Sunday, August 29, 2010

Levels of Imprisonment

A picture is worth a thousand words. Look at the above picture closely. What are the first words that come to your mind?

A horse is an animal that is by nature social and lives in herds, an animal to which movement and continuous grazing is compulsory for good health. We have managed to take this animal and force it to live in a 12x12 stall separated from its family, unable to move or graze all day. And this is the norm.

Some lucky horses get to go out for three hours in the morning to stand individually in their stamp sized paddocks and stare at each other over the electric fence in silence. Some, slightly luckier ones might go out in bigger pastures, still separated by the fence but at least there is a short stretch where you can run side by side and perhaps touch over the fence if you are taller than 16 hands. The luckiest of them all get to go outside together and if you live in a stall such as the one pictured above, it might be your life savior, because despite being imprisoned for life, at least you have each other, another horse to touch, a companion to share your miserable life with.

In other words, there are levels of imprisonment. Some more severe than others.

The more I think about this, the more it makes me sick. It seems so easy to forget that while you are not at the barn that the horse is just standing there, surrounded by four walls, unable to move more than a few feet to the left or right. Out of sight, out of mind. Tucked safely in his jail, so the owner doesn’t have to worry he is outside cantering around, possibly getting hurt.

Some people actually think the horse is happy this way. Just last spring I ran into a woman whose older gelding I used to ride over a year ago. She is now at another stable and since I haven’t seen the horse for quite some time, I asked how he was doing.

“Oh, he’s great. The barn is fantastic. The only down side is that he doesn’t get to go out at all, they don’t have pastures. But he has a really, really big box and straw up to his knees - so he’s happy.”

Really? Don’t you think he’d rather be outside? Knowing the facility, I can see how one can be fooled. Beautiful, vaulted ceilings, large indoor arena, wide barn aisles, state of the art wash racks, gorgeous tack room. Sounds fabulous, but unfortunately all that means nothing to the horse, absolutely nothing.

And then there is Little Love. There are days when I can’t stop thinking about her in her stall. Usually those are the days it rains so heavily, the barn owner doesn’t want the horses outside “ruining the pastures”. My heart is a little fist in my chest as I rush through my work, I speed on the freeway, I will the people in the grocery store to move a little faster just to save some time to go there, to have an extra moment to take my friend out of her prison. Even if it just for 15minutes, it is better than nothing.

Last week it was a day like that, a rainy day when I had thirty minutes to spare that I witnessed something that made me swallow back tears. I was taking Lilo’s halter off when I noticed the horse across the aisle moving restlessly in his stall. I peered at him through the metal bars that separate the horses from each other and seem to reiterate the real function of this barn. The horses are able to see each other, smell each other, but not quite touch each other.

The horse’s eye caught mine and for a moment we stared at each other. Then he turned and tried to lift his nose over the metal bars to touch his neighbor, a very friendly gelding. They could not quite reach; the bars were too high. The friendly gelding shook his head and went to his window, which opened up into the aisle. He pushed his head through and looked at his neighbor, as if to say “come on, come to your window.”

At this barn, each horse has a window which enables them to look out of their stall into the aisle. It also enables them, if they want, to stretch out and touch each other. We can’t talk about full body contact that would allow grooming, but just enough distance for noses to touch.

The horse pushed against his window and the bars rattled in the silent barn. His window was closed. Sometimes, if a horse is really interested in other horses, his window will not be opened. Some people believe that encouraging contact between horses is like encouraging mutiny. Others keep their horse’s windows closed for other reasons, such as fear of injury.

But if there is a will, there is a way. The only opening to this horse’s box stall is a small gap above his feeder through which the barn worker delivers the daily grain portions. It is just big enough to fit a human hand and a scoop. And a horse’s muzzle.

When I saw the horse push his nose out through the opening over his feeder, I couldn’t believe my eyes. To be able to do this he had to twist his neck to an unconceivable angle. But it worked. On the other side was the friendly gelding in the stall next door, waiting with his head out of his window. With tears welling up in my eyes I watched the two horses “play” in this manner, the other with his head through his window and the other with merely his mouth and nostrils fitting through the small hole above his feeder. Gently they touched each other, like two long lost relatives.

I realized that whatever I was doing, trying to provide companionship and momentary relief to one single horse, was just a mere drop in the ocean, a barely noticeable speck of kindness in a sea of injustice. All those horses, all of them, and the ones at the neighboring barns, neighboring countries and many all over the world, are horses just like Little Love and her friends. Horses craving for peer friendship and freedom. Horses craving to be touched by another horse.

Look at the picture in the beginning of this post again. What do you see? Do you see a happy horse living in this stall? Or do you see…

loneliness desperation anguish oppression prisoner breaking out lock up isolation torture life time of misery separation from peers boredom boredom boredom let me out yearning for freedom outdoors suffocating claustrophobia sad horse


Often we own horses and we expect them to perform for us the moment we enter in their presence. We think: “What can this horse do for me, how can I make it do what I want?” But after everything we have taken away from them; locking them in stalls, denying them a normal family life, withholding movement, continuous grazing. Not to mention nailing shoes to their hooves, putting bits in their mouths, saddles on their backs and riding them whichever way we please.

