Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Sun and the Moon

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.                                     
  – "Symphony" by Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Six years ago when I met my horse Little Love, she was classified as a true nut case.  This was a horse that hated everybody and everything.  She couldn’t stand to be brushed, she loathed tacking up and riding was definitely the worst thing that ever happened to her.  She was perpetually scared of the world around her and was completely unpredictable under saddle.  When she was in one of her “scared moods”, she would bolt aimlessly around the arena, hauling her owner around like a ragdoll.  She wouldn’t turn right and barely could make a left turn.  Other days, when she was in her “calm mode”, she refused to move and trying to get her to trot was like running in a swamp filled with molasses.  I really think that the only thing that saved her from being taken to the slaughter house at a young age was her incredibly elastic and larger than life movement, which had every trainer in the country swearing they would be the one to “put that horse into its place.”
I worked with Little Love for almost five years before she became my horse.  During this time I discovered that she was a misunderstood individual with a lot of opinions, but nobody who would listen to them.  When I started listening, many things changed.  Suddenly she wasn’t so scared.  She also decided it was alright to cooperate with humans, at least some times.  But, her basic nature as a flighty, spooky horse remained the same. 

“You are wasting your time,” people said, when I relentlessly kept working with the black mare despite the challenges we seemed to face on a weekly, if not daily, basis.  “She’ll never calm down.” 

I think it was about three years into it that I admitted that this much was true; Little Love would never change her nervous, skittish ways.  Even though she had calmed down significantly, she still had that frightened horse inside her, and that frightened horse could show up within seconds, if she encountered something scary.  And she was scared of so many things.

Secretly I wished I would be able to own her one day and give her the life I inherently believed she deserved.  Yes, she was a “difficult” horse, but for some inexplicable reason I was willing to live with whatever this brought to the table.  So when, through some luck, that day arrived, I took her out of her familiar environment of a commercial barn with the covered arena and other works and hauled her to a small barn where she could be outside as much as possible.  And not just outside, but outside with another horse.

 She was shell-shocked at first, not knowing what to do with her new life as a horse, but slowly it all sunk in. And as it did, my horse started to change.

Now Little Love lives at a small barn with three other mares.  She still sleeps her nights in a stall, but spends 12- 16 hours of her day outside interacting with other horses.  This is still not perfect, as my dream is to get her into a situation where she no longer would have to live in a stall, but in the meanwhile, her current situation is the best we can get.  And it has made all the difference.  Gone is the crazy horse, the fearful horse, the insecure, skittish animal that took off in the arena over the smallest noise from outside.  In fact, the change has been so profound, so incredible, that if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, it would be hard to believe. 

So, what is it that made the difference?  This is a question I have been thinking of a lot.  I do believe it is the sum of many things, for not only has her living environment changed, but other aspects of her life as well.  She no longer has shoes; she hasn’t had a bit in her mouth for over three years; she rarely gets ridden and never in the arena; she is never forced to do anything; nobody hits her or yells at her.  But, that all put aside, there are two elements to Little Love’s life that seem to make the biggest difference: free movement and the company of her peers. From what I have seen, I truly believe that no amount of riding or human contact can replace either one of these fundamental needs every horse has. 

Two weeks ago I witnessed first hand the importance of free movement and herd life to Little Love’s well-being.  For reasons I’m not going to get into here, she had to be separated from the herd for a short period of time.  I didn’t have the heart to keep her stall bound, so we set up a small paddock close to the other horses.  In fact, to make her feel “comfortable”, we brought her best friend up to the small paddock next to her.  Because of the mandatory electric wire, the two horses couldn’t touch, but at least they could be close to each other.  I was confident Little Love would adjust to this arrangement for a few days.  After all, this was nothing new to Little Love; hadn’t she lived half her life in solitary confinement, at times never getting to go outside?  In comparison, a few days of restricted movement and social life were peanuts.

It took less than 24 hours for my horse to unravel mentally and emotionally.  Suddenly the horse that had been calm and composed, brave and fearless, started exhibiting strange behavior such as staring at objects she had seen for months in the driveway, but which now appeared to stalk her.  She spooked at the neighbor’s dog she had seen daily; the mailboxes on the side of the road caused her to have a fit.  It was impossible to leave the barn area without the mare having a complete meltdown.  She reared, she bucked.  She stopped and refused to move, just to seconds later suddenly spin around and try to canter home.  She was afraid of everything and anything; even the sound of rain drops hitting the bare, leafless trees freaked her out. 

Even thought I had seen it a hundred times before, it actually took me a few moments to recognize this behavior and the message behind it.   But, when I did get it, it hit me on the head like a bag of bricks; Little Love was demonstrating the same behavior I had seen for years, before she was my horse.  This was not a “crazy” horse, this was a horse that had been denied two of her basic needs in life. 

I called the barn owner and discussed other options for Little Love and as soon as we discovered a solution where she was able to be in actual physical contact with other horses and move around freely, she went from crazy to calm within minutes.  In fact, when I saw her face as she approached her friends, I realized that no matter what it took, I would always do my best to make sure she could continue living as part of a herd on a daily basis.  Horses are herd animals and they should never be treated as anything else.  They are also animals that are born to move and they should have this opportunity preferably 24 hours a day.  Living in a stall for 19 hours out of a day just to go outside alone in a postcard-sized paddock is not the life horses are built to live, no matter what people say. 

So many horses are dismissed from our human world as problem horses, but have we ever truly stopped to analyze the reasons these horses act like they do?  Human mishandling issues put aside, how many horses at this moment are suffering from their restricted lives in a small stall, without any hope of ever again having real contact with another member of their species?  I can assure you we are talking of many, many horses.  Perhaps many of them seem alright, even happy (by human standards) for not every horse is a freedom fighter like Little Love who can and will exhibit her opinion about her living conditions to anyone close enough to take notice.  Most horses, in fact, accept their fate and find solace in the dull world of learned helplessness where dissociation from reality saves their life, but eats away their soul.  This works very well for humans, as these horses are valued beyond measure as “kind and calm”.  But, having seen the transformation of my own horse, I can only wonder what lies within all those horses that endure similar, or even worse, living conditions Little Love did.  If we freed all the riding school horses and competitive show horses and race horses to live a more species-appropriate life, what kind of personalities would resurrect from the ruins of these animals?  What sort of lessons of humanity would they be willing to teach us? What kind of aptitude could we discover?   How would this change our relationships with these animals?

