A Discussion of Unfortunate Behavior

I want to talk about abuse of power and abuse in the context of a relationship. They’re two different things.

Let’s start with abuse of power. An instructor at a writing workshop asked to “date” me about 20 minutes after the workshop ended. He meant, would I like to have sex with him? This was not abuse, although asking me right after the workshop end, when I had just been his student for a week, was sure slimy. I call him a sexual harasser because he did this to many young women he encountered, often more than once to the same woman. He wasn’t interested in them as people. He was interested in them as sexual targets, and he actively used any position of power he had to broach a sexual relationship with them. The workshop dealt with him appropriately. They stopped him from abusing his power as an instructor. However, he wasn’t “abusive” as it is used in the context of a relationship. He was not trying to isolate me, frighten me, or coerce me into something I didn’t want to do.

I have been in an abusive relationship. Whenever I set a boundary about sex, the other person variously sulked about it or stormed about it. Whenever I said I was uncomfortable, he told me how bad I was making him feel. He deliberately made me feel worthless for not providing him with sexual favors. That was a form of emotional coercion. He also threw physical objects around for time to time, which was frightening. He was a textbook abusive boyfriend.

I have been in a shitty relationship. My girlfriend was not terribly interested in my feelings, but she was happy to talk about herself, and I was delighted to listen; she was much more established in the writing industry than me. She taught me a lot of what she knew about how things worked and shared fascinating gossip. I thought I was in love with her, although in retrospect, I needed a lot of therapy. On top of that, she felt like my “in” to the industry. When we went to a convention together, I accompanied her to dinner with editors and published writers, and I felt like I was part of the in-crowd. After three or four months, she faded off and then broke up with me when I asked for more of her attention.

I spent the next three months drowning in suicidal ideation. I thought I might prefer to die than be without her. My reaction was a product of my brain chemistry, my particular insecurities, and a lot of other shit that was not, in fact, her problem or her fault. This was a terrible relationship for me, but it wasn’t because my girlfriend was abusive.

When two adults enter into a relationship, there is a reasonable expectation that harm may result. Breakups often hurt, and people on both sides usually lose social connections, access to expertise, and various amounts of power. This is the norm for a consensual romantic relationship, and either party has the power to end it at any time. The prospect of losing connections along with the person you’re dating does not make a relationship abusive. It makes it a normal relationship.

If what you’re valuing about a romantic relationship and a close friendship are the power they get you in an industry, then what you have is not an abusive relationship. What you have is a serious problem of treating people like stepping stones in your career. When people figure out this is what you’re doing, they’re not going to hold you up anymore.

I really did want to be friends with you, Alexandra Rowland.


Goodbye, Smudge

Smudge was a dog I didn’t want. When we agreed to foster her, though, I knew she was ours. No one wants a 143 lbs. untrained, unsound, seven-year-old malamute-Rottweiler cross–at least not anyone who should have one. She walked at a shuffle when she moved at all. I thought, she’s old (for a rotty), she’ll be an extra rug, and we’ll give her a home until she dies.


When we picked her up, she happily clambered in the car. In my house, she met my other dogs with interested sniffs and a few warning growls, and then walked to the door and looked at me expectantly. Her expression was clear; she’d had fun, but she was ready to go home.

We couldn’t take her home, of course. Instead, we took her on a walk around the neighborhood, and she was overcome with joy. She smelled everything that she came across with the utmost intensity. She made it about once around the block before she was breathing like a freight train, and when we got her home, she collapsed, exhausted, onto a dog bed.

When we picked up the leash the next morning to give her another walk, she couldn’t believe it. She snouted the leash. She had a ridiculous snout–too short and husky-like for her enormous rotty head. When Devin clipped on the leash, she snorfled, sounding rather like an extraordinarily happy dragon.


Despite knowing the dog market (such as it is), I made a lackluster effort to find her a home. I printed out posters and put them up in two locations. I offered her to several of my tutoring students. “Free potato dog,” I said. “You could have an enormous, blue-eyed potato in your house. It’ll be great.”

No one took me up on it. Just as well. I could not have been more wrong about her potato-ness.

We took her to the vet, who prescribed her an anti-inflammatory to keep her comfortable, and began a regimen of twice daily walks. Once Smudge twigged to the fact that walks would be a regular occurrence, she went to the leashes in the morning and evening, rumbling and snorfling. She made the best sounds. She had a chest like a barrel, and a wonderfully deep and resonant voice.


Gradually, the walks had to get longer because Smudge would not be tired afterward. She was an awful toy-hoarder (especially once Rhymer took one of her toys from under her nose and disemboweled it), so we bought a batch of horrible squeaky tennis balls that both dogs loved. Smudge did not approve of fetch. If you accepted one of her balls and threw it away from her, she’d snatch it up and run away to a corner to protect it. If, however, you threw the ball to her, she loved to play catch. She threw tennis balls to us in an impressive three-foot arc. Occasionally, she threw them at our very confused cats. If we failed to walk her enough, we’d get pelted by squeaky tennis balls all evening.

On her walks, Smudge took the concept of pack seriously. She could not stand to be split up from either people or dogs. If Rhymer and I lagged, every third step she’d glance over her shoulder. Eventually, if we were far enough, she’d stop and refuse to go on until we caught up.

Smudge was a dog of many, many opinions. As she became fitter, I decided that we could introduce some obedience. This seemed like an especially good idea with a dog who clearly hadn’t made the connection that doing things for people = way to get stuff. So, we began a regimen of “sit” before leash and walk.


