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