The Break of Day


I wake up at 5 a.m. to feed the hors­es. Every day.

It start­ed dur­ing a hot spell. The mer­cury climbed into the 90’s by 10 each morn­ing, so we had to ride ear­ly to beat the heat. To give the hors­es time to eat their break­fast before we left the barn, they had to be fed by 6, but Mari­no, the man who feeds them for me, doesn’t show up until 8:30. My choic­es were to stay out of the sad­dle, force the hors­es to lug us around hun­gry and pissed off, or feed them myself.

It felt like I’d been asleep about ten min­utes when my iPhone’s night owl ring­tone woke me that first morn­ing. I crawled out of bed in the dark, dressed, and stag­gered down­stairs to the truck.

I stall five hors­es in two barns, which I named Olive and Her­bert for short­hand ref­er­ence. Olive is locat­ed across Long Val­ley Road from the Hid­den Hills Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter, a two-minute dri­ve from my house. Dawn broke as I parked in the lot next to the center’s swim­ming pool. A slim elder­ly woman wear­ing black gog­gles swam laps in a lane marked with a float­ing blue and red rope line. Grog­gy from the ear­ly rise, I sat comatose in the truck, watch­ing her slide through the water, slow and steady, up and back.


A shrill neigh broke the trance. Across the street, Jack­son, Lily, and Dol­ly stood in their turn-out cor­rals star­ing at my truck with their ears pricked for­ward, won­der­ing what Car­rot Man was doing there at 5:30. They watched me intent­ly as I climbed out of the truck and walked through the gate. When I head­ed to their stalls with an arm­load of hay, they began to cel­e­brate, pranc­ing and toss­ing their heads.

Jack­son is a sol­id chest­nut with a white blaze on his face and three white socks. He’s smart, well-trained, and a pro­fes­sion­al, reli­able ride. A big, beau­ti­ful paint with a white face and white splotch­es on her body, Dol­ly lives up to the name on her reg­is­tra­tion papers, ShesATotalDiva.

Drawn to Lily that morn­ing, I stood at her stall door and watched her eat. A gray flea-bit­ten (black speck­les) Azteca mare with a pret­ty mane and lush white tail, she bears deep phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal scars from her pre­vi­ous owner’s abuse. Because of injuries that didn’t heal right, she favors her left shoul­der and strug­gles on down­hill grades.


Lily raised her head and looked at me. She was afraid of me when I bought her. Now, her soul­ful eyes look at me with hard-won trust and a touch of love. All my hors­es tug at my heart, but some­times, like that morn­ing, Lily tugs a lit­tle harder.

I pulled myself away from Lily and drove to Her­bert. It sits on a hill­top a cou­ple hun­dred yards from Olive. Marge and Wil­son stood at the fence beside the road and watched Car­rot Man’s truck climb the steep dri­ve­way to the barn. When I opened the door to the feed room, they real­ized why I was there and gal­loped up the hill to their stalls.


Wil­son is a bay thor­ough­bred in his twen­ties, a good soul who tries his best to do what­ev­er you ask of him. I retired him from rid­ing when arthri­tis attacked his spine. In Jan­u­ary prob­lems with his front hooves got so bad I thought I’d have to put him down, but he res­cued me from that heart­break­ing deci­sion, mirac­u­lous­ly fight­ing his way back to good health under the care of a smart, inno­v­a­tive vet. I’ve writ­ten often in these pages about my friend­ship with Wil­son. See Rid­ing Wil­son, Stay with Me, and For the Love of Hors­es.

Wilson’s sta­ble­mate, Marge, is a lit­tle sor­rel quar­ter horse mare, perky, mis­chie­vous, and fun­ny. Despite her size, she tries to dom­i­nate oth­er hors­es, for­ev­er lay­ing back her ears and bar­ing her teeth at them, but her aggres­sive­ness doesn’t car­ry over to peo­ple. She loves my grand­chil­dren. And Car­rot Man, when he remem­bers to bring the carrots.

In the coop behind Her­bert, the roost­er crowed a greet­ing to the sun­rise and tall pines cast long blue shad­ows across my path as I walked back to the truck to go home.

The ride went well that day, and the ear­ly rise put me to sleep at 9 that night, which made the next morning’s 5 a.m. ring­tone less jarring.


