Wednesday on the Road

I can’t find a to-go cup for my coffee. I’m juggling my car keys and my phone, and I say goodbye to the dogs. “Be good,” I say. They look at me like they won’t.

It’s 75F at 7 am and raining in bursts like a car wash. I keep trying to turn the wipers up, and they don’t go any faster. I spill a couple of spoonfuls of coffee out of my cup  and three long trails traverse the dashboard. I plug in my phone and it plays that one Clem Snide song (1989) instead of the book I’m trying to read. A Toyota pulls up to the red light ahead of me, pauses to look without stopping completely and runs the red. 

I fight with the phone-car interface and get another song, Billie Holiday singing “You Go to my Head.” On the way to the barn it plays five, six times. I sing along for parts of it. It is my car’s second favorite song.

At the barn my arm gets soaked punching the buttons at the locked gate. I am there to put sport tape on my horse for her trip up to Vermont. Staff ask me what it is and why I’m doing it and what it’s supposed to do.  I run out of explanations and say simply that it can’t hurt and might help.


I stop for breakfast at a diner where a handwritten sign on the door says they don’t take credit cards. I order eggs. The waitress calls me hon when I ask for the restroom. There is no mobile coverage here. The music asks do you like piña coladas and says she’s a rich girl but it’s gone too far. Sweet home Alabama and my coffee cup is refilled three times.

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She brings the check during desperado and it’s for $10.31.

Gimme the beat boys that frees my soul I wanna get lost in your rock and roll when I put my raincoat back on.

I have cash and I’m out of here, but I do buy the five flavors roll of Lifesavers at the register, and this is the ticket to 1972, when the rainbow roll of Lifesavers was my favorite.

Despite the three cups of diner coffee, I’m feeling a little sleepy when I get in the car.

The navigation software has failed to hold onto the route I picked and tries to send me to the big boring interstate, back down the Taconic the way I came. I pull a U-ey and head north without anything but a vague sense that it’s the right way to go. 

I rode the Robo-Pony

What I did: rode the Robo-Pony (not its trademarked name), a mechanical horse with computerized controls and feedback, available for one-on-one lessons with a professional instructor. 

Who went with me: S. and K., my barn friends. We took turns. 

What I did beforehand: watched the FEI Grand Prix CDI 5* at the AGDF Wellington, Florida 

What I wore: new running bra and breeches, purchased for the experience.  

How I got tickets: we just, like, you know, walked up to this vendor’s tent, and saw a woman having a lesson on the Robo-Pony, stuck our heads in and started asking questions.

Why I tried it: it looked like fun.

Where I sat: slightly left, as I do, according to the sensors, and spent at least five minutes getting used to the terribly uneven feeling of sitting symmetrically in the saddle.  

Things that were sad: someone had yanked the left rein and broken the sensor, so the Robo-Pony was completely dull on the left side of its mouth. Also, I forget its name. Also, we had to pay the full amount, even though the Robo-Pony was kind of busted.

Things that were funny: I clucked at the Robo-Pony to get it to go. K. patted it. 

Things that were not funny: we were not supposed to kick the Robo-Pony to make it go. K. struggled because her long legs were below the sensors on its sides. Both S. and I kicked the Robo-Pony to make it go.

Something I bought: new Pikeur breeches in a lovely shade of French blue

What it is: an opportunity to ride an equine simulator and see on seven sensor screens some feedback about your position when riding, but probably not a substitute for real riding. The Robo-Pony revealed many of my known positional flaws, including my tendency to drop contact with the bit when I ask the horse to go forward; dropping the reins made the Robo-Pony stretch out and down and the computer screens filled with red bars of failure signals. Of the three of us, I am the least experienced dressage rider, and probably the only one interested in trying it again. I thought it was fun.

Who should see it: bored and curious visitors to the 2017 Adequan® Global Dressage Festival 

What I saw after: 2016 Rio Olympic Games bronze medalist Laura Graves riding her 2002 Dutch Warmblood gelding Verdades, in the “Friday Night Stars” FEI Grand Prix Freestyle CDI-W, with the winning score of 80.728%.

I lied

What I did: lied at the dentist’s office.

What I did beforehand: took the train to Grand Central. 

What I wore: jeans and sneakers.

Who went with me: 19.

Why I was there: 19 cracked a filling.

Where I sat: the lobby, watching one of those game shows where they ask people harder and harder multiple choice questions.


How I learned to lie: I was born honest, not knowing how to lie. Forbidden to touch my mother’s sewing machine, I sewed through my finger when I was 4, breaking the needle off and requiring stitches. Twice. 

When I was 5, I stole a decorative cardinal from my mother’s craft supples and inserted the wire on its foot into the hole of an electrical wall socket; I found out what getting shocked feels like. My mother discovered me trying to wash away the terrible burning feeling, and I refused to tell her what happened. 

When I was 9, I was friends with the popular girls in my elementary school class, and my mother pointedly instructed me that if any of them ever ask me to do anything I wasn’t comfortable with, I could say that my mother wouldn’t let me.


Things that were sad: when I was 12, I was sent to a summer camp in Colorado where I went horse camping and did not learn to cinch my girth tight enough and the other girls were extravagantly mean to all newcomers, and if I had known enough to be a malingerer, I would have invented stomachaches. Conveniently, I did not have to invent stomachaches, for I spent days on end in the infirmary with diarrhea.

When I was 13, my family went to a friend’s cabin on a lake in Missouri and my brother and I exaggerated our experience with horses and talked the wranglers into giving us a string of sour trail horses to go ride unsupervised. One horse bolts back to the barn with the youngest of us. Mine bucked me off onto a gravel road. I got stitches but will always have rocks in my head.

When I was 15, my best friend B— who taught me all the right details about wearing preppy clothes– took real English riding lessons and wore a black velvet helmet and tan jodhpurs and I was so jealous I avoided speaking to her for seven years. 

Things that were funny: When I was 17, I was late for French class several times a week because Excusez-moi, Monsieur Masson! Je suis tres désolée parce que je suis en retard. J’ai aidé mon amie Aimee à monter les escaliers. Or even, I am so sorry Mr. Masson, I have terrible cramps today. No matter what my excuse, he reddened, shook his jowly, understanding face and allowed it.

When I was 20, I talked my way into a summer job waiting tables at the Rosebud, promising that I would definitely, positively stay on through the next school year. I was terrible at waiting tables, forgetting orders, dropping huge trays of food, and crying. I made big tips and quit in August. 

When I was 21, I wrote a fake-serious letter to a small brewery in Pennsylvania describing in hyperbolic terms a nearly-disastrous power outage saved only by a six-pack of their delicious cold beer. They sent me two cases, via their distributor, but upon arrival they almost did not give it to me because I did not appear to be of a legal age to drink. 

Things that were not funny: when I was 10, I breathlessly took strangers into my false confidences on a chair lift in Breckenridge, Colorado and said I was an accomplished gymnast hoping to make the U.S. Olympic team and almost never allowed to ski. 

