing horses who are challenging to ride had to do with proving that I was not scared, or with the positive “this kid can ride anything” feedback I got from being put on horses I had no business riding, or with having empathy for horses other people had given up on, or a combination of all these things. There was a period in my life where my horse choices and my people choices were remarkably similar. Then there was a point when I made a decision that if I needed to work out some kind of savior energy in my life I should do that with horses and not with people. Eventually I realized I don’t need to do it with horses either, but that was a bumpier road. That one brought up the “Who am I, if I’m not the person who…” line of thinking. If I’m not the person who can – and does – ride anything. If I’m not the person who is the horse’s last hope. If I’m not the person who can get the horse to do the thing he won’t do for anyone else. If I’m not the person who isn’t scared – but that’s the one that gets tricky, because I was in fact scared all along. I was just an expert at both hiding and ignoring it.

I don’t particularly want to admit to being scared of anything, but admitting I’m scared on a horse or around a horse is about the hardest thing for me. It comes the closest to erasing my entire identity. Even though it has been decades since I earned my living riding the last hope horses, the idea that I can do it is still central to my sense of myself. I still have the last horse I got because of my horse savior complex, and I will say now that I have been scared of him for most of the time I have had him. He didn’t need me to save him, turns out, but for a period of time I needed him because he doesn’t let me get away with anything, especially not with pretending not to be afraid. I try not to make that his responsibility any more. These days when I go out to his field and he’s jumping at shadows I just say, “Me too, buddy. People can’t always see what’s scaring us.”

I don’t miss my bad ideas and my crazy stories. I don’t miss making decisions that were dangerous for me and for the horses. I don’t miss what eventually led to broken bones when I stopped being young enough to bounce. I do miss being young enough to bounce, though, and sometimes I miss that kid who would get on any horse because at the heart of her she believed the horses wouldn’t hurt her. There’s still a horse crazy girl inside me who believes she is every character in every horse book she ever read: who rode a bronc to win enough money to buy Misty, who won the Grand National on The Pie, who galloped the Black Stallion on the beach and on the track. She’s pretty content, as it happens, to spend time hanging out with horses in her back yard, forgetting about what she can train them to do and letting them teach her what they want to teach. Some adventures are best left in the past.

No Excuses

My friend Anna got me thinking about excuses yesterday. Specifically about excuses for not writing, but generally about excuses for why we don’t do the things we say we want to do. Why I don’t do the things I say I want to do. And why I say I want to do things that I don’t really want to do. My excuses vary, but not much. At their root they are mostly shoulds or fears. I say I want to do something because I think I should do it, or because someone else wants me to do it (or I think they want me to do it, or I think they think I should – my mind can be a tedious spiral). I don’t do something because I’m afraid I won’t be good at it, or I will look silly trying, or I will have to choose between it and another thing. Fear of choosing is the worst because it usually leads to doing nothing at all.

For years I said I wanted to write. I took writing classes on and off so I would have to write, in theory. When I took a class and had a deadline, I often wrote, but not always. Sometimes I would skip a week, and sometimes I would just drop out after a few classes. “I don’t have time” is a nice blanket excuse that people don’t question much, but the truth is that I’ve always had the time. I just didn’t make the time. I didn’t really know how to take a class for the pure pleasure of learning and working on a thing. I didn’t see the reasons behind my excuses about time.

I took classes sporadically, and I wrote even more sporadically. A few years ago, I joined a writing group and I started this blog. For the first couple of years I wrote when I felt moved to do so, and months would go by without me posting anything. Without me writing anything. It’s not like I had a pile of writings I started and didn’t finish – I wrote nothing in those in between times. I wrote more than I had before, but I still didn’t have anything I’d call a writing practice. Then my friend Elaine started posting a blog a week, and I thought “what a good idea – I can do that.” And so I did. To my great surprise, it really was that simple. Now there’s no question about it. It doesn’t matter if I have a great idea or if I love what I’m writing or if I have other things to do or if I feel like it. It’s a thing I do.

I’m taking writing classes again now, with a whole different outlook. The classes are not the reason I’m writing, or the only writing I’m doing. They are a way for me to practice different techniques, to hone my work, to get feedback from other writers, to be in community with other people with similar goals, to be inspired. I no longer skip assignments, and I understand now that when I’m procrastinating it’s because the assignment is hard or I haven’t figured out how to do it or the topic I’m writing about brings up things I’d rather not feel. These assignments are short. I can do anything for a page and a half. And I’m always glad I’ve done it, even if I fight doing it every step of the way.

Over the last month, yoga (speaking of things I fight every step of the way) has also become a thing I do. Last night Rose said “Do you want to do yoga?” and I said “No, but I’m going to” and she said “That’s exactly how I feel.” Our daily breathwork group is another thing I just do. Committing to a writing practice has made it easier to commit to other practices. Seeing that tiny, incremental, almost unnoticeable changes add up over time has made it easier not to worry about whether I notice if I am making progress. Just doing the thing has become more important than making progress.

Getting better at doing some things has not magically made me good at doing all the things. There are things I say I want to do, and even put on my calendar, and yet somehow never get to. My new rule is that if I put something on my calendar for a month and I don’t do it regularly, it gets axed. Studying for additional work certifications, for example, has gone on my calendar for what are clearly “I think I should do this” reasons and not because it’s something I want to do or feel is necessary for my job. This study time is no longer on my calendar.

Sometimes I get distracted by something that looks cool. I am constantly exposed to cool looking crafts because Rose is an amazingly skilled and dedicated artist and artisan – she knits, and sews, and quilts, and plays multiple instruments, and sings, and draws and paints, and makes wonderful things out of clay. Some of these things she did before I met her, and some I have gotten to watch her learn, and I see how much time she puts into each thing. I enjoy a few of these things (clay and music), and when I feel like it I practice them, and I know I would be better at them if I practiced more. But when I want to practice something, I find it’s usually writing, baking, photography, or messing about with the dogs. My dog training method is very … informal, let’s say, but I am dedicated to it, and to the dogs.

