Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the category “rural life”

Authority Figure

coloring-book1So I’m sitting here watching a gaggle of students angst and squirm over the final exam I’ve just handed them.  Some of them are making the most bizarre faces as they cogitate.  Which I guess means I have just about made it through my first semester as an instructor at the U of Guelph/Ridgetown College/Clinton Campus outpost on the furthest edge of the back of beyond.  Good christ on a cracker, how did that happen?

This is rhetorical.  I’m cognizant of how it happened.  I just haven’t quite transitioned in my head, yet, to Fully Employed Person, having been an itinerant freelancer of one sort or another for, like, yonks.  It’s likely that my credit rating hasn’t quite caught up with the news either, so I haven’t attempted to get myself a slightly-less-decrepit truck yet.  Current truck is, saints be praised, soldiering on quite admirably, with 374,000 klicks on the odometer as of this morning, and I’m invoking a variety of deities (with gifts of incense, Passion Flakie wrappers, and Timmie’s pumpkin muffins) to encourage it to continue in good faith until spring, when perhaps the creditors will be open to treating me like an actual grown-up with predictable renumeration.

That’s not to say that the U of Goo might not pull the plug on our little program at any time.  I really have no idea what the economics of running it might be, or if Guelph is more invested in its relatively shiny four-year Bachelor of Bio-Resource Management degree program, which has an “equine management” specialization and is jack blackbeing run out of the main campus (which on an academic level, is far better equipped, but which lacks the equine facilities we have here in Clinton).  To some degree (no pun intended) the two-year Diploma program we offer is rather awkward, given that the first year happens in Clinton, and the second, on the campus of Ridgetown College, about two hours away.  Ridgetown has the advantage of being able to offer student housing, while in Clinton the students have to scramble for rooms to rent … but Ridgetown isn’t really set up for horses.  There are two ancient Standardbreds housed in a corner of the dairy barn, and that’s it.  Meanwhile, if we could solve the student housing issue, we’d still have a challenge with classroom space on our campus, because we share the building with London’s Fanshawe College, which runs a couple of programs here.  They have dibs on the bulk of the classrooms; we have exactly two (plus the barn, paranoidof course).

It’s possible, of course, that I’m just naturally paranoid, after having had more than my share of rugs pulled out from under me over the years.  Then again, it’s possible that the enrollment we currently enjoy is not enough to justify keeping the program running.  I’m only on a year-to-year contract, which means that I could be cut loose this coming May with very little trouble.  It’s hard to get super comfortable under those conditions.

But here it is, December, and I have officially survived one semester, which is a pleasant surprise.  It hasn’t been seamless, exactly, but given that most of us are rookie instructors, it definitely could have been worse. (Um, the total complement on the staff side is five … plus one brave individual doing the whole second-year program in Ridgetown.)  I managed to find something to teach for every one of my lectures, I don’t think the students hate me, and after 18 weeks or so I feel like I’m approaching competency with the U of Goo’s “CourseLink” system, which allows me to post course notes and announcements and marks and such that the students can access.  That’s been a steep learning curve.

OTOH, I have utterly failed to find a place to live closer to Clinton, which is a double-edged sword.  I’d be very annoyed if I did pull up stakes and move everything, only to too much stufffind myself given the ‘here’s your hat and what’s your hurry’ come spring … and that could definitely happen.  Moving everything, in my case, doesn’t just mean the contents of my little house … it also means five horses, two hay feeders, six rubber mats, five troughs, whothefuckknows how many jumps, multiple feed bins, six huge Rubbermaid containers just of blankets and rainsheets, the contents of an entire tack room, and two trailers.  Bit daunting, that.

Nonetheless, I am continuing to look (though if I don’t find something in December, I might as well resign myself to doing the road warrior thing until the spring, as utterly idiotic as that will be, because moving all that shit in winter weather is going to be unfathomably difficult).  I’ve turned down a couple of places that just were too expensive or didn’t make the drive any easier than my current two-hour trek each way (which at least is on main roads which are likely to get ploughed).  I did find one place with an absolutely beautiful Victorian farmhouse that was basically my dream abode, and the place had a barn, arena, the works.  It was close to London, too, which would have been ideal.  Alas, the owners decided they couldn’t accommodate all five of my beasties.  I console myself with the thought that I could never have really afforded it anyway, but dammit-jesus.jpgarrrggghhhhh.  I have lots of helpful people who’ve been keeping their ears to the ground for me, but suitable spots are proving elusive.

I’m trying to be philosophical about the stupidity of my commute.  I mean, I get to see quite a lot of Ontario this way.  (Perspective:  In order to listen to the CBC all the way across from home to work, I have to change the station three times — from the Toronto 99.1, to Kitchener/Waterloo 98.7, and then to London’s 93.5 when I get to Wingham and turn south.)  People are starting to put up their Xmas lights now, so that’s pretty, given that lately I have been leaving when it’s dark and coming home when it’s dark.  I get to see some interesting Mennonite vehicles and ponies on the side of the highway.  Apart from them and the

commute

This is literally what I do 10 times a week.

occasional tractor the size of Montreal, there’s very little traffic to contend with on my route.  And I’m getting a lot of podcasts listened to.  Seriously, a lot.  I welcome podcast recommendations, especially anything science-y or historical or science fiction-y, or anything about journalism (because I might be a professor these days but I will always on some level consider myself a journalist); please post below in the comments.

puffer-vest-streetstyle-450x600

Is it working?

