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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