“This gate pulls out and this gate pushes in. Don’t get them confused and, oops, they do stick a little bit” says Karen, owner of the barn where Dancer now lives, as we are entering the property. The wheel at the bottom of the gate is catching on a small branch, placed in front of it to keep it from opening by itself. She continues with, “Oh and mind the hot tape. When you hook it up again, don’t twist it.” There are two hot tape ropes to undo and do to enter the main paddock. Then four to close it off, three to secure Mark, a thirty-one year old Arab, into his paddock, then another three to secure Cookie, Karen’s Bakshur Curly, into her paddock, then another three to let Dancer out. There are two more hot tape ropes to be removed so that Cookie can have access to her stall and there is the hot tape rope across the manure bins and more hot tape to be negotiated in entering the barn and in retrieving the muck bucket from where Karen keeps it under the awning she has erected to protect her ancient horse trailer. While you are dodging, ducking under or fumbling with hot tapes, you need to pay attention not to trip over or move multiple segments of curved, plastic, drainage tubing, placed strategically to deter Mark and Cookie from getting overly interested in the hot tape, which they don’t always “respect.”
To get to the faucet for Dancer’s water, you have to go around the back of Dancer’s stall; tub is at front of stall; walk through a narrow break in hot tape, step over several rail road ties, traverse a field of uneven and unsecured stall mats with edges tipped up, ready to trip you, reach around, down and through a bush to the faucet which has a lever as well as a dial that must be turned/flipped in order to turn on the water. Turning the barn lights on is a similar experience with random, empty buckets added to the obstacle course. Half the time you have to do this, it’s dark and you can’t see a thing.
Kate likes it here. Even though she lost her key the day after I gave it to her, she miraculously manages to negotiate the complex hot tape arrangements, that are different depending on whether it’s morning, afternoon or night, the placement of the tubing and the water faucet and light switch obstacle course without any difficulty or distraction.
Mark, the aging Arab, rarely sees his owner and I’ve never seen her take him out. He was an eventing horse until his late teens. As far as we can tell, he still thinks he’s up for a jump course. There is no reason for this horse to be retired other than the fact that his owner is now to busy for him and there are all too few people who have the skills or understanding to commit.
Like most horses at Karen’s, Mark is covered in fly gear – face mask; leg covers. He’d been wearing same gear, unchanged for a month straight. With the latest rain, I figured he could use a break. But Mark wouldn’t let me near him. “Kate – you give it a try!” Sure enough, Mark stood stock still as Kate approached him and gently removed his gear.
Next day at Karen’s barn, I stopped by to find Kate in the big, front paddock with Mark doing ground work. “He seems so lonely.” Said Kate. It’s a common fantasy that horses cast aside and left on their own are happy. Horses are much less concerned about the care, or lack of, that they get, then they are whether or not they are loved and that they get to spend time with the people who they love. Leah, a horse girl from my days at Whispering Creek, would be gone from the barn for months at a time. Appalled by the lack of care for her horse, Bollinger, I would bend over backwards attending to his blanketing, hoof care, turn out, etc… Bollinger never could give a fig about me. When Leah showed up, however, he would have fits of ecstasy on being reunited with the woman who loved him. That’s what mattered most to him and it’s what matters most to all the horses I know.
It goes both ways. Kayla, Kate’s favorite riding buddy and frequent “partner in crime”, spent a long time grooming Cowgirl last night. Kayla said that everyone needs a pony or miniature horse to hang out with so that they can be happy. Kayla’s first equine love is Cowgirl so she’s prejudiced towards ponies. Even though she can’t ride CG much anymore, she hasn’t forgotten that CG needs her love.
Kayla has the day off from school today, which is why I have time to make a blog post; Kayla will be doing the lunch feed and muck at Campo. She had only one commitment. She had an appointment at school where she was supposed to discuss her development goals. When pressed for details, she talked about reading goals and social studies projects and math assignments. This kind of talk always makes my heart sink. Why doesn’t learning responsibility and honoring commitments to those you love count as a goal? What about the self discipline necessary to put the saddle on the saddle rack in the correct direction with the stirrups run up, the cover on – completely on, the pad upside down – to air out, the girth on top of that, the tack room light off, the door locked, the gates latched and shut, the ointment on the sweet itch, the fly boots on all four legs – correct direction up, the hooves picked, the water checked, the poop removed from the path, the bell boots on, the hock boots on, and on and on. How about the delayed gratification concept and self control needed to understand why when you release a horse into the paddock you send them ahead of you, ask them to turn and face the gate, then lower their head towards you and lean in while you untie the halter? The checker at the grocery store said to me last night, “There’s a lot to caring for a horse isn’t there? You have to pick hooves, right?” I laughed because that isn’t even the half of it.
Kayla, age eleven, can do all of this and more. But why doesn’t it count?
And it doesn’t count to parents either. I had to drive Kate out on Monday, a day she had off from school. I made a comment about how difficult it was for her mom to drive her out. She said, “But she has time to drive my sister to softball practice every day and to games that are far far away on weekends and require staying in a hotel.”
Dancer’s position right now is tenuous. He’s perfect for older girls, but too lively for the regular program. As long as Kate can half lease him, I can justify holding on to him, but that’s not for sure. Kate has to keep her grades up. When asked to clarify, Kate’s mom said, “she has to make sure she does her homework and stuff.” So it is very, very unclear if Kate will be allowed to continue to lease.
Savannah Yee loves Dancer. Her facebook page profile is a picture of the two of them. But she hasn’t been out for two months. Her parents are making sure she gets out to the mini-horse, Tex, a 4H project, every week. Why not Dancer? His future depends on whether or not she is able to show up for him. For most people, matters of the heart don’t even seem to be on the radar.
I remember vividly picking my first hoof. I was five years old. The horse was an older, dark colored mare named Spring. It was a cool, fall day. I remember the angle of the light; must have been afternoon; the smell of the ground and the feel of hoof, rough against my hand. The woman who was teaching me and I were under the shade of a scraggly oak tree at the high end of a huge, sloped paddock/pasture. There was a small, weathered, simple, wooden board bench where she sat and held the lead rope and coached me. I was to hold the hoof not the pastern, the pick needed to be held such that the heel of my palm would be used to press down for leverage and I wasn’t to touch the frog. The horse decided to rest it’s weight on me as I worked. I was small, but I’ve always been strong so it didn’t bother me. If I were a horse, I’d lean also. In fact, most of the girls would rather the horse lean then pull the hoof away. I’ve never forgotten a word that was told to me that day. I never had to be told twice how to pick up a hoof or how to pick it. Can’t tell you a thing about what happened in first grade.
It’s hard work picking hooves; ten times so for a five year-old. I worked harder for that horse when I was five than I did at anything else for another twenty years. Does learning how to work not matter? The area of the brain that connects to the hands is larger in proportion than any other function. Using your hands is essential for maintaining mental health and well being. And what about the heart? The hearts of humans and the hearts of horses? When I tell people that 170,000 horses in the US every year become “unwanted” and that 100,000 of those are sent to slaughter, people are aghast. But show up for the horse? It’s the same as how everyone is upset over climate change, but the F150 truck is the best selling auto.
If I do have to try and rehome Dancer, I won’t write about it. That will be too painful.