A Gallop In The Woods

Metta’s legs were healing faster than Dee’s knee.  The mare was steadily putting on weight, her rough coat was showing patches of a red gold sheen.  Her hipbones were finally covered in flesh and her chest, once sunken and weak, was deep and defined.  The oozing sores on her legs had closed but the scars would remain. Some scars would be strips of white hair, but  several spots would never grow hair, just rough patches of gunmetal gray skin.

 Metta loved Joey, her constant companion.  Dee let them wander around the ranch loose after the kids left.  After double checking the ranch gate to keep them from wandering onto the road, they could graze and explore at will. They did get in to mischief, knocking over trash cans, pushing open the tack room door and scattering the cat food inside. They ransacked Dee’s beloved strawberry patch, trampling the fence and the tender young plants. They loved scratching their itchy bottoms on the hitch of the horse trailer, once even knocking it off it’s block.  Dee had to use the tractor to right it, but for all the trouble, she continued to let them wander free, unfettered and curious. It brought her peace. 

The one problem – Joey was becoming useless for lessons.  Whenever he and Metta were separated, they screamed for each other and Joey wouldn’t pay attention. This frustrated or scared  his riders. Dee couldn’t afford to lose  a good lesson horse.  She tried holding Metta in a halter in the arena during lessons, hoping if Metta and Joey could see each other, they might relax.  But Dee knew that she needed both hands ready to fix a stirrup length, tighten a girth or a million other things that a riding instructor needed to do.  To try and do that with a fidgety and unpredictable mare was neither safe nor wise. 

She promised herself that Metta was not to be ridden.  The mare had more than paid her debts to humans several times over.  But if she worked slowly with the mare and found out what the mare wanted to do, like most horses, she might be happy with a job.  

She decided to train the mare in secret.  She didn’t want the girls to get their hopes up that Metta may be some champion something  as young girls do.  She would go slowly and be willing to back off at any sign that the training was causing the mare stress. At first, she began by riding Joey and leading Metta.  The mare came along willingly, even happily.  Dee would stroke the mare’s head and neck and pat her shoulders and back.  The mare let Dee’s hands go where they would but the mare’s held breath told Dee that she was working hard to bear the touch, she would not accept her touch as comfort. Dee backed off.

Dee missed her mentor Sela.  Sela would know what to do. Sela’s father was one of the best Vaquero style reinsmen of his time. Her uncle was a horse trainer for the circus.  Both were quiet, patient and joyful men.  Dee sat on the porch, exhaled loudly, which brought two curious hounds to her side.  She stroked them absentmindedly and channelled Sela. 

“I can’t afford to just turn her out with Joey, one of my best lesson horses.  If she’s going to stay, she needs to do something and I just don’t know what that is.  After all she’s been through, I don’t want to send her away anywhere because she’s one of those hard luck horses that will haunt my dreams wondering where she ended up.  She’s here for a reason I know.  I just don’t know what that reason is.”

Dee didn’t believe in signs, but she wished for one anyway.  She did her best to sit quietly, not even waiting.  But it was difficult.  Her mind would fill with all the chores to be done, the bills left unpaid, the things that needed attending to. Carefully, she breathed and she waited.

Nothing.

“I’m a creature of movement kids”, she told the dogs.  Let’s get moving.  If I’m going to have an idea, it’s because I’m going somewhere.

She saddled Ivy, called for the dogs and headed toward the woods. 

The woods were glorious. Dee, Ivy and the dogs took pleasure in the crisp air, the soft gushy pine needles covering mud puddles, the occasional copper colored salamanders strutting toward the creek. Fat yellow banana slugs hung on shiny wet vinca vine leaves, their brilliant purple flowers dotting the hillside.  The alien looking horsetail shoots were peeping up through the ground like asparagus spears and the world’s most perfect flower, the tiny blue forget-me-nots peppered the trail side for anyone to delight in.  In the sunshine at the edge of the meadow, the ceanothus trees – the California lilac were close to full bloom. Their powdery lavender blossoms smelled like freshly laundered bedsheets. Dee inhaled and smiled.

