I consider February the longest, coldest month in Michigan; even if it only has twenty-eight days. Last night’s prediction of six inches of snow amounted to just a two-inch dusting, and the sun is teasing the new snow into a glitter across the yard. After graining and picking, I halter Ruby and lead her to the pen. We stand at the west fence; pondering whether Showgirl has yet been let out for the morning - but her slider is closed up tight. I quietly offer Ruby a treat. We meander to a pole in the rear center of the west pen - one of two cedar posts that I sank some time ago in an unsuccessful effort to build a hay rack. Ruby touches it for a second treat. We walk the short distance to the rear gate between the two pens but, as I walk through, Ruby suddenly senses she is too far out, and too alone. She nervously prances a pattern in the pristine snow before coming through the gate. Her concern escalates, prompting a minor pop-up before she plunges away from my loosely held lead and canters toward the barn. It is not like she is high-tailing it back to the barn (High-tailing, ha. There’s a horse term used in its original context.) and she slows to a trot before passing through the open slider. I find her standing at Sara’s stall - telling Sara I know not what. She walks quietly to me and I return her to her stall, put hay out, and release everyone for the morning. In the past, I would have considered Ruby's behavior a failed session. But, today, I am fine with it. Carolyn Resnick suggests that we not intentionally put our horses in what they might consider a precarious position; or ask them to remain where they are unsure of their surroundings. I do not want to convince Ruby to stay with me. I want to give her a reason to want to stay with me. I need to spent more quiet time alone with her in the evenings, in the minor warmth of the tack room.
I try reading aloud while walking on the treadmill - starting with ZEN AND HORSES: LESSONS FROM A YEAR OF RIDING by British author Ingrid Soren, who is writing soon after an emotionally exhausting divorce. It is difficult to read aloud while walking because it takes my breath away. Ingrid ends chapter one by writing, “Something woke up in me after that first ride, a dawning realization that the world is only a mirror of ourselves, and like Alice, I decided to walk through the looking glass.” She does not gain great confidence in her first rides, hacking out on a relative’s horse but says, “In the intervening week, I challenged myself to look at the positive: Most of us live our lives well below our full potential, and to start a steep learning curve relatively late in life will present its difficulties. But it also has advantages, not the least of which is the beginner’s mind. When we played as children, we experienced things just as they were, and were totally absorbed. This is a beginner’s mind: empty, free from the habits of the expert, and sees things as they are because it doesn’t know any other way. It is uncluttered by the notions and concepts that encrust our experience, that build up walls that restrict and limit the free movement of the psyche: that bruise the soul. The beginner’s mind is innocent and open, it goes instinctively beyond words; and it has the sense of wonder. If I could maintain this beginner’s mind as I progressed in my riding, then it surely had much to teach me.” I am trying to shed fifty years of traditional horsemanship; so I remind myself to apply her words to my time with Ruby. She also related an experiment that showed that the brain cannot distinguish between real and imagined performance. The research she cited was related to basketball players, some of whom actually practiced shooting baskets and some of whom only imagined it. In later tests, they did equally well. It made me think of a story about a prisoner in solitary confinement who remained healthy by imagining the complete preparation and indulging consumption of a well-planned meal; in spite of his only receiving a daily bowl of gruel. That is truly the power of positive thinking! I commit to clear my mind of negative memories and only envision good things happening with Ruby and me. I walk more than a mile in order to reach the end of a chapter.
This evening, I lead Ruby through the barrels to the water tank, and (sort of) over the two teeters. We walk to the outdoor hay feeder, where I remove her halter as she reaches for a mouthful of hay. She offers up a little hop-skip and I am thinking she is heading back to the barn. But, she trots over to a hay pile by the big log and takes a second mouthful. She again hops, and starts toward the barn but, then, she veers into the west pen instead; and commences to eat in there. So, it is not like she is needing to get back with the others.
February 2 ~ Oooh, down to 20 degrees - should have worn my hot-totties and double mittens! With halter and lead, Ruby and I check out the pipe-iron driveway gate leading to the road. I treat, and we walk to the water tank - no treat. We walk out the trail gate - treat. The universe appears in good order, so we walk back in. As we walk along the north arena wall toward the stalls and horses, she picks up a canter. I simply let go. She stops within twenty feet. I remove her halter and say, that’s it. In times past, I would not have recognized that as a cue to stop. In fact, I would have considered it the opposite. After all, I do not want her breaking away from me when we venture down the trail. I remember a video where Linda Parelli is walking one of her horses from the stable to a round pen some distance away. The horse is dancing and circling all the way; while Linda instructs her viewers to just stay safe and continue on - sometimes stepping around a tree in order to use its trunk as a brace on her lead. And, I remember when my good friend, Cathy, first brought Belle here - an older Percheron/Morgan cross who had a quite depressed former life. Cathy wanted to enjoy quiet walks alone with Belle, but was intimidated when Belle begged to stay back with the others. So, one day, her husband walked along, leading Belle with a twelve-foot rope and Parelli stick. When she challenged him, he just worked her in a circle until she cried uncle. Allan was simply less concerned about getting hurt than Cathy, and so it worked for him. I am sure that Linda Parelli’s horse turned out just fine; and both Cathy and Belle’s confidence grew immensely with the Parelli program. But, for all of their remaining time together, until Belle died, they only worked in an arena. Cathy was just never comfortable venturing away from the barn. I wonder if Allen won the battle, but Cathy lost the war. At any rate, if I want Ruby to want to be with me, and I believe that little things speak volumes, then Ruby needs to know that her little breakaway canter is something she cannot do if she wants to play with me - or get treats from me. But, I don't think I want to punish her for it. Now, I know that most male horse trainers - and the women who train under them - believe that a horse’s reward is being left alone. We have all heard that. Find a good place to stop and put them away. But, I am beginning to think that men believe that because that is what men want - to be left alone. Who is to say that horses think like men? Women want friends. Most women only want to be left alone when their partner is abusive. Traditional horse training? Point made. So, I truncate my plan to walk Ruby into the outdoor pen where the hay is waiting and, instead, simply abandon her. That is, in fact, how men punish their women. When they are miffed, they go silent.
