Monday, January 22, 2018

Life on Four Legs

This was me, maybe nine years old in Sonoma, CA on my sister's horse "Silky Penny." But this isn't where this story starts; it starts as far back as I have memories. I have always loved horses and have been riding since I was about six when a sister popped me up on a cantankerous Shetland Pony named "Whiskey Pete" at the barn where she hung out after school. Despite being on a lunge line, he still managed to bolt away from her, jumping over a fallen-over bicycle to escape the pen we were using. I can't say that was when I learned to ride, per se, but certainly where I learned how to hang on for the ride. In those days, every book I read was horse-themed, every drawing had four legs and hooves and every present on Santa's list made by Breyer.  I wanted to be a jockey when I grew up and at about nine, learned how to muck stalls and roll bandages in the shed rows of Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows when staying with my oldest sister during her years as a race track groom. 

With my beloved "Sparky," a middle sister and her "Ginger", and you already met "Silky."
My father lived in the country with plenty of open land, so the horse collection grew to three. From then on every summer and every-other weekend - regardless of the weather - was spent traversing the hills and town of Sonoma.  As we took off down the drive, Dad shouted that we had to wear our helmets (we did, until out of sight of the house where we promptly ditched them in the bushes) and be home for dinner.  My sisters were four and six and ten years older and eventually grew out of their horse passions to follow other pursuits, but I didn't.  Down the road were good friends with their own horses and those who didn't have their own rode my sisters' horses.  This incredible independence also taught us to be responsible and sharpened our problem-solving skills. Like the time we had to extricate Ginger from a hidden wire fence she'd tangled herself in... miles from home... when we were twelve.

Even moving to Manhattan to study at New York University didn't stop my riding. Weeks after classes started freshman year, I joined the brand-new NYU Equestrian Team and served all four years as the co-captain.  This was the first time I'd had proper, structured lessons and our somewhat less-than-patient French-Israeli coach, when not throwing small objects at us, did his best to shape my bareback wild country style into something called equitation.  He took me from this:

With Ginger. 

Sparky and our back-yard horsemanship were no match for the fancy show barn riders. 

To this...

NYU Intercollegiate Equestrian Team scores blues in a team hunters class. 

At the Intercollegiate National Stock Seat Championship.
A year after NYU found me unenthusiastic about a full-time city girl job. Living in NYC was expensive and I just wasn't ready to put my foot on that first rung of the ladder.  Instead, I got hired long-distance to be a wrangler at a guest ranch in northern Colorado.  I got on the plane with my small collection of western wear and spent the next few years working ranches in the summer and ski resorts in the winter.  Wasn't a bad way to live. 

"Jingling" in the herd each morning at the Home Ranch. 

In front of Mt. Wilson, near Telluride, CO. 
It was here, at the request of the guests who wanted to get more out of their ranch vacations than just holding onto the saddle horn, that I tried my hand at instructing.  The monosyllabic cowboys were happy to have someone else deal with the greenhorns, so I stepped into the middle of the arena and did my best to explain what I'd mostly figured out on my own over the years.  After two summers of this, I decided that if I was going to be telling folks what to do - I'd better know what I was doing. 

Two years and one degree in Equine Studies later - I took the plunge to become a full time riding instructor.  My coursework covered all aspects of barn management, equine health, nutrition, breeding and riding theory and I learned more in those few years than I had in my previous 25 years, and the Dressage-based training changed my riding trajectory forever.  It led to an extremely fulfilling career as a riding instructor lasting 12 years. 

First Dressage show on "Virtues and Vices" in Spokane, WA

My students get rewarded for their efforts.
During this time, I collected my own two horses: Gold Trimmings and Babe.  They were former school horses at the riding academies where I'd worked and became my best friends for many years (besides the cats that is!).

The love of my equine life, Gold, being shown by my teenage student.

My sweet Thoroughbred mare Babe takes good care of my soon-to-be step daughter on her first lesson.

Babe with my little niece and nephew. 

All this time, I saw other professional trainers around me seeking advanced-level, or just plain wealthy, clients who could provide them opportunities to compete at increasingly higher levels and on fancier horses. I'm not a competitive person in that respect, and had no interest in elbowing others to snatch up clients. Instead, I'd always been drawn towards teaching basics and plain good horsemanship to whomever wanted it. For my young students, the riding was as more about life lessons than anything else. The  competitions we took part in were for fun where the goal was the learning and the conversation with between horse and rider. To continue my own education, I took trips to Portugal and Germany to ride with trainers on the types of horses I didn't have access to at home.  

