Thursday, December 30, 2010

I'll Meet You There

People who look through keyholes are apt to get the idea that most things are keyhole shaped. ~Author Unknown

What we see depends mainly on what we look for. ~John Lubbock

What seems like a lifetime ago I pursued my Masters Degree in English Philology at the University of Helsinki. An avid reader since my childhood I had always wondered if my experience of a story was the same experience for every person who read that particular story, no matter where they lived and who they were. Could someone in Africa read Bronte's Wuthering Heights and feel the same way I did?

Common sense told me that each reader would interpret the story from their own backdrop, but what did science say? As it turned out, empirical studies on reader interpretation were extremely rare. This finding merely made me want to know more. So - true to my nature - I decided to embark on my own journey on discovering the answer. The subject of my final thesis was " Literary interpretation and cultural context: An empirical study on women readers from Finland and the United States."

The results were intriguing. In a nutshell, it was possible for readers from two different countries to read the same story (by Raymond Carver, if someone is interested) but experience it completely differently. It was not what happened in the story that was important, it was what people perceived happened that mattered.

And perception is reality.

About a year back I visited a new barn in the area where I live. I sort of found myself there by accident, as I was riding in someone else's car and they wanted to stop and see how the construction at the site was coming along. I had heard people talking about the new place and was fairly sure it was not anything I would be interested in. I was right. Gorgeous as it was, it was just another place humans could trap their horses. The person who had taken me there- let's call her Kathryn- had a completely different view.

"Wow, isn't it gorgeous," she gasped as she looked at the vaulted ceiling, the horse solarium, the pristine tack room, the double sized indoor arena adjacent to the stable. "What horse would not want to live here?"

I could think of several horses.

Kathryn's reaction was a classic example of anthropomorphism i.e. assigning human characteristics to animals and other non-human agents. She was impressed with the lighting in the barn, the large stalls and wide aisles, the warm tack room and the fact that you could walk your horse from the barn to the indoor arena without having to outside - all details a human would appreciate. But a horse? I don't think so. If horses could choose, they would rather live outside in a herd than stay in a cozy (from the human point of view) stable. In fact, many of my friends whose horses live in a place where they can go inside or outside as they please, report that their horse will usually choose to be outside in the elements, even when the weather is less than desirable.

I tried to share my view with Kathryn. She looked at me like I was a crazy person. Which I possibly was - in her world.

But again, perception is reality. Here we were looking at the same thing, but not seeing the same thing. What she thought was horse paradise looked to me like another horse prison. Our horse care belief systems obviously didn't match, not even close. I could certainly argue my point of view (and she could argue hers), but in the end it would have made little difference - we were looking at the same thing through two different lenses. To change either one of our perceptions would have required a significant personal shift in ideology - an impossibility at that time.

Horses more than any other domestic animal seem to be removed from the animal world (dogs do get their fair share of anthropomorphism as well). This fact is perhaps one of the reasons people eventually run into behavioral problems with their horses. Paul Mc Greevy and Andrew McLean write in their newest book Equitation Science that "we might say that a horse is naughty, but we must question whether our notion of human naughtiness can possible apply to horses. Perhaps the naughty horse is merely confused? The problem that then arises is what are we going to do about it? Do we have the right to punish the naughty horse? Clearly, there can be serious welfare problems in attributing human characteristics to horses because of the consequences for them."

We anthropomorphize horses because it works so well. It is convenient for humans to keep them in their stalls covered with blankets and let them out only in solitude and when the weather conditions are great. That is how we would like to live, were we horses. I now believe that this is not what horses want, but once upon a time I was out there at the barn making sure my horse had "everything it could possibly want" (of which, in hindsight, it cared not an inkling about).
For example, I used to be a stickler about keeping my horses clean, because clean horses were happy horses. Thanks to Little Love I have since changed to see this matter differently, but I am aware that this belief lives strong among most equestrians (including her owner). And not just horse people, but ordinary people who know nothing about horses, too. If you took a group of non-equestrians to two separate barns, one where the horses were running around a semi-muddy field in a heard and another where horses were stalled with blankets covering their short, clipped coats, which one do you think the majority would see as humane? I'm fairly confident when I say they would choose the latter barn.

Contained, clean, warm and dry - aren't those the four attributes that make a horse (owner) happy?

I am doing my best to rid myself of the "anthropomorphic lens". Horse are horses are horses. How could I ever think they were something else? How can anyone else still think that? So here I am, as usual, wanting to make sure everyone around me sees the world the way I do. And, if they don't, make sure to judge them for what they are or aren't. But -as I said in an earlier post this month, I am trying to exercise compassion and understanding. I think I need to try harder, we all do. We should all want to understand why and how we can have arguments over things like animal welfare, childrearing, horse training - all subjects I find quite black and white, but am starting to discover have this grey area I cannot even see, having the wrong lens to work with.

My master's thesis proved that people from two relatively similar cultures could interpret an ambiguous short story differently. And culture was not the only thing that determined the differences in interpretation: age, religious background, level of education and previous reading experiences also played a significant role in how readers perceived certain characters and plot turns. My study was not extensive, but it was enough to convince me about the differences in literary interpretation. If written word can have so many meanings, isn't it obvious why we cannot agree on how to be with our horses?

Horse people, too, have different ethical standards, different views of the world. We each have our own individual life history that has shaped us to be who we are, to think the way we think and to value the things we value. We have a certain threshold for pain, for knowledge, for comfort, for courage. We have emotional baggage, psychological baggage and even physiological baggage. We have our own needs, hopes, dreams.

How could we ever look at an image and see the same image?

Perception is reality.

What is your reality? What is the lens through which you are looking at the world? Is this the reality you are comfortable with or would you like to open your eyes a little wider and discover another one, a new lens?

And if you are like me and want to show someone a piece of your reality, what would be the best approach? Perhaps when black and white seem too much of a contrast, it is best to meet in the grey matter?

~ K

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there. ~ Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

Won't you come into the garden? I would like my roses to see you. ~Richard Brinsley Sheridan

PS. Can you see the baby in the picture?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On Riding - Part 2.

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered. ~Nelson Mandela

Exactly one and a half years ago I wrote a blog entry about my feelings towards riding (On Riding 26th of May, 2009). Time has passed between then and now and has helped me refine my thoughts. I realize that after a slow and tender process, I have finally let go of the dressage rider within. To reach this point is monumental, as I have ridden horses for over thirty years and once swore I would be a dressage rider until I was a doddery old woman nearing her death bed.

I am now riding approximately 95% less than I was two years ago and, and until about three weeks ago when a student asked me to ride her horse, it had been months since I worked a horse in the arena. It felt strange to sit on a horse other than Little Love and even stranger to start working the horse into some sort of frame. He was bitless, of course, but nevertheless I felt oddly out of place on his back. Due to my sore tailbone I took it easy, but ended up riding for over forty minutes at walk and rising trot.

The horse I was riding was one of the biggest horses I have ever ridden, and I have ridden some pretty massive ones in the past, having been a vaulting trainer. I have known this horse for a few years now and have ridden him a few times before, so I knew going into the ride how much power and focus I would need. Due to the fact that I hadn’t truly ridden dressage for months, I felt slightly intimidated by the situation.

Before getting on, I sent the horse a mental message of what we would be doing together. I also explained that I would not ask for anything he could not physically do. I hoped for two way communication and promised to listen to what the horse had to say. I got into the saddle with a “one step at a time” attitude, trying to let go of any previous experiences, any set goals or plans for the ride, all possible premonitions.

I had nothing to worry about. What had previously been strenuous and perhaps a challenge with this particular horse now came easily and without a second thought. With relatively light effort and by making adjustments in my own seat I was able to guide the horse towards straightness. This resulted in him relaxing and starting to use his muscles correctly. In the end we had beautiful collection, something this young horse did not offer on a daily basis.

I was stumped. How could it be possible that after not riding for months, I seemed to be a better rider than before? Wasn’t it practice that made you perfect?

Ask any dressage rider what their ultimate goal is, and the word "connection" will pop up in the conversation. They are talking about the kind of connection that leads to harmony with the horse, another concept that so often seems out of reach. To reach this ultimate goal, most dressage riders spend their whole life taking lessons and perfecting their riding skills. And I, too, can recall being that person, diligently striving for that missing piece that would lead to bliss under saddle.

I drove home thinking about the ride on my student's horse. All these years I had believed that riding was a technical and physical task based on the laws of biomechanics - something it undoubtedly also is. But perhaps I hadn’t given enough credit to the emotional and psychological side of it. Something had happened in that arena with that horse that I had never truly understood before. Was this what connection and harmony could feel like? Was this the dream under saddle everyone was chasing? How ironic that I had had to first let go of riding, to feel this.

But how appropriate.

It was not the first time I had experienced something I thought was connection and harmony. At several occasions during my dressage "career" (if you can call it that) there had been times where I had felt that "Eureka!" moment. Those moments had always been a product of hard work, a result of struggle and hours of sweating in the saddle. I now realize that perhaps some of them had been contrived, based on a physical feeling rather than a holistic feeling. In all the training and practicing and honing of skill, I had lacked the connection that came from within. In fact, was it possible that by focusing solely on the physical aspect of riding, I had prevented myself from finding what I was looking for?

