Posted by Donna

So much has happened since my last post.  Here are the major bullet points:
  • I moved Miss to a new barn.
  • I had lasik surgery for the second time on both eyes.
  • I bought a new car (well, new to me).
I'm guessing you're most interested in the first point, so here's the rest of that story: about six months ago my trainer Willow starts to go on trail rides with the guy who ponies the foals and works with the difficult horses (they aren't a couple). Owner of the barn takes offense to this and eventually bans the guy from the property, even though he was bringing in business. She is so jealous that the trainer is spending time with him instead of her she starts to make her life hell, talking behind her back, spreading lies, accusing her of everything from stealing tack to charging for services never rendered.  Then Willow was involved in a car accident in which the other party was killed, she was unhurt. Her vehicle was impounded, and she was questioned at the scene and released. When the owner found out about the accident the next day, she took that opportunity to fire Willow, saying she was mentally unstable and she didn't want her around her horses. Completely unbelievable, and probably illegal. Then the owner starts calling all Willow's clients and contacts, telling them she will be charged with murder and that she is going to jail, and calls all the other barns in the area and tells them the same thing and not to let her train at their properties. Willow has worked at this barn for 15 years and she's only 32.  How you can treat someone like that I don't know, she has no compassion or even common sense. As if the poor woman doesn't have enough on her mind with the investigation and just living with the fact that she caused someone's death, now the rest of her world falls apart.  The owner alienated everyone who is or has ever trained with this trainer, to the point where it was intolerable to even be at the barn.

Within 48 hours the owners of 8 horses, including myself, had given notice after Willow found a wonderful barn that would take all of us at once. A total of 15 horses ended up leaving, the rest went to other barns, which equates to the owner losing well over $100,000 in annual income. When I showed up to oversee her being hauled to the new facility the owner was convinced that the contract I had with her prohibited me from taking Miss off the property.  Fortunately I had a copy of the bill of sale (which wasn't even with her) and a copy of the contract, which did NOT say that.  It says a lot of other crap but it doesn't say I can't move her. In the face of irrefutable evidence she was forced to concede that I did own the horse and did have the right to take her but blamed Willow for not including that clause in the contract 4 years ago. Blaming right until the end!

As I mentioned the new barn is lovely, and just happens to be a lot closer for me, but it is primarily a dressage training facility and doesn't quite feel like home yet. After being stuck in an arena all her life I'm sure it will take Miss a while to adjust to trails and an open covered arena but I am hopeful this will be a good new beginning for us both.  She is making faster progress than I could have ever hoped and I'm very proud of us both! 

The lasik surgery went well, much less traumatic than the first time in November 2009.  My vision is still adjusting but I am glad I did it, my distance vision had deteriorated from 20/20 to 25/30 and the surgeon was concerned that my eyes were changing at different rates.  Fixing my distance vision has also made my near vision better, but I know that will eventually settle back to needing reading glasses.

I have been thinking of replacing my 2001 VW Jetta for a while now, not because I don't love her or because she is having issues, but rather due to the fact she has nearly 200,000 miles on her and I wanted to avoid having to pay more than she's worth to have her fixed the next time something big does go wrong.  I decided on a 2008 Mini Cooper Clubman S, Hot Chocolate Metallic with yummy milk chocolate-colored leather interior.  It was a corporate lease return and only has 12,000 miles on her, looks and feels brand new.  I LOVE it, so much fun to drive. 

Pictures of all of the above are below.

The "mare motel" where Missy's stall is.

Full-size dressage court.

Enormous covered arena with sound system and lights.

My girl at dinner.

Eyes post-surgery and new bangs.

May Days  

Posted by Donna

Since I wasn't able to ride today due to a heavy downpour last night, I took advantage of the freshness of the day and took a few shots at the farm.  I find that if I always keep my camera bag in the car I take more pictures -- sometimes the answer is so simple! 

I've been able to ride Miss more in the last six weeks than any time I can remember, and the progress is obvious.  There is a fine line with her, you have to work her consistently to keep her mentally in check, but you can't work her too hard or she falls apart physically.  It seems three times a week is the magic number. 

Unfortunately someone else will need to pick up the weekday rides as I have finally landed a job.  (Yay!)  In fact, I applied for this same job a year ago and they hired someone else, who just resigned due to "cultural fit" issues.  Hmphf.  They could have saved themselves and me a year of misery, but I will try not to hold it against them.
This will be the largest company I've ever worked for by far, some 40,000 employees worldwide, and that may take some getting used to.  I had another opportunity at a pre-IPO start-up but I felt that there was at least a 50/50 chance that they would be acquired before they went public.  I've been down that road before and decided it was worth it to join the Big Fish Company than risk another Little Fish.  Although I'm sure there will be more redtape that I would like, I will also enjoy the many benefits including restaurant-quality cafeterias, inexpensive on-site gym facilities and many others.  They were voted the #16 company in the US to work for by Fortune in 2010.
For now this is a contractor position, but that is generally how they bring people onboard as getting approval for a full-time regular employee is a long process.  My medical/dental coverage is already through my husband's company so that isn't an issue, and I am technically an employee of the agency that placed me, so I will have taxes withheld and won't have to deal with making estimated payments and paying the additional self-employment taxes.

