Friday, September 23, 2011

A Farm Full of Lonely Horses

Today I visited the farm of an elderly couple who was having trouble caring for their horses, and had been for quite some time. It was full of beautiful arabian mares and stallions who were clearly well-bred, smart, and athletic, with so much potential. However, the future for these horses is dim. So is the barn that all 11 stallions reside in most of their lives. Some of the mares were friendly. Most were stand-offish at best. Though the condition of the farm was poor, the horses appeared well nourished, but it was the seeming lack of love or purpose that these horses had that bothered me most.

One gray stallion had what would seem to be the best view. He had an end stall that got to look out the barn door towards the house. But he seemed so sad. Maybe he watched everyday as his little old owners puttered about less and less. Perhaps his view was the most stressful, watching people come and go, and no one paying any attention to him.

If there is one pure and wholesome lesson that horses teach, it is responsibility. During my 17 years as a horse owner, the lessons in responsibility keep coming. Getting a job at 13 and working through the summer months to pay for my horse was the first. Then came the hard labor, cleaning stalls, barn work, putting up hay. There have been the lessons of emotional commitment, hanging in through the tough times, waiting in the night and the cold for the vet, and the heartbreaking responsibility of making the decision to put an end to a friends suffering.

There is the responsibility of continued learning, always working to be a better horseman, better rider, better person for your horse. And the hard work continues. It never ends, really. All for a horse. Or two or three.... or forty. As much as those beautiful arabians tried to dazzle me, and as much as many horses that I meet try to plant the dangerous seed in my brain that there is always room for one more, I take a loving peek at the horses in my pasture and know that I have all that I need.

You see, my theory is that my utmost responsibility is to the horses that are mine. If I spread my attentions too thin on too many horses, I am not being responsible to my horses. I want to be able to take care of them and be with them until I am old and gray, so I had better not make it too hard on myself. And if I think about it, whenever I return from seeing a lot of horses that want to come home with me, I then see those qualities out there in my pasture. I’ve got a fancy mare, I’ve got a blonde horse, I’ve got one that thinks he’s a stallion. I’ve got all the learning I need out there.

But it doesn’t help me if I don’t pay attention to it. Another theory of mine is that just giving a horse food and water is not taking care of it. They need our love, attention, commitment, and guidance. The main reason that I took on Riley to play with and ride was not because I felt especially drawn to her ( though I do like her a lot), or that I had any designs on her for any particular discipline, but rather because I knew that if she did not learn her manners and lessons, that she may one day take a fairly nice price at the meat market. Responsibility is that serious.

It is that way for our emotional lives as well. As it is for our relationships and endeavors. Responsibility can mean priorities, boundaries, and just plain hard work.

Just giving a horse it’s daily nutrition is no more responsible than admitting to a crime is taking responsibility for your behavior. Or knowing your faults, but not attending to them. Having horses has taught me so much more responsibility than simply shoveling poop and lugging water buckets. We need to take stock of our own pasture, and take responsibility. This means putting a good effort into the things that we need to, paying attention to our faults and holes, and attending to them. We need to look to the future, examine the options, and do our best to take care of what is ours.

Do you have a pasture full of friends that count on you, or a farm full of lonely horses?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Letting Go...

Have you ever had 1,500 pounds at the end of a rope leave you with all its might? There might be smaller things at the end of ropes that you may be able to wrestle with, and force to an agreement. There are times when hunkering down and giving a good yank is effective, and there are times when planting yourself like a telephone pole and not giving in gets the message across. Sometimes sheer willpower can overcome a difficult moment, but there are also times when hanging on and pushing through only gets your face dragged through the mud.

After a few bouts of rope burn and hurt feelings while trying to “work though” Riley’s ever increasing obsession with leaving, I realized that I was powerless. There was no way that I would win a fight with that big smart horse on the end of a rope. There was a misunderstanding going on and I could not solve it by digging in my heels.

I decided to drop the rope for a while and play only with Riley at Liberty. With no ropes to foolishly rely on, or more likely get in the way, Riley and I learned a lot about each other. I learned that she had a hard time allowing me on her right side. I learned that when I asked her for a hindquarter disengagement, she sometimes felt pressured. I learned that there was a line down her center of gravity that I could use to encourage forward, or backward. Mostly I learned that Riley was so in tuned to me already, that I had just been giving her sloppy signals, and that is what generally set her off.

As we increased our understanding, we increased our trust. Riley began to look to me for safety and comfort, and I began to take pleasure in playing with her, instead of viewing it as I had been, as “hard work”. I was a little worried to go back on the rope. I was afraid that it all would go wrong again. What I found when we went back online was that all that we had just worked on was there.

We had one fascinating moment of realization for me. Riley got worried and started to think that she should leave. I thought that I had to do what I would do in the round pen, not what I did before that caused the ruckus. I put slack in the line, lowered my energy and focused on my body language. And I saw a shift in her eyes as she found the place that we had at liberty. That place of understanding and trust that we had created, we could instantly go back to when needed.

