April 1, 2023
The scenery sped by. Grace and Skye had never been to Acton, never been on Soledad Canyon before. The boss plied the highway at a leisurely pace with her old favorite truck. It was no pavement queen, but, she said, it made a fine camper once everything was emptied out of it.
"Is that where we live?" Skye asked, pointing with her nose toward the snow-covered ridge.
"Yup" Grace said.
"We're on the other side of that ridge" the boss said, "and to the left of those big power poles."
Grace noted the wide open spaces. Thick vegetation. Wild canyons. There wasn't much but open country between them, as the crow flies. There was actually quite a lot of open country, dotted with the occasional ranch or fence line.
They reached their destination in the late afternoon. Willow Springs International Raceway. It was mostly silent now, the desert breeze making its way through low scrub, the sun moving across a wide open sky. The tracks were all behind locked gates, but there was plenty of open asphalt. As soon as the old truck was unloaded, Grace and the boss freed the Jeep from the tow hitch, and Skye took the wheel. It was a perfect place to get some driving practice.
Grace was lost in thought. Thoughts about what she's just seen. The big, wild country between their home in Chilao and the hills of Acton, a land still at least partially devoted to a rural lifestyle. There was plenty of room for horses there. And some of those steep canyons might even boast year round water.
The desert ground was hard, as if it had never rained. But it was also mercifully flat. Gradually Skye would relax, sit down in her seat, let her shoulders fall naturally. Driving the little Jeep was fun.
Grace took the wheel for the track day. The girls didn't have a lot of experience with motorcycles, so the whole of it was new and exciting. The smells, the sounds, the beautiful machines, the leather riding suits and shining helmets. Everyone seemed happy and friendly. Many people had dogs with them.
"You know" Skye said, "if we had a tent, we could do stuff like this more often."
Grace was quiet for a long time.
"If we had a tent..." Grace trailed off mid-sentence.
And the girls were not the only ones with an old Jeep.
The day had gone by fast. At some point, the wind claimed Grace's black hat for good. When it was over, the truck was packed back up, the Jeep hooked up behind it, and the journey back into the snow line began. Grace's head swiveled from side to side as the boss drove. So much open country. What if. What if the wild horses came from this place.
Monday dawned cold and threatening to snow in Chilao. Then the wind picked up. The girls were a little worn down from the weekend, and decided to turn out some horses in the relative warmth of the indoor arena.
"Funny" Grace said, "When I made these ponchos they were really just to hide your Christmas present under. I had them draped over the saddle trees. And now we've worn them all winter long, and it's spring, and we're still wearing them. When are you going to start working on those saddles?"
Skye let out a deep, long sigh. "I have...artist's block. Or something. I don't know. I can't seem to get things started, or finished. I want to, but then...I think I'm scared of the saddles. I don't want to screw them up, you know?"
The girls watched the twin grulla horses.
"There's still two of them" Skye noted. "Did the boss decide not to sell the lighter one?"
"I don't know" Grace said. "She hasn't said a word about it, and I'm sure not going to bring it up."
Skye went to see the old Coulter pine. It seemed to be clinging to life by a thread. It was a thin thread. But there was new green. It was sparse, it was tenuous...but there was green. There was a little bit of hope left. Maybe, just maybe it could recover.
Skye found Grace in the tack room. She was making quite the mess.
"So" Skye questioned. "I guess the calla lily experiment is concluded?"
"Yup." Grace answered. "I can't take it any more. I quit."
"Can we at least keep those two giant ones?"
Grace really wanted to say no.
"Even though we now have until October to see if they will bloom in pots, I don't think I can stand another minute of lugging them around trying to find the right place for them. They dry out, then they freeze, they get too much water, not enough water...we tried."
"The boss asked me if I wanted to do another guest blog on the website."
"Skye that's very cool. What will you write about?"
"The Raramuri criollo. Well, the criollo cattle in general and then specifically, the Raramuri. I wish I knew where Mikki was these days, she could probably help me. But there's a ton of stuff on the internet. I think I can do it."
"Yes you can" Grace affirmed. "Maybe we'll chase some calves around this weekend and see if we can inspire and inform your creativity. If I let you ride Cookie will you let me get rid of all these dang plants? I won't burn them at the stake or anything. I'm going to...liberate them. Yes, that's it. I will return them to freedom."
Skye laughed. "I'll think about it..."
"The boss helped me make these posters" Skye said. "We struggled with the words a little, because we don't really own the mare, but I wanted to do something."
Grace studied the poster for a few moments. It was a lovely image of Petrichor, the pale mare and her foal, taken on the last day they had seen her.
"I think it's good" Grace finally responded. "I mean, it assumes someone has the pale mare, but any other consequence is out of our control, so I think it's fine. I think she was probably further away than one hundred yards from the ranch when we saw her last though."
Skye looked perplexed.
"It's not a big deal. You get the idea. This horse is missing and we want her back."
"It's still light out" Skye responded. "Let's go out and calculate the distance."
The air was heavy with moisture. It was more than a hundred yards. And that was okay. Pretty soon the girls were entranced by the green. Green grass, green trees, everything so vibrantly green, the moist earth drawing close the moisture in the air, the dampness setting on them, invisible and yet present.
The sound, fainter now but nonetheless omnipresent, of seasonal streams everywhere.
They heard a sound. Skye jumped up and spun around.
They scanned the landscape.
And then they appeared, quite close. Crazy's band.
The twin foals were both in good shape. Crazy saw the girls, but didn't respond except to do a little more head shaking and hoof stomping than he normally did. They were going to wherever they went for the night, wanting for neither food nor fresh water.
And the night came softly.
Grace got her wish. Apparently the boss had connections. Arena sand from the quarry up the road had been delivered. The load was apparently thirty per cent water and the truck stopped twice on the way down to tilt and drain. But there it was. Arena sand. It just needed to dry.
The boss also got a new lighting system for the indoor arena. She asked the girls if they could bring out a couple of black horses. Of course the problem with black horses is you have to watch your camera metering. But as far as the lights working, it appeared they did.
Grace turned loose a particularly proud, lithe Thoroughbred stallion.
"Oh, who is this handsome boy?"
"He's got the best name" Grace said. "My Darkest Hour."
"I bet the old black mare looked like him in her day."
"I bet she did."
And it was laundry day, although Skye isn't sure there was any saving the white shirt. It had stains she didn't even recognize.
The boss was on a role. When they got done with the arena lights there were a few hours of daylight left. She asked if Grace and Skye could help her get a few horses photographed. The first one was a pony named Joey...and Joey hit the dirt and rolled before anyone got a picture.
"Ooooh! Joey! Why? Why?"
Grace laughed. "I think it's a pony thing" she said. "They seem to have a special sense of humor."
Grace got Vinnie to take a bow. The boss was impressed with the bow but not with her pictures.
"He's so hard to photograph" she said. "I never quite get that shimmer in his coat. But you did a great job grooming him."
Grace wasn't sure she liked his ribbons colors. But it sounded like this might not be the last photo session with Vinnie.
Last horse for the day. Another looker. Wild Bill, a gift from Carissa Kirksey.
"So" Grace said to Skye, "Tomorrow morning let's get up really really early, and we'll go out and play with the calves before the boss can catch us and give us another all day chore list."
Skye grinned. "Okay."
The alarm went off at 5 AM, but Grace silenced it. The girls had been up watching programs until the wee hours of dawn. A little after 6 AM they began to stir. First slowly, then more quickly. But the dawn came even faster.
Grace managed to break the buckle on her chaps, and then they could not find Cookie's bridle. The one they put on her was made for a draft horse and barely clung to her head. They turned the calves loose, and watched as they immediately went to the eastern ridgeline...a rocky ground wholly unsuitable for stock work.
"Just go easy" Grace said. "I guess our goal will be to get the calves out of here and on to softer ground."
"What if we split them?" Skye said. "You take six, I take six."
It sounded so simple.
"I'll take the slow six" Grace said. "You are on a real cow pony. I'm on a horse that may have never seen a calf before."
So far so good. The sound of rocks against Cookie's hooves was unsettling, but she seemed able to navigate them.
"I thought cows just followed the leader" Skye said, as her six calves continually proved to have independent ideas about which direction they should be going. The reins on the drafter bridle were very long, and she mostly didn't need them, but they were cumbersome.
Dawn's light spread across the landscape.
One calf back in the bunch, and another one veers off in the wrong direction. Separating the group was easy. Keeping them that way was proving challenging.
Just as the sunlight crested the ridge, Grace lost two of the slow calves. The two fast slow calves. They joined Skye's loosely knit group.
La Barilla was more or less getting the idea, but his style was a little different. When a calf tried to break rank, he threw a strike with a front hoof. And for the most part, it worked.
"All right" Grace said, "Enough separation anxiety. Let's get them out of here."
And once the calves were all together again, they did more or less move as a unit. Or at least, in the same general direction.
A gentle breeze swayed Skye's shirts, swinging from hangers on the arena fence. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But the next thing she knew, Grace was turning out horses. Skye scurried to grab her shirts as Anamar got ready to kick up some dust.
The grey seemed to have a fondness for Skye. He certainly wasn't afraid of flapping shirts.
"So I have a plan for next weekend" Grace said.
"Let's have it" Skye replied.
"Next weekend, let's do a traditional regalia ride."
Skye smiled. Bewildered.
"Okay I don't have anything to wear but we'll get Anamar in his traditional tack and we'll get you on a horse in traditional native regalia.
Skye smiled, and remained silent.
"I know, your saddle isn't done. It's okay. I have a plan."
What that plan might be, Skye couldn't even begin to imagine.
"Okay. Let's do it."
Skye stood looking at her beautiful dresses. "I'm kind of scared to put on the buckskin dress" Skye said. "I don't want to get it dirty."
"If you're going to try riding in a cloth dress, I'd say wear this one. I think the extra leg room will come in handy."
Skye was excited. She still had no idea what Grace had up her sleeve, but she was excited.
"Did you find anything to wear for riding Anamar?"
Grace shook her head. "Not that I have anything even if I did find some reference photos, but so far I've not seen any traditional women's regalia for him."
Grace had also thought it might be fun to watch the meteor shower tonight, and let Skye try to get some pictures. The boss had done a pretty fair job on a whim just yesterday evening. But it wasn't looking hopeful. The girls watched the sky as it filled quickly with what people referred to as chemtrails, a word which never failed to register emotional and opinionated responses.
"Do you think it'll blow away by tonight?" Skye asked.
Grace paused and looked around before answering.
"I'm thinking X marks the spot and today it's our turn. It looks like they're just getting started. We could be under a glowing white sky by noon and a night devoid of stars entirely. But we'll see, I guess.