The biggest horse I've ridden, Dayton, near Verden, Germany. 

A quadrille of Lusitano stallions and my first time with the double-bridle.

But after a while, I lifted my head and saw where this road was taking me.  Did I want to be outside in the wet or inside in the dust for another few decades?  What if I got dashed into a wall and couldn't work? What if the economy changed and people cut out the luxury of riding lessons? The greener - and more solid - grass looked like a career where I wore girl clothes, had clean hands and came home before 9 pm each night. My step-father suggested a job with an elevator.  My father said my avocation didn't have to be my vocation. And frankly I was tired of being cold. 

With that, I hung up my helmet and spurs.  

But I didn't stop riding - I kept Gold and Babe through their last days. I just got a job with  carpeting instead.

Now I'm seven years into a career in the Foreign Service: girl clothes - check; elevator - check; home by six - check.  I haven't forgotten about horses, however.  In fact, I've  ridden at each of my posts abroad so far.  In Colombia, I took a handful of lessons at a beautifully manicured military base in Bogota.  The lessons were taught in a rigid line formation in Spanish. As my FSI 2/2 Spanish training didn't include any applicable terminology beyond "left" and "right," the Major stuck me behind an eight-year old local boy and told me to just follow what he did.  Naturally, he was on a quiet old school horse and "with all my experience" they stuck me on the horse that hadn't been out in a few months.  Thanks. Unfortunately, it wasn't much fun. 

In Juarez, the moons and stars came into perfect alignment when I met a coworker eager to ride, and a family in El Paso with a son in med school and not enough time to get on his string of polo ponies.  This wonderful family watched my friend (also a life-long horsewoman) and I ride a time or two and satisfied that we could manage on our own, gave us "free rein" over their horses.  We schooled their lovely Thoroughbreds in the flat pasture behind their house that served as a practice polo field, or took them for long rides along the Rio Grande just a block away.  Such liberty and such kind people - it couldn't have been a nicer situation. 

Who would have guessed I'd find such lovely horses in a pasture in El Paso, TX?

Polo ponies and fun company along the Rio Grande

After Juarez, I figured I'd never have the kind of horse luck I'd found in El Paso.  Fortunately, I was wrong.  Over lunch in the Embassy Bucharest cafeteria one day, I listened to an American colleague whose young daughter had been taking lessons at a barn just a short drive away.  As she described the instructor - how she competed internationally in both Dressage and show jumping and her patient teaching and training philosophy - my ears pricked up.  Shortly after that conversation, I took my first lesson with Izabela on her rotund school horse, Madison.  A few lessons later, I came to the barn to find Izabela's tall gelding Bubble Touch waiting for me in the cross-ties instead of the sturdy paint mare.  "You're going to ride the big boy today." she told me.  I was nervous that I'd be discovered as a fraud when put atop such a well-schooled horse, but instead it felt like Bubble and I had studied the same game plan. Wow, it was exhilarating!

Bubble Touch in Bucharest who taught me so much.

And after that, Izabela mixed in lessons on her other beautiful chestnut, Feivel.  

Feivel - such a flirt, such a squirrel, so much fun. 

So far, this reads like a common story of a girl who loves horses, and I suppose you're right. But these stories and photos mean a lot more. This is also a compilation of the horses in my life and what they've brought me. Whether I was racing friends on their ponies through the vineyards, bush-whacking through the Rocky Mountains hoping to find the way back to the barn, showing eight-year-olds how to pick hooves and post the trot, or cantering an FEI-level horse down the long wall of an arena in Romania - it's the horses who have been the teachers this whole time.  Horses not only respond to our physical state, but also reflect their riders' intangible states: consistency, fairness, kindness, clarity and confidence, thus transforming a "simple" one-hour ride into a session of yoga, aerobics, ballet, meditation and psychotherapy.  I chuckle when non-horsey people ask why, after over 40 years in the saddle, I still need to take riding lessons.  
I say, may the lessons never end.

