“Michelle, do you want me to bring kids to the ranch?”
“OK then, can we talk?”
“I’ll get back to you.”
Three months later: “Michelle, it’s means the world to these kids to be able to spend time at the ranch. Can we talk?”
“Yeah, yeah! I’ve been really busy. I’ll call! I promise!”
One month later: “Michelle, I have two kids who are in desperate need of ranch time. One is falling apart from the stress of a divorce. The other is a basket case from the pressure on her from immigrant parents. Ranch time is like a life line for them; it’s critical medicine.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve been super busy all week! The foals were born last week. I’ll call you soon.”
“OK, but in the mean time, could you contact Maya and Claire and tell them? They are the two girls to whom the arrival of the foals means the most.”
Another month passes. By now it’s mid-March. Spring breaks are coming up starting April 9th. Any planning for field trips to the ranch have to happen within the next week or two and I haven’t heard from Michelle.
I call again: “Michelle, I’m getting really frustrated! These kids really need a visit.”
The return message was, in a condescending tone: “Well! My daughter has been in the hospital!” This was followed by an e-mail saying she wanted the kids to come down. I called on Friday.
Michelle: “I do want to talk, but I want to think a little more. Can I call you in the afternoon?” No, I was busy. But I would be home the following morning. “OK, I’ll call you then.”
My e-mail: Michelle, please call. I will be home all Sunday. Her e-mail: I promise I will!
Next e-mail, sent Sunday night, 9:30pm: Tim’s been on the phone. My e-mail: I will be home doing housework tomorrow morning. Please call. Her e-mail: OK, I will.
Michelle’s dodge ball/call/not call dance had actually started many months earlier, in August of 2011. The first trip to the ranch was in June of 2010. When Michelle and husband Tim arrived at the ranch, they inherited a disaster. Michelle’s first task was to green break and then sell fifty-five, two through six year-olds in five months, which was only part of the herd. There were seven foals in the lot that remained. Moved as I was by the daunting challenges that someone I thought of as a good friend was facing, I’d been trying to arrange a crew of helper to trek to the ranch for months. But it was Claire who tipped the balance. Claire loved horses and seemed happy enough riding, but there was a sadness in her heart. Claire also loved/loves babies. Baby cats, baby dogs, baby people; as long as it’s a baby, she loves it. When Claire met the foals, the hole in her heart was filled.
After our trip to the ranch, I had a different Claire. “How do you think the foals are doing? Is Oona growing? Don’t you think Angel is cute? Which foal do you think Michelle is going to keep?” She wouldn’t shut up.
Though all the young horse lovers who got to take a trip to the ranch enjoyed the foals, besides Claire, Maya was the only other KidsLoveHorses rider who became deeply and profoundly attached. Maya is not a “babies” person, like Claire. What Maya is, is the most extraordinary animal caretaker I have ever encountered. At the age of nine, she nursed her guinea pig Timmy (as in Timothy hay) through pneumonia, which required giving him medication five times a day. Maya is the one to point out to me when Cowgirl’s pastern swells up or Stoney’s eye looks a little red. She can dose, treat, massage or poultice any and every medical need any of my horses have. Maya doesn’t talk much and she has a straight and even, no nonsense demeanor. Emotion on her face is barely detectable. When I would convey news of the foals, Maya’s face, in an exceptional display of emotion, would radiate happiness.
Michelle’s position at the ranch is not secure. The ranch is for sale. That is, in fact, why she was hired in the first place; to prep it for sale. The corporation that owns the ranch had filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and during the time she’s lived there has under gone “major restructuring”. At one point she told me that the corporation had decided not to sell the ranch, but to make it into a service project where kids could come and get to have the ranch experience. It was a fleeting thought on their part with little substance and even less conviction. At this point, the only thing I do know for sure about the ranch and about Michelle, is that Michelle, more than anything else, wants to raise and train foals and she is using the ranch to do so.
Early in 2011, I heard through Haley that Michelle had made a comment suggesting she was considering breeding the mares. In an economic climate where horses are being tossed out like yesterday’s newspaper, I didn’t put much weight in it. With the arrival of spring breaks that year, I headed down with an eager crew, including one Catholic child due back at a church service, giving us a rigid departure time; something I had informed everyone of. The last activity of the day had been a short trail ride, which or course took longer to get going on than expected and turning back home was energetically resisted. We were almost back at the barn, and already past our departure time, when Maddie, pipes up with, “Michelle! Don’t forget we were going to turn the stallion out with the mares today!” Though she initially joined the KidsLoveHorses crew in treks to the ranch, being fifteen, she was old enough to go independently and was, by this time, spending days at time there, which is why she was up on the plans and we weren’t. Getting to witness a stallion being turned out with mares is a once in a life time experience. We were half an hour late home and, thankfully, the service was also running late.
I thought at the time, the lack of consideration in regards to enabling the kids to witness a stunning and precious event was due to Michelle’s disorganization. I think differently now.
