The cold wind blew through the open door of the barn; dust and bits of hay swirled just above the ground creating a miniature whirlwind which whisked around the holding pen located
outside the main show arena. I watched the tiny whirlwind as it twisted about as if in celebration of finding so much loose dust and hay in an otherwise frozen world. The ground outside had been frozen for months. Snow and ice clung to every surface. The January sun was blindingly bright as it reflected against the white landscape just outside the door. It looked warm but it was not; at least not here where winter hung over
us like a shroud and the brilliant sun taunted us with distant promises of warm summer days.
The tiny whirlwind finally found the “sweet spot” it was looking for; that space between the door leading outside and the door leading into the arena. As it moved into this space it was
joined by a sudden gust of wind and for a brief moment the whirlwind blew upward lifting dust, hay and dried leaves in a sudden blast straight up before dropping them down all around. Splatters lifted his head slightly, flaring his nostrils as the whirlwind dropped its collection of debris around his front hooves. “Easy.” I said softly as I reached forward to stroke the gelding’s chestnut-spotted neck. I gently took up the reins and asked Splatters to step backward as I tried to position us out of the wind tunnel created by the open doors on either end of the large metal building which housed the arena and the holding
Showing in the winter time was new for both me and Splatters, the five-year-old gelding I was sitting astride. The show was held by one of the local riding stables as a schooling show. I liked the casual atmosphere with no fancy show clothes required which allowed me to wear my winter riding gear. I shivered as I sat astride Splatters waiting for our class to be called. The first call for the class before ours crackled over the ancient speaker hanging in the corner of the holding pen.
“That’s our cue,” I said aloud to Splatters, “let’s go warm-up a
bit.” I smiled internally as I thought about the irony of going outside to “warm up.” Of course in the horse world “warm up” is something we do for the benefit of preparing the horse’s body and mind for the task to come; if I’m lucky, I
thought to myself, I’ll get warmer too from the physical exertion of riding the horse.
Splatters and I carefully wove around and between the other horses and riders in the holding pen as we navigated out the big barn doors to a relatively smooth and flat but utterly frozen patch of ground. I walked Splatters on a long rein allowing him to stretch his head and neck downward and outward as he lengthened his walk to his usual, swinging and ground-covering gait. After a while, I gently squeezed Splatters into a slow trot.
The gelding moved forward willingly as we made a few circles in each direction before breaking back down to the walk. “It’s just too crappy,” I said to Splatters as I eyed the frozen ground, “that’s all we can do on this footing.”
Splatters and I continued at a walk on a loose rein as I waited for our class to be called. I had hoped for a better warm up but I didn’t dare go faster than the slow trot on the questionable footing. Splatters stretched his slender neck and softly worked the bit in his mouth. The loud speaker inside the barn crackled to life once again as the announcer made the first call for the
huntseat pleasure class. “That’s us,” I said aloud as I reached out and stroked Splatters on the neck. I waited until the final call which meant the horses were actually entering the arena so I could keep Splatters moving until the class started. When the call came, I steered Splatters back toward the open barn doors.
Together we rode through the holding pen toward the open gate of the show arena. As we neared the show arena Splatters suddenly took an off step, then another, and another. This horse is lame! I thought to myself. My 14-year-old heart dropped at the thought I had perhaps done something to injure Splatters. I should have been more careful! I reprimanded myself. I quickly turned Splatters away from the open arena gate. It was too crowded around the gate to dismount safely so we wove through the sea of horses and riders to the open area of the holding pen. After we broke free of the crowd the strangest thing happened, my formerly sound but suddenly lame horse was now formerly lame but suddenly sound!
I walked Splatters out a few more strides and he moved just as smoothly and soundly as ever. “That’s weird.” I whispered
under my breath. Perhaps he had stepped on a stone or something on the way to the arena gate and that had caused
the lame steps? “Well,” I said to Splatters, “it seems you are fine now; let’s go back before we miss our class.” The gelding snorted his response and together we turned back toward the arena. As we neared the gate Splatters again began to limp on his right front leg. Once again I turned him away from the gate, riding through the crowd to find an open space to dismount. Much to my surprise, Splatters once againg was suddenly sound as we moved away from the show ring.
“This is a game, isn’t it?” I asked the gelding. “Not funny.” I stated as we again turned toward the gate.
“Are you going to bring him in this time?” the man working the gate asked me.
“Yes.” I said.
“He looks a little off,” the man called after us as we trotted through the gate, “is he lame?”
“No, he’s not lame,” I called back over my shoulder, “he’s just pretending.”
About five strides into the arena Splatters finally gave up his act and was miraculously sound once again and remained sound for the rest of the show. Later that year at one of our summer shows he tried the same act and fooled me again (albeit
briefly). He knew I wouldn’t make him work if he was lame but as clever as he was, Splatters never seemed to figure out he had to keep up his act a bit longer if he truly wanted to get out
of showing. As it was, Splatters is the only horse I’ve ever known which was lame only when walking toward the show ring.
