jeudi 31 juillet 2014

The nature of Sisyphus

The felled tree

Sisyphus doesn't grumble. Sisyphus doesn't complain. In fact, Sisyphus rarely speaks. Sisyphus does the job, whatever job -- the job doesn't matter --, and Sisyphus does not give up, ever.

My husband came home from work yesterday evening, and looked down from the stairway to where I stood on the loose dirt of the embankment below the tree, axe poised to take out another bit of tree flesh. I was alternating between sawing through the trunk with the chain saw and hacking away at it's circumference, reducing the size of the saw cut required to get through it, and now I was dealing axe blows. I had heard the motorcycle pull into to the space between the house and the garage, and he had certainly heard the axe head hitting tree.

"Do you want some help?"

I thought about it for a second, looking at him, waiting for my answer. To refuse was, a little oddly, unkind. It was also going a little too far. My elbows and shoulders ached. He was moving down the stairs, closer to me.

"OK."

"But, why are you using the pickaxe, and not the chainsaw?"

"First, it's not a pickaxe, it's an axe." I knew he knew that, but it annoyed me. Everything was annoying me. "And, second, as I have pointed out, the chainsaw is too small to handle most of the jobs for which we need it around here."

"It was good enough for cutting the firewood," he said in his defense, and the rest trailed away, "but it's true we order it cut now."

"What is the harm, when we are buying one of a tool, to buy one that is bigger than we need for most jobs, but can at least do them when we need it for them?" I think he muttered back that he knew. I handed him the axe.

He positioned himself where I had been standing, and prepared to swing. The axe came down once, twice, three times against the trunk, higher by a good 8" from where I had been working to remove the wood. I waited for the silence between the third and the fourth hit.

"Why are you working up there? I was trying to remove a chunk from down there, near the chainsaw cut."

He considered it for a moment, and lowered the axe for the next swing. The axe came down again, once, twice, and he stopped and swore, then gazed up into the branches of the tree, draped in cascades of bindweed and choked to within an inch of its life by thick ropes of ivy. There were, actually, more ivy leaves than elderberry ones up there. I was losing my Sisyphean patience.

I said, as nicely as possible, "Did you come to help, or to complain and look at the tree because that isn't going to bring it down." This is how he works.

Sisyphus was seriously annoyed.

He raised the axe again, and it came down several more times. We changed places, giving each other a break, and then, just before a blow, he stopped and said, "My elbow hurts at the prosthesis."

That was alarming. Several years ago, he had nearly died falling from a high wall, head first, breaking the head of the radius badly shielding his head from the impact. His elbow took it, and the radius had finished several centimeters beyond where the elbow should be.

"Stop, please. Don't do it. It isn't worth it. I can bring this tree down."

"Why don't you wait until Thursday, when we can rent a bigger chainsaw and save you this trouble? We can saw straight through in minutes."

I knew that. I had already thought about that.

"Why Thursday?"

"I am on duty tomorrow night. Wait and we can do it when I am home after."

"I am perfectly capable of renting a larger chainsaw on my own," I said, turning away from where I was preparing to start at the trunk again to face him.

"Yes, but I can help you when it gets dangerous, when it's ready to come down."

This time, I looked up at the tangle of ivy and bindweed over my head, and turned back to him.

"I have brought trees this big down here before, several of them. I can do this one, too."

I did not say that I could not stand the idea of waiting. Why? I could do other things. I knew it. I looked down the length of the light guage chain-link fencing on top of the embankment, sagging under the weight of the ivy using its posts for shoulders upon which to sit and sprout magnificent balls of shiny dark green leaves, like heads with bouncy green afros, which I had already trimmed. They annoyed me, too.

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I could return to cutting the ivy out from the chain-link behind the posts, and snipping away the inside layer of rusted chain-link. I could very well do that and rent a chainsaw to bring the tree down Thursday. This was a perfectly reasonable proposition and alternative.

"No."

Sisyphus had just spoken, and we both looked a little surprised.

"It's alright. I can do this."

I must have stopped soon after. It was getting late. I was tired. There was dinner to make, and I had just admitted that nothing could stop me, not even perfect reason. I am rational enough to understand reason, even to reason, but something stronger takes over. A glimmer of new penetration and understanding caught my eye from between the comingled leaves of ivy and elderberry.