Skye didn't recognize the horse she was about to ride. He was a solid black quarter horse gelding. And he was tacked up in a lovely, older plains saddle and beaded bridle. This was a surprise indeed.
"You good?" Grace asked.
"Yeah I'm good!"
Her feet didn't quite make it into the stirrups. It was close though. She could do one stirrup or the other, both not both at the same time. The saddle was big and roomy.
Grace handed her the blanket that would make everything look proper and acceptable. Anamar was ready to go.
Grace watched the sky. She was almost positive there would be no star gazing tonight. No meteor shower, no mountain magic.
Although Skye was mostly absorbed in her first ever ride in regalia, she saw the look on Grace's face. She looked up too.
"You know what's ironic?" Grace said.
"I'm pretty sure today is 'Earth Day.' "
Skye's mount was calm and steady. Anamar was animated.
"Is this the first time you've taken him out?" Skye asked Grace of Anamar.
"It is. I really like him. He's very alert but also sure of himself. No hesitation."
Skye imagined herself in a time long ago, riding across the prairie, through mountain passes, seeking out what wild foods she might harvest.
"This is a big saddle" Skye said out loud.
"It is" Grace said. You could carry a baby or a child in that saddle with you. Or...whatever."
Grace was probably right. It was just about noon and the sky was nearly transformed from blue to white.
"So if we are so woke" Skye questioned, "how come we can't talk about this? The sky. I mean we watched it. These aren't clouds. This time for sure I know you aren't crazy. We watched a blue sky get transformed and we watched commercial jets fly through that same sky and their vapor trails dissipated. This is not a natural phenomenon and it covers a whole region."
"Because we aren't that woke" Grace said.
"If humanity was all that woke we wouldn't kill each other over religion or racial differences. If we were woke we would be engaging in global environmental restoration and we would go about progress thinking of long term impact. People would care more about the quality of air and water and less about fashion and make up. Now as for the sky that's a slightly more complicated issue. Two things are happening. Most of the world's population is bent down over their jobs all week, and then consumed with whatever they do to forget about their miserable lives over the weekend. Or they are working seven days to feed their kids. They don't look up. People haven't seen the sky in a long time. The other thing is denial. We know that some day in the near future humans are going to try to colonize Mars. But we don't want to believe under any circumstances that something is going on right now in the skies above us. No way. Not possible. There's something deep and psychologically terrifying about that. People don't want to be woke about that. Let's argue over language, or bar soap versus liquid...or anything. Just don't tell me the sky is being manipulated."
Skye thought about those things for a little bit. She thought about the times she'd spent off the mountain. Tried to think if she looked at the sky, except here, being on the mountain. On the mountain it was different. For one thing, the sky was big, and everywhere. For another, what you paid attention to was different, and more immediate. A sound in the bushes meant something and you better look. Around people and cities there's the whole created world. Traffic, shopping, eye candy, small talk, being proper, choices, needing money for everything...the sky didn't figure too prominently in that world. You would have to really focus and look, and pay attention over time to realize how it got cloudy.
They rode in silence for a little while. Their shadows grew soft, the sunlight filtered. There were few flowers blooming, save for the filigree, but there would be more flowers soon. Skye tried to find her way back into her happy dream place. It took a few moments, but eventually the gentle sway of the black's smooth walk and the rhythmic sound of the horses' hooves on the not exactly soft soil worked its magic, and she let go of the sky above for a little bit, and focused on the view from between her horse's ears.
There was a sudden and immediate shift in awareness that brought Grace out of her head and into the moment. She and Anamar spun around as one.
They faced Petrichor and his band.
Skye watched the stallion and forgot everything previous. She imagined writing a blog about the morning. She composed it in her mind as a gust of wind tussled her blanket and tugged at her hair.
"My first ride in regalia. To be true, it was pretty much one long wardrobe malfunction. First there was the matter of getting situated in my ribbon dress. And my moccasins coming untied again and again. The saddle itself was adorned with an aged wool blanket that seemed to come to life as the day grew warm. The wind and sunlight felt delicious on my bare legs, which would not have been showing except for the trouble I had keeping the modesty blanket arranged. And then, just as I was trying to get all these things under control and look like a proper lady...a wild stallion appeared!"
Petrichor looked fit. There had probably never been better pasture in the Angeles than there was this spring.
Grace kept Anamar gathered under her, and for the first time ever hoped Petrichor would keep his distance. It was still just the bay mare and the two foals, her own and the orphaned black foal. She waited for the appearance of Highlander and his band, but Highlander never came.
Petrichor and his band lingered only for a moment, then turned westward, disappearing into the jagged landscape as suddenly as they had appeared.
The rest of the girls' ride was uneventful. Grace had been a few hours off on her prediction. When they returned to the barn at 3 PM, the sky was a mass of white, as far as they could see. The juxtaposition of dreams and reality, past and present had been a little difficult for Skye. Still. There was something radically different about the ride they had just taken. She would need some time to process all the things.
The day was warm and glorious. The girls waited for the wind to die down. As the afternoon wore on the wind rose and fell, took long pauses between breaths, but never really stopped. And wind made it hard to control horses.
So they made the mutually unpopular decision to turn the ponies out in the indoor arena. Particularly since they'd never taken the ponies - as a group - out on the property, or through Chilao. It was definitely on the to-do list.
Joey, the smallest of the ponies, was quick to roll. Surprising, with so many other ponies in the arena.
Grace watched a pretty bay riding pony interacting with one of the welsh type mares. She was sure he was a gelding. His expression wasn't convincing somehow.
Although big and sturdy, the Chincoteague foal was a bit shy.
Skye was entranced with a pinto mare.
Whether or not it was smart was debatable, but Skye decide to ride Mischief. So far, so good.
"Eighteen!" Grace counted. "That's a lot of ponies! I think we're at capacity."
Except for the mares with foals, Skye tried to get them all moving in the same direction.
"You better stay on" Grace said. "There's a lot of tiny hooves in here."
"I'm ready this time" Skye said. "I'm either gonna grab a hand full of mane or just jump off."
In the last hour of daylight, the winds lessened, the gusts becoming an occasional breeze.
And finally, as the sun set, it was wind still. Skye's beloved tree was probably not going to make it. The boss had taken a pictures of it dappled with snow, and Skye thought she might like to try and paint that scene. It wouldn't be too long before the firefighters felled it, leaving it to lie next to its sibling, collapsed onto the ground.
Aerosol particulate refraction made a disorderly rainbow in western sky.
Home at day's end, Grace and Skye examined the American Saddlebred bust. Skye had done a little more work on her NaMo horse.
"I can see lights and darks emerging" Grace said. I think you're going to survive this."
Dawn, April 30
The girls rode the eastern ridgeline on La Barilla and Ladyhawk. Birdsong filled the air and dewdrops clung to the vegetation. The sky grew ever lighter at the sun's approach.
They left the race property, crossing the road toward the fire station, dipping down into the tributary stream above Mustang Rock. The sound of hooves striking the occasional rock hidden in the soft sound, La Barilla pawing at the water, raven's call just above. But not a word out of Grace.
Skye couldn't take the silence any more.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked Grace.
There was a long, serious pause before she answered.
The GreeningRead Now
March 18, 2023
It was a good day for riding, no excuses necessary. The grass was as lush as the girls had ever seen it. There was water everywhere. And both of them wanted to look...however futile the search might be...for the missing wild horse that they called the pale mare.
Ladyhawk was giving Skye quite a ride. She was snotty and prancy and full of herself. And the dogs were on to something.
Highlander's band emerged from the remaining snow field. The girls rarely had the dogs along when they went looking for wild horses, and Highlander didn't look too pleased about them. Grace called the dogs back.
Petrichor's band came into view across the swollen creek. The black foal, presumably now an orphan, looked no worse for the ordeal.
The bay mare, accustomed to the girls now, paused before turning away from them. Petrichor held ground on the creek's edge, watching Grace, Skye and the dogs, and watching his herd.
Highlander was approaching. The bay mare moved to greet them. Grace and Skye suspected she was related to the dun mare, as they frequently ignored the rants of their respective stallions to greet each other. Petrichor was not ranting this time. Just swiveling his ears, swishing his tail and occasionally stamping his hooves in the water.
Grace watched Skye's horse dancing along the creek's edge. "I think Ladyhawk has a crush on your stallion" Skye said.
"I can't blame her" Grace replied softly. "Let's hope she doesn't pitch you in the creek and go join his band."
Highlander and his mares made their way across the creek.
The girls watched quietly. There was a lot of behavior happening that they hadn't seen before. First of all , the two small bands were almost always close together, but not this close. Secondly, the dun mare had an attitude, and she should have been the lead mare, but the new pale horse...grey or palomino or palomino going grey, they weren't sure what to call her...was the first one to go into the creek.
Whatever her color, she was a big girl, well put together.
"She's a...dunalino with the grey factor...maybe" Skye mused softly.
Grace wasn't really sure.
Highlander was the last to cross.
The stallions stayed apart. The mares mingled as they chose. The bay mare seemed to have more or less adopted the black foal, or perhaps it just appeared that way because the black foal was never far from her and her own filly. That was natural. What else was he going to do?
There was no fighting over mares. Just some stamping and snorting, head tossing and eye rolling. From a distance.
The girls could see the shadow of the black foal's last few ribs. They sought to recall if he hadn't always been on the lean and lanky side. In any case, he did not appear to be suffering.
The girls put some distance between themselves, the creek and the two bands of horses. The cloud cover grew ever thicker as they watched the horses interact.
Back inside, Hobo and Skye exchanged greetings upon the girls' return. Hobo had a gash in the pad of his right front paw. It was healing quickly, but home was a better place for him today.
Skye was surprised to turn around and find Grace with covers pulled over herself.
"Are you okay?"
"I just have a chill" Grace responded. She had a bit of a sore throat too, but perhaps it would pass.
"Did you hear about all the damage to the highway from the last big rain?"
"I did" Grace said. "And there's more rain coming."
"Are you sure you're okay? The dogs don't seem to think you're okay."
"I think they just want the nice soft blanket. And the pillows...and for Baron to get off the bed because he's too big..."
But then, maybe Grace had the right idea. It was nice and toasty under the covers.
It wasn't supposed to start raining for at least another day. Grace and Skye hauled in senior feed and bedding straw, and as they approached the ranch, so did the rain.
What an amazing winter it had been. Rain and snow right into spring.
The wind blew and the chill of it turned the runoff into ice. The going would be slow, so the girls started early.
