Thursday, May 29, 2008

And Everything Looks Worse in Black and White

Just another morning. I actually feel hungover. Mind you,I didn't drink last night and I even got through an entire week without Xanax.
I had finally talked with my best friend last night. The minute I picked up to answer the phone she knew from the sound in my voice. No matter how many jokes or protests that everything was fine, she knew I wasn't.
Once I had started, I couldn't stop. Crying,that is. It was one of those hardcore,punched in the guts,type of cries. You know the kind. Where you find yourself hunching over in agony and you can't even speak because it hurts so bad.
"I miss Gwen," I finally managed to sputter out.
I know that there are some people who would think that such grief over losing a horse is strange. You don't marry them,have children with them and most don't depend on their income. Losing them certainly isn't comparable to losing a human,right? Yet,here I was. Almost a year later, sobbing because I have missed her so much.
I never knew the Devon Horse Show would trigger so many memories for me. At the end of the day I get in to my car, reeking of horses and Devon dust and feel the knife in my heart as I pull away.
If you have ever watched the television series Cold Case you would understand the phenomenon I have been experiencing this week. In the episodes they show cold cases from years ago that are finally resolved. As the detectives interview witnesses or suspects they flash the screen to show the person or area they are describing, back to the original look of the year of the crime. I started watching this show mainly because it is supposed to be about Philadelphia detectives. I get a kick out of references to surrounding suburbs or landmarks of my hometown. As time went on and I watched the screen flash over to recreate the past event it was potraying, I realized that the television screen had nailed exactly what my own brain does. Current events trigger a flash that takes me back to what the original event looked like.
I don't know why I am such a sentimental sap for the past. Sometimes my flashes are not so squishy happy. A song,a smell or just seeing a space of everyday life will flash me right back to whatever memory was lying there,waiting to be shown on the screen inside my head.
This week at Devon was no different. Most of my flashes were happy,funny or plain nostalgic. When I got off the phone with Brit last Sunday night I felt comforted that my flashes still see the fun we had and that I could appreciate the sensation of missing friends and the adventures we shared.
I have worked at Devon for over two decades. Of course I can flash back to the young 20-something girl who was full of dreams and had no clue where life with horses would take her. I get a kick out of seeing her in my head. I exclaim to myself how young she was and how clueless. If that poor girl only knew how much better life would get.
What I didn't count on this week was the Saddlebreds that show at Devon. I have worked many a time in these barns. My Merlin and Gwen were both full blooded Saddlebreds. Before I had owned her,Gwen was shown in the division of Fine Harness. As I stood along the rails last night watching the Fine Harness class, my former trainer and also the person who I got both my Saddlebreds from, came over to say hello. He is getting old now. My brain flashed back to 1990 when I first met him and how he looked then. We made small talk as we both kept our eyes on the ring.
Then I saw her. A pretty chestnut mare with a star and a snip on her face. She had two white socks on her back feet. My brain flashed Gwen. When the flash ended I saw a horse that just resembled her but the feeling it evoked lingered. I stood at the rails and watched a couple more classes and caught up with the man who changed my life so much when he had introduced me to the Saddlebred breed. I had a few more minor, happy flashes as I left the grounds for the night.
It wasn't until the next morning that I realized the flash of my Gwen as a show horse wouldn't stop shutter-bugging in my head. The flashes then became a montage of pictures.
Gwen as a young filly,then a yearling in training, myself climbing on to her back and becoming the first person to ride her,watching the farrier put on her first pair of weighted keg shoes to make her gait, me getting in to my car and crying in grief because she was doomed to the life of a show horse, Gwen in the show ring, Gwen in her stall at Devon looking empty and blank, Dru and I bringing her home, the dollar bill that made my owning her legal,my ex taking her prisoner shoes off, our first trail ride on Marlborough Road,training with Chris in dressage at Dru's,Gwen's surgery in the middle of the paddock with Dr. Donaldson removing her bone fracture fragment, moving Gwen to my Aunt Jan's farm, cold winter nights lifting up her long mane and squishing my face into her neck to stop any tears that may have been falling, pictures of Gwen with my pony Coral surrounded by buttercups, Gwen by herself in the snow when Coral died, Gwen greeting Romeo for the first time, Gwen with her head up watching me intently as I approached her in the pasture, Gwen whinnying a greeting when I walked in to the barn, Me draped across her broad back with my arms hanging down as she grazed in the pasture, looking through her ears as we rode alongside the corn fields.
Finally to that last day. The panic phone call from my aunt,the vet coming out with his wife in the middle of the night,the phone call to New Bolton,my phone call to my ex to try and get a trailer, watching Gwen go down in the paddock as my uncle and I tried to beat her into getting back up,Dru coming up behind me and holding me while I told the vet it was time,hearing Gwen's last snort as he gave her the final injection,watching her legs crumble as she gently went down, cradling her head in my arms as her eyes went to glass,burying my face underneath her mane to squash my tears one last time, carefully cutting locks of her mane and tail,Dru and Jan leading me away, to finally visiting her fresh grave after my Uncle Steve had buried her.The pictures go on forever.
After Gwen's death I made a montage of pictures of her and uploaded it on to the computer. Although I am grateful for the actual physical photos, I am more grateful for the flashes in my head. Even the bad ones, I know that they make up who I am today. I'm not always feeling confident that this is where life should be going. I keep seeing the flash of myself in my car after Gwen had those first keg shoes put on. Praying to the Higher powers to somehow make it possible that I would save her from the horrible life of a show-gaited Saddlebred.
It took three more years, but God did finally answer that prayer. I have that image of bringing her home burned in to my very being, inside my soul, to remind me that life is one complete beautiful picture story.

