Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Cold Winter

The only good thing about winter coming is, now that I’m fifty, time flies. I hope this one goes fast because they say it’s going to be another doozie. They know this because a lot of nuts are on the ground. I don’t mean nuts like that one from Delaware. Nut nuts. Acorns, hickory nuts (or as they say in the country, hicker nuts), walnuts, even pecans, are all over the place clogging gutters and getting stuck in the clefts in horses’ feet. (Not the walnuts. They are the size of small baseballs. They’ll dent a car though if you’re stupid enough to park under a walnut tree.)

I wouldn’t care if winter was going to be bad if I didn’t have to go out there. I don’t mind short dashes when we’re having a doozie, like going back and forth to my car, although in Jersey I’d been known to leave it running while I went into Fashion Bug to get some more clothes and jewelry and pocketbooks—whatever I needed to keep up with the other hot chickies up there. Of course I had to lock it in Jersey and so I had a second set of keys or else it could get stolen or someone could swipe all my CD’s like they did one time when CD’s were still cassettes. Nowadays I have Sirius Radio and so even the CD’s are going to become obsolete. The technology today... I’d really like to get one of those electronic things where you can start your car right from your warm spot at the kitchen table where you are just finishing up your coffee and getting ready to put your boots on. I don’t know if you can do that with the diesel-taking dually. I think Kurt said no.

Anyway, running out to a cold car is not the worse thing in the world. The worse thing in the world is the horses. That takes time. Feeding, watering (at least I don’t have to deal with frozen hoses and water barrels anymore since Kurt put in the hydrants and electric), standing in the same spot for hours holding horses for the farrier, cleaning stalls… It’s a nightmare! When I was a kid, we used to throw the frozen balls of manure at each other. It was a primitive game of laser tag. I also used to ride in the snow back then. I thought it was fun when the hairs in my nose felt like tiny shards of glass and I couldn’t feel my feet anymore.

Now, the wind is kicking up out there and the temperature dropped to fifty degrees. Fifty degrees is nothing but it feels like it’s thirty degrees because just a few days ago I was in a tank top. Now I’ve got the heat on! But I’ve got to ride that horse if I ever want to get him barrel racing again. I think I’ll just send Kelly out there. I’ll get her to lunge him for me. If she resists, I’ll lob at walnut at her. Or wait until winter and the manure freezes. She grew up with electronics. She won’t know what hit her.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Horse Stuff--The Rest of Them

Okay, so real quick, right around the time my mother died I found myself with too many horses on my hands and I was overwhelmed. (Everything that happens is measured in time against its relation to my mother’s leukemia and death—before my mother got sick, right before she died, around the time she died, after she died, like B.D. and A.D., as if she were Jesus.)

So I leased Doc and Steel out to a therapeutic riding place called Unbridled Change. Doc, who is twenty-seven-years old, works one day a week for a couple of hours giving rides to children with special needs. He works another day a week with the kids on the ground. He looks even better than when I had him. His top-line filled out and he gained a little weight. Michelle, the owner of Unbridled Change, started feeding him three times a day; plus she has plenty of grass. And a little exercise probably helps. When we pulled into the driveway to visit him, he came cheerfully over to the fence nickering hello. He’s happy. I hope she is able to use him for a long time—at least through the winter—because I’m really enjoying the break. Whenever she feels he’s too old and needs to be retired completely, I’ll go and get him. He’ll be taken care of until he dies because that horse deserves it. He’s one of the good ones.

Steel, the little grulla, it turned out has a sore back. That is why he was crow-hopping when transitioning to the lope; not because he was being stubborn. I feel really bad that I was unaware of it and I made him lope. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons I’m getting Lowdown checked out even though there’s probably nothing wrong with him—I’m paranoid now.) But with these quiet ones it’s sometimes hard to tell because they tend to be lazy and stubborn and since they don’t speak English they can’t say it when they don’t want to do something because it hurts. I thought I ruled out pain when I Buted him up for a few days and he still acted exactly the same. There were no other symptoms. No lumps, bumps, swellings, or heat. Nothing. He had some issues transitioning to natural barefoot trimming but once his feet grew out, he was fine. When I consulted the vet about the crow-hopping, he thought, like with “the good old country pony” I had a few years ago, I was worrying over nothing. And the farrier didn’t seem to think it was anything physical either.