What is true connection? Is it the ability to go together in physical movement without hindering each other? Or is it something more, something invisible and unattainable by force? You can force a horse into movement and you can will yourself to follow that movement with your body, but can harmony be present in such an act? The American Heritage Dictionary says that harmony is "agreement in feeling or opinion". When we bridle and saddle a horse, is it even possible for him to feel harmonious? Is the harmony we seek just a subjective dream created by human?

The experience with my student's horse had been exceptional, yet it didn’t make me want to ride more. Actually, quite the contrary. I am no longer able to turn back and return where I once was, the dressage rider within is gone forever.

This fall one of my blog readers sent me some interesting information about the damage riding causes to horses’ backs. This extensive study talks about the sinking of the back (and thus pressure on the vertebrae); the tissue damage caused by excessive pressure; the fact that horses grow until up to the age 5 and even beyond, but yet are trained under saddle starting at 3 and even younger. Not to mention the harmful effects of the riders hands and bad body posture (seat). But even under the best rider in the world, harmful pressure is applied to the horse’s back. After the investigation of 443 horses, the findings concluded that only 7% of the horses had NO damage to their backs.

Seven percent.

These are sobering details. Many people will like to argue that this was just one study and it is true, it is just one study. I wonder why this subject has not been studied more. Perhaps because we are afraid of what we will find?

Under the current circumstances I still trail ride Little Love, but I can't help but wonder: If she was given free choice, would she ever let me on her back again? I'm not sure. Does any horse want to be ridden? Perhaps not. They did not evolve over millions of years just to carry us on their backs.

My friend Sam tells me that when children and adults interact with his horses in liberty, some horses occasionally invite people on their backs. I believe this does not happen because the horse wants to be ridden in the traditional sense, but because he wants to give the human the gift of riding. After all, love and friendship are about giving and allowing. The key factor in these situations is to respect the wishes of the gift giver.

One day, when Little Love's and my situation is different, I hope to be able to offer her that choice and let her decide for herself. In the meanwhile, I try to stay off her back as much as possible. The abovementioned study concludes that we should not ride horses for more than 15 minutes at a time and always in free collection. I am keeping this in mind and helping Little Love discover free collection during our liberty work. I make a point of dismounting and walking on the trails when possible. I cannot control how others ride this horse, but I can make these choices for myself.

Letting go of riding is not always easy. For some people it happens overnight and for some, like me, it is a slow and winding road. Then there are those who don't ever want to take that journey. We all must evolve in our own time, with our own horses.

 ~ K

It is only when we silent the blaring sounds of our daily existence that we can finally hear the whispers of truth that life reveals to us, as it stands knocking on the doorsteps of our hearts. ~K.T. Jong

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Highest Form of Human Intelligence

Sometimes the only way you can take a really good look at yourself is through somebody else's eyes. ~From the television show Scrubs

A few days ago I was at the barn in the late afternoon and had just tacked up for a short trail ride. When I walked to the yard, another boarder was preparing to go on a ride with her mare as well. I used to ride this woman’s horses for the first year I lived in Switzerland, so we know each other fairly well even though we have taken two completely separate paths since; her the competitive dressage path and me… well, we all know I’m taking the path less travelled.

However, despite our differing views, I do try to stay in a working relationship with the people I meet at a daily basis at the barn, even if in passing. So, when I saw this lady leaving for her ride, I asked politely if she was going on the trails.

“Yes, but I go alone,” was her terse answer.

I shrugged off her rudeness. I didn’t care if we went together or not, I had just tried to be polite.

After my ride, I saw the lady in the tack room; she was cleaning her saddle and bridle. When she saw me she smiled apologetically.

“Sorry about earlier, it was not because of you that I didn’t want to ride together.”

“No worries,” I said. But the lady wasn’t done talking, she wanted to explain.

“It’s because of that horse.”

“That horse?” I said, confused. “Do you mean Little Love?”

Yes. She meant Little Love.

“I have made a decision not to go out ever again with that crazy horse,” the woman continued.

I see.

“But we have ridden together before without any problems,” I pointed out.

“Yes, but last time I was out with the owner, that crazy mare spooked my mare. I can’t afford to have that happen. The way you all ride her without a bit…” She looked at me accusingly.

Right. I should have known this was about the bitless bridle.

“I’m sorry you have made that decision. Of course, you need to do what you feel is right for yourself.” I wasn’t going to challenge the woman any further, there was no point. She had already passed her judgment. But I have to admit, I was angry and hurt. For a moment I wanted to leave, but then I remembered a book I recently read about nonviolent communication that had raised my awareness about passing judgment. It is so easy to judge other people, hadn’t the woman just done that? Maybe it was worth trying to learn to be different. I took a deep breath and did my best to remain neutral about the woman’s comments. Maybe, instead of getting furious, I could make an effort to understand her world.

“You’ve been here for a long time today,” I said lightly.

The lady rubbed her tack vigorously. “Yes, I know, it’s because of my stupid mare.”

“Oh,” I said, suddenly realizing that perhaps there was more to this woman’s foul mood than Little Love and the bitless bridle. “What happened?”

“Wednesday when I rode, she was so good. And then yesterday she was awesome when my trainer rode her for an hour and a half. It was so beautiful. But today…”

“It didn’t go so well?”

The lady looked up at me, visibly delighted I was taking an interest in her problems. “You know,” she continued, “the first half an hour the mare was like a dream. I was really happy with her, especially with the piaffe and passage. But then suddenly she got all heavy in the front and tight in the neck.”

I made an effort to remain neutral, but it was getting increasingly harder. I said: “Sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop.”

The lady gave me a sharp look, but then said: “I couldn’t get her to relax after that, it was awful, her neck was like an iron rod. After trying for fifteen minutes, I started cantering her. Usually at the canter she comes around, but this time it took 45 minutes. I mean, can you believe it?”

“Wow, you cantered her for 45 minutes?”

“Yes, I actually timed it.” The woman sounded frustrated. “And I did lead changes, counter canter, small circles, big circles, bending left, bending right and then finally, after 45 minutes she let go and relaxed. I was absolutely exhausted.” The woman dipped the two bits of her double bridle in the bucket in front of her to clean them off.

Silence. I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound like an accusation. Finally I said: “She is in pretty good shape if she could canter 45 minutes.”

The woman snorted. “That’s nothing, last summer I warmed her up for three hours at one competition. I just don’t get it, why did she have to do this to me today?”

“Well… you rode her hard Wednesday and your trainer rode yesterday, maybe she just needed a break?” I suggested.

The lady gave me a sideways glance. “A break?” She said. “Are you kidding me? She’s nine years old and she needs to be able to handle getting ridden hard three days in a row. She has no idea what we have ahead of us next competition season. I can’t afford to have this happen then.”

Of course not. I thought of her mare, the only horse in the barn that attacked the metal bars of her stall every time another living being passed close by. I searched my brain for something to say that would not make this woman defensive, but would at the same time help her perhaps understand what her horse was trying to tell her.

The lady hadn’t noticed my silence. She wrapped her double bridle up in a neat bundle and hung it on a hook on the wall. “Of course the annoying part is that I couldn’t just put the mare into her stall after all that. I had to walk her for twenty minutes and now she’s sweating like crazy, even though I clipped her two weeks ago.”

I nodded. “Well, she did work quite hard. She must be tired.”

The lady ignored my comment and sighed loudly. “It’s always something with that mare. Now I have to come back to change her blanket and I haven’t even had lunch yet. And all because of that stupid horse. Sometimes I don’t understand why I even bother.”

Frankly, I was starting to wonder about that as well.

My immediate reaction to what this lady was saying was utter and pure judgment. How could she treat her horse like that? How could she demand all those things and then blame the horse for what had happened as if it had planned it all along just to ruin her day? And not only that, she had also judged Little Love and my use of the bitless bridle. Didn’t I have the right to judge her back? Didn’t I have the right to tell her exactly what I thought?

Honestly, I wanted to scream out loud.

But then I remembered - some years back, I was this lady.

The Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti once remarked that observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence. He must have been right, because it is so very difficult (sometimes nearly impossible) not to be judgmental of people who do not share your views. But judging doesn’t get us anywhere, it doesn’t help us understand. And I feel that it is important to try to understand everything anyone does. Only then, when I have full understanding, can I hope to have compassion. And nothing has the power to help people like compassion does, this I have seen over and over again.

I believe my New Year’s resolution will be to try to understand and observe without passing judgment. Sounds pretty noble, to be honest. I’m not sure it will work 100% (heck, I'll take 50%) as I don’t think I am exactly saint quality and never will be. But damn if I’m not going to try my best to change my thinking from: “That self-centered woman abuses and uses her horse”(definite evaluation) to “She is not yet on the Path” (a neutral observation).

Everyone can change – I can and so can this lady. Sometimes change is not likely, but it is always possible.


Still learning. Will never stop.

Always when judging
Who people are,

Remember to footnote
The words "So far."

~Robert Brault

Monday, December 6, 2010

All of Our Future

Children are one third of our population and all of our future. ~Select Panel for the Promotion of Child Health, 1981

A friend of mine is a children’s book writer. She is also a horse enthusiast, so naturally she writes about horses. She, like so many of us, believes in kindness to animals and is against inflicting any kind of pain to horses. The first version of her newest manuscript, a lovely picture book for younger children, is a story about a little girl discovering horses at a barn where barefoot horses are ridden in bitless bridles. Sounds absolutely wonderful, doesn’t it?

