Arts Incubator

Sara Bouvier reading the first chapter of Khora.

Sara Bouvier reading the first chapter of Khora.

Something long overdue is happening in the stage light of the Greenville, SC arts scene. With Shea Bahnsen at the helm, the Dark Room Theatre Company’s inaugural events signal a shift from the arts as insulated disciplines, defined by tradition, to multi-mode collaborations. Missy Vaughan Kleppel, an actor and local theater teacher, has taken the project under her wing in the hopes of reproducing the safe, fertile environment she encountered while a student at Sarah Lawrence College where writers, actors, musicians and visual artists and were encouraged to create together.

The Dark Room Theatre Company is an arts incubator.

When presented with an opportunity to get my words out, it is my long-held belief that writers should tempt/coerce/bribe trustworthy actors to read their stuff. Writers prefer quiet corners and have a historical tendency to flee at a moment’s notice. I, personally, jump out of my skin if I see a weird shadow pass out of the corner of my eye. It only makes sense to employ the skill of an actor such as Sara Bouvier who has been performing and stage managing in the Greenville area since the age of twelve.

Sara literally jogged into our farm on a July Fourth several years ago and we decided to keep her. She’s a part of our staff, working tirelessly every week night to be certain all the horses are standing on all hooves and satiated, safe for the night. She tucks us in. When the hay is all thrown and the light switches are off in the barn, Sara graciously gives me even more of her time by being a first-reader for my fiction, helping me work through plot and characterization and the thousand questions that come from the insulated neurosis of a writer’s brain.

As an aside, Sara was recently going through her shelf and found a literary journal that I had edited almost twenty years ago.  We were supposed to meet.

So, when Shea and Missy asked if I would give a reading of my work for their Words and Sounds event I immediately signed Sara up for the task.  The evening included a selection of creative non-fiction by Jeff Levine along with the musical talents of: M. Lookwood Porter, Annie the Healer, and John Moreland.

Image by Shea Brahnsen

Image by Shea Brahnsen

We decided on the first chapter of my novel, Khora. Working with Sara in preparation for the reading was transformative to the editorial process of the work.  The story takes place in several locations: Istanbul, a small town in the mountains of NC, Russia.  Places become characters, as much as the characters who come from many places.  At its heart, the story is a mystery focusing on a missing work of art, a Byzantine icon, but as the characters — all outsiders who have suffered great losses — come together, they discover a community of outsiders and through it, many kinds of redemption, not always black and white.

Art needs community.

“Who’s your narrator,” Sara asked, and I realized that, although the story is written in third-person, I hadn’t defined who is chronicling the events as they unfold.

When I finally answered that question, Sara’s voice changed as she worked through the excerpt, as she absorbed the personality and nuance of the character relating the scene. This was art taken outside of its bubble of creation, art as a collaborative vocation, and far different from when Sara and I just tossed around ideas in the wee hours of the night (when not chasing off intruders, but that’s a story for another day).  We were making the story fit for the light of day.

This is how the story begins:

Two crosses, equidistant, a foot in diameter, flanked the altar of St. Anthony’s Church in Beyoglu, Istanbul.  The pews were tall and cumbersome, the benches too short for kneeling and the bones of Thomas’ knees too prominent to genuflect for any length of time.  The air smelled like wet wax and stale, whispered breath. Thomas stared at the flanking crosses for so long they merged together in the center of the chancel to form one cross:  proportionate, perfect, a compass of symmetry representing the four corners, as if time were a sextant and the intersection of the coordinates the center of the map.

Earlier that year he could not find a Byzantine cross anywhere in Istanbul, but as winter gave way to spring, he began to see them everywhere: in the crossroads of the narrow street beneath his apartment window, in the form of the basilicas, chains jeweled by tawdry stones in the windows of the specialty shops, in the merging of the jet streams high above the smog.  He believed he would find crosses in the currents of the Bosporus Strait, if only his sight was clear enough to gauge the movements of the water.

