Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rough day

Yesterday—just yesterday?—I spent an hour and a half with Jay in a stall with a stallion—at first, I forgot he was a stallion, because he was pretty mild-mannered. But he had not been taught to stand for the farrier—last month they had to sedate him to trim his hooves. Jay and I were tasked with getting him used to the idea.

I had the head end, while Jay worked on the feet. Sounds pretty simple—keep the horse quiet and standing in one place. Yes. And at the same time be sure to keep your own legs and feet out of the horse’s way as he tries to evade Jay. OK. I can do that. And if the horse does get antsy, keep out of reach of his hind hooves. Oh, and remember: this is a stallion, and if you offend him too badly, he’ll likely come after you to put you in your place. Flight won’t necessarily be his first choice.

Sheesh. I felt so dumb and clueless. Holding my own horse is nothing by comparison. Even at his worst, Galahad is pretty peaceable. This guy was fifteen and a half hands of solid power, not all that used to being handled. When he got agitated, you could feel every muscle in his body tense up, ready for the explosion.

At one point, I unaccountably found myself staring at his business end, praying he didn’t kick me. How that happened, I do not remember, but the moment passed and I got his lead rope back. Jay was so patient about explaining to me just why most of my natural instincts were wrong, and showing me a better, safer way of holding the rope and moving my body.

At first I kept forgetting to breathe, which meant I was tense, and so was the horse. About the time I settled down, the stall-cleaning crew arrived. That meant lots of noise and laughter, and turned me into a nervous wreck. I handed the horse back to Jay, who talked me down out of my tree. We got the horse back into his own stall and finished up. In the end, the stallion was willing to lift all four feet pretty well, though he’ll need some more work. Best of all, I hadn’t managed to mess up badly enough to cause injury to anyone, and my knees didn’t start to shake until we left the barn.

That wasn’t the only rough moment yesterday, either. Leading an old, lame mare back up from the lane to get her feet done turned into an adventure when she spotted a dreadful, horse-eating pig up the hill from the main barn. At that point, the mare, in self-defense, turned herself into a fire-breathing dragon, and pranced and danced and snorted her way clear into the barn.

And there was the thoroughbred gelding who, after working calmly in the arena, decided to make a run for his stall as I tried to open the gate. He nearly knocked me down on his way. Amazingly, I held onto the lead rope, spun his hindquarters around, and sent him back into the arena where he paused, looking confused. You could almost hear him wonder what went wrong with his plan. His plan? I was still trying to figure out what went wrong with mine!

Finally, at the very end of the day, I was minding my own business, following Jay leading another mare back to her stall after their round pen session. I rounded a corner and there, at eye level and bearing down on me, was Mama Llama. I have never been that close to a llama before, and have never really wanted to be. Pretty horrifying—though they all say she’s quite friendly and scarcely ever spits at anyone….

Yeah, right.

The Inner Critic

I went out to see Sir Galahad the Defiant this morning. He was friendly enough, just not interested in doing what I had in mind. The good part, though, was that because he was defiant but lazy and therefore slow, I was able to really practice the stuff I’ve been doing with Jay.

I made him run around the pasture when he decided not to stay with me (making the "wrong" thing difficult and the "right" thing easy). I discovered that I could control his direction from halfway across the pasture, and turn his hind end away so that he faced me, with no difficulty and from a considerable distance. When he did consent to stand with me, he moved his forequarters away nicely so that I could change sides. Finally, I haltered him and we did Parelli's circling game on the halter and lead rope. Galahad doesn’t like it because it’s work, but he did it, sort of.

After I was done, we walked down to the creek. He wouldn’t drink while he was on the lead rope, but he did lick the salt block, and then I took the halter off. His girlfriend Sissy came down also, and after the two of them drank, they galloped away together, bucking and kicking. It's nice to know that he does have someone to romp with, at least sometimes, when she's not in heat.

One final interesting note: I put him back out into the pasture, then before I left, decided to go give him a cookie. I waved to him from a ways off while he was eating hay, and as I raised my right arm to show him the cookie, I saw his head jerk to my right also. At first I just though “Oh, he saw me.” But then I realized that no, he saw me and interpreted my gesture as a “send” to that direction. His muscle memory/habit kicked in, and without his wanting to, he responded appropriately. Cool!

When I left the ranch, I spent the drive home beating myself up over what I should have done—mainly, countered his defiance by raising his energy up beyond what he wanted to do, and thus make the original requests easier by comparison.  If I had, he would have joined up more readily, and followed more willingly. But I did do a lot of things very purposefully and pretty darned well. The horse was at liberty, I have to remember, and I had good control of his direction and speed anyway. That's no trivial accomplishment. Next time I’ll practice even more.

So I need to watch out for those old tapes that play endlessly in my head, all reflecting not the real me but my false self, my inner critic. The current tape loop is, "You're no good at this training stuff. You can't even manage your own horse! Who do you think you are?"

Um, excuse me, but I think I'm proving that one wrong.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Horse's Eye

One of the things I like about doing groundwork with horses is that their beautiful eyes are right down at my level. A horse's eye lets you see right into her soul. Horses are utterly present in each moment, and completely without guile, and their eyes are so very expressive.

Today I had the privilege once again of working with a lovely Thoroughbred mare. Like many of her breed, she can be flighty and high-strung, and is sometimes a handful to manage. Our plan is to work with her and attempt to change her view of the world as a fearful place where she is not safe to one where she can relax and enjoy her surroundings.
My task for today was to help her learn not to run ahead of me, but to stop when I stopped, then take a step backwards when I did. This was not easy for her, and it took us quite a while to get it worked out. As we practiced, though, I would stop periodically and stroke her neck until she relaxed, and her head gradually dropped lower and lower.

Finally, after half an hour or so, I took a step forward and noticed her tuck her head as she walked next to me. She placed her feet with obvious care--she was paying close attention to me. After a few steps, I stopped, and she stopped--and backed up with me. The sudden change was wonderful to see--she finally understood exactly what I was asking, and did it because I asked her to.

The expression in her big, beautiful eye had changed as she looked at me. It is a wonderful moment, when a horse begins to trust you. Such a gift; such an honor. May I be worthy....

Monday, December 20, 2010

Day Four: The real work begins

Today Jay finally realized what I'd been telling him all along: I have no finesse with the most basic of basic skills, like asking a horse to yield his hindquarters, or back up. Yes, I generally get the job done, and to the untrained eye, it all looks fine.

But it's not fine. Jay's method is all about clarity and consistency of communication, and if you're not precise about the way you ask the horse to do something, she can easily get confused. A confused horse can't trust you enough to feel secure in your presence, and that's not a good thing at all.

So Jay started to get tough with me. Over and over, he'd correct me, and it seemed like half the time he'd tell me one thing one time and something different the next time I tried it. But that's actually part of the lesson--nothing about working with horses is cut and dried. Rather, it changes depending on exactly what's going on at any given moment.

What doesn't change is the absolute need for clarity with what you ask and the way you ask it. So I appreciated the drills, frustrating though they were. My mind might understand what Jay was asking me to do, but getting all my body parts to react appropriately while trying to manage my stick and string and lead rope and also keep my eyes on my equine companion--intense and very, very difficult.

Toward the end of the day, I was pretty worn out mentally, and my defenses were down. We were asked to lead a couple of horses back out to the pasture, where they would spend the night. Jay grabbed the "easy" one and left me with Gus, who proceeded to give me a bit of horsey attitude. He's a perfectly nice horse; he just wanted to get the haltering over with and go out to the pasture.

What's interesting to me about the interaction between me and Gus wasn't in the details, but rather in what I learned about myself. When he started acting up, I got "stern," as I always like to think of it, and raised my voice and my energy level. As soon as I did so, I realized that "stern" was actually combative. And it was based on fear. I could feel my tension rising and my breathing quicken.

Fight or flight: how do I react to fear these days? The pendulum lately seems to have swung to fight. But the fear remains. I'm not sure what I want to do about this, but it's good to be aware of it. I wonder how this relates to how I react in other situations?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Introductions: Days One, Two, and Three

Just in these first few days I've had a chance to review and practice so many simple, seemingly self-evident things I already "knew." Even more, I'm getting first-hand experience in just why these simple things are so very important.

This work is exciting, riveting, all-consuming to me, despite the fact that to a non-horsey observer, it probably looks boring and repetitious. Not to mention cold--we work either outside or in an unheated barn and indoor arena. The temperatures the first three days of my apprenticeship have been unusually cold for this time of year--nighttime lows in the teens or below, daytime highs not even reaching the twenties.

