The Trials of Job

“I’m sorry Deb, I can’t make it out. Sami [a dog] is throwing up and I need to stay home to take care of her.” That was cancellation number three in less than twelve hours. Dorina had cancelled 8pm the night before. She and her husband are separating and co-ordinating transportation for Jaya has becoming challenging. Jill cancelled Kali at 10pm because when the grandparents left, she had a total melt down. I’d already turned away riders because the day was full. But lucky Sammie! Too young to go on long rides with many riders and too busy to schedule a “special event”, riding to the best parts of the hills could only happen on a blue moon. Sammie got her moon.

The girls love riding horses so much that all the chaos and commotion of riding around the semi-urban parts of the hills doesn’t matter to them, but peace descends when you ride up the Artemas Gintzon trail and into Byrnne Preserve. Sammie is skilled enough to canter as much as she liked and Rachel rode with her to keep her safe. For a young rider, you can’t get any closer to pure joy.

The day was turning out to be hotter than expected. Due to the unparalleled opportunity of a stellar ride, we were more than an hour later returning than expected. But that’s what summer is for.

Along with Savannah’s text early in the morning, was an urgent text from my vet. Dr. Carlson, the surgeon, had finally looked at Skipper’s X-rays. He said he thought Skipper needed another set of X-rays and he could come by that afternoon.

Skipper had been three legged lame for almost three weeks. He’d been kicked, hard, by Bella and, at first, looked like he’d heal up. But seven days after the kick, all of a sudden, his right, front leg hung limp from his body.

In Bella’s defense, Skipper was asking for it. He just doesn’t take no for an answer.

Skipper showed up on the Los Altos Hills horse scene about a year ago and never was there a more perfect pony for training kids to ride. The ideal height of 13.2, he was backyard bred, which meant his legs weren’t as straight as they should have been, but it also meant he was bad at bucking, unbelievable good tempered, happy to go forward at any gate desired at any time at any position in the line. Finding a pony like this is harder than you’d think. When I purchased Cowgirl, she was the only one out of two hundred for sale at the time that even came close to being appropriate for training kids. Finding Skipper was like finding the needle in the haystack.

His most remarkable quality was that he was bomb proof. People say this about horses all the time and I’ve never, ever known it to be true, except with this horse, though the reason why ended up being the reason he died.

I didn’t think I had a prayer of ever buying him, but as it turned out, Judy, his owner, had purchased him to save him from living in squalor. He was really too small. The same month I retired Cowgirl she asked me if I’d like to buy him. She could have demanded triple what he was worth and I would have done it.

From the get go, he loved the girls and they loved him, no one more so than Arya. Small, with brown skin and black hair, they were a matched set. Arya said she was going to marry him and take him to college, though not sure in what order. All I knew is that I finally had a horse that her skilled, but petite, body could wrap it’s legs around.

Dr. Carlson arrived at 4. He travels with an assistant, which Kristin, my regular vet, does not. Strong as Kristin and I are, Dr. Carlson has the advantage of testosterone, which allowed him to pick up Skipper’s good leg, something necessary to get more thorough X-rays, but that required hoisting up about 300lbs of horse.

Arya, Sophie and Jaya had all arrived at the end of Skipper’s photo session. Dr. Carlson was in the barn examining X-rays when they arrived and the girls got busy giving Skipper a spa treatment. It didn’t take him long though. I don’t think the girls noticed when he walked out of the barn, leaned back against the grill of his Chevy Suburban and said, “There’s bone chip in there all right and it’s moving. There’s a good chance it’s the cause of the problem but we won’t know until after we take it out.” The girls also didn’t hear him continue with, “but we have to take a look at the joint first. If it’s good, taking the chip out will be worth it. If the joint is trashed, we just won’t wake him up.” Even if they had, I’m not sure they would have understood what that meant.

After Skipper was properly primped and preened and the commotion of the vet exam was gone, Sophie announced, “I want to take Cowgirl to the arena and practice vaulting!” To this, Arya added, “And I want to ride Bella double with Jaya!” Jaya, who talks to me only when she has to, nodded a vigorous assent.

By vaulting, Sophie means practicing jumping on and off Cowgirl. Sophie is a talented acrobat with long limbs so Cowgirl, despite her retired status, doesn’t mind this at all.

I don’t remember what the girls talked about getting the horses ready and riding to the arena, but three happier horse girls there never were. For my part, I was taking every spare second to send text messages to the dozen or so people connected to Skipper who needed to know of his dire situation and to rearrange the next day for the contortions necessary to trailer him to the horse hospital in Salinas the next day.

Mostly they all practiced jumping on and off of Cowgirl in the arena and practiced standing up on her back while one of the lead her around at a walk.

Arya and Jaya did ride double on Bella to and from the arena, but with me walking carefully placed beside them, lead rope firmly in hand. At one point, Arya looked down at me and said, “I feel sorry for you, Miss Deb, having to walk so much.” Though it was cool now, I’d been up since six, I’d sprinted on my bike up to Westwind that morning and I was ready to be done for the day. But I said, “I’m a little tired, but if it means keeping you safe, being tired doesn’t matter at all.” Even when all hell is breaking loose around her, Bella is near perfect on the lead line, but you do need to be holding that line.

There was no prying the girls away from the arena until sun had started to set and we had just entered nautical twilight, what most people call “night”, as we descended Quail Lane to the barn where their parents were waiting. With no school the next day and no camps, the girls then fulfilled their dream of taking care of all the evening barn chores at Quail with their best friends. It’s sad to me that this can only happen once or twice a year, but it did happen and that’s what summer is for.

It was well past nine when I finally left Quail for Campo. It was nearly ten by the time I started to drive away from the barn. The next day would involve getting up at six, walking the dog, feeding the cats, packing provisions, cleaning and feeding at Quail, cleaning and feeding at the barn where Dancer lives, driving to Saratoga;involving several miles on narrow, twisty road; to hitch up the trailer, driving back to Los Altos Hills, stopping to fill up on the way, inching Skipper all the way down Campo Vista to the trailer, then shoving off by 10:30 at the latest as they wanted him in Salinas as soon as possible.

Dinner, damage control in the house, and several dozen, lengthy Skipper related text messages left me dozing off to sleep at midnight. Moments later I woke with a start remembering that I had failed to refill Skipper and Velvet’s water tub. So it was back out to the barn, in my bathrobe, and back in bed at one a.m.

Skipper was as chipper as any horse with three legs could be. He hopped out of the trailer at the horse hospital an into the prepared stall with little fan fare. Dante and I walked around the grounds a bit to stretch our legs before the ride home. When I returned to the stall, they were preparing him for catheterization. The first time Kristin tried to catheterize him, two weeks prior, Skipper had pitched a fit. The calm, co-operative, agreeable, sedated Skipper, tried to rear and strike. Kristin looked at me and said,”this horse was late cut [castrated late]”, which explained a lot.

After warning the techs, I put my heart in my hand and put my hand on his forehead and said goodbye.

