Monday, December 28, 2009

Letting Go

"There are no facts, only interpretations." - Nietsche

A few days ago I was reminded of an episode that momentarily rocked me off my equilibrium, if there ever really was one.

It was an ordinary fall day, a bit windy, but no rain so I decided to take Little Love for a walk over the fields.  I took her blanket off and threw on the rope halter and off we went, walking side by side.

You really have to know Little Love and her history to know how big of an achievement walking with her on trails is.  I would not have dreamed of such a thing a year ago.  Yet this is something we can now do regularly, something we share and enjoy together.  I have come to love these moments, to cherish them and to feel pride over our connection, our understanding of each other.  I am only human and we humans like to have proof of our accomplishments, and I felt that this was exactly that: proof of our connection, our friendship.  Perhaps that was my first mistake. 

That day we got past the neighboring farm and were well in the fields when suddenly a flock of white seagulls landed in the grass some hundred yards away. This is exceptional, as we don't usually see seagulls this deep inland, but apparently they fly over once every year.

There is something about the color white that truly sets Little Love off. She is especially fearful of small, white animals in the distance be it a dog far away in the grass or a plastic bag in the wind. At the sight of the some 50 white birds she stopped immediately, her head up high and nostrils flaring.

If there is something I have learned from this horse, it is that sometimes it's just best to turn around and go home. Little Love was nervous; trotting and fidgeting on the end of the lead rope, but she remained by my side for the most part. I always have to be careful not to assert too much pressure on her face, as there is nothing she hates more than being restrained. I picked up the pace as I knew that trying to hold her back when she was worried about something resulted in more problems.

By the time we reached the farm, she was teetering on the far edge of her self-control. We only had another 300 yards to the barn, we could already see the building. That was when we both saw the enormous plastic bag flapping in the wind.

Twice a year the Swiss garbage service collects household items such as furniture, clothes, toys - anything people basically want to discard. Today was the day. The farmer had decided to load his junk into a large plastic sack usually used for storing grain. He had placed this enormous cow-sized bag on the side of the road with his forklift. And we were going to have to pass it to get home.

Did I mention the bag was white?

Little Love nearly fell over. Her immediate reaction was to rear and run the other way, but half way through the action she remembered the birds which had followed us and circled the field next door. Completely panic stricken she stood shaking on the end of the lead rope. Any connection we had ever gained dissolved into the wind

Suddenly, she bolted to the only opening she could see: the gate of the pasture that was hanging open on her left. She bulldozed by me as if I was no longer there. I hung on to the rope for about a second and then simply let go.  So much for our connection.

She ran to the other end of the pasture, as far as possible from the gate and the awful, white beast flapping in the wind and stopped in the corner. I thanked the gods above that she was in a fenced area. I went over to her and caught her, hoping to redeem myself, to gain control. Although I remained outwardly calm, I could feel my heart racing in my chest. I was fairly sure Little Love could feel it, too. Horses make it their business to know the emotional states of all humans around them.

To make a long story a bit shorter, it so happened that the garbage truck showed up next and took the white blob away. I would love to tell you that everything was dandy after that with Little Love, but it would be a lie. She paced and snorted and ran around me. I attempted to walk her around, hoping I could bridge a connection, hoping to gain some of control so I could get her home.

Then finally, after 20 minutes in the pasture, Little Love followed me through the gate. I honestly thought we were home free.

Then, of course, there was a loud noise, a tractor behind the barn or perhaps the cows inside. Who knows. Little Love spooked. She spooked and slipped on the asphalt, her backside gliding from underneath her. She scrambled to her feet, now in total panic. In a split second I realized that if I hung on to her, several things could happen: a) she could freak out even more, as she gets more fearful when you try to restrain her b) she might fall over again, and this time all the way down or c) I could get dragged the two hundred yards to her stall and get hurt in the process.

It was a no brainer: I let go. She was loose for the second time that day and this time there were no fences to restrain her.

Little Love trotted off in panic but after 20 yards she stopped and looked at me. Then she turned and walked calmly down the road until she was met in the yard by the guy who works in the barn. Luckily there were no cars, no other people. But I was shocked. I had not let a horse loose for probably a decade and a half. It had, in fact, been so long that I couldn't remember when it happened last. Letting a horse loose was poor horsemanship.

I had done the unthinkable: I had lost control.

As if that wasn't bad enough, I also felt like a failure because I had thought Little Love and I had a special connection, I thought she trusted me, I thought she would never want to run away from me - no matter what. I had been so comfortable, so happy in our connectedness, cocky even. What had happened? Was it all a lie? I was so angry and actually felt betrayed. Betrayed by a horse. I was convinced it would never be the same.

And it wasn't. Interestingly enough our connection seemed stronger than ever. I had failed, and there she was, bonding with me like never before. What had happened? Didn't she know I was a failure?

And then I got it: I had only failed the human standard, which is that no matter what, you must remain in control of your horse at all times. I had only failed the image I had in my own head of a perfectly behaving horse who listened to me (and my standards) every second of her existence.

But from Little Love's point of view I hadn't failed. She had been scared and I had not tried to control her, to hold her down, to force her to face her fear. Instead, I had let her do the one thing she wanted to do which was get away from the scary object. I might have been the first human to ever allow her to do that. This was huge. It was almost as if I had passed a test.  And the result had been there, right before my eyes, when she had trotted off but then, realizing she was free, had no longer been scared.

I'm fully aware that if Little Love and I get into a scary situation like that again, most likely she will choose to flee. I try not to take it personally. Instead, I hope I can give her the freedom she needs to not be scared.  So often it is not the scary object that is creating the panic, but the fact that there is a human at the end of the rope trying to control the outcome of the situation.  For most of us, there is nothing as scary as the loss of control, be it with horses or with our lives. Let's face it, most of us are control-freaks. But sometimes we can learn only when we let go of that control. And interestingly I have discovered that sometimes less is truly more, like in the case of Little Love. She is teaching me so many things, but one of the most important lessons has been to learn to let go at the right moment.

~ K

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.

-- Lao Tzu

Friday, December 11, 2009


Last spring I wrote a blog about Kapia, a horse in Belgium, who helped me discover hidden and lost emotions within myself. (Lessons from a horse’s heart, June 16th 2009)

A few weeks ago I received a message that Kapia had passed away. Although she touched my life only briefly, Kapia had a profound effect on my growth as a person and I will be forever in debt to her for this reason. Not that she ever expected anything in return, apart from honesty and authenticity.

Horse’s have big hearts as I pointed out in my last blog, but Kapia’s heart was extraordinary – she was a healer of the human heart.

To honor Kapia’s memory, below are two poems I wrote in May of this year, both inspired by this magnificent mare.

The beacon - Inspired by Kapia May 3, 2009

I know
what you are saying.
I can see the words
In those kind eyes
When you look straight
Into my heart

You know my desires
Before I can catch them
You guide my path
Before I can find it

You are the beacon
In the night

Words from a wise horse - Talking to Kapia May 2, 2009

the eternal depth
that is within -
it may seem empty
and deep as a hole
the space you see
is not darkness

it is a place to
your Strength
your Power
your Womanhood

Thank you, Kapia. I will never forget.

~ K

Monday, November 16, 2009

A horse's heart

The greatest explorer on this earth never takes voyages as long as those of the man who descends to the depth of his heart. - Julian Green

The Institute of HeartMath is a research and education organization dedicated to heart-based living – people relying on the intelligence of their hearts along with their minds to conduct their lives. HeartMath has been researching heart intelligence, stress and emotional management for more than 18 years and according to them, the human heart creates an electromagnetic field so strong it is measurable from several feet away.

Research has found that one person's heart energy waves (electrocardiogram output) are detectable by electrodes wired on the surface of the other person's body when they are seated three feet apart. However, when they are holding hands, each person's heart energy waves are detectable not only on the surface of the other's body, but even in the other's brain waves. Thus, we now know that the heart energy field is both conducted by physical contact and radiated across space between people.

But what about horses?

Think about this: An average horse heart is about thirteen times larger by weight than the average man’s heart and over 20 times larger than the average woman’s heart. Research at the Institute of HeartMath has shown that the human heart's energy field is "approximately five thousand times greater in strength than the field produced by the brain."
How great, in this case, is the energy field of a horse’s heart?
I am convinced that it is absolutely enormous. And imagine if we let ourselves feel it, if we let ourselves be “touched” by this powerful energy field. How much can we be moved emotionally by being in the presence of something that radiates genuine love, acceptance, support?

Yesterday, when I went to the barn, nobody else was there. I immediately got Little Love out of her box and took her into the indoor arena. In the winter she rarely gets to go outside due to the strict rules concerning paddock use and she loves to roll more than anything. I let her loose, as usual, and after a few rounds walking around and checking that everything was safe, she went down for a roll. Then, when she stood up again and shook, we began our dance.

If you have read my previous posts (for example May 16th of this year), you may remember that Little Love is a very private horse, one that doesn’t like to be touched, one that doesn’t care for physical closeness. She has encountered some abuse in the past and her trust of humans is still limited. So usually, when we play, she lets me run next to her, but at a distance of a minimum of six feet. I accept this and never push for more. In fact, I have in the past six months demanded less and less from her and instead allowed her to demand something from me for a change. This has resulted in us riding the trails instead of working in the arena, or “free running” instead of long lining.

