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..."
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.
November 21, 2022
Skye stared at the glossy new Breyer with his incredible detail and lovely dappling. A very nice little horse.
"He's tippy" Grace said. "I'll bring him back up to the main house soon, before the cat knocks him down."
Grace's face twisted a bit as she read through her emails before walking out the door.
"The boss sent us a link. A mountain lion killed a dog on a leash in the Hollywood Hills. They think it's the Griffith Park cat, P-22."
"Poor dog! But weren't we just talking about that? Couple weeks ago when it was walking through neighborhoods? Matter of time before something happened?"
"Yeah we were" Grace replied.
"In other news" Grace continued, "it looks like the boss found a home for the bullies."
"But they're good dogs..."
Skye was a bit conflicted about them leaving. she wasn't sure how they came about...where they came from or who owned them first, but for as love as Skye could remember, the were part of the family.
"Well, we do have ten dogs" Grace responded.
Skye fell silent for a few moments.
When she spoke again it was about the mountain lion.
"I want to talk about this mountain lion thing."
"Talk or write?" Grace asked.
"Write" Skye said. "I want to write an article or story about what's going on, about how habituation and the lack of deer cause these behaviors."
"What about doing a blog post on the Redbird website? I bet the boss would let you."
Grace reached for her hat, then decided to leave it behind. It was early, they were only turning out a few horses, and she'd likely be fine without it.
Grace ws wrong about the hat. It was nearly two hours later before they were able to turn out horses. With the recent rains had come fierce winds, throwing down the fence, blowing away the fine, soft sand that made up the arena footing. The girls picked up fencing and kicked rocks all morning in an effort to get the arena useable again. Grace still didn't like it. She could hear the horses' hooves striking rocks every now and then.
There were some surprises in the arena for Skye to feast her eyes upon. A pair of mares the boss had been hoping to get for a very long time. And a mule - a jack Grace thought it was, that she ws pretty sure Skye hadn't seen before.
Cassie Cotto-Thorner Black was his breeder, so the boss had named him Black Jack. Grace had never ridden a mule. She was intrigued with this one.
Then there was the shagya arab mare. She was big, and lovely. Skye was more or less immediately in love with the older pinto mares. They were nearly identical.
The sound of rocks against the horses' hooves was uncomfortable for Grace. There was nothing she could do to fix it. They were out of sand, and even if they had more sand, it would have to be spread, and thick...there was nothing but hard dirt and rocks left after this last wind. They would take the rest of the horses to the indoor arena.
In the thick, fine golden sand of the arena, Grace turned out Scottish Magpie, her mane done up in ribbons. She was a mover and a looker.
And then Cloud Nine. probably one of the rarest bloodlines in the boss's herd, a Thoroughbred and Spanish Barb cross. Although looking at him, you couldn't see much but Thoroughbred.
"He's so tall I get a neck ache trying to look at him" Grace said.
And finally, Windy Boy. Grace had spent a lot of time with him when she first came on board. Watching him, she promised herself she'd be on him again soon.
November 14, 2022 Chilao
The domestic horses had tipped Grace and Skye off to the presence of the wild equines. The girls could tell that something was out there, and it wasn't something to be afraid of. They went as fast as their legs would carry them in the direction that the stabled horses were gazing and whinnying toward. Skye had never seen Grace move so quick or nimble over the rocks.
"That hat must give you super powers" Skye whispered. "I can barely keep up with you!"
"I'm going to spend the next week picking coat fuzz off of it" Grace whispered back. "But I have to stay in front of you this time."
"Just in case horses aren't color-blind. That's the reddest red sweater I've ever seen in my life."
Skye tried to giggle quietly.
The sun's light rolled out across the landscape. Grace and Skye moved in and out of morning shadows, clamoring over boulders and scrambling up rock outcroppings.
When they paused for a moment, they could hear the muffled sound of hooves on rock.
Petrichor caught their scent. The mares paused. They could also smell a human presence in the cool morning air.
Petrichor doubled back, leaving his herd on the other side of an escarpment, making his way down a short and narrow draw.
Grace was thrilled. And nervous. They would emerge at the bottom of that draw. And Petrichor would hold the higher ground.
And then there was another sound. One Grace never liked to hear around the wild horses. A helicopter. Flying directly toward them and then, directly overhead.