The difference in Little Love’s current personality compared to who she was a year ago is like talking about the difference between the sun and the moon.  The sun and the moon are both round and from our perspective they live in the sky.  There are a lot of other similarities as well, but when it comes down to differences, we all know what they are.  Maybe the most striking difference in the way we perceive these two planets is the fact that the sun is always whole whereas the moon can only appear to us in its whole beauty once a month and even then it pales in comparison to the sun’s extraordinary splendor.  That is exactly how I see Little Love when I think of her past life; she looked like the same horse she is now, but it was only very brief moments that I could see glimpses of the real horse within. 

Whereas now that real horse is present all the time. 

And the wisdom and beauty she brings to my world every day takes my breath away.


"Caged Bird"

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind  
and floats downstream  
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and  
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings  
with a fearful trill  
of things unknown  
but longed for still  
and his tune is heard  
on the distant hill  
for the caged bird  
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams  
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream  
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied  
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings  
with a fearful trill  
of things unknown  
but longed for still  
and his tune is heard  
on the distant hill  
for the caged bird  
sings of freedom.

By Maya Angelou from Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?

Little Love cantering with her friend Col 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ice Crystals

Feelings are much like waves, we can't stop them from coming but we can choose which one to surf. ~Jonatan MÃ¥rtensson

I noticed the couple with the baby as soon as I boarded the airplane.  It was hard to miss them, because the mother, who was holding the squirmy infant, was blocking the aisle and causing a massive backup of boarding passengers.  Once I settled in my seat, I realized the family was sitting two rows down.  I watched the mother try to settle down the baby, who appeared to be about eight months old.  But the little boy wasn’t going to have it.  Every time his mother sat down in her seat, he started crying.  So, the mother opted to wander up and down the aisle, despite the other passengers trying to get to their seats.

Soon everyone was sitting down, except the mother with her baby boy.  She continued walking up and down the aisle, talking to the child in a soothing voice, until the stewardess asked her to sit down for takeoff.  The mother sat down and instantly the infant started crying loudly.  He squirmed in his mother’s arms and despite the efforts of both his parents, he wouldn’t calm down.  Soon his scream escalated to a wait.  The plane was already moving, heading to the end of the runway, but the mother undid her seat belt and stood up, holding the flailing baby.  The moment she was standing, the boy quieted down, gurgling happily.  

The other passengers looked alarmed.  Surely the woman wasn’t going to stand during takeoff? 
“Excuse me,” a stewardess called from the back sternly.  “Please sit down immediately!”   

 The mother made an attempt to sit, but when her baby started screaming, she sprung up again, her face distraught.  Her husband touched her arm, but she ignored him. 
Suddenly another stewardess emerged from the front of the plane.  She was young, barely in her twenties.
“Please,” she said, “you must sit down or we can’t take off.”  

The mother looked at the young woman and clutched her child, who was quiet again. 
“But I can’t, he won’t settle,” she said. 

“I understand, but you must sit down or we have to stop the plane,” the young woman replied.  She put her hand on the mother’s shoulder and guided her towards her seat. The mother sat down and as soon as she was in her seat, her child protested with a loud wail.  The mother struggled to hold her kicking child.  I could see she wanted to stand up again.
The stewardess knelt by the woman’s seat. 

“Listen,” she said.  “I realize this is a very stressful situation for you.  You are worried about your child.  But it is much less dangerous for him to cry in your arms than for you to stand during takeoff.   Don’t worry about the other passengers; they can handle a little baby crying.”

I could see tears pouring down the mother’s cheeks; her husband wiped them away.  The stewardess put her hand on the mother’s knee and looked her earnestly in the eyes.  I strained to hear her words over the screaming baby. 

“I can see you are a good mother, trying to do the right thing.  Keeping your child safe is right thing.  Just take a deep breath.  Before you know it, you will be able to stand up again.”

The mother sighed and suddenly, as if someone had flipped a switch in the child, the baby stopped crying.  The change was so abrupt that my husband reading a book next to me looked up and said:

“What happened, is the baby okay?” 

The baby was okay and so was his mother.  The young stewardess walked back to her seat and as the plane took off into the sky, it was completely silent in the cabin.  A few hours later, when we arrived at our destination, I saw the family leaving with a happy and calm baby.  I marveled over the wisdom of the young stewardess, but also the baby’s reactions to his mother’s emotions.  It was obvious that as soon as the mother calmed down, the baby, feeling his mother’s energy change, followed suit.   Children, just like horses, are masters at picking up emotional messages, even the ones we don’t know we are sending.  

I sometimes wonder how I was able to escape this lesson in horsemanship for so many years.  I was, of course, told that horses could “smell fear” a mile away.  But, on the same token, I was told to cover that fear up and act brave, even aggressive.  As if that would fool a horse?  I personally think that this particular piece of advice has caused hundreds if not thousands of horse-related accidents in the world.  Horses always know how we feel, no matter what we do.  It is when we ignore those emotions in ourselves that horses get suspicious and even defensive. 
Just this weekend I was reminded about the mastery of emotional intelligence horses possess.  A friend of mine wrote me an email after she had visited my horse with her eight year old daughter.  My friend and her daughter had brought a few carrots to give to Little Love, but, when the actual time came to feed the carrots to my mare, who was standing in her paddock close to the fence, my friend’s daughter became scared of the big horse.

"Go ahead, it's safe to give Lilo the carrot," my friend urged her little girl who was clutching the carrot in her hand.

