Stupid. Dense. Stubborn. Lazy.
Until we stop seeing others
in our own worst self-image,
these words will describe us.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Stupid. Dense. Stubborn. Lazy.
Until we stop seeing others
in our own worst self-image,
these words will describe us.
We were hooked and it was written all over us. The first weird looks passed between our parents. We were too young to know anyone else. It didn’t matter if there were horses close by; some of us were in the country but just as many of us were in city apartments. We squealed at horsies! from car windows or stared at pictures in books we were too little to read. We cantered in the house when horses only lived inside our TV.
Eventually we turned into old women with squint-wrinkles around our eyes and some sort of chronic lameness. Through decades of life, we might have changed homes and changed jobs and changed spouses… but feelings about horses never changed. Some would say that we’re past our riding prime, but I’m confident that the residue of those crazy young rides has made us better with horses now. Probably better with our own species as well.
Horses are like a beautiful water-color rinse washed over top of the ink drawing of our lives. It’s the water we swim in while living on dry land. It’s the herd we belong to before and through and beyond our other connections. It isn’t just that we were born this horse-crazy way. Much to the chagrin of those around us, we stay that way. I think we take it with us when we walk on from this world.
What is this hook that horses have in us? It’s the question I’ve asked for as long as I’ve known horses. Unless I was busy actually grooming or riding or training at the moment. Then it was only in the back of my mind.
Of course we love animals but horses are different. We play favorites. It isn’t the same the mess of complex and contradictory feelings we have for people. Horses feel more honest and true.
When philosophers consider the nature of God and the metaphysics of the universe, surely they must consider the central position that horses hold. If they don’t, we know they’ve fallen short of the thing artists have known since the time of cave paintings; it was always about humans and horses.
Is love even the right word? It feels a bit shallow. We began this journey before there was choice or reason; before we knew the word for how we would feel. We rode when there were no horses. It was a prehistoric promise, sealed with horse dander and spit. Or things that would evolve into that eventually.
Maybe back then some DNA got mixed up in the primordial mush and we’re actually a slightly different species. That would explain a lot over the centuries –and eventually at our kitchen tables.
But somewhere in the middle of our lives, life happened. Plans went sideways. Some of us gave up horses for a while and some of us gave up everything but horses. Some of us finally got our first pony fifty years later. All of us stayed true to that prehistoric promise with horses; we always circle back.
Now that I’m older, there are some rides I make myself refuse. There are days that it breaks my heart to cautious, but I have a herd that depends on me. It’s lead mare logic; I wasn’t born knowing it. I do all the barn work my body allows and then remember the kindness that all past-prime horses deserve. I try to practice that same kindness on myself but never quite feel deserving.
Perhaps younger riders look at me like I’m a crazy old nag. I smile and wave, stubborn as a pony, working to show them the patience that my first horse had for me, back when I fell short of my horse’s withers and wisdom.
We’re the sort who never quite settle the struggle to find our balance, drunk with horses and gasping with rude want. We’ve been loud, crying or pouting if we can’t ride. There is nothing polite about passion. Other times, while making the tough choices, we felt as old as sticks and dirt with the bitter maturity of our decisions. Still horses never change for us.
We have a secret that others don’t know. While other women dream of romance book lovers or foreign shores, we dream of a horse who comes to us with an invitation. Personally, I think it’s a white horse –like my Grandfather Horse. He was perfectly ordinary. We all had one just like him. The one that we knew before we were born. The one who never leaves us.
You come for me, behind my eyelids now, but you come. I’m selfish, I fear, to call you to me but I hold no respect for rainbow bridges or fairy tales.
With closed eyes, I climb up the mounting block. That left hip pinches; it’s how I know this is only partly a dream. With one last grounded breath, my leg slides over and I ease onto his back. My shoulders go broad and my spine straightens as it all comes flooding back.
My breath is deep. I was born to sit right here. I feel his ribs expand as he breathes with me and some jagged pieces begin to mend. One more breath and my busy mind settles deep into my heart with a sigh. He’s taught me that oneness means the parts of the rider become united. Horses are that way already.
It doesn’t matter where we go now, sauntering through the water-color wash. The ride stays real long after the horse who shared it has walked on. We are the lucky ones.
Hold tight. They always circle back.
[Dedicated to the friend-readers who are “between” horses and longing, on the seventh anniversary of this Relaxed and Forward blog. Thank you; I’m so grateful to all who share their long ride here.]
