Category Horse Girl

Tyrant on Five Acres

“The authoritarian stands ready to punish and everyone under his thumb tiptoes around—getting weaker and sicker in the process. What does a person do when she knows that the authoritarian in her life is always ready to speak and act like an authoritarian? She flinches. She keeps her distance. She makes wide circles. She keeps her mouth shut. Sometimes, to make sure that she isn’t wrong in her assessment and unfairly judging the authoritarian, she tests him by saying something provocative or by breaking a cardinal rule—which of course provokes the authoritarian’s wrath. So, she goes back to hiding, not testing those waters again very soon.”

Eric R. Maisel, Ph.D.

It’s important to think carefully about the long-term implications of owning an animal so large it needs to be stored on someone else’s property and what it means if your relationship with this property owner ever sours. I took this into consideration…not at all, because my brain was ablaze with the joyous chemical storm of a lifelong dream within reach. A horse of my own.

At the time, I didn’t really have a reason to consider it. I was going to be boarding Navani at the same barn with my friend, who had repeatedly assured me that this was “one of the good ones” and everyone there seemed to agree. “We’re like a family,” I heard over and over again. And for a while, it felt like that was true, especially in the year before I had a horse there. People seemed to like and respect one another. Laughter rang down the barn aisle.

The atmosphere always changed subtly when the barn owner came around. It quietened. Doubtlessly science has an instrument sensitive enough to detect an otherwise invisible collective puckering of sphincters. Or I’m projecting? I was definitely intimidated by her at first, and she knew it because she commented on it, frequently. It amused her. Whether that change in energy was real or imagined, something inside me went on high alert whenever she was in proximity. 

Despite being one of the loudest proponents of this big happy family talk, her actions spoke otherwise. The thing about family is that it should be a safe environment in which to err. Mine wasn’t, but the concept of the power and support of that structure is so universal that it’s been the theme of thirteen Fast & the Furious movies. You don’t get to thirteen of something without a lot of people saying YES, in that situation I would pull the emergency brake in my car to drift around a corner of a cliff with no guardrail! It’s the kind of thing you do for your family. If the barn was a family, it was an extremely dysfunctional one. The kind of family in which the children could break an unspoken rule and have it held against them forever or be given 30 days notice to get out.  As the head of that family, the barn owner was unpredictable; I’d never know who she’d be when she walked over on any given day. Some days she genuinely offered kindness or took the time to share knowledge, others she was openly insulting and abrasive. The moments of kindness almost make it worse, getting a glimpse of how good things could be and then the abusive hurricane sweeps back in.  It did feel like family, I’ll give her that: my family. She was just like my mother. A cat who attacks after offering its belly. Someone who demands love but trades in fear.

The first person I saw disowned from the family was the woman who rented the apartment above the barn, where she also boarded her two horses. She came with the property when the barn owner purchased it and was protected in the purchase agreement from rent raises for a period of time. She worked hard to afford that arrangement, and in her free time, wanted to enjoy her life and her horses. The barn owner wanted someone living in that space who would help with the work of running the property, but the tenant made it clear she wasn’t interested. So despite her being a family member (“Don’t we look like sisters?”) and best friends and her (large) steady monthly payments, her every move was under constant scrutiny by the barn owner, and everyone would hear about it. One time she came home from work and was scolded in front of several boarders and myself about the quantity of laundry she did in the shared machines. Frequent package deliveries and pricey horse training group session attendances were somehow evidence to the barn owner that this woman’s rent should be higher, because she was able to afford too much. (It’s this twisted, jealous logic that made my stomach drop every time she would comment on what “nice stuff” I have, so I made certain to loudly and frequently talk about things I couldn’t afford within her earshot.) Plus, the barn owner had done some research that indicated that she should be able to get $2,000 a month for that apartment. Let’s just sit with this for a moment. Imagine working a full time job to pay top market price for an apartment on top of a barn at which you pay top market price to board your two horses and, by virtue of proximity, are expected to always be available to put in hours of hard, physical, dirty, and dangerous labor for a pittance or live with a constant undercurrent of silent resentment from your landlord! 

When the grace period granted by the sale had ended, board was raised for everyone, and the tenant was obviously more impacted than people who had just one horse or did not also live there. She started to ask quiet questions around the barn. How much do you pay? It wasn’t the same for everyone. However quiet the question, the barn owner heard, and she made it very clear that she didn’t appreciate people talking behind her back, that she couldn’t have that on her property, and so the woman and her horses were evicted. She sobbed when she got the news, which of course I know despite not having been there and not knowing this woman well because the barn owner was all too eager to pass that information along, including little tidbits about how we never saw her true nature, how nasty she could be, and that she loved her to death and they’re still the best of friends but she couldn’t have someone sneak around behind her back on her property. 

The next person to get the boot was never included in the family chorus, so I don’t know if she existed outside that dynamic entirely or if she was the black sheep. I do know that she and her three horses were no longer welcome once it was decided she was “trying to build a business out of the barn.” I agree with this rule to an extent; it could entirely change the dynamic and accessibility of the facilities if a trainer sets up residence and suddenly the arena and parking lot is full of their clientele every evening and weekend. But this philosophy was extended to the point where no money could change hands between boarders without “building a business” coming up. So, say, if I was going on a trip somewhere and needed someone to exercise Navi while I was away, it used to be that I could incentivize someone to do this time and body-intensive thing with money, but now I have to hope that someone will be willing to do it out of the goodness of their heart. And when you need help with a horse, you generally need a horse person to do it, so you need your boardmates to want to help you. I like to help people, I think it’s a beautiful gesture of love to smooth someone’s path, to recognize a need and fill it with my time. And I especially love the horses and want them to get what they need, so if someone at the barn needed me to pull their horse and stay for its farrier appointment or help bathe it or keep it on its feet until a vet could arrive, I’ve been happy to do it. But it galls me a bit that my time has been devalued to nothing by this rule, like what I’m doing is worthless. Like I’m at risk of earning a living in the greater Seattle area if someone pays me twenty bucks for an occasional favor!

Instead of money, the barn owner wanted to set up a barter system, where it seemed like the primary currency would be bottles of wine. So someone can’t give me money, but they can go to the store, give THEM money, and then give me something that I don’t want and won’t use because I don’t really drink anymore? You know what I do all the time, though? SPEND MONEY. It turns out you can use that stuff, like, everywhere. Also the person who steps up to help me most often is under the legal drinking age and I’m not a parent or an expert on the law but I don’t think it’s the smartest idea to pile bottles of wine into a teenager’s arms? Or if not wine, then I have to go through the additional labor of finding the right gift that demonstrates the value I place on someone extending themselves for me instead of giving them money that they can spend how they please? This is how people end up with 57 mugs, 2 of which they actually like and 55 of which they feel obligated to keep. 

Once, a dog grooming brush belonging to the barn owner’s actual daughter, who now lives above the barn, went missing. I suppose it’s inside the realm of possibility that someone took it, but even in that instance, it’s easier to imagine that the light-fingered individual was someone other than a boarder at the barn, an opportunist passing through, not a family member. It’s easier still to imagine that it was misplaced. As neither the brush nor the guilty individual ever emerged, we were all treated as guilty, lectured repeatedly about this failure of integrity and respect. The “word of the day” on the barn whiteboard was INTEGRITY AND RESPECT for months. Who was going to be ballsy enough to erase it? 

The dog brush incident wasn’t an outlier, whenever an unknown someone broke a rule, we all heard about it. Sometimes we’d get scolded by group text: someone didn’t clean up after their horse in the wash rack, someone didn’t sweep up after a farrier appointment, someone forgot about a poop in the arena or the round pen or somewhere else boarders are responsible for them. There is no reason to scold fifteen people about one poop, and that’s speaking as someone whose horse drops four-fork loads sometimes, always a considerable distance from the manure pile in the worst weather through which to trudge. I know what the barn owner is doing; I recognize it, I’ve done it. Feel an unpleasant feeling, make that unpleasant feeling go away by pushing it into someone else. Except she doesn’t have a facebook or a twitter or, ahem, a blog to spout out that blurt of toxicity. She does have a group text full of people over whom she holds power. So when she feels bad, BZZT, we all feel bad. Every time, the minor infraction in question is framed as an integrity and respect issue, a question of their morals and intentions. And then, because it’s in a group text, everyone feels pressured to reply and say “It wasn’t me” or “shame on them” and then my concentration gets broken by text messages what feels like like twenty times over the course of two days because one person accidentally forgot to clean up a poop one time. 

Everything was an issue of respect with her. It didn’t make sense to me until I started to think about the way many horse people think about respect: do what I want the moment I ask for it. If you don’t, that’s disrespect, so I’ll insist louder or more violently until you give me what I want. The only acceptable, respectful solution is for one party to never get an opinion, to come to fear voicing that opinion. And that way of thinking about respect tracks with the dynamic in the barn. I don’t agree with this theory of horses and I especially don’t agree applying it to people. Furthermore, when respect becomes a switch that’s either on or off, that means nothing you’ve ever done before matters. You’ll never generate enough goodwill to have your mistakes be presumed as anything other than willful maliciousness. Misunderstandings aren’t issues of respect. Accidents aren’t an issue of respect. Forgetting the occasional poop in the arena isn’t an issue of respect!

