Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Murray on the Lam

I should know better, but sometimes it's easy to forget.

It's mid-afternoon on a Thursday, and a sudden downpour sends sheets of rain cascading off the roof. I rush outside to open the doors to the horses' stalls so they can avoid getting drenched. As soon as the horses are in, the rain stops. The sky is still grey though, so I figure I'll wait a bit before putting them back out.

I leave the door to Murray's stall open (the one which leads into the barn, not out to the paddock) while I move to Maggie's stall to spread some fresh bedding. Murray moves forward so that his toes are just touching the edge of the doorway. Standing like this, he can stretch his neck practically the entire width of the isle. I say "Murray", in my deep, meant-to-be intimidating, don't-you-dare voice, and he backs up a step or two. I consider closing his door, but I'm almost finished, and as I look up at the big garage-style barn door, the one that leads to our driveway, I see that it's pulled down halfway. He'd have to duck to get out underneath, and I can't see why he'd bother. So, I figure that even if he does leave his stall, he'll only wander the isle ways for a few minutes. I am wrong.

Now, I should point out that I leave Murray's stall door open on a regular basis. It's something I've always done, and something he's always accepted. He's allowed to stick his head out of his stall and look around so long as his hooves don't cross the threshold. This is quite disconcerting to people who don't know him. They see me leave his stall with his door open, they see him advance forward a step, and they rush to close the door before he can escape. My explanations are generally met with skepticism--until people see his manners for themselves. Over thirteen years, Murray has only disobeyed the rules twice-- that is, until now.

The first time he "left" his stall was only 18 months or so after I first bought him. I stopped at the barn on my way to a night out with friends. I was in a hurry. It was summer and I was wearing a long blue skirt and matching blue sandals. I opened Murray's door, fed him a treat, and walked around the corner to write a note for the stable owners. Suddenly, I heard the muted sound of metal horseshoes making contact wtih wooden boards. I turned to see Murray's lanky legs strolling down the isle, and out the open barn door. He sauntered into the nearest paddock-- a small one, just about the size of three box stalls-- and stood there looking at me. I grabbed his grey nylon halter, lifted my skirt, and walked purposefully toward him. He promptly took off, cantering round and round in tiny circles just out of my reach.

Two hours later, with a layer of dust covering my sandals, and a plenty of dirt between my toes, Murray was still lose. A fellow boarder arrived at the barn, and between us, we rigged up a series of lunge lines to form a chute from the gate of the paddock, into the barn. We opened the gate, and Murray darted out. He ran into the barn, tried to run out the back door (found it was closed), then trotted back to his stall as though nothing had happened. I was late for my date.

The second time Murray left his open-door stall was just a few years ago. It was summer again, when the horses are turned-out overnight. I finished riding Murray just as the other horses were being ushered into their pastures. I put Murray in his stall and took off his bridle. I walked the four feet to my locker to put it away. I felt a gust of air brush by my shoulder. I turned to see Murray following his friends out to the pasture with his new saddle still on his back, and his boots still velcroed to his legs. I ran out in front of him and managed to force him to change course. He re-entered the barn, and I herded him back into his stall. I'm sure this only worked because unlike the other horses, he had yet to eat his supper, which was waiting in his feed tub for his return.

I wasn't thinking of Murray's previous misadventures when I left his stall door open last week.

I'm just about to leave Maggie's stall when Murray decides it's time to make a break for it. He thrusts his body forward, and in an instant he's standing outside of his stall, in the isle. I shout "hey", and for a brief moment he turns to look back at me-- his expression like that of a toddler just about to do something it knows it's not supposed to. I try to get out in front of him, to stop him, but Maggie's hefty bulk is in front of me, and since she's eating hay, she takes her time in responding to my "move-over" nudges. I stumble out of her stall just in time to see Murray trotting determinedly toward the half-open garage door. It's obvious to me that he's not going to make it. His towering withers are clearly higher than the bottom of the door. But Murray's either too determined to notice, or too unaware of his own height to understand. He ducks his head and neck, but, as predicted, his withers crash into the bottom of the door, bumping it up an inch or two. Un-deterred, he trots into the backyard and around the tool shed. He's free now and he knows it.

I make a few attempts to catch him, but I know it's useless. I can't catch him in an enclosed area, much less in a wide-open space. At least he heads for familiar territory-- the paddock that he and Maggie had been sharing before she unsuccessfully jumped the gate. He prances around, clearly proud of his mischievous behaviour, and I try to figure out what to do. We've repaired the gate to this paddock, but we haven't put it back on its hinges yet, so it's just laying against the fence. I know I can't catch him, and he's welcome to stay here and be stubborn, but I need him to stay INSIDE the fence. I wrestle with the heavy gate and manage to lift it onto one hinge. It's hanging precariously, but I figure it should hold for now. I make one last, unsuccessful attempt to catch Murray, then I curse him and go inside as the drizzle starts up again.

It doesn't take long for Murray realizes he's alone. Not longer prancing in triumph at his great-escape, he mournfully wanders the paddock, whinnying loudly for Maggie (I've purposely left her inside, out-of-sight, in hopes that it might make catching Murray a bit easier). After a half-hour or so, I try once more to put a halter on my forlorn horse. He's desperate for company, but too stubborn to capitulate.

As the minutes tick by, I start to wonder whether I'll even be able to catch him at supper time. Normally, after pulling a stunt like this, I would say to heck with him, and I would leave him out for a few extra hours and that would serve him right. But today, my good friends Katherine and Wade are coming for a visit. They're picking me up, and then we're spending the rest of the evening in the city. And I'm not keen on leaving my lonely horse outside for hours with only a half-attached gate to keep him there.

When Katherine and Wade arrive, we decide to trick Murray into coming in. First, I let Maggie out into her paddock (in clear view of Murray). We lavish her with all kinds of attention and treats. We put on her halter, we make a big show of parading her up and down the drive. We pay no attention at all to Murray. Inside the barn, I prepare the hay and grain, making as much noise as I can. Murray eyes us all suspiciously. Finally, when we're ready to leave, Katherine leads Maggie slowly toward the barn for supper (even though we could have just opened the outer door to her stall). I walk up to the half-on gate of Murray's paddock and wait for him to come to me (which he usually does at supper time). It takes a minute, and I end up having to meet him partway, but eventually he reluctantly turns himself in, presumably deciding that freedom is no fun without food or company.

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