"It's okay" Skye whispered. "They aren't coming for the horses. It's not that kind of helicopter."
The helicopters made Skye uneasy too. Too many people talking about the horses...it could be bad. But Grace needed to stay focused on the stallion right now.
Grace took a deep breath, centered herself, and stepped forward, out from behind the shelter of the rock outcropping, into view.
The mares and their foals waited, restless but not afraid.
Petrichor paused. A second helicopter flew almost directly over them. Skye glanced up. "It's going to the fire station" she whispered. "I think it's a sky crane. Probably contractors for Edison."
The helicopter circled, then landed at the fire station.
Skye paused. Just in case the red sweater wasn't to Petrichor's liking. And then, in a few bold strides, Petrichor was upon them.
Grace couldn't think of any words to say to the big feral stallion.
There was still a wall of stone separating them, but Grace was in a vulnerable position. Petrichor's body language lacked aggression. He danced, but he did not strike. His ears moved in every direction. His breathing was deep but not loud; Grace took a deep breath and then exhaled, and he did the same to her, and they repeated this ritual several times, Petrichor knowing whatever a horse knows from the scent of another being, and Grace knowing the warm delight of his breath. She could feel its warm moisture as he reached his muzzle toward her hand.
And then he took a few steps back, and spun around, returning to his herd.
Petrichor and his band moved off, the bay mare in the lead.
Grace and Skye walked back to the ranch. Keeping up with Grace was easy now. The soil, having received both rain and snow, and freezing overnight where the surface still held moisture, read like a book.
"Come to the indoor arena with me" Grace said after a long spell of blissful silence.
"Okay" Skye replied, wondering what, if anything, could top the adventure they just had.
Inside the arena, Skye stood, speechless, in front of what might have been the most amazing equine art she had ever seen.
They were limited edition prints by the equine artist Sacha Phariss. Grace was saying something. Skye was having a hard time listening.
"I think this one might be my favorite" Grace said. "One of my favorites, anyway."
Grace kept talking. Skye did her best to listen. Something about twelve or fourteen prints, and having them on display for Models in the Mountains 2023, at the end of April, and hanging them being a challenge because linseed oil on wood paneling.
Skye could not speak.
And then she saw Little Spot. He was staring at a beautiful spotted horse as if seeing his own reflection for the first time.
Skye giggled. "I know how you feel!"
We take a moment in the final two images to congratulate Skye on her first sale, the arabian mare Padronis, her 2022 NaMoPaiMo horse. To find the amazing art of Sacha Phariss, visit https://www.pharisshorses.com
November 6, 2022
Grace worked on her resin mustang stallion in the tack room, where there was plenty of room and good light. Puddle Jumper had turned a corner.
"I've got to fix two spots on his hooves" she said as Skye examined her work. Finally, she was starting to like him.
Across the room, a big, bright box lay waiting. It had Christmas design on the lid, but no tags, no ribbons...just the box.
"What's this?" Skye couldn't wait for an answer.
"Can I open it?"
"Sure, go ahead. It's from the boss."
Thank goodness they didn't have to wait until Christmas, Skye thought. The box opened easily, to an overwhelming mass of pink.
"Oooooooohhh...somebody got a blanket set with leg wraps!"
Grace moved in for a closer look.
"Who are they for?"
"La Barilla" Grace replied. "Why hot pink, I'm not really sure, but the color combination is gorgeous."
"Wow that's pretty."
Grace pulled the blanket from the box. It kept coming and coming out of the box, one fold of fabric after another.
"It's huge" Grace said. "It's way too big for La Barilla. But it's awful nice."
"The boss is awful good to us" Skye mused. Do you think she sort of feels like we're family? She doesn't have any kids, does she?"
Grace started to say no. She thought the boss was just...well, generously eccentric. After all, the boss owned the horses...the ranch...so the blanket was a "gift" of sorts, yes, but...that wasn't the answer Skye was looking for. Skye was always trying to pull together a sense of family. Grace thought for a moment.
"I don't know" Grace answered.
"I mean, maybe. She is pretty good to us."
Monday morning dawned gloomy and damp. A light mist found its way to the ground and the morning came slow.
