Barn Chores

“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:


Hi Deb,

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:

Barn chores.jpg







Happy Holidays!

There were hoof prints in the mud in front of the barn.  It was ten in the morning and I’d arrived to take Dancer to the arena for training with Kat. “Who took the horses out?!”  And it wasn’t just one that was out.  They are all barefoot now for the winter so it was not possible to tell which ones.  As I grabbed Dancer’s halter and headed out to the paddock, I thought, “It rained at 7pm; a lot.” Whoever took the horses out must have done so late at night or very early in the morning, as the prints were made after the rain.  Then I thought, “Oh oh.”  A quick glance towards the hay revealed that Stan’s neatly piled stacks had been knocked over and restacked.  The top of the bale had been “vacuumed.”  Sonja, who feeds in the morning, had clearly reset the meds because they were sitting neatly, too neatly, on top of the bran and pellet can, but the bungey cord was undone.  Sure enough, the can was down to it’s last quarter.  On closer examination, the hoof prints left a trail all over the staging area – up the hill side, on to the grass.  I don’t know if it was me or Stan who left the stall door unclipped, but one of us did.

Dancer was at the bottom of the paddock taking a mid morning nap.  Was he worn out from the night’s adventures?  He didn’t get up as I approached and only got up when I insisted on it.  It was a good bet that Jackson got the lion’s share of the pellet, but clearly Dancer had a belly full too.  And what about Velvet?  She was “napping” also.

This has happened before, but in the past the can has not been full.  That night they consumed about forty pounds of pellet and bran.  Top priority for the day became finding a solution where by this would never happen again and solution I did find at Orchard Supply after about five hours of driving around and shopping.  It wasn’t until the necessary storage unit/meds feeding station had been secured that I realized I might actually  have a colicking horse, or horses, on my hands.

It was five p.m. by this time and almost dark.  Jackson was the biggest concern.  He was showing no signs of distress, had gut sounds, normal heart rate and voracious appetite, but sub normal poops.  I walked him, let him graze a bit, then fed him warm mash with a cup of mineral oil and left him locked in a stall at Quail, finding, at Quail, that Allison, who had fed, had put Stoney’s blanket on in a “creative” manner.  “Allison, we need to talk blanketing.”  “Why, did I do something wrong?”  “Yes.”  “Well you didn’t ever tell me how to put on a blanket.” “If you didn’t know, why didn’t you ask?” ” Because the phone was low on battery.” “OK, can you come to the barn tomorrow morning and learn how?”

Next text was to Meera with the news that her birthday ride might have to be cancelled, to say nothing of the caroling on Sunday also, and went home to a night of fitful sleep, with the cell phone next to my bed.  By eight a.m. I knew Jackson was OK because I had not heard from Jan.  Not only was he OK, but, Jan informed me when I arrived, that he’d pooped up a storm.  She’d filled two muck carts from his stall that morning.  Forty pounds is a lot of pellet!

“OK Rachel, you ride Jackson and Jackie you ride Stoney.”  Rachel glared at me.  “No, I’m serious.  Jackie is not up for bareback or ponying.  You have to ride Jackson and pony CG because I don’t know where Meera is!”  At this point I get a text from Meera that says, “Am I supposed to go to Campo?”  To which respond, “No! we need another rider at Quail.”  She says, “So I go to Campo?”  Savannah, also on the thread, though not riding because she has Tex the mini at the Christmas parade, says, “I think she means Quail.”  At this point Allison, who I’d forgotten about, shows up for her blanketing lesson.

Meera does arrive, gets on Jackson, Jackson, happy to finally get the heck away from CG who has been menacing him all morning, is as eager to head out as a race horse. Meera says, “WAAAAHH!” Eager to not start her birthday with an injury, hops off and hands Jackson over to Rachel.

When we arrive at Campo, Kelly and Sara have Dancer and Chavali tacked up and are working on Velvet. “Who is going to ride who?!”  Sara’s hand are placed indignantly on her hips.  She taps the toes of her left foot for emphasis. “Yeah” says Meera, “there are six horses and five riders.”  I said, “are there?”  I had one beginner student, who was seven, tell her mother that I didn’t know how to ride at all.  These girls know I ride, though they often forget it.

Kelly did not want to ride in the fluffy and Sara did not want to ride CG up Rhus Ridge, or back down and she slides forward on to her withers, which is painful, so I rode Intrepid and Rachel ponied CG until we got to foothill college where CG was allowed to go on her own with the lead rope tied up around her neck.  We proceeded across the college grounds in fits and starts, first Dancer spooking at a barking dog, then CG deciding she wasn’t going to follow after all but stop to graze.  Somehow we did make it to Moody and even managed to catch CG before she crossed the street on her own, but now it was Sarah’s turn to pony the pony, while I rode in front to give Dancer confidence.  Kelly is a very experienced rider, but even so it was clear taking the lead on Dancer on a trail he was unfamiliar with was proving more than she had bargained for.

I don’t know how they horses behaved going up Rhus Ridge.  I do hope they got a good canter in.  I was hanging on to CG’s tail, wheezing pitifully and doing my very best to go as fast as possible as she was furious at being left behind.  We tried her solo again as we headed towards Hidden Villa.  Not to be left behind again, she shot up in the line behind Chavali and stayed there all the way down to the last river crossing in Hidden Villa.

Dancer snorted and snuffed his way through all the new smells; goats, chickens, sheep; as he minced his way along.  You could feel Stoney’s frustration build.  What on earth was this numbskull doing in the lead! Even though we ended up on familiar trail, we were riding the opposite direction from what Dancer was familiar with.  He would trot, but not much more.  The ground was springy from the rain; horse heaven.  On the last good canter spot, off they went.  Rachel held Stoney back a bit, but he was so full of suppressed pep, he caught up in half a second.  This was more than CG, who was now being led by me, could take.  She started bucking on the end of the lead top and pulled herself free, managing to run full speed with her head tilted to the side so as to keep the rope free of her legs.  I hollered at Rachel to turn and come back to me, in part to slow CG, but also to give Stoney another turn at the run, which he obviously needed.  Rachel made it half way to me when Stoney decided to turn back. Rachel said, “Oh no we can’t!” To which Stoney replied, “Oh yes we can!!!”, turned on a dime and was off like a rocket.  Rachel thought he wasn’t going to be able to stop, but every now and then he does precisely what his Quarter Horse breeding has designed him to do.  We did get the message and put Stoney in front and Dancer in back for the rest of the ride home, with Cowgirl being led by Sara.

