Sunday, October 24, 2010


“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” - Arthur Schopenhauer

One day, while I was surfing the internet looking for information, I ran across the above image. It is a thermographic image of a horse’s feet. What is peculiar about this horse is that while three of its feet are barefoot, one has a shoe.

The picture is originally from Dr. Strasser’s “The Hoof Care Specialist’s Handbook” Section III -20 with the following caption: Thermographic Image of the legs of a horse shod only on the front right: darker colors indicate colder areas. Circulation in the front right is severely disrupted (*thank you Claudia for researching this for me!)

I find this picture quite powerful. It is amazing how one picture can drive a point across within a fraction of a second. Of course, I am already convinced all horses should be barefoot so the effect is sort of lost on me, it’s like preaching to the choir. But when I showed it to someone who thinks taking the shoes off a horse is like asking humans to start breathing under water, the person flipped out.

“That can’t be real,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked

“It just can’t be. I know my horse has circulation in his legs. That picture makes it look like there is no blood at all.”

“Of course there is some blood. This just shows that the circulation is impaired.” I was calm, but I could see the steam starting to build up in this woman’s head. I could see an impending explosion, but I decided to grab the bull by its horns, nevertheless.

“Imagine what that does to the hoof. Reduced blood circulation means reduced nerve function. Reduced nerve function means – “

“That makes no sense,” the woman interrupted me. “Why would we put shoes on horses if it would be that harmful?”

Why indeed?

Our discussion went on for another three minutes but it didn’t exactly lead anywhere apart from the lady getting very, very hostile towards me. I admit, I did set her up by showing her the picture in the first place followed with my remarks, which – no matter how much I tried to tone them down – made me sound like a “know-it-all”. I believe the last thing I said was: “That’s why the hooves are so cool when a horse has shoes, there’s no circulation. You know, barefoot horses have warm hooves.” The next thing I knew I was looking at her back walking away from me.

That didn’t go too well. And I had so much more to say.

A year and a half ago I attended a weekend course with a French horseman called Donald Newe. He, too, believes in barefoot horses and a non-traditional approach to horses where the use of force and dominance are unnecessary. Although I was definitely able to absorb his teachings, others in the course were not. Donald Newe, who is neither diplomatic nor subtle about delivering his message, commented on that fact by saying that for the information to hit home, the person must already be “pregnant” with it. In this respect he did not call himself a teacher, but rather a midwife who delivers the baby.

What Donald Newe says appears to be true. Sometimes people are just not ready to take in the information, no matter how convincing the facts are (i.e. they are not pregnant). Sometimes people feel downright threatened by the information (i.e. they don’t want to be pregnant).

The subject of barefoot horses seems to be one to raise blood pressures. Just a little over a month ago a friend of mine, who at the time was still boarding at the next door stable, took the shoes off her young Hannoverian gelding. My friend asked me to put her horse out in the paddock in the afternoon so he could get as much movement as possible. Movement is crucial for all horses, but especially a horse that has just become a barefoot horse.

When I arrived at the barn, the horse was waiting at the stall door, ready to get out. In fact, when he saw me, he started kicking his door as if to make his point clear. I found his eagerness a bit strange as he had surely been outside in the pasture in the morning, like all horses in the barn. I haltered him and walked him outside. He was walking very well for having just been de-shod the day before, perhaps a little tenderly with his fronts over a few stones on the ground, but that was to be expected. He could, after all, feel the ground under his feet for the first time in years.

The moment I popped out of the barn, the barn worker, a man in his thirties, stopped the tractor he had been driving and waved at me from across the property. He was yelling something to me in French, but because it was a bit windy, I couldn’t catch a word of what he was saying. I put my hand to my ear, to communicate to him that I couldn’t hear and continued walking the horse down the paved street towards the paddock some 70 years away. When I saw the barn worker jump off his tractor and run towards me flailing his arms, I stopped. Was something wrong?

The man ran towards me, his face beat red. All the while he was yelling at me. My French is fairly good, but perhaps because of his emotional state, the man had reverted to his native dialect, which is barely comprehendible even to a native French speaker. But I did understand enough to realize what this was about.

“Where do you think you are going with that horse?... Are you crazy?... that horse has no shoes and should stay in stall… you are abusing this horse… he is in pain… people like you don’t care about animals…”

By the time the man got to me and the horse, he was shaking with anger. I tried to get a word in.