But the commute is also beating me up.  I’ve gone up till now in my life without having developed a caffeine addiction, but green tea is now the only thing keeping me from crossing the median and slamming into a combine some nights.  Four hours a day in a truck also ain’t doing the credit card any favours (I get about three one-way commutes to a $110 tank of gas), nor the muffin top.  I’m really only able to ride on the weekends now, and I’m so knackered by the time I get home that the treadmill is a ludicrous fantasy.  So I am thankful beyond measure that this is the season of big, camouflaging down vests, because, ugh.

So I’m understating it when I say I am ecstatic that for the month of December, I don’t have to go in every day.  I have two more exams to give in the coming week, and there will be meetings and the submission of final marks and such, but until the winter semester begins on January 7th, I can work from home a fair bit.  The batteries need a serious recharge.  And my hair needs cutting.  And maybe I should find myself a dentist too, because that hasn’t been happening for the past couple years.

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Rabbit Hole

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There’s one serving less of beet pulp soaking in the yellow bucket this morning.  An empty halter, and an abandoned rainsheet, on a straw bale in the barn.  Her absence is everywhere.

(That ought to be enough foreshadowing to induce you to stop here, gentle reader, if you don’t like stories that don’t end well.)

Trixie came to me as a freebie yearling, from a very nice, knowledgeable small breeder of Thoroughbreds.  She was not destined for a racing career, so needed a home.  She was nicely put together, and a lovely mover, but there were three strikes against her right from the start.  One, she was congenitally swaybacked.  Two, her dam — through no fault of her own, from what I could tell — had produced two or three other offspring who IMG_20150823_094449hadn’t made it to the races.  (That usually makes buyers at a yearling sale hesitant to take a chance, especially on a filly with, um, unusual conformation, despite the fact that there have been several very successful racehorses who were swaybacked.)

And three, she was a chestnut Thoroughbred mare.  That’s not a curse from a racing point of view, but certainly something of a hindrance in the sport horse world, where there’s a widespread belief that chestnut mares are … well, legendarily squirrelly.

With then-two-year-old Parker on stall rest with a hind ankle injury, I was looking for a project.  I was thinking of a three- or four-year-old off the track, but when Trixie came along, I thought, well, a yearling is a clean slate, and that could be a very good thing.  I did do my research on swaybacks before I agreed to take her:  though it’s a saddle-fitting challenge, it’s not actually an unsoundness, and most congenitally swaybacked horses are just as sound and capable as those whose vertebrae are more conventionally designed.  Plus, I admit, I thought she might grow out of some of it;  they don’t call them ‘yaklings’ for nothing, and many an ugly duckling at 15 months turns out to be a stunning specimen later.  (She didn’t grow out of it, but that was okay.)

The chestnut mare thing didn’t scare me particularly either.  My horse of a lifetime was a copper chestnut with chrome.  I’ve worked with a lot of chestnut mares, and I like their feistiness.  But in all honesty, Trixie turned out to be every bad cliché of a chestnut Thoroughbred mare, ever, temperament-wise.  That assumption has to come from somewhere, after all.

Trixie was a skittish little thing when she first came home to me, but I initially chalked that up to her having not had a lot of handling;  when it became clear she wasn’t a candidate for the fall yearling sale, she stayed out in the field while her compatriots were brought in and given a crash course on being haltered, groomed, led, and otherwise fondled and harassed by humans.  I started to work a little at a time on her ground manners.  It took months before I could safely pick up her hind feet, and I never did get her to cross-tie reliably.  Unfortunately, the flightiness she exhibited as a yearling never really went IMG_20160805_193854away.  It was progress by centimetres with her, with just about everything; she was quick to panic, and when her fearfulness took over, her brain shut down.  She did learn new skills, but because her panic button was so hair-trigger, it seemed to take her far longer  than average to assimilate information, and she had more trouble retaining that information than most, too.  The typical horse, after some time off, picks up right where she left off in her training, but Trixie always regressed to square one, so I would have to repeat the same lessons over and over.  I wonder now whether she didn’t have a bona fide learning disability.  She behaved in some ways like a horse who had been abused, but I knew for a fact that she never had been.

But when she wasn’t a hazard to herself and others because she was freaking out, Trixie could be a terribly sweet soul.  There was no malice in her; she never meant to hurt anyone, and if she was feeling confident she would be the first to approach you, lick your hand, and ask for wither scritches.   My student, Sarah Bernath, who’s in the photos above, fell in love with her gentle side, and was the first person on her back — a development which took far longer than usual for a young horse, given the amount of time it took for Trixie to accept wearing a saddle and bridle, and learn to longe without resembling a 1200 lb. orange marlin on a hook.  In Trixie’s universe, there were lions, tigers, and bears in every corner, and a pole on the ground was cause for hysteria…. every. Single. Time.

IMG_20170116_114318And then, of course, there was the challenge of fitting her saddle.  That took some experimentation.  She not only was swaybacked but also had massive shoulder-blades, so she was a seriously weird shape.  I tried a number of ways of filling in the hollow in the middle of her back to prevent a saddle from bridging, finally settling on some customization of an EcoGold half-pad that I was lucky enough to win in a little Facebook contest.  When I received the pad in the mail, I noticed that it had openings on each side, with velcro closures; that meant that you could remove, replace, and move around the foam inserts inside.  I contacted the company to ask whether they had other thicknesses of foam for the pad, and they very kindly sent me, without charge, all of the other inserts available for that shape of pad.  With a bit of fiddling, I came up with a pad which was thinnest near the withers, thickest in the middle, and sort-of-medium thickness under the cantle.  The saddle sat rather high on top of the resulting pad, but it sat level, and it seemed to work.  (Many thanks again to EcoGold.)

