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Entries in horses (4)

Thursday
Jul072016

Learning to Fall

For the third summer in a row, in the first week of July, Piper has fallen from something and broken bone(s). First, when she was 7, she fell off a pony on a trail ride. He caught her jaw/neck with his front hoof on the way down, and when she hit the ground, though he tried desparately not to, he stepped on her chest, breaking ribs, her collarbone and puncturing her lung. Two ambulance rides, two days in ICU, and eight months for her bones to mend.

 

Back on the horse literally and figuratively a year later, she was jumping a palomino at a friend's barn, and came off over the handlebars, breaking two bones in her right elbow and upper arm. Six weeks in a cast and six months of PT to regain her range of motion.

This summer, her first day of rock climbing camp, she was bouldering (climbing without ropes) a tricky V2, and at the top, 9 feet up, missed a hold and unfortunately, missed the landing mat as well. Sprained wrist and elbow fracture, left arm.

Another sweltery summer with a cast.

 

Piper and Mercy, July 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let me back up. This started last winter, with gymnastics. After two tough tumbles off a horse (my sport), J and I agreed to her pleading to try a season of gymnastics. 

 

 

Though we both had reservations about the culture of the sport, the inherent wear and tear on developing bodies, and it being a good fit for her, we thought it might help her learn to fall. 

We bought the leotards and basement tumbling mats, learned a whole new vocabulary--brannies and Bratayleys. When the Quiet Room at the gym where I usually graded papers was closed and I had to sit in the general waiting area, I suffered through disparaging stage mom monologues that made hockey parents sound like Dr. Sears.

"Mine's that one with the big butt who still can't get her pull over. Do you see her? Pathetic. She's never going to get her goddamn ass over the bar! I told her she has no hope of ever advancing if she can't pull this off. I make her practice at home, an hour each night, but, it's useless. Ugh, I can't watch." [pound pound pound on the glass] "Get your fat butt over that bar!"

This hopeless kid? She was five, maybe six.

Piper enjoyed the class, but complained that there was a lot of waiting in line. And then, one night in February, I said the wrong thing. She was watching floor routines on the computer, musing about competing and I told her we weren't on board with that, that to us, gymnastics was about learning body control and balance, having fun and tumbling, but she was probably too tall for the sport, long term. Though we don't have a crystal ball, she is already 4'6", and in the 90th% for height.

"What?" Piper narrowed her eyes. She paused YouTube and googled, "world's tallest Olympic gmynast." For the next ninety minutes, she railed at me, sobbing. "Why would you let me do a sport where I have no chance of winning in the Olympics?!"

After the storm subsided, she came back out of her room with the laptop, wiping her eyes a little sheepishly. 

"Here," she turned the screen to me. "Watch this. This is what I want to do." It was a video of Brooke Raboutou, the Colorado-based world-record setting rock climbing phenom. Later, when I dug back in the search engine history, I saw that Piper found this because she had googled, "best sport for tall girls with long arms and legs."


the tree from which our apple fell, New Mexico 1994

Perfect. For years, in college at Arizona State University, J's whole identity was as a climber. He traveled all over, Hueco Tanks, Joshua Tree, Smith Rocks--hiking in, sleeping on cliff faces, pushing himself. Plus, though we ride horses together, all three kids golf and play hockey, Piper has been hungry for something to do with her dad, just the two of them.

 

 

 

They joined the local rock gym. On her second day, she was conquering routes where I had maxed out, back in the pre-kid days when J and I used to climb. She asks to go to the gym nightly, begging to do one more route when her body is clearly maxed, hanging by her fingertips off the lip of our stairs to increase her grip strength. 

 

 

 

Piper and J take on a challenging 5'10

We agreed she may have found her sport. Solitary, independent, constant opportunity to reach farther, try harder, climb higher. She has this quiet, jutting chin determination, a steely, silent core that is just waiting to be challenged.

And then on Tuesday morning, her third route of the long awaited rock climbing camp, she fell.

The thing is, the staff didn't realize it, didn't even write an incident report, because she kept climbing. The rest of the day, she ate snack and lunch, tie-dyed her camp shirt, played team building games and continued to quietly top rope and boulder, with a broken arm.

When I asked her why she didn't have them call me when it happened, she said simply, "Because I wanted to keep climbing."

We talked about it last night while we went on evening walk with Sampson. I told her the coach had called to find out how she was, and was astounded to learn her arm was broken.

