Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tales of Applejack, #2

I told a little about my life at home with my first pony. It’s the only time in my life I’ve been able to have my horse at home and as awful as it was sometimes it was also the most amazing thing ever. There is nothing like getting up early to feed your own horse who’s calling to you softly with that nicker they save just for you. That being said it’s time to tell about my first show barn and the events that led up to my being there.

We were crazy with our ponies. My mom’s boyfriend had two daughters, one a year older and one a year younger than me who both had small ponies when I first met them. Later they were replaced with horses after I got my larger pony because I was not allowed to have anything nicer than them. I don’t blame them; their dad was insane but they were just children. We did our best at the time to get along and were usually friends. Largely unsupervised and by parents who were not horse people we got up to all kinds of shenanigans. It just never occurred to me that one of us could get hurt. Applejack and I were invincible, right? And that poor little guy poured his heart out to give me everything I asked for. Sure, he was hard mouthed and stiff and out of shape when I got him but that didn’t keep us from tearing up the town.

One day we decided to teach the ponies to jump. In our hard packed dirt and gravel driveway we set up a 2x4 across the seats of two lawn chairs. We set it up at the point where there was a pond on either side of the driveway to discourage the ponies from veering off course. We’d start at the bottom of the slightly uphill grade and tear up to the homemade jump at a run. I quickly learned that a saddle horn in the guts didn’t feel so good. Did I mention all of us rode western because that was what we happened to have? I was also riding in a small curb bit because I had no idea horses are supposed to be trained for it. I just bought a cheap western bridle and threw it on him. Yikes. To avoid bruising my stomach I ripped my saddle off and put on my trusty red fleece bareback pad. At least it had a handle I could hold onto instead of ripping on Applejack’s face. I only remember a couple of falls on that hard ground and only one trip into the pond before I learned to balance just right and steer at the same time.

That was how we learned to jump. Soon the wood was raised to the back of the lawn chairs, and the other ponies started refusing. It was too tall for them to try to clear with a kid in tow. We took turns racing my poor barefooted pony up the driveway and hooting with delight as he tucked up and sailed over the 2x4. To his credit he always loved to run and jump and did so without much complaint. It became a favorite new activity and many jumping sessions followed. When Apple was done for the day he’d let you know with a buck and we’d take down the “jump” and trot around the backyard in the soft grass for a while.

Our next door neighbor was a married women in her mid-twenties. She was a high point champion in a local hunter/jumper riding club and had a huge beautiful chestnut jumper. His name was Merrimack after the 1800’s US frigate that was destroyed by fire and rebuilt later for another purpose. He’d had a bad accident and broke his face (I think on the track if memory serves me) and she had rehabbed him and taught him to jump. His face would forever carry the scar but he had a soft and gentle eye and the story of his name appealed to my fanciful imagination. I used to ride down the road to her place just to stare over her fence at him. I loved the graceful way he lumbered over to sniff my hands hoping for a bite of grass. The first time she saw us jumping in the driveway I thought she was going to have a heart attack and I don’t blame her one bit. She started coming out when she saw me ride up the road and struck up a conversation with me.

“Hi there,” she said.

“Hi,” I must have looked like a cornered rat but I wanted to know about her horse.

“What’s your pony’s name?” she asked.

“Applejack. What’s your horse’s name?” She told me the story of the Merrimack and how she had named her horse. I sat there blinking for a minute wishing someone would rebuild me and give me a new purpose. Most of the time I felt pretty worthless and mom’s boyfriend made it pretty clear the only thing he thought I was good for.

“Do you have a helmet?” she asked me and I shook my head, my infamous blond mop of wavy hair swaying against my cheeks.

“Hang on a second,” she ran up to her barn and came out a moment latter carrying something with her.

She was always kind of aloof and I could tell she didn’t think much of me and my pony but she did her best to educate me in small doses. She gave me an old velvet helmet of hers and explained why I should wear it when I was jumping. Unlike most kids my age I was proud to put it on. My “step-sisters” thought I was crazy and were quick to mock me but I didn’t care. Some days I watched our neighbor warm up her gelding in her makeshift arena and the way they glided over a few small fences. Such dignity! She was kind of a mousey non-descript woman with glasses but when she rode it changed her. And her rides were nothing like our mad dashes down the driveway. She taught me about the importance of a good warm up and cool down and about riding safely. I found I wanted to be just like her…I wanted to ride English.

About that time I was looking for an under the table summer job so I could try to save up for an English saddle. I found an ad for a local barn who was looking for a high school kid to clean stalls. They paid cash or you could work for lessons. It was an English barn! I wanted to respond so badly even though I hadn’t started my freshman year yet. Julie and her sister Amanda were allowed to do anything that their dad knew I would want to do. It was yet another way for him to control me so even though it was my dream job Julia was taken down to meet the trainer and was quickly hired.