Essentially, Trixie’s problem was not her back … it was what was between her ears.  Though we did get her started under saddle, progress was always one step forward, five steps back; she remained volatile, untrustworthy, and uber-sensitive.  She would stand to be mounted but lose her shit when a rider’s right leg touched her side in search of the stirrup.  I’m a bit old and creaky to be ploughed into the ground repeatedly, so I relied on brave volunteers to get on her … and if they could ride out the first 90 seconds, then usually Trixie would take a breath and become willing to be piloted after that.  We got as far as cantering her under saddle, a couple of times.  But I gave up all hope of her ever becoming an event horse; she was simply too fearful.  Athletically, she was more than capable — hell, she was by far the nicest mover of my gang of six.  Mentally, however, she just didn’t have the tools.  I decided I would be happy just to make her a productive citizen of any kind. 

So I kept chipping away at her, in hopes that things would improve with maturity, despite the urging of my boyfriend to stop putting effort and energy into her.  “What am I going to do, just relegate her to pasture potato and feed her till she’s 30?”, I said.

IMG_20160120_003444Some horses just seem to be born under a black cloud.  In addition to all of her other challenges, Trixie’s tendency to shut her brain off at the slightest hint of stress, resulted in this (left), the winter before last.  I had hung a new feed bucket on the fenceline of her field, since she was now turned out with her BFF, Vivian (a bay OTTB filly a year Trixie’s junior).  I belatedly realized I had not taped the handles of said bucket, which all good Pony Clubbers know you must do to avoid horses getting their halters snagged on the bucket and panicking. 

The electrical tape was up at the house.  I went up to get it.  20 minutes is all it took.  She got hooked on the bucket, freaked out, went through two fencelines, sliced the shit out of the front of her knee, and galloped in blind hysteria all over the property, leaving a trail of blood in the snow.  The bucket eventually surrendered, and even more eventually Trixie was caught along with her BFF, but the knee needed stitching, and after that it was three weeks of frankly hellish stall rest, with her leg trussed up like a Christmas goose in an attempt to keep her from popping the stitching.  Medicating her was a daily nightmare, and every-other-day bandage changes required sedation that didn’t always work.  It healed beautifully in the end, but the whole event was kind of Trixie in a nutshell.

So I wasn’t surprised when, this past November, Trixie developed a persistent, but otherwise minor-looking, snotty nose.  Just the one nostril.  She’d had a similar bout of respiratory infection the previous fall, and it had cleared up on its own.  This one didn’t.  And while she was otherwise healthy, it began to influence her energy level; she just seemed a little subdued (which, given that it was Trixie, wasn’t an entirely unwelcome thing and I was loathe to mess with it at first, I admit!).  Knowing what a gawdawful patient she was, I hesitated to consult my vet because I knew antibiotics would likely be prescribed.  By January, though, I caved, and my worst fears were realized:  the Rx was two weeks of twice-daily sulfa pills, which had to be dissolved in boiling water, mixed with baby food, and syringed into her mouth.  Suffice to say it was a battle (Every.  Single.  Time.) and occasionally I lost.

So we went through 250 pills or so, some of which actually got into her (some is still decorating the walls of her stall), and still had a sinus infection.  At this point, my vet recommended more aggressive treatment.  Which is when we went down the rabbit hole.  I should not have been surprised.

I don’t have any photos of my heavily-sedated Trixie with two holes drilled into her skull.  It was fairly awful and I held her head, but had to look fixedly at the stall wall, lest I get tunnel vision.  We irrigated the sinus directly with a pump and hose inserted into the holes.  Water and crud and blood splattered everywhere and began to freeze to the stall floor.  My vet introduced antibiotic into the sinus cavity, and we put her back on the sulfa as well.  And a week later, we repeated the irrigation with a device that was not unlike a pressure washer.  More crud came out, but the radiographs showed more had stayed in. We tried a second, long-acting injectable antibiotic.  Couldn’t seem to get ahead of the infection.  I think we irrigated it three times in total, each episode a little more miserable than the last.  She would perk up for a day or two, and then the discharge would return.  Somehow, the simple snotty nose had become something life-threatening.  (And of course, the bill was starting to add up, too …)

IMG_20160224_122648And then the culture came back from the lab, showing that the infection in her sinus was fungal.  Which meant that there was nothing more, medicinally, that we could throw at it.

The only other treatment option, at that point, was an invasive bone flap surgery which would have had to have been performed at the University of Guelph’s large animal hospital:  open up a much larger hole in her skull to scrape out all the infectious material from her sinus.  It would have been invasive, would require weeks of hospitalization, and would likely cost me $4000 to $6000.

If it had been any of my other horses, I would have found the money somehow.  But any of my other horses would have tolerated the hospitalization and the treatment.  I couldn’t see how Trixie was going to.  Hell, I hadn’t even been able to successfully get her on a trailer, so even getting her to Guelph was a fantasy.  And the kicker, according to my vet, was that when the infection was fungal, the success rate on this surgery wasn’t great.  Often, the fungus found a way to come back.  

So I cried.  A fair bit.  I had often joked that I needed a way out for this sweet, frustrating, troubled mare, that I could accept with a clear conscience.  I didn’t really mean it.  With all of her quirks, I still was very fond of her.  And she was only seven, with years and years ahead of her.  But there were no good answers at the bottom of the rabbit hole.IMG_0303_1 trixie july 2017 (1)On Trixie’s last day, towards the end of February, I did all the expected things:  carrots, cookies, grooming, fussing.  Took a chunk of hair from her tail.  But Trixie wanted to hang with her BFF, out in the field, more than anything — she had spent a lot of time confined to her stall during treatment — so mostly I left her alone so she could do that. 

