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Weekly Column

5/19/19: More Animal Antics... 

Bryn loves mornings. She rises at about 6, stretches slowly and luxuriously and, after her morning scratch and a grooming session, I often let her decide where we’ll walk, weather permitting. (She references me regularly regarding street crossings, though, even though she’s ‘on line.’) 

We may walk/trot four miles. She’ll lead, setting the pace, and I’ll trot to keep up. A favorite route is often along the great U-scoop of land that defines Grand Traverse Bay, and then through the tunnel under the Grand View Parkway into the neighborhoods near the semi-wild area around Oryana Health Food Co-op at Boardman Lake. Its delectable cooking aromas remind her that her own meal would be prepared as soon as we arrived home. No fool, I’ll remind her of this fact. She’ll cock her head and lick her lips, and off we trot, straight back to my kitchen.  
By then, I’m always glad. I get quite a lot of exercise from these outings and am ready to roost.   

Here’s the thing: I’m in much better physical shape. The improvement is obvious when I find myself able to lift Menesson’s heavy western saddle off the rack and onto the chest-high saddle rack in the crosstie area.  
I’d struggled to bring it out of the tack room two months ago.   

She loves to go with Joe by car to Sunset Park, with its fine picnic area and sandy beach, when I’m at the stable. She’d run like a crazy thing after Joe’s tossed ball, bring it back and drop it at his feet. Her enthusiasm always lasted for precisely two tosses. The third time was typically a different story. She’d dump the ball far away and absolutely wouldn’t retrieve it. In fact, she actually pretended not to know what Joe was talking about. 
So, he’d have to get up from his bench and find it. It made him really grumpy. 
Result? Joe, an excellent doggie trainer, popped her into the car and drove her right back home. He’d grown weary of hunting down the toy. If she refused to ‘find’ it, so be it! He could read at home. 
Bryn was not pleased about leaving her cool park immediately. 

 So she thought, hard--- 

The next time they went she’d formed a training plan, probably not grasping that his training plan was to leave immediately if she wouldn’t play ball. (Joe likes to toss them.) On this day, he threw and she retrieved. He read his book awhile and then threw another- at her invitation. And another. And another!  She brought them all straight back to him. This behavior certainly got his attention.  So many home runs! 
What was happening? 
It went on for maybe twenty-five flings and fetches, until both parties were satisfied. Joe was impressed! He enjoyed seeing her exercise, and she bought lots of extra time to sniff around the area and chase gulls, and then keep Joe happy by running run fast and happily after every long toss she'd requested. Best of all, she hadn’t abandoned her ball far away- not even once
Just who is training whom, hmmm? 
Such delicious speculation!   

One more really fun, stunning thing: 
I was cleaning Menesson’s big stall the other day when he came over to me and gave my knuckles a lick or two.  
--And then, he looked at my rake’s vaguely pointed red plastic tines, which I happened to be holding over the big poo-filled bucket- 
 --And then, after sniffing them carefully, he began to rub his muzzle and cheeks back and forth along their tips, at first very gently and tentatively, then with more confidence and vigor! Those big, dark eyes caught mine. Amazed, I realized what my job was--to steady that rake so he could indulge in a satisfying scratch that he controlled.  
It wasn’t easy. Menesson is a powerful horse.   

Ahhh-!  Half-lidded, he tested different pressures and angles of approach. Scratch, scrrrratch scratch! 
His obvious pleasure was my reward.     

Maybe he gets a kick out of using familiar things in different ways, just for fun. (Remember when he’d flung a big mouthful of hay at me the other day? He has two fat rubber horse balls in there to fling around, but instead, he’d wisely chosen to hurl hay my way...and I’d cheerfully tossed some right back...)  

Had Menesson actually pondered that familiar rake’s usefulness as a face-scratching muckraker? 
Do you think??

5/12/19: Power, Leashed and Unleashed        

Joe, Bryn and I enjoy long hikes through lovely forested areas in and near Traverse City. Two weeks ago we hitched her to my bike using the BTL (Bike Tow Leash, a marvelous invention) to traverse the trail that winds part way around Boardman Lake. As the temperature remained firmly in the 50s, with smatterings of rain, not many folks had ventured out, so she was released from the BTL and allowed to run free near us. We generally move at a trot’s pace so she can pause to sniff and still catch up easily. 
Somewhere along the way, though, she put a front paw down wrong, resulting in a sprain.    

Noticing that she was lagging behind, we stopped. She trotted over to offer the sore paw to Joe, who found no tenderness or obvious injury. Nevertheless, we took our time going home, allowing Bryn to set the pace. She trotted the pretty path, frequently stopping to inspect a spot, showing only her cheerful aspect.  
But there was that small limp.     

Arriving home we agreed that rest was best; we’d walk everywhere for a week or three to allow her foot to recover. Our sojourns since then have been mostly along Grand View Parkway, following paths that border Grand Traverse Bay and its spectacular views.  

Yesterday, though, discovering that no dogs were in the Garfield Recreational Area’s dog park we hiked along a small portion of Silver Lake’s meandering, wild shoreline, then popped up again to walk the .7 mile long paved trail.  
But Bryn saw, in the distance, that three dogs were in the dog park now. She bumped my leg to catch my attention, and I followed her gaze. 
Ha! Time to socialize!   

I was fine with the long walk across the meadow to that place, and she entered the park to gleeful barks from three other canines. They dashed about while I chatted with their owners, laughing when two Australian shepherds and Bryn tried to outrun each other.  
It was a draw.  
A few minutes later, though, I noticed Bryn sitting by my side watching the fray, but not joining in.  
“Hey, girl; why sit it out? Are you tired so soon?’ 
She looked up at me, raised her paw, held it in a protective position, and kept her eyes locked on mine.  
“Oh... it’s bothering you again? Poor Brynnie...Let me look.”   

I moved it around and pressed her pads; she gave no sign of distress. But still... 
I suggested that we leave and she wagged her tail once. “Yes, Boss; it still hurts a little...”   

The other owners were quiet. Bryn had just ‘talked’ with me. One woman said, “THAT was pretty clear! Wow. Did she hurt her paw recently?” 
I explained, and we four decided that Bryn’s supercharged rush around the area had probably re-irritated her recent injury.   

“Let’s head for the car,” I suggested. Your paw needs more rest, so we’ll take it easy for a few more days...”  
Bryn wagged once and followed me toward the gate.    

Another owner commented, “I wish my dog was as easy as yours to work with; I took Pirate to a trainer because he’s so boisterous, and the guy worked hard on him for months, but he still doesn’t listen to me.” She shrugged and sighed. 

