Do You Thrive in Sun or Shade?

When you buy a plant, you know how you get those little tabs in the soil that contain instructions for how to care for the plant? It might say that the plant should be in full sun, or partial shade. Maybe the plant should be kept moist, or the opposite — let the soil dry out a bit. The instructions are meant to tell us under what conditions the plant will grow and thrive. If those conditions aren’t met, the plant may wither and even die.

Sun and shade dwellers

Image courtesy of Alter Eco Agronomics

It occurs to me that people are similar. We are all born with a certain temperament and inherent qualities that cause us to do well under certain circumstances, and struggle in others. If you are a creative person, for instance, you may be quite miserable in a job as an actuary. But a career in graphic design, art, advertising — that may well be a place where you can express your authentic self, and thrive.

So…why am I even thinking about this? Because many times we are told, “oh, you shouldn’t be ‘this way’ or ‘that way.'” If I had a nickel for every time I was told “you shouldn’t be so sensitive,” I would be so rich I could have retired 10 years ago! And yet, at the age of 50, guess what? I am still exquisitely sensitive. That isn’t always a good thing, but it isn’t necessarily bad, either. It’s just who I am.  And who I have always been.

For all the times I’ve been told, “you should get a thicker skin,” I would just like to respond by saying…would you scream at your houseplant for not doing well in shade, if the care instructions clearly said it should be in full sun? Is it the plant’s fault, or an innate flaw in the plant, that it is better adapted to certain conditions than others?

Is it a shortcoming on my part that I don’t particularly enjoy working in an environment where rejection is plentiful and consistent, and simply the nature of the business? To me, throwing a sensitive person into that kind of situation is like putting your full-sun-needing-plant in a dark hallway, and expecting it to bloom, even if it doesn’t get what it needs.

It seems ridiculous to me to imagine myself yelling at a plant and telling it to be something other than what it is. As if hosta should be more like cactus.  Seems pretty silly, don’t you think?

So, the next time you — or me — or anyone is tempted to tell someone else (particularly a child), that they should be different than who they naturally are, imagine instead talking to your ficus tree, and telling it to be more like a dwarf spruce. That seems like a waste of time and energy to me. Better to accept the ficus for what it is, and go get yourself a dwarf spruce, too, if that’s what floats your boat.

To continue with this metaphor, if you are working (or living) in an environment that drains you of all your spirit — because that environment cannot possibly nourish you in the way you need — maybe it’s time to think about changing the situation. Maybe it isn’t YOU that is the problem.

And if you can’t change the situation, do everything you can in other areas of your life, to nourish your inborn spirit and passion…because if you don’t, it will wither as surely as the sun-loving plant stuck in the dark.

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In Memory of My Cousin, Mark

My earliest memories of my cousin Mark are of putting my hands over my ears.  He had a drum set, and whenever we visited, we saw little of Mark but heard what seemed to be interminable hours of the crashing sounds of drums and cymbals.  Every now and then the crashing sounds would cease, and Mark  would run like a banshee through the house, for what reason I’m not sure – to get some milk, something to eat, say hello to me and my parents — I have no idea.  Then he’d disappear again, and there would be a return to the banging and clanging.  Frankly, as his 5 year old female cousin — who preferred horses, dogs, and the quiet solace of books – I found this terribly annoying.  At that age, I did not yet appreciate what this meant about Mark: that he was passionate about the things he loved, and he tended to immerse himself in those things.  I would say that was a defining characteristic of his, and I grew to love and respect this about him.


Me, my mom, Kitty and Mark at McFaul’s Iron Horse Tavern in Towson, MD, August 2012

Many years went by where I did not see much of Mark.  My family moved from Southern California to Maryland when I was 10, and Mark and his mom, my great aunt TeTe (“TeTe” being Croatian for “auntie”) remained in the Los Angeles area.  I do remember the few times they came to visit us, though.  It was always in summertime,  and Mark was often touring several cities across the country with the award-winning marching band he was part of…as a drummer, of course.  When he and his mom stayed with us in suburban Baltimore, they couldn’t get over the fact that to them, it seemed like we lived in the boonies, what with all the trees and countryside surrounding our neighborhood.  They often remarked that we must have to travel miles and miles to get to the grocery store…when in fact, it was maybe 5 minutes away by car.  Such was the difference between the world that Mark and TeTe were used to living in – a southern California metropolis – and the world we now inhabited, in what was then a rather smallish city in the far less populous mid-Atlantic.

