Years ago I was watching a woman riding her horse over fences. Each time the horse landed after a fence, he threw his head up and bolted. The rider would then jerk the horse around in a small circle, pulling his head around until it nearly touched her boot at which point she would smack him with her riding crop and proceed to make several circuits of the arena at a brisk trot while see-sawing the reins so violently the horse’s head wagged back and forth.
After the horse had received this “training,” the woman once again rode him to the fence; he jumped it willingly but upon landing, threw his head up violently and bolted. The woman screamed at the horse and went back into her “training” mode. She yelled something to her companion who was watching from the ground, about the new, stronger bit not working. Then she proceeded to jerk mercilessly on the horse’s mouth while spurring him relentlessly.
It baffled me that this obviously kind horse continued to willingly approach and jump the fence while receiving this treatment from his rider. It further baffled me that the problem, which was clear to me after the second jump, seemed to completely elude the self-proclaimed trainer and her companion: each time the horse landed, the rider lost her balance and snatched him in the mouth. The horse was trying to escape the pain she was inflicting on him by her incompetent riding. She had failed to develop an independent seat, and her horse was suffering for it.
I wish I had been brave enough then to speak out in defense of the horse but I was young and lacked the confidence needed to approach this intimidating woman. I watched her ride toward the fence and yet again make the same mistake, then punish the horse for her incompetence. “Go get the martingale!” she yelled to her companion, “I’ll make him keep his head down!” My stomach churned and I whispered a prayer for the horse before turning back to my work.
That woman was not a rider, she was a parasite. A parasite, by definition is something that attaches itself to a host and harms it. The parasite is completely oblivious to (or perhaps just doesn’t care about) the harm it is causing the host. It only takes but never gives. There is not a reciprocal relationship; the parasite is the only one that gets any benefit.
Parasites come in many forms:
Captain Cram and Jam – holds the reins as tightly as possible while relentlessly kicking and spurring the horse in an effort to “get him in frame”
Inspector Gadget – this person is always looking for the next great training gadget to force her horse to do what she hasn’t prepared him (or perhaps herself) to do. Training staples include harsh bits, a martingale (or training fork), draw reins and side reins
See-sawer/plane flagger/goat milker –these are the individuals whose hands never stop moving – jerking up, jerking down, to the side, etc. These are easy to recognize as they are the ones riding the horse with the gapping open mouth, chin tucked in chest (usually preceded by nose pointing at the sky), and/or head wagging from side-to-side. These parasites tend to flock to “magic bits” selecting increasingly harsh bits as their horse’s mouth becomes scarred and deadened.
The Know-it-all – Usually this is the person who either has had a few lessons and won a couple ribbons and therefore is a self-proclaimed trainer or can take the form of a person who has decades of experience with horses but has yet to learn anything
The Blissfully Ignorant Weekender – this person takes old Frank out of the pasture once or twice a summer and sits crookedly in the saddle for a 4 hour trail ride on an out-of-shape horse.
Conversely, a true rider is not afraid to do the work it takes to become a good rider. She puts in the years of work it takes to develop an independent seat, she seeks to understand the horse, when a “behavioral issue” arises, she first looks at herself for a cause, then considers the possibility of a physical issue with the horse and lastly looks for an actual behavior that needs to be modified. A true rider wants to build a relationship with the horse; she works to ensure the horse is happy to do his work. She also works to understand the horse’s physical capabilities and to ensure the horse is physically able to do the work it is being asked to do. She doesn’t rely on training gadgets as she understands 99% of the time such devices serve only 3 purposes:
1. Cover up bad riding
2. Cover up holes in training
3. Force a horse that is not mentally and/or physically prepared to do the work it is being asked to do.
So, ask yourself the tough question: are you a parasite or a rider? The next time you run into a “behavior problem” with your horse consider the whole picture: is it something you are doing (sitting off balance, a poor cue, bouncing hands, etc.)? Is your horse in pain? Have you physically and mentally prepared your horse to do what you are asking him to do? Are you trying to ride above your level? Are you riding more horse than you can handle?
I’m not claiming to be perfect. I’ve made (and continue to make) mistakes, I’ve subjected horses to unfair training practices; I’ve blamed horses for my shortcomings. BUT in more than 25 years I have never stopped learning. I keep an open mind and am always working to improve my techniques, looking for ways to teach the horse in a way she understands, and always working to keep my horse comfortable, happy, and glad to do her work.
