I woke that first morning in Katikati to birds more riotous than the ones in my own trees at home. I padded to the dark kitchen and made tea by the glow of the kettle switch. My hosts were already up and out, feeding the horses, mucking out. We had a busy day ahead so it was agreed that I would write my daily words while my friends ushered in the day on their farm. 

First up, before the rest of all that we had planned, I was to ride Ari. He is a fine-looking, big Dutch warmblood, with solid legs, a shapely arched neck, well-muscled shoulders and a powerful hind end. An advanced dressage horse, Ari has been ridden to Prix St George, just one step below the highest level of training. His movement is fluid and sensuous, his paces springy and elastic. I’ve never ridden a horse like Ari — it is a rare privilege, and in Ari’s case it is also something of a miracle.

Ari suffered greatly in the hands of an ambitious professional rider, who ignored his sensitivities and pushed him until he snapped. Carrying a rider is not easy. Training and performing the higher level movements — the pirouettes, the collected canter, the lateral movements are every bit as difficult for a horse as the routines of an Olympic gymnast. An advanced dressage horse is a high-performance athlete and relies on their rider to manage their training to create the strength, suppleness and fitness required for their work. It’s not uncommon for a rider to overface their horse. The rider’s ambition and the horse’s raw talent are a seductive combination. The rider pushes too far, too fast; anxiety, exhaustion and even pain are overlooked and soon the horse is overcooked, stuck in their sympathetic nervous response: fight, flight or freeze. Unable to say “slow down” or “stop” they lash out. Ari wasn’t overcooked, he was fried, and when he hit the wall he began to rear and shy and bolt with his rider. He became so dangerous that his owner gave up in disgust and sold him on. As a schoolmaster.

Ari has a ponderous nature and large, glossy eyes that miss nothing. Standing beside him, I feel so small, keenly aware of all that this gentle giant is capable of. Surprisingly, I am not afraid.

Ari is curious about me. Standing at liberty in the wide breezeway of the stable block, he is free to investigate the new human. He sniffs the backs of my hands, gently turning them over to snuffle my palms. Perhaps he is looking for treats, but he doesn’t seem disappointed when he finds my hands empty. Of course, his sense of smell is acute. I’ve been holding my riding gloves, which smell of leather and my own horse. Ari continues sniffing down my torso and makes a dive with his teeth for the zipper pull. Debbie has warned me that he likes to play with zippers, so I step back to his shoulder and reach up to give his withers a scratch. 

A schoolmaster is a horse, generally older, who is approaching retirement. He has been trained up the levels as far as his age, fitness and conformation allows. As his competitive career winds down, he will often be offered to an up-and-coming rider, in order for the rider to learn the higher level movements. When Debbie bought Ari, something entirely different occurred: Ari was so mentally broken by the intensity and pressure of his original training, that he was nearly unrideable. He was anxious and, like Bucephalus, afraid of his own shadow. 

Debbie leads Ari out to her arena and climbs into the saddle. Holding only a light rope tied loosely around his neck, she walks and trots to give him a stretch and warm up his muscles and joints. Ari pops into a steady rhythm in every gait, his trot like a metronome, neck lightly arched, stomach lifted and with just a hint of his potential — the power of his forward energy — as he relaxes into his “work.” 

There are times when a ridden horse is clearly working: When the rider pushes them in and out of their paces, challenging the horse to move in ways that are obviously strenuous. Often you can see the concentration on a horse’s face; just as often you can see signs of stress: a swishing tail, pinned ears, narrowed eyes. This morning, with Debbie lightly astride, barely cueing him, riding with her intention rather than the gross cues of leg and rein, Ari looks like he’s out enjoying a morning constitutional, as if he doesn’t even have a rider on his back. His ears are soft and forward, attuned to birdsong and the breeze moving in the trees alongside the arena. And the flick of a backwards ear that tells me his attention is also on his rider.

