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

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