vendredi 11 octobre 2013

Pas de tout ou pas de deux?

Still our first day, September 3, 2012

Yesterday was one of those days when you wonder what you've done, and whether your horse will miss you when you find him a farm in the green pastures of the farthest, rainiest part of Normandy for the rest of his life without you, and how you could have thought you had a relationship at all, let alone a close one of particular understanding and intimacy.

I stepped from the car and into the wind under a sky the color of what's left of the braise from your barbecue after the chicken is burnt black beyond recognition, the lightest gray. The sort of sky that promises nothing but more of the same, and sends wetness that isn't rain and isn't mist to cover everything. I grabbed the halter and lead, and stuffed a bag of carrots and apples into a backpack with a towel and some antibacterial soap, just in case the fly bites were still runny, and opened the lock to the gate.

The path the owner had cut in the hay field leads along the edge of the field, where it borders the village water facility, probably once part of this property, shown a brighter green against the taller grass across which their new fence runs across the field Fibs now shares with Noble, Prune, in foal, and Ida, a palomino pony who takes refuge in Fibs, and possibly he in she. He is not a dominating sort. He prefers quiet, although he also seems attached to Unabelle, their young mare, and is capable of sending a message of annoyance with a rear foot. Usually Noble or Prune raises their head first, but yesterday it was Fibs. He watched me approach for a moment, and then lowered his nose to the grass again.

I opened the electric gate, closed it and crossed to where he stood, now on the far side, near Unabelle and the old pony, a mare, and the châtelaine des prés. He flattened his ears and pulled his head back. I thought I detected a curl of the lip.

"Fibs, mais, qu'est-ce que c'est ça?" What's this about? 

I reached a hand out, and touched the crusty spots on his flank, where fly bites had festered and were healing over and noticed that his coat was standing straight up. He was keeping warm. The wind blew around us. I raised the halter toward his head, and he pinned his ears, rolled his eyes around to fix me, and turned on his heel, lifting both front legs from the ground. He was one nerve away from kicking me. I moved around behind him when he turned away and appeared on the other side, back and forth. If nothing, I'd annoy him. Eventually, I'd win. Back and forth, we moved in little three-quarter circles, and his ears told me, "No."

My heart sunk. We were supposed to have ridden, but it was late. Later than I intended to be up there. The grass at home had already grown high again, and up past my ankles in the bottom garden, and it was wet every day, with rain constantly in sight. If I didn't mow it then, it might never be possible again until spring. I was cold and retreated across the field to the new shelter, turned to face a group of trees the bark of which he and his friends have made history. I pulled out my cell phone and tapped out a message to my trainer.

Well, maybe not. The wind seems to be making him nervous. It's blowing hard. His coat is puffed up. Not easy to get the halter on, not usual. 

An answer came: Don't worry. Lunge him and that will be good for today. It'll get him back on track.

Easier, I thought, standing there in their shelter, feeling the wind against my down vest, and feeling rejected and forlorn, said than done. But, maybe he'll wander in, wondering what I'm up to. 

Pas de tout, mais, pas de tout!

He wasn't thinking of me at all, and I was fighting the panic of losing the love I thought I had won. Horses are not for those lacking in self-esteem. I inventoried my own, and I went back out into his field, dismayed to see him ignore me diligently, and I danced a little more with him, and thought of Franklin Levinson and Monty Roberts. I would not give up. Instead, I walked away, indicating my lack of interest in him, and I paced the length and the width of their day pasture, to check my impression of its size. 3.25m between fence posts on the long side, and about 2.25m between them on the short sides times so many fence posts. I was right.

I walked back over to him, where Unabelle was making little noises in her throat and Gamine was fixing me with her authoritative eye. He looked at me. I decided it was too cold to hold out for a join-up, touched his flank and thought, You are going to accept your halter. I lowered it to the ground near his muzzle, and he pushed his muzzle deeper into the grass and moved it away to the right. But, just a little this time. I am going to put on your halter, I thought. He raised his head and swivelled his eyes to look back at me, standing at his left shoulder, and I slipped the halter on and buckled it. He dipped his cheek to my shoulder, "Hello."

"Well, hello, Fibs."