Those visits back in the 70s apparently made an impression on Mark, and he always loved coming back to Baltimore.  That remained true throughout his adult life, and once he married Kitty, the love of his life, he started bringing her along for his annual visit.  She seemed to fall in love with it here too, and of course, we all fell in love with her, just like Mark did.

I always looked forward to their visits, preceded as they were by a round of phone calls from Mark as he went through the trip-planning process.  Whenever Mark called me, or my mom, we were greeted by his deep, resonant voice, offering up a hearty “Hey, Cuuuuuuz.”  And I also used to crack up at the text messages he sometimes sent me when he hadn’t heard from me in a while:  “Hey, that iPhone thing of yours works for phone calls too, in case you didn’t know.”  Mark was always funny, and he had a sarcastic, biting wit that I adored. And it was never in better form than when he and my mother were discussing politics, which I regret never capturing on video.

Mark was always deeply proud of our Croatian roots — his mother and my grandmother were sisters, first-generation Americans whose parents had emigrated to the U.S. from Dubrovnik, in what was then known as Yugoslavia, in the early 1900s.  Mark knew quite a bit more of the Serbo-Croatian language than I did (although I knew, and still remember, all the swear words.)  He also knew more of the extended Slav family history than I did, and I always enjoyed listening to his stories.  Of course, I always figured we had plenty of time to get together one day and write all of this down.  Sadly, that’s what we all think, isn’t it?  That there will always be more time.  And there often isn’t.

Mark and Kitty were just here this past April, and while my full-time job kept me from seeing them as much as I would have liked, we were still able to share some wonderful moments, for which I am so grateful.  Thankfully, Mark was finally able to see me in a happy relationship with a man who I am proud to say is a lot like Mark himself: rock solid, kind-hearted, honorable, unwavering in his commitments to others…and who loves to cook a good meal.  During the April visit, Mark grilled some awesome – and huge – ribeye steaks for us, prepared with his proprietary dry rub consisting of something like 11 different spices.  He painstakingly paired the steak meal with a special IPA, Racer 5, a few bottles of which I still have, and I feel sad now when I open the refrigerator and see them, alongside a unique double chocolate stout to which he also introduced us.

I was so looking forward to Mark and Kitty’s next visit, when we could share more dinners together, yak about our beloved cats (theirs), dogs and horses (mine), and have breakfast at The Ashland Café, a local joint that looks a bit like a dive but serves incredible food…and it was one of Mark’s favorite places to eat.  I just really wish we’d had more time, because in so many ways I still feel like I was just getting to know Mark.  Even though we were both in middle age, it somehow seemed like we’d only recently arrived at adulthood and were discovering all those wonderful aspects of interpersonal connection that transcend family ties…you know, when you look at another person and don’t just see a cousin anymore, but an exquisite human being with so much kindness, gentleness and wisdom to offer that you wish you could spend every weekend enjoying his company.

I will miss you, Cuz.

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One Day You Look Back, And You’ve Climbed A Mountain

You never know what’s around the corner. It could be everything. Or it could be nothing. You keep putting one foot in front of the other, and then one day you look back and you’ve climbed a mountain.
                                   ~~ Tom Hiddleston

Creating can be fun, but at times it is very difficult and frustrating.  It can also become an obsession. horse-top-mountain

It’s almost 9 o’clock at night, and I am sitting here kind of watching “The Voice,” but my computer is on my lap and I’ve been returning e-mails and continuing to research ways to promote the new services we plan to offer at Electronic Billing.  So I am only sort of watching TV, and mostly thinking about work.  Lately, I can’t even seem to turn off the “work thoughts” when I go to bed, and I lie awake at night trying to come up with advertising copy or sales literature.  Sometimes I even dream about it.  Like last night.  Now, it may be due to the fact that I wasn’t feeling well and was feverish, but I kept having recurring dreams about payment plans for veterinarians!

I stayed home sick today, but that didn’t keep me from working.  It just meant that I could at least stay in my jammies while doing so, and that was kind of nice.  But I did sit here with the computer on lap most of the day, too, and among other things, I read a nice proposal for improving our search engine results (that SEO/SEM stuff that I’ve been learning about).  I also e-mailed back and forth with our graphic designer as we work on developing an ad for EquiManagement, a magazine that features business solutions for equine practitioners.  I also posted on our Facebook business page, and felt extreme disappointment when I saw that the “post reach” was a whopping 26 people.  I was further demoralized by the fact that I asked a question on that post, hoping for some more involved level of engagement, and got….ZERO response.  Oh well.  So much for me figuring out the vagaries of social media, and trying to get noticed by EdgeRank.