Smudge knew what “sit” meant. However, she didn’t understand why, when we were about to do something amazing and awesome, we had to waste time with sitting. Unlike many dogs, who kind of shrug and go with it, Smudge stared at us with contempt that would make a cat jealous, snouted her leash, stared out the door, and otherwise did her level best to persuade us that we should stop fucking around and walk. Patience, though, is generally key to training. Once I knew she knew the command, I waited. And waited. And waited. After about five minutes of nonsense, with a little nudge of me walking into her space, Smudge would grudgingly and kind-of sit. Generally, things improve after this small victory. With Smudge, it was the same pattern for two weeks.

Finally, I looked at Devin and said, “Let’s go without her.” We took Rhymer and went out into the street, leaving the un-sitting Smudge alone in the house. We could see her big blue eyes staring at us in horror through the window until we walked out of sight.

Devin went back in, and Smudge’s butt was on the floor before she’d finished picking up the leash.


That, in a scene, was what training Smudge was like. She always thought through whether cooperation was in her best interest, and she didn’t give a damn what the humans thought. It was charming, in a way. I’ve interacted with a lot of dogs, and few of them are so utterly self-confident and independent.

Although I’ve heard a lot of stories of how sled dogs decide to take a walk and don’t come back for days, Smudge was awfully attached to staying with her pack on leash, and this proved to be the case off-leash, too. We started hiking every day. Smudge loved nothing more than she loved adventure. In this way, too, she was an unusual dog; she adored novelty. Every time I took her to a new hiking trail, she bounced and sniffed and wiggled with delight.


Smudge just wanted to take it in. She loved to move, developing a ground-eating pace that took us up and down hills for miles. She checked in with me constantly, and her big, excited eyes and doggy grin of shared pleasure were impossible to resist. An hour and a half hike in the morning became mandatory for the peace of the household, and I started loving it as much as the dog. We took up the practice of finding as many new trails (or semi-trails) as possible, and she was game for all of it. I began to think, wow. This isn’t a dog we’ll have for just a year.


And several emergency vet trips later, over the last few days, I found out we’d have her for even less than that. We put her to sleep yesterday. She hated the vet–she’d climb into the waiting room chairs and try to climb into our laps–so I gave her a healthy dose of opiates, and Devin and I walked her for a few hours at Shell Ridge, which was green from the recent rain and rich with smells. She went to the car and to the vet exhausted and happy, and Devin and I both stayed with her until she was gone. For all her independent spirit, she shoved her head into my hand, and her paw into Devin’s lap and wouldn’t let us move without reproachful looks. “I think she’s secretly a needy dog,” Devin said.


She only had five months with us, and I miss her terribly. I didn’t want her, I thought, but I was wrong, and it was such a pleasure to be a partner to that terrifyingly intelligent soul, with all her intense joy and bottomless appetite for adventure. Goodbye, beautiful, remarkable girl.


The Chicken Poetry Is Discovered

After Devin Singer and I hid illustrated poems about chickens in Sharon’s house, she responded. Her alias is Dr. Richard Poulton, a renowned chicken researcher. I am pasting this response below.

Dr. Richard Poulton
College of Fowl Studies
Department of Theoretical Psychology

Dear Ms. Haist (and Accomplices),

It is with a most bizarre sense of satisfaction that I write to you today having (I believe) managed to discover the last of the Poem/Cartoons which was hidden so very cunningly. !
Whereas these efforts certainly demonstrate an amazing dedication to the promotion of Chickenhood, and my heart (what’s left of it) is warmed (or at least partially thawed) by the artistry shown in all of these interesting (if not partially incomprehensible) offerings, I must say that I have some reservations as to the general psychological well being of those involved. I can only guess that the perpetrators (I mean artists) have a tremendous amount of talent (or pathology) and way (way) too much free time.

I am also led to believe that he, she or they may need an extended amount of counseling; or perhaps actual commitment to the mental health facility of their choice.

It is this last thought which compels me to write to you today with what I must assure you are the most sincere intentions. My past (murky and disjointed as it may be) has put me in touch with many who suffer from similar symptoms as, it would appear, are exhibited by those involved with this perplexing event. I have found that these early manifestations of fowl zealotry are indications of an underlying taxological dysphoria which, if left untreated, can lead to a number of frankly miserable complications.

These can include the subject’s delusional belief that he or she has been born into the wrong species altogether. This sad and sorry state often develops in the early teenage years and can be so overwhelming that the patient may seek to have a dangerous and often times disastrous surgery the details of which I will abstain from relating in this letter. Suffice it to say that such inappropriate yearnings in young people must be snuffed out by any and all parents, guardians or mentors who are acting in a responsible capacity with regards to the minor(s) in question. There lies an urgency in these situations which cannot be understated.

First and for most, the person(s) in question must be removed entirely from all sources of agitation by which I mean that there must be no exposure whatsoever to Gallus gallus domesticus. This will include dietary restrictions as well as visual and auditory exclusions. To be truly effective the community at large must cooperate to remove all such stimulus. In other words; it takes a village. Not the slightest stirring of a feather must be experienced by those who suffer from this affliction. I fear I must say that this will be a set of conditions which must be adhered to most strictly for the entirety of the patient’s lifetime.

It is with great sadness that I offer you this opinion as I am sure that you may have been under the misguided impression that this condition is benign and that the resulting deviant behavior was merely a harmless prank. Sadly, I feel it is my duty to inform you that those involved, at least from a psychological standpoint, are almost certainly doomed.

Yours in Regret,

Dr. Richard Poulton

Project: Chicken Poetry

I was invited to a night of Vogon poetry by friends Michael and Julia, and exceedingly pleased by the invitation.