We are an hour later than planned getting back to the barns.  The girls head off to Meera’s sleep over while I finish up at with the feed.  Another text comes in.  It’s Allison.  “Are you at the barns?” “Yes.”  “I have something for you.”  “OK, I’ll meet you at Quail at five.”

Allison’s car is already at Quail by the time I arrive.  She’s standing in the street waiting for me holding and contraption that looks, from a distance, like a mini guillotine.  It’s a bit warmer; one for Campo and one for Quail.  Allison informs me it is also very good at warming your hands.  We set it up in the hay room and she gives me a demo.  I didn’t get home till six.

This morning was Christmas Carol Sunday.  It was supposed to rain, so I’d delayed the start of decorating by an hour.  It didn’t rain, but I would have been on my way early anyways.  There were going to be four riders, which meant leaving the car at Quail and biking CG over to Campo. On my way into Peet’s to fill a couple thermoses with hot cocoa, I get a text from Lainey.  “I can come!  See you soon!”  Oh crap.  That meant getting Stoney also, who, as it turned out, was covered in mud, and biking Stoney, Dante and CG over to Campo.  I can’t believe no one has ever taken a picture of me doing this.

Jan met me at the paddock.  In the past couple of weeks Cowgirl had been down in the dumps; creaky and unhappy in the morning.  Jan said, “What did you guys do yesterday? Cowgirl was feeling great this morning!”  I bet.

Mr. Jensen has asked that we not put Stoney in a stall, which means putting Dancer in a stall.  Dancer may be inexperienced on trail, but he is no fool.  He saw Stoney coming and he put himself in a stall.

Even if we start decorating at nine, the girls are not done by one, when we need to leave for the ride up to Westwind.  Kate and Sara, having been overnight at Meera’s party, showed up late.  Kate said, “I went to sleep at midnight, but everyone else stayed up till three.” Sara’s eye’s looked glazed over.  Mikatrin didn’t show up till almost noon.  She is a notorious foot dragger.  Before I could express my discontent, she stuck a sheet of paper in my face: Deck the Halls (Horse Version) – Fast away we are galloping, fa la la la la la, la la la la; Hail the new ye mares and stallions, fa la la la la, la la la la – all six verses converted to equine sensibilities.It’s about time!  Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukah to me!  I thought this was going to come from one of the older girls, but no, the nine year old had at it.

Only moments after Mikatrin arrived, the gate in the fence opened again and Victoria peeked her head through.  “Am I not feeding today.”  I said, “did you check your email?”  If she has a new phone, she has not told me so there was no way to text.  An hour behind schedule, with two sleep deprived assistants, one puzzled seven year-old (Serena’s younger brother) wandering about and Lainey obsessed with spraying pink snowflakes on Chavali’s butt, I’d lost all hope of getting the horses even partially decorated.  But the arrival of Victoria, who had with her her friend Shannon, changed all that.  Not only did the horses get decorated, the girls actually practiced all the songs and developed a plan.  The day wasn’t turning out so badly after all.

After her exciting romp the day before, Cowgirl should have been feeling a little mellow; not so.  The ground was just too perfect.  The ride up to Westwind was a little too lively for comfort, though Kayla, who has the makings of a serious equestrian, figured out about half way that if she could get CG trotting a few seconds before everyone else started trotting then CG would not be able to bolt.  It was a little tricky co-ordinating getting Kate, Lainey, Mikatrin and Serena all trotting within seconds also, but they did it.  Thank you Kayla.

I’m not sure the singing was as much tun as they expected.  The horses wouldn’t stand still, it was hard to hold the caroling books while on horseback and nearly impossible to turn the pages while wearing gloves, which both Lainey and Kate were doing, though Kate was also wearing only a tank top, which was a bit of a puzzler.  Kate and Lainey did get to sing into microphones, which they enjoyed and the “echoes” in Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer were perfect, though nobody except Kayla’s mom and grandma seemed to be listening.  The girls and horses did, however, look spectacular.

Oddly enough, the girls had the best ride home ever; very tired at the end of it, but a very good ride.  Why?  I really can’t say.

I guess this post doesn’t have much of a point other than, “Oh my goodness, what a busy weekend!”

Barn Lighting

Kate, Lainey, Serena (who does not like her picture taken), Mikatrin and Kayla









It’s Freezing Outside!

Temps have been in the low 30’s at night for the better part of a week now. Jan has attached an electric pipe heater to the tap at Quail to keep it from freezing. Michael, father of Maizie and Chloe, says he’s always amused to hear a California girl complain about cold weather. But he said this to me after finishing the feed at Quail around five by telling me that he and the girls were chilled to the bone.

It’s not all that warm during the day, either. On Wednesday, the last half hour of the ride was spent with everyone complaining about their cold hands and feet. I carry hunting gloves in the bike basket. Rachel snagged herself a pair, but Jackie and Savannah refuse them. Savannah says they make her hands feel suffocated. It’s also that time of year that we have to belly warm the bits. With the cold weather, Stoney’s winter coat has grown in. At the age of seventeen, his winter coat is now almost completely snow white.

Saturday was a little more rushed than usual. Savannah had a sleep over she wanted to go to and needed to be back at Quail by 2:15. Kate had had a long week and needed to go home by 3. I was suppose to leave for Carson City at 3:15. Jackie likes to be out at the barns as early as possible and got to Quail at 9:30, but she’s fine on her own. Chloe showed up 9:30 also. After years of waiting, Chloe is finally old enough, 8, to ride regularly and I can finally fit her into the schedule. No holding that girl back! Having woken up realizing I hadn’t packed, I managed to forget entirely about Jaya until I was almost at the barn and got so alarmed that I rode my bike to the wrong barn, making me fifteen minutes late with Jaya having also shown up by the time I got to Quail.