I made a couple of prospecting calls, and sent a couple of e-mails in that same genre.  That was slightly more encouraging.  I had a nice conversation with the billing office manager at New Bolton Equine Center, our regional large animal hospital that is part of Penn’s vet school.  She was interested (and kind) enough to actually listen to me and invite me to send her further information.  And a local emergency animal hospital’s practice manager actually responded to a “cold call” email that I sent.  He didn’t buy what I was offering, but he didn’t close the door on it either.  So, in the world of sales, that is a good sign.

One thing I’ve really noticed is how emotionally up and down I am, depending on the response to my efforts.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been in sales, but I don’t recall feeling so personally affected by it back then.  I guess there are some obvious reasons for that.  For one thing, I worked for some pretty ginormous companies back then, like Kraft Foods.  We had a huge sales team, and our customer base was built in…every grocery store carried our products already.  Even getting a new item in distribution wasn’t so hard, because most stores already carried a full line of our products.  Plus, we had a whole marketing department that developed our advertising and merchandising campaigns.  I didn’t have to write the stuff, I just had to sell it.

Second, this is my partner’s business.  Instead of that making things easier, it actually makes it harder, because I feel much more accountable to him than I ever did to a bunch of marketing bigwigs who were hanging out in corporate offices thousands of miles away.  I feel so much like it all comes down to me, and me alone.  I know that isn’t entirely true, because he supports me and is instrumental in developing the sales effort.  But for some reason, I still feel so…well, “vulnerable” is the word that comes to mind, although I don’t think it’s exactly the right characterization.

Why am I even writing this?  I guess it’s because I want to be able to look back — from the vantage point of having created a successful new business venture — and recall the challenges of the journey, and smile about it.  Right now, I cannot imagine that!  I suppose the other reason I’m writing this is simply to tell the story of how an idea is born, begins to take shape, and eventually takes on a concrete form and becomes….something.  And the something that it becomes is not necessarily the something that you imagined in the beginning.  Usually it is some variation on the original idea.

I’m wondering tonight what tomorrow will bring.  For one thing, I hope I feel better, and can get out of my jammies and go to the office!  And after that, I will keep plugging away, with the e-mails, the phone calls, and eventually more actual cold calls.  Yep…just keep plugging away…one foot in front of the other.  Putting that mountain behind me.


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New Life, New Business, New Logo…

ImageIt has been a very long time since I’ve posted on this blog.  A shamefully long time!  But here I am again, writing for the first time after more than a year has gone by, and what a year it has been.  My life has changed quite drastically — for the better, I must say — and it has changed in ways that I would have never dreamed it could.   I have gone from working in barns to working in an office…something I also haven’t done in a very long time!  And like many horsewomen, I am trying to somehow marry my passion for horses, and the riding life, with my indoor office life.  Hence, the logo you see above.

About three months ago my partner and I took the plunge of deciding to work together (yes, we discussed the risks to our relationship, but so far so good.) He has run an electronic payment processing business for nearly 27 years, doing the automated recurring billing that many of us are familiar with if we belong to a gym or a health club (you know those nasty automatic debits to your bank account that happen every month, even if you don’t go to the gym?  Well, it’s my boyfriend’s company that is doing the debiting on the gym’s behalf.)

For at least the first six weeks on the new non-barn job, I came in every day and researched our company web site, and the sites of competitors, all in an effort to get a handle on this whole electronic funds transfer business.  I struggled to relate it to anything but the health club model, and I sat there thinking about ways I could try to sell our business model to non-health-club types of businesses.  What??? No way.  I was coming up blank all the time.  Who could use our services?  Anybody with recurring billing.  And who would that be?  Well, I could eventually come up with a list of businesses that fit that model — trash removal, alarm companies, self-storage, property management companies, etc.  But then I tried to picture myself calling on those sorts of businesses, and quite honestly…it made me feel like killing myself.  Well, OK.  It wasn’t that bad.  But let me just say that it didn’t make me feel inspired in the least.

