She Breathed Me

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…and there was once, oh wonderful,
a new horse in the pasture,
a tall, slim being–a neighbor was keeping her there–
and she put her face against my face,
put her muzzle, her nostrils, soft as violets,
against my mouth and my nose, and breathed me,
to see who I was,
a long quiet minute–minutes–
then she stamped her feet and whisked tail
and danced deliciously into the grass away, and came back.
She was saying, so plainly, that I was good, or good enough.
~Mary Oliver from “The Poet Goes to Indiana”

 

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photo by Lea Gibson

 

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photo by Emily Vander Haak

 

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Our farm has had many muzzles here over the years–

Pink noses,
gray noses,
nondescript not-sure-what-color noses,
noses that have white stripes, diamonds,  triangles,
or absolutely no marks at all.

Hot breath that exudes warm grassy fragrance
better than any pricey perfume,
lips softer than the most elegant velvet.

Noses that reach out in greeting to:
blow,
sniff,
nuzzle,
caress,
push,
search,
breathe me in
and breathe for me,

smudge my face and
shower snot.

I’m just good enough
to warrant
such a baptism blessing.

 

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Writing With Quiet Hands

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I want to make poems that say right out, plainly,
what I mean, that don’t go looking for the
laces of elaboration, puffed sleeves. I want to
keep close and use often words like
heavy, heart, joy, soon, and to cherish
the question mark and her bold sister

the dash. I want to write with quiet hands. I
want to write while crossing the fields that are
fresh with daisies and everlasting and the
ordinary grass. I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be

songs in which nothing is neglected,
not a hope, not a promise. I want to make poems
that look into the earth and the heavens
and see the unseeable. I want them to honor
both the heart of faith, and the light of the world;
the gladness that says, without any words, everything.
~Mary Oliver “Everything”

 

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Writing and riding with quiet hands –
a wonderful metaphor for moving forward
in gladness and astonishment
without trying to steer unnecessarily.
To feel connected without controlling,
to have faith in the unknowable
yet understand without a doubt, that it is good.

 

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photo by Joel DeWaard

 

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photo by Brandon Dieleman

 

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photo by Emily Dieleman

 

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An Indecision of Weather

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…step outside into an indecision of weather,
night rain having fallen into frozen air,
a silver thaw where nothing moves or sings
and all things grieve under the weight of their own shining.
~ James McKean  from “Silver Thaw”

 

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Freezing rain needs to happen once a decade just to remind Pacific Northwesterners that regular rain isn’t such a bad thing.  We’re in the midst of just such a silver thaw right now. Trees and heavy branches are crashing everywhere, the power is off, the farm generator is on and life as we know it comes to a standstill under an inch thick blanket of ice.

We webfoot Washingtonians tend to grouse about our continuously gray cloud-covered bleak dreary drizzly wet mildew-ridden existence. But that’s not us actually grumbling.  That’s just us choosing not to exhibit overwhelming joy.  They don’t call Bellingham, the university town ten miles from our farm,  the “city of subdued excitement” for no good reason.

 

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When the temperatures drop in our moderate climate and things start to ice up, or the snowflakes start to fall, we celebrate the diversion from rain.  Our children are out building snowmen when there is a mere 1/2 inch of snow on the ground, leaving lawns bare and green with one large snowman in the middle.  Schools start to cancel at 2 inches because of the lack of snow removal equipment and no bunkers of stored sand for the roads.  We natives are pitifully terrible snow drivers compared to the highly experienced (and at times overconfident) midwestern and northeastern transplants in our midst.

But then the weather gets indecisive and this little meteorologic phenomenon known as freezing rain with its resultant silver thaw happens.  It warms up enough that it really isn’t snowing but it also really isn’t raining because the temperatures are still subfreezing at ground level, so it spills ice drops from the sky–noisy little splatters that land and stay beaded up on any surface.  Branches resemble botanical popsicles, sidewalks become bumpy rinks, roads become sheer black ice, cars are encased in an impenetrable glaze of ice and windows are covered with textured glass twice as thick as usual.

In the midst of this frozen concoction coming from the sky, we delay farm chores as long as possible, knowing it will take major navigation aids to simply make our way out the back steps, across the sidewalk and down the hill, then up the slick cement slope to open the big sliding barn doors.  Chains on our muck boots help, to a degree.  The big rolling barn doors ice together when the northeast wind blows freezing rain into the tiny gap between them, so it is necessary to break foot holds into the ice on the cement to roll back the doors just enough to sneak through before shutting them quickly behind us, blocking the arctic wind blast.  Then we can drink in the warmth of six stalls of hungry Haflinger horses, noisily greeting us by chastising us for our tardiness in feeding them dinner.