Carefully, her daughter pushed the carrot towards Little Love through the fence. Soon the carrot was only a foot from Little Love's nose, but instead of taking it, the horse stood stock still, looking at the child with her ears forward. Quickly my friend’s daughter pulled her hand back.

"Mom, I'm scared," she said.

My friend came to stand closer to her daughter, assuring her again that it was safe to give the carrot to Little Love. Again the little girl brought the carrot slowly towards the mare, until it was right in front of her face. But the mare merely looked at the child and didn’t make an attempt to reach for the treat. The girl pulled her hand away, telling her mom she was too scared to feed the horse. My friend took the carrot from her daughter and brought it toward Little Love in the exact same place the little girl had brought it.  My horse, as if seeing the carrot for the first time, immediately stretched her nose out and took it.

"I couldn't believe it," my friend wrote in her email. "It was obvious that Little Love could feel my daughter's fear and didn't want to scare her any further by taking the carrot. Now I know what you mean when you talk about emotional intelligence and how horses always know how we feel."

And don’t they do exactly that, know how we feel?  Sometimes they know even better than we do.  But we shouldn’t write off our own ability to feel the energy of others, because we all have that ability.  Don’t they say that 90% of our communication is non-verbal?  

I am sure all of us have been in the same room with someone who is in a bad mood.  Or worse, we know someone who is an eternal pessimist.  You feel their negative energy swarming around you, eating away at your good mood.  These are the energy thieves of our lives; people who suck away our positive emotions as if they were mere dust bunnies under our couch. 

I believe emotions can travel over time and space, that they have no boundaries when it comes to the material world.  I haven’t always thought this way, but the more emotional awareness I possess, the more I discover about the power of emotions.  To feel someone’s pain, you don’t necessarily need to be in the same space with them.  In fact, you could be miles away. 

Ten years ago, far before I had ever even heard of emotional communication, a friend of mine had a bad accident.  At the time I was thousands of miles away in a different time zone, sleeping.  At exactly the time of the accident, I jolted awake.  I looked at the clock; it was 1:15 in the morning.  I knew something bad had happened and I knew this without a doubt.  I dug out my cell phone and placed a call to the other side of the world where it was day time just to hear the bad news.  

This is an extreme example, as it does not always take an accident to “feel” someone from a distance.  I have often thought of an old friend or acquaintance, someone I haven’t talked to for a long time, even years, and just minutes later that person calls me or sends me an email.  We do it all the time, send our emotions and energy into the universe, without realizing that there are others out there receiving it.  That in mind, I ask you the question: what kind of energy do you want to send into the world today?  

This week I was teaching a new student.  She is a very technical rider, who wants to learn more about her seat and how she can be effective on a horse.  She was riding a high strung mare, who was trying her hardest to understand what the human on top of her wanted.  The mare wasn’t doing too badly.  My student, however, was highly frustrated.  She had only negative things to say about her mount, a horse that she rode on a once a week basis. 

“She is so crooked,” my student moaned for the umpteenth time.  “I’m trying to keep my thigh down, but it’s so hard when the horse is not cooperating.  It’s so frustrating.” 

Having listened to her complaints about the horse for quite a while, I finally decided to address the issue.

 “Let’s talk about your frustration for a moment,” I said.  “How do you think the horse feels when you feel frustrated?”  

My student was struggling to stay with the horse’s trot, but she still managed a quick look at me from under her brow.  It was a look of confusion.  This was only our third lesson together, so she had no idea what to expect.  I thought about the young mother on the airplane with her crying baby.  Just like her, my student was unaware of how much her emotions were affecting the situation.  

I asked my student to transition to walk.  I was fairly sure the proceeding conversation would take her out of her comfort zone and we could communicate better face to face.  I repeated my question.

“I don’t know,” my student answered.  I could see she was thinking.  I tried again. 
“Why do you think she runs away from you?”

My student gave me another glance.  She wrinkled her brow. I continued.

“Horses communicate with emotions; they know how we feel and they use that as information.  I know you want to have the perfect ride on this horse.  But I think your frustration and negative attitude towards her is going to prevent you from achieving this perfect ride.” 
My student looked at me quizzically.  

“It will never be perfect, because there are so many things that just don’t work,” she said. 
“But there are also so many that do,” I pointed out.  “I know you are frustrated that you can’t keep your thigh in the correct position, but you did it many times today.  Just as this horse was at times not crooked, but straight.” 

When my student didn’t respond, I continued: ““She is doing her best, just like you are.  In fact, you both deserve a bit of love and appreciation.  How about, instead of getting frustrated, you could try a bit of empathy,” I said.  “Thank the horse for trying so hard.  Send her some love.  Appreciate her effort.”  I smiled.  

My student looked away.  I could tell we were treading through an area in life she was not familiar with.  

“If you want to ride this horse well,” I pressed, “you have to get her on your side.  At the moment you are fighting each other.  Why not join forces and do it together?”  

Our conversation continued for over thirty minutes.  In the end, my student participated carefully, but I’m not sure she truly understood what I was after.  She seemed very uncomfortable talking about her emotions and even more uncomfortable talking about the horse’s emotions.  But, I strongly believe that once upon a time when she first started riding, these very emotions where the thing that drew her to horses.  Perhaps she has never been conscious of that before, but if she continues to ride with me, I will definitely keep asking her to face these important questions. 
A few weeks ago I found the work of Japanese Dr. Emoto by accident.  According to Dr. Emoto, an ice crystal of distilled water exhibits a basic hexagonal structure with no intricate branching. Emoto claims that positive changes to water crystals can be achieved through prayer, music or by attaching written words to a container of water.  In other words, human vibrational energy, thoughts, words and music affect the molecular structure of water.

Sounds pretty incredible, doesn’t it?  Especially when we remember that most of our body is made of what else, but water.  I looked at pictures of these ice crystals and marveled over the beauty of how positive words and intent had managed to change the consistency of water.  Words like “love” and “gratitude” produced the most beautiful ones when other words such as “murder” portrayed muddled, ugly formations.  

