Monthly Archives: November 2016


A few days ago, I visited my friend Sunny the Palomino. I hadn’t been down the dune for a few weeks, and I was shocked at how skinny he was.

He’s a big horse. I’m 5’7″ and his withers are about five feet high. When he walked away I saw streaks of dried diarrhea down his hind legs. And the big strong muscles that had carried me around the arena all those months ago had atrophied.

After feeding him several chopped carrots, I high-tailed it back up the dune to the ranch where I live, mowing down scrub chaparral as I went. I was furious and scared.

There’s a board listing phone numbers of the humans responsible for each horse. I don’t see Jamie’s name on it. I knock on the ranch owner’s door, but no answer.

Judy is down below, getting Jetson ready to ride. She asks how I am.

“Well,” I said, “not good. Sunny looks to be in bad shape. He’s even skinnier than the last time I saw him, and that was too skinny.”

I’d been telling P, the ranch owner, about Sunny for months. “There’s nothing Jamie can do about it,” she’d say, which usually pissed me off, but also shut me up. Sunny’s not my horse, he “belongs” to Jamie. And Sunny’s new digs belong to L, who has a lonely pony. Sunny’s there for company, and for L to ride. Her place is immaculate, which initially reassured me, knowing Sunny lived in a cleaner space.

“I’m frustrated,” I tell Judy, “I don’t know what to do.”

Next thing I know, Judy and I are bushwhacking down the dune back to Sunny’s. She’s been around horses longer than I have. Maybe I’m overreacting.


“Wow,” she says, “you can see his tail bone. And look at those hollows.” She points to his hindquarters.

“He used to look like Jetson,” I say.

“Jetson’s muscular.”


“I don’t like that red eye either,” she says.

“That’s new,” I say.

We bushwhack back to the ranch.

P is there now, and chastises Judy for leaving Jetson with his saddle on.

I interrupt. “We’ve just been down to see Sunny. He’s even skinnier than before. I want to call Jamie. What’s his number?”

She shifts her weight, looks away, says, “There’s nothing Jamie can do about it.”

“You don’t know that,” I say as calmly as I can. “You’re not Jamie. You can’t speak for him. What if Magic were sick?” Magic’s “her” horse. “Wouldn’t you want to know?”

After half an hour of listening to how “delicate the situation is” (she brokered Sunny’s housing deal), P finally agrees to give me Jamie’s number. She invites me inside the ranch house, and we call him. No answer. P leaves a message.

I look out the picture window at the Pacific ocean. The sea is rough and choppy, but the sky is clear. “I am afraid that one day I will go down there,” I say, “and Sunny will be dead. If you saw him you would cry.”

“I don’t want to see him,” says P, on the verge of tears.

What kept me sitting there listening to P hem and haw instead of screaming and yelling is that the stakes are so high. If I continue to do nothing, if I continue to politely go away when P says there’s nothing anyone can do, then I become a contributing factor to Sunny’s death.

I am listening for a solution. Because there must be one. And I am not going anywhere until I hear it.

After listening a little longer I say, “How about if I talk to L? Without you?” L is one of P’s best friends. Her husband is P’s doctor. “I’m a stranger, we’ve no history, I have nothing to lose.”

P agrees, so I hike back down the dune.

Sunny, as usual, is happy to see me. I am an asshole for not insisting sooner, for listening to all the excuses, for making several of my own: not my horse, not my house, not my business. Total bullshit. He is a friend of mine, therefore his health is my business.

I ring the doorbell on the immaculate, beautiful house. The dog is barking, but we’ve met before, his name is Emmett (same as my best friend), so I’m not worried.

“Who is it!”

“Elizabeth, Sunny’s friend,” I say through the crack in the door.

L opens the door wider, bent over to hold Emmett’s collar. Both are scowling.

I drop my gaze. This ain’t the time to be confrontational. Over Emmett’s barking, I say, “I’m worried about Sunny.” I explain about his weight loss in such a short period of time.

“We feed him,” she says. “He was skinny when he got here.” Of course she’s defensive. I remember when someone called animal control on my Emmett instead of talking to me to find out that we’d been to six vets and couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him.

I crouch down so this other Emmett can smell my hand and remember that he knows me. He immediately stops barking and wags his tail enthusiastically. Lick lick lick.

“I want to help,” I say to L from dog level. “Please let me help.”

Eventually L admits that she’s worried too; she’s been thinking about calling the vet. As Emmett runs rings around us, she takes me to where the food is kept. It’s quality oat/alfalfa cubes and senior horse pellets. (Sunny’s probably 25 or so, no one knows for sure.) So the food supply is good and plentiful. One worry down.