Like it or not, I often have to pack Saturday with novice riders and that was the case with this day; Jaya, Arya and Chloe all in one go. Being only half their final height, the young ones can’t do much more than pick hooves and buckle girths. With hard packed clay in the hooves, the young ones can barely make a dent in the hoof dirt, though I must say all of them are getting adept with the girth buckles.

When we arrive at Campo, Savannah has already gotten blankets off and haltered Chavali and Jackson. All the Campo horses wear blankets in this weather except Chavali, not being particularly bright, refuses. Jackson especially appreciates the blanket. With all his metabolic issues he’s unusually sensitive to both heat and cold. The cold in particular aggravates his arthritis. It’s worse for the horses to be stuck with blankets when it heats up than not have them at night so I won’t blanket if they can’t be taken off in the morning. I don’t have much help with this. Lisa, who owns Velvet, says she can’t ever commit to being able to come out before 11am. The Jensen’s refuse to take them off. The girls would do it, but they are at school most mornings. I’ve been able to take care of this task all week with Saturday having landed in Savannah’s court. Savannah being Savannah I did not have to tell her to take them off.   I can’t wait until she drives. It will solve a lot of problems. Along with hoof picking and girth buckling, the younger riders are able to contribute by mucking the Campo paddock. Busy with teaching Arya how to lift a hoof, mention the paddock needs cleaning. Savannah needs no more direction, grabs a fork and the wheelbarrow and heads into the paddock, Chloe and Jaya in tow. As she latches the gate after her, I ask her to take extra care. As I will be gone for two days, there will be no cleaning of the paddock again until Tuesday. Savannah glowers at the horror of the thought. If she could drive, that would be different.

We are finally all tacked and ready to go by 11:30. Savannah says, “wait! There are seven people and six horses.” I explain that Kate is there to help and will walk. Savannah says, “Then Kate can walk next to me!” which Kate gladly does.

We arrive at the arena shortly after noon. Rachel it there waiting for us. The younger riders love Rachel’s enthusiasm and energy, but Rachel, like most of the older riders, has limited patience for those who can’t ride or pick any and all hooves with ease or catch bridle and train a horse to ground tie. If they are young, it’s even worse. There’s another ten minutes or so of arena instruction for the young ones before they leave. I ask Rachel to please be sedate until they are done, but sedate just isn’t in her playbook. She stands next to Stoney, legs crossed, looking like she’s been pilloried. Her trial ends soon, though, as Jaya and Chloe depart and Arya and I get to work setting up the grid.

I’m not quite sure what all the girls did for the next hour. I remember coaching Kate on canter with Chavali and Jackie getting a lesson on Dancer from Savannah. Rachel was bareback on Stoney, but doing what, I don’t remember.

At 1:30, Tera, Savannah’s mom show’s up. At Savannah’s request she’d brought mini-pumpkin pies and whip cream to celebrate Savannah and Jackie’s birthday, which is on the 30th. After finishing their pie, I said to Rachel and Savannah, “Now you two need to go and you need to go fast!” Rachel says, “what?! We barely spent anytime here at all!” Compared to our usual Saturday, that’s true, but I can’t get the horses home unless the girls ride them and Savannah said she needed to leave at 2:15 sharp.

Arya, Kate, Jackie and myself leave about ten minutes later. I have to put enough distance between Savannah and Rachel and us so that Cowgirl will not hear Stoney and Chavali and decide she would rather be with them and us and take off.

When we get to Quail, Rachel is looking downright peevish. Anything less than six hours on a Saturday for her is deprivation. I explain to her that sometimes things like visiting my dying father on his 80th birthday take precedence over staying at the barns till the cows come home. But she’s right, everything does feel rushed.

For once I’d like to be able to leave town and not have it be an ordeal. I spend so much time trying to arrange for feeds and horse care with half a dozen different people, all of whom need instruction, that I end up like I did that morning without even time to pack. It was only at the last minute that I’d arranged for Michael and his girls to feed the Quail barn on Saturday.  Maya, who I was counting on, hadn’t checked her email and had yet to get back to me.   Even with all that, the care in my absence is not ideal. Jackson’s owner will come out and give him his meds on Monday, but that’s all. The other horses will have to skip a meal because I can’t get anyone to feed their lunch, nor is there anyone to blanket and unblanket. Rachel, Savannah, Meera and Kate would do it in a heart beat, but they are dependent on parent drivers who are already either over committed or plain just don’t understand. Sara lives close enough to bike over, but her mother won’t allow it so she can’t help either. It’s going to be 34 overnight tonight in Los Altos Hills, too cold for Jackson’s arthritic hips, Velvet’s aching joints and Dancer’s thin skin.

Erik arrives at Campo with Dante to pick me up as Kate and I are finishing up the lunch feed. I have to bike back to Quail where the car is and where I will leave my bike for a few days. Jan is driving up as I am walking my bike up Quail. She says, “It’s sure been cold. I left Stoney’s blanket on this morning because it was too cold to take it off.” Him, I do not have to worry about, but I can’t help thinking about how owning property where the horses and I can both live would make caring for them a whole lot simpler.

It’s a Privilege

“Fi is seventeen hands what?”  Alisa is standing at the shoulders of the big, bright bay mare.  Fi’s withers rise at least six inches above Alisa’s head and Alisa is not short.  She replies, “seventeen something. I’ve never measured. When I bought her she was 16.2.  That’s as tall as I wanted her to get, but she was still butt high so I knew she’d grow some.”  Fi may actually be eighteen hands.  Half Dutch Warmblood, half Thoroughbred, she is magnificent.  We don’t see Alisa and Fi at the arena very often.  Alisa is in her thirties, in an accomplished equestrian and competes in three day events. Alisa had arrived at the same time as we did.  She said, “I’m doing grids, want to join me?”  The girls all wanted to eat lunch and decided to do just that before deciding on anything else.  I turned to Savannah, who was sitting on top of a picnic table, eating a sandwich, and said, “Do you want to do grids?”  She said, “What are grids?”  I said, “I thought you’d know.”  This is how i ended up standing in the arena talking with Alisa, who knows a great deal about grids.  I explained to her that the girls were down in the dumps today.