As a result of my approach, Little Love has changed under saddle, giving me her back willingly as we trot on the trails, demonstrating gates that would wow a Grand Prix audience. And not only that, something has changed between us in the arena, in liberty. She has invited me closer.

And so yesterday, in freedom, we trotted and cantered together slowly, shoulder to shoulder in circular patterns. She is a massive horse and I could feel her energy roll over me like a tidal wave. Every now and then I put out my hand and touched her, and she would respond by arching her neck and collecting, her eye cocked slightly inward, creating a bend in her neck. She was absolutely beautiful, stunning and she was there with me, wholeheartedly, with body and soul. I knew exactly what she was thinking, where she was going to turn, how she wanted me to move. I felt her joy, her trust, her strength, her power. I felt her heart like it was inside me.

Scientifically there is much more to this heart to heart business that I am revealing here, but if there is one thing I know for sure, it is this: when I am with Little Love there are no words to describe the feeling inside. It is with her that I find my own peace, my equilibrium and the clarity I need to continue living my life to its fullest. It is with her that I can be who I truly am, congruently, with no hold backs or assumptions or expectations. It is with her that I can be a simple human being living in a simple moment, with no past, no future, just the present, the glorious present.

Little Love has a big heart, in fact, it is so big it can fit a whole person inside and then some. But, I have discovered, her heart is like any a true heart of a horse: it is only there if you accept it with childlike innocence, with no strings attached, no pushy human agendas, just with an open heart of your own. It sounds so simple, but yet is one of the hardest things to do. I urge you all to stop what you are doing, to stop and stand absolutely still to listen; I urge you all to stop doing and start being… and if you are as lucky as I was, perhaps you will get to feel something absolutely priceless: a horse’s heart.

Take care of your heart,

Friday, October 30, 2009


This week I did something I have never done before: I spoke up to complete strangers in defense of a horse.

It all started when I received one of those mass emails that circulate the internet. The subject line read FUNNY!!! and there was a link to a video on YouTube followed with a prompt to watch the film in slow motion to really get a good laugh.

The video was of a man, a total beginner, riding a very well trained jumping horse in an actual jumping competition. The result of this combination was absolutely appalling. The jumps were relatively high, but the horse cleared them with grace despite the full grown man hanging on his mouth and pounding on his back the whole way. Only once did the horse deny a jump and when he did, he was punished with the whip, after which he continued to jump is heart out until the end.

After watching the video I was stunned: this was supposed to be funny? Where was the joke? All I could see was a suffering horse, forced and humiliated by a human being.

I thought about it for a day, but no matter which way I looked at it, I realized it was time to SAY something, DO something. I know, pretty idealistic of me, but once I had made up my mind, I couldn’t stop myself. I wrote an email and replied to all. Here is my letter.

Hi everyone,
I realize most of you don’t even know me, but I was one of the people on X’s email list which means I, too, got this “funny” video. I usually don’t do this, but I have recently decided to stop living in silence and speak up, mainly because I want to speak for those who don’t have human words for us to hear.
Did you laugh when you watched the video? Or, did you, too, find the video highly disturbing and sad. I thought it a good example of how people behave with horses – with not a lot of consideration for the animal. You may look at the man on the video and think that you are different than him, perhaps you know how to ride really well or you (think you) never hit your horse with a whip like he did, but in my experience there are not a lot of humans out there who don’t take advantage of these beautiful animals in one way or the other. I certainly have and I could bet money that you have, too. It may not be much more than putting a bit in their mouth or kicking them with spurs when they don’t go, but the act is there, nevertheless. It all stems from the same school of thought where horses must tolerate us and obey us, no matter what.
Who ever gave us the permission to ride these animals? Who ever gave us the authority to use them as sports equipment? Yep, nobody. We took the right, because we figured that since we are the self-appointed leaders of the world, we can do whatever we please. For example go and jump horses over fences when we clearly are incapable of riding over them ourselves. Pretty selfish of us, don’t you think? And not that funny.
Anyways, I hope this letter (and video) makes you think, if nothing else, of what horses have to endure from us humans on a daily basis. Let’s all try to be a little more aware of what is happening to the horses in the world and perhaps one day these animals will get the respect and kindness they deserve.

I wasn’t sure what would happen when I pressed “send”, but I did it anyway. I hoped that at least one person would stop to think, at least someone would make a connection and see the world differently.
I didn’t get as many responses as I had expected, but the ones I did get, varied from utterly hostile to somber agreement. One email, however, in particular shocked me, because it made me realize what an uphill battle being on the horse’s side is and continues to be.

Here is an excerpt from the email:
“I love my horse… he is my friend, and my partner, because without him, I am not a horse person. Yes, I will hit him if he needs it, I don't need him to bite me because he doesn't realize that I am NOT a horse, and that biting me is unacceptable. While I have respect and love for him, I do believe that I, as his person, outrank him in the hierarchy of life… As I am sure you are aware, horses don't actually want to be in charge, they are happy to give that control to us. Anyway, yes, I did feel badly for that horse [on the video], but yes, I also laughed.“

I will hit him if he needs it. Wow. I had never realized that there actually was someone who believed that horses needed hitting and by using violence, they were actually doing them a favor. I always thought people hit horses because they couldn’t control their own anger. This was certainly the case for me long time ago. I knew hitting was wrong, but short of having any other means to communicate at the time, I reverted to violence and then felt horrible afterwards. But to actually believe it is alright to use violence?

…because he doesn’t realize that I am NOT a horse… It is always surprising to see how many people, who have obviously spent a lot of time with horses, think horses are not very intelligent. No, they don’t speak English, or any other human language, but this doesn’t mean they don’t communicate; they don’t have emotions, thoughts, ideas, awareness. Biting is one way for them to say something, but so many people don’t take it as a message, but as a punishable act. This is, of course, closely linked to the fact that most people believe they should control the horse because they are above horses “in the hierarchy of life” mentioned in this email as well. In fact, most humans seem to think we are the king of pretty much everything: animals, nature, the world and in some case even each other. Looking at the current environmental and political predicament we are in, we can see where this thinking has taken us…

Perhaps I have had too much faith in the human race, perhaps this path I have taken is much less traveled than I originally thought. I know we can’t all think the same; it’s just an impossible fantasy. But could I dream of kindness? Could I dream that some day it would be considered abuse instead of training to hit a horse, that some day a man like the one on the video would be disqualified from the competition on terms of abuse, that videos like this would no longer circulate the web as funny?

Could I dream of kindness?

~ K
If you want to see the video for yourself, go to

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bone spurs

The horse dentist came to check Little Love’s teeth a few weeks ago. I wasn’t there, but I heard from her owner that Little Love’s mouth was doing well and there was no longer noticeable irritation on the gums. There were, however, visible bone spurs on the “bone bars” where the bit had sat for some ten years before she transferred to the bitless bridle.

This information leaves me stunned. It’s not that I haven’t known about the possibility of bone spurs before, I have read Dr. Cook’s Metal in the Mouth and seen the pictures of horse skulls – along with the bone spurs. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? When a metal piece rubs back and forth on the gum and bone for years some abnormalities are bound to happen.

I watch the women and men at the barn ride their horses in the arena and cannot but notice the bared gums, the open mouths, the tongues hanging on the side, the tense muscles on the faces of the horses. Do these horses too have bone spurs? Did any of the horse I rode during the past three decades have bone spurs? All of them?

Dr. Cook writes in Metal in the Mouth that “[the] survey of 74 jaw bones in 4 museum collections, from horses 5 years old or older, has shown that bone spurs on the bars (generally both bars) were present on 55 of the specimens, or 74% (Cook 1999e). As some of the 74 horses were feral and had been bit-free all their lives (the feral horses had no bone spurs), the real incidence of the problem in the bitted horses was actually greater than 74%.”

Suddenly I remember my beloved friend Socks and how he used to bare his front teeth when we were doing dressage and how I bought a two piece noseband to keep his mouth closed. I think of Hunter who used to curl himself under to lose contact with the rider and then take off when you regained the contact. I think of Sebastian and how he played with the bit, jingling it back and forth and De La Chance who hung his tongue out and tossed his head. These are all signs of discomfort.

Why is it that we are so innovative when it comes to other areas of our lives, but when it comes to horses, we hang on to thousand year old traditions tooth and nail?

I recently was reading a horse book my son had brought home from the library and on the page where they were talking about equipment, there was a picture of a snaffle bit from 490 BC. Apart from the darkened color of the metal, it looked exactly like every other snaffle bit I see in the tack room of the barn next door. For at least 2500 years the snaffle bit has stayed the same? Yet during just the last century we have managed to create trains, cars and airplanes, invent the television, radio and internet, cure lethal diseases and visit the moon among other things?

And even now, in the age of change and critical thinking, when I tell people about the harmful effects of the bit, they nod and say: “But if it truly is so bad, why does everyone then use it?” Why? Because it works so well – for us humans.

Little Love’s owner has slowly started to use the bit again, because, I believe, she is encouraged by how accepting of it her pain-free horse now is. I can see that it is tempting, as riding the mare’s big and powerful movements is a lot easier when you can rely on the “control” of the bit, instead of your body. “I’m only doing it once or twice a week,” she defends her actions as if this makes a difference. And I suppose it does. Causing pain to an animal only once a week is definitely better than causing it every day. But if I told you I beat my dog only on Tuesdays, would you think it was alright?

