“Ugh! It’s stuck!” Jackie has one corner of a tarp. I have the other. The tarp has about 200 lbs of tan bark on it. Jaya and Sophie, ages 8 and 7, also riding today, are in the bed of the truck doing what they can to kick another 200 lbs of tan bark out on to the driveway.
Jackie’s strong and so am I, but we are still having trouble. We need to pull the tarp sideways, but it likes to slide down hill, which at the gate into the paddock, means catching on the gate post. Sara, normally known for her punctuality, is still adjusting her sleeping schedule after a week in Hawaii and has not yet arrived. Savannah is just plain sleeping and also has not yet arrived.
In years past, I’ve arranged for wood chips to be dumped at the barn, but this is complicated as you have to chase the wood chip truck down, they dump their entire load in the driveway, blocking the driveway, which then takes an hour or two to clear. The El Nino rains are just around the corner and the paddock is slick. Jackie likes to come out a little early. It was now or never with the tan bark, picked up at the garden supply yard, and Jackie is a sport about helping out.
Saturday morning is a good time for adding in barn chores to the riding program; we have the time. Learning how to ride is hard on the ego. Emptying a truck bed of tan bark, especially when you get to do so by sitting on your fanny and shoving with your feet, then spreading it out in a muddy hillside knowing neither you nor the horses will now slip, is inherently satisfying. Accomplishing the task leaves the young person with a positive balance in their confidence bank account, which they can then spend on another block of effort in the very long process of becoming an accomplished rider.
I don’t tell the girls this, but the occasional Saturday morning chore is just the tip of the iceberg as far as horse care goes. I actually wrote out the complete list recently:
drive to HMB, load hay into truck, unload at Quail, stack in hay room; go to feed store, procure supplies, refill pellet/bran at Campo; meet the vet, farrier, trimmer, body worker, equine dentist – all requiring multiple hours each; clean and repair tack; take Dancer to arena for training; train, drill, perform physical therapy on all other horses; maintain and organize battery operated colored lights used for night; clean and repair horse blankets; put on and take off horse blankets; feed, muck, medicate, procure medication from vet – long drive to far stable; perform paddock improvements – replace gutter at Campo, rock stall at Campo, which involves carting by wheel barrow several tons of rock, compacting said rock, hauling in stall mats; attending meeting for political organizations that promote horses in LAH; organize and supervise Christmas caroling; organize, manage and produce Play Day (about 60hours); last but not least, on the rare, but regular, occasion that a horse needs medical care, my life gets turned into a pretzel as I often have to adapt to some kind of round the clock care for what was once eight weeks.
As obvious as all this work is to an equestrian, I am more and more convinced that most parents are totally oblivious. The arena we use is almost two miles from the barns. I had one parent run into us on our way their and I was, as usual, on foot. The parent said, in astonishment, “You mean you walk this every day?!” All I could think was, “Oh Lady, you don’t know the half of it!”
The girls would be on these tasks in a heart beat. The parents seem to think all the girls want to do is be silly and take pictures for their Instagram. That’s part of what goes on, but all the girls love to work and would do all of it in a heart beat were they allowed the time.
With the tarp and bark half way through the gate, Sara and Savannah finally arrive and help us drag it the rest of the way. Leaving the girls to the bark, I step away to pick a few hooves instead and to take a minute to text parents pick up plans. There is a text on my phone from a parent, but not from one of my current riders. It’s from Barry, Skylar’s dad. “Are you at the barn?” Silly man! It’s Saturday. Where else would I be?
Skylar was hoping to visit a bit. What a treat! I texted Barry times a locations then went about my work, biting my tongue. The girls miss Skylar. Skylar’s passion for cutting and reining, plus the fact her mom bought a quarter horse, was clear indication her days with KLH were coming to a close. But her departure ended up being unnecessarily sudden and final, to the lasting distress of Savannah, Sara and Rachel in particular. Rachel normally rides on Saturdays, but today she is attending a cultural event, one of her parents many expectations for her.
Rachel’s parents don’t want her to be spoiled and to understand that riding is a privilege. Rachel is expected to pay for about half of her riding fees. She does this through dog walking; not exactly regular work. On top of the requirement she get straight A’s, play flute, have an active social life and sing in choir, it often forces her to chose between working and riding. I do have a job for Rachel. She could earn her riding with it. But it’s on Sunday’s, the one day I take off, and her parents tell me it’s not an option because that cuts into family time.
