Taxidermy shoes by Iris Schieferstein give new meaning to the phrase “hoof boots.”
It was windy the day the butt-fugly treeless endurance saddle arrived. This meant that test-riding it on Pearl (see Figure 1), my recently recommissioned Arabian endurance prospect, would be out of the question. Pearl objects on principle to wind, and, of late, to saddles.
Yes, it has dawned on me that these contingencies might be construed as drawbacks as pertains to our efforts on the endurance trail. One thing at a time.
Windy or no, the saddle was so homely I thought I’d better slap it on her for a minute or two, just to assess the level of Truth-and-Beauty-associated lobe-pain I could expect it to inflict. After chasing Pearl around the paddock for the usual 15 minutes, I finally caught her and chucked it on her back. I stepped away to drink it in.
I regret that there is no photo depicting the degree to which this big honkin’ saddle seemed to swallow up the diminutive Pearl. The spectacle was so disturbing that I could barely suppress a gag. The saddle is large and shapeless, and Pearl is tiny and refined. She was snorting, swinging her hind end around, and trying to bite it. She looked like she was being attacked by some sort of massive, netherworldly pterodactyl.
Let me just mention, a propos of Pearl’s obnoxious antics, that this 12-year-old horse was fully broke when I promoted her to pet status 3 years ago. Western pleasure, dressage, jumping (OK, she mostly jumped fence-post shadows when I least expected it, but still, A for effort, you know?). What I’m getting at is, it’s not like she’s a green-ass filly. She really is just that petulant.
I’m no saddle fitter, but it did appear, during those few moments, that the standard-equipment gullet was a bit narrow for her. This brand of saddle, the so-called Barefoot Cheyenne (not the name I would have chosen. I don’t like feet. And bare feet? In conjunction with a questionably non-PC Native American tribal name-drop? Shoot me now.) has an interchangeable gullet system. If the perpetual gale-force winds ever die down, I’m gonna try her in a wide.
Meanwhile, I really wanted to sit in this thing. It’s reputedly as comfortable as a Barcolounger. Toward this end I recruited my bloomy hunter, Ginger Rogers, who doesn’t give a flip about either wind or saddles.
It turns out Ginger Rogers has put on a couple of pounds. It took me half an hour to hunt up a girth that would actually fit her (my trunk of dressage girths was buried under my trunk of stirrup leathers, reins, and bits, which was buried under a pile of stable blankets, which was concealed under a thick coating of dust and brown recluses in the back of the garage), but eventually I met with success. Behold the result in my Craigslist-calibre photo (“Butiful 4-year old sorel mare I didn’t register her due to family illness byt she’s the great-great grandauter of Seattle Slew and Poco Bueno, clips, baths, my grandauter rides her over bobwar fences without a helmet, in foal to our blue roan cremello stud, would make a great reining and jumping and team penning prospect, hate to sell her but I have to many, $250 OBO, serious only, no trailer no cash no show.”).
Crikey, is she really that fat? The camera adds 400 pounds, right?
Well, I took old G for a spin in that Barefoot Cheyenne (after adjusting it forward just a hair), and what the heck! That crazy-ass thing really is comfy. I mean, it has no twist at all, so I don’t know how long I’d actually last in it before the sensation of doing the splits would become overwhelming, but for half an hour it was pretty OK. Ginger Rogers seemed to like it, too. I hesitate to admit it, but it would appear that this $600 treeless contraption fits her better than her $5000 PJ. So we’re gonna keep it, if only for those moments when we’d both rather be wearing sweatpants.
Well, just when the whole animal situation here at Dreadful Acres was starting to function like a well-oiled machine, boom! A cat incident.
I should point out that, although I am a crone, my familiarity with cats is but fragmentary. This is counter-intuitive, I realize, but rest assured I am working assiduously to bring my skill set in line with the customary cronal expertise. Hence this post.
Here’s the predicament. Feral Cat No.1 — I named him Smudge but — and it pains me to admit it — I actually call him “Kitty-Katty” — and I have been harmoniously coexisting since November. I give him turkey pâté twice a day. In return, he tags along when I feed the horses, and rolls around on my boots and purrs. Aww. Cute.
