Sunday, November 28, 2010

I Cannot Stop

“Impermanence is the very essence of joy – the drop of bitterness that enables one to perceive the sweet.” - Myrtle Reed

One of the hardest things about finding the Path is the fact that it is your personal journey. And with personal I mean that no two journeys can be the same. As you travel, not everybody around you will travel with you. In fact, there will be many who will never even get on the Path; friends, family, fellow boarders, trainers, will continue to do all those things you are trying to move away from.

This, to say the least, can make matters complicated.

I can’t pinpoint the moment I took a turn onto the Path of the Horse, but I know the seed was planted years and years ago. Anybody who has followed my blog for a while knows that meeting the black mare called Little Love and having her as my guide and anchor in this process has been absolutely monumental. She pushed me to seek new ways; she stripped me down to the very core of myself, a place where you have no other option but to see things as what they are.

Unfortunately, Little Love’s owner does not quite share my vision.

I know I cannot force anyone down the Path, and I have learned this the hard way. Even if I ride bitless, it doesn’t mean people around me or even someone riding the same horse as I am riding, will stop using the bit. Even if I stop forcing the horse to work in the arena when she clearly hates it, doesn’t mean others will not continue believing in this sort of work and even enforce it with a whip. Even if I tell someone about all the things I have discovered, the emotions I have encountered, the self-reflection I have gained, the insight the horse has shared with me, I cannot guarantee she will believe me or understand me.

On the 13th of March I wrote a blog entry I called “What if”. I believe this entry is the closest I have ever in my entire blog, come to actually telling the truth of how I feel about Little Love. She has taught me so much and since that time last spring, I have made even more progress in discovering the truth about horse human relationships, which in itself has been absolutely priceless. This knowledge, however, has put me in an unbearable situation: between a horse and the horse’s owner.

I know, Little Love is not my horse, so in reality, I have no say in what her owner does with her. But, I cannot stop trying to influence the situation. I cannot stop trying to fight for what I think is the right thing for my horse friend and for all horses, for that matter. I cannot stop trying to shine the light down on her owner, in hopes of her catching the one ray that will transform her to see what horses really are about – for once and for all.

Do I have a right to do that? I’m sure there are people out there reading this and thinking I don’t. But how can I stop? How could I ever let myself give up? And how can I continue, when my emotions are clearly overriding all rational thinking? I realize I am far too deep in the woods to find my way out.

A few weeks back I took part in an Animal Communication workshop with Marta Williams. The workshop was about talking with horses and I was excited to see that there were a good twenty people present, some obviously very talented in communicating with animals.

During a group exercise I volunteered to share Little Love’s picture with five people. I gave no background information other than her name and age. The group did very well with the picture and relayed fairly accurate information back to me, information which I was able to verify. They had obviously been able to communicate with Little Love intuitively.

In the end the group asked if I had any personal questions to Little Love, to which I was looking for answers.

“Yes,” I said, trying to hold back emotion. “Can you ask her what she wants in terms of the future? Does she want to stay with her owner or would she like to be with me?”

Ah, such a selfish question, I know, but I couldn’t help myself. I have come far with my personal journey, but I have not apparently yet reached the completely selfless place we all hold within ourselves.

The animal communication team went to work and soon I had my answer: Little Love didn’t want to choose.

The answer didn’t surprise me. In fact, this was the same answer Little Love had given me, but which I had denied. I thanked the group, trying to not show my disappointment. What had I expected?

Then a young woman, who had demonstrated amazing communication skills during the course, reached her hand out and said: “I don’t know if this makes sense, but Little Love told me that she can’t leave her owner yet, because there is still work to do.” She looked at me. “Do you know what she means?”

Yes, I did know what she meant. Despite my own desperation over the situation, I couldn’t help but smile. Leave it to Little Love to put everything in perspective. For horses it is never about what they can do for themselves, but what they can do for others. There was a reason why Little Love had shown up in my life, but there was also certainly a reason why she had shown up in her owner’s life much earlier. Some nuts are harder to crack than others. Little Love was obviously not ready to throw in the towel when it came to her owner, even if I was.

