Monday, April 26, 2010

The Horse and the Girl Part 2

Part 1 was published August 31,2009

The horse was in his box this time, sleeping with his eyes half closed.
“Hey,” she said and leaned on his stall door, looking at him through the bars. “I’m back.”

The horse opened his eyes and picked up his head. His chewed and licked and then finally spoke.

“So I see.”

The girl slumped her shoulders and the horse snorted.

“You were wishing it was all a bad dream, weren’t you?”

She nodded slowly. “Am I going crazy?”

“Maybe you are,” the horse said, “after all, you are having a conversation with your horse!” He snorted again and a piece of snot flew out of his nose and landed on the girl shirt. She wiped it away impatiently.

“Not funny.”

“You are the one who brought it up,” the horse shrugged as if it didn’t give a damn how the girl felt. The girl frowned.

“Let’s not fight,” she said.

“Let’s not,” the horse responded and chewed a little more, as if he had an imaginary bubblegum in his mouth. They stood silent for a while, then the girl opened the box door and slipped into the stall.

“You aren’t going to try to bite me, are you?” She looked at the horse.

“I don’t know, depends what you have in mind.”

“What do you mean?”

The horse took a step back. “Well, if you are going to pretend to be brave even though you are afraid – there is a good chance I’ll bite.”

The girl stared at the horse. He shrugged again. “I hate when people are not authentic.”


“Yeah, you know, you are scared but you pretend to be brave. I don’t get that. If you are scared, you are scared. You don’t try to cover up your true feelings. I find it highly suspicious.”

“Really.” The girl thought about all this for a moment. “But my riding teacher tells me to look brave, so you won’t know that I’m scared.”

“Ha.” The horse laughed out loud. “Let me tell you a secret: I know how you feel and so do all the horses.”

“You know? How can you know?”

“We just do, it’s what we do best. And it really freaks us out when people pretend to be something they aren’t. We like it more straight forward, you know, what you see if what you get.”

The girl leaned on the wall. “I never knew that.”

“Well, now you do.”

“But how is it that my teacher doesn’t know? She keeps telling me to get big and scary and powerful looking, so you won’t bite.”

The horse sighed. “Lots of people don’t know. You guys operate in the world the way you see it. You think everyone is like you, but we aren’t. You like to control things, also your own emotions. I think it’s just best to let it all out, at least in your case.”

“What do you mean in my case! You are talking about me like I’m an emotional mess!” The girl folded her arms across her chest in defense.

“I don’t mean you in particular, but humans. You all are so emotional, and you spend half your lives trying to hide those emotions, cover them up with another emotion.”

The girl thought of herself and her mother. She nodded. “That’s true. My mom pretends like everything is alright, and like she isn’t sad and lonely and all those things. But I know she is just covering up, for my sake.”

“And how does that make you feel?”

“I don’t like it, it gives me anxiety.” She looked at the horse, the way his forelock fell to one side of his face. “Is that how you feel, too, anxious?”

The horse nodded. “I feel anxious, sometimes, but sometimes angry, too.” He smacked his lips together. “The thing is, I reflect a lot of what you feel. If you are scared, it scares me and when you get angry, well…”

“You get angry, too.” The girl finished the sentence. “It makes sense, but I never thought of it that way.” She peered into the horse’s eyes. “So, when I come here and I’ve had a bad day…”

“I know that. And I know how the ride is going to be, too.”

The girl blushed. “I know, I know, you don’t have to say it.”

“But maybe you do.”

The girl thought about it for a while and the horse turned and drank out of his automated water cup. When he turned to look at the girl again, she was ready to speak.

“I know I hit you, I hit you last week when I was riding.” She looked away, down the barn isle. “And I shouldn’t have.”

The horse stood very still. “Can you tell me why you hit me?”

The girl looked at her feet and pushed around the straw bedding with the tip of her left boot. “I suppose I was angry because you wouldn’t go forward.”

“So I wasn’t moving at the pace you wanted.”

“Yeah.” She looked embarrassed. “And now – I don’t know – I just feel like I don’t really have the right to even ask you to move forward like that.”

The horse lifted his head, there was a blade of straw sticking from his mouth and the girl felt like picking it off, but she didn’t move.

“Why? Has something changed?”

“Well, duh! Everything has changed. I mean, look at you, you can speak!”

The horse cocked his head, as if amused.

