Horse Camping

The truck, “Best West Plants”, is almost as big as a house, pulling a trailer almost the same size full of full sized trees.  Not only does it block the entire pathway, it takes up half the street as well.  We had just had to ride in the street up La Paloma as a 550 diesel with a compressor attached behind had parked across that pathway.  The diesel with the compressor was now approaching from behind.  Velvet hesitates with every step.

As we passed under 280, with sound so overwhelming, conversation becomes impossible.  As we canter up the path next to Duval Court, I can’t tell how Cowgirl and Sara are doing because the noise overpowers the sounds of her hoofbeats.  By the time we reach the bridge to Foothill College, Sara and I decide we need a break and let the horses graze.  Sara actually feels a little sick.  We ended up riding for two hours, but at no time during the ride were we free of the sound of a compressor, a leaf blower or a diesel engine.  It was the first ride after returning from Jack Brook. Both Sara and I were feeling a little shell shocked.

“That was amazing!  That was soooo amazing!”  Rachel’s grin is so wide it looks like her head is going to split in half.  “Can we do that again?”  All the trails at Jack Brook start with a long descent, followed by stretches of somewhat level trail that is dirt road as often as it is single track, which, in this case, had allowed the girls a full throttle canter for an uninterrupted three quarters of a mile – no trash cans to dodge, no driveways to slow down for, no trucks to turn and face.

Jack Brook horse camp is nothing short of a miracle.  Surrounded by every kind of park imaginable; La Honda open space, Memorial Park, Portola State Park, Butano State Park, Purissima Creek Redwoods, Big Basin, Mindego Hill; the list goes on and on and I’ve hiked every single one of them.  They are nice hiking, but the northern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains range is, as California mountain ranges go, fairly pedestrian; most of it too steep to be pleasant or too sunny or too shrubby, with an occasional smattering of lovely spaces.  Not Jack Brook.  Whoever picked that spot, must have known those the territory like the back of his hand; a sweeping expanse of meadow; a road the undulates accessibly along a wide ridge.  Best of all, grove after grove after grove of, oh my gosh!, old growth redwoods.  All of this exists in a climate where the fog keeps the air clean and cool, but burns off by mid morning allowing the camp to warm up to floating temperatures.

The trails at Jack Brook are not like any other park.  Who set them out and why has yet to be explained, but certain sections make no sense.  The bottom of the Jack Brook loop is one such section, I have several copies of a cheap map and one copy of a map I paid $5 for.  The better map was still tucked into the grooming gear pockets in the trailer.  Turns out there’s a loops trail not on the cheap map. We ended up briefly lost and had to retrace our route.  Rachel got her wish as we were forced to canter the same 3/4 mile stretch a second time.

For our second ride at JB, we took a much longer ride.  We rode down the Jack Brook Trail to the Pomponio Trail, up to old Haul Road, then back up Tar Water Creek, probably a fourteen mile loop.  As hers is the only saddle big enough for my fanny, I was riding Velvet.  She doesn’t do downhill very well, leaving me bringing up the rear.   It’s down hill all the way to the creak, so I was still in the rear as we approached the crossing of Pescadero Creek.  Somehow I thought with the drought the creek would have very little water in it, but it was not the case.  Dancer, it seems, had never crossed a creek before.  Savannah H was delighted by the challenge of encouraging him to cross the creek.  Back and forth and back and forth they went until finally Dancer sucked it up and charged across.  It was quite the little drama that distracted me from the fact that I didn’t know if Jackson had ever crossed a creek with a significant amount of water in it before either.  Turns out he had and he had a very strong opinion of just what he thought should happen.  He pawed energetically at the water two or three times, the with positive glee, dropped his left shoulder right splash down into the creek, anticipating a nice, wet roll.  It took all of us by surprise, especially Kate, who was riding him.  She did finally figure out that her best option was to get off, but not before he rolled on to her ankle.  I got off, had her get on Velvet, and then hand walked him across.

I was expecting to see Erik, my spouse, who was out on a bike ride, on Old Haul Road.  But we didn’t see him, or anybody else for that matter.  Not horse nor hiker.  And it is quiet and peaceful.  It is hard to describe the change that comes over the horses when we are out there.  Jackson acted like he could go all day.  So did Freedom, Stoney and CG.  Chavali willingly leads when at Jack Brook, which is unheard of otherwise. Velvet steps out.  Jackson started to gait, something he hasn’t done in over a year.

We stopped for lunch at the beginning of Old Haul.  As far as we know, Stoney still has issues with Dancer.  Not wanting to take any risks, Dancer, with me holding him, were relegated to the far end of the road.  Out of boredom more than anything else, I asked Dancer, out loud, how he was liking Jack Brook.  He hugged me.  It absolutely shakes me to my core when horses do this.  You don’t believe it until it happens to you, but it does.  I thought, “oh crap!”  and, “well I guess three trips with the trailer was worth it after all.” It had only been at the last minute that I had decided I had to bring Dancer at all.

Old Haul Road, at least the part of it we ride, is a four mile stretch of wide, gradual incline, the entire length of which is shaded by redwood trees, clear beams of sunlight piercing the shade and nothing but the sweet smells of redwood forest and horse sweat.  Most of the road is ridden at a dead run, the width of it giving us the freedom to ride side by side or in formation, rather than a rigid line.

The route back was up the short branch of the Tar Water Creek Loop, after recrossing Pescadero Creek via a bridge.

Certainly during the rainy season, Pescadero Creek would more rightly be called a river, but Tar Water is an honest creek; with tar in it.  Just a puddle to jump; not enough to interest Jackson in another bath.  But enough water to again give Dancer pause.  He balked and spun and jumped backwards up the hill away from the water again and again, missing the sharp end of a log by a fraction of an inch each time.  Savannah H, by now, felt it was a point of pride to convince him to cross and that she did.  After five years of riding with me, horse camping was going to be Savannah H’s last few days with KLH.  Same for Skylar and Julia.  The horse girls had been bemoaning the anticipated loss of Savannah H., Skylar and Julia.  But I didn’t share their woe.  Savannah, Skylar and Julia are three well trained and accomplished equestrians.  Savannah had the skills and knowledge to cope with a real challenge and did so with clarity of purpose and ease.  All three of them will head off into the greater horse world as competent, capable, well trained equestrians.

