Sunday, 19 September 2010

Buttermilk and Me

A friend once asked me, "What is it about girls and horses?" I've thought about that question far longer than I should ever have. I still don't really know what it is about girls and horses, why we tend to be drawn to them at an early age and why we in particular delight at the prancing hooves, the flowing manes, the flying flags of tails held high in an exhilerating romp across a pasture. It's so natural, so intuitive to me, that I don't even think about the fact that anyone could be anything but intoxicated by the sheer majesty of these animals.

I spent most of my childhood dreaming about horses. My storage boxes from days gone by are piled with hundreds, thousands of horsey drawings, stories, journal entries--not to mention the boxes and boxes of My Little Ponies, Barbie horses, Fashion Star Fillies (you'd forgotten those, right?), and Breyer collectibles. I was, not to mince words, obsessed. No two ways about it. Every dime I earned from Christmas, birthdays, babysitting or miscellaneous chores around the house went into my "horse fund," a little box that held all of my hopes and dreams. While other kids were squandering their cash on candy and toys, I was squirreling it away, passing the time drawing, reading, writing, imagining what life would be like if I only had a horse. I don't think anything on this earth could have replaced the feeling that I had as a child dreaming about horses.

By 15, I'd saved up just enough money to acquire something on the cheap end of the scale. My first horse, Ahab, was a spitfire, but, in spite of his tendancies to jump out of his skin at the slightest hint of movement or noise, he saved me from the majority of the pitfalls of adolescence. On his back, I escaped the feelings of being awkward, different, creative. He didn't care if I was pretty or ugly or had the right clothes. We had an understanding and we loved each other, even when he was being "Winnie the Pill."

Since Ahab, I owned a couple of horses throughout my life, but moving around and changing lifestyles made consistent horse ownership difficult. After moving to London and giving up my third horse, a rescued racehorse named Enchanted Moment (Emmy), I decided to wait on horse ownership until I had a more stable, steady job and knew where I wanted to live for the next five years. After that, I went without really riding for about three years, which was the longest stretch of time that I went without being in the saddle. I'd look through old photos whimsically, or my ears would perk at the sound of clopping hooves. Riding is like some toxins: you can never quite get it out of your blood once it's there. I'd resolved that I'd start riding again someday, but I never really knew when that would be, and life had taken a very ungraceful fall. Through bad relationships, economic downslides, and waylaying of my career goals due to industries faltering, my confidence was badly shaken and I didn't know when I'd ever recover. I began that slow spiral into deep depression: binge eating, falling out of exercise routines, really doing much of nothing except what was absolutely vital to survive. Finally, moving to yet another new city, Los Angeles, I stumbled upon Nathalie, Yves, Saddlerock and Buttermilk.

Nathalie is a distant relative. We have the same last name, which is as rare in France as it is in the U.S. She moved to the states some 15 years ago. And, she, like me, is obsessed with horses--I guess it runs in teh family. she introduced me to her trainer, Yves, who, unlike most horse trainers on the planet, actually loves horses. Other than my own father, he's probably the kindest man I've ever met. Every Saturday I meet them at Saddlerock.

There's nothing like this place to me. It is a piece of heaven on this earth, a physical manifestation of all of the dreams that I've ever had as a child and beyond. Horses, llamas, camels, zebras, donkeys, longhorn cattle, emus, and buffalo graze over acres of echoing land through the canyons of sun-christened Malibu. Thousands of wine grapes thread over the hills in neat little rows in the distance, while, on the property avocados, blackberries, pomegranates and other delectable fruits populate the trees. Sculptures, foot bridges and fountains decorate the landscape, and the air above the smog here is ripe for breathing.

Saddlerock is where I met Buttermilk. His first owner had given him away to the barn owners because she claimed that he was dangerous. After a couple of years, more or less, out to pasture, he'd seen little human kindness or compassion of any sort, and had gotten quite tubby to boot. Yves wasn't sure about him, given his huge golden and white splotched body and sluggish movement, if he'd really turn out to be a good horse for me, but he said that he would try the little guy.

"Buttermilk? Butterball is more like it!" Nathalie had quipped.

When I first entered Buttermilk's sunbaked pasture, he seemed unsure of me. His pink, semi-sunburnt nose wrinkled a little bit, and he looked at me quizzically (he has one brown eye and one blue eye) but he wasn't upset with me. He followed me through the property, looking around nervously at the shadows in the trees, as I led him 1/4 mile or so to where I would be tacking him up.

The first couple of rides were barely thirty minutes long. His out of shape body lagged and his breath quickened. within a few circles at the trot. My second ride with him was completely in two-point (standing up in the stirrups--think power squats for 20-30 mins at a time) to alleviate any strain on his weak back. My out-of-shape body was sore for a week after that.

My third lesson, he bucked me off. It was kind of my fault. Yves had wanted me to rev him up to get him to canter, and he did not like the slightly too hard wield of the crop. He started crowhopping and then let out a colossal bronc move. I landed on my hip, hard and could barely walk for a couple of days afterward. I was back on the next week.

Slowly he's getting better. As I rode him underneath the trees yesterday, as he looked around with anxiety at the possible boogie men in the shadows, I rolled my seat back a bit more, hugged my legs reassuringly around his belly a bit more, and he let out a HUGE sigh. His muscles decontracted, his head lowered, and his ears flicked back to catch my signals to him. In that moment, I knew that we were okay. That everything, somehow, was going to be okay.

Last week, Yves sent me a message: "I think that if we totally retrain him from scratch, we're going to have a good boy here."

I think that we're going to have more than that up ahead.

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