I had all the following day to reflect on that. In fact, I had as much time as it would take me to bring this tree down. I looked back at the trunk after my husband began the climb up the stairs to the house, and tried to estimate just how much time. There was progress. At least half the trunk was removed. I looked at my tools -- an axe, a sledgehammer and wedge, and a puny chainsaw --, and my resolution set. I have a tempered will, but why? Why had I never stopped to wonder why, or even if it was really such a thing about which to crow? It was not entirely true that Sisyphus does not complain. Sisyphus does a lot of that, actually. No, not while she is doing the job, whatever job, the job doesn't matter, but after, when she feels undervalued, then Sisyphus delivers speeches containing strings of charges and complaints.

The axe fell again and again, and the chainsaw screamed and smoked its way deeper and deeper into the flesh of the tree, and Sisyphus considered why. She scrutinized her progress with the tools at her disposition, the only ones of which she would avail herself, like a settler, a woman bound to survive and make a life, even, and planned her way through that trunk. She looked up at the leaves not to breathe, but to consider the angle of the trunk, the mass of the higher, nearly vertical branches, the location of the neighbor's chicken abadoned chicken coop, a tile-roofed masonry structure, solid, but not something she cared to demolish for him, bringing down the tree that diminished both of their pleasures in their properties, and calculate which way it would most likely fall because fall it certainly would. Failure, for Sisyphus, is not an option, and failure to fell this tree was out of the question. It was coming down, and it was coming down as soon as physically possible.

But, still, she considered why. Why did it matter so much? Why had it all -- all of these gigantic, absurd, time-consuming and repeated projects -- mattered so much? Sysphisus thought she knew. It took only to see the question, and wonder why she had been unwilling to ask.

This was not the same tempered will and determination that saw her and Fibs out on the trails, galloping across the field, listening to the rhythmic snort of his breathing you only hear at a gallop, and that she had only heard on the piste jaune at Maisons-Laffitte, the racetrack, or from the horses in the highest level show jumping events, heard her horse just below her body breathe this way, carrying her on a journey and in the delight of movement, even though they were related. No, this was something else altogether. Perhaps, though, she considered, it took that other determination to hint at the difference and give rise to the reflection that brought with it the realisation that she had been fighting a battle, not against nature, not for the glory of the victories she counted as hers, even if they later proved less worthwhile and satisfying than she had imagined, and created a lot more work for Sisyphus along the way.

Sisyphus, it happened, was not happy. The work, the jobs she executed, whatever job -- the job didn't matter --, was an expression of her tempered will in opposition to every other force in her life. It started as something to do: resurect a tangled, lost garden and make it beautiful; but, it had become a struggle, a fight. It was supposed to redeem the garden and herself;  it had became her weapon, her means of punishment for everything else, and a shield all at once.

The too small chainsaw weighed a ton. Her arms ached. And then it's teeth caught flesh, and it moved, screaming, but without smoke, through the last bit of fiber. It was almost done. She inserted the wedge and considered the weight of the sledgehammer. It wasn't for much longer. After the blows, she listened for the cracking, racing backwards to get away from the trunk in case that last groan was the end before it fell.

She sent a message on Facebook, "I feel kind of badly."

"Why?"

"It was a living thing."

"It will be alright."

"The tree or I?"

"LOL. You."

She took a photo of the tree trunk, now sitting on the wedge instead of the lower part of its now severed self. The wedge knocked out, a long electrical cord tossed up into the crotch of a branch and the trunk, and a game of tug-of-war later, rocking the tree forward and back, the trunk slid off its perch, and the tree fell back. Not forward. Back.

Sisyphus muttered, "Shit."

She thought she would feel triumphant. She only felt depressed.
....


mardi 29 juillet 2014

One small corner


The tree that's coming down

It started in a chat on Facebook May 28,

You have to start small
Start with one small corner
Dont' lose hope.

I replied, feelng wry might ascend to hope,

Better to start in a corner than to finish in one.

The reply came back,

LOL

That reminded me not to take myself and my innumerable and *very serious* problems too seriously, although they are without number, and very grave. It settled in a corner of my depressed spirit, and I drove to Switzerland.

In Switzerland, I saw, again, impeccable old buildings and farms, and astonishingly good contemporary architecture that makes me feel that France should just give up. Stop. Now. I stayed with friends in their clean-lined, gray-toned apartment, and I watched them prepare to pack to leave it. A chopping block kitchen island, the type you might see for small kitchens at Williams Sonoma, sat in a corner behind the dining table. It was covered with cook books, recipe files, and travel books. I noticed they started here. In a corner.

In my own corner, in the black leather easy chair, I read the book my friend had put in my hands practically the moment I arrived, and for good reason (I had gained an alarming amount of weight in fat), Tim Ferriss' "4-Hour Body", and observed them reducing piles and creating order, listening to them decide what to keep, what to give away, and what to take to recycling. Two resolutions formed, one conscious, the other perfectly unnoticed: one, to begin Ferriss' program without delay, and two, to pick a corner upon my return.