The first day began with watering down the arena to keep the dust down. This has to be done even in the winter. Dragging cold, heavy hoses around is not fun, but it's obviously the job of an intern. So are is making photocopies of riding releases, mucking a stall here or there, and hanging around with prospective adopters while the trainer is busy with a class.

I did get a chance to play with a couple of horses: walking them across tarps or through a maze of old tires, letting them jump small obstacles, having them play "go touch it" with objects in the arena. I also practiced having them back up, yield their hindquarters, and other basic safety moves. I discovered that when one is under Jay's watchful eye, it's a lot harder than it looks.

Lessons from Day One: Keep your feet planted as much as you can, be consistent with your spatial relationship with the horse. Don't move around randomly. Horses have a much more highly developed spatial sense than we do, and every micromovement counts. Not an easy lesson to learn. (Will any of them be, I wonder?)

Day Two was bitterly cold--it didn't get above 15 degrees all day. We didn't work the horses much at all--didn't want to risk getting them sweaty, then chilled. We did, however, work with the farrier (guess it doesn't matter so much if he gets sweaty).

One of my jobs was to help Jay get a one-ton Belgian gelding ready to have his hooves trimmed. First, we worked on getting him to back up and yield his hindquarters. After we got him limbered up and moving, I had to try to hold the horse while Jay wrestled with his enormous feet to be sure he would lift them without a fight. But after the work and the trim, I led the big guy back out to the field with two fingers on the lead rope.

Lesson from Day Two: Do not get into a shoving match with a horse. The horse will win. Especially if he weighs a ton.

Day Three was mostly about catching horses in the field, leading them to the barn (Herd Health Day: shots and deworming for almost all of them), and taking them back out. Wonderful fun! (I am serious.) It was very interesting to watch the herd dynamics at work even when all the horses were in the barn.

A major  lesson from Day Three was that to catch a horse, it's easier to draw him to you than to try to sneak up on him because you cannot sneak up on a horse. And in a herd of, say, three horses, you have to be aware of all three at once in order to catch any of them. Also, if the horse decides to move away from you, your job is to make him move with vigor--to make it way easier for him to stand still and let you walk up to him.

The big Belgian who gave me so little trouble on Day Two had different ideas on Day Three. When we got back out nearly to his pasture, there were a bunch of rowdy horses in the next-door paddock, and the Belgian started watching. Somehow my head got between him and something very interesting, and I got clobbered.

A Belgian's head alone must weigh a couple hundred pounds. Ouch. I was more scared than hurt, though. Jay showed me how to use the business end of the lead rope with enough energy to make the horse back up in a hurry and focus on me again. Those big fellows can move pretty fast in reverse gear, and when they're doing that, they're not nearly so scary.

I'm going to look back on those first three days very fondly, I'm thinking. It was an easy introduction to the next three months. Day Four was a different story entirely! More on that when I recover from it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Learning Horsemanship at Sixty: The Adventure Begins!

Just last weekend I began a three-month traineeship at the Ranch where I've been volunteering for the last year or so. I'll be working with "Jay," my friend and the trainer there, learning pretty much all aspects of training and rehabilitating rescued horses.

This is a tremendous opportunity for me--to work with someone as talented as Jay, and with such a variety of horses. It's not a paying position; in fact, I'll be paying them back with even more volunteer hours. But it's a win-win situation, for sure.

Between now and the end of March, I'll be reporting on my experiences as a sixty-year-old woman, with less than two years of experience with horses, learning natural horsemanship from the ground up. My focus will be less on the techniques and exercises that I learn, and more on the internal, psychological aspects of the experience. So far, my work with horses has brought about noticeable changes in the way I interact with others, human and equine; and I expect it will continue to do so.

So here goes! I'm ready for a wild ride!

Friday, December 10, 2010


It's been such an eventful couple of months, and it's hard to believe I haven't updated this blog in so long. But it's time, now. Things are shifting.

A quick summary: Galahad has moved to a private boarding stable about 30 miles west of here. He wasn't happy at his previous stable--he was constantly getting in trouble with the other horses, picking fights, wanting to play whether the other horses did or not. He'd already been seriously hurt once, and I knew it was only a matter of time before he was injured again, or hurt another horse. Something had to be done, so when this new opportunity arose, I jumped at it.

The new stable is significantly farther away from home for me, but worth it for Galahad. He's much better off, and that is the most important thing. A lot has happened since we moved him, and I'll have to update that in a few days, but something has shifted in me that is of major significance. I didn't realize it until a couple of days ago:

A friend and I went out to see him and work with him a bit. He needs work--in his new place he has grass pasture, woods, and gets to stay outside all night when the weather is fine, and so he's decided that he's a wild pony and doesn't have to do anything he doesn't feel like doing. Because of the adjustment--his and mine--I haven't been working with him as much as I used to.

Ground work is so important, and can be done anywhere and at any time, so we decided to take him for a walk. The trails at the new place are lovely, hilly but not steep, and a nice mix of woods and open fields. He hasn't been on them much yet, so it was all new to him.

My friend was leading him. She's been around horses a lot more than I have, so I didn't think anything about it. All was well until we got to the top of the hill—he got very wild and started pushing her around with his head and shoulders. She wasn’t staying on top of him, wasn't able to counter his pushiness. I realized that she was going to be in serious danger in a few more seconds, so I took the lead away from her.

It took all my skill to get him back under control and to lead him down the hill. But I did it. He walked down that hill slowly, stopping when asked, backing when asked, and we made it.

So what? you say. The significance of this is that before that moment, I would have backed off and let her deal with him. She has more experience, right? so she must know better than I do. And truthfully, she would have figured it all out and been fine. But for the first time, I knew that I was better able to deal with the horse in that moment, and without thinking about it, I stepped in. Or stepped up. Stepped into my own authority. Stepped into my mare energy.

Interesting, the timing. Tomorrow I begin a three-month traineeship with my friend and gifted horse trainer "Jay" out at the rescue ranch. It'll be hard work, physically and emotionally (not to mention that it's the dead of winter). Without mare energy, I can't work with troubled horses safely and effectively. But I have it (always have had it), and now I recognize and accept it, with humility and gratitude.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A very scary morning

So. Yesterday. The morning was chilly—the first real fall day—and a little breezy. When I got to the barn, there were several horses out in the pasture racing around, enjoying themselves immensely. Galahad was his usual self, glad to see me, anxious to get out and have fun. My plan was to ride him bareback down to the arena barn, like I always do, and then saddle him up.

Before I even got him out of his stall, I flexed him with the halter rope. He gave with very little fuss—a good sign, I thought, even though I could tell he was a bit rowdy. Who wouldn’t be, on a day like that?

I led him out to the cement mounting block near the geldings’ pasture. Just as we got there, one of the other boarders called to her horse, who came running up to the gate right there, along with a buddy. She got her horse out and led him past us, and the other horse galloped off. I flexed Galahad again, and he gave, though not quite as willingly, and I hopped on.

He stepped away from the block just a little before I got completely settled, so I corrected him—and as I did so, I realized that something was different. He stopped, all right, but with a head toss that I’ve not experienced before. This was not his usual head-down, shake to the side, bad-boy head toss. This one was some kind of nose-up jerking motion that was obviously more serious and far less light-hearted. I flexed his nose around to the right and kept it there for a minute, until he relaxed his neck. As soon as I let up, though, he jerked again. I flexed him to the left. He stood, then, and I asked him to move forward. He jumped and twitched, then jerked his head, and I realized that I was in trouble.

When I got him to stand quietly again, I could feel his tension. I wanted off his back, and soon, but couldn’t just bail. He agreed to tuck his head for me, and I got him to back up a step, then side pass about two steps; then I got off.

Thinking that maybe it was proximity to the pasture that was causing the problem, I led him over to another mounting block behind one of the barns, and got on again. This time things were, if anything, even worse.

It felt like I was riding a powder keg: I could feel him ready to explode at any moment. When I so much as touched him with my lower legs, he twitched and started to jump. If I released the rein pressure at all, he got light in the forehand and danced. I could feel the fear rising in my gut, something I have never felt before when riding that horse, not even when he bucked or even when I got back on him, head aching, after he spun me off. I was way out of my element here, in physical danger. And of course, the more fear I felt, the more jumpy Galahad got.