Working with my dogs and horses falls into a mix of the “want” and “should” categories. I have mostly accepted that I do the things I enjoy and want to do with them, and I don’t do the things that are on my or anyone else’s “should” list. I had a friend once say, when Rose and I were talking about how easy our horses are to ride, “Well, sure, they are easy for YOU to ride.” A couple of years ago we were at a clinic where the clinician was talking about setting up your horse so that if something catastrophic happened to you, your horse could be passed along to a total beginner and it would be successful. I spent some time thinking that I needed to make it possible for my horses to schlep along with any old rider on their backs doing any old thing, but you can probably guess how many steps I took towards that aim: zero.

Today when I look at things I’m making excuses not to do, or things I’m not making time for, the conversation I have with myself goes something like this:

Do you really want to do the thing? If so, do it.
Don’t worry about if you do it well immediately, or ever. Do it.
Do you get pleasure from it? Do it.
Are you learning something you want to learn from it? Do it.
If not – don’t do it. The end.

Lessons

Boo and I went to a training class for the first time when he was three. He already knew the basic things I need all my dogs to know: come, sit, down. He knew roll over and high five because I thought that would be fun. When I said “Boo, what do you have?” he would merrily bring me the thing he had snuck from a surface somewhere and was chewing up in the middle of the floor – a sock, a hat, a bill, a packet of tomato seeds. He was like a one-canine scavenger hunt, but he was happy to share his findings with me when I asked.

The class we signed up for was a tricks class, because again – fun. He is the happiest dog I know and he loves to play, so I figured this would be a good place to start. Plus I wanted him (and me) to get out of the house some, and be around people we don’t know in places we haven’t been before to try new stuff. Spoiler alert: this is a very human definition of “fun.” It’s not even my definition of fun for me, but for some reason I thought he would feel differently.

Because I had never taken him to a class with other dogs before, not even a puppy class, I did not know what to expect, but he was super good. He ignored the other dogs, he stayed with me when I let him off leash, he obeyed all the commands he knew just as well as he did at home. He willingly went with the instructor and obeyed the commands he knew from her too, and did his best to follow her instructions when she asked him to do something new.

He was also extremely subdued, which is not a state I am used to seeing him in, not even at the vet’s office. When I take him to the boarding kennel he runs happily into the arms of whoever is working in the office. He’s just a happy little guy, and he was not his normal self in class. Aside from the newness of other dogs, strange people, and a new place, it was an indoor place. We do have some house rules, and while any amount of zooming and wrestling and jumping is fine outside, the dogs tone it down inside. Boo and Scout mostly do what we call “whisper-play” in the house. The training facility was a small indoor warehouse and maybe he thought there was a rule against romping. Or maybe he just didn’t feel like it. All the newness and all the learning had one effect I am certain of: it made him tired.

Just like how I have struggled to find a yoga class that works for me, I have struggled to find dog training classes that work for me and my dogs. In both things I can go pretty quickly from the logistical difficulties (it’s too far away, I don’t like the way the teacher teaches, it’s too crowded, the other attendees get on my nerves) to an existential crisis (Why am I doing this, anyway? Is it even my idea, or just something I think I should do?). This also happens with my horses, though it’s been years since I felt like taking a horse to a lesson.

For both the horses and the dogs, my existential crisis is around the “why.” In theory, classes are a way of getting out with other like-minded people with the same interests, a way of giving a horse or dog experience with new situations and other animals, a way to keep them (or us) from getting bored or stale at home. It’s also less expensive to take a group lesson a private lesson.

I’ve been to many barns and dog training facilities where the focus is on competition. Competition is encouraged as an opportunity to put what you and your animal have learned into action. Students of a facility who perform well at competitions are also an advertising tool for the facility, but that’s another story – or maybe it isn’t.

All of these reasons for attending classes and for competing sound really people-centric to me. Exactly one of my dogs likes being around strange dogs, and even he is wary at first. The rest of the reasons, from showing what you know to being exposed to new stimuli to alleviating boredom – all human. I read an article recently about managing stress in agility dogs and I was somewhere between amused, intrigued, and mildly outraged that at no point did the article even mention how stressed humans get at competitions and the effect that will have on their animals. I feel like I should throw in a statement here that I know people and dogs who purely love agility. I know this is not about the sport – it’s about me, and how I feel about both competitions and group activities. Maybe everywhere in this post I should replace “human” with “extrovert.”

There are humans – perhaps the extroverts, perhaps others too – who enjoy all of the things above, plus they also like competing. For me, the stress is the most notable thing – certainly at competitions, but sometimes even at classes. I know I will pass that on to my dog or horse, and the alleged up side for the dog or horse doesn’t outweigh the down side. I’m still not convinced the up side is an up side from the perspective of the actual animal. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are definite potential benefits to training a dog or horse. I say “potential” because it’s so easy to start pushing too hard and cause more problems than we solve. But there are benefits: physical strength and endurance, mental stimulation, connection with the animal. That last one, though, still maybe more of a human desire. I have brought horses and dogs into my life and I interact with them daily, so I do think developing a connection and a relationship with them is key – because they are stuck with me. I don’t think that in the abstract there’s a horse out there saying “If only I had a human” in quite the way I might say “If only I had a horse.”

One of the unexpected benefits of the pandemic restrictions has been that I finally found a yoga practice that works for me. A little over a year ago, I discovered that I actually enjoy yin yoga. I found a teacher I liked, in a studio about five minutes from my house. Even so, I managed to dread going to class almost more than I enjoyed having been to class. The tie-breaker was how I felt during class, which had a lot to do with who showed up on any given day. This is strikingly similar to how I feel about going to the dog training facility that’s five minutes from my house in the opposite direction. I freely admit that my inability to keep other people’s energy off me is entirely my issue, but it is my issue and I can’t just ignore it and hope for the best. I tried that for the first 53 years and now I’m ready to try something different.