The publisher, however, had a problem. According to them, horses in books must have bits and shoes, to prevent little readers from feeling guilty and sad for the horses they encounter in real life; all surely using bits and shoes.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around this argument. We want to teach children to be kind and considerate to animals, something children by nature already are. Children want to be on the animal’s side, and would love nothing more than have adult support in this matter. And aren’t books a means of reflecting change in our society? Good books don’t merely repeat what has been said over and over again for decades, but try to follow new trends and bring fresh expert advice to readers.

I can, however, understand the publisher’s concern. Perhaps they are truly afraid of causing a guilt trip to their little readers. Who would want to read a book to their children about caged industrial chicken and their miserable lives? Or the real story about where the majority of our beef comes from. But should we underestimate our children by not telling them the truth? Should this publisher be concerned of making such a radical statement as admitting that the current way of being with horses is abusive?

My friend made a compromise with her publisher. She agreed to omit all verbal mentions of the bitless bridles and barefoot hooves, but asked that the illustrated horses in the book would not have bits or horseshoes. She based her argument on the fact that no children’s book should promote abusive controlling devices and it should always be a reflection of the writer’s own beliefs. The publisher finally agreed to this solution; perhaps a small victory at best, but a step towards the right direction.

As a mother, I know how tricky it can sometimes be to answer your child’s eager questions. You want to communicate your values to your child, but on the same token, you don’t want to distress your child with too much information. Because let’s face it: the world we live in today is not exactly a bed of roses. Animals are not treated fairly. Heck, people are not treated fairly. Children have little control over most aspects of our society, so why burden them with the uncomfortable truth when they can’t do anything about it? At least not yet.

Of course it’s not just what we say to our children or the books we read to them that shape them as individuals. It is who we are that counts the most, that teaches them how to be in this world.

Take an incident I witnessed a few weeks ago while I was visiting another barn nearby:

A woman in her thirties was taking care of her horse, which was standing in crossties. The woman’s approximately three year old son was playing with his cars in the barn aisle in front of the horse. The horse was standing calmly while his owner worked on her after-riding rituals, taking the tack away, brushing the entire horse, greasing the hooves.

She went around the horse, picking up each foot to apply grease to the bottom of the hoof. The hose’s expression was bored, until the owner tried to pick up the left front. Instead of lifting the foot, the horse leaned into his owner, putting weight on the foot she was trying to grease. The owner yanked on the leg and elbowed the horse, but he didn’t budge. Then, without as much as a warning, the woman straightened up, yelled at her horse and hit him hard on the shoulder with the hoof pick.

At this point the horse moved and picked up his foot, but I was no longer looking at the horse or the owner. I was looking at the little boy, who had stopped playing with his cars and was watching his mother intently. What was going through his head? Had he seen his mother hit the horse before? Or had he possibly been subject to his mother’s rage and knew what the horse was going through? His little face was solemn and grave, but there was a hint of wonder flickering behind his big, brown eyes.

Children are very observant; in fact, they are so observant they often notice things we don’t. When my son was just a toddler he used to come with me to the barn quite often. Once, long before I was consciously on any Path, my three year old son watched my student riding in the arena. He stared at the horse for a while, and then asked:”Why is the horse opening his mouth?”

I looked at the horse and low and behold, the mouth was open. Of course, there was a noseband trying to keep the mouth shut, but the horse was doing his best to fight the strap across his nose. Despite the numerous lessons we had done together with this particular rider and her horse, I had never made this observation. And there was my toddler son pointing it out to me in all his innocent curiosity. He was obviously far further on the Path than I was and not because someone had told him about it, but because he simply observed his environment and questioned everything that was happening in it, something I should have been doing, had I not been blinded by everything I had learned about horses in the past thirty years.

Eight years ago when I first became a mother, a lot of people gave me advice, but the single most valuable piece of guidance was given to me by an old friend, a mother of three. My friend said: “When you are in the presence of your child, never ever forget to ask yourself this question: What am I teaching my child at this very moment?”

Children are clean slates. This might sound like a cliché, but only because it is true. Children already know the truth. But then we go ahead and tamper with it. Like the little boy watching his mother hit her horse. What did he learn from that situation? Certainly not patience or kindness or empathy. Will he grow up to be his mother? Or will he somehow deviate from her path and learn to question the way his mother treats animals?

A few years back, before my time with Little Love, I spent a few months riding at a very fancy dressage stable by Lake Geneva. I deliberately sought out the owner to see if she needed anyone to ride her many horses, and she did. I was happy to start riding at her place, as it gave me the opportunity to ride some excellent horses (something important to me at the time) but it didn’t take me very long to realize the culture of violence that was present in everything that was done at this facility.

This was a private barn with a handful of adults, a few teenagers and a dozen horses. There was also an eleven year old girl, who showed up every single day to ride her expensive dressage pony. She obviously loved horses, but she also worshipped the barn owner and her adult daughter; both successful riders with extremely forceful techniques. This admiration from the little girl’s part resulted in some of the most abusive behavior I have ever seen a rider exhibit.

I can tell you, it is a whole different ball game to witness an adult behaving in a cruel way towards animals than witnessing a young child doing the same. Seeing children participate in beating horses, kicking them with spurs, yelling, slapping, whipping, pulling them into excessive rollkur by using drawreins is to say the least, revolting. We expect children to be pure and innocent, but there is nothing innocent about blatant violence.

This eleven year old girl had not only adapted every single move she had witnessed her idols doing, she had perfected them by exaggeration. It was not, of course, her fault she had turned this way. She was only repeating what she had learned. No amount of interference from my part would make her change her ways. In fact, it only got me into to trouble with the barn owner, who openly supported this violence.

It doesn’t take a lot to guide a child the wrong way. Last summer I had the opportunity to give my niece a private riding lesson. She is a nine year old horse enthusiast who had at that point been riding once a week for less than a year at a local riding school in her home country. It was interesting to see how she related to the horses, which was with quite a mechanical manner, as if she was riding a bike. She had learned to use her legs to kick their sides to ask for forward movement, she had learned to use her hands to pull on their mouths to turn them and stop them. Nobody had ever corrected her seat, nor had they told her about the nature of the horse, what a sensitive animal it was.

She told me about the angry ponies back home, how one would bite and the other threaten to kick. I was saddened to hear this and tried to gently explain why a horse would behave in this sort of manner. At first my niece simply watched me interact with the horses in silence, but soon the questions started. Why do you not use the bit? Why do some horse have shoes and some don’t? Is that horse angry or happy?

I have to admit: I felt inadequate in the face of this child. I could offer her the truth I knew, but I could not help her any further. If she wanted to be with horses, she would have to continue riding at her mainstream riding school as there were no other options nearby. How could I possibly tell her about the harmful effects of the bit, when I knew she had no option but ride in a bit? How could I explain that shoeing horses was detrimental to their health when most horses she knew had shoes? How could I enlighten her about the abuse she was learning at her riding school?

If I told her what I knew, would she feel as powerless as I do, in the face of helping horses?

So here we are, back to the question of guilt trips.

I told my niece I didn’t use a bit because I personally believed bits were not necessary and that horses preferred going without. I told her that horseshoeing was an old tradition, but that horses were born without shoes and did much better without them. I did my best to teach her how to sit on the horse correctly and how sensitive they really were, and how willing to communicate if we took a moment to listen to them. We spent some time grooming the ponies and talking about their body language and the personal space they had and how to respect that. All I could hope was that perhaps I planted a small little seed in my niece’s inquisitive and thoughtful little head, a seed that would have the opportunity to grow as she got older. But in hindsight, I can see that just like my friend’s publisher, I chose a careful option, the compromise. I still don’t know if it was the right thing to do. Children are so much smarter than what we often give them credit for and can handle surprisingly controversial information. My son is only eight and is fully aware of global warming and what is happening to the planet. So why not tell the ugly truth about horses? Perhaps it is only us adults who know about guilt trips?

The Path is the birthright of all children, you don’t have to convince them to be kind to animals; it comes as second nature to them, at least until they learn something else. When I was a child, I often imagined being a cat or a dog or a horse. I wanted to know what they were feeling, how it was to be in the world as an animal. But I lost that, because I was taught to control animals instead of understanding them. The same thing is happening to so many other children out there, who love horses, but end up treating them inhumanely simply because that is how adults treat them.

In the meanwhile, I want to hold onto my dream that one day there will only be barns like the one in my friend’s children’s book, where horses are treated with respect and without the fear of pain or force. Perhaps my dream will come true, but maybe not in my lifetime.

My son rarely comes to the barn with me anymore, but when he does, I let Little Love loose in the arena with him. She always follows him, where ever he goes, as if they have a silent agreement to walk together. It brings tears to my eyes every time, because this is a horse that follows next to nobody. But she follows him, because he knows more about horses and their ways than I will perhaps ever be able to understand.


A child can ask questions that a wise man cannot answer. ~Author Unknown

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I Cannot Stop

“Impermanence is the very essence of joy – the drop of bitterness that enables one to perceive the sweet.” - Myrtle Reed

One of the hardest things about finding the Path is the fact that it is your personal journey. And with personal I mean that no two journeys can be the same. As you travel, not everybody around you will travel with you. In fact, there will be many who will never even get on the Path; friends, family, fellow boarders, trainers, will continue to do all those things you are trying to move away from.