Our horses are a gift and most of them give of themselves until it hurts and even then, keep on giving. Learning to ride in a balanced, independent seat without relying on training gadgets to achieve artificial results is the least we can do for our horses. Pay attention to what your horse is telling you, and you both will benefit. You will connect with your horse on the deepest level and, by being a rider rather than a parasite; you can add many sound and happy years with your horse!
9/30/14 -- WOW! The response to this post has been amazing! I wrote this in-part because I was feeling quite alone in my horse training philosophy so I am thrilled to see there are so many like-minded people in this world! If you like this post, you may also enjoy these similarly-themed posts found HERE
Thanks so much for sharing!
I wanted to write something beautiful about a man I didn’t know but in some way feel like I’ve known all my life. A man with an infectious smile, a man who spent his life bringing joy and laughter into the lives of millions. I have been struggling to find the words for days, since the time I first saw the headline flash across my computer screen, “Robin Williams, dead of apparent suicide.”
My eyes froze upon the image and accompanying headline and I gasped as the air seemed instantly sucked out of the room. A soft and whimpering “Nooo” slipped from my lips as my hand quickly flew to cover my mouth in disbelief.
Tiny tears stung my eyes stopping just short of sliding down my cheeks as I remembered some of my favorite character’s played by Mr. Williams: the Genie in Aladdin, Mork on Mork and Mindy, Mrs. Doubtfire, Popeye, and Peter Pan, to name just a few. Sorrow silently fills my heart as I imagine the pain and darkness Mr. Williams was carrying, the sense of complete and utter hopelessness, the cold and crushing emptiness.
I closed my eyes for a moment, steeling myself as the all too familiar words surfaced and floated across my mind.
Another one slipped through the net. Damn.
Death is always a difficult and confusing time for those of us left behind. It can be much more so when the life was lost to suicide. We experience shock at the suddenness, sorrow at the loss, confusion as we try to comprehend the incomprehensible, and maybe even anger at the victim. People who don’t understand depression, anxiety, substance abuse, PTSD, and other suicide triggers tend to call the victim selfish or cowardly. Telling a depressed individual to “just get over it” or “cheer up” is as ridiculous as telling a cancer patient to just stop being sick or asking “why don’t you just get rid of your tumors?”
We are left with questions. What can we do? What should we have done? How can I help a depressed friend or loved one? Why couldn’t s/he see how much we cared?
I don’t have all the answers but I’d like to share a few thoughts from my own experiences which may bring a little light to a dark and misunderstood issue:
Why can’t my friend see how much I love her? Depression does not allow the sufferer to see what you see. It is part of the disease. There may be a part of your friend who knows and understands how much you love her and care for her but depression brings a much stronger part to life which is unable to see the love or simply doesn’t believe it is real. Logic is invisible in the face of emotions laid open, raw and bleeding from the relentless attacks of the disease.
How can someone who has everything (family, friends, money, success) kill himself? There is no one answer for this but just as above, depression does not let the sufferer see reality. Further, depression does not allow the sufferer to feel love, joy, happiness, etc. There may be brief moments when the individual has fun and appears happy and even feels like they are OK but this is often a product of an effort to appear normal or for even a moment get a little relief from the chronic emotional agony that is depression. However, just like a person with a terminal illness, just because a depressed individual has a good day does not mean they are cured or are somehow in control of (or faking) the disease.
How can I help my depressed friend/loved one? Don’t try to “fix” them. When your friend wants to talk, be there to listen and I mean listen. Don’t try to think of ways to fix their problem or tell them they shouldn’t feel sad or remind them of all the good things they have. This is not helpful because it is about what YOU see and what is meaningful for YOU. Just listen, be supportive but don’t try to fix it, and don’t minimize it (“oh it’s not that bad” or “it could be worse…”). If your depressed friend or loved one comes to you to talk you are likely part of their safety net. Trying to fix them or minimize their problems can make you feel like an unsafe person to talk to (put a hole in the safety net).
What should I have done (to prevent a suicide)? It helps to remind yourself depression is a disease, and unless the disease is effectively managed (or cured) you can’t prevent symptoms from taking place. Suicide is a symptom of depression. It may be possible in some cases to postpone an impending suicide but the only way to prevent it is to get help and manage/cure the disease.
If you or someone you love is suicidal you can call 1-800-273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline…someone is always there to listen. They are trained to help you. You are not alone.