I can understand people’s resistance to my bitless ideas. I agree, it is scary, because once you give it a little more than a minute of your thought it hijacks your entire brain. Not many people want to look in the mirror and admit they have been causing pain to their horse. I should know; I used the bit for over thirty years. Heck, I have even used the double bridle, draw reins, side reins, standing martingales, crank nose straps and what not. What does that make me? Ignorant? Stupid? Cruel?

Perhaps I was all that and now I am like a recovering alcoholic, admitting to my past mistakes, apologizing to the appropriate parties and trying to redeem myself through all the guilt that weighs me down on a daily basis. I know I can’t change what I have done in the past, but I can try to change the future even if it means I have to do it one rider and one horse at a time.

Growth is the only evidence of life. ~John Henry Newman, Apologia pro vita sua, 1864


Saturday, September 26, 2009

A friend to remember

He came into my life when I most needed a horse’s presence. I had recently moved to a foreign country and I missed the familiarity of horses, the stability they gave me. Horses are that way, they follow me everywhere and no matter where I go, where I live, they are the one thing I know, the one thing that doesn’t change.

He was young and untainted, an innocent soul. He was owned by a lady who needed help riding her two horses and gladly I took on the young gelding which she felt was a bit difficult. She had raised him herself, had owned his mother who had died a few years back and this horse was special to her because she had helped it come into the world.

And what a horse he was! He was jet black and although his conformation was not exactly that of a perfect dressage horse, there was something about him that melted your heart. Perhaps it was the size of his own heart, and the manner in which he took humans in, as if they were his long lost friends.

It was obvious from the very beginning that he had body issues, a crooked way of traveling, tension in his back. The owner had been riding him in drawreins to “get his head down”, but I could tell that anything past training level frame made him uncomfortable. So, I started to work him slowly, staying within his comfort zone - he was only four, after all.

We had a good eight months together, learning how to behave on trails, how to balance on circles and do relaxed canter departs. He was an exceptionally friendly horse, a big Labrador Retriever who wanted his head held and his face stroked every day. His eyes were beyond kind; they were trusting and innocent like the eyes of a baby horse.

The owner was a dressage judge and a serious competitor of the sport and wanted the horse to become, if not a great dressage horse, at least a decent example of the sport. She hesitated to compete with him herself, as he was young and sometimes spirited, and she had unspoken fear issues. So the gelding and I did two shows together, mainly to get out there and try to find pleasure in it. He did well, in my opinion, but not well enough for the owner. We wanted different things: I wanted a relaxed horse, she wanted a horse with impulsion and collection.

Later, we parted our ways, but remained acquaintances. I rode other horses in the barn and kept an eye out for the gelding, my friend. It didn’t take long for his life to change for the worse. First it was the draw reins, later the double bridle that controlled his daily life. It was for the best, said the owner, he needs to move up a level in the dressage world and with this crookedness in his body, there was no other way.

His neck started to take on a distorted shape, concaved on one side, bulging on the other he looked like a two separate horse halves put together. His back started acting up and he was rein lame on the longe. The owner declared that more riding was the medicine, the horse was just stiff and needed to work out of it. She kept going.

Months passed and turned into years. The gelding no longer came to the door when you walked by, but stood with his head in the corner with a sad, glazed over look in his eyes as if tormented by a permanent headache. The owner took lessons and then some more, but things were not progressing. She tried riding with spurs, then two whips, then both. Finally, the gelding was sent away to a hot shot trainer. Just for a few days, to help his body get more flexible, to get him motivated, said the owner. But even she admitted that the horse she sent away came back another animal altogether. Angry now, he tried to bite her. His kind spirit had been broken for once and for all.

But it didn’t stop there. He had a little rest, the vet came out and the reason for his body problems was identified. His back was sore, he had problems with his front legs. No worries, there was special shoeing available and some rehabilitation for the back. In two months he was back in business, first going out on trails with the double bridle “to guide his head into the right position” and later in the arena performing dressage moves that looked painfully forced.

Finally, it all came to an end. The owner had to admit that things were no longer looking up, but rather down. She took the gelding to the vet clinic where they told her that he had developed scoliosis in his neck. He could still be ridden, but no longer dressage and definitely no collection; for the first time in years, the gelding would be allowed to control the position of his head himself.

Shocked by the news and her bad luck, the owner took a few weeks to reflect on the facts. I was both happy and worried. Happy because I knew it was finally over for the gelding, he would no longer be forced into frames he could not manage, but worried because he had just lost his value as a horse. What would happen to him? I left for summer vacation with a heavy heart.

When I returned his box was empty. I thought about his options and feared the worst, but then heard he had been sent away, to be retired in a pasture with some ponies and other retired horses. The gelding, now eight years old, would live the rest of his life in this herd, never to be ridden again. Discarded like a broken toy, he was at a horse junk yard, forgotten and released from his duties to the humankind.

A few weeks later there was a new horse in the gelding’s box. The owner stood around, proud of her new purchase, exited of the prospects that lay ahead. Not a word was said in the memory of the gelding that was sent away, there was no room to reminiscence on bygones. All the owner could talk about was the bright future of this new gelding, which had arrived just in time to be abused and adored, simultaneously. Because, truth told, the owner loved her horses like they were her children, her pride and joy. She came to the barn every day, religiously, working her horses the way she had been taught to do, the way it had always been done. And she was respected for her commitment, the sacrifices she made for her horses were admirable, both personally and financially.

Vet bills, countless hours of lunge work, ground work, trail rides that extended for miles, herbal medications, chiropractor appointments, different bits to get the right feel, custom made saddles not to mention all the dressage lessons. All the owner had wanted was what she thought was best for her four legged friend; she had done everything in her power to give him that. And in the end, isn’t that what we all want to do – provide our horses with what we think is best for them?


Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Power of Positive Feedback

When I was in college studying sport science, I majored in coaching. I had a knack for teaching and passed my teaching demonstrations with flying colors. The main criticism I received concerning my teaching had to do with the amount and quality of feedback I gave my students: there was too much of it and it was too positive. My teachers explained that if I told my students too many times how great they were doing, I would “wear out” the nice words and they would lose their effectiveness.

I didn’t argue their point then, they were my teachers after all, but secretly I never agreed with their theory. In my eyes, teachers and coaches can never support and encourage their students too much. Through positive feedback I have seen insecure girls grow into self-confident world class athletes; I have seen sullen and shy teenagers turn into captains of their sport team; I have seen adults and children alike learn skills they always thought were out of their reach. When it comes to positive feedback - it works.

Recently I started working with Prince, the fearful little pony, by using “clicker training”. Clicker training is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it. In other words, this teaching method uses solely positive reinforcement.

Before I started my work with Prince, I was relatively familiar with the concept of clicker training, but had never truly used it myself. It has been more than an eye-opening experience to work with him in this way. As Prince has such deep rooted fear over many aspects of his everyday life, the clicker has helped him understand what it is that humans really want.

Using clicker training, Prince has learned how to pick up his front feet without fear, to touch scary objects (target training) and now he is also learning how to stand at the wash rack and, eventually with time, how to get washed.

For example, to teach Prince the wash rack behavior, I utilize a small rubber mat which I place on the ground. Prince has learned that when his two front feet stand on the mat, he gets a click and a treat. This is an easy task for him to perform, if the mat is for instance on the floor next to his box, but when I take it to the wash rack – it’s a different story. It may take him 5 minutes to creep up to the mat, and some days he doesn’t want to do it at all – and that’s ok.

The beauty in clicker training is the fact that you reward desired behavior, but if something goes wrong, nothing happens i.e. there is no punishment. The constant positive feedback and absence of punishment encourages trying and trying encourages learning. And not only is Prince learning, he is choosing to learn, choosing to participate (or not). Having a choice means you have control of the outcome, having control means less fear and more self-confidence.

Clicker training can change lives; it certainly has reinforced my own trust and faith in positive feedback. As teachers, riders, animal handlers, parents, friends - AS HUMANS - we need to be more positive in our daily interactions with animals, with each other and with ourselves. Give credit where credit is due, be it to your horse, your friend, your child or yourself. Good job, well done – we all want to hear those words, so – let’s hear them!

~ K

Monday, August 31, 2009

The horse and the girl

“So tell me, “ the horse said, “what is it that you want from me. If you had to say it in just one sentence.”

The girl didn’t hesitate. “Friendship,” she answered. “I want to be friends.”

The look on the horse’s face was impossible to read. After a moment of silence, he finally spoke.

“I wasn’t planning on this subject right away, but we might as well dwell into it, because – “the horse turned his head and looked longingly over the fields. “Well, let's say it will help us reach the core of the real subject.” He chewed for a moment and then sighed.

“Can you tell me more about friendship?” he asked. “What does it mean to be friends?”

Now it was the girl’s turn to look over the fields.
“Well – when you are friends, you share secrets. A friend is always there to listen to you, to be on your side and to help you. And you do the same for your friend, of course.”

The horse snorted, but it sounded more like a scoff, as if he was laughing at her. The girl blushed, realizing how naïve she must have sounded, how stupid it was to even start to talk about mutual friendship with this horse she had so much trouble with.

