Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Kid on a pony

I did something tonight I haven’t done in years—I got on my little Paint horse Myster and rode him bareback. Well, years isn’t exactly accurate, last week, at Inavale horse trial in Oregon, I rode him bareback along with my friend Meg Finn and her mare Izzy. See, I hadn’t had our normal good showing up there—after several top placings, he had struggled on the ground up there and been eliminated in cross-country. So on Saturday night (we’d gone cross country on Friday) feeling sorry for myself, and after consuming a few adult beverages, I tossed his bridle on and shimmied up on his wide comfy back.

We strolled around Inavale’s beautiful grounds, and I remembered back to my childhood when I rode bareback all the time, and I pondered why I hadn’t done it in so long.

The answer is in parts practical and in part philosophic: practically speaking it’s been a while since I had a horse who was conformationally inclined towards a bareback ride that wouldn’t leave a male singing soprano (most of my TB’s and crosses in recent years have been poster children for the phrase “shark fin wither”). Not so Myster, who is the prototypical barrel with legs. Philosophically, one downfall to riding professionally is that you always feel like you have to be accomplishing something, teaching the horse, fixing an issue, etc. But Myster is mine, so he gives me a little more freedom to ride just for fun—if he has any holes; they’re mine to deal with.

After my lovely stroll in Oregon I got to thinking about bareback riding. In my younger days, on my Young Rider horse PR (a stout 17 hand Appaloosa) I rode bareback all the time. But age and business and pointy withers had left me in saddles only for years.

So today, needing to work Myster, but feeling hot and sticky in my shorts and not relishing dragging breeches over sweaty skin, I decided to just hop on. First we walked up the driveway to the house, then I took him in to the arena and did about 20 minutes of dressage work—walk, trot, and canter.

While I do know for certain I’m not 17 anymore, it was great fun and a good workout. Without tack, your body is what manages your balance and position—no leaning in to knee roles, or pressing in to stirrups. So my abs are a little sore, and my thighs. But it was great fun, and I’m thinking of making it a once a week thing—lord knows I could use the fitness and workout.  

The running joke around here is that Myster, an absolutely adorable 15 hand Paint gelding, is the pony I never got to have as a kid. My bareback ride is just one more step in my time reversal process. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Travelling Roadshow

Each June, we load up the horse trailer, and head north to Philomath, Oregon for the Inavale horse trials. Today, while dragging a suitcase through 100 degree heat in to the living quarters of our horse trailer, I was struck by the nearly ridiculous amount of stuff we must take with us to horse shows.

In our little sport of eventing, one horse and rider pair must complete three different phases of a competition over anywhere from 1 to 3 days. Each of these phases can require it’s own set of equipment, and that plus the general stuff required for the transport, care and maintenance of horses and their people, and you are talking about a load comparable to what Hannibal and his elephants crossed the Alps with.

This weekend we are taking three horses and three people, and a partial list of the equipments we are dragging along includes:

Six saddles, 8 bridles, 6 girths, 15 saddle pads, 20 pairs of protective boots for the horses, a box of grooming equipment, a box of equine first aid equipment, a box of equipment to clean the tack, a box of 30+ towels, a box of sheets and coolers for the horses to wear depending on the weather, four bags of grain, three bales of hay (a small number, since good hay is cheap and plentiful at this venue), 9 bags of bedding (just to get us started) 20 buckets (some for drinking, some for washing), and implements for cleaning the stalls daily.

Inside the living quarters we have about 200 pounds of food, clothing, and bedding for the human component. Basically, it’s a camping trip in an RV, and we’re dragging a barn behind us.

Frighteningly, we could take another person, and another horse with us.

We spend a full day packing and organizing for a trip like this, and that’s with having several of the above items that only go to shows and lives permanently in the trailer.

I suppose it goes with out saying that the laundry pile from a weekend like this could crush a small child (and I have one, so we’re careful).

Will be back on Monday, wish us luck.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


This will be a bit of a departure from my usual oeuvre. Today I attended a memorial service for the 19-year-old son of some friends of mine. That perpetual evil, cancer, took him in three short months, a devastating and incomprehensible outcome. The pain radiating from his family is palpable, as would be expected. You just want to hug them, and never let go.

The memorial was largely organized by a group of Justin’s friends. Their efforts were impressive, and their remembrances touching and heartfelt. But I found myself pondering the nature of legacy, and those things left behind when we pass on.

I wonder if we realize that the legacy we leave behind is really not one of our own making. Listening to his friends and family speak, I wondered if he ever knew that of the millions of interactions he had in his life with these people, that these vignettes would come to define that relationship, and by extension, him. The story about him reaching out to the new kid in sixth grade showed his kindness. The kid who’d known him since preschool showed his loyalty. The aunt who remembered the rubber snake he’d tossed on her in the pool showed his humor.

But I wondered, did he know what his kindness meant to that boy, or his loyalty to another? Did he know that his aunt’s remembered laughter would some day be a bright beacon through her grief?

