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