Saturday, November 24, 2012

What Money Buys

Hi Folks!

Wow, have I been gone awhile, or what?! My regular readers will know that I was rather busy, this past summer, falling in love with the most wonderful guy in the world! For those who haven't yet read my blog, things will make a lot more sense if you first scroll down and read the entry titled "Do Overs Part 2." For those of you who already read that entry, I'm pleased to report (major spoiler alert for new readers, here!) that Duddy and I are now engaged to be married and couldn't be happier about it!

While Duddy has had plenty of pets of his own, through the years, getting to know - and learning to live with - a Critter Lady has been quite an eye-opening experience for him. He's not accustomed to someone putting the needs of the animals first, for instance, and being shooed out of his own kitchen so that the cats can eat in peace really doesn't sit well with him. The duck who spent several days living in our bathroom gave him pause for thought as well: the smell of duck poop alone was enough to make him wonder about that whole happily-ever-after thing. At some point, he began to question where, exactly, he fell on the totem pole, and found it understandably galling when he realized that he wasn't necessarily at the top! What can I say - sick critters take precedence over healthy humans!

To give credit where credit is due, though, I'll say this: Duddy has been a surprisingly good sport about most of my critter peculiarities. At one point, he actually managed to get antibiotic pills down the throat of the aforementioned duck, which impressed the hell out of me. And, he's even made friends with formerly-feral Buddy the cat - a cat who sees little need for relationships of any kind. I have to figure, if Buddy likes him, Duddy must be doing something right!

Duddy also seems to have embraced volunteering with me at The Harmony Barn. While he's not a big fan of poop scooping, he attends to water bucket cleaning briskly and efficiently. After the buckets are all cleaned and refilled, he makes the rounds and visits with the critters he likes most. At the top of the list is Handsome Harry, the resident donkey. As he's done with every other volunteer, Harry has charmed Duddy by resting his huge head on Dud's shoulder. And while Duddy appears to dismiss my belief that if you talk to animals, they will talk back, I'm fairly certain that he and Harry have had some meaningful conversations when I wasn't around to overhear!

While Duddy knew little about horses before hooking up with me, he was intrigued about the concept of leasing a horse, once he learned that such a thing was possible. For those of you who don't know, horses are very expensive animals to own. In the first place, there's the monthly cost of boarding, which, in this area, runs about $350. I could buy a heck of a nice car for that price! In addition to boarding costs, there's the fee for the farrier to come trim the hooves every six weeks. Then there's worming, and dental care, and the price just goes through the roof. For folks who can't afford all that, leasing can be an option.

Leasing is basically renting a horse. You pay a monthly fee, and you get to ride as often as you wish without all the extra expenses like those I mentioned above. I'd never leased a horse before because I couldn't afford it, and I certainly never felt qualified enough: while there's an instructor present during lessons, you ride the leased horse on your own time, when there's generally no one around. It never occurred to me that I might know enough to be able to ride all on my own - didn't occur, that is, until I mentioned it to Duddy. He'd been casting about for a suitable gift for my birthday when the subject came up. Knowing how much I loved the Harmony Barn and its horses, he decided that my gift would be his leasing Bit for me. Wow! 

Now, you regular readers know that I took a few lessons on Bit, and that we were slowly forging a relationship together. But leasing him, and figuring out how to fill my time with him, was another matter entirely. You might think that I would just go out to the barn, saddle him up, and hop on every time, but that was never the case. I suppose I could've done that, but I wanted more than to just ride around in circles in the arena; that can get boring pretty quickly!

So I set myself the task of trying to make him a trail rider. Since Ruckus died, we'd lost the one bomb-proof horse that could manage a trail ride calmly and smoothly. I knew that Wendy wasn't going to go out and find another trail horse - her mission is rescuing abused horses, and the space available at the barn for that is limited. The obvious solution seemed to be to teach a horse who was already in residence. Since no one had any objection to my idea, I took lead rope in hand and set about showing Bit what the world looked like on the other side of the fence.

There's a u-shaped track that parallels the pasture fence. Ron and Wendy use it to drive the poop-filled tractor out to the back of the property.  Bit and I would walk that u-shaped track, stopping often so he could snack on the grass which grows in abundance out there. I made sure, in spite of the numerous times he startled at something, that every excursion ended positively, with lots of snacks, and lots of praise.