That return coincided with a date a little less than one month from the arrival of family, family that had not been to our house in 10 years. You see how the threads are coming together to make a fil conducteur? This was going to happen. I began in a corner, the kitchen cupboards that serve as pantry, and that contained unmentionable, disgusting things that had turned their metal covers to dust and leaked all over the top shelves.

I ride a horse. A homemaker I am not, although I aspire to be.

Three weeks passed in a literal frenzy of activity, involving clipping everything in the bottom garden, and, more importantly, attacking all corners of the house, all of them, except our bedroom, which nobody has need to enter (although they did, and I sucked it up), and the room [N.B.: I have been cleaning to please my deceased grandmother in anticipation of my aunt's arrival, a theme] we never finished when it became clear that part of the house was falling down, with all manner of cleaning tools and products. The garbage bin was filled and emptied twice a week for three weeks, and more left in the trailer we hitched to the car. I scrubbed the bathroom ceiling, woodwork everywhere, cleaned windows and between floorboards with a knifeblade, vacuumed and polished. I did laundry nonstop, and hung it out to dry in the sun, remade beds with fresh everything, except our bed --  nobody else would sleep in it --, which I finally did, only because I could not stop. A white tornado, once unleashed, is a genie hard to put back in its plastic bottle.

As we say, "Je me suis fait violence."

It was cathartic. It was masterful. It was hardly noticeable to any normal person, who would expect a house to look better than it did when I had to declare the work finished, hours before the airplane touched down at Roissy. I chose to protect myself in my own private glow.

And, the guests came and left, and the edge had not worn off. I put away everything I used, vacuumed when the dog hair made the living room rug look dull, did, dried, folded and put away laundry without prompting, as in "Could you do a load of laundry? I am very sorry, but I have no more socks." I even bought toilet fresheners in lavender scent for the petit coin, and I felt holy, but, the garden looked worse than it had in ages. For all my work, since the beginning of the spring, it looked awful.

Worse, my husband still wanted his structure in the bottom garden, behind the huge rolling gate, to store our vehicles. He thinks we can get them all in there. For his scientific and logical mind, he lacks spatial sense. He also wants to move the old wood Riva-type boat in there and renovate it. He dreams of Sunday afternoons spent motoring up and down the Seine around "la boucle".

I had noticed, when I hacked away the vegetation from around the boat's cement block shelter, that it appeared to have more holes than when I had last had such a good view (count in years).

The trailer hitch for the horse van inspired me, before I moved my white tornado into the house, to begin to attack the brambles, weed trees and weeds growing back on the embankment we needed to remove to have room for a structure large enough for only an assortment of our vehicles. Having begun, and set it aside to make a habitable space for my family, I returned, again. How many times have I cleared this embankment? If I didn't want to do it again next year, I was going to have to do it, all the way.

"What are you planning to do with that embankment," asked my husband, again.

"Get rid of it."

He said nothing. He is learning.

I yanked at weeds and their roots with my contractor's rake; I cut at brambles, pulling them down out of the high branches of the unwanted and unwelcome elderberry (it would seem) trees; I stuck myself with thorns, covered myself with dirt, and decorated my hair with these tiny little prickly pods that stick in your hair, on your clothes, and get into your boots.

Does anyone know what these are? They are about 3mm in diameter, and light brown. Thank you.

The embankment mostly cleared, the cuttings hauled away in several trips, the fence along the top gazed at me Saturday afternoon, mournfully, and I glowered back.

Yes, I know. You, too.

I went to get my tools, including wire cutters. Removing years' and years' growth of ivy, ivy that has woven the light gauge chain-link into itself, is a surgical and hellish procedure. By late Saturday evening, I had made it a little more than one third of the way along the chain-link and fence posts that sagged forward beneath the accumulated weight of hugely overgrown ivy. In some places, the steel that reinforced the posts had rotted away at the base; in others, it was bent under the weight. I cut the chain-link wire, made easier by oxidation, chopped through the gnarled, entwined and entangled ivy branches, and pulled down the fence posts, one after another.

I swore about people who imagined that sinking fence posts into rubble was an acceptable idea.

I swore about people who considered ivy a structural element.

I swore about the dust and leaf mold that accumulates in such interstitial spaces. And, I sneezed, again and again, wiping at the dust filling my eyes, partially losing my vision. Everything appeared muted and watery, and I swore about that.

In short, I swore.

In defense of myself, I swore to myself, unlike my husband, who kept up a blue streak, muttering away from the pool pump building, not far enough away from me. He couldn't get a new leak under control.