“Yes, I know he has no shoes. That is why I am taking him out, so he can move and get his blood circulating. The last thing he should be doing is standing in a stall.” I wasn’t sure any of this registered with the man.

“It is animal abuse to take the shoes off,” the man screamed. “He needs to stay in his stall!”

I see. I guess it was pointless asking him if the horse had been out in the pasture that morning. I tried to ignore the man and lead the horse to the paddock, but he blocked my way.

“If you move that horse another foot, I will call the SPA and make sure you will be prosecuted for animal abuse!” He took a threatening step towards me.

Excuse me? I stared at the man, someone I had known for the past five years as a calm and quiet individual. Again I tried to explain why the horse’s owner had taken the shoes off, how at first this might feel uncomfortable for the horse when the blood started to circulate again, but how with movement and proper care, he would get through this initial stage and live a healthier life. The man would not hear a word of it. The more I said, the more aggressive he became. Spit flew out of his mouth as he shouted at me, flailing his arms in front of my face. I can’t tell you everything he said, but the word stupid occurred in his speech several times.

It didn’t seem like this man was about to calm down and it crossed my mind that he might actually physically attack me, if I didn’t back off. Finally, with my hands shaking, I turned around and walked the horse back into the barn, hoping this would relieve the situation. It didn’t. The man followed me into the barn and even after I had put the horse in his stall, kept verbally attacking me. Finally I got in my car and drove home, as I realized that he would not leave me alone unless I left the property.

At home I tried to understand what had happened, but I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. I had heard of similar confrontations from other people who had “gone barefoot”, but this was the first time I had been on the receiving end of such anger and hostility. What was it about taking the shoes off ones horse that so threatened people? Had I taken a whip to the horse in the name of training (as many do at this barn), the barn employee wouldn’t have batted an eye, but because the horse was shoeless, he had a meltdown. Where was the logic in this? Why was it alright to hit a horse, but not return it to the state in which it was born?

Obviously the horse’s owner, a young girl, was shocked, too, when she heard. She talked to the barn owner, who also didn’t agree with taking the shoes off (he made his point clear), but had the sense to realize that his employee was a bit out of line. The next day, after being stall bound for 48 hours, the horse was allowed to go outside in the pasture. The horse owner, however, did have to listen to sneer remarks made by other horse owners and the employee, but she held her head high and stuck with her decision to go barefoot despite the majority vote against her. She has since moved to another barn, where her horse now is part of a herd of horses living outside. 

I am no longer pregnant as the baby has been born long time ago. This is great, but I’m not going to lie; there are days when the weight of my newly found knowledge drags my usually optimistic mood down. I spent thirty years not seeing, not even knowing there was something to see, but now that I can see, I am aching to share this knowledge. However, I like to keep a low profile while I operate at a barn where I stick out like a sore thumb. Showing the above picture was definitely not something I usually do, it was more like a bold experiment. In an environment where even your benign actions (like walking a barefoot horse to a paddock) speak volumes, words (or in this case, pictures) can cause a war of resistance. I try hard to understand these people, because I, too, once did not know any better. But sometimes I am at a loss with the amount of anger and aggression people possess.

I realize this is another lesson for me in patience. I am convinced that science and research will eventually catch up with veterinarians and farriers and horse owners. Once people see pictures like the one above and really absorb the information it is giving them; once people start thinking for themselves (and their horses) and actively searching for solutions, things will start to change with an ever increasing pace. But it will take time. In the meanwhile, I will watch life unfold and hope for a better future some day, a future with lots of “pregnant” people, a future where allowing your horse to return to its natural state, hooves and all, will be the norm, not the cause of an attack.


“Barefoot is for all horses, though it may not be for all horse owners.” - D.E Hufford

For those who are interested, the internet is full of information about the barefoot movement. Here is a link to one of many pages that explains why and how it will benefit your horse to take the shoes off:

If you are on the fence about taking the shoes off, seek more information, educate yourself. Go to for online courses. Your horse will thank you for your effort.

Also, to find more about Donald Newe, go to

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Force is all-conquering, but its victories are short-lived. ~Abraham Lincoln

I want to share four different episodes I witnessed this week. I'm not going to dwell too much into my personal emotions nor my reactions to these four episodes, I simply want you to read and give space to any feelings and thoughts that might arise.


