Funny Barn

“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.




Dashing Jackson

The orange rope halter was mine to begin with so it didn’t go with him. When Kate and Kayla came out to the barn for the first time after he left, they both cried when they saw it. Jackson was one too many horses to begin with.  Bought for a fifteen year-old sent to boarding school, he showed up in my life after the girl graduated and Jackson had been shipped home to Saratoga. Stabled at Garrods, his young owner, Emma, now eighteen, had lost interest.  Pam, my former trainer, who’d been hired to work with him once a week, showed up one day to find the stall filled with a week’s worth of manure, the removal of which was supposed to have been Emma’s responsibility.  Pam called me.  Could I use another horse?

14hh, fifteen years-old, gaited, stable on his feet, sweet tempered and slow as molasses, Jackson was perfect for taking kids out on trails.  KidsLoveHorses had been expanding slowly, but consistently. Even if that continued, taking Jackson on would be a stretch. Taking on Jackson was not a prudent move.  But, like Pam, I just can’t stand to see a good horse rot. I figured I might as well give it a go.

The original plan with Jackson was that Emma’s younger sister would take up riding.  Taking her out was like pulling teeth.  After a year, the mom finally stopped pushing.  Girls fell in love with him and then more in love with theater or with jumping.  He detested the arena and was slow on trail, which meant he wasn’t fun enough for the advanced riders. My 170lbs was a bit much for his older, arthritic body.  Relegated to carrying beginners, very young riders and those who tended to be fearful, he grew to resent his job and would, on occasion, out of confusion or frustration, unseat a rider.  It’s not fair to any horse to have them carry only novice riders.  Jackson tolerated his job, but, unlike the other horses, there was no upside for him.  As hard as it is to place almost any horse in a new home, Jackson was an exception.  He was one of those rare, genuinely safe on trail horses who could carry their rider in comfort for hours.  This is what every older, female rider I’ve ever talked to always wants.

I had a heart to heart with Emma’s mom. “Yes I know Emma loves him, but she’s not doing anything with him and she doesn’t look like she’s going to. I can’t give him a permanent home. The older he gets, the harder he’s going to be to place.”  At this point, KLH, never a financially viable operation, was bleeding money.  Jackson was fun to take to the beach. The kids could ride double on him.  We had six horses for PlayDay.  We always had as many horses as the kids wanted.  Theoretically, KLH should be able to support six horses. Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll hit a kid who loves horses and wants to ride.  There are some supportive parents, but it is surprising how many parents are not on board.  “I’d love to ride more, but my parents want me to play softball.” “We’re going to be traveling all summer and when the girls get back, they will both have tutoring every week. Are you sure it won’t work for them to ride once a month?” And my favorite, “She would only be able to ride three times this month.  We’re going to Japan for two weeks.  You know how expensive travel is.  Riding just isn’t in the budget.”  It wouldn’t have bothered me if that parent hadn’t also just bought herself a custom BMW.  This mentality is the norm, not the exception.

Emma’s mom agreed to find Jackson a new home.  But then, nothing. Month after month passed with no action.  I finally emailed Emma. “You know that April, May and June are the months to sell horses. If you haven’t found a home for him by end of June,” it was now first week of June, “you probably won’t find one until next spring.” Turns out they’d promised Jackson’s former owner they’d notify her if they ever decided to sell him, but they’d been unable to contact her.  She’d moved; to Kentucky; they thought.  There are about a dozen Carla Godsey’s on Facebook, but only one of them with a picture of herself riding a flaxen chestnut Rocky Mountain Horse – spitting image of Jackson. This Carla Godsey lives in Tennessee and yes, it was the right woman.

First week of July I got an ecstatic call from Emma’s mom, “She wants him back! She wants him back!”  Turns out, Carla had sold Jackson under duress. She had been working full time, was financially strapped and had become the primary care taker for her terminally ill mother. She had become unable to care for Jackson and decided finding him a new home was necessary. But she loved him so she cried for two days after he left.  Nine years later, her husband had retired, she was now working halftime and she had a three year-old, horse crazy grand daughter.  She felt it was like a long lost child would finally be coming home. Three weeks later, Jackson was on his way to Tennessee.

I hadn’t expected him to leave that quickly.  I thought it would take them year or more to place him. My pocket book is happy, but my heart, not so much.  Not Kate nor Kayla either.  Kate cried herself to sleep the night he left.

Serena walked past the paddock yesterday.  She said, “Where’s Jackson?” It’s been a month since he left, but she’d been out of town most of the summer and wasn’t up on current events.  The paddock has had four horses in it for six years.  I keep looking for the missing horse and remembering there are only three now.  I’m surprised how much I miss him.