Ahh- I linked her now to the very large, beautiful adolescent golden doodle who had rushed up behind me at the far gate where I was slowly walking to search for and collect Bryn’s poo.  
How can I describe this... He’d slammed into my back and completely encircled me from behind, using his front legs like arms. He weighed at least 85-90 pounds. I would have been flattened had he not clasped me tightly. It was shocking, and weird!  
After a struggle, I’d managed to dislodge his paw ‘arms’ and steady myself.   

This sort of misbehavior is a most serious breach of protocol. That big dog had literally tackled (some would say ‘mounted’) me, not respecting my space, or his place in the hierarchy. (The first rule Bryn learned was never to jump up on any human.) This dog had looked surprised when I’d peeled him off (which wasn’t easy) and firmly reprimanded him. Unaware of his ‘trespass’ he’d cheerfully bounded away, leaving me unnerved and angry. I’d nearly been brought down. I could have been seriously injured. His forever leader hadn’t reinforced the FIRST RULE: 

Never overwhelm (jump on, slam into) humans, whether little or large. 

All humans are Alphas for dogs. One special human, though, is a dog’s pack leader, as well.  
A dog trainer can’t successfully teach important behavioral rules when a dog owner doesn’t consistently enforce them. Trainers are temporary Alphas. Dogs understand this. But. Their personal human, the essential soul who provides a home, regular food and water, and a bed, and lots of affection, is with them forever.   

But he/she often doesn’t lead. 

Off lead, a dog gets lost. 

Here’s the thing: Pirate has quite reasonably decided that He is Alpha. Here we have a two-to-three-year-old (in human intelligence terms) who’s found himself ‘in charge,’ in a largely incomprehensible world.  

Pirate, at sea now, innocently thinks: 
Cool! I’m the leader! 
But he’s barely three years old- a toddler. 

Most dogs are at once unnerved and intrigued by the realization that because their Alpha has abdicated, they rule the roost. Loved, secure, but ignorant of, or unimpressed with, rules that have no teeth, they become too bold. Too confident. Often aggressive when their position is challenged. 
Without knowledge of, or respect for, normal social ‘fences,’ or of the larger world’s complicated operating manual, they bump into Trouble with a capital T.  
The results are predictable.   

On a brighter note: 
I was cleaning Menesson’s roomy stall yesterday when he quietly came up behind me to nuzzle my hair and neck. We canoodled for a minute before I resumed gathering up some hay that had been scattered by his hooves as he’d walked from his hay pile to his water bucket to dunk a big mouthful into it. (Menesson likes to moisten hay before eating it. Hay is expensive, so I try to retrieve what he drops or inadvertently drags along.)   
He watched as I reunited these yummy dribs and drabs with the rest of his hay pile.    

Then, another bit of magic happened.   
He carefully collected a big, loose mouthful, turned toward me and – I kid you not- flung those dry sheaves straight at me with a firm toss of his beautiful head!  
He was playing!  
I stood there, openmouthed, dripping hay.  Oh, Lord, here’s another mental photograph to treasure forever... 
I snatched away some bits clinging crazily to my unruly thatch and tossed them back at him, laughing. Menesson shook out his mane and resumed eating while keeping one eye on me.  I saw amusement there.   

This wonderful horse lowers his head when I ask, tries to keep his shod feet where they belong, and is so very gentle when little children are placed on his back. He always strives to please. Most stallions, full of testosterone, have to be handled with great care, skill and total attention. They can be unpredictable, and even dangerous, in inattentive hands. Menesson, though, is truly exceptional, the soul of propriety. Aware of his own immense power, he always keeps it in check. He knows the rules, and loves, trusts and respects his human Alphas, who love, trust and respect him, their Alpha horse, right back.  

Having consistent, responsible leaders to depend on in a confusing world is immensely reassuring. 
It’s a Fine thing when he, and we, measure up. 




P.S. There are many ways to stop jumping-on-people behavior. I offer a few inexpensive suggestions: 

Buy a $3 hand-held vibrating buzzer, sold at jokester shops or on the web, used to rattle/startle people one shakes hands with (a very popular practical joke item in the ‘50s.) Wind it up, put the looped cord over your middle finger, palm it, and then press it against the dog’s nose or any part of his face while shouting “NO!” when he jumps on you. The gadget’s utterly harmless vibration, along with the sound it makes, is quite disconcerting. Doggie’s horrified. Then, cautious. Once or twice is usually enough. I recommend buying 3 or 4 to pass around to friends, so he doesn’t think it’s only you that he must avoid leaping on. Set up the situation, then solve the problem. (Oh- don’t purchase the one-buck ones. They’ll fall apart almost immediately.)   

Or, buy super-cheap teeny-tiny balloons (at party stores); fill with a bit of cold water; hold between your fingers, untied. Make it ‘pee’ on the dog’s nose and face when he jumps on you, or on friends. (Do this trick outside.) The objectionable behavior will quickly extinguish, saving potentially huge lawsuit ‘bites’ to your wallet when your dog eventually knocks down and inadvertently injures a child (or old duffer, like me) who might decide to sue for medical expenses for that broken hip. ‘An ounce of prevention...’ 

Or, for the more agile, knee the offender in the chest, or step on his toes. Every time. Always shout “NO!” while the behavior is happening.  
Or, snap his nose with your thumb and middle finger. A dog’s nose is his whole life. He’s very protective of it.  
Snapping stings. 
The objectionable behavior will disappear. Use on any dog, especially YOUNG ones.  
Nip the behavior in the bud.

5/05/19: How to Slow Time...  

Bryn-dog has decided to shed like there’s no tomorrow. Labradoodles aren’t supposed to shed buckets, but it seems that she excels in this, too. This week alone I’ve extracted great quantities of her white, downy fur. She happily sits on the walk, half-lidded, enjoying my ministrations. Every now and then she’ll give a soft groan of satisfaction.  
I love performing this long, leisurely service.  
It needs doing once daily, and now I can do it outside. Birds watch from trees as hair floats off, with most of it snatched back and stuffed into the hairnet that dangles from the dogwood tree as an open invitation. The hairnet keeps the soft, airy stuff from misting the garden with white, and it pleasures me to know that her soft down will pad their nests.  Sometimes, though, I’ll release wisps into the brisk wind so sparrows can swoop down to gather it in.  
There’s SO much!    

A few days ago I took her to the beach on a decently warm day and she suddenly exploded into a joyful, flat-out dash up and down its length while snatching small sticks from the golden sand to fling into the air as she raced along. Such exuberance!  It was her first visit there in ages. Ice, snow and icy winds over this long, awful winter had made such excursions impossible.  Now, these spring ecstasy fits are a joy to watch! 