Kodachrome,they give us those nice bright colors. Oh dear God,please don't take my Kodachrome away.

Monday, May 26, 2008

For the times they are a-changin'

Everything about the weather is right. It is the perfect time of year. It gets light early in the morning and the daylight lasts until 9pm. The temperature has climbed into the 80s with no humidity and a soft breeze to make the day comfortable.All of the flowers and trees are in full bloom making the world look like heaven. It is my favorite time of year.
Not only is the weather perfect it is also my favorite horse show month. It begins the first weekend in May with the Winterthur Steeple Chase Races and ends with my all around favorite,the Devon Horse Show.
The Devon Horse Show is the one show that I have attended and worked in for the past couple decades. It is 15 minutes from where I reside which gives me the home advantage. What I really love about Devon is the variety of disciplines that compete throughout the week. Everything from Saddlebreds, driving competitions, hunter jumpers to sidesaddle. You name it, it's there. It is one of the rare equestrian events that draws horse owners from all over the world. I often work in the barns with South Africans, New Zealanders and British grooms. I always come away feeling like a new world opened up to me for a week.
Sunday was the official opening day. I rode in the traditional carriage parade with my friend Maire and her pony,Bruno. This is my tenth year of riding in this event with someone. Twice with Maire.

The event leaves from a local church and the parade of various horse drawn vehicles drive through the winding,tree lined roads, in to the fair grounds at Devon. People set up along the route with lawn chairs and picnics,waving the exhibitors on. Bruno likes to pretend he is an unbroken mustang when we encounter things along the road. Last year we took out a homeowners mailbox and a lawn chair. Driving with Maire is a load of giggles on how out of control we are. Somehow, in the past ten years of driving with Maire we have never gotten hurt. Just upturned shrubs,knocked down fence posts or cones and an occasional close call of mowing down small children.
Sunday was no exception on the fun factor. It was just sad to see a smaller than usual crowd of vehicles and horses meeting at the church grounds. Usually there are over 50 types of horse drawn vehicles in every shape and size. The lawn was noticeably empty of horse vans. Maire and I are local so it was a quick jaunt with a truck and trailer. For many it means huge tractor trailers that come cross country. The price of fuel had obviously kept many closer to home.
There wasn't a cloud in the sky. The temperature climbed in to a comfortable high 70s with a soft breeze. A perfect day to drive to the fairgrounds.
As we got Bruno ready and put him to his cart, I kept glancing around to see any familiar faces. As we were called up to our position I realized that this was the extent of the parade. Maybe a third of what usually participates. The larger coaches had dwindled down from the usual eighteen to only four. Only one was owned and driven by people that I have worked for and he was local. I found out from their grooms that they didn't even bother to rent stalls for the week. They were only showing three out of the seven nights and decided it would cost too much.
Bruno was on his best behavior. I think the fact that there were less participants made the parade move a little faster. Bruno is getting close to 25 years old. I think the pace tuckered him out enough to prevent his usual goal of taking out small children who lined along the road.
After the parade I went back to the show grounds to see if I could drum up some work for the week.Being a massage therapist for horses has proven to be a lucrative side business for me. It is how I pay for the upkeep of my own horses. The week of Devon finds me not only massaging various horses but also grooming for different barns. It is a hectic week of starting at 5am and often working past midnight. Usually, I am turning horses or barns away because I have so much work. It is the one week of the year I know will make me enough money to pad me through the summer with extra money to play with. It looks like I am not playing too much this summer.
I found some Saddlebred folks who I have worked for in the past. I massaged two horses and groomed for one that night. I don't enjoy working in these barns because the horses are kept stall bound 24/7 due to their high platform shoes that animate their gait. It makes me so sad to see these horses so empty of outside stimulation. I needed the cash so I did what I came there to do.