Thomas was in the business of finding the intersection of fact and myth. The city of Istanbul was a little bit of both, always changing like the seaside weather, one minute cloudy the next a shadow cast by the sun: a city divided by continents. Thomas knew that if he sat still long enough, the correct signs would find him.

I wrote the opening one grey, February afternoon in Istanbul because I needed something to do; I needed to occupy my hands.  An old friend was flying in that evening after an extended stay in Afghanistan and the character of Thomas was a way to pass the time, to chronicle my trip.  I picked the story back up when it was time to reconcile my recollection of Istanbul, a city that stores so much mystery and trauma for me, with the essential character the place had became in my head.  The novel grew from perception and heartbreak, a way to test memory, remove my blinders: a fixed point in an uncertain world.

“Is writing a compulsion,” Missy asked during a Q&A session with the authors after the reading.

It’s a safe compulsion, healthier than checking the light switches eight times before I close the barn for the evening, but my actor, my first reader, my Sara, acknowledges the compulsion and keeps me on track.  We all need someone that says, “What happens next?”

This is the sort of work that Shea and Missy are doing with the Dark Room Theatre Company.  Imagine if we all had that safe place to create, explore and produce our art, whatever that art might be.

Dark Room is temporarily located at The Wheel in Greenville’s Pendleton arts district.  They’ll be moving to a permanent location in the near future.  Until then, mark your calendars to join them Saturday, June 7th at 7:00 pm for a theatrical fundraiser: Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening and Other Plays by Don Nigro. “A night of dark, beautiful, intense monologues” starring Hannah Smith, Libby Ricardo, Shea Bahnsen, directed by Missy Vaughan Kleppel.

photo by Eric Kleppel

photo by Eric Kleppel

 

Words and Sounds: The Dark Room Theatre Company. Photo by Missy Vaughan Kleppel.

Words and Sounds: The Dark Room Theatre Company. Photo by Missy Vaughan Kleppel.

Bless You: finding the right words for fear

We need a new language to discuss fear.  This became abundantly clear to me yesterday when I visited a new dentist’s office.  I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but this was the very first time I made a dental hygienist cry.

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For the record, I didn’t raise my voice.  I wasn’t mean.

I figured there was no benefit in acting like something didn’t exist, so when the New Patient Questionnaire asked if I was afraid of visiting the dentist, I didn’t lie.  It also asked me what my overall dental goals were and I said: health.  I used short, one-word responses — which, as you all know, is hard for me.  I explained that I was prone to panic.  But I ask you who, when visiting a dentist, isn’t just a little panicked? I’m sure I’m not the first to show hesitation.

I’m panicked by a lot of things: shopping carts during flu season, monkeys, schedule changes, being far away from an exit, hauling horses on highways, the word “torturous,” (this is not an exhaustive list).  And for all the hours I’ve wasted acting like I’m fine, I’ve come to the realization that it saves everyone a lot of time if I’m just direct.

“Kim, would you like me to pick you up?
“Can I take my own car?
“No.”
“Then, I’m not going.”

The visit was a mild as far as dental visits go, just an evaluation and x rays, but it was obvious that everyone had picked up on the note of panic in my questionnaire. The dentist kept suggesting nitrous when it came time for a filling, “To take the edge off.” Which is all fine and good for people who don’t panic harder when they’re relaxed (points to self, you should see me on vacations, it’s awful).  The hygienist kept referencing this “torturous” moment that would be coming at some point in the evaluation when she would have no choice but to oversee the “torturous” x rays.  “It’s only every three years,” she said. Repeatedly.

Let it be noted that I was never once on the verge of a panic attack.  But no one in the office would have known that because they didn’t ask me.  They talked about fears a lot.  They talked about panic a lot.  They talked about how I was probably dreading a lot of the procedures, a lot.  But they never actually spoke to me about what I was feeling. I was, shockingly, fine.

But I had a little inner battle at the end of the visit, after we’d schedule the fillings and the cleanings.  I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t mention that the staff’s fear of my panic could potentially cause more panic, they’d never know what to do with those silent panickers who never mentioned panic on a questionnaire.  Or, God forbid, what to do with someone who was in the midst of a full blown attack.