When I was 18, I worked for a family in Wellesley, Massachusetts doing light housework and caring for their young children in the afternoons. The more days they asked me to come, the more I grew to hate them; they gave me migraines. I quit abruptly, concocting a story I no longer remember.

Something I ate: when I was 11, I made decent money babysitting, passing the hours snooping in peoples’ drawers and tasting their food. I spent it on plastic model horses.

What it is: one of the receptionists at the dentist asked after my middle child. I might have had time to be honest if we hadn’t been walking out the door, but it was so awkward to tell the truth. “He’s fine,” said I, invisibly cringing at my laziness.


Who should lie: I got out of the practice of lying when I got married, though once we had kids I pretended to be both the tooth fairy and Santa. 


What I saw on the way home: more rain.

Actually, this is a train bound for Grand Central

I went for a walk

What I saw: the woods of the Kitchawan Preserve, Ossining, New York

What I wore: tall black custom Vogel field boots, Prince of Wales spurs, light brown Pikeur full-seat breeches, lilac 3/4-sleeve L.L.Bean polo shirt, Charles Owen Ayr8 helmet, prescription sunglasses, black SSG® Soft Touch™ Riding Gloves. 

What I did beforehand: overslept

Who went with me: Remonta Hado, aged 15, also sometimes known as Hado or Brown or, even, Big Brown.

How I got here: a set of random, impulsive decisions that might be impossible to replicate.

Why I went for a walk: we have been working very hard and needed a break. It was a perfectly clear, bright, dry sunny day.

Where I sat: Devouxcoux mono-flap dressage saddle.

Things that were sad: you, my readers, won’t look at my last blog post

Things that were funny: there are signs posted in this park stating that dogs must be on leash, and also further stipulating that dogs must be on a leash up to six feet long. I do occasionally see people walking a dog on a leash here, but almost always see people with their dogs off leash. Walking a dog off-leash is a great pleasure, of course, for both the dog, that gets to explore its freedom, and the walker, who walks and indulges in the sight of their dog moving at liberty. But it all depends on an owner’s ability to call the loose dog and leash it up again. I saw three dogs on this walk. The first was a black lab mix named Lola. Lola’s owners shouted “come” about eleven or twelve or eighty-one times before it occurred to them to turn around and walk the other way. Their apology was, “Oh, she’s never seen a horse before.”

Things that were not funny: the next dogs I saw were a pair of merle Australian shepherds. Their owners were calling shrilly but fruitlessly, as well, perhaps unaware of the deer their dogs were presumably pursuing, when suddenly the dogs exploded from the dense brush, charged me and my quiet, motionless horse who retained all of his composure while the marauding, barking fluff-balls were re-captured. These owners shouted at me accusingly about how they hadn’t any place to move off the trail (a statement so incomprehensible I am still mulling it over, days later), and flexed their muscles dragging off the canine ruffians by the neck and making no apology at all as we paraded sedately past them. 

What it is: the Kitchawan Preserve is a 208-acre natural area bordered by New York City reservoirs. It features reasonably well-maintained, wooded trails and a few open fields. It is lovely in all four seasons, though it can be very muddy after strong rains, and is heavily used by dog-walkers, particularly on weekends in fine weather. It was once a research facility of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. There are two horse farms abutting the preserve, though I rarely see other riders in the woods. 

Who should see it: didn’t Thoreau say, “Not till we are lost in the woods on horseback, out of the earshot of people and their dogs, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations?” 

What I saw on the way home: when we emerged from the woods and stepped back onto the mowed, grassy paths of the farm where Hado lives, we were again among Hado’s folk, the herd. Horses stood in paddocks alone and in pairs, heads bowed in worship of one of their gods, the late summer grass, and another of their gods, the sunshine.  Hado glanced in the direction of two of his equine brethren and compelled them to dance in his direction. He celebrated their greeting with a sequence of bounces, tossing his head and shoulders and laughing in his throaty bass-baritone. I gave him a kick, and directed him back to the barn.

I went to a Horse Show

Where I went: Centerline Events Dressage Show I at HITS, in Saugerties, New York

Dressage Hair

What I wore: Charles Owen helmet, heavy-duty hairnet under a rhinestone-decorated black crocheted net to cover the hair in back that doesn’t fit up under the helmet, white performance fabric show shirt, stock-tie, pin in the shape of a riding crop and horse, black Pikeur show jacket, white full-seat Pikeur breeches, custom Vogel dress boots, Prince of Wales spurs. 
White breeches, tall dress boots, and spurs
What I did beforehand: put my suitcase, bootbag, and hanging bag in the car, threw my purse in the car, broke my favorite glasses with my purse, filled a five gallon water container, drove to get gas, heard glugging noise, discovered two gallons of water had spilled into the back of my car; went home to get towels, left late, drove to Saugerties without a functioning radio or GPS, hit a piece of rebar on a freeway ramp. 

They were my favorite glasses
Who went with me: my horse Hado, and he’s really my husband’s horse, and his show name is Remonta Hado which is a name that means he is a “remount,” or, calvary horse. Hado came from the military breeding program in Argentina; “hado” is a Spanish word, and means, “fate.”
Hado, napping at the show
Why I went to this show: when you learn to ride, you spend a lot of time in a ring, going around in a circle or down the long side at the walk, trot, and canter. Not every horse and rider will go to shows, but many horses seem to enjoy it, and it is a very different experience to leave your barn and go someplace new, even if all you’re doing is walk, trot, and canter. You get nervous. Your horse gets nervous. When it goes well, it makes the months of work feel worth it. When it doesn’t go well, you know what you need to work on at home. 

Show horses get a lot of baths
Where I sat: everyone going to shows from our barn got these chairs with our names on them so we have someplace to sit in the barn area at the show. The chairs have pockets and a little table, and I will keep saying that they’re for the quiz until someone actually laughs.

Hado getting braided

Things that were sad: when I left the barn on Saturday, I dropped an antique pin that had been a gift from my mother. When I arrived on Sunday, someone had found the pin and put it on a table, so I decided I needed to wear it. One of the grooms noticed that it made a tiny, rattling noise and thought it might be annoying to ride in. It was somewhat annoying when I was in the ring, doing the tests, but the rest of the time I didn’t notice. When I got home I noticed that I lost the other pin–the one shaped like a riding crop and horse. It, too, had been a gift from my mother (this was the sad part). 

Hay twine on the ground at the show
Things that were funny, or real things I heard trainers say in the warm-up area:
“Generate some magic.”
“More electric! More electric!”
(Shouting) “Don’t overreact! Stick! stick! GOOD!!”
“Kill it, ok? You ride. You deserve to be here.”
“Now! Kick him now! And trot! And trot!!”
“Go get busy! Thaaaaaat’s better.”
“Inner leg! Inner leg! Inner leg! Inner leg! Inner leg! Inner leg! Inner leg!”