From Tar Water Creek, the trail rises quickly up out of the canyon to join the Town Fire Road, the road that traverses the ridge.   By this time, I was completely out of steam. I got off Velvet and hand walked her, while the girls flew back to camp.  When I arrived, a good twenty minutes after them, horses were being groomed and bucketed.  Skylar was half way through cutting all of Cowgirl’s mane off as it was decided the best look for her would be a mohawk.  Rachel was saying to Savannah Y, “I could live here!  I could truly live here!”  Savannah Y said, “Me too!”

The girls had laid their sleeping mats out in a square just feet from the pipe pens.  They got to watch the horses as they did did their morning stretches; Velvet placing her hooves on the bottom bar of the pen for a little extra leg stretch.  Jackson decided the best place to pee was in his lunch bucket.  I guess he didn’t want mess in such a small pen.  Later he peed right next to where they had their mats.  I was horrified, but they weren’t bothered at all. Chavali was terrified of the wild turkeys.  The could hear the breathing and the snuffling of the horses all night long.  In the morning, Savannah H said, “this is just the right amount of time with the horses; 24/7.”

Skylar was up at the crack o’ dawn, bustling around feeding, cleaning, grooming, taking off blankets.  Julia slept until ten, though she asked the other girls to please not let her sleep past nine going forward.

There was only one request for our trail route for day three: No stream crossings!  We descended on a different branch of the Jack Brook loop, heading towards a trail that stayed on the north side of Pescadero Creek.  There was more noise on this ride, all of it coming from us: “Oh I am soooo sore!”  “Ow! My butt hurts!”  “Oooooh, my legs!”  “This is sooooo beautiful!”  “I love it here!”  “Ow Ow Ow Ow!”  We had another fourteen mile ride planned and we were determined to go the whole route despite the agony in our bodies.  Along with mysterious routes, Jack Brook also has “esoteric” trail signs, which, along this north side trail, diverted us on to yet another unmarked loop trail.  It’s a new loop trail through an old growth grove far more magnificent than any on Big Basin.  The chorus of “eee!  Ooww! Oh wow!” echoed amongst the majestic giants.

Actually, there was one among us, Julia, who was not sore.  As far as we could tell can, this was attributed to the fact that she sleeps like a log and sometimes even on a log, as was the case when we finally stopped for a break.  The girls were so tired that Skylar and Sara lay down in the middle of the road.  Savannah H and Savannah Y draped themselves across their horses, Savannah Y belly down on CG’s back, Savannah H across Freedom’s generously sized posterior.  Like a snake in the sun, Julia chose the top of a log and did, indeed, doze off.  i stayed awake watching  the one spruce tree surrounded by redwoods sway ominously in the breeze.  Without periodic fire, the spruce have taken hold where in the past they would have burned.  The drought has weakened more than a few trees.  One such tree had fallen across the road to camp the day before, delaying Sara’s arrival by an hour.

We took the longer branch of the Tar Water Loop trail home.  This branch rivals the Old Haul Road for uninterrupted canter through redwoods and oak woodlands and open grassland.  We did actually see one person at the end of it, an ambitious motorcyclist who had made the trek down the long, windy road into Pescadero Creek Redwoods County Park, a road so long that by the time you arrive, you have barely any time to hike as he had found out.

Besides pain that didn’t abate in the least through the entire ride, the girls, except Julia, were all bleary eyed from lack of sleep.  After all, who would want to waste time sleeping when you are in heaven.  Not that this slowed them down any.

At this point, my memories are not so clear.  The KLH “graduation” party for Savannah H, Julia and Skylar was underway.  Sophia, Kate and Sierra had arrived and were busy preparing dinner for camper and party guests.  Jackie and Lainey had arrived, but they were both recovering from being carsick from the drive up.  Meera and Kate decided to hole up in the bathroom and stop interacting with anyone else.  Rachel was worried about what would be the best timing for her present, a KLH year book she’d spent the better part of two weeks, including one of them while she was on vacation, putting together.  I think we should have sung a song for the “graduates” and I wish I’d given out awards.  Sophia would have gotten “only rider to post on the correct diagonal.”  Skylar would have gotten, “best braider.”  Julia would have gotten, “only person, youth or adult, myself included, to always shut the gates.”  I have an award for everyone.  But that didn’t happen.  They did cry; a lot.  Lack of sleep and exhaustion along with most of the girls being thirteen didn’t help much.  It took a awhile, but I finally got them corralled back to the camp fire where they wrote in each other’s year books and told scary stories.  They gave surprisingly little resistance when told to go to sleep, though no one noticed that Jackie, who is allergic to hay, ended up having to sleep right next to the hay and in the morning, when Kate and Meera got up to feed, the threw the tarp from the hay on to sleeping Jackie.

Arranging the departure of the party guest and packing up camp was a jumble of madness and mayhem, but when the dust cleared what was left was the Wednesday six; Skylar, Julia, Savannah H, Savannah Y, Sara and Rachel; and an hour and forty five minutes for one last ride.  Riders come and go.  Schedules change as do plans.  There will be the same group of riders on one day for a couple weeks or a month, then it all shifts.  But not with Wednesday.  By mid-November, 2014, Wednesday’s had settled into these six riders and stayed that way through the entire school year.  If there could have been a better matched group in skill, style, temperament and ability, I don’t know, but I’ve not seen it.  They rode together in a boundless joy that comes from effortless, heartfelt, open communication and a genuine desire to promote the welfare of their fellow riders over their own needs.