It was noon. And then it was two. At four, text from the vet said they now had one horse in front of him. At six, text said they were bringing him into surgery. Allison texted me same time: What time should she walk Cowgirl? I told her what was going on with Skipper and that I had to feed and clean at both barns, but she was welcome to come along and keep me company. She said she thought she should come along for moral support.

On the way to pick up Allison, at text came in from Shaliza. Never one to take life sitting down, Arya had set up a GoFundMe account to raise money to defray some of the medical expense. She wanted to know how much to ask for.

Allison and I got to the barns at seven. We mucked and sorted and fed and groomed. By eight, there was still no word. Allison left at 8:45. I had one last bag of pellet to schlep into Quail. It was nine and the call came. “We can’t see much of what’s in the joint, but it doesn’t matter. With Skipper under anesthesia, we were able to take much more thorough X-rays. That bone chip? It’s huge. And so is the fracture – it runs right through the joint. The only tool in the country that can fix this is at Texas A&M and even then, the odds on recovery aren’t good. I recommend you let us put him down.” I have never had a vet say that to me. When a vet says, “I recommend,” what they really mean is, “If this were my pony, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

It was another late night with another early morning: Dog walked and fed, cats fed, provisions packed, Quail fed and mucked, at Campo by 7:40. Shana, whose life has extenuating circumstances, hadn’t been able to ride all summer. She was supposed to ride the day before, but it had been too hot. She was supposed to leave for Boston that afternoon, expecting to be gone for the rest of the summer. She said, “If I sleep well, I can ride from eight to nine!” Riding from eight to nine would only be possible if I was there to tack up. I still didn’t know if she was coming, I had to be at the Robleda barn by 8:20 at the very latest. There was no response to my text asking whether she would make it.

Shana showed up at 8:10, still needing to leave at nine. Rushing around like a chicken with my head cut off, we got Velvet tacked in record time, but not so little time as to not check the girth, which was loose, before Shana took off.

It was supposed to have cooled off Saturday, but it ended up being hotter. But ten, it was already eighty. Julia, Jaya, Sammie and myself were walking from Quail to Campo when Shana’s mother, Cara, called. I let it go to voice mail.

Everyone was grouchy that morning because of the heat, which gets particularly intense in the exposed, unshaded staging area at Campo. It was a fight to get the girls moving to groom and tack. At one point I had to have Sammie toss one of the stirrups and stirrup leather. She did so without thinking and unintentionally smacked my had with the stirrup. I started to see red and said, “I need to go away and go calm down!” I made my way to the back of the barn without losing my temper. Sat for a bit and decided I might as well listen to Cara’s message. It was a three minute rant about how Shana had come home in tears because I’d so mean and condescending to her and how I’d ruined her whole day and didn’t I know she was leaving for Boston and so on and so forth. I texted Cara saying I’d just put a horse down, I was tired and had a lot to do that morning and to tell Shana she needed to not take anything I did or said personally. Cara texted back. “I’m sorry for your loss. But that still doesn’t excuse your behavior. You need to learn to be less abrupt!”

Skipper’s injury was the fifth serious and first fatal injury we’ve had at the Campo barn, any of the other four having been serious enough to be life ending. One of those was directly the fault of the barn owners. Three were indirectly the fault. As for Bella’s kick, someone like Jan, the Quail barn owner, would have noticed the escalation in Skipper’s overtures to Bella and also her excessively aggressive behavior during feeding. If I’d had any say in the matter, I would have had Bella stalled for every feeding. But the Campo barn owners are do resistant to action not of their own idea that it took me four years to convince them to allow me to muck the paddock. The owners are concerned about damage to their barn, not about

The night before Skipper’s surgery, I had a dream where Jan had moved all of my horses to her barn. She’d figured out how to cordon off part of the orchard so that there was room for all of six of them as well as a couple of rescue steers. When I told Jan my dream, she said she wished she had that kind of property. If i can find a property that would have room for all of the herd, my dream would be to take Jan with me.

The real culprit in Skipper’s death was his “stallion” state. The only reason I know of to castrate late is if you are thinking a particular horse might be a good stallion prospect. With his knock knees, overly long back and sickly hocks, I couldn’t imagine anyone thinking he’d be a stallion prospect. But there is another reason for a late cut. As a “stallion”, Skipper was heedless of his life. I saw that first when Stoney and Skipper had at it at Campo one afternoon. Although I was able to separate them, it wasn’t before witnessing Skipper’s wanton disregard for his own safety. That incident was not intentional, and I never let them out together again, but for a few moments I was seriously worried that Skipper would get himself killed.

So what makes a horse spook? They want to preserve their life. With no instinct for that, Skipper was fearless on trail; a good reason for a late cut, but one that comes with other problems.

Several of the girls have asked if I will replace him. This idea is not even on my radar yet, but Skipper was irreplaceable.

Even though we had to let him go, Arya went ahead with her GoFundMe campaign anyways. Kayla, Kate and Rachel have promised to make a memorial poster of all their pictures of him. On things for certain, we will all be sad for a very long time.

Rest in Peace, Skipper.

Erik Loves Ponies

“I could do it right there.” Kristin, my vet, is pointing at the patch of dirt next to the cement next to the gate at Quail. “You need a soft spot so they don’t break a leg as they go down. Janice can get the winch through the gate. But you’ll want to schedule the euthanasia for a Tuesday or Wednesday. Definitely not a weekend.” Janice runs a tallow company, which is the fate of almost all horse carcasses. The horse that Kristin and I are talking about is Cowgirl.

I don’t know why I didn’t notice the string halt/calcified tendon when I first bought her, but it must have been there. Not that it would have made any difference. Out of the 200 ponies for sale at the time I had to buy, she was the only one who wasn’t advertised as “will bring home blue ribbons as a show jumper” or was simply completely untrained. She had been a pony party pony and a summer camp pony and who knows what else. She was advertised as being thirteen, but vets guess was her being twenty; plenty of time to inflict irreparable damage. Certainly the untreated Cushings was masking the problem. As soon she started getting medication for the Cushings, about three months after she joined us, the limp in her step started to show up; a little at first, but more and more each year.

Cowgirl nipped at the kids from the get go. Savannah, now fifteen, at age seven wrote an entire book all about Cowgirl. It goes something like this: “Cowgirl has brown hair and a white blaze and she tried to bite me.” Followed by, “Cowgirl is my size and has a red saddle as she tried to bite me.” And so on and so forth. Sometimes the nipping is just a bad habit. More often it is a sign of pain. Cowgirl got massage and acupuncture and pain meds and chiropractic and craniosacral therapy and cold laser treatment and any and everything I could think of that would help her body.

Despite the nipping, Savannah’s book ended with “I love Cowgirl more than anything.”