"How are you going to put in new fence posts?" Unbelievably, I hadn't noticed when he had stopped and come near me.

"I told you, I am not." He hadn't listened to me hiss this the first time. "There is a second wire fence just behind. I'll leave it there for now, and deal with it once all the rest is down." All the rest included a tree. The largest elderberry tree yet.

A tree that I am about to go out into the drizzle and begin to cut down. It is magnificently drapped in cascades of le liseron des haies (Calystegia sepium L., formerly Convolvulus sepium), or larger bindweed, hedge bindweed, Rutland beauty (my foot), bugle vine, heavenly trumpets (not so much), bellbind. I have only these to help me accomplish this feat,




And, today of all possible days, I received a follow from . Clicking on it, I see... a photo of wondrous chainsaws in their profile summary!

I tweet back,

Thanks for the follow 
. This is MY kind of garden tool. I should add "sadly". I need a bigger chainsaw for today's job! Tim-BER!!

The tweet is returned,

No problem :-) ...it's a good thing we have a chainsaw competition running then! You can enter here

I tweet in excited reply,

Oh , I'm SO entering your competition! In fact, I'm going to BLOG about it. Please, please, please let me win, oh Rota Fortunae!

They favorited it! Oh! Please, let that make me win!

I need something better than what my husband will buy at the home improvement store.
....



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mardi 22 juillet 2014

The Shibboleth

"The Crack" (Shibboleth)
Doris Salcedo, 2007
Tate Modern

To say that all stories contain many stories is true. There are stories that can be told in a blog, and others that must wait for the novel and the movie (I would like to be played by Frédéric Pignon). There is only so much truth one can reveal and remain a decent human being. To say that there is more than one truth in a story is a given. I try to tell as many as I see, honestly. To say that this horse was the shibboleth in our precariously sewn, even basted, patchwork family would be one truth shared by everyone in this story. Some might blame the horse. I blame the people. It could have been anything, and, at other times, it was other things. This time, it was a horse, and this time, it was a decisive yank that tore that faulty stitching out between the squares.

Horses are special. They are large, and they are hard to overlook. They require many things that cost a lot of money. They are a life-long responsibility (theirs), and their lives are long, if we care for them well, and if we are very fortunate. They inspire one of the most dearly held of human desires, to have one and to ride. They have, then, a special ability to catalyze the good and the very not good, to generate strong feelings and fericiously defended points of view. They can federate, or they can fracture, lay bare the cracks one can otherwise blame on them, with their heavy footfalls; it all depends on the story, and the humans involved in that play. Horses, and the having of horses, is about love, respect and wisdom, and it shows where the love, respect and wisdom lack.

The other truth was that Fibs was there, in a box at the boarding facility owned by a family who had left the neighboring pony club, and taken two of the girls along with them when they decided to go out and compete on their own, not necessarily with the knowledge and consent of all of the other parents. One of those girls was my husband's daughter. Another was a younger girl, of some talent, and possessed of a very big mouth and large voice, equalled only by her exhuberance and difficulty to manage, who had been shown the gate. As an owners' boarding facility, it implied one thing: owning a horse or pony. However, two stories were coming to their dénouement -- one that involved me, and one that involved my stepdaughter --, and they shared a common point of origin in the mutual desire to ride and have a horse, and my having set her on the bridle path. How convenient would it have been had I not shared that desire, and so kept myself off that intersecting bridle path in the web of them in the forest. How many collisions would have been avoided.

It was a tale that could have had the word "fairy" before it for its ending, but instead it did for the theme of a stepmother and a child. The opposing truths would clash around the assignment of the adjective "wicked". To be clear, I have not, and I never would, demand the hunstman to bring back her heart. I might, though, have asked him to lose her somewhere, not very far from another barn very far away. I might still be waiting, but I have no huntsman.

And, if there are multiple truths in every story, there are as many possible starting points. The farther back one begins, the easier it is to weigh the merit of the truths, but the harder it is to keep track of it all. This story will be said to have begun with a horse who needed to find a home, his owner, a young teenager who had manoeuvered to put herself in the position of needing a horse, and her father into that of concession. I will add, in fairness to myself, that I had long argued in vain for a half-board on a horse able to jump more than 50cm without hip pain for her. Refusing the smaller things will often set you in far deeper manure.

There are other characters: the instructor who left the pony club to work with these three girls and for the owners, the owners, a mother, another ex-instructor who preferred caring for horses to teaching others to ride them, and a Polish handyman, who by the looks of him was perfectly cast to play Prince Charming, or the wise fool, or, ideally, both at once, but in a story without a sleeping beauty.