Dr. Emoto is criticized for going directly to the public with misleading claims that violate basic laws of physics and are based on methods that fail to properly investigate the truth of the claims.  I agree, perhaps Dr. Emoto’s experiments are not the most scientific kind.  But, on the other hand, how do you measure emotion or intent or prayer?  Sounds impossible.  We can only choose to believe in their power, even if it cannot be proven scientifically. 
There is an old Finnish saying: “Niin se metsä vastaa, kuin sinne huudetaan.”  The literal translation of this is: The forest will answer as you call into it.  In other words, what you hear is the “echo” of your own “voice”.  I believe this is the lesson horses try to teach us day after day.  They are the mirrors of our existence, they show us who we are and what we feel, not to judge us, but to help us find the correct way to be in this world. 

When I go to the barn to visit Little Love, I go there with the purpose of connecting with my horse emotionally.  In her presence I feel a stillness I cannot find elsewhere.  I believe this stillness reflects the understanding we have for each other; we have nothing to hide, but everything to reveal, vulnerabilities and all.  If I am distracted, the phone rings or my busy life interferes with my thoughts, she disconnects from me immediately and the Zen is gone.  So, to avoid this, I try to stay with her, in the moment, to feel the peace I can no longer live without.  In fact, every day I hope to take a part of Little Love’s peace with me and share it with the rest of the world.  But, compared to my horse I am still a minor league player in this game called emotional intelligence. I want to think, however, that if I froze the water in the plastic bottle sitting on my desk, it would freeze into magnificent and life altering ice crystals.  

Love, ~K

Ps. The above picture is of the frozen water from the Fujiwara dam after Buddhist monks had offered a prayer over the toxic water.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


That which the dream shows is the shadow of such wisdom as exists in man, even if during his waking state he may know nothing about it.... We do not know it because we are fooling away our time with outward and perishing things, and are asleep in regard to that which is real within ourselves. ~Paracelsus, quoted in The Dream Game

It was about a year and a half ago when I had the first dream.  I was riding a brown and white paint bareback.  As often happens in my dreams, I wasn’t myself, but rather a young Native American girl with black hair down to the waist.  We were riding in the forest and I could hear the leaves rustling on the path we were taking. When a stick snapped in half under the weight of my mount, I bent over and whispered: “Ssshhhhh.  We are hiding.”
The next time I saw the pony, he appeared in a dream that had something to do with a big hotel.  I can’t recall the details, except that the same brown and white pony was there, hovering in the backdrop of my sub consciousness.  Who was this pony?  Why was I dreaming about it?  The pony disappeared for a while, but only to show up again months later.  Every time I woke up remembering nothing else about the dream except the soft look on the pony’s face. 
I believe dreams have something to tell us, important messages we are left ignored in our waking life.  Or, if you believe in past lives, dreams are a vessel that takes you back to the wisdom you learned long time ago, but forgot you ever had.  And sometimes, if you are lucky, dreams help you look into the future.  I have always been a vivid dreamer; sometimes I wake up in the morning feeling exhausted after what seems like hours of action.  Other times I lie in bed and marvel over the insanity of my imagination.  And then there are times when I open my eyes remembering nothing else but a small lingering detail, almost like remnants of a feeling or a thought. 
I didn’t know anyone who owned a brown and white paint, but I did know that this pony had something to say to me.  When I met horses with similar coloring, I felt drawn to them, as if inherently I was looking for something, or rather – someone.  I talked to my friend about my dreams, and together we wondered if this pony was someone I had known long time ago, in another life time, or perhaps someone I would once meet, years from now.  Whatever the answer, I knew that even if I never saw the brown and white pony in real life, it had made a permanent impression on me through my dreams.    
That all said, I would like to share an email I received from one of my readers a few weeks ago. 
I’m Carol, keeper of 3 beautiful horses who along with our 3 dogs, 2 cats and 3 chickens are my reason for getting up every morning – I do work too but am self-employed as both a travel agent (for the income) and as an equine herbalist (for the knowledge and pleasure).
My 3 horses are Kelso, our herd leader, a wonderful gentle gentleman, aged 22, ex-show cob (not in my lifetime) who has been with me for apx 5 years – Kelso is semi-retired, a bit arthritic, a nice gentle plod out when weather conditions permit for him (chronic sweet itch so can’t go out often in the summer as too hot/fly-ridden). Then we have Murphy, now aged 17, and my ‘special’ boy who came to me 10 years ago when I got back into horse ownership following injury which kept me out of the saddle for 8 years – he was my ‘green + green = let’s figure it out between us’ and he is totally under my skin. Finally there’s Cookie, now 11, our adorable native pony who came to us 6 years ago as our daughter’s third pony.
It is about Cookie that I am sending you this private message because discovering your blog by accident has, I think, given me the answer to my gnawing underlying concern I’ve been going through for the past few weeks.
Cookie is adorable. She’s kind, gentle, sensitive, loving, affectionate. She’s Kelso’s personal grooming slave which is interesting considering he’s almost 16hh and she’s 13.2hh. She stands her ground with her two ‘brothers’ but is devoted to them, as they are to her. Our herd seems very content and happy together.
My ‘human’ situation is this. Around 3 years ago it became very obvious that our daughter was losing interest in riding and her pony in general. Not because of anything Cookie had done. She was simply losing interest, as sometimes happens – either it’s in you (as it was for me as a pony mad child which has stayed with me all my life – I’m now 53), or it’s not. Husband and I were really upset as our daughter and Cookie had had the most wonderful time together – they’d done a bit of Pony Club, cross country, show jumping lessons, and wonderful family trail rides at weekends. We just couldn’t believe that almost overnight, she lost interest.
Nothing I could do would get my daughter interested. Bribery, punishment, you name it – nothing worked, and so I ended up with a reluctant, pouting, sulky child riding because I forced her too. Eventually I gave up as the whole riding experience made me miserable to the point where I finally realized I wasn’t enjoying it. I resolved to loan Cookie out to a family where she would be ridden and loved.
Cookie lasted 2 weeks with the first family. She was desperately unhappy, didn’t settle, and when the opportunity arose she would bolt across a field and dump the child in the hedge. So Cookie came back home – admittedly it was lovely to have her back because I adore this pony and hated to see her go.
I found a lovely petite adult to ride Cookie out with me for a short while, so for the time being we kept Cookie moving while I hoped that my daughter would change her mind.
We then found a wonderful private yard right behind our house so we moved the horses, which meant I lost my petite adult. I advertised for a ‘sharer’ and we found mum Sue with daughter Hollie who absolutely loved Cookie on site. We went out for a lovely hack and Hollie did very well so the deal was done – Hollie would become Cookie’s sharer. Until Cookie decided she didn’t want to leave the boys and go off on her own, and again she bolted across fields and dumped Hollie in the hedge, so that was the end of Hollie.
After a few months I had a brainwave. Ask the local trekking centre if they could use a 13.2 pony! After all, Cookie came to us from a trekking centre so it would be an ideal environment for her, plenty of pony company, and she’d be ridden! The proprietor said she’d give Cookie a go and picked her up. Two weeks later Cookie was back. Apparently she ‘didn’t settle well’ and despite putting one of her most fearless, competent riders on her, Cookie made her feel very nervous – not ideal for a trekking centre with novice children. I remember thinking at the time that the owner hadn’t given Cookie long enough to settle, but I wasn’t going to leave her there if she wasn’t happy. So Cookie came home again.

