Wrangler Dani

Writer, editor, marketer and communication strategist. I'm also a wife, mama, hiker, cowgirl and experimental cook living in beautiful Central Oregon.

Archive for the ‘horses’ Category

August 29th, 2017 by Dani

Stammering toward Gratitude

Yesterday, as I was making plans with someone for the fall, she said to me, “You must be over the moon about your baby boy.”

I stammered a lame response. I am! Of course I am. I’m thrilled and honored and excited and full of love for this tiny person.

But lately my dominant emotion has been discouragement, not gratitude or excitement. I’ve bitten my nails about looming expenses and what-ifs. I’ve wondered if I’m tough enough for the process, if I can push through the uncertainty long enough to keep loving when I want to scream.

Adam and II was still thinking about my stuttering response to my friend when last night, about midnight, we discovered that a pack rat had eaten one of my saddles. Not just any saddle, one I was planning to sell to raise money for our adoption. I cried, shoulder-shaking, throat-opening, guttural tears. Adam wanted to comfort me, and I wanted to punch something. I wanted to scream that I’m doing my best here, give me a break! I can’t be loving and hopeful and peppy anymore, I just can’t!

I know. It’s embarrassing.

Do you know what I did next? If you think I realized I was being immature and dramatic and came to my senses, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Instead, I made a list of discouragements, all the ways I am failing. I looked at it with anger and fear and tear-filled eyes. It was helpful. Do you know what Adam did? He started listing all the ways that God has been faithful to us. The miracles we’ve seen unfold before our eyes, the gifts we’ve been given, the things we didn’t even know to ask for that dropped in our laps like so many golden eggs. Guess who’s list was longer and more helpful?

Adam helped me see that gratitude has to be worked for. Wallowing is easy and even perversely pleasant, the long woe-be-gone country song. But it’s not true. The truth is that God is ever-so-faithful and we are completely blessed. Every need we have has been met, even though I am not very tough I am married to the toughest of them all, and we have a redeeming God who is even tougher.

So today: gratitude. Disappointments are real, and fear will knock on my door again, probably before today is over. But gratitude is worth working for. It’s worth fighting for. It is the gift of clear eyes and real perspective, the thing that lets me get excited about tiny newborn outfits and new adventures and grace every morning. Without gratitude, I’m just killing time, waiting for the other shoe to drop or mourning the one that already has. I’m locked in a spinning top of frustration and angst, teaching my daughter how to see struggle instead of joy, dead-ends instead of new directions.

Anne Lamott said recently that every day she asks God for forgiveness and help, both because she’s sorry she’s such a big whiny baby and because she doesn’t want to be one any more. Of course I can’t say it any better than that.

This morning, I wipe my eyes and begin again, in gratitude.

October 18th, 2016 by Dani

Not Good, But Right. (My Goodbye to Major)

majorI’ve been thinking about doing right and feeling good. Yesterday, Adam said to me that it doesn’t feel good, but you know it’s right. He was right, too, of course. Yesterday, I had to put down my horse, Major. He’s only been here for a couple of months, but I’ve loved him for a couple of years, ever since Kathryn, the lead instructor at Healing Reins, asked me to ride him twice a week.

In the months before we had Addy, when I felt like my heart was going to be crushed under the weight of its own longing, I would go to the barn and spend time with him. He was an old Belgian, and had done everything, been everywhere, seen it all. He was slow-moving and long-legged, with large kind eyes and big ears that followed my voice. When I needed a confidante I had his big strong neck to bury my face in, and he was exactly the kind of horse I needed in a tumultuous time in my life, when all I wanted was something solid. He was solid as a rock.

majorSo when he retired, I brought him home and dreamed of giving Addy the kind of four-legged friend I’d grown up with – wise, kind horses who knew how to comfort a child, an emotional teenage girl and a grieving soon-to-be mother alike. I haven’t outgrown the need for a quiet nicker and the feeling of horsehair under my fingers to help me cope with loss or heartbreak, and now he’s gone – I had to say good-bye to my gentle therapist and he’s not here any more to make me feel alright about it.