This, to say the least, can make matters complicated.

I can’t pinpoint the moment I took a turn onto the Path of the Horse, but I know the seed was planted years and years ago. Anybody who has followed my blog for a while knows that meeting the black mare called Little Love and having her as my guide and anchor in this process has been absolutely monumental. She pushed me to seek new ways; she stripped me down to the very core of myself, a place where you have no other option but to see things as what they are.

Unfortunately, Little Love’s owner does not quite share my vision.

I know I cannot force anyone down the Path, and I have learned this the hard way. Even if I ride bitless, it doesn’t mean people around me or even someone riding the same horse as I am riding, will stop using the bit. Even if I stop forcing the horse to work in the arena when she clearly hates it, doesn’t mean others will not continue believing in this sort of work and even enforce it with a whip. Even if I tell someone about all the things I have discovered, the emotions I have encountered, the self-reflection I have gained, the insight the horse has shared with me, I cannot guarantee she will believe me or understand me.

On the 13th of March I wrote a blog entry I called “What if”. I believe this entry is the closest I have ever in my entire blog, come to actually telling the truth of how I feel about Little Love. She has taught me so much and since that time last spring, I have made even more progress in discovering the truth about horse human relationships, which in itself has been absolutely priceless. This knowledge, however, has put me in an unbearable situation: between a horse and the horse’s owner.

I know, Little Love is not my horse, so in reality, I have no say in what her owner does with her. But, I cannot stop trying to influence the situation. I cannot stop trying to fight for what I think is the right thing for my horse friend and for all horses, for that matter. I cannot stop trying to shine the light down on her owner, in hopes of her catching the one ray that will transform her to see what horses really are about – for once and for all.

Do I have a right to do that? I’m sure there are people out there reading this and thinking I don’t. But how can I stop? How could I ever let myself give up? And how can I continue, when my emotions are clearly overriding all rational thinking? I realize I am far too deep in the woods to find my way out.

A few weeks back I took part in an Animal Communication workshop with Marta Williams. The workshop was about talking with horses and I was excited to see that there were a good twenty people present, some obviously very talented in communicating with animals.

During a group exercise I volunteered to share Little Love’s picture with five people. I gave no background information other than her name and age. The group did very well with the picture and relayed fairly accurate information back to me, information which I was able to verify. They had obviously been able to communicate with Little Love intuitively.

In the end the group asked if I had any personal questions to Little Love, to which I was looking for answers.

“Yes,” I said, trying to hold back emotion. “Can you ask her what she wants in terms of the future? Does she want to stay with her owner or would she like to be with me?”

Ah, such a selfish question, I know, but I couldn’t help myself. I have come far with my personal journey, but I have not apparently yet reached the completely selfless place we all hold within ourselves.

The animal communication team went to work and soon I had my answer: Little Love didn’t want to choose.

The answer didn’t surprise me. In fact, this was the same answer Little Love had given me, but which I had denied. I thanked the group, trying to not show my disappointment. What had I expected?

Then a young woman, who had demonstrated amazing communication skills during the course, reached her hand out and said: “I don’t know if this makes sense, but Little Love told me that she can’t leave her owner yet, because there is still work to do.” She looked at me. “Do you know what she means?”

Yes, I did know what she meant. Despite my own desperation over the situation, I couldn’t help but smile. Leave it to Little Love to put everything in perspective. For horses it is never about what they can do for themselves, but what they can do for others. There was a reason why Little Love had shown up in my life, but there was also certainly a reason why she had shown up in her owner’s life much earlier. Some nuts are harder to crack than others. Little Love was obviously not ready to throw in the towel when it came to her owner, even if I was.

I continue to support Little Love’s owner in her endeavors with her horse, even though it sometimes brings me to my knees. I never imagined it was possible to feel such desperation and pain over a horse, but apparently it is. I can try to guide her owner towards more humane ways of being with her horse, but how can I stop myself from feeling the way I do? Am I selfish to want to steel this horse away from the world and take it to a place where she can be a real horse again; stall-free, iron-free and even rider-free?

In approximately eight months I will be moving away. I do not know yet where, all I know is that we are moving to another country. This country may be relatively close or it could be on the other side of the world, beyond an ocean or two. The possibilities are open, the future is unknown. Where does that leave me and Little Love?

I don’t know.

All I know is that when I think of leaving her behind, I cannot stop my heart from breaking.


“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” - G.K. Chesterton

Monday, November 22, 2010


“We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another.” – Luciano de Crescenzo

After posting my last entry; Wounded Healer, I received an overwhelming amount of messages from people who were touched by the life of Saphie, the little, gray mare. Even complete strangers reached out, sharing their own, sometimes heartbreaking stories with me. Many marveled over the capacity horses have for forgiveness and the wisdom they hold, if we dare to listen. Many also shared their own difficulties of following the path, when the rest of the world stands still around us.

I read each message with a growing sense of wonder. It was hard to ignore what these messages were telling me: out there, in the world, there exists other people who are discovering horses the same way as I am. Together - yet separately - we are being touched by horses and guided down the Path. A coincidence? Hardly. It seems as if the horses of the world have made a collective decision to start showing humans another way, to tell us about a new level of consciousness, to teach us how life really should be lived.

Or perhaps there was no decision, perhaps this is something written in the horse’s DNA. We know that horses live in the present moment, despite any baggage they may carry from their past. And because of that, horses have the before mentioned capacity to forgive. They will take you at face value, just as you are, even if yesterday you were someone else. All you have to do is open your heart and be willing to change. Because they are always ready - and have been for centuries.

I look back at my life and see how horses always tried to offer me wisdom, but how I was not ready receive it, not in its full extent. When I was younger, I used to love riding horses. I would ride any horse given to me and take pride in the way I was able to connect with the animal. Yes, I was a talented rider and had the ability to transform even the less capable horse into a nicely moving mount. Riding dressage was like a drug for me, I sought it over and over again, finally riding up to six horses a day.

But why did I ride? What was it that was so addicting? People used to ask this question over and over again, and every time I gave the same answer.

“When I’m riding, it’s like I can’t think of anything else. I have to just be there, on that horse.”

I’m sure others who have ridden or still do understand what I mean. When you sit on a horse, be it in the arena or on the trails, it’s hard to mentally be anywhere else. There is something about the horse that doesn’t allow you to lose focus. The horse guides you into the moment and the feeling of being in the moment, being free from the past and the present, is utterly addicting.

And I suppose that is why most people ride, even if they don’t consciously think about it. Horses have the ability to pull you away from you left brain into your right brain, as if you were meditating. Suddenly whatever happened at work earlier that day or the argument you had with your kids in the car or the work that awaits you at home doesn’t matter. Nothing else matters but the ride.

Of course in hindsight I see now that what I was feeling during my rides was just a promise of what could be; it was the edge of the matter, not the center. When I sat on a horse and forced it to perform for me, what I felt was not connectedness (although I thought it was that, at the time), but a passing shadow of the harmony the horse could have offered me, had I truly listened. What I experienced was the horse, even after being oppressed, still reaching out and sending his message: “Seek me. I’m in here. And I am willing to share my wisdom.”

But now I do feel, see and hear what horses have to say, and so do others – all over the world. We may not be many and we are nowhere near of becoming a majority, but we exist, nevertheless. Life is not always easy for the pioneers. My joy over discovering horse wisdom has been and continues to often be mixed with feelings of frustration, anger and complete isolation. There are times when I feel desperately alone. There are days when I want to quit. Yes. Walk away and never look back. But then I realize that I am well beyond the point of walking away. Because when you have seen the light, it’s hardly possible to ignore it, even if others are trying to pull you back into the darkness.

A year and a half ago I started writing this blog, not only to sort out my own thoughts and feelings, but in the hopes of making a difference in someone’s life, even if it meant reaching only one person who is experiencing the same emotions as I am. And your messages, the ones which poured in after the last blog post, but also the ones I have received along the way, are proof that I am not in this alone. And neither are you. We are all connected over the universe through our horses, beautiful horses that shine their collective wisdom over anyone who is ready to take it in.

I urge you: let’s not only continue traveling down this path, but let's make sure others know what we are doing. I am not asking you to stand up in arms, nor am I suggesting you start preaching, because it is never possible to force others onto the path. But we can lead silently, by example.

“We must remember that one determined person can make a significant difference, and that a small group of determined people can change the course of history.” - Sonia Johnson

Thank you for reading and believing. 


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Wounded Healer

The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order… the continuous thread of revelation.” - Eudora Welty

Last year I watched the movie Instinct with Anthony Hopkins starring as a man who leaves humanity behind to live with animals only to return to society under unpleasant circumstances. While in prison, he meets a psychiatrist played by Cuba Gooding Jr. The movie is inspired by Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael and gives the viewer valuable lessons about human and animal relationships.

In the movie there is a scene where Hopkins, who previously has lived with gorillas in the wild, is allowed to visit the gorillas at the zoo. Saddened by the state of the captive animals, he relives some traumatic memories from the past. He also, to make a point, opens the cage door of the imprisoned silver back male. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character, who is there with him, is aptly horrified. He is clearly afraid the enormous gorilla will surely escape.

