I paid less than $400 for Aaruba. His breeder wanted quiet Arabians and Pintabians, and Aaruba wasn't. No, Aaruba was the plain gray, high-headed, wide-eyed, last straw that sent his sire to the vet for gelding.
I first saw him on the kind of windy, muddy day that whipped his mind to wildness. Still a leggy four-year-old, he flashed about the makeshift corral as if the storm were inside him. He offered no buck but plenty of air, a whirl flat knees, good hooves, and that indefinable something that trumpets, "I'm the one!"
Nearly three years later, I can sometimes offer a bit of the captaincy to him. Yesterday, fresh from two weeks of bad weather and little work, he seemed nevertheless in a mental state to chart our course. And so, I settled into my saddle and handed him the wheel.
For most of sixteen miles, he ran, and a winter storm gave chase. A frozen landscape streamed past, pulled tears from my eyes and sweat from his neck. We cantered free as water, free as wind, our bodies long and loose as the reins between us.
I scarcely touched his face or sides but listened instead to his language pure as breathing. Our path looped wide, spun at last on a gust toward home. Winter nipped his flying heels. Naked tree limbs shuddered and the bellies of the clouds grew pregnant with snow.
And I? I clung astride that plain gray, high-headed, wild-eyed, will-o-the-wisp whose size and strength far outstripped my own, a creature more emotion than logic, more motion than matter, more worth than gold, and I was not afraid.
Originally published in The Barb Wire, December 2008
I rode Consolation yesterday. It was her first outing since I laid her off at the beginning of last summer due to her undiagnosed, but obvious, discomfort under saddle. We jogged six miles in the sunshine. She felt good. Content.
But not like an endurance horse. Never one of my most driven mounts, she felt distinctly disinterested in speed and distance. I doubt I'll attempt to condition her this season. Or ever. She gave me 875 endurance miles, plus countless more in training. That will have to be enough.
If a career path fizzles before I reach the corner office, was my experience wasted? If a relationship crumbles after three years, or five, or ten, have I thrown away that time?
Yes, I am older now. Yes, it takes effort to update my resume, go out and date, start a young horse, shoulder the effort and face the fear of starting over, starting new.
But see the good times had, the completions earned, the accolades received, the scars that strengthen! They don't vanish because the path on which I found them ends in a cliff. A journey abbreviated is not a journey obliterated. The treasures I claim are mine to keep.
Don't waste the litter of your past. It gathers about your feet like shale tumbled down a hillside. Step up on it. Feel it shift beneath your soles, and climb.
The last stanza of my favorite poem reads thus: Nor doom the irrevocable past ~ As wholly wasted, wholly vain ~ If rising on its wrecks at last ~ To something nobler we attain. [H.W. Longfellow]
Squint against your tears, my friends. See the shining? Reach out. Take hold. Climb.
Originally published in The Barb Wire, February 2013
There’s something about being on a horse that makes people want to say hello.
I do most of my conditioning rides on the grid of agricultural roads surrounding my farm. Just about everyone who passes in a car, driving a tractor, or riding a motorcycle offers a wave. Once in a while, someone stops to chat.
Sometimes, they’re concerned about my safety. Sometimes, they are horse people curious about Consolation’s breed, hoof boots, or tack. Sometimes, they just comment on the pretty day, the pretty horse, and (without saying so outright) the pretty nice feeling that most people make the world a better place.
Just last week, a guy pulled his truck over to ask if he could introduce his half-grown Weimaraner to Consolation in the hope that the pup would be less inclined to chase horses in the future.
A couple miles up the road, a faded sedan stopped in the oncoming lane. The window rolled down to reveal the gentleman with the Walkaloosas, who occasionally drops by my farm astride his favorite mare. His face was unusually ashen, his eyes hollow. I asked how he was, and he said not well. We talked horses and weather. And then he said he’d lost one of his grandsons the day before. The boy was three months old. Found dead in his crib, of unknown cause. A foal was due at his place any day; I should drop by. I said I would.
Then there is the woman who rents the old house at the S-bend. Her driveway is full of old cars from a lot owned by her husband, who recently passed. She has a new mare, a gentle, senior Paint found on Craigslist for $250. Perhaps we’ll ride the irrigation road some evening, and she will tell her story.
Two of my favorites have names I don’t know. One is the mail carrier, always cheerful in her white Jeep with the orange light on top. Sometimes I wonder how much she knows about me, from my mail, and seems to like me anyway.
And, there is the migrant worker with the battered, two-tone pickup he drives among ditches, fields, and barns. We pass each other often, sometimes several times a day. My clothes and activities change — from breeches for riding to jeans for training to shorts for sprinting — and our frequent, speechless encounters make us laugh.
