I am not saying all those fast and furious days are past – That on occasion I won’t be feeling the need. I am just saying that I am finding more here lately that I am built more for comfort than for speed.
A while back I wrote a story titled “Hay, Don’t I know you?” It was about a pretty little palomino named named Caramel who was sold and moved away from her friends and her herd. After a few years went by, she was returned to that very farm and the remaining herd. Re-introducing her to the other horses was a very intimidating event for little Caramel as things change, new friendships replaced the ones she knew and a new hierarchy had been formed. As a rule, the new horse has to take some bullying to see where she fits in. As they were opening the gate to the pasture to turn her out with the others, she was nervous. She felt alone, friendless and unsure. She knew how it worked and they were gathered around waiting for her. Suddenly, the group parted and her once best friend, Bella, walked right up to her and together they walked off without incident. Bella was a huge and powerful draft horse who was held in high esteem by her peers. She put herself at risk to defend her little buddy if needed. The absent years, the new relationships, the differences in them did not matter. They were friends. There was a connection that time and life events could not erase.
A trusted friend.
I kind of felt like Caramel last weekend when I attended my 45th class reunion – not sure how I would be received. After all, it had been a long time and some things weren’t left on the best terms. I found that it didn’t matter what had happened during the last 45+ years to me or to my former classmates or how much we had changed. The ones that I felt a powerful connection or draw to those many years ago were the very ones I still felt that rare and wonderful feeling for. That elusive attraction was still there on some spiritual level. One of life’s greatest mysteries to me has always been what element exactly dictates why certain people strike a certain chord with you that the rest of the world doesn’t. I have to believe that we recognize something inexplicable – something in our very souls. Yes, 45 years is a long time, but I learned an important lesson from Caramel’s story and my recent reunion. Time may change many things but when it comes to matters of the heart, it stands still. I had the most wonderful and memorable reunions of my life. Gaps were filled, some that I wasn’t even aware existed. I have always been a little on the shy and introverted side and prefer fewer quality relationships and friendships over quantity. That being said, my point is: If you are one of those few people who I feel this bond with, it doesn’t matter how many years go by or what path life may lead us down, you will always hold a special place in my heart. That doesn’t change.
My beautiful paint gelding is like a blank canvas awaiting the brush – My plan is to dedicate plenty of time and not give him the rush
Eddy-O has been my number one project for the past couple of years. He was born here and he and I have pioneered our own path. The problem came when he had to postpone any further riding or training for three months due to a sore foot. I used this time that he was recovering to work with Patches. She had just come into my possession and I needed to get to know her and her limitations before using her for my program. I spent a great deal of time with her and even took her on trailering trips. Eddy would stand at the fence and stare at us the entire time we were working in the arena. Then, all of a sudden, Patches started bossing Eddy-O around in the pasture and driving him off his hay. My attention to Patches raised her level of hierarchy in the herd and drove Eddy-s self-confidence down. He felt he went from being the favorite son to the bottom of the pile. He had gotten his feelings hurt. I tried to spend time with him by just hanging around some, but it wasn’t the same. Finally, he was given the green light to start up light work and riding again. Excited as I was to get back to work with him, something was different. We just didn’t have that same connection we had before the injury. When I rode him in the arena with someone else riding Patches, he was ill-tempered and did not want to be anywhere near her and even pinned his ears and tried to bite at her if were rode side by side. That had never happened. Eddy-O has always been everybody’s best buddy and does not have a mean bone in his body. I knew I had to fix that and reconnect on the level he needed. So, I took him on a picnic – just him and me.
It was a gorgeous October day and I packed a lunch, making sure I had plenty of goodies for him too, and set out on foot with him. I walked him way back to the field that was lush with grass and far away from any other horses. I dropped the lead rope and settled in on a log to eat while he happily munched away. Every few minutes he would walk over to me and check in and see what I had for him and then go back to grazing just a few feet from where I sat. After about an hour, we continued even further and explored together. We then returned the long walk home, side by side. After a short break, I put the bareback pad and bit-less bridle on and we had the easiest ride ever. Later, I saddled him up and we went out alone without a hitch. No calls to the herd or any hesitations whatsoever. We were a team again.
This morning, I put out some flakes of alfalfa hay and Eddy-O stood his ground and Patches did not steal his hay today.
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.
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.
But for all of the trouble and all of the pain, If I had to do it over, I would do it again.