Some of us baby-talk and cuddle our horses like they’re twelve-hundred-pound teddy bears. Some of us enter the pen with enough flags and whips that we look like a lion-tamer at a circus. It’s possible we’re on a behavior continuum not so different from horses.
Human behavior runs similarly from one extreme–very shut down–to the other extreme–overly reactionary. In other words, some of us are passive aggressive and some of us just plain aggressive. Too harsh? That’s what the horses thought about the words stoic and reactive, too.
Then one last assumption: If you were the sort of screeching, hard-handed, bone-crushing, slimy-reptile Neanderthal who was brutal with horses, my bliss-ninny positive training blog would have bored you to death years ago.
That just leaves us passive aggressives left. And it didn’t start out being our fault. Most of us are women; we were raised to be polite and quiet. We were rewarded for being good girls.
I, myself, am a recovering good girl, so if I want some wine, for instance, I take a breath and say, “Please bring some red wine home. Thanks, Sweetie.”
A passive aggressive good girl might say,”Excuse me, Sweetie, if you have time and it’s no trouble, perhaps you could detour on your way home, only if you want to, for some wine, if it isn’t out of your way, but if it doesn’t work out, it’s no trouble for me to go later, Honey, even though my foot is swollen and I’m a bit congested, I can limp out later after dinner, I was just thinking you might be able to get a nice Merlot, but it’s fine, just fine, either way.”
Just. Say. It. Already.
And to be clear, it’s okay to be passive aggressive out in the world. I’m just saying horses hate it.
Horses are prey animals, and coyotes (or people acting like coyotes) are their sworn enemies. Coyotes stalk them, passively aggressive, skulking around in the shadows, lurking and feinting. Circling their prey, just out of reach but relentless. They might tip-toe with a halter partly hidden behind their back, or nag-nag-nag with their feet in the saddle, or be twitchy with their hand, or maybe just lurk on the stiff-side rein. They might give a cue, contradict that first cue, then give a different cue, and still not pause for an answer, busily talking to themselves, up there behind their horse’s back.
Or worse yet, we might have so much compassion for our horses that we listen and listen, and never really say anything to them at all. We crane and squint and worry, wondering how they are responding, and is this what that blog meant? In the meantime, a horse picks up on the doubt and confusion and they can do nothing but lose confidence. We chatter down to them, over them, beyond them, until nothing we say has meaning. In other words, if we often stop and start, walk on eggshells to keep them calm, or over think everything in the saddle, we’re stalking them.
Do you find this prattle confusing? Imagine you’re a horse.
Bottom line: We lose our natural rhythm when we try too hard. We’d hate to consider ourselves abusive so we whisper, and even if we know horses are confused, we tend to commiserate with them about it and not clarify. They see a dog answer a sit command and get a cookie, and wonder why they have it so hard. It’s enough to make a stoic horse to shut down further or a reactive horse start to scream.
Truth: A horse will never confuse you for a horse. You will always be either a coyote or a human. Sorry for the bad news, but now let’s set about being a better human; honest communication is appreciated because it’s understandable. Think short sentences, with a thank you at the end.
Horses are looking a quietly confident leader who respects their intelligence. Let your body be still. Listen without expectation of good, bad, or otherwise. Breathe. Plan ahead. Ask for a transition with awareness in your body. Then breathe again. Wait for his answer. Reward him.
If he’s wrong, reward him for trying. Then “re-phrase” the question more simply. Go slow so that he can reason the answer. Slow yourself down so that you are clear. Be patient because there is nothing more important than a foundation of understanding. Speed is easy but real trust takes time.
Let him accept you for who you truly are, and if that’s a bit of a mess, don’t give him a whiny apology. Instead, smile, relax, and try to do better. Trust that he can tell your intention is good. Horses absolutely know honesty when they see it.
Horses not looking for groupies and they don’t want to be put up on a spiritual pedestal. They don’t need adoring humans to give them purpose. They want a whole lot more from us than treats.
Scientists tell us that horses have feelings similar to humans, but that is not the same thing as feeling what we do in the same situation and we’d be arrogant to think so.
Try to find the middle of our human continuum. Horses are drawn to calm leadership. They like a herd that feels safe; they appreciate emotional clarity. Leave your puny insecurities and your frail feelings in the house. No baby talk, no coyote stalking, no apologies. Square your shoulders and speak your truth clearly. They expect us to be nothing less than their equal.
Farm kids, like me, learn early that a healthy anxiety about the weather is the subtext of every task–from lambing season, to planting corn, to rushing to get the bales out of the hay-field, as thunder booms close by. It’s consulting the dog-eared copy of the Farmer’s Almanac. It’s the habit of listening to the weather report more closely than the news, while pulling on boots first thing in the morning.