“Okay, let’s stop there. My next question is: do you think we are friends?”

The girl looked down at her shoes. She pushed a rock around with her toe and wondered how she had gotten herself into this predicament.

The horse snorted again. “Does my question make you uncomfortable?”

“No.” The girl rolled her eyes. There was no point of lying if the horse really could read her mind like she thought it could. “I mean yes, but it’s not just that…” She didn’t know what to say, she could barely understand her own thoughts.

“No, I don’t think we are friends." She finally said. "But it’s not like I didn’t try, you know. I really wanted it. You have to believe me.”

“Oh, I believe you, don’t worry. I was there, remember.” The horse looked kind again and the girl felt the tears behind her eyes resurface.

“I just don’t think you really know what friendship is, my dear.”

“What do you mean?”

The horse shifted his weight and rested his left hind, the gesture made his body contort sideways.

“Do you have human friends?”

“Yes, of course I do.” She knew she sounded defensive, but she couldn’t help it.

“Do you lock your human friends in boxes the size of a phone booth and keep them there all their life separated from their other friends so you can then visit them for an hour or two a day, let them out and expect them to bend to your will and do what you want?”

“Of course not, that’s not friendship, that’s – “ She thought of a proper word, but failed.

“Imprisonment?” the horse suggested lightly. The girl looked up from her shoes. She felt the hair on her arms raise up and she shivered.

“Yes.” She said slowly, her brow wrinkling. The realization of the horse’s words crept into her consciousness and she gasped. The horse looked at her, his face was grave.

“You never thought about that before, did you?”

The girl was apologetic. “No, I didn’t.” She peered at the horse. “I thought you liked your box. You have a window to look outside and it’s right by the door where you see lots of activity.”

The horse nodded in agreement. “Yes, you are right, I have the window and - it is my home. The only one I have. But -”

“But what?” The girl was truly curious now.

“But in the end of the day, it is a prison cell.”

They looked at each other for a long time and a certain sadness hung between them, like a scent of something very old. The horse was the first to break the silence.
“Let me explain.”

“No, you don’t have to, I get it.” The girl was crying now.

“But I want to, to make sure you understand. You humans tend to think of everything from your point of view. Like for instance, you think horses like the deep, soft straw bedding but mostly we don’t really care of soft beds. Humans care and because they care, they think we care, too.”

“I thought you liked the bedding!” The girl wiped her face.

“My point exactly.”

They looked at each other again. For the first time the horse looked welcoming and the girl wanted to touch him, but didn’t dare.

“Tell me more.” She said.

“Horses would rather live outside, together. And with together I really mean that, together in a heard.”

“But –“ The girl found an old tissue in her coat pocket and blew her nose.

“But it rains outside? Is cold? Is that what you are wondering about?”

“Yeah.” She didn’t like the way he read her mind, as if he knew her every move.

“We have hair, we don’t care. Again, it’s just humans who care, because humans would never want to live outside like that, you like to live in a house.”

“That’s true. And I suppose you could use blankets.”

“Blankets?” the horse laughed.

“What’s so funny?” The girl felt left out and wondered if he was laughing at her.

“Oh, it’s just that blankets are the running joke in the barn. Between us horses, that is.”

The girl stared at the horse. “You joke about things?”

The horse continued, as if he had not heard the last comment.

“Why do you suppose you use blankets on horses?”

The girl shrugged. “To keep you warm?”

“But we have hair, why would we need the blankets?”

“Well, if we didn’t use the blankets, your hair would grow really long.”


“Then we would need to clip the hair.” The girl was not sure where this was going. She thought they were supposed to be talking about friendship.

“And why would you do that?”

“To keep the hair short, of course.” She was starting to get frustrated, it seemed like the horse didn’t understand what she was saying and the conversation was running in circles.
“It just makes things easier, like then you horses don’t sweat so much when we ride and it doesn’t take so long to cool you down.”

The horse moved his feet and started resting his right hind in turn.

“Clipping the horse’s hair makes life easier.” The horse looked at the girl and she nodded. “Easier for whom?”

The girl looked down. “Easier for us humans, I suppose.”

“You suppose?” There was a trace of irony in the horse’s voice. The girl felt like she wanted to get up and leave, like she was on trial over something she had done unintentionally.

“Sorry,” the horse said and she knew he meant it. “Let’s go back to the blankets. Don’t you think it’s a lot of work to blanket us? How many blankets does an average horse have? Three? Five?”

The girl laughed. “I get your point. My mom thinks you have too many. They’re expensive, you know.”

“So, what’s the point?”

The girl thought about it for a while and then she said: “I think ultimately we just don’t like to see a really hairy horse, we like the hair short because it looks better, prettier.” Somehow she felt ashamed, but was not quite sure why. The horse looked at her quizzically.

“How do you feel about that?”

“I don’t know.” The girl looked over the fields. “I think I’m embarrassed now.”


“Because I just realized that a lot of what we do here at the barn is based on… I don’t even know what to call it.” She looked at the horse for help, but he said nothing. They were silent for a while, then he spoke.

“I think you know the word.”

The girl nodded. She did know what she wanted to say, but the word was stuck in her throat. She stood up.

“I think I should leave now.”

The horse nodded. The girl wondered if he was disappointed in her.

“We can continue some other time, if you want.“ His voice was soft; as if he understood how she was feeling. She took a tentative step towards him.

“I’ll be back soon.”

The horse looked tired.

“It is up to you,” he said and the girl knew he was right, it was all up to her as far as he was concerned.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Prince of Fear

Fear is no stranger to any of us; everyone feels worried or afraid sometimes. Most people who live in the so called Western culture, however, live their lives relatively fear free. Perhaps there are short moments of worry or panic here and there, but generally speaking our environment is safe and we don’t have to deal with intense terror or fright. Our lives are, in fact, so boring that we actually seek fear by watching scary movies, taking intense amusement park rides or performing extreme activities such as sky diving.

For example, last week I did something completely out of character: I went to an adventure climbing park set high in the trees. This doesn’t sound like an extraordinary event; after all, am I not a person who is always up for a challenge, especially if it involves a physical activity of some sorts? I certainly am confident of my own abilities. And the park was more than safe; between the harness and cables I was hooked to at all times, there was little danger of falling.

What made this experience extraordinary was that I am absolutely and utterly horrified of heights: I get vertigo.

I have to admit, during the first 30 minutes, I didn’t think I would be able to get through it. It is amazing how gripping fear can be. There I was, 40 feet up on a platform, literally hugging the tree as I stared at the task, a wobbly wooden bridge, which would get me to the next platform. My friend, who equally suffers from heart-stopping vertigo, smiled nervously, as I attempted to crack a joke. But the situation wasn’t funny; I was paralyzed with alarm, my mouth was dry from terror. I didn’t want to move.

Yet, with an encouraging friend on my side, I managed to push myself beyond my mental capacity and step on the bridge. And somehow, despite my terror-stricken legs and my white knuckles gripping on the safety wire, I managed to get to the other side to hug a new tree. And then another tree, and another.

After three hours of climbing and facing our fears over and over again, my friend and I were wiped out, and I don’t mean only physically. I could hardly think straight, let alone perform another complex task in the trees. When we called it a day and sat down in the shade to eat our well deserved ice creams, I could still feel my muscles twitching from the constant state of alertness I had been experiencing for the past three hours. My brain was equally fried; I was exhausted.

But what if we had to live with real fear on a daily basis? There certainly are people in this world who have to face the worst case scenario on a daily basis.

And then, of course, there are horses.

Recently, I have had the privilege to work with a little palomino pony called Prince. Prince is the cutest little thing, at barely 13 hands he looks more like a miniature horse than a real pony. He is very polite and sensitive, and apparently jumps beautifully. But Prince has one problem: he is very, very fearful of everyone who walks on two legs.

It is hard to say if he has been abused, but it is definitely clear that he has not been trained properly. He is afraid of human touch, of objects in your hand, quick movements, and sometimes just the presence of a person. If you try to pick up his hind feet, he nearly collapses and then tries to kick you. If you go into his box with the fly spray bottle, he spins around and hides in the corner shaking.

Despite all this, he allows kids to ride him, to brush him, to walk him around. If you cross tie him, adults can pick his front feet and brush him as well. You can catch him from the field if you have a carrot and some patience. You can lunge him at walk, trot and canter and although he tries to occasionally run off, he mostly tries to stay with you on the circle. You can coax him to the wash rack using gentle force and hose his legs down all the while as he trembles on the end of the lead rope.

The interesting thing is that most people find nothing wrong with these scenarios, after all, Prince is doing what he is told. “Sure, he is afraid, but he’ll get over it. Look how well he’s doing compared to last month! He is dealing with it, right?”

I agree, he is “dealing” with it. But the fact that he is allowing the daily activities to take place does not mean he is no longer afraid, it just means he has discovered that it is better to comply, rather than bolt and run since no matter what he does, the riding and grooming is not going to go away. Life is certainly easier if you obey, no matter how scared you are.

What does this mentality imply of our culture, our way of thinking? That it is alright to overwhelm another being without taking into consideration the emotional and mental health of that individual?

