Sunday, September 26, 2010


“The road was new to me, as roads always are, going back.” - Sarah Orne Jewett

Friday was the opening ceremony of the 6th World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky. Held for the first time on non-European soil the 2010 Games will be an exceptional event, I have no doubt. I should know, having been to the WEG several times before as a competitor. The excitement, the cheering crowds, the competition, the parties, friends, fellow coaches and the amazing performances are something I will never forget. For a vaulting coach, the games are like the Olympics; several equestrian disciplines coming together, your country uniting with their horses to fight for the medals, the titles, the fame.

Twenty years ago it was at the first WEG in 1990 in Stockholm that I ever had the opportunity to walk on a real cross country jumping course. The obstacles were massive, impressive and watching the horses clear the same jumps the next day was unforgettable. Later, I snuck off for a few hours to watch my fellow countryman, Kyra Kyrklund ,win the silver medal with her famous stallion Matador. My team placed 10th in their first ever international competition. I was 22 and hooked for life, I thought. I went on to participate in the WEG in 1994 in Den Hague and 1998 in Rome. In 2002 my team didn’t qualify for the games (we came in second in the USA trials) and I was sad not to be part of the experience in Spain. I swore to return in 2006 Aachen.

And I did, but this time as a spectator. Life had taken a few turns and I had retired from coaching vaulting on an international level. Perhaps because I was no longer on the inside, but rather watching everything from a distance, the WEG in Aachen was a different experience, unearthing emotions I had not known existed. Surrounded by people I had known for years, some even decades, people who willingly gave me their extra tickets to the compulsory round or who snuck me into the warm up area to talk to fellow coaches I felt oddly estranged, almost perplexed as if I had been sent to a foreign land to observe something previously concealed.

And then there was the dressage. I had a ticket to the finals and for a good part of the Grand Prix Freestyles I sat in the stands, watching ride after ride, feeling untouched, uninterested. When there were only five riders left to go, the crème de la crème, the top five dressage masters of the world, I walked out of the stadium in search of something else, something more real. I honestly can’t say I was on the Path then, but perhaps the Path was already in me, creeping closer to my consciousness.

I found myself standing by the warm up arena. No longer was I far away from the action, watching a horse performing from fifty yards away, but I was right there, so close I could have touched the animals as they passaged down the long side. And suddenly all the glory of the sport was gone and all that was left was the ugly truth. The foaming mouths, the dripping sweat, the spurs digging into the flesh, the sounds of the struggle; it was all something you don’t see or hear from the stands of the stadium. With a tightening stomach I watched as the world-champion-to-be rode her horse in violent rollkur for a full thirty minutes.

That was four years ago. Four long years that have transformed my humanity. The WEG in Kentucky has started without me. But I’m not going to lie; a part of me misses the excitement of being part of something so amazing as the World Equestrian Games. I will never forget the feeling I had performing in front of all thousands of people, the media, the world. Nothing quite compares to the buzz surrounding the Games. It is about so much more than just the horses.

But that is exactly the point. Equestrian competitions are about so much more than just the horses. Mostly they are about people wanting to test their skill against the rest of the world. Nobody ever asked a horse if he wanted to compete, I certainly didn’t. Horses are not goal-oriented and competitive like we are, what right do we even have to use them as a means to gain something we want?

Last spring I came across a petition on the internet that rattled my cage. It is a petition set up by the Nevzorov Haute Ecole to ban all equestrian sports. That’s right, ALL equestrian sports. No more dressage, jumping, racing, vaulting, roping, driving – any competition with a horse would be illegal. Can you imagine that?

How bold, how daring – how absolutely ingenious.

Our current society is all about measuring competence, about proving personal excellence and the horse world is no different. Competition paves the road for breeding and training, it motivates the average riding school rider, it affects the daily lives of so many people and horses. Wouldn’t so many people just say: What is the point to be with horses if you can’t compete with them? Would these same people label their horses “useless” and send them to slaughter? Because let’s face it, there are people who would no longer be interested in riding, if they didn’t have the option to compete. Surely the racing industry would literally just fall to pieces. Not to mention all the associations and federations set up to support Olympic and other sports. Entire careers would be ruined. All the money, advertizing, training, careers, glory – gone. It would surely be disastrous.