I could use that, I thought. I could use some really terrible poetry.

Another of my friends, Sharon, was having a rough time with her real estate business. It involved her 90 plus year old mother and so many lawyers that she’d taken to nicknaming them. Sharon has always had a thing with chickens, featuring them prominently in her artwork. So, I conceived a plan to fill her house with the trials of chickens in modern life, in the form of poetry.

The brave souls of Michael and Julia’s Vogon Poetry party contributed many haikus, and my class of Viable Paradise XVII added additional haikus and limericks. Devin Singer and I illustrated them all, and yesterday hid them in appropriate places in Sharon’s house. When she comes home from her latest business trip, she will have a surprise.

And now, for your reading and viewing pleasure, the poetry of chickens:

Polar Vortext-brrr. Quick, buy a warm coat online! No credit for clucks.
Polar Vortext-brrr.
Quick, buy a warm coat online!
No credit for clucks.
There was a young rooster named Bob. Who was beautiful and a snob. He applied one day In a coop to lay But found laying hens was not the job!
There was a young rooster named Bob.
Who was beautiful and a snob.
He applied one day
In a coop to lay
But found laying hens was not the job!
Crop-culture warning: the immediate eggperience has passed sell-by date.
Crop-culture warning:
the immediate eggperience
has passed sell-by date.
The sky is falling!
They call me Chicken Little.
Bleep, Bleep, the cellphone Its battery is dying Sound like hungry chicks
Bleep, Bleep, the cellphone
Its battery is dying
Sound like hungry chicks
Stuck with these cluckas Chickenheads all around me with one cock to share
Stuck with these cluckas
Chickenheads all around me
with one cock to share
When driving down a Portland street Be slow and show respect. For my chicks and I May be strolling by As we hunt and peck.
When driving down a Portland street
Be slow and show respect.
For my chicks and I
May be strolling by
As we hunt and peck.
Feathered friend listen Silence falls when night draws near I will rub your feet
Feathered friend listen
Silence falls when night draws near
I will rub your feet
Leave a crack for light But no hole for any Fox News in the Henhouse
Leave a crack for light
But no hole for any Fox
News in the Henhouse
I fear holidays When humans slaughter my kin Except Thanksgiving Ninjas do not cluck Ninjas do not pluck feathers While leaping rooftops. I'm too fat to fly but I flap my wings daily watch for the wizard  (or Dorothy)
I fear holidays
When humans slaughter my kin
Except ThanksgivingNinjas do not cluck
Ninjas do not pluck feathers
While leaping rooftops.

I’m too fat to fly
but I flap my wings daily
watch for the wizard
(or Dorothy)

Cock Rock a Doodle Wouda shoula could do Ah, what a cock do.
Cock Rock a Doodle
Wouda shoula could do
Ah, what a cock do.
Day and Night I feel the loneliness of my coop and look upon yours
Day and Night
I feel the loneliness of my coop
and look upon yours
Goddamn I hate email Nothing but spam about getting my pecker enlarged.
Goddamn I hate email
Nothing but spam about getting
my pecker enlarged.
Hens above shit on me Chicken wire on all sides I'd kill for an omelette
Hens above shit on me
Chicken wire on all sides
I’d kill for an omelette
Drive-thru sabotage. Line up to pay for your sings, Human McNuggets.
Drive-thru sabotage.
Line up to pay for your sins,
Human McNuggets.
Cooped-up with feather brains not repeckful of the known hierarchy
Cooped-up with feather
brains not respeckful of the
known hierarchy
Knock, knock! Who's there? Chicken. Chicken who? Chicken you forgot to wash your hands and flush the toilet.
Knock, knock!
Who’s there?
Chicken who?
Chicken you forgot to wash your hands and flush the toilet.
There once was a chicken named Cluck Who was very hard up for a buck For a nickel a word The destitute bird Sold her fiction but not with much luck. Chickens flying high Over the fence to freedom In the yard, crickets.
There once was a chicken named Cluck
Who was very hard up for a buck
For a nickel a word
The destitute bird
Sold her fiction but not with much luck.Chickens flying high
Over the fence to freedom
In the yard, crickets.

telecommuting doesn't get the eggs laid, just makes lonely hens
doesn’t get the eggs laid,
just makes lonely hens
In Portland it used to be quite the thing To keep some urban hens But hipsters prowl For fresher fowl And now it's geese in pens.
In Portland it used to be quite the thing
To keep some urban hens
But hipsters prowl
For fresher fowl
And now it’s geese in pens.
Small Pen, windowless, stressed pace. Life's pecking order No time to cross road.
Small Pen, windowless,
stressed pace. Life’s pecking order
No time to cross road.
Around tribal fires I dance in circles headless Then into the pot
Around tribal fires
I dance in circles headless
Then into the pot
'Cause SIRI says so The chicken crosses the road: Beep-Bam! SIRI was wrong.
‘Cause SIRI says so
The chicken crosses the road:
Beep-Bam! SIRI was wrong.
I have sharpened my knives, I have Put on the heavy apron. Maybe you think life is chicken soup, served In blue willow-pattern bowls. I have put on my boots and opened The kitchen door and stepped out Into the sunshine. I have crossed the lawn, I have entered The hen house.
I have sharpened my knives, I have
Put on the heavy apron.
Maybe you think life is chicken soup, served
In blue willow-pattern bowls.
I have put on my boots and opened
The kitchen door and stepped out
Into the sunshine. I have crossed the lawn,
I have entered
The hen house.

Good Girl, Damnit, Part 6: Feather, How Bad Could It Be?