She went down with better grace than she had done most things, and quietly breathed her last while I shivered, standing watch.  My vet was fantastically kind in making the arrangements.  

And it’s taken me till now to complete this blog post about Trixie, because she broke my heart a little.  I’ve had to put three horses down, now, in the seven years I’ve been at this farm, and that is just too fucking many.   And to some extent I squirm at all the animal memorials all over social media; I didn’t want to inflict my sadness on everyone.  But at the same time, I don’t want the life of this horse to have been absolutely unacknowledged.  Only a handful of people met her, and even fewer loved her — just me, and Sarah, really (and Vivian, who is soldiering on).  She was a hard mare to love.  But she was here, and she was real, if only for an ill-fated few years.  

I gave her her registered name, which was Mexican Wine, after the Fountains of Wayne song.  It’s a fatalistic little tune.  

 

Second Class Citizen, or, Why I Wasn’t at the Royal Winter Fair This Year

citizenSo there’s this big indoor horse show in Toronto every November (for the past 95 years, anyway).  I haven’t been covering it for the past 95 years, obviously, but every year from somewhere around 1989 or 1990, I’ve been there with my media accreditation, providing coverage of the Royal Winter Fair for one (or more) magazine or newspaper or website or another.

That’s a long time to feel like a second class citizen, but every year, this giant, hulking dinosaur that is the culmination of the horse show season manages to find a way to do that to the media faithful which, frankly, bust their asses to drive ticket sales to this monolith.

I think I’ve mentioned before that we swamp-dwelling freelancers don’t expect an avalanche of perks when we attend an event. We’re sure as hell not in it for the swag, and our expectations are exceedingly modest.  I can’t speak for everyone, but in recent years I’ve been attending events like this with the knowledge that I’m more than likely going to lose money on the whole deal, what with assignments having become as common as unicorns farting rainbows, and pay rates plummeting to the level of “exposure” or “we’ll pay you if your article gets shared more than 10000 times”.

We expect — in the case of the Royal Winter Fair, anyway — that we will drive insane distances, several nights in a row, in Toronto rush-hour traffic (second only to Los Angeles on the list of hellish rush-hour scenarios in North America, we’re ever so proud to say), fight tooth and nail for a parking spot, brutalize our feet hiking across kilometres of concrete, get our shins bashed by entitled breeders with double-wide strollers the size of a ’53 Buick Skylark, endure endless line-ups for overpriced food, be harassed by security every time we try to access or leave our designated media seating to line up for the washrooms, and file our stories well past midnight in a room yonks away from the show ring which doesn’t really have any work stations set up to accommodate us (and that’s if some bright spark hasn’t locked the frigging place up while we were getting our quotes in the after-class press conference).

But we at least hope to come away with something worth writing about, and a modicum of respect and appreciation for what we do.

Unfortunately, of all the horse shows I have covered over the past few decades — and there have been a few — I can recall none which treats the media with such utter contempt as does the Royal.  Overall, the show has gotten progressively meaner, cheaper, and less and less welcoming to the public over the past 20-odd years, enough so that most of us who’ve been around that long can wax nostalgic about the good old days, when there used to be comfy couches and (gasp) coffee and snacks in the media centre, when there were tables in the media seating at the show so we could write without having to hunch over laptops on our laps, when there was a media coordinator assigned to assist us in lining up interviews, not obstruct us and treat us as if we were constantly trying to rip off the show.

Of course, those were also the days when there used to be a hella good party going on at the end of most of the show evenings, sometimes with a live band, or at least a pretty good DJ — and since this was the pre-internet age, we generally didn’t have to file on the same night, so we had the luxury of staying for a drink and a dance.  I have partied with some pretty Big Name Riders at the Royal.  A friend of mine once hit Nick Skelton in the eye with a champagne cork.  And I even (ahem) did the Walk of Shame across the lobby of the Harbour Castle Westin early one morning, feeling like a total cliche, after an encounter with a yummy French showjumper.  There, the secret’s out.  (It was many, many years ago, folks …)

Once upon a time, the Royal used to kick off with a media breakfast, wherein we penniless scribes would gather for omelets and mimosas and a little preview of what to expect from the fair that year.  It was all very pleasant and civilized.  These days we can’t even get a cup of coffee … not that I drink the stuff, but sheesh.  (Full disclosure:  I think there might have been a few bottles of water in the media centre, hidden under a table, at one point — be still, my heart.  Not that I was offered any.) 

One of my perpetual pet peeves over the years has been the total lack of regard for the media’s struggles with parking.  There’s an underground parking garage at the Exhibition grounds, which for the duration of the fair has a large designated VIP area which is typically three-quarters empty.  Yet the Powers That Be on the RWF board can’t find it in their parsimonious hearts to offer up half a dozen lousy parking spaces for the media??  I have brought this up on a number of occasions, and have been told every time that it was out of the question.  Instead we fork out $17 (last I was there — it’s probably more now) each night for the privilege of going round and round the outer reaches of the garage, sucking in carbon monoxide and searching in vain for a safe place to leave the truck.  More than once I have ended up missing the class I was supposed to cover.  

ain't nobodyLast year, my fed-up-ness all came to a head.  The previous media coordinator for the horse show, a lovely woman who is a friend of mine and did all she could to accommodate my needs, within the constraints (shackles?) applied by the fair board, was let go under somewhat mysterious circumstances, possibly to do with an excess of honesty … and replaced with a woman who has her own public relations agency and clearly was more interested in advancing her own agenda than the show’s.  We’ve known each other for a couple of decades, at least, and she’s well aware that I freelance for many different outlets.  Yet she re-structured the media accreditation procedures so that, in essence, you had to re-apply for it every evening of the show, with no guarantee that it would be granted, nor that anyone would actually be available to hand it to you when you arrived.  (I spent well over an hour and a half chasing people around the trade fair outside the horse show coliseum on the first night I attended last year, in order to finally secure my pass 40 minutes after the class I was there to cover had concluded.  Fanfuckingtastic.)   In addition to just being a giant pain in the ass, this has the effect of making it very difficult to promise an editor you’re going to be able to deliver anything.