I am still reading Ingred Soren’s ZEN AND HORSES while on my treadmill. She notes that in “The Way to Perfect Horsemanship” (yes, I am citing a book inside a book) Udo Burger said “to become a good horseman one needs to be bold, agile, and relaxed. These qualities are not physical attributes, they are psychological ones.” I think of my own life - not just with horses but in general. I have never considered myself bold, agile, nor relaxed! Tentative, clumsy, and intense would be a better description. After much frustration and disappointment, when Ingred experiences a good lesson, she reminds herself to “keep nonattainment in mind, remembering that championitis does nothing for consciousness. Overreacting either way to my progress would be counterproductive: It was better not to have views on it so as neither to take pride in whatever I did ‘attain,’ nor to be discouraged because I had been too idealistic. Either of these choices would confine my practice like prison walls.” I will remember this in my relationship with Ruby.
Books arrive in the mail (always, more books) and the packing is comprised of two extremely long sheets of butcher paper. After evening feed, I spread them across the hay tubs. Sara refuses to venture anywhere near them. Zena and Sparky do a lot of circling and pondering before slipping their heads in for their hay. Ruby, on the other … hoof … trots right up and tugs at the trails of paper; sending the other horses flying. I eventually pull the paper off the tubs so they can all relax and enjoy their hay.
February 3 ~ What a wonderful - freezing but wonderful - morning. OMGoodness! I discover shreds of butcher paper torn up all over the arena!
After graining, I halter Ruby and ask her to stand quietly in her stall for a moment. We walk the length of the arena to the water tank, and left to the trail gate to scan the back ten. Treat. If you remember, yesterday, she cantered off on me as we walked back toward the stalls. Today, she walks quietly to the opening to the chute, stops for a treat, ponders, and then walks with me to the end of the chute. We stand there while I fumble for a treat from my pocket and then ponder where to walk next. We wander to the big log. I step over it but she walks around. I step back over it and she steps her front feet over and stops. Surprise! She remembers stepping halfway over smaller poles from last fall. That's nice. I ask her to step the rest of the way over and she does. I decide this is a good place to stop, so I remove her halter and give her a pet. I continue on toward the copse of shade trees near the back of the pen and, surprise - she follows me. I treat and ask that she not crowd me as I walk the narrow pass between the copse and the divider fence, toward the back gate. She continues to follow. I step through the gate and present a treat. But, as she steps through, she opts to canter back to the barn. But, wait! She stops halfway and looks back at me. I hold up the treat and say, “You forgot your treat.” She comes all the way back - a good fifty feet. We walk quietly back to the barn together with her occasionally crowding me toward the fence. But, it does not appear to be intentional, and I can use my arm to easily move her off. A wonderful morning indeed! She wants to be with me - and with my Calf Manna apple-flavored biscuits.
