Monthly Archives: June 2014

A Horse And His Girl

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The Wonder Horse and I shared a Moment today.

We don’t have too many Moments.  Huey…well, in his first life, I think Huey was probably traded around like a baseball card.  He’s a highly-bred professional athlete, and my take on the Professional Equestrian world is that it’s a rare, rare thing when someone competes with the same horse for years and years.  You do see it at the very top levels of the sport, but at the lower-but-still-high levels it doesn’t seem to be quite the thing.  It was clear, when Huey came to us, that he didn’t have any concept of Member Of The Family Status at all.  He acted like a horse that was used to having to be extremely sensitive and completely obedient under the saddle…but the rest of the time? It was clear that no one had bothered to invest in that.  No manners to speak of – unless you want to speak of bad manners. No concept of bonding and affection – and I’m talking about the horsey kind of those things, not the 8 year old horse girl kind of those things.

Under saddle, he was a High Performance Equine Machine with a lot of Go.

In the cross-ties, he was a steady, patient stander for the farrier, vet, and groomer.

Otherwise, he was demanding, impulsive, disrespectful, and barely seemed to notice the person who was handling him, regardless of who that person was.  He wasn’t interested in expressions of human affection, even the kinds that are often appealing to horses, like scratching.  He certainly didn’t dish out any obvious sort of equine affection.  He was mouthy, and would attempt to mug anyone for treats, but demanded them instead of asking politely.

Nevertheless, we liked each other.  I still remember this, riding him in a lesson, and my trainer marveling at how much Huey seemed to like me.  And I liked him right back.  There was a lot of like there, but it wasn’t an up-close and personal sort of “like”.  It was more of a “potentiality” sort of “like”.   Sort of a “recognizing” kind of “like”. It was enough of a “like” that when I found out he was to be sold, I was instantly appalled that Some Other Person would have him for their horse.  And thus, he became mine, and I became his.

My riding instructor is also a horse trainer, and one of the first things I did was invest in some Manners for Huey.  It was incredible to watch him get his perspective adjusted.  I can’t really do it justice with words.  If you go watch a few Buck Brannaman videos on YouTube you’ll see what I mean.  Huey came out of that with a New Awareness of the need to pay attention to the person on the end of the lead line, and a vocabulary involving Directions And How To Follow Them.  I got training for myself at the same time, and came out of it with a New Awareness of the need to pay attention to the signals I’m sending the horse, and a vocabulary involving Directions And How To Give Them.  It was one of the best investments I’ve made for Huey.  Right up there with getting a custom flocking job on his saddle so it fits properly.

Around that time, he was turned out with a mare – a little Chincoteague pony who put her own training on him.  I spent hours just watching her boss him around.  She would move him from Point A to Point B, in a way that would be pure caprice to humans…but it became clear that this capricious movement was, in part, directed at constantly reinforcing his awareness that there was a Boss On Deck, and it wasn’t him.  I took notes.  I also took note of how short her patience was with him: she expected instant obedience to her instructions.  There wasn’t ever any second request.  She would tell him to move his big red butt, and if he did not comply immediately, she’d lay those ears back while turning herself around and firing off a double-barreled blast at his side with both back hooves.  It was “move.” 1-2-BLAMMO.  And I took note that after a few of these, as soon as she said “move” he MOVED.

And so, we entered into our new life together with a dawning concept of Respect on his part, and an awareness of the need to be consistent on mine.  And it was fine.

The one thing, though, when my trainer was teaching him some manners, is that she couldn’t get him to “hook on” to her, as she put it.  I gathered that certain types of behavior and body language typically result in the horse developing some kind of (possibly temporary) attachment to the person on the ground, and that instead of getting attached, he tuned out.  I could see it.  He turned his head away a hair, not enough to show disrespect, but to avoid the lure.  He wasn’t available for that.  He wasn’t accessible.  He behaved, but he didn’t warm up.