Tractor waiting to drag the warm-up ring
Things that were not funny: over two days, I did the same two tests, and something went wrong each time. My first test I had learned incorrectly, and on my last test (when I did it a second time), the judge rang the bell to let me know I’d made an error; I was very confused because I had done the test the first day and that judge hadn’t let me know about my error. The other test was slightly more interesting and exciting to Hado, so the first day I rode him tentatively because he felt like he might explode. The second day I rode him forward, and he bounced with excitement in several corners.
What I ate: bacon-egger, coffee, and juice
What it is: dressage is a French word, that means “training.” It is a separate discipline from other English riding competitions like showjumping, though it is one phase of eventing, but the basic techniques underlie all riding. At the high levels, riders and horses perform freestyle programs to music, so some people call it Olympic horse dancing and think it’s silly.  

Hado and Me
Who should see it: like other equestrian sports, it is hard for non-horsey people to know what they’re watching at a dressage show. If you do want to go watch, don’t bring your dogs, don’t make a lot of noise, and do sit down next to someone who seems to know what they’re looking at, and ask them to tell you what you’re seeing.

Graduation party: I sat on the floor

What I saw on the way home: after my last class on Sunday, I hopped off my horse, handed him to the grooms with a hearty, “Thank you!”, grabbed my bags and jumped in my car without even taking off my helmet. I took off my spurs and helmet in the parking lot, but couldn’t unfasten the antique pin, so I left it on, with the tie, and made a detour from Saugerties through central Connecticut to go hug my niece who just graduated with high honors from Wesleyan University. My brother was there, and his ex-wife, and five of their college friends from their Wesleyan days, and my sister-in-law’s best friend, and both of her parents, and one of her brothers, and my niece’s boyfriend and his father and sister, and one other woman who I met but I have no idea who she was. I was still in my tie and white breeches and tall boots, and probably looked like George Washington.

Out of the Woods

One of the horses, a gelding, settled in to the new barn right away, making himself popular with the staff for his calm demeanor and habit of grazing quietly in turnout. The other, a mare, has seemed tense and worried, though still willing enough to get out every day. It was a relief when finally she dropped her head and relaxed for the first time on a trail ride in the woods last Friday.
At 18, the mare Nacari is no longer sound for much more than trail rides. A suspensory ligament tear almost a decade ago never healed properly, or was reinjured.  Back in Seattle my trainer encouraged me to retire her in 2009, and though I had my misgivings, I complied, and sent her to a facility in Sacramento. The reports were never encouraging; she lived alone in a 20 by 20 pipe stall and they hadn’t been able to find her a friend to live with. In the summer of 2011, we were leaving the west coast and I wouldn’t leave Nacari in California. We shipped her east to join our other horse at the new barn in New York.
She arrived with a long mane, strong bare feet, with a wild defiance in her eye and none of the ground manners she had known when she left. We started her on some light work on the walker, to see if she was sound, and she was. Over the next four years we found that real ring work was always too much for her, but she had a great attitude about riding outside, especially with another horse. She was a serviceably sound horse for that job.
It brought me tremendous joy to be able to spend many good days with this horse whose show career had ended much too soon. On reflection, retiring her at a barn far away and not seeing her for a whole year, she must have felt abandoned. I saw her look of recognition when she greeted my youngest son in New York. She groomed his hair in just the way she always had when she towered over him because he was four and so was she; we are her people as much as she is our horse. Retirement far away was truly a mistake. My mistake.
She had but two days of ill health over our four years at the last barn in New York; one when she got anaplasmosis from a tick bite. An alert staff member  noticed that she was especially quiet in turnout and thought to take her temperature: it was dangerously high. The other was on a December day two years ago. I finished riding her and she seemed agitated and unsettled. When I put her in her stall she turned and looked at her belly. She pooped, and curled her lip, and tensed her belly muscles, looking for just like anyone with bad stomach cramps. We called the vet.
Colic is unarguably the leading medical cause of death in horses. It refers to a range of gut-related conditions, and can be caused by horses not drinking enough water, or consuming sand, or bad hay, or weather, or change of feed, or you know, Tuesday. Some barns keep a supply of banamine and administer it when a horse looks seriously colicky, right around the some moment that they send someone to call the vet.
In this case, Nacari pooped and pooped until it was liquid diarrhea, and the vet pronounced it colitis and not colic. She responded to meds, recovered, and we pretty much forgot about it.
But when you change barns, you watch, because changes in weather or feed can upset a horse, and anything that upsets a horse can make it colic.
Saturday we were on our way to the new barn when I got the call from the manager, saying that Nacari was looking colicky, they’d given her banamine, and they had called the vet. It speaks highly of staff that they took the time to call me even though they already knew I was on my way over, and only minutes away; many barns would have waited for an owner to arrive.

The horse was visibly distressed. Her groom F. was walking her outside on the grass. Nacari was curling her lip and pausing to kick at her stomach; sometimes the cramps in her belly were so strong her hind legs would buckle under her. The vet was an hour away.

I stood with the barn manager and told her that though I love this horse and I have owned her fifteen years, she is not a candidate for an expensive belly surgery. This is my decision. I have other horses. I have a great emotional attachment to the horse, but the recovery from a big colic operation requires many months of careful rehab, and it seems unfair to ask it of a horse that’s not in great shape to begin with. Perhaps another owner would make a different decision. Perhaps even my husband, who has authorized, watched, and paid for a belly surgery on a mare of a similar age. I told this to the barn manager because in a crisis, a real crisis, where the vet has come and I have to choose between putting my horse on a trailer to go to the hospital or putting that animal to sleep, I might need some help sticking to the right decision.
The vet on call was on her way. She suggested another, stronger drug than banamine, but only if the horse seemed not to be responding. She was not responding. The other drug was tried. F. continued to walk her, back and forth on the grass. The mare flung herself onto the grass a couple of times.
F. brought the horse inside in anticipation of the vet coming. We took the hay out of her stall. The vet on the phone said that if she’d lie quietly and not thrash that it would be okay to let Nacari lie down in her stall. They let her lay down in her stall. She looked exhausted. Were the drugs starting to work, I wondered. Was the light in her eye returning, and the panic leaving?