There is story about a man who did some great deed and was rewarded by an angel who said he would grant one wish.  The man wished to see heaven and hell.  First he was taken to hell.  In hell, there were many people seated around a great banquet table overflowing with all sorts of delicious foods.  But they were tied to chairs that were placed too far away from the table to reach it.  They had been provided with long utensils that could reach the food, but was so long they were unable to get the food into their mouths.  They were all starving and wailing and furious.  Then the man was taken to heaven.  It was the exact same scene, only in heaven the people were using the long utensils to feed each other.  So it was with the Wednesday group.  Many people never get an experience like this in their whole lives.  It is my fondest hope that the year of Wednesday’s will not be their only experience of heaven on earth, but I am old enough to know that if it isn’t, these experiences will still be the exception rather than the rule.  The Wednesday Six had one more hour and forty five minutes of heaven and heaven it was.  The day after we left camp, the high was 85.  The following day, 90.  But on our last day, the air was magic. The girls charged up the Town Fire Road like they’d won the super bowl.  Chavali gave her all for Skylar as the two of them sprouted wings for the last charge.

Returning from camp is complicated and intense.  Skylar’s mom picked her up at the Sam MacDonald parking lot, where the trailer was parked, leaving Savannah Y by herself with the task of untacking three horses at Campo.  When I returned for the second load, the girls told me that the camp had been over run by the next group of horse campers; a group of about thirty horses.  It had been a chaos of trailers and unfamiliar horses.  Sara and Rachel were spent. I sent them to Quail with Stoney and CG while hustled up to Campo with Jackson.  Rachel lost her water bottle and forgot her clothes.

I made it back to Sam MacDonald parking lot for the last run at 7:15pm.  Savannah H and Julia have exceptional endurance, but even they were looking worn.  As we drove 280 through Los Altos Hills, Savannah commented that this would be the last time they’d go this way. I was feeling badly that they’d had to wait so long for their ride.  As we approached 85, I said, “you know, it’s just as well that we didn’t come down this stretch of road any earlier.  Even just fifteen minutes ago, this section of freeway was stop and go.”  I had been watching the traffic reports on google maps with some anxiety and it had been true, but it was smooth sailing now. Savannah lives in Saratoga and Julia lives in Los Gatos.  Both of them had an immediate and visceral response to the reference to rush “hour” traffic.  Savannah said, “Oh, we know!”  A look of profound relief crossed both their faces at the same time as the realized that it was going to be the last time they would have to drive home through south bay rush hour traffic after having been out with the horses.  Freedom will now live at Garrod’s Stables in Saratoga. As we drove up Pierce Road, Savannah got happier and happier.  “All this time, I’ve had vaulting at Garrod’s and Freedom in Los Altos Hills.  Now they will both be in the same place!”  As great as our loss is, it’s time.

I get one day off after horse camping and then I am back at it.  The horses don’t care.  They need to get out, but we all felt empty and somewhat at a loss as we quietly milled about the arena a couple of days later.  But bit by bit Rachel started coming up with ideas, Sara started taking an interest in riding Dancer and I realized, with enormous relief, that I no longer have to struggle to keep Savannah Y and Savannah H straight.  One and only one Savannah is more than enough for me.  What I am going to do about the fact that there are now three Sophie’s, I don’t know, but I’m not going to worry about that just quite yet.

Jack Brook 2015


Dante lay down in the creek and refused to move.  The creek runs alongside the two bridges pathway.  I’m surprised that there’s water in it, but also relieved.  We’d gotten a quick start to the ride, but by 11:30 waves of heat were rising off the pavement.  It was clear it was going to be be well over the predicted 85 degrees.  We made it back to the barns, limp and tired. We sponged the horses, filled their water then all went home a took naps, while the temps soared into the high 90’s.

Not wanting a repeat, after waking, I got busy on the computer and started to reschedule today’s ride.  Can Julia come at 5? Oh yes, that would work perfectly!  Do you know if Savannah is coming? No, I don’t. Kate, can you come at 5?  I know you wanted to help feed, but I’m going to feed earlier then go home and skip the heat.  You want to help feed anyways?  OK, I will pick you up at 11:30, your grandma can take you home, then bring you back at 5.  Can Allison come at 5? Oh, she’s not sure she’s up for riding again?  Allison had ridden in the heat with us.  Sophia has play rehearsal that starts at 6:15 so she’ll have to cancel.  Then I get a text from Sierra’s mom: “can Sierra come a little late?”  Sierra wasn’t on the schedule.  Good thing Sophie cancelled.  What? Sara can’t ride on Wednesday and wants to riding tomorrow?  Oh, I guess that will be OK, except that Rachel is going to Hawaii on Friday and her last ride day will be Wednesday and she will be upset if she doesn’t ride with Sara so now Rachel wants to come too.  Good grief that’s seven riders!  Savannah, will you ride Dancer?  Sure, ought to be fun.  And that’s how we ended up taking Dancer on his first real group trail ride, Sierra on Velvet in the lead, Rachel and Sara bringing up the rear on Stoney and CG, CG bareback as usual with Sara looking cute as a button.

Although today proved not to be nearly as hot as yesterday, but riding in the evening, without the pressure of getting home for homework and school the next day, gives us the delightful advantage of riding without swarms of gardening trucks and cement mixers and speeding BMW’s.  Up La Paloma, across Robleda, up Josefa to the Packard trail they go; Sierra on Velvet, Savannah on Dancer, Kate on Chavali, Julia on Freedom, Mikatrin on Jackson, Rachel on Stoney and Sara on CG.  People will now think we are a caravan.

At one point, Savannah put Dancer in the lead because Velvet was too slow, but then Velvet raced and tried to ride up on Dancer’s butt, which pissed him off and he kicked out at her so we went back to Velvet in front, but Kate gave Sierra her whip so Sierra could ensure that Velvet kept up a good pace.  Other than that the girls rode together with perfect skill and precision.