Menesson, the stately stallion who’s helping me learn the finer points of riding, is shedding massive quantities, too. Like Bryn’s hair, it’s pure white. A few days ago, after quietly cleaning his big stall as he ate, I led him down the corridor to the cross-tie place and began grooming him prior to riding. I always love this time. 
Great quantities were snared with every swipe of the long, flexible blade. How could so much come away and he not go bald?  
Ha! There’s no danger of that happening!  
Every bit of his vast real estate needs attention, but no matter how meticulous I am, there’s always more.  
I took my time and he stood there quietly, enjoying the attention. Especially when I moved down his powerful legs. They are so very beautiful. I now know his happy places. Just above his hooves are the four best ones. Leg grooming paralyzes him. Not a whisker moves. Now he went half-lidded, like Bryn, and even his ears were quiet as I hummed almost inaudibly and brushed with long strokes from the top of his neck down to his hooves. Time can slow to a crawl, doing this... 

A few days ago, after we two worked hard for over an hour in the arena, I groomed him again before walking him back to his clean stall. Sunbeams streamed into the huge open barn doors right next to his roomy home. Ah, that warmth and light felt so good! I buckled his big coat on again, though- it was still only 49 degrees out there- and he resumed eating hay in his favorite corner.  
I wasn’t ready to leave just yet, as I love standing there quietly, breathing in this beautiful place in spring.  
Suddenly, he stopped chewing, turned to face the stall door, and walked two strides to me to bump my chest gently. I stroked his ears, moved one hand to his cheek and stood there, facing him.  
I went still.  
Then, something really special happened.   

Menesson went absolutely still, too. He stood there, nose just above my head for a very long moment, and then, his eyes blinked, fell to half-mast— 
and then, he was sound asleep.  
Just like that. 
Right there.   
With my raised hand still resting on the side of his face he breathed in and out so slowly, so faintly, standing ankle-deep in fresh hay with the sun’s fresh light enhancing minute dust motes that hung suspended, decorating the air ------ 
There we were, in the fog of a dream state  
I guessed later that this peaceful magic lasted for some five minutes, with Time seeming to slow way down, to pause... 
I was, in a word, spellbound.

4/28/19: Other Lives 

This spring will be like no other, for I’m moving firmly into my new life with horses. My beloved secret garden will be open only very occasionally, and will look much simpler- because, with laser-beam intensity, I am utterly focused on learning to be a competent, confident rider, a goal that demands large amounts of time and mental and physical strength, not to mention funds. All are in short supply.  
I’m on a very short tether any way you look at it.  
And, I can’t serve two masters. Not well.   

Nine months ago I entered a stable, found I could breathe without blisters, and nothing has been the same since that day. I’m studying hard, trying to stuff more than 70 years without horses into a few months of near-total immersion.  

Odd observations keep rearing up, making me smile.  

In the beginning, about 8 months ago, I rode instinctively. Now, with expert instruction, I’ve markedly improved.  Instinct is in partnership with skill. It’s gonna be a great marriage. Especially as I’m so incredibly motivated to make it work.   

Yesterday I bought a pair of western riding boots.  
They do look odd. My mother was right to march me back to the cowboy store when I was 12 and make me return the huge (but well-fitted) boots I’d purchased with money I’d earned working odd jobs over two years. I weighed 89 pounds, was 58 inches tall and possessed size 9 feet. I looked absolutely ridiculous and didn’t care, but she did. I’d gone one step too far.  She bawled out the baffled clerk after reclaiming my money. “Where’s your common sense? She’s a bug, wallowing in boats!” 
So I sent away for a rubber saddle designed to fit over my bike’s seat. My long-suffering mom threw up her hands.    

Joe and I went to Tractor Supply to see if ‘duck feet syndrome’ would manifest as powerfully today, but it turned out not to matter. I just wanted to own an honest-to-God pair of cowboy boots. I’m around 100 pounds, 60 inches tall and my feet haven’t shrunk. Not a millimeter. $100 buck square-toed, turquoise-colored cowboy boots are hard to ignore. I flapped happily around the store admiring the things. (Pointy-toed boots look so outrageous on me that it’s hard to stop laughing. At least these square-toed ones offer more room for my flappers.)  
The duck is there, but I don’t care.    

As for horse heroes, there is one, Secretariat, the greatest racehorse of the twentieth century. He left all those horses in the dust at the Belmont Stakes, winning the Triple Crown with embarrassing ease on June 9, 1973 at 1:35 p.m. I saw it all. His jockey, Ron Turcotte, is a genius. 

Another thing deeply puzzles me. Last July I was put on a splendid horse, and I knew immediately what to do. I rode all the gaits, including a sitting trot, with not one twinge of soreness. That first marvelous day I very reluctantly dismounted after only twenty minutes of heaven, partly because I was worried to death that I’d be too sore to ride again for days.  
But Nothing happened. 
This is weird, any way you look at it.  I’ve heard comments that I’m just in denial or won’t admit it, as if it’s something to hide, but I don’t lie. Lying about anything is exhausting. One must keep track of fibs forever... 
Being sore goes with the territory. I’d have no problem admitting aching muscles. But why am I NOT aching?  
Just for the science of it, I’d love to understand what’s going on.  
This –absence – really works for me, though. No muscle pain provides more precious time to laser-concentrate on the finer points of horsemanship.  
Is this an example of ‘mind over matter?’    

I wonder, because for 70 years I’ve had an incredibly busy nightlife. 
Some deep part of me has been working all those decades on balance, posture, reading these animals through the reins, through my saddle, my fingers- 
SOMETHING indefinable has been at work. Even when I had no hope whatever of getting anywhere near these beautiful creatures.  
My ‘dream Boss,’ for example, would boost me up onto a racehorse and I’d competently ride him, and lots of other steeds, around a track as an experienced exercise girl. In any weather. The sort of riding I practiced was rather like ‘two-point.’ I would hover over the diminutive, short-stirrup saddle and we two would move with such speed and power! Racing is dangerous, exhilarating, and gloriously FAST. I was built for it. I would have been very good at it. 
Brains are queer things. They tend to cling to certain (hopeless) hopes, and magnify them. And dreams can be incredibly persistent. Could they somehow affect my muscle memory?   

These nights, though, I lie down and immediately fall asleep without dreaming.  
For Heaven’s sake, I’m living it.  
I’m just too pooped to participate.   

In early 2019 my teacher had to remind me more than once not to assume a racing posture. I haven’t tried to explain that it has to do with muscle memory developed and strengthened for decades- in deeply established dreams.  
That stance had become a habit. 
He’d think me totally weird, and he’d be absolutely right.    