We went for a walk near his old home, in the woods where we took our first walks, and then we went and got the lunge line and headed to the riding ring. I concentrated and tried to call to mind the things the owners' daughter had taught me one afternoon, some months before, noticing that I perhaps didn't know enough about lunging a horse. I shook the lead line in my hand to push him off into a larger circle and kicked myself for not having watched more videos, and for not having lunged him more regularly. He moved in a circle around me.

"Trotter, Fibs." His eye flicked back toward me.

"Do I have to?"

"Fibs, trot." He shifted his pace, half-trotted, half-walked a few steps and then settled back into a walk. I really wished I'd prepared better for this. "Fibs, allez, trotter!" I moved the stick toward his hind quarters, and he reluctantly moved into a hesitant trot.


He is not supposed to change pace until I tell him to, and I am not supposed to have to keep saying "Allez, trotter... trotter, Fibs... trotter!" to keep him going. I am supposed to cluck, with my tongue between my molars, that sucking thing in one's cheek, and he is supposed to understand that this means to put more peps into his movement. Somehow, I don't think they did this in his racing training. I cracked the "natural horsemanship training whip" back behind his hindquarters, and he picked up the pace.

20 minutes later, and we changed hands. I shook the lead line to push him off again away from me, and he trotted. I asked for the gallop, and he took off, digging into the sand, finding his traction there, leaning into the circle, mane flying, and my heart soared. Having 1000 lbs of thoroughbred power and energy at the end of one's lunge line accelerating in a circle only a few meter from one is an incredible thing. He kicked his heels out, farted, and he flew for a few more paces before he slowed.

"Allez, Fibs, au galop!" and off he went again, and again before I said, "Whoah, whoah, au trot, mon Fibs. Trot-ter." He snorted and blew, trotting around me in a circle.

"Au pas, Fibs. That's a good boy. Au pas," I said, looping the lunge line over and over my hand, drawing him close to me, and he leaned his head into my shoulder and blew.

This is when I unattach him, like the first time I took him out to the round pen, almost a year ago, and I realized that he was following me, step for step and thought to release him and see what he would do. Yesterday, like that day, he followed me, sometimes his head against my back, sometimes shoulder to shoulder, stopping with me, turning with me, walking with me, turning in tight little circles together, our little pas de deux.

Like Christiane Head-Maarek, Criquette, said the other evening after winning the 2013 Qatar Arc de Triomphe with Trêve, maybe the mare of the century, with Thierry Janet up, "c'est pourquoi qu'il faut perséverer et jamais arrêter en cours de route."

Always persevere.
Us and our shadows, March 2013

jeudi 10 octobre 2013

A place to start

Fibs finds freedom, September 3, 2012

For some reason, the veins standing out against the muscle on his hindquarters and legs, just under the deep copper coat, like tracery in Gothic church windows, make me think about his story and about how destiny works, and whether it exists. He was foaled in North Yorkshire, pretrained in North Yorkshire, and lived the first few years there, as well, before going to Newmarket, to Maisons-Laffitte and finally to "la boucle". He raced, and then he stopped racing. He knew people, and they knew him, but how well? Had he friends? Did he miss anyone, and did they miss him?

"He's grumpy," I was told, the implication was that others were not, or were less so, and possibly better prospects, but I was not prospecting. My name was already on his certificate of ownership. I was his owner. If I weren't, I wouldn't be propsecting.

Or, I would have been, since I wouldn't yet have learned my lesson, that I am decidedly not remotely close to prepared to be a race horse owner. Sadly. I would like to have the sort of disposable income that makes risk fun, exhilarating, and be able to take the losses and the setbacks in stride. Really. Fibs taught me that I do not by teaching me what racing is. Had it not been he who taught me that, it would nearly certainly have been another horse in his place, and the story would have been the story of me and another horse who was not Fibs, a less grumpy horse, perhaps.

In ordinary life, the one I led right up until I heard about Fibs and Flannel and thought breaking even was the worst that could happen to a hapless and unfortunate owner of a single race horse -- I apparently have an amazing ability to hear what suits me and a frightening lack of imagination, which was a surprise to me and has led me to consider the difference between concepts like "spontaneity", "romance", "determination", and "risky" --, I was not looking for a horse. I have a husband, who works, and a child and stepchildren, and we are the sort of people who do not have Great Means, and who see to their children before themselves. In that life, my stepdaughter was riding, at my behest and with my encouragement, and I was not. When she was 12, I took her to the big sports clothing and equipment store and purchased the essentials after her trial lesson at the pony club: helmet, boots, chaps, breeches, and a crop. She was ready to mount. One day, she brought a crop to the house for me.