It was noon by the time they'd finished the second trip. The winds had stopped, the sun was out, the roads were no longer icy...and their first load of live cargo had for some reason chosen to head for the worst of the mud. Grace followed them, cautiously as she could, but when they got into the deep mud it was hard to navigate. They hit something that jarred the trailer hard. They heard a metallic clanking sound.
"Can you see anything?" Grace asked.
"No, I mean, the trailer is still following us, I see that..."
Grace tried to think of a comeback. They hit another bump.
"This is good enough. I'm stopping here."
Seven calves fit in the first trailer load. The remaining five wasted little time trying to catch up with them. They were clean when they went into the trailer. That was short lived once they got to Chilao. They seemed to love the water.
Despite being a very colorful bunch, Grace and Skye quietly observed that in a few moments, they seemed to blend into the landscape. Perhaps because all it took was a few moments to get covered in mud...but even the mostly white ones become one with the scenery.
Some of them it was easy to tell who their moms were. Some of them not so much.
"I can guess who some of them are...I mean whether or not they have Hereford moms" Skye said. "Do you remember who is who?"
"Pretty much" Grace said.
The black one was a pure criollo. No guesswork there.
"This..." Skye's voice trailed off.
"This is so good. This just feels...I don't know. Right. Good. I don't know how to explain it."
The calves explored the back pasture, the snow quickly giving way to mud and seasonal streams. Skye was pretty sure the grey was pure criollo. She couldn't exactly articulate why.
The girls watched the calves, mostly in silence. The Criollo, and particularly the Raramuri, were better adapted to arid environs than the more common European breeds like Hereford and Angus. Crossing them was not as ideal as having pure Criollo cattle, as the behavioral traits that made the Criollo a better fit for the western landscape might get lost in the mixing. But their weren't many Criollo cows in southern California.
"Do you want to go for a hike?" Skye asked.
Grace was pretty much exhausted from the driving. And it wasn't over yet. They still had to get to dry ground. It took her a long time to answer.
Grace hadn't really wanted to go for a walk. She was tired. But the day was glorious and there would be plenty of time for sleeping later. Before long, they heard horses. Skye couldn't quite see, and Grace was silent.
Crazy's band. And they were close. Grace's eyes widened. Skye knew something was happening but she had no idea what. She moved, slow and silent, up the rock face. They had never gotten this close to Crazy before without his awareness.
Skye could see the mare they called Lady Godiva. They were down-wind of the horses. She crept a bit higher up the rock.
Babies! And it looked like they both belonged to Lady Godiva. Roans, both of them. And the smaller one looking an awful lot like Crazy.
The bay roan foal was quite a bit smaller than the blue roan. But no less lively!
Crazy went into high alert mode. Grace nudged Skye and pointed down the rock face. Both girls ducked down as quietly and quickly as they could. Crazy was too close, and with brand new foals. Not a good time to test his patience, which he did not appear to have much of.
Skye couldn't see again. Grace got ready to switch places with her.
And then a gust of wind sent her hat flying. They froze for a moment. The hat fell into the snow, and stopped.
The horses passed right in front of them.
The foals enjoyed a frolic in the snow under the watchful eye of their herd. The horses moved past them, the girls remaining undetected.
"Well" Skye said, "are you glad we went for a walk?"
Grace laughed. "I suppose."
The BlizzardRead Now
March 3, 2023
Cabin fever had definitely set in. Something like seven feet of snow had fallen. They could not get the horses out. Even if they could, there was nowhere to go with them. It might be another day...or who knows how long...before they could get from the barn to the arena. At least repotting the plants would give them something to do.
"I guess I should have let them dry out before we did this" Grace mused.
"I saw a program about the Camargue horses of France" Skye responded. "They were naturally gentling a stallion, catching it and releasing it."
"Who is they?"
"This man...how would we describe him in modern vernacular. A maturity-enhanced equine enthusiast and resident of the Camargue."
"A old horseman, okay..."
"Anyway. They were gentling this wonderful wild stallion. They didn't show how they were catching him, but they would catch him, and he was okay with it, and then they'd slowly work with him...halter, bridle, saddle...they'd groom and feed him...then they'd let him loose again."
They examined the first extricated calla lily rhizome. It was just about ready to start growing. Nothing wrong with it.
"Do you think we should keep going?" Skye asked.
"Yeah. What else are we gonna do? Besides, if transplanting doesn't go well, we'll have a little time to try again. So. They were gentling a wild stallion?"
"Yes! A wild stallion!" Skye paused. "Oh boy. Hope we can do this without hurting the lily."
"I think we can. This one should have some kind of root ball. Hopefully it's real strong and everything will hold together. I wish you would have seen how they caught the stallion."
"That wasn't part of the program" Skye explained. They said "the stallion allows himself to be caught."
"Hmmm. Must be a young bachelor."
As Grace suspected, a well developed root ball held the soil together. Skye continued describing the show she'd watched.
"Well, kind of. The social structure of the Camargue horses is really different. They are on an island, or a big marsh, and they have no natural enemies. So they don't really need a stallion to defend them. It's a matriarchal society and the stallions probably fight with each other when there's mares in season to fight over, but not like here, where the stallions are guarding mares from everything all the time."
The girls went on to discuss how perhaps Grace could try the same with Petrichor...after all, she had brought him in when he was injured...of course that was before he had a herd of his own, or perhaps it was just the bay mare who showed up when they released him...in any case, it wasn't the same, but maybe Grace could find herself riding Petrichor some day.
And so the evening went by, and eventually the replanting job was complete.
"I feel like those spider plants are just sitting on top of the dirt" Skye said.
"They are. But they've got about eight weeks to get some roots on them, and they will."
"Think anyone will care that the succulents don't match?
"I don't think so. I do hope we get to see the calla lilies bloom though."
Everything matched again.
"So next time we see Petrichor...and who even knows where any of the horses are right now but my guess is they went to the lowest elevation they could get to..." Grace's voice trailed off.
"Next time we see him" Skye continued, "push a little farther. Try to touch the parts of his face where a halter goes and stuff like that."
Grace fell silent, wrapped in thought...staring at their potting work and thinking thoughts of taming wild stallions.
Grace noticed the light changing.
"Come on" she said, grabbing her coat. "Let's go see the alpine glow."
They lumbered through the snow. Although it had packed down considerably, it was hard work.
They went as fast as they could, quickly overheating in their respective poncho and coat, leaving them at the base of the ridgeline. By the time they had battled their way to the vista point, the alpine glow had faded. A slight breeze stirred, and after a few moments, they were no longer overheated. It was time to fetch up their warm wear again, and follow their footsteps back to the house.
"I think those are planets" Skye remarked of the two bright objects visible in the western sky, before the appearance of other stars.
The barn cats apparently also had cabin fever, and decided to switch cabins. What inspired them to brave the snow and how exactly they did it, the girls did not know, but here they were, looking quite comfortable on Skye's bed.
"If a plow can make it back here tomorrow" Grace said, "maybe we'll get some horses turned out in the arena. We'll see."
The cats were definitely settling in for the night.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning the plow truck made a pass, making a track just big enough for the long and wide Payment Queen to navigate. Everyone could get to the highway now, at last. But the plow's circular path did not connect the stables to the indoor arena, and it went through some of the deepest of the snow drifts. There was no way to get the horses out.
Monday morning dawned mostly clear. And at some point in the night, the plow had come through again, making another circular path, this time coming near enough to the stables that the girls could shovel a track from the stalls to the plowed path. No more waiting. They were going to get some horses out, even if all they did was go around in big snow plow circles.
Grace went first. Skye was surprised at her choice of mounts. Grace reminded Skye that the only thing La Barilla had ever been afraid of was ground poles. He would probably do just fine in the snow. And he did.
The big roan mare named Winchester Cathedral led the way. The sun was quite warm and soon the air temperature was 42 degrees. The snow would soon be softening.
Skye brought up the rear. It was a lovely morning. So warm was the sun that she considered taking off her poncho. Dani Girl was playful and so happy to be out.
Making solo loops around the plow track, some stallions came next, beginning with Wanderlust.
Followed by Dreamboat.
Anamar danced his way around.
The boss said there were two more horses coming. Grace and Skye waited.
Skye fairly squealed. "Oh can I hug her? She looks like a giant teddy bear!" The big buckskin shire mare was new. New to the ranch, new to snow. Of course this much snow was new to everyone.
The boss's voice rang clear in the quiet mountain morning.
"The next one might be coming a little fast..."
The girls held their breath. The mare never missed a footfall.
The boss was eager to get some pictures of the new horses. They took the big, calm shire mare out into what was usually a scrub land, transformed presently to a field of snow. There was a thick crust just beneath the freshly fallen powder, and it did not buckle under the mare's substantial weight.
"What's her name?" Skye asked the boss.
"I'm sure it's something long and complicated on her pedigree" the boss answered. We'll have to come up with a stable name for her."
It was nearly noon. The wind picked up rather suddenly. Skye was immediately grateful she had suffered with her poncho through the morning.
The appaloosa mare wasn't going to stand quietly for her portrait. La Barilla wanted to join her.
Skye was entranced. What a horse. Drinking the wind and turning it into rippling power.
She ran and ran, fenced in only by the wall of snow that the plow had left in its wake. It would be just enough.
Beautiful clouds danced across the afternoon sky. It had been a good morning, and the snow made everything magical.
Later in the afternoon, the girls headed into town, going slowly on the highway, still mostly just one emergency lane as Cal Trans worked around the clock to push back the snow.
Grace slowed as they passed by Upper Big Tujunga Canyon.
"I bet that's where the wild horses are" she said.
"I bet you're right" Skye said. "Down Alder Canyon and out of the snow line. Or at least, out of the heavy snow."
It felt good to think that way...that the horses were fine, and they'd had the sense and the ability to move to lower ground, and that they would be back again, when the snow thawed and the grass grew lush in Chilao.
Skye stepped outside with the camera, hoping to catch alpine glow on the mountains. Somehow that glow seemed dependent on clouds to reflect light. There were no clouds, but there was Coyote.
Coyote seemed lithe even in the soft snow, moving easily. Was this the old man, Lives Among Them? If it was, he looked as good and as youthful as ever.
Perhaps this was his pup from 2022. He had a notch in his ear. Did Lives Among Them have a notch? Skye could not recall. There was no alpine glow yet. Skye went back inside. Grace was pulling off her coat, as the evening was pretty warm...44 degrees.
"I've been doing some research on the Raramuri Criollo cattle" Skye said. "Do you know exactly where our bull is from? Because I don't think he's an Argentine Criollo. The way he is so gentle and people-friendly, that's the way the Raramuri people raise their cattle. As companions, believe it or not!"