As for the inherent risk in all this?  I might be dumped PDQ. Or not. All I can do is work hard and learn fast.  
Garnering more skill makes for more control of myself, and the horse. 
Life's a risk. So is love. But love trumps trepidation. I’m careful out there. I so want this miracle to last.   

Sometimes I like to sketch what I see. The Farm is beautiful, especially in spring.  Drawing makes me really SEE the details. And appreciate them more. 

There’s one thing my pencil and I know for certain:  Yeah, crocs, dung beetles, jackals, sawgrass, mosquitoes and people are fascinating to draw. It helps one to see why they are all about armor, balls, fangs, spears, needles and bloat. Not exactly poetry in motion. But they’re out there, everywhere, and therefore interesting and special... 
But, in designing even the humblest flowers, and the stunning Equus Caballus, God finally got it exactly right. 


4/21/19: Cinder Blocks and Dead Shots  

Menesson, Casalae Farms’ champion Arabian stud stallion, is a bright, educated horse who has recently turned 23 years old. He’s quietly absorbed a lot of English along the way. And, he’s a dead shot. Read on... 

Today I walked up to his roomy stall’s window sill and greeted him. He was facing the back wall’s corner munching heaped hay, but turned his beautiful head toward me, recognizing my voice.  
“I brought an apple for you, big guy,” said I, and his perfect ears perked up. He left his breakfast then and came to me, poking his head over the sill. A long strand of hay still dangled from his mouth, giving him a rakish look. Grinning, I pulled it out and proffered the apple. 
“Take a bite while I hold it.”    

He did. He bit down on a reasonable-sized piece of the succulent apple and gently took it in. After contentedly munching its sweet juices he carefully chopped off another bite while I held on tight, and chewed that one with pensive enjoyment. Two more bites disappeared the same way. Then we were down to its long, seeded core. I offered this last bit on my palm and he expertly scooped it up.  
After sniffing my hands one final time, just in case, he continued to munch the last remnants while I admired his face, his large, dark eyes, surrounded by a thick liner of black skin, which emphasizes their beauty ---wait! 
Both eyes harbored large, hard black ‘sleep sand’ at their inner corners.  
Hmmm. Would he allow me to remove them?  

Well, just ask.  

“Menesson, your eyes want cleaning; would you please lower your head so I can?” 

Without hesitation, he did exactly that. Tears welled, mostly from awe.  
Don’t stand there mimicking a gobsmacked codfish. He might change his mind! 
I raised my hands to begin.  

At that, his head came down even lower, toward my chest, and then- he closed his eyes.   

My God.  

Approaching his left eye first I used both hands to cup his face, and gently dislodged, then eased, a big black ‘cinder’ out of its corner and chucked it away. He kept chewing the apple core, still ‘in the dark.’ I switched smoothly to his shuttered right eye. When he felt that one loosen and vanish he opened them again, raised his head, shook it and snorted. I stood there, keeping my face pleasant and calm. “Good boy. All done.” (But I wanted to punch the air, hop around and shout, “We’re communicating!”) 
He turned back toward breakfast, displaying his big, rumpled, buckled coat more fully. He’d been down during the cold night. Clinging straw and sawdust revealed which side he’d favored.   

I began to clean his home in a fog of delight while he ate and amicably shifted position once to allow me room to snatch up a big poop pile huddled against the wall, half-hidden by hay. 
Resistance is futile. Not one escapes my fork. 

Oh, and just for fun, Menesson couldn’t resist demonstrating another self-taught skill. He knew what that bucket was for and got a kick out of demonstrating it once again. 
With a flourish, he backed up to it, and, after measuring twice with his hind hooves to make sure he was centered, raised his tail and pooped into it. Every ‘baseball’ scored a home run. 

I cheered and chuckled and he made a celebratory circle around his stall before returning to his hay. Grinning, I carried on collecting the rest of what gardeners call ‘black gold.’ All of this horse-recycled food residue will be recycled yet again...and again... 

My fork made almost no noise. Good. 
Animals prefer to dine in peace and quiet. 

I walk into the stable knowing I’ll walk out wiser, or laughing, or both...What fun!

4/14/19: Different Strokes  

Horses have, I think, largely given up trying to connect with humans the way they once did. Twenty-first-century humans seem to be hurry-up creatures with considerable visual and auditory blocks in place when mingling with the lower orders, or with children. Our species doesn’t adequately grasp other mammals’ private minds, largely because these ventures take a lot of time, not to mention big doses of patience. One has to be willing to study the subtle cues that aid in interpreting what’s going on in, say, an equine mind. 
There is so much to know.  
We do acknowledge their very considerable physical power, their beauty, and their willingness to serve our needs. But how many of us know their special pleasure spots? Or what they consider fun?  Or what sounds soothe, or annoy? Or when they’re lonely? Happy? Sad? Pleased? Appreciative?  
Different mammals aren’t all that different. 
Take grooming, a regular happening, as an example.   

I used a typical grooming brush on my own arm and leg. I ran it through my hair, too. Brushes must pass those ‘feel’ tests to join my box of grooming goodies. My hands, though, are my primary ambassadors in the Touch Department. 

Blake, the big thoroughbred gelding at Sunshine Farms whom I often ride, saw me coming today and moved toward his stall’s open area to say hello. We bumped noses. I held his head and smoothed his face. (Blake doesn’t mind being face-touched- when he’s given me permission to take that liberty.) 
Speaking quietly to him I shucked my gloves and offered my bare hands, palms up. He lowered his head, signaling that I could move them gently up and down the sides of his face. He issued forth a deep sigh, flapped his nose and stuck his head high and out, a signal that he’d welcome a nose scratch to the area just above his mouth. When I obliged, using my short-nailed fingers very softly, his eyes closed and those sensitive whiskers twitched... (If he’d turned his head away, even slightly, I would have backed off.)   
Now I shook my head from side to side, for fun.  
So, Blake snorted and shook his! 
“How about this?” I queried, nodding vigorously, up and down.  
Blake nodded, too, and whinnied, amused.  
He cocked his head, waay over to one side.  
I grinned, and copied him, singing, “I’m only a cockeyed optimist...” (This song’s from a movie- South Pacific, I think...)  
Whinny-grins rippled through the stable.   

Blake and I have a thing... 

Today, though, I would ride Sunshine Farms’ Ditto, a smaller, sturdy, stocky horse with a stand-up bristle-brush dark mane interwoven with grey. His hair is a lovely deep brown color, decorated with generous splashes of white and grey appaloosa spots sprinkle-scattered lavishly over his hindquarters. Some of these variously sized bubble bath-looking ‘circles’ tumble down his flanks, too. The effect is delightful!  
Appaloosas are gorgeous creatures.   

