A stage

I was riding Verdadura through the apple orchard on an exercise ride when I saw Christian on his front porch, along with his 3- or 4-year old son and an extraordinarily overripe young au pair. Some time previously Christian had agreed to feed the horses now and then. I wanted to reinforce his willingness, so I took a sharp right between trees and rode down his gravel driveway, got off and offered to let him ride. He was a little blown away by her eagerness and was not able to entirely control her, and they sped up and down between the rows and pulled up beside us. The blonde, longhaired baby sitter, who had had quarter horse experience, now wanted to ride her, but when we brought Verdadura around to get in position she noticed blood on the ground. Christian or I had seemingly run her over something that snagged the heel bulbs of her left. They were not cut badly enough to make her limp but badly enough that the vet felt obliged to trim the skin flaps, pack the wounds with some awful black tarry antibiotic, and tape it all up in a bandage of three layers, duct tape outermost, and order a two-week layup. The bandage fell off in the mud in three days. My replacement only lasted another day or two, but the wound seemed to have covered over so I let it go.

            Meanwhile, this promoted Lula from trainee to main horse for the next two weeks. The next afternoon I needed to go out, so I caught her for a half-hour neighborhood exercise ride, the first one she’d been on in a couple of months – lately she and I had been out on longer gaiting and trail training rides in parks, wheatfields, Valley canalsides.

            At five Lula is very excitable, and she makes up her mind quickly, so when she’s wrong I have to argue her around to my side. It was a windy, blustery afternoon, which as you know will jack up any horse this side of the rendering plant. A couple of unbridled reactions to two months’ changes in the usual route provoked spurts of curses while I reinserted foot in stirrup. She was quite entertained by the “new” portapotty dragon whose mouth flapped erratically in the wind as it looked to swallow her whole.

            The half hour ride hereabouts provides every category of gaiting circumstance: ankle-deep grass requiring a high-stepping, low-advance 4-4 to cope with unexpected irregularities; smooth mowed grass and pea gravel perfect for show-grade medium-speed gateado sobreandando; straightaways headed home that offer opportunity and motive for sub-gallop gaiting. The last two months with her had been mainly given to embedding the gaits in her central nervous and musculo-skeletal systems while dissipating the trotting tendencies, and she knows how to do everything I want. By this time we were at the stage of connecting each of the various gaits to the conditions in which they are useful. One of the most enjoyable points in this process is when the horse, in gaiting through each particular set of footing, slope, camber, expected changes in direction, emotional factors, primarily fear and excitement, and expectation of changes in any of these variables, begins to adopt the speed and characteristics of one of the taught gaits. Today I was able to guide her, perhaps if necessary direct her, to the right gait, and sometimes only remind her of it, and now and then just avoid doing anything to distract her from it. It’s truly a kick when you begin riding the gait you taught her when she’s using it to do what she wants.

 

A Social Encounter

In March I still hadn’t gotten Lula’s essential gait, the cruising sobreandando of 6-8 mph, at my beck and call. Sacramento’s American River Canyon Park seemed like the best place to get in some flat miles, where she would be spurred on by all the exciting, and desensitizing, influences of an urban park.

March had been pretty wet and green was everywhere. The light and moisture were like December but the temperatures were of springtime. The park runs along the northern edge of Sacramento, and there are more homeless than ever camped in the brush and blackberries. Twenty years ago in the US bums on bikes emerged as a phenomenon; now they appear with bicycle trailers attached, half the time those kiddie bike bassinets previously seen only behind yuppie parent-cyclists. This day two white trucks, one from the Sheriff’s Department and another from the park service, attended to the removal of “personal property” from under the 16th Street bridge.

            I couldn’t watch the details of the bridge camp removal operation because Lula was making a fuss crossing the on-ramp and thence under the thundering overpass. The most aggravating thing a horse can do is misbehave in a dangerous situation in front of an audience, when the urgency of the circumstance requires abandonment of any effort to display the gentle good humor, if not calm mastery, one would ordinarily like to exhibit. In this case the spectators consisted of a badly-weathered, raggedy couple of maybe 30, one wheeling a bicycle and the other carrying a little pooch. With combined cursing and cajolery I barely got Lula, twisting and sidling, off the road and under the bridge. This brought us to just about the feet of the admiring twosome. “Beautiful horse,” burbled the leather-skinned lady hoarsely. I thanked her less graciously than I should have.

“Beautiful horse” is the most common remark I get from the wandering, encamped or brown-bagging homeless. For a while I assumed it was a reaction to such a stirring, unexpected sight bursting in on a shabby, downtrodden existence. But I’ve come to wonder if it’s not often a ploy akin to a dog dipping its head and wagging its tail to placate someone or something possibly threatening. In any case, there also exists an underclass of marginalized equine proletarians, who perhaps had been kids in rented housing on scraggly part-time farms which kept a horse or two they got to ride, or who might have held low but satisfying jobs around a stables, but for whom now those days were many years beyond reach.

