It is hard to explain how my itinerary is made – There is a certain rotation to be sure a foundation is laid.
Partners and friends
There are just some topics you avoid with certain people because you already know you are not going to agree. The top three in my world are politics, religion and especially horses. Avoiding the first two is not that difficult in my day-to-day existence and I generally believe that everyone has a right to formulate their own ideas as long as it doesn’t infringe on my life. My opinions are mostly kept to myself and revealed only through my lifestyle. Horses – now that is a different subject. I find that horse people are the most opinionated of all. Every single aspect of horses is up for contention depending on how they think it should be done. I don’t care if it is about the care, training, riding, breeding, keeping, shoeing, tack, blanketing, worming, shots, stalling, supplements, disciplines, eventing or feeding. Horse owners, handlers and lovers are passionate in their beliefs of what is the right way when it comes to our equine partners. I work with horses daily and how I operate is an open book to anyone who observes or interacts with me. Unfortunately, it seems that people feel they have “free rein” (excuse the pun) to give their unsolicited opinion when I do things a little differently than they might. In all truthfulness, I am probably one of the worst at doing that myself because I believe in what I do. I have great difficulty biting my tongue when I witness treatment of a horse based on the old school methods of “show ’em who’s boss” or “you gotta make them more afraid of you than what you want him to do”. I personally get no sense of joy or accomplishment whatsoever from “making” a horse do anything, especially by using means of brute force, pain or fear. It is kind of ironic that the term “cowboy” used to be the epitome of the ultimate perfect horse person. We all aspired to be able to ride like a cowboy. Now, when we use that word to describe how a horse is trained, if it has been “cowboyed” it means handled brutally into submission. The more enlightened horse trainers and handlers are more interested in “gentling” a horse – not “breaking” them. We are looking for partners, not slaves or vehicles. We want to be on the same side. It is not a contest. There should be no winners or losers. There is a great deal of ego that comes into play with humans when they can intimidate a huge, powerful and majestic beast like the horse. What I am telling those people is that they are missing the magic. They will never truly be a fine horseman if they have to operate on that base level and they will never experience the wonders of knowing horses by heart. There is no honor in being a bully. Sure, you may get a horse broke to ride, but you steal his soul and you sell yours. There is a better way. So, maybe I am really getting onto all three dangerous territories here. The topic of horses is actually about religion and politics.
If the truth be known it is me who will benefit the most from her – No matter what other troubles I might have, she is my cure.
I recognized it the very first time I met her. There was just something about her that I just could not get off my mind. Not what I pictured when envisioning my dream horse by a long shot. Guilty stood a mere 14.3 hands, was at least 200 lbs. overweight, her feet were neglected horribly and she had not been handled or ridden for about 6 years. She stood in a small backyard paddock with her 3 year old filly who had never been out of her sight and was spoiled rotten with treats from her owners and the neighbors. But she was special. I may have been the only one who thought so at the time, but I knew that this was the horse for me. Something about the name “Guilty” rang true with me. How could a horse with a name like that be anything but special? After many months of finagling and bartering, I finally brought her home. Guilty actually has the very regal registered quarter horse name of “King Leo’s Golden Bars” and her grandmother’s name was “Quilty”. Somehow this morphed into the absolutely perfect name for her although it came about because of the way her coat shines with seemingly golden threads running through it when in the direct sun- like gilded gold. I have never seen another like it. Nor have I ever seen another horse like her. She may be the smartest horse I have ever dealt with and she definitely earns her name. I have volumes of stories about her antics, her bravery and her character. She is the matriarch of our herd without question. In her own quiet and passive way, she gets her point across time and again. When challenged for her position by a newcomer, she doesn’t fight. Rather, she merely picks up the entire group and moves them to another part of the pasture leaving the newbie all alone and wondering what happened? As soon as she is humbly acknowledged as the leader, she welcomes the new horse into the herd graciously without any violence. She behaves like royalty – demanding respect in a dignified manner, and she gets it. She will not be bullied by horse or human. Unless asked politely and correctly, she refuses to even acknowledge the request. Trust me, I have learned more from this horse because of her “resistance” than all the rest put together. Asked nicely, she will do anything for you – just don’t try to make her do anything. Not too much to ask from a mare who is now almost 24 and has never kicked, reared, bucked, bit or bolted, no matter how unskilled the rider or handler. She is one of those horses that you wouldn’t take a million dollars for, couldn’t get a nickel for, but would give away if it meant a better life than I could give her. That is what I have decided to do. She has a chance to have a home with someone who knows her, appreciates her little quirks and loves her like I do. She will actually get much more attention than I have been able to give her recently and I foresee even less in the future. She deserves it and it is what I want for her, as much as I will miss her. As her new soon-to-be owner, her barefoot trimmer and I stood discussing the transfer of ownership, we watched her performing her role as the “main squeeze” in her pasture where a new horse had just arrived. The remark was made that Guilty was a princess. I quickly corrected that by stating “Oh no, she is the “Queen”.