Ditto always fidgets- I could say- ‘dances’- when cross-tied for grooming, which happens before saddling. I showed him a big brush I’d selected, and after he sniffed it carefully I began to explore ways of quieting his “must we?’ behavior. 

The first rule here, to my way of thinking, is: never bang that big tool down.  
I lowered it gently to his skin and began the long trip from the top of his neck to his behind and then a little way down his back leg, pressing just enough to collect shedding hair, but not hard enough to make him shift away. He shifted anyway. I’d guessed wrong.   

Each horse reaches a point where stepping away from pressure happens. Ditto shifted sideways as soon as he felt the brush. I persisted, repeating the long, gentle strokes, using my left hand to inform him where each beginning place would be. About ten strokes later I’d located some pressure parameters, and so adjusted the pressure to accommodate each one. 
But- when I drew it all the way down his back leg he stopped dancing around and stood still as a leaf on a dead calm afternoon. I slowly repeated the stroke, sliding down to the fetlock. Just under each one is a ‘sweet spot.’ I gently moved the brush back and forth between fetlock and hoof, about a 4-inch indentation perfectly fitted to my tool. While it moved slowly, slowly back and forth, Ditto didn’t move. He was entranced. 
This is always hugely rewarding.   

A while later he blew out a long snort-sigh. I stepped back to check his posture. There he stood, hung low, one hind foot cocked. All in all, a happy horse. In brushing him a little differently I’d begun to change his opinion of the procedure. I’d made the experience pleasant, and almost sensual.  
“Jeez, Dee, You can apply four times as much pressure and get a ton more hair with short brisk strokes...” True. 
I thanked Robin for her advice and carried on, my way. I love to learn their shapes, their most/least sensitive places, and their tolerance levels, while still keeping him  tidy.   

Hmmm. What would happen if I tried to brush his head? Horses are very protective of that area.  
Wow! Lots of indignant, vigorous head flinging happened as he made it clear that the brush was unwelcome anywhere near his ears and eyes.  NO Way.    

So I began again softly, high up on his neck, very near his poll. Three minutes later he’d settled down again, so I carefully inched the brush up to the left side of his temple, employing just the top and side of its medium- soft bristles to trace around his ears and eyes, then down his face. (Near his eye, my hand formed a protective barrier he could feel.) My low, murmured crooning never stopped. He lowered his head just a bit as I brushed gently, murmuring about whatever popped into my head, making the words blurry, soft, toneless, while seamlessly shifting to other spots on his neck, perhaps just under that funny, upstanding mane, before returning to his face for a few more gentle seconds. 
He stood, hung low, half-lidded.  
Ditto was totally relaxed.  
Never push a good thing, thought I, and quietly switched to his mid-back, leading with my hand, touching him where the brush would connect a second later. He never had to wonder where it would land, or how hard the landing would be. Every one was always soft.   

Horses are as sensitive as we are. When a dot-sized spider octi-creeps over our skin, we know. Ditto for horses. Every contact, even from a mosquito’s feet, is registered. 
When I first groom a horse the skin ripples; there is an immediate shift away from that tool’s pressure. Horses anticipate what’s coming, but have been gently taught early in life to submit. It's no big deal, so they do. 
Every animal is different. Most horses don’t mind being groomed in the usual way. Others dislike the procedure, but accept it as an immutable part of life. The three horses I’ve groomed have very definite opinions, so I decided to experiment with the different cleaning tools on offer to achieve a clean body with no inching away, and no flinching.  
I strive for head droops. Cocked hooves. Relaxed postures. Deep sighs. 
When I get it right, skin rippling and shift-fidgeting stop.  

Now a quiet, faintly surprised Ditto stood there, settling into enjoyment.  
I love this. I just love it. It’s my blue ribbon.   

I’ve been very surprised to discover that I like to groom almost as much as I like to ride. I’ve imagined myself grooming horses for 70 years, finding the rhythm of it a nice way to drift into sleep.  
Oh—another thing: I had no idea horses have big cowlicks!    

Is there a particular place that has ‘paralyzed’ the trio?  
Oh, yes.  
All had gone perfectly still when I gently brushed just below their fetlocks horizontally, back and forth, letting the bristles accommodate to that indentation. It’s as though Nature designed the four-inch wide space to exactly fit grooming brushes.    

I should add that there is no rushing, here. Time slows as I explore their vast real estate, test pressure points, feel each muscle group, each tendon, employing hand and brush while humming or murmuring a sort of auditory ‘bath’ of soft sounds that seem to soothe both of us. By the way, I may have to repeat this ritual for a few days before I discern less agitation and more anticipation.  
This sort of grooming takes as long as it takes.  
I work, feel and listen; he feels, signals and trusts. We are ‘learning’ each other in auditory and tactile ways.    

There is the horse,  
There is me,                                      
And finally, if I'm lucky, we join up. 

4/07/19: Lame Brain Syndrome  

During about three hours for four weekday mornings, from around 8:30 to 11 or so I groom the Farm’s stallion, Menesson, which can take me 30 minutes, as I love going over his powerful body with a sort of massage/brushing, and tend to linger over it. Then I tack him up, ride and learn, cool him down, brush him again, get him back into his huge, buckled blanket and lead him back to his stall.  
I am never sore, physically tired, or nervous. Just supremely happy. 

Bryn is always near, watching the fun, or snoozing. She and Menesson enjoy watching each other while I work on technique, balance, natural aids, etc. and relish every minute with my beautiful Arabian friend.   

But, I suddenly realized I might have a big problem. Weekday mornings my teacher is busy with other Farm business, so I’d be responsible for saddling and bridling him. That is no problem.  There are always folks there I can ask to help me heave his heavy saddle up onto his back, and set it down gently. 

But. There were many saddles and bridles in the first tack room! Which two were his? Yeah, this is an odd question. But the reasons for asking it are- reasonable. 

After being broadsided by a truck that slammed into me at 55 mph in October of 2002, my brain’s ‘wiring’ has been jumbled substantially, causing oddities to manifest themselves now and then.  At first, I didn’t know my own family or any of my garden’s flowers. I had to relearn everything. It took a year or two. Gradually, over the last decade or so, other brain changes have revealed themselves. (One neurologist warned I might notice other odd puzzles ‘down the road.’) 
He was right. As time passed, I’ve unexpectedly found myself unable to differentiate individual objects when they are part of a group of the same sort. This phenomenon is extremely selective: it doesn’t appear when dealing with my car in huge mall parking lots, for example.    