Jackson is not the only loss this past month. Kids Love Horses has graduated it’s largest group of young riders ever:  Shani, Sierra, Savannah, Sara, Jackie and Rachel – fully one third of the KLH riders.  Some of them will be in and out on occasion, but it’s not the same.  Not only does the barn feel empty from Jackson’s absence, it is also now empty of the exuberance, intelligence, complexity and humor of the older girls. There is another set of young riders coming along.  Sophie turned eight today. She couldn’t imagine a better birthday present then being able to spend time with the horses. Arya, who turns eight in two weeks, has invited the entire “class” of KLH riders to a pool party for her birthday.  Her mom has agreed to let Arya skip soccer and ride twice a week instead.  There is promise, but it will take time, probably several years, before the fully inhabit the barn, infusing every corner of it with their presence as they fill themselves with joy in each others company and in the company of the horses.

There are many horses needing homes who would find happiness as a sixth horse with KLH. Lord knows Cowgirl could use a break. She has to work harder than she should at her age.  I keep hoping for adequate support and I think it’s out there, but I’m afraid it will take so long to build up that by the time it does, I will be ready to retire.  In the meantime, five horses it is.

Even with enthusiastic support, Jackson would not have stayed with KLH.  His happy ending is one I wish for every horse.  But he is missed, for sure.

riding double

Kids Love Kate

“If Sophie rides Chavali and Kayla rides Cowgirl, who is going to ride Velvet?” Kate is standing in the paddock at Quail holding CG for Jaya who is grooming CG.  Kayla, who has just arrived, overheard Kate’s comment. “I’m not going to ride Velvet because I don’t like being in the lead.”  Jaya doesn’t say anything because Jaya doesn’t say anything. Well, OK, sometimes she does say something, but not very often. I say,”Well one things for sure, we aren’t taking Dancer out.”  Kate says,”because he can’t be ridden.”  I said, “No, he can be ridden.”  Dancer got X-rays two days ago.  The coffin bones in his rear hooves are rotated backwards.   The farrier, who is scheduled to come tomorrow, is supposed to radically trim the toes, which will allow the coffin bone to sit at the correct angle.  Technically, today, he can still be ridden. Kate puts her hands on her hips and stamps.  “No! Dancer is not going to be ridden!  He needs to rest and get better!”  Clearly the matter was no longer up for discussion, not that we could have discussed more if we wanted to because at that moment Arya and Sophie showed up and with gleeful squeals threw themselves headlong at Kate.  Sophie cried, “Group hug! Group hug!”  Kayla and Jaya happily piled on.

The group hug proceeded to take several different forms, most of which included someone being on someone else’s back.  As I was standing in the driveway thinking, “Oh my.  How am I ever going to get them focused on riding?” It occurred to me that Arya’s mom was still there and “wouldn’t it be nice for you all to get a ride over the Campo rather than walk, although someone is going to have to stay with me and tack up CG.”  Kayla scrunched up her nose, pursed her lips and glared at me,which means,”How could you even consider someone other than me to ride CG?!” While Arya, Jaya and Sophie are glared at me and clung to Kate, which meant, “Don’t you dare separate us from Kate!”  And so it was.

By the time Kayla, Cowgirl and I arrived at Campo, Kate and the munchkins had Chavali, Velvet and Jackson out. Sophie was energetically grooming Chavali. Arya was holding a bridle in one hand and and tugging at Jackson’s cross tie with the other saying,”Lower your head!” I suggested this may not be the best approach.  She was in the mood to listen, followed my instructions and within minutes had successfully bridled the horse, no small feat for a seven year-old.

Jaya was standing by Velvet doing nothing. “Jaya are you OK?”  I had her walk over to me. She said, in a very quiet voice, that she was tired. “Well, then, you should like down.”  Kate got a horse blanket out. Kayla picked out the most padded saddle pad for a pillow and we had Jaya lie down.  “I’m tired too!” , said Sophie and she dramatically yawned and stretched.  “So am I!”, said Arya.  Both girls joined Jaya on the blanket, though Arya didn’t actually lie down. She squatted for a bit, then bounded around and over the other girls. Jaya wasn’t getting much rest, but she also didn’t actually seem that tired. I looked at Kate and said, “Does Jaya know?”

Jackson will be leaving.  It’s hard to find a good home for a horse.  Jackson’s owner didn’t seem to have the persistence or the motivation necessary and she’d been dragging her feet saying his former owner, the woman who bred him, had wanted to be informed should he be up for sale, but she’d been impossible to get a hold of.  Although the girls had been informed he was up for sale, I didn’t expect him to leave anytime soon.

On Monday I got a text from Emma, his owner.  “His old owner wants him back!”  Good news indeed, but sad news also.  I texted Emma that he was scheduled for horse camping in the end of July. It would create enormous problems for me if her were to leave before then.  I sent a couple more texts about how sad the girls were that he was up for sale and how much they loved him. I also called and left a message asking if we could discuss his departure out of consideration for the tender hearts that loved him. No response.

On Tuesday I got a text from Emma’s mother, Fiona. “What’s this about Jackson being in a summer camp? I’m making arrangements for Jackson’s transport (to Tennessee). His old owner is eager to have him back as soon as possible. I’m seeing if I can move him next week.”  When explained, Fiona understood about horse camping and agreed to let him stay through July.  It would have been better for the girls to have had him stay through the summer.