"Did you ask him if I can finish camp later in the summer, when my cast comes off? Will it be too late to try out for the team?" she worried, and I promised we would talk, thinking one positive from the fall is that at least now the coaches know this about her. One of the biggest challenges in coaching Piper will be teaching her to respect her limits, and how to fall.

"I'm stubborn, aren't I, mom?" Piper mused.

"Pip," I told her, "you're tenacious."

"Isn't that the same as stubborn?"

I thought about this.

"Well, to me, stubborn has a negative undertone. Listen to the word--stubborn, synonym: obstinant. I picture a grouchy, hard, face, someone who has dug in their heels, maybe to their own detriment. But tenacious feels like ferocious. Like a tiger. Like someone who will not give up, even when things are hard."

"Like someone who keeps climbing," Piper said, swinging her cast hand in mine, "even if they fall."

* *** *

Waiting for the cast room, CHOP, July 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday
Jan282015

Googling Old Loves

You've all done it. Insomnia leads to a benign browse, a quick PeopleSearch, and then ashamed, you clear the whole history, so as not to offend the sweet person sleeping there beside you, because, really, you are perfectly happy in this life, it was only that you... wondered. Where is he now?

[Do you know how many Neil Henry Murphy's there are in the world? Enough that I never found the rosy- cheeked Irish boy who cried when his aggressive iguana Boomer accidentally froze to death in the Cornell winters when the power went out. This was before we drank Guinness at Ruloffs, before he told me about his mother, before we kissed in the snow while Dakota ran circles around us at Plantations, before he read my journal, before we planned to move to Mexico after graduation, before we broke each others' hearts a little.]

Googling old loves is rarely a good idea, but this week, I did it again. A year of loss, coupled with a return to riding alongside my daughter, and grouchily crossing over to Forever 39 brewed a perfect interwebs search engine storm. Despite my loose grasp on basic math, I was riding a 25-year-old dressage horse and listening to two riders at the barn talk about how a horse there jumped until he was in his late twenties when it hit me: Twenty years ago, I sold Satch, the horse who saved me from the pitfalls of teenage girldom--eating disorders, Salem lights, overachieving, golf course drinking and late night boy's house drive-bys. When I went off to Cornell, Satch was seven. Which means this spring, with other racehorse babies, he will turn 27.

 

Which means he could still very well be alive.

 

Trial ride on Satch

Satch, a 3 year old, green broke, off-the-track Thoroughbred was for sale because he didn't particularly like to race. Which isn't to say that he didn't like to run very fast, or buck, or do both at the same time. Satch was 16.2 hands; at his withers, where the crest of the neck meets the dip of his back, he was almost as tall as the peak of my hairsprayed bangs. 

They say that when the trainers came to get him to race, he turned his back and gazed off into nothing out the half-door of his stall. He didn't kick or get mean, but he passively resisted, and I thought of Ferdinand the Bull in the childrens' story, sitting under a cork tree smelling clovers, because he didn't want to fight. 

 

I fell in love with Satch's earnestness. A little bit naughty, equal parts stubborn and curious, willing to try almost everything I asked of him*.

(*Except group riding classes in a ring)

 

 

With Satch, horses became my sanctuary, my reason to exit stage left when the drama of high school amped up, pull on my boots and shovel some grounding shit. Satch and his equine companions Star and Bailey were my ego-crushing, esteem-building, all-encompassing world for four years. We raced around cornfields, went midnight riding with boys, jumped over homemade cinderblock and PVC obstacles, competed, trailered up into the Catskills and as far as south as Tennessee. On hot summer days, I dragged Satch over to his pasture fence and used its rails to climb on his bare back in my bikini with a dog-eared novel. Sometimes I read on his sun-warmed back for hours while he grazed; sometimes he promptly tossed me off under the silver maples and then looked at me like, what?!

 

When I left for Cornell, my dad and siblings did a winter of feeding/watering and turnout, and then with  my impending departure to work in a Romanian orphanage, with my blessing, we agreed it would be best if they sold the horses.

Satch was sold with his buddy Bailey, a then twenty-something Thoroughbred/Clydesdale buckskin dinosaur that belonged to my father.  He went to a girl who was me, four years earlier, who needed a horse like Satch, a girl with time and devotion and ambition.

I went on to work with horses in the Caribbean, Spain and the Rockies. And while Satch was my exasperating, honest first love, it never occurred to me to look him up.

Until now.

 

Last week, I found an ISO Facebook group for people in the PA/NJ/DE looking for horses they have lost. You bet your lucky horseshoe I joined it.

