Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Life, story, horses. (FREE STORIES.)

The world is full of stories. I don't believe in "writer's block". There is always one memory linked to another and then another... and there is no end to it. One can pick and choose and build a fiction of it, or one can tell the story as they saw it when it really happened, but in the end, it's your own story and no one else's.

Sure, I can think back on one memory and see it from several angles. But then I have to choose which to write and how I want it to mess with the deliberately-vulnerable (thats why we all read, you know -- plus, it's safer than the rides at King's Island or the Flags parks, hehe) emotions of the reader.

In that vein I've posted two stories from my archives (some of you have no doubt already read them) about a mare named Ever (in real life) here, and each is from a different segment of her life -- and my own association with her. You'll see why I chose these two when you read them together, one after the other. Oh yeah, I should also mention that these are from my years of working on the Bluegrass horse farms.

I hope you enjoy them. If not, toss 'em in the muck pile. The cows will eat anything in the heap. 

>->->------------------------> Rhonda (Feathers)

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The world is full of willing people;

some willing to work, the rest willing to let them.

~ Robert Frost

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A Stoned Freight Train

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Working with horses is dangerous. The odds of getting badly hurt seems to increase with the amount of time involved with them; that is, especially if one is relatively new to the game and has not been raised around the animals. Some of those injuries are preventable, some are strange quirks of fate, and some ... well, it just seems the question is "when" more than "if". Not all the blame will always rest on the animals, though they are large, fast, and often very unpredictable even to the experienced handler.

A groom, careless, walks past a stall door on a hot day. There is only a heavy webbing across the doorway, to allow air circulation. A young horse, full of life and energy, seeing only a glimpse of something behind it, does what nature has programmed it for and lashes out with two hard hind heels. The careless groom is taken away in an ambulance with badly broken bones. The weapon was dirty, the pain is enormous. Another groom, just days later, wears a large diamond engagement ring to work to show it off. She loses ring, diamonds, and most of the hide from the back of her hand when she forgets that the boss's huge cross-bred hunter is snappish and ill-tempered with women. She nearly loses a finger -- the one with the showy ring on it.

These were real injuries, and only the thinnest skimming of those I've seen. Horses can, and sometimes will, kill. Deliberately, at times, thanks to "training" inadvertantly passed on to the animals by the people around them, usually in the name of cash profit. Mares as well as stallions, and the occasional gelding, are included in this count. Anytime one cares completely for a creature several times their own size and mass, caution and respect are a must.

A few simple safety measures must be ingrained in the horseperson permanently. Then the risks are greatly reduced, and the joy of working with these fascinating animals surfaces. Another reason to be careful involves that, in the Thoroughbred industry, health care or disability insurance was almost nonexistant, even then -- now it's far worse. If you''ve been disabled permanently, you're simply out of luck.

A few of the most basic things on the safety list for ground-handling of horses (1) are: Do not walk behind an animal that you are not familiar with, ever. If you must walk behind the animal, walk as closely as possible to its hindquarters; up close, the leverage is less, and therefor the possibility of injury directly reduced. Do not offer food to a horse from your fingertips, only offer it from the flat palm of your hand. (2) Never, ever wind anything (ropes, lead shanks) also attached to the horse around any of your extremeties -- this one may sound odd, but think about the implications of being essentially tied to a speedy animal with brutally hard feet. Do not allow a horse to force you, accidentally or otherwise, too near a large, immovable object (unless you really want to be squashed). Be aware that a horse's head is a very effective bony club, and it can hurt you by simply moving faster than you expect. (3) Watch your feet at all times. Be aware of where you and the animal are in relation to each other.

Unfortunately, the best-tempered horse can hurt you. But then, horses too get hurt in ways that are just as preventable. Worse, they come into viciously cruel beatings for reasons that are totally beyond their ken. (4) This happens with every breed or type of horse, and is by no means nonexistant among private horseowners or professionals. Human nature is a wild card in the mix.

