A Room of One’s Own

I just returned from visiting a breeding farm a few hours north of here. After trying out a few of the breeder’s horses as possible matches for students of mine, I was treated with the luxury to overnight in her darling guest cottage. As far as accommodations go, this self-contained little place was paradise. I awoke the following morning well-rested and comfortable, which isn’t always the case when one stays at strangers’ homes as often as I do.

Over the last few years, I have averaged five to six nights per month away from home sleeping in other people’s guest rooms, couches, R.V.s, and anything else available. Such is the lifestyle of a traveling horse trainer. Succeeding at this nomadic life relies on going with the flow, to borrow from Zen adages. I’ve immersed myself in all kinds of family dynamics, unplanned events, and sleeping arrangements. I’ve shared beds with barn cats and shedding dogs, taken showers without hot water, sat uncomfortably through marital spats over dinner, stayed at homes without electricity. When relying on others’ generosity and hospitality in its various forms, I’ve learned to let go of being persnickety.

Equestrians occupy all walks of life and financial hierarchy, a love of fine steeds being the glue that joins us all in the same social category. Staying in their homes allows me to experience the vast differences among this eclectic group, which — as I stated above– means I never know what I’m in for.

One time while giving a clinic in Nevada, I stayed in a home so enormous and sprawling that, after dropping my bags in a designated bedroom, I could not find my way back to the center of the house. Eventually, I discovered a hallway intercom and pressed a series of buttons until a human voice told me the directions through various hallways, chambers, and staircases down to a kitchen the size of a basketball court. It took me close to an hour to arrive there, given my need to stare shamelessly at the collections of artwork along the way. I stood in front of an original Picasso, my mouth gaping in awe, realizing I might never be in front of an original Picasso again in my life. This awe was swiftly overturned, though, by a nearby stone horse head dating to the Han Dynasty.

A few weeks later, while training in Portugal, I fantasized about that luxurious home and my bed with sheets whose thread counts I’ll likely never again experience except at 5–star resorts. In a drafty three-room cottage in the Portuguese countryside, I was trying to recover from a cold shower (the home’s heater fritzed a week earlier) and the damp drizzle outside by curling up on the only uncluttered surface available, a tattered love seat with a bird cage tottering on one end and an unruly cockatoo shrieking at me. Teeth chattering, I pulled my limbs into my chest and sneezed for the next few minutes. I watched the slow moving hands of a wall clock, praying I could speed them forward to morning.

Another time in New England, I awoke so fully covered in dog hair that two showers were required to make me presentable to teach that day. Then there was a morning in northern California that I awoke with a swollen tongue and spinning head after conceding to drink my hostess’ homemade wine. It took me two days to recover and rivalled the time I awoke to the bad news that my hostess kept a coffee-free house. What? No coffee? It ranks as one my grumpier and least productive teaching days.

No matter the disparities in amenities, the experience of staying in my students’ and colleagues’ homes with them allows us to know each other on a more personal level than simply one horse woman to another. I’ve pitched in during family emergencies, helped catch herds of loose cattle, been present for proms and graduations and weddings. In many cases, I’ve become a quasi-family member who shows up every several weeks and stays for a few days. And despite the fact that my students’ husbands have to suffer the fact that their homes with be filled with nothing but horse chatter for those few days, I tell myself that no easier house guest exists than me.

For the hosts with whom I stay every few weeks through the busy summer horse show and clinic months, I am easy-going, pleasant, and entertaining addition to their homes. Or at least I tell myself this to abate the real truth that I probably wore out my welcome last year. The fact is that I’m actually pretty advanced on the high maintenance scale. Take into account that I am a vegan, a health fiend, and an occasional wine snob, and you’ve got a pain in the butt. As much as I prefer to believe otherwise, there is nothing easy about hosting a vegan.

I’ve watched my hosts developing stress disorders right in front of me trying to figure out what kind of non-meat sustenance to feed someone who runs around with horses all day. Doesn’t she need more protein?, they ask each other. How can she work with horses all day and not need to eat meat, even just a little? Sometimes when they get very panicky looking about their lack of animal-free products in the kitchen, I’ll tell them not to worry because I generally have my own food with me. Which is a polite way of saying I have a granola bar and a seed packet in the dark recesses of my car’s glove box.

Neither of these will sustain a grown adult enough to teach all day in the heat, wind, or rain. The result: a crabby, wilted instructor blathering commands of little sense by day’s end. Hence, my hostess’ stress-riddled interest in feeding me. I watch them pace in circles chanting “protein, protein” to themselves, making sure they’ll feed me something to keep me from crashing and burning mid lesson. Meanwhile, I sit nearby sipping a fine coffee or wine, reflecting on what an easy house guest I make (if only I weren’t vegan) and casting an investigative glance down the hallway for my next possible Picasso sighting. Or kindergarten finger painting.

What do You Mean By That?

Back in college philosophy class, we learned about the concept of relativism which basically states that truths and values are relative to the person holding them. Nothing is absolute or universally true. But college happened a long time ago and I hadn’t given much thought to philosophical truths– relative, absolute, or otherwise– until last weekend when receiving a real-life lesson on the fact that we all hold highly individual realities.

My problem arose from equestrians’ tendencies to use different terms to describe the same situation. For instance, some folks will call a horse that bucks, bolts, and rears “very broke” while I might choose to call him “a wild beast worth avoiding.” I’ve witnessed riders call their flighty, skittish mounts “bombproof” even while they’re spooking at the same spot in the arena for the umpteenth time. I choose to call the same horse “volatile and reactive.”