Unlike the other horses, Jackson never became anyone’s favorite horse.  Almost all the riders become passionate about one horse over the rest.  He also wasn’t fast enough and fun enough to be interesting to the skilled riders, leaving him primarily the tasking of schlepping beginners. No horse should have that fate indefinitely.  He was put up for sale at my suggestion.  Of course, now that leaving was on the horizon, the girls all began to pour attention and affection on him, the skilled ones taking him out for rides.  At the same time, Kate, who weighs in at 90lb, figured out that she could ride double on Jackson with a bareback pad with riders like Jaya, 40lb, and Arya, 34lb.  Jaya in particular benefitted from this arrangement.  Riding double with a skilled rider is the fastest way to learn how to ride. Jaya’s riding ability improved exponentially.  It was with a sinking heart that I watched, just weeks before, Jackson become Jaya’s most beloved horse.

Now we had to tell her.  But Kate, ever ready to save the day, said, “Remember the beach trip?” I had forgotten.  Kate has been an enormous help this summer.  Actually, more than enormous.  It’s not too far fetched to say that she is single handedly saving kids love horses.  Because of the less than ideal riding environment we have to work with, it’s very tricky and exhausting to work with a new rider under the age of ten.  I decided to focus on starting riders eleven and up.  Problem is, a kid who loves horses, but who’s parents wait until they are eleven or twelve to get them lessons is a kid who’s parents don’t support horses.  When the parents don’t support or value horses, it makes my life very difficult and has come near to putting an end to KLH.  Also, KLH depends on a group of well trained older riders who can aid and assist with the next generation.  I’ve “raised” four crops of riders – takes about three years per crop. The first three crops all helped out with the next group.  Several of them are still helping out.  This forth crop hasn’t been fully trained, because they started later, are too busy or aren’t inclined to help with younger riders. This break in continuity has created a rift in the continuum of horse education that is almost insurmountable.  Not only do I not have parental or older rider support, both of which have been abundant in previous sets, but, having realized that the best riders and parents come from the kids that start between the ages of six and eight, I’ve taken on the heaviest load of young riders ever. Kate has been doing half of the work with every single lesson this summer.  I felt she deserved more than just money.  She asked for a trip to the beach.  A trip to the beach with Jaya and Jackson.

“Fiona, would it be OK if Jackson stayed on just a couple more days?  I’ve promised a beach trip with him and the earliest it can be schedule would be August 2nd.”  Fiona thought that Jackson should be reunited with his old owner as soon as possible.  She said she was thinking of the woman’s feelings, but I suspect she wants the whole business done and over with.  I pleaded Jaya and Kate’s case.  I told her I needed to know what they plan to do as I pay board tomorrow and would have to give notice to the Jensen’s (owners of Campo barn).  The last I heard from Fiona was, “what day does Jackson come back from the horse camping?”

I’m not sure that Jackson leaving sunk in right away for Jaya. But by the time I’d finished going back and forth with Fiona, I’d figured out what was eating at Jaya:  Arya was getting a turn at riding double with Kate.  Jaya know’s she gets the lion’s share of time riding double and she knows she has to share.  Even still, the thought of not getting to ride with Kate was almost too much to bear.  Jaya loves Kate as much as she loves horses, which is pretty much as much as it is possible for Jaya to love anything.  Jaya talks to Kate.  She talks non-stop to Kate. She has a need to talk to Kate.

The final arrangement of riders was Jaya, who, despite her reticence and youth, can actually lead, on Velvet, Sophie on Chavali, Kayla on her beloved Cowgirl and Kate and Arya on Jackson.  Kate said, “Why don’t we just go to Clark’s Field and play around and ride back and forth in different combos.”  And that’s exactly what we did.

First Kate rode with Sophie and Kayla.  Then Jaya got a turn riding double with Kate.  Then I told them Jackson needed a break.  Kate and Kayla got on Velvet and Chavali and blasted across the whole field and back. Arya announced that she didn’t want to ride at all, but wanted to have a foot race in order to “get some energy out.”  Sophie did not enjoy the foot race at all and suggested they play games instead.  Arya suggested a contest. I didn’t think this was such a good idea. Sophie said, “I don’t want to play tag because that would involve running.” I said they could play hide and seek in the tall grass, except there might be snakes.  At this point, Kayla and Kate came charging back, with Chavali trying to overtake Velvet.  Kate said, “Can I take just Chavali across the field?  She seems to really want to run” and off she went.  I looked at Arya, Jaya and Sophie and said, “You know, there’s a perfect fort tree about half way across the field.”  They all turned on a dime and headed out, marching off like the three musketeers.  They got the bush tree confused with the fort tree and had turned back in disappointment at the same time Kate made it back with a sweating and well run Chavali.  Kate, still on Chavali, was quickly dispatched to escort them to the proper tree.  Kayla, on Cowgirl, and me, leading Jackson and Velvet, slowly followed.  The fort tree was a huge hit with all three youngin’s scrambling around in the branches with Kate coaching from the ground while Chavali grazed.  It was only then that I looked at my watch.  “Oh dear!  It’s time to go.”  If looks could kill, I would have been slayed three times.

