It is the first day of October and guess where we are. Out on the trail! Today is another first – all three of us are on horses. Ava is on her own to care for Sparky. It is the longest ride of the year; over the drive-over bridge and back along the north side of the river for maybe two hours. Twice during the beginning of the ride, Sparky suggests that she does not want to walk forward. I am thinking she does not like walking behind Zena. She is always a witchy-witch toward Zena. Now, this is nothing more than her standing in place for a moment before moving on. I do believe she is the most emotionally solid of the three. Maybe, that is because she is a witchy-witch! Even still, this is a truly, truly enjoyable day – perfect all around.
October 2 ~ OMGoodness, I am so upset with myself for not asking Kim to video today. I cannot wait to tell you about Ruby’s “performance!” I have volunteered to offer the Horse Lovers’ Badge for Ava’s fourth grade scout troop. Over the past thirty years, we have helped over 4,000 girls scouts earn their Horse Lover’s and/or Horse Fan badge here at Riverbank Farm; including offering the Camp-O-Fairwinds go-away-to-camp horse program for a half-dozen years. In my retirement, I no longer have the energy to do this; but I sure do miss all those years and all those girls. Ava’s mother, Nicole, who owns a pallet party business, has made a beautiful horse head pallet sign for me. The scouts present it as a thank you.
This group of girls is the largest number of children we have had in the barn since before Zena and Ruby came to us. Ruby is wide-eyed as the girls scamper from stall to stall, petting and chattering over the horses.
We keep her in her stall with hay for two hours while the scouts pet, lead, groom, saddle, and ride Sparky and Sara bareback on a lead.
As the girls gather for a picnic lunch on the lawn, I lock Ruby in the west pen with another flake of hay. After lunch, the scouts head into the larger east pen to design an obstacle course with the barrels and poles. When we call them in to get their helmets, the rush of their racing past Ruby’s fence line sends her skittering to the side – like, “OMGoodness, that little herd is stampeding?!” I saddle Zena so that we have three horses for the second part of the program. We walk the perimeter of the east pen alongside those girls who want to ride untethered from the lead; while leaving the line attached for those who are more timid. With everyone ooohing about Zena’s height, only four girls want to scramble on up.
Ava had told her friends previously that Ruby knew how to play games; and the girls want to see. While working with the other horses, I ponder how I want to manage that. After unsaddling the three older girls and returning them to their stalls, we give the scouts two coloring think-and-do books, plus an informational booklet for their parents, a certificate of completion for the day, and their embroidered scout badges. Now, it is time for Ruby. I have the nine girls, Kim, and Ava’s mom (she is the troop leader) line up across the center of arena. The second volunteer mom and a couple of parents observe from the door to the causeway. I tell the scouts that they need to remain quiet but, when Ruby picks up a toy, I will point to a girl who can extend her arms in hopes of receiving the toy. I then bring Ruby and the bin of toys into the arena. I dump the toys out, and release her from her lead. Ruby picks up the first toy, and ALL of the girls stretch their hands! Ruby looks at them thoughtfully – we can SEE her thinking – and chooses a girl to receive the toy. It is adorable. After giving toys to a couple scouts, she picks up BooBoo, TURNS AROUND, AND WALKS IT TO THE PARENTS STANDING BY THE DOOR! It is so easy to watch her thinking this through! After picking up all six toys, I let her take them back out of the bin so that she can give them to more scouts. Everyone is thrilled – but none more than me. Ruby was such a goooooood girl – a smash hit on her public relations debut.
October 3 is a perfect weather morning that is going to turn into a perfect weather day – heading to 77 degrees. Ruby walks far down the path for her breakfast, and walks quietly back to the barn with me. In the arena, without even having a halter on her, I saddle her with the surcingle and leave it on her while I pick pens. After about fifteen minutes, she touches it with her nose and then looks at me. The request is easy to understand. She is asking me to remove the surcingle.
Two electricians spend the day repairing lights in the arena, installing an outlet for the winter water tank, and an outdoor flood light for the back pen. The floodlight is wonderful for after-dark feeding.
Gary’s son, Steve, brings his wife, Leah, for dinner. Leah has owned trail horses for years and currently cares for a Haflinger and two very small, very old ponies. She comes to the barn to see Ruby’s ability to pick up toys – and is impressed.
October 10 ~ One of the electricians returns to finish their work. All of my overhead lights are working now and I have a grounded outlet box in the tool room. He has drilled a hole at the bottom of the wall through which I can thread the tank heater cord. And, he is amiable about moving the new switch box for the back pen floodlight. He had inadvertently installed it with the slider closed – without realizing it would be inaccessible when the door was open.