Rachel rides Stoney. Not only does she ride Stoney, she rides him really well. Maybe one in ten; one in fifteen riders can ride him well. For that one in ten, the rider needs that particular horse as much as that horse needs that rider. First there was Kat, followed by Haley, followed by Maya. Each girl went through a period where they rode four or five days a week and for that time, mostly during 8th grade. This is the first time where “the Stoney rider” has had her riding so restricted and Stoney suffers for it.
Fortunately for Stoney, today Sara is perfectly happy to ride him. We have a full forty-five minutes at Campo to groom and tack, but the two young riders, Sophie and Jaya, take a lot of attention and Sara, Savannah and Jackie are not at all accustomed to having any sort of time restriction on Saturdays. Skylar is planning on meeting us at the arena at 12:15. We are riding out of Campo with less than a minute to spare.
Half way to the arena, I tell Sara and Savannah that I have arranged for a surprise for them at the arena. As we pass Fremont Hills Stables, we are overtaken by a cobalt blue, light duty pick-up. A blond head pops out of the passenger side and starts to wave energetically. Sara looks puzzled, then surprised, then ecstatic. “SKYLAR!!!!!” I say, “Well, what a surprise.” (Savannah was in the lead and I couldn’t see her reaction.)
Skylar’s older sister, Jaclyn, was driving the pick-up. Sara and Savannah are in tears. Chavali was probably in tears on seeing Jaclyn. As Sara and Savannah and Skylar got caught up, Jaclyn gave Chavali an ear massage. If horses could purr, she would have.
Skylar’s purpose in her visit was to drop off a Christmas present. It was a ceramic mug she decorated and had fired. On it she painted six horses pulling Santa’s sled. The first horse is Velvet, who always leads, followed by Chavi then CG then Freedom then Stoney then Jackson. Because the horses are very small, in order to fit them around the circumference of the mug, at first it was hard to tell who was who. Then I noticed that along the reins that connected the horses to the sleigh, were Christmas lights. I checked for Stoney’s color first. Yep, Stoney had blue lights, Velvet purple, Chavi pink, etc… Santa’s goody bag was filled with dressage whips and one manure fork. Following the sleigh was one loose horse; a bay horse with reindeer horns attached. Only way I can figure this is Skylar, who left KLH same time Dancer came on, forgot about him and this was best, and very creative way, of including him.
This mug is precious. I’m terrified I’m going to break it. I’m thinking the best plan will be to give it to Sara for safe keeping. It will make the other girls jealous, but truth it, with her Swiss-German cultural heritage, she is better qualified than anyone else I know to care for a precious possession.
Savannah texts Rachel to tell her Skylar is visiting, but I won’t do so. It would be salting a wound. The day before I’d suggested that she consider changing her plans. Right now, Rachel is short on funds. She hasn’t been able to afford the “unlimited” package and she is rationing her rides. I tell her that she might want to consider the fact that starting Sunday, el nino rains will be starting up and rains are predicted for Wednesday, her scheduled ride day. She responded with, “If I make a commitment, I stick to it”, admirable moral temerity for someone of any age.
Earning money to pay for your activities, in a perfect world, does the kids a lot of good. They value their ride time in a way that other kids do not. Unfortunately, there are so many other requirements put on these kids it makes the head spin. Rachel doesn’t want to play piano. Her parents are forcing that. Add to that the parents won’t let the girls ride their bikes anywhere. If they are to go somewhere, they have to be driven. Not the end of the world, unless the parent insists, like Rachel’s parents do, that the driving be at their convenience. It’s like telling the kids it’s OK to play in the sprinklers, only don’t get wet.
Julie Desai’s daughter Maya was one of my first students when I moved to Los Altos Hills. Julie is a veterinarian, now volunteering her skills at Nine Lives Animal Foundation, and also a horse lover. She would frequently comment to me about how much more Maya was getting and could get out of what KLH provided than a regular boarding stable riding program. She had a deep appreciation for the level of care I am committed to providing for the horses. She often told me how grateful she was. She readily stepped up to volunteer for special events and have Maya help out in any way she could. Towards the end of Maya’s time with KLH, Julie wrote me this email:
I wanted to elaborate on what I meant by saying that you give your students, and Maya in particular chances to develop in very important areas that they might not otherwise get. In particular there are assets that they need to be successful. These come from the list of 41 assets identified by the Search Institute and promoted and taught by the YMCA and Project Cornerstone.
