I have been writing stories; full-on efforts to plunge my heart down deep into the flow of what goes on between and among us — the horses, the donkeys, the dogs, and me. It is slow going. There are fewer words that suit this journey, it seems. Here is one of those stories. I share it now, if for no other reason than to call it done, give it birth. It is from our time living “out west”.
At the Fence
I wasn’t sure about moving to this ranch perched in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, but now it is deep in my bones; the long views, the untamed nature of it, the ways in which we have made it our own. With great determination twenty acres at the lower elevations are now cross-fenced, with lean-to shelters for the horses and fencing to keep the dogs in and the coyotes out. The remaining forty acres are perimeter fenced only, wild and untouched, the rugged terrain climbing up and up, then curving around to the north behind the homestead where it falls sharply into a seasonal creek bed.
The horses are confined to the lower twenty acres. I cannot imagine them in the hills that stretch beyond; you might as well ask me to set them loose in the Grand Canyon. That’s what this is really, compared to the world we left behind “Back East” as native Californians call it, although it was the Midwest. The horses were show horses then, with engraved name plaques on the stalls where they were confined, legs wrapped, bodies blanketed — efforts, along with a hundred others, designed to keep them from “being horses”, from hurting themselves and bringing a premature end to a show season or a career.
There are no stalls here, for their good or my convenience. The five horses — Filou, Andante, Legs, Beamer, and Loosa – Boo, the mini horse and BJ, Annie, and Elliott, the three mini donkeys we acquired here, are outside and together as a herd. Not one of them has died or broken a leg, though I was certain of both fates when I first turned them loose together. They explored their opinions of each other and have now settled into the quibbles and comforts of their constant togetherness. The space they occupy is generous and they are accepting of it. Still, I see how their attention reaches over the north fence line to the slope rising above them. The grass calls them — broad-bladed and high-headed, rolling in gold waves up the hill, still holding to green under the wide umbrella branches of the live oaks jutting out of the hillside.
I went there first with the dogs. We scrambled and hiked our way to the top of the plateau that butts out like a shoulder over the ranch buildings, learning when to climb and where to traverse the steep terrain. The forward hill was next and, finally, when we were fit and brave, the second, larger hill. We took long rests at the top, the dogs panting from the effort, noses lifting to glean messages carried by the shifting breezes. I unfurled my heart to the wide-open view of the valley stretching around us and to this, our new place of belonging. What will become of us, of our togetherness, if I give you up to this space? I float the question silently down to the horses, rodent-like specks in the pasture below us.
At mid-day, near enough to evening feeding time that I had an attraction to offer them, I unlatched the back gate and let the herd discover its open invitation. They eased themselves out into the new space, heads low, grabbing mouthfuls of grass as they moved. Our connection is no longer shaped by a closed fence line. They stayed near and then they didn’t, traveling farther and farther, exploring. The sun was low when they returned, but they did return, snorting softly, eagerly bumping their heads into me, checking the continued solidness of our bond. Their muzzles smell of warm earth, sweet grass, and wild sage and I am healed by it. Earlier and earlier in the day, I find them standing by the closed gate, heads uphill, waiting for me to give them up to the wild openness of the hill. They leave me, but they return; we find understanding in that and our connection grows both softer and stronger. One evening after feeding, they circled back to the gate — the same question, a new threshold for me to cross. I swallow hard at the thought of letting them have the hill in darkness, but it is clear they have decided this as a group, so I acquiesce. I am braver than I thought; they knew I would be.
We are in our second full change of seasons now, the second wet-dry rhythm of when the hope for rain starts and when it ends. This season, the rains came late and only sporadically. It is the start of drought, the worst that will grip the state of California in 100 years. No one knows that yet, the unrelenting largeness of it, its remarkableness compared to a century’s worth of time. Even epic events can sneak up on you — you don’t see it for what it is because your back is turned, because you stay facing in the direction of how things are supposed to be just long enough to miss the part where the train switched tracks.
The grass returns but low to the ground, growing only as much as the rain allows it and by April it has ended. Now, it is just the heat and the blue, blue sky and the sound of all things drying out. Still, the horses are giddy with it, the grass and the promise of the hill, and they grow round from their forays deep into its crevices in search of the best of the wild buffet. It doesn’t last long.
Summer descends and they eat down what remains of the grass, now a bleached gold dryness rattling against itself in the wind. Even with the forty acres, they are not so round anymore. They take their zig-zag trek up into the hills for the night, but during the day they linger in the lower pastures near the house for expanding lengths of time; the hike is not worth taking twice.
By August I have added sweet flakes of alfalfa to their evening feed. This delights them greatly. As meal time approaches (which is never as soon as they think it should be), they gather at the lower pasture gate, jostling each other for prime viewing of its arrival. Only the donkeys hang back, placing their confidence in word from Andante, boss mare of everything in general and of food in particular. I hear her wind up as I walk across to the outbuildings, short grunting intakes of air and then, when I am committed in the direction of the hay shed, a voluptuous whinny starting high and gurgling down into breathlessness. I call out to her acknowledging our interaction and the donkeys chortle in agreement. Andante raises her left front leg in a tight curl, charming me into feeding her first.