"Tiens. Maintenant peut-être tu monteras avec moi," she said. Here, perhaps now you will ride with me.

"Ah, c'est gentil, mais non, ce n'est pas pour moi." It is not for me.

The crop sat in a corner, next to the backgammon and chess cases that had travelled from the States, getting a headstart on the thick accumulation of dust the crop would eventually attain. I dust too infrequently.

To be truthful, it was not for me, either, that we had wound up in a trainer's yard in Maisons-Laffitte. First lessons had led to three or four "galops" (like the snowflakes in ski lessons) acquired, and we had also become acquainted with the pricetag of a taste for riding and ambition in it along the way, and I was looking for ways people who cannot afford quite a number of thousands of euros a year can satisfy the desire to ride, bigger, better, faster.

I had noticed that my stepdaughter always smiled in competition and that speed did not seem to alarm her, and reading the racing blog in the New York Times around the Breeders' Cup, nearly two years ago, I came across the story of an American journalist in Paris, who had given up reporting to train race horses full time, Gina Rarick. I went to her website, read about the horses available, including a share in Satwa Sunrise, clicked on the links for the training center in Maisons-Laffitte and watched the France Galop video describing its wonders. The little girl who remembered the Walter Farley books joined me and imagined Alec and Henry and the great Black Stallion and Flame on those exercise tracks in the early morning Parisian mist.

I opened my email, typed a message of introduction and asked if we could visit. I had a young teenage girl who might find a future as a stable slave and exercise rider there.

Two weeks later, the answer came. In true Gina style, it was brief, cheerful and frank, "Sure!"

Instead, it was the little girl who had read The Black Stallion, and every other book about horses she could find, who found her future there, and the husband of her older self who would learn who he had married. I was an architect. A woman who earned her living and keep, from the earliest time in her life, who had provided for her son, and knew what $5 had to buy all the way through college, and who didn't forget later in life. Now, from considering a leg or two in Satwa Sunrise, to having two in Elbow Beach, 6 months later, I owned Fibs and Flannel, and another 4 months later, he was stepping off a van and into my immediate life. Cinderella had found her Prince Charming, and the Wellies he brought fit. Perfectly. He wasn't black, either, like my literary dream stallion; he was red, like Flame, his arch enemy, and he was a gelding. At least that much.

And, he was "grumpy".

So was my husband. And so, I would learn, and already suspected, would we all be. The wrong person in this story had the horse.

Also, he was a little skinny. Nothing some groceries and a little Phosphalugel to protect his tummy couldn't remedy.

I was learning already. The initiation begun at Gina's, where I listened to every word uttered by her, by her assistant, Agata, and by the vet, Jérôme, had just shifted gears. This concerned the horse in my direct care, boarded near my home. The vet was on the other end of the phone line with the owners of this private owners' stable, listening and asking questions. Fibs would need the Phosphalugel for a week, two would be good, unlimited access to hay, and a gradual increase in the grains as he adjusted to being fed regularly again and put weight back on. By my friend's eye, he had lost some 35kg in the 3 or 4 weeks since he had last raced in late July. I took the paper held out to me and headed off to the pharmacy for the bottle of thick, white liquid he, my horse, would be ingesting morning and evening to coat his tummy and protect against colic and ulcers.

I was full of hope, and a little worried: not about my horse, but about how we were going to work out everything around this horse, and what his presence in our lives meant. A former race horse  in a stable is, I suspected (rightly), a lot like an elephant in the room, the one everyone is avoiding discussing. Yes, that one. I suspected that we weren't all on the same page, because we had never been, because we were a "recomposed family" of ill-fitting and missing pieces in a difficult environment, and because just getting a dog a few years before had been "challenging" and nearly led us to divorce court, exposing the insecurities of certain ones with respect to the goodwill of others.