Today was clean the tack room at Campo day.  This was Stan’s idea.  He’s the barn owner.  After six years of renting his barn, he finally agreed to remove the four, ancient, Schwin bikes that he was storing in there and that were taking up about a quarter of the space.  When he pulled the bikes out, he found a carpet of rat droppings.  I cleaned those up, but the discovery motivated him to schedule a clean every corner project, which he expected myself and the girls to participate in.  None of the girls, except Sara, were very happy about this, though it was actually very considerate of him to have us work with him.  Quite simply, I don’t want anyone but us moving our gear about.

Sara showed up at ten and I set her to work cleaning and organizing the tack cleaning supplies and the horse washing supplies and what not.  Clean, well ordered gear is a delight to Sara and she took to her task with relish.  Savannah, Jackie and Rachel all showed up about half an hour later.  Jackie, who is allergic to hay and dust, had to stay outside with Sara, but Rachel and Savannah, both equipped with dust masks, were set to work hauling saddle racks, storage boxes, tools and grain cans out of the room.  Once the room was cleared, Stan got the shop vac and set to work.  Relieved of their tasks, Rachel and Savannah started to use the grooming gear to comb and braid their hair into two long braids each, which matched the way Sara was wearing her hair.  Then someone noticed that Jackie’s hair was only in one pony tail.  Over Jackie’s objections, they set about fixing that pronto.  I don’t remember why, but while the girls were giving Jackie two braids, Jackie mentioned that her parents had been in a bad mood that morning.  She mentioned it again while we started to tack up.   Then Sara said, “Do you want to know what my parents said to me?  They said I had to do track and field in the spring.  My mom said I had to do more than one sport.  My dad said if I don’t do track and field than I can’t ride horses.”  This stopped me cold.  Sara is very serious about school.  She regularly curtails her riding time in order to meet her own high academic standards.  She is also expected to take piano lessons and practice every day.  Jackie is also expected to practice piano every day.  Turns out her father figured out this morning that because of all their family obligations, they wouldn’t be home till after 10pm and told Jackie she needed to practice instead of go to horses.  He said to her, “Horses are a privilege!” Both girls were sick at heart.  Sometimes they come out to the barn and all they can be is sad and that makes it kind of hard to ride.

Even though they had no heart for riding, Jackie and Sara sat on the fence and watched Alisa put Fi through her paces.  A grid, as it turns out, is a series of poles, in this case five of them, that you gradual raise bit by bit.  First the middle set was raised to one foot, then the last set, then the middle and last were raised to a foot and a half, etc…  They watched in awe as Alisa cantered Fi the Magnificent with precision over the series of poles.  What was a trot pole of Fi was a jump for Stoney and the spacing was off for Stoney.   Even so, it didn’t take long for Rachel to take up the challenge of riding the grid.  Where Rachel goes, Savannah is soon to follow and she and Dancer decided to give it a try.  On entering the arena, Dancer took one look at Fi, stood stock still and looked shocked.  He just did not know what to make of a horse that size!  He also hardly knows what to do with trot poles or what to do in an arena, for that matter, but they gave it a try.  It took Stoney five or six go round before he figured out how to co-ordinate his feet with the poles and he finally did so nicely, but not at a canter.  Unlike Stoney, Dancer did not need to jump to one foot poles, though he was not the least bit bothered if he knocked them down either.  Fortunately Meera had shown up by this point and we had someone on the ground to set them back up again.  Sara tried to get Chavali over the grid and got frustrated, then took Jackson over the grid, which was not frustrating, but he also knocked them down.  Meera was able to get Chavali over, but could not get her to trot around the arena as she is a fussy horse.  Finally, Alisa set the middle and last poles at three feet and we all watched in awe as the magnificent Fi flew effortlessly over the grid.

The girls were quiet for a bit, then got going again in their own way.  Savannah started working on her training of Dancer and the Spanish walk.  Sara decided to tease Rachel by pretending that Stoney was her horse so Rachel decided to tease Sara by pretending Cowgirl was her horse.  They had a teasing competition that escalated into hysterics.  Meera got it all on video.

We rode home the short way with Rachel and Sara talking CG and Stoney back to Quail while Meera, Savannah and I were left with buckets and paddock cleaning and finishing putting everything back in the tack room.  With the barn chores finished, Savannah and Meera headed over to Quail and I waited at Campo for the horses to finish eating so I could let Jackson, a normally mild mannered horse who gets positively psychotic around food, all of which he thinks should belong to him, out of his stall.  When I arrived at Quail, about ten minutes later, the girls were sitting in the middle of the paddock making a racket and squishing each other.  They kept at it all the way home.  What I don’t understand is how a healthy, fun day is considered a privilege.

Article for the Town

The quarterly newsletter published by the Town of Los Altos Hills is always looking for submissions with a local interest theme. In an effort to promote horse awareness, I decided to interview Linda McKell, who’s lived and owned horses in LAH for decades.  As I was writing, it occurred to me that Linda’s story should be posted to the KLH blog.  I think she’s a pretty special person.

Linda McKell, Longtime LAH Resident and Horsewoman

“My father grew up in Utah, but my mother was from Palo Alto, so when they got married, that’s where they moved to. We moved to Los Altos Hills when I was around ten, I think, because my father wanted to be in the country. We had an acre on Westin with an apricot orchard. One year, the cannery worker were striking, so my dad picked the fruit and I had a little fruit stand on the corner where I sold the fruit. It was all much more open then. I have a panorama from an 8mm camera that just shows a few trees and lots of open space. Nobody had fences and we wandered or rode horses where ever we liked.”