Sometimes it felt like time just stood still on Feivel

Next: Astride Abroad - Your Guide to Ride in the FS

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Urge for Going

Soundtrack:  Joni Mitchell "Urge for Going" 

The new year in my mind is always clear blue and white, fresh, and full of possibility. This image plus my page-a-day calendar reminding me that "Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it," and I've decided to find small pleasures in 2018 to chase out the overwhelming noise of 2017.  It's not deep stuff, this quote from my "What We Learn from Cats" calendar, but it offers a recipe to escape a funk and seems fitting for the new year. Therefore, when faced with a dearth of positive, I'm now determined to recognize the sunny side wherever I can.   

On to find it!

Pleasure #1: Analog life. 

My husband and I spent the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve on the Delaware coast, in a frigid and nearly-empty tourist town.  We had miles of vacant beach just outside our door, shared only with local residents and their exuberant dogs seasonally freed from the no-dogs-on-the-beach ordinance.  

Dewey Beach, DE in December

On the beach in my eskimokini.

Sand pipers like school kids, dashing in small groups in and out of the frothy surf. 

The boardwalk won't look like this in six months. 

Frozen foam.

Sunset over Rehoboth Bay. 

...and what the sunset does to the sea oats. 

A thinking man's horizon.

During this no-cats-yet time, we're also taking advantage of being able to look at each other and say, "Let's just grab a bag and explore somewhere."  This long MLK, Jr.  holiday weekend felt like the perfect time to do just that so we headed west into hills of north-central Virginia.  There's something so calming about an expanse of empty landscape, whether it's a beach dotted only with sand pipers darting in and out of the sea foam, or farm fields, their crops shaved close to hunker down for winter.  I appreciate the understated beauty of winter's muted colors, the tinkling of icicles along moving water, and the satisfactory crunch of walking over icy crisp fallen leaves. It's far more subtle than the sensational spring or flamboyant fall - their colors screaming for our attention.  

Frozen above, rushing beneath. 

With the backdrop so neutral, the few bright colors shine. 

Icicle glockenspiel.

Strong sunshine leaves strong shadows in the tiny town of Washington, VA.

Farm house with Shenandoah National Park as it's backdrop. 

Almost tall enough to remind us of the Romanian wooden churches. 

Weathered barn in Brandy Station, VA

I'm drawn to timeless landscapes, easy to find in this region's rural colonial towns.  No billboards to sell me things, nothing digital to attract and then distract - just glimpses of times when life seemed a lot less noisy.  I'm certain that these days we could all use a break from the screaming.  Therefore you'll find us pulling off the road to simply survey the horizon, watching the light change or laughing at the squirrels chasing each other barber-pole style around the trees.  

That's my 90% recipe for reacting to life these days.  Give it a try.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

2017 - Good Riddance!

We rang in 2017 in Herastrau Park, Bucharest. 
My husband, step-daughter and I trundled across the street to the park from our apartment, bundled in our cold weather gear. Me in an odd but practical assortment of clothes from the bottom dresser drawer: fleece-lined riding breeches, a heavy wool Aran Islands sweater, down jacket, ski gloves and a Soviet rabbit-fur hat from the 1980s.  We stopped along the edge of the large frozen lake that is the park's centerpiece, alone save for a park guard posted in his phone booth nearby, and toasted the arrival of the new year with champagne from plastic cups. Fireworks lit up the horizon from all sides of the park. Imagining party-goers beneath the colorful bursts - the women in their cocktail dresses, strappy heels and kitschy "Happy New Year!" tiaras and the men with too much cologne and slicked back hair - made me feel very frumpy in comparison, but also exactly where I wanted to be instead.  

With the new year only a few minutes underway, we continued through the park's snowy lanes towards a thumping bass line coming from a bar hopping with activity. My step-daughter and I tried to cajole my husband into coming inside the bar for a few songs, but he refused and plunked down on a bench with his brandy flask instead. Despite being dressed like a winter road crew, my step-daughter and I couldn't resist going into the bar for a glimpse of the revelry. It was just one week earlier, days before Christmas, that we'd lost our Dodger cat and I needed of a dose of positive energy. Unfortunately, it was too hot inside the packed bar to dance wearing all that gear, so instead we let ourselves go and danced like mad women to OneRepublic's "Counting Stars"  in the lane outside the bar.  It was just the release I needed.  Maybe 2017 would be okay after all. 

I was wrong.  

