What Are YOU Looking At?

At some point, every rider has endured a hair-raising, nail-biting moment of time when one’s life flashes before one’s eyes due to a wildlife critter that would under normal circumstances seem adorable and charming. In these moments, though, wildlife seems like one of life’s great cruelties.

I had one such ride this morning, which got me thinking about this. Afterwards, I felt like I needed to go to the local ASPCA chapter or wildlife protection agency and apologize for the 15 minutes I spent cursing profanely at a majestic male deer that nearly ended my life. Normally, a six-point buck perched atop a foggy cliff would incite a flutter in my heart and even inspire a verse or two of haiku poetry. But he’s the last thing I want to see when I am on my horse, who instantly turns into a fear-crazed, runaway lunatic.

Let me give a disclaimer here before going any further that I personally love wildlife. I am a dues-paying member of Sierra Club, I mountain bike and hike regularly, and I take time every day to stop and ponder the sheer wonder of mother nature. However, when I am on a horse, I often curse the fuzzy and furry members of the forest. It is fair to say I even shout and sometimes think about throwing things at them. Were it the case that my horse did not gallop away and jeopardize my mortal existence, I would definitely view them otherwise. Yes, the leaping jackrabbits, startling deer, and darting birds would be met with a friendly “aw, aren’t you cute?” rather than a “shoo! Get the heck outta here, go, go, go!”

Anyway, back to this morning’s ride. I was precariously convincing a feisty three-year old mare that even though everyone else was eating their breakfasts and she was grumpy, we still needed to get some work done. I had a hard time selling her on this. After a few good revolutions around the arena, she was looking to convince me that here grumpiness was going nowhere and I should take her back to the barn. She pinned her ears, swished her tail, spooked at a few things here and there. Basically, she made my job of riding her a whole lot of work.

About 20 minutes later, though, she began to come around. She started to go through her paces rather nicely in fact, so I asked her to pick up a brisk ground-covering canter (a risky move with a young horse on a chilly morning!), which she did promptly. I began to smile like a proud teacher. And then I glanced up the hill outside our arena. There in the mist stood a very large buck looking straight down at us. I gritted my teeth. The mare hadn’t seen him yet; she was still performing beautifully, although I knew the second she saw him, it would be over for me. She would take the opportunity to bolt wildly and throw some wretched antics at me, re-starting her campaign to be done with riding for the day. Shoot! We were already in a rather speedy canter. Once she laid eyes on that muscular fellow with the antlers, she would hit the speed of light. And I would either be in the dirt or saying prayers.

So I started to do the only thing I could do. “GET OUTTA HERE!” I snarled. No movement. In fact, the big guy seemed more interested in us now. My mare kept cantering along, miraculously not yet noticing him. In fact, she kept things far cooler than I in that moment as I launched into a verbal tirade.

“Go ON! Git! Go away! Get outta here you blasted fool… do you want me killed? Don’t you have some deer harem you need to get back to? Why are you looking at me? WHAT? Get outta here. Why are you just STANDING there?” My screams echoed off rocks and down canyons. It lifted up into tree tops and skimmed across mud puddles. I admitted to myself that I probably appeared like someone recently escaped from an asylum and not meant to be on horseback. But I didn’t mind if anyone standing nearby wanted to label me a crazy person. I just plain didn’t care because I was determined to finish this ride still on the back of my horse, not in the dirt.

Finally, the giant antlers turned the other direction and trotted off to pester something else. I felt myself start breathing again. My mare kept cantering and I smiled at her. What a delightful ride we were having. And that was what mattered, right? Who cared if I momentarily became a crazy person who shouted at furry adorable forest animals?

Merry Christmas

Even today, a scene of Christmas music and holiday ornaments ignites a feeling of magic in my chest. It’s as though I am instantly six years old again, filled with wonder and excitement and raw bubbling joy. And the belief that at exactly midnight on Christmas Eve the horses would speak in human voices.

My mom planted this idea in my head when I was four years old, whispering it to me in the barn aisle and stooping low so nobody else—especially the horses—overheard this little-known secret. She shared it with such conviction that I assumed it might be an accepted truth amongst grown-ups. Naturally, I felt jealous that they’d had so many more years than my tender four to talk to their horses with real voices just like in the movies. So, I vowed on that chilly afternoon of Mom’s revelation to do my best to catch up. Every year on Christmas Eve from then on, I would sleep in the barn waiting for my beloved four-legged friends to speak out loud!

Nearly thirty years later, I’ll admit that I have never once heard a horse speak out loud at midnight. It took only until I was ten to realize that Mom dreamed up the story as a way of getting me out of the house so that she and Dad could stuff stockings and set out gifts in secrecy. Her plan worked. I departed the house with my blankets at 9pm and didn’t return until 3am, leaving her and Dad uninterrupted.

Frostbite aside, I never regretted waiting in the barn every year. After yet another year passing without our horses speaking out loud, I never felt the disappointment I expected. I suspect Mom knew this would be the outcome when revealing her ‘secret’ to me. You see, anyone who’s spent time in a stable after nightfall knows the magic it embodies. When the doors are slid shut to the frost outside, the only sounds in that little haven are quiet, peaceful—horses munching hay, a rustle of shavings, barn cats skittering in the rafters. It is impossible, especially as a child, to sit in that space and not feel the magic of the animal kingdom.

After wrapping my blankets around me mummy-style, I sat on the barn aisle floor outside Equinox Black Silk’s stall. ‘Black Silk’ was my mom’s cherished black stallion, a dramatic beast who acted like king of our farm. For hours, I sat cross-legged leaning against the front of his stall, waiting for him, Sunnybrook, Charlotte, and Trinket to speak out loud. Occasionally, he poked his coal black nose through the stall bars and rumpled my hair, warming my ears with his nostrils. Then, he went back to his hay, contemplating what he’d tell me at midnight, I assumed.

