Thursday, March 27, 2008


"Mama, a FIRE!" yelled Demi as she peered out the kitchen window. I stumbled out the back door into the early morning fog, my brain itself still foggy from a night's sleep and not even a half a cup of coffee. My first thought was: the horses.

The fire turned out to be a giant bonfire lit with the blessings of a Sonoma County burn permit. The culprits my hay-growing neighbors, who plucked the last of the beautiful 100-year-old walnut trees out of the earth last fall in a quest to squeeze another 10 bales of oat hay out of the field.

The sad remains of the much-loved old walnut trees sat in piles along our property line all winter, looking like brave but fallen soldiers. On Tuesday, they were set ablaze, just 100 feet from our barn.

The horses went mad as they watched the giant burn pile, with flames licking 30 feet into the sky. I could see the flames from the house. The way they reached up behind my barns, it looked as if all of Watermark Farm was on fire.

Early morning, and I was running around in my pajamas, sans the famous orange down coat. I was cold, and bra-less, and I am sure that the sight of me, --- really angry, breasts flapping freely with every long running step, tangled brown hair pinned wildly on top my head --- is still being discussed in circles of walnut tree murders and professional arsons.

"Do you have a permit for.....this?" I screamed and gasped at them. "Do you have any idea how frightened my horses are? The damage this could cause?"

The arsons blinked at me wordlessly.

I calmed the horses and moved a few into stalls without a view of the fire. I threw them some hay to distract them before running into the house to put in a venomous phone call to the hay farmer. There is right and then there is courtesy. They have a right to a permitted burn, but courtesy would dictate an advance phone call to me. The hay farmer apologizes profusely enough that I feel like a bit of a jerk.

I stood on the back porch a moment later, watching the horses, who seemed to have settled down and, for the most part, were ignoring the flaming pile in favor of their breakfast.

All except Argus, who had a nice view from his pasture (where he now spends most nights). Argus was standing with his friend Half Pint, who seemed to be taking it all in stride. Argus was not afraid, or even agitated.

He was excited. Not a bad, run-through-the-fence kind of excited, but a delighted "this is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me!" kind of excited. He was wide-eyed, and happy! Fire!! Men skulking around it!! A huge backhoe standing at the ready! His dog-tired foster mom flapping and squawking her way through the barnyard! "This is so wonderful!" you could almost hear him say, "I've always loved watching fires!"

Argus stood and looked at that fire for several hours, hardly moving. I carried his breakfast to him, but his interest in eating was limited to the occasional bored bite.

The smoke filled the air. It was terrible. The other horses headed for the pasture furthest away from the fire.

Argus stood like a statue, watching happily, pressed against the comforting cold steel rails of the pipe pens.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter

On Saturday, our neighbor turned 50. He celebrated his birthday with a family party complete with mariachi band. We had the delicious experience of feeding horses and finishing the day's farm chores while being serenaded by the magical sounds floating across the field.

I watched Argus as he listened intently, a quizzical look on his face. That look stayed in my mind all evening, making me both sad and happy. I felt sad because I know that so many times during the course of Argus' life in prison, he must have stood and listened to the sounds of parties and music and laughter all around him. It must have been exciting to have heard something new and different. I felt happy because I could see that the music pleased him.

Argus has graduated from the winter dry lot to the adjoining green pasture, which is now full of wide blades of grass. The horses wish they could spend the entire day out there, but for now, a couple of hours must suffice. Horses have sensitive digestive tracts that do not look kindly on sudden mega-doses of rich greenery.

I foolishly opened the gate to the big pasture, the horses all charging out into the lush field. I say foolish because I forgot to teach Argus that where there once was a gate, there now was an opening. He galloped frantically up and down the fence line, past the open gate, terrified that he was separated from his friends. "Uh oh," I thought, "what was I thinking?" How would I catch him?

I called Argus as I walked toward him with the halter, trying to calm him down. Here was one charged up Thoroughbred (and those of you who have been in this situation know that catching then when they're this panicked can be harrowing) who was not seeing me. I called him again. He looked at me and stopped, allowing me to walk up to him and halter him. Argus took a deep breath of relief. I could feel how much he trusted me to help him. Amazing. We then walked through the open gate, back and forth, back and forth. Argus has unusually good ground manners and leads really well, even in a scary situation. I was proud of him. We walked all over the "new" pasture, back to the winter pasture, over to the waterer, back to the shelter, out to where Argus' friends now grazed. He got the lay of the land. I released him.

Argus walked back to the winter pasture, where he stood in a familiar spot, quiet and spent. Was it too soon for Argus to have so much room? Had I gone too fast for him?

I left him there, hoping he would figure it out, and watched from the house. Soon, he wandered up to join the herd, this time grazing quietly after a quick canter around. He has gone out several times since, and he settles down to graze just like of the other horses now.

Here are photos from that first day (taken after Argus' entered the big pasture of his own accord):

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I had to throw these in. I took the girls to a dressage show yesterday. It was a disastrous day. Shelby fell off the pony just before entering at "A." Demi's mule (who has done more horse shows than we can count) spooked at a tractor and bolted across the dressage court, jumping the court rails TWICE before she could stop him. The judge excused Demi from the test. Ridge was as high as a kite and jigged his way through our test.