In this year of Zoom everything, I know a lot of people who feel they have been saved by the ability to take Zoom yoga, or or pilates, or whatever classes they were taking in studios before. They have been able to take a class with the same people they are used to taking classes with in person, and they are still able to feel connected to those people. Since I did not have people I was used to taking class with, or even people I particularly wanted to take class with, this was not a big motivator for me.

What I started with was Youtube videos. I found a yoga instructor I liked who had videos I liked. Rose and I did one of the videos a couple of times. What we both found we like better, though, is to create our own sequence of yoga poses, whether yin or restorative, put them in a yoga timer app, and then pick our own music and do our own thing. There are some drawbacks. We got terrible giggles when I misspelled “savasana” as “shivasana” and the yoga timer app voice yelled “SHEEva-sana,” and every time she blurts out “BANANA” I think of the grocery store self check out voice saying “Put your BANANAS in the bag,” but a little laughter during yoga isn’t such a bad thing. This homegrown yoga practice is the best I have done with getting what I’ve been looking for from yoga: a combination of relaxation, meditation, and very gradually increasing flexibility. It is, in fact, the first time I can actually say I have a yoga practice – one which I do every day.

At the same time as I have figured out a yoga practice, I have also found a Zoom group that I like. It’s a breath work group, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the sense of community I get from it. I didn’t know what to expect since I’ve never done breath work except in the context of riding horses. It’s the first time in a long time I have done a group activity that actually did give me the feeling of being around like-minded people, even if the only way in which we are like-minded is that we have committed to doing the same thing – and it is a commitment, six days a week. I don’t think that is the only thing, but it’s useful for me to recognize that even if it were, that could be enough.

It took me nearly a year of not being able to physically attend classes I didn’t really want to attend anyway to figure out what works for me. I’m pretty sure I can apply that to my dogs and horses as well. There aren’t really that many criteria: it has to be something we all enjoy, something we find relaxing, something that everyone gets something out of. There are a lot of different ways to learn things, and I can live with being creative about that, even if we do it all at home. If it also makes me giggle, so much the better.

Let Her Eat Cake

My friend Elaine died last Tuesday. I knew it when I woke up that morning, but having it confirmed still took my breath away. The first thing I thought when I heard the news, right after “damn it to hell,” was “I need to make her a cake.” I am quite sure it is the memorial she would most have wanted from me, and it is the one I most want to give her.

Her death from cancer was no surprise. I met her through an online writing group in which many of us began blogs. Her blog was called a horse, a husband, and cancer, and in it she openly discussed her 30 year battle with cancer. More than anyone I have ever known, Elaine recognized the relationship she had with her cancer – the actual til death do us part nature of it. Before I even knew her, her doctors had deemed her cancer incurable, terminal. So no, it was not a surprise. And yet. How can she be dead?

We met through our writing. We bonded through our shared interests in horses and baking, and our dark senses of humor. We became friends through our blogs. In Ann Patchett’s Story of A Happy Marriage, a friend asks Ann of her first husband, “Does he make you a better person? … Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?” And to all of these things, but especially the last one, I can say a resounding yes about Elaine.

Ours was a writing friendship, something I didn’t even knew I needed or could have. We were motivated and inspired by each other because of how much we loved each other’s writing. Each blog post, each comment, each tangential discussion was fodder for our next writing efforts. Reading each other’s work was a pleasure in itself, and it also made us both want to write more. We never tried to be editor or critic for the other; we were just enthusiastic readers and sources of more material. “Just,” I say, as if those aren’t the things we writers want most. Fairly early on Elaine said to me, “But most of all I want you to write more because the subject almost didn’t matter, I just want your words,” and that is exactly how I felt – how I feel – about her writing.

Elaine began posting a weekly blog last spring, and I was inspired to do the same when I realized how eagerly I read her words first thing every Thursday over my morning coffee. It was like getting an anticipated letter in the mail (and oh, I miss letters), ripping open the envelope and starting to read right there at the mailbox, the letter in one hand and the torn envelope in the other. When I started posting on Mondays, she read and responded to my work as avidly as I did hers. We said we had a biweekly tea date – well, tea for her on Mondays, coffee for me on Thursdays – as we sat down with a hot drink (and maybe cake) and each other’s words. When I was stuck for an idea I would sometimes think, “What do I want to tell Elaine about this week?”

We grew up in different countries, different decades, different families, different schools. Sometimes we wrote about the parts of our lives that had no intersection, and we learned things from and about each other. Sometimes we wrote about the same topics – cake, for example – cake was always central for us – and all the things that baking represents, and the people and rituals it connects us to. Birds, and how they helped us find our way to dead relatives (my sister, her mother). I often wrote about death – of family members, of beloved animals. Elaine often wrote about her cancer, her own death looming far or near on the horizon.

Of course we wrote about our horses. We each had a truth serum horse – the kind of horse that doesn’t let us get away with any of our shit, the kind of horse that requires us to be our truest, most honest, most vulnerable selves in their presence. We both had a tendency to armor up with humor and a veneer of toughness when facing fear, and those truth serum horses have no patience with that. Last summer, Elaine wrote a multi-part series about her horse, Bruce: his life prior to her, and his life with her. Part fact, part conjecture, all truth, she brought him to vivid life for her readers. Less than two months later he was dead from colic. Shocking, unexpected, heartbreaking. And yet I also see that Bruce blazed the trail for Elaine to follow not long after. Shocking, expected, heartbreaking.

In her last message to me, just a few days before she entered hospice, Elaine related her recent terrifying hospital visit in a typically dry yet hilarious way. Her last words to me were “I miss Bruce like my heart is breaking and I might never get to meet you.” My last words to her were “I miss your voice,” and I always will. Until I heard of her death I held out hope that I would get to see her in person for our long promised tea and cake visit, but I know us. Bruce was waiting, and we would both agree with a paraphrased John Muir: “The horses are calling, and I must go.”

