Monday, June 17, 2013

The Spirit of a Horse

In my beginning, there was always the horse. The horse was my inexplicable passion and curiosity. On the mobile which hung over my crib, I distinctly remember the parade of the fuzzy bellies of animals that circled my head as I lay there. There was a sheep, a duck, a pig, and a horse, all wound up there in a continuous circling motion while soft music played in an attempt to lure me to sleep. My focus always, was on the horse.

My grandfathers both were horsemen, but my mother’s dad still had one when I was old enough to be placed on a horse’s back. His mare, a plain bay walking horse, was named Old Lady. I have no idea how old she was but all through out my childhood and later until college, she was simply there, every summer when we went to visit, a magical creature without  any apparent signs of aging. My grandfather bred her several times and she produced three pretty foals, the second of which was to later become my first horse. I never heard any word of Old Lady’s passing and it is hard for me not to imagine that she is still there on the land that my grandfather once owned and farmed, with her large cracked hooves and long flowing mane waiting for the ears of hard corn that he brought her to eat.

Last week I lost a long time friend, another horse. Limerick, was what I called her, her registered name being some silly garble of stuff that came with her when I bought her as a weanling. Limerick had just passed a major milestone a few weeks back in passing her thirtieth birthday and was in relatively good health and spirit. Sadly an old set of lungs and a dreadfully hot and humid day, combined with the provocation of the hatch of a plague of blood sucking horseflies making her leave the comfort of the shade to avoid their bites, put her in peril. She succumbed to the heat and we found her gasping in heat stress out in her field near her favorite cedar tree, unable to rise. It was the end. We kept her as cool as possible with a steady train of water bearers to pour their buckets over her while we waited in the heat for the vet to arrive to give her the final relief. We shaded her with  umbrellas and I fed her an entire bag of carrots which she enthusiastically chomped down to the last one. Finally it was over, and the kind man who had buried Joline last year, laid yet another great mare to rest.

Thirty years. Most horses don’t make it that long. Most relationships don’t either, but Limerick had been my friend for basically her entire life, and a good bit of mine, this time span of thirty years, three long decades. I had bought her before my youngest daughter was born, broke her, trained her to run and jump and dance with me in the sport they call combined training. Together we campaigned for many years and she won us many championships, with ribbons and trophies that line the walls of my tack room. Together we flew.

It was in this campaigning, this weekend traveling to shows, and more in the daily training to be able to win at them, that our relationship developed. I was ambitious  and she was talented and so we made a tight team. At a moment of memories while waiting on the vet to arrive, I laughed that this mare was once so athletic that she could unhorse me on a whim. One of my coaches once said that to be in the right position going over a fence one should pretend that  if Speilberg could magically make your horse disappear from underneath you that you would land standing on your two feet. Limerick was able to that with me. I could be riding along and the next moment, standing there wondering where my horse went. It was all in good fun to her, and I usually appreciated her sense of humor and timing. She definitely had spirit. Funny that despite all of her winning and practice having ribbons tied to her bridle, she never liked them flickering in her face, and very nearly bucked me off on several of our ceremonial victory laps.  

There was one show that I learned more about her character though, in Nashville. I had taken my oldest daughter to it with me this time and we had arrived on Friday afternoon to a darkening sky and approaching storm. The stabling was under a giant tent and we put Limerick in her stall and I went to unload things from the trailer leaving my daughter in the tent to wander around and see all the horses. Thunder then gave way to lightening bolts and heavy rain. I had taken safe haven in the truck for the moment and I could see that the wind was whipping the tent into a moving, flapping, out of control creature that was looking like it was going to leave. This was not the most settling situations for any horse but especially for a young horse like Limerick was at the time. Concerned for my young daughter, I hurried to get back in the tent when things settled a bit. I found my daughter quietly sitting on a flake of hay in the corner of Limerick’s stall with that mare calmly standing over her, unafraid of the chaos with the tent flapping, thunder and wind, and horses and people hollering and moving about. I was stunned then at her protective instinct, and she showed this type of reading the situation on many occasion to me, and later, to her foals.