But three days ago an interloper staged an incursion. That fateful morning I staggered out to the carport as usual to chuck the turkey pâté in the cat bowl, and was jarred by the spectacle of a totally different cat in the cat bowl area. No doubt you will have surmised that this was none other than Feral Cat No.2. Smudge, my sentimental favorite, was a no-show. I naturally gave FC2 the turkey pâté, as he was looking pretty skinny and tragic and I am a pretty soft touch. I then set off to find the original cat.
A day later I discovered old Smudge cowering in the woods. He appeared to be terrified of FC2 and wouldn’t come near the house for all the cat food in Thailand. I was obliged to deliver Smudge’s meals to his remote bower while FC2 dined in the more luxurious carport location.
Until this morning. Compelled by who knows what mysterious and perverse feline conviction, Smudge unexpectedly strolled back into his old carport stomping ground, where, lo these past 3 days FC2 (by now answering to the name “Roger”) has been holding court. With Smudge back in the fold, I surmised (somewhat naïvely, it would turn out) that the situation was now resolved and we would all resume our happy carefree lives. I set some turkey pâté down in front of each of them — one cat over here, the other over there — then tottered off to toss some goat pellets at Notchy, my geriatric semi-tame doe.
Then all hell broke loose.
Did I mention that these cats are both intact males? Yes, yes, I know. Lecture me if you must, but don’t judge me. I’ve tried trapping young Smudge so I can get him fixed and vaccinated, but that’s easier said than done. So far all I’ve managed to catch is a gnarly-ass raccoon that eats all the cat food and then busts out of the Havahart so it can knock over my trash can at 3AM.
Well, the cat fight was epic. I believe it caused a disturbance in the Force: the dogs went ballistic, Notchy and the rest of her girl gang snorted and scattered, the furry woodland creatures went to ground, the birds all flapped off to distant trees. Growling, yowling, fur flying in slow motion, even the crickets stopped chirping. In the end, Smudge had reclaimed his territory and Roger was ousted from the carport.
Disturbing, to be sure, but I couldn’t stand around all day worrying about these felines. I had important things to do. A MacGyver marathon was on TV, for crying out loud. And I had to perform my usual weekly search on Dreamhorse (8-to-10-year-old bay tobiano ⅞ Arab gelding, between 14.2 and 15.2 hh, clean legged and barefoot, with some dressage and finished in competative trail and/or endurance, no vices, kid-safe temperament, priced reasonably and available for a 2-week trial here at Dreadful Acres. You will be shocked to learn that I have been conducting this search weekly for 3 years without result, but hope springs eternal).
Dusk. MacGyver saved “the girl” and got the bad guy, and my Dreamhorse search had come up bupkis, so I strolled outside with two cans of turkey pate and called the cats. Their replies came from an unexpected location: way up in an oak tree. They were so way up they looked like little balls of moss. Roger was teetering precariously at the end of a slender bough, and Smudge was yowling at him from a sturdier perch a few feet closer to the trunk. It was clear that Smudge had chased Roger up there and was now intent on re-enacting the limb-jouncing scene from A Separate Peace.
To my horror, Smudge advanced on his enemy. The yowling intensified. Suddenly the cats melded into a single swirling vortex of screaming fur, churning at the end of the swaying branch. Not once but twice poor Roger was nearly dislodged, and clung literally by a desperate claw to the limb before somehow righting himself. You know that “Hang in there” poster? Picture that, only re-think it as the poster for a Stephen King blockbuster.
After much cajoling I was able to lure Smudge down with the cat food. Roger followed some minutes later. He was missing some fur on his neck but otherwise seemed fine. I gave him his turkey pate behind the horses’ run-in shed, some 200 yards beyond Smudge’s sphere. It will not surprise you to learn that this arboreal cat fight scenario replayed twice more before I finally went to bed. This morning it was more of the same. I am becoming somewhat distraught.
If Smudge knocks Roger out of that tree — which at this point seems inevitable, given the frequency of his attacks and the narrowness of Roger’s escapes thus far — the 30-foot fall will certainly kill him.
Last week, as is my daily habit, I took my dogs on a little nature hike around the rancho. A jolly, carefree crone left the bunkhouse that day, but a broken woman returned. Why? Well, we don’t call it Dreadful Acres for nothing. I allude, of course, to another close encounter of the venomous kind with a Western diamondback rattler (see banner, above). Hear my tale.