“So, because I seem more human, it’s no longer alright to beat me with a stick?”

The girl shook her head. “No, wait, that’s not what I –“ She stopped abruptly.

The horse stood before her in silence.

The girl felt so overwhelmed with embarrassment that she wanted to leave, run out of the box and hide from the feeling she had in her chest. What had she done? What kind of a monster was she? Tears sprung to her eyes. The horse took a step closer and pushed his nose close to her solar plexus, right under her heart. Suddenly she felt warm, as if a blanket of love had fallen over her from the sky.

“Wait, what are you doing?” She whispered. Tears flowed onto her cheeks and she let out a sob so deep it was as if all the sadness in the world had suddenly surfaced in her.

“I’m – “

“Sshhhh,” said the horse and blew a warm breath over the girl. They stood very still, barely touching but yet so connected it would have been impossible to separate one from the other in that moment. Forgiveness and love and acceptance floated in the air, invisible yet so tangible.

Suddenly someone walked into the barn, the girl could hear a man whistling a tune in the other aisle. The moment was broken and the horse turned away, chewing. The girl sat down in the straw and it felt strange to do that, to trust the big animal so much as to not worry about getting trampled.

“Don’t worry,” the horse said as if reading her mind, “I won’t step on you.”

“I wasn’t – “the girl started, but then stopped. If the horse really knew every emotion she had, there was no need to lie. She looked at the horse.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” the horse said.

“Do you horses talk to each other, like we are talking now?”

The horse picked at the straws, separating the left over pieces of grain with his lips.

“Of course. Actually, it’s more like being connected through space, instead of a conversation. We are all connected in the universe, all living beings and even the ones that lived long time ago.”

“You mean like the dead people?”

“Yes, I mean the dead people, but also the horse and dogs and lions and what have you. “

“So, right now there are all these ghosts hanging around?” The girl looked around, her eyes wide, but slightly skeptical. Was the horse pulling her leg?

“I’m talking about energy, rather than something as concrete as a ghost.”

The girl picked up a piece of straw and wrapped it around a finger.


The horse nodded. “Yes, like the energy that surrounded us just a while ago, I know you felt it.”

The girl looked at the horse’s eyes, and wondered how she had never noticed how his lashes curled ever so slightly at the tips, giving him an almost feminine gaze. She frowned.

“But I’ve never felt that before.”

The horse looked focused, as if he was thinking hard.

“Have you ever thought of someone and then immediately after bumped into them?”

“Yes…” she was hesitant. “Wait, do you mean for example when you think of calling someone and right when you go pick up the phone, they call you?”

The horse snorted. “Yes, that would be it.”

“Or you think of someone and soon after get an email from them. I always thought that was coincidence.”

“Nope. It is intuitive communication, which in turn is based on energy traveling in space.”

“Wow.” The girl was impressed. “It makes sense, but I’ll really have to think about that a little more.”

“Sure,” the horse said.

They were silent for a while. The girl listened to the barn noises, people arriving after work to exercise their horses, taking them onto the aisles for brushing and tacking up. She felt conscious of herself, sitting in her horse’s box instead of doing something productive, like brushing.

“I better go now,” she said.

The horse nodded. “I understand.”

“I don’t have school tomorrow.”

The horse smiled. “I’ll see you in the morning then.”

The girl nodded and stood up. She wavered at the door for a moment, then extended her hand out and stroked the horse’s neck gently. “Bye now,” she said.

The horse turned his back at her to take another drink, but the girl could feel the blanket of love wrap around her and as she rode her bike in the falling dusk, love followed her all the way home.

~ K

"Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after"  ~ Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, April 18, 2010

On vaulting

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

~T.S. Eliot, 1943

I used to be an international competitor; I was the first person to compete at the international level from my country in the sport of Equestrian Vaulting. After my own career as a vaulter didn’t exactly take off, I became a coach. True to my nature, I wanted to immediately be the best coach I could be. Vaulting was my life; I dreamed and breathed the sport. It affected everything I did, my educational choices, my career turns, even my relationships. Vaulting defined me; it made me who I was and I gave it my all.

And vaulting gave back. I had the privilege to coach an exceptional bunch of individuals in two countries, to attend several World Championships, European Championships, Equestrian Games, shows, performances, and national titles. I formed lifelong friendships, visited foreign countries. I even met my husband through vaulting.