I continue to support Little Love’s owner in her endeavors with her horse, even though it sometimes brings me to my knees. I never imagined it was possible to feel such desperation and pain over a horse, but apparently it is. I can try to guide her owner towards more humane ways of being with her horse, but how can I stop myself from feeling the way I do? Am I selfish to want to steel this horse away from the world and take it to a place where she can be a real horse again; stall-free, iron-free and even rider-free?

In approximately eight months I will be moving away. I do not know yet where, all I know is that we are moving to another country. This country may be relatively close or it could be on the other side of the world, beyond an ocean or two. The possibilities are open, the future is unknown. Where does that leave me and Little Love?

I don’t know.

All I know is that when I think of leaving her behind, I cannot stop my heart from breaking.


“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” - G.K. Chesterton

Monday, November 22, 2010


“We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another.” – Luciano de Crescenzo

After posting my last entry; Wounded Healer, I received an overwhelming amount of messages from people who were touched by the life of Saphie, the little, gray mare. Even complete strangers reached out, sharing their own, sometimes heartbreaking stories with me. Many marveled over the capacity horses have for forgiveness and the wisdom they hold, if we dare to listen. Many also shared their own difficulties of following the path, when the rest of the world stands still around us.

I read each message with a growing sense of wonder. It was hard to ignore what these messages were telling me: out there, in the world, there exists other people who are discovering horses the same way as I am. Together - yet separately - we are being touched by horses and guided down the Path. A coincidence? Hardly. It seems as if the horses of the world have made a collective decision to start showing humans another way, to tell us about a new level of consciousness, to teach us how life really should be lived.

Or perhaps there was no decision, perhaps this is something written in the horse’s DNA. We know that horses live in the present moment, despite any baggage they may carry from their past. And because of that, horses have the before mentioned capacity to forgive. They will take you at face value, just as you are, even if yesterday you were someone else. All you have to do is open your heart and be willing to change. Because they are always ready - and have been for centuries.

I look back at my life and see how horses always tried to offer me wisdom, but how I was not ready receive it, not in its full extent. When I was younger, I used to love riding horses. I would ride any horse given to me and take pride in the way I was able to connect with the animal. Yes, I was a talented rider and had the ability to transform even the less capable horse into a nicely moving mount. Riding dressage was like a drug for me, I sought it over and over again, finally riding up to six horses a day.

But why did I ride? What was it that was so addicting? People used to ask this question over and over again, and every time I gave the same answer.

“When I’m riding, it’s like I can’t think of anything else. I have to just be there, on that horse.”

I’m sure others who have ridden or still do understand what I mean. When you sit on a horse, be it in the arena or on the trails, it’s hard to mentally be anywhere else. There is something about the horse that doesn’t allow you to lose focus. The horse guides you into the moment and the feeling of being in the moment, being free from the past and the present, is utterly addicting.

And I suppose that is why most people ride, even if they don’t consciously think about it. Horses have the ability to pull you away from you left brain into your right brain, as if you were meditating. Suddenly whatever happened at work earlier that day or the argument you had with your kids in the car or the work that awaits you at home doesn’t matter. Nothing else matters but the ride.

Of course in hindsight I see now that what I was feeling during my rides was just a promise of what could be; it was the edge of the matter, not the center. When I sat on a horse and forced it to perform for me, what I felt was not connectedness (although I thought it was that, at the time), but a passing shadow of the harmony the horse could have offered me, had I truly listened. What I experienced was the horse, even after being oppressed, still reaching out and sending his message: “Seek me. I’m in here. And I am willing to share my wisdom.”

But now I do feel, see and hear what horses have to say, and so do others – all over the world. We may not be many and we are nowhere near of becoming a majority, but we exist, nevertheless. Life is not always easy for the pioneers. My joy over discovering horse wisdom has been and continues to often be mixed with feelings of frustration, anger and complete isolation. There are times when I feel desperately alone. There are days when I want to quit. Yes. Walk away and never look back. But then I realize that I am well beyond the point of walking away. Because when you have seen the light, it’s hardly possible to ignore it, even if others are trying to pull you back into the darkness.