I’m walking to my car after teaching a few lessons at a nearby barn and I run into an old student of mine. Delighted to see me, she stops in her tracks and gets into a lengthy explanation of her newest purchase, a three year old gelding. During our chitchat her five year old stallion stands patiently on the end of his lead rope, waiting for her to finish. The horse is black and absolutely beautiful, but what strikes me the most are his manners; he does not move a hair during our conversation. It isn’t until the very end, when his owner is proudly explaining the merits of one of her horses that the stallion turns his head to look at something in the distance. The gesture is barely noticeable, harmless and natural, but instantly and without interruption the owner lifts her left hand and strikes the horse across the face with the end of the lead rope. Her eyes never leave mine, nor does the flow of her speech stop; it is as if she has merely swatted a fly buzzing around her head. But for her horse this means more than she can comprehend. He is now irritated, shaken. He takes a few steps to the side, to get away from his unpredictable owner. She, in turn, hits him across the chest with the lead rope. This time she turns her eyes away from mine.


It is an exceptionally warm autumn afternoon and Little Love and I have ventured off into the fields. When we turn a corner and arrive at a fork in the dirt road, I see a woman on a horse in the middle of the field. The horse stands stock still with a stubborn expression on her face. Her head is held high, her eyes are sullen with resistance. When the rider, a middle aged woman, sees me appear from behind a small hill, she immediately, as if on cue, starts kicking the horse and slapping it with a short riding crop.

Little Love and I stroll over and stop. I don’t know this particular horse, it is from another barn in the neighborhood nor do I know the rider.

“Do you need help?” I say. “We are going this way,” I point towards the forest, “and you can ride with us if you like.”

The woman looks relieved. “Yes, thanks,” she says and directs her horse back to the road. We continue our trail ride side by side. But it isn’t long that her horse stops again. Instantly and without a moment’s hesitation the woman becomes aggressive, yelling and shouting at her (also) black mare. She grabs the reins in one hand and starts smacking the horse across the rump with the crop. The horse backs up tossing her head in the air, her ears pinned against her neck.

Little Love has stopped, too. She turns her head and looks at this spectacle with her eyes blinking. I wonder if she is thinking what I’m thinking. She is witnessing her previous life before her eyes. I gently ask her to walk forward, and she does. Again this helps the other horse and for a moment it follows obediently. Until it stops again.

Now Little Love decides that the mare’s behavior is highly suspicious. She, too, doesn’t want to move. The woman has thrown herself into a fit again, now kicking her horse with both legs as hard as she can. The horse’s ribcage echoes with every thump, but the effect is everything but what the rider wants.

I don’t know this person, we have just met, but we are now in the same boat; my horse won’t move either. I climb down and take the reins off Little Love’s neck.

“Let me walk ahead. My horse will follow, if I’m on the ground,” I say. Anything to get this woman from attacking her horse.

For a split second the woman stops kicking. She looks at me.

"Yeah, I used to do that too, my horse follows me anywhere if I walk it in hand. But I don't want her to get into the habit of me always coming down. It's not such a good option,” she says and kicks her horse again, as if to make a point.


Little Love and I come back from a long walk in the fields, she is in a halter and I’m walking her in hand. We stop to graze by the outdoor arena where the grass is still lush and green. The barn owner’s wife, an avid dressage rider, is starting a ride with her five year old gelding. He is a big guy and normally very compliant and docile. But today he has noticed a difference in the arena sand, it has been leveled and new footing has been brought into the left back corner. The horse’s ears and eyes are alert and when his rider attempts to walk past the corner with long reins, the horse spins around, visibly freaked out by the different shades of sand below his feet. Instantly and without a moment’s of hesitation the rider lays into the horse with her four foot dressage whip. The horse responds with a buck and twirls around again, his mouth open from the pull on the bit. His rider nearly falls off and when she gets herself back into balance, she is furious. She screams at the horse:

“I will show you.” And she does. Over and over again with the four foot dressage whip.


I am walking across the barnyard when I see a woman brushing her horse outside. The horse, tied loosely to a grooming post, is standing calmly while the woman is working her way around its body with a rubber currycomb. When she gets to the chest, however, the horse pins its ears back and threatens the woman with a clear gesture of baring the teeth. The woman, seemingly oblivious to the horse’s message, continues to vigorously brush the chest with circular motions. The horse threatens again, this time also swooshing the tail and stomping the foot. When the groomer takes no notice the horse finally lashes out and bites the woman on the arm. Immediately, and without a moment’s hesitation, the woman hits the horse hard across the face with the brush.