I guess it is kind of like being a parent when you own and love a horse. It means you are willing to do what is best for the horse and put your own feelings aside when you know deep in your heart that it is the right thing to do. – even when it means letting them go. Don’t worry, this story has a happily ever after ending even though somewhat painful to me. You see, when I have a horse, it is family. He is going to have a wonderful, stress-free and know-he-is-wanted life. I can do that – easily – because I love horses passionately. I have been extremely lucky to have always had incredible horses (at least in my opinion). I am not in the business of horse trading for the sake of selling horses for the money. If a horse leaves my hands, it is only because I feel fairly certain that the horse will have a better life with someone else. Usually, the deciding factor is a matter of time and attention someone else can give it that I can’t. Every horse should be someone’s “special” horse. My problem is that I have too many to be able to give them all that kind of time. Twice now I have done just that with two very different results. The first was sold to a young teen who had taken a couple of years of lessons on this particular horse and decided she had to have him. I knew where he was gong and that he would be well cared for. I made up a contract for the girl to sing stating the importance of caring for her horse and putting him first even when she was not in the mood. Of course, she eagerly signed it. I had visions of her spending endless hours with her horse for many years to come. I sold her that horse even though something told me she was not the one that would give him that. But she promised and her parents insisted it had to be that horse and I had others, so we made the deal. I was really disappointed in the way that has turned out. It is not so much what she does wrong, it is what she doesn’t do. The other day she came out to ride the horse and it took her over half an hour to catch him. That should have told her she was missing something called a relationship with her horse. She was complaining about it and I made the suggestion that possibly he felt used. When she came to see him, she just got him, saddled him, drilled him in the ring and then left. There was nothing in it for him. No fun, no joy, no pleasure. Hopefully, she will start to understand that before he completely tunes her out. The second horse hit the Irish Sweepstakes. This 15 year old girl’s life revolves around that horse. She sits with him while she does her homework, personally tends to his stall even after the crew comes through, rides bitless and works at liberty with the horse. They are learning and experiencing the magic of horses together and she cannot get enough of it. Her horse is the love of her life and he knows it. I am so happy for him because even though I loved him dearly, she can give him that special something that will give him heart.
There is one sure way guaranteed to lift my spirits. I walk out to where my horses are hanging around- quietly grazing, snoozing or playing together and sit down to watch them from there on the ground.
I am from the North where Southerns often accuse us of being rude. I am one of those Southern Yankees. I was always in the mindset that I was wasting time – mine and theirs – if I didn’t just get down to business with someone. I thought it was unprofessional to chit chat before I told them why I called or why I was there. I would get so impatient when I had an agenda and they wanted to make small talk. It just seemed so inefficient. Finally, I realized the value of establishing a relationship with anyone I interacted with. I get better service, loyalty, favors granted, make better friends, help is offered willingly, etc. What was I thinking? This is a way better way to go through life. Take a little time to make someone feel special and let them know that you care enough to see how things are going with them before putting in a request. Okay, if that truth is so simple, why do we not do the same with our horses ? So many of us go get our horses with an agenda all planned out – our agenda, not the horses. We don’t stop to give them a few minutes of just saying hello and let them know you are glad to see them before we start taking over. We slap a halter on them, lead them to the ties, groom them, saddle them up, climb up and expect them to take good care of us without so much as a “How are you doing today?”
We are friends
Although I love to be near my horses and spend hours at the barn, it is rare that I am not there for some other reason than just hanging out for awhile without trying to get something done. It took somebody to actually teach me the importance of creating a personal bond with my horse for me to realize the difference it makes. We all go under the premise that a horse wants and needs the human to be the leader. That is true to an extent. A horse really wants to feel safe and will gladly submit to a leader he trusts. We cannot gain that trust by demanding it. We need to earn it by showing him that we are his friend first. Try spending some time alone with your horse with no distractions and no agenda. Take off all the ropes and halters. Make just for them. See how long it takes before they stop looking for other herd members and turn to you. It will give you a pretty good idea what your horse thinks of you.
Now that I’m older and wiser as such, I know that some wishes fell off of the grid – But I find I am still dreaming about horses not much different than when I was a kid.
