Thursday, December 30, 2010

I'll Meet You There

People who look through keyholes are apt to get the idea that most things are keyhole shaped. ~Author Unknown

What we see depends mainly on what we look for. ~John Lubbock

What seems like a lifetime ago I pursued my Masters Degree in English Philology at the University of Helsinki. An avid reader since my childhood I had always wondered if my experience of a story was the same experience for every person who read that particular story, no matter where they lived and who they were. Could someone in Africa read Bronte's Wuthering Heights and feel the same way I did?

Common sense told me that each reader would interpret the story from their own backdrop, but what did science say? As it turned out, empirical studies on reader interpretation were extremely rare. This finding merely made me want to know more. So - true to my nature - I decided to embark on my own journey on discovering the answer. The subject of my final thesis was " Literary interpretation and cultural context: An empirical study on women readers from Finland and the United States."

The results were intriguing. In a nutshell, it was possible for readers from two different countries to read the same story (by Raymond Carver, if someone is interested) but experience it completely differently. It was not what happened in the story that was important, it was what people perceived happened that mattered.

And perception is reality.

About a year back I visited a new barn in the area where I live. I sort of found myself there by accident, as I was riding in someone else's car and they wanted to stop and see how the construction at the site was coming along. I had heard people talking about the new place and was fairly sure it was not anything I would be interested in. I was right. Gorgeous as it was, it was just another place humans could trap their horses. The person who had taken me there- let's call her Kathryn- had a completely different view.

"Wow, isn't it gorgeous," she gasped as she looked at the vaulted ceiling, the horse solarium, the pristine tack room, the double sized indoor arena adjacent to the stable. "What horse would not want to live here?"

I could think of several horses.

Kathryn's reaction was a classic example of anthropomorphism i.e. assigning human characteristics to animals and other non-human agents. She was impressed with the lighting in the barn, the large stalls and wide aisles, the warm tack room and the fact that you could walk your horse from the barn to the indoor arena without having to outside - all details a human would appreciate. But a horse? I don't think so. If horses could choose, they would rather live outside in a herd than stay in a cozy (from the human point of view) stable. In fact, many of my friends whose horses live in a place where they can go inside or outside as they please, report that their horse will usually choose to be outside in the elements, even when the weather is less than desirable.

I tried to share my view with Kathryn. She looked at me like I was a crazy person. Which I possibly was - in her world.

But again, perception is reality. Here we were looking at the same thing, but not seeing the same thing. What she thought was horse paradise looked to me like another horse prison. Our horse care belief systems obviously didn't match, not even close. I could certainly argue my point of view (and she could argue hers), but in the end it would have made little difference - we were looking at the same thing through two different lenses. To change either one of our perceptions would have required a significant personal shift in ideology - an impossibility at that time.

Horses more than any other domestic animal seem to be removed from the animal world (dogs do get their fair share of anthropomorphism as well). This fact is perhaps one of the reasons people eventually run into behavioral problems with their horses. Paul Mc Greevy and Andrew McLean write in their newest book Equitation Science that "we might say that a horse is naughty, but we must question whether our notion of human naughtiness can possible apply to horses. Perhaps the naughty horse is merely confused? The problem that then arises is what are we going to do about it? Do we have the right to punish the naughty horse? Clearly, there can be serious welfare problems in attributing human characteristics to horses because of the consequences for them."

We anthropomorphize horses because it works so well. It is convenient for humans to keep them in their stalls covered with blankets and let them out only in solitude and when the weather conditions are great. That is how we would like to live, were we horses. I now believe that this is not what horses want, but once upon a time I was out there at the barn making sure my horse had "everything it could possibly want" (of which, in hindsight, it cared not an inkling about).
For example, I used to be a stickler about keeping my horses clean, because clean horses were happy horses. Thanks to Little Love I have since changed to see this matter differently, but I am aware that this belief lives strong among most equestrians (including her owner). And not just horse people, but ordinary people who know nothing about horses, too. If you took a group of non-equestrians to two separate barns, one where the horses were running around a semi-muddy field in a heard and another where horses were stalled with blankets covering their short, clipped coats, which one do you think the majority would see as humane? I'm fairly confident when I say they would choose the latter barn.