I went to look at the petition and was shaken by my own feelings towards it. I wanted to sign it, but was torn. It was another one of those moments when I realized how far I have come in a relatively short time. How could I, a former international competitor and coach, want to ban all equestrian sports? I do, after all, still know a bunch of people who are competing as we speak.

But this is not about other people, is it? It shouldn’t be. It should be about me and my personal conviction. And we all need to make the decision for ourselves, nobody else. Someone is riding in a bit, another chooses to ride bitless, and then there are those who have given up riding altogether; we are all finding the best way for ourselves to be with the horse. I can’t pass judgment on anyone else but myself; I only have to live with my own decision.

When I stared at the petition, I realized the enormity of the equestrian world. There are so many ways to be with a horse, many of which involve exploiting the animal. To think of stopping all competition is completely insane, a utopia of sorts. But, I have to admit that it does make you wonder what it would change. Would it change the lives of our horses to the better? Would it change us to the better?

After thinking about the petition for several days, I went back to sign it. I was number 798 to sign. This petition may not make much of a difference, but I wanted to put my name on it for myself and myself only. And yes, I will probably feel like a hypocrite next week when the world’s best vaulters compete in Kentucky and I feel inclined to check on the results. People I know and even people I once coached are still participating. These are all people going for the gold, following a dream I once was part of. I wish them luck, I hope for them to catch what they are chasing.

In the meanwhile I wrestle with my own demons; my past, my future. I am evolving, but it seems impossible to predict at what speed.


“There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic. – Anaïs Nin

If you are interested in the above mentioned petition, go to

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The difference

"When anything gets freed, a zest goes round the world." - Hortense Calisher

Look at the two pictures above. What is the difference between the two? Or is there a difference?

If I told you that I kept my dog Chili in a crate 23 hours a day just to take her out for a training session in the yard once a day with a muzzle on her face so she couldn't open her mouth, what would you think of me? Would it be the same if I told you my horse lived in a stall, but that I rode it every day for an hour to give it exercise?

Why does it seem unacceptable to treat a dog in the above described way, but it is a customary reality for many horses? Horses, like dogs, are born to move. In fact, they are so inclined to move that they stand up and start walking within the first few hours of their lives. Yet people find it acceptable to keep them in stalls, unmoving, day after day.

Before our paths crossed, Little Love used to live at a barn where she never left her stall for other than a riding session. For two years she was let loose a handful of time, each time resulting in some sort of injury.

"She went crazy when she was free," her owner reported to me, "so in the end we never let her free."

Right. That would make sense, wouldn't it? The problem, of course, was that there was no opportunity to put her outside or let her go in the arena on a regular basis. Perhaps in this case it was best to refrain from EVER doing it. I think Leonardo Da Vinci put it well when he said: "Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return." Is it easier for horses to never be let loose than to get the opportunity once a year for thirty minutes or less?

I look at Little Love now, her confident calmness when I slip her halter off and let her loose in the arena or the pasture. She stands there and sniffs the air, then walks off to investigate the area. No crazy running, no injuries waiting to happen. And this only because she goes out in the pasture every day for four hours. That's it. Four hours of solitary freedom, a fraction of what she really needs. But what a difference it has made in who she is. I can only imagine who she would be if she didn't live in a stall at all, if she had access to movement every moment of her life.

So many people don't share (let alone understand) my passion for freeing all horses from stall living. Last winter when the weather was wet, the horses at the barn stayed inside for over two weeks straight. The pastures are grass and the barn owner wants to keep them in pristine condition, which means when it rains, the horses stay in. This happens periodically in the fall, winter and spring. Needless to say, Little Love turns into a maniac when her cabinfever rises. On days of complete stall confinement I do my best to go to the barn at times when others are not there to turn her loose in the arena. But life doesn't always work the way we want, and there are days when her only moment out of the stall is on the end of a rope or with a rider on her back. Which is not enough.

I had a casual conversation about this with the barn owner once, a conversation which started with the usual exchanges about the bad weather. Before I could complain about the horses having to stay inside for days, he brought the subject up himself.