"Remember when Elecktra came to visit?" Skye said. "That was fun. You think she could come out again some time?"
Grace remembered. It was a lot of fun having Elecktra stay with them.
"I'll see if Anne will let her come out and visit for a while."
The girls opted to use the indoor arena to see how La Barilla liked his new digs. La Barilla stood still while Grace wrapped the shipping boots on his front legs.
"I think I should have gone the other way" Grace said, "attaching them on the outside. But I don't want to take them off and start over."
Walking with shipping boots on was another matter. His already highly animated movements because even moreso with these foreign objects wrapped about his legs.
After a few minutes he settled down a little bit, but Grace decided two boots were enough for one morning. As for the blanket, it was, predictably, much too big for him.
Grace and Skye were so focused on La Barilla that they didn't see the boss.
"He does look sharp in those colors" she said. "Too bad the blanket doesn't fit him. He's really not very big, is he?"
"Not really" Grace said. "He's got huge presence though."
"I know who that blanket would fit" Skye said innocently.
Grace thought about it for a moment.
"The black mare?"
"Go ahead and try it on her" the boss said.
The girls walked La Barilla back to his stall, light mist swirling on a gentle, not-too-cold breeze.
The black mare looked pretty in pink. And the blanket fit her giant frame perfectly. She followed Skye, no lead line needed.
"Well," said the boss, "looks like that blanket found a home."
And Skye gathered, though she didn't have the nerve to ask, that if the pretty pink blanket found a home on the black mare, that old black mare had probably found a home here.
And finally, in the afternoon, the tail end of the storm made its way up the mountain, and the gentle mist turned into a gentle rain.
October 10, 2022
Grace stared long and hard at the horse she called Puddle Jumper. It was her first attempt at a pinto in acrylic paint, and she wasn't satisfied with him. She was not convinced she could fix him, but she had made up her mind. She was going to try.
"I'm going to re-do him. In colored pencil."
Skye was having a hard time listening. She was mesmerized by the rainbows. They came from the window decals that were supposed to deter birds from hitting the window. They filled the room with rainbows in the late afternoon. It made an already magical space even more enchanted.
Grace had been wanting to hike down to a portion of Chilao Creek that usually had water when the rest of the creek was dry. The weather was lovely and the autumn light equally beautiful. The girls took a different route than they would have on horseback, and it proved to be slow going, but it was nice to see bits of the forest they had never seen before. Rock formations that looked like easy chairs and a glow to the light that brought everything to life.
Skye was fascinated with the tree rings.
"This was not a very big tree for all of those rings" she remarked. "Somehow I thought a tree with this many rings would have been much bigger."
"Good point." Grace had more questions than answers as she looked at the stump. She started counting the rings. There were many. And they would never get to where she was trying to go if she started counting tree rings.
After climbing over half a dozen tree trunks and navigating the dry creek bed for about a hundred yards, the girls emerged in familiar territory...except it looked so different. It was covered in plants, not water.
Frequent thunder showers had moistened the soil. Theirs were the first tracks on the wide sand bank. Grace could see no sign of water.
"Let's go a little farther."
They did in fact find water. And there were birds flying about. But there were no tracks of any kind leading to the water. Perhaps because there had been a light rain last night. Or perhaps because these tiny pools were no longer viable water sources.
On the return trip, they took a familiar path, past the giant oak and up a steep incline.
"I bet we have a nice sunset tonight" Skye said.
"I think you might be right."
"Do you like him better?" Skye asked. Grace was staring at Puddle Jumper again. She had begun the colored pencil re-creation.
"I think so. I've just done part of his side so far. I mean, no doubt, this is better. Now I've got all these white pencil flakes in the brown areas. And then I slip with the pencils sometimes. It's kind of hard. But I don't want to wrap him up and abandon him at the Goodwill store any more."
Skye was shocked to hear her talk about the piece that way. There were more things right about it than Grace was giving herself credit for.
"No! Just keep swimming. You'll save him. I know you will."
Skye shifted the conversation to another piece of artwork. "I wish I could paint like this" Skye said, admiring the Little Bucker sculpture by Rayvin Maddock, painted by Meredith Warren.