Four different scenarios; four different people, but all are connected through similar episodes which could have taken a completely different turn, had the person been more patient, more aware of their horse’s body language and willing to ask, instead of demand. Is it right to judge these people for their reactions? How do you control or stop a reflex which is ingrained into the marrow of your spinal cord through training and tradition and fear and habit?  How do you even begin to see such "horse training" for what it is - violence?

Which one of these stories made the biggest impact on you? Why? Can you imagine what happened afterwards? Can you see the relationship these people have with their horses? Can you picture what it’s like to have the need to control a horse’s every move, every emotion? Can you understand the fear these people feel? The anger?

Where does it all stem from? What does it take to change?

How can we help ourselves and other people learn a better way?


There have been periods of history in which episodes of terrible violence occurred but for which the word violence was never used.... Violence is shrouded in justifying myths that lend it moral legitimacy, and these myths for the most part kept people from recognizing the violence for what it was. The people who burned witches at the stake never for one moment thought of their act as violence; rather they thought of it as an act of divinely mandated righteousness. The same can be said of most of the violence we humans have ever committed. ~Gil Bailie

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hanna's Story

“To be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner. I am not a teacher, only a fellow student.” -Sören Kierkegaard

Two years ago almost to the date, my head was spinning with questions. I had spent the summer riding in a bitless bridle, discovering intuitive animal communication and watching Klaus Hempfling’s videos on YouTube. The foundation of my equestrian knowledge was shaking and I wondered if what I was doing was the right thing to do. Lost on my search for the path I didn’t even know existed, I continued riding and teaching. But every time I gave advice, every time I gave a horse an aid, I wondered if it was correct. Perhaps there was more out there to be discovered, more knowledge and wisdom I had not yet unveiled.

Then I met Hanna. She was still a young girl, a high school student finishing her last year in school, and wanted to ride in lessons with her younger sister. I questioned her motives, as she seemed so nervous, so impatient and edgy when she sat on a horse. I wondered if perhaps she was merely joining as a favor to her sister, who was the more determined, traditional rider. Insecure on the surface, she questioned everything and anything I said or did, in a way nobody had before. And there was so much to question, as I had recently found out myself.

At first the two girls came to ride together, sharing the lease of Zorro, an older gelding. This horse was an experienced mount and hardly a horse you could call excitable, but he knew who was who, and behaved accordingly. The younger sister had the skill and energy needed and thus the gelding seemed cooperative, trotting and cantering around the arena dutifully, performing the requested moves obediently for the first half of the shared lesson. But for the second half of the hour, he turned into another horse. Sullen and unresponsive, he soon had Hanna, the older sister frustrated and irritable and who could blame her, the horse seemed to have something against her.

In hind sight, it is easy to see how Zorro manipulated the situation. Soon the two girls were riding separately. I did my best to guide both my students into the secrets of riding this particular horse and pressed forward in the traditional manner, focusing on teaching the correct riding biomechanics. This worked for the younger sister, but not for Hanna and Zorro. The horse had a whole other agenda, unknown at this point to any of us humans involved.

One thing lead to another and it wasn’t long before Hanna was riding the gelding in a bitless bridle and working him from the ground. Our riding lessons were no longer about riding, but rather about connecting and communicating with the horse. They were also about the emotions that are transferred back and forth between the animal and the human. Our conversations were extended past the hour lesson twice a month and I found myself discussing issues over the email. How did I get onto this path with this particular student? I don’t know. Perhaps it was the hundreds upon hundreds of questions Hanna asked every time we met. Or was it Zorro, who pushed us both to seek alternative ways of interacting with him. He certainly had a way of pushing Hanna’s buttons…

Six months after we had started our lessons, Hanna wrote “I have found myself very frustrated on a horse, several times, because I feel I don’t understand it...I could never truly hit a horse, but the frustration over feeling superior to a horse has been there, many times. and then the anger and just blocking of mind when things don’t work out. I just didn’t know, like so many other riders, the true way of dealing with it. How riding in itself could be a whole philosophy and so much more than just a hobby.”