The last thing I wrote that I know Elaine read was my Christmas Bat piece, which I wrote because it was a story she asked me for. It began, though, with my explanation that I was giving her the story because I was not able to deliver the 10 layer Russian honey cake she had also asked for. I also wrote of my sadness over the prospect of my friend’s death. Her reply to that was “I expect your friend will change her mind and decide to wait for the layer cake. I know I would. And with covid restrictions, exchange rate, costly flights etc, it might take a looooong time til you deliver the cake to her?” I wanted that time. I can’t separate how much I wanted it for her and how much I wanted it for me. I can honestly say that I would have traded ever meeting her in person for her getting as much life as she wanted. I also know I would have wanted to keep sharing that life, even if only from across the ocean.

I started this piece the day she died. I almost posted it that day, but I knew it was not finished. I revised, and rewrote, and chainsaw-edited. I almost posted it on Thursday, Elaine’s day, but I was still revising. By Friday I realized that as long as I am working on this, I have her with me in a way I won’t when I finish it. Part of me can still pretend that she will read it. The rest of me is grieving daily as I write. I need both the illusion and the grief right now.

When I make Elaine’s cake, it will most certainly be that 10 layer Russian honey cake. It is complicated, time consuming, and it will give me many hours of preparation and baking and construction to commune with her in my kitchen. I will cut it into thin slices and freeze it, to make it last for as many Thursdays as possible.

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
E.B. White

To read Elaine’s words please go to her blog: a horse, a husband, and cancer

Terra Firma

Rose doesn’t love it when people ask how we chose our farm name and I say it was bestowed upon us by a drunk man at a party, but it’s true, and I do kind of love the way it came about.

The barn we were running at the time of the party was our first farm together and our only boarding barn. Our then dressage instructor had been leasing the farm for several years, boarding horses and teaching lessons, but she had bought her own place. Rose and I decided to go into business together – this was before we were together together – and lease the farm ourselves.

The name of the farm under our dressage instructor was Centerline, and while fitting for a dressage barn, it was also her business name and was traveling to her new home with her. Not to mention that, inherited boarders aside, we were not all that interested in running a dressage barn. The farm was on the border of two counties, and there was a lot about it that was held together with duct tape and baling twine – or in the case of the fences, multiflora rose bushes and wishful thinking. We settled on the name Borderline Farm, which I thought brought just the right amount of snark to the dressage clientele, and which exactly none of them found at all funny.

Things only got more dressagey after that, as not only did we have the dressage instructor who used to lease the barn coming back weekly to teach lessons to her clients who were now our boarders, we brought in another dressage instructor and several of his clients to board as well. He was a well thought of rider from a well known local dressage program, and also young and very handsome, and he had quite a following of older women with expensive horses that mostly he, not they, rode. Let’s just say if I had set out to attract boarders who I will loosely call “my people,” these would not have been they, but there were stalls to be filled and bills to be paid.

The young dressage instructor threw a Christmas party for his clients, and Rose and I were invited and attended. We were by then together together, and not just running the business together. We all took the excuse of being away from the barn for once to wear something other than our barn clothes. I had on an actual dress and, as I recall, eye make-up. Near the start of the party another woman and I started to introduce ourselves before we realized that a) she was one of our boarders and b) we had known each other longer than probably anyone else in the room. Horse people in party clothes are often unrecognizable.

There were people there that we truly did not know, however, in the cases where a boarder had brought her husband along. It was one of these husbands who had been talking to me and Rose for some time, when suddenly he pointed to me and said, I thought, “Tara.” I sighed and pointed to myself and said “Tessa,” because the two most common names people confuse my name with are Tara and Teresa. He shook his head harder than I thought wise for so drunk a person and pointed again, saying “No, Terra. You’re Terra — ” and then, pointing to Rose, “and she’s Firma.” I still don’t know where that came from – it was a complete non sequitur even by drunk party talk standards – but it had something to do with that talking to us was a very different experience than he had found talking to anyone else in the room. Whatever his level of drunkenness or his skill at observation, he had hit on something we instantly recognized as true for us.

We moved on from that farm to lease another farm, and changed our business name to Terra Firma Farm. It has remained so through several other moves until we landed here, at the property we bought and which has become our true terra firma. The drunk dressage husband at the party was right, though – the two of us together are our own, and each other’s, terra firma.

Nothing has reminded me of that so much as the past year when it’s been just us and the animals here. I got to thinking over the weekend about an intention word – I’m not a big fan of resolutions, but I like the idea of picking a word as an intention for the year. Unfortunately last year my word was “pause,” something I would like to learn to do more, but then the so-called normal world came screeching to halt and I got a little nervous about the power of manifesting intent.

The word that popped into my head for this year was “faith,” and I still think it’s a good one – not like religious faith, but more like faith in the workings of the world, faith in other people, and – particularly challenging for me sometimes – faith in myself. But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a terra firma kind of year. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two. As Anne Lamott, and probably many others, said, the opposite of doubt isn’t certainty, it’s faith. Last year was a year filled with doubt, and a distinct lack of solid ground. May this year be filled with faith in my own terra firma, faith in my ability to be terra firma for my loved ones, faith in my ability to manifest more terra firma in the world. Not such a bad thing to reach for in the new year.

Tall, Dark and Handsome

I’m sure there’s a joke to be had about how I like my male horses – tall, dark and handsome, yes, but also – gelded? troubled? – but what I do know is that the geldings I have picked as riding horses tend to have a lot in common. The three I have chosen have been bay with strong black points, similar height, and with no interest in the job they were trained to do before I met them.

Soldier was a thoroughbred trained to foxhunt. I got him as a lease-to-sell project, with the intent of training him as an event horse. As it turned out, a horse who will run and jump with a group of other horses does not necessarily have any interest in jumping when he is alone on a cross country course, and a horse who has only ever seen natural fences on the hunt course may not have any idea what to do with painted jumps in an arena. His approach to a stadium jumping course went something like this: gallop towards the first fence, screech to a halt, take off from all four feet at once, land on all four feet on the other side, bolt to the next fence and repeat. After it became clear he would never be an eventer at even the lowest level (Super Chicken, they call it locally, or Ever Green), his owner sent him back out on a foxhunt with an interested buyer who Soldier promptly dumped and nearly put in the hospital. He eventually found his way to a great home with a woman who wanted mostly to do dressage and trail ride.

