Since the age of twelve, I’ve wanted to have a horse of my own. I cannot say why or how the fascination started but the ambition is one step closer to reality. Pino, I am leasing Pino for the winter from my riding instructor. He is an eleven year old Andalusia gelding living quietly in a paddock with his long time pal Bastian. So far, he’s had light duty being ridden only a half-hour on Saturday’s by a lovely teenager. His skills as a riding horse have advanced slowly these three years. However, his days are now becoming more involved.
I’ve volunteered at a horse rescue for going on eight months. I made a nice living as a small barn manager thirty years ago and was willing to give it a go with horses once more. There I was on Sundays, back in a barn giving myself one sore back for a few weeks. Curious but lacking confidence, I stated taking riding lessons and have been getting back into the swing of things since June. I attended several workshops on horse handling and training. I even went up one level in Reiki to be able to give support to the horses. However, I also kept bumping into a barn manager whose frequent comment was; we don’t do that here. A dead-end was reached.
It was my instructor’s suggestion that I attend the Tristan Tucker workshop at Ashby Farms in October that helped me see what it was I wanted to do. My on going fascination with horse communication will now be quite satisfied. TRT method is a training that starts with specific ground work and continues in the saddle. My riding instructor is one of his students, and now, I am one of hers in this program. On Wednesday evenings, I blast out of the city and speed out to the barn for the 5:30 p.m. training hour. I’ve had to be clever and find every short cut along the way to be on time. We’ve had to fetch Pino out of the muddy paddock as it’s been suddenly wet this fall after months of dry. It was quite something to be in the covered ring last week with the rain pounding on the roof. Nevertheless, there we were five women and their horses learning to move together. TRT involves a lot of circular motion as a ground work for connecting the horses hind legs to his front legs. We teach the horse how to be relaxed and confident in their body. To trust their own ability to be safe in otherwise challenging circumstances. The horse is given clear direction and clear confirmation when they make the right move. However, it is a dizzying business at first and I wonder if Pino feels the vertigo as much as I do when we pause.
So today, the lease started and I had a glorious afternoon with Pino. It was so nice and warm midday without any wind. He took a lie down and enjoyed a sunbathe as I tidied his paddock. He is a chunky horse, very compact in shape with a large Roman nose. I think it is better called baroque, sounds a bit classier. We are getting used to each other now. I learned today if the hands are light, he is too. I remembered Tucker’s frequent comment of release of pressure is the reward. When I realized the hands were tense on the reins, I lightened up by just relaxing the grip. Didn’t Pino respond instantly. He tends to weave and lean his shoulder out on circles. He’s out of balance when he gets moving at a quicker pace. He doesn’t know it’s okay to stretch his body with a rider on his back. His back is tense and he’s unsure what to do. Today’s goal was simply move forward on a steady, round light circle. We only trotted and worked on transitions. He does understand the aid for halt going right. He wasn’t so clear on the same aid going left. He is sensitive and when I let go sitting deeply in the saddle, he naturally moves well into a nice downward transition. I can see the more we work on the TRT ground training, Pino and I will both move with clearer understanding toward confidence together. At least that is the goal I can tell he wants to know what I want, and I am not so clear at this moment. But, he is curious, part of something more now. We shall see how things work out over the long winter ahead. What a good afternoon to be with Pino.
Sometime in January, the thought came that this is the year of the garden. On any day, there is no more tranquil place than the backyard. The view out the kitchen is into a deep emerald glade. A trio of maple trees planted on the left side create a natural boundary cooling the space and giving a home to wildlife. After six years of care with natural enrichers, many herbs and grasses have emerged giving variety to the landscape. The russian olive tree sprawls in the sunny corner. The Rose of Sharon are mature enough to bloom. Low bush blueberries loved their winter mulch of pine needles but stalled at the lack of rains. The concord grape-vine way in the back has grown wild cascading up and over everything. A statue of St. Francis gazes out feeling the touch of chickadees at the feeder. There is everything to do back there or nothing at all.
It was a small advertisement for an equine rescue that caught my eye. In town? There is a rescue right here? Up until my late twenties, I made a comfortable living working with horses. Occasionally, an opportunity to be around horses came by but nothing quite worked out. A full-time job, continuing education, a house and ordinary life did not allow for horses. I thought those days are over. The text came that yes, a volunteer is sought for Sundays. Only a few weeks before, I had finally decided to join a local congregation and signed on as a member after sporadic involvement for ten years. The expectation is attendance routinely at Sunday services and participation as a member in some committee. It bothered me a bit, but this could be the last chance in this lifetime to be with horses again. The stable is only a ten-minute drive from home. Finally, something I cherish, something that was put aside is renewed. If there is anything in this lifetime I truly worship, it is horses.