February 4 ~ Oh, my chilly bewillikers - it is only 15-degrees. At least it is sunny and that helps a lot. I shake and stuff my warmer packets into my mittens and head to the barn. It has been a week since I have had Ruby in the tack room. Without visiting or brushing, I rush to pick up her feet so, after cleaning her front left, she declines to cooperate further. My bad. I leave the back left and move on to her front right - and treat - even though she is busy eating her grain. I clean the back right, treat, and back left. In the arena, I lead her along as I unlock and open the twelve-foot slider leading to the chute and the pens. This is the first time I have had her at my side as I open any of these big sliders. We ponder the out-of-doors and determine that the universe is at peace. She asks for a treat and I give her one. We walk to the big log without stopping at the end of the chute. I treat and step over. She walks around - three times - before stepping over. All the while, I am thinking about how cold it is AND about the artists I am working with for a logo for my website. My mind has not settled since leaving the house. Last evening, I listened to an online live chat with Carolyn Resnick. I do not know how many listeners were present, but in response to the first question posed, Carolyn talked about the importance of being present before greeting our horse. She suggested that, fifteen minutes ahead of time, we should clear our heads and think only about our horse. Then, when we greet him, we should go to our quiet place together. I surely did not do that this morning - just twelve hours after listening to her advice. She suggested that we give up all of our expectations and just let the relationship happen. That is one of those tidbits that should be true for our human relationships as well. Easier said than done One of the callers asked how we should know when it is time to try something new; especially when it could result in setting our progress back or even injuring us. Carolyn said that hundreds of people have asked her how, as a teenager in a California desert, she could have been brave enough to crawl off a mammoth rock and onto a wild mare’s back. She said that was the answer to the caller’s question. She was so deep into that relationship that she just knew it would be safe. If any other thought had crossed her mind, she would not have done that. And, that is how we, too, should know. That is a very big lesson. A huge lesson. Another caller asked about her seven-month-old stud colt who was so assertive / aggressive / friendly / whatever / that she could not get into the pen with him. My ears perked up! This was nearly my issue when I went looking for Trish Mayer to help me with Ruby last fall. I was not afraid to be with Ruby; but I sure could not take my attention off her without her coming at me in nips and rears. Carolyn told the caller to stay outside the fence and use her reed (a very soft, long crop) to drive the colt off. She suspected it would take much effort because the colt will consider it play but, eventually, he will become bored and leave. At that moment, the caller was to toss a carrot into the pen ten feet in front of the colt. She said he would quickly learn that it is a good thing to not be in her space. For however many days it took, when she felt ready, she could enter the pen and quietly but consistently drive him with the reed. That would assert her position with him. She closed by offering mantras we can say out loud whenever we are with our horses: (1) “It feels so good to be with you;” and (2) “I love you so much.” Advice for our human relationships - again.
February 5 ~ I bring Ruby into the tack room for breakfast and she kindly allows me to clean her feet. In the back pen, she steps readily over the log. I remove her halter but, instead of returning to the barn, she follows me to the copse of trees. It is a good morning. In the evening, we sit quietly in the tack room eating grain and hay before heading to the arena to play a little fetch with the red rope ball.
February 7 ~ Good things happened yesterday with Ruby but, if I do not journal immediately, my thoughts run together and I lose the details. This morning, she offers me a couple perks. It is damp outside - 35-degrees and drizzly. After asking the girls to go into their stalls for grain, I return to Ruby’s stall. I would like to pick her feet up in the stall instead of in the tack room - and untethered. When I step between the stall wall and her left side, she leans into me instead of away. I am actually quite snug and would not want to be there with a horse I did not trust. But, I am feeling okay with it, which says a good thing. I ask her to step to her right and she acquiesces. She readily lifts her front foot and I treat. She lifts her back with a little shake - but not much - and she offers the same on the other side.
While at TSC yesterday, I purchased a stuffed chicken with a squeaker in its belly; like one I - and maybe you - have seen on Facebook - a viral video of a young horse with the chicken in its mouth, squeaking around its pen. Well, I have a video to show you Ruby’s introduction; but I have to learn to upload to YouTube before inserting it in this post. At the beginning, I drop my cell phone to the ground - no problem and for no reason; I just drop it. Sorry. Although, you cannot see, the other horses are curious but glad they are safe in their stalls. But, here’s the perk - the big perk… Somewhere in that video, I remove Ruby’s lead rope. You can hear it clunk on the mounting steps. Then, at some point, you can see her think about picking it up. Well, right after I turn the video off, she picks the lead rope up, near the snap end, and gives it to me! I am ECSTATIC! She wants me to lead her somewhere! Well, no, she is just playing fetch for treat. BUT, that means she has transferred the game from the ball to the halter. That is very interesting. We walk to the water tank, she walks through a ten-inch squeeze between two blue barrels, over the teeter fairly well (with me leading from the right - off side) and, then, she circles me once around to the left, once around to the right, ending with twice around to the left. So, she works off both her left and right side. That's a huge advancement. For being truly miserable outside weather-wise, it has been a truly cheery morning in here.
February 8 ~ Yesterday’s day-long drizzle dissipated what little snow we had, leaving a yard full of tiny pools covered in the thinnest ice. Ruby is, for the most part, not interested in the squeaky chicken. I don’t want to use it to play fetch because it is already horribly filthy. She does not get the point of the squeaker. She is aware of the squeak, but not that she can control it. When the horses finish their morning grain, I halter and lead Ruby from her stall. We check out the water tank, filled full last night. We walk to the trail gate and treat. Unlatching the chain-hold, I open the gate and step outside. I open the gate wider so that Ruby can come around and step outside. I treat and we observe. Over the next five minutes, we wander the forty-foot open area between the east pen and the pines. Every so often, Ruby asks for and receives a treat. But, then, she chews a pine bough and I have to tell her no. At some point, she wants to wander back toward the barn but, then, returns and ponders the path leading onto the back ten. After another treat, we wander back into the barn. When I close the gate she seems unsure whether that is what she wanted. When I remove her halter, she wants to play with it. I think about doing something more, but then decide against it. This has been good enough. We let the other girls out for hay and I return to the house.