The dogs are just a couple of doofy retrievers, a yella lab and a golden, cavorting in a big hay field. Suddenly the yella lab leaps 2 feet in the air, startled. I’m 20 yards away, but from the dog’s posture I know what it is even before I hear the rattle. Sure enough, the serpent uncoils, rising a foot and a half off the ground in strike mode. The lab is maybe 3 feet from the snake, and the golden is rushing over to investigate. I try to impersonate a happy and delightful crone, keeping the terror out of my voice as I call them back, but horribly, the rattling snake is more interesting than I am (says a lot about me, I agree), and both of those flippin’ dogs totally blow me off!
Note to Crone: shit, we gotta finish that obedience class.
Finally the lab decides to heed my desperate cries. She is followed reluctantly by the golden, whose recall is notoriously the worst in all of Cottonmouth County. Immediately I stuff their faces with the emergency organic chicken hot dogs I carry in my mouldering pocket for moments like this, hoping they’ll remember, for future reference, that (running away from rattlesnake) + (toward me) = cured smoked sausage. Tragedy averted, narrowly.
So that’s the backstory. The current status is that I am now too freaked out to let Fran and Bert out of the yard, with the result that they have cabin fever. Well, there’s a fairly snake-proof fenced-in acre that they can access through a doggy door, but that’s a pretty crummy arrangement when they’ve been used to what the great poet Oliver Wendell Douglas called “land spreadin’ out so far and wide.” Unfortunately, I know all too well from past rattlesnake episodes that it will be a couple of weeks before I can face taking them out again, and possibly months before I’ll be comfortable bringing them down to the hay field.
Even if I actually installed a decent recall on those dogs (heaven forfend!), it’s no protection against the vipers they find when they’re out snuffling around on their own. What’s a crone to do?
BTW, if you’re gonna suggest that I turn to drugs and alcohol: I already tried that, and it’s awesome, but it for some reason it doesn’t seem to fix my irrational fear problem. If, on the other had, you’re gonna suggest that I either suck it up or move to a serpent-free zone such as Antarctica, that’s no good either, due to my having been born without that crucial part of the brain used to make sensible decisions (see “drugs and alcohol,” above).
A version of this post originally appeared as a thread at the CoTH forum. I only mention this because I am informed that in this post-Jayson Blair age, it is considered bad form even to plagiarize oneself. Anyway, the CoTHers, ever wise, suggested that I enroll the pooches in a rattler aversion therapy class. My Google fingers are like wings.
The situation could not be more rife with potentially hilarious hijinx. For example, I don’t know jack about endurance. In fact, I can barely endure getting out of bed in the morning. Also, I am a weakling. And a moron. Also, my noble mount is to be Pearl, my fat and nutty pet Arabian who hasn’t been ridden in 3 years. Heck, with all this going for me, can there be any doubt that I will win both the race and the bet?
[Photo: the author tries to keep Pearl from chomping her iPhone]
Of the many impending struggles, none can be more pressing than the question of my turnout. I have perused the Google, and disturbingly, it appears that endurance ladies fashions run along the lines of sweat pants and teal windbreakers. It is also the custom to tie to the saddle about 47 different nylon sacks stuffed with assorted granola bars, clothes, and water bottles, giving the rider the appearance of membership in the Royal Mounted Bag Lady Guard. I can appreciate that an endurance lady might, at mile 30, be knackered enough to not give a shit about looking awesome in her Tailored Sportsmans and ankle-vise Vogel field boots, but such a paradigm shift is going to be a challenge for this natty-ass crone.
Meanwhile, my first order of business is to acquire a butt-friendly saddle. Currently nothing in my tack room fits Miss Thing, including the expensive dressage saddle I had fitted for her prior to her semi-retirement. Pearl’s body type is what is known as “propane tank,” mutton-withered and cylindrical. With no professional saddle fitter on retainer, I fear I am looking at a lengthy process of long-distance saddle trials.
You may point and laugh, but I have ordered a treeless saddle with which to commence these travails. I await its delivery with some trepidation, for it is ugly, and I am afraid.