People die. Cats die. Tiny mice die. Dogs die. Hamsters die. Giant whales die. Horses also die.
When you get a horse, you don’t think of it ever being sick or injured or dying. You imagine the happy times you’ll spend together. The riding in the sun, the ribbons in the show ring, the quiet moments brushing in the crossties or grazing on a grassy hill. You don’t imagine the clammy hours you’ll spend holding your horse for the vet while she puts in an IV. You fail to picture the thousand-plus vet bills for sutures when they get kicked by a pasture pal. You pretend you won’t ever have to tell a vet, “This horse is not a candidate for surgery.”
When you get a horse you don’t think about it ever being lame or sick or having to decide about its quality of life issues.
People don’t talk about their horses being lame or sick. Especially do not talk about their horses’ injuries on social media, where it’s all birthdays, graduations, new babies, and political outrage filling your timeline. Horses go lame and they do get sick. Maybe it’s superstition, or decorum. Few talk about it.
Certainly, the health records of performance horses are a closely guarded secret, because if an animal is ever for sale, it will be presented to the world as never having had an off day. Nacari is no longer a performance horse. She was bred to be a performance horse, sold to us at a premium price, and we put what we felt was all the best training into her that money could buy.
Many performance horses trickle down through a series of owners, as their physical capabilities diminish they are sold for less money to less and less experienced riders, ending their days teaching beginners to walk and trot, going around in a big oval in a lesson program. Older horses are great to learn on. We are stuck holding the bag with Nacari, being her first and last owners.
By the time the vet arrived, Nacari was finally showing some relief from the drugs. Her vitals were good, and the vet put on a long glove, lubed up, and performed a rectal exam; she didn’t find anything. 
The facilities manager was called in to put some hardware in the ceiling, and he brought a ladder and a drill, and drilled the pilot hole and put a screw eye in the ceiling. Nacari looked slightly alarmed but did nothing more than raise her head. Next they put a long tube up her nose and down into her gut and pumped about a liter of mineral oil in. “This’ll be through in about 18-20 hours,” said the vet, interrupted by the horse’s coughing and farting. When the oil was in, she pulled out the long tube as quickly as she could. The barn manager went to get a clipboard to write down the vet’s instructions.
The vet prepared to put an IV catheter in Nacari’s neck while I held her. First she shaved a square patch where the big jugular vein runs under the skin. Then she injected two spots with a topical antiseptic, one the square patch for the catheter and another anchor point a few inches away. She made two braids in the horse’s mane securing it with adhesive tape.

The vet injected the long IV needle and secured the catheter in several places with a needle and strong black thread. Then, her phone rang. The vet was on call until Tuesday. The first call was from the office. There were people buying a horse in Kentucky with an urgent question for her. She said she’d call back when she could. She hung up, started the next stitch. The phone rang again. It was someone else from the office, with the same message. She said that she would call back when she was finished. She tied off the stitch.
Her phone rang two more times, regarding the same emergency, 900 miles away. I’m not sure what sort of veterinary emergency requires a person to call a vet who is already handling another emergency in another state. I wondered aloud, and with a full coating of sarcasm, if they have veterinarians in Kentucky. The vet seemed to appreciate my query.

The catheter was attached to a pair of bags of fluid hanging from the ceiling, one with calcium and one without. I stood holding my horse long past the time when I was free to let her go. Someone had to tell me I could leave her. She wandered to the corner where her hay had been before, and ate whatever scraps she could find. I hung up her halter and lead rope. She gave me an angry look.

The vet cleaned up. The barn manager took notes on flushing the catheter and swapping one of the empty bags of fluid for the third full one. We took turns holding that bag; at 12 pounds it felt like a baby, just a few weeks old. Or a floppy cat maybe. The mare would get half sized portions of food, twice as often for the next 24 hours.
She looked like she was feeling better already.

I checked on her the next day. The catheter was out. She’d spent the morning eating grass, safely rolling in mud, tossing her head and enjoying the drop in temperature. Her groom was cleaning her legs in the wash stall. I had to cajole her into an ears-forward photo, playing peek-a-boo until I got the one I wanted. But I can see she is feeling better, and she can see that so am I.


Sometimes, our horse Hado pretends there is a bear in the woods, and he looks into the bushes with one eye and tosses his head and bounces around but doesn’t really spook. Mars, on the other hand, is six, and he does spook.
At our last show, there was a sizable pile of jumps and artificial flowers stacked in the corner of the ring where we were showing. I had Mars address it as we trotted around, after the horse before us finished and just ahead of the judge ringing the bell for us to begin. But walking past the very scary pile of artificial flowers and turning near it to get a good look was not enough to make it ok, or maybe it was just enough to fuel Mars’ imagination, so after the initial halt and salute, Mars trotted a few steps, snorted, threw his head up, went extravagantly sideways, and, then, tucked his butt under him, spun around, and tried to run out of the ring. I stopped him, put him back on the centerline, and made him do the whole test. The pictures tell the story. I look like I didn’t exhale for the full 6 minutes. My shoulders are elevated, my face getting pinker and pinker as the photos progress, and I’m sort of astonished we didn’t get a terrible score. With an entrance like that you’re in the judge’s hands. It could have been marked as an error. As it was, we were penalized for the movement, but not much else.
Mars, spooking in the show ring

I have seen different horses spook at lots of different things, like a particular pole on the ground (when there are lots of poles on the ground), or the depression in the dirt where a pole had been. Or a sunbeam. Or, a bird that appeared suddenly, or, a bird that had been sitting nearby for a while. Or, a sleeping dog that stood up. Or, a cat that leapt into the ring. Or, a jacket draped over a fence, or, an empty pallet in an unexpected place, or, a broken tree limb, or, some turkeys, or, no turkeys, or, another horse where he didn’t expect to see one. Or, a horse where he sees one all the time. Or, a flapping tarp, or, a motionless tarp, or, the jump pile, or, the bushes, or, and perhaps, most especially, that special end of the riding arena known as “the spooky end of the ring.”
Mars, moments later, with his mind on his work again