This story began the day my husband said, "And, if we brought Fibs out here, and she [his daughter] could ride him?" It began with a sigh, and a warning.

"You do understand, don't you, that Fibs is only just being retired from racing, and he is not ready to do what she needs a horse to do?"

I don't recall if he nodded or even acknowledged that I had spoken. I nodded and went to get on Facebook and send a message to keep Fibs from going to someone else, filled with so much relief and misgiving that I felt neither. I had whispered to Fibs that I would look out for him, maybe come find him one day and take care of him; I knew my husband had been strong-armed by his daughter and a bunch of people he didn't know, and I knew this horse did not fit the bill; and, I knew that things being what they were, she and I did not make for the best of partners in a thoroughbred race horse, about to come off the track and into several different peoples' imaginations in several different manifestations. A tall order for a 16.1 HH chestnut gelding, even a great great grandson of Secretariat.

Before I sealed his fate in one direction, I called the instructor. She owned a retired race horse, who had served time in the riding club as a lesson horse. My wishful thinking was in overdrive. I wished that she had trained her mare, and that she would know how to work with my stepdaughter to do the same thing with him, while I knew she was 25 and suspected she had done no such thing herself. My husband wasn't the only one selling himself the Brooklyn Bridge, but what was the alternative? Watch Fibs go away and release the gray certificate from the Haras Nationaux that had my name and his on it? My first ownership papers. I told her about Fibs and my husband's idea for his daughter. I asked her if she would work with her and help her prepare Fibs. She said she would be delighted to do it, and that it was an honor to be asked.

I think I heard the distant ringing of an alarm bell. I chose to be thrilled. It was a disaster.

There was the gift on an expensive leather halter with an engraved nameplate, and I took photos of Fibs with my stepdaughter.

There was the waiting for the work to begin, and nothing happened. I had said that he was a bit thin and had not been fed well for three weeks,possibly, but he was fine. Active, alert, and strong. A period of acclimation had passed, and he was doing well. And more time passed. Time in which murmurings of a half-board on the instructor's mare began to fill the barn air and drift home. One day, the instructor took Fibs and I out to the outdoor and she lunged him, while I took video. He knew how to lunge, but he was judged to have a bit of stiffness on the right side. I called the osteopath recommended by the boarding facility owners, and she pronounced him a little stiff, but nothing full turn-out and work would not help him work out. I couldn't help but notice the resounding silence and lack of enthusiasm her professional judgement produced. On the one hand, that meant working him. On the other, it meant a lower boarding fee from us. He returned to his box, and I returned to waiting, less than patiently.

The September days all ripped off the calendar, successive October days tore off one after another like the falling leaves, and still nobody seemed interested in doing anything with Fibs. I was raised to be polite, and patience seemed like a nice way to be polite, so I worked at remaining patient. I was new to the barn, and I was new to horses. Surely, some sort of work would begin? I knew one paid for that, but we had spoken of work, and we would pay for it. Was nobody interested in that? It did not seem in any way to be the case, and the murmurings on the half-board on the instructor's mare had turned into demands of my husband, who never came up there and did not return calls, to make a decision about the half-board, while the smiles with which the formerly friendly instructor had greeted me when I arrived had turned to acting like I was not there, or staring daggers. The truths were multiplying dangerously. It was Alien 3, not Black Beauty.

I gathered my politeness and tried speaking to the instructor, who informed me, as though I were the dullest hay bale knife in the barn, that Fibs was an utterly inappropriate horse for my stepdaughter, what was I thinking? And, he had a back problem!

The veterinarian came to see Fibs. They would do a flexion test, watch him move at the walk and the trot, and a "girthiness" test. He passed the first two without incident, but chen the instructor pulled up on the cinch and smacked him into movement, he reacted.

"See? He's girthy." She shot me a look to kill. How, I wondered to myself, was the vet not feeling the lack of love?

The vet walked over, ran her hands along his back, and shrugged. He looked the picture of perfect health and happy movement. The instructor was preparing her next blow of the mace.

"He can't be ridden, can he? He's not appropriate for a 16-year-old, is he?"

"How much experience does she have? Has he been ridden? Has anyone put a saddle on him and tried?"

The instructor shook her head no and shot me another look, the mace drooped in her hands.

"Well, put a saddle on him and see," said the vet. I led Fibs out of the round pen, trailing behind the vet and the instructor. They had other horses to see. Fibs returned to his pasture, and I gazed at him.

"Well, Fibs, I guess it's pretty clear, isn't it? Nobody intends for anyone to ride you, or do anything at all with you. What are we going to do now?"