In addition to that, she sent me an email, three days after the show began, to inform me that she had ‘checked’ and that I actually didn’t work for the Chronicle of the Horse, the magazine for which I was writing last year, and that as a result my accreditation had been summarily revoked.

I stared at this email for a while, I admit, before I fired off an indignant reply that said, “Um, you do understand what a FREELANCER does?”  Of course I don’t work for the fucking Chronicle.  I never have.  Frankly, I was absolutely furious:  my entire raison d’etre last year was to find stories the Chronicle thought were worth publishing, and instead of facilitating that, they were playing insulting head games with an established journalist who had been helping get bums in seats for literally decades.  Are. You.  Fucking.  Kidding me??

Eventually they backed down — and at the close of the press conference for the big World Cup class that night, one of the Royal’s minions slunk up to me and asked, semi-apologetically, “We all okay?”  Well, that’s a big honking NO, honey.  We are not.

And here’s the rub:  I didn’t actually find anything last year, in the end, that the Chronicle wanted to publish … because the Royal has become massively irrelevant.  Where once they wanted reports on at least all the major showjumping classes (two Grands Prix, the now-defunct Nations’ Cup and Puissance classes, the Canadian showjumping championship, and various and sundry Table As and Table Cs), the dressage night (once a World Cup qualifier, now nothing more than an invitational demo night for local riders), and the indoor eventing, the interest on the part of American editors has shriveled down to a request for a short (600 words, max) report on just the Wednesday night Grand Prix (which McLain Ward tends to win with frightening frequency) in 2015, and nothing whatsoever on the final night Big Ben Grand Prix or anything else.  In 2016, I was told that the ‘timing wasn’t right’ (the Chronicle is a weekly) but that they would like me to attend and see what sort of feature stories might come out of the fair.  Okay, it was enough of an excuse for me to show up on a couple of nights.

But the thing is:  there really wasn’t much with which to titillate my editor.  I sent her three ideas, and was told: meh, meh, and ‘interesting but we just did something similar to that’.  And that has been more or less the response of all of the other editors, whether Canadian, American, or European, with whom I’ve been in contact over the past couple of years:  the Royal is irrelevant.  

And no wonder, given the choices the fair board continues to make.  For instance, here’s one of the big features of the fair this year:  Goat Yoga.  

FFS.  Really?

Last year, it was bunny jumping.  As in, little courses of verticals and oxers that children (mostly unsuccessfully) tried to persuade their pet rabbits to hop over.  Christ on a cracker.

If there’s something good happening at the Royal, you can pretty much guarantee that the fair board will squash it in favour of something monumentally stupid.  It’s a pattern I’ve observed for over 20 years.  The ‘fair’ portion of the show — you know, the agricultural part, the “once a year, country comes to the city” part, where you give prizes for sheafs of wheat, homemade preserves, butter tarts, and the fanciest Red Island Rock

butter turkey

This is a turkey sculpted from butter.  Pretty much says it all about the Royal.

hen?  Now relegated to a forlorn, far-off corner somewhere near Scarborough, and consisting basically of two misshapen giant pumpkins and an extra-long corn stalk.  The butter sculptures done every year by students from the Ontario College of Art and Design?  Tucked away in a temperature-controlled trailer somewhere beyond the cattle barn where few fear to tread.  They don’t display prize-winning sides of beef or lamb anymore, either — city peeps be squeamish about that sort of thing.  But hey, you can get six fake pashmina scarves for $45 in the trade fair, not to mention an idiotic wooden walking stick with a Psalm burnt into it, (ideal for whacking your fellow pedestrians in the shins) from some insipid, ever-present gang of proselytizing pseudo-Christians.  

Oh, and apple dumplings and potato rosti, which I do legitimately miss.

On the whole, the show is a shadow of its former self.  So much so that the ‘mink and manure’ set doesn’t much bother with the formal wear that used to be de rigueur for the evening classes.  (I think I was one of the only members of the media left who made some effort to observe the ‘black tie’ requirement for the press in the evenings — mostly because it’s a novelty for me to be able to break out the girl clothes and the sparkly heels.  My feet always regretted it acutely, but I do like swishing around in taffeta every now and again.  The few journos from the Toronto dailies who still show up tend to settle for scruffy cords and pilled sweaters.)  

royal people

Royal people.  One of the little joys was always watching for the fashion gaffes … of which there were many.

 

Most telling, however, is the fact that this year, the Royal Winter Fair was scheduled at the same time as the National Horse Show in the US (once held in New York, but moved a few years ago to Lexington, Kentucky).  Back in the day, there was an end-of-season indoor circuit, starting with the International show in Washington, DC, then the National, and culminating with the Royal — and all three had Nations’ Cup classes, which made it attractive for European showjumping teams to fly over and do the three shows.  In 2017, the Royal is such an anachronism that even the American riders (never mind Europeans) don’t care about it enough to schedule around it.  That has to have a serious impact on entries, and not only in the jumper divisions.

The end result is that none of my former markets have any interest in coverage of the

Something about these lumpy pumpkins is stressing this kid out to the point where he/she is undressing ...