Despite the obvious threat, he hadn’t actually bucked yet. And with a horse, once he “wins,” you “lose,” and I did not want that to happen if I could safely (more or less) prevent it. So what, I asked myself, was the smallest “win” I could imagine in this situation?

By this time we were standing with his head cranked around to my left foot. I didn’t dare let him straighten it out, because when he did, he started to dance and hop. I did manage, somehow, to remember to relax my legs and seat and sit up straight, even though my body and mind were both screaming, “Tick mode! Hang on with everything you’ve got!!” I grabbed a handful of mane with my right hand and kept pressure on the left rein. So we stood, for probably five minutes, until he not only quit pulling, but let out a sigh.

However, it was quickly obvious that we weren’t out of the woods. He was still twitching and quivering and tense as all get-out. I didn’t dare let go of the rein holding his head to the side, but I did, after several tries, get him to step his hindquarters around quietly, without spinning. Whew--a "win," however small. Once he yielded, I told him what a good boy he was and got off, without releasing the flexion. I was never so glad to feel solid ground under my feet as at that moment.

Our work wasn’t done. He was wild-eyed and high-headed, quivering with defiance. So I made him back up until he settled down a bit, then led him back to his stall and switched the bridle for the rope halter. For that, he stood quietly, probably assuming he was done for the day. Sorry, my friend, but you’re not getting off that easy.

Galahad was in no mood to obey, and certainly in no mood to back up—but back up he did, all the way down the lane between the barns, past the gate to the geldings’ pasture, past a couple of horses tied up, down the incline, and into the muddy swale from the shavings pile out to the arena.

Mud!!! Sir Galahad the Prissy hates mud above all else, and being asked to back into it and across it was just too much. He reared and squirmed and nearly jerked the lead rope away, but I went with him and hung on to the end of it. He turned, still backing up, and actually found himself backing along the swale—horrors!

Finally, when he figured out I wasn’t the one who was going to do any backing down, he stopped, put his head down, and heaved a big sigh. Thank goodness he never discovered how close I was to giving up on what seemed like an impossible task.

From there, we walked the short distance to the arena barn. He wasn’t perfect, but didn’t offer any more of a fight.

Needless to say, I did’t ride him yesterday. He did get to run in the jump arena, like a mad thing, and chat with a few horse friends over the fence. Then, once I got a buggy whip, he did some work for me in there—I didn’t have speed controls in place, but I did have directional control, though it was a near thing a couple of times. It's a pretty strange experience to stand, armed only with a whip and a helmet, in front of a galloping horse and know that he will turn in the direction you demand.

After all of that, when it was time to go in, he walked with me clear across the arena to get his halter back on. And best of all, on the way there, I “sent” him across a scary couple of downed rails, and he went with no argument at all.

So all in all, I guess it was a good day. But I’m still pretty shaken up. We’ll see how he is today, and maybe I’ll get up the nerve to saddle him up for a bit.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


I spent yesterday afternoon out at the rescue ranch, working with “Jay,” the trainer there. We were chatting in the arena when one of his volunteers, an experienced dressage rider, saddled up a recently rescued filly. The volunteer had just finished working with another horse, an exceptionally nice mare with a pleasant and willing attitude.

The other little horse, Mia, was one that Jay had been showing to a potential adopter, a woman with two youngsters, when I arrived at the ranch.

I watched as the volunteer mounted the filly and rode her around the arena. It wasn’t long before she and Jay started talking about how wooden and unwilling this filly was. I could see that the woman was having trouble—the horse didn’t want to move, and did nothing at all without a fight of sorts. “Hard” was the description: to get her to back up or turn, the rider had to haul on her head as though it were a block of wood. The little horse didn’t try to buck, just didn’t seem to want to do much of anything.

“Well, you should have ridden her first, before you got on [the other horse]. Then this one wouldn’t have seemed so bad,” offered Jay.

“She has no heart,” said the woman. “She has the spirit of a wet noodle.” I protested at that description.

The woman got off. Jay took the reins. “Yeah, she’s not like [the other horse]. And she’s pushy. She pushed that other woman all over the arena while we were talking. Her size would make her a good kid’s horse, but with that pushiness, maybe not.” As they were talking, Jay handed me the reins and unsaddled the horse.

“What does that mean, she has no heart?” I asked them. To the filly, I suggested we needed to change her name to Noodle, and gave her a good head scratch. She just stood there, but she let me scratch her. When she blinked her eyes, I stopped scratching for a moment, to let her think about things.

“A good horse will do anything for you. This one doesn’t want to do anything at all—you have to make her.”

By now, something about the discussion had started to bother me. I started to lead Mia around. She didn’t really want to move, but with a “send,” and a not-too-gentle tap on her withers, she came with me.

Jay swapped the bridle for a rope halter, and the filly and I did some stopping and backing up. Again, she needed quite a bit of reinforcement to move, and she did seem pretty shut down. She didn’t really offer much of any response at all at first, but as we worked, she became more willing.

After I made her back nearly to the end of her lead rope and then had her come to me, she started to sniff me, and ended up with her nose buried in my shirt front. There she stood for quite some time, head down, just breathing, while I scratched her head and neck.

At one point, although I didn’t really see her move, I sensed that her attention had shifted and she was on the alert. Looking around, I saw that one of the other staff members was walking along the aisle. Interesting. I would have expected the filly’s head to go up, or the ears to flick, or something. Mia had made no detectable movement.

By this time, with no evidence but my gut, I was convinced that there was more to this filly than Jay and the woman rider were giving her credit for. This was no plug horse, no mean and pushy horse. Something was behind those beautiful eyes. What this little filly needed was relationship. She needed someone to believe in her and care for her. What she did NOT need was a person riding her who already believed she was worthless and hard and unwilling.

I led her around a little more, got her to yield her hindquarters, backed her up again. She did better this time. Then she started following me around, with no pressure at all on the lead rope. By the time Jay backed her out of the arena to return her to her stall, even he noticed how willingly and steadily she moved.

As we left her stall, Jay told me Mia’s story: She had been one of thirteen LIVE horses on the property she had been rescued from. The other thirteen were already dead.

This little filly haunted me all day and all night; her story needs to be told, it seems. Mia…MIA…missing in action. Mia’s heart is Missing In Action.

What horrors this little horse has seen in her short lifetime we will never know. Horses are intimately connected, psychically as well as physically, to their herd. Imagine the trauma of starvation and thirst, and the horror of feeling your friends and playmates die in front of your eyes, the terror of knowing there is no way out for you, either. Humans offer no hope, no succor.

How dare we judge this horse, or others like her? How dare we say, “She has no heart”? How dare we expect her to respond to us, to do our bidding with pleasure and willingness, when she is so shut down and traumatized by what we humans have done to her and her kind?

Please believe me when I say that I am not romanticizing this horse, nor downplaying the fact that she could be dangerously pushy, even at her small size. She is a survivor, and she will do what she needs to do to become dominant over anyone and anything in her environment, as a matter of survival.

However, in just those few minutes I spent with her, quietly asking nothing more from her than respect for my space while honoring hers, there was a difference. I know this, though the evidence for change was slight. I felt the difference, and so did she.

Mia’s heart will return, if she finds someone she can trust and respect, someone who believes in her and loves her. For that person, this filly will walk through fire. I pray that she finds such a friend. To that friend, she will give her whole, beautiful heart.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Update on Raja

Raja has gone to live in a horse paradise here on earth. His owner retired him, a couple of weeks ago, to a friend's farm about 50 miles west of here.

This place, by all reports, couldn't be better for the old guy. There is real grass, shade in the daytime, shelter at night and in the winter, and playmates: several other elderly horses and a few cows.

I talked with him a lot about those cows before he left, assuring him that he would like them very much. That was before I knew there were also horses there.

Since Raja was pretty much only eating grass anyway, and ate as much of it as we would give him, I'm certain he'll be very happy--and probably gain back a lot of his weight.

His owner reports that after two weeks he seems to be doing fine and enjoying himself. The folks out there told her he's been seen "prancing around," which is more like the Raja of old. I'm very pleased, and very hopeful that he'll fool us all and live a long and happy life after all. Blessings, old friend!

Further update, 31 August 2010. Raja's owner told me over the weekend that Raja has finally passed on. Though he was seemingly happy and doing well, one morning they looked out into the pasture to find Raja stretched out where he had died in his sleep. I guess it was just his time.