When Debbie stops and says it’s my turn, I climb into the saddle with all the confidence of a young girl. Not a hint of fear, just a blank slate beginning to fill in with desire for connection. I’m clumsy, of course, because it’s a new saddle and he’s a very big horse. I try holding the reins at the buckle to “stay off his face” but I can’t steer. My undisciplined legs are bouncing on his flanks and Ari starts to wander. I have no steering. Debbie calls out a few words of encouragement, a few instructions and suddenly I’m away. We’re wobbly, but we start to move in shapes that resemble the familiar patterns, the circles and arcs which are easy and pleasant for a horse. 

His walk is huge, and I feel my seat bones rising and moving with every stride. Debbie reminds me to breathe, and when I do, there is that delicious melting of rider into horse, where the movement becomes one. This comes and goes, it’s fleeting, but if I were my former self, I would be far too afraid to relax into his rhythm. The ride is short, there’s a bit more walk, a little trot and Debbie teaches me something really important about how I hold my hands (too rigidly) and suddenly Ari lifts beneath me and the forward momentum unsticks and we are truly away. 

When I cue the halt it is with a long exhale. I sit for a moment, without thought, just breath, and then it happens. A swelling of energy floods up through my body and fills the cavity of my chest. I am aware that this originated in Ari and that he is releasing something, letting something go. Tears spring into my eyes; I think Debbie and I are talking, but I’m also inside the moment with Ari. Afterwards, it feels like he’s given me a very precious gift, this horse with a history of such trauma, still willing to connect.

from down they forgot

One night in January 1968, I’m lying on the floor reading the comics, when I catch a fragment of David Brinkley reporting from Washington: “The ten thousandth US airplane has been brought down over Vietnam.” By February, I’m watching anxiously along with my family, as the North Vietnamese launch the Tet offensive, and the State Department announces the highest casualty toll yet. In a single week, 543 Americans are killed in action and 2,547 are wounded. President Johnson announces he won’t run for re-election.

Politics spark lots of discussion at our dinner table. Richard Nixon has declared his candidacy, and in March Bobby Kennedy finally decides to enter the race. Bobby, it seems, is the perfect choice. My parents say he’ll be able to bring together Black Americans and labor, the blue-collar whites. My brother, already a political junkie, finds an old “tricky Dick” button from the 1964 Kennedy–Nixon campaign: a picture of Nixon with the words, “Would You Buy a Used Car from This Man?” But Dickie has a favorite new button, and he wears it every day: “If I Were 21, I’d Vote for Bobby.”

In April, the violence hits home: Martin Luther King is shot dead in Memphis. Dickie is standing in line at Osco Drugs, waiting to pay for a couple of records, when the announcement comes over the radio. Some guy standing in line in front of him, a white man, says, “Bout time somebody got that n—.” Dickie runs home red-faced and furious, angry with himself for not saying anything, for not standing up to that man. “The thing is,” he says, his eyes blurring with tears, “most people who work there are Black. Some of them must’ve heard.”

The night it happens, Bobby Kennedy appears on the news. He’s on the campaign trail, speaking to a packed house, mostly Black people, at a union rally in Indianapolis. In the clip we can hear the agonized cries of the crowd as Bobby breaks the devastating news.The full text of Bobby’s speech is reprinted in the morning paper; my mother reads it to us at the breakfast table. Her voice breaks at the point where Bobby had quoted, right off the top of his head, from the Greek poet Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forgive falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”


May 8th. Four days before my tenth birthday. Dickie’s got the money, but he’s too embarrassed to buy the Summer Blonde himself, so he gets me to walk over to Osco with him. Just inside the automatic doors, we stop to dig around in the record bins. Dickie grabs a copy of “Susan” by a Chicago band called The Buckinghams. “There’s a cool song on the B-side,” he says. We head down the hair care aisle and hang around looking at shampoo until there’s no one else in sight and then we move down to the hair dye section. Dickie scans the rows of ash blondes, brunettes, and redheads until he finds the shade he wants. He says he likes the ads on TV, all those blonde kids having fun at the beach. “That one,” he whispers, pointing to a box with a picture of a pretty young girl in a bikini on it. He slips me the money and goes to wait outside while I take the Summer Blonde up to the register and pay for it with my brother’s five-dollar bill.