Many events/issues lead up to the suicide attempt. There is not one magic thing you could say or do to end suicidal thoughts or plans. You may be able to postpone but the only way to prevent is to deal with the disease itself. Please also remember many people contemplating suicide work very hard at appearing normal and happy because they don’t want to be stopped. Remember, logic doesn’t play a part here. This is a disease which affects the way the mind perceives and responds to information.
If you are considering suicide please remember this:
You are not alone, reach out to a friend, parent, clergy, doctor, police officer, therapist, relative or call the hotline: 1-800-273-8255. I know you can’t see it or feel it right now but you do matter, you are worth saving, you are loved and you deserve to live. You have to trust me on this, I have been where you are. There is hope but you have to reach out for it. People can’t help you if you don’t tell them what is going on. No one can read your mind. Give them a chance to help, ask.
“Please, don’t worry so much. Because in the end, none of us have very long on this Earth. Life is fleeting. And if you’re ever distressed, cast your eyes to the summer sky when the stars are strung across the velvety night. And when a shooting star streaks through the blackness, turning night into day, make a wish, and think of me. Make your life spectacular.”
-- Robin Williams as Jack in the film, Jack
Three equines and three women occupied the arena that day. The three women were connected by a common theme. Each woman was standing in the face of significant change -- a thread of uncertainty which held them loosely together. For one woman, change was intertwined with stress, for another, change requires the constant reminder to “stay calm.” For me, change’s haunting companion is What If.
The women huddled together in the arena talking about the impact of change on their environment. To each woman, environment held a slightly different meaning and significance in the face of change. For me, I have been actively seeking to change my environment, plucking out the good and positive memories from an often dark and foreboding past. Reconstructing my life from tattered bits of two very different tapestries – attempting to grasp and hold on to the parts worth keeping and, with difficulty, give up the dark parts which no longer serve me, letting them slip away, now powerless but never forgotten.
My companions helped me spread color through our new environment, tossing a rainbow of traffic cones and pool noodles onto the mud-colored arena surface. Together we moved heavy, wooden poles to our new, changed environment, arranging them until we had created a space completely different from the one we started with. We then turned our attention to the three equines.
Each of us selected an equine and named it. A small, roan pony was named “Stress,” a large pinto was named “Stay Calm” and I named a solid bay gelding “What if.” Our goal was to each move our chosen equine into our new environment -- moving those parts we struggled with, into change.
I walked over to What If who was standing nearby. I reached up toward his head intending to encircle his neck with my arms and guide him over to the environment which represented change in my life. What If would have no part of my plan, constantly moving his head out of my grasp, pulling away from me and standing stubbornly just where I found him. The more I struggled with What If, the more he resisted my efforts to control him.
After several failed attempts to control What If, I paused to contemplate my next move in my effort to bring What If into my changed environment. As I stood quiet and unmoving, trying to figure out what to do next, What If walked into the center of my changed environment and stood quietly, nosing one of the colorful cones.
I walked toward What If, wanting to stand with him in my changed environment but as soon as I moved into his space, What If walked away. I went after him, wanting to bring him back to my changed environment but I could not budge him, What If resisted all my attempts to control him. I gave up my efforts to control What If and stood quietly once again. As I stood in silence, What If returned to my changed environment, looking around inquisitively but disrupting nothing.
In that moment the lesson became clear. What If will take care of itself. The more I try to control the “What If” in my life, the more I struggle and the less I am able to accomplish. What If doesn’t need me to worry over it, I cannot control it and any effort to exert my will over What If is met with frustration and resistance.
With my new found discovery tucked safely in my mind, I looked around the arena to see how my companions were doing. By letting What If take care of himself, I was available to help my companions reach their goals. I went to each and asked if I could help them. When we were done, we stood and watched as What If began driving Stress all around the arena in a decidedly non-productive pattern taking them far away from our newly changed environment. The three of us stood watching, with Stay Calm standing quietly over us, his legs firmly planted like the trunk of an enormous tree; a tree which would bend and sway with the winds of change but never break or fall, never losing ground to follow the whims of What If as he worried after Stress.
In their quiet way, the horses had spoken once again. Horse had become teacher and the lesson was learned.
Many people watch me work with my horse, Farletta and wonder why can’t their horse be the same? By that I assume they mean the version of Farletta who stands quietly, follows willingly, rides without a bridle and responds to the slightest shift of weight in the saddle or the most subtle of visual cues from the ground; not the version of the Perfect Princess when she loses her patience and succumbs to the “Four P’s” – pacing, pawing, prancing and (inappropriate) peeing.