I won’t go in to why we had to make this heart-breaking decision but I know that it was right, even though it does not feel good in any way. I asked him if he was ready, when I was agonizing over the decision, and he laid his head against my back, in a gentle gesture of understanding. He knew, and he was ready, but it doesn’t make me ready to let him go.

majoraddyIt was a beautiful day yesterday and we spent our last couple of hours soaking up the sunshine in a close-cropped fall pasture. I told him about the fields of long grass that I hoped awaited him, the endless gardens of carrots and apple trees, ripe for the taking. I told him I would miss him terribly and I would never forget him, that I would always tell Addy about her first horse, the first horse I let myself love completely since my wrangler days, more than 10 years ago.

He laid down peacefully, like the wonderful big man he was. Kathryn came and hugged me because she loved him, too – he’s been a confidante, friend and joy-bringer to a lot of people over his long life. I sat next to him in the gathering dark until they came to take him away, running my fingers over his neck as though willing myself to never forget what he felt like. I knew he was already gone, though, running through his green pasture like a colt again. I can still hear his gentle nicker in my head, and I just wish I could bury my head in his neck one more time, so he could tell me, in his horsey way, that it doesn’t feel good, but it’s right.

May 11th, 2015 by Dani

Riding test

The other day, I had to perform a riding test at my new barn. Now, let me tell you right up front: I am not a sophisticated rider, y’all. I learned to ride from scruffy, fearless cowboys who told me encouraging things like, “don’t come off” and “that horse knows more cow than you do, darlin’, so let ‘im loose”. Over the years of teaching therapeutic horseback riding and watching others teach, I’ve picked up on more thorough riding techniques, but at the end of the day, I’m just a self-taught cowgirl, and I deeply feel my inadequacy in the presence of formally trained, sophisticated horse-folk.

Long story short, the test was actually really fun. My fellow instructors (intimidating though they may seem) were kind and helpful, and I felt like I actually got my very first riding lesson out of the deal. I walked into the barn feeling insecure, gangly and awkward, but I walked out hopeful and happy, excited for a new chapter in my wrangling life.

I tell you this story because I know that this will also happen with adoption and motherhood. One of these Mother’s Days I won’t find myself in tears alone in my car because I passed a florist. One of these days I will get to walk in the park with my own kids, and not just smile at everyone else’s kids as I walk my dog.

I don’t have a neat bow to wrap up here. I’m trying to see the hope and the bigger perspective, and I know it’s there. My head knows that all I have to do is sit back in my saddle and relax my elbows. My head knows that in order to move well, my horse has to bend and collect himself, and it’s my job to help him do that. My head knows that I have ridden hundreds of horses and have worked everywhere from cattle ranches to trail rides to therapeutic riding centers, that despite my lack of formal training, I know how horses work and I can do this. My heart says that I’m afraid of failure, that I feel lonely and altogether incapable of these big things. I feel small and silly and scared.

Maybe it’s OK to not have a bow to tie on this story. Maybe it’s OK to admit that maybe I am a little small, silly and scared, but that I don’t have to be anything else right now. Maybe it’s OK to just keep moving and hoping, and letting Somebody else handle the rest. Maybe I’ll just go for a ride, and let my horse remind me that I know more about all of this than I think I do.

March 25th, 2015 by Dani

“Just” a mom, wife, friend…

Yesterday I got to spend three hours at my new therapeutic riding barn with a big black Percheron mare. Apparently I was given her as a bit of a “test” from my fellow instructors, just to see how I’d handle her quirks (when a 6-foot tall, 3,000 lb critter has a quirk – well, let’s just say it can be a little exciting). After a few minutes it was clear we would get along fine, however, as she happily responded to my cues and blinked her big brown eyes at me when we stopped.

During the class, my phone buzzed. It was the latest adoptive parent social worker, telling us (again) that we hadn’t been matched with an expectant mom. I got a little teary and was grateful that I had a big black mane to hide behind and the kindly presence of a horse to distract me. The next thought I had was, “well, good thing I’m working on other hobbies, since I won’t be a mom anytime soon.”

As soon as I thought that, I realized that’s exactly what I’ve been missing in all of this. I’ve been so focused on the big stuff of adoption, and becoming a mom, that I’ve missed the essential fact that my kids will not want just a mom. They’ll want to know that I was a swimmer, wrangler, writer, small-business owner and therapeutic horseback-riding instructor. They’ll want to see me try new things and take care of myself and dream big dreams, because that’s how they’ll learn to do so.

