Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bella Luna

Recently, I've been blessed with a combination of good fortunes.  My lovely wife saw that, after all our horse photography lately, I've been struggling with not having horses in my life.  She sagely suggested that I try and find a way to ride someone else's horse for free, since we can't afford to lease one.  I posted an ad on good ol' craigslist, offering to train a young horse how to carry a saddle and rider.  I wasn't sure if I'd even get any interest, since often people are suspicious of allowing perfect strangers to come handle their horses.

Boy, I did not realize how many people WOULD be interested.  I had to take the ad down after just one day because I had several emails and more horses than I could have hoped to ride in a year.

The first email was from an older woman who, along with her husband, owns a Quarter Horse and Paint Horse breeding ranch.  Typically, they sell the foals after they wean from their mothers and are not accustomed to having multiple older horses around to train to take a saddle and rider.  In the past few years, with the economy breaking down, they ended up with several foals left over on the property long after they should've been sold.  The woman has a bad hip and a bad back, and her husband has a back injury.  They couldn't train the young horses any more because they were too concerned about getting thrown off and seriously injuring themselves.  This is where I come in.

Naturally, *I* think - this is a fantastic opportunity!  All these well-bred horses to start right and train and who knows, maybe she'll throw me some training business down the line!  Most people probably think I have some kind of mental disorder, volunteering to do so much work so this woman can get more money for her horses.

But truthfully, I enjoy being around and working with horses so much that it's like a second Christmas, an opportunity like this.

I spoke to the woman on the phone first, and asked a bit about the horses and her facility, etc.  She was telling me about the horses she wanted me to work with - seven, in all.  She said that six of the seven were wonderful, should be easy to work with, handled often.  I said, "And the seventh?"

She paused.  "That filly... I don't trust her.  She's always been different.  You'll have to see what you think."

I pressed her, asking why she didn't trust her.  She explained that she wasn't handled like the rest of them as a baby and that she's always been more standoffish and she just can't get a handle on what she's really like.  She asked, "Have you ever had a horse whose personality just rubbed you the wrong way?"  I replied that I had, and she commented that both their personalities seemed to rub the other one the wrong way.  I accepted that, but was already curious about this "different" horse.

The first time I visited the ranch, the woman took me on a slow and limping tour of the property, showing me each horse and telling me what work had been done on it thus far.  After the first horse (a gorgeous Paint stallion the color of a freshly minted penny), I asked what his name was, to try and attempt keeping all the horses separate in my mind.  She replied that she didn't know his registered name off the top of her head, and that she didn't give any of these young horses names, because as a breeder she couldn't get attached to the babies.  She told me she just called him, "The Paint stud".  Funny, since she has six breeding stallions on the property and several of them are Paints.  I knew better than to ask about the rest of the horses' names.

After she showed me the six, we ambled towards the very back of the property and she began telling me the story of "the rogue filly" at the back.  Reportedly, when this little chestnut filly was born, the farm had between 15 and 20 foals on the ground.  The owner's husband was on a long trip to New Mexico, and she was single-handedly gentling and working with all the babies.  She simply didn't have the time or resources to work with all of them in addition to feeding, cleaning, and exercising the older horses, so the young filly who wasn't interested in human contact didn't get handled.

Once the filly was weaned from her mother, she was placed in a turnout by herself - as all the weanlings are. Being isolated forces the young horses to come to the humans for companionship and comfort, rather than bonding with other weanlings and avoiding people.  However, since this filly wasn't handled as a nursling, she was disinterested in the little human contact she was offered.  She kept her own company, lived on her own for awhile.

When the time came to catch her and start teaching her the necessary skills she'd need to be sold, the filly wouldn't allow herself to be caught.  She evaded the breeders, running wild in her turnout.  The breeders couldn't see any way to catch her, so they hired a cowboy to come out and rope her.  They put her in a stall and worked with her, got her accustomed to being haltered and led and having her feet picked up.  But she never really bonded with them, not in the way the other babies all had.  She didn't trust them, and they wouldn't trust her, either.

The economy bottomed out, and even this breeding operation's fine young horses weren't selling.  Including the young, disenchanted filly.  The time passed, months at first, then years.  Before long, the horse was full-grown and ready to be taught to accept saddle and rider.  But the breeders didn't have a good relationship with the horse; didn't trust her to not hurt them.

They opted to send her to a cowboy who would saddle-break her and teach her to be ridden.  She was to be there for 30 days.

Halfway through, the cowboy called to report that it wasn't going well - the filly refused to stop bucking once he saddled her, and he hadn't yet been on her back.  The cowboy was notorious for his use of a rear cinch, which is a wide strap of leather that circles a horse's lower abdomen and keeps the rear of the saddle from popping up on the horse's back (during competition or during a naughty bucking session).  It is not considered one of the mandatory pieces of a saddle, though many find it helpful.  The breeder asked if the cowboy had considered taking his rear cinch off, that perhaps the cinch was causing the filly's bucking.  He refused to try, insisting that she get used to it.  At the end of the 30 days, the cowboy asked for more time and the breeders told him no, they were coming to pick her up.  As they pulled onto his property, they found him riding the chestnut filly and looking pretty nervous about it.  They noticed that she'd lost weight while in his riding program.

