The summer heat has broken at last, and Huey the Wonder Horse is bursting with beans. We had a front come through overnight on Tuesday. The humidity dropped like a rock and we woke to crystal clear skies, the promise of a nip in the air, and a freshening breeze picking up through the trees.
My barn owner calls this “colic weather” because the horses are used to being hot and sweaty and drinking gallons, but when it cools off, they forget to drink. And then, because horse digestive systems are as efficient and failsafe as women’s reproductive organs (a Monday-morning design job if I’ve ever seen one), they wind up colicking. Colic is the scariest word I know, as a horse owner. It’s not like baby colic, which is also a scary word to parents, because it means “There goes the household’s sleep until this is over…” but it’s not usually fatal. Horse colic isn’t usually fatal, but it’s often fatal. Times like this, I really dread that midnight call. Fortunately, the barn management is on top of the problem, or I’m pretty sure they are, and start dishing out electrolytes to make the horses keep drinking. They do say that awareness and preparation are most of the battle. I’m going to choose to believe that, because there isn’t anything else I can do, and I’d prefer not to lose that much sleep.
I call this “Hey, my brain works again” weather. There’s something about the oppressive heat and humidity that makes it hard for me to think or do anything. It’s sort of like when I take an antihistamine…the spongy cloud those little pills throw up to catch the pollen and snot also catch thoughts in my brain and trap them there. I know they don’t really throw up a spongy cloud, but it works, no? Heat does the same kind of thing to me. Air that you can actually see makes it hard to think. Makes it hard to launch a thought, makes it hard for that thought to move from Point A to Point B. You can’t talk through thick air like that. When the autumn fronts start coming through, they sweep up that thick air and send it away, and then it becomes possible to think again. And to do stuff. I get energized. I remember what it feels like to be enthusiastic.
I’m not alone in that, either. You ought to see Huey when these fronts start to come through. I remembered this from last year, that if I am feeling juiced to the eyeballs by fresh air, he is too, and there’s a lot more of him to get juiced, and his eyeballs are a lot higher than mine. So I planned for it this time, because it’s finally happening…I am starting to get experience. Useful experience, I mean. I halfway expected, when I drove up, that the Wonder Horse would be out racing in his paddock like a lunatic. And some of the other horses were…but he was hanging out, staring at his grain dish as if working a spell to Summon Food. Even when I haltered him up, he was his usual interested but placid middle-aged self.
Yet when we took one step past that Magic Barrier of the paddock fence, his eyes lit up, his head went up, his ears went forward, and he got ready to spring into action. I gave the lead rope a quick yank to remind him that he was Not Alone in this moment, and he settled down. And I? That momentary response confirmed me in Plan A: lunging first, then groundwork (for you non-horse-people, that’s like obedience work with the dog, you know, Sit! Heel! Stay! kind of stuff), then tacking, and then riding.
It’s easier for me to lunge Huey in the round pen, because I don’t need to use the lunge line. Less gear management to distract me, nothing to potentially trip over for me or him…and he likes it a whole lot better too. He hates being lunged. Not in the OMG! NOT THE LUNGE LINE!!! RUN AWAY!!! HELP! HELP! HELP! way that horses can “hate” something. More like “hate” in the sense of “I hate working out on the treadmill at the gym.” or “I hate long division” kind of “hate”. Gets a dull look in his eye, and starts asking right away if we’re done yet. The round pen doesn’t do that for him. He goes right in there and starts heading right around.
Yesterday, he started heading right around at a trot, not his usual slogging walk. Head up, tail flying in the wind, I could only stand an admire him…until he put his nose down and began inspecting the footing with an Assessing Eye. There was one spot that seemed to be attracting a lot of his attention. The wettest spot in the ring. I couldn’t understand what was so fascinating about this spot until I saw him give it a good Speculative Look and begin to slow his pace waaaaay down. It didn’t take a psychic flash to see where this was going: he had located a Premium Rolling Spot.
I glared at him and pointed down his path. “Go.” I said.
He went around twice more before starting to slow down and eye the Rolling Spot again.
“GO!” I said.
Once around, this time. And this time, when I said “GO” he flicked a look at me, stopped square on that spot, and started to buckle his knees.