It was an exceptional twenty years in the sport. I was unarguably very good at what I did. My team won a bronze medal from the World Championships to prove my competence. I was a sought clinician, a known figure in the sport.

Then I moved to Switzerland with my family. I continued to be involved in the sport, but rather than being in the middle of it, I was now on the fringes, doing occasional clinics, going to competitions as a spectator rather than a participant. And suddenly all of it didn’t seem so important any more.  Sometimes you have to create a distance to see more clearly. And the farther the distance, the more I could see what really had happened when I was part of the sport, what the real sacrifice had been.

I met an old vaulter a few weeks ago and was lucky enough to spend some time with her just talking. She is still involved in the sport and asked me if I ever missed coaching vaulting. I had to think about that question for a while before answering. Yes and no, I said. I don’t miss the part of training the horses and doing the actual vaulting, I don’t think I am cut to do that anymore. And it’s not only that I don’t believe in bits and side reins and such, but rather that I don’t believe in using a horse to fulfill human dreams about competition and fame.

I know, I know - I did it myself for years. Do I think my vaulting horses were suffering? Honestly, I don’t know. I would like to believe they weren’t, but truth told I probably did exploit them, more or less. We all do our best to give our horses a good life, and our vaulting horses could not have been loved and cared for better, of that I am sure. But, I did train them with one sole goal in mind: making my team the best in the world. So - in this respect, they were merely tools of an ambitious human. I wish I could go back and do it differently, but then again I’m not sure it can be done differently with the same results.

And that is the dichotomy: I don’t regret my years in vaulting, but I do feel guilt about being so blind about the horses. And this brings me back to the original question. Yes, I miss coaching vaulting. I now coach floorball and gymnastics, but when it comes to coaching a sport, nothing can replace vaulting. Another sport can give you the same feeling of community, the feeling of making a difference in a child’s life and a similar sense of accomplishment. And even the part about perseverance and team work and strength – it’s all there with other sports as well. But vaulting takes you to a whole other level of self-discovery only those who have been part of it can truly understand. Vaulting is not just a sport; it is a lifestyle, something that sticks with you for as long as you live. How could I ever regret being part of that?

What I know for sure is that I influenced the lives of several young girls and boys over the years, and the influence was positive. In fact, in some instances it may have been life-altering. And I dare say that the horses involved knew it too and were participating in the process. Because the horses were and are what makes vaulting special as a sport. Without the horses the experience would be completely different, merely ordinary. I’m sure it would still be good, but with certainty I can say it would not be as profound.

Perhaps this sounds like an attempt to justify my own participation in something I now consider questionable. Could Trix, Flora, Dan Cake, Jealousy, Socks, Caneel, Hunter, Juliet and Donatello - just to mention a few - have known what they were doing for those children or for me? I believe they did. And true to their horse nature, they willingly gave to us humans, to help children and adults alike find the dream they were looking for. 

Will I ever coach another vaulting team? I think not. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t understand others who will.

~ K

Sometimes it's necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly. ~Edward Albee

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Path

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. ~Marcel Proust

I’ve been on the road for the past two weeks and haven’t had any time to write. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been thinking about writing – quite the contrary. I have been waiting for this moment for days, the moment I can sit down and try to make sense of everything I felt these past two weeks. But now that I finally sit here at the computer my mind and heart are practically overflowing with thoughts, impressions and emotions. How do I start to unwind the tangled mess also known as my consciousness? Where do I find the end of the red thread that I know is there?

Over the Easter break I visited Finland, my home country. During this visit to Finland I met an array of interesting people and horses. I tried bitless bridles on three willing mounts, I spoke to two groups about the biomechanics of riding, talked with several individuals about the physical, psychological and emotional impression we make on horses, taught numerous riding lessons that focused solely on communicating with the horse via the rider’s seat and watched the movie The Path of the Horse with two friends. I had a busy schedule, and afterwards felt physically tired. But, as tired as I was, there was a certain calmness inside me; thoughts that had occupied my mind for months suddenly came to a halt. This enabled me to find some sort of temporary peace.

I’ve been around horses for over 30 years, but it hasn’t been until in the past two years that I have noticed a collective shift in how equestrian people think. I seem to run into “alternative people” left and right, sort of like when you are trying to become pregnant you see pregnant women everywhere. I first thought it was because of the shift in my own consciousness that allowed me to finally be able to spot these people, but I have now come to realize that the world is changing.