I am unsure how long ago this happened to her, but it's safe to say that she has not been worked with since then.

So when the breeder walked me out to her pen, I was unsure of what to expect out of her.  The mare watched us approaching, ears forward and brown eyes bright.  I noted that she was in a pen at the back of the property, separated from any other horses and farthest away from the main house.  She was underweight.  She still had some of her winter coat along her back and withers and hindquarters.  Her tail had been chewed off while at the cowboy's place, according to the breeder.  It was in mats, tangled into dreadlocks.  Her mane had been rubbed or chewed off in places.  Her hair was a beautiful mixture of reds and golds, platinum blonde in places.

Between her eyes rests a small crescent moon of pale hairs - this is the only white marking on her whole body.  Her hooves have grown too long and begun to flare out and curl to one side.

The woman unhooked the chain around her pen gate and motioned for me to go inside.  As soon as I stepped foot into the pen, the mare turned away and walked to the back of the stall, putting her head low in the corner and refusing to acknowledge me.  I guess it shouldn't have been surprising, since most, if not all, the people in her life had let her down in some way.

I stood in the center of the pen and kept chatting with the breeder in a low, calm voice.  I turned my back to the mare and held a few grooming supplies I'd brought with me in my hand - a body brush, rubber curry, and a lead rope.

It wasn't even a minute before I sensed movement behind me.  I admit, I tensed a little, wondering if the horse was going to rush me or bite me, but before I could worry too much I felt her soft nose blowing warm air into my empty hand from behind.  I stood and just let her examine me.  She sniffed the grooming tools and lead rope, she smelled my pants and my ponytail and whuffed her breath into my ear.  I quietly stepped backwards, closer to her.  She didn't move away, but rather kept exploring me.  I scratched her chest and between her front legs.  I stroked her nose and rubbed her chin and jaw.  She let me step to her side and scratch along her mane and withers.  I switched to using the curry instead of my fingers and she stretched her head out and curled her upper lip when I hit a really good spot on her belly.  As I slowly worked all over her body, she would rest her chin on my shoulder or nose my back, sniff my arm, and rub her itchy face on my side.  She took the opportunity at one point to lift her head and breathe directly into my nose.  I took the opportunity to show her my trust in her, and breathed back into her nostrils.  This kind of exchange is vital in horse language - it's a way of gathering information, of learning to differentiate me from other humans; a greeting of sorts.  She gobbled up every kind word, every low croon I uttered.  She relished in every gentle touch.  As she relaxed and closed her eyes, standing comfortably with one hind foot cocked, I realized I had already decided that I loved her.

I barely know the horse, but I know enough to be certain that she's somebody special.

I'm feeling in awe of the way I came across this horse.  It just seems like I'm supposed to know her.

I drove home that day with visions of that mare's eyes watching me leave in my head.  Her crescent moon marking stuck out - I knew I had to come up with something to call this girl.  Later that night, I decided that Luna was the perfect name for her.

The following photos are of Luna, and because I was by myself, I could only take photos of her from outside her pen.  Because of this, these photos may be some of the worst quality pictures I've taken in a long time, and mostly just illustrate her coloring, markings, skinny body, and sad hooves.  Please forgive me.  I hope to take much, MUCH better photos of her soon.

She's thin, but some calories and muscling out will make her beautiful, I'm certain of it!

I love the color of her mane.

"Whatcha doin' with that thing?"

Pretty girl. 

 It's a little hard to see in this photo, but her hooves both flare and are beginning to curl to her right.  A trim will rectify this. 

Hi, sweet Luna. 

Silly horse wanted to examine the camera more than she cared if I got photos of her nice and straight legs. 

Bye, Luna!


  1. Ahh~ what a lucky horse! I'm so proud of you, you're an amazing woman and true blessing to horses.

    1. Thanks, Mom. :) I feel so fortunate to be able to do this again.

  2. What a wonderful 'report'. Don't know who I am happier for, you or Luna, and I am suspecting that you both were fated to come into each others lives.

    1. Thank you, Gramps! I agree, it seems somehow we met under circumstances more meaningful than mere coincidence. I am eager to see what happens next!

  3. Awwwe! I hope you can form a great relationship with this little sweetheart! Happy to hear you are getting back in to horses! Sounds like you have a real passion for it! :)

    1. Thanks!! I do love being around horses, and I am hopeful that Luna and I can form a lasting partnership. Everyone's support and enthusiasm means so much.

  4. What a beautiful touching story. It seems to me that your photographing of the horses led you to miss them, which led you to post the ad, which led you to Luna - all things interconnected. It does seem like you were meant to know this horse, and I hope to hear more about your relationship in the future.

  5. Just came upon your blog, and this is the first post I read through in full... absolutely beautiful :)