Townies chat about the weather as the tiniest of small talk; weather can be an inconvenience. Farmers stake their crops, and the family’s security, gambling on the weather, year after year.
Not much has changed. Now I’m older than my folks were when they gave up their farm. I still depend on working outside but we have smartphones with a few weather apps. I usually check a couple of different sources and then average the results; weather is still a guess.
Last week in Illinois there were rain storms, ice, and fifty degree days. It’s the kind of weather that’s average for November but not now; not in the middle of January.
Here on my small Colorado farm, we’ve had the same temperature swings; the pond ice is unsteady and the pasture is bone dry. There have been some sub-zero wind-chill nights followed by fifty degree days. It’s the transitional weather we watch for in spring and fall. Horse people don’t want to say it out-loud, but it’s colic weather.
Sure, every farm could destroy more pasture and hay fields to build a huge indoor arenas and pretend to ignore the weather. Is this how we want to use our precious land? Besides, this whining about weather is all anecdotal, and scientists don’t pay farmers much mind. Except now.
“A NASA press release pointed out “Earth’s 2016 surface temperatures were the warmest since modern record keeping began in 1880, according to independent analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).” Sixteen of the warmest 17 warmest years on record have been observed since 2001.”
Through December, the mares in my barn were cycling still. They used to take the winter off from snake fights and screaming at geldings but it’s dragged on long enough that we had the vet check for ovarian cysts. My final questioning act for them was to ask my Facebook friends across the country about their mares. The response was overwhelming and the consensus surprised me: Mares were still cycling everywhere, and raw with the long-term hormonal emotions. Anecdotal for sure, and a cynic might call it coincidental. When will we trust what we see? When will we speak up?
This week I read more on climate change. Arctic melting is changing coastlines around the world. Weather scientists are behaving more like mares in estrus. The undeniable change is still being denied… not by farmers but by politicians.
Do these guys ever come out of their offices long enough to look up? I’d invite the idiots along with me for a week of outdoor work if any of them were strong enough to keep up.
We’ve all seen heart-wrenching video of polar bears starving on ice floats, but let’s get personal. Is there a horse owner who isn’t wildly aware of how fragile horses are? Does anyone think that horses won’t be one of the first domestic animals to suffer, and die, for our selfish, arrogant ways? I mean even more than happens now… Will we be this greedy and self-serving until we kill everything dear to us?
And then, when I think post-apocalyptic, I think how few pets exist in science fiction. Okay, Star Trek had tribbles. And there was Mel Gibson sharing a can of Dinky-Do dog food with that genius cattle dog in the movie, Road Warrior. Remember? It was a quiet moment between rapes and car wrecks in the end-of-the-world fight for gasoline. It would be like humans to eat dog food and wear kinky outfits instead of grow crops or raise animals. It’s a fact that there is no romance in farming.
Like I said, I researched climate change and horses. I wanted to share just one article; a brief scientific paper from Australia, a bit removed from our soil. Please take a moment to read The Impact of Climate Change on Horses, and Horse Industries. The bibliography makes the piece look longer than it is. There are certainly some details that I hadn’t thought out before, even though they make perfect sense. Mostly I’m struck by the very fine line between science and science fiction. Like usual, the fiction part is more true than we want to think. There are words all too familiar to horse owners in the article. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the path ahead–like a trashy B-movie.
This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper. –T S Eliot
I’m not sure how politicians decided that climate change could even be voted on in the first place. And it’s too late to blame others. This global issue is so much bigger than our horses; other losses will be larger and more pivotal to the planet’s destruction. There is no more time to debate and whine. It’s time to make our voices heard. Time for each of us who make our lives, and our living, out in the environment, to speak up. There are more farmers than politicians and business people. And between rants, we can do every small thing we can do to turn this planet around. It’s up to us; we’re the ones who know first-hand what we stand to lose.
Here on the prairie, I’m pulled to look to the west at dusk. The outrageous beauty stills my rat-on-a-wheel mind. Awe is the only word; the preciousness of each sunset burns my heart. Maybe I’m selfishly aware of the number of sunsets left in my puny little life. Or maybe it’s knowing that my silence contributes to the death of the infinite number of lives that we will surely take down with us.
I’m a riding instructor. Wait, it’s worse than that. A riding instructor who has read the small print of her liability insurance, as if I didn’t feel responsible enough before. Beyond that, I’m certain that if one of my horses hurt someone, it wouldn’t be his fault and it would break my heart. Maybe literally.