As dedicated and competent as Maya and Claire were, ten and eleven can only do so much. It was the older girls, Maddie and Haley, now ages sixteen and seventeen, that began to provide help that Michelle needed and companionship that Michelle craved. Maddie in particular was able to spend much of that summer at the ranch. In her typically teenage self absorbed reality, the ranch became her project and the younger kids a nuisance and an intrusion on an experience that she wanted to claim all for herself. Maddie took every opportunity to let the kids I’d brought down know that they weren’t wanted and weren’t welcome and that she was Michelle’s favorite so we couldn’t do anything about that. Michelle stopped talking. She stopped e-mailing. I stopped getting news of the ranch.
Even Haley, beloved Haley who, at the age of nine, was the child most responsible for the creation of KidsLoveHorses, rejected the kids. She kept us company at the town arena once that summer. Not terribly interested in the activities of the kids, she started talking about the ranch, quickly progressing to a condescending, “Oh, by the way, we [as in her, Michelle and Maddie] have decided that there need to be a lot of restrictions on the kids who come near the foals. They are going to have to watch all of the Clinton Anderson DVD’s and only the older kids who’ve proved they can do the training can come into the pens and . . . . ” The previous summer and all that spring I’d watched Haley and Maddie make a hash of working with the foals. I know more about horse training than Maddie, Haley and Michelle all put together and I had introduced all of them to Clinton Anderson in the first place.
In my distress, I’ve shared my feelings with several trusted moms, all of whom assure me that the kids are getting all they need already from riding around in Los Altos Hills. In my heart, I know this is not true. I know the ranch changed Claire forever. The students who are so burdened in their lives by the constant stresses of modern society that they are barely able to function with the horses, came back from the ranch trips transformed in their understanding of life and in their relationship to the horses. In some cases, ranch time is a life saver. It was a life saver for Haley and Maddie, only they don’t seem understand that it is an experience that might be shared.
Michelle grew up in rural Woodside. Her parents bought her a horse when she was nine and she would spend her days romping on horseback through the woods shooting arrows from a home made bow. Her summers were spent with Woodside Junior Riders and everyday after school was spent with pony club. By the time she was ready to leave home for college, her horse was in training with a nationally ranked hunter/jumper trainer. With this kind of youth, how could she know that at the ranch she is eating a feast while starving people watch on.
As the tension between myself and Michelle increased, bit by bit, Claire and Maya continued to pepper me with questions about the foals. “Do you think all the mares are pregnant? When do you think they will be born? Will I get to go see them?” I passed the questions on to Michelle, urged Maya and Claire to e-mail Michelle directly and made repeated requests to Haley, Michelle and Maddie to keep Maya and Claire informed.
Victoria, soon to be fourteen, was inculcated into the Michelle/Maddie/Haley clique fairly late in the game. She was deemed eligible for inclusion because she is old enough to be independent of her parents and is ferociously charming. Needless to say, she knew about the foals being born before I did. After Haley’s mandate at the arena, I’d called Michelle who then did fess up to her list of expectations. She wanted to be “intentional”. There would be commitments involved and training requirements and age limits. The foals are Michelle’s show.
Victoria still rides with me and loves being with all the younger kids. She’s great friends with Maya and Claire, but doesn’t see either of them that often. Two Friday’s ago was the long anticipated performance of Shana’s drama club. I’d cancelled riding for the day to attend. Maya and Victoria came along with me to see the show. As we approached Shana’s school, all of a sudden Victoria sticks her head out the car window and yells, “CLAIRE!!!” and it was indeed her, walking along the side of the road with a group of Pinewood students, all on their way to see the drama club performance.
Claire and Maya and Victoria all sat at the back of the theater and mostly behaved themselves.
It was a short play, at the end of which, Shana and I joined them to talk about the performance and catch up. Shana’s grandmother and I were praising Shana’s performance, when Claire interrupted. “You didn’t tell me the foals were born!” I turned to face Maya and Claire. Despite their best efforts to hide it, they both looked like they’d been kicked in the stomach. Victoria said, remorsefully, “I didn’t know they didn’t know.”
The following week I had a chance to remind Haley that she’d promised to keep Claire informed and told her what happened. Haley felt bad and e-mailed Claire very soon thereafter. Though she was kind to do it and it made Claire feel better, it’s not Haley’s responsibility. It was Michelle’s.
I’m done with Michelle. It’s not possible to have anything in the way of a working relationship with someone who doesn’t care enough to, over the course of several months, make one, simple phone call, to say nothing of actually caring about whether or not kids get to have some ranch time maybe once or twice a year, foals or no. (For the record, the entire fee that I normally charge for “horse session” per child, were handed over to Michelle every time a group of kids visited the ranch along with several thousands of dollars of goods; saddles, medical supplies, ranch/riding supplies; paid for out of my pocket.)
I don’t think the kids can live and thrive without having occasional access to a ranch. I only wish I didn’t have to now chose between providing horse activity locally and serving on a ranch. In any case, when the ranch for kids moves from dream to reality, we will be raising foals; not too many, really only a few. I promised Claire.