Something about these lumpy pumpkins is so profoundly disturbing that children are disrobing.  I don’t profess to understand it.

Royal Winter Fair anymore.  And that makes my attendance there not worth my while, given that (contrary to the belief of the fair’s Powers That Be, which continue to insist I am ripping them off by my mere presence) I stopped having fun at the fair about 15 years ago.  Apart from bargain turn-out halters from the trade fair (which I can now get just as easily on-line, without coughing up $50 in gas, $17 in parking and $27.50 for admission, if I were to pay admission without a press pass), there’s little incentive … and to be treated as dismissively and insultingly as I was last year was the icing on the sagging cake.  

So no thanks to the Royal.  It can circle the drain without me.

 

 

 

 

 

A-Hunting We Have Went

hunting_scene_largeSeveral months after the fact, I’m finally getting around to sharing this little factoid:  Young Master Spike can now add foxhunting to his resume of experiences.

Hunting and eventing are a fairly easy fit together.  An event horse is usually already a) fit enough to cope with being out with the hunt for three to five hours, b) accustomed to galloping over open ground and uneven footing, c) trained to jump pretty much anything in his path, and d) won’t lose his marbles over the prospect of being (gasp) outdoors in nasty weather.  The traditional approach is that hunting teaches all these things which later translate well to eventing competition, but with Spike, I needed to take the opposite approach.  Only when he was eventing fairly successfully did I start to feel like perhaps he was capable of going out in the hunt field and not getting us both killed.

See, in his youth Spike was a bit of a space cadet.  Not in a bad way, exactly.  He just tended to be a smidge inattentive.  Didn’t always register where he was putting his feet.  Blundered in, cheerfully oblivious, where angels feared to tread.  It’s taken him ages to hone his attention span, but lots of hacking, some actual eventing, and a dash of endurance riding last summer (that’s a tale for another blog post) finally convinced me that he was ready to cope with riding to hounds.  And that’s rather a nice thing, because I hadn’t been hunting since, oh, sometime in the early 1990s, and while it’s never been the main focus of my riding (cough) career, such as it is, I do enjoy hunting’s unique set of challenges:  riding in company (a test of your horse’s manners, and, I suppose, your own), handling whatever sort of terrain is thrown at you, potentially getting the adrenaline rush of foxhunting bridgeactually galloping after quarry.  Even observing all of hunting’s rather quaint and arcane rules:  it’s fun to wallow in that tradition, as generations of riders around the world before me have done.

Also, the pageantry of the whole thing is honest-to-gawd stirring.  In my humble opinion, there are few things as gorgeous in this world as a field of bays and grays and chestnuts, the hunt staff in their scarlet, and sleek foxhounds spreading out over a fall landscape.  Seriously, it’s just a stunning thing to witness (which is probably why every fake English pub in North America is adorned with fake Victorian hunting prints), and even more so when you’re playing your part in the panto.

I guess here is where the paragraph defending the barbarism of foxhunting needs to go.  Or maybe we could take it as read, gentle readers??  Here’s my take on the moral turpitude, unspeakable-in-pursuit-of-uneatable, argument (short version):  the Canadian brand of foxhunting is either drag-hunting (as in, only the fake scent of a fox’s urine was harmed in the making of this sport), or, if it’s “live”, the intent is to have a merry chase and then call the hounds off so we can chase the critter — whether fox or coyote — again the following week.  We’re not so well supplied with foxes, in particular, in Ontario that we can afford to do them in on a regular basis, and the business is more about sport these days here than about exterminating vermin on behalf of the local landowners.  Not that I don’t agree that said vermin probably has the flaming christ on a cracker scared out of itself while fleeing a pack of baying foxhounds, but unless it’s terminally stupid and gets itself cornered, it’s going to live to see dinner, and thus my conscience is fairly clear, cruelty-wise.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Should you disagree, please feel free to tell me I’m morally and ethically bankrupt, utterly revolting, and probably in favour of poisoning the earth with GMO crops and chemtrails, in the comments below. Because, you know, she with the most comments wins.

Besides, she added not at all defensively, many a time when foxhunting, you encounter no quarry at all.  It ends up being several hours of trotting from cornfield to cornfield, standing around a while in each while the hounds are cast and then reeled in by the huntsman, with a certain amount of passing the flask around.  Followed by a big potluck meal.  And really, what’s to complain about there?

The last horse I hunted was my big chestnut gelding, Sweeney Todd, who had been a reasonably successful racehorse yonks ago, before I introduced him to eventing.  He had more gallop and jump in him than I ever knew what to do with, thought the coops in the hunt field were childsplay (to be fair, Canadian foxhunters rarely encounter anything bigger than a metre tall; it’s not the death-defying version of hunting they have in Ireland, with those five-foot blind hedges and stone walls all over the damn place), and never quite understood the concept of guests staying conservatively and politely at the back of the field.  One of the cardinal sins of foxhunting is to pass the Master of Foxhounds (MFH), He or She Who Controls the Field (the “field” being the average schmoes following the hounds for a fee, as opposed to those employed to do so).  Passing the Master is simply Not Done.  And Toddy and I never did it … but only by virtue of my cramming Toddy`s firebreathing nostrils up the Master’s horse’s passing the masterass on a number of occasions.  The bit has not yet been designed that would have made a difference once the field got galloping.  As far as Toddy was concerned, the whole experience was a track flashback, avec canines … but in his defence, he was otherwise wonderful out there.  He was one of the most intelligent critters I’ve ever had the privilege of sitting on, and remarkably focused on self-preservation.  That, combined with extraordinary balance and nimbleness for his size, made him sure-footed and safe out there and I trusted him with my life.