“Listen, I know that you’ve picked up on the panic note in my form, but it really seemed like you were more freaked out by the possibility of me panicking than I was by the procedures,” I said to the hygienist.

She just looked at me, dumbfounded, so I kept blabbering on about how I didn’t like the going to the dentist office, like most of the world, but talking about my propensity for panic the entire time didn’t tell her anything about what I was actually feeling.  I spoke quietly.  I smiled.

And she started crying.

She told me that she also had a problem with anxiety and that the dentist chair frightened her.  She continued to cry.

I started talking about myself, my life, the things I’ve accomplished in spite of panic, my strength.  It felt like I was talking about someone else.  I told her that it may seem like I teach people how to ride horses for a living, but I’m really just there to help them manage fear, to get them to talk about it, to work through it.

She kept crying and showed me to the front office.

I didn’t accomplish anything.  I don’t know what I was trying to accomplish, but I knew that I wasn’t doing any of us any good by keeping silent.  We need a new way of responding to people’s fears, like saying bless you when someone sneezes, a response that’s not charged with our own discomfort.  A way of saying we acknowledge their distress but don’t want to contribute to it.

Maybe it’s something as simple as: What can I do to help?

Though troubled by my failed attempt at brightening the office staff’s day, I felt oddly empowered as I left the dentist’s office.  I had arrived on the other side of dread and though I might not stay there long, it’s a strangely lucid place to be, accepting, being present, stilling the chattering monkeys (ack!) in my mind.  I had visited the dentist’s office and other than that one moment when I yanked the x ray apparatus out of my mouth, I was fine.

The next question was: how do I apply this to teaching people and horses?

I think all veterinarians agree that animals also have the capacity to dread medical procedures and have the ability to exacerbate the pain of all parties involved ten-fold.  It’s just good sense to be weary of the panic response in a twelve hundred pound horse when you go at it with a needle or a weird looking radiograph machine (or a piece of paper, or a gust of wind, or a reflection on the surface of a bucket, etc.)

I’ve had ten year old children tell me, “I wish my horse could tell me what was wrong.”  I know. Me too.

But I’ve also encountered a lot of perfectly verbal, two-footed creatures who have no language to describe their fears, who cannot tell me what is wrong (I count myself amongst them).  So how do we create an environment that is mutually conducive to putting someone at ease while helping them find their strength?

For me, horses have always been that conduit.  The quickest way to smack myself out of impending panic is to have something bigger to focus on.  It’s impossible to spend a day in a barn without a constant stream of crises to be averted, things that must be attended to, my body working more than my mind.  If airplane seats come with a series of tasks or puzzles, there would be far fewer people freaking out during take off (bonus points for the illusion that the tasks were somehow keeping the plane aloft).

At our farm, a student will never be reprimanded for asking an instructor to lower a jump or suggesting that it might not be a good day for a canter.  Their only requirement is that they spend some time at the walk in warm-up asking their horse, “What can I do to help?”

They must do this if they’re having a good day or a bad day.  They must do this if they’re frightened or elated.  They must work past their fear of the horse’s panic response to arrive at a place where they can be of assistance, often by having to travel directly through their own panic response to get there.  This is riding, and there will never be a failing grade for making the decision to get off the horse and try again tomorrow.

Despite instances of mass hysteria, fear is a solitary act, and the right sort of communication has the potential to disrupt it, to send it back to the dark corner of the stall where it rests in between the cobwebs.  Sometimes the scariest thing is simply reaching out and being present in the midst of another person’s fear, or the horse’s fear, or both — even if we’re left feeling helpless because we can’t do anything to fix it.

And it’s only now that I’ve gotten to the end of this odd post that I realize, when the hygienist was crying I busied myself with the exact same medicine she had given me.  I kept talking about myself.

What can I do to help?

I’ll go use my old toothbrush to clean some tack and try to not make anyone cry today.