“He won't come out,” Anthony Hopkins says. “You see? Even if he can.” And it’s true; the huge male ape barely gives the open door a second look. Anthony Hopkins looks sad. “Not far from here is a fence, and on the other side of that fence is freedom, and he can smell it. He'll never try to get there, because he's given up. By now he thinks freedom is something he dreamed.”

There are many scenes in this movie that remind me of horses and the various ways we have taken their freedom, but this particular one reminded me of a certain gray mare I met two years ago almost to the date. My good friend Sam introduced us on a cold winter morning in California. My first impression of this little, gray horse was heart-wrenching; although at first contact she seemed sociable, I could feel an overpowering sadness welling up inside me. Her back sagged and the muscling on the underside of her neck told a story of tension and resistance.

“This is Sapphire,” Sam said. The mare turned her head and touched my hand, her ears carefully placed forward, her expression neutral. She was kind, but her gesture was slightly mechanical, as if she was merely behaving the way she had learned to behave to avoid trouble.

“Touch her mouth,” Sam said, nodding toward the mare’s head. I wrinkled my brow. What did he mean?

Curious, I slid my fingers down the mare’s nose to her lips. When my hand came to the corner of her mouth, I stopped. The flesh of her lips was hard, like it wasn’t flesh at all, but a solid piece of wood. I pulled my hand away, confused.

“What is that?” I couldn’t help but touch it again. Saphie turned her head and I felt the other side of her mouth. It was even worse, the hardness extending toward her cheek.

“It’s scarring,” Sam said.

“Scarring?” Even though I was already fully aware of the harmful effects of the bit, I had never actually seen such extensive tissue damage.

“Imagine what it took to produce that kind of scarring,” Sam said. He shook his head. “This horse has gone through a lot.”

And that she had.

In fact, she had several loose and cracked teeth from the heavy hands that had ridden her during her 14 years of life. She was spooky, nervous and had been labeled a crazy Arab mare at her previous home, a riding school, where she had been placed after what Sam called “her fall from grace” as a prestigious dressage horse. She had a reputation of being barn sour to the point that she didn’t want to leave the stall never mind the property. If you turned her out she would run herself into the ground.

Saphie didn’t trust people and was constantly in flight mode which meant reacting to everything around her. She was a horse that literally could not think about eating hay, grain, treats or even green grass when a person was anywhere near her. Not that humans wanted anything to do with her at this point anyways, not a soul seemed to care about this sad wreck of a horse.

Saphie came into Sam’s life at a time that he was starting to work with “natural horsemanship” something he now looks back on with a sense of sadness and shame. I know how he feels, having been down a similar road myself. We all start our path somewhere; many things we learn on the way make sense at the time, but often later seem harsh and even abusive. But, it is important to get on the path, and sometimes methods we abandon later can be, as Sam says, “doorways to something different”.

So Sam did what he felt was the right thing. He would let Saphie loose in the arena and interrupt her frantic cantering by demanding her attention, cutting her off and forcing her to change direction by waving a flag at her. He would let her run around him at the end of the rope halter and long line until she was worn down, exhausted and often dripping wet. He worked her in the round pen, he backed her up over and over again by wiggling or bumping the rope halter on her nose.

Later, in an email to me, Sam wrote: “All of these so-called natural ways of doing things involved (negative conditioning) persistent pressure, punishment or mental /physical pain. Needless to say Saphie was not impressed with the whole natural horsemanship system.”

When Sam moved to a new barn he decided to try expanding Saphie’s territory. This involved leaving her stall door open all day. How ingenious. I wished I could do the same. What would Little Love do in such a situation? What would any horse do? I had always thought a horse whom was offered such a possibility would rush out and run around. Wasn’t that why we kept them locked up in the first place?

But not Saphie. She was like the gorilla in the movie, who thought freedom was something he dreamed. It took the little gray mare weeks to merely peek out the open door. The slightest noise or perceived danger would make her bolt back into the safety of the stall. But, when you give something enough time, changes will start happening. Slowly, one step at a time, Saphie made her way out of her prison. Soon the barn isle became the place to meet boys and clean up spilled hay. But, although the barn doors were never closed, she never dared venture outside.

To give her some help, Sam decided to start leading her outside with a halter. He would walk her away from the barn and let her go. But as soon he released his grip on the mare, Saphie would panic and run back in. She was in such a hurry to get back to the safety of her stall that on one occasion she actually fell over. This was a clear message to Sam and he let her be.

Again weeks went by and although Saphie now seemed completely comfortable in the barn isle Sam thought she would never build up the confidence to go exploring. Then, one windy day, Saphie came out of her stall and marched with rhythm and purpose straight out of the barn. She walked calmly past a strange flapping blue tarp that had been placed on the fence to dry. She went all the way down the hill to say hi to some horses that where turned out in the arena.
“If I had not seen it with my own eyes I would never have believed it,” Sam said when recounting the story to me that cold California morning when I first met Saphie. “And after that day she would come and go at will. Just like that.”

I only met Saphie for a short time that year, but despite our short contact, I could not forget her, I could not forget her story. Hearing about Sam’s experiences with the mare had changed my perception of freedom. When we choose to cage an animal, we choose to take something valuable from them - for life. Setting them physically free will not guarantee setting free their spirit, for sometimes it is not just the bars that hold the caged animal inside. There is so much more to freedom than our environment and circumstances. Freedom is a state of mind.

The next time I met Saphie, Sam had moved her to his own property, where she lived outside with another horse. There was no more “natural horsemanship” i.e. moving her around in various ways. Instead, there was an increasing amount of time spent being together, doing nothing but sharing territory. Saphie seemed to me a completely different animal than the fearful, traumatized mare from the previous winter. Sam, too, had changed. The year before he had wondered why he had chosen to take in the “crazy” mare, and I had told him that he had it all wrong, it had been Saphie who had chosen him. She had seen his potential. Even in the midst of her own painful life, she had been able to recognize a kindred spirit, a person who could evolve to understand.

It never ceases to amaze me how generous and forgiving horses are. I believe I have said this before and I will not stop saying it: horses are the most forgiving creatures on earth. Take a horse like Saphie who had no reason to trust ever again; humans had only proven to take, never to give. Yet she chose to trust again. I am utterly speechless in front of such grace of character. Do horses innately understand that the only way to move into the future is to forgive the past? Are they all born to be wounded healers?

Recently I got an email from my friend Sam. Sapphire, the little gray mare, died a few weeks ago. According to Sam, she left our world in a true Saphie nature, suddenly and without a fuss. In his email Sam wrote: “I found great solace in that she was my first true teacher and that she was generous enough to show me a side of horses I did not know even existed before her. If you asked her she would probably have said I was a tough nut to crack but that I think he is starting to get some of it. I have walked a little way along the path with him and now it is time to move on.”

Saphie spent her last summer with Sam making many human friends, one of which was a six-year-old girl called Rosemary. Rosemary would invite Saphie out of her pen with a look and a call of her name. They companion walked (no tack) over to a flat area where Rosemary would spend time grooming while Saphie had a pre-practice snack. After this they headed off to the arena at liberty to see what would evolve. Some days they would run and trot together, others they would just lay in the sand. If it felt mutually right, Rosemary would slip a cordillo or a rope halter on Saphie and using body language ask her to come and stand at the mounting block. Rosemary would then clamber on bareback and the two would play for a short while until one would let the other know they wanted to do something else.

This, I believe, in Saphie’s world was called freedom.

In the Path of the Horse movie Linda Kohanov says: “They’ve carried us around on their backs for centuries waiting for us to notice that they aren’t here just to help us evolve in terms of mastering nature and moving around the planet. They are actually waiting for us to get to the point where we are ready to evolve to a higher level of consciousness and awareness.”

The little gray mare came into Sam’s life when he needed a teacher. I met her just in passing, but yet her wisdom followed me across the world. She reminded me that every horse has wisdom to share, but especially the wounded ones; those horses that have seen the dark side of man. This is an important message to pass on to anyone who dares listen and so, by telling Sapphire’s story, I am passing it to you. It is a message of friendship, love, freedom and forgiveness – it is a message of hope and healing.

Photos by Julie Mummerlyn for Discovering Horses

Monday, November 8, 2010

Safely Afraid

“A cat bitten once by a snake dreads even rope.” ~Arab Proverb

Tonight when I drove to the barn the sun was just setting behind the mountains. Little Love had been outside in the morning and I was planning to spend the evening hanging out with her in the arena, working on some collection at liberty. But when I got to the barn, the arenas were occupied with riders who were busy jumping and longing and practicing dressage tests.

“What should we do?” I asked Little Love while helping her with her daily stretches, a ritual she loves to do.

Little Love stuck her nose out of her stall window and sniffed the cold air, looking into the horizon, the way she always does when she wants to get away.

“Let’s go out,” she said. “On the trails.”

I looked out. Dusk was settling over the landscape and in just over a half an hour it would be completely dark. Many people from our barn ride in the dark, going for walks in the field with mere moonlight as their guide or wearing headlamps for better visibility. Little Love and I were not one of those people. Not until now. I ran to the tack room, picked up the saddle and bridle. I felt a nervous tingle at the pit of my stomach, but I told myself to trust Little Love. She wouldn’t suggest something as crazy as a ride in the darkening forest unless she knew we could handle it.

