Monday, December 26, 2011

Being a Good Receiver

Every horse is a nonstop transmitter of data about his state of mind. Ears show us what has captured the horse's attention and the intensity of his feelings at the moment. Up and forward tell us he's focused on something ahead. Ears swiveling casually about suggest that the horse is checking out what's going on around him. Ears pinned back accompany physical exertion or aggression. Ears that are loose and floppy go with a relaxed, comfortable state of mind. Other signs of relaxation include blinking eyes, loose mouth, quiet tail, lowered head, and a leg cocked. Signs of tension are just the opposite: Wide eyes, tight mouth, swishing tail, high head, and all four feet on the ground, ready to take flight.

Good horsemen take all of this in and filter it with a sort of sixth sense born of equal parts empathy and experience. They are highly effective receivers of what the horse is transmitting at any given moment. How they use the information is another matter, of course, but the best of them strike a balance between support and challenge, between nurturing and demanding.

Next time you’re around a horse, try to figure out what he’s saying with his body. And see what you can tell him with yours. Awareness is the first step in the journey.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Christmas Story

I seldom pass on stories like this but today I'm making an exception. Keep the tissues handy. This story was sent to me by my old friend, Jonathan Abel. The author is unknown.

A brother and sister had made their usual hurried, obligatory pre-Christmas visit to the little farm where dwelt their elderly parents with their small herd of horses. The farm was where they had grown up and had been named Lone Pine Farm because of the huge pine, which topped the hill behind the farm. Through the years the tree had become a talisman to the old man and his wife, and a landmark in the countryside. The young siblings had fond memories of their childhood here, but the city hustle and bustle added more excitement to their lives, and called them away to a different life. The old folks no longer showed their horses, for the years had taken their toll, and getting out to the barn on those frosty mornings was getting harder, but it gave them a reason to get up in the mornings and a reason to live. They sold a few foals each year, and the horses were their reason for joy in the morning and contentment at day's end.

Angry, as they prepared to leave, the young couple confronted the old folks "Why do you not at least dispose of The Old One." She is no longer of use to you. It's been years since you've had foals from her. You should cut corners and save so you can have more for yourselves. How can this old worn out horse bring you anything but expense and work? Why do you keep her anyway?" The old man looked down at his worn boots, holes in the toes, scuffed at the barn floor and replied, " Yes, I could use a pair of new boots. His arm slid defensively about the Old One's neck as he drew her near with gentle caressing he rubbed her softly behind her ears. He replied softly, "We keep her because of love. Nothing else, just love."

Baffled and irritated, the young folks wished the old man and his wife a Merry Christmas and headed back toward the city as darkness stole through the valley. The old couple shook their heads in sorrow that it had not been a happy visit. A tear fell upon their cheeks. How is it that these young folks do not understand the peace of the love that filled their hearts? So it was, that because of the unhappy leave-taking, no one noticed the insulation smoldering on the frayed wires in the old barn. None saw the first spark fall. None but the "Old One". In a matter of minutes, the whole barn was ablaze and the hungry flames were licking at the loft full of hay. With a cry of horror and despair, the old man shouted to his wife to call for help as he raced to the barn to save their beloved horses. But the flames were roaring now, and the blazing heat drove him back. He sank sobbing to the ground, helpless before the fire's fury. His wife back from calling for help cradled him in her arms, clinging to each other, they wept at their loss.

By the time the fire department arrived, only smoking, glowing ruins were left, and the old man and his wife, exhausted from their grief, huddled together before the barn. They were speechless as they rose from the cold snow covered ground. They nodded thanks to the firemen as there was nothing anyone could do now. The old man turned to his wife, resting her white head upon his shoulders as his shaking old hands clumsily dried her tears with a frayed red bandana. Brokenly he whispered, "We have lost much, but God has spared our home on this eve of Christmas. Let us gather strength and climb the hill to the old pine where we have sought comfort in times of despair. We will look down upon our home and give thanks to God that it has been spared and pray for our beloved most precious gifts that have been taken from us. And so, he took her by the hand and slowly helped her up the snowy hill as he brushed aside his own tears with the back of his old and withered hand.