February 9 ~ What a busy morning! It is only 22-degrees so I know my hands will be too cold to do much other than pick arena poop. I am thinking I might bring Ruby into the tack room to have her lift her feet for cleaning. Not that they need cleaning. But, when I enter the arena, Ruby is maniacally racing and bucking, filling the arena with dust - and Zena is following her lead. Maybe, this is not a good morning to stand quietly in the tack room. Still, while eating her grain, she lifts each of her four feet for me in her stall for four bits of candy cane. I put all four outside for their hay and commence picking the arena, but Ruby wanders back in. I leave my pick with the barrow as Ruby follows me, unhaltered, into the tack room. I sit in the chair near her hay pile and she takes a nibble or two before spotting her stuffed chicken. She wants to trade it for a treat but, when she does, I just squeak it and give it back. Losing interest, she wanders to the saddle rack. I think, well, maybe we will do something new today. When she pulls a saddle pad off a rack, I put it on her back and give her a treat. I lift the old western Abetta onto her and treat again. I walk around to the near side and, for the first time, pull the latigo from its half-hitch and cinch her up. I do not tighten it securely, but I do at least snug it up. I treat and she keeps the saddle on long enough for me to pull out my cell and snap a sloppy pic. Because she is now ignoring the saddle and trying to get into my compost bin, I remove the saddle and return it to its rack. Opening the door, I drag a huge blue plastic tarp out to the arena, abandon it, and return to my picking. Ruby pulls and shakes the tarp. Sparky comes in, and then Sara and Zena, and now my chore is surely interrupted. Sparky walks on the teeter and stands on the tarp vying for my attention. As I roll the barrow to the far end for dumping, Sara tries to help me open the gate - a sure task for receiving a treat. Except, I didn’t ask her to open it, and I have a job to get done. Eventually, they all give up and go outside, leaving me feeling like Scrooge. Sure enough, before I have the barrow put away and the gate closed, Ruby is back inside messing with the chain as I am trying to secure the gate. Alas, I go to the office, retrieve the twelve-foot lead, the switch, and her halter. Beyond the barrels and toys in the arena, there is an open area at the far end. There, she walks around me on the lead receiving treats for two circles to the left, two to the right, three to the left, three to the right, FOUR to the left and, well, two to the right before she decides that is enough. I remove her halter - oh so different than what I was taught to do! I should have snapped that whip and made her circle. I “should make her more afraid of me than of what I am asking her to do.” Why have I never asked myself whether the trainers who teach this cliche also use the same method with their spouses and children? Surely, they must.
February 10 ~ Twenty-two-degrees and quiet. The ground is firm. I think I might ask Ruby whether she would like me to lead her out of the trail gate this morning. I grain her in her stall and, today, I wait for her to finish her grain before asking her to pick up her feet. This is new. She picks up the left front for a treat, but lifts then shakes her back, and does not earn a treat. She lifts her front right for a treat, but repeats her misbehavior on the back. I shake my head no and leave the stall to put the other girls out back. While I am picking, I ponder my possible responses, should she come back in. I decide that, in the open arena, I will ask her again to pick up her feet. If she acquiesces, I will get her halter and lead, and suggest walking out the trail gate. But, she does not come back in. I finish my chore and head up to the house. This means I accomplished very little this morning. But, I did not have a confrontation, and I can ask again this evening. This is soooo not what I learned over the past forty-plus years. How many trainers say that a horse’s greatest reward is being left alone. Force them to do what you want and then let them go - be done. I have grown to believe that the horse’s greatest reward is companionship - maybe, with other horses - maybe, with a human. I want Ruby to want to play with me tomorrow.
ZEN AND HORSES - While walking on my treadmill, I read ZEN AND HORSES. P. 134. “The 13th-century German mystic Eckhart said that ‘the eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.’ “ The author continues, “It struck me as the same mystic experience of the Zen archer, where fundamentally the marksman aims at himself.” This sounds like projection to me - the psychological defense mechanism where we accuse others of having our faults in our unconscious (or conscious?) effort to mask ours. I hate to say this, but I think this is the basis of our new president’s entire campaign and leadership style. If we want to know his shortcomings, listen to how he describes others. If you want to know his misdeeds, listen to his accusations of others. At any rate, the positive side of this Zen message is that, if I can project calm respect on Ruby, she will project it back to me.
February 11 ~ What a nice Valentine’s weekend day. It is dry and 40-degrees - heading toward 45. In the tack room, Ruby shoves her grain around her tub, spilling much of it. I have the tub sitting on a metal cart because I am grooming, and want her head up. I think she prefers it on the floor. She only earns three treats because her back right foot gives a half-hearted lift. I decide to walk the girls around the ten acres, leaving Ruby’s bright teal halter on so that I can easily tell her from Zena while we are out back. I halter Sara and ask her to serve as brave and quiet leader. Outside the arena, the girls stand around, not sure what is up. As I begin to walk Sara down the outside of the east pen, Ruby bounds toward us. I point my switch and she recedes. Halfway back on the ten, Zena veers off toward the middle of the property, knowing there is the best chance to find grass. We enjoy the morning together for the next half hour. Twice, Ruby considers nibbling a pine bough but, both times, when I say, “Ruby, no,” she returns to the ground cover. Noise travels farther in the cold of the winter. I can hear a train crossing Irish Road, six miles away. Not just the whistle - the rumbling of the wheels on the track. I am wondering whether there is a chance I could get caught up in a minor stampede when I ask Sara to return to the barn. But, Sparky and Ruby wander back to the path and I use the opportunity to drive them gently ahead with my switch. Zena takes up the rear. I still have to pick the arena, clean and fill the water tank, and bring in four bags of grain that I’ve left in the van. But, the day is pleasant and I am in no hurry. Gary and Skipper appear, so I take a break to walk the path with them. We meander slowly, taking pictures of raccoon and leaf prints in the ice.