When Little Love and I met four years ago, she was one of the most fearful horses I had ever dealt with. Every time I rode her in any of the arenas she would bolt from the slightest stimulus; a crack of a branch, the sound of the wind whistling through the roof beams, a bird flying overhead, a stone bouncing off her own hoof, another horse snorting. Everything and anything could set her off and she would run from underneath her rider in a crazed panic. She would race to the gate or the door in terror, her heart pounding in her chest and her focus lost. And not only that; once she was frightened, it was impossible to calm her down; it was as if fear itself was her nemesis, eating away at her very soul.

Riding on trails was not much better. In fact, if you attempted to ride alone, it resulted in disaster. A leaf falling from its tree, a sudden gush of wind, a dog romping in the field a hundred yards away; all this could ignite a fleeing reflex. Within seconds Little Love would rear, turn around and head home at ever increasing speed.

Riding with other people was helpful, but not easy. In the arena Little Love would refuse to turn, trying to follow the other horses. On trails she would crowd her trail partner and jig nervously on his or her tail until the usually calm horse was also in a state of flux. Needless to say we weren’t very popular.

Before long I was at my wits end trying to help this horse find some kind of peace. I wanted to show her the world was not such a scary place. After struggling for months, I discovered the bitless bridle. It was a breakthrough. Or perhaps it would be best described as a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. Suddenly Little Love, who would never ever willingly go to the far end of the indoor arena, would agree to passing by the back door. Granted, she was still on her toes, but there was a slight shift in her behavior.

Encouraged by the positive results of the new bridle, I started to experiment. I rode with no rein contact whatsoever. I took Little Love’s tack off at the “scary” end of the arena and let her loose. At first she would run away as fast as she could, but soon would start to linger and investigate. I would bring her into the arena in a halter and walk her around or longe her. If she bolted while haltered, I would simply let her go. Soon I abandoned all tack, letting her loose at the door to give her freedom to choose. I even tried riding with just a rope around her neck.

This all resulted in another shift in her behavior. She was still frightful, but rather than going completely out of her mind with fear, she would run for a short while and then slow down and stop, as if surprised by the outcome.

In the past, Little Love had been physically punished for spooking; the previous trainer had for years forced her deep and low with draw reins and harsh bits, she had kicked her with spurs, hit her with the whip in attempt to teach her to stop fleeing from scary things. She had also advised Little Love’s owner to behave this way.

It took me a while, but I finally realized something profound; Little Love’s biggest fear was not of the external stimulus, the imagined beast she thought would jump on her or the scary unknown creature possibly lurking in the shadows. What was far worse than anything else she could imagine was the forceful pain that for years had followed her “fright”.

She was afraid of being afraid. In other words, she was afraid of the state of fear itself, because in her mind fear equaled pain. It was almost like a mathematical equation, always true, never changing. In fact, the fear of pain was so etched into her nervous system that even when there no longer was pain, the fear of pain still lived strong in her mind. She couldn’t shake it away.

This in mind I took a whole new approach to the situation. The more Little Love was afraid, the less I tried to control her. This meant that when I rode her in the dreaded indoor arena and there was a loud noise at the far end of the arena, I threw the reins on Little Love’s neck and grabbed her mane, giving her free will to bolt off (obviously I had to ride alone). At first, she would run like always, but soon took off only to stop a few strides later. Once she stopped and turned her head so that I could see the white of her left eye. As she looked at me in surprise, I swore she saw me for the very first time for who I was: not her enemy, but someone who wanted to be on her side.

I also spent hours with her in the arena, observing her in liberty. It didn’t take long for her to understand the control she had when there were no humans aboard. Soon she was strolling down to the far end and rolling, as if there never had been a thing to fear down there. I was astounded.

It was obvious that the less tack Little Love had on her head to ensure human control and the further away the humans were, the less fearful she was. The amount of human contact was directly connected to the amount of fear she experienced.

This observation was sobering. I realized that deep down Little Love was more confident than I had ever imagined, but humans, in their attempts to control her, had somehow managed to create this terrified animal. Perhaps in the beginning, as a young horse, she had merely been alert, but after being punished for this trait she had developed what I now called “the fear syndrome”. Many horses get punished for fearful, insecure behavior and a good percent of them have known to go into a state of learned helplessness to protect themselves from the pain. Of course this is exactly what most humans are looking for; a dull, desensitized animal who will not budge even if a bomb exploded next to them. But Little Love was not one of those horses. Instead she had created her own way of dissociating from a scary situation: running away.

I felt relieved to have found an answer, but completely overwhelmed with my findings. Matters were not made easier by another observation, which was that Little Love really wanted nothing to do with me (or any other human for that matter) if she had a choice. When I let her loose in the arena, she would move to the other side and turn her bottom at me. By default. The only way I could get her attention was with food, but there was no real trust there. Without food, I was nothing. And who could blame her?

Today I am filled with wonder for my friend who has come such a long way from those days of complete and utter panic. Or is it I who has come a long way? This change did not happen overnight. It is the result of a plethora of things: Hours of liberty work and spending time with Little Love doing nothing; long walks in the fields; letting go of my own ideals and goals, letting go of traditional methods and understanding the true meaning of freedom, letting Little Love have choices, opinions, emotions; educating her owner, and making sure Little Love gets out of her stall as much as possible even if it means standing with her in the pasture in pouring rain to keep her company when all the other horses are kept in. The list goes on.

The horse I met four years ago is still there, but there is also another horse present, a strong and opinionated and bold animal who may always remain cautious, but who is also so intelligent, so amazingly perceptive and calm. Only when I read back on my blog do I realize how far we have come. I wish I had started writing about my experiences years earlier, to truly see the miles that have been traveled.

Little Love can now be ridden into the far end of the indoor arena without a problem, but it no longer matters to me, for I no longer ride her in the arena. I spend more time with her on the ground than anywhere else. When we ride, we ride trails and tonight we are doing it in the dark.

We take off on our trail ride in the setting sun. Little Love is alert, curious. I walk her in hand for the first ten minutes. She stops once and stands very still. I ask her if she wants to go back, if the falling darkness is too much for her to bear, but she decides to continue walking. Finally, I climb on her back so we can do a short trot. She trots calmly, but with her head up and eyes scanning the dark fields. I don’t touch the rein and keep my legs off her sides. She looks to the left and registers the cows in the field; she looks right at the pile of wood that looks different in the shadows of the approaching night. We walk and I get off to walk with her. She is alert, she is alive, she is brave. I get on again, we canter and do some more trot. She wants to trot more than usual and I let her. Her eyes are on sticks when we pass the small, abandoned cottage with dark, ominous windows. We turn right at the fork and head home. The streetlights reach us half way down the last field. I get off to walk again, Little Love is now relaxed. It is almost pitch dark when we get back to the barn, but we stop to graze for a moment, feeling safe in the all-enveloping darkness.

Fear no longer equals pain and this has made all the difference in Little Love’s life. Through several trials and errors she now knows that she can be what I call safely afraid. We still run into unexpected situations, but so far our mutual trust has helped us conquer even the scariest events (like ten black and white calves with bells around their necks running after us or trailriding in the dark!) Fear is no longer a disaster, an abyss from which there is no return.

I can’t tell you how much I have learned about the pathology of fear in the past few years. Fear must never be overlooked or belittled, neither in humans nor in animals. Who knew that one fearful horse could teach one person so much about life; empathy, patience, perseverance, faith, love – and change? And it’s far from over; my education continues. And while I am liberating myself from my past, I hope Little Love continues to liberate herself from hers. 


“We see our horses as frightened animals prone to flight, but often it is we humans who have laid the foundation for this behavior by the totally unnatural way we keep and interact with them.  Could it be that the loss of their own world has made our horses so easily startled and fearful?” - Imke Spilker in Empowered Horses

I touch the subject of fear in some of my previous blogs as well, if interested please visit “Bombproof” from Oct.4, “Letting go” from Dec 28, 2009 and “Prince of Fear” from Aug 21, 2009

Monday, November 1, 2010

Finding Freedom

“Freedom for horses begins in us.” - Imke Spilker in Empowered Horses

One day, after spending the good part of the afternoon outside with Little Love, it was time to take her back into the barn. Before this, however, I wanted to tend to a minor cut she had on her back leg. We walked over to the grooming area, but it was occupied by a gelding. I asked the owner, a lady in her sixties, if it was alright to park next to her at the wash area just for a few moments.

“No problem,” she agreed.

Little Love, however, didn’t. She had her mind set on going into her stall. She stopped and gave me the one look I recognize as “I know what you are up to and I want nothing to do with it.” I stopped, releasing any pressure she had created on the lead rope. The lady asked me if I needed help.

“Thank you,” I said, “but I think Little Love and I can work this out.”

The woman nodded and continued brushing her horse, making long strokes down his back.

Lilo stood still, I stood still. One of the many stallions in the barn stuck his head out of his little window and called at us; Little Love is, after all, a mare. This made no difference to her; she was preoccupied telling me she didn’t want to be medicated. I, in turn, told her we really had to take care of the cut – just in case. She lowered her head and started chewing. “All right then,” she seemed to say and took a few steps towards the wash area, her feet already touching the cement ground. The stallion called out the window a second time, then tossed his head.