Contained, clean, warm and dry - aren't those the four attributes that make a horse (owner) happy?

I am doing my best to rid myself of the "anthropomorphic lens". Horse are horses are horses. How could I ever think they were something else? How can anyone else still think that? So here I am, as usual, wanting to make sure everyone around me sees the world the way I do. And, if they don't, make sure to judge them for what they are or aren't. But -as I said in an earlier post this month, I am trying to exercise compassion and understanding. I think I need to try harder, we all do. We should all want to understand why and how we can have arguments over things like animal welfare, childrearing, horse training - all subjects I find quite black and white, but am starting to discover have this grey area I cannot even see, having the wrong lens to work with.

My master's thesis proved that people from two relatively similar cultures could interpret an ambiguous short story differently. And culture was not the only thing that determined the differences in interpretation: age, religious background, level of education and previous reading experiences also played a significant role in how readers perceived certain characters and plot turns. My study was not extensive, but it was enough to convince me about the differences in literary interpretation. If written word can have so many meanings, isn't it obvious why we cannot agree on how to be with our horses?

Horse people, too, have different ethical standards, different views of the world. We each have our own individual life history that has shaped us to be who we are, to think the way we think and to value the things we value. We have a certain threshold for pain, for knowledge, for comfort, for courage. We have emotional baggage, psychological baggage and even physiological baggage. We have our own needs, hopes, dreams.

How could we ever look at an image and see the same image?

Perception is reality.

What is your reality? What is the lens through which you are looking at the world? Is this the reality you are comfortable with or would you like to open your eyes a little wider and discover another one, a new lens?

And if you are like me and want to show someone a piece of your reality, what would be the best approach? Perhaps when black and white seem too much of a contrast, it is best to meet in the grey matter?

~ K

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there. ~ Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

Won't you come into the garden? I would like my roses to see you. ~Richard Brinsley Sheridan

PS. Can you see the baby in the picture?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On Riding - Part 2.

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered. ~Nelson Mandela

Exactly one and a half years ago I wrote a blog entry about my feelings towards riding (On Riding 26th of May, 2009). Time has passed between then and now and has helped me refine my thoughts. I realize that after a slow and tender process, I have finally let go of the dressage rider within. To reach this point is monumental, as I have ridden horses for over thirty years and once swore I would be a dressage rider until I was a doddery old woman nearing her death bed.

I am now riding approximately 95% less than I was two years ago and, and until about three weeks ago when a student asked me to ride her horse, it had been months since I worked a horse in the arena. It felt strange to sit on a horse other than Little Love and even stranger to start working the horse into some sort of frame. He was bitless, of course, but nevertheless I felt oddly out of place on his back. Due to my sore tailbone I took it easy, but ended up riding for over forty minutes at walk and rising trot.

The horse I was riding was one of the biggest horses I have ever ridden, and I have ridden some pretty massive ones in the past, having been a vaulting trainer. I have known this horse for a few years now and have ridden him a few times before, so I knew going into the ride how much power and focus I would need. Due to the fact that I hadn’t truly ridden dressage for months, I felt slightly intimidated by the situation.

Before getting on, I sent the horse a mental message of what we would be doing together. I also explained that I would not ask for anything he could not physically do. I hoped for two way communication and promised to listen to what the horse had to say. I got into the saddle with a “one step at a time” attitude, trying to let go of any previous experiences, any set goals or plans for the ride, all possible premonitions.

I had nothing to worry about. What had previously been strenuous and perhaps a challenge with this particular horse now came easily and without a second thought. With relatively light effort and by making adjustments in my own seat I was able to guide the horse towards straightness. This resulted in him relaxing and starting to use his muscles correctly. In the end we had beautiful collection, something this young horse did not offer on a daily basis.

I was stumped. How could it be possible that after not riding for months, I seemed to be a better rider than before? Wasn’t it practice that made you perfect?