I remember the first time he started to thaw even a little.  It was an early winter morning in the barn, waiting on the farrier to arrive first thing.  The horses were all in their stalls, not even quite awake for breakfast.  I just stood at Huey’s stall.  If I had the halter, he’d stand still and cooperate, but otherwise, he wasn’t spending any time sharing space with me.  Usually, he’d move away if I just stood there.  This time, he approached me.  I put out my hand tentatively.  Usually he’d move away from that too – unless I was grooming him or otherwise doing some kind of work-y thing.  This time, he just stood there.  I scratched his neck.  He didn’t move.  I scratched some more.  He didn’t respond in any way at all, other than not moving away.

It was our first Moment.

Over the years, he’s slowly but surely engaged with me more.  It’s been hard to know how to show him what it means to be a Member of the Family rather than Instrument of Victory.  These are very different worlds, and he wasn’t any spring chicken when we got together.  Over the years, he’s listened to me better, and talked to me more.  He’s accepted my human demonstrations of affection, while not really returning them, and I’ve been fine with that.  I know that a kiss has no real meaning in Horse Language, and most of the stuff that does mean “I like you!” in Horse is stuff that I don’t let him do around me because it’s dangerous.  Biting, shoving, there’s a reason they call it “horsing around” when kids are playing very physically with each other.  All I asked is that he stand still for a kiss and not pull away.  And over the years, he has.

I remember hand-grazing him last summer after a ride.  I’d hosed him down to cool off, and was letting him at the salad bar until he was dry.  A woman whose kids were getting a riding lesson stopped by and asked if this was my horse.  I told her with pride that he was.  She said she could tell, that we had a Bond. I wondered what on earth she could have been talking about.  I felt, largely, that what we had was an Ongoing Conversation rather than a Bond.

Then I got some professional portraits late last fall, and I could see it too.  I do have a Bond with Huey.  It positive burns off the screen in some of these pictures.  And looking at it, in succession of maybe 200 pictures taken over 2 hours or more, it’s so visible that I don’t wonder that perfect strangers could see it.

We’ve made a few advances even since then, when the pictures were taken.  Back in the day, when I approached the paddock and greeted him with a “Hey Buddy!” he might look up from his grazing, glance at me, and go back to his business.  He might just ignore me entirely.  Now, as often as not, he stops what he’s doing and comes over to the gate to greet me.  The other day, he even trotted over to the gate.  Horses don’t smile with their lips, but he was smiling with his whole self.

There was a Moment a few weeks ago, when I was untacking and cleaning him up after a ride.  No matter where I went, there was his nose, right there, right in front of my face.  He was very patiently moving it around, making sure that it was right there at all possible moments.  Eventually, the penny dropped for me.  He wanted to sniff noses, which is basically a sort of Horse Kiss.  Or, it can be.  With a certain kind of Sniff, it’s a Horse Kiss-My-Ass. This wasn’t that kind of sniff.   It’s the first time I remember him wanting to, well, bond.

And today, he was itchy and very happy to be getting curried.  The bugs have been bad, and if you do it right, currying is kind of like scratching.  The good kind of scratching, not the kind that make people say “Don’t scratch that!”.   Usually Huey cooperates with getting his face curried.  He doesn’t like it, but he tolerates it because I tell him he has to.  Some horses really like to get their forelock scratched, but he’s Not That Kind Of Horse.  I keep trying, just in case, and he keeps tolerating it, sort of.  He tolerates it for about 3 scratches, then he puts his head in the air like a giraffe.  He used to do that all the time when I got him.  Now, he hardly ever does it.  I regard that as a Success.

But anyway, I tried again today.  This time, to my shock, he dropped his head immediately, rested his face on my front, and I swear, if he was a cat, he’d have been purring.  He stood like that until my hand got tired.  I switched to the other hand, he put his face back on my front, and started not-quite-purring.  He has never done anything like that before.  Ever.  It was a Moment.

I begin to think that he’s starting to understand what it means to be a Member of the Family.  I begin to think that the penny has finally dropped for him that he doesn’t have to prove himself, that he doesn’t have to worry about when he’s going to have to go somewhere else, that he’s with me, and really, he will always be with me now.  No more getting traded, no more moving around, just us, doing whatever it is that we do.  I begin to think he’s learning about affection, and why it’s good.