A year and a half ago I started writing this blog, not only to sort out my own thoughts and feelings, but in the hopes of making a difference in someone’s life, even if it meant reaching only one person who is experiencing the same emotions as I am. And your messages, the ones which poured in after the last blog post, but also the ones I have received along the way, are proof that I am not in this alone. And neither are you. We are all connected over the universe through our horses, beautiful horses that shine their collective wisdom over anyone who is ready to take it in.

I urge you: let’s not only continue traveling down this path, but let's make sure others know what we are doing. I am not asking you to stand up in arms, nor am I suggesting you start preaching, because it is never possible to force others onto the path. But we can lead silently, by example.

“We must remember that one determined person can make a significant difference, and that a small group of determined people can change the course of history.” - Sonia Johnson

Thank you for reading and believing. 


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Wounded Healer

The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order… the continuous thread of revelation.” - Eudora Welty

Last year I watched the movie Instinct with Anthony Hopkins starring as a man who leaves humanity behind to live with animals only to return to society under unpleasant circumstances. While in prison, he meets a psychiatrist played by Cuba Gooding Jr. The movie is inspired by Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael and gives the viewer valuable lessons about human and animal relationships.

In the movie there is a scene where Hopkins, who previously has lived with gorillas in the wild, is allowed to visit the gorillas at the zoo. Saddened by the state of the captive animals, he relives some traumatic memories from the past. He also, to make a point, opens the cage door of the imprisoned silver back male. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character, who is there with him, is aptly horrified. He is clearly afraid the enormous gorilla will surely escape.

“He won't come out,” Anthony Hopkins says. “You see? Even if he can.” And it’s true; the huge male ape barely gives the open door a second look. Anthony Hopkins looks sad. “Not far from here is a fence, and on the other side of that fence is freedom, and he can smell it. He'll never try to get there, because he's given up. By now he thinks freedom is something he dreamed.”

There are many scenes in this movie that remind me of horses and the various ways we have taken their freedom, but this particular one reminded me of a certain gray mare I met two years ago almost to the date. My good friend Sam introduced us on a cold winter morning in California. My first impression of this little, gray horse was heart-wrenching; although at first contact she seemed sociable, I could feel an overpowering sadness welling up inside me. Her back sagged and the muscling on the underside of her neck told a story of tension and resistance.

“This is Sapphire,” Sam said. The mare turned her head and touched my hand, her ears carefully placed forward, her expression neutral. She was kind, but her gesture was slightly mechanical, as if she was merely behaving the way she had learned to behave to avoid trouble.

“Touch her mouth,” Sam said, nodding toward the mare’s head. I wrinkled my brow. What did he mean?

Curious, I slid my fingers down the mare’s nose to her lips. When my hand came to the corner of her mouth, I stopped. The flesh of her lips was hard, like it wasn’t flesh at all, but a solid piece of wood. I pulled my hand away, confused.

“What is that?” I couldn’t help but touch it again. Saphie turned her head and I felt the other side of her mouth. It was even worse, the hardness extending toward her cheek.

“It’s scarring,” Sam said.

“Scarring?” Even though I was already fully aware of the harmful effects of the bit, I had never actually seen such extensive tissue damage.

“Imagine what it took to produce that kind of scarring,” Sam said. He shook his head. “This horse has gone through a lot.”

And that she had.

In fact, she had several loose and cracked teeth from the heavy hands that had ridden her during her 14 years of life. She was spooky, nervous and had been labeled a crazy Arab mare at her previous home, a riding school, where she had been placed after what Sam called “her fall from grace” as a prestigious dressage horse. She had a reputation of being barn sour to the point that she didn’t want to leave the stall never mind the property. If you turned her out she would run herself into the ground.

Saphie didn’t trust people and was constantly in flight mode which meant reacting to everything around her. She was a horse that literally could not think about eating hay, grain, treats or even green grass when a person was anywhere near her. Not that humans wanted anything to do with her at this point anyways, not a soul seemed to care about this sad wreck of a horse.

Saphie came into Sam’s life at a time that he was starting to work with “natural horsemanship” something he now looks back on with a sense of sadness and shame. I know how he feels, having been down a similar road myself. We all start our path somewhere; many things we learn on the way make sense at the time, but often later seem harsh and even abusive. But, it is important to get on the path, and sometimes methods we abandon later can be, as Sam says, “doorways to something different”.