This would be the beginning of trying to hope, while taking things day by day and suspecting that things could go all wrong, beacuse of all the things left imagined and unsaid; of seeing and hearing without knowing what it all meant and why; of taking delight, while not feeling free to do so; for the simple fact reigned and governed everything: the wrong person had the horse.

If the garden had been the place where I could take refuge and reflect, make things happen and find some satisfaction and a little solace in the life and the stepfamily we had undertaken, my consolation prize for the professional life I had left behind, the horse would be the thing that cleaved and laid the bones of our situation bare.

This, I knew, is also a place to start. His story before, I also knew, was going to be nothing next to mine from here on out.
It's just a jump to the left

vendredi 4 octobre 2013

The story I have not told, Fibs and I

Fibs unloads from Maisons-Laffitte, September 3, 2012

A year and one month ago, Fibs, who raced under the name Fibs and Flannel, a 2007 foaled chestnut gelding by Tobougg out of Cayman Kai mare Queens Jubilee, stepped down off a horse transport truck onto the courtyard of a private owners stable, almost in Normandy. This was not of consequence to him. He had travelled much in his young life, from the farm where he was bred and cavorted next to his mother in Yorkshire.  A rather fortunate young man, he was in good hands and had only a short hop to make to his trainer Tim Easterby's yards at Habton Farms, Malton, North Yorkshire, and he would go on to travel to England's racetracks, Newcastle and Ripon, Haydock, Beverley and Hamilton, Warwick, Catterick, Doncaster, Carlisle, Musselburgh, Southwell, Kempton, Lingfield and Wolverhampton.

His maiden race was Monday, May 4, 2009 in Newcastle at a mile on good to soft conditions. There were 8 2-year-olds entered. I try to imagine him then, when he hadn't yet travelled 20-something times to the racetrack and won a few. Was he nervous? Did he try to bite the groom? Swivel his head around on his neck, ears just a little too far back, whites showing as he fixed his eye on that soul? Did he object to the tight girthing of his tiny little racing saddle? Was he eager to join the pounding hooves in the distance, his ears pricked and trained on their efforts? What did he think of the grandstand sounds that he could hear, while everyone else was concerned with the cleanliness of his nostrils, the shine of his coat and whether his vet papers were in order? Did he prance, stepping out to walk with his hot walker? Or did he walk with his head down and relaxed, already a professional, a little bit bored? What we know is that he ran.

"Dwelt, towards rear, pushed along and headway halfway, ridden and no impression final 2f"

I think I saw something like that 3 years later in France. He finished 5th. 

In July, in Haydock, he finished 4th of 6 horses, beaten by one of his father's other sons, Petougg, out of Soviet Star mare Piroshka, foaled just 8 days after Fibs. Petougg never won again. In fact, he only raced two more times. One wonders what happened in that third race, on September 25, 2009. Nothing catastrophic. He "raced towards centre, tracked leader, joined leader halfway, ridden and every chance 2f out, weakeded inside final furlong". Nothing to explain why he never raced again, unless there was something in a tendon, an accident in his box, a sudden colic, something that would endanger his further training or end his life. Such is the life of some horses, their owners and trainers. So many of them.

It was as a 3-year-old that Fibs and Flannel would come into his own and earn a little something of his training fees, hay and oats, breaking his maiden on April 22, 2010 in a class 5, 7 furlongs 100 yards race on good to firm track conditions, a length and a quarter behind the second place finisher, Ginger Grey. If I understood betting outside France, where everything is a sum "contre un", I could tell you that his morning price was 11/4 to Ginger Grey's 8/1 with some idea of that that meant. It doesn't seem that it was a complete surprise that Fibs won that day, certainly not after his first appearance as a 3-year-old a week earlier, when he placed second on the same track.

Perhaps Fibs was at his peak then, when he went on to win his next race on May 2 at Hamilton in the Totepool handicap,  having "Tracked leaders, smooth headway to joing leaders 2f out, shaken up to lead inside final furlong, pushed out, readily opened".  Looking over his life performance makes me smile a little bit, although I wasn't smiling so mcuh when I was his next-to-last owner of his career. From that 2nd place and the two wins right on its heels, Fibs faded. He went on to run 12 more races under his training, never doing better than 3 4th places and 2 5ths, and 4th and 5th don't bring home a check in the UK.

He changed hands, going on to race three times for trainer Tony Coyle at Zeebrivia Stables, also in Malton. Maybe he thought he knew what to do to get the zing back out of Fibs. Having had Fibs for a year, I think I know that this was somewhat illusory. Fibs decides for Fibs. He has a certain arrogance that makes the sweetness sweeter.

In the Rocket Ron Rapley 70th Birthday Handicap on November 15, 2011, a class 5 mile race for 3 yos on the fibersand, Fibs finished 12 in a field of 14, in which he "Chased leaders, led after 3f, headed over 4f out, ridden and weakened over 1f out". How, exactly, do you finish 12th in the last furlong? Pride goeth before a fall. C'mon, Fibs.

Then, three weeks later came the Play The Big Money totejackpot Today Hanidcap, a 6 furlong race for 3 yos on the fibersand on December 6. There was modest progress. Had anyone inquired if the young man wished to race? He drew the 9th and finished 9th (he's witty that way), "Outpaced, always behind". He had dropped from opening at 9/1 to 33/1.

Tony Coyle entered him in the Southwell Racecourse Selling Handicap for 4 yos on January 3, and Fibs must have smelled something in the air, woken on the right side of his box, finished his alfalfa; Fibs finished first in a field of 6 at 7 furlongs on the fibersand, and he went home to Saville House Stables with Willie Musson.

"Chased leaders, went 2nd 3f out, led 2f out, strongly pressed closing stages, kept on well"

He opened at 9/4.

Sadly for Mr. Musson and his new owners, this would be his last win. He did not, however, run poorly for Musson, with  three 3rd place finishes, a 4th and a 5th in 7 races in a mere 2 1/2 months. It was enough to attract the attention of a bloodstock agent friend in Maisons-Laffitte, who had travelled to Newmarket for the Tattersalls Guineas Breeze Up & Horses in Training Sale 2012 looking for likely prospects for the summer season in France. Until that day, I had never heard of his existence, but after that day, my life changed forever, and my blog, as anyone who has followed will have noticed, languished.

I had no business buying a race horse. My husband will be the first to tell you that, although he wasn't quite the first to know. He was, but not quite with full conscience and say-so. I don't know what got into me. I didn't know that when I get an idea into my head, I carry it out. I also didn't know that I was so fanciful in my interpretations of "possible" and "likely" as far as outcomes go. I further had no idea of what risk really means. 

It all seemed so rational, but risk by definition is anything but rational as I was brought to recognize. Talk of papers and past performances, the prospects of UK horses in France, where the prize money actually pays something of the training costs, and why so many UK horses come to race here, making them stars in the claiming races. I had put a toe into racing as an owner registered with France Galop with Elbow Beach, although she raced under owner Kay Minton's colors and we made the decision to send her back to her owners in England when a respiratory problem was suspected. It was time for her to return, anyway. She later went on to get her hoped-for win in a class 5 handicap, The Follow Mecca Swansea on Facebook, in August of the year, improving her desirability as a broodmare.

I had done all the paperwork, gone to Nanterre for my interview with the racing and gambling police, and chosen my colors, which I had stitched up at Petitpas in Maisons-Laffitte, and which Agata modelled for us on May 25, 2 weeks after Fibs and Flannel, Tattersalls hip number 35, arrived in the yard at Gina Rarick's training facility, on the morning of his first equivalent of a breeze in France. I had already made my decision in the days just after his arrival. I would buy Fibs and hope for his success, which we thought quite likely, despite the drawback of his not being eligible for the French bred premium, for which some UK horses are. Two months, we figured. The French like to see the horse run a few times before making a bid in the claimers.

"He's good," Gina had said, sounding, just possibly, agreeably surprised. "He's straight, and he has a large stride."

Shortly after, my cell phone rang and Gina's name appeared on the screen.

"Hi, Gina," I chirped.

"This is the 'Houston, we have a problem' call," she greeted me. My heart sunk. Before he'd even been entered, Gina had seen signs of EIPH, or bleeding, after fast morning work. It was 45 minutes later, and when he lowered his head to eat his hay, but it was a trickle of blood from the nostril. In the USA, Lasix is administered, and it's training and racing as usual. In France, and anywhere else in the racing world, it's close to a catastrophe; horses are neither trained nor raced on Lasix. They show signs of pulmonary haemorrhage after strenuous effort, and some herbal remedies, a bit of rest and a change in training is tried, but mostly a future other career is envisioned.