The world holds a balance in everything. If the winter is cold with a lot of snow, the summer will be warm with no rain to balance out the average temperature and rainfall of the year. I believe the same is happening in the horse world. Thanks to the internet, word about Rollkur, hyperflexion and other examples of extremely competitive riding travels at the speed of light. Unfortunately many people follow the example and adopt these methods to their own training, sometimes even without questioning them. On the other hand, more and more people are starting to turn the other way, seeking softer, more humane interaction with horses. Suddenly it is as if two completely different worlds reside in the same universe, but do not coexist in perfect harmony: the polarization of the equestrian world is stronger than ever.

When I think about everything I experienced during my stay in Finland - the people I talked with and the horses I met - my general feeling is of optimism. Optimism because now more than ever I realize that there really are many people out there who are seeking something different, new answers to age old questions; people who want to take a step on what has become known to us “alternative horse people” as The Path.

The Path (of the Horse) is the personal journey people embark on when they decide to stop using force and start listening to their horse. The Path is for people who want to be with their horses in a gentler way, without using force or pressure. The Path is never the same for any given individual, it is unique to each and every one. This makes it often a highly personal experience that involves a lot of self-reflecting and soul-searching.

People get on The Path in different ways. In hindsight I can see that I was on The Path for several years, but traveled at snail speed. I was not aware of my progress or that I was on a journey. My personal turning point happened in June 2008 when I first tried the bitless bridle on Little Love. Since that experience, I started traveling down The Path at record speed, abandoning most of my old beliefs and looking for new solutions. But - despite the progress I have made and the things I have learned about horses and myself, I still have the impression that I am in the very beginning of this road.

Being on The Path is not trouble-free. It most often involves feeling desperate, lost and alone. Increased knowledge means increased pain. It is suddenly hard to interact with people I call “mainstream equestrians”, people who are not on The Path. Things you never used to pay attention to become so pronounced that you can’t stop thinking of them for hours, sometimes days: a yank in the mouth, a kick with the spurs, a horse’s neck rolled tight with draw reins or a harsh bit; a yell, a slap, a demand. All that force and pressure, all that need for control. And this is supposed to be ok? You wonder why you didn’t see all that before.

Being on The Path also requires loads and loads of persistent. There are days when I want to stay home and forget I ever knew a horse, let alone a person who rode one (myself included). It is easy to become desperate, it is easy to become isolated. And that is exactly why I keep on going, because I feel that there are so many people out there waiting to connect with their horses and vice versa. People like me.

Or like the people I met in Finland. Not all of them have found The Path as of yet, most don’t even know it exists, but you can tell they are seeking. I can always spot the signs: the open mind, the desperate need to understand their horse, the hunger for answers, a hopeful belief that there has to be something else out there, than what they have learned. It is as if a door has opened in these people, a door that was not there before. Sometimes the door is wide open and sometimes there is just a crack, but I can see the opportunity that lays there, the chance to step out of the box and closer to The Path.

And that is what my life is about: traveling my Path with such vigor that it sets other people seeking for theirs. I used to think I did it because I love teaching, but while in Finland I realized that actually I do it because I love learning. Every time I meet a new person, a new horse, be it a teaching situation or just a random encounter, it is an opportunity for me to learn something about the psychology and way of horses. And ultimately this means I learn about myself. It is like a drug, the learning; sometimes it makes you feel like crap, but sometimes it sends you off into a universe of bliss. But at the end of the day, no matter what you have felt, you want more.

I have no idea where this is going to end or if it even has an end. I have let go of so many areas in life that used to be part of who I am, that in many respects I have changed completely. And I don’t think I’m exactly done changing. I think it is finally time to really examine where I came from and where I am now. I have come a long way from those days as an international vaulting coach, a trainer and a dressage rider. But I do think I have changed for the best and hopefully continue to change for the better.

I haven’t actually lived in Finland for over ten years, but I keep going back every year, sometimes several times. Despite living in different countries as a child and now as an adult, I am still Finnish by heart. It is in Finland where I first fell in love with horses, it is in Finland where I connected with horses as a child. My family is in Finland and many of my dearest friends. But there is also something else; there is the memory of the beginning.

Sometimes you have to go back to your roots to really see how far you have traveled.

Happy traveling,


There's an alternative. There's always a third way, and it's not a combination of the other two ways. It's a different way. ~David Carradine