2014-05-02 07.25.11
Feather and I, 2014

The episode on that hill had finally made a dent in my confidence about my ability to survive Feather. Luck had played too large a role in keeping either of us from getting injured. I still didn’t want to tell Nancy, my trainer, but at least Sharon, who had seen me handle all sorts of terrain, knew I could ride. She was also unlikely to chew me out.

“Feather… isn’t steering well,” I told Sharon. “And she’s running away with me. I’m having a little trouble.”

Sharon looked skeptically at Feather and asked a few more questions about the issue. I could see her assessing the small, round chestnut mare and comparing her to the monstrous warmbloods she’d regularly brought through horsey boot camp. “I’m sure you can handle it,” she said.

I squirmed and gave her a watered down explanation about the episode on the hill, following it up desperately with, “Could you show me what you’d do?”

Sharon’s eyes narrowed as she listened. “Sure,” she said. “Let’s take Feather into the roundpen.” A roundpen, Sharon explained as we led Feather over, was the first step in handling a difficult horse. Basically, the fenced-in circle limited any shenanigans a horse might try, since the horse couldn’t get up the speed or space to become really unstoppable. We went in, and I stood in the middle, arms folded tightly across my chest. Sharon swung up onto Feather.

Feather has smooth gaits even for an Icelandic Horse: a beautiful flat-footed walk, a soft, floaty trot, and a rocking-horse canter. Sharon put her through all of them without any trouble. Feather, made cautious by the new rider and the new setting, didn’t put a foot wrong. Sharon’s skeptical look was returning. “She’s a nice mover,” said Sharon, “and very responsive to shifts of weight.”

“Try turning her some more,” I suggested. “She doesn’t like to turn.”

Sharon shrugged and put Feather through a few sharp turns. By now, Feather’s breathing had begun to quicken with the exertion. She wasn’t tired yet, just realizing she needed to work. Sharon asked her for another tight turn. Feather braced against the pull of the rein and took off at a brisk canter, head in the air. I’d only ever felt her do it, so it took me a moment to realize that not only had she taken off with Sharon, she’d gotten away with it.

“Huh,” said Sharon, as she experimented (unsuccessfully) with asking Feather to stop. Feather kept right on cantering, neck braced and jaw tight. “This is a really dangerous trick.”

Sharon got her stopped, eventually, through a combination of Feather having no where to run and rollbacks. She rode her another few laps, and Feather took off again. Unlike me, Sharon didn’t get angry and shaken. Instead, she looked thoughtful and a little grim by the time she finished and stopped Feather beside me.

“You can’t ride this horse on the trail. You’re going to get hurt. You have to tell Nancy about it.”

Sharon, far from thinking I was making a fuss over nothing, actually thought Feather’s behavior was legitimately dangerous. I absently ran my hand along Feather’s cheek, a weird mixture of stunned and relieved. “All right,” I said. “I’ll see what she says.”

Good Girl, Damnit Part 5: Feather, Downhill Battle

Skugga and my mom, Feather and I, 2013

When I brought Feather home, I immediately started riding the vast network of trails looping around the scrub hills around Mt. Diablo. Sometimes I could not stop Feather, and sometimes I asked her to go one way and she went the other, but my previous horse had run off with me all the time, and I was not greatly concerned. Feather was a mountain goat in horse form. She might drag me under the occasional tree branch, but she wasn’t going to fall over.

The problem was that the problem continued to get worse.

One evening, I was riding around in the big arena. On the sidelines, the usual assortment of barn biddies, my nickname for the snobby middle-aged women at the barn, sat around chatting on the row of stools. The barn biddies often had lame horses or only rode at the walk, so I did not think too highly of their opinions, which was a shame because they sure had a lot of them. I asked Feather to turn left, and, like usual, she stiffened her bull-thick neck and kept going. I pulled on the left rein harder. Feather threw her head in the air and took off to the right at a canter. The barn biddies sat up in interest.

I tried a few more times to turn left. Each time, Feather put on another burst of cranky speed, until we were tearing around the arena at a pretty good clip. I decided to stop. I pulled back on both reins. Feather’s ears flicked back in irritation. She went a little faster.

“Turn her in a circle!” called one of the biddies. My stomach knotted with embarrassment and annoyance. Trying to turn the horse had caused the horse to run away. Still, after another lap of canter, I tried to turn Feather again. She stiffened her neck and kept right on going.

What eventually stopped Feather, as you might expect, was Feather. I sat on her back and waited for a good ten minutes until, huffing and puffing, she broke into a trot and then, when nothing continued to happen, slowed to a walk and stopped. She stood in the middle of the arena, sides heaving, nostrils flared. The barn biddies shook their heads at me.

“Good girl,” I said through gritted teeth, and patted her sweat-darkened neck.

“Feather’s a little hard to steer and stop,” I told Nancy, “but she really likes to go. It’s great!” For years, I’d watched rides where horses bolted and spooked and threw their heads. I always wanted to find out how I would do if I rode them, hoping that I’d have that special, horse-whispering magic. I’d get on with my quiet hands and seat, and the horse would heave a sigh of relief and do whatever I asked. Now I couldn’t control even a fluffy little Icelandic horse, and I was terrified that if I didn’t pretend everything was fine, everyone would realize what a bad rider I was.

Nancy gave me instructions to make sure Feather did what I told her to. If I asked to go in a certain direction, Feather had to do it. No getting away with anything. I nodded desperately. I’d gotten to the point where I shrugged it off if Feather didn’t turn. Pulling more made her run away with me, which looked worse than acting like I hadn’t meant to turn anyway.

Maybe I hadn’t been trying hard enough.