He might have raised his muzzle from the grass and pressed it to me, or I might have wished for that. I looked out over the fields dotted with horses and divided by fences, against the line of trees at the edge of the forest, and listened to the traffic on the highway. I might have felt like I was going to cry. The truths were becoming noisy and ugly. There was my husband's, and there was mine, and the intructor's and my stepdaughter's, and there was the owners'. I was the one forced to glimpse them all and see that nobody was going to be happy here. It was mid-October. The owner's wife called me.

My husband was demanding to know when Fibs would move to full turn-out, as it had been intended from the beginning. The owners, through the wife, at first, were demanding to know when he would make a decision about the half-board. His daughter and the instructor were demanding the half-board. I talked to her  like the sensible, mature woman I hoped she was and presented our point of view. There were good reasons for my husband to hesitate, and we had expected his daughter to work with Fibs, not take a half-board on still another horse, but this was not happening.

I heard about his back, which her equine osteopath and vet had declared a non-issue. I heard about the necessaity for him to have 6 months of doing nothing to get his mind off the track, and another 9 months at a very minimum to be retrained to do anything but race around a racetrack, never mind that he had been hacked out in training since he was a youngster. I heard about the dangers to which I was insisting on exposing him, in putting him in turn-out in November, a thoroughbred facing his first winter outside a barn in clement Normandy, not, I thought, Siberia. I heard an acknowledgement that the instructor was young and immature. I heard that my stepdaughter was expected to be in lessons with the other girls, on a suitable horse, and vanning to shows. So, it was clear, then.

Fibs and I were shoved to the margins of the farthest fields when November 1 came around, and the daggers turned to a shoulder attuned to the weather growing colder. We had no friends at our barn, outside another owner, and the handyman, who looked on with what I was sure was compassion, and could expect none. It was not any better at home. The truths were on the verge of a declaration of war, and what had we done wrong?

Well, I knew what I had done wrong. I had gotten involved with a race horse. But, what had I done wrong since this later beginning to the story? Edgar Allen Poe would have told me to listen to my beating heart and answer my own question. I had not wanted to share my horse, this was true, but had I refused? No, I had called the osteopath and the vet, and I had asked when work would begin. And, had I caused our banishment? No, I told Fibs as I brushed him, praying to be left alone in the barn and not speared with freshly sharpened daggers. I could not be said to have been overflowing with niceness, but I had not been the one to mislead.

Others might not agree, came the thought. Did you expressly say that you would not also get another horse for her to ride in lessons and in shows? No, you said that it was a question of finances, and you said that your husband would have to decide that. They were asking for that decision. Did he know that this was what had been intended? No, but did he ask? No. These were all assumptions. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. His daughter done what she wanted, the opportunity presenting itself; he did not ask the questions he should have; the owners dealt with a minor and the minor's stepmother; and, you are all screwed seven ways to Sunday. 

Fibs might have raised his muzzle from the nap he was taking and pressed it to me, or I might have wished for that. I looked out along the aisle between the boxes to the big green doors, beyond which lay the fields dotted with horses and divided by fences in the night, on up to the highway where the headlights made beams in the dark, and listened to the horses chew their hay. I might have felt like I was going to cry. The truths were at war. All I knew was that I was still his human, and that he depended on me. If nobody else were going to work with him, then I would have to learn and do what little I could. The cracks were there and running all over the barn floors and walls, and adding to the ones that already made webs of our walls and ceilings at home.

I could let Fibs go, but he was mine. I loved him. I cared for him. I took him for walks in the forest along the bridle paths others rode, and between the trees in the spaces between, and even, sometimes, between the trunks of the trees that grew in two, and he followed me, better, for the most part, it never failed to occur to me, than my poorly leash-trained lab. I regretted everything that had happened since he arrived from Maisons-Laffitte and missed the easyness of the pony club, the comforts that would have been afforded by the obvious solution of a half-board at the pony club, but could I regret Fibs and my name on his certificate of ownership? How, I wondered, on those walks and during those long grooming sessions, all I knew how to do at all, could I ever reconcile that? And, Fibs might have raised his muzzle from the ferns and pressed it to me, or I might have wished for that, while I gazed into his eyes and sealed my fate.
....

Fibs, November 11, 2012

This is a serialized story over an agonizingly long period (I get busy). For the earlier parts, you might like to read:

The Story I have not told, Fibs and I
A place to start
Pas de tout ou pas de deux?
Starting at the very beginning

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jeudi 29 mai 2014

Starting at the very beginning

le Coty, November 2012

What do you do with a horse when you don't ride? This is the question that imposed itself nearly as soon as I  brought my horse "home". It was certainly imposed by my somewhat bitter and testy husband.