Inside the door of the hay room at Quail is a two and a half foot high picture that Maya drew of Cowgirl when she, Maya, was nine or ten. Maya did very little art so this picture was special. She intentionally drew it to be as close to life size as possible. Maya probably rode Cowgirl more than anyone else. She galloped up Rhus Ridge on her. She rode her all over Arastradero Preserve and through all the trails at Jack Brook. When I first got her, except for the objection to being saddled, Cowgirl went any and everywhere with us. With the right rider, she’d even careen around the arena and leap the jumps like the other horses. In the first year I had her, Cowgirl jumped a three and a half foot fence. She was being pursued by a loose dog, but she jumped it never the less.

It was on our third trip to Jack Brook (horse camp) that she started to have trouble carrying a rider up the hills. I would ride one horse down, then switch and run up the hills behind Cowgirl, without a rider, holding her tail. It was three years ago that she started slowing down on our regular rides. Maybe it was Cowgirl getting older or maybe it was the girls getting heavier. It was hard to tell. She started coming along footloose and fancy free, running between the horses without a rider, which she enjoyed very much. But last year, at Jack Brook, she stayed at the camp for half the rides.

In the arena, it can be hard to tell if a horse is having trouble physically or if, because her primary riders are all novice, she’s just fed up with every single rider doing the wrong thing. Up until nine months ago, she’d show pep in the arena when the older girls would have her race with Jackson.

About a year ago, Kayla started riding her, but Cowgirl seemed to have lost her “go”. Was it the way Kayla was sitting? Did she need to improve her skills? Kayla wants Cowgirl to live at her house when she retires. She talks about it endlessly. Kayla would have done anything for CG to make riding work for her. It wasn’t Kayla. It was Cowgirl.

She started to drag with the beginners even more. She’d walk at a slow pace. Nothing the riders could do to make her move any faster, then finally she’d burst forward, often unseating her young rider in the process.

If she can’t carry a rider, where’s she going to go? Unless a horse has a situation where it can be taken out and brushed and walked and otherwise cared for, retirement for most horses is a fate worse than death. Standing around in a paddock day in and day out waiting for the end is like being in jail for the rest of their lives. Putting Cowgirl out in a pasture is an even crueler death sentence. It wouldn’t be right away, but founder or laminitis would be inevitable, both being excruciatingly painful conditions. And while she waited for death, unbearable, constant itching from untreated sweet itch.

I need a pony. I see these small bodies on my small horses and most of the time it’s fine, but I want these kids safe and for some of them, that means a pony, which means how the heck am I going to have time to tend and care for Cowgirl on top of the other six when I’m about ready to keel over from exhaustion all the time anyways to say nothing of the $600 a month it takes to simply keep her alive. Who will pay for that? Not the parents, that’s for sure.

But maybe she just needed a little schooling? I walked her to the arena and back, insisting she “maintain the gait” there and back. The next morning she was so stiff she could barely walk. There is not need for schooling. Her body just can’t take the work anymore.

Allison will probably take the prize as being all time most unique rider as in she doesn’t ride at all, but rather insists on spending every Sunday morning doting on Cowgirl. On Monday, when she comes out and keeps me company with the young riders, she usually spends the entire time recounting, in minute detail everything and anything that Cowgirl did, how she ate her bucket, how she kept nudging Allison, how she was tired and slow or how she felt lively when Allison walked her.

Allison is as indulgent as they come. I used to insist that Allison ride along with us, on CG, but she’d inevitably get off and hand walk her saying that Cowgirl just wanted to walk right now. They’d get far behind, but with Allison being fourteen (now fifteen), I didn’t worry and knew they’d make their way back to the barn safely.

Allison’s email name is “Am a Pony Lover.” Her Instagram name is ponyness_who_all_warship (worship). (Kayla’s Instagram name is cowgirl_the_pony.)

It was Allison’s dream for years to train Cowgirl to pull a cart. I was so hoping for this. It had the potential for extending her useful life. It took about a year to find a cart that would work. We were lucky and got it on sale. Allison used her Bat Mitzvah money to pay for it. But training a pony to harness is no simple task. You can get hurt worse by an untrained cart horse than you can riding. Training takes a lot of time. With the summer between middle school and high school coming up, there was hope. But her parents decided Allison needed to attend summer school, which left no time for training.

Last Thursday it was raining. Sophie and Arya came out for a barn day, as delighted to clean and organize the tack room as they are to ride. Allison came out also. As a teen, I never know if Allison will show up on any given day or not. I was surprised to have her there. Although I usually enjoy her company, it was the day after I’d decided that I didn’t have any other option than to euthanize Cowgirl. I took the opportunity to sit out of the way, behind a hay bale, trying to hide my breaking heart. But Allison was not particularly interested in engaging with the munchkins. She kept talking to me. She finally said, “I had a nightmare last night. I dreamt that something bad happened to Cowgirl.”

I hadn’t intended to tell anyone. Not even Jan. Cowgirl was going to be in retirement in Montana or Mississippi or Texas. But Allison knew anyways.

I talked to Al, Allison’s dad, a couple days later. Would they like to step up to the plate and help pay her expenses? Could Allison commit to taking CG out three or four days a week? Al said, “That’s not what Allison needs in her life.” Followed by, “I’m sure Allison will understand.” He added, “How old is she? She probably wouldn’t live much longer, would she?” This is not true. Ponies live a long time. Cowgirl is twenty eight. Assuming she gets decent care, she could live another fifteen or twenty years. Ideally a horse will be able to work up until the very end of it’s life. Chavali certainly shows signs of doing so and Stoney will come close to it. What happened to Cowgirl is what happens to all those lessons horses and pony ride horses and trail ride horses. The stresses and strains of carrying nothing but people with no skill wears them out in three to five years. Cowgirl lasted longer than that, but it’s the “I just want to go for a ride!” attitude or the “riding is for fun!” attitude or the idea that it doesn’t take any skill or commitment is what kills these horses; all those parents who put piano and the talent show and skiing and anything and everything else above and in front of horses and then come with the attitude of “what am I getting for my money!”, who view the horses as a carnival ride, that cause their demise. Cowgirl came with the damage done so far that I couldn’t stop it, much less reverse it, though God knows I tried.

Allison was out again yesterday, along with seven year-old Kali. As Kali and I brushed Velvet, Allison stood in the staging area, rubbing Cowgirl’s ears. “Cowgirl’s just a love sponge! She’s getting all the love she needs!” Cowgirl was enjoying Allison’s attention so much that her head was nearly on the ground. (For the record, Cowgirl doesn’t let me touch her ears.) As Kali and I tighten the girth on Velvet, Allison leans over CG and starts stroking her sides. Allison says, “I love Cowgirl so much!” At this, I turned to Allison and said, “If you had to come out here three days a week to walk Cowgirl in order for her to stay alive, would you do it?” Allison’s head popped up. With fierce determination she said, “Of course! I’d come out here five days a week if that’s what was needed!”

I had to drive Kali home that evening after riding. Before she got out of the car, she looked at me pointedly and said, “What’s going happen to Cowgirl?” I said I didn’t know, which was a lie.