The difference between what I felt and what Prince feels on a daily basis is the fact that I had a choice: I could have stopped climbing those trees at any time; I could have walked away from the situation. Nobody was standing behind me, breathing down my neck, telling me to get over it and to get on with it. And certainly if someone had, I would have not been able to climb those trees, I would have quit before even the first attempt.

The positive environment and the fact that I was able to choose to continue made it possible for me to face my fear. And because it was my choice, because I took the initiative despite my fear, it was a highly empowering experience. I may have felt exhausted afterwards, but I also felt like the biggest winner. How, in comparison, does Prince feel at the end of each day? Does he feel only exhaustion and apprehension of the next day? He certainly has not had many choices in his life; so far he has had no other option but face his fear every time humans decide they want to handle him.

The big question now is: how can we help fearful horses feel confident, how can we give them the same feeling of empowerment I felt in those trees? How can we help them feel like they are in control of their emotions? How can we provide them an environment where they can choose to participate, choose to conquer their fears? How can we provide such a positive environment for horses that they feel compelled to try new things with confidence?

I will leave you with these vital questions in hopes of perhaps igniting something in your own thinking. At this moment I certainly do not have all the answers myself, but I without doubt have an urgent need to find solutions. When there is a will, there is also always a way.

Take care of your animals – and yourselves,


Monday, July 13, 2009


Sometimes there are days when I actually believe none of us deserve to have anything to do with horses, and those are the days when pain fills me up to the brim and I think to myself: “I should just stop this, stop it right now; no riding, no teaching, no grooming, no nothing.”
No going to the barn, no spending time with horses – at all? If you know me, you know this thought is nearly unthinkable. Horses are my life source, my inspiration, the air I breathe. How could I even think of walking away?


A month ago I took my family to a show jumping competition. In my heart I knew what it would be like, but I guess I had to go there to see it for myself. For the sake of clarity, I realize now.

It was clear alright. There was a time when I paid money to see international stars jump their horses, and that time was not so long ago. But emotionally it has been light years.
We had been on the competition grounds for less than ten seconds when I saw the first person hit their horse. The horse had denied a jump, undoubtedly for several reasons ranging from the severe bit in its mouth, the unbalanced rider on its back yanking on that said bit, the noisy people in the stands, the huge colorful Grand Prix jump, his long warm up and the emotional states of everyone involved. The horse denied and punishment followed. He still didn’t jump, though.

We watched six riders go through the course and out of these six, two hit their horses. After the second incident we decided to leave, but not before I explained to my seven year old son that hitting animals was not alright. He looked at me solemnly, rolled his eyes and said: “Mom, I know.”

But it was not just the whipping that wrenched my heart; it was also the yanking, the kicking, the forcing. It was about using a horse as means to gain something; fame, glory, money, a title. It was about getting to that goal by all means, ruthlessly, one track mindedly and at the expense of another living being. It was about human selfishness, it was about inhumanity.

Inhumanity: the quality of lacking compassion or consideration for others. This word derives from the Latin word inhumanus: in = “not”, humanus = “human”, but I find it more fitting to look at the word from the point of view of the English language: In-humane, as if this quality only lived inside a human and nowhere else. But isn’t it exactly so? Ironically it seems to be only us humans who know how to demonstrate this “not human” quality.

Where is the threshold of humanity? When exactly do we cross over to the dark side? Am I, too, using horses to fulfill my own wants and needs, to get pleasure and enjoyment for myself and myself only, to inflate my own ego? Am I only a step away from those riders I saw at the competition? Is it possible that deep down we all foster the same seed of selfishness?

I am not like those riders I saw at the competition, I would like to believe I’m nowhere near as inhumane as they are. I try to be kind to animals; I listen to their hopes and desires. I would not use pain to force a horse against its will. But at the same time, I am riding them in the arena and in the country side, I am teaching others how to ride, how to train horses, I am longing, long lining. I am asking for obedience kindly, but persistently, but I am asking.


Sometimes there are days when I actually believe none of us deserve to have anything to do with horses, and those are the days when pain fills me up to the brim. And I think to myself: “I should stop this, stop it right now; no riding, no teaching, no grooming, no nothing.”
No going to the barn, no spending time with horses – at all? If you know me, you know this thought is nearly unthinkable. Horses are my life source, my inspiration, the air I breathe.

How could I even think of walking away?

~K, as always

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I come from

I come from cream colored ponies in English saddles,
dusty outdoor arenas with weathered jumps sprawled in the middle,
brushes and bridles, hoof picks and halters, and the smell of saddle soap and leather and oil.
I come from grooming boxes and hairy Islandics with coats thicker
than the rug on my grandmothers wall and the Draft crosses that
won’t turn until they come to the corner and see the fence.

I come from the thrill of riding bareback for the first time, and mucking stalls
at seven in the morning while the horses are munching down the hay
and snorting through their noses into water buckets.
I come from jumping over cavalettis that turn into oxers
and steering from A to C in a straight line
with a perfect halt in the middle.

I come from cantering down the field and falling off
into the bush where the thorns scratch my face and the mud
sticks to my breeches, but don’t stop me from getting back on.
I come from clinging to the saddle with my thighs
as I attempt my first medium down the diagonal
without stirrups and the horse weighs seven tons in my hand.

I come from braiding the mane at five in the morning and
driving across the country just to have a go
at winning the championships and loosing it by a fraction.
I come from wrapping the front hoof with duct tape
twice a day for a whole two weeks
to take care of the abscess that developed over night.

I come from holding onto the horn and chasing down a calf in California
letting the horse take over because
he knows more about cows than his English trained rider.
I come from galloping over the moor in Sussex on
an old racehorse that suddenly remembers its past
and hoping it will know how to stop on its own.

I come from warming my fingers under the bareback pad
in the midst of a cold winter and the fresh snow
that sticks to the bottom of the hooves giving the horse five inch heels.
I come from watching a baby horse walk for the first time
and then three days later sprint like a pro while I hand walk
a gelding for the third month wishing his tendons are healing faster than possible.

I come from the vet saying that nothing much can be done
what already has not been and leaning into my
thousand pound friend trying to make sense of what is happening.
I come from trying so hard not to cry because
you know you are losing something you
can barely understand yourself but must address anyhow.

I come from just once trading money for a horse but
trading my heart more often and the love that always
seems to find me in the form of a four-legged animal.
I come from friendship and kinship, respect and gratitude,
and the incredible beauty, healing, understanding and peace that
was not only given as a gift, but was also achieved together.

I come from horses.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Lessons from a horse's heart

The first time I met Kapia, I didn’t know who she was. She stood in the middle of the pasture as if she owned it. And I suppose in many ways she did. She certainly was the equine boss of that particular grassy meadow; this chestnut horse knew her place in the world, and it was not behind someone else. But at that moment, when I watched her over the fence, she was still just another horse to me.

I was in Belgium and about to take part in the workshop titled “Reclaiming Your Authentic Self – An introductory workshop to the Epona Approach”. Before the three day course started, however, I was scheduled to have a private session with therapist and life coach Kathleen Barry Ingram and, well, with a few horses.

Kathleen started the session by asking what it was that I wanted to “work” on. I replied that I felt I had some underlying guilt and sadness of unknown origin; I was not exactly sure where this emotion was pooling from, but wanted to explore it further. Kathy suggested we head to the horses and ask for some answers.

At this point I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe I was a little skeptical; what could horses tell me about myself that I didn’t know yet? And how would they even do that? On the other hand, I was eager to discover something new. I was also nervous; I was used to “working” horses, but to just be with them and feel? This was somehow intimidating. What if I failed?

There were two horses in the pasture: Kapia, the undeniable leader I had been watching from afar and Luna Nour, a small and delicate looking Arab mare. Both were grazing peacefully as we sat down. I watched the horses for a while and Kathy asked me to describe the thoughts coming to my mind. I said that I didn’t feel like I ever had enough space to be sad, that I was always the one to hold everyone else afloat, to support them through life’s ups and downs. This thought led me to thinking about my life over ten years ago, when I had ovarian cancer, something that had obviously been very hard for me, but had been even harder for the people close to me, I felt.

Now, I had not come to the session thinking I would talk about my bout with cancer, I had long time ago dealt with that part of my life and felt it was behind me, in every sense. But there I was, talking about it again as if it had happened recently. I looked at the two horses and they both blew air out of their nostrils and shook flies off their heads before settling back to eat. Was this coming from them?

Kathleen asked me to elaborate on the subject and I became very emotional as I admitted that during my illness I had dealt with feelings ranging from fear of dying to worrying about my loved ones, but I still vividly remembered the deep sorrow I had felt when I realized that I would never be able to have biological children. And even though years later I had been, with the help of modern medicine, blessed with a child, I still somehow felt “childless” in my heart; despite motherhood, the feeling had never left me completely.

“What do you want from the horses?” Kathleen asked. I looked at her quizzically. Was I allowed to want something?
“Support, I suppose,” I said.

Kathleen sent me into the pasture to “talk” to the horses. I stood in the middle of the field with my eyes closed and when I opened them Luna, the younger mare, came close to me. Without being pushy in any way she wrapped herself around me, bringing her delicate horse body literally into my lap. I had never been hugged by a horse before and was choking with tears when I felt the love that radiated from this little mare. She was so incredibly pure and honest and undamaged, and it was refreshing to be close to a horse of that quality, her innocence reminding me of my seven year old son at home.

