I pull on my jeans, lace my boots and tie up my hair – head down to the pasture because my horses are there.
We have all had one – you know which one I am talking about-the aunt who always pinched your cheeks when she saw you as a child and exclaimed how you have grown. Do you remember your feelings when she would do that? How you would shrink away from her and try to stay out of her reach whenever she came around, even if you loved her. You hated that but tolerated it because it wasn’t polite to rebuke her affections.
Well, guess what? We do that same thing to our horses all the time. I don’t mean literally “pinch their cheeks” but we tend to go right for the face when we encounter them. They are so beautiful that it is hard not to. It just seems like those elongated noses, soft muzzles and deep eyes draw our hands right to it. To us, we offer it as a sign of affection and admiration, but does it mean the same thing to them being on the receiving end? What if the horses touches you with his nose first? Do you get offended and slap him away? Do you deem it to be disrespectful? Does it scare you? Maybe you weren’t ready for that contact yet.
Now, look at our actions from the horses’ point of view. Let’s say a total stranger, someone you didn’t particularly have an affection for, or someone that might frighten you somewhat approached you, and without your consent, started putting his hands on your face. Even if it was done gently and lovingly, you would be repulsed by that action. It is presumptuous and shows a total lack of respect for your space. Unearned familiarity may even be intimidating. Are there times when stroking someone’s face is appropriate and meaningful? Of course! The operative word being “appropriate”. A tender touch to the cheek can be one of the most intimate and loving gestures, as we all know. Realize the difference and apply it to your horse. Stay away from a horses’s face unless you are familiar to him and he has invited you to do so. Stroke his shoulder or withers instead – a very comforting and non-intrusive gesture of friendship that he will appreciate. Notice how horse friends “groom” each other in those places.
Oh, and another thing. Girls, I see this all the time and it drives me insane. I am talking about those pictures (mostly selfies these days) where the person takes a close up of her face smashed up against her horses. Notice how the horse is being held tightly by the clasp of the halter just below the horses’ head. I don’t see the horse smiling in those pictures. That is not a pretty picture to people who know horses well. Now if you get a photo of the horse willingly and freely coming that close to you, then you have something.
Ah yes, there is my gifted, gorgeous and most perfect Breeze – Who makes having a horse look like a job done with ease.
Working with your horse’s natural tendency will get the best results. If you try to do upper level dressage with a cow pony, chances are you aren’t going to win many Olympic medals. Can the pony learn dressage? Probably, to some degree and may even get pretty good at it. He will do much better and be much happier doing a job that he has a natural talent for and you will be a whole lot less frustrated. When we ask our horses to do something that is new or foreign to them, they need our patience and encouragement all the more. Getting upset and punishing wrong moves is not the best way to teach correct moves and certainly kills the want-to-please incentive for the horse. It is not perfection you are striving for at first, it is the try that needs to be recognized and encouraged.
I was reminded of this basic principal this morning when I attended my 5 year old grandson’s very first baseball/T-ball game. The players were all decked out with a new uniforms, shoes, helmets, bats and gloves. They all looked the part but when the game started it quickly became obvious they were not all naturals. Some had the confidence but lacked skill. It was obvious that with some work, they would be great players some day if they chose to. There were the more advanced players who could already hit and knew the basics. They probably had sports-minded family or at least had a lot of extra help. They were the naturally good players. It looked effortless and they were truly having fun. There was a combination of these and then there were the few who just did not want to be there. Scared, tearful, reluctant little guys who had to be pushed out to the diamond when it was their turn. One particular little boy who comes to mind that I watched this morning and there was no miraculous transformation when he got up to bat. He did horribly. He swung at the ball with barely enough enthusiasm to knock it off the T-stand. He just wanted to get it over with and be done with it. Of course, the parents were shouting and wanting him to get fired up and show everybody he had the stuff. Didn’t happen. The child had absolutely no desire to play baseball and therefore had even less tendency to do well at it. He left the field feeling even more dejected after being tagged at first because he wouldn’t run to the base. This brought to mind a book I read last winter about a guy who lived to rope cattle. His whole male side of the family were hard-nosed horse trainers who specialized in getting horses ready to run cows. Then one day, he saw the horse of his dreams and just knew this was the one with the natural talent he had always wanted to excel at the rodeos. Problem was that his horse didn’t share the same dream. He didn’t like cows and hated his job. Hours, weeks, months and years were spent practicing to perfect the horse. He had the looks, he had the speed, he had the breeding – he did not have the tendency. Could he do the job? Of course, and he could do it extremely well. He proved it to him and ran perfectly at one show winning the highest awards that day. He ran like a well-tuned machine with innate instincts. It was like a miracle. Never before that day and never after. The cowboy got so frustrated that he actually hauled off and kicked the horse when he couldn’t get a repeat performance out of him. He didn’t know how to make that horse want it as badly as he did. That was all I could think of today as I watched that game and saw how it will be for some of those kids and parents I watched today. Some of them will be great – the ones that want to be. Some will be pretty good – the ones that are doing it for fun or that practice enough. Some will never be good ball players and never want to be. They will have other desires and talents to work with. Same with your horse. Whatever it is you want to do with your horse, keep in mind that to get the best results, it has to be good for him too and don’t try squeezing a square peg into a round hole.