The tack room holds many Western (and some English) saddles packed closely together. When presented with this total picture every day I’d skim the room generally as my teacher chose what she needed. I’d see a sea of saddles sometimes covered by saddle pads of different colors. No matter how many times the correct saddle was brought out I perceived just -a saddle, not THE saddle. Unwisely, I ignored these pictorial blurs, anticipating only the end result- to ride.  

I’d been so engrossed in learning how to clean and polish saddles, clean stalls, clean horses, and cram everything about how to be a decent rider into my head for another five hours a day with internet courses, plus The Farm’s excellent teachers- that I neglected to consider that a ‘blur’ might occur. 
I see only the Mane thing...   

It would have been much smarter to set aside time, just in case, to: 

- Memorize the relevant saddle’s position. (But alas, that sometimes changed.) 

- or, Photograph the salient particulars of the correct saddle- but only that one. Screening out the other saddles is a tricky business, though. And standing in the tack room, learning just one, is, well, peculiar for folks coming in and going out.  

The third choice always works.  

- Ask for help.  

While embarrassing, doing this without dithering moves me quicker toward my goal: to ride. But asking someone at the stable to pick out Menesson’s saddle, after eight months of my sitting on it, would certainly have elicited incredulous looks.  
Explanations would be long and awkward; eyebrows would remain in hairlines anyway.  
Heck, mine would. Quirks like this one are— one step beyond. 

So, I texted my teacher that same evening and briefly asked for saddle/bridle identifier clues, offering no details about why. She immediately texted me what I needed, including the relevant saddle’s decorative white stitching and location, and that it had a broken latigo keeper on its left side.  
Wouldn’t you know-- differentiating ‘left’ from ‘right’ is nearly impossible post-accident. So I left out ‘left,’ and simply looked for a broken latigo keeper (a two-inch wide, 4-inch long strip of leather with a rectangular opening where the cinch strap is tucked. (Its profile reminds me of a fat jar lid opener, only softer). 
THAT- plus the stitching details- did the trick. Poof. The black hole vanished. Menesson’s saddle will always be easy to spot. 
That’s the good news. Once the object is firmly identified, the hole is history. In fact, I’ll see ONLY that one saddle. 
Weird. But I’ll take what I can get.   

{I have a similar problem with individual faces. Post-accident, old friends, acquaintances and even neighbors I haven’t seen in a while have come through my secret garden and, seeing me, strike up a cheerful conversation. But I’ll often find myself at a loss to exactly place many of them, especially if previous contact hasn’t happened in the spot we’re in at the moment, but maybe out in the front garden, or downtown, or downstate... 
A few folks do sense, perhaps from my lost look (which comes and goes in a flash, just before my brain shuts down), that it would help to say their names and general location –“Hi! It’s Chloe Cadeedlehopper, from three doors down...” and then, I have her!} 

I gave up trying to locate Menesson’s bridle, though I’d put it on him more than once, and dealt with its various buckles, etc. There are countless bridles in there, many hanging together, which present as a spaghetti-jumble of strappy, looped, narrow, dark leather strips.  
It’s one thing for me to seek an object, but quite a different thing to SEE it. Bingo. 
Instant shutdown.  
A visual black hole opened.  
I ground my teeth. 
Fortunately, another teacher, Tom, merely smiled when I confessed I couldn’t pick it out, even with my teacher’s texted particulars, which I read out to him. He went straight to one that looked like all the others, plucked it from its hook and said, cheerfully, “This one should work just fine.” 
It did work, and I rode and learned for over an hour, feeling thrilled that I’d had the sense not to bridle-dither. When I speak up here, these problems disappear. 
Oh- and I’ve since studied the correct bridle carefully. I’m 98% sure I’ve got it nailed, too. 

Pound sand, lamebrain!

3/31/19: Low Humor and High Jinks  

Almost everything features poop today---in a roundabout sort of way. 

Humans tend to think of the ‘lower’ animals who share our lives- cats, birds, dogs, etc. -as being ‘dumb’ in the sense that they aren’t capable of reasoning things out. Therefore, they can’t make a plan- can they? 
Well, they’re often physically lower, but certainly not incapable of creating flexible, adjustable mental constructs in order to survive, and thrive, in this complex world.    

Bryn, my labradoodle, shall serve as one example. 
This past winter was particularly tough. Temperatures nestled in the basement, competing successfully with our freezers as they hovered around minus four degrees. Ice and deep snow blanketed the better part of Michigan, forcing me to opt out of walking Bryn each dark morning, for safety reasons. Instead, I regretfully let her out back into the secret garden, where she had been taught never to do her business.    

Puzzled, she sat on the white walk that first time, looking into the kitchen’s big window, head cocked, flanked by very deep snow.  
Are you sure, Boss? ‘The Rule’.... 
I stared back, blinkless, in answer to her silent query, so finally, she looked around, thought about it for a good while, then decided. She would pee only in the Ram’s Head Garden beds and poop as close to its outer edge as possible.  
I more completely appreciated that adjustment to ‘exigent circumstances’ only yesterday, when I took advantage of Traverse City’s heat wave- 42 degrees!- to further collect her winter droppings. (Nearly four feet of snow had gone, making the job easy.)  
When presented with this huge Rule change, Bryn had taken just minutes to sort it out and adapt to suit both of us. The evidence lay before me.    

I predict that, in warm weather, she will NOT use the garden as her WC, having worked out seasonal Rule changes. This can’t be taught. It develops when an animal learns to respond flexibly to the countless novel, often inexplicable situations that Life presents. Bryn’s Alpha had made an exception to the Rule; she would, too, despite her uneasiness.  
There’d be more proof that this former sin was canceled when she came back in.  
“Good girl,” I said, assuming a benign expression as I held the kitchen door open. 
She settled happily into breakfast.    


I often help the staff to clean stalls, a daily task. I really enjoy the job. A few days ago I slipped into Menesson’s much larger one to address the mess. (Casalae Farm’s magnificent Arabian stud stallion is ‘my’ horse to learn on, most of the time.) As King, he occupies the biggest stall.  
He greeted me with tossing head, then pushed his nose into my chest, nickering. I slipped him a treat; we canoodled for a bit; I got to work. 

And Then- something awesome, delightful, and really funny, happened.  
Noting the position of my large poop collection bucket, parked in the center of his stall, he faced away from it and began to back very slowly and deliberately toward the thing, feeling his way by extending his hind hooves! I watched, entranced, as one hind hoof felt around in half circles, then the other one. He occasionally turned his head to look behind him, measuring, before backing up a few more inches to extend the left one, then the right, over and over, until both had finally made delicate contact with the bucket in different spots, precisely establishing its position. Backing up one more scant inch to make it perfect  - he pooped into it.  
I burst out laughing. 
Menesson has a quirky sense of humor!   
It’s such an honor to be allowed to experience the nuances of this horse’s gentle, brilliant mind.   