The wonderful people who had adopted my old friend buried him near the top of a hill out in the pasture. It's a lovely resting place for him. Sleep well, sweet friend.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


[This is an entry that I posted on my other blog, "It's an Alchemical Life" several months ago, but when I re-read it just now, I decided to post it here, also.]

April 1, 2010. Yesterday I finished Linda Kohanov's The Tao of Equus. It's one of those books I've been meaning to read for years, but it seems that now was the right moment.

Kohanov is one of the pioneers of equine-assisted psychotherapy, which takes advantage of the horse's amazing power to facilitate emotional growth, healing, and transformation. Her book gives many, many examples of this kind of healing, starting with her personal story.

The book is especially relevant to me right now as I begin to think seriously about using horses in my own psychological practice, on a professional level. Galahad and Midnight have brought about profound changes in my own psyche, and the stories in Kohanov's book resonate strongly with my personal experience.

Near the end of the book, Kohanov relates the story of a woman whose horse had recently died, but she still felt his presence, as though he had not "crossed over." In a waking dream, the woman encountered her horse, Wally:

All of a sudden, I was walking through this beautiful field of grass with a single tree. The image went from normal to sepia tone, and I saw a chestnut horse grazing in the distance. Someone was walking with me; it felt like my spirit guide. I said to this person, "Is that Wally? It must be; his coat is so shiny."

Wally looked up and recognized me. I could see he was wearing the halter I had gotten for him. He came cantering toward me and said, "Is this the new place where you're boarding me?" I said, "No Wally, you've died. You don't have to wear that halter any more."

The halter unclasped and fell off by itself. Wally bowed and trotted off happily toward the horizon. As the vision faded, [I] heard [my] guide explaining the rhythms of the soul's journey through life and death in a way that suggested this world, the one we believed to be so solid and stable, was really the dream.

As I read this, I burst into tears--but these felt like tears of relief. Suddenly I began to breathe--great, deep, gasping breaths that slowly subsided. I felt like I hadn't taken a deep, free breath for longer than I could remember. I kept hearing, “You don’t have to wear that halter any more.” (p. 333)

Suddenly, some deep part of me understood that the restrictions that I’ve had around my heart and spirit are finally loosening. I can let go of the internalized cultural restraints that chafe and restrict me. In my head I heard the words, “The animal knows what it needs.” By giving my true nature its head, perhaps, I can the trust the internal knowing that shows me my path through life.

Today, I find myself deeply happy and more relaxed than at any time I can remember. What a blessing!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Darn that Midnight, anyway

So I’m standing on the lane with Midnight and Raja, talking to my cousin, who’s venting—she’s been taking care of our elderly aunt who recently had surgery.

The conversation has been going on for a while.

The two horses are grazing peacefully. It’s hot but thank goodness the sun is under the clouds. I’m mindlessly scratching Raja’s scruffy old back when suddenly I hear the t-tlot t-tlot t-tlot t-tlot of a cantering horse.

What the….

I whirl around. There’s old Midnight, high-tailing it (literally—he’s an Arabian, after all) down the lane. For a split second, I worry that he’ll run right into the street; then I remember that it’s 2:30, feeding time back at the barn.

“Janie--loose horse--gotta go. Come on, Raja. We’ve got to go catch Midnight.” Raja, though, can’t run; he starts to cough, so we slow down to a pretty speedy walk.

Back at Barn Eight, my friend Susan is holding Midnight’s lead rope. “Missing someone?” she asks. “Yeah. A mean little black horse.”

That goofball. Just like a kid: they always know when you’re on the phone.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What a day!

OK. Squinch up your eyes and tell me the first thing you see in that picture.

Before I tell you what I see, let me tell you what the object in the picture is.

My cat knocked over a bottle of liquid face soap some time yesterday. It ran all over my counter and soaked lots of things, among them this badge. It's my favorite "Doctor Doctor Kay" Hatchlings badge, the one with the little gold wings that I earned the first time I called half a dance. It's really special to me, and I'm pretty upset about the damage.

Anyway. I tried to clean it off this morning, and put it away to dry. When I got home this afternoon, this is what I found.

I don't know about you, but the image I see is the head of a paint horse. How weird is that, folks?

And today was such a weird day. I spent most of it at the barn caring for, and arranging care for, two horses who don't even belong to me, but who need an advocate, and someone to go the extra mile for them right now. One is Raja, whose owner has way too much on her own plate to give him the time that he needs, no matter how much she loves him. I'm more than glad to help--he's my dear old buddy.

The other is "Spook," whose owner is a brand-new, first-time mother whose financial and personal predicament is pretty dire. There's no way she can deal with Spook, who was injured out in the pasture and couldn't fend for himself to get enough food. He's living indoors now, but needs extra care, extra food, and extra attention.

Long story. My part in Spook's case is more that of a negotiator, helping those who are willing to help care for him figure out a plan that takes in the needs of the barn, the owner, the horse, and the would-be helpers themselves. I just hope it's enough. He's a good horse.

It was a long, hard day. Midnight had a vet visit, Raja's food bucket desperately needed cleaning and bleaching, and it was just shy of 100 degrees in the barn. I was hot, tired, dirty, and thirsty when I came home. But that strange image on my badge feels like a thank-you from the Horse Ancestors!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Missed appointment

Midnight didn’t get to see the farrier today. Here’s what happened, as factually as I can report it:

The appointment was at 10:00 this morning. I arrived about 8:45, just before the storm hit, and got Midnight inside as the first raindrops fell. He and I walked around the arena barn, enjoying ourselves. Some of the time I stood inside the back door of the barn and let Midnight stand out in the rain, nibbling grass.

I pretty much let him go where he wanted. He investigated everything. He watched the camp kids, all fifteen or so of them, riding around the arena. He introduced himself to all the horses in the barn, including a new horse, a pretty little Arabian, who announced to everyone with his whinnying that he was not happy with his new accommodations. Midnight, trying to be friendly, nearly got bitten for his trouble. Midnight's neck arched and he got that studly look in his eye that says, “I’ll show you, little man!” I backed him away before the fight started.

As it got close to 10, we hung around the front of the barn near Midnight’s stall and watched for the farrier. A couple of my friends were there. "Sally" had Spunky tied to the railing, and "Elsa" was there wondering if she should let her horse stay out in the pasture in the rain or go bring him in. I tied Midnight up to the rail while we talked.

We were standing there talking at 10:03—I remember looking at my cell phone. As it got later and later, I walked Midnight down to the other end of the arena barn again, then brought him back. At about 10:25 I called Stan’s cell.

“Hey, Stan. Just wondered where you are, if you’re on your way.”

“Horse wasn’t there. I’m on my way to Hazelwood now.”

I sputtered and asked him how that could be, because I had been there, walking up and down the aisle, since 9:30.

That’s when I got mad.

The rest of what Stan said, as nearly as I can remember, was that he had looked into the barn and saw that Midnight’s stall was empty. He saw a bunch of kids in the arena (all the campers) and a few horses tied up in the aisle, but that was all, and so he left. One of those horses was probably Midnight.

I asked him when he had been there, and he said, “Fifteen or twenty minutes ago.”

I believe I said I was sorry, and probably said I wished he had given me a call, because I was right there. It’s hard to remember, since everything had gotten pretty red and hazy. Stan started to check his schedule, but the traffic light changed, he said. I told him not to try to reschedule while he was driving, but to give me a call when he had a chance and let me know. I was furious, and I do believe I hung up pretty abruptly.

Anyway. Neither Sally nor Elsa remembered seeing anyone looking for Midnight. They both said something about a green truck quite a while before. Whether or not Stan’s truck is green, I have no idea. It might have been Stan, but if so, he was early, and didn’t park where he normally does. Actually, I now wonder if he even got out of his truck. That didn't occur to me earlier. It was raining, after all.

So I call Midnight's owner, pissed as hell, and tell him I'm DONE with Stan, that I'm really mad, that I'm never gonna speak to Stan again, etc., etc….. Midnight's owner, laughing, says, “Get over it. Talk to him, and let me know what he says.” Shit, says I. When pigs fly. And off I drove to the rescue ranch, my next appointment.

Anyway. Later this afternoon, when I left the ranch (where there's no cell phone service most of the time), there’s a message from Stan rescheduling to next Wednesday. After giving the date and the time, he says, “You can’t expect me to mess up my schedule for one horse. No one has to be there, as long as the horse is in his stall.” He still sounds mad, but with maybe a twinge of defensiveness.

