Archive for January 2019

Gresca’s Story   4 comments

img_9425[9521]This is Gresca.

I didn’t take this pic. I don’t have any pics of her at all. This is from her mom, whom I met on the IntraWebz recently and to whom I spoke (and with whom I cried, a lot), last night.

Gresca was a bay Andalusian mare. When I met her she was fat and funny-looking and not much liked by anybody. She changed my life in a very impactful way, so I want to share her story.

It was somewhere in the mid-90s when she came into my life. I was boarding Nik at a barn in Sharpsburg. I cleaned the stalls there twice a week to help offset Nik’s board, which sounds like a great deal, but I’m not so sure it was. There were twenty-five stalls, twenty in the new barn with the indoor arena, five in the old barn. The ‘old’ five took me almost as long as the twenty. They ALL took a long time because despite having been cleaning stalls since I was ten, and being pretty dang good at it, I’ve never ever developed any speed at doing it. I would begin around 10am, and on a good day would finish around 10pm. I remember some not-good days, sitting on the manure spreader under the icy stars at 1am, exhausted tears freezing on my cheeks as I contemplated getting up at 6 to get my kids off to school and myself to work.

I’m digressing. Not sorry. It’s what I do.

Gresca spent most of her life in a stall. Maybe once a month her owner would show up, pullĀ  her out, run her hard around the indoor for an hour or so, and put her back in her stall dripping with sweat, flanks heaving. She never got groomed or petted or fussed over. Occasionally she’d get turned out, but she was valuable so she was turned out alone, and ran and yelled the whole time. It got on the barn owners’ nerves so it didn’t happen very often. When I went in to clean her stall she was polite (unlike some- whoo! those stallions were a challenge!) but nervous and not particularly friendly. But she moved over when I clucked to her, and that was all I wanted from her. Well, other than an exasperated and fruitless desire for her NOT to circle endlessly and mash her manure into mush.

But that’s what perpetually stalled horses do. What else do they have to do?

One day she was turned out, running and yelling, and the barn owner asked me to bring her in. She was high-headed, tense, blowing and spooking and dancing, and I jerked her lead rope impatiently. She pulled away from me, eyes rolling and showing their whites.

Something happened. We looked at each other from the opposite ends of that lead rope, and what I saw was no longer a fat, muddy pain in the ass, but a lonely, desperate soul who had nowhere to turn and no one to hear her. There was not one single thing in her life to look forward to except her next meal. Humans were either scary or indifferent. She was going to be worked to the point of pain, turned out alone, or bored to death in the confines of her stall. That was her life.

Yet somehow she hadn’t given up. Her way of pushing back against the bleakness and loneliness hadn’t won her any friends or supporters. But for some reason, in that moment, through the crowded chaotic confusion of my own life and myriad obligations, she touched me.

The barn owner talked to Gresca’s owner and got permission for me to ride her. Her owner was thinking about selling her and was doubtless happy to get her worked a little. I wasn’t (and am not) a trainer or a high level rider, but I was a competent amateur with a challenging horse of my own, so at the very least it was unlikely that I’d fark her up any more.

She wasn’t an easy ride. Despite beautiful gaits and a trot you could sit to like an easy chair (especially after my tense quick thoroughbred), she was spooky and untrusting and untrustworthy. She reliably shied and ducked away from one corner of the indoor arena, kept her head cranked up high, her back tight, and alternately balked or took off. It was fun for me to have another horse to ride, but she certainly wasn’t any easier than my own pea-brained girl.

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That’s my pea-brained girl.

But hey, I was riding a purebred Andalusian! Yeah, I was a little starstruck by that, although neither I nor anyone else there had a sufficiently discerning eye to see the blazing diamond in the rough. If the other folks at the barn made snarky remarks about her fat belly and shoulders, her under-muscled butt, her paddling front legs (which probably accounted for that divine trot), her narrow chest, her blocky head, I still got a thrill whenever I mounted her.

Which was in itself a challenge since she wouldn’t stand still for it.

Then came the night where everything changed. I was there late as I often was, even on nights when I wasn’t cleaning stalls. I worked three part-time jobs then, had two busy little boys, a house to take care of, a neglected husband, and a high-maintenance drama queen mare of my own who needed a lot of riding. So, much of my horse stuff took place after I put my boys to bed. Thank all the Gods for indoor arenas.