Afterwards, I walked back to the section of barns that Brit and the other Coaching exhibitors usually kept their horses. Only three Coaching barns were occupied.I knew Brit wasn't coming up for the show. It was the first time in twelve years I wouldn't see him. The rest of the barns were rented out to Hunter Jumpers or Saddlebreds. I walked down the pavement in between and was sad to see it bare. When I worked with the Coaching barns we would only exhibit at night. This left us with a couple hours to kill in the late afternoon. We would sit outside the barns with lawn chairs and have a couple beers. Every day a guy from Weaver Enterprises (yes, the KFC chicken people)would draw a grid in chalk on the paved walkway in between barns. Each square would have our individual name. We would then each put up five dollars. We would then sit back and watch as exhibitors and their horses walked past and over the chalk grid. The first horse to land a poop in a box would declare that person a winner of the kitty. The noise level could become quite high if there was a near miss or if a horse lifted a tail with the possibility of a score. It got to point that our grid became three barn lengths and even the wealthy owners participating.
Not only was there no chalk grid,there was no one sitting outside the barns,chatting away while waiting for the night rush. The jumpers compete during the day and there is little prep work for the grooms to do. Once they are done for the day, they leave. It is a much larger competitive field and the jumper barns are not friendly with each other. It was strange to see this section so quiet of human interaction.
I left the show grounds at dusk and called Brit from my cell. "I miss everyone," I whined to him. He conceded that it felt weird knowing he wasn't there along with most of the old crew. I asked him if he missed me? "Miss you?" he exclaimed,"why would I miss my hippie groom who weaves flowers in to my Hackneys manes?"
Brit was referring to an incident the first year I worked for him in 1996. There was a fun Scurry driving class on the second night of the show. The horses appearance would not affect the judging, only speed and time through an obstacle course. Since I was bored and there was a pot of flowers along each side of the doorway I had the brilliant idea of adding flowers to the horses braids.
Brit had worked for Prince Philip when he had lived in Britain. He also worked with Gloria Austen,the Olympic driving champion. His work ethic reflects that. What was I thinking,having some fun? I can still see his face when he had realized too late that his horses had flowers in their manes when they were entering the ring.
Brit took first place in this class. When the judge pinned the ribbon on to the near side horse he grinned and told Brit he liked the flowers. I think Brit was properly horrified at such a soft touch. He gave me a stern lecture afterwards, ripped the flowers from their manes and told me this was not how he runs things.
The next day there was a great shot of the Hackneys going through the last set of cones was on the front page of The Horse of Delaware Valley. The caption read," Hackneys that knew they were ribbon winners already!" The article then went on to gush what a sensational driver Brit was and how he was a fore runner of revitalizing the sport here in the USA. It was a great boost for his career to make the cover of a primarily Hunter Jumper publication. That cover made his name known in the American driving circle.
Brit tossed the paper at me while I was sitting by the grid. "Well, there you go," was all he said to me. I read the caption and looked up at him. I detected a slight upward turn on one side of his mouth. It is the closest one gets to Brit conceding that a break in protocol had a happy ending. He then placed a five dollar bet on an empty square and sat with us for the rest of the afternoon. It was the beginning of our long time friendship.
I sat in the car and we talked for awhile, reminiscing on some of our adventures in the barns. We agreed that things in the equestrian circle are changing. The turn of the economy and the rising fuel costs are affecting the show season. He had no plans to travel north this summer. I had no barns lined up that were traveling south. We concluded that we hoped to see each other some time next year.