The fun of riding with Kate is that she rides Jackson in the rear, holds him back at strategic spots, then canters to catch up.  The girls will hold their arms out to the sides like wings.  It was a brisk, fun ride back to the barns.

Jaya, Arya and Sophie, all of whom were about forty-five minutes short of bedtime, got picked up at Quail.  While I stayed with Jackson for a bit at Quail, Kate and Kayla rode Chavali and Velvet back to Campo.  When I joined them at Campo, Kate said, “Kayla and I had a race to see who could put all their tack away fastest!”  Whenever they are together, this is what they do and they enjoy it enormously. “Who won?”  “Me”, said Kate. Kayla is unusually deliberate in everything she does so this did not surprise me. “Can we feed the barn?”  Since the Jensens are out of town, the task of feeding fell to us this evening. Off they raced, down the hill with the wheel barrow full of hay, to return very shortly with Kayla in the wheel barrow, laughing hysterically, and Kate pushing.

As I was finishing the last details of clean up, Kate settled down on a stool to check her phone.  I said, “Kate, pick up is at Quail.  We aren’t staying here.”  “We aren’t?” By this time she was a little tired, but not that tired. Seconds later, her eyebrows popped up, she sat up straight and said, “That means Kayla and I can finally race!!!”  Kayla and Kate have been wanting to race from Campo to Quail for months. They’ve tried three times, only to be foiled by parental pick up plans each time.

They piled their phones, whips, chaps, water bottles and helmets into and on my bike and were off like a shot.  By the time I arrived at Quail, they were sitting on the floor of the tack shack chattering away.  Kate’s mom was already there.  Kate was not ready to leave.  I had to wait until Kayla’s mom showed up so Rebecca, Kate’s mom stayed to chat.  Kate and Kayla were now playing a game that involved throwing a water bottle back and forth at each other it and, from what I could tell, were enjoying it immensely.  Rebecca said, “I wish more parents would come and follow you and the girls around every now and then so they could see what goes on. They’d have so much more appreciation for what you do and how much good it does for the kids.”  I suspect she’s right. Though if Jaya, Sophie or Arya’s parents had tagged along, the girls would not have played. They don’t always play like that and they almost never play as much as they did today, though it was clear that all three had a crying need for it.  I do know for sure that Arya, Sophie and Jaya’s parents got tired, happy children tonight.

Of all the riders, it is Kayla who has been most deeply affected by the defection of the older girls. After tonight, Kayla’s faith was renewed.  She knows that as long as she’s with Kate, she will be OK.  Riding to Clark’s Field, Kate said, “Who’s going to ride Dancer in the Halloween Horse Show?”  I said, “you are.”  Kate is eager to do some showing and the Westwind Halloween show is one of only two that are available without extraordinary effort.  I thought she meant ride in the show, but she was referring to the costume class.  “I thought Meera was going to ride him as a bumble bee.”  Meera has THE best costuming ideas, but zip on follow through.  “No, Kate, you are riding him.”  Kate said, “You know how Rachel thought that Stoney should go as a royal horse and have his rider dress as a princess?”  I pretended to remember that. “Well, I’d like to ride Dancer in a knight’s costume.”  Whether she manages to come up with a knights costume for the Halloween show or not, we will see.  But she sure does seem to be riding to the rescue of KLH this summer.  I know it won’t last.  School will start and the younger riders and I will have to make our own fun for ourselves.  They should all be far enough along by that time for that to be possible, and although they won’t like it, it has to happen sometime and they all do eventually have to stand on their own.  But we ought to have another good month or so left and we will enjoy every minute of it.

Kate and Kayla, I expect, will be riding together for a very long time to come.

Queen of the Jumps

“Where are you?  Are you close to the arena?”  It was Shaliza, Arya’s mother calling. ” I got the time of the choir concert wrong and I need to pick Arya up now.” Arya was not going to like this.  Her pick up was already going to be half an hour earlier than usual.  Saturday morning is young rider morning, or munchkin morning, made possible by reliable assistance from Kate. She held Cowgirl’s lead rope while coaching Arya through picking hooves; she pushes the wheel barrow at Campo while Arya, Jaya and Sophie scoop the poop and then pushes the girls, giving each a turn, in the wheel barrow after dumping it; she keeps the girls running back and forth fetching tack.  Today she even insisted on coaching Sophie, who is seven, through putting on Velvet’s bridle.  Without Kate, I think these girls would never learn to ride.

We now have a bareback pad for Cowgirl.  Cowgirl hates the saddle.  The kids hate Cowgirl’s saddle.  The little kids can stay on Cowgirl at a walk with the bareback pad, which is sticky, and learn better riding position that way.  We left Stoney at Quail for Rachel and walked Cowgirl to Campo with Sophie riding and Kate leading. I followed with Dante and fell behind. By the time I got to Campo, they had Cowgirl tied and had grabbed muck forks, ready for the next task.  But before they headed into the paddock to clean, Kate turned to me and said,”Sophie cantered on CG!  She liked it and wants to canter again!”  As Sophie is not the most ambitious rider, I was astonished; even more astonished at the fact that Kate can clearly keep up on foot with Cowgirl’s canter going up hill.

