Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Horses Named Buster and Other Unsuitable Purchases

When Kurt and I started looking for our first horse after I hadn’t had any since I was a kid, I declared, “I want one with a little spirit. I like ‘em with spirit.” Ha! The first one I bought, but who never actually set foot on the property, was a black Quarter horse named Buster. That should have been a clue right then and there. Oh, he was beautiful. And he had spirit all right. Luckily he failed the vet check and after chasing the seller for two weeks for my money, I felt a weight was lifted. I knew when I was trying him out, when he was prancing down the road with smoke coming out of his ears and fire coming out of his nose, that he was too much for me. But my pride wouldn’t let me admit it even to myself. Fear was not what I remembered having as a kid. Who gets happy when a horse fails a vet check?

The next one was just as suitable for a middle-aged woman getting back into horses after twenty years. Basically a beginner. This one was a two-year-old Paint mare I bought at the horse auction. At the time, I thought, “This is good—she is really slow and mellow, not like Buster at all.” In fact, the owner had to drag her by the lead rope and tap her on the butt with a crop just to get her to walk down the aisle even though I was kicking till I was blue in the face. Later, when I got a few more years under my belt and I thought about it, I realized that she wasn’t slow and mellow at all. She wasn’t even broke! She didn’t know how to walk with a rider on her back—that’s why the owner had to drag her—and the only reason she didn’t buck me off was because I wasn’t on her long enough. But I didn’t know that at the time. Plus, she was so pretty. I gave the seller half the money and promised to come back with the other half before the sale started.

Luckily, depending on your perspective and if you count that no real damage was done, Kelly had a little mishap with Thrush X and had to be taken to the hospital where she got an endoscopy and a lollipop and which caused us to be late getting back to the horse auction to give the seller the rest of the money. Even though I somehow had the presence of mind to call to assure him we weren’t standing him up—we still wanted the horse, please don’t put her in the sale, we were simply delayed in the emergency room making sure our daughter didn’t have third degree burns on her esophagus but I was sure everything was going to be okay and we’d be there lickity-split—even though I told him all that, he sold her at the sale that night. I also had to chase that seller for two weeks to get my money back.

While I was chasing those two sellers, I bought a third horse. So technically, I owned three horses now since none of my money had been returned. And we didn’t even have a barn yet! Who knew I’d find so many nice horses so fast? Kurt was building the barn himself. I told him he better get hopping. This new horse I found was a sensible buy. This was one that even Jamie could ride. And Jamie didn’t even know how to ride.

Dancer was a plain, ordinary sorrel. She was nice-looking but she was nothing special. One of the boarders from the stable down the road was selling her. The kid had lost interest. Key word being “kid.” I went and tried her out. She was perfect. We loped all around the arena, turned this way and that way, and even jumped a little cross-rail though I am western and know nothing about jumping. She was easy-going and quiet, well-mannered and willing. Even the vet was impressed with this one. She stood sleepy-eyed while we looked her over, one back leg cocked in the sand. He nodded his approval. “Now you’re talking,” he said. She passed the vet check with flying colors and Kurt finished the little barn he was building just in time to take her home.

Where she promptly went berserk.

Dancer bolted around the corral for two days, crashing into the fences and banging into the walls of the barn. Slivers and splinters flew, nails popped out. She introduced me to the combo. That’s where a horse rears, bucks and whirls all at the same time. She tried to bolt. She balked. She spooked. She was dangerous to ride and I dreaded trying. One time when I was saddling her up, even though I’ve always cinched up slowly and carefully, she reared, broke the lead rope and fell over backwards. The crash was so loud, Kurt came running out of the house. My neighbors, all experienced horse people, were sure it was me. Or my saddle. They came over with their advice and their saddles and cinched her up themselves. But she blew up on them too.

I was starting to suspect that Dancer was drugged when I bought her. What else could it be? How could she have changed so much? How in the world could a child ride her and I couldn’t even lead her through the yard without her spinning around and lifting me off my feet?

This was right around the time of the new trendy thing called “horse whisperers” and the phenomenon of an old training method, repackaged and reintroduced called “the round pen.” Since I was a middle-aged, middle-class woman newly back into horses who had a problem horse, a little money to blow and the determination to fix her because…“I love her,” I was the perfect mark for gimmicks like training halters, motivational sticks, tie-rings, videos, clinics and anything magical that was akin to the snapping of fingers but that worked for no one except the person selling the idea or product. I even, I admit, bought a book by Pat Parelli, desperate for the secret. The cure.

But nothing worked.

Now some of you experienced horse people might be rolling your eyes right now and saying, perhaps smugly, that Dancer obviously had a pain issue going on that caused her to be such a freak and you’re waiting for me to come out with it. But I can assure you that it was not the case.

When I called up the people at the boarding stable and cried when I told them the trouble I was having, they said they had another boarder who would love to buy Dancer. I didn’t even have to ask them. I was surprised it was so easy, hence blowing my theory that they had drugged her or hid something sinister about her, right out the window. Otherwise they wouldn’t have offered to take her back. They would have been glad to be rid of her.

Long story short, Dancer went to another child. That’s right. A kid. A little boy who did hunters and jumpers. He won all over the place on that little sorrel mare and the last I heard there was talk of the Olympics and someone offered his parents a lot of money for her but they said no way. They knew a good thing when they had it. I didn’t feel bad about it. I was happy for the horse (and the kid). A problem horse is at risk and she obviously had no problems now. So was it me?