ZEN AND HORSES - Ingrid Soren writes “I clumsily tacked Hermann up singlehandedly … and led him out to the mounting block. [The stable owner] was standing nearby talking to a trainer, and when she saw me she came over. “You’ve done up the girth on the wrong buckle,” she pointed out. “It’s all twisted.” She wrestled with it but couldn’t undo it. I felt sheepish. She called the trainer to come and help, and together they managed to sort it out. Feeling truly small, I mounted, attempting to maintain a dignified smile.” What struck me about this passage is that Soren had been taking lessons for almost a year; and no one had taught her to saddle a horse.
February 12 ~ A faint mist does not keep friends from arriving on a day that reaches into the 30’s. Sam Church brings Lexi to visit Sparky before heading off for an afternoon birthday party. Lexi’s motor-body brother, Tony, tags along. And, I meet her husband, Matt. Lexi rides Sparky while Tony uses a broom to sweep dust off a tipped-on-its-side blue barrel. Yes, he wants to clean something. This seven-year-old boy, whose greatest joy is riding a small motorized dirt bike, loves to clean. He asks his dad to help him get the barrow out from behind the half-way wall so that he can pick what little manure is in the arena. Who woulda thunk. I have also invited Amanda Richard over to help me string Ruby with red and white silk roses for Valentine’s Day. College and work keeps Amanda busy. She has not seen Ruby since Ruby's birthday on May 13th and is shocked to see how tall she has grown. She brushes Ruby in her stall while I collect grooming supplies. While not standing as still as we would like, Ruby allows us to braid her mane and tail - not very neatly - and string the flowers. Braiding and decorating her forelock with her head all over the place tries our patience. I am tempted to tell Amanda to just jerk the lead rope and tell her to stand still but, instead, we stop, breathe, and finish just fine. In the meantime, Kim, who has just returned from a winter Texan escape, drops in to join us. I realize that, between the dreary weather and my dreary arena, we do not have a nice backdrop for picture taking. Ruby has tolerated standing quietly while we fuss over her for as long as she ever has. We snap enough pictures to hopefully get a couple good ones. It is a good morning with good friends. Both Amanda and Kim are impressed with how much Ruby has settled down. I would expect that Amanda would see a huge difference because she has not seen Ruby in eight months. But, Kim’s been away less than a month; so it is nice to hear. I tell them that I believe it is my sitting with her in the tack room in the evenings that is making the difference.
February 13 ~ It is gloriously beautiful this morning! That word is even better than wonderful! It is 35-degrees at 9:00A and sunny. I guess I have to take back that statement about February being the longest, coldest month of the winter. Ruby eats her grain in the tack room while I clean her feet. She no longer enjoys eating her grain from the plastic tub set on the little metal stand. She throws her muzzle around, tossing pellets all over the floor. I move the tub to the floor but, when her head is low, it is harder for her to pick up her feet. So, I put it back on the stand and finish picking. Afterward, I lead her to the far end of the arena so we can watch Cat run up the barn drive, then to the water tank and the trail gate before we stop for a treat. I open the gate and we walk outside. I was going to treat her again, but she wanders off around the outside corner of the east pen. We look around together, and she walks on toward the path - her nose a couple feet ahead of mine. When she stops, I quietly treat her and we look around. She seems not sure what she wants to do, so I suggest we return to the barn. It is a small walk, but a huge one - like the first step on the moon! We pleasantly return to the arena, where we close the trail gate and wander down to open the chute slider. When I unlock the second latch, she makes a feeble attempt to take it in her mouth. I find that interesting. We walk all the way out to the hay bin in the east pen, treat, and walk behind the copse of trees to the back gate between the pens. There is a bit of ice on the ground back here, so we stop to ponder while eating a treat. I walk through the gate first, and then ask her to follow, saying “easy, easy” as she skirts the edge of the ice. I treat her and think about taking her halter off there. But, she is relaxed on the lead, so we walk quietly back to the barn together.