He’s correct. I absolutely agree about his schedule, and I can see his point. After fretting about this incident all the way home from the ranch, I think I understand a little better what happened.

There seems to be a difference in the assumptions here, one that tracks pretty well with male and female ways of thinking. Logical, rational fact agrees with Stan: appointment at 10, no horse in stall, end of story. A more relational point of view has a different take: appointment at 10, no horse in stall. That’s odd. Let’s give the client a quick call and see if there’s some mix-up. Thirty seconds later, client appears. Appointment holds, horse is shod, regularly scheduled programming continues.

Do I sound pissed? Actually, I think I’m more disappointed than anything else. I enjoy hanging out with Stan. He's a gentle soul with a sometimes curmudgeonly persona (he would agree with that assessment, by the way). Kinda like Midnight himself: stubborn, opinionated, doesn’t tolerate fools. Lots of knowledge and experience and more than a thing or two that I can learn from him.

From Stan’s perspective, though, it might go more like this: It’s raining. Traffic is rotten, I hate shoeing horses in the rain, got a lot on my mind. Been out twice to this barn recently, and the experiences with the horses weren't great. Well, just dandy, look there: Midnight isn’t in his stall. That crazy woman probably forgot to keep him in. Forget this, I’m outta here.

And I can’t really say I blame him all that much. I would have done things differently, but OK.

Rats. So I’m not really mad any more. Not happy, but not mad. I’ll call Stan back tomorrow, on his voice mail, and apologize for Midnight not being in his stall. We’ll see how it goes from there. Definitely some hurt feelings on my part, though.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Mare Energy

Recently I’ve been participating in a series of workshops facilitated by Epona-certified trainer Kelly R. out at the stable where she boards her three horses. The location is serene and peaceful, and the experiences I’ve had there with her horses have been so intriguing!

It’s difficult to put into words what happens between human and horse during one of these special encounters. To an untrained onlooker, nothing happens most of the time—it’s just a horse and a person standing around, or at most, walking around together in a pasture, arena, or round pen. But to the equine and human participants, it can be dramatic.

Here's an example:

In one exercise, our goal was just to experience an energetic connection with one of two horses grazing in a small pasture. We were to initiate the encounter by focusing our attention on the horse we chose to interact with, using a special breathing technique. Then we were to enter the pasture and move toward the horse. I chose Hope, the paint mare, because she and I hadn’t interacted much before that evening.

Hope noticed me as soon as I entered the pasture—I could feel her attention shift, and she lifted her head. I acknowledged her by pausing, exhaling, and lowering my head. When she relaxed, I moved forward again. This happened twice more as I encountered the boundaries of other energetic layers, which she signaled by momentarily shifting her focus back to me. Each time I was careful to acknowledge immediately and fully.

As I got closer—perhaps ten feet from her—I could actually feel her energy in my own body, much as I would with a person on whom I was doing energy work. Hope let me into her space with an acknowledgement of her own: once again she raised her head to look at me, gave a deep sigh through her nose, and returned to nibbling.

I moved close and touched her side, which she seemed to welcome. I could feel the bigness of her energy, so different than the human energy field. The energetic connection between us felt strong and clear.

Then the strange part started. Without thinking about it, I took a small step forward. At that same instant, Hope moved her leg forward. Odd, I thought; a coincidence. Then it happened again: at the same time I moved, she moved.

Was Hope copying my movements? I wondered. Could I make this happen? Nope. She didn’t move that time. But then when I stepped again without thinking about it, Hope stepped, too—and it wasn’t clear who initiated it. It was like we were dancing. Very strange, but very clear, and I had to smile. We “played” with this for a few moments.

Then I told her I was going to walk around in front of her, from her left side to her right side. The instant I started to move, she very pointedly and firmly moved her foot in front of me—it was her left front leg, and she actually moved it slightly toward me and out front, without actually shifting her body much at all. I swear she was saying, “No. Not yet, you don’t.” So I stopped, waited, and then moved again. Instantly, she moved her other foot out in front, in the same way.

By now I was really chuckling. She was managing my movements, without even raising her head from the grass she was so obviously enjoying. It was pretty funny, but her meaning was clear.

I mentally acknowledged to her that I had heard her message. Then, with no disagreement from Hope, I walked around to her other side. I stood for a moment, then crouched down in the grass and pulled a few blades. She turned her head to look at me, and then nodded her head vigorously as if to say, “Yes! You got the message!” She took a step in my direction, looked directly at me, and resumed grazing.

It was pretty amazing. After a while, I got up, thanked her, and walked back out of the pasture. Someone watching would not have seen anything but a woman hanging out with a grazing horse. Hope and I had a different experience entirely.

My sense of this encounter was that Hope was letting me know what horse energy—specifically mare energy—looked and felt like. Mares lead the herd, and I got to experience the how and why of it: Hope’s quiet but assertive energy, I sensed strongly, could be escalated quickly and expertly to the precise degree she needed to get her point across. And I got the message.

[Photo of Hope: AimingHigh Photography by Aimee Bilyeu (]

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Back to Grazing

The last few days I’ve been mulling over a journal entry from some years back:

She who dances in the moonlight becomes the lady cloaked in sorrow. Dance the grief…. Oh God, let my heart be pierced, let my heart be opened so that joy may flow once more.
The entry is the record of an active imagination session, a waking dream, that occurred in the aftermath of an emotionally devastating relationship. The grief still haunts me, and there are days when I become pretty much nonfunctional because of it. Lately I can feel myself sliding back into that depression, just when I most need to be alert, alive, and aware of the excitement that a new direction in my life offers me.

Worse yet, this entry seems to represent a kind of pattern in my life. Not just the relationship itself, or its outcome, but the story. I am a closet drama queen. Well, in truth, my friends would probably dispute the “closet” part. I prefer the terms “high-strung,” or “sensitive,” but call it what you will: I seem to thrive on intense emotion, and what better way to keep it alive than by spinning it into the myth of my life?

So, I realize now, I tell myself these stories over and over again, like re-reading Jane Eyre or some other beloved, romantic book. The brave but beleaguered heroine faces poverty and despair, but ultimately triumphs over it all…. So satisfying to read. So uplifting, in fiction.

However, it’s not so uplifting when it’s your own life’s fictions that you’re re-telling. I’m finally starting to get bored with the plot, and it’s holding me back. But I’m having a terrible time changing my habits. It’s not so easy to let these kinds of stories go—not nearly as easy as putting down a book. I think I’m addicted to the melodrama.

I’ve recently been using Linda Kohanov’s The Way of the Horse, which accompanies a set of cards bearing gorgeous images of horses created by artist Kim McElroy. Like “angel cards” or the tarot, these “wisdom cards” allow one can do readings or get advice from the Guides by pulling a card or cards at random. Whether or not the cards one pulls are meaningful depends entirely on one’s point of view. As you might imagine, I use these types of tools pretty much every day.

This morning’s card was #19 in the Horse Wisdom set, “Back to Grazing,” which speaks of emotional agility and letting the story go. Horses live in the eternal present. They remember, of course; but they spend no time or energy re-living the past or worrying about a possible future. When they are frightened or angry, they react. When the moment is past, they let the emotion wash through them, and they return quietly to grazing.

If I could let my story go, I could simply experience the emotion that is actually present in the moment and not re-live the past and its destructive patterns. The story, alas, can just keep playing over and over in my mind, robbing me of peace and energy.

In point of fact, I am not cloaked in sorrow right this moment. Yes, there are times when that is true, and I can deal with those times. But for the most part, I am, in the moment, feeling quite fine, and am often joyful. So, as the Horse Ancestors might advise,

Let the story go, Kay. Let the grief wash through you, and get back to grazing. The world is a salad!

[Cross-posted on It's an Alchemical Life]

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Well, I always said I'd probably fall off that horse and crack my fool head. I WAS kidding, but no, I've actually gone and done it.

Monday around noon I went by the barn to feed the horses. Got Galahad out of the pasture to put him back into his stall where it's cooler, and decided to ride down to the creek to get him a drink before putting him away for the day. We were only going to be gone for a few minutes, so I didn't put on the saddle or my helmet.

We made it down to the creek just fine. Galahad wanted to eat clover and I was paying attention to him wanting to eat clover and neither one of us saw the woman coming across the creek until she jumped from the last rock and made a big splash. Galahad, convinced she was coming to eat him, spun around on one hind foot. I had no time to react and so I did NOT accompany him on his spin, but fell off the other side. I landed shoulder-first but my momentum spun my head around and it collided with a small rock.

