Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Thank You Virginia

The marathon continues.

A few months ago a friend of mine revealed to me that every time she hears about yet one more dramatic change in my life she laughs. “There he goes again,” I imagined her thinking, leaving me somewhat offended. I felt compelled to inform her that I am more apt to cry. Leaving Utah last October was heart wrenching for me. I love that place. Felt rooted there. Yet I felt the same thing about Virginia when I left for Utah in 1994.

I am terribly excited about this move to Arizona, and just as likely to cry as I leave yet another place.

I intended to come to Virginia for a season, and that’s what I’ve done; though it has literally been three earth seasons--nine months exactly. Nine months of devotion to Whiskey Creek Farms, my sister Elise’s horse farm, her business, and passion.

In their majesty and power, horses have defined my time here.. In their constant demand for care, attention, feeding, training, doctoring, medicating, and mucking up after. Yes, the mucking up after them will leave a big imprint on my memories--it is a lot of work.

The biggest impression though is reserved for all of the riding, the jumping, the tacking up, the hacking out, the flat work, the dressage lessons, the foxhunting, and even the horse shows (which I avoid like the plague, but still played a role in from behind the scenes).

The personalities of the horses, yes, that is the strongest impression of this time here, and they have been my best friends and most constant companions. As far as time and attention the horses got far more of my time than even Jackson--the greatest dog in the world, though barn life has suited him well.

Each horse has a personality as distinct as any person. They are not people of course, they are very much their own species, but oh how they have personality, or should I call it equininality? (Pronounced ee kwine an al it ee.)

Kenny was the defining horse of my time here. Quirky, unpredictable, athletic as hell, difficult, talented, and that overused equine word: spirited. He is also just a major goofball, and a gorgeous one too. Despite his antics, I feel at home on his back. Even with heroic bucking, leaping, and shying, he never managed to dismount me involuntarily. Shortly after my arrival here when we were out with the Middleburg Hunt he was having a particularly bad day, leaping over the multiple water crossings we encountered. At one point he leaped and crash-landed on his chest and stomach on the opposite bank of a creek crossing. Suddenly finding my feet on the ground, though I was still on his back, I got off so the fool could get back up. While I got off of him (my pride feels compelled to emphasize) that I did not “fall” off of him.

But I am not sure Kenny deserves too much credit, there have been so many horses I will never forget.

Duncan, who failed the basic safety test by his insistence on rearing, one of the most dangerous things a horse can do. Rearing is when they go up in the air standing only on their two hind legs. (Ask my sister who was crushed and nearly killed by a horse who reared up, fell backwards, and mashed her into the ground. She has the handicapped license plates and artificial hip to remind her of that experience). I loved Duncan but he had to go, to God knows where, the poor soul.

Winchester, who we got in trade for Duncan turned in to one of our stars. I never warmed to him on the ground; he was too much his own guy, suspicious of affection, or just suspicious of people. I am sure he has his reasons, lord knows what he went through before arriving in our little horse haven. But on his back, and in the hunt field especially . . . what a horse! This guy knows how to take care of himself, and by extension his rider, which was often me. He just went to a new home in Orange County Hunt Country (Virginia). Country that includes the incomparable estate of Paul Mellon--the Paul Mellon of the Mellon bank family, patron of the arts, horseman, grand son of wealth.

Winchester has landed well.

I was able to get acquainted with Quinn before his untimely demise late last November. Quinn was an Irish Sport Horse (that is the name of his breed) that my sister imported as a yearling. He was seven last fall when we had to put him down due to a debilitating disease. But even in the last month of his life, his personality (my made up word being too cumbersome) shined bright. What a cool, cool guy this one was. As a young colt he played soccer, passing the ball to himself as he galloped across large fields. He played with sticks like a dog, though logs or limbs is a more apt word for what he played with. I am sure I met him on earlier visits to Virginia, but I really got to know him this time. The day we put him down was brutal, and my sister will cry just by reading this. I am crying.

The horse angels carried him off to better places.

Waldo is the pride of our farm. He is the son of Quinn and the proud father of seven. His fathering days are now behind him--he was cut just over a year ago. This guy is capital F Fancy. He is four now and for sale as a Show Hunter. He is easy, breezy, kind, and talented. It could be a while before he sells, just because we love him too much.

Silver, Joey, Harry Potter, Frankie, and Walrus (one of Waldo’s sons) are the core of my sister’s personal horses, those that aren’t for sale and that she intends to keep. It must be stated that this is too many horses for one person to own, but a small minority of her personal herd. Of the group Silver gets honorable mention as the number one character of our farm. He is a big, muscular, powerful grey, that to the non-horseman is more of a speckled white in color.

Elliott is another of my favorites. He is another Waldo baby, a yearling now. He is half-brother to Walrus and not as fancy. He’s already been cut (I refer to his testicles here). He is sweeter than sweet. If you go into his field to get another horse he literally shoves his face into yours, gently but firmly demanding acknowledgement and attention. He gets plenty. I will miss him.