Back at home, I go out in the yard and help my mother weed the flowerbeds, creating a diversion while Dickie disappears into the bathroom with the box of dye. He’s up there for a long time, and then he shuts himself in his room. “Just reading,” he calls out.

At dinnertime, Dickie strolls into the dining room as if nothing’s new. He’s got a bright, yellow-white shock of hair spilling over his forehead; he’s only dyed a streak at the front. He looks a bit like a skunk. My mother is furious, but I start giggling uncontrollably. Dickie shoots me a crooked Elvis smile.


down they forgot: a memoir will be released• on March 11th, 2021. It is already available for pre-purchase through several outlets including Barnes and Noble, Apple Books, Amazon, Kindle and Smashwords. Fingers crossed it’ll be coming soon to Book Depository and your favourite independent bookseller (but only if you ask).

What We Lose and What We Carry

for Elaine

It’s summer. 

The farmer across the road begins to shift a mob of sheep over the hills at 5:45am. Perhaps he’s taking advantage of the dawn’s cooler temperature to get the day’s hottest work done, but I can hear the commotion and my own dogs are restless. They wake me with their wining and pacing and I lie still, eyes closed, and picture the scene: the hills, still green, are steeply pitched and rugged, tattooed with narrow veins of scree. The heading dogs appear in front of the mob, long and low — silent and predatory — pinning the flock with their keen eyes. The big huntaways, the noisy rabble, are joyfully bounding left and right at the rear, moving the sheep forward towards a gate, flushing out strays and barking, barking. I can’t hear a quad bike, so I know the farmer is on his horse. I etch their silhouette, man and horse breaching the top of the bare hill, into the back of my eyelids, sigh and roll out of bed to let the dogs out. 6:10 on the kitchen clock. 

It’s a rare “day off” for me and I’d been planning to sleep in until 7. No matter. The day unspools with chores and a run to the beach with the dogs in the hottest hours of the afternoon. 

I’ve been thinking about knowledge, and about what we shed and what we take with us as we pass through life.

I don’t hold any special wisdom. I know a little about a lot of things, and a lot about a couple of obscure subjects. I know the layout of a typecase and how to lock up a chase, readying it for print. I once thought I would have a small outbuilding on my farm, housing an antique cast-iron letterpress. Trays of lead type with charming and mysterious names: Baskerville, Goudy, Gill Sans. Expended Egyptian. I would make beautiful hand-stitched books and broadsheets for my writer friends. I can feel the weight of the hand lever in my hands. My shoulders remember the torque, the quiet feel of the press meeting the type, imprinting a fine layer of ink onto linen paper. I carry the aromas of ink and solvent and the strong orange soap necessary for cleaning stray residue from my patient hands. Like the rider atop the hill, these images are etched on the inside of my eyelids as I lay in the cool light of morning, but they also reside in my muscle memory, in my heart and in my mind.

If we’re lucky, we find people in our lives who “get” us. Who don’t just know us well, but who perceive the things we hide and don’t often share, who recognise something closer to the truth about ourselves than we dare utter. Between us, there are fine threads of connection; we tug on the threads and urge each other on. Last week, I lost someone who “got” me. 

I used to think that when someone I loved died, some colour would bleed out of the world and leave me paler, poorer. This isn’t how it works. When someone I love dies, the world grows larger, more vivid. In my grief, colour shocks me until I begin to see my friend in everything. I see my friend in the William Morris fabric of my bedroom curtains, in the spiced apple cake the neighbour brings me. In the eyes of my beloved horses. 

