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