When we stopped for a break at the top of the Packard Trail, Sara got off and hugged Julia and cried.  She said, “I will miss you so much!”  That’s for sure.

Down the two bridges, up Elena, down La Barranca, right on Purrisima, left on Concepcion, then right for a run up Via Arline, which came to a halt just minutes after it started as there was a buck half way into the path.  He was eating the fallen apricots.  As Sierra edged closer, he finally bounded up the hill and the girls, all seven of them, bounded after him.

Having Sara and Rachel branch off at Golden Hill and head back to Quail was a no brainer.  It was 7:35 and I was proud that finally there’d be ample time at the barn before the parents arrived.  I had to stick with Mikatrin, who was on Jackson, so I followed the campo crew, but not for long.  After turning on to Newbridge, I got a call from Rachel.  Trying to keep the sound of panic out of my voice, my first words were, “are you all right?”  “We found a stray dog!  We don’t know what to do.”  And they didn’t have any lead ropes on the horses so they had nothing to use as a leash.  Mikatrin and I turned right and headed to the cut through that intersects Golden Hill.

By the time we reached Rachel and Sara, they’d improvised a collar using their phone fanny packs. Sara had the dog by the “collar”, a sweet, friendly, adorable, healthy golden retriever who, by the state of her engorged teats, was obviously nursing a litter of puppies.  There aren’t many friendly people in Los Altos Hills, but one of them lived very close by.  That one also happened to be watering plants in her front yard.  I described the dog and she said, “Oh! Mirabelle!  I wonder how she got out! Thank you so much! Would you like to come see the puppies?”  That’s akin to saying, “would you like a million dollars?” or “would you like world peace?”  The horse girls would always chose the puppies of money or peace.  I think there are six of them.  They are being raised as service dogs and “we need people to handle them and socialize them.”  With any luck, they will be home tomorrow when we stop by at the end of our ride.  They have the puppies for another four weeks.  Good thing they have a big driveway where it is convenient to have the horses wait.  I wonder if I can convince them to put in a tie rail?


38 Acres

“She wouldn’t even let me use her arena to try a saddle on and she lives across the street.  I don’t know how she exercises her horses.  They live in tiny paddocks and the barn is all walled off from the street so no one can see them.  People walk by my pasture all the time.  They love seeing Quila.”  I had been discussing with Carol my sadness at my realization that quite a few people don’t want the horses in the hills.  But my experience at with my horses at Jan’s barn mirrors Carols.  There is a parent who brings his children to the barn almost every morning, at the children’s insistence, to see the horses.  Unlike Carol’s property, which is on a moderately traveled thoroughfare, the Quail barn is out of the way and up a hill.

I don’t get to talk with Carol very often, but she coordinated the registration at Play Day so we got to catch up a bit.  The girls like to think they run Play Day.  In a sense they do.  They run everything that is important to them; the games.  However, as far as they know the registration sheets composed themselves and lunch magically appears from out of the sky.

Not to belittle their contribution.  Sophia, who is twelve, dedicated the whole day to narrating the games.  As I talk with Carol I hear her in the background. “Now, this next game has you riding your horse to the end of the arena, getting off you horse, bobbing for an apple.  Oh, wait, no, what? It’s not apple bobbing? Oh.  Sorry!  Wrong game.  Now, lets start over again.  This next game is carrot eating.  What’s carrot eating?  Does anybody know?”  Sophia was the only horse girl willing to MC, she gave up being able to participate and by the end of the day, after six hours working in the sun, she looked like she was ready to keel over.

While Sophie was frantically trying to figure out what was going on, Meera, Serena, Kate and Chloe were sitting on their mounts, looking bored.  The rest of the girls were milling about. “Do we need poles for this one?”  “I don’t know? I thought we supposed to get buckets.”  “How many carrots?  Does anyone know how many carrots?”

The girls had been thrilled to learn that we were short on parental help this year.  They said, “We will run Play Day!”  But as the day got closer and closer, there was still no sign of planning on their part.  I finally insisted that take a few minutes to list the challenges in Run the Gauntlet.  The last challenge they came up with was balloons.  I said, “who is going to bring balloons?”  Savannah said, “I probably have some around my house.”  No one thought about water for horses or food for the day or how to set up the obstacle course or where should they put the buckets, etc…  Sara and Skylar stayed after riding on Saturday to help.  After resting up a bit they spent an hour hunting for bugs for Skylar’s science project.  They then spent an hour and a half creating an artistically elegant sign.

Some Play Days run like clockwork.  Other’s serve to provide more in the way of amusement.

Erik rode his bike to get the balloons, but lost most of them riding back to the arena.  The mother who asked a fee reduction for her children in exchange for sweat equity and had promised to come do the photography, forgot, then apologized saying she “has ADD.”  Two fathers stopped me mid-stride to demand an explanation to why horses are afraid of mylar balloons.  A dressage trainer with her client and international level dressage horse showed up mid day needing to use the arena for a lesson.  The vegetarian sandwiches had turkey in them and so on and so forth.

As expected, the horses and kids all did really well, the only hint of an incident being when Meera started to get on a horse without a helmet. There were six of us who stopped her.

At the end of the day, Kathy LIccardo said, “I don’t know how you do it!”  Answer is, I don’t do it all.  In fact I did almost nothing for clean up.  Six adults stayed to help as the young riders who were “running the show” having either been picked up and whisked off to another activity or having ridden back to the barns.  But by the time 7pm rolls around, I’m near comatose and laid flat on the couch, the only reading material within reach being the Palo Alto Weekly, which occasionally has inspired articles, but which was not the case last week, leaving me with nothing better to do than peruse the real estate ads.  Standing out like a sore thumb in the center off a dozen pictures of enormous “Tuscan Villa”s and “private retreats”, was a picture of scrubby oak surrounding a dirt road driveway and the address of 222 Portola State Park Road.  My first thought: Did the property connect up to Jack Brook.