Of all of my treasures – This one I won’t trade, This is one that I shall value – It’s worth doesn’t fade.
Ann worked with Patches in the arena doing ground work without a glimmer of worry on the horse’s face When it came time to tack the mare up,. Ann walked over to the hitching post which consisted of a 500+ lb. length of telephone pole setting on two additional notched out posts made of the same type of heavy duty telephone pole. She no sooner had tied the rope around the post than the mare just went berserk for no apparent reason. She spooked back suddenly and violently, pulling the huge pole down with her. Of course, when the log dropped, the knot on the rope halter tightened from the weight, sending her into yet another fearful flight mode as it pulled her head downward. She was backing up furiously trying to escape the pressure which only amplified it. The quick-release knot wasn’t working either. Finally, finally, I was able to get the halter slipped off her head. It was a horrifying few seconds which could have been disastrous for the horse, Ann and me also as I struggled to release the horse with a 500+ lb. log being dragged across the barnyard. After all was said and done (Ann had a few stitches in her hand and we both had some bruising on our legs), all she kept saying was: “There was no reason”. Ann hadn’t seen anything to set the seemingly calm horse off like that. No bees, to quick movements or loud noises. Nothing she could see. I have since come to the conclusion that she was 100% right – There was nothing she could see. It was something in the horse’s head that caused it.
I realized the power of those emotional triggers just the other day at the grocery store. I was standing in the checkout line when I noticed the woman the next isle over. I couldn’t quit staring at her and after a few moments she couldn’t help but notice. I smiled weakly at her but still couldn’t tear my eyes from her. My husband was poking me in the side saying” you’re staring”. She was getting uncomfortable at my steady gazing so finally I spoke to her. “I was just admiring your hair. It is thick and wavy and very beautiful. My mother had hair just like that and the same pretty silver gray color. She has been gone for 18 year’s now but I couldn’t help but think of her when I saw you.” When I said the words out loud, tears sprang to my eyes. She smiled at me and said “I understand, That is a good thing, right?” “Yes, it is a very good thing”. As my husband and I walked out to the parking lot to the car, my husband reprimanded my in a disbelieving tone “You didn’t just tell that woman that she looks like your mother, did you?” (Did I mention that I am 62 years old?) My reply was that “yes, I did and we both knew it was a good thing”.
I am sure you are wondering what this has to do with the incident with Patches at the hitching post. The point is, although no one could see any reason for me to suddenly stare stupidly at a perfectly normal looking stranger or fathom why all of a sudden I had tears in my eyes, I saw it. It was an emotional trigger. These can be really good memories or really bad ones. Sometimes it isn’t a memory at all but just a feeling – like on a new crisp late spring day and you are driving down the road with the radio playing and the window down and all of a sudden you get the same carefree feeling of youth you felt when you were a teenager. It has been my experience that, as a rule, our bad memories tend to stick with us more or at least cause a bigger reaction. Fearful situations especially. I am sure that whatever caused poor Patches to freak out at seemingly nothing was really very real to her – something only she sees in her mind’s eye. Just as no one can make me stop feeling the sadness I feel for losing my mother no matter how long ago it was, I will not be able to make Patches not remember whatever it was that bothered her so much. You just don’t get over some things.
We can both learn how to deal with it and control our reactions better. I will not tie Patches to the post again and I will never tie her using a rope halter. It has to be one of those two variables as I have tied her to trees while on trail rides without incident using a regular halter. Doesn’t matter. I will not make her “go there” to that place that terrifies her so badly. As for my triggers about my mom – well, even though they make me sad and I may want to cry, I love having those unexpected jolts that trigger my emotions when they concern my mother. Tears are a small price to pay.
There is just not enough time in the day or energy in me – to divide my attention into portions distributed equally.
I know all about the Serenity Prayer and the wisdom of not letting things get to me that I have no control over and cannot change. I know that it does far more harm than good to dwell on thoughts that make me feel bad. I really do try to focus on replacing disturbing thoughts with positive ones. In this particular instance, the only positive thing I can think of where these crows are concerned is that they are dead crows. The crows that I am referring to are strung up by their feet along the perimeter of a garden and left to slowly disintegrate in the hot sun. The purpose of this distasteful display is being a deterrent to other crows who may be planning on invading the cornfield planted there. There is also a scarecrow complete with a gun as if to shoot more crows if they should dare trespass there. I may be a little over the top where my compassion for animals and suffering is concerned – I realize that. But, I cannot drive past that garden without getting a sick feeling. I try not to look at it, but it is right along the only road into town that I have to drive by daily – usually more than once. It never fails to ruin my mood and force me to think some not very nice things about a person who would show such a lack of respect for life in such a base method.” They are just crows” I hear if I voice my opinion about it and mention that it bothers me. I can’t help it. They were living things that sought out a life and tried to survive. Killing them is one thing, making a mockery and example of their death is another. I think it is just wrong to have so little respect for life – even if it is crows. Where is the line drawn? What if this guy doesn’t like feral cats on his property? Would he string them up also? I know there are many people who will think it is me that is being ridiculous, but is it so wrong to have the sight of dead animals be a cause of distress to me? Aren’t there worse things than being compassionate about animals – things like killing and torturing them? I never could stand being in a room with heads of dead animals mounted on the wall. I don’t get it and I hope I never do. In the meantime, the cornfield has finally grown up enough that the poor crows are now hidden in the stalks and I no longer have to see them. I have made it a point not to find out whose garden it is because I don’t want to harbor bad feelings toward someone and I would if I knew who it was. I know that we can’t all agree on how to handle things and what is acceptable for one isn’t always the case for another. It is not for me to judge and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else because there have been hanging there for weeks now. I can’t help the feeling that if it feels this wrong to me, there have got to be others. I hope so.
There is a scar left behind where they took off a bump – Just under my ribcage from a saddle horn bump.
What started out to be just an ordinary ride with one of my male boarders, turned into what may have been one of my most embarrassing moments. We can all laugh at it now, but at the time, it was pretty humiliating. John and I decided to ride on the developing track for the motorsport park going in across the street from the farm. The roads were graded but unpaved which made it perfect to explore on horseback.
My guy Cruise
He was riding Ranger and I was on my powerful black appendix, Cruise. There are lots of twists, turns and hills on the track to make it challenging for future drivers. We rounded a bend and charged up a particularly steep incline. I was wearing a western shirt with the snap buttons up the front. As Cruise lunged up the hill, he would leap forward and then rock back and thrust with his turbo charged back end in a rocking motion, kicking his back feet out with each thrust. I was leaning forward to help him up the hill when the saddlehorn went through a gap between the buttons of my shirt and hooked under my bra. When Cruise rocked back, I was pulled forward and went right off his right shoulder. When I hit the ground, I landed flat on my back with every snap of my shirt complete undone and my bra only covering one of my breasts. It took me a few moment to grasp the situation as I had the wind knocked out of me but then awareness seeped in. I looked up to see my riding partner, John very politely standing on the far side of his horse waiting for me to get up, using Ranger as a shield from his eyes and pretending to be unaware of my plight other than falling from my horse. John never said a word about what he saw, and to this day adamantly denies seeing anything that might have been improper. I know differently because every time the story comes up about that ride, he turns beet red- especially when my husband brought it up in front of John’s wife. Being the gentleman he is, John and I have still never talked about what he really saw that day. I am sure he hasn’t forgotten it entirely. I know I will never forget it. I couldn’t if I tried as I has a scar from that saddlehorn to this day to remind me. Horses are known to teach you humility, but this took it to new level.
