Horse of a Different Color

I got my start with horses in a world of “make them do it” horsemanship. I heard a lot about making the horse respect the rider. Crops and whips were used as both aids and punishment. Side reins were used to hold the horse’s head in position, and there was a lot of talk about driving aids, pushing the horse into the contact, and setting the hands. Any reluctance or unresponsiveness by the horse was to be met with a sharper or secondary aid to get the desired response NOW.

For nearly my first thirty years of riding, that was my foundation. Over time I moved away from a lot of the harsher components of it, but like many of the people I grew up watching and learning from, I remained quick to frustration and anger when things didn’t go the way I wanted or expected with a horse. For the past almost twenty years, I’ve been learning from people who have a different approach to horses, one that is more relationship-based than demand-based. When I started actively learning a softer way with horses and that anger came up, I directed most of it at myself, for my inability to just stop reacting that way. The horses didn’t care much who I was mad at; they just knew that I was mad, and that the energy I was projecting wasn’t safe to be around.

When I was in my early twenties, I read a book by a respected animal behaviorist who was also a respected trainer of dogs and horses. When she died in 2001, the New York Times obituary referred to her as someone “who saw human traits in pets,” which was not how scientists were supposed to think then (it probably still isn’t). She was much more aware than most trainers and scientists of the time of animals having intellect and emotions, and what she called a moral sense. As a trainer, she also wrote about being given “crazy” horses or dogs to work with and acting crazier than they did so that they had to pay attention to her. At the time, as something of a specialist myself in “crazy” horses (i.e. the horses I usually got a chance to work with when I couldn’t afford a horse that had decent or no training), this made sense to me. Now, it does not. For me, anyway, this approach was just another variant of the old methods: obedience, discipline, correction. Even well-intentioned trainers still use language like this.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why we deal with horses this way. When “I say, you do, and do it NOW” is the expectation, what’s behind that? Far more often than I ever want to admit, it’s about fear. “I say, you do” feels like it keeps me in control. I think there’s a human belief that if we are afraid of something, and we can make that something or someone afraid of us instead, we will be safe. We can try to convince the horse that we are scary enough for it not to hurt us – without going so far that we convince it we are scary enough to attack. Horses are flight animals, but if given no choice, they will fight. When we are afraid, we make bad (and sometimes dangerous) decisions. When we are afraid and we don’t want to admit to or show our fear, we make even worse (and more dangerous) decisions.

Recently my wise friend, horsewoman Anna Blake, posted a brilliant blog in which she said “Level ground is needed for trust. In the beginning, it feels like chaos to breathe instead of intimidating.” I don’t want any kind of tattoo, let alone one with a whole lot of words in it (ouch!), but that sounds like a good choice so that I can look at those words every day. What does it feel like to put myself on level ground with someone or something I believe can hurt me? What does it look like for me to pause, breathe, and choose my next action with deliberation and kindness, instead of reacting in fear and anger? What happens if I start by extending trust, instead of withholding it?

Also: none of this is about horses.

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.

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.

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.

Horseshoes

“Horseshoes are better than circles. Leave space. Always leave space. Horseshoes of friends > Circles of friends. Life can be lonely. Stand in horseshoes.” – Glennon Doyle

It started with a book.

Of course, it started before that. I found the book because of Rose, and I found Rose because of a horse, and I found the horse because… I could keep going backwards. Many if not most of my own stories either started with a book or started with a horse. Since I can’t tell all the origin stories at once, this one starts with a book.

This particular book I picked up with the intent to rifle through it, scoff, and point out what bullshit it was. It was a book called Horses Never Lie by a horseman named Mark Rashid, and I lumped it into all the other so-called natural horsemanship concepts I had no faith in or patience with. I started flipping quickly through the book, glancing at pages in different chapters, and then I flipped more slowly, and then I went back to the beginning and started on page one and pretty much didn’t put it down until I had read the whole thing. Then I read it again.

This book did what good books often do: it changed my life.

It changed my life in ways directly related to the topic of the book. It completely changed my approach to my horses and my horsemanship. This was and is very important to me, and probably even more so to my horses.

It changed my life in ways I would never have imagined, and while I can’t credit the book for all the changes, I can credit it for helping me find the first step. Because of this book I went to a horsemanship clinic. Because of the clinic I heard about a Yahoo group (remember those?). Because of the Yahoo group I got acquainted with a number of women with whom I shared things – an approach towards our horses, a sense of humor, a willingness to keep changing and improving, an interest in sharing the things that mattered to each of us.

The Yahoo group morphed into another Yahoo group, and then another one, as the size and nature of the group shifted, and then Facebook came along. As the years have gone by (17 of them so far), I have met a lot of these women in person, and through them I have met other women either online or in person or both.

Because of these women, I travelled all the way across the country where a woman I had never met in person invited me to spend nearly a week in her house and to ride a horse of hers for four days and if you don’t think that second part is an extraordinary leap of faith I can tell you are not a horse person.

Because of these women, I found my Truth Serum Horse, the horse who firmly but kindly demands every day that my outsides match my insides.

Because of these women, I found a friend to walk with during the year in which both our mothers died from metastatic breast cancer, and again when both our fathers died in the same year seven years later.