The journey up the hill was hard for their old bodies in the steep snow. As they stepped over the little knoll at the crest of the hill, they paused to rest, looking up to the top of the hill the old couple gasped and fell to their knees in amazement at the incredible beauty before them. Seemingly, every glorious, brilliant star in the heavens was caught up in the glittering, snow-frosted branches of their beloved pine, and it was aglow with heavenly candles. And poised on its top most bough, a crystal crescent moon glistened like spun glass. Never had a mere mortal created a Christmas tree such as this. They were breathless as the old man held his wife tighter in his arms. Suddenly, the old man gave a cry of wonder and incredible joy. Amazed and mystified, he took his wife by the hand and pulled her forward. There, beneath the tree, in resplendent glory, a mist hovering over and glowing in the darkness was their Christmas gift.

Shadows glistening in the night light. Bedded down about the "Old One" close to the trunk of the tree, was the entire herd, safe. At the first hint of smoke, she had pushed the door ajar with her muzzle and had led the horses through it. Slowly and with great dignity, never looking back, she had led them up the hill, stepping cautiously through the snow. The foals were frightened and dashed about. The skittish yearlings looked back at the crackling, hungry flames, and tucked their tails under them as they licked their lips and hopped like rabbits. The mares that were in foal with a new year’s crop of babies, pressed uneasily against the "Old One" as she moved calmly up the hill and to safety beneath the pine. And now she lay among them and gazed at the faces of the old man and his wife. Those she loved she had not disappointed. Her body was brittle with years, tired from the climb, but the golden eyes were filled with devotion as she offered her gift---Because of love. Only because of love.

Tears flowed as the old couple shouted their praise and joy... And again the peace of love filled their hearts.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Neighborhood Parade

I have to brag a little about our horses. Last night I rode Candy and Diana led Fidla in our neighborhood Christmas parade. It was the first time we’d done this. Come to think of it, it’s the first time we had done anything of substance with our horses at night. And what a night it was. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our neighborhood is a hodge podge of old and new homes, most on an acre or more of land, and, until a couple years ago, there were no activities that brought us all together. The Christmas parade changed that and now it's followed by a potluck dinner and live music. We love it! The parade gets more colorful each year. The route is about two miles. There are cars, trucks, boats, flatbed trailers, golf carts, kids on bicycles, and lots of people walking. Every vehicle and many of the walkers are covered in lights and decorations. Christmas carols blare, horns honk, bells jingle, people sing, and giant blowup characters sway back and forth. Get the picture?

So into the midst of all this, we take our horses. Everyone was happy to see them. They are popular fixtures in the neighborhood. Diana did great with Fidla, who was calm and unconcerned. Apparently it was just another night on the fjord for her. Not so much for Candy. She was fine at first but the half-hour delay in getting going – apparently a fuse problem – took its toll and she got fidgety. She wasn’t doing anything wrong, mind you, but I did need to manage the situation. It turned into a great opportunity to practice what I preach: Control the horse’s feet and you control her mind. There was an additional challenge in that this was all happening in a tight space with lots of distractions and lots of kids running around.

First, I consciously relaxed my entire body so I wasn’t fueling Candy's fidgeting with my own energy. That helped but she still wanted to move, so we moved. Forward a step, backward a step, sidepass left, sidepass right, flex laterally, flex vertically. I talked to her in a calm voice, sang a little, stroked her at every opportunity and repeatedly gave her a chance to stand quietly if she wanted to. Asking her to listen to me and think about her feet was just what she needed. The parade finally started moving and we fell in behind a tall cargo van full of kids. Candy had a real spring in her step, which was fantastic! Gradually her energy level dropped and by the end of this two-hour sensory feast, Candy was as unimpressed by the sights and sounds as Fidla was. I was very proud of both of them.

One little tip if you join a neighborhood Christmas parade: Don’t line up behind the diesel truck …

Monday, December 5, 2011

How horses think

If I were to make a list of the most fascinating people I've interviewed, Dr. Temple Grandin would be right at the top. I find her life story inspiring (and it made a great HBO movie), but even more interesting to me is her explanation of how horses think. We talked about this before a packed house at the Minnesota Horse Expo. Don’t miss this thought-provoking two-part interview.

Listen to part 1 Listen to part 2