Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Wizard Merlin

A week from today my new novel Fighting Words debuts. It's a tough story about a tough kid in a bad situation, how she's shielded and strengthened by her sister's love, and how she learns to thrive.

Originally my publisher planned to send me on tour, which would mean, among other things, repeatedly talking about my book to people who'd not had a chance to read it. For months I'd planned to end my presentation with a photo of Merlin, my daughter's horse. The tour's going to be entirely online now, and I may or may not be able to show photos, but, especially after this weekend, I want to talk about Merlin.

If this horse can overcome his past, there's hope for all of us.

We don't know how old Merlin is (by his teeth, somewhere between 10 and 15). We don't know what breed or breeds he is (he might be part Thoroughbred, but his pinto markings mean he can't be full; his size means he's likely part draft; other possibilities include Standardbred and Dutch; we call him an "American warmblood" as a joke). We don't have any idea where he was born. He could be a Canadian PMU foal--but since Canada has horse slaughterhouses we're not sure how he would have ended up in east Tennessee. He looks like something the Amish might breed, but he's sound, and the Amish don't send sound horses to slaughter.

What we know is that at some point he was sold for slaughter, somewhere. There are no longer horse slaughterhouses in the United States, which means that meat horses are shipped to either Mexico or Canada in enormous double-deck stock trailers holding up to 40 animals at a time. Merlin was in horrible physical shape, which turned out to be lucky, because haulers are fined if they show up at the plants with dead animals aboard. So when Merlin collapsed on the trailer, they stopped it, dragged his prone body out with ropes, and left him in a field to die.

I'm not making that up. I'm not exaggerating.

He didn't die. He lived in that field untouched for five years.

Then he had 30 days' training and then a woman rode him, mostly on trails, for a few years, and then she moved away and could only see him every few months or so. He lived on the side of a mountain in a big field with other horses.

My daughter was home for four weeks last summer between college classes. Her beloved horse Mickey had died and there was nothing for her to ride on our farm except my mare, whom I was riding. My daughter put the word out in our community that she was looking for a horse to work with for free for just those few weeks.

Enter Merlin.

It took her 45 minutes to get him down from his field. She'd take a few steps, he'd spook and run into her, she'd stop and back him. He'd take a few steps with her, spook and run into her, she'd stop and back him. All the way down the hill. He jumped straight onto our horse trailer, then panicked--we slammed the doors shut as fast as possible and started down the road. We threw him into one of our fields by himself overnight.

"He's pretty," my husband said. (He is.)

The next morning I sat down to write. My daughter headed out to the barn. She told me she was going to do some rope work with Merlin--teach him things from the ground before getting on his back. "Be careful," I said. "Wear your helmet, in case he kicks. If you need help, call."

Thirty minutes later my phone rang. My daughter said, "Could you please come out here?"

I headed out, expecting disaster. My daughter and Merlin were in our small sand ring. She flicked the rope at him, and he backed away from her, calmly, head down, ears pricked intently but the rest of his body relaxed. She signaled him to go left. He walked left. She asked him to swing his hips away from her. He did. She told him to go right. He went. She told him to trot. He trotted. She asked him to face her again. He did. She called him to her, and he walked forward, slowly, head down, licking his lips.

By this point I had tears running down my face. I said, "Who put this horse on a kill truck?" My daughter, wordless, shook her head.

That night my husband said, "We're keeping him." My daughter replied, "We are not." She would be gone most of the summer and then for her senior year of college, and after that probably grad school. "I do not need a horse," she said. My husband pointed out that we had plenty of room on the farm. My daughter said that the horse did not need to stand in our fields.

He knew very little. He didn't steer for beans. He couldn't balance himself enough to canter inside our arena. He appeared not to have a left lead canter at all. He didn't know much about jumps. He was afraid to walk into the barn, let alone into a stall, and he clearly worried all the time about monsters coming up behind him. He was so afraid of clippers that he full-out panicked when I clipped my mare in front of him. He'd never worn shoes and didn't like having his feet picked out.

He was astonished to be fed grain. In a bucket! Every day! Every day, a bucket! Eventually we moved the buckets into the barn, into a stall, and stalls became acceptable. And horse cookies! Cookies! Treats! He couldn't believe he was getting treats. He nosed my daughter's hands. He licked her arms. He came running when she called.

We only had four weeks, but we made the most of them. Two weeks in we took him and my mare to our coach, Cathy Wieschhoff, up in Lexington, Kentucky. Cathy'd sounded skeptical about Merlin on the phone. My daughter rode Merlin into Cathy's big covered arena, filled with bright show jumps, and Merlin trotted around calmly, interested and unafraid. Twenty minutes later Cathy said, "I agree with your dad. Buy him."

We did. My daughter went back to school. Sometimes I rode Merlin, sometimes he just hung out with my mare. Whenever my daughter came home Merlin whickered when he saw her. He liked me, and he was easy to be around, but I wasn't his person.

In March my daughter came home for spring break just as the pandemic shut the country down. She finished her senior thesis and coursework in her childhood bedroom. Merlin became her emotional anchor, riding him the bright spot in every day. She thought about what he needed to learn, then worked out how to teach him, step by step.

A week and a half ago she took him to his first competition. I already wrote about that. He had to stay in a strange stall and cope with golf carts and unfamiliar horses and good Lord dressage was inside a building, and that was the easy part. Our sport, eventing, is a riding triathlon--the third phase, cross country, involves the horse and rider setting out by themselves on a course the horse has never seen before. Even at the lowest levels it's a mile or so long, on uneven terrain, over solid jumps that can't fall down. Some horses love cross country. Horses who don't tend to refuse to do it at all.

There are a thousand ways to be eliminated in eventing. Your horse can jump the low fence around the dressage ring. Refuse to enter the ring. Refuse more than two show jumps. Refuse more than three cross-country jumps. Dump you into the water jump. Once you're done, you're done--you can't start the next phase. Often, finishing is victory.

When competitions resumed this summer, my daughter and I had picked out two, back to back, that we thought we could get to despite the virus: Virginia and River Glen. (From here out, showing looks to be shutting down again.) On Cathy's advice Katie took a chance, and moved Merlin up at River Glen to the first nationally recognized division. It was a substantially harder course than what he'd done just the week before.

He was so lovely. He took in the golf carts and commotion and strange stalls. He didn't spook in dressage. In show jumping he refused one fence when my daughter got discombobulated, but he jumped it willingly on the second try.

He understood the idea of going cross country. He stopped to take a look at the first fence--my daughter circled and he cleared it--and then he went on, up and down hills, across ditches, ramps and tables and cabins--a second refusal at the top of a hill, when he simply couldn't get his legs sorted in time to jump. Down the hill, brave and bold, through the water jump. And then my daughter was singing to him, "Three more, baby! Two more! Just one more, one more fence--you did it, Merlin! Good Boy! GOOD BOY!"

And then my daughter burst into tears.

Merlin strutted. Friends of mine standing near the finish told me they overheard another competitor say, "Have you heard that horse's story? Can you believe what he's done?"

My daughter fed him cookies, untacked him, rinsed him. They walked through the crowded stabling area back to his stall, entirely relaxed, his ears floppy, his head by her knee.

Even before this show I was going to show his photo on my book tour. I was going to say, Look at this horse's heart. He had reason to never trust another human ever. Instead he never stops trying.

If he can overcome the demons in his past, there is hope for us all.

He's done more than overcome. He thrives.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The comments on this blog are now moderated. Yours will appear provided it's not hateful, crass, or annoying--and the definition of those terms is left solely to me.