Over the many years since my father got my first pony for me (I was six months old), I've had numerous injuries. None of them were that severe, "knock on wood" for luck. Bitten, kicked, sat on once (5), rolled on, rolled completely over, "clotheslined" on tree limbs, bucked off, fell off, slammed with that infamous bony horsehead, and stepped on many, many times, I've got a few aches and pains to go with the memories. Most of the "little" injuries are forgotten shortly after healing is complete. Of course, I'd go right back to the work if I was able. It's addictive in a way only a devoted horseperson would understand.

Most of my injuries were simple accidents; only one was involving drugs. The horse was stoned -- not me!

There was a mare, a big, older broodmare on one of the farms we worked at, that everyone called The Freight Train (6). This was because the old girl had won her laurals on the race track by simply charging forward, looking neither right nor left when focused, but only intent on going as fast as she could to wherever it was that she was aimed. This was a personality trait, not a miracle of race horse training.

F.T., as I shall call her, was generally liked. She only had one or two other (fairly manageable) quirks, one of which was that she feared having her feet worked on. (7) Otherwise, she was gentle and easy to handle, producing large, well-built foals. The old mare was a "black type" winner, meaning that she had won several nice stakes races, making money along the way to becoming a brood animal. She and another mare, one I'll call Mo', were best buddies in the fields, and with both of them easy to catch, the grooms petted them up a lot. Her other quirk was that she really hated to be separated from her foals at weaning time, and had to be tranquilized and walked away before she understood what was happening.

That's what got her stoned that day. It was weaning day, and F.T. was one of several mares who would be leaving her foal at the yearling barn (8) on her way to the back-field broodmare stables. We walked the long, white gravel driveway to the shed-row yearling facility, poked the weanling in a stall where it received food, water, hay, and a light tranquilizer. F.T. got a big dose of the tranq, the rest of the mares a lighter one. I, by some strange fate, ended up with her.

The dark brown mare was a long-legged piece of work, long strided and gawky on a good day. Old F.T. was also affectionate, especially when stoned on some fresh-from-the-veterinarian tranquilizers. It was about half of a mile from the yearlings to the back barn and the large broody paddock, as we called it. Quite a walk. I hate walking, thanks to flat feet and a set of muscles that, when I was young, spent more time on ponies than on the ground. But we made the best of it, she and I.

As time passed and we walked, the tranq began to hit her harder. She was wobbly, like a happy-go-lucky drunk looking for a park bench to sprawl on. I kept pushing her off me with my right hand, throwing my left out for balance, the long leather shank threaded straight from her halter to the left hand. The ground was uneven, it had been a long six-day week, and I was bone-tired that late in the afternoon. Suddenly, it felt like I was dodging feet more than I was walking on my own. I'd have been safer riding her and praying she didn't pass out while under me, but such wasn't technically permitted, though it happened often enough. She was heavy with her next foal, that big belly swaying with every step.

Across the fields, down the lane between paddocks, over the driveway again, and down across the wash toward the barn we went. F.T., led by me, in front, another mare, led by Ivan, one of my coworkers, in back. The next batch of two mares would be a few minutes behind us, staggered on purpose to prevent grooms being crowded by anxious mares missing their foals. With every step toward the little wash, F.T.'s steps got longer and looser. I had trouble keeping up, and she wasn't about to slow down; I already had all my weight on the shank to no avail. Stopping that mare was like stopping a freight train to hell: not easy, by any means.

Suddenly, she looked to the right and slopped a huge left forefoot onto my right foot. Since I was holding the lead shank and wasn't going anywhere, she stopped, peering at me drunkenly from a large, dark eye. I yelped for her to get off of me. She was on my big toe... and just the tips of the next three... with her aluminum shoes and those huge feet that were so perfectly in scale for her.

Ivan, still holding the other mare, stood there with his jaw hanging open. His eyes were as big as dinner plates, and I soon realized why. The words that were coming out of my mouth were not polite ones. Sure, Ivan was a Marine once upon a time, but he'd never heard such a repertoire as I had to offer, apparently. I pushed the mare, shoving hard. I might as well have been trying to move the Appalachian Mountains with a wheelbarrow. In desperation, I began to thump the horse's shoulder with my fist, hard. She didn't move for endless moments, then slowly, slowly, the big hoof cleared the ground, revealing my abused foot. The blood rushed back into the bruised and crushed toes, and I began to curse again. Poor Ivan was in shock. So I cussed him too, for good measure, since he hadn't moved out of his tracks to help in what seemed to be hours. 