You spend these last hours right by his side, watching the clock as the minutes tick by -Trying to take in all the things you will miss, embedding in memory his beautiful eye.
I run a boarding facility and just because of the sheer number of horses I encounter, there are bound to be a few horses that will cross that infamous Rainbow Bridge while on my watch. It is a tragic event in a horse lover’s life to have to say “goodbye”. I know, I have witnessed it more than once. What I didn’t know or realize is that I only thought I knew what they were going through. I am the kind of caretaker who gets personally involved with each and every horse under my care. I truly love them all. Even though my heart ached, sincere tears were shed, the dread and horror of the moment was overwhelming, I still had no clue – until it almost happened to me. What an awakening! When my horse suffered a bowel displacement, I was suddenly thrust into the horrific position of being the one to have to make those decisions for my horse. For four of the longest days of my entire life, I moved through a haze of disbelief, sadness, panic and fear that I might lose him. I teetered precariously between optimistic hope and despair. His only viable chance was that it would correct itself if we starved him. It was a living nightmare to have him know I was feeding every other horse but him. The look he would give me of “Why are you doing this to me?” was as clear as if he was screaming those words at me. As hard as it was to not slip him just a little something, I had to do it. His only chance depended on it. I couldn’t eat myself during that time. I felt guilty putting something in my mouth and denying him anything.
Waiting for dinner
My insides felt like giant hands were just squeezing the life out of me. I couldn’t sleep for fear that he might go back down in writhing pain and I wouldn’t be there to give him relief until a vet could get there. I couldn’t even breathe. Everyday and every evening the vet would come out and sedate him, run a tube down his nose and pump oil and water into him. Then he would do rectal to feel if his intestine was still lodged between his kidney and his spleen. Everytime, I would stand there, holding my breath and praying, please, please, please. Everytime the vet would just shake his head and those hands inside me squeezed tighter while a little voice whispered “there is still a chance – maybe tomorrow”. I knew the morning of the fourth day that this would be the day. It was either working or it wasn’t by that time. That was the day to determine if he lived or died. I anxiously awaited the vet and played out the possible outcomes over and over in my mind. I tried to be ready and strong if I needed to be. Easier said than done. This time there would be no tubing. They gave my horse the sedative and began the rectal. I stood frozen in fear and hope staring at the vet’s face for any sign of my horse’s fate. Not a single flicker of emotion crossed his face. He pulled his arm out, took off the glove and turned to me. “I never would have thought it, but he is fine”. I think I cried more at that moment out of sheer relief and gratitude than I had during this whole ordeal. I could breathe again. I was keenly aware of how easily we could have went the other way. I finally grasped what kind of a loss one suffers by losing a beloved horse. At least a taste of it, albeit a small one in comparison to actually having to let go. I think I know now why the good Lord chose not to give me children. I couldn’t bear it to watch them suffer and if I lost one, I don’t know how I could ever get past it. Nothing like a good lesson in appreciation, empathy, priorities and the possibility of miracles created by willpower.
Maybe it’s because I go to a place in my mind – Where the best things are kept – Things only I can find.
I will never forget the last time I saw my mother. It was Christmas week of 1995. I live in Georgia and she lived in my childhood home in Michigan. She had been failing with congestive heart failure and was very ill. We all knew this might be the last Christmas with her, so we made the trip even though I was very much under the weather myself. The closer we got to home, the sicker I became. The plan was for us to stay at my sister’s house during the visit but my mom would have no part of that. She insisted that I stay with her under the pretense that I wouldn’t get everyone else sick. I knew it was because she felt the need to do what she does best: be my mother and take care of me. Even though it should have been the other way around and I should have been nursing her, she rallied herself around to see to my every need and comfort. She died February 1st, 1996. I thought of that last visit with my mother this past week when my 6 year old gelding, Eddy-O suddenly became very ill with a displaced bowel. I remembered how soothing her touch was, how cared for I felt, how important I was to her. I knew he was scared and hurting and so the first thing I did was go get his mom, Dixie. I put them in a separate pen together for the next 4 days while we weathered the storm.
