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.

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