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.
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