So Sam did what he felt was the right thing. He would let Saphie loose in the arena and interrupt her frantic cantering by demanding her attention, cutting her off and forcing her to change direction by waving a flag at her. He would let her run around him at the end of the rope halter and long line until she was worn down, exhausted and often dripping wet. He worked her in the round pen, he backed her up over and over again by wiggling or bumping the rope halter on her nose.

Later, in an email to me, Sam wrote: “All of these so-called natural ways of doing things involved (negative conditioning) persistent pressure, punishment or mental /physical pain. Needless to say Saphie was not impressed with the whole natural horsemanship system.”

When Sam moved to a new barn he decided to try expanding Saphie’s territory. This involved leaving her stall door open all day. How ingenious. I wished I could do the same. What would Little Love do in such a situation? What would any horse do? I had always thought a horse whom was offered such a possibility would rush out and run around. Wasn’t that why we kept them locked up in the first place?

But not Saphie. She was like the gorilla in the movie, who thought freedom was something he dreamed. It took the little gray mare weeks to merely peek out the open door. The slightest noise or perceived danger would make her bolt back into the safety of the stall. But, when you give something enough time, changes will start happening. Slowly, one step at a time, Saphie made her way out of her prison. Soon the barn isle became the place to meet boys and clean up spilled hay. But, although the barn doors were never closed, she never dared venture outside.

To give her some help, Sam decided to start leading her outside with a halter. He would walk her away from the barn and let her go. But as soon he released his grip on the mare, Saphie would panic and run back in. She was in such a hurry to get back to the safety of her stall that on one occasion she actually fell over. This was a clear message to Sam and he let her be.

Again weeks went by and although Saphie now seemed completely comfortable in the barn isle Sam thought she would never build up the confidence to go exploring. Then, one windy day, Saphie came out of her stall and marched with rhythm and purpose straight out of the barn. She walked calmly past a strange flapping blue tarp that had been placed on the fence to dry. She went all the way down the hill to say hi to some horses that where turned out in the arena.
“If I had not seen it with my own eyes I would never have believed it,” Sam said when recounting the story to me that cold California morning when I first met Saphie. “And after that day she would come and go at will. Just like that.”

I only met Saphie for a short time that year, but despite our short contact, I could not forget her, I could not forget her story. Hearing about Sam’s experiences with the mare had changed my perception of freedom. When we choose to cage an animal, we choose to take something valuable from them - for life. Setting them physically free will not guarantee setting free their spirit, for sometimes it is not just the bars that hold the caged animal inside. There is so much more to freedom than our environment and circumstances. Freedom is a state of mind.

The next time I met Saphie, Sam had moved her to his own property, where she lived outside with another horse. There was no more “natural horsemanship” i.e. moving her around in various ways. Instead, there was an increasing amount of time spent being together, doing nothing but sharing territory. Saphie seemed to me a completely different animal than the fearful, traumatized mare from the previous winter. Sam, too, had changed. The year before he had wondered why he had chosen to take in the “crazy” mare, and I had told him that he had it all wrong, it had been Saphie who had chosen him. She had seen his potential. Even in the midst of her own painful life, she had been able to recognize a kindred spirit, a person who could evolve to understand.

It never ceases to amaze me how generous and forgiving horses are. I believe I have said this before and I will not stop saying it: horses are the most forgiving creatures on earth. Take a horse like Saphie who had no reason to trust ever again; humans had only proven to take, never to give. Yet she chose to trust again. I am utterly speechless in front of such grace of character. Do horses innately understand that the only way to move into the future is to forgive the past? Are they all born to be wounded healers?

Recently I got an email from my friend Sam. Sapphire, the little gray mare, died a few weeks ago. According to Sam, she left our world in a true Saphie nature, suddenly and without a fuss. In his email Sam wrote: “I found great solace in that she was my first true teacher and that she was generous enough to show me a side of horses I did not know even existed before her. If you asked her she would probably have said I was a tough nut to crack but that I think he is starting to get some of it. I have walked a little way along the path with him and now it is time to move on.”