Ask any dressage rider what their ultimate goal is, and the word "connection" will pop up in the conversation. They are talking about the kind of connection that leads to harmony with the horse, another concept that so often seems out of reach. To reach this ultimate goal, most dressage riders spend their whole life taking lessons and perfecting their riding skills. And I, too, can recall being that person, diligently striving for that missing piece that would lead to bliss under saddle.

I drove home thinking about the ride on my student's horse. All these years I had believed that riding was a technical and physical task based on the laws of biomechanics - something it undoubtedly also is. But perhaps I hadn’t given enough credit to the emotional and psychological side of it. Something had happened in that arena with that horse that I had never truly understood before. Was this what connection and harmony could feel like? Was this the dream under saddle everyone was chasing? How ironic that I had had to first let go of riding, to feel this.

But how appropriate.

It was not the first time I had experienced something I thought was connection and harmony. At several occasions during my dressage "career" (if you can call it that) there had been times where I had felt that "Eureka!" moment. Those moments had always been a product of hard work, a result of struggle and hours of sweating in the saddle. I now realize that perhaps some of them had been contrived, based on a physical feeling rather than a holistic feeling. In all the training and practicing and honing of skill, I had lacked the connection that came from within. In fact, was it possible that by focusing solely on the physical aspect of riding, I had prevented myself from finding what I was looking for?

What is true connection? Is it the ability to go together in physical movement without hindering each other? Or is it something more, something invisible and unattainable by force? You can force a horse into movement and you can will yourself to follow that movement with your body, but can harmony be present in such an act? The American Heritage Dictionary says that harmony is "agreement in feeling or opinion". When we bridle and saddle a horse, is it even possible for him to feel harmonious? Is the harmony we seek just a subjective dream created by human?

The experience with my student's horse had been exceptional, yet it didn’t make me want to ride more. Actually, quite the contrary. I am no longer able to turn back and return where I once was, the dressage rider within is gone forever.

This fall one of my blog readers sent me some interesting information about the damage riding causes to horses’ backs. This extensive study talks about the sinking of the back (and thus pressure on the vertebrae); the tissue damage caused by excessive pressure; the fact that horses grow until up to the age 5 and even beyond, but yet are trained under saddle starting at 3 and even younger. Not to mention the harmful effects of the riders hands and bad body posture (seat). But even under the best rider in the world, harmful pressure is applied to the horse’s back. After the investigation of 443 horses, the findings concluded that only 7% of the horses had NO damage to their backs.

Seven percent.

These are sobering details. Many people will like to argue that this was just one study and it is true, it is just one study. I wonder why this subject has not been studied more. Perhaps because we are afraid of what we will find?

Under the current circumstances I still trail ride Little Love, but I can't help but wonder: If she was given free choice, would she ever let me on her back again? I'm not sure. Does any horse want to be ridden? Perhaps not. They did not evolve over millions of years just to carry us on their backs.

My friend Sam tells me that when children and adults interact with his horses in liberty, some horses occasionally invite people on their backs. I believe this does not happen because the horse wants to be ridden in the traditional sense, but because he wants to give the human the gift of riding. After all, love and friendship are about giving and allowing. The key factor in these situations is to respect the wishes of the gift giver.

One day, when Little Love's and my situation is different, I hope to be able to offer her that choice and let her decide for herself. In the meanwhile, I try to stay off her back as much as possible. The abovementioned study concludes that we should not ride horses for more than 15 minutes at a time and always in free collection. I am keeping this in mind and helping Little Love discover free collection during our liberty work. I make a point of dismounting and walking on the trails when possible. I cannot control how others ride this horse, but I can make these choices for myself.

Letting go of riding is not always easy. For some people it happens overnight and for some, like me, it is a slow and winding road. Then there are those who don't ever want to take that journey. We all must evolve in our own time, with our own horses.