"Who are the Raramuri?" Grace asked.
"It's Mikki's people! It's the Tarahumara name for themselves and it means Fleet Foot."
"I have the number of the people the boss bought him from. He was raised locally, and his owners were very proud of him. They are the ones who told me not to be afraid of him. Somehow that information didn't make it along with him."
"Two cats did!"
"Yeah...I remember that well."
"We should be able to get some horses out tomorrow" Grace said. "It's going to stay warm for the next two days. The snow is melting really fast now."
"I know! Even the coyotes are sinking into it."
The last light of day flooded into their room. Maybe Skye would try the alpine glow again.
Where a week ago was solid snow, a seasonal stream now flowed.
And squirrels ate greedily from the exposed riches of the coulter pines, eating sap and cone pedals alike, well nourished again.
Skye gazed upon the tree she had painted, when there were two of them. The other now lay on the ground, slowly to feed the soil. This tree would likely be felled also. The girls showed up as the firefighters surveyed it, chain saws in hand, having just felled the other tree. On this one there was still a small twinge of green. Less than ten percent, and not lush. But the firefighters left it, at least for that day. They knew there was little hope, but they gave it a chance. Skye thought perhaps she should do another painting of this tree alone. Before it fell or was felled.
The morning sun warmed the melting snow. It had been forty degrees overnight. Open patches of wet ground were plentiful.
Skye was still sound asleep. Grace saddled La Barilla and rode the back side of the ranch. The day was glorious. Occasionally the melting snow disappeared into sink holes along the seasonal stream beds, so the morning would not be entirely without some risk, but Grace decided to turn out some horses anyway.
The horses seemed to enjoy all of it...a mouthful of green grass here and there, spongy soil beneath their hooves, the splash of cold water.
Warm sunlight, cool water, crisp air. SKye had a hunch where Grace had gone. What fun to just watch the horses.
Grace brought up the rear, letting the horses enjoy the morning at whatever pace they chose. La Barilla looked comfortable under saddle, comfortable in the water...Grace was making him into a versatile, purposeful horse.
"Sleeping Beauty! Good Morning!"
"You want to pick the next herd of horses to turn out?"
"Sure! Can we turn out some ponies?"
But as the girls made their way back to the stables, their domestic horses started giving them clues that there was something out there. Out beyond the boundaries of the ranch, in the wild country.
So instead of turning out ponies, Grace changed ponchos to blend in better with the landscape, and the girls made their way across the swiftly melting snow, hoping what they would encounter would indeed be wild horses.
Petrichor and his band appeared first.
Followed more closely than usual by Highlander with his two mares.
The girls stayed where they were, Skye struggling to keep her footing in the soft, saturated soil.
The bay mare turned around. The pale mare was missing. Grace and Skye watched and waited, expecting to see her at any moment.
Highlander and his mares turned back. Petrichor came slowly toward the girls.
"See if you can touch him" Skye whispered. "He already comes to you. You've so got this. He's going to be your next golden stallion."
"We'll see" she whispered back.
Petrichor moved toward the girls ever so slowly. Like dancing in place.
"My beautiful" Grace said, "where is your pale mare? The watcher? You look well and fit. We're so glad to see you."
Petrichor stayed just tantalizingly beyond reach.
Grace thought to stretch out a hand, then decided not to. She would let Petrichor come in. She would let him make the first contact. He did come quite close.
And then he turned away, to join his herd.
They watched and waited. Perhaps the pale mare was just out of sight, beyond the snow bank. Soon the horses vanished.
"You want to get wet from liquid water, or wet from snow?" Skye asked.
"I'm already pretty wet" Grace said. "Liquid water. At least we won't have to climb it."
Skye paused to study a feather in the snow.
And then another, and another. A scrub jay had likely become someone's dinner. Somehow the feathers were less enchanting now, and Skye wondered if it was a sign. Had something bad happened to the pale mare.
When had they seen the mare last? Skye remembered where. Just not when. She hunted through images on the laptop.
"January 30 was the last time we saw her" She told Grace. "And the first time we saw Highlander's new mare, remember?"
"Wow" Grace responded. "January 30...six weeks ago already...they could have been so many places in that six weeks. Where would we even begin to look?"
Skye closed the laptop. Where would they look? She had no idea. The forest was huge, and wild from the moment you stepped outside.
"Hey" Grace said, "do you still want to take out the sled? I can saddle up Jesse..."
"Are you sure? Maybe while we're out sledding we can look for my hat..."
Skye didn't answer.
Skye went to the creek behind the fire station. Sometimes dry for whole years, usually no more than a pleasant gurgle after rain or snow, today it roared and resounded with deep, plunging tones.
She hoped the sound of the water would wash away her thoughts, but it did not. Where was the pale mare? And what would happen to her foal?
Evening brought more clouds. Rain was coming. It might be days before they could even attempt to go looking for the missing wild mare.
Skye surveyed the dusk landscape. The rain had finally stopped. Seven feet of snow washed away.
The lone tree stood over its fallen sibling. Skye wanted to imagine she could see the tracks of a lone mare in the snow. But no. It was St. Patrick's Day...but then Skye wasn't Irish. There was no sign of wild horses. Any wild horses. Just spongy ground and the song of moving water.
From the stillness a gust of wind came. That wind that reminds you how impartial nature is. A grand movement, not about the individual, but about whole epic processes and constant change. Nature wasn't like people imagined it, gentle and forever enduring. It wasn't like that at all. Well, hopefully the forever enduring part, but for sure not gentle.
February 1, 2023
The rules for NaMoPaiMo - National Model Painting Month's International Painting Party - were few this year. Medallions and wall sculpture was acceptable. Grace eyed a piece the boss had offered up. She thought it was an Akhal Teke, by Rayvin Maddock. It was slightly larger than life-sized, and fabulous.
There was also a wonderful American Saddlebred by a European artist whose name the boss could not remember. Grace wasn't sure she could do these sculpts justice. But they would temporarily transform the tack room into an art space, as they had done a couple times before, and give it a try.
Also acceptable for NaMoPaiMo this year was finishing unfinished pieces. Skye had been looking at the orange horse since last year. They had tried out a new earth pigment on him and it was very rich and saturating.
"I bet you could do a gorgeous pinto on that Saddlebred" Skye said.
Grace shot her a look.
"Oh yeah, no more pintos" Skye whispered. "Ha! Just kidding!"
It was an absolutely glorious day in Chilao, as beautiful as any the girls could remember.
But everywhere they turned, there were linemen, contractors for Southern California Edison; in trucks, on the ground with jackhammers, operating augers and the like. The work on the power lines was welcome, but all of it was happening in the immediate vicinity, and it was a bit much.
"What if we rode across the station and then up the hill?"
Grace considered it.
La Barilla had no issues with rough terrain. It was tempting. And sooner or later she'd need to get her mount accustomed to things like big trucks. But her gut said don't do it.
They went to the arena instead, without any real plan.
"You know what we should do for MIM?" Skye asked.*
"I have a feeling you're going to tell me..."
"A performance challenge. Because isn't it a halter show?"
Grace laughed. "What are you envisioning?"
"I don't have a clue. But let's do something. A speed challenge or something."
Grace was liking the idea.
There was an empty spot on the wall. A little glue left behind from a previously attached banner. Curious.
The art supplies arrived. Grace was eager to get started on the wall sculpture. The conversion of the tack room would begin now.
"Yup. Hopefully enough to cover the saddles too."
"We've used mica powders before without this much precaution."
"Not on anything this big."
Skye thought Grace was being a bit overly cautious perhaps, but whatever. It was time to get busy on the NaMo projects, and if Grace wanted to cover the world in plastic first, fine.
The resin sculpt Skye was also working on was seriously heavy. She pushed it with effort close to the saddles, so it too could be underneath the tarp.
The girls surveyed their tarp work.
"Couple pieces of tape and we're good to go" Grace said.
Grace bathed the Akhal Teke bust in a swath of bronze mica powder, using a foam "brush" designed for house painting. It wasn't the perfect tool, but it was wide and carried the fine powder. It was good enough. The results were pleasing. But a problem became immediately evident. The palettes were difficult to navigate. You either had to stand on them and risk knocking over the sculpture, or lean way over to paint.
Skye made short work of the palettes. As she did, Grace realized the ground wasn't going to be a perfect solution either. She would live with it for tonight.
And so they worked on their first wall sculptures, Skye using copper mica powder, Grace using bronze.
"Is it just me" Skye said, "...or do they both look pink?"
Grace rocked back and forth from side to side, trying to catch the light falling on the pieces at a different angle. Finally she conceded.
"You are correct. They look pink. Let's quit for tonight. Maybe they'll look better tomorrow."
It was cold and windy outside, so the girls worked on their NaMoPaiMo InPaPa projects. But Skye wasn't pleased with the resin drafter.
"I used pan pastels for the dark color" she explained, "and I just don't feel like I can control them. They go on so dark. I think I ruined him."
"I really like your dappling" Grace said.
"Yeah but, I mean, thank you but, he went grainy on this side...either too much pastel or too much sealer, I don't know..."
"Go another layer of the dark" Grace said. Then if you still don't like him, you can always make him a roan. I think he's going to be fine once you get a little farther. Do his gray areas and get his back darker...you'll be all right."
They turned their attention to the American Saddlebred wall sculpture. "This guy...this is just the first layer of pan pastel. Too soon to say anything about it."
And then Grace's Akhal Teke. "I'm loving this guy" Skye said. "Do you like him Grace?"
"I do. I think the next layer I do will be a very light yellow. There's some wrinkles on his lip that aren't actually wrinkles, they are tiny little imperfections, and I'm not sure what I'm going to fill them with, but hopefully I can find a filler that will blend in and not mess up the color."
Puddle Jumper, Grace's first and last acrylic pinto, was finally done. At least for now. Chances are i a month she would look at it again and still not be satisfied.
"Did you see that we're hosting a performance challenge at MIM?"**
"I did" Grace said. "I guess the boss liked your idea."
"Apparently so! But I wasn't expecting that she'd make us the hosts! How cool is that? And umm, what does it mean, to be the hosts?"
"It means we'll sort of be running the performance challenge. Or at least keeping it on track. Or maybe even timing the timed events."
"And what about you riding other people's horses for a fee?"
"So, that just means that if someone shows up with a horse they want to compete with, but they don't have anyone with them to ride the horse, I can ride it for them. As long as it's western and not fancy get-up western."
"I think it's going to be a blast" Skye said.
On the south side of Chilao, the wind blew cold. Grace and Skye were worn down from it. It had been blowing for days, just hard enough to make things unpleasant. But on the north side, in the picnic area, all was calm.