After all we have done perhaps the right question to ask would be: “What can I do for this horse to make his life better?”


PS. After I wrote this blog, I found out that this horse’s window is closed because people don’t like walking their horses past him as he is so keen to touch them. I talked to the horse owner and we agreed that perhaps it would be alright to open the second window this horse has which does not enable him to touch other horses, but does give him a look at the yard and everything that happens there. So, when the weather is sunny and warm, I have permission to open that window.
PS2. The pictures in this blog were not taken at Lilo's barn, but a barn I visited this summer for a day.

"The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference."   — Elie Wiesel

Monday, August 23, 2010

The power of the bit

I used to subscribe to mainstream equestrian magazines such as Dressage Today. I also used to regularly read Finnish publications such as Hippos and Hevoset ja Ratsastus which are geared towards the average horse enthusiast. Just a few years ago I found the articles in these magazines helpful and informative. However, since I have found my way onto the less beaten path (of the horse), I haven’t bothered to read such publications as I know they have nothing to offer for someone with my conviction.

So, having only half-heartedly followed the mainstream equestrian world, it has been easy to imagine that some real changes are happening, that people are looking for alternative solutions for their horses. But are they really? Or is it just an illusion created by the fact that I have surrounded myself by a minority which shares my world view? People who want no harm, use no force and base their relationship with their horse on trust and companionship.

Perhaps I’ve been living in a bubble.

To unconsciously prove myself right, I happened to run across one of the main publications in Finland geared toward the horse-loving public. This magazine has a circulation of over 35.000 which is quite a lot in a small country like Finland. And not only that, the magazine is the official publication for the National Equestrian Federation. Very influential, in other words.

The cover supports a picture of the country’s most famous dressage rider walking down a wooded path with her longtime four-legged international dressage partner. Inside I find a short article written by this rider. I turn to it enthusiastically, since I, too, have admired this woman most of my life. She was and still is, after all, the idol of so many aspiring riders. And once upon a time I was one of them.

Her article is titled “Avoid dangerous situations” which is an important subject. We all want to stay safe around horses. I start to read through, but already the first line makes me wince. “A horse is a big and powerful animal, and it does not think or act like a human.” This is all true, of course, but somehow I am starting to get a premonition of where this is going. I read further.

The article is about the competition season and how to minimize the risks of having an accident with your horse while competing and traveling. There is advice about using gloves while lunging and teaching your horse to stand still when you mount. But there is also advice on how to handle the said animal when loading. “I always load my horses with a bridle and a lungeline. With the aid of the bit I can control each step the horse takes.”

With the aid of the bit I can control each step the horse takes.

The words stare at me from the page. When we talk about horses, it always comes down to the same subject, doesn’t it? Control. We must have control. And, according to the article, the way to gain control over this strong and powerful animal is with a bit.

To tell you the truth, I am sort of shocked. This woman, an international competitor, teacher, horse trainer – dare I say: guru - who has been living and breathing horses for the past 40 something years, must use a bit to control the horse’s every step. What happened to trust and kindness? What about learning more about this strong and powerful animal, his language, his mind, instead of immediately using a forceful piece of equipment to get him to behave exactly like we want? Yes, he does not act and think like a human (thank god for that!), but that is why it is crucial for us to find the tools to achieve a two way communication with him. In my book this does not include putting a metal piece in his mouth to inflict pain (nor does it include competing with the horse, but I'll get to that in another blogpost).

The article continues to explain the use of the bitted bridle. “I always use the bridle (with bit) when I take my horse out of his stall in strange places. No matter how calm my horse is, I cannot predict what will happen around him or what others will do. Stallions should never be led without a bit and this should be added to the competition rules on all levels.”

Wow. Never is a strong word. Does she mean never as in not even at home? The article does not explain this, it merely says never. I turn back to the front cover, where this rider is walking leisurely down the path with her beloved stallion, a horse she has ridden and trained for nearly a decade. He is in a bridle, with a bit. And more over, he has a metal stud chain running through the left bit ring and under his chin. Just in case.

I can now see the enormity of the problem people like myself are facing.

After reading this article written by the most influential Finnish rider of all times and published in one of the biggest horse magazines in Finland, I realize that it will take a very, very long time for the entire equestrian community to change and abandon bits. As long as people believe it is absolutely necessary to have a bit to control a horse’s every step, they surely won’t consider riding in bitless bridles any time soon.

