I walked out into the field with Gracie's halter slung over my shoulder. She wasn't in the run-in shed and only one other horse was at the front of the field so I figured she was at the back down by the creek with the rest of the herd.
That's where she was, quietly grazing next to the shade trees. With her blonde mane and tail, she is always easy to spot in an ocean of chestnuts, bays and grays.
She jerked her head up from the grass when she saw the human coming around the corner and I saw her ears prick and eyes brighten when she recognized me. I never had to call her: she came right up to me, pinning her ears and snaking her head at the two other mares that also tried to come say hi as she stepped between them and me. "This is my human. You go away." I laughed.
She used to do that even before she was officially mine. But then again at that time she did that with all people because she thought everyone was a Pez treat dispenser. It's been four years and she knows that I'm not bringing treats to her in the field, so it is extra special that she'll come to me so willingly anyway. At the beginning of our relationship, she would insistently whuff at my hands looking for the cookies I never had. For years now, she will simply come up to me and stand still for me to stroke her forehead before sliding the rope halter on.
We walked out of the field to her waiting bute-laced grain, which she slowly munched on while I groomed her and tacked her up with the bareback pad. Part of legging Gracie back up is working through her hock and RF fetlock arthritis, which tends to get worse with inactivity even when she is out in a field 24/7. Right now we are in a no-pressure stage where the goal is to just get her moving for a short period of time while working on both strengthening and stretching. The stronger and bendier she is, the less stress there is on her joints, and consistent movement with a purpose helps get those joints lubricated again. She gets a big say in what we do or don't do on a given day, especially at this stage: she has a great work ethic as long as her rider is fair, so anytime she is trying to give me a "Nope" or an opinion about an activity, I know at this point it is because something is physically bothering her.
In the meantime, she gets bute in her grain pre-workout to help. I haven't posted about any of the stuff that had been happening with the horses, but due to some recent major staff changes at my regular equine vet's office (basically Dr. L, my vet for the last 4 years, left the practice), they weren't able to come out to this barn for emergencies because it was now out of their service radius. (Dr. L was local to me.) The practice owner was kind enough to come out himself for our regular wellness visits but with Lily out of the picture I finally made the change to a different but still heavily recommended vet who can come out with more ease and on whom I can rely on in the event of an emergency. They come out for the first time this week, at which point I will be discussing getting Gracie on a regular joint support program again: she needs to go back on her IM Adequan and have her joints injected again. The bute pre-ride helps for now far more than oral joint supps, which is why this was a tactic previously advised by Dr. L.
At this stage of conditioning, I can mentally get bored in the arena if I don't have a couple of plans for the session on the brain already (there's usually a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, which will get picked based on the horse I have underneath me on that day), so I try to keep the work interesting for both of us: if I get bored, Gracie gets bored. Given how much rain we've had, working in the grass around the property is limited right now because the footing is plain slick. The great thing about this giant arena we have now, other than its size, is the stone dust footing: it is both firm and forgiving. She definitely prefers to work outside of the arena but there has been a lot less annoyed tail swishing over arena work since we moved to this barn. She loves time spent with her people and if this is one way to get it, so be it.
This was the only ride I was able to get on her this week thanks to never-ending pouring rain (yes there is an indoor. I'm trying to stay outdoors as much as possible for now) so I put her on the longe in both directions for a couple of turns to see where her brain was at and what she wanted to do. She trotted, which wasn't unusual, but her inside ear was turned into me and her eyes twinkling: she was game for whatever.
I hopped on and we started out at a walk in both directions. Mareface was stiff on her RF so we started off to the left when moving up into her gait. She was also reluctant to collect, which I was expecting: it is time for her hocks, which she tells me by letting me know it's uncomfortable to sit and engage. She's usually able to work out of it as her fitness increases and she can go for longer stints of time. Injectable joint support will help even more.
We changed directions to the right and she immediately switched to a trot. I half-halted, she broke to a walk (what I had expected) and I asked for the gait again. She gaited for two strides then switched to the trot again. Hmmm...this is unusual for her. Like I've mentioned before here, gaiting is a bigger workout because it requires a lot more engagement. If I'm letting her take it easy, I'll let her pace in whatever way she chooses while warming up, and then ask for engagement once she feels ready. Her trot usually feels clunky, unbalanced and really heavy on the forehand, but on this day it was...lovely, actually. I realized I had no issues sitting it in the bareback pad and she was asking to stretch down while lifting her back: she was clearly telling me what her body needed. So I shrugged, let the reins slide through my fingers to allow her to stretch, and relaxed my hips to follow along with her movement. I kind of felt like Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro as we glided around the arena at this big but smooth trot.