We hadn’t known each other long, and we’d never met in person. There was no time to fill in all the stories that make us who we are. Elaine would’ve understood my love of letterpress printing, like I admired her devotion to vintage fabrics and ephemera. When Elaine told me she loved my writing, I believed her because I knew she didn’t have time for nonsense and niceties. I love her writing, too. And I have a river of her words that I will carry with me now that she is gone.

That Huge Engine

“We just stood therein stunned silence. We couldn’t believe it. The heart was perfect.” * 

Before there was Secretariat, there was the 60s. 
I pressed my awkward girl body to the speaker, 
To the unholy events that marked us. 
10,000 planes shot down and my mother’s bare lips 
Pressed together in grief. 
The world shed that decade as I shed my girl skin, 
Took refuge in a dusty barn where Jose and Luis 
Carried water and photos of their babies 
In Mexico. Talk of the big chestnut 
On everyone’s lips. 
We worked hard that day and left early, 
The one and only time we ever did. 
Raced home to watch the big chestnut 
Moving like a tremendous machine, 31 lengths ahead, 
Jockey looking over his shoulder in disbelief. 
Jose and Luis in the tack room with a transistor 
Seeing as a blind man sees baseball, vivid, 
The big chestnut a fiery comet of sinew, muscle, and bone. 
Us in the living room, stunned and breathless. 
That huge engine powering us all home. 

*  Dr Thomas Swerczek, head Pathologist at the University of Kentucky, while performing a necropsy onSecretariat.

NB: It’s hard to format poetry on WordPress, (OK, hard for me anyway). And it really doesn’t display well on a phone. So, if you want to see what this poem should look like, please view it on a computer or iPad.

Canadian Maple

First leaf fall from the sapling

in the home paddock. Rough

and taste-tested by someone 

at some time during the season.

One edge jagged and true to the flag

of its ancestral home. The other dulled,

a flattened curve on a graph, indicating

success or the ravages of drought.

Such wilful slender to go out blazing,

imperfect. Our Antipodean home

more remote in the autumn of pandemic,

our tenuous hold more fragile than ever.

While Spring is beginning to yield to summer here in the Antipodes, I am thinking of friends in the Northern hemisphere with gratitude and love.

November 22, 1963

President Kennedy has been shot. I am in kindergarten, but they close school early and send us home. My mother is coming to meet me, and I see her a short distance ahead in the road. She is wearing a pale pink shirtdress. Her coat, hastily pulled around her shoulders, is unbuttoned even though the day is damp and raw. She is crying as she walks toward me. Tears roll down her cheeks making long grey tracks in her make-up. She wears no lipstick, or perhaps she has worn it all off by pressing her lips in grief. Suddenly the sky above us seems too large and pale, as if all color has bled away, as if we could fall up into it. As if gravity, too, might fail us. She cups her hand around my shoulder, and we walk unsteadily home.

—Excerpt from down they forgot, forthcoming from Lilith House Press in 2021.

Holding Space

This was written on Good Friday, 2020, during New Zealand’s full Level 4 lockdown.

Out in the paddock this morning there was a perfect storm of agitated Andalusian. Nishka is separated from the other horses because of an unresolved medical issue that causes her intermittent pain. We’ve had her back and forth to the Equine Hospital three times, and we’ve exhausted their arsenal of diagnostic testing. The thing that causes her sudden pain in her abdominal cavity, pain that causes her to kick out when touched and hang her head with a pinched and stricken look, remains a mystery. 

Today we had the farrier coming. Lockdown means we are obliged to take a lot of precautions – opening the gate when the farrier arrives, presenting the horses without standing too close, scrupulous hand washing. The hardest part is not being able to offer Winton a cup of tea or some baking. We like our farrier a lot, he’s talented and funny and we’re lucky to have him. 

At the beginning of Lockdown, the government didn’t consider farriers as essential service providers. If we had an urgent need for the farrier, we had to ask our vet to issue an authorised certificate. We have two horses with corrective shoes which can’t be left too long, and so we procured the special authority. Winton told us that once he was in the gate, he might as well see to all of our horses, so line them up we did. 

