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.