But the best part was the lunchtime Easter costume class. Shelby is pictured here aboard Ginger, our pony. They were dressed as "Wee Biscuit," complete with a pretty good rendition of the original Howard racing logo!
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When we arrived home, back safe from our exciting day, Argus greeted the trailer with excitement. He has seen us come and go enough to realize that the trailer bears his good friends, who undoubtedly tell him about their adventures.

Yesterday, it was no different. Ridge and Odie, their manes still curly from braids, stood quietly with Argus. If you listened closely, it was almost as if you could hear them talking about their day.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Under The Stars

For Argus, the last six days have been full of happiness and excitement. At 16 years old, he is becoming a real horse.

When I last left you, not quite a week ago, Argus was celebrating his first pasture experience. It went so well that the following day, I turned Argus out with Odie, our mule and Half Pint, our draft horse (both of whom would rather eat and visit than run). On Friday, I added Dancer, the creaky old Thoroughbred boarder. He's the herd boss. Dancer is the only one of the pasture geldings that has not been turned out with Argus before. Dancer gave Argus his signature evil eye, then turned back to his hay. All was well. During those three days, Argus spent the entire day turned out --- from 9 until 5 --- looking as if he'd lived this way his whole life. I could not believe it.

On Saturday, I added the fourth and final pasture friend, Buster, an energetic 19-year-old Thoroughbred who boards with us. Buster and Argus are friends. Again, no drama.

Argus handled being led out to the pasture gate like a seasoned pro. He stepped inside the gate nicely, and swung around to face me for un-haltering, the way I had taught him. Even when a pasture horse approached to investigate, Argus stood quietly, waiting for me to finish and turn him loose. He walked away casually, Odie snuggled against his side. They were off to hunt for surviving clumps of grass together.

On Sunday, Argus went out early, at breakfast time, joining the small group for a meal. He stood along the fenceline, munching hay happily out of a feeder. He discovered that he can make Odie move with just a glance. Buster, too. It seems that Argus has fallen into the middle of the pecking order. He is not quite sure what it all means, but he wields his newfound authority with grace and ease, a regal Thoroughbred through and through.

The strange thing about all of this is that I have never introduced a horse into our pasture group with so little drama. The geldings have accepted him into their little herd, and Argus is handling it all beautifully. No pacing or running, and only the occasional bit of weaving. Argus weaves to relieve stress. He reminds me, when he weaves, of a child sucking its thumb.

Every evening over the past week, I have brought Argus back to his stall and paddock, where he sighed with relief and attacked his bucket of grain. He seemed happy to be back in his "room" and at peace about being separated from the pasture crew.

Last night, Argus looked so content. He was eating his dinner with his new friends, and something in his eyes made me hang his halter back on the fence. I decided that I would let him stay out all night. Late last night, I walked out in my pajamas to check on him. He was resting peacefully under the stars.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Victory Lap

My face felt warm and prickly, but not from the sun, and a subtle mist of tears blurred my vision. I felt a liquid smile spread from my mouth to my ears. It was a private moment, just me and Argus, but it felt strangely familiar.

Here in the midst of my bare dirt pasture, I stopped walking the grey horse for a moment and paused to look up at him, with his curious expression and sense of quiet alertness. I realized then that I was feeling that same old rush I used to experience during the magical few moments at the completion of a three-day-event, when all my efforts to compete culminated in the group "victory gallop" around the stadium jumping arena.

Sometimes a bright ribbon fluttered gaily from my horse's bridle; sometimes it didn't. For the most part, I was content to bring up the back of the pack, alone in my thoughts with my horse cantering boldly beneath me. It was these times that I remember most vividly, for despite the cheering friends, the scratchy music playing over the loudspeaker, and the thunderous dust cloud of talented horseflesh galloping ahead, I was eerily alone with my horse in our own quiet place. We were a team. It was me and him --- friends and partners --- against the world.

This is how I felt yesterday, as I paraded Argus around the empty winter pasture, the only music being the rustling of the wind through the dormant grapevines; our only audience the lonely pair of Canada geese who rode out the winter here. Here we were, Argus and me, taking our victory lap together. He led calmly, carefully. He did not shake or sweat. He looked and sniffed. He was a gentleman, light as a feather on the halter, responsive, easy to handle when he spooked. We inspected fences, the shelter, and discovered the waterer. Argus took it all in stride, as if he'd explored strange pastures before.

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After I was satisfied that I had taught Argus the lay of this new land, I released him. He walked off smartly, exploring every square inch of dirt. Not ten feet from me, Argus was overcome with the urge to roll.

The pasture horses, penned up in the adjacent paddocks, watched intently. (Half Pint, who was to be Argus' trial turnout buddy, was feeling too rambunctious to be trusted; Argus took his maiden spin in the pasture by himself). They seemed to understand this was a fragile thing.