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State of the Farm Address 2014

If I don’t use this snow day to update the blog, I can no longer call myself a writer.   Despite the weather, there’s been so many exciting things happening around the farm and I can’t wait to tell you all about them.

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You probably knew this already, but we have a remarkable herd of horses at Bramblewood.  Just as winter and the holidays hit in earnest, we welcomed a new school horse named Penny.  This big grey mare spent the first years of her life as an Amish cart horse in Ohio and then she made her way down to the Landrum area where we discovered her through Erin Gambrell.  Geldings have always made sense to me with their steady, constant reserve and tendency to sigh at my high energy.  I’m pretty sure I’ve witnessed a few geldings rolling their eyes, either at me or in response to a rider trying to get it right.  Not so much with mares.

I’d been trapped into the myth that mares and I were too similar and consequently, that chemistry was a recipe for disaster.  But starting with the arrival of the little black Trakhener, Sheba, last winter — I’ve learned that nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a mare convert.  Mares ebb and flow.  They use their brains.  They remember — oh, goodness, they remember — and because they remember, mares remind me to be mindful of my every move, mood and reaction.  Mares take us back to the essence of horse, which is why we do this thing, slogging buckets of warm water back and forth to the barn every morning, afternoon and night when the faucets are frozen.  They’re the reason we break up the ice in their buckets and watch their every move for a change in habit or appearance or any small detail that warns that something is not right with these fragile, huge beasts.  Mares keep us mindful and thankful.

Many welcomes to Penny with her huge hears and constant, alert demeanor.

Yeah, I know her noseband strap needs to be tucked.

Yeah, I know her noseband strap needs to be tucked.

Penny handled her immediate initiation into the lesson program with good grace as we geared up for the Wofford College Interim riders in January.  We had a great group this year with many beginners and a couple riders who had shown in the A’s and the Finals.  Our theme for the month was: Forget everything you thought you knew about horses.  Riders worked with their instructors to devise a small training goal for the month and explored the theme through five mounted and one unmounted lessons.

We said goodbye to a wonderful friend as Emily Isles made her way back to the UK mid-January.  Emily lived and worked at the farm for several months in preparation for taking her British Horse Society teaching exams when she arrived home.  We’ve heard that Emily just secured a post at a stable in her region near Wales.

While Bramblewood has always offered apprenticeships, we’re getting ready to take that concept one step further.  Sarah Boudreaux and I have been utilizing all of these freezing cold off-days to develop a program of extended horsemanship studies for existing and future students.  Without Sarah’s permission, I’m calling the program Horse University until we develop a better working title.  Our inaugural Horse U. meeting will be Saturday February 15th from 4:00-6:00.  Any current student is welcome to attend.  See your instructor for more details.

Here is what Horse U. is all about in Sarah’s words:

This program is designed to give both adult and young students a solid base of knowledge that will allow them to talk intelligently about their passion as well as help increase awareness and help with critical thinking and problem solving. It is designed to give students a sense of accomplishment and growth outside of the riding arena and, no matter their ability, it will give more tools to every rider.

In our ongoing, singular goal of farm life being a haven that riders carry with them as they venture out into real life, real universities, and careers of all sorts keep in mind that this program and many others at Bramblewood can be utilized on resumes and applications.  We’re always eager to write recommendations for engaged students and I have edited more college entrance essays than I can count.  We want you to use the farm to build life skills.  Horses are so much more than an activity or passing passion.  We want you to think outside the box and allow the farm to fire your creativity.

Because that’s what it does for me.  While I’m longing for spring with every fiber of my being, this southern introduction into actual winter has gifted me with time to make some serious headway into the first draft of a novel.  The concept is still a jumbled mess, but every frozen pipe and tardy hay delivery and broken fence and truck that fails to start, every lame horse and icy bucket, every day when the rings are too frozen to ride, teaches me that solutions come with time and patience. The farm has taught me, time and time again, to not give up, to take a very small concept and nurture it like a seedling until it grows into something bigger than myself.