My first horse was named Della. She was a liver-chestnut, with a big, long head, big, long ears, white diamond on her forehead (called a star in horse parlance), and a short white stripe on the end of her nose (called a snip). She had sturdy, powerful legs with short white socks behind and extra-big feet. She was a warmblood, with the Dutch seal of the prancing lion in silhouette branded on her left hip; you could really only see it in the brightest sunlight. She liked sour apple flavored lollipops and orange rinds and sometimes would have a self-indulgent roll in her poo on a Saturday night.
Mares are different from geldings. Mares have their hormones, for one thing, and they have far more opinions about the world for another. Good mares can be exceptional, opinions or no. When I think about the imaginary dream horse, the one that I buy next year or the year after, that has secret talent and takes me to the highest level of competition, it’s always a mare.
One of the many joys of owning your own horse is being able to get out on trails. Lessons are important, of course, even if you have no goal to compete. You need to work on the basics, and you need regular feedback from experienced eyes on the ground. But there is nothing like time out on the trails. You see things differently from horseback. Turkeys don’t run away as fast from a person on a horse as they will from a person on foot. Deer sometimes look a horse straight in the eye. Yes, sometimes, if you are the first person on a trail in the morning you can end up with a spider web wrapped around your helmet and face like a veil. Or you can take a low hanging branch to the face if you don’t watch where you’re going.
Like many mares, my first horse, Della, had a good spook in her. The word I think of is “vigilant.” She’d not miss a new banner or suspicious traffic cone, giving it a thorough examination with one eye, head cocked, body tense, ready to run. They call this the “parrot eye.” I now know that horses are more confident with a confident rider sitting on them; but beginning riders have to start somewhere, and time in the saddle is the only way to learn to ride a spooking, bucking, or shying horse. 
I liked to take her in the woods alone. Though it never seemed like I was alone, even though this was before everyone carried mobile phones all the time. Anyway, when you’re on a horse you’re not alone. But still. We used to go try to get lost in Bridle Trails State Park, wandering the square mile of densely wooded trails. We learned to ride in the early 2000s, at a barn adjacent to the park, and being about 15 minutes from Seattle it was a real equestrian treasure: miles of groomed trails, set aside for riding. If Della felt like snorting on a particular day, I would sing her the songs my kids sang at pre-school:
Where’s Della? Where, where? 
Where’s Della? Where, where? 
Is she up on the mountain? No, no.
Is she down at the fountain? No, no!
Has she gone out to play? No, no.
I see that Della is here today.
I have a young horse now, Mars, another chestnut, and sometimes when he’s spooky I sing him this song. I sing it with Della’s name because it sounds better.
There were folks who’d walk their dogs or run in Bridle Trails Park, certainly, and because Della was a little spooky I’d always try to engage the person in conversation. A talking person is not nearly as scary as a silent one, to a horse. Some runners had so little horse sense that they’d duck behind a bush to let my giant horse pass. Della would snort and prance the whole way. Do you blame her?
Cutting through the middle of the park is a set of giant, towering power lines, strung taught between the massive mech robot monsters we’ve covered our planet with, still and silent guardians of the electricity, their fighting stances broad, their shoulders connected by drooping cables, one to the next. With a broad gravel trail beneath, I always felt the power line trail hummed with electricity. Certainly the light was different through this clear-cut swath, and it smelled dry and industrial, exactly like the smell of dormant guardian fighting robots. The footing was large chunks of sharp gravel, so it felt different underfoot and sounded quite different from the worn, quiet earth of the forest trails. Della always entered the power line cut with a slow gasp of alarm, holding her breath for the wolf she always seemed to feel was lurking just behind the corner.
This being the east side suburbs of Seattle, there were coyotes in these woods, and sometimes we would see one trotting ahead of us, up the trail. They were small, pale and scrawny, with poor coats and visible ribs. The coyotes were known stealers of pet rabbits, barn cat killers and even said to be eaters of small fluffy dogs, though the ones I always saw didn’t seem to have eaten much ever. 
One day, on a trail ride alone, Della stepped from the dark, cool, quiet woods onto the power line trail, peering nervously around the corner and there, just past the great tangle of blackberry bushes stood a man and a young German Shepherd. There it was! Della’s wolf, just as she’d always feared. The man and I both gave out a quick exclamation of surprise, but we never spoke, because Della sat back, spun on her haunches and took off at a gallop for home.
I had been taught an emergency maneuver, called a pulley rein, where you set one rein in the horse’s neck, knuckles down and holding mane if possible. With the other hand, you yank as hard as you can, and then let go. It’s not nice, and it’s only for emergencies. If you’ve got a wall or a fence to stop them in front of, it will bring them to a stop. Or it should anyway. I had only the bushes of the wild woods to stop her, and it turned out that a single spindly holly bush, with only a half dozen leaves was enough to bring Della to a halt.
And, then, we walked quietly home.


This past Sunday, Mars and I competed at our second rated show together. The judging was harsh. This week I’m wondering when and if I’ll ever have a more independent seat, softer elbows, and a more elastic connection. The one positive comment was, “Attractive pair.” It’s not nothing.

Last summer, just before I moved out of TriBeCa, I went to visit Vogel Custom Boots, in SoHo, to be fitted for my first pair of dress riding boots. I changed riding disciplines in the last few years, moving sideways from the hunter/jumper world to the other, even more froufrou, dressage. The tiny Vogel store front sat on a narrow, quiet street in a neighborhood of exquisite historic cast-iron buildings now bustling with high-end retail stores; it fit in nicely with its carved wood sign with gilded lettering, and custom shoes in the window, displaying the full spectrum of English riding boots.

My trainer likes to remind me that the word “dressage” is from the French, meaning “training.” It’s the flatwork, the not-jumping part of riding. At the Olympic level, the horses seem to dance, and they perform freestyle choreography to music.  At my level, you learn a test, in advance, that is written out on paper, with different gaits and figures performed at the letter-labeled points of the ring. The test takes 5 or 6 minutes, a long time for an athlete (horse or rider) to concentrate and really give a peak athletic performance. It looks like plain old horseback riding, and it’s judged by a person with a scorecard, giving you marks for the different movements and then a written score at the end. You can read where the judge thought your horse hollowed or fell in or bulged or hurried, where you needed more bend or impulsion, and you are welcome to use it to become a deranged and obsessive perfectionist about your riding and your horse’s way of going. Or, you can use it to reflect on those things you need to work on, and get to work improving.
The way a test is written, “3. K-X-M Change rein; 4. Between C &H Working canter left lead. 5; E Circle left 20m,” is not how it always rides. At a recent (unrated) schooling show, for example, my 6-year-old horse Mars whinnied violently at M, beginning at step 3 of the test, and then again, each time he passed the corner marked M or even got close to it: at step 5 when we circled at E, between step 8 & 9, at step 11 when we circled at E again, and then, again after step 13. I think another horse somewhere on the property was answering him.
A horse can whinny gently and quietly, almost under his breath. This wasn’t that kind of whinnying. This was like the horse equivalent of screaming. You can feel it emanating from the bowels of the horse, rumbling up under the saddle, vibrating through his chest, and then erupting from his great jaws. What are horses saying when they whinny? Maybe the horse version of, “WHERE YOU AT?” and the reply, “WHERE YOU AT, BRO!?” Whinnying during a test does not do much to earn a horse “submission” points, added to the end of one’s dressage score, for “willing cooperation, harmony, attention and confidence, acceptance of bit and aids, straightness, lightness of forehand and ease of movements.” Alas.
Coming from the hunter/jumper world, where flatwork is to prepare a horse and rider for jumping courses, it was my experience that trainers had limited patience to teach me flatwork in a way that I understood what I was doing, or why I was doing it, and how I might do it better. I was vaguely aware that I was bad at it, that flatwork, with my stiff, arched back and turned-out toes, my unforgiving arms and hands always at odds with the horse. But I didn’t have the slightest clue how I was supposed to get better at it until I started serious dressage lessons. And I’m still working on it, every ride.
Dressage was also a way to use my older, semi-retired horse, whose old injuries have meant that she will only be sound for trail riding and light work. Soon, though, I had ordered a new, black custom saddle, made in France, of course, specifically for dressage. And I had a new, young horse; a project we named Mars. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
Of course, I owned tall boots for riding already, but they are field boots, with laces at the top of the foot, going a short way up the ankle. The subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions in equestrian disciplines start with big, expensive things like boots and saddles, but also include variations in show apparel, and fundamental differences in the rider’s position. A dressage rider will wear a white stock tie, with a pin, as a foxhunter would; a showhunter wears a backwards collar called a rat-catcher. A dressage rider has a long stirrup and an open hip angle; a hunter jumper will run her stirrups up and crouch in the tack. It will take me years to develop new riding instincts.

