Never Riding Alone

One of my sisters once asked me, “What do you do out there on the farm alone every day?”  I responded, “Are you kidding?  I’m never alone!  My animals are constantly around me.”  While it’s true that I don’t often have human companionship during my days at the farm, I know there are many who will concur that animal companionship is often equally, and sometimes even more, rewarding. 

As I’ve often told my husband (always with a grin on my face), “My animals do what I tell them.”

And so, I found this quote by Jane Smiley particularly appropriate for this blog:

“I learned why ‘out riding alone’ is an oxymoron:  An equestrian is never alone, is always sensing the other being, the mysterious but also understandable living being that is the horse.”

One of my friends asked me quite recently, “Do you ride every day?”  It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that.  My standard response is always, “I wish.”

The truth is, I don’t ride very often at all.  The reason for that is because I ride solely for pleasure.  I don’t have beef cattle to move to another pasture or dairy cattle to bring to the barn, so I ride only when the weather is gorgeous and my other work is finished. 

Do you have any idea how rare that combination is?

Now that doesn’t mean I don’t spend time with my horses, because I do.  In fact, I can only ride one at a time but I can spend time on the ground with all three of them, so the argument could be made that I actually spend more time with them by not riding.

But I miss riding.  I miss the perspective that one gets while sitting on a horse’s back.  I find it extraordinary that a creature as powerful and athletic as a horse will allow a creature as puny and feeble as a human to sit on his back – the same back that a cougar would leap upon in search of its next meal.

So, I did a little soul-searching recently and asked myself, “What is it, exactly, that keeps me from riding more?”

I think I figured it out.  Too much of it seems like work.  And believe me when I tell you, I have quite enough work at the farm.  But in order to take a long ride off the farm, I must first work BJ in the round pen to get the “skittish” out of him, then I groom him, and then I saddle him just right.  When I get back from our ride – both of us worn out – not only do I need to groom him again, but I also need to groom BB and Zip who managed to work themselves into a frothy frenzy during our absence.

The entire process takes hours, and it is far too easy to convince myself that “I don’t have time for this.”  And so, another day goes by when I don’t ride.

During my soul-searching, I reflected on my days growing up on our family farm when I rode often, but sometimes only for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time because many of those rides were without a saddle.  It was all so simple and quick.  Why couldn’t I do that again?    

I came to a decision.  I was going to teach BJ to let me ride bareback.

I used to ride BB bareback often, but now that she has arthritic front knees, I can no longer ride her at all.  During BJ’s training years I didn’t feel confident riding him without a saddle, but now that he is ten, he has settled down considerably.  I decided to give it a go.

I’ve mentioned before that BJ is a huge horse.  And I am not a huge person.  Was there some risk of injury?  Possibly.  But here’s the thing.  Did you know that the horse has the largest eyes of any land mammal?  They’re eyes that look right into the human soul.  If they see kindness and goodness, that’s what the horse will give back.  If I didn’t trust BJ, how on earth could I ask him to trust me?

I put on his bridle and led him next to the corral rails.  I told him “Whoa”, then climbed up on the rails high enough so that I could slide onto his back.  Standing on the rail with my left foot, I swung my right foot across his back and rested it there to gauge his response.  He didn’t move.  Gathering my courage, I said, “Here we go” and slid my entire body onto his back.  He jerked his head up, but didn’t take a step.  I could tell he was thinking, “Well, this is different!”

Several times during our ride around the corral, he tossed his head and snorted, but I scolded him and he immediately settled down.  To dismount, I brought him to a stop, swung my right leg across his body, and slid down to the ground.  But he is so tall that it stung my feet when I hit the ground.  So, I again took him to the rail, mounted him and rode around a bit, but I dismounted by bringing him back to the rail and climbing down the same way I got on.

I’ve been riding BJ bareback for several weeks now, often just ten or fifteen minutes at a time.  I get the sense that BJ understands the fragility and precariousness of my position on his back.  His gait is easy and steady. And when I mount or dismount, he stands perfectly still and doesn’t squeeze me against the rail. 

He takes care of me.  Because I’m not riding alone.

(I describe the scariest ride of my life in the August chapter of my second book, Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week: Hibernation

Mystery Solved

I lost my eyeglasses.  And then I found them.  But the story behind my lost and found eyeglasses is a bit more complex than that, and I think you will find it as mysterious as I did.

On Friday afternoon, September 13, Danny and I left our farm for a vacation with my two sisters and their husbands.  We call it our Sister Trip, and I wrote about it in an earlier blog.  Anyway, that Friday morning was a busy one for me.  Even though my nephew cares for our farm and animals while we are away, there are still some things that I do in preparation for a long absence.

Flies were still a bit of an issue near the barn at that time, so I typically sprayed my horses’ legs to give them some relief.  I always remove my eyeglasses when I do that, because the spray is oily and difficult to remove from my lenses. 

