On Friday morning's ride, Chaunson and Sage encounter a new alpaca friend. Just one of the many magical happenings in this special place.
Have you ever been part of something so wonderful and unique that you are afraid to talk about it because the act of trying to describe it with words might make it vanish altogether? That is how I feel about the boarding barn where I ride here in Florida and the community of people and animals who keep this special place alive. It is magical and happy and hilarious at times, but like a mirage I get the sense that its magic is fleeting - kindly sharing its treasures with us only for a small sliver of time. Blink and you might miss it.
On Monday evening as I was assembling my apples and carrots for Tuesday morning's trail ride, Brian asked me who was going to be there. I said that I wasn't sure but I thought Judy and Mandy were definitely going. Brian and I continually marvel at how many people actually ride each day here in Florida. Barb, Niki, Kristen, Mandy, Judy, Tom#1, Tom#2, Jolayne, and probably a handful of other people I don't know yet could all easily be out riding with me. Morning rides at this barn remind me of a pick-up game on a local basketball court. People just come to the barn in the morning without arranging anything in advance. As they groom and tack up, others arrive and they all head out to the equestrian parks together.
Barb on Titan and Tom on Norton
This wouldn't seem unusual or ephemeral at all if the barn were an upscale place with many amenities that pulled in an active equestrian clientele. One could easily imagine a large group of horse lovers assembling in a state of the art facility to exercise their horses and take part in group rides each morning. But this barn is not state of the art. In fact, if I take off my rose-colored glasses for a brief glimpse, I would have to say this barn is architecturally and structurally not much more than a long, dilapidated cardboard box. No one could be coming here because they are drawn to the clean, crisp amenities. The building and fences are standing because of the will of a higher being. From the street you might not realize that shantytown sheds and falling down fencing on this small suburban corner is actually a boarding stable housing 20 or more horses. Yet, just like a secret brown paper package tied up with string (in this case, held together with recycled hay bale binder twine) inside is a precious gift - a priceless gem. Inside is a group of people and animals with hearts of pure gold.
Jolayne on Scooter after our Tuesday ride through the parks, like all of us trying to document this amazing experience for all time.
Last year I posted about this place when my friend, Barbara, suffered a heartbreaking loss and the boarders and barn operator sponsored a benefit in her behalf. One of the boarders, Catherine, who helped to organize Barb's benefit, sadly passed away this summer. The barn group again pulled together to stretch their safety nets out and save Catherine's horse from being sold and sent to an unknown fate. The gelding is still at the barn in the same, comfortable stall and loved and owned by a familiar friend.
At the heart of the activity is Mandy McCluskey-Finan, a quiet horsewoman who teaches people to ride and, more importantly, she teaches everyone how to truly enjoy horses. She always listens to the horse first which is why the horses at this barn are happy and safe. Mandy has rescued many horses and has a gift for matching horses with the people who need them most.
Mandy on her Scooter boy.
She quietly accompanies students on rides out to the local equestrian parks. Students learn to ride well outside of the safe ring and this practice is the core of why this place is bustling, in my opinion. Our expensive Pennsylvania barns with wide aisles and pristine rings and jumps are ghost towns. Horses stand in their stalls all day only to be lunged occasionally or cantered around in a ring in the evening. No one talks to each other and certainly no one heads out of the ring together for a ride to a local park! I believe Mandy's students learn to feel comfortable outside of a ring which opens up secret doors and magnetically pulls people and horses together. I have a sneaking suspicion that enjoying a horse without a training agenda - whether on footpaths or hills or streets or mountains each day for a short amount of time is addictive because it feels right and good and safe for horses and humans of any age, any discipline. And I mean any age - our oldest rider on Tuesday was 76!
Adding to the fun here is the fact that one never knows what they will encounter out in the equestrian parks. On our Friday ride, Judy and I ran into a small herd of cantering alpacas. I had written about these cuties back in December of 2010 when I incorrectly called them "llamas". Here Judy's sweet mount, Sage, is kissing his new friend. Before meeting these furry, funny-looking alpacas we had an amazing ride through the parks. Chaunson was well behaved standing perfectly while Judy and Sage cantered around to blow off some excess steam. Judy is 71 years old and has ridden in all corners of the globe. As we slowly meandered over a bridge and down a sandy, Palmetto-arched alley, she was telling me about her adventures with a giant Silverback Gorilla somewhere in Africa. Just then Chaunson started snorting and whirled about in a circle out on the paved road. Judy's Sage, thankfully, stood calmly and watched the three bucking, cantering, frolicking alpacas whoop it up. Chaunson's heart was beating madly, but he is such a sensible horse. I was grateful that his part Quarter horse nature was overriding his Thoroughbred instincts. The alpacas would not settle down - they were so obviously besides themselves with glee that we had come to visit. A lady who takes care of them appeared and told us that we must have very good horses because rarely can other people ride so close. Sage was determined to touch the unusual animals. I was a little hesitant because the alpacas have a hysterical looking sharp, single tooth sticking out from the bottom of their mouth. The caretaker assured us that the tooth wouldn't hurt our horses so even Chaunson got into the kissing act after a few minutes.