So they took the big red truck that Grace liked to refer to as The Pavement Queen, and they went to the north side of Chilao where there were more trees, and sunshine, and far less wind.
"This is so luxurious" Skye said as they crossed the creek, meandering slowly through the picnic area.
"Are you looking for something Grace?"
"Sand" she answered. "Good sand."
The best sand in Chilao was presently under water, and being trampled daily by line workers in big auger trucks.
There was no shortage of sand in the forest. They came upon quite a bit of it.
But it was coarse, rocky...not at all what Grace was hoping to find. They returned to the south side, to the ranch.
When they returned, the wind had finally ceased, and the day was lovely, and beginning to warm. A variety of soil types eroded down onto the ranch property from Yucca Peak. Grace decided to investigate the red stuff. She had thought it to be some kind of clay a few weeks ago, when the ground was saturated to such degree that riding out to inspect it was impossible.
Dry now, they found a quite different scenario. The ground had frozen several times before it dried, and the going was difficult. They went slowly.
"This might not have been the greatest outing for this old girl" Skye lamented.
"Do you think she needs her blanket today, now that the wind stopped?"
"She loves her blanket" Skye said. "But no, I don't think she needs it. Especially not being black."
The line workers were operating helicopters from the fire station, but working elsewhere in the forest.
La Barilla was untroubled by the rough ground, which gave to a kind of gravelly powder under his hooves. Skye and the old black mare were a bit slower, but it looked like Skye might have been enduring more hardship than her horse.
"Do you suppose this is where red ocher comes from?" Skye asked.
"I don't know" Grace said. "It looks like it might be decomposed granite. Or decomposing granite, maybe. Or clay and granite combined."
"What makes the red color...iron?"
"I think so. Maybe. I don't know. But this isn't going to be any good for arena sand either."
"Oh heck no" Skye responded.
Grace watched the helicopters working, skirting around them, around the buildings, making short trips to move poles, then landing again.
"You are more concerned about those helicopters than the horses are" Skye laughed.
Skye needed to keep her head down, watching her footfalls on the rough terrain.
"Why don't you ride that horse" Grace suggested. "She's not struggling near as much as you are, and we'll find an easier way back."
Skye used a rock outcropping to give herself some height. The old black mare was very tall. And fortunately, patient.
They went along, slow and careful. The day had gone glorious. Any day on a horse was glorious, but today was especially so.
February 18, in Skye's studio
Skye had fallen rather silent on her NaMoPaiMo projects after the boss knocked down the resin drafter while it was wet with sealer. The damage couldn't really be fixed except by going even darker on th top line. Grace seemed to think it was a happy accident.
"I think you've the color pretty much spot on. But what I'm not seeing too much on this horse is dappling." Grace had made color prints of two pictures of a horse very much the build and color of the piece Skye was working on. There were no dapples to speak of, just light and dark reds.
"This might be the same horse" Grace said. "I got these off the internet and there wasn't much information to go with them. This guy is in his winter coat so I wouldn't expect to see dappling here. The pangare on the eye and muzzle is really nice. I'm not sure you could get the effect around the eye at this point, but you've got room for it on the muzzle. Good thing you didn't listen to me and make it gray. All in all I think your piece is looking lovely. But let's give this a rest for a bit. The boss said we should come down to the indoor arena."
When they arrived, the arena lights were off. The girls could see there was a horse in the arena. Then something like a spotlight came on, following the dancing horse.
Anamar. In what appeared to be traditional regalia. They stood, quietly, and watched the stallion move under saddle, riderless. Then Grace took the reins, and a stirrup, and swung herself up.
"This is a sweet saddle" Grace said. "Generous seat, sits well down on the horse."
The boos continues to offer them the romantic spotlight, following Grace and Anamar around the arena.
There was just enough daylight left to go outside, so they did.
"Where did his regalia come from? Africa?" Skye asked.
"No" Grace answered. "Denmark. From Shandi Gabriiella Cristel Bech." It took Skye a long time to respond.
The girls decided to come in before dark. Something had been prowling around the night before, and they had no desire to meet up with it.
"Did I tell you I talked to the boss about the performance challenge at MIM?" Grace asked.
"No you didn't."
"I asked what all we would need to do. She laughed and said 'pretty much everything.' But, the cool thing is, we will for sure be responsible for the cattle wrangling."
"Calves, to be more precise. That whole part of the operation will be up to us."
"I'm down! We'll be real cowgirls!"
The tack room was a bit crowded.
Calla lilies weren't made for sub-zero weather coupled with a blizzard warning. So the girls brought them inside. Along with all the current NaMoPaiMo projects. The calla lily project was a bit frustrating. Very few pairs of pots had well matched callas.
And two of the plants were clearly not going to follow the bonsai script. Their leaves were huge. Healthy, lovely...but huge, and their partner pots...nothing.
Skye's Saddlebred wall art was not too much farther along.
"This one is not going to get done any time soon" Skye said. "I'm okay with it. This one will be a slow and patient affair."
And obviously working dark to light had gotten frustrating on her drafter.
"I'm not as scared as I should be" Skye said.
"I don't think you need to be scared" Grace said. "I was wondering if you shouldn't do another pangare coat around the eyes. Just to make sure it's smooth and consistent."
They moved on to look at Grace's Akhal Teke. "Time for the eye" Skye said.
"It should be blue, right?"
"Yes" Grace said. "And I should be able to get all kinds of detail in it, because it's huge."
"Are ya skeered?"
Grace thought about it for a moment.
And then they looked at the pots of calla lilies - twenty of them. This project was not going to plan. "Are you still thinking of giving these as prizes at MIM?"
"Yes" Grace responded. "I don't know how well people are going to like us for it...they are heavy, I'm not crazy about the soil we used, and they need so much water. And sunlight but not heat. They have until the end of this month to sprout. Then I think we should replace the ones that haven't sprouted with succulents."
"You did it! Congratulations!"
Grace had completed her Akhal Teke bust for NaMoPaiMo.
She wanted to add some shading, but she was stumped for a color choice.
Skye had, for the moment, lost interest in her NaMo projects, likely because neither one of them was near completion, and neither one of them were giving her an easy ride.
Cabin fever had definitely set in. Something like seven feet of snow had fallen. They could not get the horses out. Even if they could, there was nowhere to go with them. It might be another day...or who knows how long...before they could get from the barn to the arena. At least repotting the plants would give them something to do. And so they did. Seven feet of snow in Chilao...and more on the way...who ever heard of that?
*MIM - Models in the Mountains live halter show and equine enthusiast's retreat at Chilao School
**Performance Challenge at MIM - this will be a high point, NAN qualifier full class list of performance classes. The horse accumulating the most points across performance classes will take home a large custom rosette.
Winter and the Wild ThingsRead Now
January 4, 2023
Grace found Skye in her studio. She brought Charles the beagle along, who had spent most of the last two weeks living with the boss. Grace assumed the introduction would go well. Skye hadn't met a dog she didn't like yet. But Skye was not the problem. Charles had bonded to Grace. Pretty much from the moment they met. Even living in the main house, Charles was simply passing the days and moments waiting to be with Grace.
"Whatcha workin on?" Grace asked.
Skye let out a heavy sigh.
"Nothing. I'm stuck. I'm...I'm...stuck. I feel...cluttered up. I really wan the stuff I've already done to sell."
"Well, we aren't very aggressive with the marketing" Grace said. "Are you wanting to sell this piece?"
Grace looked at the smallest of Skye's paintings, done on canvas with watercolor pencils and a water wash.
"Yes. But I think I priced it too high because it's my favorite."
"Mine too" Grace said. "That's why I don't think you should sell it. This was your first ever piece, plein air no less! Carried around on horseback even. We should figure out how to hang it somewhere. So that problem is solved. Let's move on to the next piece."
They stood next before the trio of terra cotta deer that Skye had painted, symbolically, to be a part of the landscape.
"The deer. I love them too. But for sure I want to sell them" Skye said.
"Okay. Well, maybe we just aren't marketing them right."
"Right. How to market them. Hummmm..." Skye's thoughts trailed off...
"This is another piece I love" Grace said. She stood before the rather larger forest night sky in deep blue. "Maybe we should hang this in the arena. Then it would be out of your way. If it sells, great, if not, at least it will be on display."
Then they came to the golden horse in the night sky. "I can't stand this one" Skye said. "It just needs to go away."
"Then give it away."
"What if no one wants it? How awful would that be?" Skye wrinkled up her face.
"Somebody will take it off of your hands. Tell them the story about the bear teeth marks on the back side. And offer free shipping."
Charles meanwhile had finally wandered a few feet away from Grace.
"Oh look" Skye said. "Charles got brave. He seems to like the deer."
January 7, evening
The light was fading quickly. The pair of grulla horses, built so much like Petrichor and similarly gentle, trotted around the arena in the sun's final glory. Grace seemed a little quiet.
"Let's see if we can get some good pictures of them" Grace said, but her voice lacked enthusiasm.
The two horses were nearly identical. Skye looked at Grace, seeking an answer without asking. It was obvious Grace wasn't quite herself. Grace pointed with her face toward the slightly lighter colored of the two horses.
"The boss is thinking of selling this one." Both Grace's tone and her expression indicated her displeasure with the idea.
Skye didn't know what to say. She wanted to keep all the horses. Forever.
As the sun's last rays lit the landscape, the girls took the pinto sport horse out into the arena, without his paso fino sidekick. He seemed slightly unsure of himself, but he looked stunning in warm light just the same.
The air had a damp chill. Back inside, Skye donned her new favorite poncho, and showed Grace some leather samples for her saddles that the boss had given her.
There was a light golden deer hide, a white leather, Grace was unsure what its origin was, and a piece of leather that was somewhat reminiscent of suede and a reddish color.
Charles the beagle, meanwhile, had met the rest of the pack. He remained focused on Grace, for the most part politely ignoring everyone else.
"I wish it was a lighter color" Grace said, but I'm pretty sure this is my favorite." She took the bit of deerskin and held it around various parts of the women's saddle.
"The white would be gorgeous too, and more fitting if this is just going to be a parade saddle. Is this just going to be parade saddle?"
Skye shrugged. "I...I don't know. I don't think so. How often are we in parades aside from dressing up the ranch horses and leading them around?"
Grace laughed. "Good point."
Grace drew her soft blanket around her shoulders. Immediately her bed began to fill with dogs. Charles was hoping to be one of them.
"I'm not sure bed sharing is going to be a hit right out of the gate" Grace mused.
Skye scooped Charles up. " He can sleep with me tonight. I know he'd rather be with you, but he'll survive."