Erik (my husband) knows about my decision. He’s been party to every twist and turn. He came home to find me lying on the couch, emotionally comatose. He lifted up my feet and sat under my legs. Then he turned to me and said, “We owe Cowgirl a retirement. In a few years time, when Kayla is older and can take responsibility, she can go live at Kayla’s. But for now she needs to stay with us. I don’t care what it costs. I make enough money and we can pay for it.” He keeps saying things like that and I guess he means it. When I wrote about how KLH couldn’t afford to keep Dancer, it was Erik who stepped up. Everyone else just begged for me to keep him, but didn’t offer any real support. He’s doing it again for Cowgirl, bless his heart. Clearly he loves the ponies as much as the girls do. Despite what her father says, I feel confident that Allison will, indeed, walk Cowgirl as much as needed. After all, she can ride her bike to the barn.

Selling Bella

“I’ve never seen that before!”  Kristen, my vet, is standing in front of the hay, one hand on her hip, the other with her pointer finger tapping her top lip, a habit she has when she’s thinking.  Propped on the hay is her lap top.  On the screen is an X-ray of Velvet’s right hock, the brown one, not the white one.

We had trotted Velvet on a circle, flexion tested her, compression tested her and pulled fluid out of the swelling (a hematoma/bruise).  The swelling had gone away twice and come back twice, the second time being cause for the vet call.  In the wet weather, the horses are fed in the stalls. As is common under these circumstances, Velvet got cornered in a stall and got her hock banged up in the ensuing scuffle, but the swelling should have been gone by now.

“You see that?” Kristen pointed to a thin, dark line above the talus bone. “That’s the joint space of the upper hock joint.  It’s collapsed.  See when hock joints degenerate, it’s usually only the lower joint.  There are four moving surfaces in the hock joint, three on the bottom,” here she points to the lower part of the joint with it’s collection of small building block like bones, “and one on top. When hock joints degenerated and fuse, it’s usually only the bottom three, but that doesn’t matter because the horse can still walk, trot and canter with the lower joint fused. But that upper joint always has to move no matter what.” What this means is that Velvet, every time she takes a step, is experiencing bone on bone pain.  Nothing can be done to relieve this pain.  As Kristin said, no wonder she was having trouble lifting her leg for the farrier.

The most likely culprit in this situation is Bella.  Not that it matters.  Bella is an alpha and that’s what alphas do.  Karen had been begging me to lease Bella for months.  Chavali’s fracture was taking a long time to heal.  She needed a break.  Problem was, Bella didn’t end up replacing Chavali.  She and Velvet occupied the same spot.  I could take one out or the other, but not both so Bella had to go.  I decided to help Karen find a new owner for Bella.

Dorothy used to breed Morgans, but that was years ago or so she told me as she meticulously scraped mud off Bella’s backside. She’d owned a couple of quarter horses, but they were a little on the boring side for her.  She was so excited about the possibility of getting a Morgan.  A horse with a little pep. But did Bella have a nice, gentle lope?  What she loved most was a nice, gently lope.  That’s kind of like saying I want my sports car to also be a camper van.

Nicole lived on Morgan horse breeding ranch as a teenager. She was in her sixties now.  She’d owned a six year-old warm blood who would “get the bit in his mouth, pin his ears back and take off bucking around the arena! He finally threw me and I fractured three vertebrae. The trainer I gave him to said he was the most dangerous horse he’d ever encountered!”  No kidding.  The horse she owns now is a quarter horse with so many physical problems she can’t be ridden.  “She’ll probably end up being a brood mare.”  “And how tall did you say Bella is?”  She asked this towards the end of our conversation. “Fifteen hands.” Actually, Bella is fourteen two, but I didn’t know that at the time.  Not that it mattered to Nicole.  She said, “Fifteen hands?  That’s not tall enough for me.  I don’t look good on a horse that is smaller than fifteen two.”  I asked her how tall she was. “Five seven.”  I’m five six and I think Bella is the perfect size.

Then there was Sheila.  “How do you think she’ll do in endurance?”  I think Bella would love to ride in an endurance race.  Sheila had a property of her own.  “I need an alpha mare to keep my uppity gelding in line.  Would she do that?”  I definitely think she would.  Sheila was sounding more promising by the second. She was the first inquiry who I felt confident could actually ride Bella.  Then she said, “I’m so excited! I’ve always wanted a black Morgan!”  I said, “Bella is dark bay.”  What followed next was a long silence and an “Oh.”  And that was the last I heard from Sheila.

I posted horse for sale signs in Woodside and Portola Valley and at Webb Ranch. I hadn’t been to Webb in maybe ten years? The center of the sprawling “facility” is a huge, old, wooden barn. It is now surrounded by chain link fencing with “Danger!” and “Peligro!” signs all around it.  The covered lesson arena no longer has a cover.  Just eight, twenty foot high posts holding up the air. Like most local horse facilities, Webb is on Stanford land.  Always on edge about when the five thousand pound gorilla with start stomping around, Webb is hesitant to make any improvements.  They do their best, but it’s hard to not think of Webb as a tenement for horses.

I also posted signs at Indian Hills.  They have a really nice covered arena, with cover still on. But that’s about it.  The “pastures” are knee deep mud interspersed with tenacious weeds.  They used to have back road access to the nearby county park.  Turned out, that access was a private road and the new owners don’t want horses on it.To get to the trails, you have to ride your horse down Calaveras Blvd., a narrow, two lane country road with traffic going 35mph and one section, about thirty feet, with no shoulder, riding directly into oncoming traffic.

Portola Pastures actually does have nearby trail access, and good trails to boot.  Unfortunately, in an effort to keep costs down, they buy the cheapest hay possible, hay that has killed at least one horse with botulism.  Also on Stanford land, they don’t want to put money into maintenance. The arena maintenance is so poor that a horse broke it’s leg being worked in one.  The trainer at Portola Pastures was seriously interested in Bella.  She’s a good woman and Bella would have a stable home.  But to earn her keep she’d have to jump 3′ regularly.  Even 3’6″.

Whispering Creek has good trail access also.  Unlike Portola Pastures, they buy good hay.   But WC has no electricity.  Kristen, the vet, told me about how when she has to take an Xray they have to trailer the horse to the nearest gas station as ask to use their electricity. There isn’t anyone at Whispering Creek who wants Bella so I guess it doesn’t make sense to mention them other than the fact that after visiting all those stables, I’m flummoxed that getting people to move their horses to LAH is a hard sell.

The selling of Bella is now entering it’s third month.  From this experience, I’ve concluded that the world of horse people consists of kids taking lessons, trainers (who generally know what they are doing) and loopy adults with materialistic priorities.  Not great prospects for the long haul of a horses life.

