Saturday, March 27, 2010

Breaking (heart)

I stand at the edge of the
arena and I
can’t help but notice what is happening.
Some call it training, some call it
schooling. I call it (heart) breaking.

There is nothing I can do, nothing that
has not already been said and done. Over and over
my words go unheard.
I want to stand up
in arms, but responding to violence
with violence was never
ever the answer.

And while others are watching
they don’t see you. Not the way
I see
how everything is clear; the pain,
the panic disclosing in your
eyes, in your heart (breaking).

I stand at the edge of the
arena and I
feel like I have failed you-
and I still keep
failing while my heart (breaking)
rages, a blazing ember.

Forgive me, I only wanted to
love you my friend. And
now I don’t know
how to save
to end to prevent to
conjure a Miracle to
stop this breaking (heart).

~  K

Monday, March 22, 2010

A little seed of awareness

“Even a thought, even a possibility can shatter us and transform us.” -Friedrich Nietche

When I was hanging out with Little Love in the arena the other day, one of the other boarders was riding her mare at the other end. That end of the arena is known among the horses as the “freaky corner”; lots of strange and spooky noises, definitely something to be very suspicious about – especially during winter.

The mare at the other end definitely was aware of the corner; she was shying away slightly every round at the trot. The lady rode her horse rolled in fairly tightly: turning the mare’s head in and out, left and right, obviously trying to keep the horse’s attention on the rider. The mare’s tail twitched periodically as she eyeballed the corner.

She had a Pelham bit in her mouth and because of prior issues with “headshaking”, the owner didn’t use a nose band on the mare’s bridle. This allowed the horse to open her mouth as much as she wanted, which she did. I could hear her teeth clonking together and her lips flapping and the chain on the bit dangling when the horse fiddled with the position of the bit. After 10 minutes of work, I could see that nothing much had changed, apart from the fact that the mare was getting more and more reluctant to move forward.

I worked with Little Love in hand, trying to ignore the emotional message this mare at the other end of the arena was sending out to her rider. My heightened awareness in situations like these gives me the worst of all feelings: the feeling of utter helplessness. I have learned that trying to interfere is not an option, at least not when the subject is a person who would never dream of taking advice from someone like me. Silently I contemplated leaving the arena.

It was then, after rounds and rounds of mouth opening, tail twitching, sucking back and trying to stop, that the mare exploded. She rushed forward, performed two massive bucks which launched the owner in the air. Once the woman was airborne, the mare stopped in her tracks and let out a deep sigh. The owner landed on the ground on all fours while the horse stood still some five feet away. Little Love, standing calmly beside me turned to look at me and chewed as if she had been expecting the tantrum all along.

Fortunately the lady was all right. She took a few deep breaths and got back on her horse, her mouth pinched in a tight line. I tried to talk with her then, to see if I could help, but she was not up for a conversation and dismissed me completely. I left the arena shortly after.

Later, when I saw the woman in the barn, she felt compelled to explain to me why her horse had behaved so badly.

“She doesn’t want to work, that’s all,” the owner said. “That’s why she spooks in the corner. She never spooks when I’m not riding and even with long reins she’s ok. But the minute I pick up the reins, she pretends to spook. It’s just the mare’s way of trying to get out of work. She does this all the time. And did you see her? The second she got me off, she stopped. She’s not really afraid in that corner.”

I marveled at the woman’s logic, but even more I marveled over the fact that I might have spoken those exact words not so long ago.

“Oh yeah, my horse is lazy, he’ll do anything to get out of work. Like pretend to spook.”

Sounds so logical. That’s what human’s do, right? We don’t want to work so we do other things, procrastinate on watching television or pretend to be busy with something else. Sort of like spooking at the corner, in a way. And perhaps this is a valid theory. Perhaps horses talk to each other and say: “Hey, just keep spooking in the corner, it freaked out my rider so bad that she took me back into the barn.” And I know, horse’s can be inventive.  After all, their DNA tells them to preserve energy for when they really need it.

But something the lady said kept echoing in my head: “She’s not really afraid of that corner.” Now that was a valuable observation. If she wasn’t afraid of the corner, what was she afraid of? Because – undoubtedly – something was bothering the mare.

I used to be one of those riders who had a solution for every problem. My horse’s mouth was open: I strapped it shut with a noseband. My horse spooked in the corner: I rode it for an hour on a small circle until we were both blue in the face and over the spooky corner. My horse was lazy: I gave him a few smacks with the whip to get him moving. He bucked? He got smacked again and ridden for an hour on a circle until we were both blue in the face. All this worked to some extent, because horses are that way, they are compliant and will work with you, even -and often especially - when you are being a bully. I still can’t believe I was so absorbed in fixing the symptoms that I never stopped to think of the causes. But I also can’t believe how much my thinking has changed, how much I have changed.

Why is equestrian problem solving mainly based on solutions that work for humans only? Why didn’t I, as I was strapping a horse’s mouth closed, or whipping it into submission, think of how it felt to the horse? Surely he still wanted to avoid the bit by opening his mouth, but no longer could. Surely he was trying to communicate something valuable to me, which I ignored. Why are so many problems in the horse world solved with this “out of sight, out of mind”- logic? People are so fixated on what the horse looks like, that they forget to think what the horse is feeling, experiencing, thinking. Even when they are spelling it out in capital letters.

So many other areas in our lives take pride in a holistic and comprehensive thinking, why not do the same with horses? We use lateral problem-solving all the time. If the horse’s mouth is constantly open, why not, instead of strapping it closed, ask: “Why is it open?” If a horse is constantly bucking the rider off, why not research the possible causes, instead of jumping to conclusions. According to my experience horses don’t act, they react. If we give ourselves the right to own these beautiful animals, it is our duty to discover what they are reacting to, it is our duty to listen to what they are saying.

Learning starts with awareness. If you aren’t aware of what you are doing, it is impossible to change your behavior. Sometimes awareness hits you in the head like a ton of bricks, but usually it creeps on you slowly. I can’t exactly pinpoint the moment the seed of awareness was planted in me, it may have been the moment I tried to bitless bridle for the first time. Or, perhaps there had been a seed or two even before that. All I know is that that little seed snowballed into something absolutely enormous. And that ball is still rolling, that plant is still growing.

I tried my best to talk to this lady who was bucked off about the different possibilities for the mare’s behavior. I’m not sure how much of my ideas penetrated her mind, she seemed pretty stuck on her own theory on the mare’s unwillingness to work. When horses demonstrate unwanted behavior, suggestions of for example removing the bit are usually met with horrified looks and even hostility. And I fully understand why; my solutions are hardly mainstream and they require the rider to question a whole array of beliefs. Most people aren’t ready for that, at least not right away. But I know from personal experience that the seeds for change get planted over a course of time. And every little seed counts.  You never know which one will grow a plant.


PS. Unfortunately, riding related accidents have not been yet studied in relation to tack; researchers also tend to look for other answers to the horse’s behavior – the ground, the weather, the rider’s skills level – even the breed of the horse. I find this amazing. After seeing the positive changes in so many horses when removing the bit, I believe a great number of horses are suffering from the tack they are using. Most suffer in unnoticed “silence” but others are more outspoken. If you want to read more about this, go to: for a great article by Dr.Cook.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

What if?

One of the hardest things for me to accept is the fact that Little Love is not my horse. When I met her two and a half years ago, she was depressed and angry, as was her owner. I wanted to help them both, but especially the horse because there was something there, a little seed of understanding between me and the sullen mare who tried to bite me every time I got close enough. Little did I know that this horse would end up changing my life, she would make me question everything I ever learned about horses and guide me on a path to find a truth. Little did I know that in the process she would take hold of my heart, and she would hold it hostage until I was tamed.

I am grateful that Little Love’s owner lets me spend time with her horse three days a week. We have an agreement and I take what I can get. So Little Love and I meet in this controlled time and space the best we can, we hang out and spend time together, we ride, we play. But our time is often tainted by the feeling of duty I have towards the owner, who, bless her heart, tries her best with this horse that is not only a challenge for her to ride, but has forced her to compromise in so many ways. Sure, the owner would probably be happier and safer with another horse, but after years of struggling with Little Love and finally finding a faint chord of understanding with the mare, she has decided to stick with what she has and make it work. I commend her for her perseverance and her love for this complicated animal; together they have come a long, long way from those days of abusive trainers and painfully controlling tack.

I also realize what a key figure I am in this delicate equation. Without my contribution three times a week, the owner perhaps could no longer ride safely and life with Little Love would be very, very different. In fact, it would perhaps be what it was for five years before I met the couple; a continuous battle of wills, a brutal power struggle where both owner and horse keep losing. So, I operate in this platform, and with my heart at times filled with frustration, but other times with love and gratitude, I do my best to balance the needs of the owner and the needs of this horse that is not mine. But, there are days when I can’t help myself from dreaming of another solution.

This week Little Love’s owner was gone on a business trip and I had the opportunity to be with Little Love every single day for eight days straight. What a difference it made! When I went to the barn, we continued from where we left off, not where someone else left off the day before. On the fourth day I could tell Little Love was waiting for me, waiting to connect, to spend time with me. And suddenly we had time, we had days of it.

We hung out, hours and hours of just doing nothing. I didn’t have to worry about making sure Little Love was mentally and physically in the right mind set for the weekly dressage lesson with her owner. I didn’t have to worry about her owner’s safety on the trail ride she was planning for the next day. I didn’t have to feel like I had to DO something, exercise the horse so she would be calm, or take her on certain trails in preparation for an upcoming ride. Instead, Little Love and I could just be together and enjoy each other’s company, no strings attached. And that’s what we did; nothing and everything. We took walks together and I let Little Love decide which turn to take. I sat in the straw and watched her eat her hay. I scratched the itchy skin around her neck and massaged her back. We hung out in the arena and dreamed. I didn’t even put the saddle on her for the first six days.

This wasn’t the first time we had had a week together. But it was the first time our connection was this strong, the peace surrounding us nearly too much to bear. Every time we connect it gets better and every time it gets harder not to dream. The dreams of the what if’s.

What if she was my horse? What if I could decide where she lived and how? What if she didn’t have to live in a stall, but outside and with other horses in a herd? What if she could have a baby, because I’m so convinced she would like to have one. What if she would never be ridden in an arena again unless she agreed to it? What if I could choose to never ride her again?

My hunger grew as I ate. What if I had my own property and she could live there with me and my family. What if I had some other horses there, too, and I could see them all out of my window and visit them any time I wanted. What if the only human she ever had to deal with was me? What if she had the choice of being with me or walking away? What if it changed everything? Would she still be scared or would she trust me? What if we bonded even more? What if I could go walking on the trails without a halter? What if I could ride her without any tack? What if we could be together for the rest of her life?

What if.

I know, I should stop. This is no longer a dream, it is insatiability.

Sometimes I hear of people who have an incredible bond with their horse, so incredible that they ride with no tack out in the fields, so incredible that their horses are not afraid of anything because they trust their humans, so incredible that the person and horse are no longer separate but have merged into one, a modern day centaur. And I am jealous, utterly and shamefully jealous. Because it takes me back to the what ifs. For surely if I had all that I dream of I, too, could transform my bond with Little Love to something entirely different.

Perhaps of all animals it is only humans who are designed to dream, and that is exactly what makes humans capable of intense unhappiness. We always want something we can’t have and because of that, we can’t enjoy what we have in the present moment. Little Love has taught me so many things, but one of her most profound lessons for me has been to learn to live in the here and now, and to be grateful for the small gifts life brings along. When I am with Little Love, I should be nowhere else, neither in yesterday nor in tomorrow, nor in someone else’s life, but just there, with her. And as hard as it is, I am learning to do just that. So when she is in liberty in the arena and chooses to come to me, to be with me, even if for a short minute, I savor that moment. And that moment connects me with unspeakable love. Sure, it may not last forever and Little Love and I may one day be separated, but until then, I should allow myself be tamed by the black mare who knows much more than I do.


"Just that," said the fox. "To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . ."

"I am beginning to understand," said the little prince. "There is a flower . . . I think she has tamed me . . . " ………..

" [If] you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . . . "

The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time. "Please--tame me!" he said.

"I want to, very much," the little prince replied. "But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand."

"One only understands the things that one tames," said the fox. "Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me . . . " ……………

So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near--

"Ah," said the fox, "I shall cry."

"It is your own fault," said the little prince. "I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you . . . "

"Yes, that is so," said the fox.

"But now you are going to cry!" said the little prince.

"Yes, that is so," said the fox.

"Then it has done you no good at all!"

"It has done me good," said the fox, "because of the color of the wheat fields."

- from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Sunday, March 7, 2010


We do not err because truth is difficult to see. It is visible at a glance. We err because this is more comfortable. ~Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The horse stood in the center aisle of the barn, his ears alert and his eyes kind. He was a recent purchase from Germany, a three year old warm blood with “issues” as the owner delicately described him to the natural horsemanship trainer she had called for help.

“He’s extremely fearful of the whip or any other object held in a hand. He grows even more anxious when this object is brought closer him, especially over his back. Touching him with it is completely out of question. “

“Really,” the trainer said, “looks like we have a candidate for desensitizing. How is he under saddle?”

“Same thing, I can’t ride with a whip, and if I move around too much in the saddle, he bolts forward.”

The instructor, a calm and determined looking man with an air of competence about him, led the horse into the arena in a rope halter.

After smacking the horse a few times with the end of the long lead rope to establish “reaction and respect” as the trainer explained, he started what he called the desensitizing process.

He held the whip next to the horse, about a foot away from his flanks and started moving it up and down aggressively, making a swishing noise as if he was going to hit the horse. The horse spun around frantically trying to get away from the whip, but the man was quicker and stayed with the horse, constantly moving the whip in an aggressive fashion while pulling the horse’s head to the inside, forcing him on a small circle. The whip whistled through the air. Finally, after spinning around several times, the horse slowed down a fraction. The man slowed down the whip as well. Soon the horse stopped. He shook from head to toe, his skin vibrating all over like it was getting poked by a thousand needles. I could see how afraid he was, but he had already realized that he could not make the whip go away, but if he stopped, he could make it slow down. He had learned that he had a choice between a bad predicament and a worse predicament, and he’d chosen the lesser evil. My heart went out to the young horse as I sat silently in the sidelines of the arena. This kind of “training” is sort of like giving a person with a fear of heights the choice of staying on the ground with man-eating alligators or climbing to “safety” up a 100 foot tree. Everyone would undoubtedly choose to climb the tree, but it wouldn’t mean they would never be afraid of heights again.

“This is really a sensitive horse, but we must teach him to stand still when he’s afraid. Then he’ll stop being afraid,” the trainer said. “Look, he is already better!”

I cared to disagree. The gelding seemed as afraid as he had been twenty minutes earlier, he was just no longer expressing his fear as he knew what the consequences were. I felt sick to my stomach. I remembered witnessing something similar in my son’s swimming class just this fall. My son has never been a great swimmer, but he’s always loved water. One morning, before leaving to school, he broke down crying and told me he didn’t want to swim with his class anymore.

“Why is that?” I asked, surprised.

“I’m afraid of the teacher, she makes me do things.”

“What kind of things?”

My son cried and told me that the teacher was forcing him to go to the deep end of the pool and he was afraid. He had told his teacher that he was afraid, but she hadn’t listened. Just talking about the swimming had my son in tears. I decided to drive to the pool and watch the swimming lesson that day. My son went to school relieved that finally someone was listening to him.

I watched the swimming from a balcony meant for spectators. I had no access to the pools, but at least I could observe what was causing my sons anxiety. What I witnessed broke my heart. The teacher coaxed my crying son to the edge of the 15 feet deep diving pool and then pulled him in despite his obvious resistance. My son panicked and clawing at his teacher tried to climb out of the pool. I watched in rage as the teacher pushed my son down into the water and forced him on his back for the backstroke. Sobbing and with the teacher supporting him, my son managed to make it to the other end of the pool. He clung to the side and I could see he was terrified; he thought he was fighting for his life. Which of course he was; his intense fear had pushed aside any swimming skills he had ever acquired in the seven years of his life.

Helplessly I watched as the swim coach left my son hanging on the edge and went to work with the other kids, who had no problem swimming in the deep pool. Left alone, my son wailed in panic and gripped onto the side of the pool with dear life. He was left there, with his paralyzing fear, for a very long time until he stopped sobbing hysterically. By the time the teacher swam back to him, he was submissively waiting for her. He still was not able to swim across the pool on his own and when he finally was allowed out of the pool, I could see from his posture what kind of psychological damage had just been done before my eyes.

In the arena the man proceeded with the "desensitizing" now touching the horse with the whip over the back. The gelding was emotionally exhausted, but there seemed to be no end to the process. After the horse “accepted” the whip, the trainer attached a plastic bag to the end of the whip and started the practice all over.

The plastic bag prompted even stronger reactions from the horse: now he was terrified. The horse kicked at the man, reared and bucked, trying to free himself from the tight pressure of the halter. His eyes were rolling in his head as he fought to get away from the evil plastic but nothing helped; he was forever trapped on the small circle. Again, the more he moved, the stronger the pressure of the plastic and the whip became, but if he slowed down, the plastic slowed down as well. Finally the horse stood still, his hooves planted into the ground as if he had grown roots. He was breathing heavily and his whole body shook from tremors. I could see how much willpower it took from him not to move. He stood still while the plastic rested on his back, slowly moving over his skin, touching him everywhere. After 60 minutes of torment, he had climbed up the tree away from the alligators.  But now he was stuck up in the tree with his fears.

So, what is the logic behind all this? After my son’s swimming lesson I had a lengthy discussions with his school and heard that the swim teacher believed that if my son was exposed to the scary thing i.e the deep pool long enough, he would have to “get over it” and learn to swim. In psychology this is not called desensitizing; it’s called flooding and is used to break extreme phobias. It is not for everybody, and with human patients the most important factor that determines the positive outcome of such a technique, is voluntary participation. Obviously this is not a prerequisite that can be fulfilled with either children or animals. In so many cases when done against one’s will flooding breaks something permanently inside the animal or person. It breaks trust.

Unfortunately the elements that were present in my son’s swim lesson and this particular horsemanship lesson are often present in modern horse training. Ignoring the horse’s emotional state, applying significant amounts of pressure on the animal and using flooding and negative reinforcement as training tools are what horses face day after day. The trainer may not have physically abused the young gelding (apart from in the beginning when he smacked the horse with the lead rope), but in my opinion he did something even worse: abused the horse emotionally.

But the saddest and most disheartening fact is not what this trainer did, but that he did it without realizing the effect of his actions. Despite my feelings over this issue, I can’t even begin to judge this man or other people who train their horses in this manner. I have no doubt in my mind that both the trainer and the owner of this young gelding didn’t mean to harm him; they thought they were helping him. Just like my son’s swim teacher thought she was teaching him how to swim.

There is not a day in my life that I don’t think about this dilemma: Why can other people not see the suffering of these beautiful animals? Why can I? How can I, in an effective way, help people see what I see?

I feel both blessed and cursed with this knowledge. Ignorance is truly bliss, and truth hurts more than words can say, but – that all said, I would never want to turn back on this path I am on. I have yet to talk to the owner of the young horse in this story. I know that when I see her again, she might ask what I thought of her trainer. I hope I can find the right words to reach her at that moment. So often I remain silent, but perhaps it’s time to speak up. The horse owner may never talk to me again, but on the other hand, she may listen.


When I tell any truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those that do. ~William Blake

Desensitizing: By repeatedly exposing a horse to low levels of its fears, and having nothing bad and preferably something good (like a treat) occur, the horse ultimately gets used to what he is afraid of.

Flooding: By forcing a horse to deal with something that scares it until he no longer seems fearful. Flooding teaches many scared animals that their only way out of a bad situation is to shut down. Some horses may get over their fear using this technique, but usually lose trust in the trainer during the process.

PS. My son is working with a private swim teacher as well as visiting the pool regularly with me. He still loves water, but it will take lots of patience and time to overcome his fear of swimming in deep water.