Last summer, everyone at the barn got to plant whatever we wanted in whichever one of the barn owner’s raised beds we chose. We were all told that if we needed some rocks to augment the beds that we could go get some from the rock pile across the parking lot. Next to this rock pile was a pile of gravel, and one woman took some to level out her horse’s paddock, arguably a property improvement and something that needed to be done to allow mats to be laid for this horse’s comfort. Well, friends, one of those piles of rocks was not like the other, and The Gravel Incident turned into a multi-week shitstorm with accusations of thievery and, of course, the utter absence of both integrity and its pal, respect. This issue was only smoothed over by a payment to cover the loss of the gravel, at a price that could have paid for up to several tons of the material, depending on how it’s transported. Leveraging the implied threat of eviction in order to price gouge simply smacks of integrity, doesn’t it? Respectful people and extortion go hand in hand, no?  This year, we were told that because “no one” weeded their beds last year, no one would get one. While I watched, as individual people protested, she’d again grant them a bed. I did weed my bed, regularly, which she knew and saw, but because I didn’t grovel, I didn’t get my bed back. It didn’t matter. She had already ripped out my perennials. 

The threat of eviction was always there. Though boarders were given notice for different reasons, the pattern was the same: anyone she perceived as a threat to her authority, who could potentially sway other boarders’ opinions about her, HAD. 👏TO.👏GO. 👏🗣 📣YESTERDAY.  So “building a business” is verboten because it’s building connections, building relationships, building loyalties, not because it’s an exchange of money. Just being well-liked is dangerous in a way. No one was allowed to be more popular in the family than Mom. And if she didn’t have a reason right then to justify the extreme measure of eviction, she’d zoom on that person with laser focus and eventually she’d find something. It’s like a target settles on their back. She treats them like a scab at which she picks incessantly. A bitch eating crackers

It was clear to me and at least a few others whom would be the next to go. It was the woman who strove hardest to create an actual family atmosphere in the barn, who went to great time and expense to make the holiday party happen for everyone. Things had been building for a while; she had been getting louder about the (many) safety hazards at the barn, she was helping one of the other boarders with their horses, and she had let slip that she was looking at horse properties. But it was when she showed up at the holiday party and her family looked so picture perfect as Santa, Mrs. Claus, and their teenage children willingly dressed up as adorable elves while the barn owner was embroiled in the midst of a bitter separation-to-divorce that led to her estranged husband living in the other apartment above the barn that I think was the final straw and accelerated the timeline to her eviction. One day she was there and the next she was gone. So many of us were grieving this loss of family but we all had to do it alone because the barn owner was suspicious of all conversations in the wake of upheaval in which she did not participate, viewing them as likely conspiracy. She was always so eager to participate in conversation in the immediate aftermath, cornering anyone who would listen and rattling off her list of grievances: “sure she’s sweet sweet to your face but she could be so nasty in private, she needs everything to be her way, she gives off that illusion of being so perfect but she’s not,  she made so and so cry when we went on vacation”, “she was trying to take over the barn, acted like she was in charge of the place” and the big whammy “trying to build a business out of the barn” in addition to some personal shit that I won’t repeat because it’s honestly breathtaking that this woman felt comfortable making accusations of that particular nature as a casual observer. But she still loves her and wants to be friends! This boarder was a valuable resource to the barn, had never been anything but kind, and her foremost concern was the safety of the horses, always. She trained me when I started working there, and I noted the care she took at every step, from inspecting all the flakes of hay for stray bits of nylon baling twine to putting her arm up to the elbow into the oldest horse’s bucket of hot grass mush to make sure there were no crunchy bits left that he wouldn’t be able to chew. The kind of care that sets your heart at ease, knowing someone like that was looking out for your big sweet trusting friend. She was generous with her knowledge, and her eye for liabilities could have been an asset to the barn owner. Instead, the barn owner chose to be threatened by her. She’s trying to take over the barn? Do you own this property or is this Game of Thrones?

I genuinely loved the work, maybe for the first time in my life: the physical nature of the labor, getting to form a good working relationship with so many horses, being able to listen to music while hauling haybales and spooling through thoughts and wearing what I wanted. The value to time and particularly energy spent ultimately would have made me conclude that I couldn’t continue doing it indefinitely; doing it for this boss made it intolerable. Sometimes, she’d walk to inspect the bins after I filled them with hay in accordance with her feeding instructions and my training and she’d pull handfuls out, saying I fed her horses way too much and that I was going to make them founder. I took this feedback to heart and fed them according to this guideline the next time and was then told that I hadn’t fed them enough and she could tell because her horses were starving by night check. She was the kind of boss who would comment on one wrong thing out of twenty right ones and as someone who strives to do it right every time, that wasn’t a problem, but when I stopped making mistakes, she’d point out some thing that she’s never even done and say that she’d just go and take care of such and such for me, like I forgot.

I wasn’t a full employee, I was paid a piece rate for two tasks: feeding the horses and bringing them in from the pastures. Therefore I was never looped in on anything going on at the barn, such as when new horses would be moving in, including when the boarders had decided to collectively pay for a fly solution for the entire barn, the effectiveness of which relies on ordering enough to compensate for all of the animals on the property, so adding three horses and dogs and chickens without discussing it with anyone fucked everyone over. Boarders would tell me about the problems in their stall or their pasture and I didn’t mind passing it along but I could never seem to convey the understanding that despite receiving the occasional paycheck, I knew nothing about what happens when I’m not there, had no authority to do anything, and I already knew the fate of those who take initiative. This summer, I was working three days a week, and all of a sudden she had the silent expectation that I’d move certain horses from pasture to pasture in addition to everything else. I could see that she felt like she was being slick about it by occasionally offering to to do me a favor by doing it for me, despite that not being either of my two tasks. This I did mind, both because it was a more dangerous job (Here’s a math problem for you: If you can only move two horses at a time through the series of two hotwire fences and two latched gates but there’s a group of four who are all rarin’ to go right at the fenceline, how likely is your ass to get zapped or trampled? Say, compared to collecting those same, relaxed horses from a pasture that hasn’t been grazed to dust?) and because it felt hypocritical. How so? When I worked over her last vacation, she told me that the horses weren’t going to get their daily supplements because the morning person wasn’t going to do it and that it didn’t matter because none of them were on medication, anyway; she had no intention of informing boarders about this so they could make their own arrangements. Her reasoning is that the horses shouldn’t get this special treatment if she’s not around. Well, she’s also not around when she’s out golfing during a pandemic, so why am I risking my body for no additional pay so her horses get special treatment?

The rules never applied equally to everyone. Some were hardline (hence all the texts about literal horseshit) but others were dependent on what kind of mood the barn owner was in and how much she liked you. Having the rules and looking the other way works out for her because she gets to feel magnanimous while still afforded the ability to hold all that rulebreaking against people in the future. Or to take something away when she’s feeling petty. 

“No loose horses in the arena” was one of those more nebulous rules, the reasoning being primarily to protect the expensive footing from a wildly galloping uncontrolled horse. But I’ve seen many loose horses in there over the years, one regularly doing free-jumping, so it seemed like it wasn’t a big deal because it certainly wasn’t being enforced. On an evening when no other boarders were on the property, I set Navi loose in the arena so we could work on clicker training in a way that gives her a real choice. If I’m leading her over to something by the face, telling her to interact with it, and then giving her a treat for doing so, I still don’t know if it’s something she likes, I don’t know if she’s gotten over her fear of something, I just know it’s something I can coerce her to do. Giving her the option to walk away teaches me more. These clicker sessions are short, ten to fifteen minutes, and my plan was to halter her immediately if I heard a car turn down the driveway, because my desire to train in this fashion shouldn’t impact others’ use of the facilities. And I knew because I had food that she could smell that she wasn’t going to leave me, much less tear off at a gallop. I left my phone recording video of the session which is how I know that I made it only one minute and thirty-three seconds before I got shut down. And that’s when I felt a target settling on my back, and it built into yet another echo of my family dynamic, the rule that applies to me but not anyone else.