"You can" Grace said. "You paint a couple hundred horses and stay focused and keep learning new techniques, and you'll get real good. You'll be unique; your work won't look just exactly the same as anyone else's, but you'll get good to where you'll look at your own art and have a sense of satisfaction and pride."
As the words rolled so easily off her tongue towards Skye, Grace realized the same advice applied for her own work. Puddle Jumper was only her fourth piece, and the first one to give her real problems. She needed to embrace her own advice, and be gentle and courageous in her work.
A cloud layer cam in the afternoon, on the heels of a brief wind.
Predictably, the boss had asked the girls, when they had a chance, if they could track down some of their beloved wild horses and get good pictures of them. She even had a list. It was mostly mares and foals. But whether it was hunting season, or lack of water, noisy campers, predators or something else, the wild horses had been scarce for weeks now.
Skye watched a pair of ravens, flying about excitedly. But not because of her. They were preoccupied with something else. She just couldn't tell what.
Even if by some miracle they found horses, this was not great weather for anything but artistic photos.
The wind picked up again, ushering in the cool, damp air. Just cool enough to make Grace wish she owned a sweatshirt.
Skye welcomed the change of seasons. Autumn felt very alive to her.
Skye pretended she was still sound asleep as Grace prepared to go down to the indoor arena. Once Grace was well on her way, Skye struggled with the chunk of stone and other nicnacs, setting them aside so she could open her pine chest.
The thing was almost as heavy as that chunk of stone. The boss had shown it to her. It was a horse head, painted on metal with enamel, and it looked an awful lot like Petrichor. The boss suggested that she buy it for Skye to give to Grace, perhaps for Christmas. Skye really couldn't refuse. And she loved the piece.
It was very different from everything else they had, but Skye was pretty sure Grace would love it.
Skye put everything back, and headed to the arena. There were new horses to behold.
The boss was there taking pictures and Grace was handling. As best as Skye could figure, they'd acquired a real circus horse.
"He's not quite a circus horse" the boss said. "He performed for a number of years at a dinner theatre. Something like Medieval Times. He came with all of his finery."
Grace and Skye removed his finery. Skye couldn't resist but to try on the head dress.
"This is so heavy! Why is it so heavy if it's made out of feathers?"
"Now there's a costume" Grace said, laughing.
Underneath all the trappings was a lovely horse, with a smooth way of going and a kind eye.
The next horse was a show stopper. A gloriously colored standardbred trotter. The arena was barely big enough for the kind of speed this horse delivered.
The third pair of new horses were as different as different could be from the previous two. A substantial pony mare. And her incredibly cute foal.
Skye swung herself up onto the mare's back.
"She has high withers and a very short back, but she's not little" Skye noted. "She really feels like a...like a short horse. I can't get over how cute this baby is! I just want to squeeze her!"
Grace brought La Barilla down, but just to turn him loose. She hadn't ridden him in over a week.
And then, two by two, Grace and Skye brought some mares and geldings down to the arena to let them stretch their legs. It was gorgeous outside, but every time Grace thought the wind was over, it came back again. The wind could be so unsettling. For today, the arena would do.
The girls had meant to get out before daybreak. The sun was up, but there will still long, cool shadows to ride through.
Birds were making a tremendous racket. A pair of spotted towhees made their presence known. Quail darted about beneath the chaparral.
They searched for signs of the wild horses...any wild horses...but found none. The thunderstorms of summer and early autumn were not enough to fill the seasonal streams, but they were enough to keep wildflowers blooming.
And heading south across Meadow Campground, they discovered a water source...a broken pipe spilling a small but viable amount of fresh groundwater into a shallow depression. Plenty enough water for bears and coyotes, and probably enough for horses, two or three at a time.
The thunderstorms had caused a sort of "false spring" in the seasonal stream beds. There was, at the moment, plenty of fresh, tender grass. Still, no sign of wild horses. They headed home as the sun warmed the cool morning air.
It was a good day. Wild horses, no wild horses...a day in the saddle was a good day.
Back home, the girls found a surprise laid out o the table.
"What's this?" Grace said. "Looks like the boss was here."
Skye read the note out loud.
"The pumpkin is ceramic but the fudge and peanut butter cups are edible. Happy Halloween!"
"Sounds like a perfect breakfast" Grace said.
"Oh yes, I agree."