Another great joy was our foals. We had six this year, all are doing well. Two are race horse babies, three are Waldo babies, and one is our surprise filly--Madison, a cross between a Thoroughbred and a Cleveland Bay (another breed that I would have to call obscure, not being a real horseman). Madison is a surprise because she is so good looking--but all of our foals are. The other foals of 2003 are Walnut, Charlie Brown, Monterey (my girl), Blue Ridge Prospect, and Sonny. I still have a hard time identifying all of the brood mare mothers, and in tribute to that I won’t list them all here.

The specialty of Whiskey Creek Farms is foxhunting and foxhunters. So let me take a moment to discuss this sport.

Foxhunting, is the sport of blue bloods, also known as rich snobs with more money than good sense. It is that, though I am a personal case in point that on any given day out with a foxhunt there are at least some folks that are penniless.

Foxhunting, the sport that ruthlessly employs vicious hounds against hapless, poor, innocent, and sweet foxes. That is a perspective that completely misses the mark. Without attempting to defend what is admittedly a frivolous sport, I will just point out that American Foxhunting is about the chase, not the kill. I’ve never seen a kill, though they do happen occasionally.

Foxhunting, a sport of eighteenth century fashions and tradition. Whatever your idea is of this sport, I believe it is hard to deny the majesty of it. Galloping across the countryside, dressed like George Washington (an avid foxhunter), or some English lord, with dozens of beautiful horses all around you, following a pack of hounds as they float over the land in full run and on the scent of a fox--there really and truly is nothing like it. I have to say, in the spirit of Ferris Bueller admiring the Porsche of his friend’s father, it is exquisite (though I think Ferris called it “choice”).

Foxhunting is its own thing. It is a tradition that is alive and well.

And yes, many of the people who keep the sport alive, are a bit hard to take.

Present company most definitely included.

And did I say that it terrifies me? I am only somewhat ashamed to admit this. Jumping horses is sort of a big deal to many people. Probably most jumping occurs within a ring, with jumps that are designed to fall if you hit them. Foxhunting is true hunting in that you are out looking for wild animals. (Foxhunts regularly chase after coyote and bobcat too.)
In a foxhunt you race wildly across the countryside usually jumping obstacles that are installed and maintained by the foxhunt, but often encountering natural obstacles, or occasionally fence lines with no jumps in them, leaving you jumping fences to get in and out of fields.

I think that the fear that I experience in the hunt field is both an attractor and a repellent for me to this rarefied sport. During my first five hunts here, I hunted five different horses. For someone with weak nerves like myself, heading in to the hunt field on a different horse each time began to become overwhelming. All of my horses were well qualified (as my sister assured me, and I have to admit was the case). Only Kenny was a true nutcase (so isn’t it perfectly logical that I love him the most?).

I feel compelled to mention the weather in this summary of my time here in Virginia. Despite the admonition of my friend Derrick for my complaining about the weather (an admonition delivered in the dead of winter from his warm office in Atlanta), let me just say this: Mother of God! Take me back to the arid West!

The damp, bone chilling cold.

The snows that are not all that fun (compared to Utah’s “Greatest Snow on Earth” a slogan that is actually on the state’s license plates, and that I wholeheartedly endorse.)

The ice, my God the ice. The trees crumple beneath the weight of this stuff that often coats everything in sight. My poor car was forced to grow new skins of ice in our repeated ice storms, sometimes making it almost impossible just to get in to my car.

The mud. Derrick was not trudging through the mud 8-12 hours a day. I wore out three pairs of boots during my time here. These were good quality work boots.

The rain. From late March to late June, just after what everyone assured me was an unusually brutal winter, it rained and rained and rained. Keep in mind those of us in the horse business that are too poor for indoor arenas and proper engineering of our farms to handle the water, have to be wet and muddy for months on end. No nice warm office in Atlanta here. The rains this spring seemed biblical to me in their relentlessness and in their sheer quantity of water.

The oppressive heat and humidity. I’ve been reminded of what it is like to really sweat. I mean sweat rolling out of your pores like a river. In the West we drink a lot because it is so dry. In the east, on humid days, we drink a lot because water just pours out of us. We had such a prolonged and wet spring that the number of oppressively hot days I’ve experienced to date have been few. A good time to make my exit!

Of course Derrick is right, it is useless to complain about the weather. It is an utter bore and waste of time. But there you have it. The East Coast weather is making me eager for aridity and blue skies yet again. So off I go to what historian Donald Worster writes critically about as the land that through vast engineering efforts is a land where man over-manages and over-manipulates water in a way that is unprecedented in world history. Ahh, the American West!

I do love the horses and I will miss them. There are dozens more that I’ve come to know during my time here who didn’t get a mention in this little essay (Killington and Pokey leap to mind).

So I prepare to hit the road yet again. I have some trepidation. I have high hopes that I am about to land somewhere that I can stay for a while. Staying was never my intention when I came to Virginia last year; this was designed to be a layover. And what a great layover it has been.

So on to Sedona I go, me and Jackson. I will be horseless for a while, but content to know that my equine friends in Virginia are being well cared for in my absence (cheers to Briony, my main human companion and fellow stable worker/horse trainer).

My replacement at the farm arrives from England this Friday, the day I leave. I won’t be meeting her. I am sure she has no idea what she is getting in to, but I am also sure she is one of those women that really really loves horses (I’ve been around too many women like that these nine months!). She will do fine, and our horses are already grateful for her.

From Berryville,

Jim Breitinger
July 29, 2003