As she talks, Linda, caretaker for her 95 year-old mother, is sorting the weeks medications. We are talking in her kitchen, which has a bay window overlooking the backyard. Once every five minutes or so, I’m distracted by the sight of Duke, Linda’s twenty-eight year old chestnut gelding, who periodically decides to walk from one side to the other of his spacious paddock.

“I’ve loved horses since I was four. There used to be a man with a pony who’d walk around the neighborhood so kids could get their picture taken on it. My dad put me on the pony and I knew that was what I wanted most of all. My dad was a horseman. He could hop up on a horse bareback and ride it wherever he wanted just holding on to the mane. That’s why he bought this property here, so we could have horses.”

Linda’s family had moved to Utah for a short time and then to Los Altos. It took another seventeen years before they were able to buy property in LAH and even longer before buying a horse.

“After finishing my master in library science, I got a job at HP and started riding at Ramos Ranch [now Page Mill Pastures]. There was a horse, Shanghai, that I liked that was for sale. The owner wanted $800 for him. I only had $400 in savings. I took the money in cash to her and along with the $12.50 I had in my purse at the time, offered it to her. She grumbled a bit, but then sold me the horse. People are different when you show them cash. I did the same thing when I bought Flash and Dancer.”

Linda has always had two horses so they would have company, but when Prince, her equine companion for twenty-one years, died, leaving her dad’s horse, Duke, alone, she decided to partner up with another horse owner to find a companion for Duke. She found Rob, who’s horse Dillinger, shortly after moving in broke his leg and had to be put down and it was Rob, looking for a new horse, who found Dancer and Flash.

“When Rob first went to see them, back in September, the smell coming from their stalls was so bad the man told Rob everyone else who’d come to see them had refused to go any farther and turned back. Rob was the first one who actually took a look at them. I kept having nightmares about them. I finally took my garage sale money, which was a lot less than he wanted for them, and sent Rob down with it. He took the cash. I’m the kind of person who when they see a problem, they try to do some-thing to fix it. Besides, I always wanted to rescue a horse at some point in my life.”

Dancer and Flash had been stuck in 10X10 stalls for almost a year. By the time Linda bought them, the manure was 3 feet deep and Dancer was close to death. Flash has stayed at Linda’s with Rob, Linda’s friend and horse helper. Dancer moved to the Jensen’s barn in LAH and is owned by Deb Goldeen. Both horses are now healthy and happy.

Linda has owned horses for over thirty years. Most of that time they lived on a ten acre pasture off Old Page Mill. She said, “Most of the time I’d ride around on Stanford land [the dish], even though you weren’t supposed to. I didn’t start riding on the pathways until I moved my horses here, seven years ago.”

There is a pathway that runs between her property and an adjacent property. Because of the topiary trees planted and sculpted by Linda’s father, the locals call it “the lollipop trail.”

“When this house was built, the town mandated that pathway be put it. You’d think it would be an invasion of your privacy, but because of the pathway, we’ve gotten to know all our neighbors and we’ve enjoyed that very much. Also, knowing your neighbors can be very helpful if there is a problem of any sort.”

Also, without the pathways, there would be no way to get the horses out. “I still get Duke out three times a week. I can’t stand it when horses are stuck in stalls or small paddocks. It’s just not right. You can’t just part them like a car. They need to be cared for. They are like family.”

Earlier she had told me about how Shanghai had died. He was out in the pasture off of Old Page Mill and had a bad colic. John Ramos called to tell her and said he’d take care of it. At this point in her story, she paused for a minute and her eyes became moist. She continued with, “even though I wasn’t there, I couldn’t go to work for three days. Even now, I still feel,” and here she paused again, briefly, then finished, quietly, with, “a little sensitive.”

I asked Linda what the neighbors thought of the horses. She said, “When those new neighbors moved in on the backside of the paddocks, they were worried about smell and about the flies, but we clean the paddock twice a day and they aren’t bothered at all. In fact, like most people, they love seeing the horses. Many neighbors, some from half a mile away, bring their grandkids to see the horses every week.”

“When I was a little girl, every birthday and every Christmas my parents would ask me what I wanted and I’d always say, ‘a horse!’ Finally it got to be they’d ask me, ‘what would you like besides a horse?’ You know how sometimes you want something and it doesn’t turn out to be what you thought? For years I wanted to play piano and I finally did it. After three months, I said, ‘forget it!’ But with horses, it turned out to be just as good as I thought, even better. They bring you peace. I used to drive up to the pasture after work and all my stress would just disappear.” Hear, hear.

Linda McKell and Duke, her twenty-eight year old Morab.

Linda McKell and Duke, her twenty-eight year old Quarab.

Yes Ma’am

“What does that sign say?”  It was a row of Konji.  The traffic was slow on Hwy 92.  Instead of whizzing by, all the signs, sculptures and plants for sale were providing some entertainment.

In her level, but resonant voice, Jackie replied, “That’s Korean.  But even if it wasn’t, I couldn’t read it.  I don’t know very much Mandarin.  My brother and I went to Chinese school, but we hated it.  The teacher was from Taiwan and used to hit us with a golf club.  We told her ‘that’s child abuse! This is California, not Taiwan!’  Besides, Chinese is so aggravating.  It doesn’t have an alphabet!”

Sophie said, “We have a boy who only speaks Chinese in one of our classes.  He he started taking pictures of four of us when we were sitting around talking. We all got mad at him”  Rachel added, “that’s so annoying!”

I said, “Rachel!  For heavens sake.  How would like it if your parents put you in a school where everyone spoke Chinese and you didn’t.”  She said, “I know. During the whole year I was in China, I didn’t learn a single word.”  Then she added, “Five years of Hebrew school and I don’t even know the Aleph Beth.  The Rabbi completely gave up on me.”  I know her mother has hired a tutor this year for her to work on her Mandarin.