I was on a winter night’s horse-drawn sleigh ride in Banff, Canada. The night was freezing cold but bright and clear. We were traveling down a frozen river that ran through the picturesque town, cuddling under warm blankets, enjoying the brilliant stars and the sound of the horse’s hooves on the ice as we glided along. I didn’t think it could get better than that, but it did. Much, much better. That cold, icy ride rekindled a fire that had been smoldering inside me for more than 20 years. As I gazed dreamily into the winter wonderland I was surrounded in, suddenly a vision appeared that would forever change my life. No, I didn’t see God, but I did see an angel in the form of a horse stepping onto the ice upon which a young girl effortlessly rode bareback. As I watched them trot gracefully up the river, I knew in that instant that I wanted to be that girl – that it should have been me. I could not think of anything or anyplace I would rather be experiencing in my life that would give me more pleasure than to be living my life like that. I was so moved that my heart actually ached. I knew I had to get horses back into my life and when I did, I was going to have that kind of a relationship with my horse. I asked around about the girl and her horse and the story was that she rode her horse to work every evening. She worked in a popular local restaurant until 10:00 p.m. or so while her horse waited patiently for her in the snowy parking lot and then together they traversed the frozen river in the moonlight. You could just feel how strong the bond between them was by the ease of their movements. It was as if they were one being – It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen to this day.
Back in my life & better than ever
Such bittersweet memories of a very similar relationship with my horse many years ago -a lifetime ago -of a spirited 3/4 Arabian. 1/4 Thoroughbred mare named Blaze that only I could ride, and the fearless, passionate young girl I had once been. I hadn’t had a horse for many, many years and the love was buried under life’s circumstances. I realized in that moment that the ember had continued to glow and it was time to fan the fire. It wasn’t long before horses were in my life again stronger than ever. Now they are my heaven on earth as you have probably noticed by now.
But if you think you’ll convince me to be changing my ways – You’ve got another think coming because I know what pays
We were standing looking out over the pasture at my horses and discussing my mare, Guilty. She had come a long way since I found her and made her my horse against everyone’s advice. She had been a pasture ornament for the prior 6 years and was quite a project for me to take on. She was overweight, her feet were in bad shape from lack of regular trimming and her attitude was off the charts – Stubborn, smart and pushy. not to mention the fact that she hadn’t been ridden in years. Still, I liked her – a lot – and I was determined that we could work all this out. So, I was talking with my stepdaughter, who was my biggest adversary when I decided to buy this horse. She was on the show circuit and had another big handsome “turn-key” horse selected for me. Something “more suitable” and was upset that I had my own ideas about it. I was proudly telling her about the progress we were making when she made the following comment: “It was that horse’s lucky day when you found her”. My surprised heart soared with what I thought was a compliment on my horsemanship skills. The moment was short-lived when she finished her statement with: “Anyone else would have gotten rid of her a long time ago”. I will never forget how that comment made me feel. Sure, Guilty is not show horse quality, but she is a registered gorgeous dappled smoky buckskin quarterhorse with more personality and kindness than any other horse I have ever met. At first, my high took a nose-dive and my ego crashed and burned with disappointment. I was hurt and humiliated that she gave my opinion no value whatsoever and turned up her nose at my beloved horse. Then, over the course of the next few months, whenever that conversation came to mind, I started to get angry. Guilty wasn’t perfect then and certainly isn’t now but she reminds me a lot of myself. She is the safest horse I own. I do not hesitate to put my 2 year old grandson on her bareback and lead her around. I have put an 82 year old grandfather on her who had just had a hip replacement and literally took almost a full minute to pull himself up into the saddle and get situated. Guilty stood perfectly still while he struggled. She is the one that I get for small children or frightened adult riders. She is the best teacher for beginners because she demands respect and courtesy before she will comply. Guilty was the patient mount I rode to pony my young colt. When I shattered my ankle (an injury I endured while riding that same step daughter’s high dollar prize show horse, by the way), my first steps without my crutches were leading Guilty because I knew that if I stumbled she would bear my weight calmly and not panic if I fell. My first ride after that life-altering injury was on her back while I was still in my cast. She was the only one I trusted in my most vulnerable condition. It was Guilty who rebuilt my confidence.
I trust Guilty
It is Guilty’s eye on the front of the cover of Knowing Horses by Heart The heart in her pupil is real and not photo shopped. She has the most incredible smell.
Now, when I think about that comment, I can smile. Yes, maybe it was her lucky day when I found her, but really, who is the lucky one?