I wasn’t even accorded any additional trust as an employee. Everyone was out to screw the barn owner over, break her things, and destroy her business, and I was considered part of everyone. Once, the oldest horse in the barn’s pasture had become so severely overgrown that it needed to be weed whacked before it could be mowed before he could go back out there because he didn’t have the teeth to chew any of it and was at risk of choking otherwise. It seemed like maybe this horse’s owner was overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, and emboldened by my newfound strength and physical prowess, I offered to help. (That same emboldened nature led to me helping the barn owner remove garbage cans full of wood chips from her truck and to what could be a really deep muscle tear but the fear that tickles in the back of my brain is that it’s a hernia, and wouldn’t that be a delightful surgical souvenir of my time there?) Together, we went to the barn owner and asked to borrow her weed whacker. She agreed and told us not to put in regular gas, that it takes two-stroke and she has to mix it special. She showed me how to fire it up and I got to work. When I ran out of gas, the job wasn’t anywhere near done, and she wasn’t around. Another regular employee was nearby, and I asked and he directed me to the two-stroke gas. I filled it and kept the can with me since I saw how quickly the previous tank had gone and figured I’d save myself the effort of going back and forth. Shortly thereafter, the barn owner showed up and accused me of stealing her gas, of never even asking to borrow the tool in the first place but just announcing I was going to take it which is so far from something I would ever do that it boggles that someone would even try to put those words into my mouth. That absolute slander against the character I’ve demonstrated over and over for years at this point when the only reason I was in that pasture getting snapped in the shins with flying debris was out of the kindness of my heart found one of my buttons and a hot fountain of rage poured out of my mouth for which I later had to repent. I still believe that it only makes sense to use the store of special gas that was already on site and replace or reimburse for it when the job was done, including the gas that was already in the tank when I started the job, but she never gave me the opportunity to do the right thing before loudly accusing me of the wrong one.  “Well, other people have taken things without asking and broken them.” Well, I did ask and I didn’t break anything and I’m not other people and also I fucking work for you! “But you didn’t ask about the gas, and that’s a respect issue.” And that’s how she does it, it’s always a problem with some nameless, faceless “other people” despite supposedly being a barn filled with family members.  

I did forget something important once. A whole-ass horse. It was when shuffling the horses around was a new addition to the routine, and one of the more confident horses was moved to a pasture behind the boss’ house, and I left him there after bringing everyone else in and doing whatever it was I did with Navi that day. I was getting in my car to leave when I got a phone call from the boss saying she was on her back deck, could see a horse, and had his owner given me permission to leave him out there for hours and hours? I immediately flew out of the car and ran to get him, apologizing profusely. She implied that what I’d done could kill him, and I was horrified and immediately took full responsibility, told his owner what happened, offered to sit with him or call a vet or whatever she felt was necessary. “How long was he out there?” “About an hour forty five.” “And he wasn’t upset, running around?” “No, he was fine.” “Well I think he’ll be fine.” And he was fine, and I thought on my gratitude for that whenever a conversation about my work included “don’t forget anyone” or “hours and hours”. I thought on my gratitude for that when she’d tell me to leave certain horses turned out and she’d bring them in and four plus hours passed on multiple occasions. I doubt that she was castigating herself about the hours and hours as she led them to their stalls. More likely she was congratulating herself on saving money on hay; she called me once when she left Navi out for an hour on pasture and said that she was thinking of not feeding her more than a handful. When she was going to be shut into a stall with no breakfast coming for 14 hours. For an animal with a GI tract built to be digesting a small amount of forage constantly. No wonder she gorges when she gets access to food! But I would never have dared needle her with “Remember to feed my horse.” 

Despite only being paid for two tasks, and paying a not inconsiderable amount to keep and use my horse there, when I was there I was treated like I was on the clock. No matter what day of the week it was or why I was at the barn, if she had a problem, I had a problem. She wanted me to work weekends; I told her I wasn’t available–which is true in that I was not making myself available. I knew that an occasional weekend day would turn into the expectation of every weekend. So I’m not available. I told her that’s when my friends have events (true, sometimes, and always in conflict with that 3-5pm feed window!). I told her that’s when I spend time with my husband. So then after that point, every single time I showed up on a weekend day it was “I thought you couldn’t work on the weekend because you were spending time with your hubby.” More repressed retorts. I didn’t say I was kept in proximity to the house with a shock collar! And I’m not working now, am I? And I don’t have to justify my availability to you or anyone. I began to feel reluctant to go on the weekends and I suspect this was why.  On a warm day this past May, several boarders were gathered in the barn aisle, chatting, and the barn owner came in screaming “LOOSE HORSE! LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSE HORSE” at all of us, turning to yell it in my face in the middle of a pandemic because there was one running out in the easement. One: not my horse. Two: I’m not working today and even if I was, that’s not my job nor do I have the knowledge or experience to safely catch a horse who does not want to be caught. Three: IT’S YOUR PROPERTY AND YOUR RESPONSIBILITY SO DO SOMETHING YOURSELF INSTEAD OF SCREAMING AT UNRELATED PEOPLE ABOUT IT AND WHAT IT WILL DO TO YOUR INSURANCE WHILE HE’S STILL OUT THERE RUNNING LIKE A DAMN FOOL. Maybe some “other people” can catch him. 

…We all went out to catch him.

But everything I was thinking and feeling was written all over my face and in my body in the moment and it was noted.

“Hey Melissa, when you come to the barn tomorrow I would love to sit and have a talk, I felt a very defensive posture from you, and I’m feeling more is going on with you then just went on today. I need for you to be honest with me, for I do not want tension from you. I don’t need that now. Ok…”

Anyone who thought about speaking up for their rights was accused of causing “tension” in the barn, and it was always “I don’t need that now” as if there was some magical point in time, past or present, when she’d not only be open and willing to accept it but actually need it. Doesn’t everyone have those days, when you wake up in the morning, reach for the coffee mug, and realize what you really need is tension? No? But we sat and had that talk, and another, and another, and none of them were optional and in all of them she was a victim. In one of these talks, she told me that her family were narcissistic emotional and physical abusers and that her husband was likewise. This woman has lied to my face so many times that I am ashamed to say it dampened my empathy for her because it was hard to know if she was trying to connect or if was manipulative. It really is a shame because it is a place where we could have connected but instead she uses the concept of family to abuse people, to recreate her past in her business. She says that when boarders talk to one another about their problems at the barn, she feels “ganged up on”  and left out/set apart but she lives her life setting up this dynamic in which she’s unquestionably in charge and brooks no opposition which naturally puts her on one team and boarders on another. Moreover, the abuse one suffered as a child can certainly be an explanation for one’s behavior, but it’s not an excuse. I remind myself of that every time Jason and I argue and my instinct is to punish him by withdrawal or yell at him until he acknowledges that I’m right. When I do harmful things unknowingly, it’s because that behavior was normalized and programmed into me. But if I learn better and continue to do harmful things, it’s become my choice to perpetuate it. Whether or not her parents and husband are narcissistic abusers, whether she herself is narcissist or merely caught fleas from being raised in a wolf den, she is responsible for the actions she takes and I am not required to absolve her because of her history.

Original photo: Jeremy Jenum

The longer people were there, the less they could expect. When she wanted to bring in new boarders but didn’t have enough tack lockers to accommodate them, existing boarders were asked if they’d be willing to move their things into her tack room/public lounge area. “No way” one replied “you kick out everyone who moves in there.” I felt the same when I got the call, and also because I don’t want all my stuff out, available for inspection, or to blame because it’s taking too much room and that’s why no one ever gathers in the lounge. (It’s certainly not because the barn owner put amenities in there and then watched them like a hawk: better for them to grow dusty and expire than for someone to take a swig of wine or a cocoa packet if they didn’t contribute to the supply. It wasn’t because everyone recognized this obvious trap! Nope.) I just wanted a cubby into which to plonk my saddle and kick off and store my disgusting boots, I never want another lecture again in my life about where or how I store my things, and I also want to get all the amenities that I’m paying for. 

Eventually the chorus of “We’re a family” gave way to “At least she’s good with the horses”. Six months later, it was harder to feel certain about that. As far as the horses were concerned, she seemed checked out. I’d leave at barn close and she wouldn’t have come out of the house to give the horses their evening check and had frequently talked about being in bed by that hour so it follows that it just wasn’t being done. Things would break around the property and stay broken. There was crap strewn everywhere, rolls of torn down chickenwire and wooden fence posts with nails poking out from them and cinder blocks and extension cords and her kids and husband’s and business’ trucks and trailers and RVs parked haphazardly…leading the horses in was like taking a group of easily scared large toddlers through a haunted house. Services used to include fly spray, blankets and fly masks on/off. Now horses get that last, inconsistently, which doubtlessly helped the spread of conjunctivitis that broke out on at least four horses within a week as the flies flew from giant eyeball to giant eyeball. Including my horse, and ask me sometime what it’s like to squirt saline into the eye of a 1200lb animal for the second time. Because the first one had the benefit of surprise.