Now, I had been to Vogel before this visit, when I had my trusty old field boots serviced the previous year, getting new soles and heels and having a ripped boot loop replaced. But it’s such a small shop with only a few chairs for customers that it can be quite awkward to walk in. The Vogel showroom was a few steps above the street, and smelled intensely of leather and leather dyes. I stood there in the small showroom, my messy, dirty hair going in strange directions, my wrinkled shirt untucked, and asked the first person in the back who noticed me if I could be fitted for some dressage boots, please.
“Do you have your riding pants?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
She took me through the crowded work area to a small changing room in the back, where I put on my riding pants. When I returned to the front room, there
were two customers being measured for custom shoes. Both were sizable men, with shiny, combed back, black hair. One wore a suit and tie. They were peppering the salesman with questions.  “Why would it take so long? Why didn’t they make a mold of your feet? Why are the soles leather? Which pair is the most comfortable?”
Somehow, in New York City, there are still people who aspire to dress and talk and comport themselves publicly like mobsters. They purposely ask dumb questions, demand to know why everything is so expensive, excessively quote mob movies, and constantly assess whether others are with them or against them. For the purposes of this story, I am going to call these guys in the custom boot shop mobsters.
The younger mobster of the two asked, “How long do these shoes last?”
And the salesman said, “Well, it depends how much walking you do.”
The older mobster pointed to his fat stomach and said, “If I did a lot of walking would I look like this?”
I was introduced to Jack, the guy who fits the equestrian boots. He asked me if I’ve had boots made by them before, and I said I have. We reminisced about Olson’s, near Seattle, where I bought my boots a number of years ago, and Mike, who he’s known since he was a young employee there, long before he was manager or owner. I go back that far with Mike, too.  Jack went to look up my earlier order, and came back out with a clipboard, pencil and tape measure. I was still standing.
Jack sat in a chair next to the coatrack; one of the mobsters had left his coat draped over the seats, instead of hanging it up. Jack took down my address and email, perched on the edge of the seat so as not to crush the coat.
The mobster grandly offered to move the coat, and now that Jack had their attention he was able to find me a place to sit. Jack took a lot of measurements, all with me sitting, tracing my foot onto a piece of paper. We talked about my bunions, and the scary surgeries suggested by the two podiatrists I’ve seen. He told me no one he knows is happy with their bunion surgery. I concurred. He made me pull up the leg of my breeches, over my knee. Underneath my legs were really hairy, of course. 
The mobsters were still discussing leathers and soles. They were not coming to a decision. They said they’d call with their final decisions, but it seemed they’d be making no purchase that day. Though they’d said nothing to me, as they left the younger mobster called, “Good luck with your horse.”
He didn’t even say it like he believed I have a horse. He said it like he thought I made up the horse, the way that a kid in elementary school who didn’t believe your uncle was an NFL kicker would say, “Yeah right, sure.” Also, tucked under the “Good luck with your horse,” was, of course, that scene in the Godfather movie, where revenge came in the form of a horse head in a guy’s bed.
I learned my left calf is bigger than my right, and I’d have to have an elastic gusset if I didn’t want a zipper. I chose a squared toe, and a spur rest. I didn’t want mine as stiff as the sample he brought me, though I liked the stiff souls and the ribbed bottoms. As I paid (a sobering $1366 with tax), I asked how long it would take. I was told 10 to 12 weeks. I didn’t say that I wouldn’t even live in the neighborhood anymore in 10 to 12 weeks because I couldn’t face that at all. Moving in New York City is another tale of mobsters; with complicated rules of daily tipping and separate insurance and the always suspicious requirement that the whole thing be transacted in cash. I promised to lend Jack my orthotics for a few days without a word about my move.

Only six weeks later, I got a call that my boots were finished, and was told Vogel was two days away from packing up the place and closing. They were moving to Brooklyn. Someone made them an offer for their location; it was an offer they couldn’t refuse.