With my ability to kill mint plants (I’m serious) I probably should use a better metaphor.  But I’ll keep growing the mint until I get it right.  I’ll keep a better hold on my frustrations until I can hear what mares are telling me.  I’ll keep writing the same chapter over and over until the characters speak for themselves.  I’ll learn how to not end my sentences in prepositions (though I’ve filed that more or less with the mint).  I’ll keep learning the rules so I can break them and relearning the rules again to keep them intact.

I’ve never forgotten that teaching a beginner rider is a task that is intrinsically filled with more responsibility than putting an advanced rider through their paces.  Armed with this knowledge my goal for 2014 is to approach everything like a beginner.  I want to see a horse for the first time and forget the past and future while I focus on the now.  I want to see where the characters take me.

Join me on this journey.

What things have you seen with beginner eyes? What things do you long to see?

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Horse shows do not have to feel like the flu

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When my friend Erika Conklin, a Bramblewood instructor at the time, suggested we host a Schooling Show at the farm I looked at her with that combination of skepticism and shock that usually accompanies bad, yet unavoidable, news.  She might as well have told me, “The owner of that puppy you found wants their dog back.” Instead she said, “Don’t worry, I’ll do all the work.  All you have to do is show up.”

And that’s what I did our first show — I showed up and I walked around and I marveled at the transformation of our usually peaceful lesson barn.  Horses were everywhere, riders were everywhere, parents were everywhere.  There were tears and frustration and joy and expectation and underneath it all that particular tired haze of early mornings and horse sweat.  There’s really no feeling on earth like a horse show day.  My fondest childhood memories are the pre-dawn drives to Tryon and the roiling nerves and excitement of performing with my best four-footed friends.

When I was growing up, horse shows were often a time of excitement and deep anxiety.  I rarely knew what I was doing and the adults around me were often too busy to be bothered with questions.  I was lucky to own my own horses and have the ability to travel to shows, but while I craved the environment surrounding shows, my experiences as a junior rider went a long way to mold me into the stressed out, control freak of an adult who continued to show through college and into my twenties.  When I started teaching full-time, I swapped roles, traveling with students to shows.  That stressed out, perfectionist of a rider was then directing traffic from the ground, a recipe for either greatness or anxiety depending on the day.

When I opened my own farm, I started asking myself how the average rider could experience horse showing without a massive financial commitment or horse ownership.  There was no easy answer.  No matter what level, horses are an expensive sport.   Leasing is an option, but often the problem for most riders is time and availability; their families cannot transport them to the barn four or five times a week.

It’s silly to ask how showing can be a level playing field — the nature of showing is about competition and ranking.  Competition is good and everyone does NOT need to be a winner on any given day.  That said, there has to be a similarity between the gene that produces a horse crazy kid and the desire to cover every available wall with horse show ribbons.  I still have my ribbons from when I was twelve and there’s no way I’m ever throwing them out (I’ll confess most of my early ones were still being used as valances in my bedroom window until I recently moved out to the farm full time).

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I was interested to discover that even in the safe environment of the farm, riders experienced the same nervous energy and doubts that usually arise at any type of horse show.  We realized that we had an excellent opportunity to use those feelings to our advantage rather than having anxiety take over and ruin the day.

As our series of Schooling Shows continued at the farm, we started to ask ourselves how could we make this experience better. How could we make it OURS?

The answer is — the same as we do in lessons.  Just because you can canter and jump doesn’t mean that you always need to.  We moved the focus from high performance to basics.  Can you safely trot on the rail with a ring full of riders? No? Then you shouldn’t feel obligated to canter jumps, but you can still enjoy a great day of showing. Start with what you know. For what you don’t know, there’s always someone around that is ready to give you an answer.  If we have to pause a class for twenty minutes to address a rider’s question or remedy a potentially unsafe pattern, our schooling shows give us the ability to do so.