 

The Thrill of Victory, and…

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Memorial Day has passed, which means that here in sunny warm rainy cold highly variable New England, summertime is getting underway.  And summer getting underway means two things in this household: horseback riding, and golf. The Wonder Horse is still in a rehab program from the last time he bunged up his leg and went lame, that time as a direct consequence of getting all pissy because Some Other Horse was getting to Go Back Into The Barn first.  Before him.  And, as you may be able to guess, this is Simply Unacceptable and Complaints Will Be Made.  Unfortunately, as it turned out for him, Making Complaints by kicking the hell out of his paddock gate was not very effective at Making Changes Around Here, and meanwhile, he managed to injure his tendon sheath.  I’m torn between two platitudes from my youth:  It never rains but it pours, and My God, it just never ends.

When you see horse people making jokes about wanting to roll their horses up in bubble wrap to keep them from getting injured, this is the kind of thing they mean.  Huey usually settles for connective tissue damage that makes him lame, although he did take a brief excursion away from Leg Injury Land when he got into the Face-Biting Fight and got himself cellulitis this winter.  I think I’ll go with My God, it just never ends.

In any event, riding is more about physical therapy and less about the Waaa-Hooo! stuff that horse girls dream about when they’re little and not personally responsible for vet bills.

All the excitement in the house these days is coming from that most-hated of all sports, ever: Golf.

Roy and I got a bunch of lessons last year, and things are improving.  They’re improving at the same rate that glaciers get made, but progress – if you look carefully – is discernible. Roy is probably doing marginally better than I am, because he had fewer problems to start with.  Mostly, I think, he just needs to settle down and focus instead of panicking when he sees that tiny white pimpled orb laughing up at him from the grass.

I had one of the several Truly Devastating Golf Curses: short hitting.  Or, as I said, I can hit a ball 100 yards with any club in my bag.  Which was awesome, except that I couldn’t hit a ball more than 100 yards with any club in my bag.  Given that your par 5 holes on a course have a green that can be 400 yards away from the tee, this is a huge problem.

Also, it’s demoralizing to go to the driving range and be tinking one ball after another between the first and second flags, while everyone else, even the little kids, seems to be clocking them right out into the back of the range.  The person next to me could be 10 years old, an 85 year old granny, a middle-aged guy with plumber’s crack, a college girl out for the first time with her boyfriend trying to teach her to hit, or a giggling 6 year old with a kiddie club, and still, they’re hitting Wham Wham Wham Wham, and I’m hitting tink tink tink tink.

Tink.

My golf lessons haven’t been about hitting the ball farther, they’ve been about hitting the ball up in the air.  I do understand that whole thing with friction, and the effect that bouncing has on speed, and I do get it that hitting the ball farther requires it to be up in the air first.  I get that.  And things are progressing on that front.

Roy always tells me how “great” my swing looks.  I can’t tell you how much worse it makes it when I tink the ball 50 yards with my 5 iron and then have Roy yell over “But your swing looks great!!” from some nearby tee.  If my swing were great I wouldn’t be tinking the ball 50 yards.  I’d be sending that sucker into the next zip code.  I’m always at a loss how to respond to this.  I’m certainly not going to say “Thanks!” for an entirely bogus compliment.  I’m not one of your gold-star babies that needs praise for trying.  In my world, it’s do or do not – there is no “try”.  Nor does it seem quite the thing to snarl “SHUT UP YOU LYING DOG” through clenched teeth, which is usually my first impulse.  Nor can I just pretend I didn’t hear it, because then he’ll just say it again and louder, and what happens next is that he’s attracted the attention of the Golf Gods.

