Sunday, September 30, 2007

Horse Crazy

The day is still very young, Medskoolgirl, the son and I have just finished breakfast when the buzzer at the gate sounds, setting off a rousing chorus of dog barking. I hit the open switch and go out to meet our guests.

Larry, is dressed in total urban cliche cowboy gear. Dark indigo jeans, most likely first time worn, brand new everything else all the way to the hat. I say "Nice hat" and we shake hands. His family is stunningly beautiful. His wife is a lovely Vietnamese woman. During the introductions I hear the unmistakeable lilt of her accent and immediately switch to Vietnamese myself. I introduce myself and welcome her to my home. She is wearing an expression poised between shock and delight, the kind that isn't quite sure which side of the fence it will fall toward yet. I assure her that all is well. She introduces their twin six year old daughters. They are delightful. The first thing they say to their father is "He talks like grandpa!" They are treasures. I invite them all into the house and introduce them to my kids. The daughters are entranced by all the musical instruments, I show them a few of the different ones, let them pluck at a few of the harps before asking them if they would like to go and meet the horses.

I am told that this is the best idea they've heard in a long time. The girls are literally skipping on our way out to the barn. On the way I'm going over what will happen with their dad. I tell him that we'll turn them out into the round pen and spend some time getting to know one another. Larry does notice that I'm wearing basketball shoes, not boots, he asks about it and I tell him "My left ankle is fused, I can't point my toes to get into boots, plus shoelaces are a lot easier for the EMT's to cut off." Then he asks about the mountain bike singlet that I'm wearing under my Wranglers. I tell him that "There's no inseam, after a few hours in the saddle that becomes important and the padded ass is a big plus too." He sees the clip on spurs that I have on the Reeboks and says "I suppose that's another cross cultural statement?" I laugh and say that's just practicality and nothing more.

One by one we greet each horse, pass out treats and I show Larry how to put on a halter and how to lead the horse. At first he is hesitant, after all, if you aren't used to them the first thing you notice about a horse is how big they are. Then you start to imagine all the very easy ways something that big could do great damage to you. Pretty quickly though he slides right into it. In that very short amount of time I can see that Rosalita is the best choice for him. She's easily the calmest, and certainly the most tractable of the herd.

Once we have them all in the pen we spend some time just walking around with them. Easing into the whole thing. The girls are perched on the fence and are full of questions. Like "Why is this corral round?" "So nobody will ever feel cornered." Stuff like that. I tell them that the two grey horses are Arabians and one girl asks "Are they Muslims?" I chuckle at that and just say "Probably. The Koran says that this kind of horse was especially beloved by the Prophet."

After a bit, I toss a lead rope to Larry and tell him to bring Rosalita over to the fence. Hilarity ensues. I don't let it go on all that long. I just tell him that there are two games which a person will never win with a horse. Chase and Tug 'o' War. He give me a look that says "OK asshole, then how am I supposed to get this rope on that horse?" I give him a licorice bit and say "Hold out your hand and call her." He does, she comes. Good sergeant, good horse. I clip a rope on Sally and bring her next to Rosalita. Then it's time for Casey to go into his stall. He doesn't really want to go, so I holler to the house for Medskoolgirl to come and handle him. I show Larry how to curry the dirt on the horse's back up and then flick it off with a brush. Then we go over picking out the hooves, and checking the shoes for fit and tightness. I say "Let's go get you a saddle trooper."

In the barn we pick out a big, roomy western rig, with lots of padding. Wide and comfy. I snatch up a little aussie, and a couple of bridles and we head out to the horses. It takes a while because I'm walking him through the process, step by step. It's something that is natural and automatic for me, breaking it down into single steps is a chore. I goof it up almost as much as he does but we manage to get it done. Medskoolgirl has been dancing around the ring showing off for the gallery. We get all mounted up and begin to work in earnest. I'm trying to pass as much information as I can, trying to put something I've done my whole life into understandable language. I can see though that we're getting places. He's into the whole heels down and erect posture. He's keeping his hands still. I also see the things we need to work on. He keeps trying to "steer" the horse. That's not how it works. He also needs to relax. There's nothing better than being relaxed and allowing gravity to work its magic for keeping somebody on the back of a horse. I figure that relaxation will come with time. For now, we've been at this a bit over an hour. I call time. Larry wants to keep going and I tell him that horse muscles are totally different from all other activities and that he will thank me in the morning for calling this now. Besides, I point out how wonderfully patient his daughters have been while he rides and they watch. It's time to change that.

I take the big saddle off of Rosalita and put on a little one, built for kids. Rosalita adores kids, probably because they don't weigh all that much, but I also think that she knows and understands the extreme trust that is put in her when she carries a child. Since their twins and they both are equally excited about being on horseback I flip a coin and hoist the winner up on Rosalita's back. The first thing that I notice is that she was paying attention while I worked with her dad. She tries to do all the things that I told him to do without me saying a word. I say "You are a naturalborn rider darling." We start doing circuits around the ring and Rosalita is working like I have her on a lunge line. I ask "Are you ready for the merry go round?" I'm rewarded with a beaming smile and vigorous nod so I cluck Rosalita up into her signature gait, the walking canter. That's where she reaches and canters with her front legs while walking with her back legs. It is a smooth rolling gait that is a joy to sit. The girl starts to laugh out loud because its so much fun.

I holler out to my son to get ready to start riding this girl double on Sally while I put the next girl on Rosalita. This is because Medskoolgirl is off with Casey taking jumps.

The next rider does exactly the same as her sister. She's been paying attention to both of the previous riders and I have the pleasure of sitting back and watching her do everything right. At just about the same time in the ride she tightens up her legs a tiny bit and clucks Rosalita into the walking canter. As she passes her face is a study in joy and triumph. The mother wants no part of riding for now. She's not scared for her husband or her girls, but she's not at all interested in giving it a try.

After a bit we all decide (well, actually I decide the girls would still be riding today if they could) it's time to put the horses up. I tell Larry that it's back to lesson time. We take the horses back to the barn and go through putting the tack away, then picking the hooves again, giving them a brush, then a wash, then another brushing and comb out on the mane and tail. He's really starting to relax around them now. I ask if anybody's hungry. They are.

We barbeque some burgers around the pool and Larry and I sit down for about the deepest conversation we have ever had. He's seen some of the pictures I have in the hallway from Vietnam and he says "I knew you were a veteran, but I didn't know you were a SEAL." I say that I don't much like playing it up, that it was a long time ago. I also tell him that if I hadn't been injured to the point of not being able to physically stay on the teams that I probably would have ended up as a lifer myself. I tell him that I'm worried about the way the current state of affairs is having a harmful effect on the proud military that I gave my service and dedication to. He says that a lot of things are changing, just like they always change. I say "No matter what else I want you to know that I would rather do things to help out rather than just go on and on about how I support the troops and shit like that." I hate folks that say how much they honor the sacrifices and then don't do anything. I also say that I am impressed with him as a man, not just a soldier and that he and his family are welcome in my house anytime. His wife chimes in that the girls have two weeks off of school and would absolutely love another chance to come riding. In Vietnamese I say "You bring those beauties out anytime you want, you don't need the foriegn devil for protection." She giggles demurely and Larry gives me the raised eyebrow "What did you just say to my wife" look. I tell him to learn Vietnamese if he wants to know what I said.

All in all, a very good day. Larry is coming out again in a few days (when his muscles are a bit less sore) and we will go over the drill for putting on cavalry tack.



Blogger Sherry said...

oh i'll bet those little girls will be dreaming of those horses.

casey is a new name tho. i don't think you've every mentioned him before.

the vision of the tennis shoes makes me smile. sad about the reasons but still the vision is a sweet one.

4:31 PM  
Anonymous horsedooty said...

three or four aspirins should be passed out to any new adult rider after about an hour.

yo soy Horsedooty!

4:48 PM  
Anonymous Constant Comment said...

I love your serials. I look forward to hearing about Larry's and/or the twins' return.

7:47 PM  
Anonymous Lisa said...

A good deed. You've given that family a fine experience they will not soon forget, I'm sure.

8:05 PM  
Blogger pissed off patricia said...

What a great experience for everyone, including you and the horses too.

I remember my first time on a horse and by the way it was also my last. My teacher didn't have time for instuctions and as a result, I had an awful experience and the horse decided if biting my leg would get me off his back, that's what he would do. Thankfully I fell off on the other side of him so no one was hurt.

2:08 PM  
Blogger nunya said...

Yup, horse know when you're scared. I'll never be good rider.

2:35 PM  
Blogger litbrit said...

The hardest thing for me to explain to people about riding is the concept of firm, erect posture from the waist up, while keeping a deep-seated relaxed, mobile, and almost jelly-like weightiness to the hips. While also pressing the heels downward and keeping the insides of the legs touching the horse--not clamping him tightly (unless you want to haul ass all of a sudden) but not just dangling uselessly, either.

You described it perfectly to your pupils, obviously, since it sounds like they all learned on the spot.

I agree about the natural rider thing--riding always felt instinctive to me. Once I was shown the initial rules, the rest came easily. I worry that so many commercial trails don't teach these basics, especially the one about mounting from the left (always, always), dismounting by swinging the right leg around, leaning over while your hips maintain contact and you remove your left foot from the stirrup, and pushing away a bit as you dismount with your legs and feet together. So many people leave that left foot in the stirrup as they struggle downward. I've seen disaster ensue due to that mistake! Sometimes it was just a naughty, mischievous horse springing into action and trotting a few steps, just to show who's boss.

Oh, and walking close behind a rump! Aaaaargh! You just don't do that, unless the horses are really, really comfortable being in tight quarters with other species, and how would a new rider know that anyway, right? I think it's a good habit to walk a wide circle around their backsides. Getting a rear hoof to the ribcage is a painful (and potentially dangerous!) way to learn that.

I've never actually learned the techniques of Western saddle; rather, I've just applied the hunt seat experience to it and tried to neckrein with one hand instead of using two, with mouth contact. And I like to shorten the stirrups and post ever so slightly with the trot rather than fully sit it, because I'm a bit bony and, well, OW.

Some people see a hunt saddle and freak out because it's kind of spare, and it doesn't have that rope hook thing to grab onto for security; however, I find it more comfy.

Do you use a curb or snaffle bit, or does it depend on the horse? When I lived in Honduras, my one and only horse was a young gelding who'd never had a bit in his mouth. No-one told me this. The stable hand took a new bridle, one with a curb bit, strapped him up, and sent me off.

As you can imagine, I was thrown and thrown and thrown.

Horse muscles are indeed different. Not just the ones you use, but the ones that get messed up when you fall! Still, I'd hop on a horse right now if one walked up the driveway.

What a wonderful story, full of images that made me relive some of my own days of riding and coming home all sweaty and happy, my ratty old jeans sort of brownish with horse along the inseams, my hair smelling like their hair.

God, I miss that smell (to non-horsecrazies that will sound a bit sick, but you know what I mean.)

More horse stories, please!

6:23 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

yes, indeed, it's a whole different world with horses. i think that's why there have been whole cultures of human beings who lived with and used their horses. as far as tack i'm pretty flexible and so are the horses. usually though rosalita has a simple copper roller snaffle, that she like to play with. although she would be fine if someone just hung a lead rope off of her halter. i also have hackamores and a bosal/mecate setup that she likes. the bosal/mecate is sally's favorite. although she has used a snaffle on occaision, it's not something we go with most of the time.

casey, being a stallion is a whole other set of challenges. he's willful, proud, and very strong and sometimes needs more urgent reminders that there is another lifeform in on the process. i mostly run him with a "tom thumb" snaffle and double reins. with him it's almost always two hands all the time. it's safer for everyone.

it seems that the toughest concept for americans (maybe other folks too but it seems to be an american deal) is that the reins are a signaling device, not a steering wheel, not brakes, or anything else mechanical.

larry and the girls are scheduled to come out again tomorrow. i'm having a neighbor who is a well known and respected riding instructor be on hand to take over the teaching chores. i worry about not conveying a critical step or concept simply because it's something that i do without thinking. i'm also going to get in touch with the buffalo soldiers and find out if there is any specific skill set that he needs to obtain quickly.

6:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't say exactly why but this story made me tear up (just a little).
Your heart extends to the horizon.


3:27 PM  
Anonymous Lisa said...

I feel the same way, Bruce. I think I'd like this man, up close and personal. Pity he doesn't live on this side of the Mississippi.

3:48 PM  

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