Then Kapia walked over. She pushed the little mare out of the way and marched right to me, settling her large head in my arms. “Scratch my head” she seemed to say and as I lay my hand on her wise forehead I was filled with a sense of motherhood radiating from this strong mare, as if she was there to take care of me, to show me the way. I could feel my own emotions whirling around in my body and there is was again, the “childless” feeling. Why was I even dwelling over that? Why did I feel so sad? I had a child, I was a mother and loving every minute of it.

Kathleen, who was standing along the fence with the owner of the two horses, called me back for a brief discussion.
“I think you need to know something about Kapia,” she said. “Because of a structural problem, the mare cannot have babies.”
I glanced at the brown mare grazing in the pasture and let the words sink in. This was no coincidence, I knew it then and there. This is why I was digging so deep for these long lost emotions of childlessness; Kapia had brought me to the edge of these questions because they were not just my questions, they were hers as well. Because she knew what was inside me even when I didn’t.

Kathleen sent me back to talk to the mare and as I walked towards her, my body was shaking with emotion. Kapia sighed and touched my hand with her nose and then suddenly there it was – the truth. I started crying quietly next to the horse that had opened up my very soul. Kathleen looked at me from over the fence.
“I know what it is now,” I said. “I know where the guilt is coming from.” I choked on my own words. “I feel guilty that I have my son.” I paused, shocked by what I had just said, what I was about to say. “I feel like I don’t deserve him.”

Just to say the words was hard enough, but to think them, feel them… I could see my beautiful son waiting for me at home, his sunshine eyes, the ripple of his laughter. How could I even begin to feel guilt? Why could I not accept this miracle, this gift that had been given to me after all the hardship I had endured? With the tears came a wave of relief, an ocean of understanding. Kapia leaned into me and our hearts touched. You deserve him, you deserve happiness, you deserve the world. I could hear the words the old, wise mare told me; you deserve every bit of it.

Luna appeared from behind and crept quietly to my other side. And soon I was surrounded by two warm horse bodies, their hearts and spirits opening up a sacred space of possibility for me, just for me. Here was the not only the answers I had been looking for, but the support I had asked for, as well. I was receiving it tenfold.

What I walked away with from the session with Kathleen and the two horses is the realization that I need to support myself more, we all need to support ourselves more. Like Kathleen says: “Healing begins when you reclaim and embrace yourself.” Yes, we all need to do that more.

Since, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the teachings of Kapia. My relationship with my son has changed from good to even better. Every moment in his company fills me with light. I am working on liberating all the guilt I did not even realize was affecting my relationship with him and other people. I am learning to accept life’s gifts as they come; I am letting the horses in my life teach me that I deserve them all.

My relationship with horses has changed as well. They are no longer just my animal friends, they are more than that; living and breathing and feeling beings with a deeper consciousness we could ever imagine. I am no longer looking to teach a horse how to be in this world, I am looking at the horse to teach me.

Thank you Kathleen for leading me to the water, and to Kapia for showing me how to drink. This experience opened up a passage in me I never knew existed.


PS. To learn more about Kathleen Barry Ingram go to her website

Sunday, June 7, 2009


My good friend tells me how she often grooms her horse in liberty on the barn aisle. Most of the time he agrees to stand there without being restrained, but one day he decided to visit his friends with whom he goes out with. Except this time those friends were in their boxes behind bars and he was on the barn aisle, loose.

My friend quickly interrupted the sniffing between the horses and pushed her horse back into his place. Because… (she said to me) she had been taught to do so. And it is true. When I walk Little Love through the barn to the indoor arena and she stops to sniff another horse who is greeting her from his box, I urge her forward, pulling her away from the situation. If there was something I learned as a child, it was that horses should not touch each other when humans are handling them - ever. And this habit is engrained in my brain, etched into my behavior permanently, almost as if chiseled in stone. It is the unwritten rule of all barns.

So what is so bad about letting horses touch and say hello?

I guess someone would argue that horses could get excited, they could hurt each other or themselves or even the human holding them. Obviously letting two stallions touch might result in some sort of a commotion, but to let a gelding sniff a mare through the bars of a box – why not?

Does everything we do with these animals have to be about control, separation, deprivation of freedom?

Humans have put a lot of effort into imprisoning horses. Not only do we separate these herd animals into small boxes, we often also deny any contact whatsoever. I have seen barns where boxes are constructed of solid walls made out of wood or rock or cement, and horses cannot even see each other, let alone touch. I believe in the human world we call this solitary confinement, reserved only for convicts who have committed heinous crimes.

The barn where Little Love lives has beautiful green pastures, but each horse has their own and never under any circumstances do horses go out together. But fortunately they are able to see and touch with their neighbors through the metal bars of the box, which obviously is not much, but better than nothing. They can also stick their heads out of the small window on their door, at least the ones whose owners have not decided to keep the window closed to prevent accidents.

Most horses accept this order, either retreating to the privacy of their stall or occasionally sticking their heads out to look around. But there are some horses, that have learned how to bend the rules.

For example, there is a gelding, I’ll call him M for short, who hates his box with a passion. He also has a small window through which he can poke his head into the aisle, but because he likes to let everyone know loud and clear what he thinks about living in that jail of his, this window often has to be closed to stop him from kicking the door, not to mention all the halters and other reachable equipment he has destroyed with his teeth.

When you take M out of his stall, however, he doesn’t try to run outside, but instead pushes towards the mare that lives opposite to him. And almost as if planned ahead, she quickly meets him at her window and immediately, almost frantically, the two horses start to groom each other on the shoulder. This happens fast, with an air of madness as if to say “hurry before they break us up. Hurry, hurry!” So this is how they get their ten seconds of closeness before the gelding is torn away.

One day when I arrived at the barn, I discovered Little Love longing for the touch of another equine as well. She stretched her neck out as far as she could (and she has a long one, to her advantage) and reached with her nose towards Chispero, the gentle stallion across the aisle. And as I watched him meet her in the middle and kiss her softly on the nose, my heart broke a little bit more.


Monday, June 1, 2009

When the black horse sings (talking to Lilo)

When the black horse sings…
she sings a melody
so powerful, so profound,
even the sky bows in silence.

When the black horse sings…
she sings a tune
so vulnerable, so exposed
a single note can split open the earth’s core.

When the black horse sings
she hums a tune
so deep, so dark
that all humankind vibrates
to its core.

Human child,
she sings.
Human child of all origins,
why are you so afraid?

Do you fear you have not
enough control
that you might
surrender to


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On Riding

Today, as I sat in knee deep grass in the middle of the horse pasture watching Little Love graze nearby, I was filled with a sense of peace. A butterfly fluttered past and an ant trailed up my leg; Lilo shook her head to get the flies off and then lowered her nose back into the flowers. Ah, the stillness of the moment.

What a day it had been so far. We spent a good half an hour playing in the indoor arena, trotting and snorting and then trotting again until we both broke into a canter, me laughing, her bucking. Lilo rolled, too, and then we watched the birds as we always do. Do you want to go for a walk? Touch my hand if you do. I thought the words, and she responded by touching my hand with her nose. I put on the rope halter and off we went, walking through the fields and stopping to graze here and there. When we got back home, we played with the hose for a while; water is a new element Little Love has recently discovered – she likes to poke her nose in the stream and spray it all over. Then, by mutual consent, we ended up in the pasture.

I lay in the grass and lazily watched a German lady ride her large warm blood in the outdoor arena in the afternoon heat and I couldn’t but wonder what had happened to me in such a relatively short time. Had I not been like that woman, riding horses day after day after day in the arena, schooling movements for dressage tests, asking for more trot, rounder canter? Had I not sometimes ridden several horses a day, training and schooling, making them light to the hand and leg so their owners could get on and have it easier? What was I doing in the pasture doing nothing, when I could have been working in the arena?

The German lady circled around for the umpteenth time, her horse obediently following her cues. She had an expensive and admittedly gorgeous saddle, it was the finest leather, and the boots on the horse had sheep skin on the insides. She was a beautiful rider, lean and tall, with her custom made leather boots and shining spurs. She had a long whip, too, and when she went round and round, she tapped her horse on his flanks repeatedly. Tap tap tap. More trot. Tap tap tap. More canter. Tap tap tap. More, give more, because this is not enough, this is not acceptable.

And, at 18 hands, her horse was equally stunning, what we people call a “good mover”. They made a handsome couple. People admired them, and I know the German lady was proud of her horse, and herself, of course. She was a brilliant rider, hadn’t she won all those ribbons to prove it?

The horse’s life on the other hand was reduced to 22 hours in a stall, 1 hour in the paddock alone if the weather was good and exactly 1 hour dressage work in the arena – every day. Nothing less, nothing more. Occasionally, when his owner felt adventurous, he was longed and once I had seen her walk down the road and back, a whole ten minute trail ride.

Someone could argue that the horse enjoyed his work. He was compliant, obedient and submissive. His ears were at all times attentively on his rider and never ever had he expressed a feeling of discomfort or resistance. He lived and breathed dressage, he had to be happy. Because if he weren’t, we would all know - right?