"Eva," Brit said at the end of the phone call, "you should be up in the stands trying to land yourself a wealthy husband. You won't find him working inside a barn."

I knew he meant well. He,himself, has tried many a time to land a wealthy wife. Neither one of us has gotten there in the finance part of romance. Actually,neither one of us has seemed too sucessful in the romance aspect,either.

As I drove home, my friend Dru,called. She has box seats for the entire week at Devon. She asked if I would like to use them? "I thought you might enjoy being a spectator for a change," is what she said to me.

Even if I am not back in the barns I know I can still appreciate that this is the oldest, long running, horse show in the country. It epitomizes what the Philadelphia Main Line is all about. Sit in a box with the wealthy sect all week? Maybe it's time for a change.
"I would love to!" I told her.
Yes,time for a change.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Loving You is the Right Thing to Do

When we are children we learn the famous Richard Bach quote: "If you love someone, set them free. If they come back they're yours; if they don't they never were."
For so many years now I have heard that mantra winding around my thoughts. Whenever I have a break up with a man, friends who have gone separate ways or just some dream I wanted in life that seemed to come and go. I'm not sure if I always buy in to this thought,but it winds around in there.
It was at my friend Dru's animal rescue that I saw her for the first time. Dru has a a section of her barn that is called "The Puppy Palace." It is where new puppies come in and are put in to quarantine while they are being assessed for health issues. It is not always puppies who come in but any dog who seems like they may be infectious to the main kennel.
I was helping Dru medicate the 35 or so pups when I saw a Jack Russell staring intently at me from one of the upper cages.
"What's that one's deal?" I asked Dru. Often the dogs that show up on her doorstep have some horror story behind them. I have learned over the years to be selective when I ask that question and I mentally prepare myself to start tuning out what she tells me if the abuse is too horrific.
"No deal. She was just found wandering down the road at night. Some man almost hit her and called the police. They brought her here because the SPCA was full. I have her quarantined because she keeps shaking. I'm not sure if she is sick or not. She looks pretty old,though." I peered in. She had white around her muzzle and eyes. With the white and her shaking she seemed to be aged.
I donned the plastic gloves and carefully lifted her from her cage. Often Jack Russell Terriers are aggressive. In my many years around horses I have encountered these little buggers around barns. I think their original purpose was to kill rats and rodents in the barn. Over the years these dogs are still kept within the equestrian circle but have little to do in the modern rodent controlled environments. Therefore that constant kill and destroy urge is usually aimed at hapless barn cats,children or massage therapist who dare to try and shoo them out of the way of a horse. I have come to detest the breed and often refer them as Jack Russell Terrors,exclaiming they have no purpose other than to be part of what horse people deem as a necessary accessory to playing their part in their equestrian persona.
The dog was shaking like crazy. In this breed that is often common. I think it's the adrenaline to bark or bite the crap out of you building up. After I cautiously syringed her meds in to her I examined her all around. Apart from shedding like crazy she was well muscled and a good weight. I slowly went to examine her teeth. The were the teeth of a young dog. Her white hairs around her face and muzzle were misleading. As I parted the hairs on her back I realized she was a brindle. That particular coloring often have that characteristic white around the eyes and muzzle,making them look older. This was a young and quite healthy Jack. As I was ready to put her back in her cage she looked up at me. It was then that I felt it. Her little stump tail was wriggling with happiness. There is no mistaking a happy dog tail. "Hey Dru, we got a nice one!" I exclaimed. Few and far between you encounter a nice Terror dog. She melted herself in to my arms and let out a big sigh as I started to scratch her belly. Dru and I both agreed she was someones well taken care of pet who must of wandered off. She would be claimed in no time.
It was two weeks later that we attended a steeple chase race near our home. Dru brought a few dogs for adoption and I set up an info table for my equissage business.
I was surprised that she still had the Jack Russell with her. Seems no one had come forward to claim her. Dru brought her in the hopes she would be adopted. The fact that we were at an equestrian event was a sure fire hit that would happen.
The moment I settled down in to a chair the little Jack pawed at me to lift her up in to my lap. She settled in and was peaceful. Not one bit of shaking. The dog never left me the entire day. My friend Lauren thought we should call her cinnamon because it looked like she was sprinkled with it throughout her coat. After a few martinis, we were singing the Apple Jacks cereal song at her,"...cinnamon,toasty,Apple Jacks." That was how she became named Apple. I'm not sure if it was because she was on my lap the entire day or if it was her aged appearance but no one took interest in adopting her. She was fussed over and petted a lot but not one adoption interest. She was friendly with children and other dogs. I even walked her around the show grounds. Not one growl or bark. Once again,I marvelled how sweet this dog was.
When we started packing up to leave I picked Apple up to put her in her crate. She looked back at me and started to whine and shake. I agreed to let her ride on my lap back to the farm. That was it. Apple picked me. There was no way I could shove that poor girl back in to a cage. I let Dru talk me in to taking her home and seeing how she adapted. Apple was the dream dog. She not only didn't chase my cats,she slept next to them like they were invisible. She even let my 20 year old deaf cat drink with her out of a shared water bowl.
There was just one hitch. My bunnies. I have two house rabbits who romp free in a spare room.I have a baby gate across the threshold and the cats can come and go as they please. In the 10 years I have had house rabbits I have never had problem with cats and bunnies together. They just seem to know these are house pets and are not prey. Dogs on the other hand...
Apple proved to be no different. The moment she smelled the rabbits I knew her instinct to eradicate my home of these vile lapins was stronger than her love for me or my cats. I closed the bedroom door,fearing she would jump the baby gate. This made my lop eared bun,Grissom,furious. He thumped his back foot all night and chewed at the door. Grissom is like a puppy,himself. He loves to cuddle in bed with me and will follow me when I allow him freedom from his gated room. I really was in a quandary as to what to do.
The next day I took Apple to the farm with me. I asked my aunt Jan if I could keep her in her enclosed yard while I worked with the horses. After a couple hours I wandered up to the house. There was my Uncle Steve napping on the couch. Tucked under his arm snoring away in unison was Apple.
Their beagle had died last month. As long as I can remember they always had dogs. My aunt is a retired dog groomer,so dogs were always a huge part of their life. It seemed weird to be in their house this past month with no dog. Apple woke and trotted over to greet me. She gave out a long yawn and stretch. We walked back to my aunt's bedroom where she was on the computer. Apple ran to Jan and hopped up on to her lap. She curled herself up like a cat, let out a sigh and started to doze again. Jan has huge windows that look out on to the pasture.I could see Sydney and Romeo grazing side by side. I just love their house. Every room has a great view. The weather had taken a cooler turn so they had their wood burning stove going. It made a down-to-the-bone warmth and looking around I just had such a peaceful feeling being inside the place that has become my second home.
"Jan,Apple doesn't like my bunnies. It's not fair to them if I have to keep them locked away. Plus,I work ten hour days.It's not fair to leave a dog home alone for such long stretches. I also plan to travel with horse shows this summer. She needs someone who will give her constant affection. Could I keep her here with you and Steve?"
Jan welled up with tears. "I would love that. I just haven't had the heart to go and pick out a new dog but lo and behold the perfect one just showed up.You are here just about every day so it's not like she wouldn't see you."
It was the right thing to do.
When I got home I changed in to my sweats and crawled back in to bed. As I got nestled in to my pillows Grissom hopped up and nuzzled his way under my arm. Then two of my cats jumped up and settled next to us. Grissom and Kenni started to groom each other in contentment. I grew sleepy with happiness.
Yep,it was the right thing to do.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