Towards the end of the vet exam, the Jensen’s, who own the Campo Vista barn, came down to chat with me about another matter.  In talking with Kristin, I mentioned the fact that kidslovehorses never makes enough to cover expenses; how I’m always out of pocket for something.  The Jensen’s looked alarmed.  I said, “What I’m doing is about saving horses primarily so that’s just to be expected.”  Then I told them the statistics: 170,000 unwanted horses a year in the US.  My horses are all wanted horses. Velvet is a wanted horse.  I had to leave in a hurry, so I didn’t fully confirm the prognosis, but from what I could tell, it sure seems like Velvet  probably shouldn’t be ridden anymore and even if we continue riding her, it shouldn’t be for very much longer.  So, it seems, Bella may not be for sale any more.  As heartbreaking as the situation with Velvet is, it seems that because of it, Bella will now have a home with KLH.

A Break In The Rain

“Look Deb! Did you see how dirty Stoney was? We got all the dirt off him!” I’d been delayed at the Campo barn talking on the phone with the vet. Sammy and Lola had arrived at Quail about ten minutes before me. Stoney was standing quietly in the middle of the mats. He must have been very dirty because he was still dirty and they were proud of how clean they’d gotten him. They had also draped a silver tinsel garland with candy cane motif around his neck. Stoney can get testy with the younger riders. Fortunately he has taken a liking to Lola. He nibbles her helmet in mutual grooming while she uses the mud scraper on his neck.

Sophie has come with me, having been dropped off at Campo. She starts grooming Cowgirl, who I have haltered, and says, eyes wide, grinning ear to ear, “Who am I riding? Cow Girl?!!!” It’s cute that Sophie loves to ride CG because CG is not all that much fun to ride. She’s a grumpy, old pony with a saddle that can be a challenge.

“Yes, you are on CG. Sammy will ride Velvet, Kimmie will ride Stoney and Lola will be on Bella.” Lola perks up. Lola loves Stoney, but she loves Bella more. Lola says that all horses are a nine for her, but that Bella is a ten. Up until recently, Bella has been too much horse for Lola. But I’ve been schooling Bella. So has Tara and Suzanne, another adult, has been taking her out. Between the adult riding and Lola improving, Lola is probably now within a month or two of being able to handle Bella completely on her own. But I can only say she can ride her to the arena because I have Kate’s help today and Kate will run alongside, just in case.

By this time Kimmie, Sammy’s twin sister, who was at tutoring, has joined us. For this winter quarter, I have no regular riders scheduled for Thursday. But we have RAIN forecast for Saturday and it rained yesterday, leaving me with four novice riders today.

While I check Cowgirl’s girth, Lola maneuvers Stoney to the second terrace, making it possible for Kimmie to mount up. Sammy will lead CG with Sophie riding and Lola will lead Stoney with Kimmie aboard. Sammy and Sophie are ready, but Lola is still fussing with Kimmie’s stirrups. Kimmie is not helping. She’s stuck her foot in the too long stirrup with the metal bar, not the rubber safety, facing out. “Kimmie, look at your foot.” Kimmie looks down and says, “What?” I tell them to forget about it, Kimmie will ride without stirrups over to Campo and I will fix them there. It’s getting colder and darker by the minute. The sun sets at 5:06. That’s fifteen minutes more daylight than we had in December, but it’s still not very much and we need to hurry.

Lola takes off at trot: Lola doesn’t do anything on a slow speed. Kimmie is bouncing away, unperturbed, in Stoney’s saddle. Sammy, CG, Sophie and I do our best to catch up.

Walking up the drive to Campo, Lola, who has slowed to a walk, asks if we can trot on the pavement. No, we can’t. Lola says, “oh right. That’s because it doesn’t feel good to them?” It’s actually damaging to their joints, but that’s close enough.

Moments later, Lola catches sight of Kate. “Kate! Kate! Kate!” Kate is in the middle of getting hugged by Dancer. I don’t know if he’s doing it because he loves Kate or because she’s trained him to, but it’s awfully cute.

At Campo, Bella and Velvet need their bridles on, Kimmie needs her stirrups properly adjusted, Bella’s boots/; she wears boots on all four; needs to be checked, some one needs to grab half a dozen strings of Christmas lights and “Oh my gosh my hands are freezing!!!” (Lola and Kimmie) “Do you have any gloves?” Before we manage to shove off,Sammy got caught leading Velvet around in a way I have told her never to do, Lola has tried to get on without a helmet and Sophie almost let Cowgirl drag her over to the Jensen’s lawn.

Riding to the arena, Sammy has to be reminded to not let Velvet run into Bella’s butt, CG keeps running Sophie into the bushes and Lola makes it about half way before deciding she would like Kate’s help with the lead rope. Kimmie, with me holding Stoney’s lead rope, is doing surprisingly well. She has managed to figure out how to almost perfectly co-ordinate with me to keep Stoney from grabbing for grass.

As we start the steep, but short, ascent of Westwind Way, Sophie suddenly sits up very straight in the saddle and says, “Did you remember to tell Lola the joke?!” Arya said the same thing to me yesterday and no, I hadn’t. We all collect jokes and riddles for Lola. Arya reminded me what the riddle was: What do ink and pigs have in common. Kimmie, who is right next to me because I’m leading Stoney, says, “Pink!” This is just the kind of answer I would come up with, but it’s not the intended answer. Lola, who is almost at the top of the hill, has to have me shout the riddle because she didn’t hear it the first time. Sophie, Kimmie and I proceeded to have a discussion of why Pink wasn’t the answer. But it doesn’t take Lola long to figure it out. Moments later, she shouts out, “Pens!” Lola has a laser brain.

As we ride up Concepcion and then Purissima, I can’t help but notice how Sophie’s heel is constantly rising up. This is driving me nuts. Keeping your heels down keeps you on the horse. I spend the next ten minutes, the rest of the way to the arena, nagging Sophie about her heels.

Because of the rain, the bottom third of the arena still has a few small pools of water. All the girls except Lola get to work creating an obstacle course using poles, blocks and cones to keep the horses out of the wet area. Lola is fiddling with the lock on the shed. “Lola, what are you doing?” “I’m freezing!” Turns out she’s only wearing one sweatshirt. Temps are now in the forties. Lola is not the only cold kid. When she drags out the collection of jackets and sweatshirts, the others descend upon the box too. Kate has to spend the next ten minutes dressing them in many layers.

Lola’s next task is to set up a barrel. She wants to do barrel racing with Bella. I told her she could start with one barrel. Kimmie helps her push the barrel into the arena. I tell them over and over, “kick the barrel. Use your feet.” The continue to push. Then the gloves come off and they are freezing again. “Why did you take your gloves off?” “They were wet.” “Yes, well that’s why I told you to use your feet.”

Lola races around her barrel with cold, bare hands, undeterred.

The girls don’t have much time to ride. I spend most of that time trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Sammy to do a turn on the haunches at the far end of the arena.