I stood in the center of the pasture, clutching a halter and leadrope and my camera. Like a toddler, Argus strayed only so far, returning to me often for a hug and some reassurance.

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I am so proud of you, buddy!!

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Case Of The Water-Filled Laptop

Two months ago, when I first started writing about Argus, my husband took pity on me. Seeing me struggle with a slow computer and our charming country dial-up internet connection, he had an idea. It was better than watching me upload photos in tears (and with a lot of foul language).

A day later, a beautiful new laptop magically appeared on my desk. It was FAST, it was SMART, it had lots of hard drive SPACE, and, best of all --- it had a wireless internet connection!!

I had arrived! No more chiseling stone tablets, then running them across town in my horse and buggy! No more starting an upload before going to bed! This new deal was amazing!

Ken beamed, seeing my smile and my happiness at finally joining the rest of humanity in the world of high speed internet connection. Oh! The things I could do and see!!

Until Saturday.

On Saturday morning, my beautiful new computer was safely tucked away in its cabinet when two 10-year-old little girls decided to look at it. One of them carried a big glass of water. It spilled --- all over my open laptop. They mopped up the evidence, scurried away, and hoped for the best.

Later, when I sat down after a hellish morning of hauling used pipe panels, I turned on the computer. It booted up just around the time I noticed a gut-churning amount of condensation on the screen. Just around the time I saw that the keyboard was filled with water, my beautiful laptop gave its last gasp with a loud "POP!"

And that was it. Darkness. And a laptop that oozed water from every port.

So now I am back to chiseling stone tablets for a few days while we figure this mess out. The funny thing is that I am not angry. More like resigned. Broken laptops are good problems to have.

Argus is getting ready. He knows that it will be time soon.

On Friday I harrowed the pock-marked Winter Sacrifice Pasture. It was dry enough to get the tractor in, and just damp enough to harrow the whole field, turning a leg-breaking mogul course into a soft, loamy flat turnout with great footing. I circled around and around the bumpy field until my organs were permanently rearranged and I knew for sure it was time to spring for a new sports bra. Argus watched from his adjacent turnout, highly interested in my efforts. He seemed to sense my intentions and has been more interested than usual in "The Big Pasture" and its residents ever since, stopping often to look longingly at the small gelding herd.

Do horses read our minds? Does Argus see my visions for him? Does he know that today I will turn him out there for the first time?

My visions include scenes both good and bad. I have a careful plan for introducing him to the larger pasture, first by leading him around the empty pasture, showing him the fence line. Once I am confident that he has learned the layout, I will turn him loose by himself. This way, if he becomes agitated or starts to really run, he won't have a buddy egging him on.

Next I will add a level-headed friend, someone who isn't motivated to gallop much (that pretty much eliminates all the Thoroughbreds here, which leaves me with a mule and a draft horse to choose from). And since the mule if HALF Thoroughbred, and can run like the wind (and once did on the racetrack) I will cut him as well. So that leaves Half Pint the Percheron, who likes to run but tires easily and cannot go fast. Half Pint will be Argus' first Big Pasture mate.

I know an hour or so will be all Argus can handle of this. He has already shown us that wide open spaces make for a cold sweat and shaking legs, and that the stress of turnout must be balanced for him with the encircling arms of a small paddock to come home to.

He is so much like a Thoroughbred, fresh off the track. All wound up, with no idea how to handle himself.

But still, I have no idea what to expect with Argus. This is the scary part, the part of me that keeps a cell phone close at hand when we are trying something new. Argus is sensible, but damaged. He is 16, yet barely two. Like so many survivors of trauma and neglect, Argus' actions cannot be predicted in advance. I worry about him running through a fence, like he did a few weeks ago.

"Do your best," someone once said to me regarding Argus, "that's all you can do."

So wish us luck. It's a sunny, 70-degree California day, and Argus' next adventure --- the first step to group turnout ---- is about to begin.

I'll have my cell phone in my pocket.

For all you Cowboy fans...

Dr. Miller visited yesterday, and said that Cowboy has gained 75 pounds so far. He was taken on a walk outside his stall for the first time, and he felt good enough to try to buck. Dr. Miller is cautiously optimistic about Cowboy's chances for a complete recovery.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

High On Grass

Happy Argus is discovering the joys of green pasture turnout. Our little turnout is at long last dry enough to welcome him. He stays near fences for security, taking a few bites and then walking, almost as if the big blue sky is too vast for comfort.

It has taken a thousand baby steps, each building on the last, to come to this point. Yesterday, Argus and Ridge stayed out in their turnout from 10am to 2pm. Argus strolled merrily from one end of the little pasture to the other, stopping to take bites and sniff and investigate every blade of grass. He stayed calm the entire time, no fence running, no nervous pacing. I was immensely proud of him, and told him so.

These were taken this morning. The look on his face says it all.

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I took this by accident while I was fiddling with the camera. It was hard to photograph Argus because he followed me everywhere, like a puppy dog. He does not react to my "shooshing" him away because I have tried so hard not to scare him! We need to do some Parelli games!
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