Galahad was very concerned when I didn't get up and yell at him--he kept coming over and nuzzling me to get up. When I managed that, I led him over to a bench and told him he HAD to let me get on, that it was very important for me to get back to the barn. Usually he fusses; that day he stood like a statue while I clambered on.

We made it back, I put him in his stall and iced my head, then decided to drive home. On the way there I realized I was only seeing part of what was in front of me, so I decided to head for the emergency room. I really got scared when I stopped at a traffic light to turn left and an oncoming car VANISHED. I mean, one second it was there and the next second it was NOT THERE. So I waited for the green arrow, said a prayer, and made it to the ER.

All seemed well. They did a CT scan and an MRI and were figuring on sending me home, because I seemed fine other than a little headache, mostly from my neck muscles. Then about 9:30 at night the ER doc comes smiling into the room and says cheerfully, "Wow--I'm shocked! You have a skull fracture!"

Um, OK....

So anyway, they kept me in the ICU overnight for observation, hooked up to every beeping machine known to medical science, and came in every hour on the hour to shine a light into my eyes and poke and prod me for a while. After another CT scan and many more hours of waiting, the neurologist came in to see me and sent me home with orders not to ride for two months.

Good news is that I'm apparently OK--visual field disturbances are gone, most of the headache is gone, and all seems to be functioning normally. I'm mostly just worried that if I sneeze, my head will explode.

I'm enormously grateful that I'm not still lying in that ICU bed, unconscious and brain-damaged, as I very well might have been. A new "helmet law" has been passed around here, and the word from all my wonderful friends is that it WILL be enforced. I love you guys! Your friendship and support means the world to me.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

An appointment with Raja?

What an interesting morning!

Last week a dance friend of mine, an older gentleman who is a bit frail but who is very interested in horses, came by the barn for a quick visit. We agreed that he would come again today to spend the morning grooming the horses and getting more comfortable around them. “James” hasn’t been around horses since he was a boy, and not much even then.

James was half an hour or so later than we had talked about. Before he showed up, I headed down to go get Galahad. On the way there, I passed the geldings pasture. I could scarcely believe my eyes: Raja, my skinny old friend, was standing by the gate all by himself. He was staring out at me and (I’m not making this up!) looking worried, like I was late for an appointment and he was beginning to think I wasn’t going to show up.

So I put Galahad’s halter on him and got him out—what else could I do? And of course, though I hadn’t thought about it, Raja was the perfect horse for my friend to work with. He’s the gentlest soul, a perfect gentleman, and needs a good feeding: just like James himself.

Here's my question for you: What do you suppose the odds are that this morning, of all the mornings I've been out there, Raja would be standing there waiting expectantly? He is normally halfway out in the pasture, either by himself or with Midnight and a few other friends. I have never, in more than a year, seen him stand by the gate. And no, his owner hadn't been there and just turned him out, or anything logical like that. Coincidence? Or what?

Horses are far more intelligent, more sentient, than we usually give them credit for. Raja and I have lately shared several very odd experiences that confirm, for me, what Linda Kohanov talks about in The Tao of Equus and her other books. Horses have ways of sensing and communicating that have nothing to do with language, and that are not limited by distance. I actually have no trouble believing (despite my years of scientific training) that Raja positioned himself there because he knew he was the best horse for the job. That, and the thought of fresh, spring grass and clover....

When James finally arrived, I gave him the task of grooming Raja, who stood quietly and contentedly and never threatened to step on James’s toes. I handled my pushy old black horse Midnight. Then the four of us walked out to the lane to graze. It was very peaceful, and James and Raja both really seemed to enjoy it.

It was quite a lovely morning—cloudy and cool, without the rain that had been forecast. The grass, despite the heat, is still lush and the clover is in full bloom--very nourishing for body and soul. After a while, we brought the horses back and put them both out in the pasture. They wandered contentedly off.

James and I then went down to get Galahad, who had been cooped up for the best part of four days. I wanted to ride him back down to the arena barn, past the place where there was a tractor loading shavings into a big trailer. It’s always good to get him used to noises and spooky things.

Galahad let me get on him with no trouble, though I could sure tell he was full of energy after being in his stall for that long. He was just fine on the ride down, past the noise and commotion. But when we got to the indoor arena, he decided to act up.

For a minute, I really thought James would get to witness me being bucked off! It’s a pretty unnerving thing to feel the front end of your horse come up, then to have the head and neck disappear between the front legs as the back end leaves the ground! I really don’t enjoy that any more now than I did the first time he did it, and especially not bareback.

Fortunately, I didn't come off, and I did manage to get him to do some work for me: turning on the front and hindquarters, sidepassing (not too well, but at least both ends were moving at the same time), backing up, moving forward without tossing his head. I didn’t push my luck too far, and pretty quickly I had him back out of the arena. Then I did feed him, and we put him out in the pasture with his buddies, where he bucked and caroused for our amusement and his own.

A lovely morning it was. James is good company, and I do hope he’ll come back again to hang around. I got home just before a storm hit—we had torrential rain for quite a while, lots of thunder, but mainly wind—it harvested a whole bunch of ripe apricots from the top of the tree in the front yard. A good day!

[I really must get more photos of old Raja!]

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A very bad day

"Stan," our farrier, is a gentle soul who's been shoing horses for 40 years. He came yesterday to reset Midnight's shoes and look at Galahad’s feet. Galahad's hooves were quite worn across the front—short, with the hoof part even shorter than the sole, and he’s been getting uncomfortable. He’s either pawing a lot or just plain walking on his toes because his feet are tender. Either way, given that we want to ride him on these rough, rocky trails and that his other two riders weigh a whole lot more than I do, he needed shoes on the front feet.

Everything went just fine at first. Galahad was calm, with no sign of anything wrong, while Stan picked up and cleaned his feet, trimmed the hooves, and fitted the shoes. But as soon as he started to nail, all hell broke loose, and Galahad turned into this rearing, plunging, terrified beast. Poor horse! He tried to pull away from the halter and managed to skin up his face, and somehow got the rope across the quick-release knot in such a way that it took me an additional five or ten seconds to get it loose.

It was horrible. For the next two hours he hopped and skipped sideways, he tried to refuse to pick up his feet, he turned and pranced and pulled…. Eventually, Stan had to put the horse equivalent of a choke-chain on him—a chain running under his chin attached to the lead line, so that when the horse pulled or reared, he’d get a sharp yank in a sensitive spot and (hopefully) be less inclined to do it again.

The pain did have some effect on the intensity of the rearing, but the look in Galahad’s eye was like a knife to my heart. I had promised that horse that he’d never have to experience pain and fear from a human again, and that I’d protect him. Of course, I should have known that wouldn’t always be possible.

In this case, he had a shoe with only four nails in it and was endangering the farrier. At that point, Stan had to get some kind of control of him. But seeing the horse I know retreat behind fear-glazed eyes was dreadful. And I know this horse: The fact that Stan got the final nails in was more a matter of luck and speed than of willing cooperation from the horse. Galahad would die before he would stop fighting. He has that much heart.

I also felt like I’d failed him because I wasn’t able to calm him down and to reassure him like I’ve done on so many of our “scary things” walks. But in retrospect, I need to remember that Galahad is a rescued horse. We will never know what he endured as a colt. Obviously, one thing he suffered through was one or more very bad experiences with shoeing. Stan figures he jerked as someone was shoeing him and a nail went into a sensitive spot. He was probably then beaten when he protested. It’s amazing that he’s as good as he is!

Abused horses always have “triggers” that set them off, and just as in this case, you never know what the trigger is until you pull it accidentally. One horse I know from the rescue ranch is terrified of the reins going over her head; another of having the top of his head touched at all. Still another is afraid to stand still with a rider on her back. If she’s moving, she’s OK; it’s the standing still that terrifies her. One can only imagine what experiences caused these fears.

These types of responses are very difficult to overcome. They’re like the equine equivalent of PTSD, I suppose. So there really was no predicting Galahad’s reaction, and once it escalated, there was nothing anyone could have done. Had I not been so shocked, and so convinced (by his previous reactions to other stimuli) that I could get him calm again, I would have called off the shoeing until we had worked with him more. But by the time I realized the depth of his terror, and gotten past my own instinctive acquiescence to the “authority” of the farrier, we were too far into it.