One day, a storm broke out, an unusually heavy rain that thickened the air with the scents of adobe clay and wheatgrass. I could picture myself out there, astride my brave and sure-footed mare, exulting in that wild, alive smell.

“I’m going to ride,” I said to my mom, grinning, “on the trail.” Wisely, she only nodded. As often as I was glued to the computer, she was probably grateful that I was voluntarily leaving the house.

I saddled up Feather and rode out into the pouring rain, ready to throw my will against weather and horse, and determined to prove how much fun I was having. Feather was especially squirrely that day, fussing and twisting under me. I’m pretty sure she was wondering what kind of idiot goes out in a storm.  Crossing the road to the trails, I got her pointed up a hill and kicked. She went, marching up at a surly walk, and turning her head one way and then the other to look back the way we came. Each time, I got her straightened again. She wasn’t comfortable turning around on the hill, so she didn’t put up too much of a fight.

We got to the top, the flat top where her balance was just fine. She whirled a neat 180 and bolted right back down the hill.

The trail was not so much a trail as it was three hundred yards of mud. With every leaping stride downhill Feather took, I could feel her hit the ground and slide about a foot. I thought about trying to stop her. I thought about what would happen if my pulling made her slip in that mud on that steep hill. I stayed off her face and let her canter all the way down the hill. We didn’t die. We stopped at the bottom, splattered in mud and soaked to the skin.

I remembered my trainer saying that you shouldn’t reward a horse for being disobedient. I hadn’t listened to a lot that she’d said, but I’d taken that advice to heart. Trembling with adrenaline and anger, I turned Feather back around and kicked her up the hill again. No way was I rewarding by taking her back to the barn.

She slugged up the hill, apparently caught off guard by how far my questionable judgment went. This time, Feather didn’t wait until the top to turn and bolt. She spun around even as I yanked on her and jumped into a canter. It was just as scary going down the second time, and Feather must have been frazzled, too, because she stopped as soon as she could, at the bottom of the hill.

We stood there, looking longingly toward the barn, Feather’s sides heaving, my hands knotted in fists around the reins. Don’t let her get away with it. Better to do a little bit right than a lot wrong. I turned her up the hill once more, an iron grip on the reins. After a few steps, I called it good and turned her around myself. We stopped at the bottom of the hill, and I sat, too shaken to cry. My horse’s hot back steamed, and my fingers and nose were numb with cold.

My grand trail adventure had become a pyrrhic victory over ten feet of mud. I slid off Feather, pulled the reins over her head, and led her back to the barn on foot.

Good Girl Damnit, Part 4: Nice to Meet You, Feather

This is a placeholder post for the horse-buying episode.

Feather Grazing
Feather grazing, 2012

[Something about Nancy losing her temper with Haagen]

I finally approached my mom. “I want an Icelandic horse,” I said.

“What about Smokey?” she said, reluctant to object to any decision that led to me spending less time indoors and on the computer.

“We’ll sell him,” I said, with a pang. I’d grown up riding Smokey, but I knew he wasn’t what I wanted out of a horse. I also knew he wasn’t happy with me.

As it turned out, the grandson of Smokey’s retirement pasture had been missing Smokey as much as Smokey had been missing his green grass and best friend. We sold Smokey to him for a nominal price, and I was free to look for another horse.

Sharon and Nancy took me up to the breeder where Sharon had bought Haagen Daaz, and I met Feather for the first time.

I bought Feather when I was 16 and had never ridden a green horse. Feather is a bright chestnut Icelandic mare with a flaxen mane and tail, not literally green. “Green” means she didn’t know much about being ridden. Sensitive, opinionated, and fiery, Feather had spent six years of her life in pasture and was trained to allow a rider on her back. She steered and stopped when she felt like it. Imagine a car doing this, and you’ll have a pretty good idea what riding her was like.

On our first ride, I invited her to explore a pond. She walked right into the middle and stood. Then we seemed to start sinking.

“Oh shit! We’re falling in a deep spot!” I said, as water sloshed up my thighs.

On the shore, my friend Sharon yelled, “She’s rolling!” Feather was folding her front legs in preparation to lie down in the water, not falling down.

I thumped my legs against her sides, and, leisurely, she straightened up and splashed to shore.

“She’s FUN!” I declared. I was delighted. What a personality! The next day, I gave her owner a check.

Good Girl, Damnit, Part 3: Happy Trails to You

Smokey and Alex
Smokey and Alex, c. 1999

I was a wreck for the next year. I hadn’t been in great shape to begin with, and now I had failed my best friend. I figured, if Nancy didn’t care enough about me to get better, then I wasn’t really worth caring about. The fact that I’d abandoned her just reinforced my feelings. I lacked some essential value if I could not help my friend when she most needed help. “I hate myself, I hate myself, I hate myself” chanted relentlessly through my thoughts. I spent almost every free moment online, trying to escape from my own brain.

I didn’t want to be miserable, and I made the occasional, flailing attempt to befriend other students and to find a focus other than escape-from-emotion. I declared theater to be my One True Passion, although I was mostly too depressed to practice outside of class, and the drama teacher was indifferent to me. Finding friends went better; I cobbled together a little group of people to sit with at lunch. I couldn’t talk to them like I’d talked to Nancy, though. Gradually, I began to resent her (as I saw it) refusal to be a good friend and take care of herself.

After a year, I talked myself back into horses. I thought about all the fun Sharon was having with her Icelandics. “I don’t want to do dressage anymore,” I told my mom. “I’m tired of going in circles in the arena. But I want to ride.” The idea of wild and carefree galloping appealed to me, especially as it meant spitting in the face of Nancy’s efforts to refine my riding abilities.