But the secret ingredient — the one thing that truly transforms our shows at the farm — is our riders’ genuine care for the success and comfort of their barn friends, both two-legged and four.  If something doesn’t go according to plan why let it ruin your experience?  Whether we’re at a home show or on the road, our riders continually amaze me with their sense of humor, maturity and true concern for the others around them.  This attitude makes showing a pleasure rather than a chore.

A horse that was trotting around perfectly the day before a show will choose his moment in the spotlight to act as if he’s never seen a corner of the ring before.  One of the greatest lessons of showing is learning how to tap into your inner reserves of patience and acceptance — even when everything seems to be going the opposite of what we’ve expected.  These notes apply to parents of riders just as much as they do to the riders themselves.  Ribbons and placings are nothing compared to sportsmanship and lasting life skills — those hard lessons that rarely come to the surface when everything is going according to plan.  Horse showing is all about self control and stress management.

No matter what level you’re riding at, the decision to show on any given day comes down to two questions:  1. Are you comfortable with your basics and 2. Is your horse comfortable with what you’re asking.  If you can answer yes to both those questions . . . there’s still no guarantee that you’ll win the class, but you’ve done more than earn a blue, you’re riding like a pro.

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B.S.

I ceremonially cleaned my saddle today and rode Sheba for the first time.  I’d been on her back several times before, but it was all about work — what is this mare about? what are her limits? her triggers? Today was all about pleasure.  It’s completely different riding a horse after spending some time developing a mutual relationship. I know that she likes to guzzle water with deep, contented gulps after I’ve cleaned her bucket and the hose is refilling that dark corner of her stall with sweet, clean water.  She makes me crave water.

Sheba’s arrival here triggered a subtle transformation.  Obsessed with her history, I tracked down her old owners, her breeder.  I rarely research a horse, but her papers intrigued me.  Who would purposefully breed a States Premium Trakehner mare with an Appaloosa stallion?  Her bloodlines on her dam’s side are impeccable.  Under saddle, she moves like her forebears, but standing in the pasture — she’s just a little horse with odd triggers and phobias and rules.  The more I got to know Sheba, the more I realized we have too much in common.  I identify with this mare.  She makes me happy.
Everything needs a timeline, a narrative, a way of saying “we were here, we did this.”  As I started writing about the farm this week, I realized that everything leads me back to Sheba.  The notes in the margin of my pages are categorized by initials: B.S. — Before Sheba. I tried to change her name to Olive,  but it didn’t take. Oddly, as these things always go, it’s also a monogram for the farm: Bramblewood Stables.
Sheba reminds me that riding and writing don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  Before I rode today Sarah reminded me that I had told her, “Just ride for ten minutes if you don’t have time.”  So I’m applying that theory to writing and riding.  A short ride on Sheba and notes hastily scribbled in a notebook in between lessons, the story of the beauty and absurdity that we encounter every day at this farm is slowly taking shape.
I’ll be posting excerpts in the weeks to come, but in the meantime I really should clean my saddle again. It squeaks!  The Butet has never squeaked!

Unmounted lessons are an integral part of the learning process.

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With all the rain we’ve had in 2013, some parents have asked why we stress taking a barn lesson rather than taking the week off or rescheduling. As someone who has dedicated their life to the care of horses, your instructor has a unique perspective on the invaluable benefit of taking time to learn the care and management of a horse. Rainy days give us an hour of uninterrupted time to learn the countless tasks that allow a horse to actually be ridable. Modern life has made the horse solely dependent on our care, a clockwork routine that does not allow breaks or holidays.

In advanced work under saddle, the rider cannot progress up the ranks without first learning where the hock is located in the legs or where the horse’s neck is flexed: is it at the poll? If so, how much? Barn lessons lead to the advanced work under saddle that so many riders strive for over the years. Within the regular weekly lesson slots, rainy days give us a perfect opportunity to prepare for more advanced work in the saddle. That preparation occurs, of all places, on the ground.

Do we ever doubt a veterinarian’s knowledge or skill because they don’t ride a horse during diagnosis? Nope, it all takes place on the ground. Barn lessons are like feeding your inner vet for a fraction of the cost of vet school.