 

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Wintertime chores are always more time-consuming but ice time chores are even more so.  Water buckets need to be filled individually because the hoses are frozen solid.  Hay bales stored in the hay barn must be hauled up the slick slope to the horse barn.  Frozen manure piles need to be hacked to pieces with a shovel rather than a pitchfork.   Who needs a bench press and fancy weight lifting equipment when you can lift five gallon buckets, sixty pound bales and fifteen pounds of poop per shovel full?  Why invest in an elliptical exerciser?  This farm life is saving us money… I think.

 

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Once inside each stall, I take a moment to run my ungloved hand over a fluffy golden winter coat, to untangle a mane knot or two, and to breathe in sweet Haflinger hay breath from a velvety nose.   It is the reason I will slide downhill, land on my face pushing loads of hay uphill to feed these loved animals no matter how hazardous the footing or miserable the weather.  It is why their stalls get picked up more often than our bedrooms, their stomachs are filled before ours, and we pay for hoof trims for the herd but never manicures and pedicures for the people residing in the house.

 

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The temperatures will rise, the overwhelming ice covering will start to thaw and our farm will be happily back to drippy and overcast.  No matter what the weather,  the barn will always be a refuge of comfort, even when the work is hard and the effort is a challenge for these middle aged farmers.

It’s enough to melt even the most grumbly heart and therefore the thickest coating of ice.

 

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brrrr

 

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Fifty Years Ago Today

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Prankster getting my brother’s attention

 

For the past fifty years, this date especially stands out on my calendar. Whenever November 27 comes around, I think back to a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.

I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse.   We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire.  Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.

In fall 1965, the  local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest.  I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined. When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:

“Why I Should Have a Horse”

When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world.  Horses are a part of me.  I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:

To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt.  My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse.  I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.

Another reason is that I’m shy.  When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family.  When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person.  When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad.  If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness. 

Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing. 

When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him.  I was never so thrilled in my life!  The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse. 

If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive.  I would work hard to train him with love and understanding.  If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!

I mailed in my essay and waited.

On November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers.  My heart was sinking by the minute.

The winning essay was next.  The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, sick in bed with an early season flu, who opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?”  I have been forever grateful to him that he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.

That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.

By the time he was two, I was sitting on him, and when he was three, my Christmas present that year was a beautiful western saddle. We spent many happy hours riding trails in the nearby woods and enjoying life in the moment.

When it was time for me to leave for college, I knew I could no longer afford to keep him, so found Prankster a forever home to live out his days as I spent the next 13 years of my life living and learning in the city. Horse dreams still visited me in my sleep and swept me into book stores to pore over horse books. I knew I’d had my once-in-a-lifetime special “gift” by winning my first horse, so the next horse I would have to earn on my own. I worked long hours, many nights and many holidays, earning what I could to eventually move from Seattle to own land for a farm.

Along the way, I met a farm boy also temporarily displaced to Seattle and together we worked toward building our farm dream while planning our future together. During our weekly Friday evening bookstore visit, I had opened one discount picture book and discovered the golden horses of my childhood dreams, running wild through green mountain meadows, their white manes and tails streaming out behind them. I bought that book in a heartbeat, and began my search for a breed previously unknown to me before — the magical Haflinger. Within a month of our moving to the farm, on November 27, 1985, our first Haflinger mare joined us. Over the past thirty years, we’ve owned dozens of Haflingers, most born and raised here, and today six are still happily munching hay out in our barn.

Twenty years separated my first horse from my second horse, but November 27 stands out as the day a kid’s dream came true. As I clean our barn every morning, I marvel at the privilege it has been to share this land and this farm life with my husband, my children, and these beautiful horses. They all owned me, heart and soul, because of a first prize fuzzy bay colt fifty years ago.

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Prankster helping my dad build a new farm building

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Prankster’s favorite drinking fountain

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Galaxy, the first Haflinger born on our farm, entertaining at the fair

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A few of our many BriarCroft Haflingers raised here over the years

Stay Gold, Ponyboy

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Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
~Robert Frost “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

“Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold.”
~S.E. Hinton from The Outsiders
Man’s innocence was lost
the moment we chose
knowledge over obedience.
The gold in our creation
sinks to grief as
we make the same mistakes
again and again;
each dawn reenacts our beginnings
and each winter our endings.
Our only salvage is a rescue
borne of selflessness,
an obedience beyond imagining.
He stays gold for us
so we are illuminated.
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Turning the Light Off

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Marlee has gone home this morning, far sooner than we planned.  She was only twenty two, born only two months after our daughter’s birth, much too young an age for a Haflinger to die.