What people don’t realize is it has taken years of work to get Farletta to be the horse she is today. And she is still learning, we both are. Sure, we have come a long way from the little mare who used to jump out of the arena, break her halter and run away, and lay down while I mounted her but it has taken hours upon hours of patience, consistency and flat out hard work. The change was gradual, it didn’t happen in six months or even a year – it is ongoing. Each time we crossed a hurdle, a new one would pop up. That is horse training. That is life.
Training a great horse involves cultivating a great relationship. Taking the time to work through the (sometimes seemingly endless) problems, learning to communicate in a way your horse understands, learning to actively listen (not just seek to be heard), and always approaching the relationship with kindness and a gentle but firm hand. You will take great steps forward and at times you will stumble backwards. That is horse training. That is life.
A horse is a living creature and just like people, they have different personalities, different learning styles, different physical capabilities and different mental capacities. It is your job to learn about your horse, how that horse thinks, how s/he learns, and how s/he communicates. Often behavioral problems stem from a lack of understanding on the part of the horse, and/or a breakdown in communication between the horse and handler.
A horse that has been abused or is being re-purposed has a special set of circumstances. If the horse was in an abusive situation for many years or a non-abused horse moving from a completely different environment with a different set of “rules” (such as a racing environment) then you must not only build the relationship but you must undo the negative the horse has already learned. This won’t happen quickly, if it took five years for the horse to develop the bad habits and behaviors it has today; is it unreasonable to expect it to take as long to undo the damage?
Building a relationship with your horse is a long term commitment. Just as in life, we all make mistakes and that is OK. This is how we learn. In a future post I will discuss different ways we can listen to what our horses are telling us. Until then, give your horse a carrot and a scratch on the neck from me.
10 things you wish you'd known before you got your "free" horse!
10. Aside from the peppermint candies you give as treats (which you acquire for free at Pizza Hut), the buying price of a horse is generally the cheapest thing about horse ownership
9. If the horse has no teeth it does not mean it is young and they haven’t grown in yet
8. The “He’s real quiet with the kids” statement was actually referring to the neighbor kids who come throw apples over the fence; they’ve never actually handled him
7. “He’s a real easy keeper” means you will spend more money repairing fences, replacing stall boards, buying/replacing grazing muzzles, and paying the vet to tube your over-indulgent escape artist horse than you ever would have spent on feed.
6. The “He really loves his work” statement would hold more water if his best friend wasn’t a barn cat named “Work”
5. “Oh, we never have to tie him, we just tack him up in his stall” statement is actually incomplete, the rest of it goes something like: “…because we ran out of places to tie him since he pulled the cemented railroad tie out of the ground.”
4. “We’ve never had to call the vet for him” doesn’t mean he hasn’t been sick but probably does mean he hasn’t had his vaccinations
3. “His last owner? Yeah, she just sort of lost interest in him” Yes, after he bucked her into next Tuesday she did indeed lose interest in the horse nicknamed “Killer”
2. “No, no one’s been on him in a while, we just don’t have time for him” was code for “there isn’t a trainer in the tri-county area who will even come to our barn let alone ride this horse
1. “Yes, he’s really athletic, he could have gone to the National Finals Rodeo” Yes. This is true; he could have gone to the NFR, as a saddle bronc but he was just too rank for that.
Christmas time is near and many little girls (and even boys) are dreaming of waking up Christmas morning to find a horse of their very own under the tree (or perhaps tied out in the back yard). She has filled her school notebooks with horse drawings, has 642 Breyer horse models crowding her bedroom and has read all 20 of the original Black Stallion books at least 146 times. She begs her parents for a horse no less than 14 times a day, has memorized the lines from every horse movie ever created, and dreams of one day racing across the desert on the back of an Arabian Stallion, just like Alec Ramsey and the Black.
Finally, the parents break down and decide to surprise their little angel with a horse of her very own. Unfortunately, they haven’t done their research; after all, a horse is a horse, right? They soon discover some hard truths about little girls and horse ownership. I was that little girl and I did finally get my horse but I had to wait, and wait, and wait, until I had a job and could pay for him myself. If you are thinking of buying a horse for a Christmas present, I have a little friendly advice for you.