The only conclusion that any of us could ever come to was that Dancer had spent most of her life at that busy boarding stable where there were thirty other horses and people coming and going and she had never been alone before. Or ridden anywhere except in an arena. At my house, she lived by herself and the only place I had to ride was on trails. I didn’t have an arena or another horse to ride with (I’ve since created a herd. And an arena to go with it.) and she went crazy like I would go crazy if someone transported me to a place without, say, books and paper. Or spaghetti.

Next time I will tell you about the fourth horse. The bucker.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Virginia Houses

Why is it so cold in here? This house is the worst house I’ve ever lived in temperature-wise. This and the Amityville Horror House. I thought it was going to be better when we moved here but the only thing that’s different is there are less cold rooms. I’m never comfortable. It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer. I don’t know which is worse. Well, yeah. The cold is worse. I can’t take the cold. Let me ask you something. Why does seventy degrees feel nice when you have the air on during the summer, but it’s downright freezing in the winter? Brrr. And why is it colder in the house than it is outside? It’s not right when you step out onto the porch and say, “Oh.” Surprised. And take off your jacket.

It wasn’t like this in the Jackson house. People came inside in the summer and thought I had the air on. I never put the air on. In fact, we really didn’t have any air conditioning except for a window unit in our bedroom that was used so little, when you turned it on, leaves and dead beetles blew out. And one in the kids’ bedrooms so no one could say I was a mean mother. In the winter, we never even turned the heat on! We started the woodstove at the beginning of the season and never let the fire go out, emptying the ashes from the door down bottom, and it heated the whole house. Ah, it was toasty warm in there. And yet we used very little wood. Good thing because we used to have to buy wood in New Jersey. If we used a cord of wood in that house the whole winter, it was a lot. It was a good house and a good stove.

The little bungalow we lived in on the Jersey Shore and the Oklahoma ranch were the same way. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer. But these Virginia houses… They’re about going to kill me. If you hear on the news that they had to carry a frozen body out of a house that had frosted eyelashes and white eyebrows, fingers frozen in a position as if poised over a keyboard, that’s me. It’s not even Thanksgiving yet and I have on two pairs of socks right now, a sweatshirt, a vest, and a sweatshirt jacket. If it gets any colder, I’m going to put on my hat. I’ve worn it in the house before and Kurt hates it. Says it doesn’t flatter me one iota. It’s one of those kind of hats that burglars wear with holes for your eyes and your mouth. Plus he’s sick of seeing it because once winter starts, I put it on and I don’t take it off. Even if it’s not very cold that day and I can get away with a light jacket, I still have to keep my head covered. I have two of them. I mean, I have many hats but I have two of my favorite. I have to have a back-up. You never know when you’re going to get the original all dirty. Maybe a horse will step on it, not with your head inside, but say you took it off to listen to a heartbeat and it blows off the nail you hung it on. It could happen. And so it needs cleaning. You have to have the back-up for cases like this.

My mother was so cold when she was visiting us when we were living in the Amityville Horror House that when I came downstairs in the morning, I found her sitting next to the stove, the oven turned on to broil and the door propped open. The sugar bowl, her coffee cup and the ashtray were on the oven door like it was a little table and she was reading the morning paper with a scarf around her neck. “Good morning,” she said, like it was normal to be sitting in front of the gas stove reading the paper.

Oh, but I knew the stories she was going to tell when she went back up north—Debi and Kurt are freezing down there! They are roughing it! They might as well be in Alaska and they ought to burn that damn house down they are living in and come back to civilization where it’s warm! (That was the year Jersey became Florida and people could go swimming year round because it was so nice up there and why did I ever leave anyway?)

Now there is no reason for these houses to be this cold. Yes, the Amityville Horror House was a one-hundred-year-old farmhouse with beadboard walls but prior owners had taken down all the beadboard, numbered it, insulated, and then put it all back up again. There was blown-in insulation in the attic, batting in the cellar, weather-stripping and plastic on the windows. We had two propane furnaces, one upstairs and one down. There was an electric wall heater in the bathroom. We had four fireplaces, two with woodstoves, one cranking continuously. And we had an outside wood furnace, the big daddy of all woodstoves. You could burn whole barns in that outside woodstove and in fact, we cut down and burned enough wood to fill two pickup truck beds every week. You don’t even want to know what the propane bill was. And still. It was cold in there.

Why can’t I be warm? That’s all I ask.

I thought this house was going to be better. This is the pig farmer’s house—a little Depression-era farmhouse one third the size of the Amityville house. The ceilings are low. I can touch the ceilings upstairs without standing on my toes. Handy for changing light bulbs and removing batteries in touchy smoke detectors when you’re cooking pork chops. Insulation and new vinyl siding were installed over the original clapboard. All the windows in the back were boarded up and sided over. (I didn’t do it—the lady I bought it from committed atrocious acts of destruction on this place in an effort to improve and modernize—someday I’d like to remove it and expose the charming, three-over-three windows that line the length of the back porch and put up little red-and-white checked curtains.) The rest of the windows are new. We put in a woodstove as soon as we moved in. And new electric heat with an impressive energy star rating. And still. It’s cold in here.

I’m getting that hat.