Saphie spent her last summer with Sam making many human friends, one of which was a six-year-old girl called Rosemary. Rosemary would invite Saphie out of her pen with a look and a call of her name. They companion walked (no tack) over to a flat area where Rosemary would spend time grooming while Saphie had a pre-practice snack. After this they headed off to the arena at liberty to see what would evolve. Some days they would run and trot together, others they would just lay in the sand. If it felt mutually right, Rosemary would slip a cordillo or a rope halter on Saphie and using body language ask her to come and stand at the mounting block. Rosemary would then clamber on bareback and the two would play for a short while until one would let the other know they wanted to do something else.

This, I believe, in Saphie’s world was called freedom.

In the Path of the Horse movie Linda Kohanov says: “They’ve carried us around on their backs for centuries waiting for us to notice that they aren’t here just to help us evolve in terms of mastering nature and moving around the planet. They are actually waiting for us to get to the point where we are ready to evolve to a higher level of consciousness and awareness.”

The little gray mare came into Sam’s life when he needed a teacher. I met her just in passing, but yet her wisdom followed me across the world. She reminded me that every horse has wisdom to share, but especially the wounded ones; those horses that have seen the dark side of man. This is an important message to pass on to anyone who dares listen and so, by telling Sapphire’s story, I am passing it to you. It is a message of friendship, love, freedom and forgiveness – it is a message of hope and healing.

Photos by Julie Mummerlyn for Discovering Horses

Monday, November 8, 2010

Safely Afraid

“A cat bitten once by a snake dreads even rope.” ~Arab Proverb

Tonight when I drove to the barn the sun was just setting behind the mountains. Little Love had been outside in the morning and I was planning to spend the evening hanging out with her in the arena, working on some collection at liberty. But when I got to the barn, the arenas were occupied with riders who were busy jumping and longing and practicing dressage tests.

“What should we do?” I asked Little Love while helping her with her daily stretches, a ritual she loves to do.

Little Love stuck her nose out of her stall window and sniffed the cold air, looking into the horizon, the way she always does when she wants to get away.

“Let’s go out,” she said. “On the trails.”

I looked out. Dusk was settling over the landscape and in just over a half an hour it would be completely dark. Many people from our barn ride in the dark, going for walks in the field with mere moonlight as their guide or wearing headlamps for better visibility. Little Love and I were not one of those people. Not until now. I ran to the tack room, picked up the saddle and bridle. I felt a nervous tingle at the pit of my stomach, but I told myself to trust Little Love. She wouldn’t suggest something as crazy as a ride in the darkening forest unless she knew we could handle it.

When Little Love and I met four years ago, she was one of the most fearful horses I had ever dealt with. Every time I rode her in any of the arenas she would bolt from the slightest stimulus; a crack of a branch, the sound of the wind whistling through the roof beams, a bird flying overhead, a stone bouncing off her own hoof, another horse snorting. Everything and anything could set her off and she would run from underneath her rider in a crazed panic. She would race to the gate or the door in terror, her heart pounding in her chest and her focus lost. And not only that; once she was frightened, it was impossible to calm her down; it was as if fear itself was her nemesis, eating away at her very soul.

Riding on trails was not much better. In fact, if you attempted to ride alone, it resulted in disaster. A leaf falling from its tree, a sudden gush of wind, a dog romping in the field a hundred yards away; all this could ignite a fleeing reflex. Within seconds Little Love would rear, turn around and head home at ever increasing speed.

Riding with other people was helpful, but not easy. In the arena Little Love would refuse to turn, trying to follow the other horses. On trails she would crowd her trail partner and jig nervously on his or her tail until the usually calm horse was also in a state of flux. Needless to say we weren’t very popular.

Before long I was at my wits end trying to help this horse find some kind of peace. I wanted to show her the world was not such a scary place. After struggling for months, I discovered the bitless bridle. It was a breakthrough. Or perhaps it would be best described as a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. Suddenly Little Love, who would never ever willingly go to the far end of the indoor arena, would agree to passing by the back door. Granted, she was still on her toes, but there was a slight shift in her behavior.