"What are you going to do with him? You don't ride," he asked.

See? It didn't sound like a nice question. In fact, it sounded a lot like Why do we have this added expense we cannot afford, when you do not ride and my daughter does -- and I was never in favor of it --, and she doesn't have a horse? How I am I supposed to explain that to her? I wondered if I could safely ignore the question. It didn't take long before the question became explicit, and impossible to ignore.

The question asked, and asked again and again, I thought about it. To say that it never occurred to me to think about it that way would be accurate. To say that it never occurred to me that to not think about it was out of the ordinary never occured to me, but it occurs to most others. Horses are to ride. That is all. So, what is the sense in having a horse if you don't ride it? Every day after Fibs' arrival at the écuries de propriétaires near our home, I drove up with a little bag containing my iPad, some carrots, and not much else. I would arrive in the late morning, park under a tree in the courtyard, and walk up the lanes to his day pasture. He was alone in the beginning, the time to become a familiar figure to the other horses, and for the staff to figure out with whom to turn him out. I might pass one of the two young women who worked there, or the Polish handyman, who looked like a healthy blond peasant stock version of Prince Charming, and stop to receive news and say hello.

What do you do with a horse if you don't ride him?, I asked myself, approaching him.

Yes, what do you do with a horse when you don't know what to do with them, and you you barely know them, and this one nearly as little as I knew horses in general, except what I learned from Gina in a few months around her yards, and from the shelves of books about horses and their people, like Alec Ramsey, I read over and over when I was little? I needed an answer.

I looked around at his paddock, his pile of hay, and him, grazing quietly, tail swishing at flies in the September sunshine, admiring the shine of his burnished chestnut coat againt the blue sky. I watched the white clouds scuttle past the tops of the trees in the forest on the other side of the little vally in which the former breeding farm was settled. In the middle of that forest was the riding club where I had taken my husband's daughter to sign her up for lessons just a few years before, but today I was here for Fibs, for my horse, a horse I barely knew, and I needed to answer my question.

I set my bag down against an electric fence post and slipped between the two bands, hoping not to find out just yet what the shock felt like. Fibs looked up and considered me, and then took a few steps in my direction before lowering his muzzle to the grass again. He was judged thin. I needed a story to explain why Fibs was here, to make any sense of it to myself, and Seb's recounting of what he had seen where I had leased him worked as well as any other. I had been told that he wasn't being fed, and everyone judged him thin. To be honest, I didn't find him that thin, but I had said it, and now it was fact: he had not been fed; one had to approach his care and feeding as one would approach that of any horse who had done without food.

My apprenticeship began with responding to orders. As soon as he stepped off the truck and was led into a paddock and then his box, I was directed to go directly to get a short list of essentials. My husband shifted into boy scout mode, making me instantly feel like a dawdler when I had not let an instant escape me, like someone had to care about this horse, and if I weren't going to do it, he would have to step in and take over. I chose to let it pass without remark; his work pays Fibs' board.

My work? Ah, we'll see. I'm sure I'll earn some money again one of these days. Meanwhile, I was not, shall we say, in a position of power. Thank goodness I went to a women's feminist college and got a professional degree. Lets me understand the full impact of my inadvertant and premature "retirement", into which I slid like the frog in hot water slips into his death, although I was aware of a generalized sense of panic and possessing a pretty clear notion of what depression feels like. I fought back with gardening, becoming a dog person, and now, I had acquired a horse. I was accomplishing Great Things: my childhood dream.

He drove while I Googled feedstores and dialed numbers. The feed suggested was not available. I called the stable, and they said we could do without it, but the Phosphalugel was essential to protect his stomach and help keep him from colicking. I knew what that was from stories told at my stepdaughter's club and Gina's yard. We headed to the pharmacy and returned with a case of the stuff. Enough for more than the week's supply requested, and Fibs' lips showed the traces of his morning's dose from where I contemplated him, my horse, Fibs and Flannel. My horse.

I stepped up to the plate and moved toward him. I had learned to be comforable going in and out of boxes, hot-walking horses, and had even tentatively groomed a few, but I knew there are ways to do these things, ways that muct be learned. I made a note to myself to look up interacting with a horse in turnout when I got home, and decided to wing it and watch his signals. I had enough sense to know that even the nicest horse can kill you in an instant, without even intending it, and I knew that Fibs was not the nicest horse; he was grumpy, and a bit suspicious and wary, and he very possibly hadn't eaten much in a few weeks.