Wy came along about 5 years after Soldier. His full name was Wy’East, the native name of Mount Hood, the highest peak in Oregon where his breeder was from. He had been bred and trained to be a dressage horse (his breeder had dreams of him taking her to the Olympics) but was deemed neither sound nor sane enough for that job. That put him squarely in my equine specialty of what a friend once dubbed “the lame and the insane.” His first owner was my dressage instructor at the time she had him up for sale. When I rode him for the first time in a lesson with her I wound up on the ground pretty quickly, as his riders often did. I don’t remember landing, but I do remember getting up and saying “You son of a bitch, get back here” as I went to get him from the other side of the indoor arena. His owner, used to people sitting on the ground and crying after coming off him, agreed to sell him to me on a payment plan.

I had no designs on Wy as a dressage horse, and I let him show me what he was interested in, which was mostly trail riding, though he also loved jumping tiny fences as if they were Puissance walls. With the pressure off he got a lot saner, but he didn’t get any sounder, and I still had vague ideas at that time about having a horse I could compete in some discipline. I decided that he might be happier in a home where all the person wanted to do was trail ride, so I sold him to a nice man who wanted just that.

Several years after I sold Wy, and several farms after the last one where he had lived with us, we were house hunting again, looking for a place for us and our three mares. We were thinking about a house that had the right amount of land, but the land was mostly wooded. While we investigated how much it would cost to turn woods into pasture, we looked at barns where we might keep the horses in the interim.

There was a good sized boarding farm close to the woodland house. We arranged to visit, and the owner – something of a cowboy in the middle of hunter/jumper, eventer, and foxhunter territory – showed us around while we told him about our mares. I was explaining about my slutty thoroughbred mare Trappe, and telling stories on her mare-in-heat behavior, when I said “Of course, that was when we still had Wy.” The cowboy said “You had a horse named Wy? We have a horse here named Wy.” I said “Is it ‘Y’ as in the letter Y, or ‘Why’ as in ‘Why Did I Buy This Horse?'” He said he didn’t know; the owner just called him Wy, or sometimes Beast. Even though Wy’s most common nickname when I had him was Wy Beast, I still didn’t make the connection. “He’s a big, bay Hanoverian gelding,” said the cowboy as he pointed behind me. This finally sunk in, and I turned around and saw my horse looking at me over the fence of his paddock. I ran over to him and he buried his big head in my chest.

Wy had come to this farm through two different owners after he got sick while with the guy I sold him to. The diagnosis by the time I saw him was possibly EPM (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis), but no one was really sure. Some kind of degenerative neurological condition, definitely. He was not rideable, and his owner was trying to decide what to do next. I wasn’t sure what to do next either. I did nothing for about two weeks, and then one Sunday I woke up and said to Rose, “I had a dream about Wy last night and he told me to come get him. I want to go back to the farm to see him.” When we got to the farm I told the cowboy about my dream, and he looked at me like I was a little nuts, which I had expected. I said “I know it sounds weird” and he interrupted me and said “No, I don’t think it’s weird at all – it’s just that his owner just had the vet out yesterday and he said there’s nothing else they can do and she was asking if I knew how to reach you to talk about having you take him back.”

Wy came home to us and the three mares he had lived with before, though at a different farm. When we first put him out in the field with them, he spent a couple of days with a look on his face like “I had the weirdest dream – but here we all are together so I guess it really was a dream.” The mares – especially the slutty thoroughbred – were thrilled to have him back. We didn’t buy the woodland house, but we did buy the house where we live now. By that time we had acquired one more filly and we also had a foal on the way. They all lived at our vet’s farm for a few months while we put in fence and a barn here, and then they came home.

Less than two months after we brought the horses home, Wy had gone downhill enough that we had to put him down. He couldn’t reliably stand up without his knees buckling, and he walked like an old drunk man. With Trappe standing close at all times and trying to prop him up, I was worried that I would come home to find them both on the ground with her squashed beneath him. Our vet, who hadn’t seen Wy since he came home to us, took one look and said “You know you don’t have a choice about this, right?” which, true or not, was what I needed to hear. We buried Wy near the barn, and everyone that drives onto our property drives by his grave. A year after we buried him, an acorn sprouted in the middle of his grave, and that oak tree is now about 30 feet tall.

Wy left a lot of legacies. One of them is one of our family mantras: “Don’t pick up the reins.” It took me until the second time I came off of him to realize how he got people off so consistently. He would wait until his rider had a good hold of the reins, and then he would duck his giant head down between his knees and pull the rider off balance, and then he’d throw in a buck with a twist and off the rider would pop. The thing was, he always had something a little off in his back and hind end, and his buck really was not that athletic. I discovered that if, when he put his head down, I let go of the reins, he could buck all he wanted and it would not unseat me. It was that rein yank that created the problem. It became something Rose and I would say any time anyone verbally tried to knock us off balance in an argument – don’t pick up the reins and you won’t find yourself getting into a fight.

Finn is a legacy of Wy’s. I’m sure it’s no coincidence how much they look alike, or that Finn was another horse that someone tried to turn in to a dressage horse when he neither understood what was being asked of him nor was he interested in it. I don’t know that I would have brought Finn home if I hadn’t known Wy, and I don’t think I would have listened to him as much as I have when he tells me what he does and does not want to do and what he can and can’t handle. I still needed some reminders, like the first time I asked Finn to trot and he said “I can’t” and I mistook that for “I need some encouragement” rather than “I really can’t do that right now.” I said “Come on, you can do it!” and then I was up in the air looking down at his back, and then I was on the ground with him looking down at me with a look that said “I told you I can’t and I really meant it.” I got up, dropped my pants to get the sand out of my underwear, pulled myself together, and got back on with a different attitude. Finn is the Truth Serum Horse in his own right, but I know how to listen to him because of Wy.