Gina would enter him anyway at Saint Cloud for June 2, but his training would be lightened. Hopes were nothing what they were. I was left to consider my luck, which was decidedly bad. "He's good" and "Il est bon" swam in my head along with "Houston, we have a problem" and "bleeder".

He ran at Saint Cloud in the Prix du Mesnil-Villement, a one mile Course E claimer for female jockeys. He looked good before the race, and he got an appalling ride. Coming out of the final turn and into the homestretch, Carla O'Halloran up, Fibs suddenly veered from the rail, cutting all the way out past the horses following to the very outside, like a satellite broken from its orbit. It was hard to fathom. No point in making any further effort, she pulled him up, and he jogged over the finish line. Somehow, he did not finish last. We said the things you say to each other in those situations. Given 33/1, "la note de course" resumed his race "n'a joué aucun rôle". 

"Je ne sais pas ce qui c'est passé," said Carla, "mais il a un bon moteur."

Later, while he was grazing in the grass on the backside, a trickle of blood made its slow way down his left nostril.

Gina entered him in a conditioning race in Compiègne July 2, and hoped for the best. My insides were in too many knots to make the trip. I watched from home as Fibs took to an early lead with Yannick Mergirie up. My heart had sunk a little. Hadn't Gina wanted him held back in the pack as was his wont? Here he was flying out front, a gorgeous streak of golden red with my colors flashing orange and claret in the bright sun, the pack hard on his heels. Could he hold it? I prayed, fervently, my head in my hands and my heart in my throat. I knew not to let myself hope for it. They hardly ever do, not without gaining any lead with a turn of foot coming out of the last turn. His lead never increased, and halfway up the backstretch, he was overtaken by all the ten other horses in the pack, Two for Two, Art of Dance, Saglawiyah Asil -- I watched the names I had studied when I did his paper, determining his greatest threats, pass him, followed by Bernenez, Don Salsa, Lucky Jon and Hi Shinko, a horse Gina had trained, and then the horses who had seemed to have much less chance of winning than he did, Alexiana, Echappée Belle and Manamo du Fray leave him to shine crossing the finish line last.

My phone rang. Gina's name flashed on the screen. Yes, he had finished last; no, it wasn't that big a problem that he had gone out front, he had wanted to; Mergerie was hugely impressed with his motor. Maybe, maybe we should enter him in a lady amateur jockey race in Dieppe later in July with his exercise rider up. They hadn't seen any recent evidence of bleeding, and he had just shown something we suspected, that we had reason to know was in him. I heard hope.

"No," I said. "I have an offer for a leasing contract on him. I have to accept."

This was not, in hindsight, the best decision to have made at all. It was the decision I felt I had to make, given everything, including my own panic. I had misunderstood risk. I had failed to understand that risk in racing depends entirely on the depth of the pockets of the owner, and given that mine were actually sewn shut, I had had no business imagining that because breaking even is about the best anyone can hope -- and what should make any owner of race horses happy, but far, in fact, from what happens in the vast majority of individual cases, in which money is lost, --  it was what would happen for me. Breaking even is facilitated by owning several horses and diversifying one's risk exposure; I owned one single horse, and there was something going on with him.

On July 12, I signed the contract, and Fibs went to the yard of trainer Jérôme Clais. I researched every horse he had raced in the last 3 years, and I knew I had no reason to hope to see any return on my 15% interest. But, it was worse than that. He ran once in Deauville in late July, and then every entry was scratched. Three of them. I called my contact and said, "There's something wrong, either with Jérôme or with the horse."

"I'll go right over this evening and see what's up."

What was up was that Jérôme was out of money, which happened oftener than could be hoped. There were some 10 horses in his yard, not all of whom were being fed and exercised. Fibs had fallen into the unhappier lot. He was standing in his box, the lights out. The contract, I said, is broken. We're getting him out. Fibs is retired.

