Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A thrilling spook

We’ve reached that time of the year again. Although the days are lengthening, opportunities for decent rides are as fleeting as the evening sun.

A year ago at this time, and the year prior, Limerick was calm. “At last, she is older and calmer,” I thought back then. I realize that I was wrong. She wasn’t older and calmer—she was sore. The arthritis creeping into her joints didn’t allow her to be silly.

Fast forward to now. January was bitterly cold. On the warmest days, I would groom Lim and turn her loose in the indoor arena for a blanket-free roll. On the coldest days—the days I had to dress in three layers on bottom and five on top, with two pairs of wool socks (and Toastie Toes!) in muck boots, my head wrapped in a scarf, hat, and hood, the air painful to inhale, my eyes watering, my fingers quickly going numb within my holey winter barn gloves—I could only hurry to the barn, kiss her on the nose, feed her, and hurry home.

She was turned out most days.

February was a bit better, temperature-wise. But the cycles of warm(er) and freezing temperatures created many slick spots and lots of frozen mud in the pasture. The horses didn’t go out as much.

In the past, Limerick was only ride-able in the latter stages of winter when she was both turned out daily and ridden often. Even then, each ride was a potential adventure, especially when the wind howled or melting slates of ice slid off the barn roof.

For the past two years this did not hold true.

And now, it is once again the case.

Two weeks ago, the temperatures were fairly warm (low 40’s) and Lim had been going out daily for some time. It was a perfect evening for a ride! The wind blew hard as a warm front moved in, and although I couldn’t hear it, I could sense that there was a month’s worth of snow and ice sliding off the metal roof of the indoor riding arena.

As I groomed and tacked her up, Lim was extremely alert. The barn owner’s daughter was working a horse in the dark outdoor arena, and from where Lim stood as I got her ready, she had a fuzzy view of the outdoor arena. Horses can see much better than humans in the dark, but not if they are standing in a lighted barn looking outside.

Lim’s head was up and her eyes were enormous. I offered her a treat and she took it between her lips but did not chew. I realized that a calm ride was not in the cards but how bad could it be? When Limerick was young and spooked, in less than the blink of an eye, she would bunch her Thoroughbred muscles into a mighty ball and explode forward with such a startling display of power that

(fortunately I, too, have cat-like reactions and during these tremendous spooks, was able to reflexively sit tight and hang on. By the time Stop this mare went through my head, Lim would be far away from her starting point—usually partway into one of her fatal 90-degree turns at a dead gallop)

there was really nothing I could do.

But she was older and calmer now, wasn’t she?

In the indoor arena, Lim bravely held herself together. The wind howled and the ice skittered off the metal arena roof, and she trembled in my hands. Her muscles were tightly-wound wires. I was gentle. I soothed her with my hands and voice. I thought of what I wanted to do, rather than doing it. And you know what? It worked.

Until a cat jumped down from the short arena wall by the viewing area and the taunt wires of Lim’s muscles snapped and suddenly, explicitly, our centers of gravity were not aligned and I realized that I was falling (but my core, and my own cat-like reflexes, were ahead of me and righted me) and she, we, were flying sideways into the air, her head so high, her long black mane a whirlwind before me. I was back on the four-year-old filly I first sat on almost thirteen years ago, her lean powerful frame narrow between my legs, her body like a finely tuned string instrument.

And then she was standing in place, forty feet from where we were a half second prior, blowing hard, snorting at the wall the cat had jumped down from. Her heart hammered between my knees, her muscles tensing up again.

I need to get off now, I thought. Now. She’s ready to explode again.

We were near the door at the back of the arena and it began to bang in the wind. I could see it banging. Lim’s head—pricked ears, wide eyes, snorting nostrils and all—swiveled towards the door. I could feel the roaring fire rage harder within her and knew we were


to another spook. She swiveled her head back towards the arena wall and snorted at the long-gone cat. She wanted to save us both from the monsters but we were cornered.

I let the reins drape—loose, but not so loose that I would be screwed if she took off again. I stroked her furry high neck, my hand easily going to her poll.

“It’s okay, sweetheart, nothing will hurt you. It’s okay, we’re okay,” I said. I was calm. I had to get off but I knew that at that moment, the action of swinging my right leg over the saddle could set her off again, and I’d be trapped with one foot in a stirrup, one foot on the ground. I had to get her calm first and that could only be done if I was relaxed. I stroked her neck and talked to her. Her heart slowed. Her breathing slowed.

Finally, I was able to carefully swing my leg over and dismount. I walked her back to the arena wall (at the sight of it, she snorted in alarm until I touched it). I put the lunge line over her bridle. I wanted to end the ride on a good note, but it would have to be on the ground.

She was okay. She moved freely. Her head was tucked low. But I could see her eyes rolling to and fro, and one ear—the outside ear—flicking about even as her inner ear remained on my voice. I could not hear what she was hearing but I knew it had to be spectacular. Howling wind and sliding ice. Maybe random sections of the arena—the doors, a loose board—creaking and banging.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the orange tabby fur of the cat.

I didn’t blink but I barely saw it. One second Lim was lunging before me—tense but okay—and the next second she was twenty feet away, the lunge line long and taunt between us, her legs splayed, her head high, her wide eyes and nostrils quivering.


A decade ago I would have been dismayed by such behavior. But now? I’m thrilled! After all the pain, all the heartbreak and worry, I am downright thrilled that my 18-year-old (per the Jockey Club) mare can move like the fleet-footed filly I knew so long ago.

Gone is the creaky, thin, arthritic mare of a year ago. In her place is a spirited, sleek, muscular thing full of Thoroughbred spirit and power.

I am thrilled!

But I’m not riding her without caution until she has been turned out consistently…and the temperatures rise for good!

No comments: