Saturday, January 30, 2010

Freedom Part 2

“We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.” –William Faulkner

Last Sunday my son and I watched the animated movie Spirit, stallion of the Cimarron. Now, if you haven’t seen the movie, it is about a young mustang stallion who sets on an near impossible quest to save his freedom and his homeland. It’s a tear jerker to say the least. My son and I were both sobbing at several occasions. Mind you, we are talking about an animated movie so there are no real horses involved. But that doesn’t mean the real issues we have with horses are not present.

The scene where Spirit is captured for the first time is brutal. Here is this beautiful, strong and wild stallion with ropes around his neck and people pulling and jerking left and right in the attempt to control him. My son covered his eyes in anguish.

“Mom, what are they doing!” he cried out.

In lack of a better expression, I said “They are breaking him.” Because isn’t that what they were doing, breaking his spirit? Interestingly enough in English the term “to break a horse” refers to the training he is given by humans. When you look this term up in the dictionary the definition says: “to tame or make obedient with force”. Exactly.

“What does that mean, they are breaking him?” My son was distressed as he watched the horse fight the humans with all his might, kicking, biting and whirling around trying to free himself from the ropes.

“Well, that’s that they call it in English.” I reverted to Finnish, my native language and said: “It means they are trying to train him.”

My son looked over at me, his eyes streaming with tears. “But mom, that’s not training!”

Oh no, it wasn’t training, it was breaking. And yes, perhaps DreamWorks had exaggerated the process for the sake of movie making and storytelling, but the essence of that act was there, nevertheless. It was breaking; the people were breaking the spirit of the horse.

In the course of the movie Spirit befriends a young Native American man, who falls in love with this beautiful animal. The two of them end up connected through life and death situations and fight for their freedom together. In the end, the boy understands that although they can be friends, he can’t own the stallion, nor does he want to. He sets his own, faithful mare free so she can choose to follow Spirit to wherever he takes her, down the mountain and over the hills.

Perhaps this movie is just a creation of someone’s imagination, but the message in it rings true: to love someone, is to let them go free. I cried, and not just because of the touching scenes, but because of the pain I have in my heart for what we have done to the horses in this world, what we continue doing.

Spirit, the movie, might be about a wild mustang captured by humans in the Wild West, but the story goes on and on today, in my backyard and yours. I’m not saying we need to set all horses free and let them roam the land like they did for millions of years before humans came along. I don’t believe that scenario would be realistic in the world we live in. But perhaps we can look at how we treat these animals and why we do the things we do with them. For example, it is definitely convenient for us humans to keep horses living in a box, but is this in the best interest of a horse? How does it mentally affect any animal to be caged up, separated from their peers?

I find it ironic that we watch movies like Spirit, where a horse is fighting against humans, and we are rooting for the horse, not the human. If the humans had succeeded in “taming” Spirit, what would have Spirit's life been like? Let's see... He would have been living in a stall, separated from his heard, gotten used to a saddle and a bridle and been ridden by a soldier. Doesn’t sound much different than the life of an average horse today, does it?

Isn't it interesting that in movies, we are on the horse’s side, but in real life, we really aren’t. We like the idea of a free horse, but we don’t actually like free horses.

In the end of the movie, when I watched the two animated horses canter into freedom, my heart ached. Not because the movie was sad (it had a happy ending after all!), but because it made me think of Little Love who lives isolated in her square box and only gets to go outside when the weather is good and the pastures are dry enough. Today, it has been 10 days since the horses at the nearby barn where she lives have been outside. 10 days. And they are lucky horses. There are horses in this world that never get to run free in a pasture. NEVER. It is shocking, but true.

Next time you are watching a horse movie and you feel yourself choke up, ask yourself a question: why am I moved? Am I moved because the movie is sad or am I moved because life is sad and the contrast between the two is too much to bear?


“The story that I want to tell you cannot be found in a book. They say that the history of the west was written from the saddle of a horse, but it's never been told from the heart of one. Not till now. I was born here, in this place that would come to be called the Old West. But, to my kind, the land was ageless. It had no beginning and no end, no boundary between earth and sky. Like the wind and the buffalo, we belonged here, we would always belong here. They say the mustang is the spirit of the West. Whether that west was won or lost in the end, you'll have to decide for yourself, but the story I want to tell you is true. I was there and I remember. I remember the sun, the sky, and the wind calling my name in a time when we ran free. I'll never forget the sound and the feeling of running together. The hoof beats were many, but our hearts were one." - beginning of the movie Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thinking outside the box

A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea. ~John Ciardi

I want to tell you about my friend Sam.

Sam and I go a long way. When I lived in California, we used to work together at a barn, teaching our respective students, re-training and riding horses. Already then I had tremendous respect for him, mainly because of the intuition he has with horses, but also because of his ability to think outside the box. I believe I met Sam at a time when I was about ready to start thinking outside the box myself. (I dare say I met him shortly after I had realized there was an actual box to think outside of!)

Sam is still thinking outside the box. In fact, he is living outside of it. He has done what I only dream of doing which is living the way he believes, even if it means financial disaster. He no longer teaches “mainstream” riding, but has turned his focus completely to guiding people in finding their true relationship with horses. He no longer rides horses the “traditional way”, instead he spends time with them on the ground, being and doing what he feels is right by the horse. And unlike me, he won’t work with a student unless they are willing to follow the same path he is on. Sure, he has lost 70 % of his students, he is living hand to mouth, but – he is being true to what he believes, he is being true to his passion. He is walking his talk.

Oh how I admire and envy him.

I look at myself and I feel like a fraud, a coward. How dare I preach about the ethical way to be with horses when I’m still participating in traditional activities that I know rob theses beautiful animals emotionally, psychologically and physically? Sure, I believe in bitless riding and partnership that starts on the ground, yet I teach people who ride in bits and focus on nothing else but the mounted part of their relationship with their horse. Sure, in my heart all I want to do with Little Love is to get to know her, to offer her more and more freedom, to give her choices without force, yet some days I end up riding her in the arena when I know it’s the last thing she needs, but what her owner expects.

I feel like I am stuck between the worlds, entering in and out of the traditional equestrian realm but also hanging onto this other world, this mystical and invisible world horses can offer, the world I so desperately want to be part of, but which seems to be out of reach. But is it really out of reach? Or, am I just a coward who continues a masquerade because she is afraid to stand up publicly for what she truly believes?

At the end of the day, do I even know what I believe? Or what I dream of?

On Tuesday I met up with a woman who called me last week about trying out a bitless bridle on her young horse. Someone had recommended she contact me, and she had, although she wasn’t sure how I could help. I made the appointment, but when the day arrived, I felt reluctant to meet her. I didn’t feel I had the energy to once again diplomatically explain what I thought bits did to horses, I didn’t want to meet her horse and feel his pain and know that it was up to me to persuade the owner to use softer methods. I wanted to give up, to say “the hell with it,” and hide like the coward I was sure I was.

I had obviously forgotten something important: that when you forget something important, life has a way of sending you a reminder.

When I showed up at her barn with my bridles, the lady was waiting for me with a couple of friends. To my surprise they were all extremely open to the idea of not having a bit in the horse’s mouth. I felt encouraged. Not using a bit is a big step for most people, but little do they know how, in the big scheme of things, it is really only a baby step. Bitless riding is good, but the way I see it, it’s only like a foot wedged in the door. Once that door is open, once someone is thinking outside the box for the first time, the possibilities for change are limitless.

We tacked up Rocky, a young gelding with numerous vices (or so I was told) and I climbed on, my heart feeling heavy. I used to ride strange horses all the time and not think anything of it, but this was before I realized how much I was invading their space by doing that. Every time I ride a horse without its permission, I feel like I’m taking advantage of it. But as I walked Rocky around the half frozen arena, I tried not to think of that. In my mind I apologized to him, telling him that really, ordinarily I wouldn’t have been so rude, but in the name of the cause…

I rode Rocky for 20 minutes and with the help of the bitless bridle the horse was transformed from a troublesome youngster to a happy and forward horse listening to the rider’s aids. My audience seemed keen, curious, excited. The youngest, a woman with a quiet demeanor, seemed especially hopeful. She pointed at a hairy pony standing in the snowy pasture next to the arena.

“That’s my horse, he’s an Islandic. I haven’t been able to ride him for a while because every time I try, he goes crazy and I can’t stop him. Nobody can. He’s afraid of strangers and I’m not a good enough rider to feel confident on him, so I don’t ride him. But, now that you are here with that bridle, and you look so confident, would you ride him?”

They all looked at me expectantly. This was a test, I was fully aware of that.

I looked at the ball of fur standing in the snow and went with my instinct.

The crazy Islandic turned out to be everything but crazy. He was just scared, very, very scared. I’m pretty sure the bit in his mouth had not helped the situation. I talked to the horse and as sometimes happens, I could feel his life flashing by me, as he unloaded his baggage, his history. I talked to him about the bitless bridle, explained who I was and why I was going to ride him. I also told him I wouldn’t hurt him in any way. He didn’t like my legs on his sides, so I held them away. He was very aware of my balance so I did my best to stay quietly in the middle of his back. And I sent him love, lots and lots of love. Sort of like a big hug, but in my mind. Sounds a little loopy, but it always works.

If my audience had been sold on the bridle before, now they were floored. Never had this horse been so relaxed, never had he held his head so low and stopped so willingly. Never had he NOT run off with a rider on his back. They couldn’t believe their eyes. The owner walked over to me when I got off.

“Wow,” she said. “I could hear you talking to him and it was as if he understood you. I wish I could ride him, too. But I’m so afraid.”

“Maybe one day you can,” I replied. I looked at her carefully, not sure how much she was willing to receive in terms of information outside the box. “But riding is not everything, there are so many other things you can do with your horse.”

She looked at my quizzically. “Yes, I’ve recently started doing some ground work in the arena.”

“That’s great! Do you enjoy it?”

She nodded. “But my dream is to go on the trails.” Her voice was wistful.

“Why don’t you go on foot and take your horse with you? You wouldn’t be riding, but you would be spending time with your horse – on the trails.” I petted the Islandic. “He’s a great guy.”

Tears started streaming down the owner’s face. I can’t blame her; I was about to cry, too.

“I know, he is a great guy. I don’t know why I never thought of just going on the trails in hand. I was just so stuck on the idea of riding him.” She hugged her horse and he sighed. There was something about that little horse that really touched my heart, too. He was such a damaged soul, yet he was willing to reach out to me when I reached out to him. He helped me remember why I do what I do.

I realize I have two dreams; a collective dream and a personal dream, and as much as it sometimes tears at my conscious, I must keep my personal dream on hold. There are so many ways to go about this path and I have to remember that while some go one way, I can choose to go another. Everyone must go the way that is best for them. The world needs people like Sam, who live like they believe and set an example for others. But just as much the world needs people like me, people who mingle in the “mainstream” equestrian activities and quietly plant the seeds of change. Neither life is easy, as we all are swimming upstream battling thousands of years of “know how” and questioning hundreds of years of equestrian knowledge.

So – perhaps there is hope; perhaps I’m not such a coward after all. I’m just following a different path parallel to other paths.

Tuesday afternoon, when I was driving home from my bitless bridle quest, I felt emotional, like I always do when I have witnessed people thinking outside the box for the first time. I thought of their excitement, their eagerness to know more, to think more. And I thought of how they could barely contain their excitement. “Wow,” they exclaimed in unison, “we never want to use a bit again, that was amazing. Do you teach lessons? We would love to hear more about your ideas. We have been looking for something like this, something different.”

So there it was, the seed I had so carefully planted with the bitless bridle; it was clearly starting to grow. And perhaps, if I have any luck with watering the soil when I see these ladies again, the seed will grow into a plant. And then, later, there will  be a flower and then another.  As we know, flowers turn into more seeds, more plants, more flowers, until we won’t be able to see anything else but hundreds and thousands of flowers, blossoming and blooming as far as our eye can see.