Wy’s biggest legacy for me is to pay attention and to trust my gut. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that we went to look at one house so that we’d meet the realtor who took us to see another house that was the reason we went to look at the barn where I found the horse and was able to bring him home. Life doesn’t always run in straight lines, but I find that if I just keep moving forward – and if I don’t pick up the reins to try to control something I have no business trying to control in the first place – I end up where I need to be.

Boundaries

I haven’t seen many of my friends or family for most of this year, and I’m feeling hug-deprived. I am also one of those people who is only half jokingly saying “Let’s keep on wearing masks and not shaking hands and staying six feet away from each other forever!” There’s nothing I mind about not being crowded while in line in a store, or about not having near-strangers say “Are you a hugger?” and not wait for an answer before they move in and grab me while saying “I’M a hugger!”

I don’t come from a hugging family. We would hug when seeing each other after a long absence, but not so much on a day to day basis. My father was prone to patting us awkwardly on the head, arm, or foot in a way that makes me understand why animals flinch away from some human versions of touch, although inexplicably cats were always drawn to him. Perhaps because he did not ever try to pat them, even when they jumped on his lap. I have said that I sometimes think I get on with animals as well as I do because my mother was like a very well read and articulate cat, which come to think of it may also explain why she was drawn to my father. My mother and I hugged much more in my adult life than in my childhood – but I think this is true of all my immediate family, and probably because as adults we almost always see each other after a long absence.

When I was twelve, I started a new school with a lingering hippie reputation and I discovered there is a whole population of people who hug. It took a little getting used to but I not only got used to it, I learned to positively enjoy having friends to hug.

Lucky me, pandemic or no, I have animals that I get to touch. On the two extremes I have the dogs (huggers all, except for when they are not) and the cat (“touch me and you will bleed” is her default mood). In the middle are the horses.

I’ve been benignly neglecting the horses, along with most other things, for most of this year. A couple of weeks ago, Tabby cut her leg – nothing dire but bad enough to warrant stitches and two weeks of bandaging. As long as I was changing the bandage every two days, I also took the grooming box out with the medical supplies. Since I had to tend to Tabby’s leg, I figured at least I could offer grooming and see if she was interested, and then as long as I was out there I figured I could check in with the geldings too.

Grooming gloves are my favorite grooming tool. I can use them as curries and also for a massage. I can feel more of what’s going on with the horse’s body, whether I’m feeling for bumps or scabs, or feeling for where they stiffen, flinch, or lean in. The horses prefer them too. They seem to appreciate my ability to feel what I’m doing instead of having a chunk of stiff rubber or wood between my hands and them. Go figure. I have a very clear memory from a lot of years ago of watching a friend groom her horse while telling us how much he hated being groomed. She was talking to us the whole time she groomed him, focusing on her human visitors while scrubbing vigorously all over her horse’s body with one of the hardest and biggest curry combs I have ever seen. If I were the horse, I would have kicked her.

That said, I have done my share of oblivious grooming over the years. I get into a groove of what I have to do, and forget to pay attention to what I am doing and to how the horse is reacting to it. Whether my “have to do” is about getting tack on the horse so I can go for a ride, or about needing to groom the whole horse because that’s how it’s done, it causes me to stop listening to the actual horse in front of me.

Horses don’t touch each other all that much. They stand near each other, and they do something we call mutual grooming that doesn’t look anything like what we call “grooming” when we do it to a horse. And yes, I do realize that in referring to what the horses do I said “mutual” and in referring to what humans do I said “do it to.” Horses will ask each other for the scratching they want, and they will move around to get the right spot scratched, and they will leave when they are done or if the other horse is scratching too hard or not enough or in the wrong place.

Our current horses all have different feelings about being groomed. Niño generally loves it. He loves to be touched, and he really leans into anything we do with him. Even so, he has days and places he wants to be left alone.

Finn’s approach has always been to position the part that is itchy or that he wants to have massaged directly in front of me. For a very long time, I would try to insist that he stand still and let me go through my grooming routine that starts on the left side at the top of his neck, works all the way to his tail, and then repeats on the other side, finishing with his head. After a while I started to not worry so much if he moved around or what order I groomed him in, but I was still adamant that I touch all the parts. It’s only in the last year or two that I just let him tell me what he wants and leave it at that. I can visually check for cuts and bumps, and if I need to check something particular he’s fine with that. But if he tells me he has one itchy spot on his right shoulder, and another on his left hip, and then he walks away, ok.

Tabby is hot and cold. She has places she likes us to really scrub or massage, and she has places she’d prefer we not touch, and she has days she just wants to be left alone. I get this. All of it.

It would be easy to attribute their different approaches to grooming to breed, or gender. Horse people love to generalize about breeds, though our small herd goes almost completely against breed stereotypes. As for gender, there’s an often repeated saying in the horse world: you tell a gelding, you ask a stallion, but you negotiate with a mare. I don’t so much find this to hold true, either. Horses, like people, and dogs, and cats, and pretty much every other species I can think of, are individuals. They also have moods, and different levels of stiffness or pain on any given day, and they don’t react the same way to all people, or even to the same person on different days. I can guarantee that while I may go out on any old day and approach Finn with my ideas about what Finn is like and how Finn reacts, he’s busy tuning in to what is in his environment that day, at that moment, which includes me and my mood. Any horse being approached by a human with a grooming box and a lot of intensity – “I’m a groomer!” – may take the option to walk away, if given the choice.

I may not have to deal with unwanted hugs right now, but I also don’t get to have the wanted ones. What I do get to do is work on paying attention to the signals I’m getting from and giving to my animals who are, as always, my best teachers. Other people may have their pandemic bods, or their pandemic crafts, or their pandemic home improvements. I’m working on my pandemic boundaries. I’m sure the horses won’t mind.

Strong Medicine

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Last week was a long and stressy week. I’m anxious about everything right now. Last week more than some other weeks, each additional thing just added another layer with no time to level out or come down from the last thing. I probably should have realized it would be an anxious week when I woke up at 4:30 a.m. on Monday because I hadn’t taken the trash down to the road the night before and I might miss the trash pickup. Mind you, the trash pick up has been happening between 10 a.m. and noon for the last twenty years, and also I don’t actually care if we get the trash picked up every week.