Encouraged by the positive results of the new bridle, I started to experiment. I rode with no rein contact whatsoever. I took Little Love’s tack off at the “scary” end of the arena and let her loose. At first she would run away as fast as she could, but soon would start to linger and investigate. I would bring her into the arena in a halter and walk her around or longe her. If she bolted while haltered, I would simply let her go. Soon I abandoned all tack, letting her loose at the door to give her freedom to choose. I even tried riding with just a rope around her neck.

This all resulted in another shift in her behavior. She was still frightful, but rather than going completely out of her mind with fear, she would run for a short while and then slow down and stop, as if surprised by the outcome.

In the past, Little Love had been physically punished for spooking; the previous trainer had for years forced her deep and low with draw reins and harsh bits, she had kicked her with spurs, hit her with the whip in attempt to teach her to stop fleeing from scary things. She had also advised Little Love’s owner to behave this way.

It took me a while, but I finally realized something profound; Little Love’s biggest fear was not of the external stimulus, the imagined beast she thought would jump on her or the scary unknown creature possibly lurking in the shadows. What was far worse than anything else she could imagine was the forceful pain that for years had followed her “fright”.

She was afraid of being afraid. In other words, she was afraid of the state of fear itself, because in her mind fear equaled pain. It was almost like a mathematical equation, always true, never changing. In fact, the fear of pain was so etched into her nervous system that even when there no longer was pain, the fear of pain still lived strong in her mind. She couldn’t shake it away.

This in mind I took a whole new approach to the situation. The more Little Love was afraid, the less I tried to control her. This meant that when I rode her in the dreaded indoor arena and there was a loud noise at the far end of the arena, I threw the reins on Little Love’s neck and grabbed her mane, giving her free will to bolt off (obviously I had to ride alone). At first, she would run like always, but soon took off only to stop a few strides later. Once she stopped and turned her head so that I could see the white of her left eye. As she looked at me in surprise, I swore she saw me for the very first time for who I was: not her enemy, but someone who wanted to be on her side.

I also spent hours with her in the arena, observing her in liberty. It didn’t take long for her to understand the control she had when there were no humans aboard. Soon she was strolling down to the far end and rolling, as if there never had been a thing to fear down there. I was astounded.

It was obvious that the less tack Little Love had on her head to ensure human control and the further away the humans were, the less fearful she was. The amount of human contact was directly connected to the amount of fear she experienced.

This observation was sobering. I realized that deep down Little Love was more confident than I had ever imagined, but humans, in their attempts to control her, had somehow managed to create this terrified animal. Perhaps in the beginning, as a young horse, she had merely been alert, but after being punished for this trait she had developed what I now called “the fear syndrome”. Many horses get punished for fearful, insecure behavior and a good percent of them have known to go into a state of learned helplessness to protect themselves from the pain. Of course this is exactly what most humans are looking for; a dull, desensitized animal who will not budge even if a bomb exploded next to them. But Little Love was not one of those horses. Instead she had created her own way of dissociating from a scary situation: running away.

I felt relieved to have found an answer, but completely overwhelmed with my findings. Matters were not made easier by another observation, which was that Little Love really wanted nothing to do with me (or any other human for that matter) if she had a choice. When I let her loose in the arena, she would move to the other side and turn her bottom at me. By default. The only way I could get her attention was with food, but there was no real trust there. Without food, I was nothing. And who could blame her?

Today I am filled with wonder for my friend who has come such a long way from those days of complete and utter panic. Or is it I who has come a long way? This change did not happen overnight. It is the result of a plethora of things: Hours of liberty work and spending time with Little Love doing nothing; long walks in the fields; letting go of my own ideals and goals, letting go of traditional methods and understanding the true meaning of freedom, letting Little Love have choices, opinions, emotions; educating her owner, and making sure Little Love gets out of her stall as much as possible even if it means standing with her in the pasture in pouring rain to keep her company when all the other horses are kept in. The list goes on.

The horse I met four years ago is still there, but there is also another horse present, a strong and opinionated and bold animal who may always remain cautious, but who is also so intelligent, so amazingly perceptive and calm. Only when I read back on my blog do I realize how far we have come. I wish I had started writing about my experiences years earlier, to truly see the miles that have been traveled.