Thank you google maps! 222 Portola State Park Road property boarders the southeast corner of Pescadero Creek County Park, a hop, skip and a jump from a landmark turn on the Tar Water Creep Loop trail.

“Can you see the house?”  The advertisement claimed there was a two bedroom house on the property, but only provided one, blurry picture.  Erik brought the overhead view of the house up on the iPad.  “It’s got a flat roof.  Probably a 70’s tilt up”, which means a tear down or even an almost falling down.  Portola State Park Road is a road in name only.  “How would you go about building a house on that property?!” Erik said, “Well first you’d have to hire a contractor to come and build a road.”  Our conversation ended there.

Dream come true?  Would I want to live out in the middle of nowhere even if the horses loved it?  That’s not what I really want. I like what we do. I like that a half a dozen people come by one barn or the other every day to see the horses. I like that we get stopped every day to have people take our pictures.  A couple of weeks ago I had one woman get out of our car and ask to approach the horses.  The girls stopped and obliged.  She stroked Freedom’s neck for a bit, then started to hug him and to cry.  She’d just lost her partner of 25 years.  They’d owned horses.  As we rode off, she said, “you have no idea how much that meant to me.”

But I’d like to be able to do what we do and be able to relax a little bit. I’d like people to be careful when they move their trash cans.  I’d like speed bumps on Robleda and Purissima.  I’d like more than one signed horse crossing.  We usually cross the road “Pony Club style” because it is the most effective and efficient communicator of our needs, but at the arena crossing, the one and only official horse crossing, the girls always insist on crossing in a line, one horse after another, staying within the lines of the cross walk.  It feels so good to have official recognition.  I don’t even mind picking up the manure, though I can do with out the woman who became slightly hysterical as she explained to me her panic at the thought that her son might ride his bike through manure and then track it home to their garage thus exposing the entire family to tetanus.  (!)

Most of all I’d like the girls and the horses to be welcomed and accepted.  Why not?


“You’ve gotta come see this! These two horses, they are standing in three feet of manure and they’ve been starved!” Rob is not my favorite person, but his love for horses in unwavering. He is ranch hand for Linda McKell. I don’t know if Dancer and Flash had been listed for sale and he was going to see them or if he’d gone to the barn in Gilroy to see a different horse, but find Dancer and Flash he did. Both horses were a “2”, where a 5 is normal and a 1 is three hooves in the grave. Given in lieu of payment for a debt, the owner simply had no idea how to care for a horse. How long they had been stuck in their stalls, I don’t know, but possibly as long as a year. It goes without saying that neither horse had seen a farrier in the same amount of time. The infection in Dancer’s legs from standing in filth was so bad, he would have been dead within a month.

“He’s twelve. What did the other vet say he was? Ten?” Linda’s vet had said, “under ten”. Kat Dayharsh, my go to girl for training, thought he was seven. Kristin, with twenty-five years of equine veterinary work behind her, is probably correct. Kristin continues: “He’s got a nice sloping shoulder and his back is good, but he’s knock kneed and narrow at the base.” Linda offered the owner her “garage sale money” and had ended Dancer and Flash’s ordeal the day after Rob’s call. It’s been five months now since the rescue. Both horses are back on weight and, after intensive farrier work, their hooves have healed. It has also become apparent that it was a case of neglect, not abuse. Kat had Dancer trotting around the arena with a 10′ length of mylar flags draped around his head and he was fine.

Flash came with “papers”. With training, he’d be worth $20K. It reminds me of a statistic I heard that 60% of dogs who end up in shelters are pure bred. He’s one of the nicest looking horses I’ve ever seen; full on high level performance potential and yet here he was, rotting in a stall. Rob has fallen in love with him. Tootling around Los Altos Hills may not fulfill his “potential”, but with Rob, he’d have a home for life. It helps that it seems Flash is equally enamored of Rob.

Dancer’s fate is not so sure. He’s not a big horse; no overweight American’s for him. Even worse, his knees and stance rule out reining or hunter/jumpers or endurance or any of the other “activities” so many adult riders are keen on.

“Savannah, when he pulls away like that, don’t getting into a tug of war. Turn him or keep the steady pressure until he backs up, then stop.” This is old instruction and Savannah knows it, she just hasn’t had to use it in a while. She finally manages to ask him to back up instead of bolt forward at the pressure from the reins, then drops the reins. Dancer sighs and licks and chews. When I tap his shoulder to move him, he looks confused. I use the lead rope to make my request clear, then I try again. He moves, snorts, sighs then, again, licks and chews. He’s liking this. He leads, ties, wouldn’t kick at a person to save his life and accepts a rider. Someone did some good work, but no one has worked with him in a way that engages his intelligence and he likes it. A more clear minded, inquisitive, teachable horse I’ve never encountered.

“When am I going to get to see Dancer! I want to ride him! Can I do jumping on him?!!!” Meera has never been known for restraint. Her idea of horse bliss is to spend two hours riding a jump course. Though the girls can jump some, this isn’t a dream I can provide. But she does not let up.

“Meera, of all the horses born, maybe one in twenty have the conformation that can withstand lots of jumping. That one in twenty is worth a lot of money, but what about the other nineteen? Are they just to be thrown away? The question is, do was reject Dancer and try to find a horse we can jump all the time, or do we take Dancer?” Meera does not lack for intelligence. She knows how many horses end up with poor fates and how small Dancer’s real chances are of ending up in a decent home. Meera returned my stare with a sober and stead gaze and said, “We take Dancer.”