I brought Gresca (whom I called Bessie for no other reason that it suited her) from her stall and over to the concrete pad where the cross ties and wash rack were located. As usual, she balked at stepping onto the concrete. She always did this, and I always got after her and made her mind me and get the hell onto it for grooming and tacking up.

Looking into those beautiful eyes, once again rolling and showing their whites, something shifted. For once, the notion of ‘winning’ the ‘battle’ receded. It was late. I was tired. But my heart opened, and a new idea wiggled into it. What if I just asked?

So I did.

She said no way.

I was not a patient woman. It went against the grain to let this mare get away with defying me.

And yet I did. I sat down on a milk crate and told her mildly that she was an idiot. A silly old thing. A goofball. What a twit. I sang to her. I recited The Jabberwocky. I got distracted by own thoughts and went off in a reverie about who knows what, forgetting that I was sitting there at all. I laughed at her.

After about an hour she took a step forward. I made myself not react. She looked at me and took another step. I told her she was beautiful and very smart. Then she took in a huge, rib-raising breath, and let it out in a massive whoosh. And she stepped onto the concrete.

In that moment she gave me her heart.

And took mine.

I had never before had a horse give me that. It fundamentally changed the way I work with horses.

From that moment on she did anything I asked her. Not because she had to, but because she had chosen to trust me.

In return I made sure that I always listened to her, gave her the opportunity to tell me if she was scared or confused, and made it my responsibility to make it clear to her what I was asking of her.

She started standing quietly to be mounted.

She stopped ducking at the spooky corner, once I let her breathe through it and investigate it thoroughly.

She began to give me transitions within the gait, lovely collected trot circles and big bold extensions down the long side.

She softened her jaw and her neck and dropped like a big bay marshmallow into my hands.

She even cantered for me, difficult with her lack of conditioning and the smallness of the indoor.

I began to put my eleven year old son on her. She carried him like he was a carton of eggs. She never put a foot wrong when he was on her back.

When I cleaned stalls late at night, I let Nik out to wander the aisles and the arena. She loved it. But since she was out of her stall more than Bessie, I began to let Bess do it more often.

Nik was so very jealous. If Bessie was out wandering and passed Nik’s stall, or worse, if I led her past Nik’s stall all tacked up and ready to ride, Nik would pin her ears flat and shake her wicked head and threaten all manner of atrocities.

Bessie began to nicker when she saw me or Brian. Her lovely Andalusian mane and tail grew silky and flowy from all the brushing. She lost a little fat and gained a little muscle, although I couldn’t ride her often enough to tone her up much.

I didn’t have a good enough eye, either, to see the breathtaking beauty of what she really was. I had no idea that with the right amount of work and sunshine and fresh air and good nutrition and appreciation and love she could look like this.

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There she is with her mom, Naomi, being a spectacular dressage horse.

It was an idyllic couple of months. I knew her owner was asking eight grand for her, and that with the popularity of Andalusians he’d probably get it. But even if it had been eight hundred we didn’t have it. And even if we’d had eight hundred, no way could we have swung the board and upkeep on a second horse. It was madness as it was for our little family to have one horse (and a testament to my family’s patience and love that they all made the sacrifices necessary for me to keep Nik. Thank you, guys!)

I knew that owning Bessie was a pipe dream. But I hoped that at least her price tag would buy me some more time with her.

When I heard she was going to an Andalusian barn in Mt. Airy for training and sale, my heart was broken but I wasn’t surprised. The night before she left, Brian and I went to the barn to say goodbye. We didn’t ride her. We groomed her until she gleamed like polished mahogany, her midnight mane and tail like thick silk. We let her loose in the indoor to wander but she kept coming back to us. We cried and cried. It hurt my heart to know she was going to an unknown fate, possibly a dreadful one, and there was not one single solitary thing I could do about it. I promised her I would do everything I could to keep up with her. I wrapped her up in spells of protection. I prayed to every God I could think of to keep her safe.