I dragged Smokey out of his irrigated pasture and away from his best friend, Carrot, with the purpose of making him into a trail horse. Nancy still trained at our barn, and we awkwardly said hello and how-are-you, but it was polite and distant.

Sharon was delighted to have someone who, as she put it, could keep up with her. She’d seen me riding Smokey, and after a year of my training with Nancy, she’d decided I knew what I was doing. I was thrilled by this recognition, and with her offer to go riding with her and Katy.

As it turned out, Smokey passionately hated trail riding. The second we were twenty feet from his beloved barn and horsey friends, he started screaming his head off: loud, tense, unhappy neighs that he’d keep up as long as we were out. I didn’t have anyone to ride with regularly, so we mostly had to go out alone. Smokey kept trying to turn around and run home, so I rode with a stronger bit. That stopped the running off, but not the tragic neighing.

Even when I went out with Sharon, Smokey was a pain in the ass. He neighed even with the presence of her Icelandic horse, Stimpy, and moved at a jigging, fidgety walk as soon as we turned for home. Worse, Sharon liked to zoom on the trails, and I didn’t dare let Smokey run with Stimpy; I knew a 19-year-old horse with a history of ligament injuries shouldn’t gallop on packed clay trails.

“How’s Smokey?” Nancy asked me one day, and I complained all about my barn-sour little horse. We found that we could still talk about horses enthusiastically, without either of us having to mention our former closeness. I felt my wounded feelings ease a little; Nancy still liked me.

Sharon wasn’t too impressed by Smokey, and after about a year of my noodling around with him, she  finally took me aside. “Why don’t you ride Haagen Daaz?” she asked. Haagen Daaz was her spare Icelandic horse, a sensitive but obedient bay gelding. I almost blushed; I hadn’t thought that I was good enough to ride one of her horses.

When we started out on the trails with Stimpy and Haagen, I patted Haagen gently, told him he was a good boy for every tiny thing he did right, tried to be tactful with the reins, and otherwise did my best to be worthy of riding Sharon’s horse. Sharon went along with this until we hit the canyon.

“Let’s go!” she said, and gave Stimpy his head. He took off at a gallop. Haagen Daaz leapt after him, and we tore down the canyon, up and down the gentle hills and the wide curves. I shifted my weight into two-point, putting myself over Haagen’s center of balance as he sped along. It felt a bit like flying in a stiff wind; I had to keep my guard up for the unpredictable long stride and lean of the horse’s body that came with going fast on uneven terrain. Eventually, with the horses breathing hard, we slowed to a walk. I told Haagen Daaz that he was wonderful. I barely stopped myself from hugging him.

Sharon was busy coaxing Stimpy back to a walk; he would have cheerfully kept on running the whole trail ride. We walked until we came to a dry riverbed, a stretch of flat limestone trail alongside it. “This is a good place to tolt. Lift your hands a little and lean back. It’s easy to get Haagen into the tolt,” Sharon said.

I’d never tolted before, and I was sure I’d screw it up, and Sharon would reconsider letting me ride her horse. Flustered, I hesitantly followed her directions. Haagen knew his cue, and he immediately lifted his head slightly and scooted into the tolt, also known as a running walk. It was effortless to sit the smooth, rapid gait, and Haagen’s head bobbed jauntily in front of me. It was easy, and it the most fun I’d ever had on a horse.

When I got home, I breathlessly recounted the whole trail ride to my mom. I think it was the happiest she’d seen me in years. “Mom, I got to ride Haagen Daaz!”

Without Smokey to slow me down, I got to see what Sharon and Stimpy were made of. The scraggly little Icelandic horse was no joke, despite the name. Stimpy’s black hide was marked here and there with scars and scrapes from his days as a breeding stallion in a herd. Faster than any horse his size (about 13.1 hands) had a right to be, he knew what a race was and liked to win. Sharon had trained him into a Trail Trial Champion and invented all sorts of games to entertain herself on the trails.

My personal favorite was the rollercoaster. Miles and miles of twisty, single-track trails snake their way up and down, over and around the Mt. Diablo foothills. On a rollercoaster, we rode them at a canter, regardless of how hairpin the turns and how steep the downhill. The feeling, at times, was not unlike the drop of a rollercoaster.

Another good one was the blitzkrieg. To quote Sharon, “It’s a horse race down the canyon, and cheating is mandatory.” Katy, Sharon, and I galloped hellbent for leather, harassing each other by poking each other with our whips, cutting off each other’s horses, and otherwise stirring up trouble. If you were behind the other riders, you swung off onto a fork in the trail and declared it the new track. If you were in front, it was hard not to glance nervously over your shoulder.

One time, the three of us were strolling along. The trail narrowed too much for us to be three abreast, so I moved Haagen Daaz out in front of Katy and Sharon. The next thing I knew, a whip flashed in the corner of my eye, and Haagen Daaz leapt forward. Haagen hated anything so much as brushing his hindquarters, and Katy and Sharon had both whacked him together. As Haagen and I sped off, I heard them laughing hysterically. Haagen, not about to let them get near him again, fought me as I pulled him down from a gallop. When he finally consented to walk, Sharon and Katy picked up a canter and swept by me, leaving me swearing, laughing, and trying to catch up.

We had a glorious summer.

“Don’t tell Nancy,” Sharon said, grinning.