A mother’s watchful eye
True to form, Dixie did what good mother’s do – she stood watch over Eddy-O and comforted him. She never went more than 10 feet from his side and constantly murmured soft encouragement to him. Even though Eddy has been weaned off her for 5 1/2 years, they remain constant companions. They can eat out of the same feed dish or pile of hay and stay in the same stall. I was determined that if Eddy-O wasn’t going to make it, he was not going to spend his last days with strangers who didn’t know or love him. He was going to know he was loved to the very end. There would be no trailering to UGA, no days of observation in the hospital, no major surgery (recommended by vet), no weeks of recovery in a sling hooked up to IV’s. It was a hard decision to make, but all things considered, I knew what was best for him, even if it meant losing him. Dixie and I kept vigil, 24/7. I really believe that this outpouring of love and encouragement is what helped him pull through. And pull through he did, with flying colors – albeit with alot of effort (he hardest part was having to starve him for those days – the mom in me wants to nurture). I have never had children of my own but I learned my lessons from two of the greatest mother’s that ever walked this planet. I learned that when you love something or someone, you will do whatever it takes and always put them first. They will always be your baby, no matter how old. Many, many thanks and much love to mom’s – mine and Eddy-O’s. Once a mom – always a mother.
It had been a very long time, a good many years – Since I turned it all loose, put away all my fears.
Years ago when my nephew was a youngster, I took him to Six Flags Amusement Park to ride the rides. Looming bigger than life was a roller coaster aptly named the Mind Bender. I was determined to show him the thrill of his young life by demanding we ride it. He was adamantly opposed to it. His fear was obvious but I insisted, confident that once he experienced it, the thrill would override any misgivings he may have. I just needed to get him through it. We stood in line for 45 minutes before our turn to get in the car came up. He promptly jumped in and even more quickly hopped back out and darted back down the ramp. Now I was getting peeved. After all, he was being ridiculous and overreacting. I retrieved my nephew, got back in line and was safely locked into the seat before letting go of his hand. He was terrified. I thought it was great fun and just knew he was going to love it – he just didn’t know it yet. The entire ride was spent with his eyes squeezed tightly shut and shouting: “I’m going to tell my mom”. All the way home he was pouty and I knew I was going to be in big trouble with my sister. When we got to the house, he jumped out of the car and burst through the door to find him mom. I followed behind and was shocked to hear him squealing excitedly: “Guess what I did? I rode the Mind Bender!!!!”. He was bragging about it and jumping up and down with excitement over his thrilling accomplishment.
I can’t help but think about that summer day so many years ago everytime I ask my young horse to step out of his comfort zone and “get over it”. His fear and hesitation of the unknown is so real and terrifying even if I know it is unwarranted. Perception is reality, even to horses – especially to horses. Am I being fair? How hard should I push to get the job done but not cross that delicate line where trust falls away and terror takes over? How much is too much at any given time? How do I bring him through to the other side where he is proudly proclaiming “‘I did it” or “that’s easy, let’s do it again”? I am not sure exactly what the final analysis of that ride on the roller coaster would sound like if you asked my nephew. We still continued to have a great aunt/nephew relationship but I can’t help feeling that maybe I pushed just a little too much and that ultimate trust was broken. Although, it was a huge leap and nothing remotely bad happened- in fact quite the opposite- he never wanted to go back to Six Flags with me. I am careful to not let that happen with my horse.
Each one has its unique gift given so sweetly and freely to me – And each has its need for improvement so that we can agree.