October 2, 2022
Grace and Skye took a pre-dawn drive while the horses ate their breakfast. They went through some of the hotter parts of the controlled burn.
The now-dry washouts were easiest to navigate. They approached a gully that didn't look terribly treacherous. But as Grace maneuvered the Jeep down into it, things rather quickly did not go to plan. And the modifications that had been done to the floorboard caused them to high side just as the rear wheels were not getting good traction already.
They came to rest in the gulley gently enough, but not where Grace had intended. They needed to be on the left side of the boulder they were currently lodged against. They were stuck.
Cool morning air and silence. The occasional sounds of birds. The girls circled the Jeep, looked at it from every angle, circled it again. Yup. They were stuck.
Dozens of band-tailed pigeons watched Skye's every move from the power lines as the sun crested Yucca Peak.
The girls began their walk home. The rocky parts were slippery in boots, with loose ravel appearing stable and then giving suddenly.
Skye was having a lovely Sunday morning walk, exploring everything.
Grace had this strange sensation. Like this was an epic journey of some sort. It was going to be if she couldn't figure out how to un-stick the Jeep.
Something blue caught Grace's eye in the shadows. Half-buried in the sand, a blue hat, black ears, and big eyes.
Skye looked up to see Grace examining something on the ground. That got her moving.
"It's Mickey Mouse all right!"
Skye made short work of digging the hard plastic mouse - and his sedan - out of the sand wash.
"He crashed a little worse than we did" Skye laughed. "There's not much left of this car."
"Go ahead and leave it there" Grace said. "We'll get it on our way back."
It took an hour to get the horses saddled up. At first Grace thought to take two heavy horses, but the only other saddle that would fit them was all taken apart. It had no cinches and no breastcollar. As it was, Ananda was so big that Grace could not attach the breast collar to the cinch.
As their earlier analysis suggested, there was no way to go forward. They would have to pull the Jeep from the rear and hope it came out of the little gulley as easily as it went in.
Grace put the Jeep in neutral, key in the on position. As she attached a rope to the hitch receiver, she slipped repeatedly in the loose soil. In that area of more intense burn, the fire had gotten into the organic matter in the soil, changing its composition, removing what plant material might have held it firm before. No wonder they lost traction. The soil was like powder.
There was room for error here. This could possibly be more problem than she had horsepower for. Or if Skye put the Jeep in drive instead of reverse, or the soil caved in more...
The moment of truth came. Grace nudged Ananda forward. The rope tightened on the saddle horn, the saddle snugged against Ananda's body, the big horse took one step forward, felt the weight, took another step, and then leaned into the work on the third step. The Jeep tipped back down onto the rear wheels and started to roll out of the gulley.
"Good! Good! Keep going!" There was nothing for Skye to do at this point but observe. Watch the rope, the wheels, the soil. So far so good.
The Jeep was on all fours, and the steepest part of the pull was coming.
"Are you ready Skye?"
"I'm ready! A little farther!"
Ananda was powerful and steady. The Jeep was coming up.
"Almost there!" Skye called.
"A little farther..."
Skye bailed out of the saddle and into the Jeep.
"Put your foot on the brake with gentle pressure and start it" Grace called to her.
The Jeep started. Skye pulled herself fully into the driver's seat.
"Put it in reverse, ease off the brake and give it a little gas."
Skye was nervous. She had to get this right. A little gas. She didn't feel anything happening. She gave it just a little more gas.
"Keep going, keep going, little more gas, good, good, turn the wheel...no the other way...perfect...keep going, keep going..."
It was a little exciting, and bumpy, but the Jeep kept backing up while Grace kept some tension on the tow rope. And then it was over.
"Put your foot on the brake firmly and put it in park. The top gear."
"How'd I do?" Skye said, smiling confidently. And just then there was a terrible cracking sound. The windshield fell forward, onto the hood.
"You did fantastic" Grace said.
"Do you want to drive it home?"
Skye thought about it for a moment.
"No. That was enough really. My heart is kind of pounding still."
The girls had forgotten all about their earlier discovery, but his blue beret caught their attention once again on the way home. Grace stopped and picked up the tattered remains of the long-forgotten Mickey Mouse toy. He was a fitting find for the morning.
"We don't need no stinking windshield, right Mickey?"
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