By now I was started to get the impression that Cookie didn’t want to leave us. We’d tried to find her other riders but each time, and very out of character with her (she’d never bolted or thrown my daughter in all the time she rode her), Cookie came home. I decided that Cookie had spoken, and finally I’d listened – Cookie wasn’t going anywhere.
Again we had a long gap where Cookie wasn’t being ridden. However, she never seemed bothered by it, and on the odd occasion when I plodded out on Kelso I would lead her off the big fella and we’d all get a leg-stretch. She never showed any adverse signs of not being ridden other than getting a bit porky but being a herbalist I manage their environment and supplement them all with appropriate blends to keep them healthy – they’re also all barefoot and we ride bitless.
Then around 4 months ago I found a wonderful sharer, again a petite adult, who adored Cookie, and together they’d go off for hours over the countryside and pop over jumps and have the best time ever. Cookie lost weight, fittened up, and looked and seemed very happy. Then unexpectedly, a month ago we lost our sharer as she suddenly had to move house. Us humans were all devastated, sharer included, and once again Cookie had no rider.
So this last week I’ve been battling with myself with my head saying ‘Cookie needs to be ridden’, ‘Cookie needs to be ridden’. I finally called a local riding school on Friday asking if she could be useful to them. They came, saw, loved her, and I’m meant to be taking her over tomorrow. It’s only a mile or so away so not far, and the arrangement is that I’ll go over every day to help her settle, and if she doesn’t, she comes home again.
Hurrah! I’ve found what seems like a great home for Cookie, with plenty for her to do, lots of kiddies to love, cuddle and groom her, she’ll get fit and be happy!
So here’s my human dilemma. Why, since Friday, when I should be riding on the crest of this ‘I’ve sorted something for Cookie’, have I had an underlying niggle saying ‘no’, and to keep Cookie with her boys and us in our lovely paddock. I seem to have this eternal ‘thing’ in my head that says that Cookie needs to be ridden – why? For her health, happiness, sanity? Isn’t it what ponies are meant to do? Won’t she just get stale and vice-y if she doesn’t ‘do’ anything?
So why have I now been worrying all weekend that Cookie won’t settle, she’s told me enough time in the last couple of years that she doesn’t want to leave us . . . and why am I so hell bent on thinking that she HAS to be ridden?
My two selves are fighting each other – the sensible Carol is saying, for god’s sake get a grip, it’s a fantastic life for Cookie, let her go there, settle her in, she’ll always be ours, and when she’s older and no longer rideable she comes home to retire. The sensitive, emotional, instinctive Carol is saying ‘no’, it’s another move for Cookie, a separation from her boys and from us, and that’s not healthy, not good for her happiness, not good for her sanity.
Sensible brain/emotional brain – neither one’s winning. Yet now I’m trying to find excuses in my head for not taking her over tomorrow, even though I know there’s no written agreement, no sale, no anything!
So, to bring this all together, I was reading a blog the other day – Thursday, I think, where the blogger mentioned she’d discovered your blog and had spent so much time reading it that her family didn’t get their dinner that night. I clicked on the link, and started reading it. Loved it. Say no more. My family barely got their dinner that night either.
I haven’t had a chance to read more of it since then until this morning. I’m an early riser (horses/dogs/cats/chooks) – husband isn’t, so my weekend mornings are a nice, quiet, me-moment to go back to bed with a coffee, laptop, plug in headphones with nice soothing music and play blog catch-up. I uploaded yours and read your entire first page from top to bottom.
When I got to the post ‘To Live Life Backwards’, something stirred in me. Not that your situation was the same as one of mine, but it was the calling of Little Love’s name. I do that with Cookie from a distance. She lifts her head, no matter how far away, and starts walking towards me. Murf does too. It’s special, and makes me feel good and warm and fuzzy. I don’t kid myself that it’s not pure cupboard love, but still makes me feel nice. Fact is, she knows me, knows her name, recognizes my call.
Then I got to ‘Never Forget Me’. Now I started to become aware that this was getting a bit spooky. Blimey, I thought. I was meant to read this. What ifs. What if I sent her to this riding school and in the months to come we passed her on the trails – what if she recognised us, or Murf or Kelso (depending on who I was on) recognised her – what if they started calling to each other, as they do now when I’m leaving/returning to the yard and they’re all calling out to each other? What if Cookie will really, really miss us. Which she’s demonstrated several times in the past that she does.
Then we got to ‘Unmapped Country’. By now I was aware of the spookiness of the coincidence that your blog posts were here especially for me to read. Why does Cookie ‘have’ to be ridden? I can only put this down to some ingrained training or ‘expectation’ that comes with years of riding and horse ownership. This post put everything in perspective to me. She doesn’t ‘need’ to be ridden. No matter what the circumstances, in your blog’s case a scared rider (haven’t we all been there!) which is NOT the case for Cookie, but more my expectation that it’s the RIGHT thing for Cookie. But isn’t her being happy, content, safe, secure, loved and settled in her existing regime with her boys all she wants and needs?
