Thursday, April 30, 2009


For most of you guys, this is the same story you've heard variations of over and over. However, I just realized that there are people who know me who have never heard this story. This is for one of those that asked for it.
It was my second day at work at the boy scout horse camp. Children had not arrived yet, and this was the week of preparation for the upcoming summer. Every day, the staff was broken into work teams who worked on different areas of the camp.
This day, my boss, the head wrangler Wesley, set me off to the barn to hold the horses for the farrier. He was trimming and shoeing all the forty horses in the barn and had not yet got started. I grabbed a halter and looked around for the first horse to grab.
I saw a striking bay in the second to last stall on the left. The stalls were short with simple bars diving them, so I could see the horses' whole bodies. I knew he was second in the pecking order from which stall he was in. Horses always have a pecking order, and often line up according to it for stall and food access situations. The first horse was a large grey gelding that was easily the best horse in the barn, and the biggest. This bay was very nicely built, too, and about four inches shorter. His coat was gorgeous and shiny, and he quivered and danced in his stall.
I haltered him and brought him over to the farrier, but the minute the man tried to lift his hoof, he started rearing and snorting. The more the man tried to get close to him, the more he danced. If the farrier managed to get a hold on his hoof, the horse would try to pull away and rear up, going backwards at the same time, with the whites of his eyes rolling.
"I'm not touching that one without drugs," he said.
The next day, the farrier had finished working on all four feet of the forty head..except three, which including the mules (Willie and Waylon) and that bay gelding, who as I can to find out, was called "Bullseye", after a brand on his left hip. These three had to be loaded in the trailer and taken to the vet's office for tranquilizers.
The mules loaded easily. The farrier went off to the vet's to work on them. The bay, however, wanted nothing to do with the trailer. For three hours, the men worked on him, trying various methods to get him in the trailer. He came within a foot of it at one point, then reared up, right when they were trying to push him, and he sliced his neck on the corner of the stock trailer. Blood dripped down his neck and sweat covered his haunches as he fought the men.
"That horse is crazy, " everyone muttered under their breath as we watched the show. The guys who worked there before said he had never been able to be ridden in the two years he had been at the camp. The rangers got on him, but he spooked, threw his rider, and went running back to the barn, every time.
Finally, old C.E., the ancient cowboy who ran the place all year long, rose up from his spot under a shady tree. He had been resting and trying to take it easy, as he had some kind of terminal lung condition, but at this point, he started yelling at the horse.
"Get in the damn trailer!" he yelled, over and over, and began walking over with his lariat. He smacked the horse on the rear with the stiff rope, over and over, leaving welts along his flanks. That failed to impress the horse, who finally only agreed to enter the trailer when Wesley tied his lead to his saddlehorn and let him follow his own horse in.
The next day, when the farrier came to get paid, he expressed surprise over the events of the previous evening.
"That's the first time I ever had to shoe a horse while he was upside down and sleeping," he explained. He told us that the mules simmered down nicely with their drugs, but this one still fought, even with the drugs. The vet kept giving him more and more until finally he dropped down, totally out, and the shoer was able to work on him at last.
That first two weeks, Wesley had asked Joanna to work with him, as she had worked for Wesley in the past. However, she was too scared of him. She only managed to get a bridle on him once, as he flipped backwards whenever she tried it. That one time, when she took him out to the ring and began to mount up, he shied away from her and she got spooked.
One afternoon, he and I were leaning over the fence, watching the herd come in for an evening watering, and he turned to me and said, "You know, I've been watching you ride the past couple of weeks. Tell ya what, see that horse over there?" He gestured to Bullseye. "He's your horse for the summer. No one rides him but you, unless you say so. No one works with him, unless you ask them to. He's yours. See what you can do."
The next day, I started working with him, and discovered a few things very quickly. He was willing to please, as long as you took things slow. The minute you tried to force him, he would freak out. I got his bridle on the first time just by asking nicely, and that is how we approached everything. And then Wesley set an impossible goal, and told me he wanted me to ride him the next night as an outrider for the chow wagon. This was a position of much risk and little safety. I would have to cross roads and ride solo at a fast pace, and mount and dismount three times to open and close gates. I could not fail. I could not get thrown. I would be carrying a radio and providing an escort for the mules over the five mile stretch of hill country terrain, so I had to stay seated and in control.
My first ride on Bullseye, we cantered along the stretch of grass bordering the camp road, riding up ahead and stopping traffic for the mule wagon to come by. He tried to throw me twice that night. I laughed at him. We made it through all our tests just fine.
The entire next week, he had a bucking fit twice every evening during our ride. I always laughed and never came off. The following week, he tried once every night. After that, he kind of gave up. I rode him every day that summer, and we became more bonded through our many little trials. Once, a deer bolted right in front of him, and he wanted to spook and run off, but I held him tight and calmed him down. We got lost in the thicket together and only made it out by working as a team. Little incidents like that.
At the end of the day, he was the horse that wouldn't go away. I always untacked him first, then went around untacking the other horses. Each of us wranglers had to untack at least five horses to do our fair share. After he pulled the saddles and bridles off, they were free to leave for the pasture, but Bullseye wouldn't leave. Instead, he followed behind me as I worked with the other horses, rubbing his forehead on my back and resting his chin on my shoulder. This was sometimes annoying but I also found it endearing.
At the end of the summer, I didn't want to part with him. I offered Wesley, and the boy scouts, $1000 for him, and eventually they complied (after some other conditions were met).
It took six months or more before the herd passed the three negative Coggins tests that were required before the swamp fever ban could be lifted. (We had to put down three horses due to EIA when the summer started, and so blood tests were taking every two months.) Finally, just after Spring Break, Wesley brought him three hours northeast to a barn in College Station, loaded again in the stock trailer, since he could not be loaded in the two horse trailer.
"This horse of yours," said Wesley in greeting, "is a butthead. It took four hours to get him in the trailer. He got away and went galloping out on to the property (some two thousand acres), and I had to get on Bob and rope him, then lead him in like last time."
"Oh, and he hasn't been touched since you left."
More on the next phase of our life together another time.

Monday, April 13, 2009

FATHOMLESS Easter Sunday, and I am hurrying into church, late as usual. I hold my little son's hand and scan the side of the plain brown building, trying to determine the fastest route into the Sanctuary. I decide on the side office door, and also to save time by going "as the crow flies", across a stretch of grassy lawn. My wedge heels cut into the grass as I lead my little boy at a fast clip into the hallway and around the corner to rows of chairs set up behind the main glass door entrance to the Sanctuary. I had never seen so people at this church, so much need for overfill seating before.
A mild wind had been blowing outside, and the sky was heavy with grey clouds and the hint of rain, a typical spring day. As we sat and listened to the choir sing, I crossed my feet and noticed blades of grass, sticky with dew, clinging to my black heels, a conspicious sign of spring afoot.
Spring is a time of rebirth, and I think there is no time like Easter Sunday to experience spiritual growth. Contemplation of the sacrifice made for us by God and his Son evokes a strong sense of humility and awakens longings to be greater, to know deeper, to strive harder to be a good servant in me. Easter Sunday is a reminder of the powerful lesson it took me most of my lifetime to comprehend, that Jesus loves ME enough to have made that sacrifice to bring me closer to his Father.
On this day, the clouds began to darken during the service rapidly. Midway through, thunder was booming outside. I looked out the window to watch how hard the rain was falling, and was shocked that it appeared dark as night outside. Rain pelted the ground, and I thought how odd it seemed that just minutes ago I had been racing across the grass in heels, and how no one would be doing that after the service.
The sermon this day was focused on Mary Magdalene, which I think was a good choice. She was the only one who had front row access to the whole ordeal, from the beginning of her disciplehood (as I do consider Mary a true disciple), through the arrest and torture of Jesus, during his time on the cross and during transformation and ascension.
I tried to imagine what the disciples felt during the week of Passover and through the stages of Jesus's sacrifice. I think coming into Jerusalem that week must have been like my entrance into church that day. At that time, the political climate was starting to darken ever slightly, but the force of what was to come was still mild, the tugging of a wind and a movement of a cloud. The disciples must have been expectant with new beginning, like the earth beneath my shoes and the ripe grass on my shoes. They were waiting for something amazing to happen.
The arrest and sentencing of Jesus, his public torture, must have seemed like a powerful storm. The disciples probably felt tremors of excitement and fear, like that which fills us when the lightning lights up that sky outside the church. When those clouds darkened so intensely, I half expected to hear a curtain rip in the background, and I had a visual of the moment Jesus left his mortal body. They say the sky grew unusually dark in those final moments. I can see him there on the cross, in mortal agony, as a dark sky swept in around him and the wind picked up.
It seems like I have felt like that myself, metaphorically. When I think about the time of my spiritual awakening, I remember it as a time of unusual darkness in my soul. Winds of despair were turbulent inside me, but the only thing that kept me strong was the realization that God was there, holding me in the palm of his hand, and that He had never left me. I had left the church, and I had turned my back on God, and when I realized that at my darkest hour, He was right there with me, giving me the strength to rally on, I was overwhelmed.
Now, granted, God knows what He is doing. He knew that in order to reach me, I would have to have the message received in what I term "the Trifecta" - on a physical, mental, and emotional plane. That same week that I was afflicted physically, I also viewed The Passion of the Christ AND became absorbed in James Michener's "The Source", and in seven days, the message had been received and absorbed, and I re-committed my life to Christ.
The sermon this day was focused on what Mary found when she reached the tomb of Jesus. I can't imagine the many emotions she must have felt when confronted with angels instead of death.
Rebirth. Hope. It takes many forms. For Mary, this day, it took the form of angels and a gardener who called her by name. For her, and for us all, the sun did come out, and its radiance was astounding.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

I thought it was April Showers, May Flowers? Found while geocaching in The Woodlands. The flowers are out, and I am trying to take pictures of them all this year. Loving Spring!

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

As I walked along the halls of work, a man came out of a room. He was my "Spanish tutor" these days, and he asked me how I was doing in spanish. The day before, he had asked me the same question, then repeated it in a second tone of voice, and added, mi amore, to which I laughed, "Mi amore? Nooo..."
Today, when he asked me, I exchanged with him what my plans were, and he tells me of his. I showed him my tires I was hanging and he said it reminded him of tubing down the river.
"You like the Frio River?" he asks, and I affirm.
"Let's go. Just you and me and the River Frio."
He sings a song of drifting along, bottle in the hand, tells me his favorite liquor, asks me mine. I am not sure I remember what mine is, plus I really have to do my task now. Along the way, I think about this little dream of his.
This man, he is much older than me. In fact, he has a son that works with us as well who is the same age as me (and quite the hunk). I had asked him of his wife, and he tells me of being married 35 years. He tells me the problem with marriage is this: that sometimes one of the peoples likes another person, but they cannot go with the other person because there are two of you, married. Both peoples need to agree. Sometimes the person says they love the other one so much that they will not allow the other people to go to someone else.
I love it that he tells me this. It kind of cracks me up because it is such a guy thing. Sometimes I think if guys had their way, they'd still be out there scamming if women didn't rein them in. To me, I find that monogamy is much easier for women.
I also understand what it is like to love more than one person. I think I lived like that a lot. I could straddle that fence better than anyone back in my day. It's not my day anymore, and his days are passing him by, too. I think of his plan to take me dancing sometime, and that's fine, I would like to cut a rug and he might do as a dancing partner. Of course, he knows that him and I on a river fine is nothing but the fantasy of an old man drifting along as life is passing by.
Every now and then we would like to catch our past as it swims by us and see its gills sparkle in the sun before we toss it back. The unfortunate truth of youth is that it fades, and so does opportunity. I thought for a moment that maybe if I was still young and free, I might take him up on that idea. I might dance with him until night time stars twinkled a warning, and drank until I was thirsty again. I might wink back at him and share that bottle.
Then again, maybe I wouldn't. In my prime, I might have walked right past him with my eyes wide open and never have noticed him. In fact, when we talk about the Frio River, I think it is possible I have. His idea of a good time is being surrounded by family, grilling fajitas and drinking a cool one and enjoying the cool, shallow waters of the river. He favors a wading spot in the Frio River outside the perimeter of Garner State Park. I might even have seen his family there before, as I walked by with my two sons on a camping adventure once. I stopped with the younger one to take this picture as a family much like ole Francisco's surrounded me. The idea that we cross paths with strangers before we ever met is such a wild one to me. This world is so small, and yet so mind-boggling huge.
At any rate, when he smiles at me and tells me, "this color looks good on you, very pretty...for a pretty girl", it makes me smile, and feel a bit like the girl I used to be. I remember that attraction and a good time used to be enough. I am much more practical now. These days, it is not. I am so much more complicated, or maybe just have a better sense of what I need. The list gets longer the older I get.
It's nice, though, to look back and think about how fun that used to be, when caring wasn't worth caring about. Dangling your hands in the waters and wondering what you might catch, just you and me down on the River Frio.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Winner's Dog
Well, this is not exactly the entry I thought I would be writing tonight.
All yesterday, I stewed an essay in my head. That essay started with waxing dramatic about the laying down of the leash and the sparky thin choke chain. I had decided over the past week that if my dog did not perform well, I was going to "retire" him from the conformation ring.
It didn't mean I was giving up working him, just that we were going to turn our nose in a different direction, and concentrate on obedience instead, or agility. I have struggled with this for a long time, because I really wanted to "finish" him (get the 15 points needed for him to be a Champion, and therefore deemed more valuable to breed).
It had started to seem, though, like we were banging our head up against the wall. After two days in Canton last fall and two days in Navasota the previous weekend with no wins and our spotty history in previous shows, I was beginning to feel that I was not getting anywhere fast, and that I was wasting a lot of money doing it.
The dog was turning five this year and had only enough wins to count on one hand. Last weekend, a girl I had seen at several shows was watching the Best of Breed competition with me. We were both marveling over one of the "specials", Rowan, when I mentioned to the girl I was thinking about retiring my dog.
"Your blue boy?", she says. I nod and tell her he hasn't been placing and I don't think he is going to. "Yeah, he's not the kind of dog that wins around here," she says nonchalantly, and turns her eyes back to the ring.
I am not sure exactly what she was intending to mean, but as I mulled it over, I looked at the dogs in the ring and could see what she meant. It seemed that, compared to these "specials", my dog was missing something. He was long and lean where those dogs were stocky and compact. He was artistry in motion, while those dogs were balanced and thick in hair and barrel. That's not to say he's not beautiful, but I am a bit partial.
At this week's show in Crosby, I set up near this same girl again. The first day of the weekend show, we got "dumped". Third place out of three in the class. I drove home, examining how I felt about the idea of not showing him in conformation again. I realized very quickly that suprisingly, I felt at peace with the whole thing.
I related it to my relationship with my horse, or how I felt about selling him. My dream had been to belong with him forever. My dream with Scout was one of points, ribbons, puppies, knowledge, but in both, what I really wanted was an extraordinary connection with an animal. I wanted to be able to demonstrate that I could be exceptional by working with a challenging animal - in Bullseye's case, a formerly abused, fearful horse, and in Scout's case, a "green" dog wiht a "green" owner/handler. By selling the horse, by retiring the dog, what I am really saying is "I give up on you", and that is a really hard thing for me to do. All who know me know I don't give up easily, but nor do I always get what I want.
At any rate, retirement was actually started to sound better and better. I was almost out of all my grooming sprays and coat conditioners and was glad to be rid of the grooming stand...for a while. Not forever. In my mind, there is already another puppy on the horizon, one I will have the experience to guide and show correctly, from the beginning. One I pick based on what I have learned from this time listening and watching, one to grow on. I realized as I drove home that I don't think I want to stop showing dogs altogether.
I will admit I still get a little thrill out of the whole thing, out of cutting and blow-drying his hair on the grooming stand, of walking into the arena in my suit with "bait" in the pocket and him bouncing beside me, and most of all, of hearing, "Australian Sheperd, Open Blue, Catalog Order Please!", and walking in to begin the short production of trying to present the dog in its best angles. It is the constant stream of undesirable ribbons that begins to get me down. My husband and I joke about the possible uses of all the blue ribbons he has won, but under the joke is the sad fact that there are just not enough purple ribbons to make it worth the gas and effort.