One Round

Alone in the car on my way to the horse show, first thing in the morning, against the flow of the commute, listening to my favorite music, and it’s Your Favorite Music (Clem Snide) or Eels’ Souljacker and I’m going just a little too fast. I am headed to the Evergreen State Fairgrounds, in Monroe, a grim, paved facility with large metal structures, chain link fences, and dank cinderblock bathrooms. The main ring of the show is indoors, but built for rodeos, with row upon row of bleachers, climbing up into the eaves where the steel I-beams of the roof meet the corrugated steel walls. It has cow pens and chutes and a snack bar with curly fries and grilled American cheese on salty white bread.
But I’m not a rodeo rider. I don’t know anything about western riding or cows. I’m at a hunter/jumper show. The parking lot filled early, and a late-comer would be parking her new-ish 2002 BMW on weeds at the end, near the long row of parked horse trailers, gravel crunching under her low-profile tires.
I’m wearing jeans and paddock boots, carrying my show clothes in a monogrammed garment bag, and my tall boots in another, matching bag, banging against me as I walk to our barn, the boot pulls rattling against each other with my every step. I polished those boots at home, and won’t put them on until I have to.
I’ve worn my show shirt, unbuttoned; later I will have to button it up to the top, and put a monogrammed collar over it, backwards like a priest’s collar. It’s called a rat-catcher, and sometimes it makes me feel like I’ll have an asthma attack. On top of this shirt I will put on a freshly dry-cleaned wool jacket, called a hunt coat; mine is the traditional navy blue, but I have a brown one with a subtle plaid, too. Over my hair I will stretch a heavy-duty hairnet, back to front, tucking the knot up into my hair or it will press into my head and give me a headache later. Then I will pull on the helmet, back to front, tucking in the hair to make it even.  It’s supposed to cover my ears, but I think it’s too ugly and I leave most of my ears exposed. I will wear the clean black leather gloves I save for showing. I will decide at the last minute if I will wear spurs; it depends on how bright the horse is today. It’s still early in the week, so he might be fresh. I will carry a crop, but the most I can do with it is wave it past Petey’s flank; he’s a sensitive fellow, though a giant at almost 17 hands. I will have to find my number and tie it around my coat before I get on, too. The number is printed on a white oval of cardboard, with pre-punched holes in either end. I tie it around my ribs, with the number on my back, threading the black string through the second button-hole and tucking the bow inside.  I will step up a tiny set of stairs and mount my horse. Hello, Petey.
Before I get dressed, I’ll have grooming to do. But on this day, I’m not showing until much later, and there are other horses to help with. Petey’s grooming routine will wait until just before I get myself ready and get on. Since it’s early in the week, most of the classes today are warm-up rounds for later days. It’s a chance to show your horse all the scary sights and sounds and smells of the ring. Many trainers ride all their clients’ horses’ rounds on this day, leaving the separate adult amateur and childrens’ divisions for the owners to do later in the week. There are few spectators on a day early in the show week, and the horses go in the ring, jump their course, and leave with the next horse entering and doing the same without a pause in the action.
By the time I get Petey groomed, I’ve groomed a couple of other horses, set fences, held horses, eaten a grilled cheese and watched twenty or more rounds in that indoor ring. I’ve seen my course so many times I don’t even need to check the printed and labeled sheet outside the ring. I know all the strides between fences, as well.
When it is time to groom Petey, I put on his halter and walk him to the grooming stall. His mane is not braided today, though he will be braided tomorrow. We’ve hired a braider for the show and she will come and braid him before dawn for my first thing in the morning class the next day. I start with picking out his feet. I curry his face and legs with a grooming mitt, and his body with a different curry comb. I comb out his mane, put product in his tail, and brush it. Next, I brush a few spots with a stiff brush and then everywhere with a soft one. He’s a plain chestnut horse, red-brown from hoof to tail. We body-clipped him during the winter, revealing his homely yellow-gray winter undercoat, but as the days have lengthened he’s been growing back his sleek, shiny summer coat.
I slide a fleece show pad on his back and put his saddle on top and buckle the girth; Petey likes to fill his lungs with air as the saddle goes on, so I will take up the buckles on both sides several times before I get on. I put protective jumping boots on all four legs that my trainer C. will pull off before we go in the show ring. I bridle him last, throwing the reins over his head, sliding the bit into his mouth, and buckling the noseband and throatlatch.
I climb a short set of plastic steps and get on the horse in the barn area, about 20 minutes before my expected time in the ring. C. and I walk over the warm up area together; I can walk Petey on a loose rein because he’s a pretty chill guy.
I get about ¾ of the way around the ring at the walk and start feeling a little impatient so we break into a trot.  My stomach reminds me that I’m actually a little nervous. I learned my course earlier, but still, there are always show butterflies. I change directions, trot around some more, and pick up the canter. Now I find out just what I’m sitting on today. Is he fresh? Is he lazy? Is he leaning on my hands? Is he on the forehand? I come back to the trot, turn around, walk and canter the other way. Slipping between all the other horses warming up, I attempt a flying change of canter lead, just to see if I can brighten him up.
C. has claimed a warm-up fence in the middle of the ring. She sets up a small x (crossed rails, set in cups on the uprights, known as standards). “Catch this off the left when you’re ready,” she calls.
When other horse traffic allows, I canter over it on the left lead. There are several horses warming up at once. One or two will be the horses ahead of me; another will be the horse after me. There are only three fences between four trainers, so the rider after me waits. My first jump goes well enough, so C. says, “Come back the other way”, and makes it a vertical (where the top rail is straight across). I pick up the canter again and jump the vertical. This time Petey arrives at the fence at a funny distance and breaks to the trot to fix the situation; he’s a good boy, a safe horse, and honest, but this horse is not, as horse people say, ahead of my leg. He has chipped it. Chipping is when the last stride is shorter than the others. It looks ugly, and it sounds ugly. “Get him ahead of your leg,” C. calls.
I give him a squeeze and pick up a livelier canter. Now I’m feeling nervous about going in the ring soon, so I start to count his stride, “1, 2. 1, 2. 1, 2,” silently in my head. Petey settles into a rhythm. “Get it again,” calls C.
This time I’m counting, I see my distance five strides out and count them down, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, jump.” This time it’s a nice distance. C. builds an oxer, a square fence with two vertical poles of even height. She says, “Get this off the left.”
Soon enough, D. at the gate makes an announcement over the loudspeaker, saying who’s on deck, who’s in one, etc. When she says, “Maggie’s in four,” we walk out of the warm-up ring and out onto the pavement. Someone brings me a sip of water. C. pulls a rag from her pocket, wipes off my boots, and bends down to take the open-fronts off my horse. If someone remembered it, she’ll put a coat of hoof oil on Petey’s hooves. As you approach the doors, C. asks, “Do you know your course?”
The correct answer to this is not, “Yes.” The correct answer to this question is, “Right lead canter, home down the quarter line, up the diagonal four, down the judge’s five, up the single diagonal away and home on the outside five.”
“Don’t let him build coming home; that last five is easy,” says C.
Inside, there are bleachers on both sides. The judge is sitting by himself, halfway up on my left as I enter the arena. He has finished his sandwich which I heard him order earlier when I was watching other rounds. I had come over and sat down near him to get his perspective, before you got dressed. A lot of horse showing is sitting around waiting, and this day has been no exception. As a rider, I’m still new to this game of showing, and still learning. I heard the judge  on a walkie-talkie, discussing what kind of bread they have for sandwiches and whether the rye bread has seeds or not, all the while a woman was in the ring doing her best to jump eight nice fences. Whether the judge was watching was unclear, but the sandwich has been ordered. I watched a few more rounds, all the same: single vertical with yellow flowers coming home on the quarterline, past the in-gate, up the diagonal over the four stride line, a vertical followed by an oxer, both with red flowers. Then around the far end of the ring on the left lead to the judge’s line, an “easy” five stride line facing home, then up a single diagonal oxer with blue flowers and little wishing-well line next to the uprights.  And a finishing circle.
D. says, “You’re next.”
I don’t wait for the horse and rider who’ve just finished to come out of the ring. Instead, I slip in and pass them as they leave. The people at the gate appreciate that I know to keep things flowing, but really I do it because I know that horses don’t always like to be alone, and some horses will pitch a fit going into the ring. Petey is a trusty gelding though, and he walks in like an old pro. I turn right straight away, so that I can turn left and make a long, straight diagonal line across the show ring at a trot. He is not the fanciest horse in my division, but he is pleasant and calm. My long trot across the diagonal shows him as much of the ring as I can. And as I reach the other end of the ring, just past the judge, we pick up the right lead canter and go to fence one.
I’ve been at the horse show so long this day that I think I know everything about the course. Which are the verticals, which are the oxers, the color of all the flowers. It is conceivably possible to jump the wrong first fence since there is a single fence on the diagonal.  Fences in the hunter ring typically have a front and a back, but it isn’t marked with red and white colored flags as it is in the jumper ring, where you compete for speed and leaving the rails up. Here in the hunter ring, the fences are meant to look natural and are decorated with a mixture of real and artificial flowers.  While a square oxer has rails at the same height in front and back, many oxers have a ramped appearance from the front. They would never have you jump an oxer with the front rail higher than the back since this is considered a bit of a dirty trick for the horse, who might get his eye on the back rail and then clunk the front rail pretty hard with his hooves. In the hunter ring a clunk like that would be penalized for interfering with the smooth relaxed and effortless picture the rider tries to make on course. In the jumper rung, with you’re not judged for looks, it only matters of if the rail comes down, in which case it is four faults.
As we round the end of the ring and canter to fence one, I notice for the very first time today that the flowers at fence one are actually purple. They were yellow on the other side, but I never came all the way down the arena and around to see what color things were on the other side. Of course the color of the artificial flowers is of no matter, but it is unexpected– so much so that they take my attention and my eye down to them. I am now riding to a problem; your head weighs about 10 pounds, and more with a helmet, and your horse can feel when you turn it.  Where you look matters to a horse. If you stare at the base of a fence, there is a very good chance that the horse you are sitting on will canter slowly to that spot and stop there. Refusals are major faults in a jumping competition, and after three refusals (or two in Canada), you will be excused. I needed to do something, now.
I was taught to have a high focal point. I raise my eye, deliberately, and I find N., the announcer at this and many other shows, sitting in the announcer’s booth, wearing a blue ball cap. I like N. He plays Van Morrison, and Tom Petty, and pronounces my name correctly. I watch his ball cap as we canter calmly and vigorously down to jump one, and we get a beautiful open flowing relaxed distance land and canter down around the end of the ring past the in gate. Well, I think, that went well! But I don’t allow myself to celebrate, because now I’m trying to canter away from the in-gate, and this is requires my concentration, too. Leg on. I decide that the high focal point was a good idea at the last fence and I find another impossibly high one, on the ceiling in the corner, where there is a hole or a dark shadow where maybe something like raccoons live in the roof. I don’t think about raccoons. I count the rhythm into this four-stride line, “1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2… .”  The four strides are perfect, and we jump out just right, land on the left lead, and continue.
As we turn the corner onto the judge’s line I can see out of the corner of my eye that someone is there bringing him a coffee. I hear him say, “I love this, old-school hunter,” absently. I find my third, high focal point in another corner of the arena, up where the high walls meet the arched roof, in among the I-beams. We are on an easy rhythm, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2… and he jumps in, makes the five strides, and out, 1, 2, 1, 2.
We pass the in-gate again and are chugging up the diagonal we entered on, 1, 2, 1, 2 and I’ve got another focal point, this time it’s an exit sign. It’s a game now. 1, 2, 1, 2, and the fence meets us in rhythm. Petey lands on the right lead and heads for the last two fences. There is N. again. He’s moved, and we’re twenty feet to the left of him now but I feel like if we just stayed on this rhythm we could keep going forever, and jump anything.
Sometimes in lessons I have been known to have last-fence-itis, where I’ll do a good enough job on the first 7 fences and botch the 8th. But not today. Today we have 8 out of 8 perfect fences, good enough for 4th place in a huge open class, against a lot of other riders, a few amateurs and mostly trainers. The ribbon we win is an unassuming white one, not impressive really, but what it represents to me is a perfect hunter round. I keep the ribbon on the mirror of my dressing table until we move from Seattle in 2011. I never have another hunter round like that, on any horse.
The magic of a perfect round, though, is that I can recall every detail– the purple flowers, the judge, N.’s blue hat. The magic of a perfect round is that you can be beaten, and regardless of the ribbon, it is yours forever. When you have those moments as a horse and rider you are absolutely sure you could reach up into the sky and rearrange the stars with your index finger. 