From on top of the levee behind the “beautiful horse” couple an old man, old as me, on a bicycle with an overfilled handlebar basket, called something out to me. He wore a big round white beard untrimmed around the sides so it looked like a giant catcher’s mitt with his face in the pocket, or like he was wearing an upside-down old-fashioned sun bonnet. Not with any particular intent I took Lula up the side of the levee. At the top we could see, on the other side behind and beyond our interlocutor, a no-man’s land in a gap between the levee’s base and the big tapering wedge of earth that carries the overpass roadway on down to the plane beyond. Established in the narrow gap was what appeared to be the old man’s context: a strip of two rows of tents and tarps and junk separated by a walkway. The little shantyhamlet lopped around the base of the overpass and alongside of it for another ten or twenty yards; the few visible inhabitants turned to look at us. None of them were fat. “Your horse looks like it wants to stay off his the right hind,” whitebeard repeated.

Dangling between risking getting sucked into a lunatic or excruciatingly phony conversation – the one where the bystander pretends to know horses and I pretend to take him seriously – versus disrespectfully not acknowledging him at all, I just nodded, and rode down to the encampment. It became clear that it would take much longer than I wanted, with an audience that would doubtless grow rapidly, to advance Lula’s desensitization by getting her down the walkway among the flapping fabric, broken furniture, strewn bicycles, and scattered trash. So we went on along the bottom of the levee in the opposite direction.

In this terror-rich environment Lula was moving pretty erratically, and it took me a while longer to ride her through enough gravel to begin to suspect some ouchiness and wonder if she didn’t have something lodged in a hoof. Turned out she’d lost her left front shoe. And as every horse person knows, discomfort in one foot will frequently make it look like the horse is favoring the diagonally opposite foot. The ground was still soggy enough that now I was able to ride her back the couple of miles to the trailer with only a few passages rocky enough to require leading.

A third option occurred to me later: If a man hits Social Security age without much savings or other income, and if he is in good health, and doesn’t love horses, he could quite working and just camp out. Without rent and car expenses, I think he could live pretty ok on like $1,500 a month, about all I’ll get myself. Although if I sold the house and cut back to just one horse I could live in the rig.

 

Runaway

            Early in April, along the leveetops below Deer Island near Novato, on the return, Lula finally got a fast sobreandando going through, surprisingly and impressively, a few hundred yard stretch of ankle-deep green soft weeds. The nine month training struggle released its grip just in time for the spring ridecamping season. Verdadura is the oldest at 15 so she must go while the going is still good. Thursday morning we took off to the Valley for a shakedown overnight ride. I figured we’d explore the area north of Sacramento and east of the river.

            It’d been a few years since I wandered around here with Grandiosa, and the recession has not been kind. All the abandoned outbuildings had taken four more years of delapidation, and hand-lettered signs advertising home-based business ventures have proliferated. We left the rig off the road and took off through fallow rice basins to see how far we could get zigzagging along the open fields among the fenced pastures and ranchettes. But we couldn’t find a reasonable way out of that square mile section, and cutting back we stopped in the middle of the open fields for a lounge and a graze in the new spring grass. While I was off, gazing serenely at the puffy white clouds drifting across the blue spring sky, Verdadura wrapped her ankle in the lead rope, scared herself, and took off so fast she jerked it out of my hand. I stood for a minute hoping she’d get distracted by all the grass and decide to eat rather than run, but no, she streaked south towards home as if it weren’t literally a hundred miles away.

            So I jogged after, sort of grateful for my new lightweight boots. After half a mile she hit a fenceline and turned west, home being a bit to the right of due south. Another half mile later she was getting hard to spot as she left the field and turned south again down a road. I could see her turn in to the driveway of a residential compound whose dogs set up a hullabaloo like she was all four horsemen of the apocalypse.

            Hoping she would deadend inside, I jogged into the driveway, setting off a second wave of barking. But she had found a back opening, next to a trailer whose occupant was roused by the uproar and came out to challenge the intrusion. Thinking he might shoot me as I ran past I gasped out that my runaway horse had gone thisaway. I spotted her a quarter of a mile away walking steadily towards the far roadside corner of an unplowed quarter section.

            To my relief an SUV stopped on the road and while her mother looked on from the driver’s seat a pale young virgin with blond braids emerged and easily caught Verdadura by her trailing halter and held her for me while I trudged across the field, my sweat-soaked shirt now chilling me quite pleasantly.

            Verdadura had scraped a couple of patches of skin off a hind cannon bone and after the adrenaline wore off showed a limp, so I led her the two miles back to the trailer. To find the saddlebag with the nifty lightweight waterproof 10x LL Bean binoculars that Christie gave me for Christmas I had to drive back to the road where she’d been caught and track her back through tall grass to where she’d scraped it off on a fence she’d had to skim to get along a ditch.

            Happily, three days later she had thrown off the residual stiffness and travelled as good as new. I’m going to see if I can run down any daughters or nieces she might have had.

 

New horse

Bought Angel from Oregon for $600. Born 2008. The name had some unfortunate resonances, so we renamed her “Ariel”, I thought after Shakespeare’s fairy, but it turns out also the Disney mermaid with shells for a bra, according to Christie. Sire = El Colerico, Reg. 13883. Dam = Armonia R-L, Reg. 14092. She has been very docile. On April 9 Jordan Rohanna rode her for the first time after a careful four-week greenbreaking training sequence. I’ve ridden her four or five times now, and impressively Christie put a happy half hour on her in the arena when she’d only been under saddle two weeks. As of this date she looks very good but she hasn’t stabilized enough yet to see if she will have a useable gait. If anyone has a clue as to her ancestry I’d love to hear about it.