"I don't understand what all the fuss is about horses having to go out every day. They are nice and cozy in their box stalls."

I looked at him in surprise. Had someone else actually voiced a concern? Was I not the only one here thinking this was total animal torture?

"Well, horses weren't exactly meant to live in stalls," I said, bravely. "Little Love is definitely a completely different horse when she gets to go out."

The barn owner gave me a scornful look. I could see I was quickly being labeled as one of those freaks who actually thought about horses' needs. Not that I didn't already have that label tattooed across my forehead before this conversation.

He let out a short laugh that sounded like a bark. "You know what? Ten years ago we didn't put the horses out for the entire winter, and they were fine. Three months inside. Horses don't care." Then he walked off. That was the last time we ever discussed the subject and what was there to discuss? The open hostility of his statement was enough to tell me this man was not going to change his thinking any time soon.

But I can't seem to get over this subject of captivity and freedom, it's as if my car is stuck on a hump in the road and no matter how hard I accelerate, I can't move forward and past it. Everywhere I look, there are horses being held prisoners and people holding them hostage.

A year ago a jumping horse passed through our barn. She was only there for a short while, but as soon as she arrived it was obvious that the mare hated being in a stall. She would kick the walls of her box sometimes non-stop for hours. Obviously this brought upon an injury and then another. As a solution, the owner attached leather straps around the mare's back legs, with a piece of chain on the back. This made kicking the barn walls extremely uncomfortable, although I have to give the mare points for trying. She also developed a bad habit of attacking everyone who passed her stall, which wasn't very pleasant as she lived in a busy location of the barn. Her aggression was not helped by the fact that when she kicked the walls, people would yell at her and even hit the bars of the stall with something, like a brush of a whip. I often stopped by her stall to talk to her, telling her that I understood what she was going through.

Finally, after months of fighting, the mare gave in and stopped the kicking. I was both relieved and sad to watch her surrender; relieved because I knew it would only get worse for her if she didn't stop and sad because the humans had managed to break her spirit. I admired her for her courage; the majority of horses don't dare express their opinions about stall living as vigorously as she did.  If they did, would it make a difference? 

But back to where we started: the two pictures at the top of this blog... If both these animals were locked up 24/7, would you feel more for - the dog or the horse? Or is it all the same? Where do you draw the line?

A goldfish in a fishtank.
A bird in a cage.
A dog in a crate.
A tiger in the zoo.
An elephant in the circus.
A seal in a bathtub.
A horse in a stall.

What is the difference?

~ K

"If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his next again,
I shall not live in vain."

- Emily Dickinson

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Message

“Problems are messages” - Shakti Gawain

Last week a woman called me because she was having trouble riding her horse in a bit. I agreed to meet her to give her the opportunity to try the bitless bridle and talk about bitless riding as an option. Two days later I arrived at the barn and was met by a tall, smiling woman who was holding the lead rope of an enormous warmblood gelding. I was delighted to see that the horse was barefoot, definitely uncommon in my neck of the woods. I asked the lady what exactly was going on. She shook her head and spoke:

“You see, I took the shoes off two years ago. The decision to do that took me a year, but then I finally did it. A while after I started thinking about riding bitless, too. I don’t know why, the thought sort of just came to me. After deliberating for months, I decided to try a hackamore*. My horse hated it, it was impossible to ride him in that bridle. So, I went back to the bit.”

I watched the horse closely. He was eating hay out of a bale placed in the middle of the barn aisle, but I could see he was listening and internalizing his person’s account.

“So, I rode in a bit again. But two months after, the problems started.”

“What kind of problems?” I asked.

“Well, at first he was just opening his mouth. I tried to strap it shut, you know, like everyone does, but it just made everything worse. Soon he was tossing his head.” She looked at the horse. “Then he started with the tongue, it was everywhere but not in his mouth.” She looked desperate. “I got the dentist out a million times, the vet and the chiropractor. We tried everything”. She sighed. “I hope this bridle works, because I’m at the end of my rope.”

I smiled. The horse was looking at me. We both knew it would work.

And it did. The horse was great in the bitless, in fact, he had never been better. The owner was relieved.

