Sunday, December 24, 2006

After the Ball is Over

Loss is hard. If it were easy, it wouldn't be called loss--that terse monosyllable that sets off tears and chest pains. It would be called something like millie. "I suffered a Millie" just doesn't seem as bad.

My daughter's beloved Morgan, Willowrock Ultimately ("The Rat"), the subject of my story in the upcoming Horse Healers anthology, died unexpectedly. Expected death is nicer. That gradual winding-down that lets us make arrangements and get used to the idea is still hard, but allows some sort of closure. Unexpected death--in this case, of a seemingly healthy 16-year-old horse just reaching his potential--requires a reframing of the surrounding lives. A space is left that is noticed at odd moments and continues to startle for a very long time. Years. Decades.

This is not, however, a tribute to a wonderful horse and his devastated owner. What's more interesting at the moment isn't the horror and the resulting chaos. It's the new attitudes that come in its wake.

My last essay touched on my Zip and his phantom pain/attitudinal distress/death wish, and I ended wondering where to go next with this. The next step came clear in a flash when Rat's remains were carted off for necropsy. The next step is to get back in the game.

If there's one defining factor in the relationship Rat had with Jess and all of his many admirers, it was his ability to always be in the moment fully He had a capacity for humor and kindness and also for elegance and attitude. No horse is perfect. No horse. But every horse can, and should, be appreciated in the moment.

Tonight I dragged my aching back to the barn with a bag of carrots in hand, smacked my big guy around a bit verbally, and got a huge response. He seemed to be glad I was paying sufficient attention to notice he wasn't really obeying me. He likes to be good, but he likes more to be appreciated. I took time I haven't taken lately to appreciate each of the horses in turn. And I took a moment to realize that I need to get with the program. It's my failing, not theirs, that things have gotten a little loose around here. My motivation that's been lacking.

Tuesday I'll visit my friend, Ellen Ryan, who will show me what she does with her Dutch Warm Blood, and I'll really focus. I might even take pictures and stick them on the bulletin board in the barn so I'll remember what it was I wanted to do. Then, as soon as the next weather ugliness has passed, I'll get to work.

My point is that all of us fall prey to fear and procrastination. Sometimes we do that until it's too late. Jess didn't waste many days with Rat, and it showed. Wasted time is a far bigger loss than death. It leaves behind no good memories, just sadness.

Friday, December 01, 2006

When a Pain is Not a Pain

A face only a mother could love? Normally Zipper doesn't look like this. If he did, I'd probably have given up riding him years ago. Normally he's a cute and curious guy with tons of personality and a great sense of humor. Normally. Unfortunately he's also normally not a stoic--not by any stretch of the imagination. He's not Rat, who will put up with knives sticking into his head if he's working a jump course for his beloved Jessica. He's not even Dolly, who may fuss a bit, but is always a lady. He's Zip, and he wants me to know something that I'm just not getting.

Whatever's got his goat this month, however, is not only driving him crazy, it's got me on the edge too. What makes a horse suddenly become flinchy, irritable, and generally uncooperative under saddle but perfect from the ground? Pain seems the best bet. I'm cranky when I hurt. He's allowed to be that way too.

So last week, after a day or two of his shenanigans, I called the vet out for a lameness exam on the Zipperdoodle. Naturally, he was on his worst behavior. The vet has always been Public Enemy Number One, no matter which vet or under what circumstances. Shots are fine within reason, but anything else requires anesthesia as far as this horse is concerned.

After much palpation, examination, and frustration, and one mad dash back to the safety of his stall that earned Zip a chain over his noseband, the vet asked to see me ride. For once I was more distracted by the problem at hand than concerned about my riding. Zip did his new fandango, kicking at something real or imagined on his right side, but eventually settled down and did as he was asked.

Long story short, discussion ensued followed by a few days of Bute, then some experimenting with tack and methods. Not once through all of that did Zip even pretend to dislike the process or show any anger or irritation at me. If anything, he was delighted to show me anything I wanted to see by way of twitching and gyration. But in the end he always worked well and kissed me goodbye in the pasture after each round.

So, at what point does a rider decide when the pain is real and when it's simply attitude. The consensus on Zip right now is that his attitude is as big as his butt, and I should treat the problem as a training issue. I'm not sure. I'm not a talented communicator like Ginny or a vet like Chris, but I know my Zip. I know the look in his eye and the tilt of his head, and I'm not seeing the "gotcha!" that usually follows the successful completion of one of his scams. He's spending too much time apologizing to me for his craziness. . . and that's not normal. Nor is the fact that he stood like a soldier for the farrier this week. Not one unexpected stretch, not one "I'd rather stand over here, thank you", not normal at all.

We're both taking a week or so off. That's what winter in the Northeast is for--a change of pace. Today I brushed his "sore" spot, and he threatened me briefly. Habit? I don't know, but my gut says no. At some point I will, hopefully, figure out the message I'm missing, and all will be well again. This isn't the first time we've been through something like this, though it's the first time he's been the Rebel Without a Cause.

Next week I'll try again. Or the week after. Or whenever I come up with a new idea, which could be sometime next summer.