Most importantly, my new boss is the antithesis of my last one.  I haven't work for a man in a long time but honestly I think it will be easier.  I've asked around and everyone has said I couldn't ask for a better advocate or manager, and from the few times I've met with him I am hopeful.  He's very easy to talk to (even in an interview), funny, hands-off but supportive and generally a very normal person who seems to genuinely care about his team.

I've been staying at the house in the mountains but now that I have to travel for work every day again I am going back to my little cottage to stay during the week.  I've cleared out the weeds and debris from the winter in my garden and am looking forward to making it a colorful oasis once again. 

Rhinos & Winged Wonders  

Posted by Donna

I'm still unemployed but have been averaging about one interview a week, a fact I am not taking for granted. So far there is only one job that I actually want, but I think I have a very good chance of getting that one, it's just an incredibly long and frustrating process, both for the applicants and the companies. The severance money is holding out fine but at times I find myself terribly depressed and unable to enjoy the time off. 

I have been able to ride more in the last couple of weeks but without my weekly lesson I find I am not making any progress, another frustration. 

At least there are plenty more Africa photos to share with you!

A foursome of white rhinos consisted of two females and their calves at a watering hole, who were curious enough to come within 10 to 15 feet of the vehicle.  They have poor eyesight but very good hearing and wanted to check us out, their cupped ears rotating like satellite dishes on the tops of their heads. 

White rhinos have a large hump on their back while their cousins the black rhino do not, but both animals are actually gray. Their coloring has more to do with what kind of mud they have been rolling in! Also, the Dutch settlers differentiated the two species by the shapes of their mouths, the flat shovel-like mouth of the white rhino evolved to help them pick up food on the ground. The Dutch word for wide is "wije", which was mistranslated as "white".

These calves are about a year old; they will stay with their mothers until they are weaned at about two years of age. Doesn't it look like a little tank?

I'm quite sure this isn't a Monarch butterfly, more likely a smaller African cousin.

Now I know where the idea for the Stealth Bomber came from!

This stunning moth sports twin heads of either snakes or birds of prey on its wings.

(Click to enlarge the photos)

Out of Africa  

Posted by Donna

I've been home for a couple of weeks but I'm still not feeling fully reintegrated into my life.  Perhaps that's because I haven't been working and haven't even been worrying much about finding a new job.  I've been on a few interviews but I'm feeling very cautious after my last experience, I want to make sure that it feels right emotionally to me before I accept any offer.

I also haven't been able to ride much, in fact I've only ridden Missy once since I returned from my trip due to constant storms.  In addition, the trainer who does my lessons during the week is taking a break from teaching for a while so I lost the only covered arena available to me. 

Trying to relate four weeks in Africa is a daunting task, even with literally thousands of photographs to refer to. You can't capture with a camera the scent of wildflowers across the savannah, the sound of Zulu schoolchildren singing or the softness of a cheetah's fur. I will do my best and include what I think will be interesting to others without being too self-indulgent.

Most of the month was spent at a camp that was originally a hunting lodge, called Inthebane (in-ta-bonn), which means "warthog" in Zulu.  This camp was part of a sprawling 14,000 acre private game reserve which also included a base camp where some 80 staff lived and a 5-star resort, I got to visit both. The reserve is approximately three hours northwest of Durban, in eastern South Africa.  There are no fences once inside the reserve so game was able to come into the camp at will, which they often did.  Herds of impala and wildebeest as well as a family of warthog with seven piglets were our daily companions. A set of 18 month-old lion triplets, two males and a female, were often in camp as well.  Sometimes we saw them and sometimes we could only hear them, but we got used to their presence while maintaining a healthy dose of respect.  It's amazing what can become normal in a very short period of time.

The first week was spent in an intensive workshop with a professional photographer from South Africa.  Although I did learn a lot, the volunteers felt like the course was geared towards the one member of the group who wanted to become a professional, even though we had been asked for and provided in advance our level of experience, our goals and the equipment we were bringing.  What was most frustrating was when it counted the most, when we were out in the bush sitting in front of a pride of lions trying to take the best photographs we could, we were completely ignored while he went about the business of trying to get his own shots. Needless to say we all provided a lot of feedback on the course evaluation form and had a lot of fun at his expense after he left.

Here's some shots from the first week, click to enlarge (see more at my photoblog).

My home away from home, a private chalet with a hot shower and air conditioning.

View from the main lodge.

Gorgeous giant grasshopper.