So, what do I do with my glasses while I spray?  Well, it depends.  Sometimes, if I am wearing a pair of pants with a large enough pocket, I will slip them in there.  If the horses are near the feeder, I will set the glasses on the tray of the feeder.  Or sometimes, I will set them on top of our stack of hay bales near where I store the spray.  Or, in anticipation of spraying later, I sometimes leave them in my tack room.

Bottom line is, they could be almost anywhere.  The problem, if you want to call it that, is that my eyesight is really not that bad.  In fact, from a distance of about one foot to twelve feet, I see the same with or without them.  So, I often don’t even realize that I don’t have them on unless I am looking far into the distance.

That morning I was distracted.  I had a million and one things to get done before we left on vacation and I was trying to multi-task.  So, after my barn chores were completed, which included spraying my horses, I walked our dogs to give them a bit of exercise before we left the farm.  I was checking emails on my phone while I walked.  I do not need my glasses for that. 

I did not realize that my glasses were not on my face until I was returning from my walk with the dogs.  I checked my pocket.  Not there.  They’re at the barn, I thought.  The first place I checked was the feeder tray.  I remember being surprised that they were not there.  I checked the hay bales.  Not there.  The tack room.  Not there.  Okay, now I had to think a bit.  Was I sure I even wore them out of the house that morning?  I walked back to the house and checked my bathroom countertop.  Not there.

By this time, I was feeling a bit frazzled.  We were leaving on vacation in a few hours!  I didn’t have time for this!  Not to mention that I had planned to take that pair of glasses with me.  I had an extra pair, but still…

I returned to the barn.  I began to look in places that I was sure they would not be, but I was starting to feel desperate.  The trash can.  The workbench.  I stuck my hand between the hay bales in case they had fallen in a crack.  Nothing.  Finally, I had to give up my search so that I could shower and finish packing.

As we drove away from the farm, I told Danny about my lost eyeglasses.  Did you check there?  And there?  And there?  He asked.  My answer was always yes.  But then I thought about my walk.  What if I had them in my pocket and they somehow dropped out as I walked?  I called my nephew and he promised to retrace my steps, and look once more around the barn for me.  He texted me later that day.  He had found nothing.

For the next month, I puzzled on my glasses.  You see, I do not lose things.  In fact, I pride myself on my still-razor-sharp memory and attention to details.  I do not lose things!

After supper on Wednesday, October 16, Danny said he wanted to finish weed-eating around our corral fence.  The horses eat the grass inside the corral and I mow on the outside, but there is a thin line of tall grass and weeds that grows directly underneath.  He planned to clean this up before fall.

He came back into the house with a single lens from a pair of eyeglasses.  I held it up to my eye and looked through it.  There was absolutely no doubt that it was a lens from my missing eyeglasses.  Danny said he heard the weedeater string hit something and then he noticed the glare from the lens.

But where was the rest of it?

While Danny continued with his trimming, I searched along the corral fence where he said he found the lens.  I found half of the frame, then the other lens, and finally the other half of the frame.  None of it was salvageable.

But the mystery had been solved.  I knew immediately why my glasses were where they were.  I hadn’t dropped them.  And they hadn’t slipped out of my pocket.

It had to be BJ.  Remember BJ, my hat-stealer?  Well now, I will add glasses-stealer to that moniker.

In the words of the TV detective Monk, “Here’s what happened.”

I took my glasses off to spray the horses and set them on the feeder tray.  Distracted, I forgot about them until my return from my walk.  By that time, it was too late.  My curious BJ had discovered my glasses, picked them up in his mouth and carried them with him as he exited the corral with the other horses on his way to the pasture. 

You know how horses walk single file along a fence?  We have such a horse path right next to our corral fence.  Right next to where the glasses were found.

BJ dropped them on his way out of the corral.  There is absolutely no other way they could have gotten where they were.  Hidden by the tall weeds, they were not discovered until Danny trimmed those weeds.  Whether BJ broke them with his teeth, or whether Danny broke them with his trimmer I’ll never know.  But there is no doubt in my mind how they got there.

The good news is that my lenses were still under warranty so they were replaced at no charge.  And although the original frames were no longer available, I was able to find another pair that fit my new lenses.

You know those crazy insurance commercials on TV describing outlandish situations that actually happened?  I wonder how many lenses our insurance company has needed to replace because of glasses-stealing horses.

Who knew that horses considered eyeglasses such a fashion statement?

(If you want to read a similar story about something our dogs once did, check out the September chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week: “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”

Hey! That’s My Hat!

In previous blogs, I have written about Zip’s propensity for growing a thick winter coat and about how special BB is, but I have yet to tell you much about BJ, the youngster in the herd.