I got the call from Shaliza while walking up La Paloma.  Rachel and Lainey kept riding up La Paloma in order to have a fun canter over the Via Arline pathway while Kate, who leading Sophie on Cowgirl, Jaya (on Velvet) and me, leading Arya on Dancer turned right to take the shorter, but much steeper, route up Westwind Way, at the top of which, we met Shaliza, coming to pick up Arya.  Arya’s loss was Sophie’s gain as Kate, now mounted on Dancer, was able to pony Sophie on CG and canter for several long stretches, Sophie riding Cowgirl like a pro, me with my heart in my throat. When we got to the arena Kate told me that Sophie wanted to show her mom how she cantered, but didn’t have it in me to tempt fate and told Sophie we were going to have to wait for another day.  When we got to the arena I also got a text from Shaliza. Arya had cried all the way home.

It was just as well that Arya and Sophie had to leave early because Jana rode over from Page Mill Pastures on Binki to school Rachel and Kate.  We put CG and Chavi in the round pen.  While Rachel and Kate got their lesson, Jaya rode around on Velvet and Lainey and I sat in lawn chairs.  We talked about PE and music and summer plans and Lainey ate half of my lunch.  Kayla also showed up around this time.  She was not so keen on watching and chatting and started to put Cowgirl through her paces.

Jaya got picked up at one. Kayla was eager to put out trot poles, but I asked her to wait a bit until the lesson was done. By one thirty, both Kate and Rachel had that blank look that comes with being unable to take in any more information. It was time for Jana to go anyways.  Kayla and I set up the trot poles for CG, which she cantered and jumped over. Kate got on Chavali bareback and started zipping around. Rachel flopped down in a chair next to Lainey, said she felt “totally zen”, then proceeded to eat the other half of my lunch.  Lainey, who had been alternating between sitting and talking, hugging the horses and flitting about, decided that the best place of all was Rachel’s lap.  About this time, Sammy, Kimmy and Lola showed up. I see them every year at the arena.  Their brothers play baseball. They gravitate to the horses like bees to honey, usually led by Sammy, who has vibrant, auburn hair. She walks towards them with her hand slightly outstretched, eyes full of longing.  She looks like she is being pulled forward by a magnet.  Kimmy was wearing a sequin horse T-shirt.  Sammy was wearing a spray paint horse T-shirt.  I ask them the same question I ask every year, “Have you started riding lessons yet?”  Sammy says, “No, but my mom says I can go horse back riding for my birthday.”  Lola says her mom says she has too many activities, like soccer and basketball and gymnastics.  I said, “but do you like soccer and basketball and gymnastics better than horses or do you like horses more?”  She likes horses more. The girls will be nine next month. I have yet to meet the parents.

Kate started having problems with Chavali.  I told her that even riding bareback, when she was trotting she needed to keep her hands still relative to the horse rather than letter them bounce around.  Chavali feels a constant tapping on the bridle when she does that.  Kate looked at me like she’d die if she had to do that. I said, “Kate, you’re tired.”  She said, “No I’m not!”  I said, “Here, why don’t you get off the horse and eat this last chicken leg.” She said OK.  Next thing you know, it was Kate who was sitting in Rachel’s lap, which some how ended up with Rachel and Kate on the ground, Rachel supporting Kate, who then took a short nap.  Lainey spent that time lolling about on Chavali. Kayla, not having had a lesson with Jana, still had tons of energy  and was zipping around the arena on Velvet.

Eventually Kate revived enough to take up her next task: schooling Dancer. After drilling him in pushing off out of his hind end, she set up a wide, low jump.  While Kate took Dancer over the wide jump, Kayla worked CG over a smaller jump.  Rachel stood in the middle of the two jumps, supported by one of the jump blocks, driving whip in hand, making sure that Dancer kept to his side and CG to hers.  She said, “I feel like one of those switching things for trains.” Then added. “I’m the queen of the jumps!”  Indeed.

It was the usually prying of teeth to get them going in the arena, followed by the usual prying of teeth to get them to leave the arena, with me frantically texting all the parents saying we will be fifteen minutes later than expected, which was already half an hour to an hour later than I thought we’d go in the first place.

Because of Dante’s injured hip, I rode with the girls, on Velvet, behind Kayla, riding CG with the bareback pad.  After three falls, and with CG not having the easiest gait to ride, Kayla has been erring on the side of caution with speed. But today, off the went at a canter, with nary a word from Kayla. And so it continued all the way to and through Clark’s field. In the course of riding, the girls always get to a point where, almost by magic, they can stay on the horses no matter what.  Today, with Kayla, we have started to turn that corner.