I hauled boxes of old photos out of the basement during the recent snowstorm, the kids leaning over my shoulder and screeching in horror at our high-waisted stonewashed jeans, marveling how Epcot looks exactly the same as when their aunt was a baby (on a leash!), exclaiming over my mom's owl glasses, their grandfather's short-shorts, my feathered hair and a misguided stint into platinum blonde, their dad's boyhood curls/choir robe, and my untweezed eyebrows. [Hayden: Mom, if we EVER get stranded on a desert island, and we don't have tweezers, I'm going to make you some, because I cannot live with those caterpillars!]

With my trainer's wisdom that I should be prepared for whatever I learned, I posted these photos and this:

Trying to track down my childhood OTTB. We lost his jockeyclub records and tattoo number in a house fire so I don't even have those--I'm aware that this is a long shot. His barn name is Satch/Satchmo, he's 16.2, dark bay, no white on face, trace of white above both right hooves. He would be the ripe old age of 27 now. Purchased from my home in 1995 when I went to college. Earnest, affectionate personality, loved jumping and trails. I'd love any leads or stories from his life. Thank you!"

I know a twenty-year-old quest for a dark bay OTTB without his jockey club registry is like trying to find a seven-year-old girl who doesn't have a stash of rainbow loom rubber bands and pony club chapter books under her bed.

People in the group wished me well, and agreed that his kind eyes made the quest worthwhile. I whipped out my phone at every alert, but no leads.

And then I remembered: my mother saves EVERYTHING. Every receipt, every canceled check, every scrawled note. BLESS HER HEART -- I climbed into the stacks over her desk, where there are literally dozens of meticulously labeled three-ring-binders and found it within five minutes: the canceled check with the name of the woman who purchased Satch twenty years ago. The woman's last name rang a bell--wasn't this the name of the local farm where Piper's classmates ride?

A speedy internet search confirmed the woman who purchased Satch is part of a multi-generational family-run-farm fifteen minutes from my house.


The email has been sent, with photos and as many details as I can spare. Hoping. For another lead. For a story from his life, to introduce him to my family... or anything.

Stay tuned.

 

Thursday
Jan012015

1 January 2015 -- unfinished business

basement stairs, work in progress

A little less than a year ago, I started a beat-the-winter-blues project of painting our plain wooden basement stairs. I picked tangerine, colbalt, turquoise and cream, colors you might find on Scandinavian folk art ponies. Cheerful colors. I did a combination of freehand and stencil, with my phone on speaker, passing the time chatting with my dad as I went. Somewhere between the third and fourth step was March 28, the day my dad did not call for the Morning Report.

 

After that, I stopped painting the stairs.

Every time I go down to shake my sleepy new teenager awake, fetch a roll of paper towel or some spare hockey equipment, I see this half-finished project, and it drives me bonkers. So I doggedly move -finish basement stairs- from 'To Do' list to 'To Do' list each week, but the prospect of sitting there painting without my dad's virtual company is too much.

 

When I look around, I see dozens of half-completed projects from this year. Most recently, the Christmas eve pajamas I was sewing for the guys in my life sit in a flannel jumble, waiting for hems and elastic, right next to the school pants that need a button and the jeans that need hemming. There are my dad's old clothes that I mean to sew into something memorable for my siblings and half-siblings. Come to think of it, I meant to do the same with textiles of my grandmother's, and Cherry's too.

My studio looks like the fallout from a paper airplane dogfight. My laptop and phone both teeter on the precipice of electronic disaster, waiting for me to back things up. And don't get me started on what's going on in my iPhoto, my dropbox, and the junk drawers in my kitchen.

 

On this blog alone, I have seventeen unfinished posts from the last year. There are those celebrating my boys' transitions to teendom and double digits. Ones about my full-circle return to horses (after a fifteen-year-hiatus, they are back in my daily life), and literature, (via my teaching position at Bryn Athyn College). I wrote one celebrating Piper overcoming her accident last summer and continuing to ride horses, compete, and win. I have several love song posts--poetic tributes to my husband, our beloved Hoffmans Happy Hens, and El Presidente, the feral fat cat we acquired from my dad in April. And of course, I have my attempts at probing into the pain of losing my father--a blog post called Mixed Nuts, with his famous holiday nut recipe, and photos of me unintentionally doing my best grumpy cat, sulking in the back of family gatherings, aching with the gaping lack of his presence.