By the way, he has more respect for me as a competent rider now, usually responding smoothly and quickly to my increasingly coordinated riding signals.  
This beautiful soul should never be saddled with a clumsy rider.   


Louie, Casalae Farms’ handsome, elegant stable cat, has, I think, finally concluded that ambushing my dog is beneath him. Bryn is not a threat. Sir Cat comes right up to her, gives her the ‘Eye,’ but keeps his weapons sheathed. Bryn always looks away, disengaging herself mentally. She’s conflicted about cats, wanting to chase- and avoid them- at the same time. So she references me.  As Alpha, I’ll shake my head. Centered then, she settles into ‘ignore.’ 
Louie, a graduate-level interpreter of canine minds, approves of this mental distancing-which, to him, probably infers deference. For now, he’s granted Bryn a (conditional) Visitor’s Pass.   

I finished stall cleaning and brought Bryn into the arena to watch me ride. 
Before I began the lesson, a pleased Menesson recognized Bryn and walked over to her. The two bumped noses. Louie noted the exchange with an inscrutable expression before retiring soundlessly to his snug nest in the main hall to nap.   

I rode around the big arena, working on my posture and hand positions, when Menesson abruptly shied to the right, shocked by something that had whizzed by just over his head. I calmed him quickly; then my teacher and I looked around and then up: a sparrow was busily building a nest in the rafters!  
I couldn’t fault my horse for his spooked lurch; he hadn’t seen or heard a bird for many icy months. Now, they’re popping up everywhere ‘cause spring is nearly here! Equines and avians will adapt quickly to each other as they find themselves living closer together.  
And I’ll be in an excellent position to note how things evolve.  
Live to learn!

3/24/19: Crackzzz!  

Last Sunday Blake was saddled, relaxed and ready to go. I’d arrived thirty minutes early, and, maybe because I’d rehearsed it many times, I had him ready in only thirty minutes. (I’d asked for help twice to meet my goal: Be ready to ride by ten o’clock. And now it was precisely ten. Yay!) 

Robin, my teacher, waited at Blake’s head; I climbed the mounting block, put one foot in the stirrup--- when gunfire ripped the air! Crack! Crack! Another horse being led around the arena for exercise leaped to one side and half-reared: his owner had a hard time holding on to his halter rope. Blake managed to contain himself, but just barely! He stiffened, held his head high and pointed his ears toward the sound, ready to run. That sound was- alien. He knew all the others- the clang of the barn’s metal doors in wind, for example, or hammers banging. This one didn’t fit. 
I immediately stepped away and tried to make sense of what I was hearing. Robin, though, was angry, not fearful. 
Holding firmly to Blake’s bridle she calmed him and then spoke loudly to all of us. 

“Those rifle shots are from the neighbor kid, shooting targets in his yard. He’s supposed to notify us 30 minutes before he shoots, but he hasn’t honored that. This isn’t the first time, either.” 

My God. That irresponsible behavior could have resulted in serious injuries to both horses and riders. Spooked, they can run blindly right through fences and into traffic. 

BTW, Sunshine Farms was established well before the area was this populated. Oddly, there is NO ordinance against target shooting close to the Farm, to date. So apparently the teen was not legally bound to notify Robin by text or phone. But the danger to others posed by this lack of personal discipline is considerable. 

Robin and I agreed that riding would be unwise. Blake was clearly on high alert. The gunfire continued. So I unsaddled him, put everything back in the tack room again, and a bit later, returned to Robin. We were glum, but then she brightened. 

“No one can safely ride right now, but I have another idea.  I’ll bring our two champion cart ponies out here to play. They’re lots of fun to watch: their antics are guaranteed to cheer us up!” 

Robin led an eager black-with-white-stockings pony into the arena; this slim, perky mare has won many awards for Sunshine Farms. She snapped off the rope and Star was free. Though trembling with anticipation, she didn’t move an inch. 
The whites of her eyes shone as she watched Robin disappear around a corner toward another stall while tossing an explanatory comment our way. 
“Star’s waiting for her friend, Missy. I’m getting her, now.” 

A minute later she led a pretty nut-brown pony into the arena and snapped off her lead. Instantly the two friends dashed off from a standing start, using the vast space to play ‘catch me if you can.’ Hooves flashed: there was spontaneous bucking, rearing, whinnying, racing out at full gallop, and much bouncing in place while they thought of new ways to go ‘flashy.’ The ponies ignored the jumps, set up to school the Farm’s big hunter/jumper horses. 
Cart ponies are never ridden. 

The ponies heard the gun’s cracks but were so engrossed in thundering around that they weren’t as bothered. Star showed her stuff, racing around the arena at a fast trot. Holding close to the wall her slim legs rose high as she pranced by in fine style. She’d look elegant in the show ring, her driver, cart and harness gleaming, her eyes flashing, mane and tail flowing, in her element!  Cart ponies love showtime and applause! 

Missy, who has also won ribbons, wasn’t quite as flashy, but flowed along, close to Star, wheeling and charging, whinnying and making playful feints. They rolled on the soft ground together, heads stretched out, hooves waving at the ceiling. Twenty minutes later they stood front-to-back, mutually wither-grooming. (Horses can scratch their own chins, necks, faces, bellies and front legs with a back hoof, but can never reach this spot. Wither-grooming is very pleasurable for both parties, and tends to cement friendships.) 

The gunfire finally ceased, too late for a lesson. Never mind; high school would begin again tomorrow... 

This incident served as another firm reminder: ALWAYS be vigilant when working closely with prey animals, who react instantly, and sometimes violently, to sudden shocks. 

And yet- 
In the barn lives Percy, a very, very fat little goat who likes to enter random stalls to settle underneath the chosen equine’s enormous, four-pillared body. Both peacefully munch lunch from their very different elevations. No resident seems bothered by these unannounced visits. 
Just before the ‘pony show’ I popped into the barn to check how the horses were reacting to the rifle shots. Some heads jerked; there was nervous whinnying and some restless pacing. Workers reassured the more anxious animals. 
And there he stood, legs a bit splayed, just outside a stall, little hooves buried in hay, forehead placed exactly on the V-edge of the stall’s outer corner. 
He was precisely balanced, but...... too still. 
I peered at Percy more carefully. Hmmm. Knees locked, eyes shuttered, hay strands dangling from his slightly opened, goateed mouth, no masticating jaws, almost imperceptible breathing--- 
I grinned. 
He was deeply asleep! 