October 11 brings unexpected news. During a routine medical exam yesterday, my husband’s general practitioner noted that he was panting, and suggested he get an EKG. We have spent most of today in pre-tests at our local hospital, where it has been determined that he is in need of two heart valve replacements.
Gary and I spend most of October 12 at the hospital again, discussing his upcoming surgery with doctors. Two valve replacements are scheduled for October 24. In the evening, I saddle Sara and leave her standing in the arena while I put a halter on Ruby and lay the lead over her back. I remount Sara with the intention that I will unchain Ruby’s stall door from Sara’s back. But, Sara refuses to walk near to Ruby’s stall. That surprises me. I have to dismount, let Ruby out, and remount. Ruby follows us to the mounting box and puts her front feet up while I am still trying to mount Sara. I give them both a treat before leaning over to take Ruby’s lead. Sara is absolutely not happy about having Ruby at her flank. She wants to shy away from Ruby at a jog, and I end up dropping and retrieving Ruby’s lead more than once. All in all we survived and I will try again tomorrow.
October 13 ~ Ruby and I enjoy breakfast on the trail before Kim and I enjoy a wonderful trail ride. I let Sara pick the route, and she takes us down an old and no longer used road, that eventually turns to trail, drops down a small hill, and meanders toward the Flint River. The local Sierra Club trail that runs right along the water is still blocked with fallen trees, angled such that we can ride neither over nor under – but the park maintenance workers have mowed a trail throughout the lower field; and we enjoy much grazing time down there.
When we return, I dismount, halter Ruby and lay the lead over her back, and remount Sara. Ruby follows us to the mounting box and, again, puts her front feet up. Kim stands by and watches from Zena’s back. Today, Sara is a bit more amenable about leading Ruby; and Ruby harasses Sara just once.
October 14 ~ I wake to a misty rain, but a pleasant day. All four girls are walked along the A-cards. Sara touches all the A’s and only one mistaken non-A. Maybe, she is ready for me to add B’s. I attempt to play pick-up-the-toys with all four; but Sparky does not get it. I do not think she ever will. After some frustration, Sara picks up Redball four times. Impressive. In IF A LION COULD TALK, Stephen Budiansky says horses do not learn by observation. If that is true, what is this? Ruby picks up all six toys and gives them to me, as I drop them into the blue tub. I walk to the causeway slider and ask her to bring me the toys from the tub; and she does. Lastly, I ask her to bring me the tub. She flips it over and rolls it around, but cannot manage to pick it up. I return to her and show her the value of the rope handles. After some attempts at picking it up by the rim, she finally picks it up by a handle.
October 15 is a very rainy day. Mother Nature is watering her trees for the coming winter. After teaching stable safety rules for 35 years, I break a chain of five rules and Sparky capitalizes. I leave the tops off the grain bins, the grain room door open, the tack room door open, the causeway door open, and latch only the top chain on Sparky’s stall. Sparky has two chains because she can squeeze under the top one. In the midst of my arena picking, I suddenly notice that all three horses are staring through the causeway door, and Sparky is no where in site. I find her head buried into the bin that holds Ruby’s grain. Her taste test must have proven than Ruby’s growth feed tastes better than the maintenance feed the older girls are getting.
When I walk the girls through the A’s test, Sara performs a perfect score. I had better make up some B cards! When playing pick-up-the-toys, Sparky is as inane as usual; returning to her stall without a treat. But, Sara makes earnest attempts to pick up Bag and Redball; earning a fair number of treats and “good girls.” Over the next couple of days, I take in a movie with Gary – along with a number of pre-surgical tests at the hospital.
This morning is a crisp, bright 50-degrees. Ruby walks with head high all the way to her breakfast tub. Three times, she breaks away from my lead, dancing down the path. But, each time, she stops and waits when I ask. Same-same on the way back. Her breakaways do not surprise or upset me. It is a good morning for both of us. In the evening, Gary and I watch the documentary, “Forks Over Knives” for the THIRD time. He agrees, AGAIN, that vegan is the heart health way to go. He then agrees (after better than a year) to stream “Cowspiracy” on YouTube. This is an hour-plus documentary about the environmental damage reeked by the meat industry. Being a retired biology professor, environmental stewardship is more important to Gary than his own health. At the end, he says something like, “Okay, I’m in. Make it easy and I’ll do this.” Little do we know, our four kids are independently each planning dinners to celebrate his 77th birthday before his upcoming surgery.