P’s theory, that I’ve been hearing every time I tell her that Sunny is skinny and won’t she please go look at him, is that Sunny needs to be fed separately. That since he’s a slow eater with bad teeth, he doesn’t get enough calories.

I venture this theory to L. “Maybe we could separate them for meals?” She nods, points out the halters hanging on the side of the shed. I grab one to bring Sunny down to the corral. He helpfully puts his nose in the halter, just like old times. L fills a wheelbarrow full of cubes, adds water, and wheels it in. Sunny immediately scarfs down. When he lifts his head occasionally to look at us, his lips drip green goo.

While we walk and work, I listen. Mornings are hard for L and her husband because they both work.

Aha. “I’m up at sunrise every day,” I say. “I could come down here after I feed Cisko.”


“Sure,” I say, “I’m up anyway. Let’s try it for a week, see if it helps.”

So we work out a deal: I’ll feed Sunny and her pony Allie in the mornings. If they are together, I’ll separate them (there’s an arena and a corral). L and her husband will feed at night. “You just got yourself a free stable hand,” I say.

She laughs and shakes my hand.”God bless you.”

Because I was able to remember the stakes — Sunny’s health — I did not stomp in like a righteous sumbitch casting aspersions and making demands. But as I told Judy later, “The sun was not going to set without a solution. There must be a change today.”

I was done with excuses, mine and theirs. Done with humans. But fortunately I am human, so I can communicate with them. Because Sunny can’t. And he’s my friend.

Emmett Ocean Shé, almost a year old in 2002
Emmett Ocean Shé, almost a year old in 2002, RIP


“The release is the reward,” said Horse Teacher Number Two.

Jake and I were on a lunge line, he circling at a walk then a trot, first in one direction, then the other; me standing in the middle of his circles driving him with my hands and voice.

Number Two is a proponent of the Parelli brand of natural horsemanship, and she was teaching me games to ease communication between equine and human. Circling is one of the games. She’d already taught me Friendly, Yo-yo, Porcupine, Driving, and Squeeze. I’d inadvertently done Sideways one day: Jake stepped sideways when I reached over and touched his hindquarters.  (I found out that these games also work on humans. I used Driving at the DMV, even without a car.)

In How to Speak ‘Horse’, Andrea and Markus Eschbach write that “the best way to tell your horse, Good Job! and Yes! is as follows: at exactly the same moment your horse has followed your command correctly, direct all your energy and attention away from him…this is called the release because you are ‘turning off’ the pressure of your body language and focus. For your horse, this means he has the time and space to take a deep breath.”

I was having a hard time remembering to release.
This is also true of my non-equine life.

“Break these chains around my heart,” sings Deborah Allen. “Cut me loose, and set me free.”

Before toxic mold forced me to evacuate my home and release 99% of my possessions, I kept almost everything “just in case.” Art supplies I hadn’t used in years; my mother’s wedding dress even though my parents divorced when I was six; pretty, cracked ceramic pieces for a mosaic I never made; fabric; sewing notions and recipes that belonged to my grandmother. I’d been hauling this stuff around for decades, and adding to it from free boxes and curbside finds.

I will never forget the feeling I had driving toward the ocean after the evacuation, only the clothes on my back and my computer in the trunk. My lungs were so damaged that I could barely breathe, and my heart was rat-a-tat-tatting with adrenaline. But I felt a peace that I had not felt in a very long time. I was — finally — doing what I wanted to do: going to the sea.

I did not want to die in Olympia. It was not my home. I’d washed up there because of college and had stayed, out of inertia. I didn’t choose it, it just happened to me.

Like carrying around all those heirlooms over the years, appointing myself the family historian. But guess what? Nobody cared about that stuff, nobody needed it. Nobody in the biological family reacted to the fact that I was dying.

Except me. Finally, I chose me. Finally, I released everything tangible that was weighing me down.

And — quelle surprise! — I didn’t need any of it. And I am still alive more than three years later.

The release was the reward.
Let it all go.
Possessions are easy to come by, I’ve found out.
Now my task is to keep only what brings me joy. Every. Single. Day.

So I toss the empty stationery box P gave me today, even though it has a horse on it. It’s shabby, though the gesture was not. I can keep the gesture — she appreciates me feeding the horses when she was ill — but I don’t need the box.

This concept is hard-won. Because I am a sentimental person, highly romantic. I’m a keeper. But right after I put the box in the recycle bin, I took a deep breath of relief. Release. I don’t need another thing to weigh me down.

The release is the reward.

writer Elizabeth Shé rehearses for Global Water Dances 2015
writer Elizabeth Shé rehearses for Global Water Dances 2015

objection, sustained

As I walk south on the shore I see two girls ahead, splashing in the water, diaphanous scarves held high in the breeze as they run and twirl.

Otherwise, they are naked.