Linda wants KLH to take Dancer. Rob wants KLH to take Dancer. The girls want KLH to take Dancer. KLH is losing two horses and needs a replacement and it is unlikely I’m going to find that fine of an equine mind in another horse anytime soon. Taking Dancer means thousands in training and extra expense, plus six months to a year before he really comes on line, but I do want to take him.  He still has to pass “the test” at the Jensen’s. He’s due for a stay this coming Friday and if his pasture behavior is not with boundaries of what the Jensen’s consider manageable for their pasture, he will have a different fate. I have promised to pay for a month of training with Kat, then he’d be up for sale. We are all on tender hooks.

Even with all that, there is one more question: Does Los Altos Hills want KLH to save Dancer.  KLH has the blessings of the owners at both Campo and Quail.  For that, my gratitude knows no bounds.  But the residents? Not so much.  We are on the pathways all the time.  It’s great for the kids and great for the horses and it’s completely within our right to do so.  But many residents feel that their town exists for their residents and I understand how they feel.  About thirty percent of the residents of Palo Alto feel that only residents, their guests and people servicing those residents should be on the streets.  It’s selfish, but it’s also a natural, protective human trait that is simply stronger in some than in others.   I love the opportunity that town provides for the horses and the young rider and don’t take it for granted for a minute.  But if I can find any other reasonable option, I will take it and I haven’t given up looking.

Dancer and Flash seeking comfort from each other immediately after their rescue.

Dancer and Flash seeking comfort from each other immediately after their rescue.


“I call first Deb hug!” I’m not fully awake yet. It’s a little earlier than I’m really happy about and I’ve been focusing my energy for days on the demanding task of safely driving seven young horse lovers two and a half hours down to Lockwood, CA where Redwings Horse Sanctuary is located. Rachel, Sara and Savannah have had a sleepover. They were sitting waiting on Rachel’s porch and are rushing at me as if they were one body. Fortunately, before they can knock me over, they got distracted by trying to decide where they are going sit, they careened to the left and went tumbling into the borrowed Ford Expedition.

Next stop was Skylar and Jaclyn’s house. “I call first Skylar hug!!!” The Expedition has been stopped for less then a second. The doors fly open. They manage to fly out of the SUV without knocking each other to the ground and then race to the front door. To their chagrin, Skylar came around the back, forcing the three of them to sprint along the front of the house and leap a small hedge.

With all sorts of thumping and bumping they rearrange themselves in the SUV. “I call first Stoney hug!” That was Rachel Loran. She has a thing for Stoney. We haven’t left the driveway, but the girls know we have to stop at Quail to pick up Sierra. Sara and Savannah are faster than Rachel. Sara got to Stoney first. She didn’t do this intentionally. She just loves to hug the horses.

Savannah H was our last passenger. They didn’t knock her down, but I saw her knees buckle as the “gallop girls” piled on for a group hug.

It was party time in the Expedition all the way down to Redwings and I don’t remember very much of it because I was focused on driving. Although I did notice that none of them seem to be very good at twenty questions. They didn’t know that an onion was not a root vegetable, etc…

Our tour started with a lecture, the first part of which I missed because I was still in the car putting on sun screen. But I joined the girls in the office at the point where Sara, the woman primarily responsible for all the horse care, was saying, “and when you buy a horse, you are taking on a thirty year commitment”, an opinion she then repeated five or six times. Evidently, Redwings gets ten to fifteen calls or emails a day from people asking them to take their horse, mostly because it’s inconvenient for them to keep the horse or because they just don’t want it anymore. All the horses are Redwings are truly extreme cases. There’s Patrick, the sway back former roping star who was left padlocked into a stall without food or water at the Salinas fair grounds. There’s Autey and Apollo, horses foaled at Redwings from mares that had been confiscated in an animal abuse case and had been severely malnourished. There’s Calypso the Premarin mare who’d spent much of her life confined to a straight stall; not allowed to lie down because it would disturb the apparatus used to collect her urine while pregnant and deprived of adequate water because the urine needed to be concentrated. Most striking to me was the herd of horses confiscated from a man who was trying to breed his own Pryor Mountain Mustangs but by the time the herd came to the attention of law enforcement, there were thirty eight horses living on three acres, none of them gelded with goodness knows how many generations of inbreeding; a greater variety of misshapen horses cannot be imagined.

There are thoroughbreds saved from slaughter and discarded cutting and reining horses with grapefruit sized knees. There is a horse that was being used in a “horse tripping” event at a rodeo and horses that were too badly breed or starved or beaten to every be ridden. Of course they have the requisite collection of donkeys and minis, the former which breed like rabbits on BLM land and the latter that are, more often than not, purchased with as much thought as one would purchase a toy. Redwings is a living museum of all the ways that humans have abandoned responsibility for the equines they created and the array of complications and suffering that is created in their lives as a result.

The effect of that suffering was not lost on the girls. If I’d been towing a trailer, we wouldn’t have left without it full. They have decided on five “must haves” for my program.

Before I took her on, Chavali was skin and bones, left in a pasture with liquid rust for water. Stoney had been abandoned. CG was rescued from pony purgatory. Velvet was never in trouble, but at present, her owner is dependent on the income she earns as a lesson horse in order to be able to keep her. Jackson was loved for a couple of years but then neglected. Freedom is cared for and always has been, though he’s not really part of the program as he and Savannah mainly just keep us all company. But all the rest of the horses work for their keep and I work for thank yous and hugs.

It was Shana who started the hugging. She insists on hugging each and every horse and horse girl when she arrives and when she leaves. She met us after a ride at Rancho San Antonio last week. After hugging each of us, she turned to the stranger who’d walked with me down the hill and hugged her too. She’s been so persistent in her hugging that pretty much all the horse girls hug all the other horse girls all the time and also me.

