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 


  1. She is a beauty, your Little Love. Bless you for finding that beauty within her and giving her the life she needed.

  2. A life with herd turnout makes all the difference in the world.

  3. Great equestrian blog! Why not come over to hay-net.co.uk an Equine Social Blogging Network for more to follow!

  4. Little Love and Col look gorgeous running together. What a wonderful post...I have so much trouble understanding why people think it is okay to keep horses in box stalls (with no attached runs) for up to 20 hours/day. Would they put a dog in a crate for that long? What you saw happen to Little Love after she was removed from her herd is powerful...thank goodness she has such a wonderful advocate to make sure she got a chance to being with her friends again. Wonderful post!

  5. I love it! I always tell people how much the environment matters to the horse. How much it can affect the horse, distract it, and influence it. Your story illustrates it so beautifully.

  6. Hello,
    I don't think I've commented here before as I just recently found your blog. This post really hit home with me. One of the most interesting equine "cases" I have ever run across was a TB mare who belonged to my former barn's owner. He had bred this mare himself, using his wonderful stallion (her mom didn't live there so I never saw her). Polly had beautiful hunter conformation and was a nice mover... that is, WHEN she would move. This girl would act like her legs were encased in lead if she did not want to do something. The BO had her in the lesson string, and one day I literally could not even get her out of a slow walk. Nothing worked (and I'm no beginner rider). No, I wasn't wearing spurs, but I think I could have punctured her with them anyway without getting any results. The BO was livid, told me to get down, and of course proceeded to whip her shiny a$$ into a snorting, head-tossing canter around the ring half a dozen times. I was crying in embarassment and hurt for this poor horse who SO CLEARLY did NOT want to be a hunter. What could I do? I was only a humble lesson student.

    Another day that comes to mind was when I walked in, saw I had been assigned Polly, grabbed her halter and went in her stall. That mare turned around and if I EVER have seen a horse give a person an EFF YOU look, it was then. I retreated and went to find my instructor... she was like, quit being a baby, don't be ridiculous. SHE then marched in the stall and came out 30 seconds later saying, "You know, why don't you ride someone else today." :-)

    The one and only time I ever got a nice, rising trot out of Polly was the day someone was ponying a youngster around the ring at the same time as our lesson. The mare was absolutely riveted by this spectacle and sped around in an attempt to get a better look at the pair. I was practically breathless trying to post fast enough. It was like being on a different horse.

    Another thing that seemed to please her and engage her brain a bit was going on a trail ride. But that was about it... Polly even hated being groomed and would strike and snap at you if you dared to use anything other than a jelly curry or extremely soft brush on her.

    At about age five, Polly was sold to one of the boarders. This woman struggled with her for about a year, I think, before finally throwing in the towel (the biggest sticking point was she wouldn't do auto-swaps) and selling her to a mother/daughter pair who planned to use her for trail rides only. I was thrilled - finally she would be released from a life she hated.

    I have wondered ever since what would have happened if Polly had been allowed some down-time, just pasture idling/being a horse/socializing, and then restarting using some "listen to the horse" method. I bet she would have been like your mare, a completely different animal. Even I could tell she was a square peg in a round hole the way things were! I truly hope she is safe and happy in her new home.

    [Sorry for the novel!]

  7. RiderWriter, I just now saw your comment (novel :-) and just absolutely LOVED the story of Polly. Now I, too, am wondering whatever happened to her! There are so many misunderstood horses out there just waiting for someone to hear them. Thank you for posting another example!

  8. My horses live in stalls. I really wish they didn't have to but the stalls are built so the horses can at least touch each other, and they go out together as much as possible. I've always believed it was important for horses to be allowed to act like horses as much as humanly possible.

    I have a mare here who was born in a show barn and lived there until I got her at age ten. She was neurotic, not to the extreme of Little Love, and had problems adjusting at first to life here but now she is a totally different horse.

  9. The Horse just came out with an interesting article talking about all this - maybe the Mainstream will catch up!