Dawn organised the horses and I took the dogs walking up the Gorge. We left early, just after 9 and, being Good Friday, there was even less traffic on the road than the new normal, which is not very much. I have been walking a little over a kilometre up the road and back most days, but today we pressed on further. Over the one lane bridge, over two rushing streams that feed into the river below. Past rich green fields with no animals in them, past the odd tidy post-and-rail gate with a well-kept lane snaking off into the hills to a house that is probably quite spectacular, while the houses near the road are mostly average and some are fairly ramshackle.

We came around a bend and I heard a horse calling out plaintively, with no answering call. The landscape on the South side of the road opened out into a massive paddock — probably 5or 6 acres — of lush grass. A lanky white horse was walking the fence in that anxious way that horses on their own will often do. No other horse in sight, in fact, no other animals at all. The horse was thin with ribs showing and poverty lines on his rump. In the midst of all that abundance. Stress will do that. It left me feeling sad, a hole in my heart for the big white horse up the Gorge. 

Dawn was still wrangling horses for the farrier when we got home, so I took the wheelbarrow and headed down to the empty paddocks to get the mucking done. I worked my way up to Nishka, who is currently grazing the back raceway. I was nearly finished with a very full barrow when all of a sudden Nishka noticed that several of her friends were missing. She started to pace and call out. The farrier and his apprentice came into the broodmare paddock to trim the foal and that was the last straw. Barney has become Nishka’s special friend and she seemed to feel that he was under threat with the stranger handling him. She leapt into a full-tilt gallop to the far end of the raceway, spinning on her hind legs and galloping back, hooves crashing into the ground and dirt flying. I pushed the barrow out of the way and ducked under the fence for safety. She was heaving and trumpeting, blowing air at the top of the race, spinning and barrelling away for another lap. 

I stepped up to the fence and cocked a hip. Gazed off into the middle distance with my eyes and shoulders soft. As she approached, I let out a long, audible exhalation. She stopped, frozen, eyes wide. I exhaled again. She blew out, ducked her head and took a quick drink. Then she went for another gallop. I repeated my exhalations every time she approached, and each lap became quieter. She was still very agitated, and yet she lingered near me a bit longer each time. I said, “yes” as I breathed out. And “good girl” before she took off again. Finally, she stopped and put her head down. Took a long drink from her water bucket and then she was still.

Did my posture and my breathing help her settle? I don’t know. But it felt good to hold space for her. It felt good just to be there when I can’t be there for my husband or my daughter or my friends who are locked down in Barcelona, or my brother who is holed up alone in the insane cesspool that is the United States.

The farrier finished up and Dawn brought some hay. She coaxed the mare and little Barney over to Nishka’s side of the paddock. Everyone put their heads down to the new sweet hay and all the world felt right again. 

Breathe until the feelings get bored and leave.

Nishka and Barney, grooming over the fence.

Abby has a Masters in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand). Her poetry, stories and essays have been published in literary magazines and anthologies both in print and on-line. She divides her time between a small horse farm and a home in town with her husband, a filmmaker. She shares the farm with her daughter, a classics scholar and fellow horse woman. Life without animals is unthinkable to Abby. 

Abby and Chico

First, We Feed and Muck Out

The gods — I mean dogs — are restless if the sun’s up and I’m not. They mooch around, sighing and laying their big heads on the side of the bed. Sleep fog rolls back to reveal the urgent truth: Forest is boxed for an injury. Not fair to leave him standing in his night soil. He wants a bucket and he really wants to be held out to grass.

Daniel, yarded overnight to keep Forest company, will be pacing in the corner of the yard we call The Office. He’ll not stop until his breakfast is delivered.

OK. I’m up. Tea. Dog’s breakfast. Sometimes the rain gear goes on over the pyjamas and out I go. It’s an unspoken contract shared by horse folk the world over. First we feed and muck out. Then we attend to our own affairs.