She wasn’t checked out when it came to one horse: the senior citizen. Or at least when his owner came to visit, which was often. Now, this woman was not unaware of the fact that the time she had with her horse was in all probability coming to an end soon. He was there mentally but his body was starting to wind down, and I know that she was desperate not to lose him but also committed to doing right by him in every way. She wanted to, if fate allowed, give him one good last summer out on the grass, spend time with him, and begin the hard process of looking the end of a thirty six year relationship in the eye close in the wake of losing two other huge relationships in her life. The barn owner couldn’t let her have this. And so she began to harass this woman when she’d show up, repeatedly badgering her to get the vet out to euthanize, and when she got no traction there, talking about how she’s a planner and that if he dies in his current stall she wouldn’t be able to use the tractor to pull him out and it would be too hard for the rendering truck to pick him up. Never mind that the vast majority of the stalls have those unsuitable, non-tractor accessible backs and any horse could colic and die overnight and she’d have the same problem on her hands. No. Only this horse with the emotionally vulnerable owner was a potential issue. His stall at the time was a short, level walk to his pasture, and on days that I led him in for the night, we’d sometimes take short breaks and continue when he was ready. His owner suggested that a gate could be added to the back of his paddock at her expense and that would make the walk for him even shorter and accommodate the tractor should the worst occur. The barn owner wasn’t having this, said that she wouldn’t be ganged up on about what and wouldn’t happen on her property, and made it clear that she’d be enacting her preferred solution in the near future, moving him to a stall in the main barn which would make the walk to his pasture so long and strenuous for him that he wouldn’t be able to do it twice a day. It would hasten his death; it would almost ensure he would die in his stall. The barn owner stalked away from the altercation, whirled around, and shouted progressively more intensely and more weightily, index finger stabbing the air for emphasis. “YOU. need. ME.   YOU. need. ME.     YOU.  NEED.  ME.”

…You should definitely buy a horse if you want to hang out with some stable people.

This woman had put up with a lot of shit from the barn owner because her horse was happy and moving him at his age was a risky endeavor but the hostility hanging in the air and the impending threat of a bad end for her best friend left her with nothing to lose so she quietly made plans and assembled a strike team to get him out and to a new barn. Luck intervened and the barn owner left to run an errand after pulling out in order to allow my friend access to hitch up her trailer. This gave them the time it took to heave him onto my friend’s trailer, drop off notice and a check for the remaining board owed, and leave without a hostile audience.

The barn owner was livid when she discovered what had happened, which is a reaction that I still don’t understand if she was truly concerned about the horse dying on the property–congratulations, that is no longer your problem! It makes more sense to me if it’s a reaction about losing control over a favorite scapegoat, and it explains why she further went on to serve a 30 day eviction notice to my friend, banning her from bringing her trailer back onto the property despite paying rent to store it there, and banning another of my friends, a young man who did not board at the barn but was there often during school breaks and helped a lot of people exercise their horses, me included. All because they had helped this woman and her horse to leave. “Abusers hurt those closest to them.” I had always taken that to mean that abusers harm those closest to them emotionally, the people to whom they had the strongest bonds. But the sentence works both ways: abusers also harm those in closest proximity. 

My friend was also subjected to a long, vaguely threatening voicemail that suggested that it’d be better if she left before the 30 days were up, that definitely threatened to sue the senior horse’s owner for not giving enough notice, going on and on about how she thought this was shady and disrespectful. When they later spoke on the phone, the barn owner spoke about how hurt she was that that the senior horse’s owner didn’t even say goodbye. My evicted friend replied, “I’m hurting, too” to which the barn owner responded that she didn’t know why my friend was hurting because she hadn’t done anything. 

On the day of the move, I went to visit the senior horse in his new digs before going to my barn to take Navi on a walk. The barn owner popped out of her house almost the second I put my car into park, and it was a good thing I was wearing my mask and mirrored sunglasses because I expected a line of questioning about what I knew about the move and was floored to instead be told that she’d done some thinking about an interaction that we had the previous week and decided that I’d hurt her feelings. 

What were these crocodile tears about? I was chatting with my friend, her niece, and her student in the barn aisle while her student prepped the horse to be ridden and they were waiting for our young male friend to arrive. They’d stopped to get drinks along the way, and his was sitting on table in the aisle. The barn owner walked by and asked what the drink was, while fiddling with the straw. During, I remind you, a pandemic. So there she was, putting her filthy fingers where a friend would presently be putting his mouth, making jokes about how she could do that thing where you put your finger over the end of the straw and air pressure holds the liquid inside so she could drink some of it without him knowing and wouldn’t that be funny, ha ha. And not for nothing but this woman has also had a large family gathering on the property during the shelter in place order, never worn a mask, refused to distance from me, once put her hand over my mouth to shush me (“We have that kind of relationship,” she said to a bystander. (We did not.)), and once open-mouth coughed in my face when I took her to see the place where the new horse had started migrating the fence. No apology. No hand up. She coughed in my face like a child coughs during a pandemic! So it was in consideration of all this that I replied “Oh, that’s ok, barn owner, until now you didn’t know that the last time you went golfing, I broke into your house and licked all your bannisters.” Everyone laughed, including her. She replied, “I don’t have any bannisters” to which everyone laughed again, and I said “And that’s how you know I haven’t been in your house!”

I truly do not recall how the conversation switched to this topic but the barn owner went on to say that she keeps a whip over by my friend’s horse’s paddock to “give her a little spanking” because she’s had such a problem with this horse charging the fence and threatening horses as she walks them by to their stalls. We were all aghast; I do this job three days a week and have never once experienced aggression from this horse much less aggression so severe I’d need to deal with it with a whip! But I also know which horses don’t like one another and have always planned my route to put respectful distance between them so as to discourage aggression. In the wake of this pronouncement, I began varying my evening routine, bringing horses closer to her pen, walking them on the inside so only the fence was a barrier between them, walking far more slowly than even the most dedicated Costco middle-of-the-aisle browser, always mindful in case I had to start to hustle out of the way of an impending attack. I never did. I could barely get this horse’s attention. ONE time she started walking across the paddock in our direction and I would have had to stand there and wait for her to finish leisurely sashaying the rest of the way and lady, I don’t have time, you clearly don’t care. So if the barn owner needed to hit her to get her to back off, something else was going on there. What, I couldn’t possibly say. Anyway, the point of this anecdote was that I was told I’d hurt the barn owner’s feelings by joking about licking her non-existent bannisters. She said it felt like everyone was ganging up on her. And in a way, she wasn’t wrong–my joke pointed out how disgusting she was being and everyone there as well as everyone I’ve polled about it has agreed that her behavior crossed a line. So in terms of overall group strength, gang “don’t touch other people’s straws during a pandemic” does draft way higher than the “fuck hygiene, fuck your lungs, and fuck your immunocompromised grandma” gang, but it’s not my fault if more people agree with me than her! Not wanting to die from preventable disease isn’t a popularity contest! 

So how did I respond when I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong but, not having a suitable place to move Navani lined up, also unwilling to compromise on her quality of life for the sake of being right? I rolled right over, uttering an apology that galled me to my core, saying that it was never my intention to hurt anyone’s feelings and I thought I was just joking in the same vein of joking that she herself initiated. Properly appeased, she let me go on my way, and in the wake of that day and that conversation, she pulled back, left me alone, and things were almost tolerable at the barn. What stories could she possibly spin about my friends that I’d believe? She tried it with other people, though, convincing some that they’d come in to take this horse away in the middle of the night and she’d woken up in the morning and they were gone. I think I’ve been pretty clear that this isn’t the kind of horse that you can just rustle in the middle of the night, quietly walking away until you can mount up and thunder away to evade escape; walking away as far as the end of the property would have taken three hours and all of his energy. And even if you ignore the rumble of a diesel engine large enough to haul a horse trailer rolling down a driveway directly adjacent to the barn owner’s home in the quiet of the night when no other engines are running and at least one dog who loses his entire ass whenever someone comes onto the property, this lie is also easy to disprove because my friend’s trailer recently had to be stored in a way that required the barn owner to move her own vehicle before my friend could hook up and go. So it’s impossible. But she told her lies and sent out her flying monkeys all the same. 

After my friends were banned, the energy around the barn was weird. It was weird inside of me. The tension was akin to a scene in a horror movie when a character feels they’re being watched but can’t spot anything amiss. At some point, the jump scare is going to come. I didn’t really want to come to the barn at all but I was scheduled to work, and it felt ungrateful to be there and have a horse, supposedly one of my biggest dreams, and not feel like doing anything with her because of how I felt about everything else going on. At that point, I didn’t want to work there anymore, either, but I knew quitting would leave me vulnerable to eviction and might even be its impetus. I didn’t want to ride when I felt jumbled up inside because that felt like asking for a disaster, so I decided to work Navi from the ground for the time being. I’d been teaching her how to ground drive and having some good success in the round pen and the arena but it was a nice day and I decided to try driving her around outside. For a while, we had success in that as well, but I pushed and asked for too much and didn’t listen to her refusals to the point where she told me no as nicely as she could muster by running away, yanking me off my feet and dislocating my collarbone on impact. I didn’t know my collarbone was dislocated, I just knew something was wrong inside of me as I heaved myself off the ground and clutched at my shoulder, desperate to collect my loose horse. Not like there was anyone around to yell in my face about it. Or anyone to help me when the movements it took to remove her tack were so painful I couldn’t keep my yelping screams on the inside. My support network had been banned from the barn. No one in my covid bubble answered their phone. I sobbed as I found a way to drive myself home. 