One Word

The oh,so elusive, Sandman. Seems no matter what lingerie,fun pajamas or lack of any clothing at all,seems to make me able to entice this man to sleep with me.
Lack of sleep seems to be several factors. One of them is the fabulous weather we are having. I love spring in Pennsylvania. If it is not pouring rain then one can appreciate the change from winter's grey and brown to the colours of green grass, blossoming trees,daffodils, buttercups and violets galore. It never ceases to amaze me how each morning blooms into even more colours. I drive to the barn and down roads while fruit trees rain down pink and white flowers. It's hard not to thaw inside while the temperatures warm outside as well.
Spring in Eastern Pennsylvania also brings the beginning of an age old tradition. Steeplechase races. Every weekend there is a race held among the many rolling hills and open countryside of my state. I actually don't know too much about this sport. I work with horses in so many other disciplines but steeplechase is just something that is always there in the background of my own personal equine social events. It's the other sport of coaching that links me to the races. Like half time at football games it is traditional for carriages and horse drawn vehicles to parade through the show grounds during the half way mark of a race day. Then the vehicles line up in the center field and tailgate for the remainder of the day. For the wealthy sect that partake in this sport this means tailgating with fancy crystal and china and champagne flowing but eating very little. Each vehicle is then judged in different categories and prizes are awarded out for things like best dressed vehicle,best tailgate, best turned out horses,etc. For the next two months I can find work every Sunday with one of the many people who partake in this event. I usually work with the larger coaches in what is called four-in-hand,meaning a four horse drawn vehicle.
I had stumbled in to the sport of driving through a farrier friend who had daughters my age. I began to work as a groom and livery footman for them. It was through them I met Brit* who taught me the important basics of coaching and it's vast equipment of harness and protocol.
Over the years this sport hads taken me on many adventures,good and bad. Mostly good.It is on rare occasions that I would work for someone who was just,how should we say it? An asshole. David* was just such a person. What made working for David so unique was as much of a jerk he was,his wife Sissy*, was an absolute doll. She was warm and bubbly always saying something nice to someone. I loved talking to her. So,when I received the call on Friday night from Sissy I found it impossible to refuse her plea to groom for them that Sunday. Seems their regular groom couldn't do the event and they were stuck one man short. "I told David that I wanted you for the day because we love you so much." Ohhhh,she was good. Loved me. Harrumph. I needed the money so I conceded to meet them at the farm next to the estate where the races were being held at 5:30AM,Sunday morning.
Really,I know better. I had worked several times for them before and the one thing you could count on with David was he was a consistent drunk. Every other behavior would follow that lead.
I pulled up to the estate at 5:15 I saw there were already close to 20 vans and trailers lined up. It never fails to give me a rush to watch the morning mist burn off as the sun starts to rise over the muted bustle of a show day beginning. That smell of wet grass, leather,shavings and horses just makes me dizzy with happiness. I pulled my car up and waited. And waited. It took until 6:00 before my rush of anticipation started to wear off. Of course David would be late. What was I thinking being on time? I muttered my first expletive of the day.
At 6:30 their van came pulling in to the field. To my dismay,David picked the farthest spot away from the main barn. This means any water I would need would have to be lugged by hand in buckets from a considerable distance. I muttered my second expletive of the day.
David immediately jumped out of the van barking orders. "We are late so chop,chop Eva, we can't be late for the line up." We? Ummmm,you mean you, asshole. OK that was in my head, but I thought it pretty darned clear. Third expletive of the day.
"Where are the other grooms?" I asked. I was once again dismayed to see the answer to that question was only one Mexican groom who was introduced as Manuel* and who obviously didn't speak a word of English judging by the way David talked to him in a loud and condescending tone.