I fed the hors­es every morn­ing dur­ing the hot spell. The morn­ing after it sub­sided, I didn’t set the alarm, but my body clock woke me at 5 any­way. I lay in the dark star­ing at moon-shad­ows, think­ing about the hors­es. Their body clocks had adjust­ed to the ear­ly feed­ing, too, I thought. They’d be dis­ap­point­ed when I didn’t show up. It didn’t sit well with me. I got up and drove to the barns. The next morn­ing, I fed them again. And the next.

Weeks passed. Sep­tem­ber brought short­er days. It remained pitch dark all the way through the feed­ing. I had to car­ry a flash­light to find the hay. The morn­ings grew cold in Octo­ber. I donned a heavy coat, gloves, and a muffler.

Six months into it now, my morn­ings have tak­en on a con­sis­tent rhythm. I rise at 5 and climb in the truck. My head­lights wash over Pedro feed­ing Tom­my and Zig­gy in a cor­ral on Round Mead­ow. He grins and waves to the crazy old man who feeds his own hors­es. I wave back. Steam ris­es from the heat­ed pool at the com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter. The gray-haired swim­ming lady slides through the water, up and back. She glances at me through her gog­gles and rais­es an arm mid-stroke in greet­ing. I tip my hat. I cross the street to the haystack. Jack­son nick­ers. Lily and Dol­ly prance. Manuel walks a tall roan down Long Val­ley Road in the moon­light. “Good morn­ing!” he shouts. I shout back. Marge and Wil­son stam­pede up the hill to Her­bert, plumes of vapor jet­ting from their nos­trils. The roost­er crows. I walk through pine-shad­ows to the truck and dri­ve home.


I nev­er miss a morn­ing. Even in the bit­ter cold, rain, or high winds, and once dur­ing a rare thun­der­storm, I feed the hors­es. I don’t have to do it. I still pay Mari­no for the ear­ly feed, but I don’t let him do his job. Some­times, espe­cial­ly on those rough weath­er days or when I’m not feel­ing well, I won­der why I’m out there.

Part of the rea­son may be a throw­back to my youth. When I was a teenag­er in White Hall, I helped a friend spread hay in the field for his cat­tle before dawn on cold win­ter morn­ings. He drove a truck pulling a trail­er into the pas­ture. A hun­dred cat­tle lum­bered toward us, low­ing, a dust­ing of snow rid­ing their backs, the lead cow, Horn, in front, the oth­ers string­ing out behind her. I stood in the trail­er-bed kick­ing hay­bales off the back end. One by one the cat­tle dropped out of line to feed. Some­thing about it – the low­ing cat­tle, the dis­ci­pline of the work, the seren­i­ty of the cold snowy dawn – cen­tered me and eased my ado­les­cent inse­cu­ri­ties, at least while I was there. The ghost of that old feel­ing some­times swirls around me before dawn at Her­bert and Olive.

Anoth­er rea­son I’m there may be a need to feel use­ful. In big law and big busi­ness, I worked long hours con­fronting myr­i­ad chal­lenges. Retire­ment was like drop­ping out of exis­tence. Sud­den­ly, no one need­ed me to do any­thing. I was lost for a while. I found a pur­pose in writ­ing, but it’s a soli­tary voca­tion. You live inside your head; you work because you want to; and no one real­ly needs you to tell your sto­ries. The hors­es need me. They depend on me to show up, and they’re glad to see me when I arrive.


Susan, who boards two paints in a barn off Round Mead­ow and the only oth­er own­er I know who feeds her own hors­es before dawn in Hid­den Hills, offered anoth­er rea­son. “It’s qui­et ear­ly in the morn­ing when no one’s around. It’s the best time to bond with your horses.”

These things all play a role in my ear­ly morn­ing reg­i­men, I guess, but I tend to over­think things. Cindy usu­al­ly cuts to the chase.

“I don’t under­stand why I get up every morn­ing to feed the hors­es,” I told her. “It’s Marino’s job. It makes no sense for me to do it.”

“It makes per­fect sense,” she said. “You love the hors­es. It makes you hap­py to start your day with them. That’s why you do it.”

I would nev­er have pre­dict­ed I’d be ris­ing at dawn every day with­out fail in my 76th year to feed hors­es, but this is where I find myself today, and my auburn-haired blind date is right about why. I’m in a good place; it’s where I want to be; and it makes me happy.