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.


  1. "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."

    Have you read The secret teachings of plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner? He has a lot to say about heart.

  2. I think such a huge part of not being aware is that we are taught NOT to listen to our horses. I remember when I was eventing, and my TB was a very hot horse. He hated dressage and out scores were always average. He enjoyed jumping, it was more his pace. So I did the alternative thing at the time and went to a Parelli style instructor. I remember him telling me that there was no need to talk to my horse and for years that bothered me.

    The first time I got the sign that there is more to animals than we are taught was through an old Belgian Shepherd I owned. He was an abused dog and in time I gained his trust. One day, my other dog chewed up my new shoes and I got so angry that I hit her with the chewed shoe. I then felt a pair of eyes on me, and it was my shepherd, but the look in his eyes was so different to anything I'd seen, there was such a sadness there. It was like he was boring into my soul and all I could hear was him asking "Why did you do that?". To this day I can still see his face and picture the look he gave me.

    A couple of years later, my TB started locking in his stifle, so I got a kinesiologist out to him. This lady later became a good friend and she kicked the door of awareness open that day. I knew my gelding had suffered for a while now and I wanted to know exactly what was wrong so I could help him and I knew this lady could "talk" to him. She stood by him, hand on his wither for a few minutes but he wouldn't talk. A few minutes later, she was crying next to him. Tears sprang to my eyes as I asked what was wrong.

    "He has been hurting for a long time now, but he has hidden it from you because if you can't ride him, he feels you will get rid of him and he will be cold, hungry and have no one like before. He's afraid that when there is no job for him to do, you will discard him like his last owners."

    I threw my arms around him and cried. I told him not to be a stupid old fool. Riding didn't matter only his welfare and happiness.

    This lady knew nothing of this horse's history, but I did, and I know that she understood every word he had to say.

    My gelding raced for about three years, but he needed surgery on his throat as he struggled under pressure. Because the success rates for this procedure were so low and the issues it caused many horses, especially to eat, his owners "retired" him. He was put in a paddock, in the middle of a drought, and forgotten. The day he came to me on an interstate transporter, he was so thin you could see every bone in his body. He was so weak he fell off the ramp and his first night with me I thought he would die. His whole body was covered in puss filled sores and his eyes were sunken and defeated. He lived but he never forgot.

    So from that visit from my now friend, I had confirmation that animals have more insight than we are capable of or that we credit them with. My gelding knew the world of us humans. Horses are disposable. When they have no use their future is uncertain. They get forgotten about or sent to the sales to be bought by the slaughterhouses. Only some are lucky. I turned 180 degrees that day and as you said in a previous post K, awareness is pain, and I hurt for every soul that knows us humans for what we are and worries for their future and their life, for we have that control and they are at our mercy and how they know it.

  3. Kamila, your story brought tears to my eyes. What an amazing recount of how your horse (and dog, too) brought you to this place of recognition. Good for you for taking that 180 degree turn and thank you so much for sharing your story, it stay with me for a while, I know :-)
    Virtual hugs to you and your animals,