Because of the cold, the girls don’t have a fit about leaving when their mom shows up. Kate and I strap strings of lights on all the horses, a reflective vest on her and a reflective quarter sheet on Bella, the dark horse. Kate heads off on Bella, ponying Velvet. She can keep up a good clip and I quickly lose slight of her. I’m left with my bike, Stoney and CG. We move in fits and starts in the increasing darkness down Purissima. During November and December, the girls loves to do the lighted rides back to the barns, but we have enough daylight now so I don’t have to have to them along to get their ride time in and I’m glad of it. This year, as we all know, people are particularly grumpy. Even though the horses are lit up like Christmas trees, one driver, who could see us coming for half a mile, drove by too fast and yelled as he passed, “What are you? Stooopid?!”

My goal for the year is to try and convince the horsemen’s association to take an active role in installing a few traffic calming measures. But this will take more than the horsemen’s to establish. All the residents I know well complain about people speeding. Helen, who lives on Robleda, very near where the path to the Campo barn branches off, had someone smash into her fence one night. As fate would have it, I ran into her today as I was leaving Campo for Quail. I told her that a little traffic calming would go a long way in terms of making life work well for riders in Los Altos Hills, “You know, maybe a few speed bumps by the little league fields?” She said, “and people do drive awfully fast on the straight stretch of Robleda. But I hate speed bumps! I could never go for that!” And Helen is progressive, forward thinking and loves horses. Problem is, people always prefer the demise of others to their own inconvenience. Helen is, apparently, no exception to this rule. Slowing the traffic would make all the difference in the world of difference for riders and horses. Better conditions for riders and horses, means more horses in the hills and happier horses with a more secure future.

The future for KLH does not at all feel secure. The primary goal of kidslovehorses is to keep five or six horses happy and alive. Maybe it’s global warming, but this year the ice I’m skating on seems very thin. The attrition continues. Allison has dropped out of riding in favor of feeding and pony time on Sunday mornings. Delaney is spending January through March at ski high school in Tahoe. Lainey needs a job to pay for a choir trip to Ireland. She may be able to ride on Sundays, but that’s not for sure. Last time I saw Jackie she dropped a hint about being “really busy next month.” By this I’m guessing she meant she won’t be able to ride as her mother hasn’t paid. Rachel won’t ride without Jackie or Savannah. Savannah’s life is like a suit case that she’s stuffed with too many things and she’s jumping up and down on it to get it to shut. Either she will succeed or the suit case will break. Jury is out on that one.

I do so like this latest crew, though: Sophie, Arya, Jaya, Anna, Lola, Sammy, Kimmie, Mikatrin and, probably, Julia; Horsegirls, Gen 4. Not since I started with Haley and Katie have I had so many beginners and so few advanced riders. It’s hard to help the beginners learn without the inspiration and guidance of the older riders. But I’ve done it before so I guess I can do it again. If the ice would thicken up, that would help.

Tomorrow starts with carting four yards of walk on bark into the paddock cum mud pit at Campo. Jaya’s dad will help me. Then there’s a vet exam for Velvet. Her hock has swollen up again. After that, Kate and Kayla come out and will get to gallop all over hell and yon on what will be the last dry day for a while before rain sets in again on Saturday.

Rain will bring a break in teaching, but not for me. I can long line Cowgirl, which will hopefully encourage her to be a better pony to ride and also Stoney, who will just need to get out, and, of course, damage control in the paddocks and feeding and tending Velvet’s hock. As the old saw goes, no rest for the wicked.

Happy New Year everyone! Wish me luck.

Pathways

“Kate.  Why are you walking?”  Kate had just emerged from under an oak tree.  She was on foot, leading Dancer.  We were on route to the Artemas Gintzon Pathway and, as I often do, I had ridden ahead a bit on my bike.

“He got scared.  Did you see the Halloween decorations?”  I had.  It was October first.  I’d ridden past the mini graveyard with emerging skeleton, a collection of plastic pumpkins and a couple of glittery bats and thought, “Here we go again.  Well, at least there’s nothing moving.”  I hadn’t noticed the hanging phantom, which not only moves, but has a spooky voice recording to go with it.  These decorations will be alarming the horses for an entire month.

Between Halloween decorations, birthday party balloons, tree grinders and the occasional siren, most of the riders have gotten accustomed to having to dismount every now and then.  Annoying, but most of the time it’s worth it.  Saturday’s ride definitely was.  It was a perfect, crisp, fall afternoon.  Little or no traffic and a light breeze with fresh horses.    By the time the girls were on Moody, I was trailing them again.  There are a couple of pathway segments on Moody that are removed from the road, which we always take at a good clip.  After the first segment, I didn’t catch sight of them again till they were half way up the Artemas Gintzon, though I could see the fresh tracks and hear their laughter.

The Artemas Gintzon path takes off from Moody and winds through a preserve at the perfect rate of rise for more fun canter.  After cantering single track through oak forest, there is the half mile gallop road at the end of it.  Our route then takes us through Westwind Barn, after which we re-enter the preserve and canter through open pasture to the top of a hill that overlooks most of the bay.  With the angled, fall, late in the day light, flying up a hill on horseback with views that spread for miles, the world feels magical. But it comes at a cost.

Los Altos Hills is not so much dangerous as it is tiresome and tedious.  “Everybody stop now so I can remove the poop.”  “Turn and face while this truck passes.”  “Just ignore the barking dog.”  “We have to go the long route today because they are tearing down a house.”  It seems absurd, at first.  Truth of the matter is, most parents aren’t up for driving an hour or more, through rush hour traffic, to Gilroy or Santa Cruz or Half Moon Bay, places where it seems like there’d be more room to ride so stuck with the complexities of negotiating traffic we are.  Although I can’t help but think what it might be like elsewhere.

I actually get a lot of helping thinking about what it would be like elsewhere from my friend, Clara, who lives in Eugene, and from my dad, who lives in Carson City, and from my niece, who lives in Bend.  This help comes in the form of Zillow, Redfin and WesternOregonHorseProperties links: Barn with twelve stalls; 150 X 200 ft covered arena with new footing; turn out pastures with vinyl fencing.  The rural treats are dangled in front of me like a carrot in front of a donkey.  There’s also the fact that, at some point, KidsLoveHorses could, with short notice, find itself without a home.  It’s a small chance, but one that I want to be prepared for none the less.

Most people in Oregon drive Dodge trucks, not Ford.  In California, Ford trucks rule.  If they aren’t driving a truck, they are driving sedans, though seems like pretty much everyone owns a truck.  This was my observation after having spent three days driving around the Willamette River Valley. My friend Clara says they all drive trucks because they are always pulling something; boats, dirt bikes, campers, and, of course, horse trailers.  Oregon has an extraordinary number of outdoor activity options.  Southern Oregon is a hub for endurance riding enthusiast for good reason.  Unfortunately, to take advantage of these options, you have to hitch up your rig and drive for two or three hours.

First of all, a rig; truck and trailer; is $50,000 to $100,000.  Second, driving 10,000 lbs of truck and trailer with live animals on board through traffic or on rural roads, is not exactly a cake walk.    Third, who has that kind of time?