We continued our lessons, meeting only twice a month, but in the meanwhile this intelligent girl embarked on a journey of her own. Slowly I started to realize that Zorro, the wise gelding, was showing her the way. After working more and more with the horse on the ground Hanna wrote:

“ever since I learned about the ground exercises I feel much more secure around him, and I feel happier when I ride because it's like we get along...When he listens to me and he "respects" my space, I feel more comfortable and a lot happier when I ride. Doing the ground work has helped me so much to regain control...I'm not scared and stressed so much when I'm around him anymore, which I think is such a relief for both of us.”

We talked a lot about being the leader for the horse, something I firmly believed in back then, but a concept that I continue to question and perhaps to abandon. Hanna, however, was light years ahead of me, already wondering if there, in fact, was another way to be with these majestic animals than dominating them. In the spring she wrote: “I try as much as I can to always show him that I'm his leader, and it's so fascinating how he actually reads my body language and understands me in that way. The only problem for me now is that since I'm not used to this, I feel like such a dictator. I feel like I just boss him around, and whenever he does something he's not supposed to - he's punished… I don't overdo the punishment and I feel like I'm being fair to him. Yet I always imagined the horse to come to you - trusting you and being your friend if you were his. Just like in real life...I would never become best friends with someone who told me off for anything I did which didn't suit her/him. I would much rather become friends with someone who accepts me for who I am and gives me some space when I need it.”

After a particularly eventful trail ride, Hanna wrote me in distress: “...was it wrong of me to force him on that walk, although i noticed that he didn't want to go? If i had been more convincing, do you think he would have been more willing to come with me? I try to listen to what he's saying but maybe sometimes I listen too hard and I hear things that aren't real. When he notices my hesitation he then takes his chance to show that he'd rather be back at the can I know? How do you know when you're forcing an animal to do something? The line between forcing an animal and doing what you think is best for it, is such a fine line.”

And Hanna was right, it is such a fine line. How do you be with a horse without the power struggle? How do you gain respect without being “bossy”? When it came to understanding horses, Hanna was a natural, but she struggled only because Zorro had decided she needed to grow, to evolve. Horses have an amazing ability to know who we really are, they can see our potential long before we even have a clue, and Zorro was no different. Hanna had to find the confidence to believe in herself before she could befriend this gelding. It seemed that every time she pushed him, he shut down, but then when she tried to comply to his ideas, the horse ran over her.

Hanna and I spent a lot of time talking about emotions. What kind of emotions are involved when we are with horses? Can we stay authentic, instead of “forcing” it? Hanna was definitely closer to cracking this mystery when she made an absolutely brilliant observation: “I wish that one day everything I do with horses will be "real" and not just "mechanical" or fake, like I feel sometimes. It's like I want to make a connection so badly that I try too hard and that's when I miss the signs of the true emotions the horse is sending me...”

We all fall into the trap of trying too hard. Horses don’t have goals and aspirations like we do. They live in the moment; they let their emotions take them where ever they lead them. Unlike us humans who bottle everything in, horses move to their emotions. Movement is emotion, emotions are movement. Everything is real, nothing is forced or planned. To truly connect, you have to be able to let go of the human ambitions and improvise, let your feelings take you for a ride.

Soon after Hanna started to make connections between how she operated in life and the emotional patterns that surfaced when she was with Zorro. I am a firm believer that the way we do one thing, is the way we do everything, and Hanna certainly proved me right in that respect. Frustrated with her discoveries, she vowed to change, because within those emotional patterns she discovered an insecure girl she didn’t want to be. Zorro had brought her to the final threshold, the place where you look at yourself and ask: “Who am I – really?”

So many emotional encounters later, so many hours of butting heads with a very stubborn gelding, countless afternoons discovering a horse discovering her, Hanna wrote:

“A few days ago I went to Zorro and we spent some time outside in his pasture. After about half an hour of me just kind of standing there, walking around, and trying to just be there, he walked over to me. He followed me for a few steps only, and then turned away to do his own thing. But those few seconds when I actually felt like we had a short moment of ‘connection’ were amazing. Yesterday I did the same thing and I found that it didn’t take long before we could go exploring different areas of the pasture together. We hung out, he was eating and I was just sort of there with him. We then went inside. I have never felt so close to him as I did during that hour in the pasture.”