We proceeded to have SO MUCH FUN. We did lengthenings down the long sides of the arena and big loopy circles, then changed directions. She offered to gait when going to the left again. "You can keep trotting if you want," I told her. She switched back to the trot and we continued on with the same pattern. She wanted to be in this long and low frame while trotting but her withers were up and she felt as in front of my leg as she can be at this stage of conditioning, so I let her do what she needed to do and interceded merely to give direction in terms of patterns and changes of direction.
This is my favorite part of riding: the unspoken conversation with your horse. The quiet exchange of energy with your partner.
My mind wandered as I became engrossed in the flow of riding, and I remembered how riding used to be my active mediation. The barbell does the same thing for me: it allows me to be present only with myself. Riding in harmony with your horse brings about that same awesome stillness that I get from barbell work...that then becomes a part of the stillness inside of the 1,000 lb animal underneath you. That is when you become one with your horse, when the centaur emerges.
I thought then of this mare and the circumstances that brought her into my life.
I had been going through a phase where I missed Lucero so so much. I didn't get to say good-bye to him when he died and it also happened at the time we were getting ready to move from South Florida, so I felt like I never got to properly grieve him. It caught up to me three years later, the same spring that Lily came in from the field dead lame on both fronts after a week of rain followed by a hard freeze.
At that time my frustration over the already endless issues with the mare and having to cancel our first endurance ride right when I had been about to mail in our entry after 6 months of conditioning (we were originally scheduled to attempt No Frills's LD that year; I never had the intention of doing Old Dominion as our first ride!) snowballed into this huge, "Why can't I still have Lucero? He never got injured, he was never lame, he was fearless everywhere and anywhere, and he was gaited to boot."
|Photo of one of my favorite pics of Lucero.|
That had evolved into, "I want a back-up horse. And I want him/her to be gaited."
As so often happens in my life, that same week the BO had talked to me about starting to work with Gracie after a conversation with her owner.
Gracie used to annoy the hell out of me in the field because she would chase Lily away when I was trying to fetch her. It was hard not to like the mare because she had so much personality and she was drop-dead gorgeous on top of that, even when she was a chunk, but it made me crazy that she sometimes complicated my ability to catch my own horse.
|"Whatchu doin' in there?" as I was setting up Lily's feed.|
My first ride on her though? It had been love at first ride. Gracie wanted to have a conversation. It was pretty argumentative at first, full of "But WHY?s" but set a boundary and she would respect it more often than not. I had not laughed that much during my initial interactions with a horse in...never. That had never happened before. Yet she was so familiar to me that when her trainer's wife whispered to me a week later, "She's for sale," I had to find a way to buy her because the Universe was readily dropping this mare into my lap right when I had asked for her.
|That time I took Carlos to the barn so he could meet Gracie for the first time.|
"She's awesome and she's for sale. Can I have her pleeeease?"
And that is how Gracie became a part of our lives and how she kept me busy when Lily was down for the count that spring.
The back-up horse. She was so bummed when I introduced her to Carlos later that summer, and she was pretty clear about it. Her and I had already established a relationship and she would happily come to me in the field every time I went to get her, "What are we doing today???" But when Carlos officially became part of the picture with her, she had a phase where she became somewhat sullen towards me. "Fine. I'll babysit him if that's what you want me to do," she said. But she wasn't thrilled about it. Until they got to know one another and she realized that I hadn't surrendered her to him: she belonged to both of us. We went through some growing pains in order to reach that point, but once she understood that she wasn't being passed along to someone else again and that I had not given up on her right after her and I had become friends, she settled in with the fact that she got to have TWO whole people to herself now...and she was absolutely fine with that. She understood that Lily came first for me, but she also knew that I loved her no less...in fact, I was constantly struggling with the fact that Gracie was my favorite. I think Gracie always knew though. And it would become more and more evident over time.
That winter that I was concussed (because of Gracie...) I hopped on her bareback one evening after a frustrating ride on Lily and took her out into one of Kathy's snow-covered fields where we putzed around. From a rational standpoint it had been a crazy thing to do, especially given that my balance was still not quite 100% from the head injury and I hadn’t really ridden bareback in years, but from a gut-feeling point of view, it had felt like the right thing at the right time. One of the things that impressed me at that moment was Gracie's obvious desire to take care of me that evening. I was very blase when I wrote about it after but the truth is that I had been nervous about attempting this. However, instead of becoming nervous herself in response to my emotions, Gracie instead did everything in her power to reassure me that she was not going to try to escape from underneath me as she walked around on the frozen ground, completely attuned to my precarious position on her.
The reason why I had bought her was because I had known then: this mare has it in herself to be the horse with whom I could do anything.
That night as I rode her bareback with my concussed head, she proved it for the first time. I had later dismounted with this enormous grin on my face.
"Thank you," I had whispered to her when I said good-night.