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Those who don’t personally own a horse seldom realize that 95 percent of the rider’s time is spent … not riding, but taking care of their horse. Care can mean many things: grooming, medical problem shooting, feeding, leading out to the paddock and back in, grazing, quiet time spent simply building a relationship with a horse, countless hours spent taking care of the tack and equipment. When Rachel Neese rode for Virginia Intermont College, she was expected to spend at least three hours in preparation for, participating, and finishing up for every one-hour ride.

Thinking of a lesson horse as a simply a riding horse is like, to use a human example, an employee who is never allowed to take a break or vacation unless they are sleeping. Think of how much your working life is improved by the relationships you’ve built with the people in your workplace and by the hours you have with your family when you’re not on the job. Think of all the hours you spent studying in college or learning your trade. Horses are a lot like us. No one likes working for the manager, the thankless task master, who fails to take our needs into consideration. Barn lessons allow the rider, by a minimal investment of time and resources, to understand what it is they’re managing when they’re back in the saddle. Hours on the ground are the surest path to more value for the lesson hours we spend riding.

When Sarah Boudreaux first started teaching at Bramblewood, she asked if she could sign up for a day of feeding and cleaning stalls. To understand the school horses and to better serve her students in the ring, she wanted to know the farm from the inside out. Her days routinely started at 6am with morning feeding and went straight through to 8 or 9pm when she was teaching a full schedule in the evenings. Whether it was raining or snowing, she had 24 stalls to clean and a wealth of new information to pass along to her students.

Here is Sarah’s perspective on unmounted lessons, straight from the experience of a rider who was once a weekly lesson student before buying her own horse, selling that horse, taking on a training project and organically becoming the valued equine professional that she now is:

I imagine that even most instructors don’t want to teach barn lessons. We know most students would ‘rather be riding’ and it’s hard to build enthusiasm to teach people who are half listening as they gaze at the sky, searching for any sign that the weather might break. Then the duct tape, tack soap and sponges come out, maybe someone brings a snack to share. There’s laughter as kids meet and talk to students who ride with other instructors. They ask good questions and help each other figure things out. Barn lessons are actually fun. Heightening the social experience of barn life.

Students who only come to the barn to ride can become fabulous riders but will never achieve true horsemanship. True horsemanship demands awareness. Awareness of the horse as a living breathing animal that needs time and attention, gets sick, hungry, worries, has friends, dies. Awareness of how your tack functions, how it is put together, how it’s use can help or hurt your riding experience. Awareness of the barn itself. The barn requires constant care. Boards must be replaced to prevent injury, water buckets and feed pans must be scrubbed; the list is endless.

The rider who comes ‘just to ride’ will be a functional rider but remain ignorant of all that is required to make that ride possible. They may never fully understand why the horses behave as they do or why certain choices are made for them. They are at greater risk of seeing the horse as machine and riding without understanding or empathy towards their partner.

Students who fully engage in barn lessons begin to become true partners with the barn and the horses. The heightened awareness creates a more observant rider. No longer do they grab a horse and march it to the cross ties for a quick brush but they walk with the horse and groom quickly but carefully, looking for signs of lameness, scratches or anything out of the ordinary. They know and understand the signs of illness as they walk through the barn. They might even take the initiative to empty and scrub a water bucket that doesn’t look quite right. The things that we discuss and do during a barn lesson helps the rider to become more confident and independent in their choices. They simply know better how and why things work.

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To sum it all up, before you make the decision to stay home and cozy on a rainy afternoon, understand that your rider might be missing out on some important life lessons and team building opportunities that can only really be gained through broadening their knowledge and skill on the ground with their horse. Your tires might get a little muddy down the driveway, but the horses are waiting in the barn to reveal their secrets.

Please know, we are always ready to reschedule in dangerous conditions or when a rider’s health would be negatively impacted by being out in the elements. For all the other days, have some grocery bags on hands to slip over muddy shoes as your rider gets into the car and chances are that rider will be beaming and filled with information to share that will go a long way toward helping them realize their goals in the saddle.