The last thing I want is the attention of the Golf Gods.  Lady Luck has nothing on the Golf Gods for capriciousness.  They are jealous, these Golf Gods, and respond very poorly to praise delivered to anyone but them on the golf course, and what they do when that happens is that they fling down a Golf Curse like a thunderbolt.  This isn’t the same kind of Golf Curse that can be heard being uttered on any hole with a significant water hazard.  While it is cursing, it’s not A Curse.  And Golf Curses are the worst.  Just ask Tiger Woods.  I don’t know what he did to anger the Golf Gods, but when he missed a 5-foot putt and lost his own golf tournament last winter, I knew.  Any golfer who saw the start to Tiger’s season this year knows.  He got a Golf Curse.  Probably made the hideous mistake of expressing satisfaction aloud over one of his own drives.  Or – because the Golf Gods are super capricious – it might not even have been him that angered them and got the Golf Curse.  It could have been a buddy of his who said something stupid like “Tiger, you’re going to have your best season ever!”  That kind of thing definitely gets the attention of the Golf Gods, and if there’s enough hubris in the statement, the Golf Curse could be something really bad.  And long term.  Like it obviously was for Tiger.

I know this.  I know this because I’ve recently had a visit from the Golf Gods, in spite of my best efforts to remain completely off their radar.  Two weeks ago, I went to the driving range, expecting to have yet another dispiriting session of tink. tink. tink. while the pre-teen on the next mat waled her entire bucket of balls into another time zone.

Unfortunately, at my last golf lesson, Roy spent at least five minutes telling me how great my swing looked, which attracted the attention of the Golf Gods, and they put a truly terrible Golf Curse on me.

When I got to the range and settled in with my basket of balls, I received the surprise of my life:  I could not hit a bad shot.  I wasn’t sending my balls into orbit, but every one of them was shooting out high and far and straight.  Every one.  Nine out of ten balls I hit were beautiful shots.  90% of my shots were – for me – great.

Now, any golfer reading this will be having the same response I did: Wait, 90%? What? That never happens!!!  That’s amazing.

And it was.

And a lot of golfers will be having the other response I did:  Oh, no.  Please, no.  tink tink tink was better than this.

Because I knew.  There is no way in hell that I was hitting 90% awesome shots, not without some kind of supernatural intervention.  The only other viable alternative is that I was using my entire quota of good shots for the seasonand wasting them all on the driving range.

I don’t know which alternative was worse.  I mean, I don’t want to use my entire quota of good shots all at once, and not on the driving range either.  But the worse option, I think, was that the Golf Gods were involved.

My stepson offered a third alternative later that evening:  maybe I’d had a breakthrough from the lessons.

Could be, I said.  Could be.

So I waited a day or two and went back to the driving range, and while it wasn’t 90% of the shots being awesome, it was definitely 80% of them.

So I thought, maybe, breakthrough.  That would rock.

I called Roy, who was out of town, and told him that I might possibly have had a breakthrough.  And shared with him my tremendous success rate at the range.  Foolishly, I was happy.

Several days later, it happened.  Roy and I went out to the range, and he said “We should play a round soon! You’re really going to be kicking the course now!”

And I knew.  I broke out in a cold sweat and told him to take that back.  RIGHT NOW, TAKE IT BACK.

Alas, it was too late, as I knew well it would be.

On that trip to the range, out of an entire small bucket of balls, I hit three (3) acceptable shots.  For a success rate of, what, 5%?  It was a disaster.  I couldn’t hit to save my life. I knew it wasn’t a good thing that I was suddenly able to hit great.

This is the worst Golf Curse I’ve ever received.  It would have been bad enough if I’d just been turned into a more mediocre version of my previous self.  That would have been torment.  But hitting like I had been was like drinking the nectar of the gods, it was like touching the gates of heaven.   The agony of being suddenly turned into a profoundly lousy hitter, instead of simply a mediocre one, was magnified exponentially for having seen the holy grail.  How much greater the anguish and woe of the fall from that pinnacle of glory than if I’d simply dropped down a single level.  It has been torture.

I’ve got another lesson lined up, and I know already when I relate this absolutely devastating course of events to the golf pro, he’s doing to peer out from the brim of his cap and say “Yep, that’s golf for you.”

Because it is.  You can run, but you cannot hide.  The Golf Gods will find you, and their wrath and vengeance will destroy you.  The only way to avoid it is not to play at all, and we can’t be having with that, can we?