October 19 proves to be a beautiful autumn morning – 60-degrees at 9:30 – too warm to be typical. Once we get past the back pen, Ruby trots a third of the way to her field tub, leaving me behind. But, then she stops and waits for me to catch up, and we continue on at a walk to our destination. I have forgotten my camera and cannot take my file photos but, after she finishes her grain, I move the tub ten feet further back while she grazes. We walk back with the lead folded over her back. She trots halfway back, ignoring my requests for her to “stop please.” When I catch up, only at a walk, we complete our return together. In the arena, we trot-and-stop three or four times. She is much better in a straight line than a circle. I ponder whether I need her to submit to longe-lining. It is true that a horse’s ability to work on a longe line is paramount to their use as a schooling horse. But, maybe, I just need Ruby to understand the “trot” request for when it is actually needed. I ponder. It is not easy seeing anything through new eyes. I once read a quote, in one of the dozens of horse books I own, which said something like, “The best protection against having your horse one day abused by someone else, is to teach it to be incredibly obedient.” I understand what he is saying. It makes sense. But, I think maybe that is the way my parents raised me. I ponder. It is incredibly misogynistic advice. In my sixty-five years, I believe I did the most damage to my self, both as an employee and as a wife, during those times when I decided to be obedient rather than to care for myself. Today, I ponder whether I need to teach Ruby to trot on a longe now.
During the afternoon, I bicycle the full twenty miles of the Columbiaville Trail by myself. No one I have ridden with this summer was up to finishing the ten-mile trail from one end to the other, and back to the car. I do not want winter to set in without my having done it even once. It feels good. Later in the evening, Gary and I enjoy dinner at a popular seafood restaurant with my son, Andy, and his wife. We share a good meal, but it is not meatless. I have baked Cod in butter, and Gary has classic Fish and Chips.
October 20 ~ The weather continues to be surprisingly warm, and Kim and I enjoy a truly serene trail ride. We circle the entire south side of the river, dropping down a long decline to walk along the water. I tell Kim that I have almost come to see Zena as “her” horse. We agree that, if I should die, she will be responsible for both Zena and Sparky. In the evening, we join Gary’s daughter and son-in-law for dinner at a many decades old local Chinese restaurant. I have a vegetarian stir-fry with cashews, but Gary is eating meat.
I lay the lead over Ruby’s back as we head down the path for her morning grain. She walks ahead of me at just a steady walk – not a trot. When her rope slips from her back and under her hoof, she stops and waits for me to catch up and rearrange. She then walks on ahead of me again. At some point she picks up a trot and surely leaves me behind – not worrying one iota about being out there alone. When she realizes there is no grain in the bin, she trots back to me; and we walk to the tub together. We enjoy a comfortable and friendly return to the barn; playing with the grain bucket along the way. Partway up, she picks up a piece of bark and gives it to me. I think she is looking for a treat. When we reach the arena, she uses her muzzle to close the gate.
Up at the house, I learn that Gary’s second son, Doug, was planning to bring birthday cake and ice cream over this evening. But, we have tickets to a “Frank Sinatra Tribute.” After trying unsuccessfully to juggle the calendar, Gary and I head up town to buy chocolate cake and ice cream, and head over to Doug’s. Yes, cake and ice cream for breakfast when we are supposed to be going vegan. Our adult grandson crawls out of bed late and says he thinks cake and ice cream makes for a pretty good breakfast.
I am tired of Ruby dragging the twelve-foot lead down the path, so I lace the short, thin rope off my Parelli stick through her halter ring. It is still long enough to drag on the ground, so I put a bunch of knots in its end. Both our walk out and return are enjoyable. After finishing her grain, while her head is dropped for grazing, she notices the knots, picks them up, and hands them to me – hoping for a treat. Silly girl. She is so funny. I am not sure that she realizes the knots are attached to her halter.
Back in the arena, I want to pick manure, but Ruby wants to play with her toys. So, I toss Redball partway down the arena and walk in that direction toward my wheelbarrow. She retrieves Redball for a treat. I toss it a second time to the end of the arena, near the barrow, and she again retrieves it. After collecting my barrow and pick, I toss Redball back in the direction of the stalls, where Zena is quietly eating hay. Ruby retrieves the toy but, instead of bringing it to me for a treat … she takes it to Zena! I know that is her intent because, after dropping it to the left of Zena’s hay, she picks it up and moves it closer to her mom – just the way a dog does when he is encouraging play. They eat with Redball between them.
We are nearing Gary’s surgery date, so I spend the morning in the park with him. We pack our morning cereal and fruit in plastic totes and find a picnic table near the river. It is a good morning to be out.
In the afternoon, Kim comes by with Ava and her young friend, Autumn. I remain up at the house, on the screened porch, reading the Sunday paper with Gary while the girls play with Sparky and Kim putts about the barn. The girls have set up a little obstacle course for Sparky and, when I come out to visit, Ava wants to show Autumn that she can jump with Sparky. There is a pole resting between the jump cubes, six inches off the ground, so I say, “Go for it.” She asks, “Don’t I need to be on the long rope?” (Long rope? That shows how little formal teaching I am offering in my retirement!) I tell her this jump is between her and Sparky. But, Sparky has no interest. She drags her hooves across the pole in what can hardly even be called a walk. I tell Ava to trot a large circle and come across the pole while heading back toward me and the arena. With that, Sparky picks up a teeny-weeny trot and does an even teenier-weenier hop over the pole. Ava is ecstatic! I tell her to give it another try, but she says that is way enough. What a tickle. With that, Sparky trots Ava right back into the barn. Sparky knows an ending spot when she sees it.