Riding home, Rachel told me that her parents asked her what she felt was her next step with horses.  This was a puzzlement to me.  Her parents are reasonably supportive, but they are also the ones who consider horses a “luxury”, an expendable activity.  Nor are they willing to drive her even as far as Woodside.  Rachel’s “next step” will involve being in high school.  It is too soon to know how much time she will have for horses and even if she did have the time, what her parents don’t know is that any serious next step involves driving to Santa Rose or Elk Grove or Paso Robles.  Whatever happens, I will see to it she keeps getting to ride Stoney.  She’ll have a good, long summer of riding as much as she wants, but it’s clear her reign as queen will be coming to an end.  Kayla, however, is ready and waiting to take her place.










Happy Spring!

Three pads and one girth, I think, have tumbled out of the car and on to the pavement.  There is a second girth, but I don’t know if it is on the ground or in the car.  The girths are black and it’s dark. I’ve brought everything home to be washed, but it was late and I was having a hard time keeping everything together. Kate got a braiding book for her birthday.  She and Sara barely got started in on the braiding last Saturday before they had to leave. I promised Kate she’d have time the next Saturday.  Most of the time, the girls will braid half a mane and then go on to something else or the braids become fatter and fatter and are almost certainly not rolled up.  Or the braid, usually in the tail, starts out perfect, then moves sideways and stops before the dock as the braider maybe decides they’d rather not take any more time out of their riding.  Not Kate’s braids.  Her braiding book gives instructions on how to lace a needle and thread through the braid to pull it up and tie it into a proper little bun.  Sure enough, there’s Kate, needle in hand, eyes focused on her work like a cat on a mouse while controlling her hands and the braid with so much care and precision that Chavali hardly even notices the art being created out of her mane.

“You ready to go yet?” I was about five minutes early picking up Kate.  She answered the door in her tie dye stockings.  Bouncing on her toes, she says, “Can I grab my jacket?” It’s 9:15 and we need to be the barn by 9:30 to meet Sophie, Jaya and Arya, ages seven, eight and seven.  Arya has just recently asked to be able to ride on Saturday again because she misses her friends.  Not only is Kate’s assistance invaluable, Sophie is particularly attached to her and would probably sit like a lump and glare at me should Kate not show up.

Sophie is the first to show up.  She and Kate immediately set to work grooming Stoney.  Arya bounds up moments later.  She has a birthday party to go to later in the day, which, fortunately, doesn’t conflict with riding, but if it had, she informed her mother that she’d chose to ride rather than go to the party.  Stoney is in the middle of his month long spring shed.  A carpet of white hair now covered the ground.

Arya’s mother told me she seems to be allergic to something at the barn.  Seeing as one in five people are allergic to the hay, when we got to Campo, I told the girls they would no longer get to play on the hay bales.  Sophie said, “that’s OK! We can run up and down that hill!”  Mostly they walked up the hill (the short driveway down to the barn) and ran down it while Kate and I sat and looked on in awe at their energy.  Kate said, “The next generation of gallops girls for sure.”

Very soon it was Arya and Sophie being the baby horses and Jaya being the owner, then the Sophie horse got stuck on a stump (the mounting block), though what stuck her there was Arya sitting on top of her, then the Arya horse had to be tied up in the cross ties – lead ropes clipped on to her collar, and so on.  Unfortunately for the play, Sophie had a noon pick up time and if we didn’t get started with the tacking and grooming, we wouldn’t make it.  I told them to start grooming Chavali, but only two of them and the third one should groom Jackson.  This they did not like and ignored, Sophie and Arya on one side, silliness on full blast, and Jaya on the other.  Not quite ready to put the damper on their high spirits by insisting they focus on their work, I let them be and set to work picking Dancer’s hooves, but only for a moment.  Gallop Girls part 2, had been having just a little too much fun and failed to notice Chavali sticking her nose towards Stoney and nickering, which, as most experienced horse girls know, is usually followed by some flirtatious waving of her hooves.  It was Jaya who got kicked; in the thigh.  Being Chavali, she didn’t even end up with a bruise.  The now sober girls were most cooperative with everything else that was needed to get done.

Cowgirl is still recovering from he hoof wound, she’s not sound enough to be ridden, but sound enough that she can and must get out.  She was with us at Campo.  Kate rode Dancer and ponied Chavali who was being ridden by Arya.  Jaya, the most competent of the younger riders, rode Jackson, while I led Stoney, who was ridden by Sophie, and also led CG and Dante.  Cowgirl got loose and got a head of me as we left the Jensen’s.  Then she headed off to Gardner Bullis school when the girls turned left to head to Orchard Hill.   When I got CG back, Dante got away, then Stoney lurched off for some grass, and so it went until we were half way up La Paloma and met Shana on Velvet coming the other direction, returning from her ride.  At this point, Dante was cowering in fear from Stoney who was baring his teeth at him and CG’s lead rope was just about to get stuck under the fender of my bike.  Shana very graciously agreed to take CG back to Campo with her where she would spend the rest of the day hanging out with Velvet, much to everyone’s relief, especially mine.