Because of these women, I have met people to share music with, and books, and coffee, and tequila, and laughter, and tears. Even when most of our communication is memes and silly photos and voice to text fiascos, there are those times we reach out to each other in our darkest moments to say “I just wanted someone else to know.” We have held each other up through heart tearing grief, we have laughed so hard we have snorted coffee out of our noses from thousands of miles away, we have told each other to put our boots back on and cowgirl up, sometimes all in the same conversation.

Because of these women, I found a friend to share books and grammar jokes and love of words, and this friend introduced me to a writer who had started an online writer’s group.

Because of these women, I rediscovered my writing voice, and I started this blog. The single best thing about sharing my writing, especially the writing I am afraid to share, is the moment that someone else says “Oh, me too.” Which is also the best thing about sharing a journey with these women.

Because of these women, I have work coming out in a book this November: What She Wrote, an anthology of women’s voices, published by Lilith House Press. More to come as we get closer to the release date.

It starts with a book.

Saddle Sore

I made my first foray into selling things on eBay this weekend. We’ve managed to amass quite a saddle collection in the past 30 years. Rose and I met at an eventing barn, and we each had a dressage saddle and a jumping saddle at the time. The original saddles didn’t even work on the original horses, but as we added horses and tack we usually found that a saddle worked on someone, so we only rarely sold one. I got rid of a memorably painful dressage saddle (sitting the trot shouldn’t make a person bleed), and Rose sold a cross country saddle that had such a forward knee roll it hit Cookie more or less at the base of her neck. We added all-purpose saddles, breed-specific saddles, and Western saddles to our tackroom.

We are down to three mostly if not entirely retired horses now, and it seemed like a simple decluttering activity to sell saddles we haven’t ridden in for a decade, or in some cases two. I sat down at the computer to figure out eBay. By the time I had listed the third saddle, I had an offer on the first one. By the time I listed the fourth one, a different buyer bought the first one for the asking price. Before the evening was over, two more saddles had sold.

The Arabian-specific all purpose saddle was the first one to go. I didn’t have any saddle-sized boxes, but it is easy to fit an English saddle in a decent sized packing box, so I took a quick trip to Home Depot, padded and packed the saddle, and took it to the UPS store to drop it off on Friday evening.

Saturday we planned to pack up the two Western saddles and send them off. Easier said than done. The large packing box I thought would work turned out to be a couple inches short, with not enough wiggle room to angle the saddle differently. Home Depot’s extra large box may hold more total volume than their large box, but the dimensions are even worse for trying to fit a saddle. The UPS store’s only boxes that were big enough could fit a small horse, never mind a saddle. A saddle repair web site recommended something called a small wardrobe box, which Home Depot’s web site said they had in stock, but another trip to the store found the shelf empty.

By the time I left the house the second time I was barking at Rose over my shoulder while slamming the door behind me. When I came home from the UPS store, where I had heard the cashier tell someone else that a package left with them on Saturday would not go out till Monday anyway, Rose asked me why I was so irritated. I said “Hang on, let me email the buyers to let them know the saddles will ship Monday” so I could at least check “set expectations” off my list and calm down about being in such a hurry.

When I came back in the room and tried to explain myself, I realized that the problem wasn’t that I felt rushed, or the boxes were the wrong size, or that we had different ideas about how to pack the saddles, or any of the logistics. One buyer had asked me what kind of horse I had used the saddle on, and I gave her a list by breed and description of the horses who wore the saddle. Horses who are all either dead or retired now. There’s a lot to let go of in letting go of these saddles.

I’m not a person who gets attached much to stuff. Putting me in charge of decluttering is very effective but a bit of a worry, because I will throw out even the most sentimental of possessions. My aunt used to say that my father would read a letter while tearing it in half from the top down, so that by the time he was done reading he could throw it straight in the trash. I don’t know when I adopted similar behaviors, but it seems I have. On the other hand, when I’m not actively trying to get rid of things, they pile up, and I can look the other way – until I suddenly notice the pile one day and want to put a match to it.

I had thought, looking at all the saddles, that I was looking at a pile that needed to be cleared away, and I wasn’t wrong. I just forgot that I might remember all the first and last and worst and best rides in those saddles. I forgot that it’s been ten years since my heart horse died and I have never gotten over it, or let another horse into my heart the same way. I forgot the relief of the momma of our two best horses when we finally put a Western saddle on her and stopped squeezing the breath out of her with an English girth. I didn’t forget, exactly, but I haven’t thought for years about the miles and the shows and the trails and the lameness and the ribbons and the lessons and the joy.

I don’t mind saying goodbye to the saddles. It’s the horses I mind saying goodbye to. If you had asked me three days ago, I would have said “Of course I said goodbye to them, years ago.” It’s only now I realize that I never will.

A Very Very Very Fine House

In the thirty years we’ve known each other, Rose and I have never fully stopped house hunting. For the first seven years we were together we rented different places while looking for a home to buy, and also while waiting for both of us to be ready to buy a home at the same time. We finally bought a house twenty years ago and we are still in that house, but somehow we had made the habit early on of looking for what might be next and we never stopped looking.