I often went to the barn with Julia to keep her company and I helped out with the cleaning when her mother took her on vacation for a couple of weeks. Her sister Amanda hated hard work and was almost useless when it came to cleaning but Julia and I weren’t afraid to get our hands dirty if it meant more time with horses. The trainer at the barn wasn’t the best trainer but she wasn’t terrible either. My biggest complaint was you never saw her ride and she never worked with adults, but her girls did well enough showing. I didn’t fit in with all of her polished pony club kids who looked down on us because we cleaned stalls. I didn’t care for them either because in my humble 13 year old opinion most of them barely knew how to ride and could only handle their quiet lovely show ponies. I’d already learned how to handle a pony with hard mouth who did occasionally run off with you and could throw a decent buck when he was feeling good. I’m going to be a very big person right now and admit that many of them turned out to be better technical riders than I ever was. My equitation has never been great and that is the benefit of having a well trained horse to practice on.

I got to know the barn owner, Alycia, and I think she saw something in me. She was fond of lost little girls trying to find their way in the world and couldn’t resist nurturing a horse fiend. She was a large mid-western woman; strict and if you didn’t know her intimidating, but I respected her. In my mind she’s still larger than life. She was 6 feet tall without her riding boots on, large breasted and walked like a man. She had short hair brown hair, and a very loud stern voice but was a kind woman. She was half blind and always losing her glasses so she squinted most of the time and had delicate crow’s feet around her blue eyes. She was educated and had kids late in life so her two daughters were slightly younger than me. She also had her own three horses and a pony for her daughters who had outgrown her but that she was too sentimental to sell. She rented the rest of her 5 acre place to the trainer for her lesson program. She rode dressage on a young gray Anglo-Arab. Blaze was kind of the barn “bad boy” and I was instantly in love with him. Go figure… I’d never known anything about dressage and this was my first introduction to the sport. I’d ask her my shy questions about how to get my pony to listen better whenever we talked. The idea of a whole discipline of riding dedicated to just the partnership between horse and rider seemed like magic to me. When I started my freshman year of high school Alycia hired me to clean stalls and care for her horses. It was the beginning of a much needed friendship.

To illustrate how determined I was at that time to keep learning I want to describe a typical week for me. I rode a bus that dropped me off about two miles from the ranch. Three days a week I walked those two miles to the barn rain or shine to clean stalls until dark when my mom or her boyfriend got off work and picked me up. As the days got shorter Julia and I sat in the cold barn doing our homework until they got there. Then I went home to feed and clean my pony before finishing my school work. It never occurred to me to ask for a ride from my new employer who was a stay-at-home mom. It was my job and my responsibility to get there. On Saturdays I got up early to clean her stalls before my lesson with the trainer. Julia was still cleaning for the trainer who had many more horses so sometimes I would help her when I finished first for the day.

It was grueling work for my small body. At the time I was 5 foot and barely 100 pounds. We’d clean out the stalls and paddocks and put the dirty shavings and mature into a large wheelbarrow. Then we had to push the wheelbarrow up a hill to the far side of the pasture and dump it and spread the pile around. You couldn’t leave a pile for a horse to trip on when they were turned out or for the tractor to get stuck on when they turned the pasture a couple of times a year. We made that trip as many as ten times per day. Mud boots became my new best friends and struggling up that hill with a half filled wet load in the rain was my nemesis. I was determined to be valuable and keep my place at the barn.

Saturday lessons were what I lived and breathed for. The trainer rotated those of us without our own horses through her string of lesson ponies. My favorite was an older chestnut quarter horse mare with a big blaze named Sunkist. She was the color of new copper pennies. She was also bigger than most of the ponies which was nice since I wasn’t one of the little kids and she had a little bit of go to her. Most days it was a lot of walk/trot/canter each direction in a large group, but she was the horse I learned to jump a nice controlled hunter course on. She’d just tuck her little head and lope in like a pleasure horse popping over fences. It was a nice change from the out of control speed of my little man, Applejack.

I took those lessons home with me and practiced in a field across the street from my house. I’d learned about leads and learned my pony was good about picking up the correct one. We started to work on getting his head down out of the sky and he learned to arch his thick neck when I half halted gently. We practiced circles and going straight down a line. And last but not least I practiced the heck out of my posting trot, trying to learn to balance all over again. This just makes me laugh because I was such a kid….the one thing we never thought to work on at that time was stopping. He was terrible at it. I could get him to slow down and stop when I need to, but not without a bit of dancing around first.

When I first began Alycia was paying me so I could save up for my saddle but as time when on she began to ask questions about my pony and my home. I’m pretty sure she was a perceptive woman who figured out more than I ever shared with her. At any rate, whatever she knew she never pushed me too hard or broke my trust. I could tell she didn’t like my mom’s boyfriend one bit and I’m pretty sure at one point even tried to talk to my mom about it. Whatever she said she managed to do it was with enough grace that it didn’t result in any retaliation from my parents. Ultimately what did happen was she offered to allow me to move my pony to her home so I could continue my lessons on him. I would be allowed to clean in exchanged for his food and board. She even dug up some old tack that would fit us. She gave me my first snaffle bit and English bridle.

I can’t tell you how excited I was. This felt like the beginning of my dreams coming true. I was still a shy kid, and still very reserved around other people. I tried all the time to put on an act of just being normal and it caused me a lot of stress wondering when someone was going to realize what a freak I was. I didn’t think that I deserved good things happening to me, and I was hesitant to put myself in someone’s debt. So, as happy as I wanted to be it wasn’t with a clear conscience that I first asked my mom if we could move Applejack to Alycia's.