So I felt really bad when Michelle reported that Steel’s back was sore. There were a couple of vertebrae out in his spine and her chiropractor has been working on him and feels with a little rest, he’ll be fine. I hope so otherwise I am stuck feeding an unsound horse for another twenty years. He’s only six. I couldn’t sell him. I couldn’t euthanize a horse that’s not all broken-down lame or sick. I wouldn’t be able to ride him if he’s unsound. It’s bad enough when you’ve had a horse for a few years and had some good times on him and then he founders or something and you have to take care of this huge animal who eats you out of house and home and who you can’t do anything with. That’s bad enough. But when it happens to a horse that’s not part of what I call my “core herd”—I’ve only had him for a short period of time and the jury was out on whether or not he was a keeper—that’s really bad. But it’s still an animal with feelings and I’m responsible for him. So I hope everything turns out okay and she is able to use him for a long time too.

Minnie. There is nothing going on with Minnie. There never is. She’s just out there looking cute and waiting for grandkids.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Horse Stuff--Part Three-Lowdown

Here’s the lowdown on Lowdown. I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. Lowdown. I named him that because of the Boz Skaggs song and because I thought it sounded cool. Lowdown. How lowww can you go? That’s how you say it. Lowww. Like Barry White growling in love songs low.

I wonder if there are any people around here who listen to Barry White who aren’t black? The only stations on the radio are country stations. That’s all fine and good. I can dig country, especially when I’m on my way to a barrel race. But that’s all you can get. Thank God I got the Sirius radio in the new truck and I’m tuned into Barry White again. Why just this morning I even heard the Fifth Dimension, Melissa Manchester, and Tony Orlando and Dawn. I suppose when I get out of the diesel-taking dually in my red-and-black checked jacket and camouflage sweatpants that the guys in the pickup trucks next to me think I’m one of them. Then they hear the radio. I don’t turn it down when I get out. I leave it blasting for all to hear. That’s got to throw them for a loop.

Okay, I’m done making an excuse to mention the new truck.

Lowdown. I’m afraid something’s up with him. First, I couldn’t transition him to natural, barefoot trimming like I do with all my horses. For months, he walked around like he was on broken glass. That surprised me because when I used to have him in Jersey, I pulled his shoes after every Showdeo season and then I’d go out and ride him the very next day and he never took an ouchy step. But here, I couldn’t get him to transition no matter what I did. Biotin, Easy Boots, Venice turpentine, conditioners, deep bedding—nothing worked. Finally I told the farrier to just put the shoes back on him.

Now granted, we had a couple of issues that I didn’t have in Jersey. His heels were contracted when I got him back and his angles were a little off. Also, it’s very hard and rocky here, whereas in Jersey it’s soft and sandy. However, I still didn’t expect that we wouldn’t be able to do it. I was even able to transition Doc, who had the worst feet in the world! But I couldn’t transition Lowdown. So we put the shoes back on and he walked a hundred percent better.

But that’s not the only thing. He looks funny to me when he lopes. He’s short strided and it’s kind of like he lugs his backend behind him. The people who had him these past seven years had done western pleasure with him so maybe that’s all it is—I’m not used to that slow western pleasure lope. To me, it looks crippled. I’m not sure if what I’m seeing is a western pleasure thing or he really is crippled. It’s nothing blatant. But I feel like something’s not right. I scrutinize him in the round pen and think I saw him take a funny step but maybe he didn’t take a funny step and maybe if he did take a funny step, maybe he stepped on a rock because even with the shoes back on (fronts only) he can still make contact with the rocks on the ground and the farrier did say his soles are thin. All this runs through my head.

Then I’ve got people sitting back and waiting, rubbing the hair on their chins waiting for me to reveal that Mr. Hart unloaded this horse on me because there’s something wrong with him. I know that’s silly. Mr. Hart knew I would take this horse back if he was three-legged lame and ready for the glue factory. I attached that promise right to his papers when I sold him the horse. I said, “If Lowdown ever needs a home, no matter what, if he’s old and broken-down lame, he always has a home with me.” I was thinking about the horror stories I’ve heard about famous horses who had been rescued at the sale and the rescuers couldn’t believe it when they pulled up a lip and discovered their skinny rescue who almost went to slaughter was related to a great horse like Secretariat. And those like Ferdinand, who actually ended up on somebody’s dinner plate in another country because he went from owner to owner to owner until finally no one knew who he was or what he had done, or cared, and he was slaughtered. There were many times I was sitting at the sale and I’d see what was obviously a fancy show horse in a previous life, or a wonderful kid’s pony and I wondered, how did he end up here? Do his old owners, who he had obviously served well, know what has become of him? I didn’t want that to happen to Lowdown someday. So I attached that note to his papers and I contacted Mr. Hart every time I moved to give them my new address so that they would always be able to reach me if he ever needed a home. That’s why Mr. Hart gave him to me. Because he knew I loved him that much. Not because he was trying to unload an unsound horse. But still. The skeptics keep putting thoughts in my head… Who gives away a beautiful ten thousand dollar horse to a stranger?!