There is an ethical conflict brewing inside me. And it is no small conflict, I can tell you. Sometimes I watch the dressage riders at our barn and a very small part of me wishes I could still do that. Because, I think I was good at it. In fact, I could ride pretty much any horse and get it to do dressage. Especially the difficult ones, the resisting nervous horses or the ones that didn’t want to move, those were my specialty. Oh, isn’t she good, she is amazing. Who wouldn’t love to hear those words, over and over again, I’m only human. And I honestly thought I had a connection with every horse I sat on, and I suppose I did have some kind of a connection. I had no idea, though, no idea at all.

Who ever gave us humans the right to ride a horse? We all know it certainly wasn’t the horse, but rather we ourselves took the right to climb on these beautiful animals, and we still do on a daily basis, often with oppressive methods. People don’t ask their horse if they want to go, they damn well tell them they better go, or else. And I can no longer be part of that.

I still ride, I haven’t stopped completely. Sometimes I even ride with the saddle and the dressage boots. Occasionally I carry the whip, now that I know I can control myself and not use it against the horse. Usually I tell Lilo that we will ride for just a little while, and then do something else, something more fun. I ask her to give me this time in the arena, because I enjoy it. I know she doesn’t share my excitement, but every once and a while it is alright for me to ask, as other times I don’t. And she lets me have my ride in the arena, because she is that way – generous.

Thirty minutes of dressage work and she might tell me she is done. It is not so much a physical resistance than a thought: Stop, I don’t want to anymore, it’s enough.
So I stop.
I ride her on trails and sometimes I hear her plain and clear: Come off, can you come off? And off I come and walk the rest of the way.

I’m still not sure if this is okay, or if I should stop altogether, that is something I still need to figure out. I try my best to listen to her, and negotiate with her and when I do, she pays me back in gold. She gives me some time in the arena, because she knows I won’t force her; she lets me on for the trails because she knows I can also walk when time comes. I am starting to learn more about connection: it is having a two way friendship where both parties listen to each other. Connection is all about giving and zero about taking.

Little Love still spends most of her days in a stall, she goes outside alone instead of with horse friends and she has shoes. All that I cannot change, even if I wanted to. But I can change what I do with my time with her and I have chosen to build a relationship rather than build my own ego as a dressage rider.

- K

Thursday, May 21, 2009


And she possessed the horse
because she believed
she could make it
wanted to be:

and honest.

the horse was
already all that.

She possessed the horse
to fulfill her own
and Wants,
to capture her own
Dreams and

And the horse gave up
his Freedom
so she could
she had hers.

- K

Saturday, May 16, 2009


A few months ago I started spending time with Little Love doing nothing. No riding or longing, no brushing or even leading around, but just hanging out in the arena together and going where the "flow" takes us. Sometimes we just lean on the fence and look at the birds from the open back door, sometimes we walk around together, sometimes we walk apart and sometimes… we run.

At first, Little Love was very skeptical about this new development. She would half-heartedly spend some minutes watching the birds with me, but then soon would want to move away and do her own thing, away from the suspicious humans. She would barely follow me when I walked around and if I ran... well, she would either take off in confused bucks, or just watch me in scorn as I did circles around her.

But I persisted. Oh, did I persist. I wanted her to join me in life, but I didn't want to force her. I wanted to ask her like you ask a friend. And I asked many, many times; I made a fool of myself asking.

Little Love has always struck me as a "humorless" horse. When we first met, there was nothing funny about her, she was all about being a wrinkle-browed and tight-lipped, angry animal who did nothing silly. When loose, she would run and buck like any horse, but out of fear or rage more than anything else, and I heard that in a panic, she had jumped a few fences in her life time. It was hard to see beyond the mask of depression this horse carried about like a well-earned trophy; the mare was the spitting image of a lone island with an inaccessible shore line.

And she had every reason to be that way. Hadn’t she seen it all, everything humans were capable of? Breeding her at a young age to calm her down; selling her to owner after owner; keeping her in a stall for years with no freedom; testing every bit made by mankind in her mouth; forcing her into submission with draw reins and long spurs and whips; beating her into a trailer with lunge whips. Why would she want to be friends with me, a member of such an ignorant and brutal species?

I don't know who changed first, but somehow we transformed each other into something completely unexpected. Maybe I led the way by letting go of my hopes and expectations for her, or maybe one day she felt there was no need for fear from her part, I don’t know. All I know is that it has been a long and tedious journey, a journey that still continues into the unknown, as there is no handbook for this kind of stuff, the stuff of the heart.

Now, on a good day, Little Love stands at my side for a good half an hour and just smells the wind with me. Then we walk around and every once in a while I feel her nose touch my arm as if to make sure I am really there, walking with her. Sometimes we run, and as she goes left in her most expressive trot, I cross behind her and turn right. She turns quickly and darts past me, her neck curved and her ears flickering back and forth. She stops and looks at me, blows air out of her nostrils and when I lift my arms, she rears up high. Afterwards she walks over to me, licking and chewing as if to say: “Did you see that? Did you see that??!!

In the midst of all this I rarely touch her, not because I don't want to, but because she doesn't like to be touched and I want to respect her wishes. But… although we are not connected through physical touch, I can feel our souls touching and I know she lets me into a sacred place inside her, the unmapped black horse territory only few have seen. And the landscape of her soul is so beautiful it makes my heart ache.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Help me.

For a long time I have had a need to write about something that happened to me last year, but, until now, have simply not found a way to describe the incident. I have recently been reading Linda Kohanov’s book “The Tao of Equus” and her writing has helped me piece together a coherent explanation of what happened that day. But even now as I sit down at the computer, it seems as if my words escape me and all that is left is lingering emotions; sadness, frustration, pain and ultimately guilt.

It was early winter morning and the weather was cold. When I opened the door to the riding hall, the tension was immediately obvious, as if the entire world was holding its breath, waiting for something to go off, to explode and shatter.
My student was sitting on her horse, warming up at the walk and I remember another lady riding at the very end of the hall. But what truly caught my eye was “Horse Owner X” hand walking her young horse in a halter. There was something overwhelmingly aggressive in the way the woman was leading her horse.

My student rode over to me and from her face I could immediately tell that she was feeling the strain of the situation.
“I don’t know if I can ride in here,” she said as she stopped in front of me. “Horse Owner X is walking her young horse with the leg injury and I’m afraid something will happen.”

I looked over to the pair walking side by side and the look in the horse’s eyes was quite alarming, I could literally FEEL his need to escape and run away. The young gelding had a reputation of being difficult and unruly and frankly, I couldn’t blame him, I had seen the methods his owner used to “control” him.

The horse tossed his head and immediately Horse Owner X smacked him across the face with the end of the lead rope.
“Stop it, you shit!” She screamed and hit him again as she approached us down the long side. I could see the whites of the young horse’s eyes as he looked straight at me and it was like a knife was pushed into my heart at that very moment, the emotion from the horse traveling right into me like a sharp dagger thrown through the air at its target.
My student’s horse jumped forward a few feet and my student grabbed the reins in panic.
“This is what I mean. I can’t ride here, what if the horse gets loose?”

My student had barely had the time to utter her words when the young horse lunged forward and Owner X, who was dangling on the end of the lead rope, started running by him, trying to keep up with her horse.
“Stop it!” She screamed as they barged past my student, her horse and me. They made it to the next long side, but then, with a strong jerk of its head, the horse broke free. It bucked once or twice and then made a sharp turn and headed right at us.

The horse barged to our end of the arena and came to a screeching halt. As he stood there panting, his eyes bulging out of his head, his nostrils flaring, I carefully extended my hand out to touch his shoulder despite my heart that was racing in my chest. When my fingers stroked his skin, it felt like an electric thread had been weaved from the horse’s heart and through his body into mine, as if we had been attached to each other miraculously with an invisible umbilical cord.
Help me, he said. Help me.

Through touch we were bound together and I believe the love and pain I felt for this horse traveled from my heart to his. It was as if we had entered a bubble, with just the two of us in the world. He took a deep breath and lowered his head. And for a moment, it was alright, everything was okay.

Then the owner marched over and hit the horse in the head. The horse ripped away from me, severing the connection, cutting the cord. It hurt like hell, I wanted scream aloud from pain, but instead I froze in place. I didn’t know what to do, as I knew Horse Owner X would not listen to any advice from others, especially someone like me. The difficulty with people like her is that if you make them angrier, they will by default take it out on their horses. On the other hand, how do you NOT say anything, DO anything?

Fortunately my student and I were able to get Horse Owner X to calm down enough to catch her horse so she could return it to the barn safely. But both of us knew that the calm was just temporary before the next storm, as we had seen before what this woman was capable of when it came to abusing her horses.

After the young horse had been taken away, I felt myself shaking. Something profound had stirred inside me, a part of me was permanently dislodged and this piece now floated precariously towards an internal waterfall I had never known existed. I looked at my student who was staring at me quizzically.
“When I touched that horse…” I started, but choked by emotion. I had no words to continue.
“I know, I saw it,” My student said. “It was like he melted into you through your touch, like you came together.”

I have not been able to forget that little horse, even though it has now been over a year since he was "sent away". What happened between me and the young horse was one of the first incidents in a long string of events that have since changed the way I think of horses.
And then there is always the guilt, the infinite, unbearable pool of guilt. Why did I not do something more? Why am I afraid to openly defend these horses I see abused? Am I making enough impact with my diplomatic and silent resistance, or should I be more outspoken, more insistent, more aggressive? What should I do? Sometimes I feel like my hands are tied, but are they truly?