Some years, I dozed off until the early hours of dawn, awakened by our barn cat trying to snuggle inside my blankets. Other years, I stayed awake by talking to the animals. Even if they weren’t going to speak, they could listen to my musings. They could bend a compassionate ear to my worries that Santa’s sleigh might get stuck in the snow or that Mom wouldn’t like her slippers that I made by hand from sheepskin and duct tape. The horses listened to it all—without saying a word in return.

Every year, as I walked back up the driveway, I pondered how delightful those creatures were. How peaceful and majestic. How much like the perfect best friend. A glance in our living room revealed that Santa had come and gone, without getting stuck in the snow, during my barn-sit. Several small packages peeked out from under the tree awaiting our little family to gather around in a few hours for a festive period of ribbon-tearing, sharing, and chatter before barn chores, snow shoveling and other duties called. How wonderful, I smiled on my way to bed, how divinely magical…

En Vogue? Equestrian Fashion…

One of my students arrived last week wearing breeches that defied the normally dismal fashions of English riding apparel so thoroughly that I went momentarily speechless. Not only were they electric eggplant colored but they had a five-inch tassel dangling from the left side of the rider’s buttocks.

Stupidly, I asked if she realized she had a fringe swinging from her seat. Of course she realized; it was an identifying feature of the brand. This particular apparel manufacturer also made styles in various other show-stopping colors with tassels attached almost anywhere someone could imagine.

After moving past how bizarre I found them, I had to admit that I found the new brand of slightly wild pants pretty cool and imagined myself in a pair of hot yellow ones with tassels swinging from my knees. And then, sinking, I admitted that I am probably too uptight to sport such fashions. It would be such a break from my stiff-upper-lip English riding upbringing that I feared a total identity crisis. After all, dull-colored unflattering breeches have been a mainstay of my entire equestrian life.

A client of mine recently summed up how unfashionable English breeches are with perfection. She used to ride Western and back then, she and her friends referred to English breeches as ‘Dork pants.” It’s a pretty accurate description, I think. I mean, let’s put it this way: I don’t know a single person who reaches for her riding pants when she’s looking for something really cool to wear. Now, if those breeches had tassels swinging from them, it just might be a different story.

For years, dressage riders have been begging for a rule change regarding competition dress code. How about another option besides white breeches and a black jacket? Any other colors, we begged. And finally a few years ago, the higher powers of dressage regulations announced new flexibility in the choice of riders’ outfits. The news was met with cautious excitement. After decades of wearing only black and white, what colors were now allowed?

The answer we got resembled the moment last week when I admitted that my stiff-upper-lip English upbringing wouldn’t allow me to fully break from the mold of the world of Dork pants. In addition to white and black, dressage riders could now also wear navy blue and grey. While this was indeed a change, I wouldn’t call it a wild break from the norm.

As loud as we dressage riders begged for change, I guess we weren’t really ready. We’re too serious or fashion-inhibited or something like that. Maybe we just can’t see ourselves in electric eggplant colored pants or pants with funky patterns and fringes.

I’m not sure what it does take to wear these oddities, but I’m working on it. In fact, I’m trying my best at amnesia for the last 30 years of dark colored synthetic fabric breeches that never fit quite right. I’m close. I think it’s just a matter of time until I’m in those hot yellow pants with tassels. And I’m pretty sure the rest of the dressage world it close behind me.

Food Wars

Some days, it seems like the mere act of surviving life with horses mandates a person to form fiery and tightly held beliefs about anything and everything, and to verbalize them assertively at any opportunity, lest you become confused or led astray by others’ tightly held beliefs.

Either people without a tendency to form firm convictions stay away from the industry to begin with or they’re kicked out. I haven’t determined which.

This struck me recently while teaching at a new barn when one of the boarders had an episode after discovering some blades of alfalfa hay in her horse’s stall. This then drew everyone around her into a heated argument about whether horses were meant to eat alfalfa, and how her horse might likely colic from the offending scraps she found in his stall.

A woman nearby quickly countered, “No, no, you’re mistaken. Alfalfa maintains the correct calcium-phosphorous ratio in the gut. Grass hay doesn’t. You have to feed alfalfa.”

Another gal cut in, “Well, no, you’re only partially right. It depends on the breed of horse. Stockier breeds risk becoming laminitic on alfalfa.”

Yet another shot in with “No, all breeds can eat alfalfa. It’s sugar ya wanna be careful about, but there aint sugar in alfalfa so it’s okay.”

All told, the debate about alfalfa lasted 20 minutes, everyone offering well-researched and eloquent, albeit opposing, opinions. Absolutely nobody agreed or was indifferent about the topic.
Then somehow the bickering about hay types segued straight into a debate about beet pulp. Again, a dozen fiery convictions flew. Beet pulp was good for digestion. Nah, beet pulp was indigestible. It should be purchased in shredded form and then soaked. No, the pelleted form was better and needed no soaking. Etc.

I listened within earshot, withholding my own speculations about beet pulp, alfalfa, or any other feed. It was a classic example of too many cooks in the kitchen. I knew that in a matter of minutes, the conversation would switch to training methods, giving the cluster of equestrians another issue on which to weigh their opinions. And again, no two of them would share the same one.

I chuckled under my breath, gaining insight into the drama or ‘barn politics’ that vexes most boarding facilities. Barn politics could be best described as frequent outbursts, tantrums, and personality clashes amongst boarders.

In a sport filled with such opinionated participants, I reflected, it’s a small miracle we can co-exist at all.