One week later
Meanwhile, no sooner did I start old Pearly on our first phase of conditioning — 15 minutes of walk/trot on the lunge line — than it rained buckets for two days.
So what, you say? Well, as you know, water in all its forms is the bane of my existence, and this most recent gullywasher was no exception. For, like, three years of extreme drought there’s nary a drop and then, boom! The minute I start an outdoor project, 47 inches of rain. Not only was I forced to suspend the exercise program for those two days of active deluge-ing, but the resulting tarpit-quality mud has left me nowhere to work out even though the sky is now blue and the climate brisk.
Horsekeeping Tip #1: Forget building a barn; do not even contemplate bringing your horses home until you’ve got your sacrifice paddock sorted. Because there’s always a slender chance, however ludicrous it may sound, that it might rain.
Anyway, right before the flood, and without really thinking it through, and pretty much riding an uncharacteristic wave of
confidence foolhardiness onto a whim, I slapped a bridle on old Pearl and hopped up on her bareback. Like I mentioned, nobody had ridden her in 3 years. Well, you’ll never believe what happened.
She just stood there. For about 3 seconds. Then I could feel — I dunno — something, a sort of over-wound watch-spring sensation. It was vaguely familiar. That’s right, it was the Imp of the Perverse roiling just beneath the surface. I began to recall dimly why I used to have to put that dumb Arabian-style running martingale* on her, for as we moved off down the driveway she unraveled about 15 extra feet of neck and gave me to understand that she fully intended to turn her head upside down in the very near future. Still at the walk, I managed a smallish sort of circle on the lawn, then slid off and declared it an unqualified success. Here at Dreadful Acres, any ride is an unqualified success that doesn’t end with me writhing on the ground, calling brokenly for a margarita and a Vicodin.
Horsekeeping Tip #2: Before you start legging up a gonzo Arabian — and if you’re a pretty crummy old re-rider — maybe build a round pen or an arena or something.
Did I say my first order of business is sorting out a saddle? I meant I’m calling my contractor today for some round pen quotes, and tossing a bit of custom Dover’s way for one of those Michelin-Man body armor eventing vests. Until then I’m ground-drivin’, baby!
* It is the fashion, in certain Arabian circles, to employ a modified running martingale rather than simply train the horse properly. Pearl came to me having been “trained” in this manner, and since I lacked the chops to fix it, it ain’t fixed. But this will change (she said with enormous confidence, eyeing the eventing vests on the Dover website).
Yesterday when I went to get her, I was relieved when she came sauntering right up to the gate. I held out the halter. She accommodatingly stuck her nose right in. It wasn’t until I reached around to buckle it that I espied the red glint in her eye. I made haste, but it was too late; young Pearl had executed an exquisite pirouette at the last moment and was cantering off, bucking and chuckling, before I even knew I’d been suckered.
As I jumped up and down on the halter that for the umpteenth time that week contained no gray mare, it began to dawn on me that Pearl’s imp of the perverse had gone unchecked for far too long. Her idle genius had become a torment to all. She needed a little more stimulation in her life. OK, a lot more.
Toward this end I decided to teach her how to play catch, since she is obviously the sort of horse who can appreciate pure sport.
I’m big on operant conditioning to teach critters to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily think of doing on their own in a million years. Say I want the horse to “count” to 5 with her right front leg. I assume a neutral posture and wait around until she inadvertently performs the first part of the behavior — say, she stomps her foot to shake off a fly. The second she moves that leg — it doesn’t matter why she moves it, just that she moves it period — I make a little clicking noise. The noise “marks” the moment that the horse displays the desired behavior, and — this is the key part — signals that I will be producing a handful of food forthwith as a reward.
This noise/reward dealio motivates the animal to reproduce the precise marked behavior in future. The horse will be counting like mad in no time.
By stringing together incremental behaviors, I can get complex ones. I become a vending machine, wherein the coin of the realm is the desired behavior, and the reward is a handful of organic flax flakes. After the first phase of the behavior is 100% down, I add a new criterion, then another, until the horse is dancing the lambada on the head of a pin.
As an organic hippie dippie new age crone, I am fond of operant conditioning because it involves no force, no fear, no negative reinforcement of any kind. The only consequence of not doing it “right” is no handful of organic flax flakes. The horse can walk away any time she wants, game over.