I knew built-for-comfort-not-for-speed Spike would be a horse of a different colour.  He is a Thoroughbred, all appearances to the contrary, but never having gone to the track, he has no competitive instinct to speak of.  Getting to the front of the field is not something that would ever cross his mind, and he’s never needed anything stronger than a Dr. Bristol snaffle on cross-country. Spike is probably not Toddy’s intellectual equal, but he’s also not the obstreperous bastard that Toddy could be, and his congeniality, I figured, would be an asset when it came to standing around in cornfields with a bunch of other horses he’d never met before.  He’s reasonably good at handling his feet now, is pretty unflappable, and he’s solid as a brick shithouse, which is a useful quality for a hunt horse (horses with matchsticks for legs aren’t typically the best choice in questionable, mucky terrain, which it’s very likely you will encounter in late fall in Ontario).

The biggest question, really, was how Spike would react to the sight and sound of hounds.  This isn’t really something you can prepare a horse for ahead of time.  Sure, you can ask your neighbour to let her Schnauzerdoodle loose, I guess, but 12 couple of foxhounds is another matter entirely.  (Um, for the uninitiated, one always describes the hounds as “hounds”, horse vs. dognever never never as dogs, and they are always counted in pairs.  Twelve couple is 24 hounds; some hunts use more, some less, depending on the day — it’s the huntsman’s call.  Not sure why the couple thing; it is Written, as they say.)  Anyway, when hound music (um, that’s when they all start baying and howling at the same time, as when they find a scent) starts up, it can be unnerving for some horses, as can the sudden appearance of a working hound from out of the brush and right under their legs, which happens regularly.  And if there’s one Cardinal Sin worse than passing the Master, it’s your horse kicking or stepping on a hound.  That, my friend, will force you to hang your head in utter disgrace forevermore.

So I’m pleased to report that while Young Master Spike did, indeed, find hounds darting under his nose and his heels rather unnerving at first — and at one point raised a front foot as if he were considering teaching the cheeky buggers a lesson — he was very obedient about putting down said hoof when I growled at him, and subsequently earned himself a gold star for rookie hound manners.  He stood politely at the checks (okay, I had to circle him a bit at first), pulled my arms out of their sockets only occasionally (and stopped when I reminded him of his balance and his manners by asking for a few steps of shoulder-in), and dutifully put his head down and kept trotting when we were hit by periodic bouts of (ugh) sleet.  At one point, we were even encouraged by the hunt secretary to keep up with the field a little more closely!  Now that’s something that never would have happened with Toddy …

Alas, the territory we were hunting that day in November was a new one for the hunt club, and there was not a single coop to jump.  So I can’t really report on Spike’s manners in that situation (past experience tells me that you often have to line up, single file, to jump such obstacles in the hunt field, which can lead to a certain amount of hysteria with some horses).  He did, however, comport himself with honour when we found ourselves booking it across an open field in pursuit of a lone coyote and a lone hound (not sure where the rest of the pack had buggered off to!).  Viewing the quarry is considered something of a rare bit of luck, and we indeed had a lovely view as we plunged across a hayfield, more or less keeping up with the field, though to be honest I was more concerned with scanning the ground for groundhog holes (of which there were several) than admiring the critter’s retreating fur.

The coyote gave us the slip, the sleet got heavier (though hunting does at least convince you that wearing a black wool sidesaddle huntingriding jacket isn’t always utterly impractical), and when the majority of the field said, “Want. Hot. Beverage.”, Spike and I concurred and headed back for my trailer, while the hunt staff turned the other direction to gather up the scattered hounds.  

We didn’t stay for the hunt breakfast, as I wasn’t confident about leaving Spike alone in the trailer in a parking lot … that’s something that we’ll have to practice, aided considerably by the fact that I managed over the winter to acquire a larger trailer with a box stall arrangement in front for his comfort and convenience.  Next year, we’ll partake. But overall, we didn’t disgrace ourselves.  Spike didn’t set the world on fire, but he was Mr. Congeniality and that, in my humble opinion, makes him worth his weight in gold.

Many thanks to the Toronto and North York Hunt (the second-oldest hunt in North America, by the by) for the invitation to hunt as a guest; I look forward to joining you again.  Now that I have a bonafide hunt horse.

Putting Myself Out There

Had a sobering realization today:  I am better at Internet dating than I am at job hunting.

Well there’s a yikes.

Now I guess I say I am better at the internet dating thing because at least when I was doing that, I got nibbles.  Oh, stop being smut-tastic.  In this instance I am using “nibbles” in a purely innocuous, expression-of-interest way.  Though of course there were some (mostly fairly distasteful) come-ons as well.

A Brief History of my Internet Dating Phase:  I spent a year working in Bermuda, as a riding school manager, back in 1995.  Loooove the island, don’t recommend the work experience, but maybe that was just my usual luck, working for a prize asshat as I was.  Anyway.  I was seeing someone while I was being all tan and islandy and staying up all night clubbing (whoa, was that ever me?) and zipping around Bermuda on my moped, but he was hung up on a mousy former girlfriend, and besides, he smoked and was eventually going to return to Pittsburgh, so inevitably it fizzled when my job soured (read:  I got royally screwed over) and I had to return to the Great White North in a state of great indignation.

Neil, if you’re out there, you probably still have a very sexy voice, though.  (Hey, it’s my blog, I can do gratuitous shout-outs to exes I don’t really want to hear from, if I wanna. So there.)

Self-esteem-wise, this was not one of my more sparkling chapters.  Took me a while to regroup.  Okay, eight years.  (Less from Neil than from the whole demoralizing work experience.)  But eventually I decided to get back on that figurative horse.