 ~ K

It is only when we silent the blaring sounds of our daily existence that we can finally hear the whispers of truth that life reveals to us, as it stands knocking on the doorsteps of our hearts. ~K.T. Jong

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Highest Form of Human Intelligence

Sometimes the only way you can take a really good look at yourself is through somebody else's eyes. ~From the television show Scrubs

A few days ago I was at the barn in the late afternoon and had just tacked up for a short trail ride. When I walked to the yard, another boarder was preparing to go on a ride with her mare as well. I used to ride this woman’s horses for the first year I lived in Switzerland, so we know each other fairly well even though we have taken two completely separate paths since; her the competitive dressage path and me… well, we all know I’m taking the path less travelled.

However, despite our differing views, I do try to stay in a working relationship with the people I meet at a daily basis at the barn, even if in passing. So, when I saw this lady leaving for her ride, I asked politely if she was going on the trails.

“Yes, but I go alone,” was her terse answer.

I shrugged off her rudeness. I didn’t care if we went together or not, I had just tried to be polite.

After my ride, I saw the lady in the tack room; she was cleaning her saddle and bridle. When she saw me she smiled apologetically.

“Sorry about earlier, it was not because of you that I didn’t want to ride together.”

“No worries,” I said. But the lady wasn’t done talking, she wanted to explain.

“It’s because of that horse.”

“That horse?” I said, confused. “Do you mean Little Love?”

Yes. She meant Little Love.

“I have made a decision not to go out ever again with that crazy horse,” the woman continued.

I see.

“But we have ridden together before without any problems,” I pointed out.

“Yes, but last time I was out with the owner, that crazy mare spooked my mare. I can’t afford to have that happen. The way you all ride her without a bit…” She looked at me accusingly.

Right. I should have known this was about the bitless bridle.

“I’m sorry you have made that decision. Of course, you need to do what you feel is right for yourself.” I wasn’t going to challenge the woman any further, there was no point. She had already passed her judgment. But I have to admit, I was angry and hurt. For a moment I wanted to leave, but then I remembered a book I recently read about nonviolent communication that had raised my awareness about passing judgment. It is so easy to judge other people, hadn’t the woman just done that? Maybe it was worth trying to learn to be different. I took a deep breath and did my best to remain neutral about the woman’s comments. Maybe, instead of getting furious, I could make an effort to understand her world.

“You’ve been here for a long time today,” I said lightly.

The lady rubbed her tack vigorously. “Yes, I know, it’s because of my stupid mare.”

“Oh,” I said, suddenly realizing that perhaps there was more to this woman’s foul mood than Little Love and the bitless bridle. “What happened?”

“Wednesday when I rode, she was so good. And then yesterday she was awesome when my trainer rode her for an hour and a half. It was so beautiful. But today…”

“It didn’t go so well?”

The lady looked up at me, visibly delighted I was taking an interest in her problems. “You know,” she continued, “the first half an hour the mare was like a dream. I was really happy with her, especially with the piaffe and passage. But then suddenly she got all heavy in the front and tight in the neck.”

I made an effort to remain neutral, but it was getting increasingly harder. I said: “Sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop.”

The lady gave me a sharp look, but then said: “I couldn’t get her to relax after that, it was awful, her neck was like an iron rod. After trying for fifteen minutes, I started cantering her. Usually at the canter she comes around, but this time it took 45 minutes. I mean, can you believe it?”

“Wow, you cantered her for 45 minutes?”

“Yes, I actually timed it.” The woman sounded frustrated. “And I did lead changes, counter canter, small circles, big circles, bending left, bending right and then finally, after 45 minutes she let go and relaxed. I was absolutely exhausted.” The woman dipped the two bits of her double bridle in the bucket in front of her to clean them off.

Silence. I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound like an accusation. Finally I said: “She is in pretty good shape if she could canter 45 minutes.”

The woman snorted. “That’s nothing, last summer I warmed her up for three hours at one competition. I just don’t get it, why did she have to do this to me today?”

“Well… you rode her hard Wednesday and your trainer rode yesterday, maybe she just needed a break?” I suggested.

