The View from Mattie’s Pillow

Smoke, a Journey, and a Horse Named Cindy

A few weeks ago, my brother called and asked how I’d like to come to New Jersey in August. Having grown up in that part of the world, I told him that New Jersey in August was part of the reason I live in Alaska—the garden is ready to harvest, the horses are in shape, mostly, and summer is winding to a close. Still, he’s a quadriplegic and needed help for a week only, and as we were making plans for me to travel, the smoke from spreading wildfires settled across the Interior, dropping ashes on our cars, the garden, the horses’ coats, blocking the sun and making it difficult to breathe. Everyone in the household, including visiting dancers, seemed to have smoker’s cough.

So, I agreed, and now, here I am, in a condo in Voorhees, NJ.

As I flew out a few days ago, I could see a wide column of smoke from the plane window—perhaps the Murphy Dome fire or the Railbelt fire; it’s hard to tell direction from a jet. We passed by Denali and over along the Alaska Range and into Canada. All through the mountain ranges, we could see smoke drifting through the valleys. The peaks we flew over seemed brown and more bare of snow than usual. The snow itself looked dingy and smoke-tan; the glaciers streaked with dark rock. I was astonished at the extent of the smoke. Some was from smaller fires that we could see pluming up from the trees; the rest seemed to be blown along inland by the prevailing winds. I was reading an old collection of Alice Munro stories, Friend of My Youth, appropriately Canadian, given the land we were flying over. When I looked up again, we were over Minnesota: green squares of land bordered by rows of darker trees. No smoke.

So, now, New Jersey, a place I left long ago. To make the trip more interesting, I made appointments at two dressage stables: Holly Tree Dressage, and Transitions Farms, one to the northeast and one to the southeast of here. Yesterday, I drove to Holly Tree to take a lesson on Cindy the Quarterhorse.

Driving is not my favorite activity—I prefer riding. Here in Western New Jersey, the roads are often the remnants of old farm roads, widened a bit to accommodate urban sprawl. The names: White Horse Pike, Eveham Road, Old Indian Mills Road—have been the same for two or three centuries. But they intersect broad, fast “highways” built in the 50s and 60s and linked with traffic circles (known other places as roundabouts). And, as happens in other places, too, directions often depend on some prior knowledge of the place. So my first mistake was to assume that I had made a wrong turn when I seemed to be headed south even though I needed to go north. Fifteen miles the wrong way later, I was straightened out by a friendly woman in a gas station. I made it to my lesson an hour late and having covered more than twice the road I needed to. The way back was worse, since I reversed the directions I needed and kept turning the opposite way I should have.

But the ride was great. Cindy is a chestnut Quarterhorse, a well-trained lesson horse. I was warned she might throw a fit when she realized I wasn’t a total beginner, but it was mild. We worked on applying the leg (inside leg to outside rein—one of those sayings in riding that takes time to actually feel in the body), and on canter, then I cooled her off and let her graze on the lawn by their outdoor dressage arena.

The place was built in the late 60s/early 70s as a race horse training stable. The barn is long and made of cement blocks with an indoor track making up the aisles of the stable. While I was there, a girl with pink hair was riding a series of colts around the track, accustoming them to life under saddle. The colts, Thoroughbreds, were tall and long-legged with that muscular, knife-like quality that racehorses have. They were alert and curious, if a bit skeptical about the world of work they were being introduced to. A dark bay colt, with a crescent of white showing over his eye, dumped his rider into the dirt of the indoor track on his way past the barn door. Another girl caught the reins of the horse and everyone there rushed over to see how the rider was. She got up and brushed off, and the business of the stable went on. Outside the barn, the farrier had pulled up in his truck, and I later saw the colt standing fresh from a hosing down, having his shoes pulled and his feet trimmed. The rider, by then, was on another horse breezing along the outdoor track with another rider and her horse.

Cindy and I were in the grass by then. She seemed glad to have at the green stuff. Her back is far better muscled than Mattie and Sam’s—the advantage of a year-long riding season. Her coat was silky and still short, unlike Sam’s which has started to grow, anticipating fall. She went back willingly to her stall, but I guess she’d rather have stayed outside on grass or in turnout. I’ll ride her again on Monday. Tomorrow, I take a new set of directions to Elmer, NJ, to ride Clovis. Wish me luck!

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