Horse Ownership Is NOT a Good First Step: Many little girls lose interest in horses as soon as something better comes along. Most frequently this is boys but it could be a school sport, other extra-curricular activity, cold weather, or just plain loss-of-interest. To find out if your daughter is really ready for a horse, start with riding lessons. Find a good instructor who teaches the student about horsemanship, not just about riding. The student should be responsible for grooming, tacking, untacking and cool out. The ride may be 1 hour but you should plan 2 hours for horse care before and after. If the riding stable does the work for the student, I’d look for another stable.
Other ways for your child to gain experience in horse care include joining 4H, volunteering at a horse rescue or therapeutic riding program, and (this is a great one) earning lesson money by helping out around the barn (cleaning stalls, tack, etc.). If your child sticks with this for a few years and is still eager to perform all parts of horse ownership (not just riding), then you may want to revisit the horse ownership discussion.
Horses are Extraordinarily Expensive: You found a horse for only $200 or better yet, it’s free! As mentioned above, the buying price of the horse is the least of your financial concerns. A healthy horse will cost thousands of dollars a year (horses can live beyond age 30!). Figure $300-$800 a month (depending on your location and amenities) for board. Have your own farm? Great! Now you still get to spend several hundred dollars a month on hay, feed, and bedding PLUS do all the work! Hoof care: $30 (just a trim) -$150 (shoes) or more every 6 weeks. Vaccinations given by a vet: figure $200-300 each visit (can’t forget the barn call!). Dental care: $90-$120 for basic care 1-2 times a year…this can quickly triple or quadruple if there is a dental problem. Deworming is about $6-14 every couple months.
Are you keeping track? This “free” horse is about to cost you $5,000 (very conservative) to $12,000 each year! This does not take into account horse care items like brushes, blankets, saddles, bridles, halters, pads, boots, leg wraps, lead ropes, buckets, feed tubs, water tanks, fence repair, farm maintenance, etc. etc.
Remember, above is an estimate of what a healthy horse will cost you. What if the horse gets sick or worse, has a chronic health problem? My horse was sick last week to the tune of nearly $1000 which is minor compared to some of the other vet bills she’s incurred: Hospitalization for severe colic: $3000, Eye surgery: $2000, 3 years of eye care: $3000, Eye removal (couldn’t save it): $1200…and she is only 10. Many people have bills much, much higher when their horse becomes ill.
Am I trying to scare you? Yes! Horse ownership is a huge financial and emotional commitment and should not be entered into without adequate preparation, planning and knowing what to expect. It is also very rewarding to have a relationship with a special horse. Just please, please know what you are getting into and take advantage of as many “free” or low cost options as you can such as 4H, riding lessons, and volunteering. This is my advice to you. Little Suzy or Timmy can wait. Let them learn some responsibility first and show you they are genuinely interested in and dedicated to the 10-30 year commitment of horse ownership (depending on the age of the horse at the time of purchase). In a future post I will discuss what to do when you decide you are ready to buy a horse (hint: it does NOT involve buying a horse under the age of 8!).
I see your multi-colored, hazel eyes staring deep into mine
questions, confusion, fear, and anger shoot back at me like
which tear jagged holes in my soul
my words are twisted into tools of hatred and destruction
I feel powerless against what lurks inside you
"Why are so hard to love" I say as a look into your
multi-colored, tear-filled eyes
You have no answer, just blank and desperate silence
I shake my head in defeat,
and turn away from the mirror.
I wrote that poem. Just now, as I caught myself spiraling
down the old, familiar drain which leads to the foulest reaches of my desperate darkness. This time, I catch myself. I peer over the crumbling edge, looking into the darkness just long enough to retrieve this poem and remind myself that depression is always lurking, it is dangerous, it is deadly.
I wasn’t always able to catch myself; many times I sunk down so far I nearly lost my way out. My soul writhing in its death throes as I attempt to exist in a place filled with pain, fear, questions, sorrow and desperate hopelessness. There is no logic, no truth, no meaning, no life. It is not a place I would send my worst enemy.
I have always avoided talking about it. However, silence is quite deadly. The cultural stigma which shames the depressed prevents those afflicted from seeking help. I am not merely sad, I am not wallowing in self-pity, I am not seeking your attention, I am not selfish. I can’t “just get over it.” I am uncomfortable writing this but I feel the message is too important. As I said before, silence is quite deadly.
A large part of my ongoing healing process involves developing my self-awareness. Being aware enough of what is happening to me to recognize when my thoughts are heading in the wrong direction. To recognize when I am not safe and use tools I’ve learned over many years of work to bring me back to a place of
relative peace. Writing is one tool. Work with horses is another.