I wish I had understood the situation more quickly. If wishes were horses….

Galahad had calmed down completely by last night, it seemed, and was as affectionate as ever. I didn't recover as quickly. Humans dwell on things; horses don't. I had nightmares all night; he probably pawed down some more shavings with his new, shiny shoes, and slept like a baby horse. I'm going to start working more with his feet, so that maybe Stan's next visit, in seven weeks, will go better.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

My little black horse

Midnight made me cry today.

We had planned a trail ride--Midnight and I, Galahad and a friend of ours--in spite of the heat. I don't take the heat very well these days, and I must admit I was in a pretty bad mood when we saddled up.

As horses will do, Midnight reflected my mood for me. We had several tussles before I finally got the saddle on him. He wouldn't stand; he bit the trailer and scraped the paint with his teeth; he tried to nip me; he tried to pull the saddle blanket off when I turned my back to pick up the saddle. It took twice as long as usual--he was being really obnoxious.

Once we headed out on the trail, though, he was his usual willing self. He didn't even try very hard to eat clover, but responded nicely to leg cues to stay on the trail. Only once, when I asked him to walk through the grass to let me get a closer look at a flower, did he grab a bite of clover.

When we got back, my friend and I hosed both horses off to cool them down. As I led Midnight back to his stall, I knew that what he really wanted to do was roll in the sand in the indoor arena. He'd been such a good guy on the trail that I decided to let him have that treat, in spite of the fact that I'd just cleaned him up.

And roll he did, after spending a while finding the perfect spot. Over and over, feet in the air, rubbing his face in the sand. There wasn't anyone else around, so I left him in there enjoying himself while I took a load of tack out to the trailer.

I wasn't gone but five minutes. When I got back, I saw him standing at the far end of the arena looking out the door toward the trailer. As I walked toward the arena gate, he saw me--and whinnied loudly as he galloped across the arena to me. Not cantered, galloped. He skidded to a stop right in front of me, dropped his head, and looked me right in the eye. A gentle, reproachful look it was, and it went right to my heart.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. That little horse evidently thought I had gone off without him, and was upset about it! I realized in that moment that my little black horse actually does love me--he doesn't just tolerate me. My heart melted, and yes, I cried a little.

We played a brief game of "chase me" in the arena. I've never played a horse game with him like that, and we both enjoyed it even though it was too hot to keep it up. Then he followed me to the gate and stood for me to put his halter back on.

Seems kind of silly, putting it down in words, but there was a different kind of communication between us today. It felt absolutely wonderful. I'm still on Cloud Nine....

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Happy fourth birthday, Galahad!

One year ago, starved almost to death, Galahad arrived at the rescue ranch. We don't know his actual birthday, but it's most likely some time in May, so we're going to celebrate his birthday and his rescue on the same day.

What a difference in just a year! I cannot imagine anyone throwing away any animal, let alone one as beautiful, intelligent, and loving as this horse.

I hope his story inspires others to adopt. These animals deserve a second chance. Galahad has brought so many blessings to my life, and I am very grateful.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Synchronicity, again

I’ve been reading Linda Kohanov’s second book, Riding Between the Worlds, this morning. In order to be able to relax and focus on the reading in spite of an appointment at 11:30, I set a timer to let me know when I needed to quit and go get ready to leave.

In the chapter on “The Music of Connection,” Kohanov talks about how difficult, but how necessary, it is to let go of past patterns of behavior: old ways of being-in-the-world that kill off parts of the soul, or at least don’t allow those parts to grow and thrive. She notes how this kind of pattern leads to depression and sometimes even to suicidal thoughts as the person fails to recognize that it’s the “False Self” who has to die.

This resonates with my own experience. She goes on to describe how horses have helped her clients see how this operates. It made me realize the absolute importance of knowing myself as I move forward with this work.

Then, as I read her example of the woman who was completely unaware of her own fear, though the horse felt it and was badly spooked until the woman returned to her physical body (pp. 130-132), I burst into tears:

"Do you think [the horse] was acting out my hidden fear?” Jane asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe she was spooking for her own reasons, most likely a bit of both. Either way, you gained her respect, not by denying your fear and talking a good game, but simply by being present. And you showed everyone outside the arena what being present really means. It looks like nothing to the untrained eye, but it means everything to a horse.”

At that moment, just as I absorbed the import of that sentence for my own life and work, my timer went off, leaving me laughing and crying at the same time, marveling at the “synchronicity.” Such a blessing! So my “homework,” it seems, is to just be present with my horses, with no other agenda. Just be present. Which is, of course, much harder than it sounds.

[Cross-posted on It's an Alchemical Life, my other blog.]

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Grazing games

An interesting working session with Galahad this morning. Ground work first—we worked on the squeeze game, and on turns and sidestepping. He performed quite well and willingly. A couple of times he got confused, but once he figured out what I wanted (the problems were caused by my mis-cues, not his resistance), he did just what I asked. After that I took him out briefly to graze.

He still challenges my authority, even on a day when he seems happy to do what he’s asked. Today, the challenge was subtle, and came while he was eating grass: the same old “the best piece of clover is right under your foot” game. He was pretty persistent about it, to the point where I had to wiggle my foot against his teeth to get him to back off. No way was I going to give up my space!

Poor Galahad. He tries so hard to be Top Horse. But that’s his job: the herd has to test the leader, because they can’t “afford” a leader who isn’t the strongest horse among them.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Last night at my lesson I was to ride Champ, whom I’ve ridden a couple of times before and liked. He’s a little bigger than Galahad, with a long, rangy canter that took some getting used to.

Like most of the lesson horses, Champ is a bit crabby at times. I don’t blame them—that’s not my idea of an ideal life for a horse. But in general, he’s fine. His worst habit is making a funny face by sticking his tongue out the side of his mouth and wagging it when he’s annoyed.

Last night when I groomed him I noticed that he flinched a little when I got close to his “elbows,” and he tried to kick with his hind foot when I brushed his flanks. I was paying attention, and I thought he was objecting to the stiff brush that was in his tack bag, so I promised him I wouldn’t brush those sensitive parts.

I got the saddle on him, and he did get more agitated when I went to tighten the cinch. They all do that, even Midnight and Galahad. Then I ducked under his neck (he was cross-tied, which is the rule when students saddle the horses) to snug up the other side, and as I passed his head, he grabbed my shoulder and bit. Hard. Very hard. I yelled, then stood there and looked at him, wondering what the heck he did that for?

The instructors, who had seen it happen, came running. My favorite “Dances With Hooves” t-shirt was full of drool and blood. It did hurt like the very dickens, but mainly I wanted to find out what was wrong with the horse that would make him behave that way.

After some searching, they discovered a big and obviously painful scab on his belly, right where the cinch crosses it. It’s not a place that you can see without getting under the horse, and I had failed to even run my hand under there. I’m not excusing biting behavior, but poor Champ had no other way to communicate his pain under the circumstances.

So what did I learn? First, never to assume anything, lesson horse or no. I should have checked more closely when he acted up, since I did have some previous experience with this particular horse. I needed to pay more attention to the signals he was giving me, especially because these horses, who are deliberately tied from both sides of their heads so that they’re easier to saddle, have limited ways of telling us they’re not feeling well.

I’m just glad it was me and not some little child who had the experience. A bite this severe on a tiny body could have had lasting effects. As for me, thanks to “Chomp,” I won’t be wearing any off-the-shoulder dresses for a couple of months, but I’m not badly injured.

(The photo, BTW, is Midnight.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Raja is doing better!

Raja, who was so thin and weak we'd all pretty much given up on him, is doing better. He's eating Nutrena Senior feed, albeit slowly, and has filled out just a little bit.

His ribs still stand out, and his hip bones and spine are still sharp, but there's a little muscle coming back. His energy is bright and much stronger. I am cautiously optimistic. We still have a long way to go.

Raja is the sweetest little horse. He's tiny--probably just barely 14 hands--but has that Arabian spirit and heart. And those big, deep eyes.... A beautiful little guy.

Over the past several months he's spent his days in the pasture alone, head down, refusing attention from other horses with a gentle but unmistakable swing of his backside when anyone got close. Today, though, I was delighted to see him hanging out with Midnight's two best friends, Romeo and Ty, when I went to turn Midnight loose after our trail ride.