A week after my accident, I got to the barn and there was an announcement on the whiteboard that a dog training business would be at the barn on Sunday from 10-3, at times in the arena, wrapping up with “Let’s work together!”. I was immediately unhappy about this because there had already been at least one incident with these trainers when they were only permitted in the easement–I was riding bareback in the round pen, several people (including a child) were mounted and having lessons in the arena, and the trainers had set themselves up on the land next to both. Without warning, they started shaking strings of cans to entice the dogs to snarl and attack. Navani almost shot out from underneath me, the horses in the arena spooked, and when I yelled at them to stop because they were scaring the horses, they completely ignored me. I texted for clarification: Will the dog people be using the arena this Sunday or every Sunday? She called: Every Sunday. She knew I wouldn’t be happy about that and tried to deflect. “Melissa, I’m getting a divorce.”

Sometimes my anger feels like a storm of bees inside, so many things pricking me me all at once that the thing that I eventually get loud about is often not even the thing that I’m really mad about, nor could I identify the source of it because I’m just too overwhelmed and inflamed. But this phone call that immediately tried to manipulate me into looking past this hypocrisy and maybe even garner a little sympathy while I felt an orchestra of pain every time I lifted my left arm thanks to an accident that would not have happened if not for her banstravaganza tapped into a volcano of anger of a different nature, a tightly focused laser cannon of “FUCK YOU AND HERE’S WHY.”  “EVERYONE is going through some shit right now,” I snapped back. “That has nothing to do with why some outside business gets priority access to horse facility amenities for an entire day every weekend!” And in the Pacific Northwest, 10-3 in the winter is the entire day, and the arena is the only place to exercise a horse out of the sog. Sure, boarders don’t have to be out until 9pm, but when the barn owner harasses boarders every. single. time. they turn on the arena lights about how much money they cost to run and would only allow us to use half, keeping it dim and shadowed and therefore dangerous, I, for one, began to feel less inclined to be there after dark just so I wouldn’t have to hear it again. And yes, the sun rises before 10, but boarders aren’t allowed to be in before 9 so maybe I could get thirty minutes of anxious, shitty riding done before people and their untrained dogs start rolling in. That also forces all boarders who wanted to take lessons over the weekend into one day, ensuring a lot more simultaneous usage and therefore making it more distracting, dangerous, and harder to do activities that require more space.  “Well their business is just starting out and I thought it would be nice to help them out” which eventually turned into the real answer “My daughter wants to go away to train police dogs” and I suspect it’s an effort to keep her local. I called her a hypocrite for letting this place literally build a business out of her barn. She told me that I didn’t know, but there are some barns that host clinics and events over the weekends and so people who board at those places would also lose their access to the facilities. But I do know, that’s not every weekend, and clinics at least offer boarders the opportunity to learn from regional horse trainers, something relevant to their interests.  How dare you say “let’s work together!” as if anyone in the barn had any input in this decision whatsoever, as if there were any compromise happening or any benefit to the boarders at all, who were just expected to give way and not complain about losing 52 days a year of Sunday rides. Do the respectful thing and just shut up about it. “I don’t think I am being unreasonable. All I want is for things to be fair. That’s all I have EVER asked for. It’s your property. You’ll do what you want. You keep saying we’re a family, and you don’t want to be on a different team from everyone, but then you make these unilateral mandates that affect us all and you don’t think that sets you apart? You already had signed agreements with all of us and now you’re changing the terms while simultaneously implying anyone who doesn’t like it isn’t a team player? You want more proof that you’re a hypocrite? How many scolding texts have you sent about stray horse poops when I have seen the same piles of dog crap from your daughter’s unrestrained german shepherds sit for months? I just got here, I don’t speak for anyone other than myself, but if you can tell me that you’ve talked to everyone else in the barn and no one else has a problem, I’ll never say another word about it.”  She told me she’d need some time to think about it and called me in the morning to say that she agreed with a lot of what I had to say and would revisit the arrangement with the dog trainers.

“Oh stop complaining, you’ll be fine, unlike me when I get the electric bill each month.”

 

I told some people familiar with her and the dynamics of the barn about what had happened and that I was hopeful that maybe this time she actually heard me. “Nothing is going to change,” one laughed, “she’s waiting for you to forget.” Another piped in, “She said to me that you were a hothead, but you were workable.”

Workable. WORKABLE?!

…I guess I have been pretty workable. It was always out of fear. When I was a lessoner, I was afraid of losing access to horses after finally having them in my life in a significant way and I was also concerned about making trouble for my friend, as her guest. When I was a boarder I was afraid of being suddenly uprooted because the horse people I know all keep their horses here. So I would fawn and flatter and hold back my opinions in the name of security. But I was tired of being afraid, tired of biting down injustice and churning it into a cannonball of anger inside my stomach, tired of patting and smoothing and soothing, tired of keeping my mouth shut, tired of anxiously glancing for her car in the driveway, tired of being worked.

I obviously cannot deny my anger or the charge of being a hothead; it’s here in front of you. I don’t think it’s an admirable trait, but if I don’t include it, I haven’t told the truth. I used to feel like my writing vibe was “the truth and lies so ridiculous that no one could ever mistake them for the truth” but having lived through 2016-2020 I have to say I vastly underestimated many, many people’s credulity, and entertaining lies have long lost their charm. My duty is to the truth–if I want to write about how I have been mistreated, I have to also be willing to write about my own actions. Having recognized my impulse to anger, even if that anger is justifiable, I am striving to find inside me the thing I need to heal to stop reacting so intensely. But not so I can endure something like this for longer next time.

I had been lowkey looking for barns for a long time but with the departure of my support network, the search kicked into high gear late that summer. I was striking out left and right, getting a much clearer picture of the many truly appalling and unnatural ways that horses are kept on land that can’t sustain them and rationalizing that maybe now things would change at the barn, even as I felt the target on my back and one of the previous targets reached out to warn me. I struggled with barns that would only take certain breeds of horses and barns that would only take people who did certain kinds of horse sports or you had to commit to taking lessons with their trainer. But if the majority of boarding barns are run by people who only want to board to other people just like them, what precisely are adult amateur dabblers interested in niche sports to do? The general attitude seems to be “go fuck themselves, is what!” And it’s not like I’m demanding that a dressage barn let me careen a chariot through their arena while firing arrows at random–they have every right to decide what sports happen in their expensive facilities. I can always take my horse offsite to do my renaissance faire bullshit. But it seems unfair to me that so often, the standard of care that my horse could expect to receive was limited not by my ability to pay but by my ability to ride her competently at a given sport. 

I even went so far as to ask the tarot about it, and if I’m consulting the supernatural, you know shit is fucking dire. And I say I don’t believe in the supernatural and that modern day tarot is a tool for introspection but with this deck in particular, every card pulled has been significant and every reading has cut me to the core. This one spoke of a godlike figure around which the world revolves, the camaraderie that had existed in that place and indicated that I might be able to help make it that way again, but that I’d always be at significant risk. It’s plain as day, and I don’t know why I needed cards to tell me that if I stayed I would always have the invisible dangling sword of eviction over my head. And to what end? I don’t want to be this woman’s friend. I don’t want to try to fix her. I don’t care how sad and broken she is inside. She wields her power thoughtlessly, mercilessly against anyone whom she senses will take it. I had forgotten until recently that before I worked there she used to insult me constantly, going as far as to say to my face how lucky I am to have a husband who pays for me to do nothing. I always bit back my retorts. She knew right away that I would take it. I kept an eye on the whiteboard message about the dog trainers. It never changed. I set my intention and started taking things home.

“Basically, you’re boned.”
photo by Kelly Taylor

When I finally found a place with everything I wanted that was actually accepting new boarders and on the land of someone I deeply trust, I was desperate to lock it down, scanning and emailing the documents and confirming they were received before tacking my written notice to the cork board, which I would understand if you did not believe I kept short and to the point. This is notice of my intention to vacate. My property will be removed by end of business on X day.  

I stayed away from the barn for a while, expecting any day that my phone would explode. It never did.  The barn owner has never spoken to me again. Not then, not when I came on my final Sunday and got into it with the dog trainer who was still in the arena at 4pm, an hour past when he was supposed to be out and multiple boarders were waiting. I was the only one with nothing to lose, so I went to talk with him. I pointed out that that he was there an hour past the scheduled time. “We’re going long today.” “But on the whiteboard it says you’re out by three, the agreement isn’t 10am until you’re done. The understanding isn’t 10am until “whenever””. ” This guy acted like he would be doing me a fucking favor to move over to the easement but I’d have to ask him to do it, which I refused to do because it wasn’t his to grant to me. His right to be there had expired, he had already been accommodated as much as he was entitled to that day. He doesn’t just get to run long and make everyone wait for an hour or more. Someone was late? That’s on him to emphasize timeliness with his clients or reschedule them, it’s not up to everyone else to bend over backwards to accommodate his business. You don’t get to book two hours on a bowling lane, hang out for three and say you’re running long.  “And what is your name? I’ll be calling the barn owner.” “It’s Melissa, you do that, make sure she knows that I think it shows a lack of integrity and respect if she lets you change your hours without informing the boarders.”

Nothing.