The rest is history. Hanna and Zorro connected over time like only a horse and human can connect. Hanna spent hours just sitting with this horse, reading her book, thinking, day dreaming, watching her friend graze. And he gave her the support she needed, he allowed her to discover who she really was and wanted to be.

As a teacher, I am always in awe of my students, who -with just a gentle push from my part- suddenly take to flight with strong, powerful wings. How I love to watch them fly, to discover new, uncharted territories. And although I call myself their teacher, in reality I, too, have learned more than I have taught because teaching and learning are just two different sides of the same coin. To be a good teacher is to commit yourself to lifelong learning. I have not yet met a student, who has not taught me at least one valuable lesson.

I could tell you so much more about amazing Hanna, but I will leave that for another time. We came together, Hanna, Zorro and I, as student, horse and teacher, but in the end our initial roles were reversed so many times, the lines of learning and teaching fused and faded. I will always remember Hanna’s courage and her relentless search for answers, even for the ones she knew would be painful to discover. She taught me that it is possible to go down the Path with fast and furious strides, if you discard all resistance and allow your mind to remain open.

Hanna gave me hope for the future; the future of our planet, our horses and us. She is so very young, but already so wise, although she perhaps does not yet comprehend the true extent of her wisdom. It will be people like her - people who are willing to follow the unbeaten path with reckless abandonment - who will eventually change this world to a better place. 

Ps. Hanna is now studying in another country and Zorro has retired in the Swiss mountains with a herd of horses. Perhaps they will meet again one day.  But, in the meanwhile, they will remain connected through the energy of the universe.

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” - Buddhist proverb
“When the teacher is ready, the student will appear.” - Katariina’s answer to the Buddhist proverb

Monday, October 4, 2010


“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us” - Marcel Proust

I recently witnessed a fairly experienced dressage rider deal with her new young horse, a lively animal to say the least. Despite the rider’s top-level skills, she was continuously running into problems with her new dressage hopeful. I have to admit, he was full of fire. He was also full of resistance and opinions. He had his own ideas about having his head down and complying with the dressage ideals. Finally, after he bucked his rider off one last time, she gave up.

“I sent him to Trainer X for some training,” she said. “The horse just has too much energy for me. He needs to be straightened out.” The horse community around her agreed, empathetically. They would have done the same thing.

“He’s such a great mover, too bad he is such a nut case,” they said and nodded their understanding heads.

The horse was gone for quite a while, almost a year. That’s how long it took to break his spirit and “straighten him out.” But finally, the work was done and the unruliness was gone. He showed successfully with Trainer X and was ready to return to his owner.

“Finally he has seen the light,” people commented. “What a beautiful dressage horse he is now.”

I watched the horse trot and barely recognized him, so stilted and dead his movement had become, so vacant his eyes, so sad the expression on his face. The fiery horse was gone and a shell had returned. But nobody noticed, because he was collecting ribbons at shows, he was performing at the top of his classes – he was obedient, like a good horse should be.

And this is what many human beings desire: a horse that does what they want, no questions asked. And they want that horse now, or preferably yesterday, no time wasted.

A compliant, good-natured horse is valuable. “He’s bombproof” is one of the greatest compliments you can give a horse. And it’s understandable, people simply want to ride and they want to enjoy the ride while they’re at it. They want to look like they are in control. An unruly, misbehaving animal is a direct reflection of their own riding skills. Not to mention time consuming and scary.

And there are people who will do what is necessary to produce this good-natured animal. They purchase a stronger bit or ride with drawreins. They switch trainers or better yet; send their horse to the trainer for some extra mileage under saddle. They lunge the animal to pieces before they get on to ride. They punish the horse for any bad behavior. I have seen a person whip their horse in the stall because he turned his head to look at her.

There are not many options for horses that are forced into “goodness”. Some fight back, but eventually most fall into different states of learned helplessness. This is a condition where the animal, even when there is an opportunity to avoid an unpleasant circumstance, behaves helplessly. This is a result of a perceived absence of control over the outcome of the situation. Learned helplessness is a brain’s last-resort coping mechanism against painful or fearful situations. In other words, when a horse feels he has no other option, or other options have been exhausted, he turns to learned helplessness. Soon the horse sort of loses his true self and becomes a machine-like mount. Life is easier that way, not only for the horse, but for the human, too. It seems like she has finally managed to produce the bombproof horse.

Not long ago a lady at our barn asked me a simple question. The actual words she said were: “Why do you ride Little Love?”

