Don’t Eat My Scarf
“What’s your new life up on the ranch like?” my mom asks. “Paint a picture for me.”
Never have I been around as much critters, and as few people. Living on 200 acres on top of a mountain with only two neighbors on the property creates that. There are no traffic noises to speak off, and the stars are so bright I think I’m back on Moloka’i. Some might think it’s lonely, but it’s not. Can’t be with six cats, sixteen horses, five chickens, my two huskies plus three other dogs, and of course, Mr. Blueberry, our Beta fish (who was my first grade classroom pet, and has now migrated to a ranch).
When I go to sit down on the bench outside our door, immediately, I’m surrounding by furry felines. Toes (the black cat with white paws) claims my lap first, but that doesn’t thwart the five others from circling and snuggling. Bonnie and Smoke 1 are bold as a pair, and actually try to climb on my lap too, as much as they can before Toes tries to claw them in the face. Bonnie is a purring machine; she punctuates her constant hum by what I can only categorize as purr-hiccups. Smoke 2 and Butters circle and twine, stretching up to put their paws on my shoulder, waiting for me to give them a nice scratch down their spine or across their cheek. Smoke 3 is a little more shy, remaining by my feet. Toes will start to purr and cat talk to me, and then he does the cutest thing ever, nestles his head under my chin, up wear my scarves usually are, and rubs his head in the warm space there.
Then it’s off with my huskies, Pono and Luna, for a walk and to visit my horse. After 10 months of owning a horse, I’m still getting used to saying that, My Horse. Shots was a Valentine’s gift from my husband, a gift that answered a wish I first had in the first grade. Now that I’m 45, that’s actually a very old wish. As I tell my first grade students, “See, wishes can come true!” (Of course, I don’t tell them to figure out the math, and that for some wishes you might have to wait four decades.) The past is never far away—I’m also learning “Black Stallion” from The Black Stallion, a movie I saw when I was just a kid. It’s by Carmine Cappola (Francis’ father did the composing for many of his movies), and when I play it on the piano I think of Shots. The music is the part of the movie when the boy and the horse have been marooned on the island; the scene when the boy feeds the horse for the first time, and the first time the boy hugs the horse. Shots is fast like the black stallion was—he was a barrel competition horse—that means he can shoot off and run around barrels set in a clover-leaf pattern in just a minute flat. He means he’s very well-trained, can do the side step and all of that. Problem is, at 15, he’s gotten stubborn. He’s smart too, and knows that I’m such a novice, so green, so he tries to get away with things with me. Like suddenly going backwards when I’m riding him, refusing to go forward unless there is food involved.
We’ve actually had a tough time connecting, mostly because I feel he was traumatized like most rescues are—his owner of many years moved, and gave him to us. He wasn’t ready to accept us. He didn’t like to be petted. When I came up to the fence, he would just lunge at us, trying to bite us or aggressively grabbing the food we brought out of our hands. When all the other horses, even the white Arabian stallions, loved me petting them, their necks, their ears, Shots remained aloof. If I didn’t bring a handful of grass or a carrot, he literally would turn around and turn his butt towards me. When other horses, like Cassiano, sent me long lingering looks, and shook their manes and batted their eyelashes at me, and then snuggled up for a nice scratch down their neck or under their mane, Shots just gave me a good view of his butt.
He’s an all black quarter horse, about 1200 pounds. He has black eyes, black hair, a nice thick black coat, especially in winter. It’s like velvet. And finally, after ten months of waiting patiently, of feeding him extra till he kept on the weight he lost after his old owners left, finally, he’s warmed up. When I walk Luna and Pono to him in the morning, he nickers to us, even before we see him. He comes right up to the gate, and Pono or Luna will stick their heads through the gate. Shots will lower his massive head, and it’s a sight to see, my white Siberian husky nose to nose with this great black horse. Warms my heart when they kiss, when they’re calm, when Shots doesn’t even move when he’s being licked by two huskies.
Actually, having huskies has helped me with having a horse. I kind of treat him just like I do with a big dog (although always with safety and caution in mind, since horses can move, and often do, two to three times faster than humans). If I have him in the corral and am brushing him, and he starts to crowd me out, I just push him away. I push on his side, or push his big head out of the way. I talk to him just like I do to my dogs. He’s so gentle and calm that I don’t have to put his halter on and tie him up when I brush him, or even if I clean his hooves. . .he’ll stay in one place as long as there’s food involved. He’s a very food-oriented animal. If I’m leading him from the outside corral back to his pasture and he stubbornly stops and tries to eat the grass on the hillside, I hold his halter firmly in my hand and don’t let him reach the grass. I might not be able to move him, but I employ the same training strategy I do with my huskies (I’m a husky owner of 14 years), I’m the boss, and they aren’t going to get what they want until I say so, even if that means standing in the middle of the path for a long time. (At least with my huskies, I can pull them in the direction I want to go. With a 1200 pound horse, it’s not happening. That’s where the patience I learned in dealing with training huskies comes in.)
After Pono and Luna are done kissing Shots and sniffing, they all ignore each other. Oftentimes, I’ll gather up another handful of grass for him. Whereas before he would just grab the whole edible gift, not being careful of his teeth, now he takes his time, carefully biting down, usually extending the experience to three gentle bites. All the time, he looks at me with his giant black eyes, and the long lingering stares are there, and the butterfly-in-love feeling all little girls have with horses comes right back. That’s when I’ll scratch his neck, pulling burrs away from his gorgeous coat, making sure they don’t get down into his ears.
Like dogs, and children (and I should know, since I’ve raised a son), Shots makes a mess of himself quickly. I just brushed him for a Christmas picture (which we never got to take). He was perfect, not a speck or a burr on him, his longish mane and tail beautiful, his coat velvet. (Actually, it turns out my horse has dandruff!, who knew?, so I’ll have to give him another bath soon, when the weather turns warmer, but you couldn’t see the dandruff, so he looked fine.) He looked perfect in the late afternoon, and then what does he look like the next morning? Covered in mud (horses like to roll in the mud, who knew?) and with burrs all in his mane, tail and ears.
When Shots is done eating my morning offering of grass or carrot, he pokes his head through the long bars of the gate to smell me, and see if I have any other offerings hidden. Sometimes, he tries to eat my scarf. That’s when I tell him, “No, Shots, don’t eat my scarf,” and push his big head back through the bars.
Around this time, he leans in to be scratched. He really likes the area around his ears to be scratched. He can be pretty powerful, and gets so into it, I have to be careful he doesn’t crush my arm against the bars as he moves his head down, sometimes very quickly, for my scratches. But he’s getting better about this too. So I’ll rub his head, and scratch down his spine, and on his neck under his mane, and sometimes he’ll put his big head right next to mine, and lean down so I can put my arm up around him, to scratch his neck on the other side. On cold mornings, he’ll stay like this for a while, his cheek next to mine, motionless, letting me hug him and slowly rub his neck.
So soon, a bath to get rid of his dandruff. (And I’ll learn better from the last time, when I accidentally ended up roping him and he wrapped himself up until he toppled over and I had to run to get a pair of shears to cut his halter rope off—oh man.) Yes, I will definitely do the bath better than last time. And soon, we will go riding again (and he won’t decide to go backward) through the forest, with Philip walking our huskies, past the creek that has waterfalls now (it’s winter), out under the trees that have lost their leaves. I will look forward to fall again, when the wide forest paths are dense with leaves, and the great crunching sound they make as Shots walked through them. And soon, very soon, he won’t keep trying to eat my scarf.