Which sucked, because this was my boyfriend’s business, I loved him (still do even after three months of working together), and he needed my help.  What to do?  How was I going to make this work?

Well, to get back to the horse thing…that turned out to be my solution.  It occurred to me that many horse businesses — particularly boarding barns — do a lot of recurring billing!  I have certainly paid my share of monthly bills to various barns where I’ve boarded my horses over the years.  Why couldn’t this model, that works so well for gyms and health clubs, work for boarding barns?  I was somewhat encouraged by a casual, after-business-hours conversation that my boyfriend (OK, henceforth we will just call him by his name, Tony) and I had, in which he told me that 20 years earlier, when he started his business, hardly any gyms “did EFT” (meaning the Electronic Funds Transfer, auto-debit thing), but now, over 95% of gyms use this system, and almost all of them outsource that billing to companies like Tony’s.  Hmmmmm, I thought.  Why can’t I go out and singlehandedly revolutionize the boarding barn industry in the same way??? Lol.  I know.  That’s a bit ambitious.  A bit ridiculous.  But it was at least an IDEA…any idea I had for anything was a relief!  And most important, the thought of getting back into a barn again was…well, joyous.  And of course one needs to feel joyous in order to be very productive at work.

So, about a month ago, I really started working on this with a new level of commitment.  Out of that was born a revised version of our company logo, print advertising that is going into some regional equine publications for September through December, and forays into the world of Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing (SEO and SEM…I’ve learned so many cool acronyms these past few months.)  Now we’re also looking into participating in a couple of regional equine trade shows.

I have no idea, really, if I can make this work.  We horse people can be stubborn and stuck in our “old-timey” ways of doing things, so it could be a tough sell.  No one else is really doing this.  (Although there are some software programs that can do billing, among other stable-management-related functions.)  But in the midst of the doubts (which have more to do with my needing to build confidence again than with any flaw in the business model), there is a part of me that can’t, for the life of me, see why it won’t work.  So I am this weird mix of optimistic-enthusiast & Debbie Downer-Doubter.

This has been a struggle, for sure…going back to work, in an office with flourescent lights and no window, working “normal” (or at least semi-normal) hours, and not being outside in a barn, hanging out with horses all day, and relishing the changes in the weather and seasons, no matter what they are.  I really do miss that.  But I’m hoping I can manage to create a happy medium, where I can experience the best of both worlds.  And the really important part of this whole thing is the personal journey it’s taking me on.  I’m getting the chance to grow and challenge myself.  Not that I’m always happy about that, and I do a fair amount of grumbling when I feel discouraged.  But on the good days, when I have some perspective, I realize that even the frustration and discouragement is part of a larger process…the process of regaining my sense of self-efficacy, the continuing process of self-restoration and healing, the process of learning to be in a successful relationship with a man of integrity and honor and kindness (something I am really not used to.)

In other words, it’s all good.  Even when it doesn’t necessarily feel all good.

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Chasing Chase: Or, How to (Almost) Lose a Horse Before You Find Him

This is a little story about a BIG horse: “Chase Me,” a Clydesdale/Thoroughbred cross who, at the time of this story, lived with his mom — my friend, Shelley.  Through a series of serendipitous circumstances, Chase came to live with me only a few weeks after this event occurred (at the time I had no idea that this would happen, no idea – yet – of the love and generosity of Shelley’s heart.)  I was “farm-sitting” for Shelley and her husband, taking care of their two dogs, Bailey and Anky, and three horses – Chase, Caly (short for Calypso), and Resolut (known as “Rez” or “Rezzy.”)  One night, after finishing evening barn chores, things went, well…sort of WRONG.  This is the journal entry I made that night…unedited (gulp).


September 15, 2011 –  10:30 pm

Really not the best day.  Chase got out because I stupidly left the side gate to the front paddock unlatched.  WTF is wrong with me?!?!  In general, I do a pretty good job, but boy, when I screw up it’s a whopper, a royal mess!  What if the horse had run onto the main road?!  It was dark, well after sunset — I could hardly see.  I started to panic, then stopped myself.

At first, both Chase and Caly were loose.  I’d turned them out for the evening, not realizing I’d left that small side gate unlatched.  As I was exiting the barn for — what I thought! — was the night, I suddenly saw Chase and Caly milling around in the backyard, between the barn and the house!  As soon as I looked at them, they took off at a canter across the yard, toward the line of mature pines that divides the property from the neighbors’.  Great, I thought, quickly realizing that the horses’ escape was due to my negligence.  Gee, I am so brilliant.