The last thing I thought a trip to Oregon would do would be to make Los Altos Hills look good, but it did.  Even if I did move KLH to Santa Cruz or Half Moon Bay or Gilroy, I’d have the same problem: no trails without trailering.

In Los Altos Hills, the horses have a large fan base.  Many residents take pride in the fact that there are horses being ridden about in their community.  I know this because they tell me so on an almost daily basis.  Yesterday, on my way to Clark’s field with a group of girls, I was stopped by a hills resident who told me enthusiastically just how much she loved seeing the young riders out with the horses; how beautiful it was.  She said, “I can’t think of anywhere else that you can see this.”  I think she may be right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Funny Barn

“This gate pulls out and this gate pushes in.  Don’t get them confused and, oops, they do stick a little bit” says Karen, owner of the barn where Dancer now lives, as we are entering the property. The wheel at the bottom of the gate is catching on a small branch, placed in front of it to keep it from opening by itself.  She continues with, “Oh and mind the hot tape.  When you hook it up again, don’t twist it.”  There are two hot tape ropes to undo and do to enter the main paddock.  Then four to close it off, three to secure Mark, a thirty-one year old Arab, into his paddock, then another three to secure Cookie, Karen’s Bakshur Curly, into her paddock, then another three to let Dancer out.  There are two more hot tape ropes to be removed so that Cookie can have access to her stall and there is the hot tape rope across the manure bins and more hot tape to be negotiated in entering the barn and in retrieving the muck bucket from where Karen keeps it under the awning she has erected to protect her ancient horse trailer.  While you are dodging, ducking under or fumbling with hot tapes, you need to pay attention not to trip over or move multiple segments of curved, plastic, drainage tubing, placed strategically to deter Mark and Cookie from getting overly interested in the hot tape, which they don’t always “respect.”

To get to the faucet for Dancer’s water, you have to go around the back of Dancer’s stall; tub is at front of stall; walk through a narrow break in hot tape, step over several rail road ties, traverse a field of uneven and unsecured stall mats with edges tipped up, ready to trip you, reach around, down and through a bush to the faucet which has a lever as well as a dial that must be turned/flipped in order to turn on the water.  Turning the barn lights on is a similar experience with random, empty buckets added to the obstacle course.  Half the time you have to do this, it’s dark and you can’t see a thing.

Kate likes it here.  Even though she lost her key the day after I gave it to her, she miraculously manages to negotiate the complex hot tape arrangements, that are different depending on whether it’s morning, afternoon or night, the placement of the tubing and the water faucet and light switch obstacle course without any difficulty or distraction.

Mark, the aging Arab, rarely sees his owner and I’ve never seen her take him out.  He was an eventing horse until his late teens.  As far as we can tell, he still thinks he’s up for a jump course.  There is no reason for this horse to be retired other than the fact that his owner is now to busy for him and there are all too few people who have the skills or understanding to commit.

Like most horses at Karen’s, Mark is covered in fly gear – face mask; leg covers.  He’d been wearing same gear, unchanged for a month straight.  With the latest rain, I figured he could use a break.  But Mark wouldn’t let me near him.  “Kate – you give it a try!”  Sure enough, Mark stood stock still as Kate approached him and gently removed his gear.

Next day at Karen’s barn, I stopped by to find Kate in the big, front paddock with Mark doing ground work. “He seems so lonely.” Said Kate.  It’s a common fantasy that horses cast aside and left on their own are happy.  Horses are much less concerned about the care, or lack of, that they get, then they are whether or not they are loved and that they get to spend time with the people who they love. Leah, a horse girl from my days at Whispering Creek, would be gone from the barn for months at a time.  Appalled by the lack of care for her horse, Bollinger, I would bend over backwards attending to his blanketing, hoof care, turn out, etc… Bollinger never could give a fig about me.  When Leah showed up, however, he would have fits of ecstasy on being reunited with the woman who loved him.  That’s what mattered most to him and it’s  what matters most to all the horses I know.

It goes both ways. Kayla, Kate’s favorite riding buddy and frequent “partner in crime”,  spent a long time grooming Cowgirl last night.  Kayla said that everyone needs a pony or miniature horse to hang out with so that they can be happy.  Kayla’s first equine love is Cowgirl so she’s prejudiced towards ponies.  Even though she can’t ride CG much anymore, she hasn’t forgotten that CG needs her love.

Kayla has the day off from school today, which is why I have time to make a blog post; Kayla will be doing the lunch feed and muck at Campo.  She had only one commitment.  She had an appointment at school where she was supposed to discuss her development goals.  When pressed for details, she talked about reading goals and social studies projects and math assignments.  This kind of talk always makes my heart sink.  Why doesn’t learning responsibility and honoring commitments to those you love count as a goal?  What about the self discipline necessary to put the saddle on the saddle rack in the correct direction with the stirrups run up, the cover on – completely on, the pad upside down – to air out, the girth on top of that, the tack room light off, the door locked, the gates latched and shut, the ointment on the sweet itch, the fly boots on all four legs – correct direction up, the hooves picked, the water checked, the poop removed from the path, the bell boots on, the hock boots on, and on and on.  How about the delayed gratification concept and self control needed to understand why when you release a horse into the paddock you send them ahead of you, ask them to turn and face the gate, then lower their head towards you and lean in while you untie the halter?  The checker at the grocery store said to me last night, “There’s a lot to caring for a horse isn’t there?  You have to pick hooves, right?”  I laughed because that isn’t even the half of it.

Kayla, age eleven, can do all of this and more.   But why doesn’t it count?

And it doesn’t count to parents either. I had to drive Kate out on Monday, a day she had off from school.  I made a comment about how difficult it was for her mom to drive her out.  She said, “But she has time to drive my sister to softball practice every day and to games that are far far away on weekends and require staying in a hotel.”

Dancer’s position right now is tenuous.  He’s perfect for older girls, but too lively for the regular program.  As long as Kate can half lease him, I can justify holding on to him, but that’s not for sure.  Kate has to keep her grades up.  When asked to clarify, Kate’s mom said, “she has to make sure she does her homework and stuff.”  So it is very, very unclear if Kate will be allowed to continue to lease.

Savannah Yee loves Dancer.  Her facebook page profile is a picture of the two of them.  But she hasn’t been out for two months.  Her parents are making sure she gets out to the mini-horse, Tex, a 4H project, every week.  Why not Dancer?  His future depends on whether or not she is able to show up for him.  For most people, matters of the heart don’t even seem to be on the radar.

I remember vividly picking my first hoof.  I was five years old.  The horse was an older, dark colored mare named Spring.  It was a cool, fall day. I remember the angle of the light; must have been afternoon; the smell of the ground and the feel of hoof, rough against my hand. The woman who was teaching me and I were under the shade of a scraggly oak tree at the high end of a huge, sloped paddock/pasture.  There was a small, weathered, simple, wooden board bench where she sat and held the lead rope and coached me.  I was to hold the hoof not the pastern, the pick needed to be held such that the heel of my palm would be used to press down for leverage and I wasn’t to touch the frog.  The horse decided to rest it’s weight on me as I worked.  I was small, but I’ve always been strong so it didn’t bother me.  If I were a horse, I’d lean also.  In fact, most of the girls would rather the horse lean then pull the hoof away.  I’ve never forgotten a word that was told to me that day.  I never had to be told twice how to pick up a hoof or how to pick it.  Can’t tell you a thing about what happened in first grade.