BJ is the only one of our three horses who has never known an owner besides me.  And he never will.  I promised BB before I had her bred that if she did this for me, she would have her foal beside her always.  I try very hard to always keep my promises.

The foal was due around the same time that our second granddaughter was due.  My daughter-in-law asked me point blank one day, if both babies were born at the same time, which would I choose to be present for?

Thank goodness I didn’t have to choose.  I was present for both.  BJ was born first on May 14, 2009, and our granddaughter arrived on May 29.  It was a very good year.

BJ was born in our corral, about mid-morning.  Danny and I were both present.   I had been watching BB closely, and when she couldn’t seem to make much progress, I called the vet.  He ended up having to pull BJ.  Now, just so you know, our vet is not a small man.  In fact, in another life, he could probably have been a lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs.  He struggled to pull BJ, and, after the birth, told me that BJ looked like a month-old foal.

BJ is still huge.  The average height of a quarterhorse is 15 hands, or 60 inches (one hand = 4 inches) from hoof to withers (highest point of the front shoulder).  BJ is 16 hands high, or 64 inches.  That is actually the average height of a thoroughbred.  But BJ is not slender like a thoroughbred.  He has the thick, muscular features of the quarterhorse.  So, bottom line, I always get the feeling when I’m riding him, that if he really wanted to, he could toss me like a rag doll.

But honestly, BJ is pretty darn sweet.  And he is beautiful.  Really.  A creamy buckskin with thick, wavy black mane and tail.  His maternal grandsire was a racehorse, and his paternal grandsire was an award-winning showhorse.  He is a sight to behold as he races through the pasture.

It is his personality, however, that I love most.  BJ talks to me.  When I call the horses, he is the one who answers back.  When I come out of the house and walk towards the corral, he is the one who nickers in anticipation and greets me at the gate.  

He is still trying to establish his place in the herd.  Zip will calmly put up with BJ’s ear-flattening, tail swishing and foot stomping for a while, but will eventually get fed up with it.  Clearly not intimidated by BJ’s size, Zip will flatten his ears, bite BJ on the shoulder or rump, and quickly put the youngster back in his place.  BJ’s constant testing of boundaries reminds me of some other young males who used to live in our household.

BJ is funny.  He’s my corral clown.  If I laugh out loud at one of my horses, it is always BJ.  One day I got a facetime call from my grandkids while I was in the corral with the horses.  As I was holding the phone, talking to the kids, BJ came up behind me, put his head on my shoulder and watched the phone.  He was so curious!  He sniffed the phone and put his lips on it, trying to figure out how those tiny people got into that small box!  On their end, the grandkids were seeing huge nostrils, a huge tongue, and huge teeth.  They thought it was hilarious.

But in my opinion, the funniest thing BJ has ever done involved my new hat.

Normally, I wear a large-brimmed straw hat when working outside.  But if it’s rainy, I have a water-proof hat that I wear instead.  That hat is a cobalt blue.  Now, I am convinced that horses can see some form of color.  It may not be exactly what we humans see, but my experience is that they respond to color.

For instance, before we moved back to the farm, I boarded BB in town very near our home.  As I rode her around the area where she was boarded, she would stop at every newspaper holder in front of the neighborhood homes.  She ignored the mailboxes, but was fascinated by the plastic newspaper holders.  She sniffed them, licked them, and I generally had a difficult time pulling her away from them.  It suddenly dawned on me.  They were all green!  The same green color as her grain bucket.

Back to the blue hat.  BJ noticed it.  As I was sweeping and shoveling that day, he kept crowding me, sniffing and nibbling at my new, out-of-the-ordinary, blue hat. 

I pushed him away.  “Get out of here.  I’m busy,” I told him.

He persisted.  He grabbed at the brim of the hat with his teeth. 

I waved him off.  “Quit it, BJ!  Leave my hat alone.”

The hat had a chin strap which I had tightened under my chin.  He again grabbed the brim with his teeth, pulled up, and almost guillotined me. 

I gave up.  “Fine!  You want my hat so bad?  Here, take it!”  I took the hat off, placed it on the top of his head between his ears, and wrapped the chin strap around his ears so that it would not slip off.

I honestly thought he would try to shake it off.  He did not.  Instead, he paraded around the corral, head held high like an ingenue balancing a book on her head at Miss Priss’ School for Young Girls.

I laughed at his silliness, but he didn’t care.  He stood and posed as I took his photo.  He continued to wear it the entire time I did my chores.  Not once did he try to shake it off. 

When I finally took my hat back, he let me.  He had accomplished what he had set out to do.  For a while, it had been his hat.

(Growing up, my horse’s name was Strawberry.  Read all about her in July – The Filly in A Year on the Family Farm and August – The Secret in Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Note to Self:  Next Time, Wear Gloves