An older burly man holds a sophisticated camera to his eye and follows them.

He’s fully dressed.

I pass them, and yes, not a stitch of clothes on the girls. The man wears a baseball cap, long-sleeved shirt, shorts, running shoes, and socks. Glasses.

The girls are boyishly slim.

There’s a family up ahead, with a younger, shorter girl, and some surfers farther south in the distance. All clothed.

Two young men sit on a log, up from the cavorting girls and photographer. They are shirtless. Eventually I realize they’re all together. Perhaps the boys are awaiting their turn before the camera?

I sit on my regular log, near my regular swimming spot, about a quarter mile away, and watch them. I can’t tell how old the girls are.

I’ve been hiking for hours, north to Marker 4 and back. I’m tired.

I remember my mother’s mechanic taking photos of me on Venice Beach early one summer morning. I wasn’t completely naked, like these girls, but I was topless. I can’t remember how old I was. Voting age? Drinking age? When is the age of consent?

Today I am fully clothed, though I intend to swim soon. And yes, when no one’s around, I occasionally skinny dip. But now I am wearing my new cream cowgirl hat with the wide brim, my dark sunglasses, Levi’s, lavender hoodie, and bright yellow (official looking?) windbreaker. I stand up.

Walking purposefully toward the photographer I say, “Sir. May I see your permit.” It’s not a question, and I hold out my hand.

They all have their backs to me as I approach, looking at the camera’s view-finder, the three of them. They turn toward me. Close up I can see that they are young women, probably in their early 20’s.

“Permit?” he says. His accent sounds German or Swiss, and I wonder if they are European. Hmmm. “I didn’t know we needed a permit.”

“My bad,” says the blonde woman, stepping toward me. She has no accent, speaks United States English. She’s all business, despite her lack of apparel. “I didn’t know we needed a permit. For the landscape?”

“State park,” I say. “No nudity.”

“O-oh,” says the blonde. She has terrible acne, which does not lessen her beauty. “We came in from the neighborhood.”

The pornographer starts reciting something about a “Cahill statute, that nudity is permitted as long as no one objects–”

“I object,” I interrupt, raising my hand as if I’m in court. I object.

And they stopped. They folded up the photo shoot and hiked back over the dune, toward the city.

I am amazed. Adrenaline courses through my blood, my body prepared for flight or fight.

“I wanted to make sure that you were okay,” I told the young women before they departed.

“Thank you,” says the blonde, looking me in the eye. Sincere.

“Have a nice day,” says the brunette, walking away with the pornographer, wrapping the translucent red scarf around her body. It hides nothing. Protects nothing.

I object.
I object to the objectification of women.
I object to the institutionalized privilege of the male gaze.
I object to Jack the mechanic taking advantage of my non-existent self-esteem. I didn’t object then, but I do now. I wish an older woman had come over to make sure I was okay.

Because I wasn’t, then.

It has taken me decades to realize that I can object. I am allowed to object. That — what a concept! — I can raise my voice without someone harming me. That I can delineate my comfort zone. Have boundaries.

Maybe those young women were fine. I hope so. I pray that they know that they are beautiful, whether someone’s taking pictures of them or not; that they have value beyond their bodies; that they are loved for their own sweet selves.

If the pornographer/photographer had also been nude, would I have objected? I don’t know. I do know that the disparity — in status, in privilege, in power, in economics — between men and women disturbs me deeply.

I object.

writer Elizabeth Shé, performing as
writer Elizabeth Shé, performing as “Mama” in Lisa Loomer’s play, Distracted


I live on a small ranch with a number of other boarders, both human and equine. I recently got permission to walk Shadow, because his human is ill and hasn’t been out for weeks. So for the past few days, my morning routine is this:

  • rise before the sun (don’t want to miss the colors!)
  • dress warmly and eat
  • put on my knit hat, rubber stable boots, yellow windbreaker, and walk down to the corrals
  • remove Kady’s hay bin insert so P doesn’t have to struggle with it later
  • mix up Cisko’s pellets and vitamins with veggie oil and pour it into his bin
  • close Magic’s gate so he’s penned in
  • open the arena gate
  • halter Shadow and open his gate
  • walk him down to the arena and around

It’s wonderful! He’s a love, it’s quiet at sunrise, and usually I have the place to myself. Shadow sniffs around, and visits with the horses in the adjoining corrals. After he’s caught up on the ranch gossip, we walk around the arena, then I ask him to walk in circles around me, which is called lunging or longeing (pronounced lunge-ing).

But today, after several minutes of circles, I get frustrated. What I really want to do is ride. What Shadow really wants to do is graze, run around,and amble out into the state park that abuts the ranch. But he doesn’t “belong” to me. And he needs exercise, so we continue: circle circle circle — stop — change direction — circle circle circle.