My barn isn’t safe for kids. Wait, it’s worse than that. My barn isn’t safe for adults, whether they are city slickers or old hands. Come to think of it, it’s never been safe for the horses. I don’t mean to sound judgmental but I don’t think your barn is safe either.
A while back, the director of a riding program invited me to give a talk on safety to a group of good men who volunteered to help with handyman work on their farm. The director didn’t feel the men were taking her requests seriously. Among other things, they were bringing the horses in using an ATV and moving them at a breakneck speed. When the director asked them to slow down, they all looked at her like she was a whiny spoil sport.
I gave a strong presentation. I used examples and spoke intelligently from experience. Rules exist for reasons and I actually know those reasons. I made eye contact and sprinkled my talk with humor. They looked at me, the ones who stayed awake, like I was a whiny spoil sport. I get it.
Why is being around horses so complicated and tiresome? It’s the same look I get when I recommend that every rider wear a helmet, every ride. The look I get when I ask if a rider’s horse might have ulcers or if they’ve had a saddle fit recently. They tell me it’s just a horse, after all. I get it.
These things are inconvenient when we have time constraints and it all costs money that would be better spent on a vacation. Then, it’s my fault for being difficult when all they want to do is just ride. Oh, I really do get that.
It’s time for the annual reminder that horses are not dirt bikes. Or more poetically:
“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.” ―Alice Walker
Horses are creatures of intelligence, great sensitivity, and instinct that has insured their very survival for centuries. Horses have physical requirements as complicated as any other wild animal, but are social and generally kind to humans. It makes horses can make appear more docile than they actually are–kind of like big stuffed toys.
Things come apart when a horse has a normal equine response that frightens or injures us humans. Then horses pay the price for our complacency, when it’s our responsibility to keep ourselves safe, and in that way, insure their safety and security, as well. Yes, I just said if we get hurt, it’s our fault.
I want you safe because I’ve been around long enough to know too many sad stories. I want you around to care for your horse into his old age, and maybe a couple of horses past that. I want you safe because our bodies are frail and standing around with that deer in headlights reality with a frightened thousand-pound horse will always be a losing proposition, even if you have to admit it in hindsight. And most of all, because there will never be a guaranteed kid-safe horse, or flawlessly secure barn, or totally predictable outcome.
And because sadly, we humans need to feel safe and sometimes we over-compensate, using bravado as a kind of false courage. Horses aren’t fooled.
It isn’t that we mean harm; we all love our horses. We like to show off or we fall into habits of taking shortcuts. We get distracted and lose sight of the big picture. Complacency is like gravity; it settles on us and makes us dumb to our surroundings, dulling our senses, and that’s when most injuries happen.
I understand how cool it is to stand next to a draft horse and call him Baby. Sometimes it can seem like throwing a leg around a saddle horn, laying on a horse bareback, or encouraging a horse come close and mug you, makes it look like you’re a horse whisperer in tune with the equine heart. I have to tell you–it’s the exact opposite.
Call me a whiny spoil sport. It’s my professional responsibility to look at a situation, imagine every horrible, crippling possibility for the horse and rider, while holding a light, positive thought for the best. But really, isn’t it just good horsemanship? Too many horses go to rescue or worse because we don’t hold up our end.
So a New Year reminder to stay focused and listen to your horse. If you don’t do groundwork, it’s time to start and if you do, freshen your focus. Know that he wants safe leadership most of all. Begin when you halter him, speak his language. Use your peripheral vision–your horse eyes–and be aware of your surroundings. Encourage good manners and reward him lavishly for every effort. Horsemanship boils down to what we give our horses, even more than what they give us.
Some of us are rule breakers by nature. We don’t like to do was we’re told. I’m at the head of that line myself. And some rules are meant to break. Common sense will tell you that when it comes to white breeches. But too many people are more concerned with the respect a horse shows them, than the respect they show the horse.
Perhaps consider rules as a way of demonstrating love for horses; a constant awareness of their dignity and a method for showing them respect for who they are and how they think.
And then we see them galloping with ears sharp, tails flagged, and hooves churning up the soil: Strength and sensitivity. Intelligence and timeless beauty. Even the most cynical people pause and stand a bit taller, just existing in the same world with horses.
In that light, treating horses like a fuzzy teddy bear seems outlandishly demeaning, doesn’t it?