Yesterday’s episode: I entered the paddock containing Pearl and produced a soccer ball. Pearl, who acutely perceived that I carried no halter, consented to wander over and eyeball the unfamiliar object. The moment she looked at the ball I made the noise that tells her she did something right, and she got a handful of organic flax flakes. Repeat. In a minute or two, Pearl was associating the ball with the flakes.
So I upped the ante; now she had to take a step toward the soccer ball to get the flakes, which she figured out once I started rewarding her for inadvertently shifting her weight toward it. Then she had to bonk the soccer ball with her nose, then she had to roll it a foot, then two feet, etc, you get the picture, until we’re rolling it back and forth. It is enjoyable for both parties. It also draws a crowd at the boarding barn because “real” horse people don’t train like this. They come over to laugh at me, but they’re always amazed that a horse can be taught to toss you a soccer ball in 20 minutes flat.
This is no big whoop; you can teach any animal or human pretty much anything you want if you reward them with sufficient whatever-it-is-they-value: organic flax flakes, Porsches, bacon. I have a golden retriever who will do my taxes for a Cheeto.
Back in the paddock, my old mare Stella was loafing under a tree. I confess I had not fully appreciated Stella as a thinker prior to this episode. I had used operant conditioning to teach her not to kick me in the face when I pick her hind feet, but that’s as far as I’d taken it. She had certainly never seen a soccer ball before.
Anyway, I noticed that Stella had been observing with keen interest Pearl and these strange soccer ball proceedings. Before long an interesting thing happened. After studying us for about 20 minutes, Stella strolled purposefully onto the field, pinned her ears at Pearl to get her out of the way, bonked the ball with her nose for the first time in her life, and presented herself forthwith for her handful of flakes. Zounds! I said. Operant conditioning-by-proxy!
I don’t know if you have to be a horse person to understand how remarkable this is.
Probably you do.
Originally posted at I Blame the Patriarchy.
Surely you’ve been transfixed — you’re only human, after all — with my ongoing water troubles. You will no doubt recall that I am in the process of switching my water source from rainwater collection to the ag well up at the barn. The effort is to ensure that the liquid emitted by the bunkhouse taps will more closely resemble water than birdshit tea.
The switch was supposed to have been accomplished a week ago. Well, the well guy who was gonna lay all the pipes and install all the water softeners and switch out all the incompatible pumps that my incompetent ex-farmhand installed, etc, this well guy suddenly declared that the project could not proceed until I built a new goddam well house.
I admit that, like any self-respecting crone who perceives that efforts are underway to separate her from a further couple of thousand bucks, my first impulse was to sock this chumpass motherfucker in the neck. Fortunately I was able to compose myself to the extent that I only kicked a little horse shit on his boots.
Apparently this new pumpy, water-softeny equipment is as frail as a hot-house orchid, and requires more luxurious accommodations than I had previously anticipated. The old well house (OK, it wasn’t a house so much as a rusty metal roof tacked on to a few listing cedar posts, and OK, it did more or less collapse during the recent wind storm) must go! A new, state-of-the-art water-condo must take its place.
So now construction is underway. No expense will be spared. Cha-ching. The new water-condo will have charming Hill Country views, cable internet, and HBO.
Meanwhile, as we await with pursed, parched, and bloodless lips the glorious day when the well goes finally online, the bunkhouse is still on rainwater. Undrinkable rainwater that is tainted, I say again, tainted with handyman toe-jam and putrefying dead rat. Thus requiring emergency measures in the shape of the aforementioned Katadyn filter. As seen on TV! (in documentaries about natural disasters), this is the same professional-strength apparatus taken by aid workers to the globe’s most notable earthquakes, tsunamis, famines, and refugee camps. It will filter out any pathogen larger than .2 microns. Theoretically it will even make my creek water drinkable. However, I remain cautiously
phobic skeptical. I respect the rights of germs as much as the next crone, but you’ll be prying my Clorox eye-dropper from my cold dead hand; you know there’s hanta virus and malaria and ebola all up in that shit.
Thanks again to thoughtful reader Tarr for hipping me to the Katadyn. You have saved me and the dogs from certain dessication.