How to get them back?  The fog of the initial shock began to lift and I ran into the barn, grabbed a bucket of feed and a carrot and ran back out to the yard.  I called to the horses — “Chase!  Caly!” — and shook the bucket full of grain.  Waves of relief washed over me when I saw them emerge from the darkness, both of them heading straight toward me.  Thank God this is over as quickly as it began, I thought.  Caly came straight to me and I gave her half the carrot.  I opened the gate to the barn and she walked right in.  I assumed — stupidly, surprise surprise! — that Chase would follow her.  But no, he decided to turn and run off back into the darkness!  Caly turned and started to follow him but I grabbed her by the halter and led her into her stall.  Just get Caly IN right now — better to get at least ONE horse back than have both running loose through the neighborhood, I muttered to myself.

Once Caly was locked securely in her stall I could see that she was jumpy about Chase’s absence.  Rez was a bit worked up, too, watching the mayhem from his stall, which is his nightly abode.

Certain that at least Rez and Caly were safely in their stalls in the barn, I headed back out with the bucket of grain and started calling for Chase.  I saw nothing, heard nothing.  I walked farther into the backyard, away from the barn, furiously shaking the bucket of grain.  I suddenly remembered that Chase was halterless — earlier in the day I’d discovered a halter rub on the side of his cheek, so I had turned him out without it, after applying some ointment to the rub.  Wonderful!  OF COURSE I had to do that RIGHT before the horse runs away!  How the hell was I going to get him back with no way to control him?!

I turned around and ran back into the barn again to find Chase’s halter and a lead rope.  Noting the alarm on the faces of both Rez and Caly, I decided to slow down and quit acting like I was in the tizzy that I was.  I slowly took the halter and lead rope, picked up the bucket of grain again and headed back out into the dark yard.  I called out for Chase again and again.  I saw nothing, heard no hoof beats, no whinnies.  I began walking toward the house, thinking that I was going to have to get in my car to try to find him.  Just then I saw the tail lights of a car heading north on the main road.  I suddenly realized that this large, dark bay Clydesdale/TB cross could be hit by a car if he’d gone out there….the main road was a stone’s throw away.

I tried to stop myself from thinking of all the potential catastrophes that could befall a loose horse in the pitch black night — no moon, no stars.  Worst of all, the loose horse was Shelley’s baby, her heart — a horse she had raised and made into a winning dressage horse and superb foxhunter.  Chase was her whole heart, and look what I’d gone and done!! I felt sick.  All because of my inattentiveness, I’d allowed her beloved horse to escape and run off to God knows where.  Was I going to have to call the police?  Does one call 911 over a missing, loose horse?  I pictured a full neighborhood search, flashing police lights, chaos, tragedy…

Snap!  I reminded myself once again not to panic.  I didn’t see or hear Chase anywhere, even though I was calling for him and shaking that feed bucket to no avail.  Then I glimpsed a flash of white along the driveway.  It was Chase — his broad, white blaze glowing like neon in the blackness.  I shook the bucket again and began walking slowly toward him.  He turned and walked away!  At least he didn’t GALLOP off, like before!  I could see his white stockings striding toward the end of the driveway.  In seconds I couldn’t see him at all.  I walked to the end of the driveway.  No Chase.  I looked up the street, down the street, across to the neighbors’ vast expanse of lawn…nothingWhere could he have disappeared to so quickly without running?!  I hadn’t heard any hoof beats that would indicate he’d trotted or cantered off.

With a growing sense of hopelessness and dread, I realized I had better get in my car and start driving around looking for him.  God only knows how far away he could have gotten already.  It also began to dawn on me that, wherever I found him, I’d have to park the car and just leave it there so I could hand walk him back to the barn.  At that moment it didn’t matter to me if I’d have to walk 10 miles both ways —  I would just do it.  Getting the horse back safely was way more important than how far I’d have to walk or how tired I might get.

As I backed out and got ready to turn and head out the driveway, I saw white flickers in front of my headlights, and there he was — just standing alongside the paved drive.  Had he never left?!  Had he simply faded into the shadows?  How was that possible?!