Long before philosophy class, my father tried to educate me about the differing interpretations in the horse world. When someone offered me a strange horse to ride as a kid, I always agreed. But then sometimes right before mounting up, I started to get nervous and entertain second thoughts. Pretty soon, I felt like riding this horse might not be so safe; maybe I should just stay on the ground. As the horse jittered and reared, I voiced my concern to my Dad. “But the owners said he was totally broke. And a really good boy.” Why was I starting to doubt all that? I wondered as my nerves soared. At this point, Dad put his hand on my shoulder and explained again that everyone has their own definitions of “broke.”

My refresher course on relativism came last weekend when I– a hardcore dressage queen–was afflicted by an irrational motivation to join my colleague on a 25-mile endurance race. He had a feisty young Arabian for me to borrow and the event was happening right here on hometown trails. It sounded like a fun change from my daily life inside sterile dressage arenas. Arriving at the even, I found my steed tied to his trailer quietly munching hay. He was a handsome grey gelding with intelligent eyes and a strong body. I started to get excited about our ride, imagining the wind in my hair, the morning fog against my face, and the satisfying fatigue of horse and rider after 4+ hours in the saddle. Plus, the camaraderie of winding through the Redwoods with my buddy seemed straight out of a movie. In my eagerness, what I didn’t imagine was the icy sensation of submersion in the waist-high San Lorenzo River as my horse raced down the trail without me.

Let me first acknowledge that I did receive a slight warning that my horse was “not real fond” of water crossings but should manage fine. To me, not being fond of something indicates that an animal will undertake the task presented but perhaps be a bit grumbly about it. Or maybe some resistance will surface, but everything will work out okay in the end. In hindsight, I could have researched in fuller detail what “not fond” meant for this particular horse.

Operating with the assumption that all would be fine, I crossed the start line of the race knowing that the river crossing loomed ahead at the 5-mile point. This section of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz stretches nearly 20 feet wide and is strewn along the bottom with large rocks, making an already hair-raising crossing potentially treacherous.

Knowing my horse wouldn’t be a big fan but should manage it well enough, I approached the water steadily without letting him balk and get worried. I kept my eyes up, pushed my heels down, checked my grip on the reins, and urged him on. We kept our momentum and he put one foot in the water. And then another. Admittedly, he didn’t love the experience but was handling it decently enough to get us to the other side. With his next step, he dropped down from the rock we were balanced on and plunged into deeper currents where the river rose above his belly. Instantly, I was saddled to what felt like a bucking bull at the rodeo.

My horse jumped so high and so far that we plunged over the two riders in front of is and landed on the opposite bank near spectators who scattered like bowling pins. Pulsing with adrenalin, he sprung in the air again as I madly tried yanking his nose up from between his knees. This time, we jumped straight over the top of a boulder in our path, landed briefly on the other side, and then sproinged over a fallen log. By this time, we were on dry ground with the river well behind us, but my horse– totally locked into his rodeo routine– kept bucking and leaping down the trail.

Spectators gasped and shrieked. Race officials radioed for help. I scanned the ground for a soft place to bail off. A miracle from my guardian angel, though, kept me on that wild beast. And we skyrocketed up and down over more debris for a good number of meters more before he paused long enough that I could grab a chunk of mane, regain my stirrups, and yank him to a stop. Anyone who witnessed the spectacle agreed that the fact I stayed on defied both gravity and physics. It was sheer luck. Or so I thought. Then it occurred to me that, since my horse had not gotten rid of me, it meant I had to finish the loop ahead of us and then cross that darn river AGAIN on our way home. Shoot. By now, all that romantic hoopla about the wind in my hair, camaraderie with trail buddies, and blah blah blah drained out of me. I wanted to ride straight to the nearest sterile dressage arena and never leave.

Mustering up some reserves of courage and/or insanity, we sailed around the trail’s main loop and refrained from antics that would incite further 911 calls on our behalf. But then, sure enough, there we were at the San Lorenzo River again. I knew I couldn’t count on two miracles in one day, so the likelihood of my staying on my horse as he morphed into a wild water buffalo was nil. This time I decided the best option would be to get off and lead him through the water. He seemed to like the idea, standing quietly as I wade into the chilly currents up to my navel. My leather boots filled up like buckets and my wobbly legs froze to the point of not working very well. I tried staggering over the river rocks to give him an encouraging lead. But my legs moved sluggishly, too sluggishly to keep up with my horse as he reared up on his back legs and then blasted past me, jumping like a dolphin at high speed. He tore the reins from my hands and got to the trail on the other side as I was still sliding around on mossy rocks, trying to keep from being pulled under by the river. Treading water faster, I worked my way to the other side as quickly as is possible when you are fully dressed and with boots and wading through water up to your chest. By the time I got there, my horse had disappeared in the distance and I could faintly hear his lightning hooves far down the trail.

As I began huffing after him with water spilling out of my boots and cold wet clothes stuck to me, it occurred to me that I hadn’t envisioned this part of the ride experience when I got the idea to participate in this event. Indeed, I imagined doing the whole ride on horseback. The romanticized daydreams I initially concocted about the ride were now lying at the river bottom. I was now engaged in an entirely different sort of morning than I expected.

And therein lies the problem– one’s expectations. Had I not expected the idea of a horse managing a water crossing “just fine” to mean we’d still be together on the other side, I wouldn’t be in such shock jogging down the trail while other riders passed me on their nice quiet horses. Yes, the day could have been much less harrowing had I recalled some simple college course material. Our own truths are relative to ourselves. My own definition of my steed’s behavior towards water would be: he hates it but WILL cross it, though the rider will likely not be part of the picture by then.

** POST-SCRIPT: my horse was caught by a fellow rider not too far down the trail and we managed to finish the event. And, minus the f$%^&ng river crossing, it was a rollicking good time!**