Horses are excellent teachers of self-awareness. Their
survival in the wild depends on their ability to listen to their bodies. The horse is hungry, she eats. The horse is restless, she moves. The horse is in pain, she rests. The horse senses incongruence in another being (say one thing, do another), she
retreats. The horse senses danger in the tension of the environment around her, she turns to her herd mates for
The horse brings this self-awareness to the horse-human relationship. Many people believe this is why equine assisted psychotherapy is so effective. The horse is very good at pointing out incongruence in the people around her. My own horse will not tolerate incongruent behavior in me. Putting on the “brave face,” leaving my problems at the door, or otherwise presenting myself as happy when inside I am not (you know, the way society expects us to behave) will produce several undesirable behaviors in her. If she is free she will move (or even run) away from me; if she is tied or otherwise confined, she will dance around, fret and generally show signs of discomfort in my presence. In extreme cases she will become very nervous, pawing the ground, stomping her feet and calling out to other horses. If I acknowledge how I really feel, she will go back to normal. It is really quite amazing to experience.
Someday I hope to develop an equine assisted therapy program for depressed individuals to work on building their self-awareness. I will add this to my growing list of projects. In the meantime, if you are depressed or have symptoms of depression, find someone to talk to: a best friend, a therapist, a pastor, a counselor, a family member – anyone you feel comfortable talking to. It helps if you can find someone who understands depression as a disease vs. someone who subscribes to the “just get over it” lie.
If you have access to a horse on a somewhat regular basis, be aware of how the horse responds to you from day-to-day. When you observe an unusual behavior,
don’t assume it is a problem with the horse – it seldom is.
She may be trying to tell you something. Take a look inside yourself and be honest about what you discover – it may be a very important step along your path to healing.
There has been a post going around Facebook this past week showing the supposed diary of a gelding vs. a mare. It is a knock off of a post I saw a while back showing the supposed diary of a dog vs. a cat. I feel the dog
vs. cat one is much more accurate but both are humorous. However, as the owner of a very special mare who is rather opinionated on
many matters, I don’t feel the original posting completely captures my mare. Therefore, I have decided to take a different approach, leaving the complacent geldings out of it and posting the 10 Rules for handling the Painted Princess:
10 Rules for handling the Painted Princess
1. You must always remember being in my presence is an
honor and a privilege, not a right.
2. I am not to be ignored! If you are within my field of vision,
you should be directing all of your attention toward me!
3. If you cannot arrive to the barn in a timely manner you must
a) apologize profusely for your tardiness, b) feed me treats
(the good ones!) while asking my forgiveness, and c) promise
to never ever be late again!
4. You are not to discuss the cleanliness of my stall with
anyone! It is my job to keep my stall any way I choose, it is
your job to clean up after me!
5. Do not expect me to be nicey-nice to another mare just
because she belongs to your best friend. This is not how the
6. I must be permitted to inspect and possibly squeal at any
horse in my presence (at my discretion), this is an age-old
tradition among mares and it should be honored. I further
should be allowed to change my mind about a horse I like
and decide to dislike the horse when it is convenient for me.
7. You will not speak of my heat cycle in a negative manner.
This is part of the privilege of being in my presence. I must
endure your hormonally dictated behaviors, you will tolerate
8. There is no such thing as being “mare-ish.” I am a dynamic,
interesting, ever-evolving individual. There are simply some
people and animals in this world which have earned more of
my respect than others.
9. Mares are sensitive creatures. Remember the story of The
Princess and the Pea whenever you select saddle pads,
saddles, boots, leg wraps, blankets or other items of apparel
for me. Further, I am not to be dressed poorly. I should be
dressed both stylishly and comfortably!
10. You will never ever twitch me! If I don’t like what you’re
doing it is because you are doing it wrong. I demand
respect. Ask me nicely and be patient enough for me to
respond when I am ready!
All kidding aside, I am honored to have a mare as special as Farletta in my life. My first horse was a wonderful gelding and I loved him very much. I still love and miss him and we had a great relationship. However, there is something different in the relationship between Farletta and me. She demands the best from me, she has helped me navigate the sometimes treacherous parts of my personal journey and I am a better person in a better place because of her. She has taught me compassion. She awakened my spirit and reminded me that it's not too late to discover my life's purpose and forge my dreams into reality. Would I be in the place I am right now if it weren't for Farletta? Maybe. However, I believe God uses a variety of tools to help us live our life purpose; in my case, He used a painted princess I call, Farletta.