“You know what is really weird?” she said after getting off her horse. “He never seemed to have a problem with the bit for the first four years I owned him. It wasn’t until I took the shoes off and then started to think about the bitless option that he no longer supported the bit.”

I looked at the woman, she was so earnest in her bewilderment. I knew she needed me to say out loud what she had trouble putting into words.

“Perhaps your horse wanted you to go bitless all along and he was simply communicating this message to you,” I said and stroked the horses neck. He chewed. “Perhaps that’s why you got the idea to try bitless riding in the first place.”

The woman nodded. “You know, I was thinking about that, but… ” She glanced at me. I could see she wanted confirmation, reassurance. Please tell me I’m not crazy for thinking my horse is actually communicating with me, her face seemed to say. Please tell me I’m not crazy for feeling the way I feel.

“Well,” I said gently. “I commend you for being so observant and listening to your horse. Not everyone is capable of such awareness.”

She shrugged, but I could see she was pleased by the compliment. “In the end it was pretty obvious that he didn’t want the bit.” The woman looked away, sort of embarrassed. “I just didn’t want to believe it at first. It was sort of what happened with the shoes, too. People told me I was crazy when I took them off, but at that point I was convinced it was the right thing to do.”

“You listened to your horse about the shoes, so he figured you would listen about the bit, too,” I said.

I truly do commend people like this woman. It is not obvious to see misbehavior from the horse’s part as a form of communication. But to then look for alternative solutions? Most people will do anything but seek answers especially when they get the feeling the answers will lead to what they fear most – change in themselves.

All people have the ability to connect with another living being, but the belief that humans should dominate animals, especially an animal as big as a horse, gets in the way of true communication and true feelings. When a horse misbehaves, we don’t see this as information, but a problem that needs a solution – fast.

Perhaps the core of this issue lies in the fact that we are living in a brain oriented world. We value reasoning and problem solving over intuition and emotions. But real intelligence is so much more; it happens throughout the whole body, not just the brain. In fact, too much thinking can hinder our capacity to stay in the moment and feel and experience. Horses, on the other hand, are masters at both feeling and experiencing. They communicate with emotion, they live in the moment. And this is why we love being around them; we are seeking something we lost, if not at birth, soon after.

But – although we are unconsciously seeking this – we are also terrified of tapping into our two other brains: the brain in the gut and the brain in the heart. In theory we admire people who communicate with animals, we watch movies of so called horse whisperers and read books of children who grew up running with wild animals. These stories are exceptional and deep down we wish we could have such a gift as being accepted by animals as one of them. In real life, however, it often scares us to be part of something that seems so out of control, so instinctual. Surely something so primitive could not be what we are seeking for? If I listen to my gut and my heart, where are they going to take me? Am I going to have to feel something I won’t be able to handle? Am I going to have to look into myself? Will I like what I see?

For a while there I, too, was living in complete denial of the messages my intuition (and the horses around me) was sending me. It is easy to rationalize and follow the mainstream while making excuses to convince yourself that “this is the way it’s done.” I remember about seven years back a riding student of mine called me a horse whisperer and I laughed at her, claiming to be no such thing. And I was serious, even when she insisted that she saw some strange connection between me and the horses, that the horses acted different when I was present, I merely said “It’s because I’ve been doing this for so long,” dismissing the nagging feeling that I, too, like the horses around me, was capable of communicating with emotions. If I didn’t admit to hearing what horses had to say, I didn’t have to listen, right?

Sometimes it requires a major event such as an illness or an accident to force a person to encounter the emotions buried deep inside. For me it was perhaps a series of small, seemingly unrelated events put together that shattered the old me and opened up a new passage within. When everything else is torn up in pieces, peeled away like layers of an onion, what you have left is your vulnerable authentic self made of honest intuition and raw emotions. It can be an overwhelming experience to discover such hidden potential inside yourself, but at the same time it can free you in ways you never imagined possible.

I drove home from the meeting with the lady and her barefoot warmblood with my heart humming. I always feel uplifted when I meet new people who are changing, people who are brave enough to listen to their horses and the voice from their gut and heart instead to the humans around them, people who are willing to take an honest look at themselves and what they are doing.