My moments with Riley continue to have their ups and downs, though I am grateful for them all. She is becoming a lovely horse to be with and ride. She still occasionally has moments in which her life flashes before her eyes and she needs to go. But I understand these more now, and if our communication goes wrong that day, and she gives me more than I bargain for, I let go. And I laugh, and I ask her where she is going, and when would she like to come back? And then we resume our useful conversation, and let the misunderstanding go. And move on.


I simply must gush about Zeta. At first meet, I fell in love with her. Which probably says something about me, because the first time I saw her she refused to be caught by anyone, and clearly had not been so as evidenced by her baseball bat sized dread-locked tail. As I got to know Zeta better, she showed that she really did seem to have some baggage. Particularly about halters, and face touching, and sometimes people in general. Worming and medication was an issue, as well as the thought of riding. In fact, as I played with her I realized Zeta often seemed to prefer people at her hind end rather than her front end...

My obsession with Zeta continued to grow, and as I usually do with horses new to me, I go in over my head too fast. I misjudged the severity of her issues, and one thing leading to another, Zeta stepped on the much too long rope that I was using, and feeling this pressure on her poll, reactively jerked her head up like a shot, colliding her noggin with mine. Now I’ve been head butted by a horse before, and by horses with much larger heads than hers, but this one hit me just right. I had a nice egg on my forehead, much too gruesome for people to not assume that Zeta was some evil monster of a horse. So even while my head was still swelling, I had to defend my girl. It wasn't her fault, I knew better, she just stepped on the rope, didn't mean it.

As soon as I could make my way back to visit I knew what was on the agenda. Yielding to steady pressure with the halter. I worked on this for one session and made good progress, but I didn't realize quite how much progress until the following time. Zeta began to give to any amount of pressure I put on the halter, not just in a downward force, as I had mostly practiced, but in a tug forward, she gently put her head down. In a request sideways, her head dropped calmly. Compared to the violent reaction of a week before, I was flabbergasted. She had given it up so easily.

This proved to be the way it is with Zeta. Given some gentle communication and understanding, Zeta has been willing to give up her issues with no argument from her. I’ve ridden her several times now, and can tell that she doesn't know much about it. But it is not stopping her from learning and being willing. Clearly the experiences she has had with people on her back have not offered her much connection or communication. But she has gone from repeatedly moving off when mounted to turning her face to me when I put a body part over her back. She has let kids catch her when they are able to slow down their energy and pay attention to their body language.

Zeta has gone from a wild horse to a valuable and important lesson in how to let things go, trust, and move on. She seems to have no hangups about needing to hold on to her old defenses. Certainly they can take some time to disappear entirely, but when she recognizes that there is something better for her, and can trust it,  she does.

Zeta and I on our first ride

Friday, September 9, 2011

Scars and Stripes

All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I've been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don't mean anything
When you've got no one to tell them to
It's true...I was made for you
- Brandi Carlile

Our scars are a part of who we are. We may not like them, we may think they are ugly or deforming. Or we may think they show character. Most likely we forget that we have them. They can become such a part of our makeup that we no longer remember that they are there. The scars, however, are simply the reminders of how we got them.

I realized recently that my horses have a lot of scars. But I kind of like them. It tells a story, and in many cases, the story of how they came to me. Lucy has some scars on her front shoulder from apparently “leading a wild escape” with the rest of the foals through the fence as a baby. I don’t really know if it was all her idea, but I wouldn’t doubt it. Because of her wounds, and her sweet attitude, she was brought home by a loving lady, and eventually came to me. The wounds healed, and she eventually learned about fences.

Bucky has a similar set of scars on his hind legs from getting caught up in fencing as a baby. I always wonder whether this injury caused him to become the pacer that he is (he prefers to do a lateral moving gait rather than trot). It is curious how our scars may change us, or make us who we are. Yet somehow the change doesn’t seem dramatic, rather just like the tissue growing around the wound, and then eventually fading into our skin, it just becomes a part of us that we hardly recognize where or how it came into being. Bucky also has a nice moon shaped scar on his rear that you can read about in Roll With Resistance.

Ziggy has scars on his knee from his racetrack blowout. It ended his career, but I don’t think it was his passion anyway. He much prefers to use his healing energy (which maybe he gained during his layup) to help his friends, human and equine.

My friend Zeta looks relatively scar free, apart from a band of white hair across her nose where the halter sits. This is likely from her spending many wild years as a broodmare, with little attention, and a halter plastered to her face, because she was “hard to catch”. But this little scar is a great lesson for many boys and girls where she works (as well as myself) of learning to trust, responding to body language, and how to ask politely.

I have a few scars as well, some have stuck around for many years, and some become invisible. But its what happens that causes the scars that says something. It may not even be a thing you can put your finger on. It may say something about who you are, it may mean that you do something differently next time. It may mean that there is permanent damage,  physical or emotional. Somehow, as we are building our lives, scars become part of the brick and mortar. They are tributes to our choices, ways of being, weaknesses, strengths, and our ability to heal. They are part of who we are, reminders of where we have come from, and where we are going.