I’m so glad I read your blog. Part of me still thinks the riding school is the better option for her as of COURSE she’ll settle – eventually. But the other part of me, having read your blog, now has the majority vote. I’m going to call the riding school today and thank them enormously for their consideration but decline their lovely offer. Cookie stays put, happy in her 4 acres with her boys, and I’ll just keep plodding out with her on occasion with the big boy to give her an occasional change of scenery.
To conclude, the Carol insecurity is tightening in my chest and is saying that if after all this, you think I’m terribly terribly wrong, I’d love to hear it! However, in some spooky, ethereal other-universe way, I think I was meant to read your blog, right now, at this time, day and age. I could have been about to do the worst possible thing for our gorgeous, sensitive, loving girl. Or the best. Either way though, she’ll be perfectly happy staying put until I eventually, possibly, maybe, find someone else to come and ride her.
I don’t know about you, but when I first read Carol’s email, I was rooting for Cookie.  I could see this opinionated little mare before me as if she was really there.  Cookie obviously deserved to be heard.  I wrote Carol back immediately, supporting her decision to keep Cookie at home with the boys.  When Carol wrote back, relieved I had taken the time to answer, she said: “Cookie must have sensed that I was calmer and back to my 'normal' self after reading your reply - we all went to the yard as a family (a rare thing - usually it's just me), and husband Richard and I were cuddling the girl with Rich by her withers and her head in my tummy. The sun was shining, the air was still and warm. Cookie then turned her head round to Rich and nudged him. The next second Richard jumped up over her back, no prompting from me, and just lay across her. Bear in mind he's a good 13stone-plus, and hasn't ridden for years, let alone lain across a bareback, untacked pony! Very out of character! Cookie remained stock still, very chilled. Next thing Rich scrabbled his legs up and over and sat on Cookie. She stayed looking really happy and calm. Then Rich leaned forward up her neck and wrapped his arms around her, giving her a big cuddle. He stayed there for ages, just cuddling our girl. 'Are you comfy?' I asked. 'Yes, really comfy,' he said, and grinned the biggest grin at me. 'I've never sat on Cookie before.' 'I know!' I replied. It was a lovely moment. Then he slid off and we were all back to normal.”
Carol also attached a picture of Cookie.  When I opened the file, I cried out loud; Cookie looked exactly like the pony from my dreams!  The strange thing was that I had somehow known this all along.  From the moment I started reading Carol’s first email, I had imagined Cookie to be a brown and white paint. I had never met Carol, nor did I know if she would think I was completely crazy, but I felt a need to tell her about my dreams.  I wasn’t sure how she would react, but it ddn't matter, I just had to share my experience.  She said: "...here's my freaky back to you. Don't know why but I somehow felt that you'd connect with Cookie - I felt a real need to email her photo over to you…it's quirky how life pans out, but this great big universe of ours is a whole lot more powerful than we can even begin to understand!” 
Carol was certainly right about the universe part.  I can’t tell you for sure if Cookie is the pony I had seen so many times in my dreams, but I do know that I haven’t seen her since.  Did Cookie and I connect months before I connected with her owner?  I will never know, but I have a strong feeling that something out of the ordinary happened here. Or, on second thought, is this something that occurs all the time, but we just happen to miss it? I do believe we are all connected over the vast universe by the energy between us. In my case this connection used to be something I was not aware of, but slowly, as I have connected more and more with horses, I have also discovered an uncanny ability within myself to “know” things.  There are so many things I cannot even begin to understand about the aptitude we posses, but I do know I want to understand it further.  Why does heeling by prayer/manifesting seem to work?  How can I sometimes feel other people’s emotions, even if they aren’t with me at the time?   How does my energy affect others; people, animals, plants?  Can we balance the bad energy in the world by adding more good energy?  If I think of someone I haven’t seen for a while, can they feel it?  Do things happen for a reason?
I wanted to share Cookie’s story because it awakened so many question in me.  I hope it does the same for you.  We may not know the answers – yet, but what I do know without a doubt is that our souls are more powerful than we can ever imagine.   
Thank you Carol for allowing me to post a picture of Cookie and share your eloquently written story about this amazing pony!
PS. I have been writing this blog for two and a half years and one of my favorite things to do is to read the comments people leave.  Occasionally I receive emails from people who have felt a need to comment personally on what I have written.  Many of these letters have moved me to tears; the heartfelt stories of the authors and their horses are often powerful and charged with emotion.  When I started writing this blog, I never imagined it would offer me this sort of a connection with people I have never physically met.  It proves to me that even if sometimes we may feel lonely in our thoughts and beliefs, we are never completely alone.  There is always someone else in the world, experiencing something similar.  Thank you for reading (and writing)!