I jumped out of the car, having thrown the halter and lead rope over my left shoulder (for once I thought ahead!  Wow.  I see an invitation to MENSA in the near future.)  The grain bucket was in my other hand.  Chase moved off again, but at least this time it was in the direction of the barn.  I followed him, and he stopped in front of the gate across the barn aisle.  He just stood there watching me as I approached.

At this point I started to cry.  I’d had enough! I was tired of being terrified and I also didn’t want my reputation ruined by a smart-ass horse who wanted to remain on the lam just for the sake of taunting me.  Or just to be on the other side of the fence.  Chase knew he was out and he had made the most of it!  In that sense, he reminded me of my own beloved horse, Legend, who I’d just put down a week earlier.  Legend loved to do this kind of stuff.

It didn’t matter to Chase (or Legend) that what was outside the fence was exactly the same as what was inside the fence.  It was simply the novelty of the experience, and the fun of teasing me (more like torturing me) in Horse-Speak, as a child might:  “Ha ha, you can’t catch me!!”

I stood next to Chase’s nose and he reached for the carrot in the bucket.  “No way,” I said to him.   “You’re not getting rewarded for running away!”  I jerked the bucket away from him while I threw a lead rope over his neck (twenty stories above me.)  I unlatched the gate and led him inside.  He was a perfect gentleman.  Of course.  Of course.  Hmmph.

That’s when I started to get mad, like the way you get when your kid runs off while you’re in the grocery store.  You’re panicked and terrified, running up and down the aisles, screaming the kid’s name until you finally find him.  Then you’re flooded with relief and an overwhelming sense of love.  And as soon as you realize that he is safe and unharmed, the anger rolls in.  “How dare you do that?!?!  Don’t you ever run off like that again!!  What is wrong with you?!”  In this case, I was yelling at a “kid” who was 18 hands in height and weighed nearly 2,000 lbs!  Chase stared back at me with innocent eyes.  What had he done so wrong, after all?

I put him in his stall and proceeded to take a tour of all the paddock gates once more, assuring that those that were supposed to be open were, and those that were supposed to be closed and latched were just that.  One more time, I went back into the barn to start closing things down — turning Chase and Caly back out in an enclosed paddock, but where they would still be able to visit Rez, who was on partial stall rest recovering from an injury.

After I turned out the lights in the barn and headed back up to the house, feeling limp and ragged, I saw Chase trot over to the little side gate through which he’d earlier escaped.  I stopped and glanced at the gate again to be sure I hadn’t repeated my earlier mistake.  I had not (whew.)  “Sorry, Chase,” I told him, as he looked at me quizzically and with not a little bit of disappointment.  As well as amusement — I swear his eyes twinkled with mischief.  “Good night everybody,” I said.  Big sigh.

I walked back to the house thinking about how much Chase would have loved to run right out again — just like Legend would have.


Rest in Peace, Legend: 1990 – September 7, 2011.  My first horse.  Ever.  I love you, my boy. 

Love you, too, Chase.  You big, wonderful, kindhearted OAF!!  🙂

And to Shelley:  There are no words.  NO WORDS.  Bubble of joy under my rib cage.  Tears in my eyes.  Heart overflowing with love and gratitude.  The greatest gift of all was (is!) a friendship born of a horse.

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Buck Jakes, You Will Be Missed By Many

3/13/1988 - 1/4/2012: Buck Jakes (the grey horse in the photo.) A champion, a treasured family member, a friend to all.

Buck Jakes* was a great horse.  I don’t think anyone would argue with that statement.

During his long life, he garnered many accolades.  As a steeplechaser, he distinguished himself by winning two Maryland Hunt Cups (setting a course record in his 1995 run); Three American Grand Nationals; Two Pennsylvania Hunt Cups; and two International Gold Cups.  In 1999, the year before he was retired, he won The Old Dominion Point-to-Point.  As recently as 2009, at the age of 21, he took part in the Foxhall Farm Team Trophy Chase.  He did not place that day, but he still made his owner/rider, Charlie Fenwick, Jr., proud.  Jake was always up for anything.  He was one of those horses that just had a great attitude about life. (Source: Mid Atlantic Thoroughbred, June 2009, Maggie Kimmett, author.)

I didn’t know Jake during his glory days in steeplechase racing.  I met him last year, when I began working part-time for his owners at the farm where he was retired.  I knew he had had a distinguished career, but that was about it.  I didn’t know any details.  But I didn’t need to know about any of that to realize that he was a pretty special horse.  He quickly became one of my favorites, thanks to his easy-going nature and general affability.

