Illustration by Aimee AulThe mare—we'll call her Boedica—has come a long way. She still has a serious chip on her shoulder; she'll take a nip at you if you look at her funny, especially if you're another horse. I'm told it's not only from her recent inactivity, but also from a long career as a brood mare, an equine sex slave in the days before you could do that sort of thing with next-day air and a special syringe. Boedica is about 30, a Methuselah in horse years. We take long walks and talk about oatmeal cookies and the handsome standardbred next door. Just a few yards away, a hundred thousand people are whizzing about the important business of life in a bustling metropolis. If I had any sense, I'd be about my own important business as well, but at the moment it's all about the hollow ring of her hooves on the pavement and wondering if there'll be alfalfa pellets for a treat when we get back.
According to family history, my first horse appeared in crayon on my parents' new car. Something with fins, I remember. Later, herds galloped on the family room walls. Paterfamilias was not pleased, but the horses kept coming. I was enrolled in a special arts-oriented preschool and kindergarten, which cost a fortune and allowed me to draw and sculpt my beloved horses to my heart's content. By my seventh birthday the horses were safely off walls and cars, on paper and real canvas at last, sometimes the paper that lines hangers from the dry cleaners. I was treated to a real horseback ride on a shaggy, yellowish-white creature named Chester. I remember the sound of his neatly trimmed little black hooves on the moist Missouri earth. I remember my Dad in an iconic 1960s pose, cradling a cigarette, watching proudly while Chester carried me around. Church at St. Timothy's meant a rush to coffee hour in the church basement to steal sugar cubes from the neatly piled little pyramids in the center of the tables—I think the altar guild did them—and rush out to the farmer's field where Chief (an appaloosa) and Serenade (a scrawny chestnut) were waiting for their Sunday treat. I would stick my head through the barbed wire (kids, don't try this at home! Like playing in the woods all day and striking up friendly conversations with strangers, it's best left in the 1960s), bury my nose in Chief's wiry black mane and breathe in deep. Horses. No perfume could come close.
We were not a horse-owning type of family; my parents grew up in New York City. I always envied Dick and Jane, who had Pony in their neat, great suburban back yard. I dreamt of keeping a pony in our basement next to the Ping-Pong table, but in the cold light of day, drawing and reading provided the main outlet for my fixation. I gobbled up books from the library and had two very accommodating relatives in New York City publishing houses who sent every horse-related title they could get their hands on. In fourth grade, I was enraptured by Wesley Dennis' oils illustrating Marguerite Henry's classic equine tales (among them, her stunningly illustrated 1948 classic, King of the Wind), as well as his splashy ink washes and dynamic charcoals. This body of work—not all the museum trips or art books of the great masters—opened up the art world to me. It also provided me with a very early and visceral understanding of an artist's connection with his or her subject—a skill that has served me well in my work as an artist, musician and museum educator. A horsey girl can spot a fake a mile away—you know, the artists who don't really get horse anatomy but think they can render the animal by Googling up some images and rendering the rest like a bowl of fruit. This simply won't do. The disdain of a horsey girl for substandard illustration is severe. I learned later, as I studied toward my Bachelor of Music degree (yes, a B.M.) that it's like someone who tries to be a flute player instead of a musician. You have to touch, feel, smell, study, ride, groom, and watch the play of shadow, reflection and refraction on the constantly shifting 3D canvas that is a healthy bay whose coat is dappled slightly with the bloom of good health—do this for a few years, and you might just get it. You have to forget the flute is in your hands.
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The horse fixation continued after my family moved to California, and well into my teens. One blissful summer I spent mucking out stalls for a quarter a pop. The stable is not an entirely domestic place; no one told me, for instance, about the electric fences until I ran into one headfirst, a fateful shock that might explain my subsequent struggles in college.
Horse ownership was for rich folks, and I had made up my mind to be a starving artist; I had the thrift-shop wardrobe to prove it. I dropped horses to get a music degree, study art, launch a couple of careers, marry, divorce, marry, start a family. Horses sneaked into my paintings on hushed hooves, and then as metaphors.
Then, just a few years ago, now a matron and established arts professional, I started hanging around the stables again like a 12-year-old wannabe. At first I just watched feeding and pretended I was introducing horses to my curious preschooler. Then, in a burst of confidence, I set up lessons with an excellent riding instructor and her excellent assistant, a long-suffering Arab mare. I was the oldest and lamest student on the premises. The horsey girls—lithe, tanned, helmeted pixies who could post without stirrups and were absolutely fearless going over jumps—looked at me a little warily, and so did their moms. No one asked, "You're not here for yourself, are you?" but the question hung in the air like manure dust.
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According to Orange County Animal Care Services, horse ownership in Orange County, at least in terms of numbers, has remained fairly consistent over the past decade, a kind of muscular anachronism that refuses to yield to sprawl. But the nature of ownership has changed, with most horses now boarded in large commercial stables instead of in Dick and Jane's phthalo-green back yard. The county licenses 30 such operations, boarding from two or three horses up to several hundred, with most stables housing 50 to 99 equines at any given time. It's a pretty spendy project. The average steel tube stall and basic feed costs $325 per month—more in South County (isn't everything?). Add to that $40 to $100 in shoeing or hoof trimming, the odd dental work and tack (saddles, bridles, halters, grooming supplies), and you're looking at about $5K per year on the cheap side—if your horse doesn't get sick.
But if you ask most horse owners, it's worth it. "You compare it to other sports, like gymnastics or soccer," says one stable owner. "They cost just as much, and here . . . these girls are up here four, five hours a day, working with their horses, learning responsibility . . . it stays with them forever."
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>If not forever, then at least into middle age. I'm not sure when I first met the nippy mare. But serendipitously, providentially, I have become her caregiver, till life slows down a bit for her real owner and she's able to get up to the stables more often. Three times a week I rush up here after work and put my daughter to work mucking out the stall while I burnish Boedica's bay coat to a delicious burnt umber luster, attempt to pick out her hooves, often failing at the gimpy one in the back, and take her for a nice long walk around the neighborhood or in the green field by the stable. As we finish our walk and I brush her again and snap pictures for drawings I'll do at home, Boedica lets out a phlegmy little sigh, her eyes half close, and she is perfectly content. In Maslow's hierarchy of needs, this animal is at the top; I'm getting up there myself. I have succeeded at this stage of life, in making one creature on earth perfectly, completely, deliriously happy. What else could I ask for?
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