I think it’s common for women to see ourselves as the sum total of our relationships – wife, mother, daughter, friend, sister – and when one of those is out of balance we tend to feel either recklessly free or fearfully unmoored. We are relational beings, and this is good – this is what makes us fearless protectors, courageous lovers and passionate caretakers of our families and friends. But when we are completely defined by these relationships, we can start to feel a little stir-crazy. When a husband or friend or relative questions us or doesn’t see us as we want to be seen, or when we want a relationship we can’t have – we lurch into a desperate search for meaning and definition, one that leaves us feeling questioned, vulnerable and, at the same time, completely invisible.

I was created to be much more than I believe, sometimes. I am not defined by the friends I have or their opinion of me, the professional relationships I create or even the level of intimacy I have with my husband. Those are all important things, but they do not make me worthy or valued. I will not become a more valuable person once another little person calls me “mom”. I am not more valuable when other people say kind things about me or respect my views. I am only valuable because I am a child of God, a dearly-loved piece of Creation. As such, I am supposed to live into the fullness of who God has made me to be and the season he has me living in – as a wife, friend, sister, daughter, writer, business-owner, therapeutic horse-back riding instructor, daydreamer, cook, introvert, home-owner, communicator, hostess, long-walk-taker, story-teller, Adam-kisser and puppy-snuggler. This is a beautiful season, one of many beautiful seasons of a beautiful life. I don’t want to miss my life because I was constantly looking over my shoulder or straining to see around the bend. This life is uniquely mine, with gifts and relationships God has given me – not to define me, but to make me whole.

February 24th, 2013 by Dani

A Day at the Races

I felt like I should be wearing sensible, closed-toed heels, a just below-the-knee skirt and a silken kerchief knotted around my neck. It was sunny, clear, perfect: 65 degrees in February, this is the weather that has made L.A. both famous and famously overpopulated. Tall palm trees swayed in the foreground, the San Gabriel mountains rose up in the background, green from recent rain.

Around me were scraps of paper everywhere, dropped idly by old men with thick, brown hands, old ball caps or fedoras and either a pen or a cigarette clenched in their teeth. I actually picked one up and tried to hand it back to one old character, thinking he’d dropped it from his oil-stained hands by mistake, but he waved me off, “it’s no good” he laughed. Adam told me that bad bets just get discarded on the ground, but I had to walk to a forlorn trashcan anyway – like a true child of the new millenia, I couldn’t bring myself to carelessly litter.

Despite the inherent dirtiness, (we are surrounded by million-dollar livestock, after all, and there are a few obviously addicted gamblers twitching in the corners and mumbling at the TVs) there’s a pleasant air about the whole place. How could there not be? This is Santa Anita, where Charles Howard believed in his weird-looking yearling and overweight jockey and made racing history. This is the legendary track of heroes and athletes, long odds and incredible comebacks.

Horse racing, despite the money and movie magic, is a primal sport. It’s the simplest of all human competitions, a race. Kids in rural outposts across the country race their ponies from fenceline to fenceline – as adults, we simply drape the whole affair in silk, raise the stakes and go to whooping, hollering and enjoying the speed as much as we did back then.

I guess it’s appropriate to think of childhood at Santa Anita. The whole place feels like a memory, from the kindly bookies in bowties behind wooden windows, paying out the long line of scribbled bets; to the dull mint green paint on the clubhouse walls, the worn enamel stairs and the decades-old tin signs pointing visitors to “paddocks” “turf” and “winner’s circle”. It’s a hearkening back to a simple pleasure, a return to competition that is won and lost with guts, instinct and an intimate knowledge of how a horse thinks, moves, works. In many ways, it’s a way of preserving what might otherwise become a lost art. Seeing as how the clientele was overwhelmingly elderly and male, I wondered if I was alone in caring about its preservation.

But then I saw her, black ponytail bouncing as she struggled to see over the fence onto the track. “Which one is my horse, Papa?” She asked, voice tight with excitement. He was a pearl-snap and blue jeans Grandpa, and had obviously spent many a Sunday afternoon watching horse races. He picked her up with strong hands and set her on the rail, tiny pink velcro shoes dangling only a few feet from the starting line. “You have number five,” he explained. “We bet on this one because…” his voice was drowned out by the buzzer and the immediate ejecti0n of churning horses and taut jockeys, hooves pounding and dirt flying, power and beauty in motion. She clapped her hands with excitement, amazed. I couldn’t help myself – I was clapping too.