February 14 ~ Happy Valentine’s Day from Ruby. It is sunny, 40-degrees, and heading warmer. As beautiful as this is, one cannot help but wish that global warming were not a bad thing. But, alas, it is. I wait for Ruby to finish her grain in her stall before asking her to lift her feet. With her halter on and lead draped over her back, she lifts her front left for a treat. On a second request, she lifts her back left. After lifting her front right, I am tickled to see how high and wide she lifts her back right without my holding it. It is funny! She gets a treat and lots of kudos. I lead her out the trail gate and, after standing for a moment, we treat and walk alongside the outside of the east pen. Halfway back, she comes to a stop with furrowed eyebrows. I treat and ask if she wants to return to the barn. We turn and walk back, where I halter Zena. The three of us are now outside the trail gate. I close it so Ruby cannot opt to return to Sara’s stall. She follows Zena and I halfway down the pen before returning to the closed arena gate. Zena and I continue along the path, through the pines and out of sight. Halfway back on the ten, we stop. Zena enjoys a treat before we walk back to the barn. Ruby is waiting at the gate. I distribute hay around the outside pens but, as I return to the tack room, Ruby comes back in. She wants to do something for a treat. I re-halter her and lead her to the trail gate because I want to make sure I had doubled chained it. I can sense ever so slightly that that was not where she was wanting to go. We walk into the pens with the others. Ruby and I walk the inside perimeter of the larger pen, along the east fence to the back - near where the outside pines narrow arch on the path. As we turn to walk along the back side of the pen, she pulls back toward the other horses. I remove her halter and tell her to go. But, now she does not want to. I quietly drive her back to the group but, when I pass her and walk through the arena toward the tack room, she follows. I tell her I am done for the morning.
Henry Miller quoted in ZEN AND HORSES - Ingrid Soren - “There’s only one life, and it is always good. . . .Life is energy, tremendous energy. . . . It’s almost a question of health, of well-being. To be healthy is to keep a living current flowing. Vital energy, that’s what life is.”
February 15 ~ A thin veil of snow blankets the ground. The horses are locked in the arena because it was windy last night. I tuck them into their stalls and deliver their grain before wandering down to retrieve my manure barrow from the storage area by the dumpster door - stopping short at the water tank. Yesterday morning, I made a mental note to fill it in the evening, and I had forgotten. It is now absolutely dry - the heating element protruding uselessly into empty air. My guilt dissipates when, after graining, every horse opts to amble on outside to their hay piles with no thought of water. Before releasing them, though, I bring Zena out of her stall and pick up all four of her feet in front of Ruby’s stall. She is a lady about it and receives four treats. I return her to her stall and enter Ruby’s with no halter or lead. I give her one treat and pet her before requesting that she pick up each of her feet. She is quite a lady about it, too - almost as nice as her mom. I would like to do at least one more thing with her, because it feels good to be able to come into the house and journal a worthy morning. So, I halter and lead Ruby into the arena, asking for both a stop and a back every so often. I have done essentially no backing on the lead prior to this, and am very pleased with the three of four steps she offers when asked. I am not standing in front of her, facing her, as I am when I am in her stall. I am standing at the side of her head, facing forward with her, and lightly drawing the lead back under her chin. We finish with her walking circle around me in each direction. In the evening, she shares a half hour with me eating her hay in the tack room before her attention wanders to the saddles on the racks. But, I am tired, and just ask her to follow me to the arena to join the other girls. I close the chute slider leading to the pens in order to shut out the night wind; and head up to the house for a game of Scrabble with Gary.
While walking on the treadmill, I read ZEN AND HORSES. It is very “Zenny” today. Ingrid Soren writes, “Like all horses, Louis had no sense of self-consciousness. While I was riding him, he mirrored back his “is-ness” to me and for fleeting moments I saw the true reflection of no “I.” It was like the emptying of my adulthood. The weight of my self-awareness dropped away, leaving me in the freedom of lightness and clarity. Once more I was experiencing the healing power of horses, that healing that comes through being just who they are and insisting that we be who we are, no masks, no ego. Ego is resistance to the fundamental truth of no separate identity. The ego, vehicle of the “I,” has manifestations that are ugly. No-ego is beautiful and its manifestations are beautiful. Who we are is the sum of our manifestations, nothing more or less.”
February 16 ~ Twenty-five-degrees and sunny. Ruby eats breakfast in the tack room while I use the curry gloves, soft brush, mane and tail detangler, and pick hooves. She opts to remain in the tack room to eat hay, although I have already put the hay and the other girls in the pens. As she munches, I saddle her with the old Abetta, snugging the cinch for the first time - not super tight, and not knotted. I sit while she eats, saddled, for ten minutes. I unsaddle her without a fuss. When I walk her to the arena, her eyebrows raise in surprise to find the others gone. I tell her they are outside, pointing, and we walk to the slider, where I release her to the herd. After picking the arena, I throw down a couple bales of hay and begin to close up the tack room. But, Ruby has come back inside. I re-halter her and lead her to the chute, where she walks along with me as I close the slider to keep the others out. We amble down to the trail gait, open it, and treat. She steps outside with me and walks the thirty feet to the near corner of the east pen. I stop and treat. We walk halfway down the side - sixty feet - stop and treat; and the remaining sixty feet to the back corner, stop and treat. This is the farthest we have come yet, but she is still within sight of the horses inside the far side of the east pen. This is a huge advance. I am quietly thrilled - until she nibbles on a pine tree and I have to tell her no. We walk slowly back the barn. She gives no impression that she is in a hurry and I remain quietly thrilled. Back in the arena, we circle once to the right and left; but they are sloppy. Instead of just the lead, I also have the switch; and I am raising it toward her hip to ask her to walk. This is new to her. She walks the few feet to the water tank and imbibes. We walk one more listless circle and she ponders walking away. I remove her halter and walk off to open the slider to the chute and other horses. This is so backward! ‘Old school’ would say that I just rewarded her for noncompliance. ‘New school’ says friends do not remain with friends who do not want to play with them. I cross the arena and step up into the causeway - and who is with me? Ruby! She had not returned to the others. She is still looking for some kind of treatable interaction. I just tell her to have a good morning, and close the little slider between us. What a wonderful, wonderful morning.