If I had known that she was going to leave me alone those last few weeks, I would have been there more often. That’s all I wanted. Pay my board, enjoy the facilities, and be let alone. Though I did miss getting the opportunity to tell her to take everything she’d like to say to me, write it down in a special notebook, and cram it up her ass but I might have had the bee kind of anger that day and ended up crying and telling her that it was actually all her spoons that I licked.

I was glad that she wasn’t around. I was the one in charge of scattering the barn fly solution every month, and the final shipment had arrived and was ready to go, so I took the opportunity to spread it and say goodbye to all the horses in advance of my last day. They all recognize me as a person who has fed them or took them to food, and they’re all always interested in the crinkly plastic bag that holds the fly predators in case it might also be hiding snacks, so they all came to meet me and I acknowledge that none of that has anything to do with me as a person. But I would swear to you that my special ponies knew something was different. The mare herd gathered in close. I don’t know what they understand but it felt important to tell them that I’d be leaving and taking Navani with me.  I was especially sorry for Africa, on whom I learned to ride, who gave me my confidence back after a fall; she was bonded to Navi and would cry out for her whenever I took her from the neighboring stall and blast a joyous greeting when she returned, stretching her neck to its zenith to sniff up over the partition between the stalls to be certain her friend was actually in there. If there was even a chance she’d understand, I wanted to explain it to her. Affie hung out with me while I cried and hugged on her neck even though her historical snuggle tolerance has been low. One of my other favorites rested her head on mine as we stood out in the field. Another walked with me every step I took through his pasture. I thanked them for all of the lessons they taught me and all the days they were reasonable when they had every excuse to be otherwise and told them to take good care of their people and that if I didn’t see them again, it wasn’t because I didn’t love them. 

On the day I left, I stuffed a net with hay, slung it and my few remaining items over my shoulders, and led Navi the quarter mile down the road to the parking lot where my friends were going to meet us and haul her to her new home. Whatever this woman says about me now that I’ve gone is her business and people will choose to believe her or not and I can’t control any of it. The important thing is that I no longer have to deal with it and I can begin to learn to enjoy my time with my horse again.

 

…And if you thought all this was a lot to read, spare a thought for Jason for having to hear about it as it was happening.

A Holiday Pony Party

Last Saturday, the barn had its holiday party. The day’s schedule featured multiple events: a horse parade, a costume contest, and an obstacle course. This is all great fun for the humans, but for a sensitive, reactive horse, it’s like asking them to participate in a day-long episode of Fear Factor. 

I have a sensitive, reactive horse. If an object, say, a mounting block, has moved position since the last time she encountered it, Navani views it with fear. The kind of fear that indicates she has heard the stories about Pinnochio and is suspicious that other fairies might be out there, granting wishes of sentience willy-nilly. And of course, every object dreams to be free, free to move about and predate on horses. Other, less cautious horses.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

So in the time I had between the invitation and the event, I did everything I could to help set Navani up for success. I introduced her to each element of her costume as it was completed. As new obstacles appeared in the arena, we’d work around and on them. I was especially proud the day we went through the new gate: she listened as I asked her for subtle movements to position me to reach the latch, and when the latch was free, she even bumped the gate open with her nose so we could pass through. I started to feel more confident. We might not cover ourselves in glory during the competition, but we’d probably avoid a Friesian-size freakout with everyone watching.

And then, five days before the party, the tarp tunnel appeared. 

It was nothing more than a large blue tarp affixed to the side of the arena, but the amount of fear it generated was equivalent to its size. Navani spotted it through the arena gate while still in the parking lot and hated it so thoroughly, immediately, that she threatened to rear. If a differently-positioned mounting block was worthy of suspicion and fear, this tarp represented the end of life on Earth. My confidence plummeted.

By the end of the first session in the arena with the tarp, I had convinced her to walk through the tunnel in both directions, in-hand and mounted. I had not, however, convinced her that the tarp posed no threat to her well-being. I thought perhaps asking her to work on a line in a circle near the tarp would desensitize her to it, but she’d veer in on the circle on the tarp side and speed up dramatically when she passed it, looking back to make sure no tentacle slithered out to snatch at her legs. Nothing lasting is built in a day, so I accepted the progress we’d made and determined to expose her to the tarp as much as possible before the party.

The next time we saw the tarp tunnel, someone had scattered pool noodles underneath, also known as foamy fear spaghetti. But I had a secret weapon. After my fall in October, I needed to take a break from riding in order to allow my brain to heal. It was the ideal time to begin clicker training, which I started by loading the clicker: sounding the click every time I gave her food. I did this for short periods over several days, varying the location of the practice space and where I would click so there was no question that the treat was click-related and not location-based. I was also careful not to click whenever she started getting pushy about asking for the food: nudging me, my pockets, the treat pouch, so as to avoid inadvertently teaching her bad habits. She’s a big girl and I don’t want her thinking it’s acceptable to shove people around if she believes they have treats. The way she’d slurp my whole hand into her mouth in her joyous dive for hay pellets was gross and left me a bit concerned for my fingers, but I hoped she’d be more polite as she grew confident that food was coming and accustomed to taking pellets from a cupped hand. Before party prep began, she had started learning to touch a target with her nose but we hadn’t done anything beyond that. 

The difference between the session with the clicker and the session without was almost unbelievable. It had been a couple of weeks since our last click session and I wasn’t sure she’d remember or had made the connection that a click meant food was coming. But that night, she proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that she fully understands its meaning, and her willingness to try everything increases when she knows there’s a potential for food. In a previous obstacle exposure session, I introduced her to a pedestal: a tire with a sturdy wood circle affixed to one side. The idea is to ask her to step up onto it, and though I’d had some success, it took a lot of asking while she circled around it, trying to show me that there actually was no need to go over this thing or touch it at all, really. But that changed as soon as she got the first click for putting a hoof up. She understood what I wanted, saw the value in offering it, and now steps up with no qualms. Same for the wooden bridge that teeter-totters as the horse walks across–suddenly even stepping on and crossing from the raised side was no longer as insurmountable as she’d insisted previously.  The click bridges the communication gap, the reward cements the behavior.

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds and horses in particular.”

The tunnel was still scary, and the scattered noodles didn’t help matters. Each time through represents real danger…to me. I have to be mindful of her body language and mental limitations every time I expose her to a new fearsome object at home or in the field: her reactions can be big and fast. So, for instance, even though she looks to me for protection from the terror of the tunnel, I cannot allow her to walk through behind me because of what might happen if her fear gets the better of her, whether that’s rearing up and coming down on top of me, or smashing through me to safety like a bowling ball to a pin. It’s a real consideration, as not every walk-through was achieved calmly and more than once I ended up knocked against the arena wall as she shoved past me in her rush to be out.

I don’t know if the idea was that she was supposed to carefully pick her footing through the noodles, but, direct as always, she mashed her way right over the top of them. When I clicked mid-tunnel and she came to a dead stop to collect her reward, noodles shifting underfoot, I began to understand the power of this type of training. She was still nervous and didn’t want to be in there, but the click had happened and so she suspended her discomfort for as long as it took to crunch a small handful of pellets. By the end of the session, I even convinced her to touch the edge of the tarp with her nose a few times;  even with the promise of a food reward she wasn’t eager to do that. Still, it was a vast improvement in her overall comfort level. 

The night before the party, I planned to do a last costume exposure/fitting and some preliminary grooming because Navani is a firm believer in the skincare benefits of a mud facial and a crusty face for the party just wouldn’t do. The joke was on me for showing up at the barn with a plan, because as I crunched through the gravel, arms stuffed with costume, the barn owner called out to me. “Hey! Melissa! You riding your horse today? Because they put up a tent for the party, she’s afraid of it, the ceiling is low, and I don’t want her going through there and wrecking it.”

Of course. Of course this new, out of place structure was, in horse-o-vision, a flappy horror from the pit of her deepest nightmares. It was new and out of place and clearly in cahoots with the tarp tunnel, which, in addition to the pool noodles, now had a second loose tarp underneath. Because it wasn’t dangerous enough already, right? I knew that the plan was to set up the course that day in preparation for the party, so with the tent up and the new tarp, I figured at least that was the last of it and I probably wouldn’t find an arena full of live snakes the next morning or a cannon that fires glitter and screams on either side of the tarp tunnel. Probably. One more night of clicker-enhanced bravery training would help ensure a safer party for everyone. 

We worked on everything, acquainting her with the new tent and the sound and feel of a tarp underfoot combined with pool noodles, and afterward, I asked her to work in a circle again, near the tarp. This time, she didn’t come in off of the circle nearly as much on the tarp side (after a couple of reminders) and she was able to keep a consistent pace and respond to my instructions. I had enough time left to braid her tail and clean up her four-scoop fear poop before I had to clear out of the barn for the night. We were as ready as we were going to get.