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.
As I mature, Christmas takes on a whole new meaning to me. Somehow, I have turned the corner where I don’t worry and fret so much about the presents I give or receive. Most of those trinkets are quickly forgotten once the packages are opened and seasons change. It is the gifts that create special memories for me that I treasure. It is the visits, the phone calls and the helping hands that warm my heart this season. Also, it is the memory of Christmas past that I hold dear. One particular one comes to mind. It was Christmas of 1995 which was the last Christmas our family was whole. My mother died February 1st, 1996 and ever since that year, my siblings and I just never find the time or the need to be all together again for the holidays- just not convenient anymore. My mom was the nucleus of “our family” and now we all have developed into our own traditions and our own families have grown. I know that is the way it goes but just can’t help thinking about how it used to be. We had a family picture taken that last whole family Christmas and my mom is wearing her “Christmas sweater”. It is a beautiful black sweater with a big Christmas bow of sequins embellishing it. I have that sweater. It is one of my most treasured possessions. If I walked into a second hand store and saw that sweater on the rack for $1, I wouldn’t be interested, but I wouldn’t trade this one for anything in the world. I keep it in my cedar chest and have never had it cleaned. I want to smell and feel her when I hold it. I even wear it for a few hours some years even though it is long past being in style. That gaudy trinket is my treasure.
I guess thinking like that is exactly why I get a lot of criticism for some of my methods of working with horses. I am not interested in the “proof of the pudding” in the form of ribbons and trophies as proof of my abilities. Those are just useless trinkets down the road unless they are earned from the heart – yours and your horse’s -and then become a true treasure. I would personally take no joy from completing a perfect performance if it meant giving up a partnership with my horse in lieu of a dominating rigorous drilling that my horse hated. Nothing fills up my heart more than walking out to the pasture and my horse freely walking up to greet me. Now, that is a gift I treasure and hold dear and am not willing to trade.
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.
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
The next hour or so is spent in just observing my horses. We don’t have to interact – I know they know I am there. They give me brief glimpses into life of their private world. I savor the moments and deeply appreciate what they share.