Good Girl, Damnit, Part 2: The Continued Adventures of Smokey

Alex and Smokey, c. 1990s
Alex and Smokey, c. 1990s

I hadn’t ever thought of training a horse as communication; I hadn’t thought of my responsibility in making myself clear to the horse, of rewarding and correcting in ways the horse had understood. When I’d kicked Smokey, I thought he deserved it, the stubborn jerk. I thought if I got mad enough, he’d finally pay attention and listen to me.

When I realized how wrong I’d been, I was sick to my stomach for weeks. I’d been scaring the horse. That was it. All I had done was act like an asshole. I didn’t like it. Nancy forgave my angry outburst, and helped me learn how to actually train a horse.

“Think about what you’re teaching him,” she said. “When you pull on the reins, and he doesn’t do what you want, and you stop, what do you think he’s learned?”

“Not to listen to the rein,” I answered. It was, as she taught it, staggeringly obvious. You figured out what was a reward for the horse–usually a release of pressure: no pulling, no kicking, and no working–and rewarded the responses you wanted.

Learning the correct timing of pressure and release, and learning when to push the horse and when to back off, might have been simple, but it sure wasn’t easy. I still regularly lost my temper, either in boiling rage or hysterical tears.

One challenge was getting Smokey to walk–just walk, nothing faster–with his head down. It was stupefyingly difficult.

“It’s not working. He’s not keeping his head down,” I snarled, careful to contain my temper to my tone. My hands were light on the reins, and my legs loose against Smokey’s sides. Smokey continued moseying around the arena with head up and his nose poked forward. “Why isn’t it working?”

“You’re not insisting,” she said. “You keep letting him put his head up.”

“But you told me not to hold his head down!”

“Ask a little every stride,” she said. “If you feel him start to put his head up, ask more. Then release when he does it. Back on the circle.” When I didn’t move, overwhelmed by the difficulty of following these basic instructions, she waved me off jokingly, “Out, out, damn spot.”

I asked Smokey to walk on, and we set about trying again.

Nancy had showed me the difference between communication and intimidation, but that wasn’t the main reason I trained with her.

I had undiagnosed depression and anxiety. At thirteen, hormones gave the already sickening emotional rollercoaster an added burst of speed. I loathed school. I sneered at my classmates as immature and my teachers as boring. I did not make a lot of friends. Both my parents worked full time, and my mom was taking classes on top of that to get into pharmacy school. When I refused to be reliable about chores, they called me ungrateful, and we fought constantly. While people loved me, few of them actually liked me.

Nancy liked me. She was so good with horses that people paid her to ride and train the $100,000 warmbloods they had imported from Germany. She created oil paintings of horses and horse-spirits that embodied the horses of my imagination: their edges fiery, their movements flowing. She was brilliant. When she found out I was an artist, she asked to see my work. I hesitantly showed her my writing and drawings. She gave me real, appreciative feedback, and we began writing stories and illustrating stories together.

She also accepted my wild moods. With her, my anger at the tedium of school and dread of social situations seemed natural. She told me how she, too, felt isolated and had a terribly hard time dealing with people. At the barn, she slunk around everyone else to avoid small talk, but spent hours talking to me. We trained Smokey together, and he went from being unable to walk around a circle with his head in the right position to winning blue ribbons at dressage shows.

One of the crowning glories of this time was a musical freestyle with Katy. Our barn was hosting a musical freestyle exhibition, riding to music, and I was deemed competent enough to participate. Under Nancy’s direction, Katy and I put together a performance to: me on my little white horse, and she on her strapping black Hanoverian, to the Star Wars soundtrack. We wrapped our dressage whips in green and red bandages, and during the performance, came at each other across the arena, thwacking them together and startling our good-natured horses. The little audience laughed cheered for us.

For almost two years, Nancy had a glorious time teaching my pony fancy dressage movements. I spent most of my nights on the phone with her, complaining about school and soaking up her sympathy, and then moving on to tell the next chapter of our shared story. I adored her. I felt like I’d met the first person in the world who understood me. I was 13, and she was in her 40s.

We both had depression, but Nancy had been living with it undiagnosed for far longer. Even in her blackest moods, I could coax her into talking and smiling, and I craved that satisfaction, the feeling of being necessary and wanted, and the power to make someone’s life better.

As time passed, I began to notice how dangerous Nancy’s moods actually were and how little effect I had on them. With growing desperation, I kept trying to fix her, at least to the point where I wasn’t scared for her. I needed her to be okay. I couldn’t stand the thought of failing my one close friend.

The realization that I had no choice about failing her came slowly and inexorably. I told her I was there for her no matter what. I told her to go to therapy. I told her that I needed her to try to get better, for my sake if she couldn’t do it for her own. Nothing helped enough, and night after night on agonizing phone calls, I listened to my friend drowning.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt myself drowning. I wrote her a letter, apologizing for my inability to help and returning all the artwork and writing we’d exchanged. I sent Smokey up to retirement in an irrigated pasture. I stopped riding.

I missed horses. I missed being good at something. I missed my friend.

Good Girl, Damnit, Part 1: The Adventures of Smokey

At twelve years old, I became a Pony Club dropout.

Pony Club is a safety-first organization that teaches young riders how to take care of a horse and how to ride a horse over jumps. It should have been a 12 year old’s dream come true, but I chafed under the strict rules and emphasis on cleanliness. I had no patience for rules for the sake of rules and for meticulously cleaning an animal who would prefer to be covered in dirt. Moreover, I had no social skills to speak of and found interacting with other kids both terrifying and frustrating. However, my mom thought it was good for me, and I loved riding.