When I first took possession of Guilty, I sent her to a trainer for 6 weeks to “tune her up” as she hadn’t been ridden in six years and I was just getting back into horses after a 25 year break. I was worried that it might be a little more than I could handle. Guilty was always a very sweet and kind horse but very strong willed and not convinced yet that she didn’t need to call the shots. One of the reasons I liked her from the very start was the way she wanted to interact. She always came over immediately when she saw me and stayed and watched me until my car was all the way out of the driveway when I left. I loved that about her. After she had been with the trainer for a few weeks, I went to visit her and check on her progress. He had her in a covered area where he works the horses. When I came up to the fence she was standing on the far side of the arena. She turned and looked at me but stayed where she was. This kind of hurt my feelings and I feared that the bond had been broken. I stood there quietly for a few minutes and finally she started over. I was so relieved. I turned to the trainer and said so. I told him that I was glad to see she recognized me and wanted to come over to say hello. I told him that I didn’t want to lose that. He seemed a little perturbed and I could tell he thought I was just being a dumb girl. He told me that he doesn’t care about that stuff. In fact, it is a show of respect that a horse stays away until you go get it and give it permission to be in your space. I thought about that conversation many times over the years and could never quite agree with him on that subject. Makes me wonder what else I might not have agreed on when I wasn’t there. Another incident that comes to mind where I heard a well known and respected trainer say out loud to a young horse while running it frantically around a round pen was “I don’t care if you are worried about where your friends are. I don’t care if you are upset. I don’t care if you want to quit now. I don’t care… You gotta show ’em who’s boss.”Those words and that attitude never set right with me but I was the one who was being soft and silly. Luckily, since then I have discovered that the truly great horsemen are not the ones who can make a horse do things. It is the ones that form a partnership with their horses that bring out the best in them. The true magic of horses is seeing and experiencing how a horse truly acts toward you – not how it is taught it needs to be when we decide to drag it into our itinerary. If treated kindly and fairly, the problems have a way of dissolving. Horses are innately of the temperment that they want to get along if they understand what we are asking and it is reasonable and do-able. I believe that we need to listen more to the horse – see things through his eyes and let him have a voice if there are concerns. Establish a relationship. Not only is it possible, but it is the most rewarding benefit you will ever get from having horses. If you
I walked down the hill to the barn where my horses are found – on a clear winter’s morning with fresh snow on the ground…
One of my favorite winter memories is riding my horse in the snow when I was much, much younger and living in Michigan. Now I live in Georgia and the opportunities to ride in a winter wonderland are much rarer. Every once in a great while I get to relive that experience. Those rides never fail to transport me back to those magic times. This past week when the rest of the world stood still during a record breaking winter storm and 6″ snowfalls, my joy was whirling like those flurries as I not only watched- but lived it- from the back of my horse. The following is a poem I wrote about this very thing in my book “Knowing Horses By Heart” .
A Ride in the Snow
I walked down the hill to the barn where my horses are found
On a clear winter’s morning with fresh snow on the ground
I heard the soft nickers greeting me from the stalls
I saw the halters all hanging from the hooks on the walls
I made up a warm mash to chase off the chill
And stood listening to them eating as hungry horses will
I really had no intention of riding that day
Just doing my chores then going my way
I suddenly felt an old memory deep inside of me stir
Was it really so wonderful? I had to be sure
I walked over to the stall where my favorite mare stood
And right then and there decided I would
When she had finished her breakfast and her belly was full
I snapped on her lead rope and gently gave it a pull
I saddled her up and we headed on out
Feeling that it is times like this are what it’s about
Just me and my horse the world silent and white
Quietly trotting out to meet the day’s first light
She was tossing her head and wanting to go
Excited to be travelling on the year’s first snow
At first I was worried, afraid she would slip
But she told me in her way, she was up for the trip
So, I loosened the reins and away we did fly
I couldn’t have stopped her – I didn’t try
The snow was flying and the sky turning blue
When I realized this ride belonged to her too
I knew she was having even more fun than me
We both felt the thrill you feel being free
Her mane was blowing back as she kicked up heels
I knew she was remembering how a young filly feels
The reason I know what I’m saying is true
Is because I was feeling like young girl too
It had been a very long time, a good many years
Since I had turned it all loose, put away all my fears
I trusted her to carry me safely that day
To the place deep inside me where old memories lay
To a time I was young, carefree and bold
Before I turned 50, before she was sold
Back to a time when my very first horse and me
Ran alone in the snow with me laughing with glee
It all came back to me on that morning ride
Tears of a pure youthful joy I could no longer hide
I slowed my horse down and as we wandered along
The crunch of the snow played out like a song
There’s nothing else like it, no music so sweet
As the rhythm beat out by my mare’s four feet
Add to the mix my dog running happily astride
I felt the grin on my face stretching ever so wide
When it was over and I quietly walked at her side
I silently thanked her again for the wonderful ride
I gave her an apple for the new memory I’ll keep
I buried my face in her neck and breathed in deep
There is no better smell anywhere on this earth
There’s no way to explain just what it is worth
I turned her loose and away up the hill she did run
Glistening and golden in the mid-morning sun
It’s a magical thing, a treasure I know
To have such vivid memories of a ride in the snow