The rain hadn't yet begun but it was cool and damp and the cloud cover was building. They would get more rain, perhaps even snow. Wonderful, blessed, magical, life-giving water. Skye heaved the big watercolor pad up onto the table.
"I probably shouldn't have used the good paper for sketching" she said, "but I just love how it feels."
"You're forgiven" Grace said. "Use the good paper whenever you want to. Better by far than not using it. Calves?"
"Yes" Skye replied.
"They have really weird bodies" Skye lamented. "They don't really bend like a horse. And they have a strange chest shape and really bizarre hips." Skye was right. Cattle were weird shaped creatures. Nothing like a horse.
Grace had an idea.
It seemed like a good idea anyway. By the time they had found Mojo and messed around with draft horse halters trying to find one to fit Toro Tor Taxi's great big head, the wind had come up, and the rain began. The gusts of wind were so strong they found themselves leaning on the bull to keep their balance. Mojo was not impressed with the plan. The bull did not seem to mind.
In the arena, the Argentine Criollo bull moved about for five or perhaps ten minutes at the most before settling down.
"Can you get him to stay real close to the wall?" Skye asked. "I want to see if I can ride him. Just for a second."
Grace feigned a Scottish accent.
"Have ye lost yer mind woman? In case you haven't noticed, that's not a horse. It's got horns and all."
"He'd probably be fine" Skye answered. "Besides. All this rain. We could use a little excitement around here."
"You just fell off a pony not too long ago, wasn't that enough?"
"That was last year already!"
"I don't know" Grace said. "I think I'd stick to trying to draw him."
A light mist covered the forest. The ranch horses were restless, looking out into the shrouded woods, vocalizing. The girls knew it probably meant there were wild horses out there somewhere.
They decided to go looking, on foot, taking their cues from the ranch horses about which direction to go. Quietly, they headed toward Mustang Rock. Every now and then they would catch a sound. And then rather suddenly there they were. The color guard, Skye called them. Crazy's small but very flashy harem.
"Can they see us?" Grace whispered, not wanting to move too much.
Crazy appeared just then, on a rocky ridge, above his mares and foal.
"I would say yes, Crazy just saw us" Skye whispered.
He was the smallest of all the wild stallions, and the one Grace was a little leery of. He was all stallion and all wild.
"If he comes any too much closer, be ready to jump up and look big" Grace said softly.
"Or run away screaming..." Skye replied.
Crazy came no closer. He made it clear he didn't like company. But then he turned his back to the girls and rejoined his herd as the mist became a light rain.
It was a brief but exciting encounter and Skye was in no mood to go home.
"Let's go see the creek" she said. Grace agreed. Their path was riddled with pools of water. Some of them could be skirted. Others not.
"Whoop!" Skye slipped into the water. It was cold. Not quite snow melt cold, but definitely not warm.
They made their way to a tributary of Chilao Creek that ran through the fire station and then down past Mustang Rock and into Coyote Canyon. The sound of the water. Soothing and alive and mesmerizing.
Then home again. The ground was too saturated for riding and the rain and mist was cold. The girls bought horses down to the arena. They were enamored with the new Amazigh stallion.
He seemed hesitant to move around much, so Grace went about with him to help loosen him up.
"Maybe it's the blanket" Skye said.
"Maybe" Grace answered.
The next horse Grace brought down was the pinto Morgan cross. "Moose!" Skye had a fondness for the big, flashy boy. He was kind and easy going, collected and strong.
Jesse needed no encouragement. The little palomino mustang was high energy and the chance to stretch out in the area was welcome.
Dream Boat was next, the golden Friesian horse. Grace seemed to have a thing for the golden horses, and they for her.
The big bay Akhal Teke was next. They had not spent too much time with him since his arrival. He was spectacular, agile, eating up the ground with his big stride.
"What's his name?" Skye asked.
"Aahhh, his name...I can't remember."
"It should have something to do with beauty and speed" Skye said.
The final horse of the afternoon was an appaloosa. yet another gleaming golden blaze of beauty. Most of the horses had a registered name and a stable name. But there were getting to be a lot of horses. "Don't ask me his name." Grace offered, "No matter what it is, it wouldn't do him justice."
Grace had saddles and saddle stands filling the room. She studied one that was very ornate and highly unusual. And blue. Skye had never seen anything like it.
"What is it?"
"It's either for a Peruvian Paso or a Paso Fino. I can't remember which" Grace said. "Robbie Ramirez helped me identify it. I was thinking of trying it on Anamar. He has such a high neck and a short back."
Skye rested a hand on the western saddle by Fiona Covert. Which was much too long for Anamar and slightly too wide...but Skye loved the saddle.
"It says "AMAN" Grace noted, referring to the blue saddle. "I don't know who that is. I thought the saddle was by Alice Malcolm, but then the initials don't make sense. Anyway. We'll see if it fits tomorrow."
"So" Skye said, "do you have your NaMoPaiMo International Painting Party pony picked?"
Grace sighed. "Nope. Not a clue. How about you?"
The wind howled outside, making every rivulet and slow stream of water freeze, driving the temperature down to 20 degrees. It was definitely a good day to have an enclosed arena, but it was still chilly inside, and Grace rather wished she'd brought her coat.
Skye was running back and forth enough to build some body heat. There was no saddle pad for the blue saddle, and the english saddle pad they had was too small, so Skye grabbed a bareback pad, but the square saddle skirts reached beyond the pad.
"It's okay" Skye said. "I'll get a blanket."
Anamar followed Skye for inside the arena with interest. Skye dashed off to get a blanket. This was going to be another mash-up of tack that was never meant to go together.
Skye returned in short order. "Think it'll work?"
The girls tried. The blue saddle didn't fit him. The length of it was good, but it was too wide, and it needed a custom saddle pad. No amount of tightening the cinch would get it to sit securely.
"Oh well" Grace said. "We tried. Let's take it off."
The saddle didn't work, but the stallion was already bridled, and expecting to be ridden.
"Give me a leg up" Grace said.
"That's the spirit" Skye teased.
Grace preferred a saddle. She could ride without one, but unlike Skye, she'd learned to ride in a saddle and it was her preference. Beneath her, the stallion danced.
"His back is round but narrow even though his ribs are well sprung" Grace said. "Reminds me of riding Lightning for the first time. All those gaits I wasn't used to and no saddle and he was green broke..."
Her voice trailed off as they moved around the arena. He was not gaited, but there was a swiftness to his footfalls. He was gathered and ready to move out. Grace was careful not to give him a reason to prove his speed or agility.
"He's a ton of horse. I feel like he could do dressage. I definitely want to put a saddle on him. I don't care what kind of saddle, just one that fits."
January 29, 4:30 PM
Grace and Baron cut through the school on their way back up the hill to the ranch. As Grace closed the door she heard a noise. Baron heard it too. At first she thought perhaps it was the door squeaking, but they heard it two more times. Baron headed toward the sound, coming from the other side of the driveway to the south, just out of sight, in or perhaps just beyond the seasonal stream that last week still gurgled with water. It sounded like a kitten. A big kitten. Or perhaps a bobcat. Then there was another noise, coming from the north. Loud, like a short blast from the whistle of a yard duty teacher, part whistle, part chirp. Baron heard it but registered no reaction. Grace knew the sound from the videos they'd watched. it was a mountain lion. And likely so was the sound Baron was keyed into. A youngster. Grace slammed the school door firmly shut, making as much noise as she could with it; called Baron out, reached for his collar, realized he was not wearing one. They made their way back to the house, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, but knowing they were not alone.
She relayed the story of the cougar sounds to Skye as her hands examined the men's saddle tree.
"Maybe that's why there haven't been too many coyotes around" Skye mused, secretly glad that Grace's story was all about sounds and not sightings.
"I wanted to take Anamar to the indoor arena while it was still light out" Grace said, "but maybe tonight isn't a good night to do it."
"Did you find a saddle to fit him?"
"Grace smiled. "Maybe. I was thinking maybe this one."
"Oh!!! That's a great idea!"
"Well, since it's your saddle tree, I'm glad you think it's a good idea."
"Can we try it on him in the barn?"
"We could, I suppose."
"Do you think it's safe for us to walk to the barn?"
"I think so. I think we should leave the dogs behind though. If they get away from us and go after the cat, or its scent, it could be bad."
"Let me get my poncho" Skye said. "I look much bigger in my poncho."
In the barn, Anamar danced about but allowed the girls to rest the saddle tree, and another mismatched blanket, on his back.
"The length of the tree is good" Grace said, "but it's too wide."
"Can it be shaped? With heat maybe?"
"I don't know. We'll have to ask Maedb Esposito. She made the saddle tree. This is her design, after studying Native American saddle trees from the plains."
it was early Monday morning. The forest was silent. The snow had come in the wee hours of morning, a fine powder, so light, so magical, and deep. The girls stood for a while in silence, until Skye spoke.
"We should go look and see if we can find any tracks. Mountain lion tracks."
"I need to get my coat if we're going to stay out much longer" Grace responded.
They found fresh tracks right away, but they were coyote tracks. The coyotes had come through probably not long before them. Two of them, working as a team, looking to scare up or scrape up breakfast.
The girls crossed over the coyote tracks and headed up the draw. They knew where they were, and they knew they would be on more or less open ground the way they were headed. But the deep snow made everything look so different. And it made the going difficult. Skye donned the grey and white poncho, hoping to harmonize with the landscape. The wind started to pick up and clouds moved swiftly across the sky.
And then, suddenly, soundlessly, Petrichor's band was in front of them, coming down the draw toward them.
They had encountered each other this way enough times now that the pale mare did not immediately flee. She moved away, picking her footing carefully.
While the mares and foals moved away, Petrichor drew closer. A light snow began to fall and the wind blew flurries of powder about.
Petrichor took several more steps toward the girls. But the draw was not completely smooth beneath the snow, and a deep drift lay between them. He stopped before the drift, his attention torn between Grace and his herd.
"He looks really good" Skye said in a soft voice. When the sun broke through the cloud cover for a moment, Petrichor glowed golden against the snow.
He did not linger long, making his way back to the mares and foals who waited for him a short distance away.
Although the cloud layer was thin, waves of snow washed over the mountains. The girls had only gone a few steps forward when three more horses came into view. Highlander and his band.
A new mare. Highlander had a second mare now. The girls watched in silence. She was pale in color. Palomino? Grey? They couldn't tell. She was pretty.
The dun mare was as full of herself as ever.
Grace took a step forward to get a better look, and slipped into a hole. Highlander and the mares turned abruptly.
"Are you all right?"
Grace laughed. "Yeah, I'm fine. So much for stealth."