Little Love can now be ridden into the far end of the indoor arena without a problem, but it no longer matters to me, for I no longer ride her in the arena. I spend more time with her on the ground than anywhere else. When we ride, we ride trails and tonight we are doing it in the dark.

We take off on our trail ride in the setting sun. Little Love is alert, curious. I walk her in hand for the first ten minutes. She stops once and stands very still. I ask her if she wants to go back, if the falling darkness is too much for her to bear, but she decides to continue walking. Finally, I climb on her back so we can do a short trot. She trots calmly, but with her head up and eyes scanning the dark fields. I don’t touch the rein and keep my legs off her sides. She looks to the left and registers the cows in the field; she looks right at the pile of wood that looks different in the shadows of the approaching night. We walk and I get off to walk with her. She is alert, she is alive, she is brave. I get on again, we canter and do some more trot. She wants to trot more than usual and I let her. Her eyes are on sticks when we pass the small, abandoned cottage with dark, ominous windows. We turn right at the fork and head home. The streetlights reach us half way down the last field. I get off to walk again, Little Love is now relaxed. It is almost pitch dark when we get back to the barn, but we stop to graze for a moment, feeling safe in the all-enveloping darkness.

Fear no longer equals pain and this has made all the difference in Little Love’s life. Through several trials and errors she now knows that she can be what I call safely afraid. We still run into unexpected situations, but so far our mutual trust has helped us conquer even the scariest events (like ten black and white calves with bells around their necks running after us or trailriding in the dark!) Fear is no longer a disaster, an abyss from which there is no return.

I can’t tell you how much I have learned about the pathology of fear in the past few years. Fear must never be overlooked or belittled, neither in humans nor in animals. Who knew that one fearful horse could teach one person so much about life; empathy, patience, perseverance, faith, love – and change? And it’s far from over; my education continues. And while I am liberating myself from my past, I hope Little Love continues to liberate herself from hers. 


“We see our horses as frightened animals prone to flight, but often it is we humans who have laid the foundation for this behavior by the totally unnatural way we keep and interact with them.  Could it be that the loss of their own world has made our horses so easily startled and fearful?” - Imke Spilker in Empowered Horses

I touch the subject of fear in some of my previous blogs as well, if interested please visit “Bombproof” from Oct.4, “Letting go” from Dec 28, 2009 and “Prince of Fear” from Aug 21, 2009

Monday, November 1, 2010

Finding Freedom

“Freedom for horses begins in us.” - Imke Spilker in Empowered Horses

One day, after spending the good part of the afternoon outside with Little Love, it was time to take her back into the barn. Before this, however, I wanted to tend to a minor cut she had on her back leg. We walked over to the grooming area, but it was occupied by a gelding. I asked the owner, a lady in her sixties, if it was alright to park next to her at the wash area just for a few moments.

“No problem,” she agreed.

Little Love, however, didn’t. She had her mind set on going into her stall. She stopped and gave me the one look I recognize as “I know what you are up to and I want nothing to do with it.” I stopped, releasing any pressure she had created on the lead rope. The lady asked me if I needed help.

“Thank you,” I said, “but I think Little Love and I can work this out.”

The woman nodded and continued brushing her horse, making long strokes down his back.

Lilo stood still, I stood still. One of the many stallions in the barn stuck his head out of his little window and called at us; Little Love is, after all, a mare. This made no difference to her; she was preoccupied telling me she didn’t want to be medicated. I, in turn, told her we really had to take care of the cut – just in case. She lowered her head and started chewing. “All right then,” she seemed to say and took a few steps towards the wash area, her feet already touching the cement ground. The stallion called out the window a second time, then tossed his head.

That was when things started to happen. The lady’s husband came out of the barn, cussing and swearing. He slammed the stallions window shut so hard the horse barely had time to get his head out of the way. In an instant Little Love jerked her head up with the whites of her eyes flashing. She started backing up, as if I was suddenly asking her to go into a fire hole. The man stalked over and smacked her hard on the behind with his hand.

“You women folk don’t know how to control your horses, get the mare out of here!” He yelled.