Every morning, after walking a mile on my treadmill, I find some small area of the basement to de-clutter. Since Gary retired from the university, and I retired the American Association of Riding Schools, our office areas have become tombs of past lives - dusty and disorganized. The basement needs a new lease on life. I still have not played my piano this year - despite my New Year’s resolution. Today, while Gary is off playing racquetball, I pull out my Thompson’s First Grade Primer and play for fifteen minutes. It feels good.
February 18 ~ To say that the weather is unseasonably warm is an understatement. We should be foot deep in snow and suffering ten-degree weather - but the forecast is for 50-degrees. Gary and I walk Skipper, Cat, AND Sparky around the ten acres - our little menagerie. I decide, after Gary and Skip head up to the house, to walk each of the three other horses. That would add up to about a mile all total, and I could skip my treadmill. But, first, I want to lift Ruby’s feet in her stall. She is finished with her grain and can put all her attention on me. She lifts her fronts fine, but her backs are little lifts with little stomps. So, I say no treat for that and leave her. I halter Sara in her stall and return to Ruby. This time she lifts her back feet very well and earns her treats before Sara and I head out back. Our walk with Sparky was a meandering one; but Sara clips right along and I am a bit winded upon returning to the arena. Zena is not totally comfortable walking out without the other girls, so we only walk two-thirds of the way out and return without incident. Ruby makes it as far as the back of the east pen - a hundred and fifty feet - where we stop for treats and then walk back together. I am happy enough with that. When I remove her halter, she sticks to me like glue all the while I pick the arena. It is warm enough to have thawed the pens a bit, so I collect another barrow of manure. Ruby remains at my side, looking for a game that will yield a treat. I re-halter her and lead her around the arena without treating - just visiting - and out to where the others are at their hay piles. When we reach Zena, we share her pile - Ruby eating on the lead while I lean up against the fence. I stay for ten minutes before getting ants in my pants, removing her halter, and heading up to the house.
February 19 ~ Global warming! It is 45-degrees in the morning and heading to 60! Never, in February! The Michigan apple farmers are bemoaning that, if their trees start to flower and then winter returns - which it will - it is February - they will lose their entire crop. But, oh my goodness, it is beautiful today. When the horses are finished with their morning grain, Ruby lifts all four feet very well; and holds the backs up quietly until I ask her to put them down. I halter her, leave her stall door open, and leave to halter Sara. When Sara and I emerge from Sara’s stall, we find Ruby still standing in hers. She is waiting for her “stand before exiting” treat. Well, well. We walk to the trail gate at the far end of the arena, stop, and each girl receives a treat. I walk Sara out on her lead, with my switch available to keep Ruby from climbing on, or rushing us. At the end of the east pen, I treat Sara and wait for Ruby - who is nibbling grass part way back to the barn. I tap my chest, asking her to come and, when she does, I treat. Sara and I walk through the pine gap. With hesitation, Ruby trots through; but stops short of us when I lift my switch. I treat them both. It is a new and good thing to feel comfortable having her close enough that I can treat them both. We continue down the path, with Ruby nervously prancing on-and-off the path, through the brush and back to us, looking back to the barn, but standing for a treat twice more before reaching the back of the ten acres. We are not all the way to the park gate, but are near where the path begins to turn west. This is by far the farthest and best we have ever done. I question whether I should continue on around, or call this a very good day. I did not unlock the west slider on the red barn before heading out so, if we complete the loop, I would have to leave the horses loose in the yard while going around to unlatch the door. Not a big deal. Still, I see Ruby looking back toward the barn. So, I say, “Okay, Ruby, let’s head back;” and motion with my switch for her to take the lead. She immediately takes the cue and gallops all the back to the barn - in the same manner that they all did at the end of their evenings out last summer. Sara wants to canter, too, but she is on my lead. I treat her and we walk back together. I can just imagine every horse person I know telling me I should not let Ruby run back to the barn - that I am creating a barn-stormer. I would have said that, too. Now, all I can say is that I gave her the opportunity to express herself, and she did. You and I both know it is my goal to be able to ride out on her alone in the years to come - when I am in my seventies! So, yes, time will tell. Back in the arena, I scratch Ruby’s ribs with a huge leaf rake. In the evening, I walk Sara all the way around the ten-acre path, but Ruby does not follow. When we arrive back at the barn, she is waiting inside the arena.
I am supposed to start taking Miralax today to ready my body for drinking that horrible colonoscopy prep on Wednesday, for a procedure on Thursday. But, my sister’s husband is surely going to succumb to his colon cancer momentarily. How do I plan this schedule?