In fact, it wouldn’t even cross their minds since their idol and the person they most look up to has announced that the bit will guarantee control, every step of the way. And this saddens me beyond words. Because, having used a bitless bridle for over two years, I can only marvel over the difference it makes in the character of the horse, the relationship between the rider and the mount, and the overall well being of the animal. And, since the horse no longer is reacting to the pain in his mouth, it even helps us gain the coveted control. And when I say horse, I mean stallions as well.

Ok, I admit that it’s not only the bitless bridle that has transformed so many horses. Because, truth be told, going bitless sort of has the power to open your eyes to so many things. When you take the bit away and see the changes in your horse, you suddenly realize that you never really knew who your horse was in the first place. And once you see a glimpse of him, the real him, you want to see more. And then some more. And suddenly you are looking at other ways to improve his life, to help him free himself from the repressive life humans destined him from birth.

On the other hand, in the past two years I have witnessed so many riders crossing over to the “other side” that I have lost count. I still want to remain carefully hopeful that there will be a day when all horses are freed from the oppressive use of a piece of metal in such a sensitive area as the mouth. If people just open their minds to something new and innovative as the bitless bridle, soon we will have masses of riders trying this new way of riding. And I believe – I have to believe – that this is just the beginning of something that will someday become a norm.

As much as articles such as the one described above might discourage me, they also point me to the right direction. It certainly would be easier to get my message across if I was a world famous dressage rider, but I’m not. Perhaps I am a nobody, but when a nobody meets another nobody and then the pair of them run into somebody and anybody, a group has formed. And what was that quote by famous cultural anthropologist Margaret Meade?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Walk with me,


Saturday, August 14, 2010


Someone wise once said that home is where your heart is, and I couldn't agree more. Sometimes, however, when your heart is here and there and everywhere, it is hard to determine the exact location of home. Home seems to be many things; home is connected to people, places, memories – even feelings. Perhaps, rather than being a physical position, home is an emotional condition, a sensation of certainty and security, a state of calmness and peace where you feel you can be yourself.

My home is with my family, half of which is scattered around the world. My home is with my dearest friends, whom all live in different countries. My home is where I am physically, right now, but also where I grew up. More importantly, my home is where I spent the carefree summers of my childhood. And then, of course, there are the horses… My home has always been where the horses are.

After being gone for over five weeks on vacation in Finland (at the before mentioned location of carefree childhood summers now transformed to semi-carefree adult summers), I finally returned to Switzerland, my physical home, a few days ago. Before we had even crossed the border in our car, my thoughts frequently turned to Little Love and how it would be to see her again, to feel her presence. Would she forgive me for leaving her for such a long time? What would be her mental state? Had we lost the connection despite my efforts to keep “in touch” over the energy of the universe, by the power of thought only?

I wanted to believe the connection was still there, because I sure had felt it; while lying in bed at night waiting for sleep, while watching clouds drift overhead as I swung in a hammock, while driving the car in a thunderstorm. I would be thinking of something else and then – suddenly, there she was, the black mare. She would enter my thoughts , sometimes as just a feeling, a picture or a phrase. I missed my horse friend, but on the other hand not. Because although she was a thousand miles away, she was right there with me, all along.

After I got home I couldn’t get to the barn fast enough, it was as if a giant magnet was pulling me there. My unpacked suitcases and five loads of laundry could wait, but this couldn’t. I had to see her, feel her energy on the spot. She knew I was coming, of course, as she always does. She was waiting at the stall door.

Her expression was tired; much, much more tired than what I remembered, but her eyes flickered when she saw me. I scrambled to get her halter on, to take her somewhere where we could just be alone, the two of us, unbothered. The barn was busy with people tacking up, longing, riding, taking off on trail rides – the things people do with horses and I could feel Lilo’s reluctance to have any part in that. The only quiet place I found was the indoor arena, not the perfect location, but with the door closed it was an area of complete privacy.

I let her go at the door and she went down to roll. She rolled and she rolled, perhaps six to seven times over. I found a chair in the corner and pulled it out. I sat down and watched for a while; Little Love stood up, her ears moving with all the noises coming from the yard. I pulled a magazine out of my pocket and settled down to read.

It took her a good twenty minutes to walk over to me and touch my arm with her nose. I breathed in her presence, swimming in the feeling of certainty we somehow manage to create together.
“Hi,” I said.

She said nothing, just chewed. Then she turned and walked away for a moment just to return again, this time planting her face in my lap.

I knew better than to touch her, as she doesn’t like to be touched on the face – not by humans. We stayed like that for a moment, our energy fields overlapping, exchanging something I can only describe as soul connections. Then I felt the urge to get up and walk. I knew it was a message from Little Love, she was asking me to join her. Soon we were walking, then running. She trotted behind me, I trotted behind her, we trotted side by side. We cantered and she bucked, then we stopped and stared at each other, the edges of our souls touching, whispering, sharing. Little Love chewed and then, like a gentle shockwave, I felt an overwhelming peace enter my body from her general direction.

I was finally home.


Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration. ~Charles Dickens