Little Love yanked on the rope, she was remembering all the times she had been beaten into the trailer, forced into small spaces. She was no longer with me, but somewhere else, the place she has spent most her life in.

“Honey, stop,” the lady tried to say to her husband, but he wouldn’t hear a word of it. I was too shocked to say anything.

The man proceeded to yell at me and tell me that I didn’t know how to control my horse and that he was going to get the whip to show me how to do it.

The whip?

He marched off, muttering to himself and now that he was no longer behind Little Love, she relaxed a fraction. I took a deep breath and called after the man. When he stopped and glared at me, I said (as calmly as I could muster with my best French):

“There is no need for the whip. I don’t want to force Little Love into anything. I was just giving her time to think about what I was asking for.”

“asking?  That is just insane!” The man yelled at me from the barn door. “Didn’t you see the stallion was going out of control?”

I took one look at his beat red face and decided not to point out that the stallion had merely neighed, something he did every time a mare walked by.

“You know what, I think I’ll just take Little Love to her stall,” I said. Sometimes it’s just not worth the energy to argue.

“Oh, go ahead. Teach your horse that she’s the boss,” the man said and stalked off, obviously disgusted with my horsemanship skills.

Control is a central issue when handling horses. Even children are taught that control is essential; the better you are able to make the horse do what you want, the better a rider you are. Ultimate control also means ultimate safety. For many people, such as the man in this story, the thought of losing control of a horse is absolutely horrifying. Every sign of unrestrained behavior (like a neighing stallion) needs to be tended to before it becomes a disaster.

But what kind of a life is this for a horse? Every step, every sound, sometimes even every turn of the head, is monitored, watched, punished, controlled?

And how does this need to control and dominate make us feel?

I believe one of the reasons humans are drawn to horses is our inherent need to find freedom. Horses are powerful, and because of their power, they are beautiful. We want to be like horses. In our current society, where we have lost touch with the old wisdom we used to possess, we seek to feel whole again. How ironic that in search of our own freedom we take it away from another being. Does this truly give us the freedom we seek or are we, too, involuntarily slaves to our own desire to control? We want to be connected to something wild, something that will take us back to those days humans were in harmony with nature, but how can we ever become close to these animals, if we are constantly thinking of ways to dominate them?

I have spent a lot of time dwelling over my own journey from the person in control to the person who has given up her power. Where did it all start? I didn’t truly realize the process I had gone through until I read Imke Spilker’s book Empowered Horses. She writes: “The person who understands that he, as a human being, has all the power and that there is none left for the horse, has reached a turning point in his relationship to the animal. He suddenly feels very different needs and desires with respect to these creatures. He begins to pull himself back a bit and gives the horses more space. He begins to adapt himself to them and learn about them. And he starts to become open to their completely different point of view and in doing so, he gives their world a new reality.” (p.24)

I realize now that to do things differently, I had to reach my personal turning point. This was not one single moment, but rather a period in time when I had power, but this power left me feeling frustrated and incomplete. This was not who I wanted to be. I would guess that most of us don’t want to be a dominating person, if given the choice. Deep down we all know that true connection with horses (or with anyone for that matter) will never be achieved through domination, pressure and control.

The only way to truly receive something is by first giving it up. By letting go of the position of control, I have given Little Love’s world a new reality. Little Love now has space to express herself, to be who she is; a horse with a big heart and big opinions. Sure, sometimes I don’t like what she has to say, but that is something I have to learn to accept – we cannot always agree, but we can and we must always continue to listen to each other.

Ironically this “loss of control” on my part has not lead to disaster, but rather it has lead to power and peace – power and peace within Little Love, but within me as well. This is a far cry from the power and peace horses once had before humans decided to take their lives over. Little Love, like any domestic horse, doesn’t have a lot of space in the all-encompassing world of humans, but she makes do with what she has. The world horses lived in for millions of years before man may no longer exist; that kind of freedom is gone. But, no matter how much breeding and domesticating we do, this lost world still lives in the hearts and spirits of all horses.

So, the question we all have to ask ourselves is: Am I going to allow this inner world of freedom to exist?

May the horse be with you,
There are two freedoms - the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought. ~Charles Kingsley