It’s hard work picking hooves; ten times so for a five year-old.  I worked harder for that horse when I was five than I did at anything else for another twenty years.  Does learning how to work not matter?  The area of the brain that connects to the hands is larger in proportion than any other function.  Using your hands is essential for maintaining mental health and well being.  And what about the heart?  The hearts of humans and the hearts of horses?  When I tell people that 170,000 horses in the US every year become “unwanted” and that 100,000 of those are sent to slaughter, people are aghast.  But show up for the horse?  It’s the same as how everyone is upset over climate change, but the F150 truck is the best selling auto.

If I do have to try and rehome Dancer, I won’t write about it.  That will be too painful.

 

 

 

Dashing Jackson

The orange rope halter was mine to begin with so it didn’t go with him. When Kate and Kayla came out to the barn for the first time after he left, they both cried when they saw it. Jackson was one too many horses to begin with.  Bought for a fifteen year-old sent to boarding school, he showed up in my life after the girl graduated and Jackson had been shipped home to Saratoga. Stabled at Garrods, his young owner, Emma, now eighteen, had lost interest.  Pam, my former trainer, who’d been hired to work with him once a week, showed up one day to find the stall filled with a week’s worth of manure, the removal of which was supposed to have been Emma’s responsibility.  Pam called me.  Could I use another horse?

14hh, fifteen years-old, gaited, stable on his feet, sweet tempered and slow as molasses, Jackson was perfect for taking kids out on trails.  KidsLoveHorses had been expanding slowly, but consistently. Even if that continued, taking Jackson on would be a stretch. Taking on Jackson was not a prudent move.  But, like Pam, I just can’t stand to see a good horse rot. I figured I might as well give it a go.

The original plan with Jackson was that Emma’s younger sister would take up riding.  Taking her out was like pulling teeth.  After a year, the mom finally stopped pushing.  Girls fell in love with him and then more in love with theater or with jumping.  He detested the arena and was slow on trail, which meant he wasn’t fun enough for the advanced riders. My 170lbs was a bit much for his older, arthritic body.  Relegated to carrying beginners, very young riders and those who tended to be fearful, he grew to resent his job and would, on occasion, out of confusion or frustration, unseat a rider.  It’s not fair to any horse to have them carry only novice riders.  Jackson tolerated his job, but, unlike the other horses, there was no upside for him.  As hard as it is to place almost any horse in a new home, Jackson was an exception.  He was one of those rare, genuinely safe on trail horses who could carry their rider in comfort for hours.  This is what every older, female rider I’ve ever talked to always wants.

I had a heart to heart with Emma’s mom. “Yes I know Emma loves him, but she’s not doing anything with him and she doesn’t look like she’s going to. I can’t give him a permanent home. The older he gets, the harder he’s going to be to place.”  At this point, KLH, never a financially viable operation, was bleeding money.  Jackson was fun to take to the beach. The kids could ride double on him.  We had six horses for PlayDay.  We always had as many horses as the kids wanted.  Theoretically, KLH should be able to support six horses. Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll hit a kid who loves horses and wants to ride.  There are some supportive parents, but it is surprising how many parents are not on board.  “I’d love to ride more, but my parents want me to play softball.” “We’re going to be traveling all summer and when the girls get back, they will both have tutoring every week. Are you sure it won’t work for them to ride once a month?” And my favorite, “She would only be able to ride three times this month.  We’re going to Japan for two weeks.  You know how expensive travel is.  Riding just isn’t in the budget.”  It wouldn’t have bothered me if that parent hadn’t also just bought herself a custom BMW.  This mentality is the norm, not the exception.

Emma’s mom agreed to find Jackson a new home.  But then, nothing. Month after month passed with no action.  I finally emailed Emma. “You know that April, May and June are the months to sell horses. If you haven’t found a home for him by end of June,” it was now first week of June, “you probably won’t find one until next spring.” Turns out they’d promised Jackson’s former owner they’d notify her if they ever decided to sell him, but they’d been unable to contact her.  She’d moved; to Kentucky; they thought.  There are about a dozen Carla Godsey’s on Facebook, but only one of them with a picture of herself riding a flaxen chestnut Rocky Mountain Horse – spitting image of Jackson. This Carla Godsey lives in Tennessee and yes, it was the right woman.

First week of July I got an ecstatic call from Emma’s mom, “She wants him back! She wants him back!”  Turns out, Carla had sold Jackson under duress. She had been working full time, was financially strapped and had become the primary care taker for her terminally ill mother. She had become unable to care for Jackson and decided finding him a new home was necessary. But she loved him so she cried for two days after he left.  Nine years later, her husband had retired, she was now working halftime and she had a three year-old, horse crazy grand daughter.  She felt it was like a long lost child would finally be coming home. Three weeks later, Jackson was on his way to Tennessee.

I hadn’t expected him to leave that quickly.  I thought it would take them year or more to place him. My pocket book is happy, but my heart, not so much.  Not Kate nor Kayla either.  Kate cried herself to sleep the night he left.

Serena walked past the paddock yesterday.  She said, “Where’s Jackson?” It’s been a month since he left, but she’d been out of town most of the summer and wasn’t up on current events.  The paddock has had four horses in it for six years.  I keep looking for the missing horse and remembering there are only three now.  I’m surprised how much I miss him.

Jackson is not the only loss this past month. Kids Love Horses has graduated it’s largest group of young riders ever:  Shani, Sierra, Savannah, Sara, Jackie and Rachel – fully one third of the KLH riders.  Some of them will be in and out on occasion, but it’s not the same.  Not only does the barn feel empty from Jackson’s absence, it is also now empty of the exuberance, intelligence, complexity and humor of the older girls. There is another set of young riders coming along.  Sophie turned eight today. She couldn’t imagine a better birthday present then being able to spend time with the horses. Arya, who turns eight in two weeks, has invited the entire “class” of KLH riders to a pool party for her birthday.  Her mom has agreed to let Arya skip soccer and ride twice a week instead.  There is promise, but it will take time, probably several years, before the fully inhabit the barn, infusing every corner of it with their presence as they fill themselves with joy in each others company and in the company of the horses.

There are many horses needing homes who would find happiness as a sixth horse with KLH. Lord knows Cowgirl could use a break. She has to work harder than she should at her age.  I keep hoping for adequate support and I think it’s out there, but I’m afraid it will take so long to build up that by the time it does, I will be ready to retire.  In the meantime, five horses it is.

Even with enthusiastic support, Jackson would not have stayed with KLH.  His happy ending is one I wish for every horse.  But he is missed, for sure.

riding double