The external assets that you give by virtue of your small, personalized program and who you are include:
Support Asset #3 Other Adult Relationships-Young person receives support from three or more non-parent adults (Only about 50% of kids report having three adults other than their parents that they can go to for support)
Boundaries and Expectations Asset #14 Adult Role Models, Asset #15 Positive Peer Influence, and #16 High Expectations
Constructive Use of Time #17 Creative Activities and #18 Youth Programs
The second half of the Assets are internal and I know that Maya has benefited from your program and your attention in many, many of these areas. Part of the beauty of your program is the long term relationships the kids develop with you, the other students and young women like Katie and Haley.
Commitment to Learning Asset # 21 Achievement Motivation
Positive Values Asset #26 Caring, #28 integrity, #29 honesty, #30 responsibility, #31healthy lifestyle and restraint (risk taking behaviors)
Social Competencies of Planning and Decision Making (only 54% of elementary school kids and 35% of middle school kids report feeling that they know how to plan ahead and make choices!!!), Interpersonal Competence, and Resistance Skills
Positive Identity Asset # 37 Personal Power,(Only 37% of middle schoolers feel that they have control over things that happen to them) #38 Self Esteem, #39 Sense of Purpose (Only 48% of elementary school kids report that their life has a purpose)
The percentages I’ve given above come from 38,000 elementary, middle school and high school students in Silicon Valley. In an area with so many well educated and wealthy people, it’s appalling to see our kids feel so undervalued and not feel a sense of purpose or control in their lives. You do so much to change that for the kids you teach and I really appreciate all that you do. I know how much time, effort and money you invest and it’s remarkable to me that you keep at it day after day, every day of the year, for years on end. You not only make dreams come true, like Maya riding her horse to school, or going to the beach, or the races, or camping etc, etc, etc. but you are helping develop these kids character and their self esteem. That’s a big job and you do it really well.
This month in Project Cornerstone we are reading Long Shot: Never Too Small to Dream Big. The lesson is about finding your SPARK (what really gets you excited) and setting your GPS (Goal setting, Planning, and Shifting gears if necessary). I know you have them set goals in their riding which are short, medium and even long term goals :-)
Thanks so much for all your great work with the horses and the kids. I hope this helps you to understand just how valuable are to the kids and their parents and society as a whole.
Have a great day,
I was so touched and humbled, that I read it once then couldn’t bring myself to look at it again for a very long time, but I think the time is now to make it public. Clearly I am not the only person to think along the lines that I do, but I’ve never been able to put why I do what I do into words. Julie did that for me.
The girls have recently made up a Facebook page for KLH. They did a brilliant job setting up the page. I did, however, decide to change the description of KLH. My short description of KLH is “saving the world one horse and one horse girl at a time.” According to Nancy Shulins, for AP Press writer and author of “Falling for Eli”, it is estimated that 170,000 horses a year in the US become “unwanted”, of which 100,000 are sold for their “can price.” Because of KLH and the girls who ride here, Chavali, Stoney, CG, Velvet, Jackson and Dancer are NOT in that statistic.
Skylar doesn’t stay very long. As much as the girls would like to believe she’d still be riding with us, Skylar is a busy girl with precious little time to spare. Meera shows up and joins the party and the girls putz around the arena till two, when Kate shows up and we have a rider for each horse. With the coming rains, it’s probably our last ride through Clark’s field for months, though with four years of drought, this crop of riders doesn’t quite get that. The girls ride lickety split as Jackie will be picked up three pm sharp to go visit her grand parents. Savannah also has to leave shortly after three. Meera and Sara finish up chores at Campo while Kate and I spread the remainder of the tan bark at Quail. All three of them get a ride home with me in the truck.
As I drive home from Sunnyvale, where Kate lives, I have time to think about all that goes into making KLH run. In the heart of silicon valley, it is a minor miracle we can exist at all. Surviving as a presence in Los Altos Hills is a constant struggle. But everyday we have people stop us and tell us how they love seeing the horses. I had one woman go so far as to tell me that the girls riding the horses was what made Los Altos Hills beautiful, that it was the only thing beautiful about Los Altos Hills. It is but by they grace of Jan and the Jenson’s, who cherish the beauty and profundity that these animals bring to our lives and by the grace of God who, I am convinced, has had hand in all this, that KLH continues to exist.
At the time, I’d thought I’d continue to get parents like Julie, but that hasn’t been the case. I do have parents who have the same level of appreciation, but they are all one’s who’ve been with me a long time. The newer parents, not so much. When I think about how extraordinary it is that KLH even exists, what an extraordinary gift it is to the kids and what an extraordinary amount of effort it takes to sustain it, the fact that it is ever dismissed as a privilege and a trivial, inconsequential pursuit of no real value is utterly beyond comprehension to me.
Sophie and Jaya helping with the tan bark: