Thursday, October 9, 2014

5 years on

A Good Horse

When I was 12 years old, I had a friend come into my life, a friend who would stay with me for the next 27 years. This friend was a pony named Dolly. I was almost oblivious to the normal teen angst because I spent most of my teen years in the barn, or in the fields, caring for or riding my wonderful mare, feeling free and whole, and living in the moment. I spent my twenties in university and adjusting to work life, and always she was there, a constant in my life. In my thirties I settled down, got married and started a family. She gave my kids pony rides and let them pat her soft black muzzle. She was always there for me. I cared for her and she cared for me. I wouldn’t have traded her for a fancier horse, or for a million dollars. Let me tell you about Dolly.
Dolly came to me on May 12th, 1982. I was 12 years old and had a few riding lessons during the summer times. I was obsessed with horses for as long as I can remember, and I think my parents realized that this was an interest that was not likely to wane. I knew little about horses and my parents knew even less. When she came off the horse trailer in Pasadena, she had enough of the cramped quarters and jumped, bucked, ran and reared. I was a little intimidated, but exhilarated. I was in love. She was mostly black, with a beautiful wavy mane and tail, a small white half-diamond shape on her forehead, and the softest, fuzziest warm velvety muzzle. Her eyes were beautiful. Big, brown, soulful eyes, with enormous long lashes showing her gentle and trusting nature. I think you can often see someone’s true nature in their eyes, and so it is with horses.
In the midst of her jumping and cavorting that day, she got down on the ground and had a grand roll in the dirt. She started rolling on one side and rolled right over her back and to her other side. I’ll always remember my grandfathers words at that moment. He said “The old-timers say that when a horse rolls right over, it’s a sign of a good horse.” And a good horse she was.
We did have some adjustments during that first summer. She was seven years old when got her, and I do not think she had much training. She was scared to do things that average horses were not scared of. I couldn’t touch her ears, pick up her hooves, put a bridle on her, or have her anywhere near another horse. She would not tolerate having a bath , or the smell of anything medicinal. If I missed any days at the barn that summer, I do not remember, they were certainly few and far between. I lived up there that summer, in the days before I brought her to my own home. I patiently and slowly taught her to let me touch her ears, lower her head for the bridle, pick up her hooves for hoof care. She learned to be relaxed around other horses, and have ointments or fly spray applied if it was needed. By August, she did everything I asked her to.
And a few extras! Dolly was a master Houdini, escaping from stalls, barns, fields on a regular basis. Often she would let other horses out as well, by opening their stall doors. I guess if you are going to make a break for it, you may as well take along your friends! I had great trouble trying to keep her in her pasture when I had her at our home in Pasadena. She would just lean against the fence with her chest to determine the height of the fence, then rock back onto her hocks and leap into the air and over the fence without any apparent effort. My other horse, her son, Cherokee, would run madly along the fence trying to figure out how he could get out, too. One time my grandfather and I decided to take an old fire-hose and nail it along the length of the pasture fence, about 6” higher than the fence. We worked at this job for several hours and thought we had outwitted her. It took her about 60 seconds to put her head over the fence and under the hose, stretching the hose up to assess the amount of give, upon which she leapt over the fence and let the hose stretch over her back. She often made jail breaks in the middle of the night, which meant by the time I woke up at 7 a.m., she’d already eaten her fill of grass and was staring in though the windows of the house wondering when I was going to get up. On more than one occasion I was startled to see a huge black creature staring in at me as I groggily made my way to the kitchen.
She also had a passion for Flakies. I used to take them to the barn with me for a treat in my lunch box. She soon learned how to open my lunch box (by pulling the plastic tabs open with her teeth), and sometimes ate my entire lunch!
Dolly was by no means a fancy horse. She was of unknown breeding, most likely she was primarily Newfoundland pony with a little bit of Standardbred (the trotting racehorses). This gave her an awkward gait. In the show ring, judges like to see “daisy cutters,” which means a long, low stride that could theoretically clip the heads off of daisies. Dolly would have been termed a “daisy stomper!” She had short, quick strides, and the most jarring trot I have ever tried to sit to: although she did have the absolute smoothest canter.
I did show her, but being far from the fanciest horse, we rarely placed near the top of the class. She always did what I asked her to do, however, and had a calm and willing demeanour. No drama with Dolly.
We did win one class at the Newfoundland Equestrian Association Provincial Horse show in St. John’s in 1988. I was 18 years old, and saved every penny I had from my summer job, and put it towards my show outfit, show fees, and gas to trailer her across the island. I was the only competitor from outside St. John’s that year. In fact I was interviewed by CBC radio for being the sole outside competitor. The other competitors were amazed that I was riding in both Western and English classes, as most were comfortable in only one side of the sport. I suppose, in retrospect, that I didn’t really know the difference. I also believed that Dolly could and would do anything I asked her to! We did jumping classes, and flat (non-jumping) classes in both English and western events. We competed in a class called the “western trail” class, which tests the horse and riders ability to negotiate a series of obstacles., such as walking over a wooden bridge and opening a gate while mounted. We were up against many fancier horses with professional training. Dolly’s sense of trust , and willingness to please shone through in that class. Many horses were fearful of some of the obstacles on that day and did not fully complete the class. I felt Dolly hesitate at times, but I communicated to her that it was ok through gentle squeezes of my legs, keeping my body relaxed, and slight shifts in my weight on her back. She put her faith in me, and on that day, we won. Not because I had a fancy horse, but because she trusted me and I believed in her.
Always well behaved, but nothing fancy to look at if you were a judge. From where I was sitting, I always knew I had the best horse.
She was the sort of horse who would slow down if she felt you were losing your balance and in danger of falling. On the one occasion I did fall off, while we were going over a jump. She went up and over the jump, and I went up and kept going up! Until I came down without a horse under me. I remember landing, and lying on the ground and seeing sky and grass above me, and then, a curious horse standing over me, looking right into my face. Instead of running off or eating grass, she came back for me. She nuzzled me, making sure I was ok. She came back for me then, and my hope is that, if there is an afterlife, that she is one of the spirits that comes back for me when I pass on.
I went through a lot with her.
I went through a lot for her.
I believe she stayed with me until I was ready for her to go.
I know she loved me.
I was a shy, quiet girl, and I needed her. She stayed with me through everything. I cried into her mane on more than one occasion. Through insecurity, lost loves, grieving loved ones, fears of going away from home, fear of leaving her. She was there through good times, too. She saw me start my family and saw my children start to grow. Twenty-seven years of my life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I do not regret for one second the time I spent cleaning stalls, raking hay, getting trailer loads of sawdust, fixing fences, paying for hay, grain or new barns. I think holding on to her made me hold on to who I really am. I couldn’t give up on her as I couldn’t give up on myself. I guess if there is anything she has taught me, it’s to hold tight to your true self in spite of pressures to conform to the rest of the world. There were always pressures to sell her, but if there was one thing I knew for certain, it’s that I would hold tight to her until she died. She died this past October, and I held her beautiful head in my arms as she passed on. I told her I loved her, that she was my girl, and that it was ok.
And it was ok.
There is something very natural about doing everything you can for the animals and people in your life, and then feeling a sense of peace when their time comes to pass. If we all do our best for each other while we live, then letting go is a natural part of that process. It is then time to look after the ones who are still here. Please look after those animals and people whom you love. Treat them with respect and treat them well. Remember, and move forward. Be together. Laugh and play. Most of all,