That was when things started to happen. The lady’s husband came out of the barn, cussing and swearing. He slammed the stallions window shut so hard the horse barely had time to get his head out of the way. In an instant Little Love jerked her head up with the whites of her eyes flashing. She started backing up, as if I was suddenly asking her to go into a fire hole. The man stalked over and smacked her hard on the behind with his hand.

“You women folk don’t know how to control your horses, get the mare out of here!” He yelled.

Little Love yanked on the rope, she was remembering all the times she had been beaten into the trailer, forced into small spaces. She was no longer with me, but somewhere else, the place she has spent most her life in.

“Honey, stop,” the lady tried to say to her husband, but he wouldn’t hear a word of it. I was too shocked to say anything.

The man proceeded to yell at me and tell me that I didn’t know how to control my horse and that he was going to get the whip to show me how to do it.

The whip?

He marched off, muttering to himself and now that he was no longer behind Little Love, she relaxed a fraction. I took a deep breath and called after the man. When he stopped and glared at me, I said (as calmly as I could muster with my best French):

“There is no need for the whip. I don’t want to force Little Love into anything. I was just giving her time to think about what I was asking for.”

“asking?  That is just insane!” The man yelled at me from the barn door. “Didn’t you see the stallion was going out of control?”

I took one look at his beat red face and decided not to point out that the stallion had merely neighed, something he did every time a mare walked by.

“You know what, I think I’ll just take Little Love to her stall,” I said. Sometimes it’s just not worth the energy to argue.

“Oh, go ahead. Teach your horse that she’s the boss,” the man said and stalked off, obviously disgusted with my horsemanship skills.

Control is a central issue when handling horses. Even children are taught that control is essential; the better you are able to make the horse do what you want, the better a rider you are. Ultimate control also means ultimate safety. For many people, such as the man in this story, the thought of losing control of a horse is absolutely horrifying. Every sign of unrestrained behavior (like a neighing stallion) needs to be tended to before it becomes a disaster.

But what kind of a life is this for a horse? Every step, every sound, sometimes even every turn of the head, is monitored, watched, punished, controlled?

And how does this need to control and dominate make us feel?

I believe one of the reasons humans are drawn to horses is our inherent need to find freedom. Horses are powerful, and because of their power, they are beautiful. We want to be like horses. In our current society, where we have lost touch with the old wisdom we used to possess, we seek to feel whole again. How ironic that in search of our own freedom we take it away from another being. Does this truly give us the freedom we seek or are we, too, involuntarily slaves to our own desire to control? We want to be connected to something wild, something that will take us back to those days humans were in harmony with nature, but how can we ever become close to these animals, if we are constantly thinking of ways to dominate them?

I have spent a lot of time dwelling over my own journey from the person in control to the person who has given up her power. Where did it all start? I didn’t truly realize the process I had gone through until I read Imke Spilker’s book Empowered Horses. She writes: “The person who understands that he, as a human being, has all the power and that there is none left for the horse, has reached a turning point in his relationship to the animal. He suddenly feels very different needs and desires with respect to these creatures. He begins to pull himself back a bit and gives the horses more space. He begins to adapt himself to them and learn about them. And he starts to become open to their completely different point of view and in doing so, he gives their world a new reality.” (p.24)

I realize now that to do things differently, I had to reach my personal turning point. This was not one single moment, but rather a period in time when I had power, but this power left me feeling frustrated and incomplete. This was not who I wanted to be. I would guess that most of us don’t want to be a dominating person, if given the choice. Deep down we all know that true connection with horses (or with anyone for that matter) will never be achieved through domination, pressure and control.

The only way to truly receive something is by first giving it up. By letting go of the position of control, I have given Little Love’s world a new reality. Little Love now has space to express herself, to be who she is; a horse with a big heart and big opinions. Sure, sometimes I don’t like what she has to say, but that is something I have to learn to accept – we cannot always agree, but we can and we must always continue to listen to each other.

Ironically this “loss of control” on my part has not lead to disaster, but rather it has lead to power and peace – power and peace within Little Love, but within me as well. This is a far cry from the power and peace horses once had before humans decided to take their lives over. Little Love, like any domestic horse, doesn’t have a lot of space in the all-encompassing world of humans, but she makes do with what she has. The world horses lived in for millions of years before man may no longer exist; that kind of freedom is gone. But, no matter how much breeding and domesticating we do, this lost world still lives in the hearts and spirits of all horses.

So, the question we all have to ask ourselves is: Am I going to allow this inner world of freedom to exist?

May the horse be with you,
There are two freedoms - the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought. ~Charles Kingsley

Sunday, October 24, 2010


“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” - Arthur Schopenhauer

One day, while I was surfing the internet looking for information, I ran across the above image. It is a thermographic image of a horse’s feet. What is peculiar about this horse is that while three of its feet are barefoot, one has a shoe.

The picture is originally from Dr. Strasser’s “The Hoof Care Specialist’s Handbook” Section III -20 with the following caption: Thermographic Image of the legs of a horse shod only on the front right: darker colors indicate colder areas. Circulation in the front right is severely disrupted (*thank you Claudia for researching this for me!)

I find this picture quite powerful. It is amazing how one picture can drive a point across within a fraction of a second. Of course, I am already convinced all horses should be barefoot so the effect is sort of lost on me, it’s like preaching to the choir. But when I showed it to someone who thinks taking the shoes off a horse is like asking humans to start breathing under water, the person flipped out.

“That can’t be real,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked

“It just can’t be. I know my horse has circulation in his legs. That picture makes it look like there is no blood at all.”

“Of course there is some blood. This just shows that the circulation is impaired.” I was calm, but I could see the steam starting to build up in this woman’s head. I could see an impending explosion, but I decided to grab the bull by its horns, nevertheless.

“Imagine what that does to the hoof. Reduced blood circulation means reduced nerve function. Reduced nerve function means – “

“That makes no sense,” the woman interrupted me. “Why would we put shoes on horses if it would be that harmful?”

Why indeed?

Our discussion went on for another three minutes but it didn’t exactly lead anywhere apart from the lady getting very, very hostile towards me. I admit, I did set her up by showing her the picture in the first place followed with my remarks, which – no matter how much I tried to tone them down – made me sound like a “know-it-all”. I believe the last thing I said was: “That’s why the hooves are so cool when a horse has shoes, there’s no circulation. You know, barefoot horses have warm hooves.” The next thing I knew I was looking at her back walking away from me.

That didn’t go too well. And I had so much more to say.

A year and a half ago I attended a weekend course with a French horseman called Donald Newe. He, too, believes in barefoot horses and a non-traditional approach to horses where the use of force and dominance are unnecessary. Although I was definitely able to absorb his teachings, others in the course were not. Donald Newe, who is neither diplomatic nor subtle about delivering his message, commented on that fact by saying that for the information to hit home, the person must already be “pregnant” with it. In this respect he did not call himself a teacher, but rather a midwife who delivers the baby.

What Donald Newe says appears to be true. Sometimes people are just not ready to take in the information, no matter how convincing the facts are (i.e. they are not pregnant). Sometimes people feel downright threatened by the information (i.e. they don’t want to be pregnant).

The subject of barefoot horses seems to be one to raise blood pressures. Just a little over a month ago a friend of mine, who at the time was still boarding at the next door stable, took the shoes off her young Hannoverian gelding. My friend asked me to put her horse out in the paddock in the afternoon so he could get as much movement as possible. Movement is crucial for all horses, but especially a horse that has just become a barefoot horse.

When I arrived at the barn, the horse was waiting at the stall door, ready to get out. In fact, when he saw me, he started kicking his door as if to make his point clear. I found his eagerness a bit strange as he had surely been outside in the pasture in the morning, like all horses in the barn. I haltered him and walked him outside. He was walking very well for having just been de-shod the day before, perhaps a little tenderly with his fronts over a few stones on the ground, but that was to be expected. He could, after all, feel the ground under his feet for the first time in years.

The moment I popped out of the barn, the barn worker, a man in his thirties, stopped the tractor he had been driving and waved at me from across the property. He was yelling something to me in French, but because it was a bit windy, I couldn’t catch a word of what he was saying. I put my hand to my ear, to communicate to him that I couldn’t hear and continued walking the horse down the paved street towards the paddock some 70 years away. When I saw the barn worker jump off his tractor and run towards me flailing his arms, I stopped. Was something wrong?

The man ran towards me, his face beat red. All the while he was yelling at me. My French is fairly good, but perhaps because of his emotional state, the man had reverted to his native dialect, which is barely comprehendible even to a native French speaker. But I did understand enough to realize what this was about.

“Where do you think you are going with that horse?... Are you crazy?... that horse has no shoes and should stay in stall… you are abusing this horse… he is in pain… people like you don’t care about animals…”

By the time the man got to me and the horse, he was shaking with anger. I tried to get a word in.

“Yes, I know he has no shoes. That is why I am taking him out, so he can move and get his blood circulating. The last thing he should be doing is standing in a stall.” I wasn’t sure any of this registered with the man.

“It is animal abuse to take the shoes off,” the man screamed. “He needs to stay in his stall!”

I see. I guess it was pointless asking him if the horse had been out in the pasture that morning. I tried to ignore the man and lead the horse to the paddock, but he blocked my way.

“If you move that horse another foot, I will call the SPA and make sure you will be prosecuted for animal abuse!” He took a threatening step towards me.