David drove a four-in-hand team which usually means four grooms. Two ride on the coach and all four prepare the horses for harness. I grabbed Sissy as she breezed by me and asked if any other grooms would be joining us? She quipped that David told her that he knew that I could handle the work of two men because, "you are such a good worker!" and she floated away to join the other wives in what would be a social day of the rich.
How many expletives am I up to,now?
I will spare the reader of the long drawn out,blow by blow narrative of a day of coaching. I'll just sum it up by saying the day only progressed in to more chaos. The horses were filthy when they got out of the van. David had obviously loaded them up with the thought that Manuel and I would clean them up before we harnessed them. On top of that fact was Manuel didn't have a clue about the harness or how the horses are put to it. I left him with what I hoped was an understanding that he was to groom the horses while I tried to get the harnesses prepared. The harness itself was tossed in to a jumble in the back of a truck. I had to spend the next hour trying to figure what piece went to what horse. Now mind you,most people have the harness set up in a way that you know what equipment goes with what horse. Each horse is a different size so every piece of equipment is supposed to be kept in an order for that particular horse. Putting a wrong head collar or bit on the wrong horse is like wearing the wrong size shoes for you and I.
The horses are then hitched to the carriage depending on the horses size. The two larger heavier horses go to the wheel and the lighter,finer horses Ar put to the lead. It is up to the driver to decide which horse is put to the near side or to the left. that comes from knowing your horses as a team and which side they are stronger on. When I asked David what order his horses would go he looked at me with outright irritation. "It doesn't matter,just get it done." He walked off in a huff and I felt my blood pressure rise to a dangerous level. Mind you,I have not worked for this man in a couple years and the last time was with my ex who knew this team better than I did. I put the emergency phone call in to my ex. He talked me through which horse to put where and ended with the phone call with the question of,"what the hell are you thinking working for that asshole? Did Brit put you up to this?" Brit was a friend of mine in coaching who often got me jobs for other people. I had to fess up I made this mistake on my own. My ex then made one last statement. "Don't get yourself killed with David. Jump if you have to,OK? Eva,promise me." I promised him I would and said a quick prayer when I hit the end button.
Somehow I got the jumbled mess of harness together and Manuel and I managed as team fairly well in spite of the language barrier. As the sun rose in the sky it turned in to a perfect,clear and sunny day. The temperature climbed in to the 70s and the horses were on their best behavior. I give this team a lot of credit. As rough as David is in his speech his hands are even worse. Yet in spite of his hard hands and outright inattentive-ness (can you say,drunk ed-ness?)these horses do their best. When we pulled up to the infield I made sure each horse had a cookie for being so good. I knew their dirty appearance and messy harness would keep them from any ribbons. What was a crummy,slobbery bit at this point? I also knew from past experience that David was not considerate of his grooms. With only two to man four horses while they were tailgating for the next several hours,it would be impossible for one of us to leave to eat let alone go to the bathroom. I had made sure my coat was crammed with cookies and a juice box for my own sake. I peeked back at Manuel who was manning the wheeler horses and tossed him a packet of cookies. I had to smile when he took two for the horses before eating the rest for himself. He knew that international language of equine love.
As I stood there keeping the horses as still as humanly possible I heard a familiar voice behind me.
"Please tell me you are not working for that asshole,David." It was Brit.
"Funny, you are at least the third person today to refer him by that name," I replied.
Really. What was I thinking?
"If I know you as well as I think I do,you are busting to get to the loo. I'll man the beasts for you and get something to drink or eat as well. Besides cookies."
I had to giggle. No matter how old we get some things never change and Brit knew my love of cookies.
I rushed off and returned with an extra hamburger and bottle of water for Manuel. Brit told him in mangled Spanish to go pee while he could and he would watch the wheelers. Brit and I did a quick catch up while standing with the horses. He still hadn't found permanent work. He was wandering around from barn to barn with whatever work he could find. Not what he expected his forties to be. I knew the feeling. Somehow we both keep drifting back to the horses,knowing there is low pay and little reward other than loving the beasts.