When we first moved here, the kids were between 5th and 10th grades. Our plan then was to stay here until they all graduated from high school, and then move somewhere else like Colorado. Or Arizona. Or maybe North Carolina. Or Vermont. But probably Colorado. The kids all graduated from high school, and we stayed here. Then the kids graduated from college, and we stayed here. Two of the kids have moved to Colorado, and here we still are, but we are also still looking.

Even while we dreamed of other states, we also kept looking at other houses in Maryland – bigger farms, mostly. There are several free local horse publications we received through all our moves – free horse publications rival alumni associations when it comes to tracking people down, and they all contain ads for horse farms for sale.

I often read the real estate ads in the free horse publications for the same reasons I read the horses-for-sale ads – a little bit to see what’s out there and a lot to be entertained. The horse ads bring us “ex racehorse with old ocelots” and “works well in arena in on trails nightmarish at all”. In the second case I presume voice text is to blame for this accidental truth in advertising (and the utter lack of punctuation). In the first case, possibly spell check (ocelots, osselets – potato, potahto), or possibly the ex racehorse did time at a wildlife refuge and made some elderly friends. Real estate ads say things like “Secluded and majestic. Sleep peacefully to the sounds of a genital creek flowing directly across the road.” Honestly I don’t even know where to start with that one.

When our oldest child was looking for his first house, we read the ads with a little more purpose, but we often got distracted by things that were nowhere near his price range or taste. One evening we were all sitting around the living room browsing real estate ads on our phones when Rose sent us a link and then said “Look at the beautiful old trees this one has!” Our son said “Mom. For three million dollars that place better have Oompa Loompas and shit.”

Before we found the house we live in now, we spent those seven years looking at houses in four different counties around where our kids went to school. Mostly we looked at places with enough land that we could keep our horses at home, which meant that in our price range some of them barely had a standing house. For a while we could keep track of the houses by location, but after a while we developed a different kind of taxonomy.

The Cat Pee house was distinct from the Pee house (which smelled like baby pee on one end, dog pee in the middle, and incontinent elder pee on the other end). The Jesus Bacon house smelled entirely like bacon and had crucifixes and/or biblical cross stitch in every room. The Drywall house was the old farm house where the bedrooms were made by loosely affixing single thickness drywall sheets to create walls that seemed likely to blow over if you opened more than one upstairs window at the same time.

It was in the Drywall house that we saw the ad for this house for the second time. We had seen it once in a web search, dubbed it The Castle (for the stone turret), laughed at the price, and moved on. Our realtor brought the listing to the Drywall house, anticipating correctly that we would not actually be interested in that one. The price had dropped steeply – we later found out the owners were trying to get out from under it after a divorce – and it had everything we were looking for in terms of land, location, and a house that looked like it would keep standing up for the foreseeable future.

When we moved in, there was grass and there was house. Two azalea bushes, two dogwood trees, and a big lilac bush made up all of the landscaping. The first year we started picking out and planting trees. The soil here is quite rocky, and digging a hole big enough to plant even a small tree is both exhausting and satisfying. The kind of manual labor I like best is kind that is the farthest from my job, which I do sitting in front of a computer. I like to do tasks that have a visible start and end, where when you are finished you have something tangible to point to. I like tasks that use my body – hammering fencing nails, stacking hay bales, digging holes for trees. One of the most satisfying tasks I have done here, one day when I was in a very bad mood about a job I had at the time, was to pound three ten-foot lengths of half inch rebar into the rocky dirt with a sledgehammer. (I needed them to hook up the electric fence, but if you have the land, the rebar and the sledgehammer, I highly recommend this as a form of therapy.)

Most of the trees we have planted are now taller than the house. The fields are set up for our horses, their needs, and our convenience. We have a list of additional projects we talk about doing. We sometimes divide that list between “Things we will do if we stay” and “Things we will do if we sell.” We have a five year plan that involves moving to Colorado, and another plan that doesn’t involve moving at all.

There are three horses grazing in our fields right now, and five horses buried here. The first one went in the ground the summer we moved in, and the last one two summers ago. One of the things that pulls us up short about our five year plan is moving three older horses more than halfway across the country to a completely different environment. Another one is leaving the underground horses. I’m quite sure they won’t mind, but we will.

We’ve been looking pretty hard at houses in Colorado for the past couple of years. Last year we even found a farm where the horses could live since it’s unlikely we will buy a place there with enough land for horses. Leaving got pretty real after that, which put me into two panics, one about leaving here, and one about having to empty out the house and the barn of all our stuff, which sent me straight to “Let’s rent a dumpster and throw everything we own in it and have someone haul it away and oh my god we have to find the perfect house in Colorado right now.”

We’ve both been vacillating between wanting to stay and wanting to go for a few years. Last month we finally made one decison: to put the search on hold for now. We have enough uncertainty in our lives right now without keeping ourselves on the will we/won’t we fence, trying to decide which way to jump. We’ll spend the rest of this year enjoying our trees, and communing with all eight of our horses. Maybe then we will know what comes next.

But I bet we will keep reading the real estate ads.