Some day I hope to have the courage to know the answers.
Take care, K

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Little Respect

Picture this: It is lunch time in the barn and the horses are visibly agitated as they impatiently wait for the grain. The mare on the left kicks the stall wall and the sound echoes through the building, vibrating between the restless horses. Two geldings pin their ears back and run their teeth down the metal bars separating them from each other and the stallion across the aisle paws vigorously; in a world where food is controlled by humans, this moment is the highlight of the horse’s day.

A woman enters the barn from the attached indoor arena where she has been longing her big, black warm blood mare. She leads her horse down the frantic barn aisle. Despite the commotion in the barn, the mare’s ears are pointed forward as she politely waits for her owner; it is obvious she is eager to get to her own food.

Just as they are about to enter the stall, the woman accidentally drops her whip. Without thinking, she stops to pick it up. The horse, however, completely focused on the grain waiting in the feeder, is practically going into the stall. As the woman bends over and the horse moves forward, the longeline tightens and jerks on the mare’s mouth violently. The mare stops immediately, opens her mouth as wide as she can get it and tosses her head side to side, trying to free herself from the sudden pain. The woman straightens up and jerks on the line again, this time on purpose. Then she whacks the horse across the chest with the whip and yells:
“Show me some respect, will you?”

Show me some respect. I understand the words, but somehow they don’t seem to match the situation. Respect is a word widely used in the horse world. “Make him respect you!” “Show him who is who and then he’ll respect you!” But isn’t respect something you have to earn?

Let’s take a look at the official dictionary version of the word. According to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English respect is, for example, one of the following.

1. Admiration of someone, especially because of their personal qualities, knowledge or skill.
2. An attitude of regarding someone or something as important so that you are careful not
to harm them or treat them rudely.
3. To admire someone because they have high standards and good personal qualities such as
fairness and honesty.
4. To be careful not to do anything against someone’s wishes, rights, etc.

Right. Now that we have consulted the dictionary, we truly realize the backward nature of the above scenario involving the woman and her black mare. We are so ready to expect horses to respect us, but yet we seem to forget the true meaning of the word. In order to get respect, we must be worthy of it; we must be fair and honest, we, the human race as whole, must be respectful. And as the current state of the planet demonstrates, we haven’t exactly been that when it comes to other living creatures and organisms inhabiting this planet.

Obviously respect is not something that comes automatically to everybody, but with a little thought and compassion, we can all bring ourselves to at least question our actions. All you have to do is ask: “Is this how I would like to be treated?”

Respectfully yours,


Monday, April 27, 2009

The Beginning

Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride,
Friendship without envy,
Or beauty without vanity?
Here, where grace is served with muscle
And strength by gentleness confined
He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity.
There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent.
There is nothing so quick, nothing more patient.
All our history is in his industry.
We are his heirs, he our inheritance. ~Ronald Duncan, "The Horse," 1954

When I first saw the horse, he was like a wild animal, prancing around and tossing his head excitedly. The farmer holding the end of the rope smacked the stallion and roared as us children standing on the other side of the fence.
“Do you kids want to have a ride?”
I had never ridden a horse before, but my two cousins who had been taking lesson for a year or two, jumped up and down with excitement. Of course we wanted to ride, of course we did!
The farmer tied the rambunctious steed to a grooming post and slapped a homemade wooden saddle on his back without so much as brushing the horse's back. The bridle he dug up from the back of the barn was old and dirty, the bit thin and half rusted, and he had to fight to get it on the horse’s head.
“What’s his name?” My older cousin asked as we watched the farmer wrestle with his horse.
“His name is Telitti and he is a Polish stallion, just two years old.” The farmer was obviously proud of his new purchase, and for a reason; the horse was quite a sight with his flared nostrils and his long, black mane.

We rode the horse in the nearby field. The farmer kept him on a short rope, but it did not deter the strong animal one bit as he leapt and bucked with us on his back. My cousins who were used to the docile riding school ponies didn’t much care for the bumpy and unpredictable ride and asked to be let down almost as soon as the horse started. I, on the other hand, had never experienced anything so exciting, and clung to the saddle with my ten year old frame, smiling the whole time as we bucked and jerked around the grassy field. From that moment on, it was clear to me that I was meant to be involved with horses.

I started riding lessons in the fall at a local riding school and loved every moment I could spend with my new four legged friends. I carried home all the horse books from the library and studied them inside out, trying to learn everything I possibly could about those gracious animals. I drew pictures of horses until my hand ached and begged my parents to buy me a plastic toy horse I had seen in the shop window.

At night I dreamed of the Polish stallion waiting for me at the farm next to our summer place. I couldn’t wait to see the horse again even though I had already learned that riding a 2 year old Polish stallion was not exactly something anyone my size should have been doing. But there was something special about that horse, and I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

Finally, in February, after I had graduated from my beginners riding course to the next level, my parents decided to spend ski week at the summer place. I was overjoyed; I pictured myself galloping through the snowy fields on Telitti’s back, his mane flying in my face. I felt like this time I would know what to do, how to ride him – I had been taking lessons after all.

When I got to the farm, though, the fields were empty with three feet of untouched snow. My heart sank; there was no sign of my beautiful, bay stallion. I found the farmer in the barn milking his cows.
“Where is the horse?” I asked, trying to sound confident even though my heart was pounding in my chest for no apparent reason.
The farmer pointed at a wooden door in the back of the barn. I caught a whiff of his alcohol stained breath and winced.
“He’s in there, the bastard. He started misbehaving before Christmas when the snow fell and he hasn’t been out since. And I won’t take him out either, he bit me on the arm twice and kicked me, too.”
I stared at the door in silence.
“The horse is crazy, I use that stick when I feed him now, for my own safety.” He nodded at a long stick as thick as my arm leaning against the wall. He turned back to his cows. I stood there with my arms hanging limply at my sides. Despite the farmer’s words, the urge to see the stallion had merely grown stronger.
“Can I brush him?”
The farmer laughed and looked at me.
“You are a gutsy little kid, aren’t you?” He shrugged. “I don’t care what you do with the horse.” He laughed again and way he laughed made the hairs on my neck stand up.

A month prior I had used all my savings to buy three brushes and my mother had sown me a bag to keep them organized in my backpack. I pulled the blue brush kit out and stood at the stallion’s door. Even though I couldn’t see the horse, I could feel his presence behind the wall. He was waiting for me.
I fumbled with the latch and the door opened with a creek. The stall was merely an enclosed room with filthy cement walls and a tiny window at the edge of the ceiling letting in a ray of light. The stallion stood in the corner shin deep in old straw and his own feces, with his head held low and his black mane tangled in knots over his face. Tears welled in my eyes; the pain in the room was visible to the naked eye.
I could see my breath and the stallion’s breath and the steam rising from the fermenting straw bedding. The horse looked at me and I looked at him, and the way we were there, in that small, reeking room at the back of an old, sagging cow barn, was so profound, so deeply connected to the core of all consciousness, that it has taken me thirty years to fathom what really happened that day, that very moment.
We must have stood like that, looking at each other, for a quarter of an hour. Then we both moved at the same time, drawn toward each other like two sides of the same magnet.

If the farmer hadn’t cared what I did with his horse, it seemed as if his horse didn’t care either; Telitti allowed me to groom him, halter him, lead him out and lunge him in the deep snow-covered fields. As long as the farmer was nowhere in sight, I could handle the horse any which way I wanted; he was soft and receptive and kind. But when his owner came close, the horse turned into something completely different; a violently kicking and biting animal fighting for his life.

After all these years and after all I know about horses, I still find it absolutely amazing that not once did the young stallion, who had been cooped up in a stall for months, attempt to hurt me in any way. Never did he bite or kick me, and even when I took him out for the first time, he merely ran on the end of the rope with excitement. Several times I found myself jerked over into the deep snow and even dragged under for a few seconds until my stallion friend realized what he was doing and politely waited for me to stand up and dust off my clothes and get my hat back on until he took off in another series of joyful bucks.

I had no business handling an untrained stallion when I was eleven, and in truth, I did not exactly “handle” him – I befriended him. I was a child, a sensitive and empathic little human being who honestly loved horses, breathed horses and lived horses. I was what I was, nothing more, and the stallion new exactly that. I was not afraid and even if I had been, I surely would not have masked the emotion behind blatant aggression and anger. The sincerity and authenticity of my eleven year old self tapped into that of the young stallion, and we were connected in ways I only can now, as and adult, wish to recover as I attempt to connect with the horses I love.

Many horses have passed through my life since, but Telitti, the Polish stallion, still lives strong in my memories. I will continue thinking about him, my only regret being that I did not quite understand the lesson he taught me about horse-human connection, until thirty years later.

Take care of yourself and your animal friends,

PS. I never learned what happened to Telitti, as two years later he was gone, sold “up north to some young man.” By then the horse had become increasingly difficult to handle, attacking his owner every chance he got and suffering in return from the abusive behavior of the farmer. As sad as I was to loose my stallion friend, I also was happy to find him gone, as I wanted to hope he had gone somewhere where life was better for him and people were kinder