There is the husband and wife team that drives the school bus, the cattle rancher whose stock sometimes turn up on my land, the gardener whose handiwork I always slow to admire. There are the cyclists who call out to let me know they’re passing, men who cut the motors on their chain saws though Consolation isn’t spooky, the reining competitor whose trailer I once borrowed for a veterinary emergency. Kids who wave, kids too shy. Dog-walkers. Seasonal workers grinning under broad-brimmed hats. A loose collection of folks who know almost nothing, yet almost everything, about each other.
People sometimes ask if I get bored of riding by myself. Not often, I say, and I’m sincere. But the truth is, I don’t really ride alone.
[Originally published in The Barb Wire, March 2011]
My first job was at a small, shabby horse farm in the valley below my childhood home. Its driveway peeled off from the corner of a gravel road lined with triple-strand hotwire paddocks, all nibbled bare and dotted with broodmares. The barn was creaky and drafty, with packed dirt aisles and a cloth-draped radio tuned to the country station. It smelled of shavings and Coppertox, of wool coolers and, when the wind blew west, the manure pile out back.
I remember the horses, each dished face with black globes for eyes. Each name and star and sock and personality, even the patterns they left in the stalls I cleaned day over day for a couple years between the ages of twelve and fourteen. I can still sing along about you and me goin’ fishin’ in the dark. I remember the mare that colicked and made me put my foot down with my mom for the first time, because I really could not leave her to go to my piano lesson, $60 paid in advance or not.
Most of all, I remember the farm’s owner. She was short and craggy, with cropped hair dyed black and heavy makeup that sharpened her narrow eyes nearly as much as the suspicion that always lay behind them. I rarely saw her without bloodred lips. The lips almost never smiled.
Her name was not Mae, but let’s pretend.
Mae had a jovial husband, round in the belly and sad behind his grin. I saw him only occasionally, but he was always kind to me. I marveled to see him with Mae, because the pair of them were so different. He gentle and she harsh, he easygoing and she tense. Terse. Poised like a wire stretched too tight, clinging white-knuckled to her tough persona. I wondered, even then, then if it was all she had.
She loved her horses in the way hurting people do. In the way that says: you alone will not betray me. You are not my daughter who grew up and moved away and never calls. You are not the old husbands who cheated, the farmhouse falling down around my ears, the abusive parents, the unfair manager who cost me a career, the drunk driver who jabbed this endless pain into my spine.
I am guessing. Mae never told me her story. Not in words. But I worked for her long enough, well enough, that she sometimes let her armor slip aside. Beneath cowered a woman who wore Paloma Picasso and gave me a tiny bottle for Christmas. Who sold me a colt for less than he was worth, taught me to build his hindquarters and stand him up, paid for an overnight trip to Washington where he won Reserve Champion at the big Arabian show.
She gave me tea in her cluttered living room on rainy days, rasped in her smoker’s voice over the soap operas that were the anthem of her afternoons. She said little of substance, but the things she did not say told me her rocky exterior was only a dam of anger holding back a lifetime of tears.
I think of her in the hard times. How quick she was to wrath, how limited her capacity for joy. Her path, whatever came before, had left her all but devoid of any ability to trust. I think that’s why she liked me, and perhaps her husband, too. Our loyalty was simple. Consistent. It surprised her. It was the only thing that reminded her to smile.
The thing about hard times is that they end. Worst case scenario, they end because we’ve died. Best case, and most common, either we or events around us shift and the trail widens and we carry on. This is when we make our decisions:
What will we carry with us? The pain, or the healing? The betrayal, or the wisdom? The longing, or the truth? Will we come away with greater confidence than before, and with gratitude, because we have learned how strong we are? Or will we be cut off, shut down, stolen away?
I saw Mae cry once. Several years after I stopped working for her, I dropped by her place to deliver a framed pencil drawing I’d done of the stallion Ben Bask. It was one of my better pieces. I have no idea why I wanted to give it to her, except that I thought she deserved to be remembered. To be thanked for teaching me ~ without knowing, through bad example ~ how I do not want to be.
She is probably dead now. Resentment like hers destroys body and soul before their time. But I am not afraid to hope (because that I what I do) that before the end she found another way, and didn’t let the winter take her after all.
Originally published in The Barb Wire, March 2013
Thanks for dropping by! I'm an endurance rider in the northwest region of the United States. This blog is about the practicalities of distance riding and the practice of being my best self for my horse. I hope you'll come along for the ride.
The Sweaty Equestrian