After six months of steady volunteering, the skills, strength and stamina to be a caretaker have returned. Horses are large animals with minds of their own. As much as I felt tingles of excitement at the opportunity to be in their presence again, I had concerns about mistakes, accidents or something happening that would take this away from me. I expanded to Wednesday late afternoons at the barn too and started taking riding lessons. The month of June was a trial by discomfort as overexertion caused a lumbar strain that made life difficult. I had trouble putting on my own socks in the morning never mind hauling water buckets. It hurt but I remembered it does take time to get back in condition. The weather turned mild and swimming at the town beach along with physical therapy eventually eased the pain. When it comes to horses, I am no quitter. I kept going every Sunday to do chores.
There really is something magical about horses. The best moment at the stable is turning Geo and the larger horses out in the large field. The gentle hillside crests away from the field gate, so often we cannot quite see them anymore but we hear the thunder of hooves as they fly over the fields. Often they swing back and canter up the crest tossing manes and tails in complete freedom. Wow! Even our shy Whisper gives a swish and flash in the herd, Laissez Aller! Let’s all go!
Above the joy of horses, the lingering thought that if not for the rescue all would be dead tempers reality. An equine rescue can be the last chance for ponies, donkeys and horses. For many reasons, horses can end up for sale in an auction house. There are several throughout the United States where the buyer is only interested in pounds on the hoof. Clearly, this animal is on the way to Canada or Mexico to be slaughtered. Horse meat is sold in Canada and Europe for human consumption. There is a network of equine advocates who collaborate through the internet to “save” horses. Several of the horses in the barn were purchased from these auctions and transported to the rescue. Some of them were surrendered by the owners, mostly because of financial costs. Horses need space and a lot of food to keep going. Horses take a commitment of time and resources by people. Sometimes, things do not turn out as planned in life.
The ponies, donkey and horses have different health concerns. A few are simply retired but most struggle in some way. Mamma cannot forget her disappointment and is terribly shy of people. Greta has a pulled tendon that is slow to heal. She is a classic Morgan and the queen of the herd. Several have been adopted to new homes and take with them a new chance to belong somewhere. The donkey is recovering from white line hoof disease and shows so much character. Even he breaks into a frisky canter when the herd moves around the fields. What a delight to hear him hee-haw at the gate. How much he makes sure we never forget him. How fierce he can be when protecting his friends. How much fun he is to groom and pamper.
Riding Over 50
My age is somewhere beyond 50 now. When I was a teenager, the majority of people involved with horses were women. This has not changed. The volunteers are mostly older women. The median age might well be 55. The stories are similar, they saw a chance to work with horses based on memories of riding or owing horses when young and decided to get involved. My eyes have been opened to limitations based on beliefs that middle age meant being less able physically to do things. Every volunteer does what she can despite physical or time limitations.
Once I got into the routine of going to the barn, the itch came to get on a horse again. After searching for a place to take lessons, I discovered White Spruce Farms in the next town and about an eight-minute drive from the stable. Susan has an active boarding/lesson barn dedicated to dressage and catering to adults. It has taken a while to say that the old skill of riding is returning. The lumbar strain caused a delay in lessons while I healed muscles. Despite years of hatha yoga practice, a regular stretching program and being a great walker and swimmer, I was not fit to ride anymore. It takes a lot of different muscles and flexibility to go with the horses’ movement. A rider needs to have a lot of spring and give in the joints, mine are half worn out. The physical therapy exercises given to ease the back pain also helped in building abdominal muscles vital to a pleasant ride.
Despite a hot relentlessly dry summer, time constraints, and limits on resources, I manage to keep going. My goal is to get back in the swing of riding and have fun. When I was riding as part of my workday, I had competent equestrian skills. Of course, I had daydreams of becoming an Olympian and riding Grand Prix dressage tests someday. Realistically, it’s all about feeling the lovely movement of a horse once again. I love grooming, tacking up and going out for a ride. When it’s over it’s over too soon and I want to go again.