 

The Big Day

Since I didn’t accomplish many of my grooming goals the previous evening, I was out and at the barn extra early in the morning. I knew that in the chaos that was to come, there wouldn’t be time or space to get her gleaming, so I took advantage of the opportunity, wrapping up just before the horse yoga class taught by a local vet. Over the course of an hour or so, she walked us through stretching the horse’s legs forward and back, relieving tension in the neck, and finally the “full body wave”, which starts with a butt crunch, moves into a back lift, and then into a neck release. Navani thoroughly enjoyed the process, and by the end, she was so relaxed, head hung low, bottom lip dangling, that she gave off the appearance of being drugged. She seemed even more relaxed than the last time she was actually drugged, potentially because no giant grinding dental bit attached to a drill ever made an appearance. In this relaxed state, she was even receptive to me hugging on her neck, which she normally barely tolerates. I was glad that the day started off with something that relaxed her, made her feel good, and helped improve our bond. I was going to need to cash in on every bit of goodwill I’d ever engendered in her shortly.

Immediately after yoga, it was time to get her costumed and ready for the party. I was all over the place in my ideas leading up to our first ever costumed event, ultimately going with a nod toward the pagan by dressing her as a tree. With a holiday sweater and a red velvet bow on my helmet, I was an accompanying gift. The kind you can’t return and endure with a grimace, perhaps, but a gift nonetheless. To construct the body of the tree, I was inspired by fleece horse exercise sheets, which sit under the saddle and extend down the back and over the rump. To bring the greenery up to her neck, I sewed a felt wreath onto her breast collar (I wanted color and texture to be consistent between the two components and also she’d try to eat a real wreath.). I braided her mane in a running braid down her neck and fixed in some artificial poinsettias, the first and only idea I never deviated from in the six different costumes I considered. And to top it off, I made her a star-shaped leather brow band for her bridle, finished in artificial gold leaf. It practically blazed in contrast to her dark fur. 

Because of the new tables and chairs taking over the front of the barn for the party, I had to get Navani ready in her stall instead of in the normal tacking-up area. We also couldn’t take our normal path to the arena, and the back path is less a path and more an obstacle course in its own right, having to step over extension cords and thread between farm equipment and trucks and trailers and after we got past all of that, the front barn door was 80% closed (horse brain: “different! bad! danger!”) and oh, there’s a glimpse of that tent she was concerned about yesterday and just as we passed the dark gap in the door, someone unseen inside ripped off a loud swath of duct tape and before I could react, Navani had already jumped in fear and landed full bore on the edge of my foot*. 

With the wet weather and ensuing sloppiness of the nearby trails, our outdoor pony parade turned into a parade around the arena which devolved into chaos after two or so laps, with horses going every which way, practicing obstacles, and people with cameras darting among them. We tried and were successful at some of the obstacles: the tinsel curtain, the platform, and the tippy bridge, and with all of these she understood that I was asking her for the same job under saddle as with the clicker, which I think is an impressive association and I was glad to see willingness from her even when it was clear I was not packing treats. The tarp tunnel, however, I could not convince her to approach mounted. I asked her several times and each time she would slant away, flap her lip, or otherwise communicate her concern by disregarding my cues utterly. I could’ve continued to raise the issue. She might have eventually acquiesced. (Maybe. She can really hold on to a thought!) But it was also possible that she’d explode in her fear and cause other horses to panic in her wake, and that was a risk I was unwilling to take.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski , awkward “good girl” face is all me and 100% on brand.

I’d already decided that with Navani’s tunnel reticence we wouldn’t be participating in the official competition, and it was right around then that an entirely new group of new obstacles were dragged into the arena, including another giant tarp, which, like its brethren, was a fear-based entity. This is when we got into the most trouble we had all day: stuck between two tarps she feared to approach, she stopped listening to my cues and started veering on a collision course with a person on the ground having a conversation with someone on a horse, neither of whom were paying any attention to their surroundings, including the freaked-out horse dancing in their direction. It’s a Christmas miracle we didn’t crush anyone, and it was at that point I got off: I didn’t have control or at least enough influence and we were becoming a danger to others. I used the rope halter to introduce her to the new stuff in a more controlled, safer way, and then decided she’d had enough for one day and put her away. Though I wish I’d kept her out long enough to watch the neighbor’s mini pony try the obstacles and see how that bold little critter stomped through and touched everything immediately, as I feel she could learn a thing or two from its utter confidence.

I’m of several minds on the introduction of new spontaneous obstacles during the party itself. I think that if you want to have a fair competition and a trial by fire of sorts where no one gets opportunity to practice, this is the way to do it. Or maybe there wasn’t time to fully set up the night before. Or maybe they were being considerate of the space needs of the horse yoga class.  And I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to have less fun because I or my horse couldn’t handle it, which is why I don’t invite myself along on rides where we might be a burden on more experienced horsepeople. But another part of me, the part that felt vulnerable, the part that’s still recovering from a traumatic brain injury, the beginner rider and beginner horse owner of one of the most reactive horses in the barn part is upset that these new things came in when I was mounted, no warning and no choice in the matter. It added more wild cards into a situation that didn’t need them. “Unpredictable events out of my control that could spin out into a deadly situation” is part and parcel of interacting with horses, horseback riding is an inherently dangerous activity, and I cannot blame others for the risks I assume with the horse I chose to buy. But on the other hand, it’s a holiday party, not a serious event. Ultimately I’m left feeling a little annoyed and also feeling that I have no right to be annoyed because it’s not like I helped plan, pay for, or execute the event. How can I complain when other people went to so much work to host a good time? They couldn’t know Navani and I would struggle in this way. At least from the ground, she was more willing to investigate the new obstacles, though touching the snowman with her nose was right out and she was also offended when I took his little claw and used it to pat her.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

Even with the foot-mashing and the attempted trampling, I would say we had a successful day. Considering her costume and all the other horses (some new!) and their occasionally loud, blinking costumes going in all different directions at different speeds plus all the people and the new objects and the music and everything else, she took it remarkably in stride. Sometimes when I see her snorting and reacting when a flag flaps in the wind, I despair at the idea of ever turning her into the warhorse of my renaissance faire dreams. But I also know that we couldn’t have done any of this a year ago. Six months ago. She’s improving because she’s starting to trust in me. The promise of a food-based reward motivates her, no doubt, but it’s the trust that brings the follow-through. I know it, when I see fear etched in her body language and nothing but trust in her eyes when she follows me into a scary place because I’ve asked. I couldn’t have asked her for a two tarp noodle maneuver earlier in our relationship. That we did so much, relatively calmly, is a testament to the trust we’ve built over time. 

We’re going to be a force to be reckoned with by next Christmas.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

*It’s fine, don’t write my obituary yet.

One year of horse ownership

Building a Relationship

On November 3rd, 2018, I drove to Oregon to buy Navani and bring her home. Though I’d been told she trailer loads, this turned out not to be the case:  it took a grueling three hours to convince her to board. She’d step up on the ramp with her two front hooves and then fly backwards, rearing up, always coming within fractions of an inch of smashing her skull on the trailer roof.

The deed was only finally accomplished with the use of a lip chain, a much harsher method than I would have ever wanted to employ, and not the greatest start to our relationship. If she hadn’t loaded then, if she had continued to fight until the chain drew blood, if she had to be dragged onboard, I would have asked for my check back and left with an empty trailer. Any horse who fights that hard not to go with me is not my horse. I’m certain it didn’t help that the entire family was there, one of them practically sobbing into her mane as the bill of sale was signed.

As it was, the sedative administered to last her the entire trip home had worn off before we even pulled out of the driveway. Thankfully, once she was on board, she rode quietly. When we unloaded her that evening, again she rushed backwards out of the trailer and it was only my desperate grip on the rope that kept her from hitting her head, but it was done. She was home. I had a horse.

Navani belonged to the same family since she was a yearling. Every formative experience she ever had was with them. Her life has revolved around them. From day one, I was less her new friend than her captor. I spent hours in her stall, talking to her and grooming her, giving her treats,  trying to convince her that though things were going to be different for her now, different doesn’t mean bad. Indoctrinating her into the cult of me. Fifteen days later, we had our family photo session for our “look we got a horse” holiday card. In many of the photos, her expression is concerned, her body language tense, ready to flee. I chose one where she merely appeared alert, joining the proud tradition of cards that paint a slightly-too-rosy tint over the facts.

All horses are individuals, of course, but there are shared traits among species, breed, and gender. Ask an equestrian which they prefer, geldings or mares, and be prepared to pull up a chair and sit awhile. I don’t know how much of it is true and how much is misogyny disguised as horsemanship. “Geldings do what they are told, mares are challenging.” “Mares are crazy, I’d never want a mare.” “Geldings are consistent. They’re the same every day. Mares go in heat, they change.” “Geldings are dull; a mare can give you more. You get the trust of a mare and she’ll give you everything. She’ll walk through fire for you.”

Getting that trust takes time. In late December, Navani realized she forgot to give me anything for Christmas and so to commemorate how she felt about our special relationship, gave me a hard fall. I hit the ground so resoundingly that my friend heard the thud from across the arena. I struggled to do anything but lay flat on my back for a week; when I moved I had the distinct feeling my right side was caving in. Three weeks later, I was back in the saddle. 