He had clearly forgotten that I was holding the lunge whip. I said “GO!” and gave the whip a good smart crack in the air. It fired off like a shot.
Those knees unbuckled in Record Time as he straightened entirely up and launched into a canter at escape velocity. Two paces of that and he forgot all about rolling, and was fully and completely dedicated to leaping in the air like a foal. He kicked his heels, saw it was Good, did it some more, and decided that if a little was good, a lot would be better, and threw off a few bucks. Saw that was Good as well, so he put his head down and bucked all the way around the ring. * I couldn’t help it. I told him he was a crazy idiot, and I laughed. He threw off another buck or two and then settled down to a huge floaty canter. Then I was able to go back to admiring him for a minute.
That’s one of my favorite things to do, it is – admiring my horse. One of my second favorite things is watching other people admire my horse. I got to have that experience, too, as another one of the boarders was still around, watching the rodeo unfold.
“I’m so glad I’m having this experience with my feet on the ground,” I said, “and not from his back.”
Chalk one up to 11 months of horse ownership: one very good decision made this week.
The weather also signals the return of the academic grindstone. About half of the kids are back in school, the other half go back next week. My college fired up this week. Several of the other colleges fire up after Labor Day.
So what this weather means, other than Rodeo Time at the barn, is Traffic Time in the towns. This area is called, among other things, the “Five College Region”. In the general vicinity, we have Smith, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire College, Amherst College, and the University of Massachusetts flagship campus. That means, among other things, there are only about four weeks out of the year when parking is not an issue. Two weeks after school ends but before the tourists come flocking in, and two weeks after the tourism season winds down but before the college students return in a swarm.
It’s always fun when the students come back. The capital of this state is Boston, you know. And Boston drivers have a reputation that spans the nation. The closest thing I’ve seen to the Boston driving experience is the Rome driving experience, and possibly the Ciudad Juarez driving experience. Nothing else rivals it for sheer, pure, aggressive chaos. The chaos, and possibly the aggression, is supported by the Local Attitudes towards traffic control that are evident in the lack of road striping (in many places), the disdain for shoulders, the need for on-road parking (which gives rise, naturally, to the demand for double parking), the casual attitudes towards street naming (which gives rise, for pragmatic reasons, to a lack of street signs). Oh, yes, and this part of the country had been fully developed long before the automobile, so the streets are characterized by qualities of Narrowness and Windingosity. When you go through Boston, the thought must surface: these streets look like they were made by wandering livestock. And so they were.
Now, Northampton isn’t quite as bad, mainly because it’s smaller and has fewer people living in it. But we can do Narrow, Winding streets that change names randomly with the best of them. The main street through town is Route 9, Bridge Street (not to be confused with Bridge Road, which is about a mile away), Main Street, Elm Street, Locust Street, or Haydenville Road. And all that within a five-mile stretch. The traffic signals and patterns can be equally wonky.
And therein lies the amusement value of the students pouring back into the area. Three quarters of them knew how to get around before, but have forgotten over the summer…and a quarter of them have no idea at all.
It’s like putting 36,000 Student Drivers on the road, all at once, and towing U-Hauls and horse trailers.
And the Crowning Glory? Today starts the “Three County Fair” in Northampton – the big agricultural festival/demolition derby/roller derby/live music festival/midway for Western Massachusetts – celebrating its 195th anniversary…and the fair grounds are smack in the middle of town…so you can add to those 36,000 student drivers an additional 100,000 fairgoers, tractors, trailers, livestock, and other rustics.
It’s times like this that I thank the heavens that I live smack in the center of town, and don’t actually need to put my car on the road other than to visit my horse (going away from the traffic jams), shop for groceries (can time that strategically and do it only once per week), and drive to work myself (out of the traffic and to another town with a less student-heavy population). It affords me the chance to hang out in the window of the coffeeshop and just watch the havoc unfold.
I’m so glad I’m having this experience with my feet on the ground, and not from behind the wheel.
*Yes, for those of you who know horses, he was keeping his back end where it belonged, which was well away from me. And he kept an ear on me, and if horses could smile, he’d have been grinning like an idiot. And yes, I gave him the cues for down transitions, and he accepted them, so we’re not talking about some scary craziness. No worries.