When I hear humans moving around the ranch, we walk back up to Shadow’s paddock. I’m irritated, but don’t know why yet.

Back in my warm studio I realize that I don’t agree with how a lot of humans treat horses. It’s disrespectful. Whips and bits and ropes and scare tactics. Show ’em who’s boss! Make ’em do what you want ’em to do! Even some of the so-called “natural horsemanship” folks have domination on the brain.

How fun is that? Forcing another creature to do what you want, regardless of his/her desires or needs? Isn’t that Fascism?

The U.S. presidential election was a bitter disappointment, to put it mildly. I want a woman president! As a kid, I campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, which has never passed. We need ovaries in the Oval Office!

But evidently any dick will do. God forfend a better qualified, more intelligent, highly experienced and skilled woman take the job! Misogyny in action.

Rebecca Traister, author of All the Single Ladies: unmarried women and the rise of an independent nation has this to say about institutionalized inequality:

“Men, and especially married wealthy white men, have long relied on government assistance. It’s the government that has historically supported white men’s home and business ownership through grants, loans, incentives, and tax breaks. It has allowed them to accrue wealth and offered them shortcuts and bonuses for passing it down to their children. Government established white men’s right to vote and thus exert control over the government at the nation’s founding and has protected their enfranchisement since. It has also bolstered the economic and professional prospects of men by depressing the economic prospects of women: by failing to offer women equivalent economic and civic protections, thus helping to create conditions whereby women were forced to be dependent on those men, creating a gendered class of laborers who took low paying or unpaid jobs doing the domestic and childcare work that further enabled men to dominate public spheres.”

These wealthy white men who constantly decry the “welfare state” have been the major beneficiaries of the good ol’ boy network (aka government assistance) for centuries!

One of my human neighbors just knocked on the door. “A and L are coming over Sunday evening, we’re gonna work on some songs,” she said, guitar slung on her back. She has an amazing voice, low and gorgeous. A and L are also talented musicians. We all sang together at the Halloween party.

“I used to be in a band,” I say, “in Seattle.” Mozart’s Children, we called ourselves, which strikes me now as highly pretentious. But we gigged. And I loved it. We did a cover of the Stones’ “Far Away Eyes,” with me singing lead. A highlight of my life.

“Great,” says my neighbor, “you’re in the band. Women only. Girl power. The Central Coast Women’s Rock Band.”

I nod in the affirmative. Action, baby. I’m ready for it.

writer Elizabeth Shé
writer Elizabeth Shé

horse painter

“We should have a party,” I said to two of my neighbors a couple of weeks before Halloween. “We’ll dress up a la Dia de los Muertos, have live music, a fire. I’ll paint the horses.”

They laughed. But come October 30, my vision came to fruition. Despite the rain earlier in the day, 50+ humans showed up, most in costume. Another neighbor invited her face-painting friend, so when I looked across the fire on the patio that evening, I saw singing calaveras and flowers, and even a pirate crab.

I started painting the horses in the morning. First I brushed Magic, which he’s used to. Then I let him smell the little tub of white paint. Neither of us liked it much, but we tolerated it in the name of Art.

Once he was decorated on both sides, I took a break. These canvases could bite or kick you! Plus, they move. I needed to keep it simple.

Next was Jetson. I didn’t even have to halter him. He seemed to enjoy being a muse.

Jetson's Heart by Elizabeth Shé, photo by James Dickens
Jetson’s Heart by Elizabeth Shé, photo by James Dickens

Kady was okay, too, despite the fact that she charged me in the pasture the week before. Both she and Cisko got handprints.

Cisko's Rump by Elizabeth Shé, photo by James Dickens
Cisko’s Rump by Elizabeth Shé, photo by James Dickens

I ended up painting four horses: all had spots on one side so they were a cohesive herd; then a heart for Jetson, hands on Kady and Cisko, and Magic’s stars. I painted a heart on my chest so I was part of the tribe. My porch pumpkin sported spots.

Magic Spots by Elizabeth Shé, photo by James Dickens
Magic Spots by Elizabeth Shé, photo by James Dickens

I used non-toxic washable tempera paint, as recommended by another horse painter (!). “I buy the big container at Michael’s and cut it with shampoo so it’s easier to hose off,” wrote Melanie, who runs an equestrian therapy program in Atascadero. Evidently the kids like to paint their ponies.

The Polka Dot Herd were a big hit at the party, even after dark. People went down to the corrals with flashlights to see them.

Maybe next year I’ll use glow-in-the-dark paint.

Halloween 2016 horse painter y Magic, photo by James Dickens
Halloween 2016: horse painter Elizabeth Shé y Magic, photo by James Dickens