Photo by my super-talented Hubs.

October 22nd, 2012 by Dani

“Walkin’ a Little Crooked…” {31 Days}

He’s the king of understatement, the kind of guy you’d want in your corner in a brawl, the sort who would call a near-death experience “kinda unpleasant, when y’think about it”.

I told him I was nervous about a new path for my life, and I could hear his smile over the phone, shaking his head at my trepidation in life the way he shook his head at me when I got scared on horseback. “Aw, change is nothin’, Dani,” he said, forcefully but not unkindly. “I’ve been doin’ it all my life.” He has. He’s been everything from a cowpoke to a logger to a warrior in Vietnam, and he’s moved all over the west, constantly searching for open skies and new frontiers. He’s a classic outdoorsman, the kind of person who can fix a pickup with nothing but some hay twine and a pocketknife.

He used to intimidate me, with his big white mustache, barrel chest and massive, powerful hands. He doesn’t give praise easily, he almost never gets “mushy” and he would much rather sit quietly on his porch with a strong cup of black coffee than be in a room full of people. He insists on quality – wranglers working for him had to be fast and tireless and highly alert. Loose cinches, dirty blankets, uncleaned hooves and gummed-up bits all incurred his wrath – he might be an old-fashioned cowboy but that was no reason to mistreat or neglect your horses.

He was the toughest and best boss I’ve ever had, and he taught me everything I know about managing a horse herd and riding well. When he met my now-husband for the first time, he peppered him with questions and insisted that he understand just how special I am. I blushed as he put his meaty hand on my back, protectively.

He had a heart attack yesterday and I felt my own heart flutter and sink at the thought of never riding with him again, or never hearing his soft chuckle, swapping stories in the dusty twilight after a long day. I just talked to him on the phone and my heart is settling down again, because according to him he’s just “walkin’ a little crooked, nothin’ to worry about”.

He choked up a little bit on the phone today, and I saw him in my mind’s eye as he looked when I left after my last summer as a wrangler, when he had two teardrops dangling in the corners of his eyes, straw cowboy hat pushed back on his head. I slammed my face into the plaid pearl-snap shirt covering his barrel chest and felt him pat me, gently, telling me I should “get on out before it gets dark, and drive safe now.” Today as we said good-bye, he did what he always does when we infrequently chat. He said he loved me, and I choked out a good-bye before hanging up and sobbing.

Here’s to walkin’ a little crooked. To early mornings and cowhorses and shared stories and a faithful courage that stops me in my tracks. Here’s to Boss, and many more years of bossing me around, riding into the sunset and understating even the most difficult circumstances, because God is in control, not us.

October 8th, 2012 by Dani

Sound {31 Days}

The creak of saddle leather, as my right legs swings over, easily, quickly. I’m now on her back and I settle my hip bones down, anchor my feet in my stirrups, rest my right hand on my thigh as my left fingers play lazily with tough leather reins. I don’t have to think about these movements, they just happen when I land. A horse down the line nickers, that gentle “hurrhurrhurr” you hear when you walk into a barn or a pasture. A sound of greeting. A horse further away whinnies, a calling sound, a mare asking her foal to come back, a friend calling to another friend, speaking of anxiety, of loneliness, of “how’s the weather?”

My horse sighs and flips her tail. She is ready for movement.

I hear the laughter of a friend. The call of a hawk, circling above us. The leaves of the Aspen trees, chattering in anticipation of fall, rustling and welcoming me to my wide open.

Rustle, creek, whistle, pop, laugh, whinny, nicker. These are the sounds of a long-gone summer, vividly recalled with one squeak of a belt or the feel of leather in my fingertips.

September 16th, 2011 by Dani

Who are you most surprised to be friends with?

I wrote this for Real Simple’s Simply Stated blogger contest. I didn’t win, but I thought I’d share my story with you anyway.

“Howdy, ma’am!” He hollers, pushing himself off a creaky wooden bench with one meaty hand and extending the other towards me.