Before I sound like too sad of a sack, let me explain that I generally consider myself a bright spark.  I prefer to be lighthearted, don't take myself too seriously and believe that what I put out will come back - so why be a grump? But let me tell you that 2017 stepped on my daisy and then twisted its boot toe for good measure.

Re-reading the posts from February this year, I see the signs that the dark cloud had already blown in. At that time, I hoped the "general malaise" I was feeling was temporary. Perhaps it was just a reaction to the political divisiveness assaulting us from the headlines. There were plenty of reasons not to be cheery.

Then in April my father-in-law passed away and we returned to Virginia for his memorial and to spread his ashes in the woods behind their home.

In July we left the country we'd grown quite attached to and moved into our temporary Virginia apartment in time for Toby's health to start to seriously deteriorate. 

By late summer, to quote Julia Sweeney, God said Ha! and the cloud overhead continued to darken. 

In September, we lost the smart, sweet and lovely 21 year old son of my husband's cousin in a drowning accident.  Their only child gone - I can't even begin to imagine their grief. 

October 7th Toby died and for the first time in 19 years, our lives felt empty without the loving, funny presence of our fur family.  

October 9th I received an early morning text from my sister-in-law telling us not to worry, my elderly father and step-mother had evacuated from the wildfires and were okay.  
Umm... what?
We'd been out of communication after heading to the mountains for some post-Toby solace. Days later, one of my sisters and her husband also evacuated their house threatened from a different branch of the same fire complex. The following days found my father, step-mother and his dedicated caregiver moving further and further south to escape the smoke from the Sonoma and Napa Valley wildfires. We stayed glued to any source of news that could tell us the fate of their house high in the hills above the town of Sonoma.  Mid-way through the week, my siblings and I resigned ourselves to the fact that the house was gone as the official fire maps showed big red swaths over their property.  At least they had the two rental properties in town to return to when it was all over.  Amazingly, my sister and brother-in-law were able to return to their house, their town spared the fire's devastation.  

Then one Saturday morning, while watching the Weather Channel reporter standing in front of a house engulfed in flames, I heard him say he was at the intersection exactly in front of my father and step-mother's two rental homes.  The reporter said it was an ember, blown down from the distant hills, that had picked off two houses in the middle of the block.  And with that - we figured it was all lost. But two weeks later, with the fires becoming contained and evacuation orders being lifted, updates started running through social media from neighbors, that in fact the two rental houses were still standing. It seems the reporter had "estimated" his location during his on-air reporting. Even more incredible, just days after that, we learned that despite being surrounded 360 degrees by fire, and 100% due to the incredible efforts of the fire crews - their hill top home was also intact.  The scorched ground and trees were only 10-15 feet from the wooden house where they'd lived over 35 years. Miraculously, my father and step-mother were able to return home. 

Signs of gratitude hanging everywhere. 

The approach to my dad's house. 

View of the fire line from their deck. That line exists because fire crews from across the county, state and country worked 24/7  for weeks with shovels and chain saws to create fire breaks to save strangers' homes. 

Airborne embers burned holes in their deck umbrella, but somehow didn't ignite the deck. 

My father's iron sculpture rises unscathed from the ashes.

A few of Sonoma's seven flags still flying over a vineyard and charred hillside.

But they didn't stay home long as my dad was admitted to the hospital just a week or so later.  He had some kind of infection from an unknown source. At one point the doctors told us he had only days to live and I immediately flew across the country to be with him.  His ship righted itself somewhat, but seven weeks later - he's still in the hospital. I'm thankful that I was able to tell him everything I wanted him to hear.  I choose to believe he understood me.  

By Thanksgiving we'd lost my brother-in-law to a sudden aneurysm and one of my sisters was left a widow after over 20 years of marriage.  

We're now nearing Christmas.  Despite this litany of horrible events (are you even still reading?) - we still have a lot to be thankful for. My husband found a job teaching English that he finds interesting and occasionally amusing.  My position within Consular Affairs is challenging in a good way and I'm energized being able to teach again.  But other than that, we're holding out hope that the new year will bring a change in the metaphoric weather, a universal shaking off of the dark cloud perhaps.  I have to have faith that the simple act of turning the calendar page and dancing to a favorite song at midnight - in a cocktail dress or in snow boots - will bring about this transformation. 

To 2017:  Uncle. You win. Now good riddance.