At her first bodywork session (basically horse massage), the bodyworker asked me what my favorite thing about Navani was, and I really struggled to answer. Our relationship was challenging. It took weeks to convince her to do something as simple as entering the crossties to be groomed. Just like the trailer, she’d back up and threaten to rear. She took food aggressively. On walks, she’d yank me around like the proverbial 1100 pound gorilla who eats whatever she wants, mash my feet, and knock me around. She’d give me as little of her attention as she conceivably could when on the ground and while riding. She was squirrely to ride, weaving around, being avoidant, and dangerous when she’d get scared and take charge. She made it very clear that in a life or death situation, my survival was inconsequential. “My favorite thing? Her, ah..little goatee,” I managed weakly. 

For a good long while, it was less a dream come true than hard, awful, and hideously expensive, with enough hits of brilliant, wonderful, best-thing-I’ve-ever-done dopamine to keep me going. For months, we’d been working on sitting trot, wherein the division of labor is such that she jogs around with me on her back and I just try not to bounce around too much. (And now you know why I buy my horse massages: guilty conscience.) So often in these sessions she felt like a cannon ready to go off; the gentle calf squeeze that signals the transition from walk to trot would cause her to react like I’d spurred her with a Jackie Chan kick because we needed to escape a jet-powered T-Rex. She would launch into a rushy, shitty trot like she was urgently needed in orbit and didn’t have time for any outside opinions. During many of these trots, she felt tense, she would lock up mentally*, occasionally grabbing the bit and zagging out from underneath me, a sickening rollercoaster-like sensation where I would have a moment to hope that my body would continue to travel in the same direction as hers, either naturally or by sheer force of will.  There were enough incidents to make me apprehensive about riding. “This is a hard season” the horsepeople said. “It’ll be better in a couple of months.”

What I’ve learned about horses from a year of being around horsepeople:

Fall: “The weather starts getting crisp, the wind picks up. That makes horses go crazy.”
Winter: “It’s cold, they’re pent up, getting less exercise. That makes horses go crazy.”
Spring: “Hormones are surging, it’s new grass, full of sugar. That makes horses go crazy.”
Summer: “Flies are biting, there’s more activity on the trails. That makes horses go crazy.”

As a horse person, you start obsessing about the weather, the conditions that might help or hinder your ride, how much time you have before the sun sets. You become, almost against your will, an outdoorsperson. 

If you poke around in the horse world, often when someone is having issues with a horse, they’ll refer to “bitting up”; i.e. using a harsher or more severe mouthpiece to apply more force to the horse, to assert more control. Every person who owns and rides a horse will find their own line with regards to equipment. I have never felt comfortable using a bit, and for her part, Navani would resist being bridled but felt very comfortable taking the bit and going as she pleased. On my evaluation visit, I watched their trainer ride her and noted two things in particular: that she was being ridden with a lot of contact with the bit, and her lower lip was flapping, an indicator that she was nervous or uncomfortable or both.

Coercing my horse to open her mouth so I could put a piece of metal in there to assert control doesn’t feel good. I don’t think it felt good to her, either, or she wouldn’t toss her head up to avoid it. I’m also not a huge fan of a lot of contact with the mouth, especially if it’s not necessary, and in mounted archery, I’ll have no contact with her mouth as my hands will be busy with a bow and arrows.

So around the eight month mark, I started using a bitless crossunder bridle, and incidentally, that was when things started to take a turn for the better. From the very first time, she went so well in it that feels unnatural to use anything else. Instead of fighting the bridle, she now puts her nose in when it’s offered to her. She responds to lighter aids. She’s less spooky and snorty on our trail rides. She’s less spooky in general, less likely to duck and run, more likely to listen to me when I tell her that she has no cause for concern. She and I feel more like a team. I recently convinced her to load into a trailer in under a minute. 

I don’t give sole credit to the bridle but I do think that its use dovetailed beautifully with the months of consistent work and training I’d been doing, including all the trot work. We’d done all that trotting for myriad reasons: to help her build fitness and protect her back, to school speeds within the trot, to help me regain confidence after the fall and prepare for the mounted archery clinic I attended, and, as always, to help me become a better rider** and better partner to Navani. I have hope someday we’ll be able to go completely bridleless.

 

Things are clicking for her in other areas, too; the other people who handle her have all come to me separately recently to tell me that they can tell I’ve been working with Navani on her ground manners because she’s not barging them around anymore, either. I’ve been talking to her the whole time. I think it’s only recently that she’s started to believe I’m worth hearing. 

The People

I don’t own enough land to keep my horse at my home. Navani would mow down my back yard to the dirt within a few days, only the high rock content of the soil would keep it from turning into a mud pit, and my neighbors with the roosters and turkeys would finally get a taste of their own medicine as she’d blast calls across the neighborhood, looking for other horses. After she got bored of destroying my ornamental plants, she’d knock out at least one of the supports for my raised deck and then knock down my fence and rampage about the greenbelt. I would love to be able to wake up and look out of my window and see my horse but it’s not feasible now, which means I have to board her. 

When you board a horse at a barn, your experience with your horse is intrinsically tied to the other people boarding there. It’s rare to have the facilities to yourself, and if the other people around are inconsiderate or unpleasant, it negatively influences your horse interactions because instead of quietly building a bond with your animal like you want, you’re forced to make small talk with an asshole. I’m so grateful every day that all the other boarders are such wonderful people who support one another like family. If the barn environment had been different, if people had been snide or gossipy, I don’t know if I would have made it through the hardest parts, when I’m already fighting the Seattle drizzle and depression and grief and daylight savings and the kind of cold that chills me to the bone and mud and her attitude and my attitude and… 

Because this was a need-to-sell not a want-to-sell situation, Navani’s former owners are still heavily invested in her in a way that I find unsettling and boundary-violating. We conducted a transaction. Why does it follow that we have to be in each other’s lives after that? They’ve sent messages asking me to post more photos of her, they’ve tried to befriend my friends, there’s been an endless stream of borderline condescending or insulting comments or training suggestions. “Her weight actually looks good!” “Navani told me she wants you to buy her such-and-such.” Aside from being annoyed that she is intimating that she’s having conversations with my horse, the audacity of telling me the things she thinks I should buy by couching them as my horse’s suggestion! 

There’s also a previous rider who until very recently still had a crowdfunding page up to buy my horse, referring to her as her heart horse and her soulmate. She friend requested me on social media almost immediately after I purchased Navani, and I just let the request hang because although it felt petty and chickenshit to directly refuse my recent livestock acquisition’s soulmate‘s desperate plea to stay in touch across the miles, I also didn’t feel like I owed this complete stranger access to my entire life, which I write very sincerely and hypocritically, publicly on the Internet. She followed Navani on Instagram for a time, “liking” all the photos except the ones I was also in. Which is fine of course; we’re not friends. 

I have really struggled to reconcile the things they have told me about their experience with her and my experience with her. For example, they claimed online that she is such a compassionate horse that once when her rider became unbalanced, she fell to her knees to prevent her from falling off. But they also told me in person that if I was going to hit her, I should just not hit her on the face, because it makes her rear. Even now with our vastly improved relationship, I cannot imagine this horse ever falling to her knees to protect me, which seems unfair to me since I don’t hit her at all much less hit her on so many places of her body that I can figure out which places really upset her. 

The Expenses

Owning a horse is horrendously expensive. Less so than having a child in daycare, but nothing to sneeze at. Monthly board, farrier visits every six to eight weeks, tack purchasing, maintenance (this includes having a saddle fitter out a couple times a year to adjust and flock), and replacement, chiropractic, acupuncture, bodywork, feed supplements, unguents and creams for skin soothing and hair conditioning, sprays to repel flies and thrush and dust, special tools to scrape crap out of hooves and parasites off of legs, nets to control food intake, vet visits (all with an extra “showing up” fee that you can only avoid by hauling your horse in, which would necessitate owning a truck and a trailer and all their attendant maintenances) for shots, tooth care, bi-annual turd analysis and any lameness or illness needs, lessons and clinics…

I haven’t even gotten into stuff for me yet, but a decent pair of winter riding pants and a new pair of paddock boots to replace the ones that are currently falling apart after two years of use will set me back over three hundred dollars. Plus now I need a new helmet since I hit my head on my most recent fall and safety dictates that a helmet is only good for one impact. Navani is jet black because she is a black hole for every dollar I’ve ever thought about having.

TL;DR

My first year with a horse has flown by, and the difference between the horse she was then and the horse she is today in both temperament and condition is as stark as night and day. The changes in me have been nearly as radical. I can’t wait to see where we are at this time next year.

 

*Pretty much exactly what my December accident looked like, except I was consistently saying turn left…turn left…TURN LEFTTURNLEFTFORTHELOVEOFGODTURNLE–
**My next goal is to become a strong enough rider to be able to do one of the Ride Egypt vacations, but as of publication, Navani’s canter is still unbalanced and a bit scary to ride so it’s not something I’ve tried much. It’s a big dream.