But something dire was happening to her over the last two weeks — not eating much,  an expanding girth, then shortness of breath, and last week it was confirmed she had untreatable lymphoma.

Her bright eyes were shining to the end so it was very hard to ask the vet to turn the light off.  But the time had come.

Marlee M&B came to us as a six month old “runty orphan” baby by the lovely stallion Sterling Silver,  but she was suddenly weaned at three days when her mama Melissa died of sepsis.  She never really weaned from her bottle/bucket feeding humans Stefan and Andrea Bundshuh at M&B Farm in Canada. From them she knew people’s behavior, learned their nonverbal language, and understood human subtleties that most horses never learn. This made her quite a challenge as a youngster as it also meant there was no natural reserve nor natural respect for people. She had no boundaries taught by a mother, so we tried to teach her the proper social cues.

When turned out with the herd as a youngster, she was completely clueless–she’d approach the dominant alpha mare incorrectly, without proper submission, get herself bitten and kicked and was the bottom of the social heap for years, a lonesome little filly with few friends and very few social skills. She had never learned submission with people either, and had to have many remedial lessons on her training path. Once she was a mature working mare, her relationship with people markedly improved as there was structure to her work and predictability for her, and after having her own foals, she picked up cues and signals that helped her keep her foal safe, though she had always been one of our most relaxed “do whatever you need to do” mothers when we handled her foals as she simply never learned that she needed to be concerned.

Over the years, as the herd has changed, Marlee became the alpha mare, largely by default and seniority, so I don’t believe she really trusted her position as “real”. She tended to bully, and react too quickly out of her own insecurity about her inherited position. She was very skilled with her ears but she was also a master at the tail “whip” and the tensed upper lip–no teeth, just a slight wrinkling of the lip.  The herd scattered when they saw her face change.  The irony of it all is that when she was  “on top” of the herd hierarchy, she was more lonely than when she was at the bottom and I think a whole lot less happy as she had few grooming partners any more.

She accompanied us to the fair for a week of display of our Haflingers year after year after year — she could be always counted on to greet the public and enjoy days of braiding and petting and kids sitting on her back.

The day she started formal under saddle training under Val Bash was when the light bulb went off in her head–this was a job she could do! This was constant communication and interaction with a human being, which she craved! This was what she was meant for! And she thrived under saddle, advancing quickly in her skills, almost too fast, as she wanted so much to please her trainer.

She has had a still unequaled record among North American Haflingers. She was not only regional champion in her beginner novice division of eventing as a pregnant 5 year old, but also received USDF Horse of the Year awards in First and Second Level dressage that year as the highest scoring Haflinger.

With Jessica Heidemann she did a “bridleless” ride display in front of hundreds of people at the annual Haflinger event, and with Garyn Heidemann as instructor,  she became an eventing pony for a young rider whose blonde hair matched Marlee’s.  She galloped with abandon in the field on bareback rides with Emily Vander Haak and became our daughter Lea’s special riding horse over the last few years.

She had a career of mothering along with intermittent riding work, with 5 foals –Winterstraum, Marquisse, Myst, Wintermond, and Nordstrom—each from different stallions, and each very different from one another.

This mare had such a remarkable work ethic, was “fine-tuned” so perfectly with a sensitivity to cues–that our daughter said:   “Mom, it’s going to make me such a better rider because I know she pays attention to everything I do with my body–whether my heels are down, whether I’m sitting up straight or not.”  Marlee was, to put it simply,  trained to train her riders.

We will miss her high pitched whinny from the barn whenever she heard the back door to the house open. We will miss her pushy head butt on the stall door when it was time to close it up for the night.  We will miss that beautiful unforgettable face and those large deep brown eyes where the light was on.

What a ride she had for twenty two years, that dear little orphan.  What a ride she gave to many who trained her and who she trained over the years.   Though I never climbed on her back, what joy she gave me,  the surrogate mom who loved and fed her, unable to resist those bright eyes, which are now closed in peace.

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Photo Montage by Emily Dieleman

Simple Beyond Communion

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Two whistles, one for each,
and familiar sounds draw close in darkness—
cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland,
twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared.
They come deepened and muscular movements
conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent
heavy with earth, simple beyond communion…

and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars,
the entire, outer light of the world here.
~Jane Hirschfield from “After Work”

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