February 20 ~ It is in the thirties, crisp and dry. I am supposed to be drinking that awful gallon of colonoscopy prep fluid. But, hospice nurses have estimated that my sister’s husband, who is only fifty-nine, is within forty-eight hours of expiring at home. I am waiting for my doctor’s office to answer my call for a reschedule. When the girls are finished with their grain, and I am finished picking the arena, I halter Ruby and ask her to pick up her feet in her stall. I do not stand quietly with her first, going to emotional zero as I should. She lifts her front left and receives a treat but, when I ask her to pick up her back left, she moves away instead. I leave the stall with her clearly looking for her treat. I attach a halter and lead to Sara and walk her to Ruby’s stall. When Ruby steps out, they each receive a treat. We walk quietly to the trail gate, treat, to the near outside corner of the east pen, treat, to the back corner of the pen, treat, through the pine gap, treat, part way down the path, treat, and end half way back where the trees and bushes open up a little, treat. It is where the horses spent much time grazing last summer. The walk has gone exceptionally well. I could not ask for better. Now I consider our options. Deciding to end on a good note, I use my switch to touch and point; asking Ruby to walk back to the arena ahead of us. I use the word, walk, quietly and constantly. Every forty feet or so, I ask for a stop and give them both treats. Other than her meandering off the path twice, she does just fine. At one point she wanders far enough (thirty feet into the trees?) that, when she returns to the path, she does so with a buck. But, she stops and waits for us and they both receive treats. We return through the pine gap, receive a treat at the back of the pen and the front. Ruby would rather stay outside, looking for something to nibble. But, Sara and I go into the arena and Ruby follows. This has been an excellent little outing.
February 21 ~ Ruby races like crazy in the east pen when she sees Gary, Skip, and I head out to walk the ten. In the afternoon, I lead Sara down the outside of the east pen with Ruby following; again receiving treats at the front corner, back corner, and beyond the pine gap. When Ruby comes too close to Sara, I use my switch to drive her off. When she runs all the way back to the barn, I have a possible epiphany. I am telling her to stay out of our personal space. Maybe, she thinks I am telling her we do not want to play with her. Should I attempt to take her out on her own? If not now, then when?
February 22 ~ Bill trims hooves today. We bring each horse into the tack room. Ruby is not particularly accommodating with either of her back feet because she is not used to holding them up so high or for so long. Bill tries to restrain his irritation and says I have to work with her. Gary and I take advantage of the good weather with another small hike. My sister’s husband dies today. What a sad end to such a short life.
February 24 ~ I halter Ruby and ask her to lead with me along the outside of the east pen, She only advances halfway before wanting to return to the arena. But, the weather is beautiful, so I spend time working on a small, thawing manure pile in the east pen. Ruby sticks like glue to me all the while. It feels good. In the evening, I attach a plastic-wrapped cardboard with the letter “A” to the top of the arena half-wall kick-board, and bring each of the girls out - Sparky first, then Sara, Zena, and Ruby last. I have purchased smaller peppermint treats, and each earns one for touching the A. But, they are not aware of the figure. To them, they are simply touching a white square.
February 24 ~ I halter Ruby and lay the lead over her back. I ask her to follow me, stop, and stay; and then walk away - five feet, then farther for each of five times until she stands - with me a good twenty feet away. When she begins to come toward me, I wave my switch toward her lower legs and make her return to her spot. I repeat “stay” and reiterate the stay motion - my finger jabbing toward the ground. When I ask her to come to me, I hold up the “A” card and ask her to touch it. She does surprisingly well on the “stay” command, considering how little I have worked with her.
February 25 ~ When I bring the girls in for evening feed, Ruby walks into Zena’s stall, followed by Zena. They both come out and go back, twice. Zena is now considering entering Ruby’s stall and I tell her no - that she needs to go back into her own stall. I point and, like a reprimanded dog, she lowers her head and begins to turn toward her stall. I make the mistake of saying, “good girl” and - surprise - she immediately turns back to me. She knows that good girl” is equated with a treat. It is not supposed to be. My bad. My treat cue is supposed to be, “Yes!”
February 26 ~ It is a blustery thirty degrees all day. I do little with Ruby this morning. She does not want to pick up her back feet for me in her stall, so I leave her; and am busy elsewhere for the rest of the day.
February 27 ~ The sun is shining and it is 40-degrees by 9:30. The girls are getting fed late so I don’t dally about putting them out. While picking the pens, I lay my face into Ruby’s sun-warmed shoulder. She lifts her head to touch my arm, and returns to quiet eating. I saddle Sara in the afternoon and head into the park with Gary. This is a first - and in February! Gary has pulled his bicycle from the garage; but we are concerned that Sara might not be good with this. He is waiting outside the arena’s trail gate when I slide onto the saddle and head out. The plan is that I will ride behind Gary so that Sara can see him. She surprises us by spryly trotting right along after him all the way to the back of the property, through the gate into the park, along the woodland path to the park road, and the half mile down to where the road T’s at a black-topped crossroad. I do not remember the last time I have trotted so much! Thank heaven that Sara is a Haflinger - a broad horse with a low, smooth jog.
February 28 ~ Ruby eats breakfast in the office. I clean all four feet and sit for fifteen minutes while she remains to eat hay I have left on the floor. It is a very good morning. I cannot believe that February has been so accommodating; and that I have enjoyed so much interaction with my horses. Surprised and pleased, indeed.