I get tired. I find bruises on me at the end of the day. I get big lumpy bug bites often. Yet, I cannot say no more. It wasn’t a hobby early in life and it’s not know. Horses get to something in my spirit. I liked working with horses as it meant being outdoors. Much of the work is in a barn and while they are a shelter from the elements, you work no matter the weather conditions. The chores take all morning to do. There is less an interest in time around horses; things get done. There are also a lot fewer people.
The Garden Waits
The garden doesn’t care if I am there or not. It is a haven at the end of the day. The cool green is healing and welcoming. Summer evenings are spent tending here and there. It has struggled through a long dry spell and waits for quenching rains. I did plant a tomato vine, grew basil and tend the strawberry patch. The winter took my grandiflora hydrangea unfortunately. The tall shrub suffered from several wicked winters. It was gradually diminishing in growth and turning spindly. This spring, it did not leaf out at all. I had to take it down and it has left a whole in the side yard. The winter birds will be confused. This is where the feeders and suet cakes are hung. I am undecided about putting in a new shrub or letting things be as they are.
I never thought in my life I would be back surrounded by horses. I hear myself say this at times to others as if still amazed at what’s happening. I am where I am and going with whatever comes. I didn’t buy my house until I was 50. I learned to manage all that comes with one and be happy about it. We’ve stood up through snow storms, heat waves, tranquil mornings and bright beaming moonlight. I didn’t travel to Europe until last year and had the time of my life in Sicily. Once I get myself sorted out and past a fear of the unknown, I do just fine. Dare I even consider adopting one of the horses for myself. I am saving up to return to Italy next year. I wanted to travel down to NYC and see an opera at the Met. The shed needs repairs. I haven’t taken a day off to sit by the sea-side all year. All to do. Some kind of karma is being worked out, maybe I need to get out the way and let things simply happen.
The early evening July air is heavy and hot. The fields and paddocks are empty of horses. Approaching the barn, Greta gave a welcoming nicker. She is the lead mare of the herd and her bright brown eyes said hello. Wednesday’s at the rescue tend to be solitary evenings. The dogs are inside. The horses are finishing supper. The hour is set aside for making a fuss over Geo. He gets Reiki with grooming, or as Vicky says, “all slicked up.” On the outside, he has a regal manner and graceful movement. Inside, he is still a playful little colt. He likes to paddle his hoof in the water trough leaving a sand pile in the bottom. He loves to toss his head and tease with his barn mate Rusty. If his stall door latch is not secured, out he will go trotting free in the barn and laughing as he dashes out the door. At nineteen, there is plenty of love and life in him.
Tonight, Winnie is at her new home and the stall is empty. Her companion Bandit, a chestnut pony with flaxen mane is all eyes looking for her. This little elf will join her soon. They came to the rescue in late March. Sunday barn volunteers, Liz and Lee started around the same time. I can still see the two horses that first week, laying in a big sunbeam in the blue round pen soaking in the warmth of the day. They were brought out of a difficult place and now rest in comfort. Lee has taken in Winnie and Liz has Shaker, an adoptee from the MSPCA at Nevins Farms in Methuen Mass. How all their lives have changed now!
Since early March, five horses have found new homes. Sunday is dedicated to volunteering at the barn. Thirty years ago, I made a neat living working on a private farm in New Jersey caretaking five horses for Miss Jane. I had a big bay Trakehner/Quarter Horse I called Ivanhoe. He taught me how accepting horses are of humans. They consent to domestication. We have formed a bond of mutual interaction over the centuries. Horses know they are remarkable creatures. They take care of the rider and keep us safe.
But wait, where is Zingra? She is gone to be a companion horse at a farm nearby. She may be adopted or return to the rescue. How Zingra beamed with quiet joy last Sunday when groomed by Bill and Marley. She will be missed this week. Doc, the big bay Quarter Horse gelding, is calling for his Zingra, they have been the best of friends. When it is time to come in for the night, he is the horse that is brought in first. What a spectacle to see him charging up to the gate. How impressive he is with his neck crested and powerful as his legs dance in a soft passage. This horse is 25 years old? It takes years to cultivate that kind of free movement under saddle. Here he is, collected from head to tail saying, I GO FIRST, I GO FIRST to the other horses.
So much happens in a day. The small things that make horses a force irresistible. I thought these days were behind me. Can I be strong again? Greta leads the herd with soft confidence, it is her confidence I must gain to be accepted. After five months of showing my worth, I took a step forward tonight.