Some prey animals just don’t give a damn. 


3/17/19: Almost, But Not Quite...  

A couple of days ago I had a lesson at ten a.m. I had to ready Blake for saddling, after being taught the Way, and its order, by Robin, my teacher. But she wouldn’t be there until ten. Good. I needed to learn to do this job independently. It’s not rocket science. But it is orderly. (Keep in mind; I’m 60 inches high when I stretch.) 
I felt like a meerkat trying to undress, and then saddle, a patient greyhound. 

Arriving twenty-five minutes early proved far too optimistic. 

I took a deep breath and entered Blake’s personal space. There he was, his enormous thoroughbred body taking up much of his stall. He stopped eating to look carefully at me, but I could tell I was welcome. He lowered his head and we canoodled. Which means I took too long to smooth and admire his face and alert ears, and those big brown, mildly curious, even bemused eyes. I tickled his whiskers; he nibbled my nose. We exchanged air. He knew why I was there. He also knew I was greener than the grass he was eating. Happily, Blake is patient and kindhearted. 

First, I unbuckled his expansive blanket, which covered 80% of his big body, including half his tail. I began below his head, separating the Velcro, undoing the chest buckles and then undoing the four buckles that kept the bodywarmer in place around his belly and tail. I folded the whole fat thing three times, starting at his neck, before moving each two-foot fold toward his tail. Which meant going from one side to the other in front of him, where there were perhaps 8 inches of space between Blake’s head and his grain and water buckets.  He moved close to his water bucket to sip, so, of course, my elbow dipped into it as I squeezed past.  
I pushed to back him up, winning a few inches, keeping my voice easy and soft. 
Finally, reaching up high near his hind end, I slowly pulled the mostly folded blanket down to me. The dangling buckles and ties wound round his hind legs as they came away. He didn’t mind a bit.   

I hoisted the heavy, very bulky thing up to the curved dip of his high, barred stall gate (fashioned so he could stick his head and neck out and look around) and wedged it in. I hadn’t needed to hump it down the aisle to elsewhere, which would mean parts of it dragging through boot-deposited mud (from torrential rain the night before), horse poop and wheelbarrow-dropped straw.  

There stood Blake, with nothing on. 
First step: done.    

I opened the gate and slipped out; it obligingly closed again (a hint I ignored). I grabbed the halter and lead rope and re-entered. He lowered his head to my waist so I could slip it on, but facing him, I kept missing his nose. (Sometimes, working with one eye is truly irritating.)  
I tried again. The halter went on, but snagged his nostrils. He glanced at me, surprised; I quickly adjusted the wretched thing. But then, for fun, he raised his head just high enough so that I couldn’t slip the halter over his ears.  I hopped and huffed and puffed, but, no joy. 
Embarrassed, I simply asked him to lower his head. He sighed and did, bless him. I reached high over his face, manipulated his ears to ease it over both of them, and then triumphantly secured the throatlatch. 
Blake nickered softly.  
I chuckled, too. 
For those with a sense of humor, inexperience is its own comedy.   

Next, I attached the lead rope to the halter. The clock read ten. 
Part two accomplished.  
My wet elbow dripped.    

A worker told me Robin had had to pop over to the bank, so she’d be a bit late.  
Good! I had miles to go...   

I got Blake out into the central aisle, barely avoiding his big body’s rush past me because the gate had thumped his rear, surprising him. I belatedly realized that the blanket’s weight on the gate was causing it to shut...I’d need to find another place for it next time. Fortunately, my feet had escaped his startled, steel-shod hooves.  
Dumb luck.  
Note: the next day I had the wit to ask Nancy, Robin’s daughter, to extract him. She did it beautifully, in seconds, without the benefit of a lead rope. She simply opened his gate and invited him out. He exited quietly, and then backed up to the mat to be cross-tied.  
(They’d been dear friends for simply years, and knew each other’s thoughts.)   

I secured him with crossties, which took time, as the clasps were the more complicated emergency release sort that I wasn’t familiar with. I’d almost have one connected, then not...The more I worked with them, though, the better I got. 

Grooming was next. I found a soft brush (Sensitive Blake hates stiff ones) and polished him nicely, then brought out his saddle, pads, bridle and breastplate, and set to work.   

The first larger saddle pad was easy- raise it up, place it higher than necessary, then pull it down his back a bit to ensure that his hair was smoothed.  The second smaller pad lay over the first one- easy- but the saddle’s placement was a challenge, as Blake’s back was well above my head. Thumping a saddle down isn’t nice; it should be lowered gently. Try doing that on tiptoes. 
I experimented with different lifting positions, He turned his head to watch as I raised and lowered that saddle, which gained a lot of weight as time passed and I got older... 
There was a low, chesty rumble. Blake was amused! I had to laugh, too. Agile meerkats would do it better... 

I finally settled on simply raising it as high as possible before setting it down, half on. After a brief rest, still holding it, I gradually pushed/lifted it into place. But too many adjustments had shifted the pads, which made for much switching back and forth to reset them.  

But, I still had the girth to deal with. I found the proper one after conducting a search through a sea of them hanging in the tack room. (It wasn’t where I’d hung it the day before.) 
After buckling it onto the saddle’s right side I moved around to his left side and reached under his belly to grab the dangling girth to buckle it into these straps. After a long, difficult struggle, where I almost had it in the first hole, then not, I pulled up hard one last time—Success!  
Leverage isn’t nearly as helpful when one is too low down. And, Blake can really inflate!  
Leading him around the arena quickly encourages deflation.  
By now it was ten-twenty. And suddenly, Robin appeared. Noticing my weary state she had his bridle on in seconds. That job would have consumed another large slice of time.    

I narrate all this to give a sense of how it is for me. I must always focus on being safe when moving around him to do these straightforward tasks with a minimum of fuss and time.  
Many repetitions are required. Experience is the best teacher. 

I offer one last ‘almost gotcha--- but not:’  
I was seated atop Blake next to the mounting block while Robin moved a little way forward to check my stirrup lengths. Suddenly, she straightened, pointed behind me and spoke loudly.    

“Get Away! NO!” 

Confused, I followed her gaze. A hefty resident cat had hopped atop the mounting block and was poised to spring up onto Blake’s backside!  
Another millisecond... 
But, hearing Robin’s command, the pussy paused...just long enough for us to ease away.    

Imagine how he, a prey animal, would have responded to a clawed cat thumping down onto his hind end!!   

Situational awareness is always wise.   

Here’s the good part: I’m totally at home on their horse and Robin says I ride very well!  I save savoring her praise only when I’m down and out the door... and can relax.