Limping and cussing, I managed to get the mare across the small stream at the wash and up the hill to the isolated barn. Ivan followed in total silence, having gained a minimum of control of his sagging jaw. (9) Going back to the road would have meant crossing a hollow-sounding wooden bridge, something one of my own horses would be trained to accept, which would be virtually impossible to get one of those mares to cross. After a while, someone came with a truck to pick us up. I was sprawled out on a stack of hay with my foot elevated when they got there.

For a solid year, I walked only in shoes with the toe of the right one cut out. There was no workman's compensation form, no trip to the emergency room of the local hospital. That big toe was crushed, I have no doubt. The blood-blisters on the tips of the next three toes attested loudly to the amount of pressure the horse's weight put on that foot; they took months to heal and disappear.

Oh, don't worry. The Freight Train sobered up nicely. She produced a handsome colt three or four months later, who proceeded to step on feet all around him, just like his sweet mother did before him.

By the time that foal was born, I no longer worked in the foaling barn -- the moved me to the yearling sales preparation department. Where I proceeded to get banged around in myriad other ways. And yes, I'd still go back, if I could.

(1) Riding has another whole set of rules. I'm not going to get into it all here. There isn't space, LOL.

(2) A horse's teeth are curved, and meet so; they cannot bite you if your hand is flat.

(3) I've seen a lot of bloody noses from less than alert grooms getting hit when the horse swung its head to avoid a horsefly bite.

(4) If a horse lays its ears back and snaps (clearly more than self defense) and you don't smack its nose then, on the spot, you might as well forget it and try to catch it next time. They don't have fine-tuned logic, in general. Appaloosas seem to have almost as much logic as a mule is claimed to have, but most horses only recognize and remember immediate associations with pain and pleasure. Ten minutes, two minutes, thirty seconds later -- you've wasted your efforts and punished an animal that has absolutely no understanding of why. That's not a correct training method; it's very wrong.

(5) This one was memorable: a miniature stallion who was frightened and backing up, backed into me where I knelt sorting used horseshoes from a bucket of oil. He plumped right down on my bent back. Thankfully, he was very small indeed, as was I at the time. We both lived through it.

(6) The mare's name was not The Freight Train -- that was her on-farm nickname.

(7) Therein lies another story of The Freight Train (F.T.).

(8) Weanlings, some as young as five months by the calendar, become legal "yearlings" on January one, in the Northern Hemisphere. That's Jockey Club rules, and it might as well be law. 

(9) Ivan was always willing to work -- as long as somebody else did the actual sweating.

Copyright June 28, 2006, by Rhonda L. M. Tipton

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It hath been often said,

that it is not death, but dying,

which is terrible.

~ Henry Fielding, Amelia

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The End of the Tracks 

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To every story another side, and to everything, an ending, regardless of the manner of it. The story yet untold puts a narrow twist in the ending, a thing totally unforseen. Looking back at such a passage, one questions the path leading up to it, perplexed and lost as to whether the ending is, yet, a true one. For that, we can only look back to the beginning, and wonder. 

A long day and a hard one, full of dealing with small problems, one after the other. Farriers, veterinarians come to work on the horses, carpenters and plumbers come to work on the farm itself, and the whole of the population of the grooms busy the entire day just to assist and reorganize everything in the order it came up. The main chores of feeding and caring for the horses remained to be done, just the same. That old cliche about one foot in front of the other came to be almost a religion on days of that sort, which happened more often than not. 

At the end of that whirlwind day, I prepared to head home. The next day was our day off, and all I could think of was getting some gone. That's why I was standing in the wide open door of the foaling barn when the pestery little red-headed farm manager walked up the hill with his two blue heeler dogs; I was watching for Ronnie to come pick me up to go home. The thoughts of a cool shower (not that we had any other kind, with well-water and a tiny twenty gallon water heater) to get the crud off, then a trip back home to the hills for the evening, ran through my head. The last thing I wanted to do was try to be civil to someone who never failed to be -- almost but not quite -- slyly rude. 