Freedom will be leaving the herd in June. Jackson will be either going into a lease or back to his owners in October. Katie Dayharsh wants Stoney for a lesson horse. Jaclyn and Skylar want to lease Chavali and move her to Page Mill. For the first time in more than a decade, I really am in a position where I could, in good conscience, let all of this horse business go. Sara, Savannah Y and Rachel met me at the barn with their usual group hug. I thanked the because my spirits were low and I explained how I was faced with a choice. Savannah, with fire in her eyes, turned to me and said, “If you quit, I’d DIE! I’m serious.” It’s safe to say she speaks for all the horse girls, not that they are all specifically dependent on KLH, but it is the general idea.

Parents see the riding as an extra. One dad told his daughter “I pay for private school so why should I pay for riding.” This family owns a house in Hawaii. It’s been my experience that private school is worth every penny, but truly, if it was left up to the girl, she’d ditch the school in favor of horses in a heart beat. Most parents only want to pay when the child rides and if the child only rides twice a month, then there’s more money for their ski lift tickets or dinners out in Cancun, whereas the costs of having a child who rides twice a month or every week on my end are the same. I had one parent who complained for years about how tight her budget was. I finally gave in and allowed her daughter to ride for a shamefully low price only to find out shortly there after that the family of four was going skiing for presidents day weekend. When confronted, the parent said, “well of course we have a tight budget. How else could we afford to ski on a holiday weekend?” These people are by no means the exception. More than half the parents a pinching pennies in order to afford a big ticket; a week for four on Maui, two weeks in Denmark, skiing in Whistler; vacation. Every year I hope I will break even. I have not yet done so. March is one of my most expensive months. As of tomorrow, I have $3,100 in board and insurance due. I’m short $1,200 in the KLH account. Even if I could afford a trip to Hawaii, I couldn’t afford the cost of the horse care while I’m gone. But it’s a choice. When I visit Redwings I feel a lot better about my choice. I’m willing to put money on the fact that almost all the horse girls, when they are grown and owning their own ponies, will make the same choice.

On the way home from Redwings, Rachel realizes that she hasn’t gotten “first hug” once. She’s almost apoplectic and she won’t shut up about it. The parents are meeting us at Quail. Rachel is bound and determined that she will get out of the Expedition first and get to hug Stoney first! Sierra, who is mild mannered and long suffering, ran out of patience. She says, in a dead pan, “I’m sitting on the side of the car that will be nearer the barn so I will be able to get to Stoney before you and get first hug.” She kept up the facade until just minutes before we got to the barn. She never had any intention of getting out before Rachel, but had to confess her intent when it became clear that Rachel was just seconds away from committing a dastardly deed and yes, Rachel got first Stoney hug, the hug, that we all know is the only hug that really matters to Rachel.

Horsegirl Rachel and Sage the donkey, resident of Redwings Horse Sanctuary.

Horsegirl Rachel and Sage the donkey, resident of Redwings Horse Sanctuary.


“If you feel along his lower leg, you can feel the cannon bone and then the big tendon at the back of it. Between these two is another tendon that feels like a #2 pencil.” This is the way the vet described it to me and I couldn’t think of a better description. “You slide your hand down the tendon, using it as a line of ‘sight’ to where you feel a grove in which there is a very small soft space that feels like an uninflected balloon.” This is where you feel for the digital pulse, which, at this moment, on Jackson, was throbbing. Shana, Sara and Savannah were all able to feel the pulse. Fortunately, there was an unusual absence of a ride on this Saturday. Jackson was not at all pleased about being left at Campo, but he’d have been a whole lot less pleased if we’d ridden him!

With all the added tasks of caring for Jackson’s abscess, so we didn’t get to the arena till 12:30, just barely in time to meet Savannah Y who was getting dropped off there. Sara and Savannah Yee headed off to the round pen with Cowgirl. Jackie practiced her posting on Velvet. Savannah H worked on having Freedom maintain his gait. Shana set up trot poles and Emma worked on simply riding Chavali in a circle, which, if you haven’t done, must understand is much, much more difficult that it looks as Chavali prefers the amoeba shape.

We had some brief entertainment in the form of two women who showed up with horses, one of whom was a real novice. When she mounted up she reflexively pulled back on the reins for balance. The horse took this as a cue to back up, to which the rider responded by pulling harder, which cued the horse to spin, which panicked the rider who pulled even harder and then did not manage to stay on the horse. Then more experienced rider responded with a number of questionable maneuvers, including, to the astonishment of the girls, ponying the nervous horse by the reins. The two women did manage to complete a short trail ride without incident. Savannah H’s comment was, “Yeah, most of the riders at Garrod’s are like that.”

By this time Rachel and Skylar had joined us and Emma and Jackie had gone home. I’m not entirely sure what happened after that, but it involved Shana jumping Chavali and Skylar jumping Chavali and Skylar jumping CG and Sara jumping CG and Sara jumping Stoney and Rachel jumping Stoney and Sara and Rachel riding Freedom bareback and Skylar roping CG and Savannah H perfecting her mount up which is now so accomplished she looks like she just floats up on to the horse. The entire time, Savannah Y is taking pictures and pictures and pictures and pictures and if you want to see them all you will have to subscribe to her instagram feed, which, I think, is Cowgirlsavy. Her feed puts the KLH feed to shame.

We don’t always have so much fun at the arena. In fact, sometimes it’s downright miserable there; too hot, too cold, too much direct sun, freeway too loud, too much hubbub from the little league fields. But yesterday, it was all good. They didn’t want the party to end, but they also don’t understand that their instructor/supervisor has dishes at home waiting to be done and dinner to make and she simply wants to make it home so she can do these things before collapsing.

I managed to pry them away from the arena by 3:30, but needed to make a pit stop at the toilets before we headed down Purissima towards Clark’s Field. While I used the restroom at the Little League Fields, they decided to park the horses:

park your horse

The only remarkable event associated with riding to Clark’s Field was the fact that, restrained by Dante’s need to stay at a “trot”, I couldn’t keep up. The flew down Purissima and they flew down the path that borders the bike path on Arastradero and they flew up the path into the field. For whatever reason, CG decided to trot Clark’s Field and Stoney, shortly after Rachel got him to canter, screeched to a halt, turned sideways and shoved his nose in the grass. Rachel is remarkably adept as a rider, but for whatever reason, she can’t negotiate this particular situation with Stoney. He only does this with her. I think it’s partly because she wants to let him eat grass because she loves him. But between the two, I finally caught up.