The zebra lives across the street from the alpacas and I wondered if he would make an appearance next.
Judy and I rode back to the barn and mused about the people and animals in this little unique slice of the earth. Judy jokingly, lovingly calls our stable "The Island of Misfit Toys" and that moniker is more profound than any I've heard.
My first day back to the barn this year I was greeted by a new, long haired black and white cat. The cat was new to the barn, but clearly not new to the world, with a skinny, old soul kind of look. Cats at barns are nothing unusual, but this one came with a very different sidekick - a huge, white duck. I posted about this duck, whom I've heard people call Donald or Aflac, and each day I fall deeper in love with this pair of misfits.
I will try to get a photo of the sweet kitty too. When I get to the barn, the pair comes out to say hello, the cat so obviously hungry, but too kind to think about eating his fat friend, and Ducky, so busy telling me...something! I have never been around ducks before, but I am in serious trouble here because this duck is unbelievably lovable. He never stops talking with such inflection and head cocking and intense human-like mannerisms. He gets very close and touches my knee with his beak when I kneel down, like he is making sure that I am still listening. My research tells me that these guys bond with humans for life which is easy to believe. I had no idea that he hatched from an egg on this property until Judy forwarded a recent post she did on Facebook about Donald. I have copied Judy's photos and words below because they capture even more of the magic here.
Ducks and Horses
Ok, fickle woman that I am, I find myself in love yet again. Not once but twice. First, my heart has been stolen by a DUCK whose name is Donald--what else!--. Donald came to our barn as a simple fertilized egg and was hatched on site. He had a sibling but only for a brief time. No mama. No papa. It seems, consequently, that he has imprinted on humans. This handsome fellow is full grown now; he never leaves the property as his every need is carefully met by all of us, his slavish admirers. Jolayne purchased special duck food; it is kept in the feed room to be administered at anyone's discretion. He also is quite satisfied with sweet horsefeed; he stands at the door of the trailer as Mandy fills horse food bins and calmly waits for his share. He has a small swimming pool to frolic and bathe in. I noted that Julie carefully emptied it, cleaned it and refilled it today. His charms are becoming legendary. He woos us not only with his snow white feathers and neon orange beak and feet, but with conversation worthy of a philosopher. No topic is off limits from him. He coaxes you to kneel down before him and bare your soul with all its woes, worries, happiness and glee. You can tell him anything. He is filled with empathy and advice evidenced by the fact that no matter what you say, he quacks back at you at great length. And he never just blows you off. You can have his full attention for as long as you are willing to kneel at his feathered breast. Never have I conversed in such depth with a fowl of any kind. Donald reluctantly lets you stroke him, but he clearly does not understand why that is necessary for us humans. He tolerates our need for tactile affection, but does not give it back in kind. Perhaps he feels that his companionship, his conversation and his handsome face is more than enough for him to give.
A duck story: Yesterday, my friend Ruth arrived at the barn with a U Haul trailer. Her quest was to fill it with manure to take back to her hungry, heavily planted back yard. The two of us worked on the manure pile for over an hour, carefully filling big, black plastic bags with the rich fertilizer. Donald never left our side. He watched. He quacked advice regularly and with great enthusiastic gusto. He stood patiently beside me, then moved over to supervise Ruth. We humans got dirty, sweaty, smelly and generally disgusting. Donald tiptoed over the mounds of manure, twitching his little white tail, never pausing in his encouraging quacking. At the end of the task he remained snow white and spotlessly clean. Then he followed us into the barn where I introduced Ruth to my favorite horses, which is pretty much all of them. Donald was magnanimous in yielding the floor to the silent equines. He is the most amazing duck that you can imagine. Come and meet him.
Judy on Dingo after our Tuesday ride
And today I rode Dingo. Dingo arrived at our barn several years ago as a rescue horse that, in my opinion at the time, was way, way beyond rescue. He had no hair. He had no body meat or fat. He simply was a scrawny set of sad horse bones covered by very ugly skin. No one thought he would live. And if he did, what would he be like after being so abused by humankind? Well, I can tell you what he is like: sweet, willing, trusting, hopeful, eager to please, eager to GO. And if that were not enough accolades, let me tell you that his trot is like gliding over the earth. No need to post. No need to stand in stirrups. Just sit back and glide with him. And his canter would put to shame the smoothest rocking chair. I loved my ride on him today. I lost my heart to Dingo. How did he overcome his childhood of abuse? If you knew our Mandy, I would not even have to try to explain. Mandy loved him and horse whispered him into the fine steed that he is today.
Mandy on Sage after our Tuesday ride
Mandy riding the brush
In this season of love and joy and giving I am so very blessed to have found these friends - horse and human, feline and feathered.