Category Archives: Good Girl

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.