Jake was the kind of horse who would bring himself into the barn at dinner time — I discovered this accidentally when I was missing a lead rope one night.  I clipped lead ropes to the halters of his 3 herdmates and opened the pasture gate.  Jake followed the rest of the horses in, but in his very “Jakey” way, he decided against coming into the south end of the barn with everyone else.  That would have been too easy for him, I guess.  So he walked all the way around the barn by himself, and ambled in, unhurriedly, through the north entrance.  He looked at each horse he passed on the way to his stall, as if to say, “What’s the big deal?  I know the way to my own stall.  Haven’t the rest of you guys figured it out yet?”

When it was time to feed, I could always count on hearing Jake’s distinctive voice.  He consistently offered up an endearing “whicker” — a pleasant, throaty combination of a whinny and a nicker.  Of course, several of the other horses offered their own vocalizations of encouragement as they heard me pouring and mixing feed, but Jake almost seemed to “sing” in anticipation, proffering a series of low notes that ran up the scale to a higher pitch and then back down again.  I never heard anything like it before or since, and I always loved it.

I had the great pleasure of riding Buck Jakes a couple of times this past summer.  Because he suffered from a heart condition (and because I suffered from having been out of the saddle for many months — and was therefore very out of shape!), we kept to a walk and trot.  He had a lovely, forward trot with nice suspension and elevation — nice enough to make me quickly give up on posting and just remain in two-point because I lacked so much leg strength!  (It was a bit embarrassing, I must admit.)

We probably jogged about a mile before approaching a meadow filled with schooling fences.  As my friend Jess took Jake’s barnmate, Monarch Lane, over some jumps, I tried to hold Jake to a trot — again, the problem being my weak legs and Jake’s weak heart.  But Jake apparently had not read the memo about his physical disability — he got so excited watching Monarch sail over jumps that he broke into a canter and started heading toward a line of cross-rails and verticals!  It took a bit of effort to pull him up, simply because of his enthusiasm.  It was quite something to feel all that energy beneath me — had I not known how old Jake was, I never would have guessed he was 23.

This past weekend, Jake began showing symptoms of colic and was transported to the University of Pennsylvania’s Widener Hospital for Large Animals at New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, PA.  He was presumptively diagnosed with a gastric outflow obstruction, most likely caused by the progression of melanoma (grey horses like Buck Jakes commonly develop melanomas, especially as they age.)  Due to Jake’s advanced age and preexisting heart condition, surgery was not recommended.  He was discharged earlier today, so he could spend his remaining days at home with his barnmates and human family members.

Unfortunately, as the day progressed, it was evident that Jake was growing increasingly weak.  By late afternoon, the vet was called to administer additional pain medication and to assess Jake’s condition.  His compassionate owners, Charlie and Sherry Fenwick, who consider Jake a treasured family member, made the painfully difficult decision to let him go.

Draped in one of his championship blankets, Jake was walked to a nearby pasture, not far from a hilltop burial site overlooking the beautiful countryside of northern Baltimore County.  With Charlie and Sherry by his side — as well as devoted stable manager Jessica Hobbs —  Jake walked with the regal bearing of a champion, his ears pricked forward and his tail up.

I will always remember the few moments I had alone with him in his stall, before the vet arrived.  He was standing with his head down when I entered.  He raised his head a little and took one halting step toward me.  Then he rubbed his head up and down against my chest, in what seemed to be a quiet gesture of — gratitude.  “Thanks for taking care of me,” he seemed to say.  And I don’t doubt that is what he meant, because that’s the kind of horse he was: affectionate, appreciative, kindhearted, generous, dignified, brave.  In a word: a champion.

Rest in peace, my gentle friend.  It was an honor and a privilege to care for you these past many months.  I — and many others — will miss you every day.


*Buck Jakes was a son of TURKOMAN (out of ACHARMER by Al-Hattab) and a grandson of ALYDAR.  To view  Buck Jakes’ complete pedigree, click here.

Any errors or inaccuracies in the above account are the sole responsibility of the author.  Please feel free to leave comments correcting or updating any of the biographical information in this article regarding Buck Jakes, Charles C. Fenwick, Jr., and/or Sherry Fenwick.

Posted in Horses: Grief and Loss | 5 Comments

Three Days After Losing Ben

There is nowhere that I want to be.

