We have a shade tree next to the barn runs that gives the sweetest summer shade, but reeks havoc on winter footing. Colorado temps frequently take 40 degree mood swings in a few hours. Fresh muck can land in wet spring snow, and in a brief moment, freeze so solid that a pick ax is useless. But an hour later, the muck has dissolved, indistinguishable from the mud underneath. Shovel that mess out and you end up trenching small puddles into bigger puddles that will re-freeze into a skating rink in each run.
It makes the walk to turn-out a cautious process each morning. An ice fall hurts more than an unplanned dismount at my age, and the younger horses are just as nervous. The Grandfather Horse is the most worried, so as he takes one slow skate of a step at a time. I’m his care-giver; it’s my pleasure to go his speed.
There’s plenty of time to wax nostalgic as we dodder our way to turnout. Back when he was a hot-rod 4-year-old, just at this time in the spring, we found him in his turnout pen barely able to stand. His hind-half had lost all coordination, he could barely balance upright. We got him to stagger inside and called the emergency vet. Naturally, I feared a damaged spine or something neurological. The vet’s best guess was that my horse had taken a fall, done the splits behind, and somehow torn his inner thigh muscles. He came away with Bute, 6 weeks of stall rest, and I was ecstatic.
I drove out every day and massaged mineral ice on his torn muscles, resting my cheek on his rump next to his tail and watching his eyes go soft, as I braved rude jokes from my barn friends. Embarrassment is part of the care-giver gig. It’s for better or worse, and if you do your utmost and are lucky, you get keep your job as they become old and frail.
And in some crazy way, more years of mucking feels like a reward to most of us. We don’t understand how others can look out the window and feel nothing as winds chill arthritic bones: horses with no shelter or dogs that live on chains.
The upside of spring mucking is that it’s also itch season in the barn. So a curry stays in the muck cart and there are some sweet shedding moments with the herd, even if makes the job take twice as long. These slow, hairy hours are the very best. Sometimes I hire-out my mucking but in the end, I always miss it too much.
It isn’t that care-givers love manure, but it’s part of the package. Horses understand the law of reciprocity as well as we do, and we strive for integrity with each other. We can’t control the world, but we have a say in our herd.
It isn’t truly giving if you keep score, so I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve bandaged their injuries or worn out muck forks poking at manure-cicles or felt such magic dancing beneath my saddle that, when my eyes close, I notice I’m filled with light. I believe that these acts are all interchangeable, and I get back so much more than I give.
Sometimes when new people come visit here, the first comment is how much work it must be. I appreciate their honesty. I’m not nuts, I don’t just love frolicking on frozen toes in ground blizzards but I notice that the less I can tell the difference between work and play, the stronger I am. Through good days and bad days, there’s an overall tendency of sweetness. It’s just the simple truth that we all share a very small life here and try to do our best for each other.
There is an art to being a care-giver. Not everyone has the patience for it. You have to want to be there fully, grateful for every stride, rewarding every pause for confidence, holding faith in every conscious choice made together.
In other words, the care used on the ground with an elder walking on ice, is the exact same care we use in the saddle, with our hands on the reins–every day that we are blessed with these precious, sentient creatures. Amazed at our luck, we take special care, mold it with good intention, and give it back in the purest form we can.
Mother Teresa’s words are true: “I cannot do great things. But I can do small things with great love.”
So, for as long as there is something that needs mucking, we’ll keep hold of our forks.
Because the world is filled with spite and ego and indifference. People do unconscionable things, leaving others to pay for their shortcomings. But we still have a voice. Even if we are no more than the sum of our intent, each time a whiskery muzzle searches for a hand, it’s undeniable that for that life, a small act changed the whole world.
For my Starfish friends–
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.