I was anxious about work meetings, whether I had prepared enough, whether my presentations were good enough (hint: I don’t care about powerpoint presentations even more than I don’t care about trash pick up), whether after the next board meeting I might find my job had been deemed unnecessary.

I was anxious about Tabby’s leg wound, whether it was not healing well, whether I was bandaging it too loose or too tight, whether it was getting too wet in the five minutes of rain we had one night, whether the bandage would somehow come unwound and scare both Tabby and Niño into running through the fence and I would find them hogtied together somewhere in the back woods in the morning.

As I said, a stressy week, with periods of escalating craziness.

My most relaxing activity, always (except for when they fight), is to hang out with the dogs. So we spent a lot of time outside in the dog yard, generally with two dogs in one yard and the third dog in the other to avoid any possible fights. As always, I spent a lot of that time taking pictures of them. Also as always, sometimes the pictures were good and because even the worst ones – especially the worst ones – made me laugh. Laughter has been in short supply this year. It’s fair to say that one of the things I miss the most about people – about being around people at all during the pandemic restrictions, and also about specific people I haven’t seen in a long time, and people I will never see again – is laughing with them.

Ask me for a memory of most of my family members who are gone and the first one I think of will involve laughing. The kind of laughing at nothing that you can explain in a way that sounds funny, but in the middle of it you can’t stop and the harder you try the more you laugh. Laughing with my sister over the letters we wrote to our grandmother when we were really little and barely knew how to write. Laughing with my mother in a Thai restaurant over a silly poem until we genuinely thought they were going to ask us to leave. Laughing with my aunt over actually funny movies (the first time I saw Young Frankenstein was with her) and over movies that were so terrible we couldn’t stop laughing (The Abyss). Laughing at my father laughing so hard at his own joke that he could barely get the punchline out.

It’s hard to make clear why those moments were so funny. It’s probably just as hard to make clear why the photo of Boo at the top of this post made me laugh that hard, even if I zoom in closer.

Let me try to illustrate with a little story.

Last summer, which now feels like ten years ago, we were in Colorado and I had the chance to meet our son’s girlfriend for the first time. We planned a dinner for an evening after the kids got off work. Rose and I had bought some edibles the first day we were in town, because, hey, Colorado! And we were on vacation! And going to a music festival later in the week! We had the genius idea to try them out the very same afternoon of the dinner.

They were gummies, and we decided to each have one instead of splitting one, which sounded reasonable because they are really tiny. It turns out that even in the case of tiny gummies it’s really important to understand a) potency, b) your own personal (lack of) tolerance, and c) that some things have changed a lot since you were in college.

Also it turns out when you consume edibles it takes a lot longer than when you smoke for the effects to kick in, but oh joy, they also last a lot longer. Rose’s reaction to this was to get comprehensively ill and lock herself in the bathroom for either 30 minutes or 6 hours, it’s hard for me to say because I maybe lost my sense of time altogether.

In the middle of all this – Rose locked in the downstairs bathroom, me frantically googling “How do I counteract too much THC,” the girlfriend arrived. Now remember, we were supposed to go out to dinner. Dinner was very much out of the question, but saying this and explaining why was beyond my powers of reasoning or speech just then. I spent some time making getting-to-know-you conversation (I think) in the kitchen while Rose (who had already met the girlfriend) remained in the bathroom, with me periodically going downstairs to check on her and then going back to the kitchen and trying to act normal. Finally, Rose and I had a panicked conference through the bathroom door and decided we had to come clean. “We” being me because she was not coming out of the bathroom any time soon.

I went back upstairs and said something like “I’m kind of embarrassed to say this but we can’t go out to dinner tonight because we made a rookie Colorado mistake” and our son said “Oh no, altitude sickness?” and I thought – yes! Altitude sickness! It’s a total out, plus they will feel sorry for us! But what came out of my mouth instead was “Um, no. We had an error in judgement with some edibles.” Fortunately, the girlfriend thought this was really funny, and showed me a hilarious video called “What to Do if You’re Too High on Weed” which made me laugh in that laughing entirely too hard way. I can say that I’ve watched it again since then, and it really is funny. Probably more funny if you’ve ever had the experience, which I can’t actually recommend.

Now that I think of it, there’s some pretty good advice in that video for anxious times in general, starting with “You may feel like you’ve gone permanently insane, or like you’re dead. Here’s the good news: you’re alive, and your sanity is probably intact.” Some practical actions include breathing fresh air, staying hydrated, watching silly tv, and calling a trusted friend (“Talking things through can do wonders, and remind you that you’re a person, and not just a cloud of terrifying thoughts”).

If you haven’t guessed by now, that photo of Boo is a near exact replica of my face that evening, I’m sure of it. I’ll take my laughter where I can get it these days, and it’s nice to know the dogs will never mind when I look at pictures of them and laugh so hard I start to wheeze. I may not always remember how to relax, but they do.

Yin Life

Finn

Not long before covid-19 shelter in place began, I discovered that there is, in fact a form of yoga I actually like. I don’t pretend to be any kind of yoga theory expert, so I mainly have my own experiences of classes to go by. And I do know that the one thing in common all the yoga classes I have taken is that I am there, so I can’t discount that as a factor. The wherever you go, there you are factor.

Most yoga I have taken fits into one of two categories. There is pretzel yoga – generally based on Iyengar, in my experience – where you twist yourself into complicated shapes while balancing on one toe and hold each pose for approximately 37 minutes. And then there is competitive yoga, generally referred to in class schedules as hot yoga, or sometimes flow yoga, or power yoga, or at one memorable studio in D.C. “stroga” which sounds more like pasta but I gather is a portmanteau (do we still call them that, or does that go with troglodyte and zaftig on the list of words only my parents used in conversation?) of “strength” and “yoga.” That kind of yoga appears to be an endurance test my shoulders simply are not up to, and for me almost always involves a lot more swearing than I think can be normal for a spiritual or meditative practice.