And then there's one addressing the mentally-unstable woman who mined my old blog posts, and used information gathered there to attack the foundation of our family. (For the record, she didn't even chink our outer walls.) But the experience definitely made me pause before hitting Submit, time and time again, questioning how much of myself I was willing to put out there.

On my laptop's writing files, I have the unfinished manuscript of Wellspring, which went out as a partial this past summer to a very short list of editors. Most of them asked to see it finished, and instead I walked away from it.

And I have the outline of the new story I dreamed that is so close to my heart, so tender and important I'm not even going to share the gist of it or working title. It feels so critical and lovely I remain a little paralyzed at the start gate, hoping my skill is up to the task of its telling.

But 2015 is a blank page, waiting for that story to be written, for my loose ends to find their loopy mates and be coaxed into sloppy, finished bows.

So this year, I resolve to finish the things I have started. No more excuses--oh my Dad died, my husband travels more than he is home, I started a teaching job, I'm riding/working at the barn, my kids play on all these hockey teams and we have practice in New Jersey three nights a week and league games in Long Island, and I have to be home in time to let the chickens in,  and, and, and --BASTA. No more. If I truly want to honor the memory of the man we all miss so keenly, then I resolve to live his motto, and carp them diems.

 * *** *

 How about you? What are your resolutions for the new year?

Christmas Eve, wearing the bracelet, holding on to my figurative daggerboard, and looking ahead to smoother sailing.

 

Friday
Jul112014

World's Most Famous Bubble-Wrapped Harmonica Player

planning his futureWhen our oldest son was born, almost thirteen years ago, he weathered a long stint in the NICU in the Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia. Sitting over his isolette, my husband told Hayden's nurses, "Remember this kid's name. You are looking at the future, world-famous bubble wrapped harmonica player." They laughed while he explained that after everything we had watched our son go through, all traditional sports were off the table. For our son, there would be no football, baseball, lacrosse, hockey, soccer... The list went on. "And none of those big string instruments either," J joked. "Do you know how heavy a cello is, what could happen if that fell on him? He'll play the harmonica. In bubble wrap. Nothing dangerous about that."

 

 

 Fast-forward five years later, to November 2006, when we realized that winter in the Northeast with two little housebound boys might cause us to do bad things to one another. Against all our earlier proclamations, we signed the whole family up for ice hockey. Hayden became a goalie--safest position on the ice--and his little brother followed in his footsteps a few years later. 

My Dad would watch me heft their giant gear bags into the car, bigger than they are, and sigh, "Boo, really, have you given any thought to the harmonica plan?"

I remember Max's second Triple A goalie game last year, when his team had no skating subs. They were grossly outmatched, getting killed, 2-16. I watched from the stands as the shots kept coming--rattling off his face cage, right in his gut, a hack to his exposed wrist as he covered the puck. 

"At this level, just so you know," one of the dads told me, "they don't stop shooting when there's a blowout." I could see Max's shoulders shaking with sobs as they scored on their seventeenth breakaway, and then they fucking celebrated, and it took every scrap of restraint I had not to storm out on the ice like Susan Sarandon in Safe Passage, yelling, "Alright! Enough already!" pick my kid up under my arm and carry him home. The physical shelling was horrible, but I also feared was what was happening inside. 

Hayden up a tree, 2012

 

 Fastforward another few years to Isla de Utila, where we lived for six months on a remote Caribbean island. Here, our children swam with whale sharks, broke a world record SCUBA diving, monkey-climbed limbless palm trees, and jumped off the roofs of rickety waterfront bars into the water. They ran barefoot and snorkeled through caves. The closest medical care was on the mainland, a flight away.

 

On the whole, we have done a lousy job of bubble-wrapping our children. They play ice and roller hockey, lacrosse and soccer. They swim in questionable water, bounce on trampolines, and have turned our driveway into a longboarding body luge. They rollerblade and skateboard, leap off boathouses and rope swings, ride bikes and horses. 

 

 

 

Fastforward to last week, when Piper (7) and I headed out on the trails behind the barn where she has been riding for the past 9 months. It was a dreamy, much anticipated mom and Pip moment. Though we ride in the arena together often, and I have loved returning to my childhood love of horses with my daughter, this was our first trail ride. 