Hey, if you’re a disenfranchised Blamer, you might be interested to know that I’ve got a new post up at IBTP. It’s sort of, but not really, about “Makers,” that documentary on the women’s movement they showed on PBS the other night. I am considering jumping back into the blaming fray permanently. You can take a spinster out of the city, but you can’t take the blame out of a spinster.
The object in the photo is my recent Fitbit.
If you aren’t familiar with the self-tracking craze that’s sweeping the nation, and I sincerely hope you aren’t, the word “Fitbit” will mean nothing to you. I regret to say that Fitbit is a little electronic pedometer that you put in your pocket, whereupon it tracks the number of steps you take, the number of “floors” you climb, how many miles you’ve traversed, etc. It wirelessly uploads this useless information to your computer, where your overall degree of sloth is calculated and, if you wish, saved for posterity, or even (although I never went this far myself) posted to the Fitbit social network. Fitbit also sends you annoying little inspirational messages on your smartphone during the day, such as “Almost there! Just 9568 more steps to meet your goal of 10,000!”
10,000 daily steps is the default goal Fitbit sets for you. I don’t know why. I usually hit that mark around tea time, after which it starts sending me messages accusing me of being an “overachiever.” I shit you not. That Fitbit, much like my mother, is never satisfied.
A couple of weeks ago I decided to get one of these Fitbits because I noticed that I am on my feet, schlepping hay and horse shit and whatnot, more or less from dawn til dusk, and was curious to know how sanctimonious I should be about it. It turns out I can be moderately sanctimonious. However fascinating it may be, though, my stunning feats of daily caloric expenditure in the line of farm duty are not the subject of today’s post. The subject of today’s post is the utter unsuitability of the Fitbit for even the mildest of rural environmental conditions. To wit:
Like any rational horseman — or, if you prefer (though I sincerely hope you don’t), “horsewomyn” — I believe wholeheartedly in the efficacy of bribery as it relates to favorable outcomes in equine encounters. Thus it is incumbent upon me to keep diagonally sliced carrots in my left pocket; it is so written in the Code of the Crones. So this morning, pocket stocked, I schlepped out to the paddock to remove the heavy winter blankets with which yesterday’s gale-force winds had compelled me to outfit the horses last night.
That wind was no joke, by the way. Things that should never be airborne, like wheelbarrows, garbage dumpsters full of foul-smelling cat food cans, and thick clouds of pulverized horse manure (you’ve heard of white-outs? Imagine a poop-out, and you’ll have a pretty accurate picture of my day yesterday), were flying hither and yon as though gravity were just a figment of some 17th century boffin’s imagination. At one point I saw Elmira Gulch hurtling over my hay barn on a bicycle.
Anyway, when I went to pull her rug off, Ginger Rogers stood like a marble statue despite taking several unnerving static shocks from the satiny blanket lining. To reward this saintlike behavior I gave her a couple of carrot slices. I was just about to move on to the next horse when I noticed old Ginge chewing weirdly and making the “this tastes gross I’m gonna spit it out” face. It was almost like she had just been fed, oh I don’t know, an Ikea meatball. Or, it dawned on me, a tiny electronic pedometer that was suddenly not in my pocket anymore.
I don’t know if there are data to support the hypothesis that Fitbit ingestion may adversely affect equine digestion, but I didn’t wait around to Google it. I pried open Ginger Rogers’ face and extracted, sure enough, the Fitbit. A Fitbit, it turns out, is exactly the size and weight of a diagonal carrot slice, such that it had been indistinguishable from same by my gloved hand.
As you can see in the photo, the Fitbit was only minimally gnawed and salivated upon, yet its brief excursion into the dainty maw of my little 1200-pound horse has rendered the thing completely inoperable. Unacceptable! If their pedometer can’t survive a little horse chomp every now and then, how will it fare when I get bucked off, or when a tractor flips over on it? Fitbit should announce that their product is defective and issue a recall.
Meanwhile, now that I’m Fitbit-free, I discover that I had become strangely obsessed with knowing how many steps it takes to get from the bathroom to the well house, or the distance I travel when mucking out a paddock. There’s an emptiness now, an auto-cataloguing void that I suspect can only be filled by posting pictures of everything I eat on Flickr.