I still watch the races and imagine Fibs on the turf or the fibersand. I watch him in the field, and I see him standing on the grass on the backside at Saint Cloud, his head high in the air, his ears pricked toward the hooves pounding their way to the last turn, I see him walking proudly in the presentation ring, accepting his jockey like the Queen of England accepts the adulation of her people, and I see the photo in the newspaper of him crossing the line first at Beverley, April 22, 2010.  I wish that for him again because I believe Fibs was suited to it. He was not a graded winner, his victories were not at Ascot and Longchamp, but when he wanted to, he could turn it on, stretch out his legs in a magnificently huge stride and fly over the sand, his feet touching earth only an instant before taking off again.

Fibs and Flannel wins at Beverley, April 22, 2010

I did not know that I was saying that Fibs would come home to me, out here on the edge of Normandy. It took some days, conversations with my husband, and phone calls, but on September 3, 2012, Fibs and Flannel stepped down from a horse van one last time and settled into the fields of the "boucle de la Seine", not very far from Giverny and Vernon,  and La Roche-Guyon. And all because of my name on his certificate of ownership with les Haras Nationaux and a barely audible and formed promise to look out for him made when things started to look not so good. In my heart, I always knew I'd want to keep him, but in my mind I knew it would take more than what was in my heart, or maybe just that alone.

Our story since then is the one I have not told.

lundi 11 février 2013

The heron

The culprit heron

For years, all the years that I have lived in this house, with its garden and the fish pond in the old fountain outside its garden door, fish have disappeared from time to time, fish that we recognized and knew from their size, their color, their markings, and all the fish took to hiding from time to time. We suspected a heron visited the fish pond and flew away with our fish friends, but we never saw one. It made sense, since the Seine is just out beyond the trees in the distance, past the field.

We considered putting netting over the old fountain to protect the fish, but with all the plants growing in it and how pretty the surface of the water in the light can be, I never wanted to.

And we lost fish to something.

Today, I stood up from my work to go do something outside, and a sudden movement, a large, light-colored object lifting up off the surface of the water in the fountain caught my eye as I opened the garden door. I had already caught his, and I thought that for an instant I saw surprise, guilt and resentment glint in his dark and glassy one for the fraction of a second our gazes locked. His huge wings working, he flew over the planting bed at the far edge of the top terrace and over the old lavender and tea roses, down over the bank of Saint John's Wort and disappeared where the stone bench would be, if I could see it from where I stood, the French door handle in my hand, my mouth still wide open along with my eyes.

He was aware of me. He was measuring me and the risk of returning to the fish pond.

I turned to run back in and grab my camera and trained it on the area where he had disappeared. The battery was dead. I turned back and searched my bag for the other one, and hurried back out in time to see him winging over the bottom of the garden, the large gate and out to the middle of the field someone uses to grow hay for their horses, clicking photos before I realized I was on the wrong setting and threw the camera on automatic, while I watched him through the zoom lens. He settled to stand and turn to gaze back, at me.

It was a standoff. How long, he wondered, before the woman would leave him the opportunity to return to feed?

I returned to the fish pond, noticing the traces of white on the surface, like milky scum. I had seen those before. Did they come from the heron? Is that the signature he leaves when he feeds, taking our fish, the ones we feed and for which we care when they are sick?

There was no sign of fish. They were under the old stone sink, covered in tufts of grass and plants.

"Stay where you are, friends. Stay safe. There is a predator in our midst, and he hasn't given up. He hasn't had his meal."

In fact, he is still there, standing in the field, his back turned to the house and me, as though he doesn't care, as though he has forgotten his intention, but I know better.

The dog is out.

samedi 27 octobre 2012

Fish hospitalization, Day 8: Back to school

Together again

After four days without a further death, all 28 survivors are back together again in a 150 liter basin I picked up at an agricultural supply store on a trip to Brittany back when we about to do the repairs of the fish-pond-in-the-fountain that had sprung a leak sometime before, worsening the consequences of the major freeze we had in January 2009 as a result of the lowered water level right before the whole thing froze solid one night. 4 survived, and of those, 2 survived this bout of illness and returned to rejoin the other survivors today.

I treated the water with more of the JBL Ektolfluid that is intended to treat fin rot and other skin infections for fresh water fish. It is supposed to be effective against aeromonas, pseudomonas and columnaris, and judging from the result this week, it does appear to be effective. About three of the fish showed signs of fungal infection on top of the bacterial infection, and they are looking better. I also added 1 tablespoons of sea salt (gros fleur de sel de Guérande) for every 5 gallons (19 liters) for a salt water concentration of about .06%.

