Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Christmas is the time of year that brings up thoughts for me on the idea of being grateful. There are often so many confusing emotions surrounding this holiday for me and for so many people. We give gifts, we get gifts, we think about those who have no gifts, and if we are honest with ourselves, we are not always all that grateful. I like to show my gratitude to my friends and family with gifts. That is part of the holiday season I enjoy. That enjoyment, however, often runs thin in the long lines, small budgets, and busy schedule that goes along with it. I enjoy getting gifts as well, and though in some moments I am incredibly thankful, there are many others that cause me to grumble as I once again stand in line, returning the things I wasn’t that grateful for. Then there is also the desire to help those less fortunate at Christmas, but that also brings up a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions. I find that an important factor determining our level of gratefulness is this: expectation.

I have been learning a lesson in gratefulness from an unlikely place. Riley is a big, beautiful, brave, bold, and smart Belgian and Thoroughbred cross. At this juncture I believe she is six years old. When she was four years old I may have described her differently. More like big, beautiful, bossy, smart-ass and possibly dangerous. The difference between these two has come because of shifts in attitude, relationship, and expectation. I believe that when Riley came to us, she didn’t expect to stay. She seemed to hold out her level of trust until she, and we, felt like she belonged. And when she began to belong, she began to show her gratitude, and began to contribute. I believe also that Riley needed to be appreciated. She is a proud, sensitive girl, who can be easily offended by being pushed around or unacknowledged. Riley has taught me this lesson because she likes to make it clear that she is powerful, fast, and smarter-than-you, but that she also has a heart of gold.

I have learned to be so appreciative of everything that Riley gives me, and because of this, she offers more. My favorite past-time with her is the catching game. Not because it is fun (it’s not really), or because it shows improvement (I have yet to just walk up to her and put the halter on), but because it is the ultimate lesson in gratefulness. Every time I go out to catch Riley she leaves. Sometimes it is in irritation, sometimes it is in uncertainty, but more often lately, it is in a big show. Sometimes it takes three minutes, sometimes fifteen minutes (sometimes I just give up and get somebody else). We communicate. She shows me how fast she can run away, I show her how amazed I am. She shows me how kindly she will turn and face me when I ask, I show her how beautiful I think she is. And when finally I show her the halter, and she sticks her nose right in it, I hit the floor. Every time. I don’t expect that I will catch Riley, but I am beginning to trust that we will find each other.

Every interaction I have with that big girl causes me to be grateful. When she comes up to me with a sweet look, I am grateful. When she stays with me on line in the yard, I am grateful. When she offers softness on the rein, I am soooooo grateful. Yet with all the improvements Riley has made, I do not think that I have begun to expect anything from her. She simply won’t have that. I have, however, begun to trust her, and believe in her. And I believe that she is grateful for that.

Back to the hustle and bustle, and holiday “cheer”. I wonder if we can learn to approach life as Riley has taught me to approach her, how much more joy we would find. Can we live without expectation, and find wonder in whatever occurs? Can we be grateful to one another for even the smallest offerings? Can we enjoy the moments by learning not to expect them, like opening the gate and having the herd all step politely away, like stepping into your office in the morning and it being WARM...or cold, coming home to a home. We do not have to take things for granted in our lives just because they are always there. We can TRUST that they will be there, and be grateful for them.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pretty Girls Turn Heads

From the moment that RG and Zeta came to live at the residential treatment facility where I work, they were up to something. Much like the state of equine program there, it was clear that they hadn’t had some attention for quite some time. But also like our program, that was going to change.

RG and Zeta are a couple cute-as-a-button Arabian mares, donated to the program under the assumption that they are “good riding horses”. While I don’t doubt that it is in there somewhere, it remains yet to be seen. What was clearly visible, however, was the tangled mess of a tail on Zeta. Unless she had been on a recent vacation to Jamaica, I assumed that it was a result of the fact that she also was not easy to catch and this was a clear indication that she had not been handled in years. I have spent hours in my life combing out tangled tails, because I really don’t believe in cutting a horses hair, however, after we spent the time doing what it took to catch Zeta, I grabbed the nearest sharp instrument and hacked that dreadlock off. Surprisingly, what we found was that once Zeta was “in hand” she was good as gold.

RG is another story. Friendly, sociable, calm and brave. An ideal picture of what a riding horse for a kids program should be, except that we soon learned also that RG was not very sound. She had trouble standing on her rear legs, and then one day on my way out, I saw RG laying down and sensed that I should go check her out. As I walked out to see her, her friend was standing nearby, and surprisingly allowed me to walk directly up to her and touch her. She seemed to say to me, “help my friend, thanks for helping”. As I suspected, RG could not get up. Amidst the hullabaloo of trying to help out RG, these smart, sensitive Arabians accomplished their first act as therapy horses. They brought a group of employees and administrators to the necessary awareness that caring for horses is an important, and difficult job.

A curious thing about Zeta and RG coming to the program, is that everyone seemed to have an interest in them. Its hard to explain the connection that I have been feeling to Zeta, but I think that is what this story is all about- their unexplainable draw.The second miracle happened the day we went to test out Zeta’s riding knowledge. As usual we played our catching game, and I was beginning to feel that Zeta understood me and even liked me. Zeta was, as I expected, a good girl when it came to saddling, however I realized that her short Arabian back was not going to like the saddle that I had brought up. Immediately,as if out of thin air, up pulls the donation truck with a saddle that was a perfect fit for Zeta. We had a good little session; I learned that Zeta would definitely need some work, but was willing. Then, as we were leaving, an employee stops by and says that she had a group of people donate a bunch of stuff for the program, and that a company was going to donate arthritis medicine for RG. Somehow these little horses have been sending out their wish lists, and getting results.