It’s been over 20 years since I worked with Splatters who was never really mine but was a horse I borrowed for 4H. However, I allowed my heart to believe he would someday, somehow be mine and I was crushed when it was time to say goodbye after four years together. I have worked with literally hundreds of horses since then and I’ve found Splatters’s lameness act to be quite unique among his equine colleagues.
I have been thinking about the phrase “horses don’t lie” quite a bit lately as I am reading a book by that title, written by Chris Irwin. The story of Splatters feigning lameness to (I assumed) get out of showing is the first thing which came to my mind when I selected this particular book to read. In his book, Irwin
tells stories of how he developed his own style of horsemanship as he learned to turn away from the harsh “training” methods he learned as a young man to something he calls “no resistance horsemanship.” Irwin, like so many other horse people (famous and not) discovered it was better to listen to the horse and work with it rather than simply try to dominate it. He also goes into a somewhat in-depth discussion on the horse’s role as prey vs. the human’s role of predator and how this relationship impacts our ability to truly gain a horse’s trust.
Irwin then draws many parallels between “seeing like a predator and thinking like prey” and how we should treat our world and each other.
The book touches on one of the greatest lessons we can learn from our horses: simple honesty in everything we are and everything we do. It is a lesson on the importance of being honest not only with each other, but also with ourselves.
Horses never lie. What does that phrase mean to you? For me it speaks to the honesty with which the horse presents itself to the world. They are truly centered and connected not only to themselves but to their herd (be it horse or human – have you tried to hide your nerves from a horse? Doesn’t work so well; they always know). In the wild, a horse’s survival depends
on its ability to present the same on the outside as it is on the inside – the other horses in the herd rely on this honesty due to their reliance on each other for mutual safety. A horse doesn’t hide its fear, pain, sorrow, anger, joy, exuberance or any other emotion. We call them reactionary – they simply react to their environment rather than using logic. But that’s a human response to horse behavior, isn’t it?
Why do we hide our feelings and emotions? Can you think of the reasons? Does it serve us to hold anger or sorrow on the inside while presenting a false happiness on the outside? Does it truly serve others?
Here in America our culture tells us to measure success in empty things like money, high-powered jobs, body type, physical appearance and power over others. We learn early to hide what is “wrong” with us because there is a very real fear being perceived as weak or of little value. Look at how we’ve
stigmatized people with depression or other mental illness.
What kind of assumptions do we make about a person in a wheel chair? A person who is deaf? A person with a physical deformity? A person in poverty? The man on the street holding a sign asking for help? A person with differing cultural norms and values?
What if we could be more like the horses? What if we could
show fear when we are afraid or show anger when we are angry? What if it was OK to be who you are and show all of yourself to the world? What if we could talk about our differences and seek to understand rather than judge the differences we see in each other? What if we stopped pretending to be something we’re not and decided to simply be who we are and embrace it? A friend of mine is fond of saying “What other people think of me is none of my business” and
it’s quite true. Can you imagine if your horse was afraid to go on a trail ride because it was worried what the other horses would think? Did he cross the log correctly? Does her
butt jiggle when she trots up the hill? What will the other horses think if I spook at the water crossing again? If I pin my ears at that mare because she is in my space (disrespecting my boundaries) will she not want to be my friend anymore? Sounds silly, yes? But we do this all the time.
I think of all the tragedy in the world which could possibly be avoided if we could just learn to present honestly on the outside what is truly on the inside. How many suicides could be prevented if depression wasn’t stigmatized as some sort of mental deficiency or weakness? How much better could we understand one another if we didn’t try to use our words to manipulate? What would happen if we asked questions with genuine curiosity rather than asking with the intent to make our own point or further our own truth? You know, asking something because you really want to know the answer not because you want your belief to be validated (i.e.: Tell me about your beliefs vs. Why don’t you believe in____?).
So, is it true? Do horses never lie? Did Splatters lie or was he trying to tell me something? Perhaps he was just a very clever horse who was playing on my sympathies in an effort to get out of work? Or maybe, as is true with so many people we meet, there was much more going on beneath the surface?
Perhaps he was sending me a message I am only now receiving; to avoid the relational confusion caused by the incongruence of presenting myself differently on the outside than the truth which is on the inside? To embrace who I am; even if it’s a little scary. To accept all the gifts God has given me, even the ones I don’t yet understand. To be honest with
myself in all things and to behave in a way that encourages the same honesty in others.
What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Cheryl L. Eriksen, MSW, Equine Enthusiast, EAGALA groupie and writer of interesting, educational and entertaining blog posts!