Sara and Rachel joined us at the arena about the same time Jaya, Sohpie and Arya all left.  Rachel will come out to the horses for any occasion, but Saturday was a special occasion for Sara and Kate.  Jana was coming at two.  “Would any of your girls be interested in a show?”  “Did you know there’s a good schooling show at Garrod’s  next month? Are you taking anyone?” “I’ve got some extra hunt coats for horse shows.  Are your girls going to be needing them?”  For years Jana has been pestering me with these questions.  When she heard that Kate and Sara were interested in showing, she was more than delighted to volunteer her Saturday afternoon to coach them for a couple hours.  Within fifteen minutes they were practicing trot to canter transitions and quarter circles and four square halts and they kept at it for an hour and a half.

Kayla also usually rides on Saturdays.  She had a birthday party earlier in the day and couldn’t show up until 3:30 and thanks heavens she could because Rachel had to leave, making us one rider short from being able to ride home through Clark’s Field. Kayla apologized for her wet hair; from swimming; as I snapped the chin strap closed on her helmet.  Thinking she’d be tired, I asked her if she was OK not getting picked up until 5.  She put her hands on her hips, wrinkled up her nose and gave me an incredulous, “Are you kidding me?!” look.  I said, “So I should tell your grandma to pick you up at six?”  She nodded a vigorous assent, got on Jackson and trotted off to join the rest of the riders.

Kayla, Sara, Kate and I left Rachel putting away jump poles and blocks, me leading Jackson and them riding, and headed off to Clark’s Field around 4.  We had to make it a straight shot through the field as we were running a bit late.  Sara had slept in till 11, but she was still tired and we had arranged for her to be picked up at 5.

By the time we got back to the barns, Kate’s legs were so sore she could barely stand.  She’d been going without a break for eight hours by that time. She collapsed in a heap as Kayla and I got the to horses “lunches” ready and put away tack and mucked.  But she roused herself in a short time and started in on what she’d been wanting to do all day: Braiding.  She braided while be fed.  She braided while we mucked.  She braided while I sprayed weeds with horticultural vinegar.  She braided while I took Kayla over to Quail to get picked up and also to feed Stoney and CG.  She was still braiding at 7pm, when I returned to Campo.  And she was only two thirds done.  Now it was my turn to barely be able to stand.  As I swayed a little, trying to remain upright, I pleaded with her to go.  I didn’t have to pry her fingers off Chavali’s mane, but almost.  There’s about a quarter of the mane left unbraided.  With any luck, Kate won’t have much homework tomorrow and she will be able to finish up after we are done with our ride.  That or she’s going to braid while she rides.  If I know her, not finishing will not be an option.

The Square Nail

“Deb! Cowgirl is limping! I mean really badly!”  Rachel, who rides Stoney, had ridden ahead to Quail, while I finished up at Campo.  My first thought was that CG was feeling so good after her chiropractic adjustment that she’d over done it and had injured her stifle or fetlock joint.  Rachel, implacable in almost every situation, comes to pieces when horses are injured and often exaggerates the severity. But CG was limping really badly; barely putting pressure even on the tip of the toe.  I didn’t even have to lift her hoof to see the floating 1/2″ square, metal plate, held in place by an exceptionally sharp, square sided nail, stuck firmly into the tip of her frog.

“Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Is she going to be OK?!!! I mean, ack! You hold this!”  Rachel shoves CG’s lead rope into my hand.  Then, voice quavering, says, “Is that blood?!”  A veterinarian she is not.

The nail had not penetrated very far, only 1/8″ or maybe 3/16th.  There was a few drops of blood, but that wasn’t what Rachel was referring to.  I had immediately splashed iodine on the sole of the hoof, leaving blood stain looking puddles on the stall mat.  What I didn’t do was soak the hoof in epsom salt and poultice it with Icthymol.  I now know that’s what you should do, but I had promised Rachel and Lainey a ride home.  Both girls had homework looming.  Riding already makes getting the homework done a bit of a squeeze and neither of them had welcomed the delay.

The next day, Cowgirl was one very lame pony.  The first words out of Kristin’s mouth were, “I hate puncture wounds. They are the worst!” Not an encouraging statement from a veterinarian.  The hoof is not made to be punctured.  When it is punctured, it doesn’t really know how to heal.  If infection sets in, it fairly often doesn’t respond to antibiotics.  Extreme surgical methods can be used, but not on a 27 year old pony.  Cowgirl got immune booster, injected bananime and powerful antibiotics.

Six days of poultice and soaks later, she was right as rain.  She went out for the Clark’s field loop on Thursday.  I watched her carefully on Friday.  I couldn’t tell if she was or if she wasn’t favoring the punctured hoof.  I asked Jan, my landlady at Quail.  She didn’t think so.

The Saturday morning horse girl mob scene got off to a rip roaring start and it was back to business as usual, heading to the arena with plans to work Cowgirl in the harness in preparation to start in with the cart.