The next thing on RG and Zeta’s agenda was an agency-wide equine therapy session. The session was scheduled to be only for a group of 6 boys, however, RG and Zeta decided that arena was too small for them, and took advantage of the open gates to take the session to the rest of the campus. You may recall that Zeta does not like to be caught, and it is very possible that I created this very incident in my mind, as I had worried about what would happen if they got out. After I was able to control my panic and fear that they would take for the road, I could enjoy the scene unfolding before me.

If you have ever seen Arabian horses run around expressing their sense of freedom, then you will know it is a captivating sight. The whole campus stopped and watched in amazement, many of them never seeing horses before. I tried to solicit help from the bystanders, but began to realize that they had no intention of getting near the wild running horses. It wouldn’t have helped anyway, what I needed were people who knew what to do, and understood how their behaviors would affect the horses. Call in our Friday afternoon group members. The six boys scheduled for a session came to the rescue, creating a boundary with their bodies and controlling their energy to guide Zeta to a safe space until she was calm enough to allow herself to be caught ( I already had RG on the line).

As the boys continued with their session (in the appropriate enclosed arena), learning about focusing their thoughts and paying attention to their body language, the rest of the campus was buzzing about horses. All of a sudden kids were asking about meeting the horses, and how they could be able to do things with them. Kids who always thought they were afraid of horses, had a sudden curiosity. Interest has been peaked for equine therapy.

In my opinion, the value of a horse is not whether you can ride them or if they can be of service to you, the value of a horse is what they can teach you. These pretty girls have taught me a lesson. We have the power to get things done, we just have to use it. You don’t know what you can get until you ask. You don’t know what people will think about something until you show them. You can make things happen if you want to, and people will join you to take up the cause. Of course, it just comes naturally when you’re as pretty as these two.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Hunger

Predator and Prey
The skies are very active this time of year. Flocks of thousands of blackbirds swarm from field to field, roosting like black leaves on the naked trees. Vultures circle endlessly, little sparrows and bluejays flit from branch to branch in my yard. And my eyes perpetually peel the air in fear to spot the arch-nemesis of my little chicken flock, the hawk. I suppose this sudden seasonal activity is due to the need for nature to prepare herself for the cold lean winter. The skies are full of hunger.

Though I recognize that predatory behavior is a necessary part of natural life, I have to say that I cannot think of a time that it has served me. I am not a fan of my chickens getting eaten, the little rabbit I shot on one of my first hunting trips made a meager stew, and I have a sickly feeling in my stomach when I think about the sadistic joy on my dogs face when she killed a baby bunny. We are far removed from our predatory nature, buying our meat in packages and taking out our violent urges on video games. But our predation leaks out in so many ways.

There was a predator on the loose the other night. Literally. The predator was me, and I was on Loose. It was a strange experience, as I rarely get upset at Lucy, and I have learned to control my predatory urges well. However, A few things were different: I was under the stress of preparing for a competition. The competition was really not a big deal, but if you read my prior posts, you will see how it tends to affect me. We were also experiencing something called a pre-encounter environment, a term used when discussing prey behavior. This is an environment in which the prey animal is aware that there is potential for predator attack. In other words, they feel unsafe. Using a bridle is something new for me and Lucy, and as most things are when they are new, you are out of your comfort zone, on heightened alert, and less confident. The last thing that was different was that because of this pre-encounter environment, Lucy began acting like a prey animal, which is something that she rarely does.

Just like when my dog’s predatory instinct to kill kicks in when she hears the panicked squeaks of the baby rabbit, my frustration and instinct to enter into a fight and win kicked in when Lucy became right-brained and scared. All of a sudden I wanted to use force instead of psychology, and everything I knew went out the window. In fact, at one point, my husband sarcastically told me that I should just get off my horse. He was right. I knew even at the time he was right. But is that what I did? NO. Why? I was being driven by my instinct. And it did not serve me or my horse.

The predatory instinct is a survival skill, based on the need to eat large amounts of protein rich food. Humans are a strange species built for both vegetarian and carnivorous diets, with skill sets that also serve both lifestyles. However, being a social and verbal species, our predatory behavior is not just about hunger, but about obtaining other things necessary to survival- order, society, family, territory. It is is what helped us become the beings that we are today.

Horses are a very unique animal. Not only are they a prime example of prey animal: fast, sensitive, smart, alert; but they also have the qualities that have made them a prime animal to partner with man: fast, sensitive, smart, alert, brave, athletic, social. Horses are the only animal of its size built in such a way to carry humans. In fact horses have been our partners over the years in so much of our predatory acts. It is clear that horses were made to be with us, yet it is such a paradox of predator and prey.

Aesop’s fable tells of the lion and the mouse, a predator and prey animal, who learn different ways of being because of a kindness shown. The bravery of the little mouse who pulled the thorn from the lions paw is rewarded when he is then face to face with the sentence of death at the claws of his lion. The predator defies his predatory instincts and spares the life of his friend, proving that a relationship can truly change biology.

While our instincts are opposite, our willingness to form a partnership causes both species to be better for it. I’ve learned a lot from my experience of predatory instinct the other night. And the only reason that I was able to learn is because I am in a relationship with a magnificent animal that deserves to be treated differently. I realize now that cavemen must have been true barbarians until they encountered horses. It is a special animal that causes us to see the faults in ourselves, forgive us for them, cause a hunger and yearning to be a better person, and be willing to learn and grow alongside us.