Day after day, week after week, we walked that track. When he startled at the corn stalks rustling in the wind on the neighboring property, I pulled a few ears and let him eat them. When he nervously eyed the old wooden wagon filled with junk and sitting forgotten next to the track, I walked him up to it, rapped my knuckles on it, and encouraged him to sniff out its harmlessness. Every scary issue was addressed quickly and confidently to ensure that he didn't harbor any lingering fear of it. And while it sounds like I knew exactly what I was doing in all this, I can assure you that I did not. I made it all up as I went along.

It was precisely because I had no idea what I was doing that I began to wonder whether I was actually making any progress. Perhaps the lack of any specific goals kept me from seeing the small changes as they occurred, but occur they did, and as we repeated this adventure time after time, I began to pick up on them. The most noteworthy change was that Bit startled less often. All those times I had calmly assured him that everything was o.k. were finally paying off. While that was encouraging, I still wasn't sure whether we were making real, lasting, progress until the day I walked out into the mud lot to collect him for yet another walk around the track.

To avoid predictability, I tried to mix up our routine. Some days, I would put a saddle on him before we took our walk so that he would get used to wearing a saddle outside the fence. Other days, I brought Duddy along on our walks so Bit would get used to the presence of distractions. We would walk in different directions on different days, and never stopped to graze in the same place twice. The whole point was to get him accustomed to the idea that strange new things weren't going to harm him and could, in fact, be rather pleasant. It actually became a non-routine routine!

Before our walks, I always groomed Bit and picked his hooves because I saw those things as part of my relationship-building efforts. Due to his EPM balance issues, picking his back hooves could be a real challenge. Indeed, during our lessons, I would have Connie stand in front of Bit to help maintain his focus while I tried to keep from getting kicked. Bit wasn't actually trying to kick me, he was flailing his back leg because he felt off-balance. Because I would be picking his hooves alone when I leased him, Connie insisted that I learn how to do it all by myself before leasing began. This I ultimately did, and being able to hang on to that flying leg seemed to reassure Bit that I could be counted on to handle whatever needed handling. Indeed, I seem to have succeeded in reassuring Bit, as I learned that day I walked out to the mud lot to collect him for yet another walk.

It was my habit to walk out into the mud lot and call out, "Where's Big Boy Bit?" I had begun to notice that he would drop what he was doing, when he heard my voice, and walk over to me from wherever he was. This particular day, though, he was clearly feeling downright enthusiastic because, much to my everlasting surprise, he came trotting around the corner of the barn! In my time on earth, I've had dogs run to greet me, the ducks at the pond run to greet me, and even the occasional cat, but never a horse! I was floored! In my search for an indication that my efforts with him were working, Bit's trotting across the mud lot to me was the proof I needed. We were, indeed, developing a relationship, and Bit's enthusiasm cheered me no end.

I made a point, then, of telling Duddy what a great gift his leasing of Bit was for me. While I certainly enjoyed riding Bit on those occasions when I did, the experience was about so much more than that: my confidence in myself and my horse knowledge was growing by leaps and bounds. In addition, the quiet time spent with Bit did wonders to calm the ever-present chaos in my head - the result of having been molested as a child. Those chaos-free hours have been better medicine than anything the pharmaceutical companies could dream up, and I've relished the time that I've been able to spend alone, quietly, with my best pal, Bit.

I've received some wonderful gifts in my life, but the gift of time with Bit has been by far the greatest. We've all heard it said that money can't buy happiness. While I have some sneaking suspicions about that - those rich people sure seem happy, don't they?! - it's been my experience that money buys opportunities, and it is those opportunities that can bring you happiness. Such has been the case with Duddy's generous gift. At the time, I had no idea that leasing Bit would be so fulfilling on so many levels, and I marvel, now, at how a modest sum of money brought so much peace and joy to my life. If any of you ever get a chance to lease a horse, I urge you to grab that opportunity and run with it!

With winter weather now nipping at my heels, here in Northwest Ohio, it will be too cold outside to continue our walks. So I've set myself a new task - improving Bit's ground manners. I have no idea how to go about that or whether I'll succeed, but I know it will involve a large measure of patience on my part as we go about the arduous task of teaching and learning. I'll be sure to keep you posted on our progress! In the meantime, I encourage you to seize your own opportunities for relationship-building with your animal pals, and remember, please be kind to all the critters!