And, still, I did things that would curl the hair of the majority of consciencious and high-priced trainers. To start with, to let Fibs know that I was not dangerous and posed him no threat, I sat near his feet in the middle of the field. This was either entirely misguided or just fine. If you ask Monty Roberts, Franklin Levinson and anyone else who works with horses according to a philosophy and with experience behind them, it was probably at least a tiny bit misguided. There are ways to do this, only I didn't know them. I did what came to mind, what seemed to make sense, and I was usually at least partly right. That day, sitting not far from him in the grass, he grazed his way closer to me, mouthful by mouthful, and then grazed around my cloth sneaker-clothed feet. I looked at them in their thin canvas shell and then at his teeth, clamping onto tufts of blades of grass that he then sheared away with a jerk of his powerful neck, his jaw working his chewing teeth even as he ripped new blades to send back to those terrible grinding surfaces.

And, I learned a first lesson: boots are a good idea, even when merely visiting with your horse. I tended to dress as though I were going out to dead-head my roses, in my canvas sneakers, linen roll-up trousers and a summer top and sunglasses. I saw everyone else wearing their work breeches, riding socks and paddock boots, and I thought I needed to earn the right to wear those outward manifestations of equestrian accomplishment and ease. I was beginning to understand that they are also practical and protective, but it was going to take a little time to dare to appropriate them for myself. Meanwhile, my toes would remain vulneravle to his teeth, and I would be fully conscious of this.

Grazing, now, to the left of my thigh, his the front end of his body casting a shadow over my entire body where I sat, I became aware of his choice to be near me and my awareness of his choice. I sat in silence, watching his jaw, his eyes and ears, any signs of a change in his awareness and attitude. It is not possible to sit just below and to the side of 500 kilos of horse flesh, those horn-covered feet so close to one's canvas-covered feet, and not sense that something very bad could happen at any second, but it does not take research and lessons to sense and understand fear and anxiety in another animal. I felt his energy. It was contented. Relaxed. Focused on the act of satisfying his drive to chew and swallow, tearing off blades of grass to satisfy the machine. The other horses, dotting the slopes of the neighboring pastures were dozing, their backs and legs locked, or similarly engaged. I did not specifically know from learning that they were all in the closest of communication over the distances that separated them, but I knew. They were telling one another, and me along with them, that we were safe. I remained where I was, and eventually his grazing took him farther away.

I moved to various points around the field, hoping for his interest in me to be piqued again. He was free, free to graze here or there, go to drink from his trough or to eat from his pile of hay, free to stop and rest or to notice me, or not. I had no objective. No need to slip a halter on him and take him somewhere to do something. He was taken out in the morning and brought back in the evening. He had everything he needed. I was peripheral to his existence as he understood it, while I was central to it as the signatory of his boarding contract and his listed owner, as I understood it. He depended on me for everything, while having not the slightest notion of this.

He did not need me to ride him. He had no need for me that he could understand. Watching him live his life that first morning, I understood this. It was up to me to become a human and a presence of interest in his life by meeting his needs, including, I hoped, entertainment. He had worked with humans nearly every day of his life for at least the past 3 1/2 years, and he was used to that. The owners and staff told me he needed at least 6 months to "just be a horse", but I was not convinced. If he learned he enjoyed my presence and what we would eventually do together, whatever it could be as the days went by, then why would he prefer to be left alone, although for the remainder of the time I spent in his field that morning, it seemed the latter might be the case, after all.

Later, I would understand that being present without interacting with him, I had aroused his curiosity, and his interest piqued, he had moved toward me to find out more about me. I had been quiet and observant, and he had determined that he could be near me and safe. Without knowing what it was called, but perfectly conscious that it was what I desired, I had achieved our first join-up. By knowing that I wanted to establish a relationship with him and understand him better, I had taken my first step in becoming a member of his herd and been accepted.

In the days that followed, I showed up and did the same thing. Eventually, I retrieved my bag from the fencepost where it sat, safe, carried it to where I would sit in the shade, and took the iPad out, thinking I would write about our time together. But, it was at precisely those moments that Fibs became the most interested in me. Like a small child whose mother is suddenly unavailable, engaged in some other engrossing activity other than paying attention to her child, Fibs was all about me. All that remained was to keep the iPad and my canvas-covered feet safe from his feet, and take selfies.

And, as usual, I had Fibs to thank for the idea because this one, which he suggested, made it known without a shadow of a doubt that we were becoming buds, and while it might not be the most flattering of photos of either of us -- I had been introduced to the fly mask and shown how to put one on him, and while he looked dignified enough in it when standing, he looked like an old lady in a rain bonnet (or shower cap) from below -- nothing is more precious and incresibly amazing than that.
....




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.

"FIBS, 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 much 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.
....