Saturday, December 19, 2009

Taking Care of the Livestock First

There's an old rule of thumb in farming: take care of the livestock first. Whether it's feeding, tending to, or providing shelter in a storm, seeing to the animals' needs before one's own is no doubt good farming practice, protecting one's investment and livelihood. It's also our responsibility as their caretakers, something we chose when we adopted or acquired them, a decision they had no part of. That responsibility doesn't stop when the animals get old or infirm. Much as we'd like to hold onto them forever--to make time stop--there's a point at which keeping an animal alive becomes more about us and our needs than about them and theirs.

Verlyn Klinkenborg has a piece in the Times today about making the hard decision to put a beloved dog down. It's an eloquent articulation of all that I believe to be the right course in such things, as heart-wrenching as it may be.

• • •

It reminded me of a wonderful story by David Updike, written in 1978 when he was still in college, "Out on the Marsh." It's a reflection by a young man at 21 about the passing of time, illuminated by his sudden awareness that his dog, Mtoti, has gotten on in years. Here's the last paragraph:

I had been out on the marsh for several hours that day, and Mtoti was tired and followed a few feet behind me. I turned to him and ran backwards, clapping my hands, calling his name, and he worked himself into a run. On the lawn we stopped, and I bent down to hug him. In the afternoon light, I could see that the gray flecks on his muzzle had gone to white, and I realized that he had drifted into old age without my having noticed. I have thought of him all these years as my peer, but it is only now, in the blue light of spring, that I realize he has grown old without me.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Getting on the Other Side

Some years ago, a friend of mine was struggling to manage her new horse, a somewhat feisty Argentinian polo pony. It was a challenge for her to overcome her fears and ride the horse with the confidence it required. She rode for a while with a local trainer, a born-and-bred horseman, nearly Midwestern in his approach to horses. He took everything in stride and remained both calm and patient when working with difficult horses.

At one point, when she was frustrated and expressing her doubts, he looked at her and said, “You’ve just got to get on the other side of that horse.”

In addition to being good advice, it’s a great concept. There is, I have found, a tipping point at which nearly every formerly insurmountable problem becomes manageable. Reaching that point requires patience, determination, and a commitment to hang in there until the thing sorts itself out, one way or another.

. . .

I started last summer wondering if Wolfie and I would ever form a workable partnership. He was spooky, I was nervous; not a good recipe for success. But I stayed with it, and rode nearly every day, alone and in company. I rode through spooks and shies, calmed my butterflies, and just kept at it, even on days when I just didn't feel up to it.

By the end of the summer, we had made great strides together: he doesn’t spook at everything now, his spooks are smaller, and I just ride them out and keep on going. No more butterflies. We’re both calmer and our rides are a lot more fun.

I figure I got on the other side of that horse. And I think he probably got on the other side of me.