After her career in showing, Lim became a brood mare and was an excellent mother to first Kudzu, then Orion, Rubiat, Tango, and finally Vixen. When she was too old to carry her own, she became the baby sitter, the boss mare that would teach manners to the weanlings, and especially to the colts who thought biting and climbing on anything or anybody’s head was fun. She always kicked them high, body blows so as not to hurt those pretty legs. When the last of the weanlings grew up and left, Limerick remained in the pasture at the little barn on the farm, retired and free from obligations until last week’s sad day. 

In Limerick’s passing through this life with me,  as both my vehicle and my friend, she took me places I would never have gone, and afforded me friends both equine and human that I would not have made, many of whom I still have. Through her I have memories of wonderful times that we shared. She listened unconditionally as animals are wont to do, to my struggle with life lessons along the way, gave no verbal advice, but was stoically just there. It helped. Thirty years of experiences, not ownership, is what having a horse for thirty years is about.

They say of all of the animal spirits that the spirit of the horse is the strongest. It is the stuff of legends and myths and for good reason. To gaze into their eyes and read them reading you and assessing your mood, thoughts, and intent and to have them trust you to do your biding is an amazing relationship, one built on things intangible and magical.
Limerick had a very strong spirit and I am lucky indeed to have known it. Like Old Lady at my grandfather’s farm, I think her spirit will always be over there under her cedar tree wrapped in its shade. I can only be thankful for our having joined up so long ago and so say a fond farewell to Limerick. She was, and always will be, a great horse, and my friend.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Most Recent Odyssey

Recently Mark had been tossed a tentative photography job up in Long Island by our dear friend and Master Chief, Joe diMaggio, Jr, a culinary genius, an artist, (and yes, kin to the name sake, his uncle, and looks just like him),  an absolute riot to be around, a wild and crazy man with a huge heart that we had come to know when he opened a restaurant next to our gallery a few years ago. Mark had done the food shoot for that place and I had been given the default job of chief assistant and stylist, despite the fact that my knowledge of food styling at that time was fairly nil and I could barely fold a tripod leg up. My shortcomings were masked by Mark’s incredible photography skills, and we did a great job for Joe, on that shoot and others that followed. Joe was now opening a new restaurant up in New York, and needed the skills of a good photographer to shoot images of the food they would be serving for web and publicity things, etc., knew Mark’s work, and gave him a call. It would mean a long drive, three days shooting, and another long drive home, so we gave it thought.

After the incident with Gracie and Heidi written about from my last post, it did seem to be a good time to leave town and let things rest. Gracie could stay with our daughter, husband and granddaughter, and their dog Stella to let her wounds heal and have some time around a smaller, friendlier dog and the energy of a toddler. If she could stay out of the talons of the neighborhood owls I thought it might be a good plan for her, to get a change of pace and forget the Heidi thing. I also, just needed to leave the farm with all of the recent sadnesses and get away, so driving eighteen hours to Long Island, and then back, surprisingly sounded fine. We said yes, quickly packed and headed north.

We traveled as we usually do, interstate for sheer mileage until we can stand it no more then off onto a country lane to
enjoy the slower pace and scenery. I think we were in northern Virginia when we got off the fast lane in. The scenes out of our window were now of smooth rolling hills dotted by pristine simple houses with tall narrow windows in shadowed yards. The houses were flanked by large organic expanses of barns and silos that were tucked into the swells and fallings of the hills. Surrounding fields of wheat, hay, and young corn were tidy and lush and the eye was easily led down their perfect rows. The light was low and golden and its beams bathed the houses and their barns in an etherial moment of beauty in its pure simplicity, until finally the sun dropped and darkness took its place, and onward we bound.