There was that time years ago, that I had a date over for dinner. We hadn’t known each other long and I always want to get off on the right foot. We were sipping wine in the living room when I went to check on dinner in the kitchen. I had rice on the stove. Lifting the lid, there was no water visible. I could see the beginning of a light golden color around the edges. So naturally, I turned up the heat and returned to the living room.
For some people, cooking is a creative passion. I mean no disrespect; I hope they invite me for dinner. Somehow cooking wound up being political for me.
I was raised in traditional home, meaning it was plain to see that men and boys had all the power and unhappy women cleaned up after them. My mother, who also hated cooking, tried to teach me right. She knew that ordinary girls, ones who couldn’t get by just on their good looks, would need serious domestic skills if they were ever to find a husband. Especially an ordinary girl with a mouth like mine.
So yes, I sew beautifully but I used the concept of piecing fabric into clothing as a way of understanding how to hand-build gemstone settings, using tools like my oxy-acetylene torch, when I was a goldsmith. And it’s only recently that I’ve admitted knowing how to type. It’s been decades since a man has asked me to type their term paper. And now, three books later, I seem to have found good use for those “secretarial skills” they talked about in high school. Finally, truth be told, I’m a great cook… but it gives me no joy.
To each his own; it wasn’t the life I wanted. Once I left home, I shunned any traditional “women’s work.” Maybe I was afraid if I faltered once, I’d be type cast forever. Instead, I bit my tongue and pretended ignorance.
It was horses who made kitchens safe again. My pie recipe will make more sense now.
First, it must be understood that the pie is always made from fresh apples. At first, I used to make my grandmother’s crust recipe. It has a secret ingredient and is outlandishly good. Now, I buy the pre-rolled Pillsbury crusts. They’re passable and my grandmother was always disappointed with me anyway.
Next, the apples. Buy a huge bag of them and do the worst job of peeling them possible. Sure, I was born with the gene that allows a paper-thin one piece curl of apple skin, but that’s just showing off and doesn’t serve the big picture. I like to hack thick slabs of the peel off, so that when I’m done, the apple has a wonky octagon shape and is only two-thirds the size it was before I started. Then core the apple and slice what’s left into the pie shell. Continue until the pie shell is heaping full. Quarter the rest of the apples and put them in with the peels.
Then I drag out my Betty Crocker cook book with the red gingham cover. Mom gave it to me while I was still in high school and I certainly haven’t bought another since. I turn to the Perfect Apple Pie recipe to remember how much flour, sugar, and cinnamon to sprinkle in. Then dab butter on top, but use more than they say. See? I’ve gone off recipe already. Put the lid on the pie, crinkle the edges together, and put it in the oven.
Now hurry. You only have an hour. Scoop the chunky apple peels into a bag and scurry out to the barn. Put a handful of peels in every feeder, while relaxing into first equine thought that comes into your head. For me, it’s always my Grandfather Horse but I miss him. This will be the first year in thirty that he and I haven’t avoided this holiday together.
So I made the pie early this year; I needed the apple-peel ritual that’s part political, part spiritual, and part therapeutic. It’s been a mean year and I’m behind on my breathing.
As the horses chew, my jaw softens. Sinking down on a bale; the barn feels like home and all the memories of good horses come galloping back. It’s good to be reminded. If you’re like me, you’ve been stronger than you ever thought possible. Some days you failed your horse, but you didn’t quit. Other days, you’ve been lifted high and carried like treasure.
(If you don’t have a barn, it doesn’t matter. Quietly remember the first horse you loved. Call him to you; let him star in his own movie. You know the plot by heart.)
Through the manure and the mud, the horses saw something in us that had nothing to do with sex or career. It was beyond hair color or dress size or age. Horses treated us in a way that our own species struggles with. They treated us as equals.
An hour later, back in the house, the air is sweet with warm cinnamon and now you have a second apple treat to share with friends or family. They welcome you in with a hug that lasts longer than usual and they hold eye contact. The pie is an after thought.
There is something about women who know horses. It’s part apples and part muck boots, along with some stray white hairs on her sweatshirt. She’s comfortable in her body because she knows acceptance; the glow that lingers from the barn.
At any age, we should know better than to confuse a silly pie with a woman’s real worth. Never underestimate her. A heart filled with horses can accomplish anything.
when seasonal words don’t fit
when obligation overwhelms desire
when some mourn or have none or do not
when the music rings hollow
it’s all right
to say no thank you
It’s time for the annual reminder: Our most visible holiday tradition might be stress. Please kindly remember that not everyone loves this season; not everyone celebrates it.