The mares continued in the direction that Petrichor and his band had gone. Highlander made sure the girls did not follow. The clouds danced across the sky, creating ever changing light.
The horses headed back into the cover of the scrub, Highlander and his mares following Petrichor's band at a respectful distance. It was safer for both small bands to be in close proximity to each other, and the stallions had obviously worked out their boundaries with regard to the mares. After they passed, Skye noticed something just beyond the horse-trampled snow. tracks that were not coyote, or human, or horse. They were made while the snow was still falling, and so they were impossible to distinguish with certainty. She could say that whatever animal it was, it was walking, slow and deliberate, and like the coyotes, searching through the brush.
Grace and Skye studied the tracks for a good while.
"This is where the sound came from" Grace said, "the shrill, chirping whistle. Sounded for all the world like a human noise. Baron didn't recognize it at all."
Sometimes there were one set of tracks, sometimes two sets. There was too much new snow...and Skye could not blow the new accumulation off of the original print to get a better look...to say for sure what they were looking at. But its legs were long enough that it went through deep snow without leaving a drag mark. It had four legs, and it was large. That is all they could say for sure.
The wind picked up, the sky cleared, and the cold air nipped at the girls. They headed home, leaving the land and its mysteries for another day.
December 31, 2022
A light rain began to fall. Grace rode the golden stallion up to the horse trailer. La Barilla was starting to get the hang of things, taking new situations in stride more and more often.
"Do you think he'll be afraid of the trailer?"
"I don't think so" Grace said. "He came here in a trailer, not too long before I came on board, and I don't remember any crazy stories about the experience."
Grace maneuvered him easily to the ramp. He started up. She halted him, and had him back for a few steps.
"I think he would have gone right in" Grace said.
In the arena, the girls set up a series of poles, and their one and only barrel at the end. La Barilla seemed comfortable and focused. Left turns were still a bit bumpy, but not quite as bad as they were in the beginning.
Skye decided to try riding a pony.
"This is harder than it looks! She's so narrow, I feel like I could fall off at any moment! And when I squeeze with my legs to hold on, she goes faster!"
The girls took turns weaving through the poles and around the barrel. Now on his left turns...that's where La Barilla was starting to shine.
The little pony was nimble and quick. Skye was getting the hang of sitting on her narrower-than-a-horse back. And then the pony did what ponies the world over occasionally do. Instead of going around the pole to the left, she changed it up, and went right. Skye tried to save herself by grabbing a hand full of mane, but it was too late. The ground was approaching.
The sand was deep, and thick, and tasted like sand.
"Are you okay?" Grace called out.
Skye spit out some sand.
The pony...Grace tried to remember her name...Princess? Goldie Locks? appeared to be having a fine time without Skye. She loped right up to La Barilla...and then turned abruptly. Grace lunged for her reins.
"Good catch!" Skye trotted up to retrieve her pony. She took the reins of her make-shift bridle...as they did not own any proper riding gear small enough to fit a pony...and ran with her pony back to the other end of the arena.
"You little rascal" she said to her feisty mount, "let's try that again!"
Grace gave La Barilla a well deserved pat on the neck. "You'll make a ranch horse yet" Grace said to him in praise.
Skye and the princess pony took another pass at the poles, at a slow lope, and all went smoothly.
Before they were done for the evening, Skye turned out Precious and Mista Spot.
"You know" Grace said, it's actually not that cold. This is a pretty warm storm."
"Yeah," Skye replied, "but these two...they never throw me. They deserve a little pampering."
The mail hadn't come yet, and it was getting late. Grace had ordered Skye's Christmas gift in October, but it had been put in the wrong box at the post office. There was nothing she could do but order again, and wait. If it didn't come...well, there was this guy. Charles. An adorable beagle. This time it was the boss who brought a new dog home. He was a mature male, not very big, and Grace wasn't sure about his back legs...but Skye would love him just the same.
And then there was this package from Michelle Sepiol. Maybe she could hand it to Skye on December 25. the beagle was going to be harder to keep under wraps.
Grace sat on the edge of the pallet stack. Charles jumped up. The leap surprised her. Maybe his legs were okay. That was a pretty big jump for a pretty small...and rather clingy...beagle.
And then at last, it came. The box was light, but big and awkward.
The women's saddle tree was on top. Grace was struck by the narrow seat it afforded. Fortunately, Skye was thin. And flexible.
The men's saddle tree was next. Grace thought this would likely be the one Skye used the most.
The stirrups were way at the bottom.
There were more than two sets of stirrups. She didn't know what the larger ones were called but she knew they went with the women's saddle. At least, that's what she'd seen in pictures.
Then Grace found the stirrups she'd ordered. Then she noticed there was still something in the box.
Another set of stirrups. Maedb Esposito had taken exceptionally good care of them with the saddle trees and stirrup molds.
All at once Charles let out a big, hound-like bark.
'Whoa there little guy. Don't worry. Skye will love you just as much no matter what else she gets for Christmas."
Skye made it down to the tack room without Grace noticing. she'd have to hurry to get Grace's gift wrapped. The dogs milled about, smelling everything. Skye wondered what it was that caught their interest.
Ribbon. She needed ribbon. There was rope on the floor. That would work. But the shiny garland from the fence...that would be even better.
"Come on you guys, let's get out of here."
Grace made her way to the tack room without Skye noticing. She had barely finished wrapping Skye's gifts when she returned.
The red fabric caught Skye's attention immediately.
"Oh that's pretty."
Grace responded, apologetically. "That's yours, except I made a royal disaster out of it. I wanted to make you a poncho like the one you gave to Elecktra, but it's just a hot mess."
Grace went on apologizing about the bad cuts along the edges and the head hole that was big enough for a pony.
"It's so soft" Skye said in a fabric-muffled voice.
She pulled her head through. "I love it. It's perfect." She held out one arm. And then the other. And then she danced, twirling the home-made poncho like a fancy shawl.
The other cloth item was lovely too.
"This is just a blanket."
"It seems to be stuck. Skye, give me a hand pulling it back."
The blanket was stuck on something with two round prominences. At last they freed it. Skye was, for a moment, speechless. She knew what she was looking at. A saddle tree. Resin, fabricated, yes. Not the wood one she wanted to gather and shape and bind from scratch. But a lovely women's saddle tree.
Finally she spoke.
"Yeah. Guess you're going to learn how to make a saddle."
So many thoughts were going through Skye's head.
"Come on" Grace said, "I made a second poncho after I butchered the one you're wearing."
Skye could see the second saddle tree beneath the poncho. It was surreal. She was excited, but also numb.
"They came with stirrups too" Grace explained. "You have a lot of stirrup options."
Skye looked at the saddle tree, then at Grace.
The head hole on the second poncho was still big enough for a pony. Skye didn't care. This one didn't have quite as much flow for dancing. She loved it just the same.
"Let's go turn out some horses."
"But I have a present for you too!"
"We'll come back for it in a little bit."
And so they did. Grace studied her gift. It was heavy, gorgeous, unlike any piece of art they owned.
"The boss found it. She thought it looked like Petrichor and said you should have it."
It did look like Petrichor. Her wild stallion heart horse. Grace studied her gift. It was heavy, beautiful, made with precise lines, very stylized.
"The boss found it. She thought it looked like Petrichor and said you should have it."
It did look like Petrichor. Her wild stallion heart horse.
"Thank you so much Skye. it's amazing. I've never seen anything quite like it." She paused for a moment.
"You know, if the horses ever get rounded up, i'm going to say Petrichor is mine, an escapee from the ranch."
"Do you think the horses will ever get rounded up?"
"I don't know. But i'm not going to leave Petrichor in the hands of the government, or anyone else. Not if I can help it."
The boss had also done some Christmas shopping. Skye tried to guess his breed.
"Moroccan barb" she decided after some careful observation.
"Excellent guess" Grace responded. "And closer to the truth than my best guess."
"What did you guess?"
"Something something Spanish. Or part Spanish."
"So...what is he?"
"An Amazigh. An African breed, ancient, fairly rare, but influential in the creation of many European horse breeds. Until recently the breed would have been referred to as a Berber. Or possibly Moroccan Barb, I'm not entirely sure. So your guess - Moroccan Barb...it would not surprise me if we found out that there's a relationship there."
Skye watched Grace interacting with the rather fabulous stallion.
"Careful now. You'll have another favorite stallion soon..."
Making Merry and the Magic of SnowRead Now
Skye and Grace surveyed their work. Twenty pots, ten sets of two, planted with calla lily rhizomes. There were still plenty more rhizomes and plenty more pots, but the girls stopped at twenty. They already weren't sure what they were going to do with the twenty pots they had.
The red truck was big. A very different driving experience than the little Jeep.
"Can you see over the hood?" Skye was stretching her neck as far as she could to get a good view.
"I can" Grace replied. "But I can barely reach the steering wheel. I wish it telescoped."
The arena sand was deep and soft. Somehow it seemed like dual rear tires and good tread should have prevented the truck from sinking in.
"We better not get this one stuck" Skye said. "It will take a big horse to un-stick this one." She spoke the truth, Grace thought.
"Are any horse people coming to the party?"
"I don't know" Grace answered, "but it's okay. We'll take out horses and have a good time no matter what. The forecast is calling for rain, so the party might be pretty small."
"Oh. Gosh. After all that work. I mean we need the rain so bad but..."
"The boss said no matter what, it's okay. She said this year has been full of highs and lows. Things that went really well and things that went terribly wrong. She said sometimes her best intentions and best thinking has backfired in ways she could not even imagine. And then other things happened that were really good and completely not expected. She said maybe that's just life. We can set our goals on a destination but the journey is the real thing. It's where the memories are made and the relationships created. in a sense the destination is the end of the journey. So maybe it's okay if it takes a while to get to where we are going. This is a good place for the table. Let's set it here."
"Are you going to ride La Barilla for the party? He's very festive."
"So I can take a spill like I did off of Jesse?"
"Awe that didn't count. Your cinch broke and you were standing before anyone saw you."
"I'm not sure yet. A whole truckload of framed pictures came back from a
Forest Recovery Project show yesterday. The opening of the show was the day before the Covid lockdown began. We need to hang those somewhere in the school this weekend. I'll try to think about next weekend while we hang pictures."
As the rain continued, Grace and Skye brought horses down to the indoor arena for exercise. First, a small group of geldings.
Bramble, a draft influence mustang.
A lovely but as of yet un-named bay pinto stock horse.
A knabstrupper named Wanderlust. He had a big, bold way of going.
Captain RPG, a Hanoverian sport horse, one of the boss's favorites, now retired..