Meera is also in the truck with us.  She was busy on her iPhone posting pictures to her instagram page.  She has many to chose from as we are on our way back from the beach.

I’m not fond of Poplar Beach, or any Half Moon Bay beach for that matter.  The cliffs are twice as tall as other parts of the coast; the surf is up close and rough with a steep slope down to the water line.  It feels ominous.  If the surf gets to high, there’d be no where to go.  Also, because of the rough surf, the sand is coarse and scratches rather than soothes the feet.  The majority of the coastal beaches extend for only a mile at most and are broken up by rocky outcroppings.  Like all bays, there really is only one beach and it is about ten miles of unbroken sand and surf.  Poplar Beach, is one of only two beach access points on the coast between San Francisco and San Luis Obispo, that has parking for horse trailers, the other being more than a hundred miles to the south.

We had a hot week. 93 on Monday.  101 on Tuesday.  102 on Wednesday.  In summer, these temps do in riding for the day, but in fall we can squeeze in a nice ride between 6pm and the end of civil twilight, even on the hottest of days.  Saturdays are another matter.  With a high of 90 predicted and only three riders on the schedule, there was only one real option.

The last time we went to the beach, the saddles came off in the first fifteen minutes and didn’t go back on until it was time to head back to the trailer.  Sophia and Jackie are not really into the full bareback swing of things yet so we brought a saddle for Jackson, but none for Stoney or CG.

For most people, riding at the beach means riding down the sand in one direction, then turning around and riding back.  For people who don’t ride horses, but think that riding a horse on the beach is something that sounds like a peak life experience, the idea of riding on the beach means galloping through the waves.  There is a wonderful picture that got sent around Facebook a couple of years back.  A trainer was introducing a young horse to the ocean.  The picture is taken from behind.  What you see is a horse high up in the air, all four feet tucked tight up under his belly, on a beach facing the incoming surf, with the trainer holding the lead line.  The person who took the photo is a professional photographer.  He thought the woman holding the lead line was in mortal danger and was horrified by the horses reaction.  Anyone who knows horses sees the picture and laughs.  Unless a horse grows up living on a beach, this kind of reaction, though not quite so large, is generally what is expected from a first encounter with the surf.  Stoney will stand with his front feet in the surf.  Jackson will stand near the surf, but run backwards when it heads his way.  I don’t know what CG does.  She’s OK being at the beach, in fact running in the sand seems to feel good on her compromised body, but no one wanted to try and find out.  Chavali becomes a complete mess as soon as she smells the ocean.  The poor horse sweats from her hooves in fear so we don’t bring her, although Meera keeps lobbying for it just so she can see it for herself.

Fortunately, the girls are much more creative at the beach than simply “go for a ride”.  The trot down, then race back, then trot down then race back.  First Rachel on Stoney, Jackie on Jackson and Sophie on CG.  Then Meera on Stoney, Sophie on Jackson and Rachel on CG.  The girls discover a “big hole!”.  Rachel doesn’t get the memo, races CG right at it.  CG swerves to miss the hole, which was more like a small crater, sending Rachel flying into the sand.  Rachel fell off three times at the beach, each time coming up laughing. “You don’t have to tell my parents I fell off.”  Seems to me, being able to fall off in deep sand is one of the best parts of being at the beach.

At first I thought Sophie and Jackie would share Jackson.  Sophie was a late addition due to a scheduling miscommunication.  I knew that Jackie didn’t care how much she rode as long as she was at the beach.  Jackie loves, loves, loves the beach.  Meera loves, loves, loves the beach.  Rachel loves, loves, loves the beach and almost never ever gets to go.  In fact the family doesn’t do very much outdoors at all because her mother is allergic to sunlight.  I was surprised that Sophie wanted to go, but guess what?  Sophie loves, loves, loves the beach.  She says, “I’m a water sign and water signs need water!”  Not so sure of that logic, but I’m not going to argue with her affections.  Sophie already has plans to retire in Half Moon Bay.  But not only were we at the beach. We were at the beach with horses.  As Sophie said, “Two of my very favorite things combined at the same time!”

After Rachel took the steam off of, and came off of, Cowgirl, Sophie decided she’d give bareback CG a try.  A naturally cautious person, she said she was going to keep her at a trot.  But the deep sand softens the gaits profoundly.  In a very short time, Sophie found she could canter along, bareback on Cowgirl, with the best of them.  Meera, who had tried to convince me we should even leave Jackson’s saddle at home, decided that bareback on CG and bareback on Stoney was not what she wanted.   While Jackie took pictures of Rachel and Stoney in the waves, Meera headed off down the beach on Jackson.  She went way, way down the beach, as in, is that little speck in the distance Meera down the beach.  I admire her desire to explore, but it did make me a little nervous.  Sophie gallantly offered to follow her on Cowgirl, which she did before I could say anything.  I sent Rachel after both of them and Jackie and I started to trudge along on foot after the riders.  Meera found what she was looking for and met us half way back with the good news that she’d found a jumping log.  There were then jumps all around except for Sophie who positioned herself at the base of the log for it’s picture taking opportunities.  But the horses only trotted the log and this got boring.  Sophie had been to the school dance the night before, then on a sleepover with four friends.  Never one to have great endurance, I was concerned she’d not be able to hold up, but she’d done remarkably well, until now.  After three or four jumps, Sophie was no longer taking pictures, but had instead become a horizontal human addition to the jumping challenge. She’d given in to the temptation to lie down and had started to doze off, cozied up next to the log.

Although the girls would stay until the sun sets, the horses are the ones doing the running through the sand and three hours is more than enough of that.  By 2:30 we were back in the truck and heading to the barns.  After untacking Jackson at Campo, Sophie headed home to “watch some TV and take a nap.”  Jackie, having gotten up at 6:45 because of her brothers baseball game, probably did the same, though with no TV.  Meera and Rachel were stuck getting a ride home with me, which involved parking the trailer in Portola Valley.  Meera also looked tired.  She told me she’d slept until 8:30 that morning.  I said, “but what time did you get to sleep?”  She crinkled up her nose and got a wicked twinkle in her eye and said, “Oh, 12:30”, which probably means 1am.  I would have preferred her parents pick her up, but she’s the kind of person who thinks the world will end if she isn’t the last person to leave the party.  I gave up trying to do anything else with her long ago.