Of course it’s possible, if there is anything wrong with Lowdown, Mr. Hart is unaware of it. After his daughter had lost interest the last few years, they leased him out to other kids in the stable and who knows what kind of shenanigans might have gone on? No one takes care of your horse like you do. Perhaps they didn’t condition him and they rode him too hard? Perhaps he was “off” and they were kids, they were too busy playing trick rider and event jumper and they didn’t notice so they kept riding him? It was a jumping stable. Jumping and western pleasure and dressage—all the things the rich kids do. It’s possible Lowdown has some wear-and-tear issues and Mr. Hart has no idea.

I want to find out. Does he have anything going on pain-wise or is he just being bad? He came back to me spoiled. He’s done a few things he hasn’t done since he was two-years-old. He’s done a few new things. He doesn’t like his forelock brushed. He’s cinchy. He’s nippy on the cross-ties. He won’t load. (Even though he’s been in this particular trailer a hundred times and never gave me a problem before.) And he’s bucked a couple of times. On top of that, I know nothing about this western pleasure training he’s got under his belt.

So before I push him to perform, I want to make sure it’s just him being spoiled or me not understanding what he’s been trained to do, and not pain. So I have the vet coming over next week. I told him to bring the X-ray machine. If there are any questions, I’m going to tell him to dig. I know they think I’m one of those crazy Yankees who keep horses in heated barns (I don’t know any Yankees who keep horses in heated barns) because when the receptionist asked me where he was lame, I said, “Well, he’s not actually lame.” Then she asked what actually the problem was and I had to admit I don’t even know if there is a problem. I just want to make sure. I know that threw them for a loop.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Horse Stuff--Part Two--Harley

Harley is my favorite horse. Him and Lowdown. Okay, they’re all my favorite. But Harley is the one who I’ve been riding all these years and he’s my barrel horse. He’s also the one I feel sorry for and worry about. Kind of like the runt of the litter. Or the problem child. He is a little small. But he never gets into any trouble. He never resists me; never says no. But if he was in the wrong hands, he could get into trouble.

Harley used to be Kurt’s horse but Kurt hates him. Harley is afraid of men and Kurt is pretty manly—big hands, deep voice like Sam Elliott’s, rough. Don’t let him dye your hair. One time I tried to get him to touch up my roots because I kept overlapping and it was turning into a Brillo pad in the back. So I had the bright idea of getting him to do it for me because he’d be able to see better, standing behind me and all. I don’t know whether he did it on purpose because he hated doing it so much or he was just plain terrible at it, but he smushed the hair dye all over my head and it came out even worse than when I do it myself. One time I got him to cut my bangs. Let’s put it this way—you remember Nellie on Little House on the Prairie? Well, that’s what my hair looked like. Point being, he doesn’t have a girly bone in his body and is incapable of any skill normally associated with being female. Like doing hair. Or babying a horse. Therefore, even though he’s kind and gentle with animals and children, Harley was terrified of him and required major patience. Kurt didn’t have any and was unwilling to try to summon up some when he felt there was no call for it.

“I’m not doing anything to him!” he’d cry in his defense when Harley was bugging out over something.

“Talk baby talk to him,” I’d say.

“I’m not talking baby talk to him. I’m asking him very nicely.”

“You’re scaring him Kurt!”

This went on until the day we attended a team penning clinic and Harley was so nervous when we were chasing cows, when we got down to the end of the arena, Kurt went one way, Harley went the other, and Kurt fell off. Sam Elliott did not like that in front of all the other guys.

(Edited to add: Kurt is denying that he fell off that day. He says I’m lying to add color to the story.)

After he fell, he said he was leaving Harley there when we went home. They had a weekly horse auction at the place and Kurt was going to cut his losses—he was leaving that jackass for the sale. I was so mad I couldn’t get him to like this horse who I thought was perfectly fine, who I’d picked out, in fact. It was one thing after the other with them. I said, “Fine! Leave him then!”

Luckily he changed his mind at the last minute and loaded him up. But he was still going to sell him. At home, my girlfriend Monica noticed how Harley followed me around the corral like a puppy dog. She said, “He really likes you. Why don’t you ride him for thirty days and then put him up for sale?” Normally I don’t have time to ride two horses because you have to ride your horse every day if you’re barrel racing but the Showdeo season had just ended and I was done competing with Lowdown. If I started riding Harley, I could tune him up and fix whatever little issues he had. It would be better for selling. But it wasn’t the money I was thinking about. If he was well-behaved, he’d be less likely to fall into the wrong hands and end up going down the road, so to speak. That was my concern. That he have a good, permanent home. So I thought Monica had a great idea.