My Arab-Connemara pony cross, Smokey, was a brave and honest jumper who’d leap over any obstacle he was pointed at. During Pony Club meetups, Smokey would cruise smoothly over the fences, and I’d sit around and wait smugly while everyone else tried to wrestle their surly little ponies over the fences. Unfortunately, as I moved up the Pony Club ranks, Smokey’s suspensory ligaments gave up. He strained them twice. The first time, he was unrideable and miserable, locked in a stall on restricted movement, for four months. The second time, it was half a year.

Without jumping, we couldn’t do most the Pony Club events, certainly not the fun ones. All that was left was Pony Club’s love of rule-mongering and flatwork, and yet another group of kids I didn’t fit in with. Disappointed but relieved, I quit.

Smokey’s rehab involved hand-walking him for thirty minutes daily. Itching to move, he snorted and spooked at every rock and waving leaf. I vacillated between irritation at his behavior and sympathy for its cause.

One day, Katy, a friendly acquaintance from Pony Club, wandered up while I was icing Smokey’s legs. “Why don’t you try dressage?” she suggested. “It’d be easier on Smokey.”

I liked Katy better than most of the Pony Club people. While she knew how to look good at a show, at home she was casual, down-to-earth, and easy going. She was also about five years older than me, and I was surprised she was deigning to speak to me. “Dressage is boring,” I replied loftily, wondering if my mom had put her up to this conversation. “You go around in circles.”

Katy was unphased by my attitude. “You might like it,” she said. “Nancy’s a good trainer.”

While I was usually inclined to argue points like this into the ground, I admired Katy and her employers, Nancy, a Grand Prix dressage trainer, and Sharon, the owner of several warmblood horses that Nancy trained. I didn’t want to be too uncooperative. “Maybe,” I allowed. Katy went and introduced me to Sharon and Nancy.

It was Sharon who actually convinced me. Once a Grand Prix dressage rider and breeder and importer of warmblood horses, Sharon had gotten fed up with the stress. If she wanted to, Sharon could get on an obstinate, thick-headed horse built approximately like an elephant and make it dance. Instead, she was selling off most of her stock and had taken up riding Icelandic horses.

“You could learn to really ride with Nancy,” Sharon told me simply, when I mentioned I was thinking about dressage. Unlike many people at the barn, Sharon did not care for pretense and posturing. She rode a scraggly black Icelandic gelding who she’d named Stimpy. She also owned his brother, who was called Ren. Sharon had no further interest in dressage; she was telling me the simple truth.

The idea that I could learn to ride like a real rider, and not just a kid in a club anyone could join, appealed to me.

I started taking lessons from Nancy. At six feet tall, she should have been intimidating, but she moved so quietly, with such a nonthreatening tilt to her body, that I found her easy to be around. Her posture, it turned out, was meant to soothe horses. It worked on me, too.

For the first lesson, we walked in a circle for thirty minutes, discussing principles of dressage. It should have been absolutely mind-numbing, but Nancy knew her sport inside and out. She explained the theory behind each step. I not only felt like she knew exactly what she was doing, I felt like she had respect for my intelligence and judgment–not a common trait in adults who taught me. In Pony Club, I’d been expected to follow orders. Nancy would explain until it seemed like the right thing to do. I started hanging around her at the barn, chatting at first about horses, then books, then music. I was making an actual friend.

I began to hear rumors about Nancy. More than once, she’d stalked out of the arena mid-lesson in disgust with her student and not come back. Katy and Sharon confirmed this. One of the barn people warned me that Nancy wasn’t stable, and that I should watch out. Although I didn’t entirely disregard these warnings, Nancy was one of the most comfortable people I’d ever been around. While many people in my life meant well, Nancy actually understood how unsettled and upset most social interactions made me; she shared similar anxieties. She noticed me.

I did not expect her to notice my vicious temper.

Smokey was an old hand, but he didn’t know anything about dressage, and I wasn’t exactly god’s gift to riding. Dressage involves asking the horse to bend its neck without actually stepping around into a turn. This concept turns out to be deeply confusing to many horses, especially when they’ve spent years going in the direction their noses are pointed.

I thought it sounded simple enough, until the lesson where I went around in a circle for a half hour without success. Nancy was calling instructions to me to bend him, no, bend him more. No, don’t TURN him. BEND him. Stop him with your outside rein! MAKE him bend. MAKE him stop before he turns! And I was getting more and more fed up with Smokey, who was wiggling around and not doing what Nancy and I wanted him to. I’d make him stop, all right. I jerked first on the inside rein, giving Smokey a solid kick in the ribs, and then jerked on the outside rein to “stop” him.

Nancy was at Smokey’s head, with her hand closed around the rein, before I saw her move. I glared down at her, hands tight around the reins, and scowled at her. “I made him stop,” I said defensively.

The look on her face was cold, and I wondered if she would walk out of a lesson with me after all. “All you are doing right now is scaring your horse,” she said. “He doesn’t understand what you want. Being angry and frightening him does not teach him anything. If that’s what you’re going to do, you should get off right now.”

By the end of her brief speech, I started crying. I respected Nancy’s opinion, and being called a bully had the alarming ring of truth. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”

“Horses don’t understand sorry,” Nancy said, matter of factly. “Don’t ride like that.” While I got myself together, she explained that you needed to be firm with horses, yes, but that you also had to be fair and clear about what you were communicating. She finished with, “Would you like to try?”

I was shocked that she would even offer, that her speech hadn’t been the beginning of the end. I nodded a yes. We backed down a lot from the previous exercise, just going around at a walk and getting Smokey to understand. I tried to listen to him and react accordingly. I was badly shaken, but on some level relieved. Scaring Smokey wasn’t training him. I had to make figure out how to make him understand.