December horsenews – The kindness of strangers


            Mid-December, a cold showery dark day, mid-week. At the end of work went down to the creek with Traveller and rode bareheaded and barefaced in the spluttering twilight to welcome winter.

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            The game on these short winter days is to complete the loop at sunset. As we pulled away in the Saturday twilight for the two hour drive back from the Valley, it felt like maybe the trailer had a flat tire. I wish. What had actually happened was one of the bolts holding a suspension spring to the trailer frame was gone. Huh.
            There were two sets of structures in sight, each about half a mile away. North was what looked like a restored or well-maintained white two-story farmhouse with barn, farm equipment, trees, hedges and landscaping. No corral, though.
            South was a big dairy complex, to judge from the smell of it – young and old buildings of all kinds, a huge mound under a tarp held down by tires, outlying waste ponds. In previous rides over the years I had given this establishment a wide berth, or first scouted it with binoculars if I wanted to go close by, to sneak around it like a smuggler skirting a customs post. Riding right up to it like a traveller coming to a lonely farmhouse was a rare sensation.
            Of the two young Mexicans parked in the middle of the place listening to their car radio, the one who spoke English but didn’t work there consulted with the other, and told me I should see Juan, the foreman, in the old farmhouse up at the north end. Some of its windows were boarded up, and our arrival provoked a hullabaloo from the dogs behind the chain link yard fence, which brought out a 30-something white woman. She surpressed them long enough to get my story and my name, and told me Juan was down at the other end, and she’d call him and say we were coming.
            When we rode up, Juan was coming out of a building with music coming from it. He looked about 40, lean and gristley, gray hair cropped short like a Marine. He said in accented English that he didn’t know anything about horses but there was a barn not in use I could put Taveller in. Then while he drove me over to look at the trailer in a very dusty ranch van he told me that the dairy was a square mile in size, and that he’d been foreman for five years. He looked at the bolt hole with his flashlight and said it would be easy to fix, gave me his cell phone number and said if I came back tomorrow he’d have found a bolt the right size and done it.
            Leaving, I drove by the dairy’s south frontage. A big white sign identified the place as Heritage Dairy. Cars were parked higgeldy-piggeldy near the party building, a big shed open in front. Colored strobe lights flashed and a corrido was blaring.
            Before I left, I had found Traveller a better holding pen, a chicken coop with wire on three sides so he could see and be seen, in case any of Juan’s kids wanted to give him more water. That night I dreampt my horses were loose beside a busy road. They were grazing, but at any moment they could bolt into traffic.
            When I showed up with the truck Sunday, Juan had improvised a replacement bolt, and now was giving orders in English to two young Mexicans who were helping him with a huge tractor that didn’t want to start. “I hate breakdowns,” he said. He refused money, and when I asked him what I could do, “Help someone else with a breakdown,” was what he said. I’m going to drop him a carton of Marlboros, I think. Traveller was looking very insecure when we came to let him out.

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            Late in the month I took T to a cowboy mounted shooting practice over in Livermore. It was more for recruiting, and they let me strap on a couple of six-shooters and run the course. Those hoglegs are heavy hunks of iron, y’know. Traveller couldn’t figure out where the noise was coming from, so he couldn’t shy very effectively and I got close enough to the balloons to blast them all. It is thoroughly satisfying. But I myself wore earplugs and I was too worried about Traveller’s hearing to stay. Horse earplugs are available on the web, I was told, but I’m dubious. Before I’d trust them I’d want to put them in and see if he could hear me – pulling apart velcro will flip his ears around every time, so that would be a good test. The targets are fixed to sticks so as to be at about the height of the head of a person on the ground, and a no-nonsense type woman first-timer was blowing them away very intently. She seemed rather put out to learn that the women do not compete directly with the men, but have their own class. Youtube has some videos of the sport if you’re interested.
            Afterwards we headed over to Del Valle, which looked on the map like it might have a level trail alongside the reservoir, which would make it the only flat part of the quite large park. After the first mile along nice oak hillsides the trail shot up a hill that had me huffing and puffing and my legs burning. On the way back down – leading Traveller again, this time to protect his forelegs – two horses with big butts bearing low-fat women in Spandex and helmets came trotting alertly up the hill. “This one’s pretty steep,” I remarked. They agreed politely, probably wondering what I was talking about.

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            Iron Horse trail in Danville is good gaiting, good sightseeing if you like affluent neighborhoods, and, what with the squadrons of Brownies, recumbent bicyclists, and tricycle baby carriages pushed by roller-blading mommies, a great place to desensitize a horse. Right in the middle of the ride there’s a little rest area with benches, water and a fence to tie horses to. Across the street is Lunardi’s Market, which has a fabulous deli.

(For pictures, go to December 2007 slideshow (best with F11 fullscreen)