She nuzzled my face and dried my tears with her mane and blew her sweet sweet breath at me. When Brian gave her a final hug, tears streaming down his face, I thought my heart might break and I’d fall down dead right there at her feet.

I contacted the owner of the Andalusian barn a week or two later and got permission to visit her. I piled up a carful of barn kids, including my Brian, and off we went. We weren’t invited back to the stalls, but waited in the huge, spectacular indoor arena until Bessie was led out to us. I have no doubt that she knew me. It had been such a short time, and horses have long memories. But she was angsty and worried. She accepted being petted and loved on by a horde of children and one weepy woman, but she was clearly tense. Her new trainer informed us breezily that Gresca now considered her to be her mother and was uncomfortable with anyone else handling her.

I wasn’t in a position to argue with her.

Further phone calls went unanswered. This was in the days before everyone communicated with the internet.

That was the last time I saw Bessie.

Years later I was reading a Dressage Today article about a new therapeutic riding school in Maryland. I was astonished to see a photograph of a polished gleaming bay Andalusian called Gresca. Could that really be my Bess? How many bay Andalusian Grescas could there be in Maryland?

I emailed the barn, but didn’t hear back. I wasn’t surprised. Who responds to some unknown kook offering a free retirement home to your horse? I could have been anyone from a lab to the meat man to a psycho.

I decided to be happy that she had clearly landed somewhere so good, and let it go.

Recently I joined a Facebook group called Find Your Old Friend. I never actually used the group’s resources (mainly because, as you can see, I’m on the long-winded side and couldn’t figure out how to condense this tale into a FB post) but it did inspire me to use my google-fu and see if I could catch up to my Bess. After all, she’d be pretty old by now, and perhaps ready for a retirement home.

Having spent several years volunteering at The Ranger Foundation, a retirement home for military, police and therapeutic horses, as well as teaching abled riders at a local therapeutic riding school, I figured I’d be in a better position to offer her a spot in which to laze away her golden years.

My old Nik left us a couple of years ago. I recently got my midlife crisis horse, my adorable Fiona, and we still have our sweet old lame and half-blind Jasmine. The spare stall is full of stuff, and we don’t need or want another horse.

But Bessie was special. We have room for Bessie.

It took remarkably little googling to find her. Up popped Maryland Therapeutic Riding, Inc, with pictures of the bay beauty I knew was her. She was clearly happy, healthy, loved and cherished. Oh, my heart was so happy.

I emailed, and got a response not 24 hours later from the director of the program, Kelly.

I’m not going to see Gresca again. She died a couple of years ago. That’s the sad news. But it’s only sad for me. The rest of the story is better than any Cinderella story you’ve ever heard.

Kelly said that Gresca ‘carried the MTR program for many, many years- making a positive impact on all those she touched!’ She belonged to the founder of the program, Naomi, and when Naomi and her husband retired, they took Gresca and two other of the ready-to-retire horses with them.

Gresca helped hundreds of disabled riders in her career. Look at this picture- the gal riding her is paraplegic, and they just did a dressage test in front of a crowd of hundreds. Naomi says practically everyone in the stadium was in tears.

img_4484[9522]Look at those eyes.

What a star.

In addition to being the foundation of the therapeutic program, she was Naomi’s dressage horse, fulfilling the promise whose glimmer I only began to perceive in my time with her. She was the love of Naomi’s life. She was to Naomi was Nik was to me. We can’t talk about our girls without bawling.

She died peacefully and is buried on Tranquility Farm, a name so karmically perfect it’s almost comical.

Naomi and I talked on the phone for a long time. She hadn’t known anything about her beloved mare’s life prior to meeting her at that Andalusian farm, and I hadn’t known anything about the rest of her life, so we had a lot of catching up to do.

And a lot of happy tears.

Naomi saw the ad for her as she was embarking on her search for suitable therapy horses. While Gresca didn’t tick all the boxes, and had that hefty price tag to boot, Naomi got nailed with the same thunderbolt I had. When she went to meet her, there was poor Bessie, flattened against the back of her stall, trying to avoid the next awful thing.

Being more patient, experienced and perceptive than I, Naomi got it right away. From that first meeting she opened her heart, stayed quiet, and earned that beautiful mare’s trust and her heart and her soul, for the rest of her life.

