Daisy and I are checking out a facility for a friend who rides endurance, to see if it’s worth her making the trip to visit the place. It’s an Endurance barn with a capital T.
As we get out of the car, we see a trailer being loaded nearby, and hear this:
“Yep. Going to the Tevis again this year, how bout you?”
Reply: “Oh yeah, we’re in. Gotta go – loading up for a quickie 50, see you later…”
While the facility is relatively close to where we live, it’s way off the beaten track, in the middle of country that looks like this:
The barn itself is homey and funky, a gigantic old livestock barn brought back to new life. It’s repurposed and well organized, with soaring ceiling and shafts of light. It smells like saddle soap, hay, leather cleaner and warm wood. There are only a few horses in stalls. There is a lean and muscular horse bucking, trotting and squealing in the round pen.
The owner introduces herself, and follows our gaze. “We have to turn him out in a small area first.” The gelding breaks into an easy canter. “He’s 35, and we don’t want him to immediately gallop off. He might slip. So we take the edge off first.”
Thirty Five? He’s sound, muscled, and looks in his teens. Daisy figures out from the barn owner that it’s a horse she knew from 25 years ago. This is his retirement home.
The owner slides back a big interior barn door, and we see a room the size of a gymnasium, full of comfy sofas, oriental rugs, bookcases, trophy shelves, and the kind of coffee table you can put your muddy boots on. ”This is available to all our boarders year round, but we have a Yoga for Equestrians Instructor here on Monday and Wednesday nights.” I mentally check the mileage. Could I make Monday and Wednesdays?
The owner tells us about summer pasture, winter pasture, and the criteria they look at when deciding it’s time to move them for the season. She says: “Let’s go take a look”.
Daisy and I prepare to walk.
Laughing, the owner dangles keys to an industrial looking vehicle. Imagine a Monster Golf Cart, with a truck bed, roll bar, and 4 wheel drive. I get in back. Daisy is better at reporting the details our friend will want to know. I’ll go on for hours about trees and rocks.
The diesel engine roars to life.
Within seconds, it’s apparent why we are not walking.
I wedge myself firmly in a forward corner of the truck bed and hang tightly onto the roll bar, as we grind our way up an incline that would put California Street to shame. (That’s the street in San Francisco on which cable cars are most frequently photographed.)
“All boarders have use of the truck, we leave the keys in it.”
The facility is so big, it would be impractical to walk to your destination 99% of the time. It’s designed for you to be able to ride your horse to any destination, 99% of the time. I have to keep reminding myself: too far away for me.
We’re climbing between valleys. I can see one of their lakes off to the left, and another in a valley to the right. We pull over at a large flat area, a natural depression in the hill side. They’ve built a pasture here specifically for old horses or hard keepers. The ground is level. Further out it descends the hill in a series of terraces: an older horse can wander easily without having to constantly stand on an incline. The barn is deep, three sided, and angled to shelter from wind. They’ve hand built a giant slow feeder, so the horses can eat all day long. I notice there is no manure. They clean a space this big?
Most of the horses are close to 30, and I would have put them at a good ten years younger. Impressive.
Next, we’re winding under a canopy of live oak trees, still climbing. Finally we level off, stopping on the summit of a very large hill.
There’s a 360 degree view of all the hills and valleys around us, which is mostly their land. Up here, I immediately grasp what makes it an endurance rider’s dream facility. The place is ENORMOUS. Terrain of all kinds. And all of it is open to riding.
The owners breed Morgans. We’ve stopped at the summer quarters of the 8 or so adolescents. They’re all plump, muscular, shiny and curious. As I get out, we see a small donkey wander across the road. She has to tilt her head up to get a good sniff of the truck bed. Oh yeah. It’s probably the dinner truck.
The owner explains that the donkey is their pet, but she’s also protector for the young herd. Donkeys, mules and Llamas will take on coyotes, feral dogs, bobcats, occasionally even mountain lions, so I’m not surprised.
What I am is…IN LOVE.
Instant Donkey Love.
I’m no longer listening to the human conversation. I’m on Donkey Frequency. She comes over and checks me out. I rub the tendons behind her ears.
She looks at me appraisingly. You know what you’re doing.
I try to focus, but all I want to do is hug the donkey, pet the donkey, talk to the donkey, smuggle the donkey home under my jacket. When she wanders off, I’m heartbroken. A few seconds later I feel a bump on the back of my thigh. The donkey has come up behind me, and gently put the flat of her forehead against my leg.
Her back doesn’t even come up to my hip. She’s so little and cute! While pretending to earnestly listen to the conversation, I reach back and stroke her poll.
Suddenly, I’m off balance, arms splayed, hopping on my left foot, with my right leg at hip height, perpendicular to the ground. She bumped the inside of my knee to make it buckle, then walked between my legs and stopped.
The owner and Daisy turn to stare at me.
“Uh, she just did this?”, I say, blushing, scrambling to explain, “I’m not trying to ride your donkey, really…”. I’m hopping frantically on one leg, to keep from putting any weight on her back.
The owner bursts out laughing.
“That’s her trick. Back of the knee, right? She must like you.” she smiles at me. I’m relieved, but still hopping on one leg.
“You are a bad bad girl!”, the owner scolds, in a tone that tells the donkey she is the best thing on earth.
How smart is it that Miss Donkey knew how to make a human knee give? I wiggle back and shove her butt forward, trying to get her out from under me. I get one backward glare before she wanders off.
We’re going to walk down to the gate to get a panoramic view of the riding terrain. I take a stride, and the donkey is back. This time, she’s wrapped her head and neck around the leg I just picked up to step forward. She pushes it sideways.
Holy cow, the donkey is herding me! I can’t help it. It’s so unexpectedly dog like, (and ridiculously cute) that I humor her as if she were a five year old human. I let her bully me toward her tea party.
Focus Jane! You’re being so rude. I force myself to walk toward the gate.
Miss Donkey trots after me, and takes off the gloves. She blocks me, and nips the side of my leg, to herd me toward The Important Direction. The one in which she would like me to travel. She has no problem implementing the incisors.
Jane? This is why we do not let horses push us around on the ground. Helllloooo…Mr. Chips? Little equines know they are NOT actually little equines. They are little Napoleons, and can push you around like a draft horse.
Crap. What is the etiquette for correcting someone else’s donkey, when you just encouraged her to do the same behavior you now want to stop?
I settle on immobility. I won’t have to flick her on the nose, and standing still will buy me time of not giving in, while she determines her next move. Donkey Chess.
Luckily, the owner looks back. “It’s okay to tell her no”, she says, smiling broadly. “She knows you won’t feel like you can correct her. She’s a little devil.”
I crack up.
And Miss Donkey buckles my knee again, and winds through my legs like a cat, rubbing an itchy shoulder on my airborne leg.
The report: we’re giving our friend the thumbs up. Perfect place for an endurance horse to stay fit on all those hills while not riding, and fantastic for when you are.
And…there is Miss Donkey.