Excuse me? I stared at the man, someone I had known for the past five years as a calm and quiet individual. Again I tried to explain why the horse’s owner had taken the shoes off, how at first this might feel uncomfortable for the horse when the blood started to circulate again, but how with movement and proper care, he would get through this initial stage and live a healthier life. The man would not hear a word of it. The more I said, the more aggressive he became. Spit flew out of his mouth as he shouted at me, flailing his arms in front of my face. I can’t tell you everything he said, but the word stupid occurred in his speech several times.

It didn’t seem like this man was about to calm down and it crossed my mind that he might actually physically attack me, if I didn’t back off. Finally, with my hands shaking, I turned around and walked the horse back into the barn, hoping this would relieve the situation. It didn’t. The man followed me into the barn and even after I had put the horse in his stall, kept verbally attacking me. Finally I got in my car and drove home, as I realized that he would not leave me alone unless I left the property.

At home I tried to understand what had happened, but I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. I had heard of similar confrontations from other people who had “gone barefoot”, but this was the first time I had been on the receiving end of such anger and hostility. What was it about taking the shoes off ones horse that so threatened people? Had I taken a whip to the horse in the name of training (as many do at this barn), the barn employee wouldn’t have batted an eye, but because the horse was shoeless, he had a meltdown. Where was the logic in this? Why was it alright to hit a horse, but not return it to the state in which it was born?

Obviously the horse’s owner, a young girl, was shocked, too, when she heard. She talked to the barn owner, who also didn’t agree with taking the shoes off (he made his point clear), but had the sense to realize that his employee was a bit out of line. The next day, after being stall bound for 48 hours, the horse was allowed to go outside in the pasture. The horse owner, however, did have to listen to sneer remarks made by other horse owners and the employee, but she held her head high and stuck with her decision to go barefoot despite the majority vote against her. She has since moved to another barn, where her horse now is part of a herd of horses living outside. 

I am no longer pregnant as the baby has been born long time ago. This is great, but I’m not going to lie; there are days when the weight of my newly found knowledge drags my usually optimistic mood down. I spent thirty years not seeing, not even knowing there was something to see, but now that I can see, I am aching to share this knowledge. However, I like to keep a low profile while I operate at a barn where I stick out like a sore thumb. Showing the above picture was definitely not something I usually do, it was more like a bold experiment. In an environment where even your benign actions (like walking a barefoot horse to a paddock) speak volumes, words (or in this case, pictures) can cause a war of resistance. I try hard to understand these people, because I, too, once did not know any better. But sometimes I am at a loss with the amount of anger and aggression people possess.

I realize this is another lesson for me in patience. I am convinced that science and research will eventually catch up with veterinarians and farriers and horse owners. Once people see pictures like the one above and really absorb the information it is giving them; once people start thinking for themselves (and their horses) and actively searching for solutions, things will start to change with an ever increasing pace. But it will take time. In the meanwhile, I will watch life unfold and hope for a better future some day, a future with lots of “pregnant” people, a future where allowing your horse to return to its natural state, hooves and all, will be the norm, not the cause of an attack.


“Barefoot is for all horses, though it may not be for all horse owners.” - D.E Hufford

For those who are interested, the internet is full of information about the barefoot movement. Here is a link to one of many pages that explains why and how it will benefit your horse to take the shoes off:

If you are on the fence about taking the shoes off, seek more information, educate yourself. Go to for online courses. Your horse will thank you for your effort.

Also, to find more about Donald Newe, go to

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Force is all-conquering, but its victories are short-lived. ~Abraham Lincoln

I want to share four different episodes I witnessed this week. I'm not going to dwell too much into my personal emotions nor my reactions to these four episodes, I simply want you to read and give space to any feelings and thoughts that might arise.


I’m walking to my car after teaching a few lessons at a nearby barn and I run into an old student of mine. Delighted to see me, she stops in her tracks and gets into a lengthy explanation of her newest purchase, a three year old gelding. During our chitchat her five year old stallion stands patiently on the end of his lead rope, waiting for her to finish. The horse is black and absolutely beautiful, but what strikes me the most are his manners; he does not move a hair during our conversation. It isn’t until the very end, when his owner is proudly explaining the merits of one of her horses that the stallion turns his head to look at something in the distance. The gesture is barely noticeable, harmless and natural, but instantly and without interruption the owner lifts her left hand and strikes the horse across the face with the end of the lead rope. Her eyes never leave mine, nor does the flow of her speech stop; it is as if she has merely swatted a fly buzzing around her head. But for her horse this means more than she can comprehend. He is now irritated, shaken. He takes a few steps to the side, to get away from his unpredictable owner. She, in turn, hits him across the chest with the lead rope. This time she turns her eyes away from mine.


It is an exceptionally warm autumn afternoon and Little Love and I have ventured off into the fields. When we turn a corner and arrive at a fork in the dirt road, I see a woman on a horse in the middle of the field. The horse stands stock still with a stubborn expression on her face. Her head is held high, her eyes are sullen with resistance. When the rider, a middle aged woman, sees me appear from behind a small hill, she immediately, as if on cue, starts kicking the horse and slapping it with a short riding crop.

Little Love and I stroll over and stop. I don’t know this particular horse, it is from another barn in the neighborhood nor do I know the rider.

“Do you need help?” I say. “We are going this way,” I point towards the forest, “and you can ride with us if you like.”

The woman looks relieved. “Yes, thanks,” she says and directs her horse back to the road. We continue our trail ride side by side. But it isn’t long that her horse stops again. Instantly and without a moment’s hesitation the woman becomes aggressive, yelling and shouting at her (also) black mare. She grabs the reins in one hand and starts smacking the horse across the rump with the crop. The horse backs up tossing her head in the air, her ears pinned against her neck.

Little Love has stopped, too. She turns her head and looks at this spectacle with her eyes blinking. I wonder if she is thinking what I’m thinking. She is witnessing her previous life before her eyes. I gently ask her to walk forward, and she does. Again this helps the other horse and for a moment it follows obediently. Until it stops again.

Now Little Love decides that the mare’s behavior is highly suspicious. She, too, doesn’t want to move. The woman has thrown herself into a fit again, now kicking her horse with both legs as hard as she can. The horse’s ribcage echoes with every thump, but the effect is everything but what the rider wants.

I don’t know this person, we have just met, but we are now in the same boat; my horse won’t move either. I climb down and take the reins off Little Love’s neck.

“Let me walk ahead. My horse will follow, if I’m on the ground,” I say. Anything to get this woman from attacking her horse.

For a split second the woman stops kicking. She looks at me.

"Yeah, I used to do that too, my horse follows me anywhere if I walk it in hand. But I don't want her to get into the habit of me always coming down. It's not such a good option,” she says and kicks her horse again, as if to make a point.


Little Love and I come back from a long walk in the fields, she is in a halter and I’m walking her in hand. We stop to graze by the outdoor arena where the grass is still lush and green. The barn owner’s wife, an avid dressage rider, is starting a ride with her five year old gelding. He is a big guy and normally very compliant and docile. But today he has noticed a difference in the arena sand, it has been leveled and new footing has been brought into the left back corner. The horse’s ears and eyes are alert and when his rider attempts to walk past the corner with long reins, the horse spins around, visibly freaked out by the different shades of sand below his feet. Instantly and without a moment’s of hesitation the rider lays into the horse with her four foot dressage whip. The horse responds with a buck and twirls around again, his mouth open from the pull on the bit. His rider nearly falls off and when she gets herself back into balance, she is furious. She screams at the horse:

“I will show you.” And she does. Over and over again with the four foot dressage whip.


I am walking across the barnyard when I see a woman brushing her horse outside. The horse, tied loosely to a grooming post, is standing calmly while the woman is working her way around its body with a rubber currycomb. When she gets to the chest, however, the horse pins its ears back and threatens the woman with a clear gesture of baring the teeth. The woman, seemingly oblivious to the horse’s message, continues to vigorously brush the chest with circular motions. The horse threatens again, this time also swooshing the tail and stomping the foot. When the groomer takes no notice the horse finally lashes out and bites the woman on the arm. Immediately, and without a moment’s hesitation, the woman hits the horse hard across the face with the brush.


Four different scenarios; four different people, but all are connected through similar episodes which could have taken a completely different turn, had the person been more patient, more aware of their horse’s body language and willing to ask, instead of demand. Is it right to judge these people for their reactions? How do you control or stop a reflex which is ingrained into the marrow of your spinal cord through training and tradition and fear and habit?  How do you even begin to see such "horse training" for what it is - violence?

Which one of these stories made the biggest impact on you? Why? Can you imagine what happened afterwards? Can you see the relationship these people have with their horses? Can you picture what it’s like to have the need to control a horse’s every move, every emotion? Can you understand the fear these people feel? The anger?

Where does it all stem from? What does it take to change?

How can we help ourselves and other people learn a better way?


There have been periods of history in which episodes of terrible violence occurred but for which the word violence was never used.... Violence is shrouded in justifying myths that lend it moral legitimacy, and these myths for the most part kept people from recognizing the violence for what it was. The people who burned witches at the stake never for one moment thought of their act as violence; rather they thought of it as an act of divinely mandated righteousness. The same can be said of most of the violence we humans have ever committed. ~Gil Bailie