Then some mares. Always easier when all the horses go in the same direction. The Christmas tree might have given the bay mare a bit of a surprise. Some were less afraid of the new items in the arena.
Dawn came white with what began as a light snowfall. the first thing Skye noticed were the tracks. Coyote. Apparently two coyotes.
Grace had been waiting all year for snow. This one was supposed to be a light snowfall. But as the girls prepared a few horses for some much needed exercise, in what they liked to call "Chilao style", driving the horses across the range, the snow just kept coming.
Ladyhawk had no trouble with snow. she was, as always, high-headed and sure-footed. And then came a horse no one expected. Gunner! They big pearl Akhal Teke. They had put a blanket on him, yes, but they hadn't turned him out with the others.
"What should we do?" Skye called out.
Skye watched the pearly stallion tear past the other horses.
Grace watched the pearly stallion tear past the other horses.
"I don't think we can do much of anything. Let's hope he chooses a good direction and doesn't fall."
The new arrivals, the bonded pinto and bay friends, bit of an odd couple though they were, stayed side by side.
Gunner was quickly in the lead and making good choices so far. He was headed toward the fire station. Hopefully he would stay in open terrain.
Grace was focused on the front of the herd. The grey mare named Angelic was giving Gunner a go for the lead. Even as she watched, for a moment she had this feeling...like seeing herself in a movie, like watching from outside her body...for a moment, she was aware of some kind of magic, like she was riding through a dream. This was it...this was the journey and the destination, the dream and the now. Gunner veered left, and the other horses followed, and they started on a course that would take them around the Redbird Ranch property. And the snow kept falling.
The snow, deep in places, shallow in others, made for a good workout. It was fresh, and not yet icy or slippery.
The snowflakes were unusual. Skye had been told the Lakota had something like twenty six words for snow. She wondered what the word was for this kind.
They turned for home after an hour in the snow. Skye caught sight of a coyote as she brought up the rear of the herd. And then another, and another. Three. Probably Lives Among Them on lookout, Whiskey, the raspy throated mother, and The Singer, the pup with his own unique voice. Except Singer was big. If that was him, he did not look like a pup of eight months. He looked to be the same size as his parents.
The girls had the arena to themselves for the Merry Little Mountain Christmas Party. They did have some horse loving spectators though. Grace went ahead and rode La Barilla. He did not seem put off by her furry coat. He did not seem to mind the giant pink Santa's hat that one of the visitors to the arena wore.
The boss had made more brownies and peanut butter cups. And it wasn't just the dogs who noticed. Since La Barilla was doing so well, Grace and Skye did some passes. There was no agenda...they had all day to ride, or eat peanut butter cups...or both...
December 4, 2022
Skye saw him standing alongside the road. At first he looked like an abandoned or lost dog, standing there, wondering where he was and what to do next. Then for a moment he looked wolf-like. Then he moved, and Skye wondered if it wasn't Lives Among Them, the male coyote that had likely gotten in a scrap with a bear. If it was, he had made an impressive recovery. She went back inside, got the camera, decided to see if she could sneak a little bit closer. When the coyote noticed how close she'd gotten, he moved away...not that the presence of people bothered him, he was perusing the fire station...but people focused on him and getting that close seemed to put him off a little.
Skye was thrilled. She would have to crop the daylights out of her photos but if even a few came out in focus, she would be pleased. The sound of a truck coming up the road snapped her back into the cold, damp present. A light mist began to fall. There were horses coming.
Skye recognized the shipping blanket right away, even before the horse came out of the trailer. She knew the horse inside of it had to be big, and from what she could tell, very pretty.
There were two horses. The second one was diminutive by comparison, prancing in place with lightning fast footwork as Grace backed the big pinto in the shipping blanket out. The second horse unloaded quietly.
"He is" Grace responded.
The mist became a light rain. By the time they reached the indoor arena, they had all taken on some water.
'What's their story?" Skye asked as Grace made short work of removing the shipping blanket.
"They came together" Grace answered, "I mean, not just in the same trailer, but like a buy one, get one half size...apparently they have been stable mates forever and they are sort of inseparable."
It didn't take long to become fond of them. They moved with very different steps, but somehow, with one motion.
They were beautiful to watch. Then the cold began to set in. The big pinto was mostly dry and the little bay seemed to have shaken off much of the rain. Grace's coat was drenched.
Light rain and cloud cover continued throughout the afternoon. Skye had forgotten about the coyote until they were back inside, peeling off their wet coats, feeling the icy tingle of rain soaked hair.
Grace drew her soft blanket tight around herself, listening to Skye describe the coyote's shape-shifting, and then his body language, and how he stopped and watched several times, silently, the way Lives Among Them used to do. How in a few minutes, when she was warmer, she'd go through the pictures and see if maybe that was him.
It took a bit of editorial detective work, but in Skye's second to the last image, magnified 844 times in Lightroom, to the point of pixelation nearly beyond recognition, you could see the telltale scar. It was Lives Among Them. He had survived whatever encounter - Grace and Skye had heard the all-night commotion in the campgrounds and they were pretty sure the coyotes had taken on a bear - that had left him with a gaping wound on the side of his neck and a swollen head.
It was just barely December, and he was back, back to the place where they had denned and raised a pup the previous spring, behind the fire station. His loud, piercing reply to the sirens made his presence clear. He was an old man for a wild coyote...probably approaching five. And tough. And distinctly wild.
The girls were thrilled to know that he had survived, and in the same breath, disappointed to know he had chosen to return to the edge of the ranch property. Mountain lions weren't the only animals making the news lately...there had been an increasing number of coyote incidences, from the arroyo in Pasadena where several dogs had lost their lives to a coyote in Woodland Hills trying to make off with a small child in broad daylight. Lives Among Them had been named for his ability to coexist, and for his omnipresence...but somehow that habituation seemed less comforting today as the girls recalled the many encounters of last spring. Perhaps they could continue to coexist.
Mountain lions. Our relationship with them in the human-saturated habitat of southern California has many facets. There's so much I want to say, it's hard to know where to begin. Which audience to address. What belief systems to tackle. Yes, belief systems. Because much of what we know about these big cats, and nature in general, has been taught to us by people and groups whose real knowledge of biology is not experience based, nor grounded in sound, whole-ecosystem principles...or worse, comes from a place of bias that exceeds an understanding of balance.
So I'll get right to the heart of it. Maintaining viable apex predator populations cannot be achieved with land bridges alone. The habitats themselves need to be viable. They need to contain water. And they need to contain prey.
Big cats the world over have a favorite food source. Ungulates. Deer and antelope species. As long as their prey of choice is plentiful, conflicts between humans and cats remain minimal. Predation on livestock will still occur because an easy meal is an easy meal...but in an ecosystem that is rich with both prey and fresh water, big cats tend to stay wild.
So as we struggle with the dual realities of wanting to preserve our native wildlife and coexist, and also wanting to own domestic animals and go for walks and enjoy the outdoors ourselves, we need to look at the bigger picture. There are two key species in this equation of balance. The mountain lion is one of them. The other is deer.
Let's assume that a mountain lion is still able to locate and hunt deer in its habitat. If a mountain lion makes a kill once every ten days, it will be well fed. And so will the other species in the ecosystem. Bear, coyote, vulture, condor, fox, raven, bobcat, even rodents will also feast on the mountain lion kill. They will directly benefit from the mountain lion's hunting prowess.
A mountain lion, hunting deer, would take roughly 36 deer a year. So to maintain a healthy population of deer that is able to sustain a mountain lion, the deer population would need to be somewhere between 70 and 100 animals within that mountain lion's hunting territory.
Deer, which are browsers, would in turn help control the growth of foliage, maintaining the plant communities in the ecosystem. They, like all living things, would also need a clean, reliable source of water.
Deer are really a keystone species in our local open spaces and wilderness areas. And from personal observation, their numbers have declined dramatically in recent years in such places as the Angeles National Forest.
If deer are moving to the suburbs...to golf courses, for instance, where there is generally both grass and water, so too will all the other animals who are feeling the effects of drought, habitat loss, human encroachment and intense recreation activity.
We can make bridges and promote tolerance and educate Angelinos about mountain lions...but if their natural habitat can't sustain them, they will be moving into our human habitats and seeking sustenance where they find it.
Back in the 1980s (you can tell by the big hair!) our boss lobbied for the Mountain Lion Protection Act, Proposition 117. The Act was passed in 1990 and prohibited the sport hunting of mountain lions. She was also active in studies to determine the viability of building a wildlife corridor or corridors to link the open space regions than span Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. At the time it was believed that large predators had already declined beyond a salvageable population, and in thirty years would no longer exist.
No one considered the adaptability factor...that bears would move to the human side of the urban interface and stroll through grocery stores; that mountain lions would become as adept as coyotes at back yard predation. No one saw that coming.
One thing our boss did make sure of was that Proposition 117 addressed the issue of nuisance animals...cougars that, through habituation, become a threat, to domestic animals or humans. She knew that a mountain lion in Moorpark had attacked horses. And she knew that over time, mountain lions would lose their fear of dogs and humans...a fear that being hunted had instilled in them.
Animal populations respond to human behavior. Whales are perhaps the best example of this. After many species were hunted to near-extinction, when humans mostly stopped hunting whales and became interested in them for recreational experience instead, whales began tolerating human presence...even bringing their newborn calves close to whale watching boats. Animals adapt to our behaviors. They must in order to survive.
About 100 nuisance mountain lions a year are dispatched in California. These are animals that habitually prey on domestic animals or attack humans without provocation. Trying to tease the facts out of all the biased information available is difficult. It has been suggested that sport hunters took less than 100 mountain lions annually. The number of permits to take mountain lions that were killing livestock reached an all-time high in 1988, with 145 issued and 62 lions taken.
Mountain lions themselves were never endangered. But the quality of their habitat is. Vast tracts of land and bridges alone cannot support mountain lion populations.
Mountain lions need water. Mountain lions need deer. The rest of the inhabitants of these ecosystems need the predator-prey relationship of mountain lion and deer to fuel their own life cycles.
We can save all the open space and build all the bridges we like, but unless we are connecting thriving, viable natural ecosystems...unless there is water, unless there are deer...we are doing no great service to the mountain lion, or to ourselves.
Hi, my name is Corina, the official story teller for Grace and Skye. Grace owes her beauty, style and charm to Anne Field, Field of Dolls Studio. Skye does too, for that matter, as Anne fostered her for a while, giving Skye a complete makeover in the process. The horses, dogs, cats, saddles, bridles, furniture and so forth are the work of many artists. I'll do my best to acknowledge them as we go from day to day.
This is the ongoing, unfolding story of grace little, manager of redbird ranch, and her little sister, Skye