Once across Clark’s Field is never enough. Dante and I sat at the end of the field while Freedom, Stoney, Chavali, Velvet and Cowgirl, with Savannah, Rachel, Savannah, Sara and Skylar up top, headed back across the field. Actually, Skylar wasn’t up top. Cowgirl wanted to graze and Sky had to dismount and drag her. I decided to stay out of it.

Coming back, the girls took the non-trail, long route around the edge of the field. For reasons known only to herself, Cowgirl decided it was just her cup of tea and that it was time to race the other horses. Savannah H said she looked to her side to see CG shoot past her, full speed ahead. By the time they rejoined to main trail, tiny CG was proudly holding the lead. Savannah Y knew this was going to happen and had sent me the text: Camera! By the end of the day I just want to enjoy what I see, not take pictures of it. Savannah Y has decided I’m fired from being the photographer.

The ponies did get to graze after this as an adorable Border Terrier, with family in tow, was let loose in the field. All the girls had to get off and meet him up close, attention the pint sized dog soaked up. Savannah Y said, “We need a small dog also”, as in I should get another dog to bring along besides Dante, who they all think of as an essential participant to their equine adventures.

By this time the light was starting to fade and I told the girls it was time to go. They cried, “No!!!!” I said, “I told your parents to be at Quail at 5:30 for pick up.” Savannah Y, again, said, “Call them and tell them 6:30!” Despite this they did agree to finally return to the barn. I think if I hadn’t been there, they would have returned long after dark.

They were all in such a buoyant mood, which had to do in large part to perfect weather, both for rider and horse, that they willingly agreed to move bales of hay around at Quail, a nasty and strenuous job, so that CG could have her stall, which is often used for hay storage, back. I was stuck at Campo for about half and hour and finally made it over to Quail. Most of the hay was moved, except for two bales out on the drive way. Rachel was making good use of them in practicing “the flippy thing”, a vaulting move that Savannah H has shown them where you push your body up out of the saddle and throw your legs crossways so you end up, in one clean movement, facing the opposite direction on the horse. She had gotten quite good at it.

As the parents arrived, I tried to stop the girls. I said, “It’s time to go home!” They completely ignored me. Finally convincing them to leave may have been the meanest thing I’ve done in ages. I made it home with enough energy to eat dinner, but I passed out before the dishes got done.

Shana the Christmas Elf

A bronze BMW SUV was pulled over in the private drive that is at the base of the pathway up to the campo barn. It looked familiar and then became recognizable as Shana stepped out, getting ready to head up the hill. “Shana! What are you doing?!” “Oh, Deborah. Didn’t you get my text?” No, I hadn’t. I don’t check the phone while driving or biking and this morning I was doing the latter. I looked at my phone and there was the text, having been sent ten minutes ago. We always start Saturday mornings at Quail. Finding her heading to campo was disorienting.

“Shana, I’m OK with you being solo at Campo. It’s just that I need to know ahead of time, an hour or two preferably, but half an hour at the minimum.” That particular morning I knew for a fact that Sara was eager to see Shana and was waiting at Quail for her. Shana agreed to give me proper advance notice in the future.

Last night I got a text saying she wanted to spend time with Velvet this morning and would I mind if she went to campo instead of Quail. Sara and Sophie met me at Quail. We cleaned the paddock and groomed and tacked CG, then headed over to Campo. Shana had Jackson and Chavali out and tied and was trying to make a dent in the many layers of caked on mud in Chavali’s coat. Savannah H had just arrived. As the girls got busy grooming, I started to tackle the stalls, but didn’t get very far before Shana, in a slightly operatic voice, called, “Oh Deborah! I think you didn’t look very closely at the door to the bar-arn!” Tucked into the vertical, metal joint of two door panels was a blue and white checked envelope with a card inside that said, “WHAT? Did you find a clue? I bet you’re wondering where it leads to. This is White. And where you write. Ba-dapa-badapa-doo!” Sophie, Sara and Savannah had all dropped what they were doing and joined me at the white board searching for the next clue, which Shana had secured behind it.

“This is circular. And the color of Stoney. It’s where the horses. Eat their baloney. In ONE of the homes. That has a roof which they roam.” This, of course, wasn’t too difficult and all three stalls are outfitted with grey, metal feed tubs.

“Down the hill and through the woods. Where they eat their hay. These mats,oh, very could. Make them feel so gay.” Shana had to slog through about about one hundred feet of six inch deep mud to reach the feed mats, which are not presently in use as most of the paddock is about in inch of rain away from becoming a swamp. Sophie, who does not like mud, stayed up at the barn. Fortunately Sara doesn’t mind the mud at all and happily stomped through the mud to retrieve clue #4.

“Near the three tall trees. Is something you don’t want to see. It’s the companion to pee. And … you’re going to have to DIG for ME.” When the paddock is dry, which it is most of the time, the flat area right below the three redwood trees is where we dump barrow full of manure from cleaning the paddock. The stack right now is about three feet high. If Shana had wanted to be exceptionally “lavoratory”, she could have stuck the clue under a fresh pile. Digging through the fairly well composted pile really wasn’t all that bad.

“Step away from the poo. And into the barn if you may. This is your final clue. Look all over that hay (and say neigh neigh).” On top of the eight foot high stack of hay bales sat eight, red velvet stockings, each stuffed with a peppermint swirl lollipop and an ornament. This is exactly what she did last Christmas, but not with the treasure hunt.

“Deborah, did I surprise you?!” She totally did. I did not expect it at all. Not even in the littlest bit.

Shana the Christmas Elf