Photo by J. Dunlap 2019

 The mare pranced, not sure what Dee might want. It was rare that they went out alone without a gaggle of kids along.  She was a lead mare to be sure, but that also meant she was uncomfortable going out alone.

“No worries girl” Dee patted her on the shoulder.  The mare snorted, snatching the bit and pulling hard toward the ground.  Dee let the reins slip through her fingers, allowing the mare all the rein she might need.  The mare jigged and Dee laughed.  “Is it a run you want?”  The dogs sensed the possibility as well and began jumping and spinning, looking at her with bright eyes and open smiling mouths. “Let’s jog across the bridge and have a go at heart attack hill – shall we?” As if on cue, the mare picked up her head, spread her nostrils wide and headed out at a brisk hoof-flicking trot, head high, ears alert.  Dee kept her knees alongside the saddle and her heels firmly planted as it wasn’t unlike Ivy to spook and spin.  The mare stopped short in front of the little bridge.  She offered to spin and head home but Dee held her steady, facing the bridge.  “You’re right friend, it’s too slick for a trot across, let’s take our time and walk, our gallop is around the corner.”  The mare snorted, eyes wide. The dogs grinned from the other side of the bridge, begging them to cross. The spring run off was powerful and the water raged beneath the bridge muddy and impatient, crashing over downed trees and rocks. 

Ivy locked her knees refusing to go forward.  Dee instinctively closed her calves against the mare’s sides and the mare revolted, curling her spine and digging in harder. Dee normally rode with spurs so a well timed and well placed tap could communicate to the horse direction or bend – she had none today.  Anger rose in her throat and she found herself growling at the stubborn mare. “For Christ’s sake you stupid beast, it’s a bridge we’ve  crossed a million times!” The mare rooted at the bit, her ears spinning wildly around.  

Dee inhaled slowly.  Time and experience proved  that violence against horses rarely produced good results. This mare in particular had a stormy fight response to pressure.  It’s wasn’t a result of bad training, it was exactly who she was – strong, independent and stubborn.  In a herd, these traits would serve her well, until a younger and stronger mare with the same qualities supplanted her position as protector and enforcer. What the mare needed was leadership, someone to trust as strong and courageous. While Dee didn’t feel either at the moment, she knew that if she gave the mare what she needed, the mare would reciprocate and what Dee needed was a gallop in the woods. 

Photo by J. Dunlap 2019

Dee hopped off, took the reins over Ivy’s head, patted her neck and led her across the bridge.  The mare snorted and danced but kept an eye on Dee.  With a grunt and a curse, Dee remounted. The mare was still agitated and didn’t want to stand still.

 The release was sweet for both woman and horse as soon as they were galloping up the hill, bounding hounds in front.  

Heading back home, the mare walking with long relaxed steps, Dee’s mind found the clarity it sought. The problem was Metta and what to do with her.  Metta’s legitimate distrust of humans meant she would never be a reliable saddle horse. Her insecurity was ruining Joey, one of her best lesson horses. Luckily, the mare seemed healthy now that she had recovered a reasonable amount of weight.  

“Nate!” She yelled out, surprising Ivy and the dogs. She smiled at her stroke of brilliance. Nate Hamer ran a rescue  in the foothills above San Diego. It would be a haul, but she could adopt a young horse from Nate, something for Mary and Colette to train up and in exchange, she could convince Nate to give Metta a sanctuary running around the pasture with dozens of other retired horses. She’d call him right away.  Nate never turned down a chance to give a horse like Metta a sanctuary. It wasn’t fair to dump the animal on the Hamers but she would relieve Nate of trainable ex racehorse she could sell the following year. 

As if on cue Ivy rooted obnoxiously at the bit pulling Dee forward.

 “Yup” she laughed, “a one year ‘project horse’ just like you Ivy.”  

Ivy snorted  and marched home. 

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