 “Black horse wisdom is felt more deeply than it can ever be explained…It champions knowledge rejected by the mainstream: instinct, emotion, intuition, sensory and extrasensory awareness and the human-animal partnership often associated with tribal cultures…It is an innately pure, nonjaded, spirited, yet immature, source of knowledge.  It has been neglected for so long that it initially lacks the ability to interface directly with the modern human mind.”            - Linda Kohanov

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Flower

An essay about Time, Teaching and Treasures

"The clock talked loud.  I threw it away, it scared me what it talked."  ~Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle

Last spring I ran into an old student, who had recently bought herself yet another horse.  She invited me to come and give her a lesson, “for old time’s sake”.  This I knew meant that she had run into problems with her new horse, as I had never known her to ask for a lesson with me unless the other trainers she rode with had failed to help her.  I agreed, mainly because I was curious, but also because I felt that I had never really been able to reach the woman in terms of helping her understand her horses.  She had always been very set on the traditional way of training.  She had goals for herself and her mounts; therefore she wanted results and she wanted them fast.  But, behind all this there was something else, something waiting to be ignited; she had, after all, periodically sought lessons from me. 

When I arrived, she had the new horse tacked up.  He had just turned four years old and was standing obediently in the middle of the indoor arena.  I noted the drawreins hanging on the horse’s neck.  I knew immediately this was the real reason I was there to give the lesson. My student read my thoughts. 

“I know I know, I shouldn’t use drawreins, but I just have them for security.”

“Security,” I repeated and gave the gelding a horse-human handshake by extending the back of my hand out and letting him sniff it.  There was something very touching about how he approached me, as if he was surprised I had acknowledged his presence. 

“He is normally really calm, but then suddenly, without any reason, he goes completely crazy.  He lifts his head up and takes off.  I just can’t have that.  It’s dangerous for one thing.”
I nodded, looking at the horse. The phrase that had caught my ear was “without any reason”.  There was always a reason.  But I didn’t say that out loud, because I knew that such a statement would surely end the conversation.  Nobody wants to hear that they are incompetent in interpreting their horse.  At least not point-blank within the first two minutes of the conversation.  I would get there later.

 “And does this occur every time you ride him?” I asked. 

“No, that’s the thing, I can never know when it’s going to happen.  One day he’s perfect and the next he flips out.  That’s why I have the drawreins, so I can stop him if he goes nuts.” 
“I see,” I said and stroked the neck of the young horse listening to him play with the bit in his mouth.  It made a jingling noise, something I had never paid attention to years ago, but which now sounded as loud as a church bell.  So many messages were hidden in every little thing that took place in a horse-human interaction, even in something as commonplace as this noise.  

I asked the woman more questions and found out that the gelding only had these episodes in the arena, never on the trails.  In fact, on the trails he was apparently “an angel”.  Also, the fits never happened while longing or long-reining, only under saddle.  The saddle had been checked, the osteopath had been consulted.  Even the vet had been out.

“He does it with the trainer, too, and she’s a good rider,” the owner concluded.  “So, it’s not just me.”  She sighed and looked sad.  “In the beginning he was the perfect horse, but now…  I don’t know, maybe I should sell him.  Or what do you think?  Do you think he can get over this?” 

I closed my eyes.  When people use the expression “perfect horse”, something stirs inside me, even though I don’t know how many times I have used that very same expression myself.   Sometimes I believe I teach students such as this lady just because I have a need to repent my past.   Facing your old self over and over again can turn into a sort of cathartic experience.  It also helps in defining the line between the person you were before and who you are now.  I searched for the right words to say, words that would sink in, instead of blow over.  

“Perhaps he feels he is being pushed beyond his limit,” I said.

My student shook her head and looked at her horse. “Yeah, but my other young horse never does this and we push him way more.”
“But perhaps this guy needs a little less pushing and a little more time.  We are all different.” 
The lady looked at me and wrinkled her brow. 

“But he’s a horse,” she said.   

Yes indeed, he was a horse.  A breathing and feeling sentient being.  I could see the wheels turning in the lady’s head.  She shrugged.  “We don’t have time,” she said.  “I was planning to enter him in some young horse classes this summer.”

“Here’s another thought,” I continued, ignoring her comment about the competitions and not having time.  I didn’t know if this was the perfect moment to share my earlier thoughts, but I had to go for it or the moment would be lost forever.  “What if you don’t look at this behavior as bad, but instead see it as a means of communication.” I pointed at her young gelding. “What do you think he is trying to tell you and your trainers?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m just saying that there is always a reason why a horse behaves a certain way.  They are not trying to be naughty, but rather trying to tell us something. ” I stroked the gelding’s neck.  “It is your responsibility to figure out what the message is.” 

I could see that I had perhaps gone a bit far.  The lady looked very confused and perhaps a bit offended.  I decided to commence the lesson and come back to the subject later.  Sometimes, when you really challenge someone’s belief system, they shut down to all information.  I didn’t want to ruin the opportunity to awaken this woman’s budding realization of how to understand her horse.  

But something my student had said kept playing in my head; “We don’t have time”.  What was it with our current society’s growing obsession with getting everything made for them on the spot?  What ever happened to perseverance?  

Ironically around the same time I gave this lesson, I was learning about perseverance myself.  Little Love, my horse, has several traits that most people would call “deal breakers”, were they considering to buy her.  One of her long time issue has to do with her inability to enter small spaces, such as a trailer.  I, too, was faced with this problem when I bought her in the beginning of the year.  As I fought with her in the pouring rain for nearly two hours, I thought to myself: “Never again”.  I swore on the spot to work on the issue, giving it time, actual real time, to help Little Love get over her fear of the trailer. 

Luckily the place where I moved had a trailer, and not only that, but a trailer that opened from both the front and the back, so the horse could walk through.  This gave me the perfect opportunity to help Little Love with her fear.  The starting situation was grim; if the ramp was down, Little Love was immediately agitated and anxious, as if she was anticipating something bad to happen even if I never asked her to approach the trailer.   She needed something she had never truly gotten when it came to trailers and that was Time with a capital T. 

Giving my horse Time took some training on my side.  I, too, have a long history in an equestrian culture where you must produce results and fast.  I had seen all kinds of people from “horse whispers” to natural horsemanship trainers load problem horses.  All those methods were based on some sort of pressure and force, and were geared towards making the horse a perfect loader in a set time frame.  “Look, I can load the unloadable horse in less than 30 minutes!”  A few years ago it had appeared to me that those horses were “perfect” loaders.  It wasn’t until later that I understood that it came with a price.  Did I want my horse to be bullied into a trailer?  Definitely not.  