He wanted me to trim his fat bitch's toenails, since he knew I kept nippers designed for a dog that size and could use them without hurting the already nervous dog. Without wasting too many words, I told him I'd do it on Sunday, when we came back to work. I didn't have the tool with me right then. It was a cool day, but inside the edge of the barn it wasn't bad, so the man showed me the dog's crooked toenail, the main problem, as we stood there. We were bent over the restless canine in the shelter of the doorway when an awful racket suddenly began in the large paddock just past the string of tiny "newborn" paddocks beside the big barn. 

It wasn't unusual to see or hear horses running in a paddock of some size, so we'd paid little attention to the pounding of hooves so close to us. Another farm employee drove up in a rush as the manager and I charged out of the barn, dog forgotten entirely. We threaded our way through the little pens and across the wide, white gravel driveway. 

In the nearest corner of the field lay the twitching form of a large horse, three other mares looking on and blowing, their eyes white-rimmed with fright such as the smell of blood will set off in a herbivore. The body of the downed animal was partially hidden behind a semi-conical cement water tank that thrust up from the ground to about waist high. The wide top of the structure obscured her head and neck from our view. We couldn't tell if she was alive or dead, or what had happened. 

The other farm worker almost fell, trying to get out of his truck in a hurry. He told us he'd seen it all. The man's voice was high and tight with shock and amazement. The picture of four mares racing around the field was so beautiful, he said, that he'd stopped to watch them. They were running for the pure joy, just running wide open and all together in a line. They'd swept the turn of the field, then headed toward the foaling barn corner. He saw the water trough, and thought they'd part to go around it. 

At the last minute, one mare went off to the side, then two went off to the other side, and The Freight Train didn't. She did what she was almost legendary for, and just plowed on, straight into the heavy cement structure. It was empty, which didn't help; the impact threw her over into it and back out, from which she thrashed (trying instinctively to get up, no doubt) to the other side, a full quarter turn back where she'd come from. She was clearly a mess -- there was a leg that didn't look right, blood on her face, neck, chest, and ribs, and a large dent in the side of her barrel, in those bloody marks on her ribcage. She looked like she'd been hit by a freight train, the poor old girl. 

The manager smiled grimly, rubbing his neck with satisfaction. F.T. had dumped him on his neck not a week before, when he "quicked" her with a horseshoe nail too close to the living tissue of her foot. She was afraid of farriers, and he'd insisted on doing the job because it paid extra money, big money by comparison to the average horseman's wage. He hated the mare with an abiding passion. 

A small crowd gathered; Ronnie had showed up, and since the way off the farm was beside the scene of the wreck, so to speak, the foaling barn parking lot filled up fast. Someone called the farm secretary, who called the farm owner (she was out of the country), and someone called the veterinarian. The whole time, grooms took turns sitting at F. T.'s head, preventing her from thrashing with a firm, gentle hold and by soothing her with kind words and soft voice. The old mare was clumsy, but she wasn't mean or hard to handle in general. She was a friendly old soul, and everyone on the farm knew her. 

When the vet got there, he sucked in his breath as soon as he saw her lying there. Most of us already knew that she wasn't going to get out of this one alive, but his was the voice the insurance company and the farm owner would hear above all others. We just hoped he could go on and help her get some peace. 

She lay there on the cold, damp autumn soil, covered in layers of straw and old blankets, for the rest of the night, until she died on her own in the early morning. The farm manager kept telling the farm's owner one thing, the veterinary told her another. The insurance company would, as a result, believe none of them, having also heard it all. In the end, F.T. saved them the trouble and took a last, long breath riddled with foamy red bubbles. The bubbles sparkled in the morning's frost, though her eyes were as dull as mud when I went to tell her goodbye. It was the end of the tracks for the old Freight Train. 

She'd had one last race, on her own turf, in her own way. The old mare was ahead of the others when they split off and left her. It was the last race she ever ran, her dignity stolen at the end, but her pride still intact: not a sound did she make in suffering, the whole time. 

Copyright June 29, 2006, by Rhonda L. M. Tipton