Every day I see so many others who continue wanting the best for their horses, but who unwittingly hurt them. I used to wonder if such people were simply ignorant or just so numb to the core that they were incapable of connecting with anything living. Now I realize that probably most are not deaf and blind, nor are they ignorant or unfeeling, they just simply are not ready to hear and see the message. I can only wish their time will come, sooner rather than later, and when it does, they’ll have courage to take in the messages their heart and gut and horses are sending them.

The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it. – H. Norman Schwarzkopf

* A Hackamore is the traditional form of a bitless, but due to the shanks that act as lever arms, it can be a very severe experience for a horse.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Everything Lost

The only true voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but rather in seeing with new eyes. - Marcel Proust

Yesterday evening I thought that perhaps it would be nice to go for a trail ride with Little Love, but only if she fully agreed to the ride. When I got to the barn, I haltered her immediately and took her into the indoor arena, a place where we can be in peace together when the weather is good and others ride outside. The indoor arena is not much of a space, but it is as close to freedom that I can offer Little Love in this moment in time. Freedom is a relative concept. For a horse that lives on a 1000 acre farmland an enclosed riding arena would be imprisonment. But for Lilo, who lives in a small stall, the indoor can represent a piece of freedom, however short and small.

I had brought a book to read and I sat on a chair for thirty minutes while Lilo wandered around the arena. Every now and then she stopped by me to push on my book or lick my arm just to turn around and mosey to the other side of the hall. Finally I closed my book and approached her.

“Do you want to go for a ride?” I asked. She turned her head away and walked off. Okay, that was a fairly clear message. She walked a small loop and I thought perhaps she just wanted to hang out tonight, but then she turned and came back to me, putting her head down to the halter. This in her language means: “Yes, why not”.

I walked her to the grooming area, which she entered willingly. She has been known to stop as well, so I took her willingness as another sign that she, too, wanted to go for a ride in the woods. Once I had groomed her, I grabbed the saddle and showed it to her, watching her reaction carefully. She turned her head and looked at me, with her ears forward. This is another “Yes”, something she has just recently started to offer when it comes to the saddle. Before, there was just a whole bunch of “NOs” which she reiterated by biting the saddle, pinning her ears back and moving away from the situation, if she had that option. For this reason I have ridden her less and less, as I want to respect her wishes.

I reached under her belly for the girth, happy that we were going out for a change. Suddenly Little Love moved, trying to pull her rope loose and walk towards her box stall. I stopped what I was doing and, reverting to my old ways, said: “No, stay still, we have to go for the ride.” I didn’t notice the words I had used, the change in my own attitude. Instead, I fixed her stance, turning her head to face away from the stall and tried to grab the girth again. She made another quick move towards her box, pulling on the rope that was loosely thrown over the bar in front of her. I grabbed her halter and moved her back to her original position.

“Stop it, I have to tighten the girth.” I could feel myself tense up. I wanted to ride, I had my mind set on this ride. The forceful dominant rider, someone I used to be, started to lift her ugly head inside me. I tried tightening the girth for the third time, but this time Little Love nearly stepped on me as she moved abruptly towards the stall. Her ears were forward and she stood stock still, staring at her box door.

Then it dawned on me. The barn owner had just delivered her evening hay into her stall. In the wild horses eat almost all day, but in captivity we feed them two or three times a day at set mealtimes. Set mealtimes make horses obsessed with food and Little Love was no different. I suddenly realized what she was trying to tell me. In my tunnel vision world I had not realized what was going on. I was also fairly sure she could not understand why I would want to go on a ride when it was dinner time. In her world that made no sense whatsoever.

“Ok,” I said. “I’ll fix the girth and then you can go eat for a while. Then we’ll see if we go for the ride.” Little Love chewed. She waited patiently for me to get the saddle strapped on properly, content that her person finally had a clue.

I let her into the stall and she started nibbling on the pile of hay on the ground. I thought of what I had said to Lilo earlier; “We have to go for a ride”. Ha. We didn’t have to do anything. This was just human inflexible goal-oriented thinking. Horses must think we humans are nuts. I sat on the bench outside and waited for a good ten minutes. Then I grabbed the bridle and walked back into the barn.