Another day, another round

A Ride Out in Early Spring

For weeks it felt like spring’s start was delayed, because the snow had been so plentiful and long-lasting, but now all is thawed and the grass coming green and the trees are slowly starting to set buds. The cardinals are busy again, and the blue jays noisy, and the irritated robins call, “Yeep! Cuck, cuck, cuck! Yeep!”
“Let’s go down the road and up and over and see how the trail through the woods looks,” said W—-, and I agreed to it. X— didn’t know what any of that meant, but was willing enough to join us. X— has been preoccupied lately, having unexpectedly lost his job. He has admitted to folks in the barn that he’s still having nightmares, and though he’s still smarting from the indignity of losing his job without cause, he seems relieved to be done with it.
W—- led on Jenny, a semi-retired show-jumper, a big, dark bay with big, dark ears, and the oldest mare in the barn. I followed on Mars, chestnut in color and temperament, and, at 6, the youngest horse in the barn. X— rode his gray mare, a steady, sensible horse that knows her job and rarely gives anyone any trouble.
The road was quiet. There is little shoulder to ride on, but not much in the way of traffic. The last time we went this way we turned off the road and a flock of unexpected birds had flown out of a building, startling Mars. Now, he walked calmly but carefully past the spot of prior alarm. There is plenty for a young horse to look at on this route, crossing two bridges over the Shekomeko Creek, winding around old buildings, cornfields, and small piles of decrepit farm debris, down several residential streets. We’d done the ride recently enough so it wasn’t completely new to Mars. The only new part was going to be the trail through the woods.
When we reached the woods, the beginning of the trail looked like it had been cleared quite recently. It is wide enough to ride abreast. But once we were in, we encountered a fallen limb of the kind that we couldn’t just step over (too many sharp and pointy bits sticking out). W—- hopped off Jenny to clear the branch, and having done it, stayed on foot in case there were more.
And, there were more.
Every fifty yards or so there was a tangle of fallen branches. Some were easier to clear than others. The woods here are a mix of deciduous trees, mostly, with a few long-needle pines, and many thorny bushes and climbing vines. By the third obstacle, W—- needed both hands to try to budge the mess, and she had to hand me Jenny’s reins which I held while I sat on Mars. I was focused on watching her, keeping Jenny and Mars a safe distance apart, and staying relaxed.
At the deepest point of the trail the ground falls away to the left, revealing that we were riding atop a steep, wooded hill. There was barely room to hold Jenny and keep an increasingly uneasy Mars out of the sticker bushes. I don’t think X— was feeling entirely ok about the terrain, and before I got a chance to look, I heard X— behind me make a noise.  I turned to see him standing on the ground next to the gray mare, running up his stirrups.
W—- called out to ask if he was ok.
X— said he was fine, but he said his horse wasn’t having it.
Horses can read your mind, of course, which is why people who are terrified of horses rarely learn to ride. Horses can feel your anxiety through your seat and hands, and, as prey animals, they take it seriously. Maybe you know something they don’t about lions or bears.
At this point, Mars checked the mare ahead of him and the mare behind and surmised that he was the only horse with a rider still mounted. Mars gave a pugnacious buck, popping into the air and kicking both hind feet out. This was my cue to get off as well.
W—- asked it I was ok.
I said I was fine.
She said, “Next time, when we get to a fallen tree at the beginning of the trail through the woods, remind me that there will be more and we should just turn around.”
We were not far from the end of the wooded section. The trail leaves off at a spot with a nice view, from the top of the hill to the south. Winter’s straw-colored hills are now washed with pale green, though the trees are still as bare as bones. We found a large rotten log for remounting. We all got back on, including X— who picked himself up and mounted his horse from the ground. Descending the hill, Mars finally let out a breath.
And then we rode home.