Saturday, February 19, 2011

Hay and Bliss

Walking outside at dawn always makes me think of horses.

When I was a kid, I competed in a few horse shows. And part of the horse-show ritual was to wake up in the pre-darn dark. Then there was a fast breakfast, a car, and a day of horses—their manes braided, their coats shimmering with citronella Shoo-fly.

Later, when I was in my 20s and had rent to pay, I got a dream job as the weekend manager and riding instructor at a small rental stable. And what time did I have to get to work? 6:30 a.m.: dawn.

So there I was again, waking up in the dark, this time with my clock radio set to a hard-rock station. I’d pull on my boots, choke down a fast breakfast, and drive off to the hills as the light was just starting to paint the eastern sky. When I got to the ranch, the only human there, I’d make a quick pit stop at the restroom—a turquoise Porta Potti on the dusty path to the corral. Believe me, there’s nothing quieter, or more lonely, than a cold Porta Potti at dawn.

After that, I’d head for the feed room. Flashlight in one hand, grapple hook in the other, I’d pop the wire on a bale of hay and check it for mold. Then I’d go out to the corral, scatter eight hay flakes on the ground, prop the gate open, and head across the wooden bridge over the creek to the pasture where the horses spent the night.

Horses at dawn are entirely unlike humans at dawn. They’re not curled up, stiff, or cranky; they don’t look the least bit sleepy. They look, in fact, like they’ve been up for hours, browsing the scrub oak and shaking off flies and stamping their feet. Climbing through the gate into the pasture, I felt as if I were walking into an alien world, as if the horses experienced a never-ending day, enjoying the damp air and gaining in wisdom while I wasted a third of my life, shut down in the land of nod.

I’d check the horses, count that there were eight of them, and then I’d open the pasture gate. Slowly, one by one, they’d plod out, wind their way through the neck of the little canyon, splash into the creek, and wander up to the corral. They’d done this a thousand times before. They knew where the hay was.

I’d walk back to the corral, close the gate behind them, and climb over the fence with a curry comb and a brush, a hoof pick in my back pocket. I’d groom each horse in turn, warming my hands on their smooth coats, watching the steam vent out their nostrils, listening to the hollow sound of their great teeth grinding all that hay. I’d check their feet for stones, work the burrs out of their tails, brush out the night’s layer of dust. They were used to this kind of care, this sure-handed straightening. And for an hour or so, before anyone arrived at our little ranch, it was just me and eight horses and a band of sunlight moving down the walls of the canyon, the cool air pungent with bay laurel and eucalyptus, as the hay dwindled to a few scraps in the dirt.

I only worked there for a few months, but at dawn, even now, I can hear the squeak of the gates and the clump of my boots on the wooden bridge. Somewhere out there, horses want to be fed. And somewhere there’s a woman pulling apart a bale of sweet, green hay and not thinking a thing about it, lost in the simple tasks she gets to do in paradise.

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