“Hi, Art,” I grin as he pulls me into a fatherly bear hug. Art is stocky and sure of himself in the manner of a man who has worked with his hands for decades. In contrast, he often teases me that too educated for this line of work. We walk into the arena, chatting comfortably as we line up barrels and old traffic cones.

When our first student, Christopher, arrives, he is twitching with excitement from his wheelchair. He’s 13 years old and has cerebral palsy. After he mounts his horse, Peaches, I help with his posture and guide the lesson while Art keeps a firm hand on Peaches’ halter.  After Christopher rides, we see a new smiling face and a new horse every 25 minutes, all afternoon.

Art is a few inches shorter than me and four decades older. He’s a retired Marine, a grandpa and the owner of a vintage dune buggy, two incredibly bushy grey eyebrows and an infectious laugh. We both love to cook and often swap recipes. Daily, I ask for his common-sense advice, and he relishes my enthusiastic laughter in response to his lively stories.

At least once a week, Art brings me a bunch of fresh rosemary from his garden, placed in a Ziploc bag with “4 Miss Dani” scrawled across it in permanent marker, sometimes attended by another small gift: some coffee-flavored candies, a pocket-knife or leather work gloves. Sensible, ranch-related things, proving that he thought of me.

He puts his arm around my shoulders at the end of the day, and I relax into the warm embrace of an unlikely, but very dear, friendship.

May 5th, 2011 by Dani

On physical work (and horses. Of course.)

therapeutic horseback riding

Audrey, Dance and I

In my daily work, I use my brain and my fingers and not much else and I get paid to do it, which is very handy. So three afternoons a week, when I teach therapeutic horseback riding lessons, I squeeze into a well-worn pair of Wranglers, lace up dusty boots and smash a hat on my head, and sometimes I wonder why I leave Important, Thoughtful Work to go sweat in the dust for half the pay.

I do it because it grounds me. I’m really not too smart, too educated or too proud to physically work for a living, and teaching reminds me of that truth. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with all the big things going on, and I need a tangible reminder that little things are equally important.

I love talking to our warm-hearted volunteers, helping them learn their way around our horses and kiddos, explaining what goes where and why. I love hearing their stories – why they love horses, why they love kids, why they care about special needs individuals. We talk about everything over the backs of dusty horses and in-between games of red-light-green-light – about religion and faith and hope and politics and great recipes and sports and the meaning of life. We laugh together when Dance, our giant draft horse, tries to untie herself and gives a cheeky glance over her shoulder, hoping we don’t notice. We laugh with April, a toddler who yells, “HI MISS DANI! I LOVE YOU! HI HORSE! I LOVE YOU! HI LETTER A! I LOVE YOU!” as she runs towards the gate, eager for a helmet and her turn on horseback. We laugh when Joe, who has autism, gives up on answering a particularly tough question and simply lays down on his horse’s broad back with a sigh as his only explanation. We smile with pride when Anna trots by herself, when Bryce figures out the obstacle course, when Kate brushes her horse by herself for the first time. I yearn to give them independence, the feeling I had when I realized that I’d just found not only a best friend but infinite liberation in my horse. Horses are therapy, not just for those with special needs, but for all of us, I tell new, concerned parents, bringing their child to ride for the first time. After one lesson, they believe me.

My boots and jeans are dusty when I get into Rocky (my truck, for the uninitiated) at the end of the day. My face is usually sunburnt, my back is sore and I smell like a horse. But I feel sunkissed, renewed, like a just got a glimpse into life that moves a little slower and is a bit more connected to the Earth. That’s why I still teach, why I’m so grateful that I still get hugs from little arms around my waist, horse snot on my shirt and dirt in my hair.

Eventually I’ll have to cut back as I get busier, and sometimes I admit that I feel pulled in too many directions. But I hope I never forget what it feels like to earn a paycheck by hoisting saddles, hollering instructions, hugging necks and sweating buckets. It’s earthy, serious, beautiful, hard, joyful, painful work and I am so grateful for it.

April 12th, 2011 by Dani

To Mrs Dani

Every time I get a note to “Mrs Dani” or a cute little flower-pot, my day gets ten times sunnier. Man, I love those horse-crazy kidlets. Best side-gig EVER.

therapeutic horseback ridingThe horsey art and pansies spruce up our patio nicely, too.