The lady gave me a sideways glance. “A break?” She said. “Are you kidding me? She’s nine years old and she needs to be able to handle getting ridden hard three days in a row. She has no idea what we have ahead of us next competition season. I can’t afford to have this happen then.”

Of course not. I thought of her mare, the only horse in the barn that attacked the metal bars of her stall every time another living being passed close by. I searched my brain for something to say that would not make this woman defensive, but would at the same time help her perhaps understand what her horse was trying to tell her.

The lady hadn’t noticed my silence. She wrapped her double bridle up in a neat bundle and hung it on a hook on the wall. “Of course the annoying part is that I couldn’t just put the mare into her stall after all that. I had to walk her for twenty minutes and now she’s sweating like crazy, even though I clipped her two weeks ago.”

I nodded. “Well, she did work quite hard. She must be tired.”

The lady ignored my comment and sighed loudly. “It’s always something with that mare. Now I have to come back to change her blanket and I haven’t even had lunch yet. And all because of that stupid horse. Sometimes I don’t understand why I even bother.”

Frankly, I was starting to wonder about that as well.

My immediate reaction to what this lady was saying was utter and pure judgment. How could she treat her horse like that? How could she demand all those things and then blame the horse for what had happened as if it had planned it all along just to ruin her day? And not only that, she had also judged Little Love and my use of the bitless bridle. Didn’t I have the right to judge her back? Didn’t I have the right to tell her exactly what I thought?

Honestly, I wanted to scream out loud.

But then I remembered - some years back, I was this lady.

The Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti once remarked that observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence. He must have been right, because it is so very difficult (sometimes nearly impossible) not to be judgmental of people who do not share your views. But judging doesn’t get us anywhere, it doesn’t help us understand. And I feel that it is important to try to understand everything anyone does. Only then, when I have full understanding, can I hope to have compassion. And nothing has the power to help people like compassion does, this I have seen over and over again.

I believe my New Year’s resolution will be to try to understand and observe without passing judgment. Sounds pretty noble, to be honest. I’m not sure it will work 100% (heck, I'll take 50%) as I don’t think I am exactly saint quality and never will be. But damn if I’m not going to try my best to change my thinking from: “That self-centered woman abuses and uses her horse”(definite evaluation) to “She is not yet on the Path” (a neutral observation).

Everyone can change – I can and so can this lady. Sometimes change is not likely, but it is always possible.


Still learning. Will never stop.

Always when judging
Who people are,

Remember to footnote
The words "So far."

~Robert Brault

Monday, December 6, 2010

All of Our Future

Children are one third of our population and all of our future. ~Select Panel for the Promotion of Child Health, 1981

A friend of mine is a children’s book writer. She is also a horse enthusiast, so naturally she writes about horses. She, like so many of us, believes in kindness to animals and is against inflicting any kind of pain to horses. The first version of her newest manuscript, a lovely picture book for younger children, is a story about a little girl discovering horses at a barn where barefoot horses are ridden in bitless bridles. Sounds absolutely wonderful, doesn’t it?

The publisher, however, had a problem. According to them, horses in books must have bits and shoes, to prevent little readers from feeling guilty and sad for the horses they encounter in real life; all surely using bits and shoes.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around this argument. We want to teach children to be kind and considerate to animals, something children by nature already are. Children want to be on the animal’s side, and would love nothing more than have adult support in this matter. And aren’t books a means of reflecting change in our society? Good books don’t merely repeat what has been said over and over again for decades, but try to follow new trends and bring fresh expert advice to readers.

I can, however, understand the publisher’s concern. Perhaps they are truly afraid of causing a guilt trip to their little readers. Who would want to read a book to their children about caged industrial chicken and their miserable lives? Or the real story about where the majority of our beef comes from. But should we underestimate our children by not telling them the truth? Should this publisher be concerned of making such a radical statement as admitting that the current way of being with horses is abusive?