It was going beautifully--a little paddling down in the creek, our horses quietly walking over branches the recent summer thunderstorms had downed, and then a little trot down a country lane. Piper called to me she was losing her stirrup, and I turned to tell her to stop, when I saw it happen. She was falling perfectly, over the horse's left front shoulder, poised to land with a tuck and roll that would protect her helmeted head, and put the majority of the landing on her impact vest. It was looking like the kind of fall that would shake her up, but she would ride home from. Except on the way down, the horse's hoof caught her in the neck, and then despite his best efforts not to, when she hit the ground, he stepped on her chest and shoulder, breaking her collarbone and ribs, but worse, puncturing her lung. 

Back in the ICU at CHOP, with Piper on a rebreather, as I curled at the foot of her bed like a pet mommy and watched the numbers on her machines, as the adrenaline of the day ebbed and I replayed and wallowed in gut-souring what-ifs, I remembered almost thirteen years ago, and our vow to raise the world's most amazing bubble-wrapped harmonica players. I was physically sick over the fact that I had broken our little girl, that I had lead her to this sport I love, and she was here because of it.

 

"Pip," I told her, while the machines beeped and her oxygen hissed, "there's a saying about how you 'have to get back on the horse.' Most people use it as a metaphor, meaning don't let hard things that have happened scare you, or face your fears. Horsepeople use it to mean don't end a ride on a fall or you'll lose your nerve. But honey," I took a deep breath, "this was a big fall. And you do not have to get back on the horse. Ever, if you don't want. We can stop riding now."

Let me say again that I love riding. I grew up riding throughout my childhood. When I was sixteen, I managed a three-horse barn. I took my naughty off-the-track Thoroughbred to college with me, trained beach-ride horses in Grand Cayman and rode as a jockey in a Caribbean race season.

 

 

When our daughters were 5 and 6, my sister and I bought a 3-lesson Groupon to a local stable. "Let's see if it takes..." we said, remembering our years with horses. It took.

Piper and Callie, 2013I have loved watching Piper evolve as a strong, independent, confident little equestrian, because I know from my own childhood that all those elements carry over into life. We both had plans to start competing this summer, and she talks of the mother-daughter barn we will open, after we visit the ponies of Chincoteague, when she has her golden birthday, age 19. 

"What?" Piper said, stricken, her voice garbled by the mask. "I'm not going to quit riding!" 

Later, while she slept, I texted one of my oldest friends. We grew up riding together, harmonizing 'You Are My Sunshine' and belting out Reba McEntire as we cantered on mountain trails, galloping around cornfield perimeters and vetting boyfriends by how they acted around horses. She lives across the country, and her daughter rides, a gutsy, fourteen-year-old pole-bending barrel racer. 

--I feel horrible for bringing pip to this. Worried she only does it for me, but she says she still wants to ride. Tell me about Lu's worst fall... I wrote, hoping she would tell me about something I hadn't remembered, something that stopped her motherly heart, that she had replayed in her head as often as I was replaying Piper's--the horrible sound of his hoof connecting with her jaw, the sight of the jagged collarbone tenting her skin. Tell me we'll get over this, is what I meant.

--Lu's worst fall was out of a tree! She wrote, and I remembered her phone call from across the country several years ago, Lauryl's two broken arms, the beautiful but banged up face from the branches on the way down. And I have a darn hard time getting her to wear a helmet and impact vest while playing in the yard! 

Here's the thing she was telling me: this was an accident. It was not the fault of the horse or rider, or maybe even the mom. She was as protected as she could be, short of bubble wrap, in a helmet and impact vest. (Stay tuned for me to write more about the importance of those later. This could have been far, far worse.)

And I still think, how did we fall so far, from the parents who promised, a few floors in CHOP and thirteen years ago, to keep our children safe?

Because life is dangerous. Because there are accidents. 

But there are rope swings to leap from, and trees to be climbed and ponies to be ridden. There is creating a partnership with a person or an animal that stretches our expectations and enriches our lives. There is the feel of the cold winter air in your lungs when you skate across the silver ice at night. There are moments when your team carries you on your shoulders and celebrates your season win, when you conquer a fear or stomach a shelling you didn't think you could do.

Max (in red) and his team take the championship, 2014

 

There are summer mornings when you grin at each other and jump out of bed, pull on your breeches and boots to beat the heat to the barn, and you ride, side by side on your matching ponies while their tails swish and you beam at each other. Piper is home now, expected to make a full recovery, and in a few months, we will both don our impact vests, get back on the horse, and put what has happened behind us.

Summer ride

Because though we have never tried it, I think the view from the podium of the Bubble Wrapped Harmonica Finals might be a little colorless and flat.

* *** *