Takes me a lot less time to get back on a real horse, btw, provided I’m not so busted up that I have to call myself an ambulance, which has happened once.

Here’s the thing about being ready to put yourself Out There:  if you live on a farm in the middle of  … well, not on the mass transit lines, anyway … and you work from home, you’re really not going to encounter a lot of Appropriate Eligibles, now are you. The only single, straight men I tended to run into wore John Deere caps and were picking up 20 bags of turkey starter at the feed store.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but in my experience these fine specimens usually didn’t consider horses ‘real’ farming, didn’t share a whole lot of my other interests, and were mainly looking for someone to help them slaughter a few steers come fall.  Gosh, that sounds swell, but I’m pretty sure I have to be in Borneo that week for a gallery opening ….

And men who go everywhere in baseball caps are something of a pet peeve of mine anyway.  Geez, give the hat a rest and wash your damn hair.

In case you’re going to suggest horse shows as a potential hunting ground, I will confirm that yes, there are men there, but that they are generally (and by generally, I mean to say ‘overwhelmingly’) not straight.  Love ’em, but am completely cognizant that they are not volunteering to come home with me.

So of course the logical option was the slightly sordid world of internet dating.  (Does it still have that aura of ickiness, or is it completely respectable these days?)

There are a lot of profiles to wade through on internet dating sites.  It’s like job-hunting, but infinitely weirder.  You soon learn to recognize the red flags:  photos clearly taken in 1974, illiteracy (oh, instant turn-off for little grammar Nazi me), hideous cliches (where are all these people taking the long walks on beaches? I lived on an island renowned for its beaches for an entire year and there should have been fucking armies of these guys marching up and down on the pink sand if these profiles are to be believed).

Also worth avoiding:  those with profile names like “Sphincter”.  (No, tragically, I am not kidding.)

I got considerable amusement value out of dipping my virtual toes into the “Encounters” section of Lavalife.  For the uninitiated, Lavalife — at least as of six or seven years ago, I haven’t checked more recently than that, I swear — was divided into a sanitized and mind-crushingly dull “hi, I just want to be pen-friends because I have High Moral Standards” section where there were crickets chirping instead of men, a middle-of-the-road “looking for love that would probably include some eventual consensual groping” section, and a “zipless fuck” section where the men descended like lampreys should any woman, real or imagined, peek around the doorframe on the instant chat.  Needless to say, this can be a hoot if you’re in the frame of mind to see just how pathetic and cliched they can get … and oh, boy, can they.  I used to re-write my profile in the Encounters corral about once a week, each time stretching the boundaries of slutty credibility a little further, and no male ever called me on it.  Not a productive exercise as far as finding a legit squeeze, admittedly, but certainly an interesting window into humanity’s baser qualities …

Mostly, I think you have to approach internet dating the way you do porta-potties at horse shows.  Nasty and unpleasant, but better than nothing.  Just hold your breath, get in and get out as quickly as you can, and whatever you do, don’t look down.

Choosing the right dating site is half the battle, I suspect, but for me it was mostly about not having to cough up a credit card number.  Some are clearly over-hyped; I joined the legions who were rejected by eHarmony, for example (seriously, Google it — 157,000 results; I think it’s a badge of honour, honestly) because I was “not spiritual enough”.  (Oh, apparently you have to believe in a bearded white guy in the clouds in order to believe in a meaningful connection on earth.  Silly me, I’ll get right on that.)

Others just didn’t seem to have much turnover … the same flaccid (and yes, you caught me, you clever reader, I’m using the word deliberately) profiles were there, month after month after month, and I just knew the site needed to be renamed PlentyOfSpaceInMyMom’sBasement.com.

I certainly did encounter some players in the Lavalife years.  One of whom I outed to several of his other ‘connections’ when I discovered he’d been lying about all sorts o’ important stuff including his marital status and whether he’d been HIV tested.  Do NOT mess with me, fellas.  (Lest you think me impertinent, every single woman I contacted thanked me for the heads-up on this knob.)

Another who couldn’t even sustain the most banal kind of small-talk during a ‘meet for drinks’ at a sports bar clearly chosen more for its big-screen display of the Leafs losing, than for my enjoyment, but was genuinely gobsmacked when I didn’t leap at his invitation to come home with him.

And one who thought an appropriate first date would be for me to get in a van with him and drive around the deserted roads of a nearby provincial park, well after dark, until he found a suitable place to dump the body.

But you know what?  I did find a good guy there eventually.  Okay, flawed, but hey, I’m a smidge quirky myself in addition to being over 20 and not a size zero, so, you know, I make allowances.  He’s good enough that we’re still together nearly six years later, and I deleted my profile and Lavalife finally stopped badgering me to come back a couple years later.  And that’s all I’m going to say about that because I didn’t really tell him I was going to be writing about this and I don’t know if his mother knows we met online.

Given that, I have to say I’m more successful at internet dating than I am at job-hunting, because in the past three years I have sent out thousands of resumes and managed only a handful of interviews, and no lasting matches.  Even though I probably come across as a lot more sane and capable on a resume than I did on a dating profile, and it really shouldn’t bloody matter that I’m not a size zero and it should be a plus that I’m over 20.  Right?  (Hmm.  The crickets are back.)

I even got rejected the other day by a resume-compilation/headhunter service to which I’d been given (supposedly) a 30-day free trial thanks to membership in a LinkedIn group.  Spent all that time inputting my resume only to have it spat back out at me.

So what was it about internet dating that I did better?  This is something to ponder.  Questions, comments, thoughts, concerns?

 

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