There are two other horse girls who love the beach, Kate and Savannah.  In fact, the whole idea of going to the beach in the first place was to placate Savannah Yee.  When it comes to squeaking wheels, no one squeaks more persistently than Savannah and all I need to do to put a stop to it was to take her to the beach one last time.  She has minimum days on the 15th, 16th and 17th of December.  She said if we can’t work out a beach trip soon, we can go then.  I’m guessing she’s never been to a Northern California beach in December.  Even though she’s scheduled to ride on Saturdays, she couldn’t come.  It was the same day as the Westwind Hoedown 4H mini horse demonstration.  She’s spent three years training Tex the mini to pull a cart and this is her one day to show it all off.  Not being able to go to the beach was painful for her, but her she is loyal to Tex.

Yesterday’s high in Los Altos Hills was 80, not 95 and thank heavens for that for Savannah’s sake.  When I returned to Quail after helping Sophie with Jackson, I asked Rachel, “Do you know when the mini horse demo is?”  She did.  It was at 4:30.  It was now 4.  “How would it be if I dropped you guys off at the Hoedown and then came back for you after I’ve parked the trailer?”  The classic jumping, squealing and waving of hands was the clearly affirmative reply.

I got back to Westwind around 5.  It took a while, but I finally found Rachel and Meera in the round pen, sitting in Tex’s pony cart, being pulled by Kate, who also participates in the 4H mini horse project, and being pushed by Savannah and Kelly.  Getting them to separate from their 4H friends was like taking a bone from a dog.  After succeeding in that, we had to run the fun horse related activities gauntlet set up by LAH rec.  We left Westwind around 6.  Next stop was Quail to feed, then Campo to muck and Mountain View to take Meera, who was so tired she’d stopped making complete sentences, home.  She tumbled out of the truck and stumbled to her door.  It was 7pm when I finally dropped Rachel off at home.  She said, “Another two hours and it would have been twelve hours out with the horses and barns!”  This child has it in for me.  If I’m not mistaken, she’s hatching a plan.  It may involve several of the horse girls moving into my house for the summer.  It definitely involves spending twelve hours at the barns.

Even though it is a long and exhausting day for me, I get to have conversations with the girls that don’t take place otherwise. Also while driving home from the beach, Sophie continued talking about how the music at the school dance was too loud and it hurt her ears and she didn’t like school any ways because she didn’t like sports or academics or the social scene so there was nothing there for her but lunch with her friends and on Friday she didn’t even get to skip PE because there was no “health”.  Health, it was explained to me, was where you sat around and talked about feelings or parents or sex or nutrition, but mostly it was just “you have to eat eight servings of vegetables a day and two sliced of bread and this is just stupid because the bread in our house tastes like sawdust” etc…  Even though it sounds like a good idea to be able to talk about your feelings in junior high, they don’t actually do this.  Rachel said, why would they talk about how they feel when they don’t trust the people they are talking to?

It was Rachel, my thirteen year-old task master, who insisted I write a post about our trip to the beach.  I’m betting she wished I’d written more about what the girls and horses do on the beach like ride barefoot, which makes Rachel feel like she is “doing something illegal like riding without a helmet only with my feet.”  But it’s the stories the girls tell that interest me the most and if she wants the posts to be any different, she’s going to have to start a blog herself.

Picture of Rachel and Stoney taken by Jackie

Picture of Rachel and Stoney taken by Jackie

Selling Dancer

As Kate and Jackie cantered off, Dancer tried to follow. He swung his big, brown body around to the front of my bike and pulled at the lead. Being left behind is an ordeal for all horses, but even more so because this horse loves to run.  Even Savannah, the most advanced KLH rider, is barely up to the task of riding Dancer to the arena.  He’ll be in the paddock three days straight starting tomorrow, which means taking him out today was imperative.  As Dancer swings around, Dante, who I am holding with the other hand, says, “Ack! Big horse!” and comes to a complete stop.  Fairly often holding the horse in one hand and the dog in the other results in me almost getting jerked off my bike.  It’s like this, stop and start, stop and start, all the way to the arena and all the way home, which is very close at this point.  I feel for Dancer.  He is the kindest horse I’ve ever met.  However, despite be only ten and relatively untrained, unlike other horses, he doesn’t fight me.  He fusses a bit, then moves back.  The only time rushing ahead of the bike is really a problem is when we are in a “squeeze”; walled in on both sides like the small section of path that connects Orchard Hill to the driveway that leads to Newbridge.  When we come to that spot, Dante hesitates thinking “there’s no room for me!”.  I have to slow down, which frustrates Dancer who then tries to crash through the bushes.  I had to have a “conversation” with Dancer making it clear that, in these circumstance, he had to stay behind the bike, kind of like asking a two year-old child to sit in a room full of toys and not touch any of them.

Heading home from the arena, Jackie was in the lead on Jackson and Kate was riding CG and ponying Chavali. I don’t remember exactly why Kate rode CG to the arena.  I think if Savannah had told me a little earlier that she was going to ride CG tomorrow, we would have left her at the barns.  As it was, Kate was riding CG, bareback, and ponying Chavi because she had wanted to ride Chavi in the arena.  Kate is big hearted enough to take on a difficult task for the sake of getting CG and would have stuck it out to the end, but I knew she was well past being tired of it.  At the top of Orchard Hill, I took Chavi from Kate, secured Chavi’s lead rope around her neck and, to Kate’s relief, sent Chavi off, riderless and leaderless, behind Jackson.  Freed from the hindrance and complication of ponying a horse, the girls sprouted wings and rounded the corner at the property with the two Bernese Mountain Dogs before I even managed to get back on my bike.