In the evening, we head off to Gary’s oldest son’s house – Steve and Leah – for Gary’s fourth birthday celebration. This time, it is delicious meaty, cheesy lasagna, with chocolate iced brownies embedded with caramel chocolate bars. And, a big bag of M&M’s for a present. Geez! No wonder Gary has a heart problem! On the way home, he says something profound. He says that, while watching a recent video of Sara and I walking along the Flint River, he was thinking that he should have made a greater effort to learn to ride when we were newly wed – a huge concession for him to voice out loud, after thirty-six years. Huge. I am not sure whether he thought saying that would make me feel good but, instead, it sends a pang through my chest.
Today is warm and overcast. After a full week in the of Garden-of-Eden, we are now waiting for rain to bring in cooler weather. Ruby and I enjoy a deeply serene walk out to the breakfast tub. The lead is laid over her back. We walk together, relaxed, the entire distance. Upon finishing her grain, and my moving the tub further down the trail, she attempts twice to pick up the empty grain bucket. It is not until I look at my video later that I notice blood on the inside lip of the container. She must have dropped it when a plastic edge pinched her lip. We wander our way back to the barn, my taking nature photos along the way. After picking the pens, I grab a hammer and nails to build in the supports for a make-shift gate across my old draft horse stall at the far end of the arena. I plan to store sawdust there for the winter. And, I reinforce the slider stop for the back trail gate slider.
October 24 ~ Kim cares for the horses because I have to have Gary to the hospital by 6:00 in the morning. The surgery appears to go as planned but, at 7:30 in the evening, he is still bleeding. He undergoes a second procedure to un-wire, re-suture, and re-wire his chest. Not a good day. Kim does evening feed because I don’t get home until after midnight. She feeds both morning and evening the next day, too, because I am at the hospital.
October 25 ~ Kim comes over for morning feed so that I can return to the hospital. Gary is not doing well. It appears that Gary has had a minor stroke. His surgeon tells him that, Dr. Hagenstein, the hospital’s head neurologist is on his way. Gary can hardly talk, but he murmurs, “Dr. Hagenstein was one of my students.” The surgeon smiles and replies, “Not this one. He’s an older gentleman.” Gary repeats, “He was a student of mine.” I can see that the surgeon is surprised. Kim comes over for evening feed. An angel.
October 26 ~ I toss hay from the loft, haul it out for the horses, and take off for the hospital – without graining or picking. At 2:00, I head to my son’s house to pick up Sarge, his German Sheppard, because I long-ago promised to care for him so that he could take his wife out of town for her birthday. Gary’s kids will be at the hospital today, so I head home for evening feed and to catch up on this morning’s picking. Sarge loves running the back ten and it makes for a good end to a long day.
October 28 ~ Having Sarge overnight is a good thing. He sleeps by my bed all night, and we walk the ten again this morning. Poor cat barely tolerates him. Gary is not doing well. The expected two days in ICU has turned into four – and it does not look like he is going anywhere soon.
October 29 ~ I am not complaining – but I am beat. I sleep in until 8:30 before feeding, picking, and arriving late to the hospital. Gary has fluid on his lungs and no capacity. His surgeon is discussing the possibility of a permanent pacemaker – a possibility never discussed before surgery. Everyone agrees that he should have no visitors. I inform the kids and head home to vent by completely dumping the basement. Gary is six years beyond retirement and, although he has sorted most of his important academic belongings, there remains a ton of stuff he just does not want to consider. My side of the basement holds the remaining stock from the demise of my American Association of Riding Schools. At 1:00 in the morning, after packing, stacking, and dumping – and hauling two bookcases up the stairs to manage our never-ending library – I am spent.
On October 30 ! ~ Kim brings Ava and her younger sisters, Lucca and Mia, to feed and play with the horses. Gary has had his lung tapped to surgically drain the fluid, and is on a respirator. He is absolutely miserable.
October 31 ~ When I arrive at the hospital, all the nurses and attendants are wearing Halloween scrubs. It’s Halloween! We used to have annual Halloween parties at the stable, with better than a hundred people in costume – including the horses. We would build a huge bonfire, and turn the path around the ten into a spooky trail. Where has time gone? At least today, instead of a trick, I get a treat – Gary is sans his respirator and is sitting up in a cardiac chair. My horses have been understandably ignored for better than a week.