Near Lexington, VA, the place where both of my brothers went to college, we ventured off the path again sort of in search of Natural Bridge, a stone arch that I had heard my brothers speak of from their time up there decades ago. Finding it to have become a sad tourist trap, we chose to move on down the road. Over the top of a hill and down, there on the left was a hand painted sign as we rolled past it,  that said it all. ”Foamhenge”? After a quick u turn we bumped our way down a short driveway to the bottom of a hill. There on top, ahead of us it loomed, Stonehenge, in all its glory and mystery. The celtic symbol of whatever they were doing back then with all that pagan stuff, the circle of stones that nobody can explain, was magically here before us in rural north Virginia, improbably made of styrofoam and spray painted to look like weathered old stone. It was absolutely convincing, and looked totally real, in an amusing  and befuddling as to why, sort of way.

After a leisurely eighteen hour drive up we found our destination in Sea Cliff on Long Island, at the house that we were to stay at for the next three days for the shoot. A long time friend, one we had known from many previous incarnations, Julie, or Jules, was to be our host. Julie, who had also known Joe from previous restaurant work for him, was there to get the mechanics of this restaurant going. Julie just handles it, all, and smiles. Her charming house became our home base and was a lovely retreat in this little village on the north edge of the Gold Coast, where families walked past our porch view in the morning taking their kids to school, and later strolled with their dogs saying hellos to those they passed. It was a cloistered neighborhood of beautifully painted Victorian homes mixed with charming cottages and picket fences that were footsteps away from incredible dining and the view of the Atlantic. It was a place hard to not enjoy.

At the new restaurant we spent the next three days in total absorption photographing and setting up shots and scenes with the dishes, all masterfully crafted and produced by both Joe and a tall, quiet fellow who we were told was the designated Head Chef for this new restaurant, John Milito. We later learned that this John guy, whose incredibly lovely dishes we had been admiring, styling, photographing, and tasting, had been the former Chef at Tavern On the Green in Central Park until its recent closing. Who knew? Here I was pushing around the food of two renown culinary artists, with my limited credentials, and was damned honored to be doing so. 

Joe and John continually produced amazing dishes which we set up, photographed, tasted, and kept the flow going for the entire three days solid. It was very hard and intense work, but delicious, and very gratifying work made
easier with Joe’s direction and his ability to convey exactly what he wants, or not. We arranged small pizzas with little stuffed toys for the kids, and Mark shot incredibly elegant pieces of salmon, shrimp, and a tomahawk ribeye steak that would feed a family of five for a week for the appetites of the the grown up customers to be. Starting a day shooting a luscious piece of Tiramisu and letting that be your breakfast with coffee is not bad work, if you can get it. Job finally completed, we packed, said adieus after three wonderful days of work and play, and began our trek south by southwest.

The return home was quickly marred by our guidance system thinking it was hilarious to route us through south Manhattan island to put us off in the arm pit of
New Jersey where we spent the next two hours going stop sign to stop sign in an endless sea of small neighborhood after neighborhood trying to find an interstate. It was an absolute navigational hell and there was no way out once there. We were both cussing our plight and searching for alternatives on cell phones, and finding none, grew angrier by the moment. The northern version of the seventeen year cicada had hatched and the whirling drone of their music lent a further surreal atmosphere to our personal twilight zone.  At long last we made it to a larger road and faster pace again, and then suddenly, stopped once again at perhaps our thousandth stop, I turned to our right and there looming before me was the epitome of  the equestrian supply mecca, Dover Saddlery. Sanctuary had been found and praise was made.
We spent some quality chilling out time there and I found some things that I hoped would help with the saddle fit issues that I have been having with my mare. It is never a bad thing to savor the smell of well tanned leather and the retail therapy was good. Once our humor was mostly restored, we ventured the remaining sixteen hours uneventfully back to town,via interstate this time to make up for our lost time exploring NJ. Gracie had had fun with Margaret and Stella and had returned to her brighter self, and, armed with our new experiences and memories, we all made our way back home to the farm.