All three horses came over to me right away, and Romeo and Raja vied for my attention. After a few minutes of petting and patting and nuzzling, I decided to take Raja out to graze for a little bit. I called him and he followed me to the gate, with the most heartwarming expression in his eyes. "Really? You picked me?" he seemed to say. I swear, I'm not making this up, folks. He seemed genuinely surprised.

I took him over to the little grassy patch by the lesson barn and let him eat for half an hour or so, until I had to leave for an appointment, then took him back. Galahad will just have to wait until tomorrow. Don't anybody tell on me, OK?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I realized something today while trying to get a point across: After learning to work with a thousand-pound, stubborn and opinionated horse, facing down a bossy man in a meeting is not nearly as difficult as it used to be.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Today was simply blissful. Galahad--or was this the "good twin"?--came right over to me when I went to the fence, and followed me as best he could to the gate. A couple of higher-status horses came along, so Galahad had to hang back a little until I got there to shoo them away.

He was obviously glad to see me, which warmed my heart. I fed him some lunch, ate my own, then put Midnight's English saddle on him. While Galahad's "happy trot" is lovely and smooth, his "not happy" trot will shake your teeth loose. Lately, he's been "not happy" every time I've ridden him in the arena. Posting is much easier!

Today, though, he was good as gold, after a couple of minutes of fussing at the mounting block. After that, he relaxed and trotted willingly around the arena. Posting is a breeze when he's relaxed. It just felt so good, so quiet, so natural and free. I think he actually enjoyed it, too.

After twenty minutes or so of arena work, including lots of reining and leg cue practice, I unsaddled him and brushed him. Just touching that beautiful animal is a blessing. Grooming him while he shifts his weight so I can reach the good spots, or watching him doze while I'm working on his back and shoulders, fills me with a quiet joy.

Because he'd been so good, I led him out to do some grazing. Some training involved there, too, though he doesn't realize it: I make sure I never let him push me out of the way. Horses play that game: they'll graze closer and closer, and finally (usually), their owner will step out of their way. That means the horse wins. Too bad for my boy, because I know that game and don't budge. So he goes the other way. He doesn't take it personally.

Does it sometimes sound like I'm boasting about how much control I have? It sounds that way to me. Like many women, I'm a little bit uncomfortable with asserting my authority. But Galahad and the others have taught me that assertiveness is more about just standing one's ground than about pushing into someone else's space, physical or psychological. It's about setting boundaries and maintaining them, about asking for and expecting one's requests to be honored and respected. Horses are great at teaching life skills.

Galahad, never one to pass up an opportunity for play, investigated the downed honeysuckle branches along the lane. I thought he was going to eat one of them, but instead, he picked it up and shook it all around, over and over, obviously having a great time.

I can't wait for tomorrow, when I can spend more time with him. I am definitely in love.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A day for hanging out with the horses

This weekend we've got six horses to look after: our two, two for a friend who's recovering from minor surgery, and two for folks who are either out of town or can't make it to the barn for a couple of days.

All these horses get their basic needs met without our intervention, mind you. They get grain twice a day and hay once a day. During the week they're turned out into the dry lot pasture and their stalls get mucked out. But on weekends they're stuck in their stalls all day, and it's not much fun for them, so most of us try hard to get out to the barn and get them out on Saturdays and Sundays.

I scarcely made it out of the arena barn. Spent a lot of time with "Raja", an elderly Egyptian Arabian who holds a special place in my heart because he taught me how soft horse muzzles are, and how gentle horse kisses can be. Raja's teeth are very, very worn, and he's been having a hard time eating the hard grain that the horses are fed at the barn. Over the winter he lost a tremendous amount of weight, and this spring he's alarmingly thin.

I think Raja is also a little depressed, because even when his owner switched his feed to the softer senior-type grain, he often simply refused to eat. He's had his teeth floated and the vet has looked him over without finding any illness or metabolic issues. He stands out in the pasture alone, head down, and refuses grooming or attention by the other horses. It worries me.

So when his owner said she was going to be out of pocket for a couple of weeks, I jumped at the chance to spend some time with him and see if I could get some weight back on him. We discovered that there is a different brand of senior feed (Nutrena, the one we feed Midnight) that Raja will eat if it's moistened. Sometimes he'll eat it on his own, but more often, he requires a little encouragement. Yesterday, by hand-feeding him, I got about 4 quarts of it down him. That' probably more than he's eaten in one day for months. We were very pleased.

Raja also will eat grass--in fact, he eats it greedily, so we spend at least a few minutes a day out on the lane. Can't let him have too much at a time. Horses have such weird digestive systems! This time of the spring, when everything is lush and growing and they're SO hungry for greens, they can easily make themselves sick in a matter of hours.

After a couple of hours with him, I put Raja back in his stall to nap and went down to get Galahad. I was going to ride him back to the arena barn like I always do, but as I led him out, the sky darkened and it started to thunder. Fortunately, I decided to lead him instead.

We had no sooner gotten to the arena barn than the tornado alert sirens went off and it started to hail. The arena barn has a high, huge tin roof, and Galahad was sure that someone was throwing rocks at him and he was going to be killed in the next instant. Being a horse, his instinct was to jerk away from me and bolt. I managed to keep hold of the rope and move with him for a minute or so, but eventually it was let go or be dragged. I thought he would run back toward his stall, but for some reason he wanted to go into the arena, and one of the lesson instructors standing at the gate caught the rope.

I wonder if he wanted to be with the other horses in the arena--there was a lesson going on. The lesson horses, having lived through thunder, lightning, and the crash and din of hail and driving rain on that tin barn roof for years, just stood calmly while their young riders dismounted. I let Galahad watch them, and eventually he did calm down and stand almost as quietly.

This went on for a good 45 minutes. The hail didn't last long, but the rain was torrential. After ten or fifteen minutes, the instructors continued the lesson, and about the time it finished, the rain quit and the sun came out. An exciting afternoon, but not one I'd really care to repeat.

The rest of the afternoon was much quieter. I hand-fed Raja, got food ready for the other five, cleaned and bandaged gouged fetlocks on two of them, and put all the tack and equipment away.

Riding wasn't even on the radar, but it was a wonderful day. Just hanging around horses is so satisfying. I'm counting my blessings.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Yesterday evening a friend of mine took Sahara, a huge and beautiful warmblood, out to graze along the lane, and I rode Galahad, bareback and with the rope halter, out with them.

Gahahad got spooked by someone’s loose brindle pit bull in the parking lot at the farm. I made sure he was under control, standing and at least somewhat relaxed, then hopped off to let him graze. A lovely, peaceful evening.

As it started to get late, I asked him to sidle up to the bench so that I could get back on. It wasn’t easy—he’s still not happy about it, and he was still keeping one eye out for that dog. (A horse owner should know better than to let his dog run loose, wouldn’t you think? But apparently not.)

But once I was on his back, Sir Galahad decided that he wasn’t done grazing, thank you very much, and started to toss his head and dance when I suggested it was time to head back for the barn. Thank goodness his bad-boy behavior didn’t escalate into bucking, or I’d have come right off, I suspect. But he didn’t. And dancing, I can handle.

I would gladly have let him graze more if he had settled down nicely, but he refused. Every time I tried to head him back up onto the lane and turn him, he’d throw his head and try to pull back to the grass. I’ve developed some pretty good biceps over the last six months, and we’ve trained him with the “one-rein stop” method, so once I get his head cranked around to my boot, he will, eventually, stop and stand.

He’s pretty funny when he’s in that nose-to-boot stance, because it’s so obvious that he’s not happy about it. His eyes are wild, his lips moving, no doubt muttering every curse-word known to horses. He pulls against the halter for a while, then finally quits and holds his head there, cussing me, as I release the pressure.

We went through this several times before I realized that he wasn’t going to behave well enough to be rewarded with any more grass, and that we were going to have to head back to the barn. That was a battle all the way. Three or four slow steps forward, and then he’d throw another fit. I’d get him stopped facing the barn, finally, and we’d stand. Then three or four more steps, and another fit.

There was also that darned dog. Its owner had packed it into his truck and left, pulling the horse trailer, some time back, but Galahad wasn’t sure at all. In between tantrums he kept a close eye out for the “wolf.” So here I was, bareback (and naturally, without my helmet—we were just going to graze!) and barely in control of this spinning dervish of a 4-year old who was also jumping at every shadow and just waiting for something to leap out of the bushes at him.

After what seemed like an age, we made it back to the barn, where I could get off. Galahad finally settled down and was sweet as he could be. That darned horse.