At first I was scared riding him. He was so fast and reactive. But I remember the moment I fell in love. It was when my neighbors came over to watch me with him in the round pen and I overheard Harry say, “Look at the way his ear is cocked back listening to her; look at the way he hangs on to her every word.” I looked down. He was right. Harley was glued to me.

That was eight years ago. I’ve been riding him and loving him ever since. Kurt still butts heads with him. Recently he came storming into the house and threw the halter on the table where it skidded into the sugar bowl. “You catch that bastard!” I knew who he meant. I didn’t even have to ask him. I went out there and called him. He came running over and slammed on the brakes right in front of me. Errrrrrr! I didn’t put a hand up or take a step back. He’d never run me over. If he could speak English, he would have said, “I’m here! I’m here! What do you want?! What can I do for you?! I love you so much!”

But that’s not the end of the story. Harley has headshaking syndrome. We discovered this a few years ago. Headshaking is a neurological disease that is incurable. They don’t know what it’s from. There’s lots of theories—over-vaccination, allergies, an injury, genetics. A headshaking horse jerks his head up and down like a bee just flew up his nose. Horses head-shake for different reasons. A lot of headshakers are photic. Harley is triggered by exercise. When he’s having episodes, he’s unrideable. It often gets worse and worse until a horse has to be euthanized.

The first time Harley did it, we were riding in the tall grass in Oklahoma and I thought bugs or seeds were popping up and tickling his nose. I was getting frustrated—com’on, com’on, cut it out. I urged him on. But it got so bad that he tried to wipe his nose with his foot while we were trotting and he fell down with me on top of him! Luckily he’s really athletic and he scrambled right back up before I even knew what happened. But right then and there I knew what it was. I remembered reading about something called headshaking syndrome many years ago when I was a kid and borrowed every single book in the library that had anything to do with horses. I read them cover to cover even if they were about riders in England who put things on their horses called rugs and cruppers; even if they were about Iranian horses and breeds from places like China, Russia, and Trinidad; even if I couldn’t understand them—I took all the horse books out. Some things stuck. I automatically knew Harley had headshaking syndrome.

I never thought I’d be able to ride him again. But this past spring I started him on Remission, which is mostly magnesium and has lysine and some other stuff in it. It’s one of the many things desperate owners of headshaking horses try. I don’t know whether the Remission worked or the headshaking gods were looking down on me or what, but I was able to ride Harley all summer and there was no headshaking. We even barrel raced a couple of times!

This is what happened at our first race. Harley and I were both scared out of our wits. It had been a long time since we competed and I didn’t feel ready. I wanted to scratch but Kurt got mad at me. He calls it tough love.

“Allllllright then… if you want me to get killed…” I said, hoping he’d say “Never mind, don’t do it.” But nooo. I thought, screw him. I’ll just jog Harley the whole way like it’s an exhibition. So what if I lose the thirty bucks entry fee? I was going to scratch anyway. But when they called my name and we headed down the alley and he saw the barrels, he wanted to go and it suddenly felt right and so I let him. Holy cow! We never went that fast or turned that tight! It was a 1D barrel if I ever saw one!

But then when we approached the second, I somehow lost both stirrups. Oh, I’ll tell you how that happened. That happened because I didn’t put my rubber bands on. Barrel racers put rubber bands around their feet and the stirrups because their feet are all over the place and it’s easy to lose a stirrup. The bands keep the stirrups with your feet. But if you fall off, it wouldn’t hang you up because it’s just a rubber band and it’ll break. I didn’t put mine on because, remember, I wasn’t going to run; I was only going to jog the pattern.

So I lost both stirrups and I almost fell off as we turned the second barrel. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, we veered out into the middle of the arena and somehow I stayed on. Got back on track. But halfway to the third, he bucked (probably because I was so off-balance) and I almost fell off again. I saw the dirt going by awfully close to my face. I climbed back on by my chin. Then turning the third, somehow, by some miracle, my feet fell into both stirrups; I mean they literally just slipped right back in like someone held them out for me and said, “Here, right here.”

I was able to stay with him and race home, laughing with delight. It was a mess. It was one of those runs that people put on the YouTube videos with titles like “Barrel Racing Mishaps.” But I was thrilled because all I kept thinking about was that first barrel. The potential! All that potential!

And I didn’t fall off.

That’s the story about Harley. I recently stopped riding him because I started riding Lowdown. I was dying to see what was under the hood after not having him for seven years. That story is next.