This second day of the show, I agonized over every inconvenience. I contemplated skipping the show and going to church instead, I groaned about waking up early, I almost didn't want to do any grooming at all. It felt like a waste of effort, but I did it all anyway.
I decided I was going to go out with a bang, and got him ring ready. When we were standing outside the ring waiting for our turn, a woman looked at Scout and said to me, "He's a nice dog". When dog show folks say nice, it doesn't usually mean friendly. I told her thanks, and mentioned I was thought so, too, but I was going to retire him, since he couldn't seem to win. She told me she thought he could be finished, that he was really nice.
Then she asked me if I remembered she and her friend, from the show in Canton. They were the ones who helped me out, when I had a flat tire and had bummed a ride to the show. "He should have won his class yesterday", the one said. "I liked him the best of all of them". They asked about his breeding. "Who's he out of again?" "Who's he by?" They recognized the lines on both sides, and also were aware that his dam passed away last week.
They asked me if I was interested in their opinion after our class, if they could see any handler flaws or glaring conformation issues. This is what I wanted to do. Is it the dog, or is it me? I have wondered. I have contemplated getting a handler for a couple of years, because at least I could eliminate that issue.
We went in for our class, Open Blue, and were picked for first. When I came back out, the woman was excited. She told me she saw a couple of handling issues we could tweak, and she said basically my dog is correct, that he has very little flaws. She mentioned a back toe that pokes out and sometimes the front falls apart, but that all could be stacked out, and that the dog free stacks very well himself anyway. She quickly explained to me how to correct something I was doing wrong with the front legs, and then sent me back in the ring for round two. Again, my dog was selected for the first place, a purple ribbon for the Winner's Dog.
When I came out of the ring this time, there were a lot of congrats, and a girl I had met at previous shows through the years but who had never been very friendly to me (Shelley) gave me a piece of venison jerky for the bait for the next round. "Get some animation in him," she says, "Keep it for the class". Then we went back in to compete for Best of Breed, which I figured would go to the special, and my new friends were behind me going "Psst! Now lift his neck up! Show him the bait!" I was glad that they really wanted him to win, despite my handling.
After the judge selected him for Best of Winners (giving the Best of Breed to the "special" - a dog named Badge), she shoke my hand and said "I really liked your dog".
Everyone told me this judge was "mean" and yelled a lot, but this day, when we got our pictures taken, she told me again she liked him, and "sorry I didn't put you up for Breed". It was the nicest thing a judge has ever said to me.
Afterwards, I had a mini handling clinic with the women from the Canton show. Both of them, one whose dog beat me yesterday, were just admiring how nice he was. They mentioned a couple of minor flaws (he's rolling a bit in the hind, probably because of the short upper arm, but you can exercise him more and that will help, his coat's a little thin but that shouldn't matter that much) and pointed out some grooming errors. They felt sure that with some tweaking in my handling, he could and should finish.
It made me see things differently. The day before, I had thought that maybe it was neither one of our faults that we couldn't make it work. Maybe it was just fate, just the luck of the draw that he would stay small and light while the other dogs got husky and thick with fur. Maybe I had just been trying to shove a circle into a square peg, just not the right shape to get the job done.
Today, I see it completely differently. Imperfect practice is, after all, still imperfect, and my vision hasn't gotten good enough to see us completely objectively.
This woman fills me up and gives me the courage to keep going. If the road is not getting us there, it is time to change something, but maybe not slow our stroll. "Maybe put him with a handler, just to finish him", she says. "If you could afford it."
"Or," she says, "I could show him for you. I wouldn't charge you very much."
A bit later, I am getting ready to leave, and see Sharon again, the one I had set up by and talked to this and last weekend. I told her a bit about where I had been, and she also offers to show him for me, saying she could probably finish him for me. I tell her I am going to get her card before I leave, but I leave without seeing her again.
That's okay. I have a card in my shoe, given to me by the lady who was so helpful to me today.
I turn the card over in my hand and smile a little when I see her name. It just seems so fitting.

Friday, April 03, 2009

SPRING IN TEXASI had an amazing time geocaching in bluebonnet country on the way to and from Navasota for a dog show.
More to follow