My friend made a compromise with her publisher. She agreed to omit all verbal mentions of the bitless bridles and barefoot hooves, but asked that the illustrated horses in the book would not have bits or horseshoes. She based her argument on the fact that no children’s book should promote abusive controlling devices and it should always be a reflection of the writer’s own beliefs. The publisher finally agreed to this solution; perhaps a small victory at best, but a step towards the right direction.

As a mother, I know how tricky it can sometimes be to answer your child’s eager questions. You want to communicate your values to your child, but on the same token, you don’t want to distress your child with too much information. Because let’s face it: the world we live in today is not exactly a bed of roses. Animals are not treated fairly. Heck, people are not treated fairly. Children have little control over most aspects of our society, so why burden them with the uncomfortable truth when they can’t do anything about it? At least not yet.

Of course it’s not just what we say to our children or the books we read to them that shape them as individuals. It is who we are that counts the most, that teaches them how to be in this world.

Take an incident I witnessed a few weeks ago while I was visiting another barn nearby:

A woman in her thirties was taking care of her horse, which was standing in crossties. The woman’s approximately three year old son was playing with his cars in the barn aisle in front of the horse. The horse was standing calmly while his owner worked on her after-riding rituals, taking the tack away, brushing the entire horse, greasing the hooves.

She went around the horse, picking up each foot to apply grease to the bottom of the hoof. The hose’s expression was bored, until the owner tried to pick up the left front. Instead of lifting the foot, the horse leaned into his owner, putting weight on the foot she was trying to grease. The owner yanked on the leg and elbowed the horse, but he didn’t budge. Then, without as much as a warning, the woman straightened up, yelled at her horse and hit him hard on the shoulder with the hoof pick.

At this point the horse moved and picked up his foot, but I was no longer looking at the horse or the owner. I was looking at the little boy, who had stopped playing with his cars and was watching his mother intently. What was going through his head? Had he seen his mother hit the horse before? Or had he possibly been subject to his mother’s rage and knew what the horse was going through? His little face was solemn and grave, but there was a hint of wonder flickering behind his big, brown eyes.

Children are very observant; in fact, they are so observant they often notice things we don’t. When my son was just a toddler he used to come with me to the barn quite often. Once, long before I was consciously on any Path, my three year old son watched my student riding in the arena. He stared at the horse for a while, and then asked:”Why is the horse opening his mouth?”

I looked at the horse and low and behold, the mouth was open. Of course, there was a noseband trying to keep the mouth shut, but the horse was doing his best to fight the strap across his nose. Despite the numerous lessons we had done together with this particular rider and her horse, I had never made this observation. And there was my toddler son pointing it out to me in all his innocent curiosity. He was obviously far further on the Path than I was and not because someone had told him about it, but because he simply observed his environment and questioned everything that was happening in it, something I should have been doing, had I not been blinded by everything I had learned about horses in the past thirty years.

Eight years ago when I first became a mother, a lot of people gave me advice, but the single most valuable piece of guidance was given to me by an old friend, a mother of three. My friend said: “When you are in the presence of your child, never ever forget to ask yourself this question: What am I teaching my child at this very moment?”

Children are clean slates. This might sound like a cliché, but only because it is true. Children already know the truth. But then we go ahead and tamper with it. Like the little boy watching his mother hit her horse. What did he learn from that situation? Certainly not patience or kindness or empathy. Will he grow up to be his mother? Or will he somehow deviate from her path and learn to question the way his mother treats animals?

A few years back, before my time with Little Love, I spent a few months riding at a very fancy dressage stable by Lake Geneva. I deliberately sought out the owner to see if she needed anyone to ride her many horses, and she did. I was happy to start riding at her place, as it gave me the opportunity to ride some excellent horses (something important to me at the time) but it didn’t take me very long to realize the culture of violence that was present in everything that was done at this facility.

This was a private barn with a handful of adults, a few teenagers and a dozen horses. There was also an eleven year old girl, who showed up every single day to ride her expensive dressage pony. She obviously loved horses, but she also worshipped the barn owner and her adult daughter; both successful riders with extremely forceful techniques. This admiration from the little girl’s part resulted in some of the most abusive behavior I have ever seen a rider exhibit.

