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


  1. I have been reading your blog for some time now and while I won't say that I can agree with every philospophy you have, you do have an admirable relationship with your mare, Little Love.

    I am in agreement that there is far too much "hitting and beating" in the horse world. There are far better ways to get a point across (or rather... teach) then by hitting.

    The gentleman you speak of in this story should have minded his own business to put it bluntly. I also board my horse and do not allow others to touch/train/or interact with him without my permission (which is rare). This man had no right to "show" you or Little Love anything without your permission. If I were in your shoes, I would definitely advise the barn owner of what happened here. Someone needs to explain to this person that it is not acceptable to touch someone else's horse.

    Unfortunately, you can't do anything about unsolicitated advice - BUT you CAN and have every RIGHT to ask someone to leave your horse alone. It doesn't matter if they like what you are doing with your horse or not -- they do not get a say -- it's not their horse.

    We all have different and unique ways of spending time with our horses. I have a few "think outside the box, non-traditional" things I do with my boy as well -- but I have my reasons for doing them and don't feel I have to justify that to anyone.

    You have every right to spend your time with Little Love in any way that feels right for both of you. It angers me so much when others feel like they have the right to intrude and tell you what to do because they think that THEY know better.

    Life is a constant learning process, no one is an expert.

    Sending a HUG to both you and Lilo! :)

  2. Thank you Carol,

    I agree with you, this sort of behavior is infuriating. I have often had to tell people to stop interfering with what I am doing with Little Love; sometimes they listen, but mostly they get angry (which is crazy, I should be angry at them!) It is amazing what people think they have the right to do! Unfortunately the barn owner has known to participate in this sort of behavior, too. Although, I think people are starting to get the message and stay away from me :-) I would leave this barn, but Lilo is not my horse and her owner is happy where she is. In the meanwhile, I try to do my thing and leave others to do theirs (although sometimes that is hard when people are using physical force).

    Thanks again for your support (and hug :-)