Sunrise on our first game drive.

Male impala.

Two of the triplets.

Their daddy, the alpha male of both prides on the reserve, sleeps while his daughter hunts.

Art Murmur  

Posted by Donna

I've been working on a photography blog, a place to show my favorite and best shots in a format better suited to large photo files.  While there aren't that many pictures up there yet I wanted to share the link with you all and invite you to check back often as I will be posting pictures from Africa there as well as here.

Introducing Art Murmur.  Let me know what you think. 

The Long Way  

Posted by Donna

I've never been one to take shortcuts.  When I have gone against my better judgement and tried to save time I've become lost, literally or metaphorically.  The process of becoming a horsewoman has re-emphasized the need to take my time in order to be safe and successful. 

I've been able to ride Miss the last two weekends and decided not to take a lesson, I wanted to be able to take things slow and pay attention to how she was responding to me.  She hadn't been ridden in a while so of course Willow wants to give her a shot of Ace.  I told her, I think we'll be fine.  Several more times she offered to give her a shot and each time I politely declined.  I've always felt very strongly that if she has to be drugged, she shouldn't be ridden.

I lunged her for a long time, letting her set the pace, and she galloped and galloped and snorted and bucked and got all that pent-up energy out.  Then I hand-walked her for a long time, and when her breathing was back to normal I got on and walked some more.  She trotted quietly and we worked on stopping in the center of the arena.  Willow was doing a lesson in the arena next to where we were and at one of those moments when we were standing in the center she yells over to us, "Missy has matured so much, she's so much calmer now!"  It was all I could do not to roll my eyes.  I realized that the reason Willow still thinks that Miss is difficult to ride and still wants to take so many precautions is because she takes shortcuts.  She wants the same results you would get by patiently going through all the steps but without the effort.  I also realized that even though Willow has known and ridden Miss her whole life, to her she is just one of many horses.  She's never owned her own horse, she hasn't needed to, with so many horses at her disposal she's been able to do everything she ever wanted, including competing in a few different disciplines, using other people's horses.

While I have gained a lot of technical knowledge by taking lessons on many different horses, having my own horse has taught me the invaluable lesson of patience and how important having a personal relationship is between horse and rider.  I'd like to think that Miss does what I ask of her because she wants to, instead of doing what Willow asks of her because she has to.

I took the picture above on our honeymoon, we camped for the night in the field next to these horses' corral and the next morning a balloon hovered overhead.  I've always felt this was an omen leading me to horses.


Posted by Donna

I'm simultaneously preparing for an end and a beginning.  That's usually the way it is when you leave a job, which I've done many times, but this is the first time that I'm not preparing for a new job or even for the immediate foray into an intense job search.  This time I'm preparing for a journey of epic proportions to the other side of the world.  I believe humanity migrated out of Africa to populate the rest of the globe, which makes it the very cradle of civilization, the literal mother land.  As the date looms closer, less than a month away, I'm feeling serene and completely sure of this decision.

Let me get one thing straight:  I'm not brave.  Or spontaneous, or rich.  What I am is determined, willing, and hopeful.  I'm very aware that opportunities like this where one has both the time and the money to take a month off are few and far between.  The fact that this is a conservation project makes it affordable and meaningful.  A lot of planning and thought went into choosing the place and the activity, but the timing was arbitrary, which presented a bit of a challenge but ultimately narrowed the possibilities and made the decision-making process easier.

I think I'm pretty much ready.

I bought this carry-on bag specifically designed for camera equipment and a laptop but which looks like a regular carry-on.  It's solidly built and very light, and the base comes off.

I also got this backpack for carrying my camera gear on daily excursions.  It's also very light and comfortable, and holds an amazing amount of stuff for how small it is, including a new telephoto lens.

I've been breaking in these Ariat hiking boots, which of course are amazingly comfortable and light -- can't beat Ariat boots!  Especially with Thorlo padded socks.  A few pairs of walking shorts, a great mesh hat and some eco-friendly tshirts and I'm half-way packed already.

I'm flying direct from San Francisco to Dubai on Emirates Airlines, a 15-hour flight but at least the plane is huge, new and has a lounge.  I have a long layover in Dubai and plan to visit the Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world, which just happens to be right next to an enormous mall that contains not only a ridiculous selection of stores but also an aquarium.  Then a 8-hour flight to Durban, where I spend a night at a charming B&B recommended by the project before being picked up the following morning for the 4-hour drive to the private game reserve.

I fully intend to spend one of my four free weekends riding, preferably on the beach overlooking the Indian Ocean.  I was thinking at my lesson last night that I need to spend more time in the saddle just riding.  I love my lessons and my riding group but I'm back at a point now where I want some freedom, to be riding for the pure joy of it without thinking every second about the last set of instructions.  I've come to a place where its not only not selfish to think of myself first, it is essential.