Absently wiping tears from my eyes, I return the vinyl record to its protective sleeve. I have just listened to the soundtrack to the film Phar Lap (1983), the work of Australian composer, Bruce Rowland, also known for his outstanding scores for The Man from Snowy River (1982) and Return to Snowy River (1988). It is amazing to me how just listening to the haunting strains of Rowland’s music causes raw emotion to tear at my heart. Even as I write this there is a part of me sitting on the ground next to Phar Lap and his strapper, Tommy Woodcock, as the great gelding struggles and takes his last breath. My heart aches and tears slide silently down my cheeks. You might wonder why. How could I, an American born nearly 50 years after the great horse last set hoof on
a race track be so emotional about the death of Phar Lap?
If you are not familiar with the story of Phar Lap I encourage you to do some research on the great depression-era racehorse or grab a box of tissues and watch the movie (if you are lucky enough to have a copy of the long ago discontinued VHS tape). Briefly stated, Phar Lap was born and bred in New Zealand but was purchased as a yearling by American businessman, David Davis and brought to Australia to train
with Sydney-based trainer, Harry Telford. Davis and Telford did not see Phar Lap until after he was purchased and shipped to Australia and were shocked at what they saw. The horse was described as ugly and awkward with a face covered in warts when he arrived. Initially, Phar Lap was a disappointment. The
seemingly uninspired gelding ate more, slept more and ran slower than his stable mates. Phar Lap was cared for by
Tommy Woodcock, a young strapper (groom) working for Telford. Woodcock affectionately called Phar Lap “Bobby” and in the film we see the amazing bond between horse and human as Woodcock, through love, respect and encouragement, helps Phar Lap find his wings.
The gelding becomes a racing sensation bringing joy and excitement to a nation hard-hit by the Great Depression.
Phar Lap shows his amazing heart and strength of spirit as track handicappers attempt to stop him by asking him to carry weights far above what anyone would consider asking a horse to race with today. Still, Phar Lap won against all comers. After Phar Lap had outrun every horse in Australia, he was taken to Mexico to run in the 1932 Aqua Caliente Handicap, North America’s richest race. Overcoming a potentially career-ending quarter crack, the great gelding galloped victoriously across the finish line.
Days after Phar Lap’s courageous win he became ill. In the film, we see Tommy walking Phar Lap in a sandy round pen as the gelding struggles to keep his feet. The great horse groans in agony and crumples to the ground. Tommy pulls at Phar Lap’s head, begging him to get up. “Please, Bobby, please get up.” Tommy drops to his knees next to his friend. Phar Lap
puts his head on Tommy’s lap and as the young strapper strokes the red chestnut’s glistening coat and begs one last time for Phar Lap to not leave him, Australia’s greatest racehorse breathes his last.
The loss of the great horse was devastating not only to Phar Lap’s connections but to the entire Australian nation. But as I watch the film, it is the deep love Tommy had for Bobby which puts tears in my eyes and an ache in my soul. We suffer alongside the young strapper as his heart is torn apart by the loss of a great friend. The horse’s ability to connect with humans at a deep, emotional level has influenced me not only personally but also professionally as I seek to help others build relationships not only with their horses but also with each other
through horses. I have felt a deep connection with a special horse and I have seen this connection in others with their horses. It is the reality and the result of such a deep connection between a horse and his human and the understanding that each horse is with us for such a short while which brings up tears driven by deep emotions when I hear Rowland’s score for the film.
How have you experienced the horse-human relationship in our life? Please share your story in the comments
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.
“I’m just 15 for a moment,
caught in between 10 and 20…
…there’s never a wish, better than this.
When you’ve only got 100 years to live.”
The lyrics above are taken from a song sung by the group Five for Fighting. I will always remember when this song was popular. It was nearly spring time in southwest Michigan. There was still plenty of snow and cold left but a few scattered warm days bring the promise that warm sunshine will soon chase away the snow drifts and the green grass and tender flowers of spring will soon appear blanketing the earth with their glorious colors. Spring brings life and a promise of new
beginnings. We shed layers of warm winter clothing as we emerge from our winter hibernation and the warm sun touches our face and we know we have survived the long, dark winter nights with the wind whipping and howling outside, threatening. Hope can be seen in each new flower, in the appearance of the red-breasted Robin and in each tiny, green bud firmly attached to its branch as it prepares to burst forth adding to the glorious rainbow of nature’s pallet.