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Naomi moved mountains to get her. She never doubted that they were supposed to be together. For the rest of Gresca’s long busy good life there was not one single solitary day that didn’t know she was the center of Naomi’s world.

If I had been given the script to write for Gresca’s life, I could not have written a better one. If my dream had come true and I could have kept her, she would not have been more loved and cherished, and would never have touched the lives of the hundreds of people she helped.

I will be grateful to Naomi for the rest of my days, not just for what she did for Gresca, but for so generously sharing her story with me.

My part in the Story of Gresca is a small one, but she meant so much to me. How wonderful that she went on to bring her special magic to so many others.

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Posted January 31, 2019 by suzmuse in Uncategorized

Lenaia 2019   Leave a comment

img_4491[9403]It had been a few years since the old woman had celebrated the Lenaia fully, all three days, and she was thrumming with anticipation as the first sunset painted the sky. There had been endless clouds recently, so the clear skies and mild temperature in January felt like a gift from Dionysos himself.

She set up the altar with love. The statue of the young God, a bottle of Primal Roots red wine. Purple candles. Dragon’s blood and sandalwood incense. A vase full of dawn-hued pink and yellow roses.

The moon was up, fat and nearly full, when she ventured out with the limnaed offerings. She didn’t bring the dogs. With offerings to distribute and the grandbeagle needing to be leashed, it simply wouldn’t work. But the big Siamese cat, always eager to participate in ritual, especially under strong moonlight, padded noiselessly at her heels.

The wet snow crunched under her big barn boots as she made her way to the shrines. First stop at Persephone’s, where grief and love overtook her. She spent some time before the shrine, head bowed, the cat slipping in and out of the trees, before she left a pink rose and moved on.

Next she went to the pine tree being lovingly smothered by Dio’s grape vine. The moon was bright and exciting through the branches of the ecstatic dryad. The woman left another rose, another libation, and kissed her hand to the entwined couple.

As she went across the boundary and into the lane, a wave of sadness enveloped her, remembering how the old dog had trundled panting through the deep snow when he had celebrated the Lenaia with her. Now he lay under the earth, protecting the gates, with the old tabby standing watch beside him. She could feel them, but they were silent and did not approach her and her cat.

The pond was polished silver, iced over, motionless and mesmerized under the moon. The always-present nervousness about being seen, clutching her flowers and dragon tankard and ritual bowl of homemade soup, receded somewhat as she spoke softly to the limnaeds. The mist-maidens were not visible, no shuddering dance on the glazed surface of the pond, but the silence was full of listening. The old woman prayed to Dionysos, thanked the limnaeds and all the local spirits for their presence, poured the wine, set down the food, and threw the rose onto the surface of the pond.

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It was still there the next day as the temperatures dropped and the pond’s surface thickened.

The second night of the Lenaia should have been spent dancing with other strange creatures at a masquerade ball, but a miserable mix of sleet and snow caused the event to be canceled. The old woman celebrated sedately with simple libations and prayers at the Persephone and Dionysos shrines. The giant blood-red full moon was hidden behind thick murky clouds, but there was an electric blue glow behind them.

The Siamese raced from tree to tree, yowling in her strange voice, serenading the moon she could feel if not see.

Later there was Star Trek.

On the third night the temperatures plummeted drastically into the negatives, wind howling in a death shriek. There was also a full moon eclipse. The old woman clutched her offering bowl and libation vessel in freezing hands, enraptured by the pageant over her head, but unable to stay out long enough to offer more than brief kleos to the God and his maenads. She came inside to warm up, then took a deep breath and headed back out with her thyrsos to wake the sleeping greenery. But it was simply too dangerously cold to visit all the dryads. Under the eerie red light of the eclipse, the moon eaten by the blue darkness, she tapped on the earth and the trunks of a few trees- Berkana, Tyr, Muninn- before fleeing inside for the succor of the fire and blankets and cats.

The sleeping green spirits had been reminded that their waking time would be soon. That they should not yet rouse themselves, but to start stirring in their dark beds.

Time to start planning the Anthesteria.

Posted January 22, 2019 by suzmuse in Uncategorized