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State of the Farm Address 2012

Sunrise at the farm

The sun rises in the front of the house and sets in the back. I notice these things now that I’m living at the farm full-time.

We’ve had such a long/short year of sick and broken things.  My annual State of the Farm address in years past noted how long we’d gone without a colic (knock wood) or a lameness or a wound, but things were only fine on the surface.  The façade was intact, but there was so little that was real or true.  Life isn’t about things not being wrong – it’s about how we deal with the lot we’ve been given. (I think I just copied an eCard).  Having walked through some pretty intense illnesses this year, both with the horses and the humans, I am more connected to the heart of things than I ever was in the past.  I’ve witnessed the incredible spirit of our barn family first hand and I know I am surrounded by some rare and genuine people.  The answer always comes. It might have four feet or two; it might blow in on a gust of wind, but it comes, quietly, without any herald or fanfare.

I’d emailed a friend in one of those moments of desperation, up at dawn with a sick horse.  I asked her what our string of bad luck meant.  She offered some words of wisdom that kept the question with me. I needed to turn my attention to the things that truly mattered.

I have time now to relish tiny, vastly important things that used to be a headache when I lived across town and was always trying to hurry up and close up the barn and head home.

Matilda has a habit of getting her feet stuck in buckets. This draft cross mare is HUGE and her ability to stand in a full water bucket hanging from the wall as she craned her neck to watch for the feed cart passing is the stuff of legends, and a vice that forced me to keep her in a paddock for several years. She’s older now and has been back in a stall at night for a while, but twice we’ve altered the hanging of her buckets after finding her standing, quietly, with a foot raised out in front of her in salute, stuck in a bucket. She doesn’t panic. I have a lot to learn from Matilda about how to manage stress. But if she panicked she would be able to release herself by breaking the hay string our last fete of bucket engineering brought us. We’ve tried hanging them low; we’ve tried hanging them high. Matilda just stands there – on three legs — waiting for someone to feed her and possibly free her as an afterthought. She’s in it for the food.

So we installed a Rubbermaid container as a makeshift trough in her stall. I figure the worse she could do is flood her floor or stand in the container. You can read more about Matilda’s bucket antics at Sarah Boudreaux’s Matilda Project blog.

Last night as I was giving hay and closing up, I realized her bucket was filthy, so she might have been standing in it, or some bedding was thrown around when her stall was being cleaned. Having nowhere else to be, I didn’t have to wait until the morning for weekly water scrubbing, so I bailed the trough out bucket by bucket as Matilda munched hay and watched me like a movie or a sports show — Human Moves Buckets. I rinsed the trough out and waited for it to fill. She curved her head around and stared at me.

So I pressed my ear against her side and listened to her stomach. She breathed and I breathed and pressed closer into the thick, giant, warmth of her. Having the time, finally, to think and to press close, I became acutely aware of the creature’s whole sixteen hundred pounds, amazed that she’s fine with me being there with her, sharing hay and water.

I’m more conscious of water use in the house now that I’m off city water in my normal, doing dishes/laundry, human-time. We’re vastly conservative in our water use at the farm, being on a well. It makes me think of all the sacred wells I’ve visited in Turkey, Russia, Portugal. Blessed water that was hauled bucket by bucket for normal, human-things: washing dishes, doing laundry, drinking. Living at the farm, drinking from this well, reminds me to turn the water off when I’m brushing my teeth, to soap dishes up and rinse them, separately, together. The horses and I share the same water for living now and that communion makes every drop of it a prayer.

When I was at one my lowest points a few years ago, another friend offered the best advice, “Take some time to pet dogs every day.”  As we head into a new year and new adventures, I wish all of you the time to do tiny, vastly important things. Look for something thirsty and give it water.

Or as Neil Gaiman says much better in his children’s book, Instructions:

However,
if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.
If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.
From the back garden you will be able to see the wild wood.