When Manuel came back,Brit walked over and hugged me. He kept me in the embrace for a moment and whispered,"make sure he pays you for the work of two. Lord knows you do the work of four." He disappeared in to the throng of horses and vehicles.
When we got back to the estate at the end of the day,Manuel and I took turns leading the horses to the main barn to hose them down. It was a shame that they looked cleaner at the end of the day.David and Sissy disappeared in to the main house where a formal dinner was being held,leaving Manuel and I alone to finish getting everything in order for their return trip home. In silence we worked together to clean the harness and horses. He often stopped to pat or whisper to each horse. I liked working with him. His calm energy offset David's constant barrage of barking orders.
The sun was setting low in the sky and most grooms were beginning to gather in the courtyard with beers and friendly banter. I wandered up to the main house.
I was greeted at the door by a butler and what seemed to be a pack of dogs in every shape and size. Corgis,Labradors,Shelties and Shitzus barked in unison. I asked the butler if he could address Sissy for me. I sat down in a rocker surrounded by the wild pack of fat, domesticated dogs at my feet. Sissy came out and sat next to me on the porch. We made small talk about what a beautiful day it was and how well the drive went. When we fell in to a comfortable silence I knew it was my opening to leave.
"Sissy,how long have I known and worked for you and David?" I asked.
We concurred it was over 10 years. I began to calmly tell her that although I loved their team of horses and I had a great respect for the tradition and protocol of the sport I had to tell her that what they asked of Manuel and I today was not fair for the fee I had originally agreed to work for. We sat there in silence for a few moments and Sissy began to speak softly, as if someone else might over hear.
"David tries too hard to keep up with the wealthy folk. I'm the one who had the money when we married. I guess when you have always had it,you could care less what people think.You are right about David's bad behavior but he does so because he thinks it earns him respect. He is a bit of an asshole that way."
I sat there stunned. In ten years I don't think I ever heard Sissy curse,let alone use the one word that I had already heard to describe her husband by at least three people in this one day,alone.
She took out an envelope and then reached in to her purse and pulled out several more bills and placed them in with the original cash."It's our secret,OK?" she asked of me. I just nodded and as I took the envelope.She then handed me a second envelope with Manuel's name on it and asked if I would mind paying him also? She gave me a hug at the steps and promised she would look for me at the next event. "Come and have a glass of champagne with us," was her invitation. I waved goodbye knowing that it wouldn't happen.
Dusk was falling when I got back to the barn. I pulled out the two envelopes knowing mine was far more padded than Manuel's. I thought about him feeding the cookies to the horses even after he had accepted the fact that David and Sissy would not think of feeding him. I counted out the money and split the two envelopes evenly. I could hear Brit's voice hissing with disdain that I would do such a thing. I knew he wouldn't understand that my victory would of been hollow if I didn't follow through with what is right all around.
I handed the envelope to Manuel and shook his hand.
"It was great working with you today. Thanks for helping me so much."
I was stunned. He spoke perfect English! He was grinning ear to ear as he knocked back a swig of his beer. "David treats me like an idiot,so I act like one,Ci?" I had my first genuine chuckle of the day. "He is a piece of work," was my retort.
"More like,Qué tipa pendeja!" was Manuel's reply.
Well,that made a whopping five people calling this man an asshole in one day.
We both walked back to the van to check the horses and I opted to pass on any beers and head home. As I pulled away with my car window open,I breathed in the smell of dew settling on to the grass and the sweet smell of flowers,grass and horses mingling together. For the first time since dawn I had no expletives in my head. I felt good while rolling my car towards home knowing there was no pendeja waiting for me when I got there.

*Names changed to protect the innocent and assholes.