Dancer doesn’t get frantic, but he was as close as he ever comes.  Having your best buds run off without you is just not on the horsey agenda.  He stayed behind me as I rode my bike as fast as possible through the loose dirt of the next section of pathway, but as we rounded the corner, a twenty foot section of pathway that is unusually narrow and closed in on both sides by high fences, Dancer was done and he decided it was time to try and take the lead once again.  He smashed into my bike, I smashed into Dante and the fence.  We never go very fast so nobody got hurt, but it was a very unpleasant moment.  It was also a very brief moment.  We all stopped, smashed three abreast in between the fences.  I looked at Dancer.  He sighed and, without any motion from me, backed up ten paces and took up his place behind the bike.  That horse: He’s one in a million.

Usually Saturday’s are full with a wait list.  Though we can accommodate six riders, this fall, it’s only Jackie and Kate are riding regularly.  Sophie, and also her sister Bella, have been cast in a play.  Sara is overwhelmed by school commitments.  Rachel, who, given a choice, would ride eight days a week, has been restricted to Wednesdays.  I had hoped all three of them would ride twice a week. Buy they are not the only ones.  There are five riders who are the perfect age to ride twice a week and for whom money is not an issue, yet none of them are.  Not until the second week of school do I know where I stand in terms of income.  It’s clear that this fall will not be one of the more profitable ones.  Yesterday morning I made a list of the riders and how often they were signed up to ride.  Eleven riders at $240 a month plus one at $400 comes to $3000; $600 to $800 short of what I need to make expenses each month.  Consider the fact that a rainy winter means that income could drop by a third and it’s clear there won’t be enough money coming in to support six (actually five and a half) horses.

Bay can be a boring color, but Dancer’s coat is has a coppery tinge that makes him look like a precious metal.  He has a long, thick, black mane and wide, deep eyes.  Unlike the rest of the herd; Jackson with his arthritic hips, Stoney with his weak back and damaged hocks, Cowgirl with her calcified hamstring, Chavi with her too long legs and Gumby neck,
Velvet with her upright pasterns and poorly formed hooves; Dancer is a real horse; sloping shoulder, strong back, full haunches and a neck that’s set neither to high or too low.  The other five have their best job with me, helping young people learn to ride.  Despite his knock knees, he has value beyond lessons.  But what would his chances be of finding a home?

I forgot my lunch and thermoses at home.  Erik rode his bike out to the arena to bring them to me.  When he arrived, he said, “I saw Rob.” Then added, in a derogatory tone, “he was walking his horse.”  Rob was also probably yelling and swearing at his horse.  Rob wears sunglasses and a permanent from.  His teeth are always clenched.  Arya was with us once when he rode by.  She said, with some distress, “He not a very good rider, is he.” I replied to Erik with, “Rob does ride his horse.  He’s not very good, but he does try.  His horse is well fed, lives in a large, clean paddock with fresh water, is loved, sees the vet when needed and gets out on a regular basis.”  Despite his emotionally challenged owner and the fact that out means running the gauntlet of the Los Altos Hills Pathways, I can count on one hand the number of horses I know, excepting mine, who have it so good.  A “good” home for Dancer means a rider who will take him out and ride him, but too hard and without proper care, then abandon him, probably with permanent injuries.  The other option is his getting basic care, but mostly abandoned in “pasture”, left to the mercy of flies in the summer, ticks in the spring and mud and cold in the winter.  It’s a common misconception that it’s good for horses to be “out on pasture”.  Pasture is good only so long as the horse still has people interacting with it.  And even those homes are hard to come by, which has a lot to do with how this spectacular horse ended up stuck in a stall for a year standing on three feet of manure.  But why should I be out of pocket $10K a year for other peoples children to ride horses?  KLH can make do with five, but the decision to let him go makes me feel like I have to throw up.

It’s Labor Day weekend.  There are usually kids in town on holiday weekends and it’s a great time to take advantage of the extra school-free time and ride.  This weekend only Meera said she wanted to ride on Monday, but her mother had not committed.  It being Friday and not wanting to waste time holding out for anymore riders, I texted Nancy, Meera’s mom: “Meera says she is riding this Monday.  If so, she is my only rider. If not, I’m going to cancel riding for that day.  I’d like to know ASAP so I can plan my weekend.”  Nancy, ever one to consider my welfare, replied with: “Please cancel and take the day OFF!  Take this golden opportunity to have an extended weekend!!!!”  This was huge relief.  I needed to spend a day home and just cry.  I’ve known Nancy for a very long time and felt comfortable being honest.  I texted back with, “I will do that.  Having a hard time. I can’t afford to keep Dancer.  Please don’t tell Meera.”

Nancy would have none of it.  “Nooooooo!  I love him too! I bet other horse families would be willing to chip in too!  I’ll make Anil ‘invest’.  I’ll get you more riders.”  This this is paraphrasing what she said as she was much more detailed.  I replied with, “I’m crying too hard to think.”  She continued, “There’s got to be a way . . . don’t give up!  Everyone will help . . . I’m sure of it.  I’ll do a fundraiser for Dancer if I have to!!!”  By this time I was sobbing and couldn’t reply at all.

Turns out, Nancy is a whiz in PR.  After a decade of refusing to advertise, I came to the conclusion last week that I need to if only to find parents whose values are more in line with what I do.  There are so many pressures on kids and parents.  In some ways, that’s not a bad thing, but it’s all too easy to loose track of what’s really important.  In the chaos and hubbub of soccer practice, piano recitals, test scores and back to school nights, sanity seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.  The thought that the work with the horses is every bit as important as math or music or literature for their child’s future success in life isn’t even on the radar for these parents.  Which is more painful, the damage done to the kids through their obliviousness or the unnecessary hardship for the horses? I don’t know.   If families can be found who do think horses are important, Nancy’s gift for PR should be able to do it.  I’m betting I’m more likely to find them in Mountain View or Sunnyvale then in Palo Alto or Los Altos.  One things for certain, Meera will get priority when it comes to riding Dancer.