I have taken a few other kinds of yoga that I don’t actively dislike: some classes labeled “beginner,” restorative, partner, goat. But none of them spoke to me or made me want to keep doing that kind of yoga. When the most positive feeling I have leaving a class is “well, that wasn’t as bad as I expected,” it doesn’t inspire me to keep going back.

For a couple months there last winter I found a yin yoga class that I really liked. The instructor is always thoughtful and well prepared. She mixes a little traditional Chinese medicine theory in with the poses. We hold poses longer than some classes (though not as long as pretzel yoga), but they are manageable poses and usually on the ground. I always come away from her class feeling stretched in a nice way, not in a “I’ve been on a torture rack for the past 50 minutes” way.

In one class this instructor said that ideally a yin yoga class would be in a cool, dark room, or a cave. Her comment got me thinking about yin as a concept, not just a name for a yoga class. For me yin yoga is every way the opposite of a hot yoga class, though I’ve never heard anyone use the term “yang yoga” to refer to hot yoga. I know in the West we often distill yin and yang down to male and female. I also know that is a gross oversimplification. The thing that struck me most in reading about the concept is that yang is the active principle whereas yin is the receptive.

In working with horses, I grew up in a “make him do it” environment, as if little eight year old me, probably 55 pounds soaking wet, was going to physically make even a fairly small pony who was ten times my size do anything. In case I was unclear about this, in my first horse show at the end of a week of summer horse camp, my horse left the show ring in mid class and went back to the barn, totally oblivious to the child on his back, tugging and kicking ineffectually. As I got older and bigger I rode bigger horses, so the horses and I have tended to stay near a ten to one weight differential. Making them do anything is an illusion, but that didn’t stop me from trying.

It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I first encountered trainers who approached horses in a different way, with the focus on the relationship between horse and human, rather than (as much) on the dominance of human over horse. I’ve learned a different way of approaching my horses, and both they and I like it much better. Even so, much like yoga, when I have taken a lesson from one of these instructors I have often left the lesson feeling more like “Well, that wasn’t so bad” and less like “How can I do more of that?”

One thing that comes up often in the lessons I’ve taken with this newer (to me) approach is the idea of giving to pressure. Whether it’s me riding, or the instructor working my horse, just about the first thing that happens is to see how the horse gives to pressure. I understand it in concept – if your horse is pushing against you or ignoring you or exploding when you apply pressure, even very light pressure, you are in a bit of trouble.  But lately I’ve been wondering what would happen if, with another human, I approached them with the intent of applying pressure on them in some way to see how they responded to it. Even if it was an employee, someone I am paying to do a particular job, I can’t think that would go very well. I know it doesn’t go well for me when the main thing I feel – in, say, a yoga class – is pressure. Like many horses I know, my response to it is often to shut down. I may appear to comply with the instructions I’m given, but I don’t enjoy it, I don’t find it relaxing, and I don’t want to do it more often.

I don’t ride much these days, but I have my horses living at home and I handle them daily. Sometimes I just go through the motions, because doing what I need to do with the horses is something I need to check off my task list for the day. If I approach the horses in this frame of mind, if any of the horses has any concerns about anything at all that day, our interaction is not going to be very positive.

Case in point: blanketing Finn. I blanket my horses below certain temperature and/or in certain types of precipitation. Never mind that I have been blanketing all of the horses for years and years, blanketing is always something of an issue for Finn. The worst it ever got was several years ago when I was trying to take his blanket off on a cold, dry day, and after I undid the leg straps and the belly straps, I moved to unhook the chest straps. In doing so I touched him on the neck and we gave each other a little shock of static electricity. Let me clarify: to me, it was little. To Finn, it was huge. He took off running, blanket flapping in the breeze. In not too many seconds the blanket flipped off his back entirely, leaving it hanging around his neck and front legs as he galloped in a blind panic. I figured (and hoped) the blanket would tear off – and it did, in a way. The binding around the neck and the chest straps held, so while he tore most of the blanket away and left it in the dust, he was still wearing a collar of blanket remains around his neck.

It took a long time that day for me to get close enough to him to get that blanket collar off. Just as Finn’s brain went into panic mode, mine went into “make him do it” mode, and instead of just leaving him alone (in retrospect, the “worst” thing that might have happened would possibly have been the best thing – if he put his head down to eat hay and the rest of the blanket fell off over his head of its own accord), I decided to stay out there and keep approaching him until I could get the blanket bits off. Probably because I did that, and in doing so kept his fear and adrenaline spiked, approaching him with a blanket – or a halter, or just at all – did not go smoothly for quite a while afterwards.

Last winter I went out to feed and blanket the horses one evening. As I picked up Finn’s blanket to put it on him, he spooked and jumped sideways away from his feed. I stayed where I was – I didn’t back up, move closer, speak, or raise or lower the blanket. I just stood. He took a hard look at me while facing me, and then he swung around so his left side was in front of me. He took in a big breath, squared up on all four feet, and then let out the breath and I could see and feel him settle his whole body and wait for me to put the blanket on. I did, and buckled all the straps, and then he calmly resumed eating.

As I was walking back to the house, I found I was thinking about yin. I thought about my friend, horsewoman, and writer Anna Blake saying that a huge percentage of riders are women but almost all instructors are men. I thought about the state of our country right now, and the percentage of elected officials (I just can’t call them “leaders”) who are men. But again, it’s not – or not only – a male/female distinction. The terms associated with yang include heat, light, strength, active, and giving form to all things. The terms associated with yin include cool, dark, soft, receptive, and giving spirit to all things. The yin yang symbol shows both parts of equal size. I think the work in front of me is to even those things up in myself, and in order to do that, just as if I were trying to even up an underdeveloped set of muscles with an overdeveloped set of muscles, I have to focus on strengthening the weaker ones and not on further working the strong ones. More dark, more cool, more soft, more receptive, more spirit. I’m pretty sure my horses will be grateful.

Finn2