Now she was ready to go. She hadn’t had all her hay, but had been able to eat enough to feel content. We set off for a ride, walking side by side at first. When we got to the top of the hill, I mounted her and she stood still, accepting me on her back. She lifted her head high and peered tensely down the field. I saw a tractor and a hay bailer in the distance.

“That’s okay, we don’t have to go that way, we could try something new today.” I sat on her back and she started walking, not because I had asked her to, but because that was what we were both thinking about; going for a walk. She didn’t take the usual turn to the left because of the tractor, but chose the road up the hill. We came to the edge of the forest.

“Hey, let’s go into the forest path,” I said and gently directed Lilo towards the opening in the trees. She hesitated, but then dove under the branches, ready to give it a try despite the claustrophobia that makes her shy away from trees and branches that come too close. Two fallen logs crossed our path and I could feel her unease. She snorted. Logs meant jumping and jumping meant stress, something she had learned long before our paths met a few years ago.

She stepped over the first log, but couldn’t help the panic that rushed into her limbs. She jumped over the second log and started trotting in alarm down the path. I ducked the tree limbs and leaned over her neck, not touching the reins.

“Hey, it’s okay,” I said, but didn’t try to slow her down. I knew she would calm down in a moment, when she felt the memories had subsided enough.

Soon she slowed down to a walk. We treaded softly over fallen pine needles and browning leaves. Once we were on a wider path, I stroked Little Love’s neck; she was alert, but calm.

“If you want to trot or canter, I’m with you,” I said. I didn’t touch her with my leg, but she picked up the canter. It was slow, tentative. We cantered for a moment, then took a left at the trot to pass the scary cottage in the middle of the forest. Someone was having a party there and children shrieked with delighted surprise when they saw the black horse approaching. Little Love held her breath and her head came up very high, but she didn’t stop or turn to go home like she would have last year.

“Brave horse,” I said to her, focusing on regulating my own breath to help her cope.

It wasn’t easy for her, but she passed the commotion calmly but swiftly. Once it was all behind us, she picked up a nervous trot, trying to shed the experience off the way horses do by running away from it. I didn’t stop her, but instead followed her lead, allowing her to work out the stress from her body.

When we popped out of the forest, the sun was starting to set behind the Jura Mountains and facing this magnificent backdrop, we both caught our breath simultaneously. Although I have lived in Switzerland for over five years, I never stop marveling over the beauty of the mountains, the lush shades of green in the summer and the soft snow peaks in the winter. Little Love, on the other hand, was not admiring the mountains. True to her horse nature, she was content to finally be out of the confines of the forest and back to safety of the wide open spaces where she could see as far as her eye took her.

We approached the barn from the hill above and Lilo slowed down to an ambling walk. She doesn’t like carrying me downhill, so I asked her to stop. She stood patiently waiting for me to climb off, loosen the girt, put up the stirrups and open the noseband. I walked her into a field and she put her head down to graze. I watched her suck in the lush end-of-the-summer grass and thought of nothing in particular.

Suddenly a dog barked at a house by the road and Little Love jumped and snorted in panic. Instead of trying to stop her, I took lead and trotted ten fifteen paces away from the dog before slowing down to a walk again. Little Love, who had followed me, blew air out of her nose and shook her head. And it came to me again, like it often does at small moments like this, that this is what it is like to be “with” the horse, not against the horse. It is like a constant exchange of emotions and reactions, it is a constant effort to understand the messages passed to you in this silent language called horse. To be with the horse is to understand the point of view of the horse and not to forcefully implement that of your own. With force and pressure and control you cannot have togetherness, you can only have separateness.

Long time ago I thought that the horses had to do what we said, or else everything would be lost. Everything. You must be the boss or the horse will take over. I can’t say how many times my trainers told me that. So many, that I believed every word of it and learned to be the boss. But here I am now with this beautiful black mare, and it no longer matters who the boss is, or if there even is one. There is no inequality between friends.

And yes, it is true; everything I ever knew is lost. And I thank the universe for that every day.


One cannot see the light. It is what makes us see. – Henry Corbin