I don’t want to be at home; I do want to be at home.  I don’t want to be at my barn; yet I do want to be at my barn.  I don’t want to be alone, and yet I do want to be alone.

Everywhere I go is the “wrong” place.  Everything just feels…not right.

I guess it’s because there is nowhere I can go, nothing I can do, that will erase the reality — and thus the pain — of the death of my beloved horse, Ben.

It has only been three days…three days.  For two of those days I avoided the barn entirely.  Which means I didn’t see my other horse —  my one remaining horse, Chase.  I think I am almost afraid to see him right now.  I am afraid I will notice that something is wrong with him, that he looks a little “off,” that he has rain rot, that he has a bit of mucus dribbling from one of his nostrils.  And I am flat out terrified of this.  I am terrified of losing him, too…or of losing one of my dogs, or losing…I can’t even write it.

I know that sounds rather ridiculous, but Ben is the second horse I’ve buried in the past three months.  It’s been a bit much.  I am feeling overwhelmed.  I am feeling like the Universe or God or Whoever is in charge of things hates me right now.  How can I run for cover from the Big Whoever?  Where can I go that the Big Whoever won’t find me, or one of my animals?  (I cannot even mention human family members and friends right now.)

The only thing I can do…is nothing.  I can only be — be with this loss.  And in some moments, it feels almost unbearable.

Doing barn chores helped a little.  The rhythmic to and fro of sweeping soothed me a little.  Cleaning stalls did, too.  But there is that one stall, the empty one.  Ben’s stall.  It didn’t need to be cleaned because he hasn’t been in it since Thursday morning.  I cleaned his stall early that afternoon, not knowing that he would never be in it again.

This afternoon, I made up the evening feed rations for Jinx and Chase.  I looked at the metal container marked “Ben – Senior Feed.”  I removed the lid.  There was Ben’s PM ration from Thursday.  Because it had supplements and bute (phenylbutazone, a veterinary anti-inflammatory) in it, I dumped it in the muck bucket.  We don’t have any horses on bute anymore.  As a matter of fact, we have no senior horses in the barn anymore.  Jinx is 8 and Chase is 12.

There were only a few scoops of senior feed left in the container, so I put it in an empty feed bag to donate it, along with an unopened 50 lb. bag of senior feed I just bought last week, not realizing Ben would not need it.  I moved the now-empty feed container to the back of the feed room, and put Chase’s feed container where Ben’s used to be.  I looked at the feed chart, the dry-erase board that provides detailed instructions about each horse’s ration and supplements.  I could not erase Ben’s name from the board.  Not today, anyway.

I cleaned water buckets — the heated buckets are up now, since night temps have started to fall below freezing.  I managed to get myself to unplug and remove Ben’s bucket.  No sense wasting electricity, I thought.  And downright dangerous to leave it plugged in and empty.  I started to remove Ben’s feed bucket, too, but those stubborn double-end snaps were all stuck together with horse slobber and molasses and wouldn’t budge.  It wouldn’t have taken much effort to unfasten them, but OK, I thought.  I’m not ready to take this down yet anyway.  His hay rack is still full, too.  Oh well.  Maybe Jinx or Chase will stick his head in here and eat it.

Barn chores finished, I looked out into the pasture and watched Jinx and Chase munching on the hay I’d just thrown out.  That old lesson I’d learned never failed to kick in — always throw out one extra pile of hay, one more than the number of horses you’ve got…better not to invite conflict.  With just two horses now, I’d tossed out three piles of a few flakes each.  Yet Jinx and Chase were nose to nose, munching peacefully out of the same pile.

Was this their way of comforting each other, I wondered, or had they done this before?  I’d never noticed.  Did they realize it was just the two of them now?  Did they feel Ben’s absence as intensely as I felt it?  Even though they are horses, and they live in the moment, unable to hang onto the past, did their present feel different to them?  Is that why they were standing so close to one another?

I can’t know the answer to that.  The only thing I know is that my present feels different.  It feels like there is too much space in it, although that doesn’t really make any sense.  It feels like I’ve lost something that I was carrying, as if I set down a bundle and forgot to pick it back up again.  Then when I became aware of the emptiness, I went to look for what I’d lost but I couldn’t remember where I put it.

The problem is I know what I’ve lost — my Ben.  And all my restless wandering, all my seeking, all my longing…is for naught.  He is gone.

Posted in Horses: Grief and Loss | 4 Comments