We were coming back from a trail ride and Little Love was walking with her head down, strolling next to this woman’s docile mount. The last flies of the season were persistently buzzing around both our heads, and every once and a while Lilo shook her head impatiently.

Such a simple question that could be interpreted several ways.

“What do you mean?” I asked, although I had a hunch of what my trail partner was getting at. She had, after all, witnessed Little Love peering at the big hay bales on the field and shying away from the large puddles on the road, not to mention the one time she spooked at the flock of seagulls that landed in the field next door.

“Well, she’s sort of… difficult.” The woman shrugged. “I would never choose to ride her, it’s too much work.”

This is not the first time someone makes such a comment and I’m fairly sure it won't be the last. Wasn't it just three weeks ago Little Love’s owner reported a similar conversation? She had been having dinner with a friend, a woman who owns a stallion at our barn with her daughter. During the course of the conversation, Little Love’s owner had mentioned that perhaps if her friend wanted, she could ride Little Love occasionally. It was a generous offer to a woman who was sharing her horse with her daughter. But the lady refused point blank. Then she said what she really thought.

“Frankly, I don’t even understand why you own that animal. You should sell her and get a horse that is nicer, you know, a good-natured one.”

I admit; Little Love is not what people would call the perfect horse. People, who don’t know her, see her as a horse that is afraid of strange objects, fearful of loud noises and absolutely horrified of enclosed spaces. She runs when she is frightened, rears if she is contained, dislikes people touching her and bites when irritated. On top of all this, she has a long back, enormous movement and by default does not trust humans.

A few years ago I, too, thought Little Love was all that, but now I know better. She was never difficult, she simply tried to express herself and make her “voice” heard. She had been trying for a very, very long time, just about as long as humans had been trying to “train” her. When nobody listened, she developed habits that turned her into someone she really is not. Alert became fearful, powerful became out of control, sensitive became anxious, and careful became angry.

Those days may be in the past, but that “difficult” horse can still resurface within seconds if Little Love’s opinion is not heard. But interestingly enough, that is really all she wants; to be heard. This mare can be amazingly flexible and generous, but only if she knows you know how she feels and respect that. She will even tolerate previously unthinkable things such as walking into the trailer, as long as she knows you will listen to her and let her take a moment, in case she gets claustrophobic. And despite her dislike for dressage work, she will do it willingly, but only if you don’t ask for it every day, or even every other day.

But, truth told, there are still brief moments when I wish Little Love could just be an obedient, calm horse. Just last week during a trail ride she got flustered over a log on the ground and wanted to run home. I lost my usual cool and became frustrated and impatient. We made it home in one piece, but I apologized to Little Love later, because I had been out of line. She knew just as well as I did that I had no right to be angry at her. But in the heat of the moment it is easier to be angry at the horse instead of admitting your own inadequacy. Klaus Hempfling puts it so well in the movie The Path of the Horse when he talks about the daily message horses give us: “you are not enough, you are not enough.” And that is exactly why we get so angry; nobody wants to hear they are not enough.

So, that all said, I can understand why people would rather try the rougher bit, dig out the drawreins or send their horse off to the hotshot trainer to be “straightened out”. It is certainly an easier solution than looking into the mirror and seeing yourself as who you really are; someone who is not enough for their horse. But, on the same token, if you choose to take the road less traveled, I can assure you that the scenery will be unforgettable. Yes, the expedition down that path of self-discovery will be paved with tears of frustration and disappointment, and there will be times you just want to quit. But if you persist, if you dare to stare into that mirror also known as a horse, you will discover the most memorable journey of your life.

In Little Love’s case I can see that the more mutual trust we have, the better our communication. And the better we communicate, the calmer we both are. We still have a long way to go before she trusts me enough to be labeled “bombproof” and I’m not even sure we will ever get to that point. In the meanwhile I will continue to work on myself, trying to learn how to be enough. And that is exactly what I told the lady who asked me why I ride Little Love.

Little Love and I are inseparable because she is teaching me how to connect with an inner peace I never knew existed. She is teaching me how to be a better person. She is teaching me about unconditional love. She chose me to be her student and I am honored to have been chosen. I know, she’s not bombproof, but guess what? I no longer expect her to be. Because what she is giving me instead is priceless.

~ K

“I wanted a perfect ending… Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some storied don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.” - Gilda Radner