But for me spring of 2004 is none of these things. I sit in a dark, cold, windowless office at a desk made of steel and pressed wood from some tree which never saw another spring.
I have just learned of the death of a friend. Sean was all the beautiful things in the world; the gentle smile of a stranger, the kind words of a friend, the vibrant colors of a glorious bed of spring flowers, the joy and exuberance of a new foal discovering the speed and agility of his legs for the first time, the smell of freshly cut grass, the feeling of sunshine on your face, a gentle breeze which caresses your cheek, the sound of the waves crashing around a Lake Michigan pier.
Sean was just 35 when he died a horrible, slow death caused by the careless and selfish acts of others. A few weeks before his death, Sean had unknowingly driven through a cloud
of anhydrous ammonia from a tank left unlocked by the side of the road. Anhydrous ammonia is an ingredient needed for cooking meth and it is suspected someone was trying to steal the chemical used to prepare farmer’s fields for planting.
The deadly chemical cloud destroyed Sean’s lungs and he died a few days after his 35th birthday; his lungs literally disintegrating as he suffocated in his own blood.
“I’m just 15 for a moment, caught in between 10 and 20…
…Half time goes by
Suddenly you're wise
Another blink of an eye
Sixty seven is gone
The sun is getting high
We're moving on…”
The lyrics roll around in my head and I am constantly reminded that for Sean it simply wasn’t true. Life is so fleeting, our time is short. Sean crammed more love for others, more life and more living in his 35 years than many people do in twice as much time. He lived his dreams, he sought and found adventure, and he shared his amazing gifts with the world as he traveled on cruise ships working as a singer bringing joy to others with his amazing voice and personality. Sean saw the
good in people and he had a way of bringing it out in every life he touched. But now his amazing light had been snuffed out and like everyone who loved Sean I was left with a painful, gaping hole in my heart which would never be filled.
Sean and I shared a special connection through a favorite horse; a broodmare named Shamrock and her first filly; a horse I named Diva. I trained Diva as a foal and yearling until Sean’s sister bought her and moved her to Colorado in 1999. Each year Sean and I waited in anticipation to see Shamrock’s new foal. Sean wanted a tobiano filly like Diva; a horse he dreamed of owning one day. In the years since Diva was born, Shamrock produced only colts. A month after Sean died; Shamrock had a beautiful tobiano filly – the filly Sean had always dreamed of. I still think of that filly as Sean’s horse though I have no idea where she ended up. I’m sure the current owners have no knowledge of the dreams Sean had for his mare but I believe that mare holds a piece of Sean’s amazing spirit and capacity to love in her heart.
“I'm ninety nine for a moment
Dying for just another moment
And I'm just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are
Fifteen there's still time for you
Twenty two I feel her too
Thirty three you're on your way
Every day's a new day
Fifteen there's still time for you
Time to buy and time to choose
Hey fifteen, there's never a wish better than this
When you only got 100 years to live.”
It has been nearly 10 years since Sean died. I am now 36, I’ve been given at least one more year than Sean had…what am I going to do with it? Will I let my fears and insecurities engulf me, keeping me forever in a state of hiding in the false safety of winter hibernation? Or will I burst forth with the exuberance of spring? Will I listen to others with genuine curiosity rather than judgment? Will I treat others with respect even if their beliefs and values do not align with my own? Will I be brave and kind and live my dreams? Will I share my gifts with the world and show others what it means to love one another and all of God’s creation?
The song still makes me a little sad when I think of what the world lost when Sean died. But now I no longer dwell in the sorrow of loss but rather I am reminded of how little time I
have to be kind, to learn, to grow, to love, to share, to take in the smells that I love, to scratch the withers of a new foal, to hold a soft puppy in my arms, to feel the wind against my face, to listen to the call of the Lake, to sit in silence with my horse, to tell my family and friends that I love them.
“There’s never a wish better than this; when you’ve only got 100 years to live.”
If you would like to honor the memory of a special person please feel free to share your story here. In times of loss it can be helpful to others to read the experiences of others who have felt or are feeling the indescribable pain of missing someone whose existence was such an important part of their own life.
Cheryl L. Eriksen, MSW, Equine Enthusiast, EAGALA groupie and writer of interesting, educational and entertaining blog posts!