I can tell you, it is a whole different ball game to witness an adult behaving in a cruel way towards animals than witnessing a young child doing the same. Seeing children participate in beating horses, kicking them with spurs, yelling, slapping, whipping, pulling them into excessive rollkur by using drawreins is to say the least, revolting. We expect children to be pure and innocent, but there is nothing innocent about blatant violence.

This eleven year old girl had not only adapted every single move she had witnessed her idols doing, she had perfected them by exaggeration. It was not, of course, her fault she had turned this way. She was only repeating what she had learned. No amount of interference from my part would make her change her ways. In fact, it only got me into to trouble with the barn owner, who openly supported this violence.

It doesn’t take a lot to guide a child the wrong way. Last summer I had the opportunity to give my niece a private riding lesson. She is a nine year old horse enthusiast who had at that point been riding once a week for less than a year at a local riding school in her home country. It was interesting to see how she related to the horses, which was with quite a mechanical manner, as if she was riding a bike. She had learned to use her legs to kick their sides to ask for forward movement, she had learned to use her hands to pull on their mouths to turn them and stop them. Nobody had ever corrected her seat, nor had they told her about the nature of the horse, what a sensitive animal it was.

She told me about the angry ponies back home, how one would bite and the other threaten to kick. I was saddened to hear this and tried to gently explain why a horse would behave in this sort of manner. At first my niece simply watched me interact with the horses in silence, but soon the questions started. Why do you not use the bit? Why do some horse have shoes and some don’t? Is that horse angry or happy?

I have to admit: I felt inadequate in the face of this child. I could offer her the truth I knew, but I could not help her any further. If she wanted to be with horses, she would have to continue riding at her mainstream riding school as there were no other options nearby. How could I possibly tell her about the harmful effects of the bit, when I knew she had no option but ride in a bit? How could I explain that shoeing horses was detrimental to their health when most horses she knew had shoes? How could I enlighten her about the abuse she was learning at her riding school?

If I told her what I knew, would she feel as powerless as I do, in the face of helping horses?

So here we are, back to the question of guilt trips.

I told my niece I didn’t use a bit because I personally believed bits were not necessary and that horses preferred going without. I told her that horseshoeing was an old tradition, but that horses were born without shoes and did much better without them. I did my best to teach her how to sit on the horse correctly and how sensitive they really were, and how willing to communicate if we took a moment to listen to them. We spent some time grooming the ponies and talking about their body language and the personal space they had and how to respect that. All I could hope was that perhaps I planted a small little seed in my niece’s inquisitive and thoughtful little head, a seed that would have the opportunity to grow as she got older. But in hindsight, I can see that just like my friend’s publisher, I chose a careful option, the compromise. I still don’t know if it was the right thing to do. Children are so much smarter than what we often give them credit for and can handle surprisingly controversial information. My son is only eight and is fully aware of global warming and what is happening to the planet. So why not tell the ugly truth about horses? Perhaps it is only us adults who know about guilt trips?

The Path is the birthright of all children, you don’t have to convince them to be kind to animals; it comes as second nature to them, at least until they learn something else. When I was a child, I often imagined being a cat or a dog or a horse. I wanted to know what they were feeling, how it was to be in the world as an animal. But I lost that, because I was taught to control animals instead of understanding them. The same thing is happening to so many other children out there, who love horses, but end up treating them inhumanely simply because that is how adults treat them.

In the meanwhile, I want to hold onto my dream that one day there will only be barns like the one in my friend’s children’s book, where horses are treated with respect and without the fear of pain or force. Perhaps my dream will come true, but maybe not in my lifetime.

My son rarely comes to the barn with me anymore, but when he does, I let Little Love loose in the arena with him. She always follows him, where ever he goes, as if they have a silent agreement to walk together. It brings tears to my eyes every time, because this is a horse that follows next to nobody. But she follows him, because he knows more about horses and their ways than I will perhaps ever be able to understand.


A child can ask questions that a wise man cannot answer. ~Author Unknown