Relieved by the assurance of this expanded feeding, the herd goes back to their mid-day strolls to the creek bed in the north part of the property. Little water runs, but it is shady there and, for the adventurous, green stubble can still be found on the embankment rising sharply away from the creek’s east side. So our routine becomes more naturally symbiotic — if they remain in our shared space in the lower pasture during the heat of the day, I feed early. Otherwise, I wait for their slow parade back from their creek sabbaticals to signal time for dinner.
It is now late September. It isn’t the first time this had happened, but it is the first time I understand it requires more awareness than I am giving it. Loosa does not wait with the rest of the herd. Although he is in the lower pasture, he stands at the far end next to the short length of fence line shared with the neighboring property. Jack and Streak live there and now I must say a bit about them. Streak is a sad, skittish horse, smaller than you would think able to carry the man he did for most of his long life. Jack is a bit younger, sturdy and flashy, with four white socks and a big white blaze. Jack belonged to the people who owned the ranch before us. I know this because he was here when we looked at the property. I also know why he is on the other side of the fence line. Because I said no.
Far into the settlement process for the ranch, in the middle of figuring out the complex cross-country move of household and animals and having just said “yes!” to providing a soft landing to Legs, who urgently needed one, we received an e-mail from our Realtor:
The owners want to know if you would like to buy their dining room rug for $2000 and also they want to leave their horses here, you can just have them – for free.
It turns out they wanted to sell us the rug because it had bled color into the hickory flooring, something we would not have known – or asked to be corrected — if we had bought that rug. You can guess their thinking about the horses. It is the only time Gordy ever said the answer should be no. He was right to do that. We were overwhelmed with the move and our expanding herd count. Plus, the property had little in the way of horse friendly features, no barn or divided pastures; there was no way to safely manage the addition of two more horses, to take on somebody else’s problem. I couldn’t quite shake it though, the feeling of having done something wrong by turning away from the voice of a horse asking to be let in.
I was relieved to see that Jack and his companion, Mouse, an aptly named timid little mare, had moved to the neighbors to live with Streak. Over time, though, I came to see the situation differently. They had no shelter, save for the trees, and never in all the time I was present, did I see those horses get any sort of care or attention. Jack is the only one I speak of now, because he is the only one of the two that survives. Mouse disappeared months ago. I knew she was struggling. I saw how frequently she laid down, how she rocked back on her haunches to push away from her soreness. But I said nothing and one day she was gone, most likely taken out back to be “put out” of her misery. Now, it seems I am guilty of two crimes.
Loosa never misses a meal. He was rescued from a most horrid case of abuse; starved and beaten at an age too young to know that life should be better. It took a long time to win that pony’s trust, but access to food and comfort played a big part in it. And now it is meal time and I have to call him in yet again, coax him from his post against the back fence, inform him that dinner is served (as if he doesn’t know). Today, he will not come, no matter what. Today, I feel the need to explore what I do not understand.
I separate a flake of alfalfa from the pile, shoo off the rest of the herd, and walk the length of the pasture to where Loosa stands watching me intently, unmoving. An arm’s length away and only then does Loosa move, stepping back, not forward, to reveal to me what his sideways body has been sheltering — Jack and Streak – but, emaciated versions of themselves, huddled together close to the fence line, their ribs deeply visible, their hip
bones loud and protruding. Loosa nickers softly, as he does, affirmed by my presence. Jack and Streak lift their noses cautiously, then seek the ground, eyes fixed on my movements, wanting proof. I provide it, pulling the alfalfa into three pieces, one for here, two for over the fence and they eat greedily, nose to nose, only the wires of the fence separating them.
Well-fed has a smell, so does survival; one sweet, the other sour. Loosa, himself once starved knows both, a knowing not contained by a property boundary. Because of a fence line, Loosa could not lead Jack and Streak to food. Because of his bond with a human, he could draw to the fence line the one who has always meant food to him. He held space, patiently waiting for me to see what I did not. He brought me to it. He brought me to them.
I did talk to the neighbors. They schooled me on how this is California where everyone leaves horses to fend for themselves on native range land, how nature takes care of them. They explained to me how, contrary to what you folks do “Back East”, horses are not meant to be fussed with; that needing to survive on their own makes them stronger, hardier, and if they die, well, that is just nature taking its course.
I listened, but would not be misled into committing a third crime. Now, every morning and every evening Loosa and I walk to the back fence, the rest of the herd trailing behind us. The cart is loaded with hay and alfalfa for the herd, plus two. We haul it to the far end of the pasture, to the short span of fence separating us from the neighboring property. There they eat, all together; those on one side of the fence with everything they need and those on the other, now with enough to survive in a place where there is drought, whether or not you see it. And so this becomes our new routine. All through the fall and into the winter until the rains come again, enough to make the grass grow green and prove the neighbors right.