One can only assume he wouldn’t have known, any more than any of us can knowingly define the important moments of our lives. But what a grand reminder for those of us still here, that each and every day, in ways small and large, we create impacts that will ripple out from us, and alter the lives and experiences of every one they touch.

Ultimately, our legacy is woven in to the memories and experiences of others. It is focused through their lenses, and honed by their blades. However, this doesn’t make us powerless. Rather, it makes clear the incredible power inherent in our every deed an action. If any one moment may be everything to one person, then we’d best take care with each and every moment.

It’s clear this young man had given only the best of himself to his loved ones, a final gift for them now in their grief. May we all remember to leave these moments behind for those who will be left behind when we pass. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Top ten ways you know it’s finally summer at Phoenix Farm:

1)   The deer have fawned, the coyotes have pupped, and the barn swallows have moved in under the barn eaves. Now if I could just talk the fledglings in to staying in their nests a bit longer, before the rain of the baby birds (or as the dogs and cats call it, brunch) commences.
2)   Zeus, the 160-pound Great Pyrenees/Italian Maremma mix livestock guarding dog is transformed, via my terrible dog grooming skills, from Hot, Panting Ball Of Fur in to The World’s Largest Chinese Crested. He’s so embarrassed by his new look, he hides in the doghouse for days.
3)   The pregnant Nigerian Dwarf goats begin to resemble furry watermelons as their due dates approach.
4)   The horses trade their therapeutic layer of mud for a therapeutic layer of dust.
5)   The morning fog carries with it the sweet, heavy scent of sage, and the hills transform from emerald, to gold.
6)   The first thing we do in the morning, on our way to feed, is turn on the sprinklers in the arena (because I don’t need a therapeutic layer of dust).
7)   Summer means Babypalooza in the horse business--the two-year-olds are learning to longe, and the three-year-olds are getting backed.
8)   Clancy the barn cat (and ruler of the known universe) abandons his usual napping spot on top of the hay, and instead opts for the middle of the cooler, cement barn aisle. The fact that this is extremely inconvenient for everyone else does not enter his consciousness, and he hisses at anyone attempting to move him.
9)   Lesson hours shift from afternoon and evening to mornings, as kids and adults switch from school hours and opt for earlier rides.
And finally,
10)                   I am giddy to finally put away the turtlenecks and fleece hats, and break out the short sleeves. Let the farmer tanning commence!

Let’s hear it for my favorite season!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Tag-You're IT!

Every once in a while, the farm provides you with some quality viewing at least as good as Avatar. You feel like you should pop some popcorn to enjoy with the show.

This morning our entertainment came in the form of our homebred Thoroughbred gelding Shawn, and pack of confused, if slightly thick, coyotes.

The thing to know about Shawn, is that he is a the prankster of the equine world. If I'd had more time to think about it, his registered name would be Jonny Knoxville, rather than Phoenix Secret. As a result of his rather singular sense of humor, he's had a lifetime of vet bills comparable to the ER bills of the Jackass crew.

When we lived in Virginia, our farm was surrounded by a neighborhood best described as Redneck Suburbia. And I don't use Redneck pejoratively you understand, but we had neighbors living in tract type houses who enjoyed such activities as 1) butchering deer while hanging from the front yard apple tree, 2) setting off fireworks to celebrate any and all holidays including Easter and Christmas, 3) and revving the engine of their classic cars at 50 cajillion decibles to a crowd of admirers at 7:30 am on a Saturday. So it goes without saying that their dog keeping moto was "Fences? We don't need no stinking fences!"

I'm not a big fan of loose dogs, they are a danger to themselves and others. And I was never happy to see dogs in the field with my horses.

Enter Shawn, who views everything that has ever happened in his life as part his own private Candid Camera episode.

A neighborhood hound would come trotting in to the field. Shawn would be grazing and his ears would flick towards the dog in full Red Alert mode. But he'd keep his head down, grazing, as though he hadn't noticed. He'd then casually, oh so casually, begin to drift towards the intruder, who was most likely engaged in the time-honored canine tradition of either eating, or rolling in, something disgusting.

When he'd get within about ten feet, usually the dog would notice the large animal that was now much closer. Sometimes they'd glance up briefly, and then go back to what they were doing. Sometimes they'd panic a little and take off running. And sometimes they'd try to confront him. It didn't really matter what they did, because he would begin to move towards them, head still down in the grazing position. He would build up a head of steam, and then explode towards them in full run. Now the dogs, no matter what their initial reaction was, would take off heading for the fence line at full speed.

Shawn would come roaring after them, often squealing with joy. The dog would shoot out from under the fence, tail between legs, traveling as fast as he could, and Shawn would turn at the last possible second, and take off bucking and pronging, his laughter all but audible.

Shawn hadn't gotten much of his game of Dog Tag in since we moved to California--our farm here is larger and more isolated, and our dogs all know better than to go in to the pastures. But this morning, he found a fun new variation--Coyote Tag.

As I sipped my morning Joe, I watched as four young coyotes attempted to trot through his field. I don't know where they were going, but an older female dens on the backside of the property, so my guess is these are last years cubs looking for a handout. Shawn immediately returned to his old game, only the coyotes didn't exactly know how to play. He would charge one, and it would take off running, tail between his legs, while the other three would sit together with a "What the-?" look on their faces.

The three watching would look for all the world like my father, uncle and grandfather trying to watch a cricket game (looks vaguely familiar, but totally incomprehensible). When the one getting chased would get tired, he'd bolt towards the watching three and one of them would end up in Shawn's sight line. Shawn was having a marvelous time--these California dogs didn't just head for the fence, they kept playing and playing and playing.

The coyotes, I'm certain, were trying to figure out how to get this stupid herbivore to understand the predator-play relationship, but none of them felt the need to stop running long enough to explain it to him.

It was a little early for popcorn, but a nice croissant with my coffee would have been a lovely post viewing snack.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The teetor-totter of life

Sometimes it can very easy to get bogged down in to the sadness and sorrow of a life with animals. Unless you are able to farm tortoises, elephants, or parrots, chances are you are going to have to say goodbye to most of your critters long before you are ready to. It sucks. Period, paragraph, end of sentence. It’s never easy, and it’s never not sad.

But, if you are lucky, you get to experience the other end of the spectrum. Counterbalance some of that death, with a healthy dose of birth.

This year, we’re expecting a plethora of baby goats starting in July. It’s impossible to have a bad day with baby goats in your life, so we always look forward to kidding season. But we also had an unexpected birth this year, when our elderly mini donkey jenny Sage delivered an unexpected jennet. Stevie Nicks as we’ve named her, is possibly the cutest thing ever. Sassy, and friendly, and full of herself, and pretty much all ears, legs, and eyes. She’s been a real ray of sunshine.

Even in the years we haven’t had our own critters producing, good old Mother Nature usually provides us a nice bookend in the spring. The does like to bring their new fawns to play on the grassy slope behind my house, a female coyote likes to den and pup down in the canyon in the big pasture, and we’ve even had a bobcat and her kittens peering at us from the trees. The wild turkeys drop their poults a bit later in the year, but there are usually several run-ins with the fuzzy little things (they’re a bit prone to panic, so the encounter usually involves lots of squawking and running).

I’d like to be as moved by the wild pigs and their piglets, but honestly I’m terrified of them, and seeing a sow with piglets is more scary than usual. (Think T-Rex versus Velociraptors—both terrifying, both would like to eat you, but the Velociraptors have just a little more devious motivation).  I once came upon a sow shuttling some piglets across the road, and she charged my car multiple times and jumped up on the hood. I was screaming like Jaime Lee Curtis in the original Halloween.

Those things are HORRIFYING.

So we go through the year here on the farm, and sometimes it feel like the goal is just to keep the old life/death teeter-totter balanced. In a good year, life is heavy, in a bad one, well, you get the idea.

So far this year, life is tilting downward. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Stormy Weather

We’ve been having unseasonable weather here in Northern Cali. Very wet winter, and it seems in no hurry to depart. It’s been cold and dumping for three days now, something nearly unheard of for June in these parts.

I really don’t like winter weather, I’m a shorts and sunshine girl all the way. Ok, fine, I’m a total weather weenie. I shiver in 60 degrees. I wear fleece in the summer time if there is a breeze. I’m comfortable in 90 degrees plus, and I’ve been known to happily sunbathe when it’s 105 (no joke).

But there is something especially mystical about Western storms rolling in off the sea. The heavy fog that drapes and swirls, the rolling dark clouds that roil and boil along the green hilltops. If you’ve seen Twilight, it’s kind of like that, though I’ve yet to find any brooding supernatural teenagers in our woods. Our farm is in a funny little trough, a direct line from the Pacific, to an ancient volcano, that draws the clouds and fog down its length. Very atmospheric, and very beautiful.

Provided you are inside.

If you are outside in it, it feels like the dampness is being forced past your clothes and under your skin. Numbness grips your extremities, and you feel wet and moldy. And cold. Unshakably, unrelentingly, cold.

Years ago I was working an office , and had daily phone calls with a co-worker based in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We’d share weather reports, and I was constantly amazed and horrified at what she was experiencing.

Then it struck me. Why did she care that they’d have four feet of snow and it was 2 degrees? She, essentially, was never outside. Her life was constructed such that she went from her house, to her heated garage, to her heated car, to her heated parking structure at work, and so on. She wasn’t outdoorsy, and was perfectly content to wait until July to breathe outdoor air. She even had an indoor-only cat.

Needless to say, I can’t really identify with that lifestyle. But it fascinates me, like watching an episode of Deadliest Catch. I love that show, in part because there is no part of that job I could do. I hate the cold, I have back problems, I get migraines if I don’t sleep enough, and I’m prone to severe seasickness. So no tours on the Northwestern or Cornelia Marie for me. But, the weather independent lifestyle is just as confusing to me. Imagine the cycle of seasons having so little impact?

I’ve been watching those shifting thunderheads tonight. Watching them turn dark purple with the setting sun, too weak to show through, but strong enough to change their color. 

Though they are out of place here the first weekend in June, I’d rather have them, then not notice them at all.