Wednesday, the plumber comes to fix the outdoor spigot, and we'll be able to refill the fish-pond-in-the-fountain and return the 28 survivors to their home.

Meanwhile, I'll be watching them very closely now to see how they are acting, and if anyone needs to be isolated again.

The abandoned fish pond in the background

vendredi 26 octobre 2012

Fish hospitalization, Day 7: Fish out of water

Stayin' alive

We are at 3 days without a death.

Not that we haven't nearly had several accidentally do their best. At least 5 now have gotten so fed up with their container confinement that they have lept to an uncertain future. I found the last one the other morning on the guest room floor, next to the table on which his bowl sat.

What I have learned is that a fish who leaps from his container once does not do it again, and this, not because he dies, but because he learns how miserable it is to lie around, a fish out of water, until someone happens along to find you and put you back in in a hurry.

Water, it turns out, is highly overrated for fish. At least for an hour or two. Who knows. Some period of time. I won't be testing it to find exactly how long.

Tomorrow, I think, will be the day I transfer them to two large volume bins, all except perhaps two, who still show signs of fin rot.

Lesson learned, anyway: Fish do learn.

mercredi 24 octobre 2012

Goldfish hospitalization, Day 5: Stability and Impatience


Contrition, or a larger container. Whichever it is, and I am going for the containment factor, the fish who lept yesterday to a miraculous survival, faced with one dog, one cat and no water upon landing, is still alive. And she let us know again last evening that she has had enough and isn't taking anymore, circling vigorous and insistent circles up against the sides of the galvanized steel bucket we now call her home, water flying in all directions. One particularly forceful round and leap found her head rising over the bucket's lip, a good 20 cm or more above the water level.

Surprise! It's I!

She nearly ended up in my dinner plate.

We were at table, and her bucket was just to the side of my right elbow. I was keeping a close eye on her. She will have to survive until the spring before I can be certain she is a she. I have a doubt.

This morning, I hid under the covers, putting off the moment I'd have to go over to the petite maison and check on the patients in the guest room. I had no reason to believe I would find anymore casualties of whatever caused this population wipe-out, but I couldn't know. Enough is, after all, enough, and I had had enough of finding little bodies floating flank up in the water. When I made it out there for morning rounds, I was gratified to find everyone alive and active, petitioning for a return to the pond.

"C'est la preuve qu'ils sont habitués à un plus grand espace et à ne pas avoir des limites," commented my husband, listening to yesterday's leaper race around the inside of the bucket.

I didn't find that so amazing. When you have swum around in a 180 cm diameter, 70 cm deep pond with 6,000-something liters of water, rocks and plants and hiding-places and shelters, why wouldn't you protest against finding yourself in a soup or salad bowl, even a bucket?

So, today I repeated the daily routine, carrying the bowls, vases and buckets in turn to the kitchen, scooping up the first liter of medicated water from the big plastic bucket in the sink in setting it to my side before carefully emptying most of the used water, pouring in the liter to reassure the poor fish and then filling the container, adding a pinch of gros sel de Guérande, a bit of an oxygenating tablet and a little bit of food before carrying the patient out to the Moroccan table in the garden. It takes an hour and a half for the 28 surviving fish. I'd happily have spent 3 hours had all 60 survived.

The little leaper

They are impatient, however, all of them; two more lept today. I found one little one lying between the containers, several away from its empty one, practically glued to the tiles of the table, and another particularly muscular  one, one of the last I found and retrieved from the fish-pond-in-a-fountain -- oddly, the last ones out were among the least vulnerable. If I think about that, it makes a kind of sense --, was missing from his red plastic basin, and like yesterday's, was lying in the grass covered in grass cuttings and dirt. He also jerked in my hand when I picked him up, mercifully, and appears regretful of his impulsivity.

The large leaper

My doctor husband wants them to spend at least 3 or 4 days with no further demises in their individual containers before I begin to group them in a larger capacity container, while we wait for the plumber to come and repair the outdoor spigot so we can refill the fish-pond-in-a-fountain. I don't know if they can take it.

Time to go check on them again.