Saturday’s are now divided into two parts with mornings dedicated to “the youngins” and afternoons to the older crew.  The two overlap, which creates a bit of tension as the older girls chafe at the restrictions necessitated by the presence of inexperienced riders and the young ones try to hang on for every minute they can squeeze out of me, resenting the fact that they have to go and the older girls get to stay.  Thinking I’d give the older girls a chance to ride undisturbed in the arena, the three young riders and I set to giving Jackson a bath.  With my attention firmly fixed on keeping track of three, small, quick moving bodies and one marginally co-operative horse, I didn’t notice when Cowgirl started limping, nor did anyone else.  With her string halt, it’s hard to tell if she is actually lame.  But limp she did.  I was scheduled to board a plane to San Diego late that afternoon and only managed to wrap her hoof and ask Rachel to dose her with more banamine before I rushed off.  The last thing I did before I left was take a look at her jugular vein. It was pounding.

I returned from San Diego 10pm Sunday and drove straight to the barn.  Cowgirl was still limping; more banamine and a call to the vet the next morning.  Kristin said, “Puncture wounds can do that.  You think they are done, then whaboom, they erupt.”  She asked if I could feed a digital pulse.  I thought I felt a pounding pulse in the pastern, a sure sign of infection.  It must have been my own pulse pounding in my fingers because  Kristin didn’t find a pounding pulse. She injected her with more immune booster and antibiotic and told us to soak and poultice, which we did.  Not knowing if it was better to leave the bandage off or on, on Tuesday I left it off to see what would happen. I showed up Wednesday to find a pony who could hardly walk.   Something had gotten much worse. Savannah had met me at Quail and knew something was very wrong.  She walked Stoney over to Campo to join Jackie and Sara, who had already shown up and I drove.  I called the vet and got permission to max out her banamine doses, did my best to put on a brave face and told the girls I wanted to muck the paddock at Campo, although Savannah wasn’t fooled.  She probably guessed I didn’t want them to see me cry.

When the injury first occurred, I warned the parents that there was a small possibility that Cowgirl might not survive this.  Kayla insisted on coming to see Cowgirl and she cried and cried.  So did Allison and Kate.  Arya had her mom text sad face icons with tears to me.  None of them knew that the injury had returned.

Rachel is a hugger.  So is Savannah.  So is Sara. Getting hugged is part of my job.  I’m guessing Savannah told Sara about Cowgirl.  As I maneuvered the wheel barrow back out of the paddock and through the gate, Sara was there, a look of concern on her face, her arms outstretched.  I cried and cried.  Savannah joined the hug and I cried more.

With just Savannah, Jackie and Sara riding, none of them needing much in the way of supervision, I was able to follow at a distance on my bike and cry even more.  By the time we had returned to the barns for the evening, I had managed to regain some semblance of composure.  Jan met us as we returned with Stoney to Quail.  She rested her arms on the rail that borders the aisle and talked to us as we untacked and fed.  “Have you ever had a puncture wound?  You know how painful it is?  You know how it can just hurt for weeks and weeks?”  I didn’t, actually.  “What I’m thinking is we need to put some kind of stiff pad under her foot.  Some cardboard, or plastic.  When I injured my foot, I had to have it in a boot for weeks.  I couldn’t walk otherwise.  I think that’s what Cowgirl needs.”  It was certainly worth a try.

Twenty five years ago, I taught art classes.  With the exception of pens and paint, all the materials were salvaged; mountains of it.  With every spring cleaning, piles of supplies have been passed on to grateful parents and preschools, with only one, large square of cork board remaining, a piece of material that never found it’s purpose until yesterday morning when Jan and I sat down on the stall mats and fashioned a plate to affix to the sole of her injured hoof.  “Why don’t you make a cut out where her frog goes? That should make a nice, raised platform.  Here, if you place the template like this, you’ll use your material more efficiently.”  Jan has a masters in mechanical engineering.  She also worked as a vet tech during high school.  She said, “They didn’t use to have ready made splints or boots.  We had to figure out how to manufacture what we needed to help the animal heal properly.  Never had any experience with horses, but seems to me it’s kind of the same problem.”  I fitted the plaque neatly to Cowgirl’s hoof using duct tape.   Jan took the lead rope and said, “why don’t we try this out?”  She lead Cowgirl out on to the driveway.  Sure enough, the pony was walking.

Then next stop was to pick up more banamine from the vet.  On hearing of our success, Kristin said, “That makes sense.  If the puncture had been something round, like a screw or an ordinary nail, you wouldn’t be having this problem.  You know how when you get a crack in a windshield and they fix it by drilling a round hole?  That’s because the pressure from sharp corners focusses the stress and it spreads outwards.  That explains why they heat sensor picked up injury towards the outer edges of the hoof, not near the site of the puncture.”  The nail was imbedded in the hoof for some time before we found it, no doubt being jerked back and forth as Cowgirl limped about.  Probably the only square nail in all of Los Altos Hills and it ends up in her hoof.

Today I found out about a type of boot with an orthotic gel insert made specifically for horses recovering from laminitis or puncture wounds.  It will be a week before we get it, so cork board and cardboard will have to do until then. Cowgirl is not out of the woods, but she’s not near the grave either and I am hopeful. In our culture, we are fed a daily dose of the idolization of individualism and self absorption and egotism.  But in real life, it’s team work that gets the win.



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