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. NiƱo 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.