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.