The summer that Lily ran away with the hitching post, I didn't have much time to ride Gracie thanks to all of Lily's treatments when she returned home from the hospital. Gracie still came happily to me in the field and resignedly sighed when she realized she was on babysitting duty again: this time for Lily. She quietly hung out in the stall next to her sister so Lily wouldn't lose her mind over being cooped up alone in the barn at night.
She was there for me for riding, and also there when I didn't feel like getting on and just wanted to play so I could focus on something else.
During these times, she always managed to give me exactly what I needed, even when I didn’t know what it was that I needed.
That October when Lily tried to rip her face off, I turned around and outright told Gracie, "I really need you right now. I just need you to be here for me right now." And she gave me the gift of just being there for me right when I needed it most. Sometimes it involved going for a ride. But often it was just about walking out into the field and burying my face in her golden mane so my mind could be still for awhile. She was happy to provide either one.
The troubled summer where I realized I'd have to leave the hospital I had worked at for four years, I was often too stressed to want to go for a ride on Lily. I'd show up at the barn and pick Gracie instead. I'd hop on and I'd give her the reins. "Take me wherever you want. You pick."
She loved these rides. She'd wander down to the trails and we'd cross the river or walk through chest-high hayfields that shimmered and rippled in the sun like a bright green sea.
I never did write about those rides. But I plastered my personal Facebook with the photos at the time.
I'd remove her halter in the field afterwards, feeling like I was a new person again, hug her head and whisper, "Thank you."
When I was too injured to ride Lily after the fall in the river, I was thrilled to discover I could still ride Gracie. When I pretty much couldn't do anything else activity-wise because even running and lifting at the gym were painful, Gracie allowed me to go outside and do at least one normal-for-me thing: ride.
I'd remove her halter in the field afterwards and again whisper, "Thank you."
After the May incident this past spring, I had stopped riding both horses when the guilt over what to do with Lily became too much to cope with. Just being at the barn I felt frozen into a state of, "I need to work with Lily but I really don't want to." So Carlos would go for me instead.
It wasn't long after that that we had historic rainfall over the course of 48 hours. It rained so hard for so long that the stream that runs through the property flooded and took down the mare field fence...as well as flooding the entire front of the property and both arenas. Thankfully our BO noticed what had happened with the fence and was able to evacuate the horses to a different field where they stayed for a week while waiting for the waters to recede enough to be able to repair the fence.
I went out to check on the girls when I got out of work the next day, mainly to make sure Lily was still in one piece. She ignored me when I went up to her. I was a wreck of emotion that I was insisting on shoving into a box because I couldn't deal with it right then.
I had been walking back out of the field. Gracie had been off grazing with her friends at the far end of the field and she saw when I was leaving. Ever perceptive, she left her friends and came over. It was actually Carlos, who had come with me and had been waiting at the field gate, who pointed out that I had a follower. I had stopped and Gracie had slowly walked over to me.
"You forgot to say hi to me. Can I walk you to the gate?" And that's what she did.
One afternoon this past July I really wanted to see the horses and we swung by the barn. I walked out into the field and both of them came to me. Lily approached me first and I stroked her forehead and scratched her itchy spots but I was sad and wistful, thinking, "What on earth am I going to do with you?"
Gracie had gone over to say hi to Carlos first. Lily moved away to graze close by and Gracie, seeing that I was available, turned away from Carlos and came over to me.
And she just stood there very close to me as I untangled her forelock and rubbed my fingers in circles down her neck. I finally gave up and wrapped my arms around her, hiding my face against her soft silky coat and letting the tears flow silently. It had been a long time since I had cried with my face against a horse.
She just closed her eyes and stayed, not even twitching her skin at flies or even thinking of trying to graze, until I finally let go of her and took a step back. She turned her head and looked at me, "Are you better now?"
And I had smiled at her and thought, "Thank you."
She had pricked her ears and twinkled her eyes at me. She then walked with Carlos and me all the way back to the field gate.
I thought about that as I rode now, about this mare that had been sent to me to be the back-up horse, when in fact she has really been the backbone all along.
I asked for a walk and we did some shoulder-in and leg yielding into and out of the circle.
I finally dismounted and walked her back to my car in the barn parking lot, where I pulled a couple of treats out of the trunk to offer her. She was so happy.
She then hung out, untied, next to the barn while I removed her tack and brushed her off.
And looking at her with her blonde mane gently waving in the cool autumn breeze that afternoon, I remembered a different horse who had meant just as much to me.
And thought about how the Universe is such a crazy thing sometimes.
Afterwards, I took her out into the field, removed her halter, kissed her forehead and whispered, "Thank you."
Sometimes you realize that exactly what you needed has been in front of you the entire time.
****Many, many thanks to everyone that took the time to comment on the PR and Lily posts. I've cherished each and every one. <3<3<3