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,