I decided to merely expose my horse to the trailer several times a week.  But I couldn’t help myself; I asked her over and over again to come on to the ramp with one foot.  Despite my good intentions, I was still falling into the trap of trying to get immediate results.  No matter how much I swore I had no time restraints or goals, it wasn’t true; I subconsciously hoped for progress and tried to push for it.  I also noticed my own heightened anxiety every time my horse approached the trailer.  Not only did my horse need time to learn to go into the trailer, I needed time to learn to let go of the “trainer” within.  I decided to always ask only twice and accept the answer, whatever that was.  

I won’t lie: I was happy when a few days later my mare was comfortable with standing on the ramp with her front feet.  I was encouraged about her progress, immediately visioning the next step and then the next.  But then I stopped myself.  What was I doing - again?  I looked at my horse as she backed off the ramp on her own.  I didn’t interfere.  I’m sure this broke the basic rule of most trainers in the world, for I too had been drilled since childhood to “never let the horse have the last word.”  But I realized that perhaps this was exactly the way to go. 

I stopped leading my mare to the trailer, but instead let her loose in the vicinity.  This gave my horse the opportunity to choose for herself.  She started walking to the trailer confidently, instead of anxiously.  She still only put her front feet on the ramp, but I told myself the rest would come later.  But it didn’t.  I put a bucket of food inside the trailer, but for days and weeks Little Love merely stood on the ramp.  I actually started to give up ever getting her inside without force.  Talk about perseverance... I kept on going.

Then one day, she walked in.  Just like that.  I didn’t lead her in, but rather opened the door and let my horse choose to go in.  From that day on, she always went in when I opened the trailer.  Slowly we started practicing standing in the trailer instead of just walking through.  When I closed the back bar for the first time, she walked out the open front, knocking the grain bucket over.  I didn’t try to stop her.  I had finally realized what it meant to “take time”.  It wasn't only about the time, it was also about what I did with that time. 

In the course of three months, I had a horse that would load by herself and trailer without sweating.  Were we done learning?  Hardly.  But my horse was learning to accept the trailer and I was learning what it meant to empower your horse.  I was also learning lots of things about what it meant to take time.  In the meanwhile, our bond became stronger and changed our relationship to the better.  It also changed me.  I am not in any rush now when it comes to horses.  My only wish is to convey this message to the world: if you take time, you stumble upon invisible inner treasures you never knew existed.  But how do you convey a message to people who are not ready to hear?  This was my problem with the lady who owned the young gelding.  

She called me back two weeks after our lesson.  The lesson had gone well from my point of view, but afterwards I was fairly sure I would never hear from this woman again.  Many things had surfaced during the hour and all of them had something to do with the ethics of horsemanship.  Should she push this horse past his limit?  Should she listen to him and see his “fits” as means of communication?  Could she look at her own riding and admit how much her own tension, her baggage and her expectations were affecting this sensitive animal and his reactions? Could she resist the urge to sell this “imperfect” animal and instead find the time to work with him?  Needless to say I was encouraged to hear her voice on the other end of the line.

“I’ve really been thinking,” she started the conversation, “that you may have a point.  I think we are pushing this horse too much.”  

I smiled at my cell phone.  

“I’m happy you have been doing some reflecting.  I could see at the end of our lesson that you were quite confused and perhaps unhappy.”

“Oh yeah, it was bad.  I went home and cried.  I was depressed for days.  But I needed to do that to really see what was going on.  The problem is now my two trainers.  They think I’m crazy.  They think the horse should just be shown his place, that they should force him to comply at any cost when he has his fits.  Last time they rode him, they fought with him for two hours.”

“Remember, he is still your horse,” I said.  I know I sounded calm and matter of fact, but I wanted to scream.  I don’t believe anybody wants to be violent towards animals; it is just the old traditions, the way equestrian sports have evolved, that make people unable to see anything wrong with what they are doing.  Hadn’t I been one of these people a few years ago?  How could I judge them now?  I knew anger would get me nowhere.

 “I know it’s scary to stand up to professionals in this field, but I really advise you to go with your gut feeling.  You are an experienced enough rider to ride him and teach him the basics.  Then you can do it on your own terms.  Or rather, the terms of your horse.”  

“Yeah,” my student said at the other end of the phone connection.  “I actually told the trainers we should take a break.  I think the gelding needs some time.  And I need some time to think.” 

I took a deep breath.  This is what I had been hoping to hear.  Tears sprung to my eyes, but they were happy tears.  Ever since I parted onto this other path, the Path of the Horse, I have experienced a variety of emotions.  Mainly there has been a lot of sadness as my heart aches for the things I have done in the past.  But there is also another ache, the ache for the present as there are so many horses in the world that suffer abuse on a daily basis.  Teaching riding is becoming increasingly harder for me, but it is moments like these that make it worthwhile.  I commended my old student for making the decision.  This particular horse needed probably more than a break, but a break was a step in the right direction.  

I believe each horse is perfect in their own right.  If your dream for your horse does not align with reality, perhaps it is time to either adjust your dream or the methods you are using to achieve the dream.  We talk about taking time with horses, either giving them the time to learn or the time to adjust.  But have we ever stopped to think what this really means?  What, for example, is enough time for a young horse to learn the basics of riding or to load into a trailer?  Two hours?  Two months?  Two years?  A life time?  When it comes to any learning, is there ever really an end station, or is it rather a long, long track that continues for our entire life?  Why do we always want to ride the bullet train instead of taking the man-powered trolley? 

Months later I heard my student had gone back to the trainers.  This was no surprise.  Most people go back to what they know; the other alternative is too scary.  I can’t say I wasn’t disheartened by this news of my old student and her young gelding, because I was.  But I also was hopeful that whatever happened between us during that last lesson was still present in my student’s heart; that the seed I planted remains somewhere under everything.  You never know, it may vegetate in her heart for years only to sprout into a real plant one day; a flower that blooms so spectacularly that it will lead her off the beaten path.   And that is exactly where those invisible inner riches reside, off the beaten path.  

I have decided to hold on to that image of the flower, as there are days when that is the only thing that keeps me teaching.  And it is important to continue teaching for so many reasons.


“We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves.” – Galileo Galilei