I had what was probably the very best couple of hours I have ever had the other day with my horses. It was relaxing, thrilling, flattering and so rewarding. I have never been prouder of my work with horses – and I did NOTHING at all. Truthfully, I have pretty much put my horses on the back burner these last couple of months. The weather has been horrible, the holidays came and went and I just wasn’t feeling up to getting out there. Sure, I religiously care for my three and seven boarders, but that was about all I did – the chores. Nothing extra for me or my horses so I was feeling kind of disconnected. It was one of those rare beautiful warm and sunny days in the midst of the coldest weather we have had for years when I felt that irresistible pull. I needed to get out there with my horses. My first instinct was to ride. Rides had been few and far between this winter and the weather was perfect for it. But then I changed my mind and grabbed up a canvas chair and headed out to the pasture. We have a round bale in the lower pasture out of the wind and I plopped my chair down about 30 feet from it. A couple of horses were on the outskirts waiting their turn and the rest all stopped eating and watched until I sat down and settled in. Most resumed eating like it was an everyday event – except two. Grace and Patches exchanged looks and then sauntered over. It was like Grace was coaching Patches and telling her that even though she belonged to another human, I would be happy to visit with her. (Patches has been a little lonely since she rarely gets to see her owner). Grace stood about 3 steps from me and urged Patches closer to me. Patches then came and stood right next to me and I talked to her while petting her. She was so content and stood with me while Grace stood by. The entire time, my lead mare- and main squeeze- Guilty, had stopped eating hay and stood watching. After about 10 minutes she decided that was enough of that and pinned her ears and ambled over, moving Grace and Patches out of the area. It was her turn and I was her human. She moved into the space right next to my chair and planted herself within my reach. Still sitting, I stroked her face, neck, chest and front legs for awhile and then rested my head back, closed my eyes and just felt the warm sun on my face. I must have dozed for a few minutes because I suddenly became aware of a soft rhythmic breathing and the very lightest touch on my shoulder in time to the breathing. I peeked through my closed lids and there was my Guilty Girl stand over me, keeping watch over me while I slept. She was on the right side of my chair with her neck across the front of me and the very tip of her nose was touching my left shoulder ever so softly with every exhale she took. She was snoozing with me and we stayed that way for at least 30 minutes. The spell was broken only when she became aware of another person arriving at the barn and snapped to so she could do her job of being the matriarch of the herd. She lifted her head, turned toward the person and made sure I was awake and aware before she returned to the herd and the pile of hay. There is just no words that I can express to describe how that simple act filled my heart and my soul sang with the harmony. I can tell you that there isn’t a trophy or a ribbon in the world that would have made me prouder or happier of an accomplishment with my horse. Amazing.
I sat and I thought quite a bit about it and eventually concluded “Of Course”-The very same method will surely work if applied to problems regarding my horse.
Years ago, I was working as a waitress at a very nice restaurant on the beach of southwest Florida when the entire room was disrupted by a very unruly five year-old child. In their efforts to quiet the youngster, the parents tried bribing him with everything from ice cream to toys but to no avail. In fact, every time they sweetened the pot and upped the offer the screaming just got worse. The parents finally gave up, left the restaurant without dinner while costing the owners, the chef, the waitress (me), and the other diners. Several customers even walked out it was that bad. I didn’t have children of my own but all I could think of was that the way I was raised that would never have happened. At the first sign of misbehavior, I would have been given a warning and if it continued, quietly but firmly led outside- and it would not have been to get a new toy. When we returned, I would have sat quietly and ate my dinner politely and nothing more would have been said about it. I have never forgotten that episode and since then have observed the parenting changes over the years lend itself more and more to “reasoning” with the child, avoiding the use of power or fear over him. More and more I see the children calling the shots in a family and manipulating parents to get their way. It works for the child but but does not necessarily achieve the best end result. I am not saying you have to make your child go cut a switch and take him behind the woodshed. I am not an advocate of violence on any level, but there is a need to know who is in charge and that there are unpleasant consequences if you make bad choices.
Keeping up with the kid
Now that I am working with my colt, I find myself thinking of that scene in the restaurant when my guy decides to try to take charge or “argues” with me. It is firmly embedded in my mind that just “being nice” and giving in is not the way to go. It only creates a bigger problem. Being too harsh and demanding is not the way to go either -although that is the method most of us use on our horses. That creates resentment and defiance. There is a middle of the road way to be firm and consistent without dominating using pain, fear or intimidation. We love our children/horses but because we do, respect is a must. It is how we obtain it that will dictate our methods. By not drawing attention to the problems and rewarding the good, the message gets across and there is no contest. Refuse to get drawn into those situations where tempers flare and someone has to win and someone has to lose before it is over. That is not good horsemanship or parenting.